“Cars are going from being machines to being like friends”

“Cars are going from being machines to being like friends”

New technologies are changing what cars are and what they can do.

Wood-laminate floors are an unusual style choice in a car. But peer through one of the futuristically backwards-opening doors on Project Arrow, the first all-Canadian zero-emissions concept vehicle, and there they are. Tastefully minimalist and sustainably sourced, the flooring is the kind of finish a condo realtor would be sure to point out. They’re supposed to be reminiscent of a basketball court and a nod to our country’s role in creating that sport. But they carry another message: this car is different.

Project Arrow is different because the car as we know it — internal combustion engine, steering wheel, an excess of cup holders — is coming to an end. Having ruled the road for 137 years and counting, gas-powered cars will be replaced by electric vehicles in a decade or so and autonomous ones will roll along at some point after that. While public debate around electric vehicles has been dominated by their costs, their climate benefits and the geopolitical maneuverings to secure supplies of the rare materials needed to build them, there are countless other implications that we’ve barely begun to grapple with.

“Cars have dominated every aspect of public and private life,” writes Bryan Appleyard in his recent book The Car: The Rise and Fall of the Machine that Made the Modern World. We’ve reshaped our cities around them and built our lives on the easy mobility they provide. And, Appleyard notes, we also treat them as judgment-free zones where we can belt out a tune like nobody’s watching.

Some of this will survive the transition — the cup holders (probably), the car karaoke (definitely) — but much else about how we relate to our cars will need to be rethought. As new technologies start to leave the test track and make their way onto the roads, the extent to which we will need to adjust our expectations of what cars do is becoming clear.

Cars will be about more than getting around

Whether you lavish care on your vehicle or view it as a wagon for ferrying around the kids, the only real function of a car has been moving from A to B. But manufacturers are packing more technology into cars. Project Arrow, for instance, contains sensors that monitor the occupants’ vital signs and will automatically drive to an emergency room if it detects that someone is having a heart attack or stroke. This added layer of functionality will change our relationship with our cars.

“Cars are going from being machines to being like friends,” says Chris Rickett, director of economic growth, culture and entrepreneurship at the City of Markham, where many of Canada’s auto technology companies are based. He likens the trajectory of cars to that of mobile phones, which started out as convenient ways to call and text. “Now, they’re totally ingrained in our daily lives.”

Research is already underway to determine whether parked electric vehicles can be used as battery backup to take the strain off the grid during times of high demand. Over the past few years, a small group of downtown commuters has been testing this idea in a pilot project run by Toronto-based Peak Power. When they park their Nissan Leafs at one of two office buildings in the downtown core, they hook them up to bidirectional chargers that pull power from the vehicles to the building during demand peaks and charge them up at quieter times. The company says it saves $8,000 in annual energy costs per vehicle.

Scientists also have their eyes on the increasing amounts of computing power in cars — Tesla’s autopilot system reportedly has more than an F-35 fighter jet. Some have speculated that parked cars could be connected to form a supercomputer that could crunch through data-heavy problems like decoding viral genomes. So, when it’s done with the school run, your car could go to work on the frontiers of science.  


Next-generation tinkering

“My first car was an ’81 Mercedes 300 Turbodiesel,” recalls Rickett. “It was a beast, ready to survive World War III, but I fixed it all the time myself.” Spending hours coaxing an aging vehicle to life was a rite of passage for generations of cash-strapped younger drivers. But electric vehicles are much less amenable to DIY repairs. They have fewer moving parts and the things that do go wrong may involve microchips rather than mechanics. “That intimacy, that sense of working on a vehicle is probably something my kids will never know,” says Rickett. Still, the human urge to soup-up a ride is a strong one and may well find expression in some — probably ill-advised — attempts to get under the hood digitally. “It’ll be a different type of tinkering,” he says. “Some people will be thinking things like ‘how do I hack my car to make it go faster’ or to change the autonomous piece — there will be many ways people start to tinker with their cars.”


A new pecking order for parking

Cars have made us obsessed with parking. By one estimate, there are up to 97 million spaces in Canada — more than four for every car in the country. While shared autonomous vehicles may one day reduce the need for so much parking, in the near-term electric vehicles will complicate matters further. Cities would bankrupt themselves if they tried to put a charger at every residential street space, so prepare for the parking Hunger Games over spots that have them — particularly in older neighbourhoods where people don’t have garages. Slate journalist Henry Grabar, who writes extensively about parking, believes a great mindset shift will be needed. Instead of finding a sweet spot and leaving our cars for days, we’ll be shuffling them in and out of charging spaces. So, expect street-parking signage to reach new levels of complexity as councils try to regulate their way to neighbourly sharing of chargers.


The dream of the open road isn’t going away

Ever since Dinah Shore strode onto a soundstage in 1952 and sung “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet,” cars have been associated with freedom to hit the road and go where you please. But outside of large cities, electric vehicle drivers still need to strategically plan their routes around charger locations. Moves like Ontario’s plan to build 160 fast charging stations across the province should ease drivers’ fears of being stranded with a dead battery somewhat. And promising technologies are in the works. Toronto-based eLeapPower, for instance, has created a new type of powertrain that it says increases range by 12 per cent and charges six times faster than existing vehicles. But for the foreseeable future, the EV road trip experience will be less driving off to the horizon and more shortish hops to longish waits at charging stations.

Until range and charging speeds improve, it seems likely that many families will buy an EV as a second car to keep their fuel costs in check as they run errands in town. But they’ll keep a gas-powered vehicle, too, to maintain the convenience of heading out on the road when they please. For a while at least, the future and the past will co-exist on our driveways.

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Photo courtesy of Ontario Tech University. The Project Arrow car features 25 new made-in-Canada technologies, including facial recognition software and embedded medical sensors.