The revolution in the driver's seat

Story highlights

  • Steven Johnson: The hottest area of innovation revolves around a century-old technology: cars
  • Recent announcements point to major changes in how we drive and how we live, he says
Editor's note: Steven Johnson is the author of "How We Got To Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World," and co-creator of the innovation website, howwegettonext.com. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Anyone looking for clues about potentially world-changing innovations in 2015 and beyond would do well to consider three announcements from Silicon Valley companies made in the final weeks of 2014. These announcements had nothing to do with the usual high-tech obsessions: no social media or wearable gadgets. Instead, they all revolved around a technology that has been with us for more than a century: the automobile.

First, the embattled but massively successful transportation network Uber announced on its blog that it was rolling out a new service called UberPool in New York City. (Early versions had been deployed in San Francisco and Paris.)
Steven Johnson
UberPool relies on a phenomenon that the company had observed tracking ride patterns in dense metro areas such as Manhattan: most Uber journeys have what the company calls a "lookalike" trip, where two or more separate passengers travel in separate cars along the same route. The old-fashioned technique of hailing a cab makes it almost impossible to identify these "lookalike" passengers; there's no way to know that two blocks north of you, some other stranger is looking for a cab to take him to Grand Central as well. But Uber's algorithm can easily identify these lookalikes and bundle them into the same vehicle.
    The result is best described as a win-win-win scenario: passengers can save up to 40% on their fares; drivers make 20% more for the same trip; and the ride-sharing model takes excess cars off the streets. Somewhat ambitiously, Uber predicts that UberPool could ultimately remove one million cars from the streets of New York, simply by using the existing fleets more efficiently.
    Several weeks after Uber rolled out UberPool in New York, Google announced its first functioning prototype from its famous self-driving car project. The tiny two-seater vehicle looks like a Koala bear merged with a marshmallow -- adorable, but also completely different from anything you've seen on the road to date.
    With a top speed near 25 MPH, it's designed for city living, not road trips, but extensive testing with earlier technology suggests that Google autonomous driving technology is significantly safer than human drivers, particularly at highway speeds. Google expects to be testing the prototype on Northern California streets in early 2015.
    Finally, in the last days of 2014, the electric car company Tesla announced that a new upgrade for its pricey Roadster sportscar would extend the car's range on a single battery charge to 400 miles, for the first time exceeding the average range of many gas-powered cars. (Acting more like a software company than a traditional automobile manufacturer, Tesla is offering a significant upgrade to a car that it stopped producing in 2011.)
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    Battery efficiencies that Tesla offers on its luxury cars today will be available to mainstream car buyers within a few years, at which point the argument for gas-powered vehicles will be very thin, even if oil prices stay low. (Even today, Tesla owners can charge their cars for free at its solar-powered Supercharger stations.) Electric cars will have longer range than their gas equivalents, near-zero carbon emissions and equivalent performance.
    It's not at all clear that five years from now these three companies will be dominant players in the next-generation automobile industry; the history of Silicon Valley teaches us that the early innovators are not always the ones that bring the breakthroughs to the masses. (Full disclosure: I own a small amount of shares in Tesla and Google, though not nearly enough to justify buying one of Tesla's cars.) But what these recent announcements make clear is that a significant revolution is coming to the automobile, one way or another.
    For almost 100 years, the underlying conventions of automobile technology have been stable ones: we own our own gas-powered cars, and drive them (mostly by ourselves) to work and back. But the eruption of innovative startups working in the automotive field -- Uber, Tesla, Lyft, Curb, Sidecar, not to mention the traditional car companies such as BMW producing electric vehicles -- suggests that the entire stack of technologies and behaviors associated with automobiles may be ripe for reinvention.
    Fewer of us will buy our own cars, opting to ride-share using UberPool or Lyft or some other startup that will no doubt come along to disrupt the disrupters. More and more, the cars that are on the road will be run on electric batteries and powered by solar charging stations. And if Google is right, those cars will be increasingly driven by computers, reducing traffic accidents. This would be a safer, greener and more social platform for automobiles.
    And if history is any guide, this revolution will have implications that extend far beyond the world of cars themselves.
    No technology had a bigger impact on the design of human settlements in the 20th-century than the automobile. Cities ringed by vast freeways lined by gas stations connecting suburban commuters—all this was set in motion by a network of automotive technologies that have been unchallenged for nearly a century. But ten years from now, those technologies will seem much closer to the horse-and-buggy they replaced.