Rolls-Royce has strived to build the world’s finest luxury cars for more than a century, and a key ingredient—in addition to a dozen bull hides per car to kit out the interiors—is technology. Co-founder Henry Royce once said, “Take the best that exists and make it better. When it does not exist, design it.” One of the fabled marque’s’ rock star customers, Frank Zappa, perhaps put it better: “Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.”
With its Vision Next 100 concept, codenamed 103EX, Rolls reveals what it expects to see on stately gravelled driveways 100 years into the future. While some features are pure Rolls, such as an LED-projected red carpet that greets you as you approach the car and a HAL-style virtual butler by the name of Eleanor, others are just a few years away from mainstream vehicles.
Take artificial intelligence and autonomous pilotage. Google is testing hundreds of its Waymo self-driving cars in the US right now. Tesla is working on an autonomous car Elon Musk says he’ll unveil next year. Silicon Valley has been the epicentre of the race to develop this technology, but the more established brands in motoring could yet overtake them. Audi, Toyota and GM each intend to introduce a self-driving car in 2020. Ford and BMW will follow in 2021. These are just the car companies that have revealed a timeline; all the big manufacturers are working on it. Apple’s hotly anticipated iCar appears to be in a state of flux and will probably be late to the party. Start-up NuTonomy plans to provide self-driving taxis in Singapore as soon as next year (it’s already trialling them), expanding to 10 cities by 2020. It may take some countries a while to grapple with regulatory approval, but the industry forecast is that driverless cars will be commonplace worldwide by 2025.
(Relevant: Audi Demonstrates Its Artificial Intelligence)
The sci-fi fantasy of flying cars could be a reality within a decade. Uber is collaborating with five aerospace companies to demonstrate a flying taxi service in Dubai and Dallas in 2020, with a full-scale roll-out in 2023. Airbus is developing a flying car concept called Pop. Up, which was unveiled at this year’s Geneva Motor Show. Its carbon-fibre pod, roughly the size of a Smart car, can sit on a four-wheeled chassis with an electric powertrain or connect a quadcopter to its roof. You tap in the destination and it will drive or fly you there. The plan is to have a working prototype in 12 months, though it faces a raft of regulatory headaches. If governments green-light it, we could be commuting in the clouds by 2027.
As well as motor shows, car journalists now flock to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas to see what’s headed their way. The technology to access and start your car with a fingerprint or retina-scan is already out there. Coming soon: Active health monitoring, where your car will pull over if you fall ill, and in-car advertising with personalised messages flashing up on your dashboard (which sounds annoying and dangerous). Heads-up speed displays have been around for 20 years but soon navigation systems may use the whole windscreen.
With climate change and fuel costs of concern, there has been a gradual shift to smaller capacity turbo engines, and hybrid and fully electric powertrains. In 1997, Toyota became the first company to mass produce a hybrid-electric vehicle with its Prius. Ten years later, Tesla came on the scene with an all-electric sports car. Now the entire industry is moving towards electrification, including the high-performance marques. Four years ago, Ferrari launched the LaFerrari hypercar, which uses a 161hp electric motor in combination with its 789hp V12 engine, and CEO Sergio Marchionne has said all new Ferraris will be hybrid from 2019. The LaFerrari was created at the same time that rules were introduced requiring all Formula One cars to use high-tech energy recovery systems.
The fledgling Formula E world championship, in which drivers do battle in electric single-seaters, has seen manufacturers entering teams, including Renault, Audi and Jaguar. They’re trying to turn petrolheads into electroheads, marketing electric performance as macho as they speed up R&D. Jaguar, for example, is bringing its I-Pace EV to production next year and Formula E is being used as part software test-bed and part marketing platform.
Many cars already come with a park-assist function, but soon we will see automated valet parking. Arrive at the Four Seasons, get out, and your car will go and find itself a parking spot by communicating with the hotel’s high-tech garage. Volvo is trialling a road hazard alert system. If you come across, say, ice or a reindeer on the road, your vehicle will beam a message to the cloud which will then alert drivers in the vicinity.
(Sweet rides: Aston Martin Debuts DB11 Drop Top)
Airbags, the biggest safety advance since the seatbelt, could soon help stop accidents from happening. Mercedes-Benz is experimenting with an under-car airbag with a friction coating that, if the car senses you’re about to crash, will inflate, lifting the wheels off the ground and halving the car’s emergency stopping distance.
3D printing is already cutting costs and democratising personalisation, and virtual reality is set to play a role in the bespoke design process that’s captivated the whole luxury industry. Lapo Elkann of the Fiat-owning Agnelli dynasty, who helped establish Ferrari’s Tailor Made department, has set up his own atelier, Garage Italia Customs, which creates artistic vinyl wraps and bespoke styling and accessories for those who like to stand out. Lapo, who drives a camouflage Ferrari 458 Italia, has overseen custom design direction for yachts and private jets, but his company’s bread-and-butter remains automobiles and motorcycles. Want a Fiat 500 that matches your lipstick? Lapo’s your man.
A client can approach Garage Italia or, for that matter, the bespoke craftsmen employed in-house by a growing number of premium manufacturers, and invent their own artistic expression. “I think it’s a clear trend where those with the means want to possess something which really tells a story, and not a story dictated by the manufacturer,” says Rolls-Royce CEO Torsten Müller-Ötvös. “Your imagination is our limit.”
Elkann puts the cult or bespoke down to a collective frustration at the standardisation of most things we come across. “Everyone wants to show their personal style, starting with their smartphone cover all the way up to a private jet or yacht. We’re putting the client’s requirements back in the spotlight. Luxury without uniqueness loses most of its value.”
This is where, in the future, designers of the most expensive automobiles may stray away from the disrupters in Palo Alto, Cupertino and Mountain View, who are calling the developmental shots at the moment. “The future presented in 103EX is actually the antithesis of Silicon Valley’s vision of autonomous cars,” warns Müller- Ötvös. “Rolls-Royce’s customers seek deeply personal objects. We will therefore serve these individuals with a perfectly executed alternative to the anonymous and utilitarian future proposed by Silicon Valley. Our customers … will never sacrifice experience, performance and luxury at the hands of technological evolution.”
This, surely, is a “deviation from the norm” of which Zappa would have approved.
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