Like any history, the automotive world has always been able to be defined by eras. The Tailfins and Chrome era. The Muscle Car Era. The Malaise Era. And even if something doesn’t easily fit into these bigger categories, there are exclusionary ways to define the time. Pre-Bankruptcy GM, Pre-Emissions Controls, Pre-Radial Tires, Pre-Seatbelts, and so on.
But this current era may leave future automotive historians scratching their heads. At no other time since the early 20th century has there been so much potential energy in the industry, as technology changes so quickly, and the future of the automotive world seems like it could go in several directions. Yes, there are plenty of differences between a Model T and a ’90s Corvette ZR-1, but mechanically, there’s still a lot of overlap. Today, we’re moving further away from the traditional analog technology that was found in nearly every car built over the last century, and new features that would have been considered science fiction just a decade ago are becoming increasingly commonplace.
In 2005, electric cars were still looked at with disdain, turbos were rare outside of sports cars, and you could still buy cars with cassette players. Today, nearly every major automaker offers a hybrid model, smaller, fuel-efficient turbocharged engines are threatening to consign the naturally-aspirated engine to history, and autonomous cars loom just over the horizon. While it’s still a linear evolution, the strides that the auto industry has taken in the past few years is nothing short of astonishing. Among them, here are 5 features we can expect for 2016 as we charge headlong into the automotive future.
5. Apple CarPlay/Android Auto
If the majority of car buyers have a love/hate relationship with anything these days, its their infotainment systems. Buyers want the latest tech, but are often frustrated by the counterintuitive and complex systems that differ by automaker. With Apple’s CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto, the playing field is instantly leveled. Designed to run instead of a car’s pre-programmed software, the systems sync effortlessly with drivers’ phones, and run the same no matter what car they’re installed in. For 2016, Chevy and Hyundai models will be fully compatible with the Apple and Google systems, and it won’t be long until other automakers follow suit.
4. Lighter weight
Due to safety features and new gadgets, cars have been growing steadily heavier for the past two decades or so. But now, thanks to advances in design and construction, automakers are beginning to reverse the trend. Following the 2015 Ford F-150, which shed 700 pounds compared to is predecessor, a number of new-for-2016 models are going the same route. The new Mazda Miata is 148 pounds lighter than the outgoing car, BMW’s new flagship 7-Series used carbon fiber reinforced plastic in its construction to lose 190 pounds, and the all-new Chevy Camaro benefits from a healthy dose of aluminum to wind up more than 200 pounds lighter than the current car.
It’s like the ’80s all over again. Within the span of a few years, automakers around the world have rediscovered that adding forced induction to smaller engines can mean serious power gains without sacrificing fuel economy. As a result, automakers around the world are phasing out their naturally-aspirated mills for turbocharged ones. On one end of the spectrum, the incoming Ferrari 488 GTB replaces the outgoing 458 with a twin-turbocharged 660 horsepower mill. On the other end, the all-new Camaro will offer a turbocharged 2.0 liter four cylinder that’s good for 275 horsepower and is claimed by Chevy to be the most fuel-efficient Camaro ever built. For everything else in between, it looks like the days of natural aspiration could soon be numbered.
2. Gesture control
For decades, the old cliché has been “look to the Mercedes S-Class to see which features entry-level cars will have 10 years from now.” With the introduction of the new BMW 7-Series, Mercedes’ biggest rival may have just beat it at its own game. Among other high-tech gadgets, the range-topping Bimmer has a standard gesture control function that allows drivers to control things like the stereo, HVAC, and bluetooth systems with body motions. It may only be available on the 7-Series for now, but there’s a pretty good chance it’ll come standard on your 2025 Honda Civic.
1. Increased automation
Amid all the of talk about Google’s self-driving car, and when we can expect driverless cars, BMW’s new flagship brings us closer than any production car has before. While the Mercedes S-Class has an active parking assist system, and advanced cruise control that allows the car to more or less drive itself, BMW’s 7-Series does one better and allows the car to park itself while the owner is out of the car and holding the key fob. By next year (at the latest), we should also see the rollout of Tesla’s Autopilot system, which Elon Musk says is “almost able to travel all the way from San Francisco to Seattle without the driver touching any controls at all.”
Even though Google’s koala-shaped pod makes for a good headline, it isn’t future of cars. Yes, it predicts a future with autonomous cars, but in reality, the first driverless models are most likely to be built by automakers we already know and trust. From construction, to engine displacement, to tech, cars are evolving faster than ever before, and 2016 will be no exception. If any of this stuff still seems like science fiction, just wait until 2017.