2018's Most Notable Auto Industry Trends

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Even as a new year is poised to begin, we often can’t help but think back on the old one.

The psychological tic may come off as fleeting sentiment, but it’s more likely to do with a universal truth: the world is undeniably dualistic in nature.

What’s thought of as new hinges exclusively on what we perceive to be old—just as good cannot be defined in the absence of evil, or the idea of life itself having real meaning without an understanding of death.

Perhaps nowhere was that truism more plainly displayed this year than within the automotive industry, where the dawn of one era and the decline of another were so codependent that the two became one in the same.

The past 12 months have borne the biggest shifts to date toward a future of autonomous cars, shared rides, and greener transportation, yet much of that progress was only made possible through the simultaneous discarding of a number of old habits and beliefs. And, on more than one occasion, that hard push toward growth resulted directly in the loss of life.

In spite of those tragedies—or even because of them—the past year is one worthy of review.

So here’s to 2018: a year of many new endings and old beginnings.

Equal & Opposite Reactions

Car hit bike
Autonomous car companies are going back to the drawing board after a rash of accidents.

Progress, of course, represents the idea of forging ahead. But in our dualistic world, that forward movement can’t be made without leaving something behind.

And unfortunately in 2018, the fervent push to create a market for autonomous cars came increasingly at the destruction of life.

The year bore witness to the first pedestrian death at the hands of the technology, when Arizona woman Elaine Herzberg was struck by a self-driving Uber while crossing the street. And just days later, California man Wei Huang was killed when his Tesla Model X steered itself into a highway median at high speeds while operating in Autopilot.

The back-to-back incidents raised a number of red flags about the technology, not least of which being that the Uber car reportedly “saw” Herzberg before the impact, yet still failed to break or veer off course.

And in perfect dualistic nature, the quest to move forward may have set carmakers back in the eyes of the public, who began reporting a distrust in the technology in greater numbers following the pair of grisly accidents.

Yet it seems we’ve learned little from the life-and-death lessons.

Despite a number of good ideas out there, we still have no established route to handle deadly autonomous incidents of the future, and there’s been no new restrictions placed on the cars or their testing in the wake of the incidents.

Indeed, it seems the artificial evolution of the autos has only continued to pick up speed.

Handing Over the Keys

Self-driving cars already have the advantage of operating free of federal regulations—and, with the help of several state governments in 2018, the cars have never been freer.

A pair of programs initiated this year in Arizona and California gave manufacturers the green light to bring the vehicles to the streets free of steering wheels, pedals, or a human backup driver.

The cars have long been flying down roads without the set of controls, but 2018 saw the burden of human occupancy lifted thanks in part to the virtual arms race between the Southwestern neighbors, who have been competing all year to court as many self-driving firms as possible.

In Arizona, the driver-free legislation has already manifested in a robo-taxi program run by Google self-driving spinoff company Waymo. The Silicon Valley behemoth plans to take the pilot project commercial in 2019, thanks in no small part to the legal driverless blessing.

The firm has been more cautious in its native California. To be sure, Waymo also has schemes drawn up to launch a driverless taxi project there, and indeed, the company recently secured the state’s first-ever permit to test the rides legally.

But following a recent bloody incident involving one of its self-driving cars, the company has reportedly started putting backup drivers back into its vehicles—just in case.

Regardless of that small reversal, however, it seems 2018 may go down in history as the true beginning of the autonomous era—and the last great gasp of human-piloted cars.

Flying High

dockless scooters

2018 may well also come to be known as the Year of the Bird, with the on-demand scooters and no shortage of their brethren exploding in popularity across the country.

The dockless transportation phenomenon has no doubt raised a number of problems in the cities that have borne the brunt of its astronomical rise, including concerns over vandalism and roadway safety.

But with a recent round of heavy investments from the automotive world, it seems the alternative transit may be here to stay.

Economic factors are naturally at play. Reports out of China—where many of the on-demand bikes and scooters were first introduced—already show the rides’ potential to erode short-distance profits for rideshare companies. This may explain why Lyft and Uber placed a collective $450 million in bikes and scooters this year.

Yet the widespread embrace of the two-wheeled transportation may also point toward a larger trend of embracing more environmentally-friendly modes of transit.

The Spark Is Gone

Fittingly, in the Year of the Bird, combustion engines may be going the way of the Dodo.

The year started off with news that California was mulling a future ban on the technology and ended with the confirmation that Volkswagen’s next generation of gas-powered cars would be its last.

Adding fuel to that fire has been the ongoing fight between the Golden State and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over a spate of emissions standards, which may ward cautious carmakers off from embracing gas-guzzling technology too tightly in the future.

And, indeed, all over the world, it seems more cities and countries are not just rejecting combustion engines but cars in general, with initiatives like New York City’s recent automobile ban in Central Park becoming more popular.

Good thing, then, that there will seemingly be plenty of bikes and scooters to go around.

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