Baidu Inc's autonomous car at an exhibition in Tianjin. The internet company is pushing forward the research and development of autonomous driving technology. (Photo by Li Shengli/For China Daily)
Since the first modern car was invented in 1886, the automotive industry has never seen changes as great as it is experiencing now: cars are becoming smart, internet-connected and even autonomous.
And the changes are driving into our lives faster than many would imagine. From 2022 onward, for instance, all cars sold in China, the United States and Europe will be connected to the internet, said PwC's consultancy subsidiary Strategy& in its 2017 Digital Auto Report.
The report also predicts that, because of lower production costs and more charging facilities, electric cars will start to surge in number from 2025 and around 2027, highly or even fully autonomous cars will become part of most people's daily lives.
Some of the carmakers have come up with even more ambitious schedules.
"By 2019, all Volkswagen cars leaving the showrooms will be fully connected," said Stephan Woellenstein, CEO of Volkswagen Brand China.
Ford Motor Co is planning the same thing, also in 2019, and General Motors plans to achieve the goal by 2020.
Connectivity means those cars will allow owners to do more things and make lives much easier, according to Continental AG, a global automotive supplier and also a leading player in intelligent connectivity.
"Imagine one day, if your family member needs to use the car, but the key is in your hands, then you can send the access authorization to your family member's mobile phone over the air," said Juergen Heim, vice-president of Continental Division Interior China.
"If one day, a courier wants to deliver a parcel but you are not home, then you can send one-time access to the trunk of your vehicle to the courier's smartphone, which will be very convenient."
Connectivity's benefits do not stop there. For instance, GM is deploying technology in China that enables vehicles to communicate with one another and with infrastructure.
Based on a standard co-developed with Tsinghua University and China's Changan Automobile, GM demonstrated a vehicle-to-infrastructure application on public roads in Shanghai in November.
The application, which could provide drivers the advised speed for reaching the next intersection when the traffic light is green, helps improve traffic flow and reduce congestion.
"Connectivity is key to GM's vision of zero crashes and zero congestion because of its potential to improve safety and reduce congestion," said Matt Tsien, GM's executive vice-president and president of GM China.
In addition to internet access, cars themselves are getting smarter. Some models at Geely Auto can have dialogues with drivers and passengers. They can recite poems, and they understand and speak dialects.
"When Geely talks about intelligent connectivity, we are referring to automotive intelligence ... technologies which make cars smarter, safer, and more interactive," said Hu Zhengnan, head of Geely Automotive Research Institute.
He said the carmaker has launched a technology brand, called iNTEC, which was designed around a "humanized intelligent drive" concept with technologies developed to give occupants a greater level of safety and convenience.
"As intelligent technologies mature, this will ultimately lead to truly autonomous vehicles."
Hu said smart, connected vehicles are something relatively new, and no country is so far a clear leader in the sector. But China has listed intelligence and connectivity as key pillars in the development of its automotive industry, which is likely to give the country a head start.