The Digital Transformation of the Automobile

The pandemic has forced me to drive substantially more than I use to. Don’t get me wrong, I love driving. I really do, I’m not just saying that/it isn’t sarcasm. All of the time I have recently spent in the car has sparked my interest into how digitally evolved each and every new car has become, and I think we are just seeing the beginning of the tech revolution of auto.

Remember when cars came with optional power steering? Or when you use to have to roll down your own windows manually? Or when A/C was a luxury? I am going out on a self-esteem limb here as some people in the class will be answering “No” in their heads right now. Anyways, the automobile industry has come a very long way in the technology world, and I would like to break down a few of the recent tech innovations to become standard in the automobile.

The first technology feature I want to touch on is the out of sight, out of mind, unsung hero of the new age auto: sensors. Every new car (for purposes of this blog car also equals truck/SUV/minivan) that is produced rolls off the line with anywhere between 60 and 100 sensors depending on the safety and efficiency features of the car. Currently the global automotive sensors market is worth around $26 billion and is expected to almost double over the next year. 1 Sensors are used for everything from airbags to tire pressure. Sensors embedded in your seat are able to communicate your relative size and weight to the airbag so it will deploy in the event of a crash at a certain speed, significantly reducing impact injuries. Automotive manufacturers are currently working with sensor developers to create a pattern of sensors in the driver’s seat that will act as an ECG and be able to detect if the driver is becoming drowsy or experiences a medical event. Your car will be able to monitor and interpret your heart rate! How cool is that?!

Next up is adaptive cruise control (ACC), aka a Boston commuter’s best friend. Through a combination of sensors, lasers (that’s right your car could have lasers), cameras, radar, and the internal computer, a car is able to determine how far away the vehicle in front of it is, what speed that vehicle is traveling at, and use that information to adjust your speed and following distance without you as the driver having to do a thing. I see this functionality as low stakes autonomous driving as you are most likely using this at lower speeds where it is extremely annoying to keep doing the start/stop thing or you are using it on open highways as your normal cruise control. I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to cruise control in general as a huge tech innovation in the auto industry that is now a standard feature. Back to ACC. This is currently an optional feature on most cars, but I’m sure as we move towards the autonomous vehicle becoming normal this will start to be a standard feature. It is also typically packaged in with other driver assist systems like lane-keep assist and blind spot monitoring.

The innovation for heads up display is leading manufacturers like Audi to begin using augmented reality to assist drivers. Heads up display is a projection typically built into the back of your dashboard on the driver’s side that project stats like GPS directions, speed, or other infotainment elements into the bottom of the driver’s line of sight. This allows a driver to view information without having to take his/her eyes off the road. Some people really like this feature, I find it a bit annoying, but hey, it’s cool nonetheless. Audi is taking this a step farther in their newly debuted Q4 e-tron and placing all kinds of other information that takes into account the world around the car in the sight line of the driver on an AR screen. I meannn, car becomes video game?? Pretty close.

The last technological innovation that will continue to completely change the auto industry as we know it is the electric vehicle. Fun fact: electric cars didn’t start with Tesla. Sorry to all the Elon stans out there. We can actually trace the history of electric vehicles all the way back to 1894. They were called Electrobats and were nowhere near the sleek design of a Model S.

Now that you have that tidbit of info for your next round of Zoom trivia, let’s fast forward to the present. Tesla made the plug-in electric vehicle both cool and easily accessible. With Tesla as the first successful (there were other attempts before Tesla) mover, the gauntlet was laid, and all other manufacturers knew they needed to pivot. It now seems like it is very much a race to see which company that was gas reliant can go all electric first. Auto giants known for their large, gas-guzzling vehicles like GM and Ford are making mind-blowing claims of taking a huge percentage of newly produced vehicles electric over the next 10 years. VW recently announced that it was going all in on electric, building out 6 gigafactories producing batteries by 2030. These are HUGE moves being made in a relatively quick span of time by manufacturers in an industry that has not seen its fuel source change since the early 1900s. I digress, electric cars are here to stay and luckily for me, they’re also extremely fast. Skip to 2:41 in the video below.

What other innovations do you think are coming to the auto industry? What tech found in cars are you most excited about or that you use most often? I, for one, am very excited for things to come.




  1. ritellryan · ·

    As someone who remembers rolling down the windows in my parents cars, I can definitely appreciate this post. Given how much time people spend in their cars (and much of that time is filled with stress unless you take public transit to work), it makes sense that manufacturers have aimed for a more comfortable/enjoyable experience. I do think the heads up driving and a way to keep you awake while driving the next big thing. Even though i have my maps up on my vent or console, it is very easy to miss someone stopping short when you look at the map for a split second, which is so dangerous, especially when driving around this area. The only additional thing I could see being added in the future is a breathalyzer almost to start the car. I don’t forsee this becoming that common unless there were an uptick of DUIs across the country, but I am sure people felt the same way about seat belts and airbags at some point too.

  2. shaneriley88 · ·

    Love it. Excellent post. I remember being excited about my first car (740 Turbo Volvo) having fuel injection – adios engine knocking! A big thing I can see hampering auto tech and most other industries reliant on higher-end batteries is access to rare earth elements. A considerable amount of them are located either located in China or environmentally sensitive areas like Greenland. Time will tell how the extraction will be regulated and overseen. As far as tech coming to the industry… I could see a version of air traffic control for cars implemented—the aviation industry often controls or “vectors” aircraft to specific locations. I could see major highways/freeways using similar technology to manage high flow/traffic areas better. Think of an intelligent autopilot mixed with Waze. I’m certainly pro electric vehicles; however, I’m a hopeless petrol-romantic. I’d love the see the game change to electrics reign and where air breathers only come out on weekends to get coffee.

  3. abigailholler1 · ·

    Oh yes, cars have changed quite a bit since I was got my first car many years ago, which came full of quirks. It was our retired family mini van, had manual windows and an old school cassette adapter to play music from my iPod mini (remember those?). Shortly after I started driving the vehicle, it stopped going in reverse, which made pull through parking spots the ONLY option for parking lots…totally safe, right?
    With all of the digital transformation in the auto industry, I typically wonder how this will impact the population of people who fix up old cars as a hobby. My husband is a big car geek, in high school he put a bunch of “cool” options onto his car with his dad as a little side project. With the industry shifting to digital, old cars will likely become harder to find, and car restorers will need to evolve their knowledge to support cars that have various options that you mention above (sensors, ACC, and fully electric vehicles). Further, from what I understand about car restoration as a hobby, half the fun is customizing these to one’s desire. I can imagine this will only become increasingly more difficult with more technologically advanced vehicles. Thanks for your post!

  4. conoreiremba · ·

    Love the nostalgia of this post! Oh, how I miss the power of being able to control my own window as a child in the back seat, bring back the roll-downs! Incredible to see how much our cars have changed in such a short period of time. Although as a big James Bond fan, I am disappointed that we have not yet developed the technology to operate our cars through a mobile phone remote control. But it’s still impressive progress nonetheless and we’ve certainly come along way since my first car which was a 2002 Seat Ibiza and its most innovative feature was a not-so-state-of-the-art “on-board computer system”
    I haven’t driven since I’ve moved to the US but I miss it terribly and these new features make me want to return to the wheel even sooner (watch out fellow road users!). I’m a big fan of the innovation in heads-up display and as Ryan mentioned, I think existing sat nav and mapping solutions still run the risk of averting driver’s attention from the road even for a split second.
    In terms of future innovations, I have seen some ideas around using your car as a mobile payment system that allows drivers to pay directly for things like parking, food, tolls, gas, etc. all from the dash system. Obviously, things like Apple Pay and other contactless payments have made this easier, but it’s still a cool thought. And I certainly share your excitement for the times ahead.

  5. Scott Siegler · ·

    This was a really cool post to read! Personally, I think a very underrated feature in cars has been their ability to connect to phone operating systems. I don’t own a car but I rent fairly often, and for every car I rent, I always try to make sure it has CarPlay. I really enjoy having my phone integrated with the center console, and in newer, nicer vehicles, the dashboard too. I’m always listening to something in the car, and usually find myself trying to line up my next song or podcast, and it’s much safer navigating this process from the steering wheel without needing to divert attention from the road vs. tapping a screen / twisting a volume dial.

  6. Nice post. The auto industry keeps packing more features into cars, so they don’t have to drop the base price of vehicles, but I can’t imagine ever going back to manual transmission or windows. Oh, and a key feature for me nowadays is Apple Car Play.

  7. changliu0601 · ·

    Great Post!I watched the video so many times.It is excited to see how technology beats the tradition. But i am still concerned about the technology.”Tesla faced numerous questions about its Autopilot technology after a Florida driver was killed in 2016 when the system of sensors and cameras failed to see and brake for a tractor-trailer crossing a road.”This news freaked me out.Now the company is facing more scrutiny than it has in the last five years for Autopilo. And this is the reason I always worry about the safety of Tesla cars.

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