One of the classic Christmas holiday movies is Ben Hur (1960). I remember I watched it with my father around Christmas-time one year in the 1970s.
The movie is an historical epic drama which portrays a wealthy Palestinian Jewish merchant who clashes with the Romans at the time of Christ. Ben Hur´s actions sends him and his family into slavery, but an inspirational encounter with Jesus changes everything. The hero played by Charlton Heston finally meets his rival in a chariot race at Circus Maximus in Rome and rescues his suffering family.
Ben-Hur still holds the title of the movie with the most Oscars, sweeping 11 of the 12 categories it was nominated in, although Titanic (1997), tied the record nearly 40 years later.
The racing-vehicle of the movie, the chariot, was a light vehicle, usually on two wheels and drawn by one or more horses. It was most often designed to carry two standing persons, a driver and a fighter who used bow-and-arrow or javelins.
The chariot was the supreme military innovation in Eurasia roughly from 1700 BC to 500 BC, although in the Roman Empire chariots were not used for warfare but for chariot racing, especially in circuses, or for triumphal processions when they could be drawn by as many as ten horses.
For two thousand years since the days of Ben Hur, vehicles were powered by horses. Horses were the primary mode of transportation, and they were killing our cities. Not only were cities densely populated, but horses had to be stabled and fed amongst the human population. Virtually all goods and services had to be transported by horse, and as society developed, rising incomes and trade meant horse power was even more accessible to a broader number of people and businesses. In a way, horse carriages were more intelligent than modern cars, as the horses by self-preservation steered away from danger.
Then in the past 100 years, human innovation, ingenuity and technology brought us modern cars propelled by petrol or diesel combustion engines, allowing for a tremendous increase in mobility. However the petrol-fuelled cars also resulted in pollution far worse than horse poop.
If we are now to implement the recently signed COP21, then converting our car fleets to electric vehicles will be a necessity, and now in the 21st century, innovation is hitting the vehicle industry as fast as it did at the origin of commercials cars, 100 years ago.
In 2014, I wrote an article about The Rebirth of the Car, and I mentioned Elon Musk´s company Tesla Motors in California as one of the up-and-coming new niche players. Tesla Motor has done many things right, from how they work with innovation to how they in June 2014 opened up their patent portfolio for competitors and asks for nothing but goodwill in return, and in the process making sure they set the new standards.
Then in the past year, we are rapidly coming closer to the holy-grail of vehicles, how we can make them safer and traffic on our congested roads more orderly. The break-through of Big Data and the Fourth Industrial Revolution enables innovations which allows the car to share the driving with the driver.
Earlier this week, Elon Musk said in a Fortune Magazine interview, that Tesla will have a fully autonomous vehicle on the road, which can drive more safely than humans, within two years.
The Tesla Model S can already drive itself when the new Autopilot feature is installed, using cameras and sensors to keep itself in the right lane on the road and steering away from potential accidents. The car can also park itself. Now Musk believes this technology will, by late 2017 or early 2018, be trusted to drive a car on any road, in any country and in any weather condition, day or night.
Suggesting, as he often does, that the giant leap from automated motorway driving to full autonomous will be straightforward, Musk told Fortune: “I think we have all the pieces, and it’s just about refining those pieces, putting them in place, and making sure they work across a huge number of environments – and then we’re done.”
Two years is also the expected time horizon until the launch of the third generation Tesla car, Model 3, which will be Tesla’s cheapest car yet. It is expected to cost around 30,000 euro and have an electric range of 300 kilometres.
This will be the ‘mass market’ car that Elon Musk has been working towards since the creation of the Tesla company in 2003. As Tesla´s mission statement says, the company aims to “accelerate the advent of sustainable transport by bringing compelling mass-market electric cars to market as soon as possible.” The expensive first two generations of the car has been necessary to develop the technology and infra structure required for mass market production.
Other car companies, and Google and Apple, have 2020 targeted as the year when fully autonomous cars become a reality. Headed by one of the worlds greatest living innovators, I have no doubt Tesla will beat them.