It is hard to believe that the first combustion engines were developed in the mid-1800s. It wasn't until the late 1800s that the combustion engine began to be used for long trips, and its utility was recognized. In the early 1900s cars became available for purchase to more than just wealthy enthusiasts and this of course made a major change in our society.
Travel by car has been an American tradition ever since that time. The car has made millionaires and billionaires, given countless people jobs (not just in building them, but in all of the things that go along with it such as gasoline exploration, road and bridge building and repair and so on), and created some very challenging environmental problems along the way.
Because of those environmental problems, as well as other societal changes, cars are evolving rather rapidly and perhaps the cars of today will be unrecognizable in the next generation.
It is amazing that we have been able to address a major environmental issue in the past that had to do with cars, despite the powerful lobby of the gasoline industry. Lead used to be an additive to gasoline, and when it was suggested that lead was hazardous to humans the gasoline companies tried to sweep the problem under the rug.
The environment is one of the driving forces behind the changes currently occurring in cars today. Electric cars and hybrid cars are the most familiar, however there are other ideas out there as well. The marketplace may well be filled with hydrogen powered cars (either powered by fuel cells or directly by hydrogen gas), cars powered by alcohol (which gives off less carbon dioxide than gasoline), cars powered by nitrogen, cars powered by compressed natural gas, cars powered by compressed air(which does require an electric battery) and even cars powered by solar panels.
In any case, rising gas prices and CO2 issues are combining to change the way that cars use energy, and many of these (virtually all actually, for instance Honda already has a hydrogen-powered car being tested) types of cars are already built and will be ready for market soon, if they are not currently on the market.
This is not the only change that is happening to automobiles as we know them. A perhaps even more frightening (to some) change is under way: self-driving cars. We are already seeing the precursors to this type of vehicle hitting the market. For instance, many cars can already parallel park themselves. There are other cars which can take over and stop you from switching lanes when it is not safe, or stop the vehicle when it is about to hit something, without needing the driver to initiate anything.
This is only child's play compared to what Google wants to do to our cars. Google is making a vehicle that has no steering wheel, or gas pedal or even brake pedal. This vehicle will be completely self driving, just type in a destination and off it will go. Don't worry, this car has many sensors and gadgets, which allow it to stop quickly in case of other vehicles or animals or whatever else pops up. It also will travel at a whopping max speed of 30 miles per hour.
This change may be disturbing to some and a godsend to others. Surely people will worry if it is safe (even though the most dangerous part of the car is generally the person driving it), while others will enjoy working or relaxing during their commute.
But in any case, cars will be quite different from what they are today. Thankfully these are (in my opinion anyway) changes for the better.
Jeremie Fish is a Wilmington resident and Clarkson University graduate student.