Who will be this generation’s Henry Ford?

Today’s world of automobiles is filled with great achievements. People are working to create flying cars, energy-efficient engines, reliable batteries, self-driving vehicles and much more. Innovation never comes to a halt in this ever-progressing industry. With all that’s going on, it gets harder by the day to pinpoint the people behind it.

A quick look at the history of the automobile, however, will reveal to you the men and women behind everything. Women? You might ask. Yes, Mary Anderson invented the windshield wiper. Automotive pioneers spanned from inventors and designers, manufacturers, culture innovators to technology developers. In our journey to reach a thousand miles, they made the first steps. 

The electric and hybrid cars we enjoy today, for example, were invented in the late 1800s. Electric vehicles were a favourite amongst women. They were easy to drive, produced less noise and were eco-friendly. Some even included a makeup kit. Today, personal transportation evolves every year. What we all assumed would remain science fiction while growing up is now a reality. Years from now, a child will be born in the age of fully autonomous cars and they will wonder how people ever drove themselves around.

Predicting the future of vehicle technology proves to be a challenge every day. Much of what is happening, nevertheless, revolves around startups and large automobile companies. However, there are dozens of individuals trying to revolutionize the industry in their own small ways. These people are passionate, ambitious, hardworking, ever busy and carry the desire to change the world. They are the Henry Ford’s and Lee Lacocca’s of today.

Every single day is an opportunity to make the world a better place. Some have made such huge milestones that they have shaken the very core of the industry. Others have used their ingenuity to completely change perspectives. While I might not be able to highlight all of them, below are some of the figures I find to be quite interesting.

Elon Musk (Tesla)

Elon Musk is a name that never misses whenever we talk about automotive innovation. From being bullied in school to being one of the most notable figures in today’s automotive world, Musk is a game changer. His father, Errol Musk, once described him as an “introvert thinker”. He’s the type of guy that when invited to a party, would be found going through the host’s library while everyone else was having a good time.

He started inventing at an early age. He sold “Blastar”, his first game, to a gaming magazine at 12 years old. His innovative spirit went on to change the world one step at a time. He even went broke at some point while at it.  It is Tesla Inc. that he is mostly known for. While everyone was struggling (or had already given up trying) to build a reliable electric car, Musk was busy making it a reality. The first Tesla, the Tesla Roadster, could hit 0-60 mph in just 3.9 seconds. On top of that, it had a range of 200 miles (320km) from a single charge and had an attractive design.

Currently, the Tesla Model S offers the highest range amongst electric cars at 335 miles (539 km). This is thanks to the automaker’s 360 MJ (100 kWh) battery pack. It also combines efficiency, safety and remarkable performance, making it a leader amongst competitors.

What makes Musk so phenomenal is his ability to change the world’s outlook on electric cars. People never had a lot of faith in them. You had to compromise in order to enjoy driving one. Tesla not only changed this, but also set milestones for itself that it continues to break every day. The ultimate goal is to finally rid the world of fossil fuels by providing absolute clean energy storage and generation products. Musk’s vision of the future is where people are able to easily access and afford clean energy products and clean transport. What’s not to like about such a guy?

Apart from producing cars, Musk also plans to make space travel enjoyable with his other company SpaceX. He also runs another company, “The Boring Company”, that’s constructing tunnels under various cities with the goal of reducing tunnelling costs and eliminating traffic.

Garrett Camp and Travis Kalanick (Uber)

Uber has got to be the largest disruptive innovation to hit the automotive industry since time immemorial. Garrett Camp and Travis Kalanick had just sold their startups in 2007. On their way to attend the 2008 annual tech conference, LeWeb, in Paris, they had trouble getting a cab. Camp had to spend about $800 to get a private driver.

While thinking of a way to reduce the cost of such transportation, Camp realized that it would be more affordable if people shared the cost. Prior to the formation of Uber, the idea revolved around a limo service that could be requested through an app. On reaching San Francisco later on, Camp continued to ponder on the idea.

A few months later, UberCab was born. Kalanick was then convinced to join the venture by Camp. Together, they would create an app whose ability to order a cab gained massive popularity. A lot has happened since then. The company has gone through a lot of ups and downs, but remains steadfast.

The reason behind Uber’s phenomenal success was its ability to disrupt the automotive industry without having to create anything new. Companies producing fully autonomous vehicles are planning to base their business model on the ride-hailing and ride-sharing concept. This is all thanks to an idea conceived by Garrett Camp and Travis Kalanick.

It is not easy to ignore what Uber has done to reform public transportation. Getting a cab is no longer a hustle. Millions of employment opportunities have also been created. Uber and other ride-hailing and ride-sharing apps have become part of our daily lives. Despite the controversy and high number of lawsuits, Uber did indeed make its mark in the industry. It now operates in more than 70 countries and 785 cities worldwide.

The tech giant has expanded its services and now includes bicycle-sharing, assistance to persons with disabilities, water-taxi services, motorcycle transportation, helicopter services, courier package delivery, food delivery, etc. These, however, are offered across different countries.

Sebastian Thrun (Waymo)

Today, automotive companies are racing to produce the first fully autonomous vehicles that can be used for public transport. The road to full autonomy is long and extremely complex. Before the race took shape, one particular company had already began working its way towards eliminating human drivers. That company was Google.

Under the name “Google Self-Driving Car Project”, the tech giant was secretly working on a self-driving car in its secret lab, dubbed the X Lab.  The entire project was founded and led by Sebastian Thrun, a computer scientist, entrepreneur educator and innovator from Germany. Despite currently not being part of the project anymore, Thrun spearheaded much of what the Google Self-Driving Car Project (currently known as Waymo) has achieved so far.

What makes Waymo so special is the fact that when the company started out, other automakers were still watching from afar, waiting to see what would happen. This put Waymo ahead by years, and the company is currently leading in the race. Its systems are phenomenal and get updated almost every week. Computer simulations have also provided tons of information and opportunities for improvement over billions of miles.

The ultimate goal in achieving a fully autonomous vehicle involves scaling through 5 levels. Only Waymo has been able to test Level 4 self-driving vehicles on public roads.  In addition, the company has covered over 9 million miles with its driverless cars. It also boasts the lowest disengagement rate – bots perform so well that engineers hardly ever have to grab the wheel due to system failure. Tests have also been credited for having the least number of accidents.

Currently, the tech company is inviting the public to take part in its tests in Arizona. The main objective is to eventually provide easy and safe transport for everyone without needing a human driver – a vision first shared by Sebastian Thrun and his first team of engineers. As the rest try to catch up, it’s important to note that Waymo was and still is the company that sets the pace.

Malcolm Bricklin

Malcom Bricklin is a man whose 6-decade business career has been marked by tremendous successes as well as failures. He was the man behind the Bricklin SV-1, a sports car that was built for only 2 years (1974-1975).

He is currently 79 years old, and along the way, has managed to start and run more than 30 companies. Much of his success has hailed from importing and marketing vehicles. In 1982, he built and sold an electric bicycle while importing and distributing vehicles from Chery, a Chinese company.

In 2017, Bricklin decided that is was time to get back in the game. When battery prices finally allowed for the manufacturing and selling of electric cars at $30,000 and below, Bricklin had an idea: to launch and sell 3-wheeled electric cars. His vision is to produce an exclusive collectible.

You might wonder why a 79-year-old wants to produce cars at a time when his peers have already retired. According to Bricklin, when he was 50, he had so much money that he decided it was time to call it quits. He bought a high-end ranch and put in place an indoor archery. Three months down the line, the man was already bored.

Bricklin believes that he needs only $300 million to get Visionary Vehicles on its feet. “You don’t need $2 billion to start an electric car company,” he says. The exclusive collectible will be called “Bricklin 3EV”. It will be a battery-powered 3-wheeler with two seats and a range of about 200 miles. It will have scissor doors and a supercar styling. Production is set to start in 2019. According to Bricklin, each batch will comprise 25, 000 vehicles in order to maintain the high value of older models. Each vehicle will be priced at $25,000.

There are other entrepreneurs emerging with battery-powered three-wheelers. The notion is that the idea could lead to the creation of better, affordable, lightweight and eco-friendly vehicles. Bricklin’s car is quite attractive. However, we are yet to know if people will want to keep an electric collectible as battery technology continues to improve.

Automobiles are transforming from engineering marvels, to computers on wheels. It is these technology pioneers who will make the next mark. There are three areas that will greatly influence how and what we drive in the near future: the Internet of Things (IoT), Cloud computing and Big Data. Like every other pioneer that ever existed, exploiting new areas in the right way means getting ahead in an extremely competitive market. The general objective is to make transportation easier and reduce the bottlenecks that currently choke the industry. The race is open. Anyone with a strong entrepreneurial spirit can be part of it. Winning, however, might take a lot more. All consumers can do is wait and see who gets there first and what they have to offer.

Story by William Mutugi, Contributor
Photography provided by William Mutugi