New Fleet Lets You Focus on Clients in the Car

Advancements in connected and autonomous vehicles may completely change your ability to interact with customers while you’re driving them around.

Getting a driver’s license used to be a rite of passage for American teenagers. But as millennials migrate to urban cores — or remain living in their parents’ basement — they have been far less likely than previous generations to get their licenses. Recent studies suggest that even their parents and grandparents are ready to ditch the car keys.

That may be an early warning sign that big changes are on the horizon for the auto industry in the next decade or so — possibly impacting how you get around for business. “The auto industry will change more in the next five to 10 years than it has in the last 50,” says Mary Barra, chairwoman and CEO of General Motors. Four of the most significant automotive trends are connectivity, autonomy, ride-sharing, and electric power.

Some of these changes might not impact your job in real estate much. (You’re not likely, for example, to jump on the ride-sharing bandwagon and call an Uber to take a client to a showing.) But other changes could have a more significant influence on how you use your car. Connected cars will make driving safer and easier; an autonomous vehicle could help you get to your location more quickly while allowing you to interact with clients more during the drive; a new generation of long-range battery-powered cars and plug-ins could lower your fuel costs for business.

If you’ve purchased a car in the last few years, chances are it already has some level of connectivity; at the very least, it has a Bluetooth system for connecting your phone and listening to your personal music library. Many vehicles add cell phone–based services, such as General Motors’ OnStar and Hyundai’s Blue Link, which can remotely unlock doors or call emergency providers in the event of a serious crash. And some GM Audi and Chrysler products offer onboard Wi-Fi systems. But that’s just the start.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is setting up a test grid around the Detroit region that will eventually cover much of the nation’s highways. The so-called vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure systems will help alert motorists to traffic and weather problems, as well as when another car is about to run a red light. V2X technology will be one of the building blocks for the next big change: autonomy.

The new 2017 Mercedes-Benz E-Class carries an assortment of onboard radar, sonar, and camera sensors designed to see what’s happening in the world surrounding the vehicle. Its active cruise control system can keep up with the ebb and flow of traffic but also slam on the brakes without a driver’s intervention. It will warn drivers who slide out of their lane and, in some circumstances, even operate hands-free.

Tesla, however, intends to go a giant step further with the launch of its first mainstream battery-electric vehicle next year. The Model 3 is expected to become the first product to offer full-time hands-free driving. But it won’t be alone for long. Almost every major automaker, and a few other start-ups, is planning to deliver autonomous capabilities early in the coming decade.

And Ford Motor Co. hopes to go even further. By 2021, CEO Mark Fields recently announced, Ford will begin building the first fully driverless products — no steering wheel or pedals at all. Initially, they’ll be earmarked for ride- and car-sharing services and local delivery fleets.

But since sharing is less of a concern for real estate professionals, let’s focus on electrification. “Emission-free automobiles are the future,” Dieter Zetsche, chairman and CEO of Daimler AG (the parent company of the Smart and Mercedes-Benz brands), said during this year’s Paris Motor Show, where the German carmaker debuted its all-new sub-brand Mercedes EQ. It plans to have at least 10 pure battery-electric vehicles, or BEVs, in its portfolio by 2025, plus dozens of plug-in hybrids. Volkswagen is going one better, with a plan to add at least 30 BEVs by mid-decade.

With prices for batteries plunging, expect to see tomorrow’s EVs costing little more than comparable gas- or diesel-powered models. And with range pushing to 200, 300, or perhaps even 400 miles, they could make these models compelling earth-friendly alternatives that could also slash the fuel bill for practitioners who often clock lots of miles each week.

The auto industry is also looking at another zero-emission vehicle, or ZEV, technology: the hydrogen fuel cell, which some proponents believe could prove to be even more attractive to motorists than battery cars. That’s because fuel-cell vehicles, or FCVs, eliminate so-called range anxiety and overnight charging. Running low? You can fill up with hydrogen as quickly as you would with gasoline — in about five minutes.

The problem is that there are only a score of hydrogen filling stations open to the public, almost all in California. That state’s lawmakers have approved a measure that would broaden the filling network, however, and several other states are studying similar moves. But for now, the three hydrogen cars on sale in the U.S. — the Toyota Mirai, Honda Clarity, and Hyundai Tucson — have to stay relatively close to home.

The good news is that many of these new technologies are already on the market. The new E-Class is a hot seller, and the Chevy Bolt will be in showrooms by the end of the year. The future, it seems, is already here and, at least for those of us who continue to keep driving, it’s starting to look better all the time.