The car of the future

I can't crash this BMW
I can't crash this BMW

What will tomorrow's car look like?

That will depend largely on where you live. Transportation infrastructure -- at least in urban areas -- is undergoing a radical transformation.

Electric cars, cars that drive themselves, and cars you don't actually own, are just a few of the advances coming down the auto technology pipeline.

'We've entered into a period of enormous change," said Lawrence Burns, a University of Michigan engineering professor and former head of R&D at General Motors. "It's similar to what we saw in the early 1900s."

Here's what you might expect from your commute a decade or so from now.

The city: The sheer number of people living together in one place, coupled with the fact that they tend not to drive very far, makes innovation easier in an urban setting.

The most radical reinvention of the automobile might look like this: You need a car, so you call one on your smart phone. Within minutes, it pulls up. It's more like a pod with wheels than an actual car -- lighter and more fuel efficient. It runs on electricity, not gasoline. You don't drive it. It doesn't even have a steering wheel or brake pedal. A computer drives you to your destination -- perhaps in a dedicated lane.

"The future of the car is electric, and autonomous," said Levi Tillemann, a fellow at the New America Foundation and author of "The Great Race: The Global Quest for the Car of the Future."

You wouldn't own it because, why would you?

If self-driving technology takes off, it could reduce vehicle ownership rates by as much as 43%, according to a study this week from the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute.

"[A car] is an object that we spend a huge amount of money on, and we use it for two hours out of every 24," said Geoff Wardle, director of advanced mobility research at Art Center College of Design.

Related: Uber to develop a self-driving cars

Much of the technology is already here. Google (GOOG) has a self-driving car and thinks it will be commercial in a few years. Apps like Uber enable car-hailing from a smart phone, and services like ZipCar offer access to cars as needed.

Converging all these things is only a matter of time, and most likely happen where there are enough people to support a fleet of roving vehicles. Also, the slower speeds of city driving tend to make automated navigation easier. Plus, cities generally have a higher concentration of younger, more tech savvy people willing to embrace new technologies.

This transportation model could become ubiquitous in other densely populated areas as well, like college towns or office parks.

In the suburbs, there may be less car sharing and more outright ownership, as garages offer a convenient place to charge an electric vehicle.

The country: These advances aren't as likely to make their way to rural areas, at least not at first.

Fewer people traveling the roads means it's harder to collect real time information on traffic and road conditions, which could complicate the roll out of self-diving cars. And taxi-like services are less profitable. There are also fewer places for electric car charging stations and greater distances between each one.

"We're still going to have a very high percentage of conventionally fueled vehicles," said Ginger Goodin, director of the Transportation Policy Research Center at Texas A&M's Transportation Institute.

But that doesn't mean there won't be any advances.

Lighter materials and improvements in engine technology mean even gasoline and diesel vehicles will be more fuel efficient. And natural gas fueling stations could become more prevalent in rural areas.

People that live in the country and commute into the city could use a mix of these technologies.

Related: Best cars for the planet

Goodin herself recently became a member of Car2go, a new car sharing service run by Daimler, the maker of Mercedes Benz.

She drivers her regular car from her house outside Austin to a nearby park-and-ride, then takes public transit into the city. If she's needs a car while at work she uses a Car2go Smart car.

"I was tired of the commute and looking for options" she said. "I'm much more relaxed when I get home now."

Do you rely on tips as part of your compensation? Have you noticed a change in tipping habits? Would you prefer a regular salary? Share your story.

Personal Finance


CNNMoney Sponsors