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Reinventing the road: 4 new ways we'll get around in 2026

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A new UPS report reveals the dramatic changes inspiring an auto revolution in the coming decade.

Despite a century saturated with digital innovations, the way we commute has remained relatively unchanged for the past 100 years. Trade a Ford Model T for a Honda Civic and narrow, dirt roads for paved, congested highways, and the routine stays standard: step inside, put the key in the ignition, and zip off to your next destination.

By 2026, we likely will live in a society powered by vehicle options that are smarter, more flexible and better connected than ever before.

But thanks to a series of recent trends in the transportation industry, that predictability is likely to shift both dramatically and quickly.

According to a recently UPS trends report on transportation, Routes to the Future, commissioned by The Institute for the Future, by 2026, we likely will live in a society powered by vehicle options that are smarter, more flexible and better connected than ever before. And contrary to the popular "man vs. machine" narrative of science fiction movies and novels, humans and smart vehicles won't be in conflict. The two forces should finally become one. 

City planners, real estate brokers, law enforcement officers and social service agencies should be the most excited. Data about travel routes, times and patterns (saved in the cloud and aggregated with other drivers' data) could theoretically significantly help these agencies manage traffic flow, plan bridges and even locate new developments. 

The question however remains, what will these evolved roadways and automobiles look like and how can businesses adapt? Here is a snapshot of the report's four biggest factors driving this revolution. 

1. Self-driving vehicles could change industries and cities

Today, we have cars that can warn drivers when they cross lane dividers and assist with parking. According to Routes to the Future, by 2024, new cars will be able to drive without human intervention or even human passengers. 

As the report suggests, cars that don't require drivers have a lower risk of accidents caused by human error, making the driving experience much safer. When self-driving cars can safely caravan just a few feet apart at high speeds, even highways could potentially become smaller.

And with a lower risk of injury, cars can become smaller, lighter and more fuel-efficient.  

What's more, it will be unnecessary for self-driving cars to be located close to their owners. Your car could drop you off at work, a sporting event or a concert venue, then drive off to park in a compact, inexpensive spot a few miles away. Given this prospect, new urban planning opportunities will undoubtedly arise when space occupied by parking lots and garages is freed up. 

2. Vehicles will get modular

From minivans to pickup trucks to refrigerated delivery vans, many popular vehicles today are designed with a specific, utilitarian purpose in mind. As the report suggests, cars of the future may be equipped with modular pieces that can be combined to efficiently meet those utilitarian needs. 

By 2026, it's suggested that more customers will look to buy and customize their cars, specifying passenger and container modules, the engine block and the battery. And as self-driving cars become the norm, car owners may look at these vehicles as services, ordering the configuration that meets the professional and personal demands of the day – a box truck for a furniture delivery, a van that seats six for a carpool – all as part of a monthly subscription.

3. Vehicle batteries could reinvent the electric grid

According to the report, cars may possibly provide basic energy services by 2026. Imagine you have an electric car with a home charging station that draws power from your rooftop solar panels and connects to the electric utility grid. 

Even if you drive 300 miles a day, it may take only nine hours to recharge your car battery. That leaves you with 15 hours of charge to power your house. Don't need that much power? You could sell the excess back to the grid. Businesses could use power in the same way, like powering a small warehouse or a service center with the excess power from their vehicles' batteries. And, when power is in high demand, fleets of vehicles could be dispatched to quickly provide energy where it's needed the most. 

4. Cars will measure our health and lives

Quantifying our lives is commonplace today, with fitness and productivity trackers becoming more popular than ever. By 2026, vehicle sensors may add to the ways we can track our lives, according to the new report. 

For example, your car could measure and respond to your fatigue and stress levels, playing calming music or suggesting a coffee break. Linked to your calendar, your car could brief you for an upcoming meeting. And by collecting hundreds of health metrics, car sensors may even be able to predict infections, heart attacks and some neurological disorders. 

Download the full transportation trends report. The transportation report is the first in a series of pieces looking at future trends impacting logistics. The series will also address changes expected in manufacturing and communications in the months ahead.

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