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Autos Become the Center of Innovation

General Motors thinks partially-automated cars will hit the road by 2015 and fully autonomous vehicles five years later. As Wired notes , the technology for this is already here. Early markets might be retrofitting cars for aged drivers, and for those convicted of several DUI offenses, followed by short-term rental markets and, by 2040, the mainstream. Most accidents, after all, are caused by driver error. How much worse can computers do?

Structure

We're used to cars being metal boxes, but in fact the use of plastic has been increasing for decades.

Carbon fiber is 10 times stronger than steel and weighs one-fourth as much. Carbon fiber reinforced plastic can be molded rather than pressed or stamped into shape. The result is a lighter, stronger vehicle body, which is moving quickly from the high-end to the mainstream, and from car bodies to parts like brakes.

Carbon fiber is a big reason automakers didn't go apoplectic when the government said they should double their fleet mileage by 2025. You can combine carbon fiber with electric power, as Mercedes-Benz did last week in Paris with an experimental car, Plasticsnews.com writes , that can travel 155 mph and has a 155 mile range per charge.

Or you can use carbon fiber to evolve higher-mileage cars that look just like today's models, as Gizmag reports GM is doing.

By changing what cars are made of, how they're powered and how they're driven, car companies are entering a difficult period in which entrepreneurship is again possible and big, far-reaching decisions have to be made quickly.

But the result will be enormous opportunity. If someone like that guy who told Dustin Hoffman "plastics" in "The Graduate" is talking to that character's grandson today, he might just say "autos."

At the time of publication, the author was long F.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.
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