NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- For the first time in over a century, automobiles are the center of innovation.Early in the 1900s we had the Stanley Steamer and even electric cars on the road. Scale and consolidation led to today's standards of enclosed cabs with gasoline-powered engines, controlled with a wheel and pedals, made by a handful of global giants. It's all about to change. There are three avenues of change -- how the car is powered, how the car is controlled and what the car is made of. Both big and small carmakers have to navigate through this changing world. Power The most obvious change will be how cars are powered. What used to be a choice between gasoline (which is like alcohol) and diesel (which is more like cooking oil) is rapidly being transformed by the rise of the electric car and the vibrant hybrid market. We now have four choices for electric-powered cars. Tesla ( TSLA) refuses to die,
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? 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. Follow @DanaBlankenhorn This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.