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3 Cars That Showed Us the Future of Autos in 2017

By John Rosevear - Updated Dec 29, 2017 at 4:07PM

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Investors, take note: The future of autos is bright -- here's the evidence.

Think the auto business is dying? Think again: While it's true that new technologies like self-driving systems and electric drivetrains will transform the auto industry, old and new automakers are finding ways to use the new technologies to create compelling products that will thrill buyers and generate profit growth. 

Don't believe it? Here are three vehicles we saw for the first time in 2017 that together showed us that the future of autos (and auto technology) is much brighter than you might have thought -- and it's coming sooner than most people think. 

Will this be the first all-electric mass-market hit? 

We've heard lots of talk about the coming demise of the internal combustion auto engine. But for all the talk, it has been hard to see in reality: While Tesla (TSLA 4.67%) has had success selling electric luxury vehicles, the idea of a huge-selling electric vehicle for everyone has so far remained elusive. 

But there's a lesson to be learned from Tesla's success: If you want to draw buyers to an electric vehicle, it needs to be more than an appliance. Most mainstream consumers are still wary of purely electric vehicles, but a product with a strong emotional appeal can tempt them to make the leap. 

The VW I.D. Buzz, a yellow and silver electric minivan patterned after the historic VW Microbus, is shown cruising on a beach road in California.

VW confirmed that its all-electric I.D. Buzz will go into production in 2022. Image source: Volkswagen AG.

Most automakers have yet to crack that code. But Volkswagen AG (VWAGY 0.35%) is clearly on to something. Its "I.D. Buzz", the all-electric take on VW's iconic Microbus that the company revealed in Detroit in January, lived up to its name by generating a lot of buzz. VW confirmed in August that the Buzz will go into production in 2022, and it looks like a safe bet that the company will have a hit on its hands when it does. 

(Why will it take so long? VW is building out an all-new vehicle architecture and supply chain for its coming line of electric vehicles. The production version of the Buzz will be the third in that line to come to market, and VW wants to be sure that it can get enough batteries to meet demand.) 

Your futuristic self-driving taxi will look a lot like this

For several years now, futurists have talked up a vision of the future in which widely available automated ridesharing services usher in a new era of low-cost, zero-accident, emissions-free mobility.

For most of us, that future has seemed to be a long way off. But it got a lot closer in 2017, after General Motors (GM 2.65%) said that it expects to be mass-producing self-driving electric vehicles for urban ridesharing duty soon, possibly as soon as 2019.

A while Chevrolet Bolt EV with visible self-driving sensor hardware.

General Motors said that it will begin mass production of a self-driving version of the Chevrolet Bolt EV as soon as its software is deemed to be safer than a human driver, possibly in 2019. Image source: General Motors.

The technology is likely to advance quickly as soon as self-driving vehicles begin to hit the world's roads in big numbers. But take note: The first self-driving taxi you ever ride in could well look a lot like this Chevrolet Bolt EV -- a vehicle that was designed from the start with that very application in mind. 

The performance cars of the future are going to be amazing

Something else that Tesla is showing us is that, at least when it comes to acceleration, electric vehicles can trounce even the most extreme internal combustion-powered production vehicles. 

No vehicle to date has made that quite as clear as the second-generation Tesla Roadster unveiled by CEO Elon Musk in November. The performance claims are surreal: zero to 60 miles per hour in 1.9 seconds, zero to 100 miles per hour in 4.2 seconds, a quarter-mile (dragstrip) time of 8.8 seconds, a top speed of more than 250 miles per hour... oh, and 620 miles of highway range on a full charge.  

A red second-generation Tesla Roadster on a desert road.

The astonishing performance of the second-generation Tesla Roadster heralds a new era of all-electric performance cars. Image source: Tesla, Inc.

At a price of $200,000, the new Roadster is hardly cheap, though it's arguably a bargain by supercar standards. More to the point, it's a demonstration of what's possible with battery-electric technology -- and a tantalizing hint of what we might see once companies like GM and VW get serious about battery-powered performance vehicles for the mass market. 

Can you imagine (for instance) a battery-electric Chevrolet Camaro that approximates the new Tesla Roadster's performance for $40,000? It won't happen tomorrow, but it could happen within a decade. It's now clear that the not-too-distant future will bring enthusiasts some very interesting new high-performance vehicles, and not just at six-figure price tags. 

The takeaway for investors: The car business is alive and well

All this talk about an autonomous, shared future has led investors to shy away from (most) automakers' stocks. But as we're starting to see, the future of autos is likely to be much more interesting than a monotonous sea of automated electric transport pods. 

Here's the takeaway: The automakers that figure out how to use these new technologies to make compelling products will see profit growth in the years to come -- and their investors will be rewarded, just as they always have. 

John Rosevear owns shares of General Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Tesla. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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