The biggest transportation disruptors of the 2010s

Whether it's electric vehicles, ride-hailing services, e-scooters or self-driving cars, the last 10 years led to massive changes in the ways we get around.

Andrew Krok Reviews Editor / Cars
Cars are Andrew's jam, as is strawberry. After spending years as a regular ol' car fanatic, he started working his way through the echelons of the automotive industry, starting out as social-media director of a small European-focused garage outside of Chicago. From there, he moved to the editorial side, penning several written features in Total 911 Magazine before becoming a full-time auto writer, first for a local Chicago outlet and then for CNET Cars.
Andrew Krok
8 min read
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Some of these will be more than a little obvious.


If you've tripped over a scooter on a city sidewalk or pulled out a phone and used an app to hail a large SUV for all your friends, you've been part of a major cultural shift. In the last 10 years, the idea of "mobility" has expanded well beyond the automotive industry to cover all corners of our lives. Cars are still a major part of mobility, but the technological and cultural shifts that have taken place in the 2010s have caused us to rethink many aspects of our lives and how we get around.

With much of the automotive industry spending the first part of the decade clawing back from the pit of the Great Recession, many of these disruptions took place in the latter half of the 2010s. Nevertheless, the people, concepts and decisions listed below have all contributed to large-scale disruption. Let's take a look at them in no particular order.

Tesla Model 3 barrels through the snow in Track Mode

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Elon Musk and Tesla


Elon Musk didn't create Tesla on his own, leading its Series A investment before becoming chairman, but the effect the current CEO has had on the company led to a massive shift in how the public thinks about electric vehicles, taking them from the butt of Ed Begley, Jr. jokes on The Simpsons and turning them into objects of cultural cool. People no longer want a Tesla just because it's presumably better for the environment. Now, they want one because everyone else on the block is picking one up.

Musk and Tesla also deserve a spot on this list for helping introduce more robust driver-assistance systems to the market. Autopilot's capabilities have grown considerably since its introduction, picking up new features that, depending on an owner's version of the car, can be enabled with a simple over-the-air software update (more on that idea later). Whether it's Autopilot or Summon, these technologies -- however imperfect -- have impacted the way drivers get around.

Tesla has had its share of issues getting off the ground, and it remains a relatively small player in an industry dominated by seven-figure-sales titans like and , but the cultural shift it's created has proven profound.

Uber drivers demand their labor rights

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While Uber started at the tail end of the previous decade, its services didn't kick off until 2010, and this plucky startup deserves a spot on this list for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, it's the ride-hailing service that launched a thousand ships, as entrepreneurs and established businesses rushed to create competitors, some of which (like Lyft) have grown to become major players alongside the O.G.

Its effect on the taxi industry is apparent, as airports and other businesses create ways to handle the additional traffic from these vehicles. Considering how cost-effective some of these rides can be, it's had deep and lasting effects on things like the cost of taxi medallions or rental cars.

That focus on cost-effectiveness has brought about another major shift in mobility culture. As many are quick to hop on Uber and similar services to make a quick buck with their personal cars, it's created an interesting discussion on labor, as the contractor status of these drivers means they're not liable for the same benefits and protections as full-on employees. The kinks are still being worked out here, but it's set the stage for a showdown between these companies' need for drivers and the drivers' collective need for economic stability.

Uber has an endgame in sight for its labor issues, though, one that disrupts its own status quo. The company has been pushing into autonomous-vehicle research over the last few years, hoping to one day replace its fleet of contracted human drivers with self-driving cars that don't need to worry about things like healthcare benefits and living wages.

Waymo's autonomous Pacifica cruising through Castle

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Speaking of autonomy, Waymo deserves a spot on the list because it's proven to be a leader in commercial autonomous-vehicle development, which is already shaping business plans for the future of hauling everything, whether it's people or cargo.

The Google spinoff, with auto-industry veteran John Krafcik at the helm, has moved to the forefront of AV development, logging insane numbers of miles in both real-world and simulated scenarios. Hell, it's already beaten just about everyone to the punch with the unveiling of Waymo One, a commercial ride-hailing service that relies on Waymo's fleet of semiautonomous minivans . The program is currently only operating in Phoenix, but as Waymo's experience grows, so too will the company's efforts in this space.

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Lidar companies

While Waymo and Uber have definitely put in work when it comes to autonomous development, there are many other players at other levels of the supply chain that deserve credit, and lidar companies are among them.

Outfits like Velodyne and Valeo have been hard at work developing optical sensors that use reflecting light to create a three-dimensional map of the world around said sensor. This makes for a far clearer picture than what might be achieved with cameras or radio waves (radar) alone. Merge all these sensors and give them a computer strong enough to crunch a whole lot of data in a hurry, and you've got an autonomous stew boiling up. Not every company believes lidar is a vital component in AVs, but most do, and to that end, these suppliers are more than willing to be part of the revolution.

Given lidar's cutting-edge nature, however, price has been a problem. At the end of the decade, that finally seems to be changing, as companies have started delivering less complicated and more powerful sensors that can be manufactured at a far more affordable cost. Suppliers rarely get credit where it's due, but in this case, lidar manufacturers truly are helping society move toward our autonomous future.

Checking out the changes in iOS 13's Apple CarPlay update

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Smartphones and digitalization

The iPhone started a revolution in 2007, one that's continued to pick up strength in the decade that followed. The automotive industry isn't always the fastest to respond to trends, especially when it comes to newfangled consumer technology, but over the last 10 years, smartphones have radically changed the way we interact with (and even consider purchasing) vehicles.

The disappearance of physical switchgear on the dashboard shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. As more humans get most of their daily interactions from a single touch-capable piece of glass, automakers have created in-car systems that seek to mimic phones. But even that isn't enough, as phone-mirroring systems like Android Auto and Apple CarPlay have grown so ubiquitous that a large chunk of drivers now won't purchase a car that won't let them bring their phones' operating system into the car for that little extra dose of familiarity and convenience.

This increased focus on in-car digitalization has changed the way we've approached several other in-car experiences, too. The car is now a fully fledged member of the internet of things, as automakers roll out systems with big-name integrations. It's hard to find a little time to yourself these days, and something even as simple as asking your car to turn on your house lights can help carve out pockets of much-needed spare time.

Some aspects of digitalization, like over-the-air updates, are too new to have a profound effect in the 2010s, but this shift shows no signs of stopping as we careen into the 2020s.

Volkswagen ID 3 wants to make electric cars common

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Volkswagen Group

Not every group on this list is here for a positive reason, per se. Take Volkswagen Group, for example, which decided to sneakily program its diesel vehicles to pollute in excess of legal limits when not in a testing environment. This corporate malfeasance is definitely significant, costing the company tens of billions of dollars in fines in the US alone and harming the health of many through lower air quality, especially in dense urban areas.

Yet, this massive scandal has produced some big shifts in both US and European mobility culture. Countries are shying away from diesel vehicles in greater numbers, and those vehicles that are offered for sale are riddled with all manner of technologies aimed at cleaning up those tailpipe emissions. Some automakers are choosing to reduce or eliminate their diesel lineups entirely.

In diesel's place is something far cleaner -- electrification. In the wake of Dieselgate in the US, VW was slapped with a demand to create a company meant to promote the adoption of electric vehicles. Electrify America has since begun to install a whole network of chargers across these amber waves of grain, providing the infrastructure that will be ready when buyers take the plunge and pick up the plug.

In what must be the ironic twist of the century, VW Group has risen from the ashes of Dieselgate to become one of the industry's leaders in electrification.

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Electric scooter companies

Like a biblical plague, connected electric scooters have appeared seemingly out of nowhere in staggering numbers. They litter our sidewalks, even when regulations dictate they be used in the street, and so many competing services have popped up in such little time that many cities feel completely overrun as local governments figure out exactly how to regulate the darn things.

Think of electric scooters as a less centralized version of the bike-sharing ecosystem we've seen in cities like New York and Chicago, offering faster-than-foot travel for relatively low costs with supplies that almost guarantee one will be available (and nearby) when required.

It's a micromobility revolution, but it also brings up some big cultural issues that will need to be addressed. For starters, these things appeared before regulations were in place, forcing some cities to ban the scheme in a sidewalk-clearing panic. And in the cities where they do operate, nobody really knows how to drive one correctly. It's a case study in what happens when regulation is reactive versus proactive and will likely guide many cities in dealing with other mobility ideas in the future.

The Mercedes-Benz GLC-Class gets an updated look for 2020

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The crossover

The crossover, which blends the best of both the passenger car and the sport utility vehicle, deserves a spot on this list for completely reshaping the entire automotive industry in a surprisingly short amount of time. Whereas the sedan used to be the epitome of single-family transportation, tastes have been moving toward something taller and bulkier since 2010, and even before.

In just a few years, the crossover completely rearranged how a multibillion-dollar industry works. and all but eliminated sedans while promising even more crossovers -- heck, Ford's even taken the Mustang and adapted its spirit into a crossover body. Crossovers even managed to spawn their own coupe-style variants, while traditional two-door coupes have almost been eliminated from the industry altogether.

This process is not without its problems. Different shapes and centers of gravity demand different safety requirements, causing automakers to figure out how to make large vehicles crash safely like (and into) smaller vehicles. Big cars mean fuel-economy penalties, and automakers have countered that with smaller engines, more forced induction and small electrification steps like 48-volt mild hybrids. And with no signs of this trend slowing down, the innovations will only continue into the 2020s.

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US Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao and President Donald Trump.

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The Trump administration

Before 2016, there were more than a few "givens" in the automotive industry, whether it was the ability for California to set its own emissions targets or the increasing globalization of vehicle manufacturing and assembly.

Then, President Donald J. Trump took over. Priorities in the new administration have turned the status quo upside-down. There's a renewed focus on all-American manufacturing, from soup to nuts, as well as a renewed focus on buying cars from American automakers, despite many European and Japanese OEMs having a considerable manufacturing presence in the US already. California might even get its self-governance taken away, something it's had for decades.

Some of it's been accomplished through tariffs all but forcing automakers' hands, while other parts have been achieved by personalized pressure in meetings and on Twitter. Nevertheless, judging by what's already been achieved, and what could soon be achieved through agreements like the new USMCA, these changes could be felt for years or decades to come.