is tomorrow's car going to look like and what will make it run?
Automotive engineers say it won't bear any resemblance to today's
state-of-the-art SUV or luxury sedan.
By Thomas K.Grose
one: It's a typical Monday morning commute, and the freeways
from the burbs into town are paved with cars nose to tail. But
you're relaxed, sipping a coffee, munching a danish, and scanning
a 20-page briefing for an important meeting. You must be on a train,
right? Nope. A bus? No way. Actually, you're in your own car, which
is on autopilot in the middle of one of those packs of vehicles jamming
the freeways. But instead of crawling along at the pace of a winded
snail, it's whizzing along at 60 m.p.h., a mere 20 feet behind
the car ahead of it. You have another sip of coffee.
two: A few minutes later, you roar off the freeway and are now manually
steering your car the old-fashioned way, driving through the high-rise
canyons of downtown. Though the streets are crowded with other cars,
buses, and delivery trucks, noxious fumes and odors are rare. Only a
handful of old clunkers spew out clouds of harmful gases. Most othersyours
includedinstead release a few trickles of purified water to the
not reading the opening lines of a script for a sci-fi flick. Those
two scenarios are the likely future. A future that is a mere 20 or so
years away. Or so say engineers and other experts from top universities.
Indeed, many of the technologies needed to realize those scenarios already
exist in the labs of leading institutions, auto manufacturers, and suppliers.
While the experts don't agree on which technologies will ultimately
dominate, none dispute this point: No matter how state-of-the-art your
brand new sport utility vehicle (SUV) or luxury sedan or super-mini
is, it will seem positively antique compared with what will be on the
road two decades hence.
100 years the standard automobile platform has not changed all that
much. What has really brought vehicles into the 21st century is
electronics, says Richard McLaughlin, an American engineer teaching
at England's University of Warwick. McLaughlin's area of expertise
is something called Controller Area Network, which lets various components
within a car talk to one another wirelessly (and will eventually
enable cars to communicate with other cars). The equipping of cars with
computer, Internet, and wireless telecommunications technologies is
called telematics. The first commercial telematics product was General
Motors' OnStar system, which debuted in 1996. OnStar uses the Global
Positioning Satellite (GPS) system (which was developed to guides ships
at sea) to give drivers a navigation aid; it also automatically alerts
and directs rescue crews to a car if its air bag deploys. Since then,
OnStar and other systems developed by such rivals as Ford, DaimlerChrysler,
BMW, and Lexus have added voice-activated technology that lets drivers
hear e-mails, news headlines, stock quotes, and even traffic alerts,
as well as make hands-free cell phone calls. Telematics gizmos can help
authorities locate stolen cars and give drivers an instant diagnosis
when something breaks down.
telematics can make cars safer, as well. Historically, safety features
on cars mostly lessened the impact on occupants of a crash. Telematics
will help cars avoid slamming into one another. The first productAdaptive
Cruise Control (ACC)is just coming to market. ACC merges radar
(or laser) and chip technologies in a way that could put an end to tailgating,
a major cause of accidents. A combination of radar beams and sensors
lets a car know when it's gotten too close to the car ahead of
it and automatically slows it down. And soon there will be the next
generation, Cooperative Adaptive Cruise Control (CACC), which lets similarly
equipped cars communicate with one another, exchanging information about
speed and braking ability to avoid wrecks altogether.
systems are likely to become widespread, though the industry probably
won't call them that for fear of legal liability when crashes do
occur. The technology (for CACC) is easy. The problem is in detecting
zero speed, distinguishing a stalled car from a (roadside) tree,
says Karl Hedrick, chairman of the mechanical engineering department
at the University of California-Berkeley. The other initial drawback
will be an overlap period when some cars have CACC and others don't.
For CACC to be totally effective, you will need large numbers
of them, he explains.
is also director of California's Partners for Advanced Transit
and Highways (PATH), a collaborative effort between Berkeley and the
state's Department of Transportation to develop fully automated
roadways. PATH is working on a system that would let platoons of automobiles
steer themselves down limited-access highways at speeds up to 60 m.p.h.,
separated from each other by about 20 feet. The PATH system takes CACC
technology further by using magnets embedded in the road to control
the cars. Again, the technology is not an issue. Researchers at Carnegie-Mellon
University worked with Mercedes Benz 10 years ago to demonstrate driverless
cars. It's technically conceivable already, but it will be
awhile before it receives political acceptance, Hedrick says.
He thinks road congestion will finally become so bad that one city will
decide to try it. His best guess is that in five to eight years, the
first fully automatic lanes will be in operation for buses and trucks.
Within 10 years, he says, entire 15- to 20-mile segments of freeways
will be fully automated for cars. Most of the expense will be borne
by drivers, but he says the initial extra cost will not be that badless
than $2,000 a carbecause nearly 90 percent of the necessary technology
will be in place in most cars in the form of CACC devices and anti-lock
braking systems. Not everyone is convinced that fully automated cars
will catch on, however. I think drivers will be unwilling to give
up steering, says Bruce Belzowski, senior research associate at
the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive
big question is whether drivers are willing to give up the internal
combustion engine, and with it a thirst for nonrenewable fossil fuels.
Most experts believe that some new automotive powertrain will replace
the combustion engine within two decades, but there is a fair amount
of disagreement over which technology will dominate. Most bets, however,
are on fuel cells. Instead of using combustion, fuel cells generate
power from the chemical reaction created when hydrogen and oxygen are
mixed; and like a battery, fuel cells can be recharged while emitting
power. The result is a process that creates water, but zero harmful
emissions. And hydrogen is not only clean but renewable. Hydrogen fuel
cells got a big boost earlier this year when the Bush administration
pledged to fund research to develop fuel-cell cars, though it didn't
say how much it would spend.
so good. But fuel cells have big drawbacks. Hydrogen's total mass
energy density is very low, which makes it hard to store, either onboard
a car or within service station tanks. And no one has yet determined
a way to create a hydrogen distribution infrastructure big enough to
supply a mass market. Moreover, hydrogen is very explosive, and storage
of large quantities could pose a risk. There are other hurdles, as well,
says Nick Brancik, a technical automotive adviser at Michigan's
Lawrence Technological University. Fuel cells are easily contaminated
and don't perform well in cold weather.
an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the Michigan Technological
University, is convinced that cars of the future will use fuel-cell
technology, but it's 10 to 15 years away. The first generation
fuel-cell cars won't store hydrogen, but will produce it onboard
from either gasoline or methanol, Beard says, and those cars will likely
remain on the road for a decade or more, until storage and distribution
problems are solved. The process of extracting hydrogen from another
fuel is called reforming. But again, reforming has its critics and doubters.
Bransik says reforming takes a fuel cell's energy efficiency rating
down from 45 percent to 37 percent. That's much better than a gasoline
engine (22 percent), but no better than a diesel or an electric car.
David Hart, who heads fuel cell research at Imperial College's
Center for Energy Policy and Technology,in London, calls reforming a
blind alley and says that while some automakers are studying it,
the main thrust of every big manufacturer is to develop fuel cells that
run on stored hydrogen.
that fuel cell cars will eventually reign supreme on the highway and
that the first production cars be marketed within three years, though
only on a very, very limited basis. But Graeme Maxon, head of the Edinburgh-based
automotive consulting company, Autopolis is skeptical. If you
look at the last 20 years, fuel cells have always been just around
the corner,' Maxon notes. And Michigan's Belzowski points
out that when Washington began talking last summer about raising the
Corporate Average Fuel Economy standardswhich force automakers
to build their cars more fuel- efficientthe industry screamed,
saying higher standards were not technologically feasible. That
calls into question if they are serious about fuel cells, Belzowski
possible alternative is the hybrid car. Toyota and Honda began marketing
hybrid models in the U.S. last year and other car makers are readying
versions, as well. Hybrids can get an impressive 60 to 70 miles per
gallon, cut emissions by 85 percent, and have gasoline-powered engines
that can reach 100 m.p.h. What makes hybrids efficient is that they
also have small electric motors that recharge during operation and kick
in whenever the car accelerates or needs a boost of power. But they
retail for around $23,000thousands of dollars more than a comparably
sized subcompact would costso they are not cheap. They are
not cost effective, claims Wai Cheng, an expert in combustion
and propulsion at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan
Automotive Laboratory. However as much as hybrids save their owners
at the gas pump, it doesn't compensate for their high cost. It
is very difficult to break even,says Cheng, adding that a hybrid
would have to remain on the road for 150,000 miles to recapture the
initial outlay. Maxon suspects that hybrids will become a footnote.
He adds: Having two methods of propulsion is more expensive than
having one. Hybrids are an interim solution, Hart admits, but
a worthwhile one, since fuel-cell cars can use a lot of the hybrid technology.
And, he says, fuel-cell cars will essentially be hybrids, too, because
they'll also need some sort of reserve battery power.
yet another possibility: electric cars powered by batteries. Brancik
of Lawrence Tech, says the basic vehicle (of the future) will
be electric, there's not much doubt about that. But that's
a minority opinion. First of all, there is the question of how clean
electric cars really are. Sure, they produce no emissions. But they
need to be plugged into sockets that derive their juice from power plants.
And in the U.S., most plants burn coal or oil. But the biggest problem
with electric cars is their range between recharging. Batteries cannot
store enough power to make long trips feasible. And no one sees any
breakthrough in battery technology any time soon. Brancik thinks that
until battery storage issues are solved, electric cars of tomorrow will
use small, supplemental power plants, either fuel cells or perhaps gas
have, on their own, also been suggested as automotive power plants.
They use a pressurized gas, say, natural gas, to spin a turbine to generate
power. Again, it's a clean machine. But high speeds and high operating
temperatures make gas turbines an engineering and materials nightmareand
an expensive one. Additionally, Cheng says, They need a lot of
surface area, they need to be big to be efficient. So while they're
good for propelling tanks and jet engines, gas turbines don't seem
to have much of a future powering cars. Environmentalists also recommend
using liquid petroleum gas (LPG) or compressed natural gas (CNG) as
clean solutions to combustion engines. But Cheng says LPG is even more
scarce than petroleum. He calls CNG engines great and suggests
that they might emerge some day if three problems can be overcome. CNG
density is so low that fuel tanks would need to be 10 times biggerlike
hydrogen, there is no distribution infrastructureand natural gas
comes from remote areas, so transporting (usually via pipelines) is
is diesel. It's certainly a potential interim solution. But most
Americans equate diesels to the noisy, black-smoke belching cars that
U.S. car makers brought out about 20 years ago. Which explains why diesel
cars capture less than 1 percent of the American market. But European
manufacturers today are turning out turbo-charged diesel cars that perform
superbly and are fuel-efficient. A third of all cars sold on the Continent
are diesel, and that segment is growing. Unlike a gasoline engine, which
mixes, compresses, and ignites gas and air, a diesel compresses air
until it's heated, then injects fuel into it for ignition. An 1.8-liter
diesel engine can get 49 m.p.g. in the city and 42 on the highway; a
similar size gasoline engine gets a mere 25 m.p.g. in the city and 31
on the road.
they are efficient, diesel engines produce much less of the greenhouse
gases blamed for global warming. But environmentalists say they're
still dirty because they emit smog-causing nitrogen oxides and particulates.
European engineers are supposedly close to perfecting exhaust pipe traps
that will capture those emissions. Diesel is a quick fix, but
not a bad one, Michigan Tech's Beard says. However, diesel
has a big perception problem with American consumers and clean-air regulators,
so the industry won't build them, he adds.
doubts that any alternative fuel system will replace the internal-combustion
engine in the short term. There will be no change in 20 years,
he says resolutely, because there will not be sufficient market demand
for anything other than gasoline engines. Consumer acceptance is, of
course, the tail that wags the dog. Even if a technology were discovered
that literally reinvented the wheel, it would be worthless if people
didn't buy it. There are many, many great ideas, but few
have commercial potential, says Garel Rhys, an auto industry expert
at Cardiff Business School. Brancik recalls that when he worked for
GM, the company devised a sunroof for the Camero that darkened in the
sunlight. It was a sensible $800 option that no one bought. His students
who competed in the Future Car competition, sponsored by the industry
and the Department of Energy, came up with the noveland ironicidea
of using solar panels to power their car's air conditioner. It
works great, Brancik says, but he's not sure if it were adopted
by a manufacturer that the public would pay extra for the panels, though
air conditioners make engines even more fuel-hungry.
cars will certainly weigh less. Weight, weight, weight is the
issue, Rhys says. Plastics, aluminum, new lightweight steels,
and magnesium will become much more prominent in cars. This is in part
to help make cars easier to recycle, but also to make them more economical.
Beard says that regardless of what powertrain a car has, it must be
balanced with lighter materials. Everything is interconnected,
Beard explains. There is no one clean answer. There are
concerns that aluminum eventually fatigues and fails. But Glenn Bower,
who teaches mechanical engineering at the University of Wisconsin, points
out that while aluminum has issues, the aircraft industry has
been using it safely for many years. General Motors plans to introduce
a pickup truck that's built around an aluminum frame within five
years. And British sports car pioneer Aston Martin borrowed aerospace
technology to build its new, $250,000 Vanquish, which has an aluminum
skin bonded together with special glues.
will cars built 20 years from now look like? Ken Okuyama, chairman of
the transportation design department at the Art Center College of Design
in Pasadena, Calif., the country's premier school for auto stylists,
says that telematics and new fuel technologies will give designers a
whole new canvas to work on. Okuyama believes that fuel cells will prevail.
And even if they require a reformer, they will easily be squeezed under
the floorboard. Now, design is built around the engine, a big
chunk of aluminum, he says. With power plants buried beneath the
car, you can design to prioritize people, to think of dimensions
first. Making cars lighter, he says, requires making them smaller.
Much smaller. But SUV-loving Americans needn't worry that the future
means they'll be shoe-horned into dinky cars. The chucking out
of big engines frees up space for the interior. You will have
more of the feeling of a larger vehicle in a smaller car, Okuyama
says, including plenty of leg and head room. And because of telematics,
the architecture of car interiors will also change, with gadgets placed
in more sensible locations. The inside will be more like a train
compartment, he says. Consumers got a taste of that type of design
in January when GM put a spotlight on a fuel-cell concept car it calls
Autonomy. The car has no dashboard, nor has it pedals. Instead, it's
controlled by a computer stalk, and the driver can sit in the left,
right, or center seat.
exteriors, Okuyama predicts the trend will be no trend. In the past,
styles have tended to come in waves. There was the square box look.
There was the jellybean look. There was the retro look. Okuyama says
in the future, fans of any of those styles will have a choice. Everything
will be available, everything will be niche, he says. Automakers
are learning that they can still sell millions of cars by making niche
versions of their models. It will be an era of mass customization,
Okuyama says. Again, that notion was echoed by GM's Autonomy, which
uses a snap-together exterior design. Because a fuel-cell car's
chassis could last 20 years, GM is suggesting that buyers choose a body
style that appeals to them, which is then snapped onto the platform.
When they decide they want a new look, they trade in the old snap-on
body for a new one.
three: Your Monday is finally over and you're back in your
car, which has just eased itself onto the freeway. Time to relax. You
push a button, a screen appears on your dashboard, and you're immediately
connected to the Internet. You bark a few commands and reach a Chevrolet
Web site. Up comes a streaming video of a new car Chevy is introducing
that's inspired by the original 1955 Corvette. You recall seeing
pictures of your grandfather with his 55 Vette and thinking how
cool it looked. And this new Corvette will have features that your two-year-old
buggy hasn't, like fingerprint scan technology that does away with
ignition cards and buttons. Hmmm, you think, maybe it's time to
lease a second car.
K. Grose is a freelance writer based in London.
He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.