March Prism - 2002
Down The Road
A Criminal Act?
Unequal Opportunity
Teaching Toolbox
ASEE Today
Last Word
Back Issues

Down the Road

What 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

Scene 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.

Scene 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 others—yours included—instead release a few trickles of purified water to the ground.

No, you're 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.

For nearly 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.

And now 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 product—Adaptive 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.

Collision-avoidance 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.

Hedrick 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 bad—less than $2,000 a car—because 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 Transport.


Power Trip

The other 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 far, 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.”

John Beard, 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.

Hart believes 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 standards—which force automakers to build their cars more fuel- efficient—the industry screamed, saying higher standards were not technologically feasible. “That calls into question if they are serious about fuel cells,” Belzowski insists.

Another 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 $23,000—thousands of dollars more than a comparably sized subcompact would cost—so 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.

That raises 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 turbines.

Gas turbines 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 nightmare—and 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 bigger—like hydrogen, there is no distribution infrastructure—and natural gas comes from remote areas, so transporting (usually via pipelines) is very expensive.

Then there 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.

Because 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.

Cheng 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 novel—and ironic—idea 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.


Shedding Pounds

Tomorrow's 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.

So what 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.

As for 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.

Scene 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.


Thomas K. Grose is a freelance writer based in London.
He can be reached by e-mail at