Out of my dreams, into my (improved) car
science breakthroughs 2012 nissan leaf drivetrain

It's a new world for cars. "I think we're at the cusp of quite a significant transformation in the auto industry," Day says. This transformation has been building for some time, he adds, but now, "major innovations in materials, navigation, on-board electronic systems and drivetrains are really starting to come together."

Automakers must keep an eye on consumer trends around electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids, full hybrids, and cars equipped with other mileage-extending technology. And after about a century of powering vehicles with good old combustion engines, car companies are tweaking the drivetrain -- the system that makes a car move -- and using this updated tech to build affordable cars.

At the end of 2011, car buyers could get the 2012 Chevy Volt hybrid car nationwide. This year, Nissan released the fully electric version of the Leaf in the United States.

Not that drivetrains are the only opportunity for automotive innovation; indeed, cars are becoming more like computers every day. "Don't give up on the internal combustion engine either," Day says. "An industry's technology improves the most just when you think it's being put out of business."

  @FortuneMagazine - Last updated December 31 2012 10:02 AM ET
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