Potholes in the road to the future
Everybody wants cleaner, more economical cars but nobody can agree on what they will look like.
NEW YORK (FORTUNE) - Angry motorists, frightened politicians and three-dollar-a-gallon gasoline are stirring new interest in alternative kinds of vehicular transportation that don't weigh two-and-a-half tons and get 13 miles to the gallon.
In other words, it's car of the future time again.
Unfortunately, there is no unanimity on exactly what the future holds. The good news is that this time around, nobody is talking about four-wheeled airplanes flying over congested traffic before landing on the roof of your apartment building. The future looks pretty much like the present, except more resource-constrained.
After that, the crystal ball gets cloudy. To take one obvious example: Environmentalists want small, light-weight cars like the Smart (currently sold in Europe) that use a minimum of natural resources. But safety advocates cringe at the thought of people riding around in tiny metal eggs. They want a car built with plenty of steel and arrayed with airbags and collision-detecting radar systems like the heavyweight Mercedes S-class.
A similar debate divides active vs. passive transit. Proponents of the former tend to promote developments like smart cruise control and lane change collision avoidance that could pave the way for hands-free driving. Just like the pilot of an airplane, a driver could dial the address of his destination into a navigation system and then sit back while the car does the rest.
But that's blasphemy to a vocal minority of car enthusiasts who insist on maintaining driver involvement. Bernd Pischetsrieder, who just had his contract extended as chairman of Volkswagen, insists that "driving pleasure" is one of the three pillars of VW's future product development (along with active safety and individual convenience).
Loyal to a fault, industry experts tend to view the car of the future from their own special vantage point. DuPont (Research) sees a greater use of plastics in new cars, like thermoplastic replacing metal in the mirror-housing bracket. Microsoft (Research) envisions a rolling entertainment center with "digital music, movies, and gaming."
At General Motors (Research), where the glorious past looks more inviting than an uncertain future, the perspective at times is resolutely backward. Asked to speculate on tomorrow's powertrain technology by the Society of Automotive Engineers, engineering executive Tom Stephens extols the virtue of GM's 50-year-old small-block V-8 that "has done it all, and it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future."
One trend that everyone can agree on is the replacement of heavy, expensive trouble-prone mechanical parts with lighter, cheaper, more reliable electronic ones. GM has revealed a concept car that has no internal combustion engine, no transmission, no drivetrain, no axles, no exhaust system, no radiator, and no mechanical steering, brakes, or accelerator.
A fuel cell powers four electric motors - one at each wheel - and all the controls are operated with electronics as well - a concept already used in Formula One cars known as "drive by wire."
The hottest debate rages over replacing gasoline with hydrogen. Everyone agrees that oil is an increasingly scarce resource while hydrogen is available in abundance. But hydrogen, whether it is used to fuel a conventional internal combustion engine or a yet-to-be produced electric fuel cell one, has to come from somewhere.
And making hydrogen is energy-intensive, storing it in heavy pressurized tanks is cumbersome, and getting it to where it can actually refuel a car is expensive. To some, the prospects for the so-called hydrogen economy are like those for the country of Brazil: it is the way of future and always will be.
One piece of the car of the future that is likely to remain anchored in the past is the traditional car dealership, which one analyst described as a glass box sitting on five acres of parking lot populated by fast-talking men in checked sport coats.
All the efforts during the late 1990s to eliminate this inefficient and occasionally maddening institution foundered on three hard realities: the car is an emotional purchase that isn't always governed by a dollars-and-cents equation; the transaction has to be handled person-to-person because people want to drive a car first, often have another car to trade, and demand immediate delivery; and dealers have erected powerful franchise laws in all 50 states that prevent manufacturers from tampering with the existing distribution infrastructure.