Concept cars can range from conventional to racy to downright wild. This year's auto shows in Detroit and Chicago offered a little bit of each. Honda and Lincoln gave show attendees a taste of the conventional, while Chevy focused on racy designs for younger buyers.
For their part, Volkswagen and Smart took aim at the future with a pair of unusual pure electric vehicles. However, if there's a common theme, it's hybridization. Even conservative automakers like Cadillac and Lexus rolled out hybrid powertrains.
Click on the picture below to see our slideshow of 17 appealing concept-car photos:
Lexus's LF-LC concept is the result of the company's effort to build "a future hybrid sport coupe." Lexus hasn't said much about the vehicle's powertrain, but the LF-LC is notable for the sculpted 3D spindle grille and its use of technology, including twin 12.3-inch LCD screens in the interior.
For a close-up look at GM's Chevy Volt, go to the Drive for Innovation site and follow the cross-country journey of EE Life editorial director, Brian Fuller. In the trip sponsored by Avnet Express, Fuller is taking the fire-engine-red Volt to innovation hubs across America, interviewing engineers, entrepreneurs, innovators, and students as he blogs his way across the country.
That's a good question! From a purely technical point of view, it is certainly possible. However, my cynical side is saying "not much chance"...here is my thinking:
1. Pushing MPG higher is a "diminishing returns" game. Given the great strides in the last 5 years, it will difficult to keep that trend going at the same pace. Also, if the CAFE is 54.5MPG, that means there will be a significant percentage of cars even HIGHER (60+ MPG?). Note that no other manufacturer has even matched the Prius's MPG figures, even though they have had many years to do so. I think 40-50 MPG will be the "sweet spot" for a long time, with only rare examples higher (probably the next generation Prius). Except for the fraudulent EV MPGe calculations (see #6 below).
2. I don't see huge increases in engine efficiency or hybrid technology beyond today's best examples, so the next wave of efficiency increases will probably need to come by reducing aero drag and weight. Reducing weight is possible with advanced (but more expensive) materials...but to significantly reduce drag will require the cars to start looking like airplanes (see: edison2.com , which won the 100 MPG Automotive X-Prize, one of the lowest drag cars ever made). I'm not sure the average American is ready for this level of styling change.
3. If the price of gas goes astronomical - this will help grease the cultural skids...but the fact is that increasing MPG is going to add cost to the car (hybrids, advanced turbo + GDI + atkinson cycle engines, etc.). The mass market customer is a cheapskate!
4. Some examples of very high MPG cars in Europe show what is possible. However, the reasons these models aren't in the USA are: a) they have low horsepower (Americans demand decent performance) b) they are tiny cars and lightweight more by means of being "tin-cans" than using advanced materials. Therefore they are probably not as safe in crash conditions c) emissions requirements are less stringent. d) The average American mom likes her minivan...which is simply not compatible with >50MPG, not to mention the contractor dad's big 4x4 pickup truck. I don't see these barriers changing in the USA, and it is generally a good thing.
5. The US Government has shown that it isn't very good at setting long-term goals and sticking with them (like Japan, Korea, China do). Most likely, the current CAFE goals will be neutered by lobbyist influence before they can spawn the next wave of auto efficiency.
6. I think that one cynical thing that is "baked" into the 54.5 MPG CAFE standard is the government trying to overtly promote Electric Vehicles. Since the EPA's fraudulent MPGe calculations give EV's a 2.5:1 advantage over equivalent fuel-burning cars (such as the Leaf's 99 MPGe) - this is the ONLY realistic way that the automakers could meet the 54.5MPG CAFE standard. However, it would be meeting only the letter of the law (via bogus calculations) vs. the spirit of it (via actual energy efficiency). You've heard my EV opinions elsewhere.
However, even if the CAFE standards are rolled-back some, I think that the current trend of having even mid-size cars and SUV's going hybrid will help the avg MPG come up a lot from where it is today...but the 54.5 avg goal seems like a stretch. On the other hand, 13 years is a pretty long time.
Great comments, Kevin -- especially about meeting the letter of the law. My next question is how the automakers will meet 54.5 MPG if sales of EVs are poor. By definition, CAFE depends on having cars on the street. As you point out, automakers will need those "high mileage" MPGe ratings to get the average up. But if they can't sell the vehicles, then the numbers at the top end will not be weighted heavily in the calculation. I suspect this is going to be a difficult proposition.
You have put your index finger right on the nose of this issue!
High MPG goals are a good thing...but embedding a hidden agenda that unrealistically promotes EV's when they can't financially (or practicality-wise) stand on their own 4 wheels will eventually fail.
I believe we are witnessing the 2nd EV "fad or bubble" and 5 years from now, they will be virtually gone except for perhaps the high-end novelty cars (Tesla, Fisker, etc.).
The BEST thing that could happen is that a car like the Edison2 car (burning gasoline, E85, CNG, or maybe even electric) could catch-on. The efficiency is so extreme that the economics actually work even for EV. However, I don't see the major automakers jumping on this wagon, and without that large scale of production, costs are unlikely to get where they need to be.
And... let's face it - the aesthetics are not really up to the standards that people are used to, and that is one of the main buying factors for most people, in addition to practicality / cost.
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