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.
What struck me most about this crop of concept cars is the generally conservative approach to design. My take is that when tech isn't advancing (like say 20 years ago), the designers really go to town on external body shell. These days, the progress is under the hood, in the power train etc. So perhaps that's why these concept cars look so much more like real production cars -- and in fact some of the will be soon; at least one in 2013.
Nice slide show, Chuck. I was struck by a couple new designs -- the Chrysler 700 C is certainly a new look for the minivan, and the Volkswagon Bug Roadster is also an interesting look. But I agree with Alex, much of the advances are under the hood.
Rob: I believe the issue with concept cars today is lack of money. Designers are being pushed to create concept cars that hint, maybe not so subtly, at upcoming production vehicles. The era of wildness, when designers could really let it out, is mostly back in the rear-view mirror. Honda's Accord concepts, for example, will actually be coming out later this year as production vehicles.
Frankly, chuck, I think Detroit would have done well to produce some of their previous, wilder concept cars. They got a little too stodgy.
As for hybrids, I find it somewhat less than exciting.There are shops that will install a hybrid drive train in an existing car.It is pricey, but if you have the money and desire, it can be done.So, while it is an interesting design challenge, it is not "exciting" technology.The trick is to make them efficient and inexpensive.That is where they will have an impact.For cars, the trick is to come out, continuously, with incremental improvements.A 10% improvement in effeciency across the board is a huge thing.In the US, I think about 15M to 20M cars are sold each year.If I have my figures right, that is on the order of 10% of the vehicle fleet.So, each 10% increase in effeciency is 1% overall.While there is some room for small cars like the Smart Car, the appeal there is limited.It is cute, though.I drove one once at Beaulieu, in the UK.It was fun, but I was not convinced (my car back then was an Alfa Romeo).
That makes sense, Chuck. I wonder if that will change as we now seem to be entering a period of healthy automaker profits. Or, it could be that cost-cutting measures will become a fixed position. Of course, that could change if one company broke out with something new and was rewarded with increased sales.
Chas makes a great point re aircraft being design largely for efficiency rather than looks. It'd be interesting to see what would happen if Ford and GM did concept cars stemming from a similar engineering imperative. There is actually something like this in the racing world. I couldn't find it on Google, but I recall at the car shows around five years ago, they were exhibiting a standardized chassis with roll cage etc, into which anyone could pop their own engine and drive train.
Alexander: The obvious example in the racing world is a NASCAR stock car. Remove all of the decals and you wouldn't be able to differentiate between them but I think you're talking about the new Dallara DW12 chassis that Indycar uses. It is basically a spec chassis that all the teams use. They then build the car with their (limited) choice of engine and other components
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.
Just some observations to bolster my belief that car MPG will hover around 40-50 MPG for a long time:
1. It is interesting to compare the MPG of the Prius (51/48 city/hwy) to 2 cars that have IDENTICAL engine + drivetrains: the Prius V (44/40) and Lexus CT200h (43/40). Note that even though the engine is the same ultra-efficient one - MPG is much lower. You are seeing the effect of less optimum aero drag and higher weight.
2. The advantage of hybrid technology is strongest for city driving, but helps a bit for hwy too. Chevy Cruze Eco (28/42 MPG), Hyundai Elantra (30/40). Note that hwy MPG is about the SAME as the latter 2 hybrids...but of course city MPG is much lower.
So....it seems reasonable to say that ~55 MPG, maybe 60 MPG is the ASYMPTOTE for MPG of small Prius-like cars, and unless a big aero drag reduction is added, won't change anytime soon. Then....the CAFE standards (including larger vehicles) will probably have many cars in the 40-50 MPG range....no higher.
However, if 85% of all cars were in the 40 - 50 MPG range, that would be a really great mid-range goal for the USA.
Good point about the asymptote, Kevin. David Cole, who used to head up the automotive engineering program at the University of Michigan, has a graph showing that as we approach that asymptote, the amount of funds invested in boosting mpg will border on the ridiculous. In other words, we appear to be reaching the limit and continued funding of the increases will not pay off.
Kevin, You make a lot of good points. You mentioned the high MPG in Europe but cite the negatives of small size, performance, etc. That may be the case with some of the higher efficiency cars but approximately 50% of the cars sold in Europe are diesels. Every manufacturer selling in Europe has at least one diesel model in the lineup and quite a few of those models have performance and economy that would surprise many. The BMW 3 series diesel outperforms its gas burning stablemate while returning close to 40 MPG. The same comparisions can be seen across many car lines. There probably is a perception issue with diesels in the US - most people remember the earlier generation smelly, smokey diesels and GM's fiasco in the late 70's early 80's, but one look at the latest offerings on the market should dispel that negative perception.
One thing I've never seen before – the I.D. Stylists and the Mechanical Designers for the Chrysler 700C have broken convention by routing a body panel parting line (between two moving doors) without following the contoured style lines of the body and windows. Typically, doors are oddly sculpted to follow the desires of the style; in this case, the doors have a straight vertical joint between them, and the styled windows and body panels swoop and cross that line without notice. It's a cool departure from conventional methods.
folks, whomever is saying that "Even after all the years the Prius has been out....no other manufacturer has even matched the MPG figures for it.", needs to do some research (and actually talk to real hybrid drivers).
TODAY, I STILL own 2 - Honda Insights (2000/2001)
The lifetime MPG AVG is 68.1 on the 2000 @ 150K
The lifetime MPG AVG is 67.1 on the 2011 @ 70K
This next week, the 2000 will have it's FIRST BRAKE job and change of SPARK PLUGS.
Both cars stay outside all year and look like brand new. The difference being the materials (aluminum and plastic).
don't have 2 separate motors/powertrains in the vehicle (electric/gas).
stick with the BASIC stuff (like using the clutch/flywheel assembly as both a generator and electric motor) anyone asked what it costs just to replace the on-board computer in the PRIUS, ESCAPE, etc.? is it even a warranty item?
stick with materials that are relatively inexpensive, light-weight, strong and don't rust (aluminum, plastic, composite)
the lexus lf-lc is looks great....seems that lexus parts are thoroughly enhanced, the interesting part is the latest lcd screens. This article kept my interest on my vehicle, next time I'll check discount auto parts from jcwhitney's site... can't wait to have mods/upgrades on my lexus!
A well-known automotive consultant who did an extensive teardown of BMW’s i3 all-electric car said its design is groundbreaking in multiple ways. “We’ve torn down about 450 cars, and we’ve never analyzed anything like this before.”
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