It's past midnight, and the lonely stretch of interstate highway is shrouded in dense fog. Ordinary eyes cannot see the deer in the road a hundred yards ahead. But an approaching car's radar system senses the deer and alerts a controller. The controller applies the car's brakes, slowing it to a crawl and avoiding an otherwise imminent collision.
Afterwards, as the vehicle resumes speed, its sole occupant is unperturbed. He is not breathless; nor is he thankful. He is, in fact, unaware of the near-miss. The reason: He was fast asleep in the back seat the whole time.
An unlikely scenario? No one knows for sure. But engineers are hard at work on the predecessors of such spectacular systems. They have already developed collision-warning systems and adaptive cruise control modules. Within three decades, they could also create cars that drive themselves.
Such developments only scratch the surface of tomorrow's automotive technology. Hybrid powertrains, "smart" airbags, hydrogen fuel cells, rear obstacle viewers, satellite-based rescue systems, electronic toll takers, individually controlled engine cylinders, 100-mpg engines, and many other innovations loom on the horizon.
Whether all of those advancements eventually reach the market, however, is another matter. Potential paths for the auto industry are myriad and the forces that lead down those paths are ever-changing. "The further ahead you predict, the more unknowns enter into the equation," notes Neil Walling, design director for Chrysler. "In 1946, no one could have predicted the new standards for safety or emissions. In 1966, no one could have foreseen the oil embargo."
Still, auto executives and engineers must chart possible courses in preparation for the changes. Right now, they believe that most of the changes will be precipitated by four general forces: environment, safety, global development, and in-creasing emphasis on affordability. As a result, they are concentrating the bulk of their efforts on such areas as new powertrains, electronic control systems, new niche vehicles, and integration of existing technologies. Even as they do, they know that any of their programs could suddenly be cut short by new legislation or consumer whims.
"Our sense is that there still will be automobiles 50 years from now," notes Tom Crumm, manager of the envisioning program for General Motors' Research and Development Center in Warren, MI. "But our best hope is to prepare for a number of possible futures, rather than to predict the one that will occur."
Environmental wild card. In the early 1970s, U.S. automobiles averaged about 10-12 mpg. Then came the oil embargo. Suddenly, car makers found themselves scrambling to build smaller, more-fuel-efficient vehicles. Drivers grudgingly accepted six- and four-cylinder engines. Result: Today's automobiles average an astounding 27.5 mpg--an improvement of about 2.5 times in 20 years. What's more, many drivers who once balked at smaller engines are now content with them.
Though experts don't expect a near-term repeat of the oil embargo, they foresee similar scenarios on the horizon. The most critical, they say, is the environment. "It's the wild card," notes David Cole, director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation. The key, Cole predicts, is the adoption of potential government policies regarding global warming. Within a decade, scientists expect to have hard evidence proving whether or not global warming is an issue and, if so, whether burning of fossil fuels contributes to it.
"If it is an issue, and if a policy is adopted, it would ac-celerate the movement to more- fuel-efficient vehicles, such as hybrids," Cole explains. "If it's proven not to be an issue, we will more gradually evolve toward some kind of hybrid powertrain or hydrogen fuel base."
Most scientists agree that depletion of petroleum-based fuels is not a big concern for now. Although projections indicate that the Earth could run out of petroleum-based fuels by 2050, similar fuels, such as shales or tar sands, could be used almost interchangeably with petroleum-based fuels.
No matter what happens, automakers know they must be prepared. General Motors has already introduced the EV1, the first major production car to use an electric powertrain since the early days of the industry. The EV1 carries 23 patents and a wide variety of new technologies, including an innovative electric propulsion system, a simple magnetic inductive charge technique, and a regenerative braking system with rear drums that are fully electric. Users recharge the vehicle using a lightweight, weatherproof plastic paddle that easily inserts in the charger.
Still, the vehicle is far from being practical. Its range is a little more than 100 miles, and recharging takes three hours. The recharging system also requires a 220V, 30-amp line--an oddity in most U.S. homes, which typically incorporate 15-amp circuits.
For those reasons, automakers continue to search for a better battery--a task that has confounded engineers for decades. Many companies are working on a viable solution. 3M, for example, has joined forces with Hydro-Quebec and Argonne National Laboratory in the development of a lithium-polymer battery. The battery ultimately could produce 200 W-hours/kg, a figure about six times as high as today's best lead-acid batteries. For now, it is considered a long-term solution.
As an alternative, most auto-makers are betting on hybrid technology. "If the environmental issues take hold, you will see a groundswell of interest in hybrids," predicts Crumm. "With a hybrid, you can compromise. In the absence of a better electric-vehicle battery, hybrids make a lot of sense."
All of the Big Three automakers, and most others around the world, are working on hybrids. At Chrysler, for example, advanced vehicle programs have yielded a concept vehicle called the Intrepid ESX that uses a diesel engine to generate power, which is converted to electrical current by an alternator. The alternator stores the current in 600 tiny lead-acid batteries, which supply power to two electric motors at the drive wheels.
Similarly, Ford's Synergy 2010 concept car employs a 1.0-l compression-ignited engine to produce electricity for permanent magnet motors located at all four wheels. Up front, a flywheel also collects excess engine and braking energy, which is re-leased when the engine needs more power to accelerate quickly or climb hills.
Material solutions. The hybrid concept cars, both aimed at achieving 80-mpg fuel efficiency, are partially the result of a technical alliance between the federal government and the U.S. auto industry. Known as the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV), its goal is to develop affordable, fuel-efficient, low-emission automobiles. To reach their goals on the Dodge Intrepid ESX, Chrysler engineers have teamed with Zytex, Detroit Diesel, Kohler, and Bolder Technologies. Similarly, Ford has collaborated with AlliedSignal Automotive, Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co.,Robert Bosch Corp., Warner Electric, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
To boost fuel efficiency on those vehicles and others, automakers also are studying new materials. On the Synergy 2010, Ford engineers employed aluminum unibody construction that is said to be one-third lighter than conventional construction. At 2,200 lbs, it weighs in at about 1,100 lbs less than today's typical mid-sized sedan, yet offers room for six. Chrysler's Intrepid ESX also employs an all-aluminum unibody, making it 600 lbs lighter than comparable steel-bodied sedans.
Chrysler also employed new material technology in Prowler, the former concept car scheduled to reach production in January 1997. Prowler uses aluminum in the hood, seats, decklid, and body tub. Its front and rear bumpers consist of injection-molded urethane, and it employs composite brake rotors, which cut an additional 15 lbs.
The ultimate in automotive material technology now, however, is incorporated in General Motors' Ultralite. The vehicle employs carbon fiber in a lightweight monocoque structure that also serves as the vehicle's skin. The result: a 1,400-lb, four-passenger sedan that achieves 100 mpg while driving 50 mph.
For now, such technologies serve as test beds and remain cost prohibitive for large-scale use in automotive applications. Carbon fibers and other similar materials remain expensive and difficult to manufacture.
For the future, there is hope. "Materials--even some of the traditional materials such as steel--are advancing rapidly," Cole says. "These materials will allow automakers to build larger cars for lower costs. They'll also provide more ability to absorb crush energy and to deal with secondary collisions."
Despite the emphasis on fuel economy, experts foresee no end in sight for the internal combustion (IC) engine. The IC engine, they say, is likely to play a key role in hybrids, regardless of environmental policy. Availability of hydrocarbon fuels also adds to the probability of its continued success. "Fifty years from now, internal combustion engines will still be around," predicts Crumm. "In trucking and other heavy vehicle applications, there will always be a need for it."
Furthermore, the drive toward higher fuel efficiencies may reach a point of diminishing returns, experts say. For that reason, some believe that automakers will eventually be forced by the market to cut back on efforts to raise fuel economy. "If you improve fuel economy from 30 to 40 mpg, the consumer saves only about 30 cents a day at today's fuel prices," Cole says. "The question is: How much will it cost the consumer to do that? If it costs $5,000 per car, then the consumer never gets it back. If it costs $1,000 per car, that's probably still too high." Cole doubts that automakers will ever reach the 100-mpg plateau in production cars.
Safety looms larger. One area in which futurists remain relatively sure is safety. Baby-boomers, they say, are obsessed with safety, and most boomers will remain in the car-buying population for at least another 30 years. What's more, many middle-agers like the way the new technology makes them feel.
"The aging population doesn't want to know that it is aging," Crumm says. "So automakers will have to provide technologies that make drivers feel as though they can see, hear, and react as well as they always did."
One way to do that is to provide preventative technologies, such as collision warning, automatic cruise control, lane keeping, collision avoidance, and, ultimately, auto driving. At least two firms--Motorola and LucasVarity--are hard at work on some or all of these concepts:
- Collision warning. Already available on some vehicles, collision warning senses obstacles with radar and provides an audible alert to the driver. In some cases, the system can even brake the vehicle. One variation on the collision warning theme--a device called Parkpilot--will use ultrasonic sensors to help drivers avoid collisions with obstacles during parking maneuvers. Developed by Robert Bosch Corp., the system will be available in selected European vehicles during the 1999 model year.
- Adaptive or automatic cruise control. This system regulates the distance between vehicles and slows down if a driver comes too close to the vehicle in front. As a result, it maintains a safe time interval to allow for driver reaction time. Automatic cruise control systems are being tested now and could make their debut in 1998 vehicle programs.
- Lane keeping. Lane-keeping systems employ a video camera to recognize lane markers. In response to video signals, the system steers the vehicle to keep it inside the lines. Lane keeping will probably not be available until after the turn of the century.
- Collision avoidance. Vastly more complex than collision warning systems, these systems determine when a crash is imminent, then override the driver to steer around it. Such systems are not expected to appear until after 2005.
- Auto driving. The most complex form of automated control, auto driving systems will take passengers door-to-door without the need for a human driver. Working in conjunction with so-called "smart" highways, the system would attempt to take passengers to their destinations with minimal deceleration. As a result, university researchers who have studied the system believe it could yield a ten-fold improvement in fuel efficiency. It would also enable passengers to be more productive. "Your journey is a lot more productive because you can sleep, run meetings, or do paperwork while you ride," notes Raglan Tribe, manager of advanced products for LucasVarity PLC. Passengers might also watch TV, receive e-mail, or check stock prices on their way to work.
Researchers working on such systems foresee a day when every vehicle will have a radar transceiver built into it. Automobiles, they say, might travel in groups, or "platoons," maintaining very high speeds and small distances between vehicles. Prior to that, engineers must address several sticky technical challenges. "The car has to 'know' what's in front of it," says Fred DiVincenzo, vice president and director of marketing for Motorola's Automotive Environment & Control Segment. "It won't work if it confuses a guard rail on a curve with a car that's in front of it." For those reasons, most experts expect such systems to be 30 to 40 years away.
Preventative safety and security is the theme of systems that link drivers to global-positioning satellites for help in navigation and other matters. Systems such as Robert Bosch's Berlin RCM 303A mobile communications center determine the car's location, plan the shortest route between two points, and even use computer-generated voices to alert a driver that a turn is coming up.
Motorola's RESCU and another system called Onstar take the concept a step further. They help drivers with navigation, or remotely unlock a car after the driver has locked the keys inside. Such systems may seem extravagant now, but automakers believe that consumers will soon demand them.
"Five years ago, many people said they didn't need mobile phones," says Peter Kilgenstein, vice president of engineering for Robert Bosch's automotive group in Farmington Hills, MI. "Now, many of those same people have mobile phones. In the future, people will feel the same way about navigation systems."
Antilock brakes, traction control, and anti-skid systems will also grow more popular. The newest of these, anti-skid systems use electronics to determine the difference between the driver's desired direction and the car's actual direction. If it senses a difference, it applies one of the brakes until the skid is stopped. The system will help drivers maintain control on ice, snow, or gravel roads.
In addition to preventative measures, industry analysts expect the emphasis on crash safety to continue. New materials will enable vehicles to absorb crash energy more effectively. Airbags will proliferate: Most vehicles now have passenger-side airbags; many now have side airbags; back-seat bags are beginning to appear, and knee bags will soon follow. In addition, new sensors will enable cars to "know" the size of the occupant and allow it to inflate the bag accordingly, if needed.
Most industry experts foresee no drop in the public's appetite for safety. "Today's vehicles are really quite safe," notes Kilgenstein. "But safety is a never-ending story."
Market sense. Automakers agree that the glitzy technology available in today's labs will have little use if it can't be built cost effectively. For that reason, automakers and their suppliers are working hard to find ways to cut costs from existing subsystems.
Most view integration as the chief technique. In the past 10 years, electronics manufacturers have slashed the cost of engine-control units. To accomplish that, they integrated the discrete elements of the unit's printed- circuit board into a single,easy-to-manufacture, electronic package. Similarly, they have reduced prices of power-window assemblies by integrating numerous controllers into one. And they have lowered gas-tank system expenditures by building fuel pumps and gages into the total assembly. In the future, more of the same will occur, particularly in the electronic complexity of today's safety systems, which include anti-lock braking, traction control, and anti-skid devices.
Manufacturers also will cut costs through increased use of recycled aluminum in a wide variety of subsystems, from antilock brake modulators to fan blades. Some experts believe they will also reduce pricey material disposal efforts by gradually diminishing the use of hydraulic fluids. Electric brakes and steering systems are now under investigation in several automotive programs.
More importantly, many experts believe that flexible manufacturing will be the key to survival in the future. Consumers, they say, will order custom vehicles through the Internet or directly through dealers. They will mix and match engines, handling characteristics, bodies, tires, and features in ways they can't do today. And manufacturers will have to build them--and do it quickly.
Flexibility will also be the key to international success. In the coming decades, an extraordinary number of potential customers will enter the market. China and India alone, which now have a combined population of more than 1.5 billion people, could dwarf today's automotive market. To succeed, automakers will need to recognize those markets and their cultures.
"Many countries are coming on stream, including China, India, and Thailand," Crumm says. "As they build a transportation infrastructure, we will have to understand their cultures. There are realities in these countries--their road conditions, their population, their climate--that will cause their vehicles to be designed differently." Crumm adds that many countries do not have enough room for cars on city streets, so driving there may be a more rural, off-road type of experience. Automakers will have to design accordingly to be successful.
Despite spectacular forecasts, many insiders believe that future car styles may not be as different as we may now believe. "In a technologically driven world, having some anchors is good," says Walling of Chrysler. If 1950s eyeglass wearers were asked to describe eyeglasses of the future, he says, they would have drawn Buck Rogers-type models with wrap-around lenses. In truth, many of today's eyeglass wearers still prefer the tortoise-shell style of the 1950s. "People want a style with elegance and inherent value," he says. "Everything doesn't always have to be new and never-before-seen."
Of course, experts agree that an unknown technology could burst upon the scene and change everything, as the microprocessor has already done. When computer processors were garage-sized during the 1940s, no one could have foreseen a device like the microprocessor. Similarly, a technology such as magnetic levitation could eliminate the need for wheels and forever change the automotive industry. Though it is unlikely, recent space studies by NASA found sources of inexplicably high levels of energy that could be used for magnetically powered products. "We don't know everything about physics, and we cannot rule out the possibility of such things yet," Crumm says.
The only absolute is that the technological differences in the coming decades will be dramatic. "The changes in the industry's first 50 years were small by comparison to the last 50 years," Kilgenstein says. "And we expect that trend to continue."
- Hybrid vehicles will employ internal combustion engines to charge the batteries, then use electric motors to drive the car's wheels.
- Electric vehicles, starting with General Motors' EV1, will offer continuous improvements in driving range and charging time.
- Internal combustion engines will continue to improve. Some experts predict they could top efficiencies of 100 mpg.
- Airbags will proliferate, with new bags protecting knees and rear-seat passengers. Also watch for new airbag sensors that indicate a passenger's size, weight, and positioning status.
- Crash detection systems will warn drivers of imminent collisions.
- Crash avoidance systems will take control of the wheels and steer clear of potential collisions.
- Auto driving systems will take drivers door-to-door while they eat, sleep, watch TV, or read e-mail.
THE ENGINEER'S ROLE
"We are now at the threshold of a more mathematically defined automotive product," notes David Cole, director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation. "There will be far less emphasis on prototypes, hardware testing, and evaluation."
Engineers will generate their designs through computer simulation. "They will start with their design requirements and simulate their systems within the vehicle," explains Neil Krohn, vice president of market development and engineering director for Motorola's automotive sector. "They will do 100% of their design through system simulation."
It also means that control code will be written differently. Unlike today's automotive systems, which evolved from mechanical counterparts, future designs will be completely "rules based." In the past, for example, engineers typically wrote control code for fuel injectors based on knowledge of carburation. In the future, they will not work off mechanical counterparts. Instead, they will view an engine, for example, as a thermodynamic device and then write the control theory accordingly. Available software tools will generate the sub-languages that will ultimately end up in the engine.
As a result of all this computing power, engineering cycle times will be dramatically compressed--maybe even to as little as six months. To achieve such short cycle times, automakers will scatter their teams around the world. Engineers will have fiber-optic network hook-ups and personal video conferencing capabilities at their desks.
- Powertrain: Development of a better electric-vehicle battery
- Safety: More effective software and pattern recognition for automated driving systems to more accurately discriminate between obstacles and roadway markers
- Manufacturing: Development of a more flexible manufacturing system to enable automakers to quickly build custom vehicles
- Design: Development of new types of niche vehicles to serve various cultures in the global market
- Affordability: Further integration of electronics to simplify control systems and lower the cost of new features
COMPONENTS TO WATCH
- Carbon-fiber materials could decrease in cost, leading to lighter, stronger car bodies.
- New batteries, which offer greater range and shorter charge times, will be the key to the success of electric vehicles.
- Electronics and sensors will further enhance keyless entry, electronic mufflers, vehicle navigation, memory mirrors, memory displays, and many more applications.
- Radar-based systems will lead the way to improved obstacle detection technologies.
- Increased use of aluminum for unibody construction will aid automakers' weight-reduction and recycling efforts.
PREDICTIONS FROM THE PAST
In 1900, Albert Augustus Pope looked at the first gasoline-powered cars and proclaimed, "Man will never sit on an explosion." Pope had good reason for insisting that gasoline-powered vehicles had no future: He was a manufacturer of electric cars. But many of Pope's colleagues felt the same way.