SAN JOSE, California — Too many people think there’s a silver bullet that will mend our fuelish ways. The truth is, increasing fuel efficiency and curbing emissions will require what could be called a silver buckshot — a comprehensive application of new technologies.
This much was obvious at “Future Cars, Future Technology,” where automakers, big thinkers and journalists gathered last week to ponder what and how we’ll drive in the next year, the next decade and the next century. The appearance at the conference of the only remaining DeLorean DMC-12 to appear in the film Back to the Future provided a glimpse of where the day’s discussion was headed, even if we didn’t get a chance to fire up the car’s flux capacitor.
The cars of tomorrow will be smaller and lighter, with many more gears in their transmissions and efficient gasoline and diesel engines, electric motors and maybe even fuel cells under their hoods. Looking further ahead, we’ll one day let the cars do the driving for us.
Many of these things are happening now, with cars like the Chrysler 300S and Mazda 3 (pictured above). The big Chrysler features an eight-speed automatic transmission so you’ve always got the V6 engine in the right gear for optimal efficiency. And if you think eight speeds is a lot, the German manufacturer ZF has a nine-speed gearbox.
The new Mazda 3 features the automaker’s Skyactiv suite of engine and transmission tech to deliver 40 mpg on the highway. The tweaks include a 13:1 compression ratio, direct injection, reduced engine friction and an automatic transmission that uses both a torque converter and multiple clutches.
Such technologies will become increasingly common as automakers aim for federal fuel efficiency rules that require their fleets to average 35.5 mpg by 2016. We’ll also see automakers doing more with less. Engines will get smaller — we’re already seeing itty-bitty three-cylinder engines that perform like larger four-bangers — and the number of smaller cars like the Lilliputian Fiat 500 and Volkswagen Up! will become more common, too.
The internal combustion engine isn’t going anywhere soon. But we will see other fuels and drivetrains on the road. Natural gas, long popular with fleets, enters the mainstream with cars like the Honda Civic GX — the cleanest internal-combustion vehicle you can buy. Diesel’s been slower to catch on here for a whole host of reasons, but the Germans especially like the technology. And speaking of the Germans, if a company like Porsche is betting on hybrids, you know they’re here to stay.
And then there are the plug-in-hybrids and electrics. Like it or not, they’re coming. The Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf are, in a word, fantastic. And just about every manufacturer is following them to market. The Mitsubishi i is here now, and we’ll see the Ford Focus Electric before long.
The evolution of the electric car will be interesting to watch. Several leading automakers, not to mention upstarts like Tesla Motors, believe batteries are the future. They’re confident that energy density will rise and recharge times will fall fast enough to make “range anxiety” meaningless. But others, led by the likes of Honda and Mercedes-Benz, believe hydrogen fuel cells will be the best long-term bet. The issue there, of course, is the dearth of hydrogen stations, but automakers believe that hurdle will be cleared with help from the government.
All of this discussion of what we’ll see under the hood isn’t as interesting as the discussion of what we’ll see behind the wheel. There will soon come a day when our cars do the driving for us, leaving us free to do anything but drive. Such cars are coming, and sooner than you think.
“In 2030, we might have an autonomous vehicle,” Dr. Sven Beiker, executive director for the Center for automotive research at Stanford University, said. At that point, we’ll simply hop in, enter an address and let our cars do the rest. “We have the technology at hand.”
Indeed. Google’s already racked many, many miles with its fleet of autonomous Toyotas, and Audi’s robotic TTS scaled Pike’s Peak without any input from humans. And Volvo has been testing semi-autonomous “road trains” in Europe.
Beiker and other proponents of autonomous vehicles say the technology will increase safety, reduce congestion and boost efficiency. The question, of course, is how much automation people want, or will accept. Aaron Robinson, an editor at Car and Driver, doesn’t think fully automated vehicles have much of a future.
“No computer we can make will beat the computer on your shoulders,” he said. “That would be like, at the turn of the last century, saying, ‘Let’s make a steam-powered horse.’”
It would be better, he said, to focus on delivering more information to drivers so they can drive more safely and efficiency. Here, too, automakers are looking to the future with connected cars that talk to us, to each other and to the road.