In our lifetime we will witness the age of 100 mile-per gallon cars, lifetime headlights and taillights, streaming entertainment and information content, and cars that drive themselves. Actually, all this will be here a lot sooner than you think -- within the next few years. Here's the stuff of automotive dreams, already on queue for production.
Diesels are aiming to be the new hybrids. The problem is, diesel's used to be dirty engines and have had a hard time making any progress in the U.S. market. But new emissions technology solves that, giving these oil burners a clean bill of health in all 50 states. The high cost of diesels is also coming down to more affordable levels. Look for these cleaner, more efficient diesel engines in the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Volkswagen Jetta TDI; Mercedes' E320, ML320 and GL320 BLUETEC models, Chevy Silverado, GMC Sierra 2500/3500 HD, Dodge Ram 2500/3500 and the Ford F-250/F-350/F-450. Also on the horizon is a diesel powered Honda Accord, set to debut in 2009, which is apparently capable of 52 mpg.
Hybrids are hot now (who's going to argue with 50 MPG?), but they'll be getting hotter as prices in this segment also come down. J.D. Power predicts 345,000 hybrids will be sold in '07 -- a 35 percent increase over '06. Honda and Hyundai are gunning for the big mileage (and sales) numbers by dropping their smallest engine into their most lightweight chassis (a Honda Fit-sized car and Hyundai Accent respectively). Also look for large models, like the Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid and Saturn's Vue and Aura Green Line models to deliver modest fuel savings at practical prices and stylish packaging.
More exciting than both diesels and hybrids is a technology that has gone from theory to aluminum in the last couple of years because of advances in computer technology. HCCI, or homogeneous charge compression ignition (also see more on HCCI at Autoblog), is a gas engine that acts like a diesel motor. Like a diesel engine, gas inside the cylinder is ignited through compression and the heat generated by the engine itself. No spark plugs. The result? Diesel economy and efficiency at roughly half the weight and materials cost of a conventional gas engine with no need to treat the exhaust. GM demonstrated two vehicles fitted with HCCI engines in August. Mercedes wowed crowds even more recently at the Frankfurt auto show with their DiesOtto implementation that merges HCCI technology with a mild hybrid module to produce 238 hp, 295 lb.-ft. of torque and 39 mpg in a vehicle the size of an S-Class sedan. Mercedes squeezed that performance from a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine.
All of these technologies are stop-gap solutions until the most efficient answer arrives on our shores -- hydrogen. How soon? FreedomCAR, a partnership of the U.S. Department of Energy and the United States Council for Automotive Research, projects that hydrogen technology will be broadly available to the masses by 2015. On the fuel cell side, Honda has indicated that their new FCX Concept will slide alongside the existing previous-generation FCX already on the road by 2008. GM's Project Driveaway is putting at least 100 fuel-cell powered vehicles in the hands of lucky testers this year, but the hydrogen-powered Equinoxes are not available for sale. As for hydrogen combustion engines, small numbers are popping up as manufacturers like BMW (see the BMW Hydrogen 7 at Autoblog) keep real-world testing and refining concepts, but there are no production plans as of yet. Obviously, both solutions face infrastructure challenges for refueling that are still being worked out.
Until the heady days of hydrogen power are realized, you still have radical alternatives to diesel and conventional hybrids if you want to drive green.
Internet reports abound of home-customized Priuses topping the 100 mpg mark with the advantage of enhanced battery packs and modified software keeping the cars running on electric power far longer than their stock counterparts. Plug-in hybrids hold the potential to dwarf the fuel economy potential of diesels and hybrids, but cheeky price points, mostly from the cost of hefty battery packs, might be what are holding off production announcements from manufacturers. Not even a date can be pegged to the darling of poster boards, Chevrolet's Volt. While plug-ins are being researched and developed by major manufacturers like Toyota, Ford and GM, the impatient can check out a handful of small companies which offer plug-in conversion kits for hybrids, complete with instructions.
Or the impatient can skip the gas motor all together. The smooth exterior lines and booked solid pre-orders of the Tesla proved that the electric car is far from dead ... it's just pretty expensive. Miles Automotive Group aims to change that. Their coming XS500, an electric midsize sedan, will arrive in the states in 2008 with a top speed of 80 mpg and a range of 120 miles. The price: $30,000. The XS500 could be joined by a $45,000 electric sport-utility truck and SUV from Phoenix Motorcars sometime in 2009. The SUV and SUT would start with a 130 mile range, a 0-60 time of 10 seconds and a top speed of 95 mph. Additional models coming to U.S. pavement (or already there) include Zap's intriguing Zap-X, Wrightspeed's blazingly fast Wrightspeed X1, and the very affordable NmG from Myers Motors.
A survey conducted by TRG, Telematics Research Group Inc., reveals that nearly 70% of announced upcoming 2008 vehicles for sale in the U.S. will have a Bluetooth communications system either as optional or standard equipment. Navigation systems will be available in 80% of coming 2008 vehicles, according to the same survey. We're at the point where digital entertainment storage systems like Microsoft/Ford's SYNC (see video of SYNC at Autoblog) and Chrysler's MyGiG (see MyGig at Autoblog) are about to go from super cool to everyday accessories like an iPod thanks to broad introductions that span the luxury segment to value-driven cars like the Ford Focus. What's the next frontier?
Streaming media is one. Supplier interviews conducted by the Center For Automotive Research (CAR) point to 2010 as the year when customized or on-demand content will be streamed to vehicles. That customized content could span the gamut from television programming and movies to important local updates, along with new, far more robust real-time traffic data through two-way communication. Couple this trend with the fact that vehicle-based digital storage (handy for buffering downloads) will increase and drop in price, and you have a done deal. Almost: CAR notes that the challenge isn't displaying the content, but finding the bandwidth and compression necessary to deliver the programming.
A closer star on the horizon of coming entertainment is HD radio, which is popping up in cars by BMW and Ford this year, and will be added to, at least, the Jaguar XJ and Hyundai's Genesis for 2008. Using technology licensed from a company called iBiquity Digital, HD radio promises to deliver AM radio in FM-quality sound and FM channels in CD-quality sound, along with accompanying data that will begin with artist, song and station information. Digital radio gives a broader frequency response to channels, transforms AM radio from mono to stereo, and allows for better stereo separation. Check out iBiquity Digital to hear the difference. Bob Struble, president and CEO of iBiquity sees next-generation HD radios offering users the chance to buy songs and advertised products or even bring TiVo-like qualities to the radio experience. iBiquity estimates that by 2008 more than 90% of the U.S. population will be reached by HD radio broadcasters.
The Lexus LS 460 is the first vehicle for sale in the U.S. that can park itself. Audi's dynamic steering system adjusts the driver's steering inputs when the vehicle senses that the handling limits have been reached, even making slight corrective inputs on its own when things are getting out of hand. The Lane Departure Prevention System on Infiniti's new EX35 manipulates the brakes at individual wheels to help steer the ute back into its lane when it senses an unintentional drift. Welcome to the brave new world of Active Safety 2.0, where your vehicle humbly offers assistance to keep you out of trouble, in addition to trying to save you when you're in it.
In 2005 General Motors announced that the 2008 Opel Vectra would be the first car to boast Traffic Assist, a system that allows the car to drive itself at speeds up to 60 mph -- even in heavy traffic. The system sees road signs, bends and other vehicles in the road to adjust the cars trajectory and speed according to everything going on around it. As advanced and capable as the system may be, composed of processors, lasers and a video camera, it wont be offered for sale in the United States, but in Germany. Why? Two reasons: one, we live in the most litigious nation in the world. Two, we Americans, as a mass of consumers, aren't comfortable paying additional price premiums for the safety technology we crave -- we feel it should be included in the vehicle's price.
One coming revolution we'll definitely see is brake-by-wire technology. A brake-by-wire system replaces the hydraulic hardware of conventional brakes with faster-acting and more environmentally friendly electric motors and relays that should be more reliable and take up less space. We're already seeing conventional hydraulic systems get smarter with radar-based augmentations like Mercedes' Brake Assist Plus and Infiniti's Preview Braking by pressurizing the brake system earlier, allowing for a faster response and shorter braking distance when the driver decides to hit the pedal. A fully electronic braking system should further improve on stopping times and distances. Automotive News predicts brake-by-wire systems will surface in 2011.
Whether or not you purchase a vehicle with any, or all, of these trends one thing is certain ... automotive dreams do come true.