Future Vehicle Technology
By Carey Russ (c) 2003
I recently spent a long, intense day at the ``Challenge Bibendum,''
held this year at the track formerly known as Sears Point, now as
Infineon Raceway, near Sonoma, California. As might be surmised
from the name, it was sponsored by tire maker Michelin. However,
it focused not on tires but on future transportation technology. This
shouldn't be surprising - the main forms of personal transportation
for the foreseeable future will run on rubber tires, as do
Despite its emphasis on environmentally-friendly transportation --
its motto was ``Mobility must be developed with a respect for the
environment'' -- Challenge Bibendum was more than a
congregation of small, cottage-industry ``green'' organizations.
While there were some small makers of alternative-technology
vehicles involved, the majority of exhibitors had very familiar
names. You probably haven't heard of AC Propulsion, Anuvu,
Courreges, Ebus, ECD Ovonics, Peter Sargent, SAM, Solar
Motions, or The Ecological Engine Company. General Motors,
Ford, DaimlerChrysler, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Volkswagen-Audi,
Hyundai, Volvo, and BMW are perhaps a little more familiar.
If the wide range of exhibits, demonstrations, and test vehicles
present was indicative, the future won't necessarily be all that
different from the present. Expect to see the same sort of cars,
trucks, and SUVs as you see today - personal helicopters, jet
backpacks, nuclear-powered hovercraft, and teleportation beams
belong in parallel universes, not this one. Styling is, of course,
unpredictable, as are ever-changing vehicular categories. But it's
likely that cars will look like cars for at least the next twenty-five
years. What will be different will be found under the hood and in
the fuel tank.
There was a consensus among the participants that the future will
belong to electric vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells. But
that is the long-term future. Don't expect commercially-available
fuel-cell vehicles until 2010, and then only for semi-experimental
(``beta test'') small-scale fleet use. Yes, there are fuel cell vehicles
on the road today, but you couldn't afford one.
Two related parentheticals: First, as pointed out by a GM
representative, any new technology needs a supporting
infrastructure, and the products of that technology need to fit
consumer needs - people won't buy cars (or anything else) that they
can't actually use. Case in point: battery-electric vehicles,
including GM's EV1.
Secondly, a Toyota spokesman mentioned that the Toyota FCHV
hydrogen fuel cell vehicle was a ``million-dollar car.'' How, he was
asked, was that figure arrived at? Candidly, he said, the number
was essentially pulled out of a hat. ``No vehicle accounting system
can tell the truth because there are so many variables,'' including
development costs for many new systems and some sort of
infrastructure to for development and maintenance.
The near future, the next fifteen to twenty-five years at least, still
belongs to petroleum, and the internal combustion engine (ICE) is
far from dead. But expect more hybrids for reduced fuel
consumption and emissions levels. Expect more diesels and diesel-
electric hybrids; diesels, especially in Europe, are not what they
once were. Natural gas is already in use for some fleet vehicles in
this country, and requires relatively few vehicle modifications.
Hydrogen can be used in regular spark-ignition internal
combustion engines with more modification; several companies
have experimental hydrogen ICE cars running today, and some
were at the Challenge Bibendum.
I had the opportunity to drive fuel-cell, hydrogen, hybrid, electric,
and modern diesel vehicles at Challenge Bibendum, and will report
more in coming weeks. Stay tuned.