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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 

automobiles today.

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.