The road to the future

  • Article by: RANDY A. SALAS
  • Star Tribune
  • February 24, 2008 - 8:49 AM
It’s not hard to imagine that the car of the future will adapt to help address the problems we face today — congested highways, rising gas prices, an ever-growing population, worsening pollution. For example, cars might drive themselves through heavy traffic.

Widespread electric motors could relegate concerns over fuel prices and greenhouse gas emissions to the past. Technological advancements could also lead to nifty innovations such as modular compartments that attach to and detach from your car as needed and maybe even so-called transparent aluminum windows.

Those are some of the ideas put forth by St. Paul futurist Joel Barker, the bestselling author of "Paradigms" (Collins, $15), and Motor Trend technical editor Frank Markus in Detroit. They envision a day 25 years from now when cars steer themselves on crowded highways and in cities. We might not have a choice, they point out: "How much wider can our roads get -- and at what cost?" Barker says.

Severely congested roads, which accounted for 39,500 lane-miles (1 mile of a four-lane road equals 4 lane-miles) nationally in 2003, will grow to 59,700 lane-miles by 2030, according to forecasts by the Transportation Research Board. The federal advisory group estimates that relieving such congestion would cost $533 billion over 25 years. "We will have to go to some kind of platooned-vehicle model, where the cars are still autonomous but they're networked together and driving 5 inches apart," Markus says. "You'll have to take your hands off the wheel, because you can't be trusted to drive it."

Visionaries of the past, such as Harley Earl, godfather of the concept car, figured that such an automated traffic-control system would require sensors or wires embedded in the road, which also places the financial burden on an infrastructure makeover. But what if cars could do most of the work in self-navigation? We're on the verge of being able to use GPS technology on a mass scale to triangulate from inexpensive Wi-Fi hot spots where cars are located down to the inch.

That would allow vehicles to parade down the highway and in congested areas in a conga line of bumper-to-bumper traffic moving in unison. There's a safety aspect, too. If one car hits the brakes when it senses black ice or other road hazard, the other cars around it can be warned. To prevent collisions, sensors could trigger exterior air bags to lessen the impact. "There are a lot of great things that can come from having connected vehicles," Markus says.

Running on air?

Oil is sure to be a continuing concern in 25 years. Yes, hybrid vehicles are catching on now, and there is optimism over the feasibility of extracting oil from U.S. shale reserves. Minnesota also leads the nation in alternative ethanol-based fuel. Still, petroleum is a finite resource that is subject to market volatility -- and U.S. daily consumption is expected to increase more than 25 percent by 2030 at current reliance, according to the federal Energy Information Administration. An alternative energy source could become standard in the car of the future. The vehicle could run on compressed air, such as the recently introduced French-made MDI Air Car, or it could run on hydrogen-based fuel extracted from, say, algae.

But electrical power holds huge promise and is the farthest along in development, partly thanks to the foothold of hybrid gas-electric cars. Promising innovations, such as a "superbattery" being developed by Texas company EEStor that charges quickly and reportedly has 10 times the capacity of current batteries, could lead to electrical power as the sole energy source for the car of tomorrow.

Going electric would dictate other changes, too. Cars would become lighter and more aerodynamic to maximize their efficiency. The frame might be made of carbon with a plastic-foam exterior whose design and color could be changed at the owner's whim with a short visit to the body shop.

The windows could also be made from a see-through aluminum compound that's structurally stronger and lighter than glass. Markus dismissed such thinking as the stuff of sci-fi movies, but researcher Anatoly Rosenflanz and his colleagues at Maplewood-based 3M have already patented processes that could lead to the everyday use of such a product 25 years from now -- although the company refused to say anything more than confirm its work on what it calls "alumina glass."

Have modules, will travel

Cars would be smaller, too, seating only one or two people. "Think of it as a Personal Transportation Vehicle, not a car," Barker said. Every home would have at least one such vehicle, he said. If additional space were needed for cargo or passengers, you could add a power-assisted module that you might rent for such a purpose. Markus took the idea a step further by conjecturing that homeowners could all have small cars but belong to a co-op where they share the use of larger vehicles for recreational trips or when they need to carry more passengers or cargo.

The biggest change in the car of the future is that it will seem smart, because many of these changes will require heavy-duty computing power. Drivers can already issue limited voice commands to their cars through Ford's Sync system, for example, but 25 years from now it's highly likely your voice-activated car will talk back.

It will be able to give you directions, answer your questions using Internet searches and recognize that it's you behind the wheel through your voice, fingerprint or maybe even the way you smell. You car might also seem as if it has a personality, and you could download a new one when you get tired of the old one just as easily as we get ringtones for our cell phones now. The idea of getting "behind the wheel" might also become a thing of the past. Barker and Markus believe a centralized joystick-like device could replace the steering wheel and foot pedals.

It's not a farfetched idea when you consider the generations of video gamers who learned to drive virtually by pressing buttons and manipulating a joystick long before they ever got into a real driver's seat. This is all conjecture, of course. But while we might not know exactly what will happen with the car, change is inevitable. "The car will be fundamentally different in 25 years," Barker says, "but -- if we're still around -- it will still be a car."

Randy A. Salas • 612-673-4542.

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