Cars of the Future: What's Next, and How Do We Get There?

January 20, 2010


Another year in the books. And not just any year, by any stretch.

Good riddance.

In spite of all that's recently behind us, I couldn't help but look back and take a quick trip down car-rag memory lane. In a February issue, I found the article, "Proposal for Saving Gasoline." In March, an article titled, "Energy, Environment & The  Automobile: Racing & the Fuel Shortage, Hydrogen Engines, European Fuel Situation, Cruising Ranges of Cars." In May, a special report: "The Energy Shortage & The Private Automobile." August: "The Small-Car Revolution." November brought a feature story titled simply, "Electric Cars."

But these articles weren't from 2009. Or even from the 21st century. They were, in fact, from 1974.

Although it's been said many times, in many ways, some 35 years later we still find ourselves asking, "What the?" "When the?"

You know the drill. Enough of the stargazing, especially since can actually see progress. With the laptop battery revolution evolution going full force, things are actually kicking in. The Toyota Prius sent a wake-up call; every automaker's listening to the voicemail now.

The future of the car, as we know it, is around the corner. What's driving it there, and what lies ahead?

2002 BMW M3

2002 BMW M3

The more things change...

Truth be known, that period during the mid-'70s still stands out as having ushered in some of the biggest shifts in the history of automotive technology and safety, moving from very limited emission controls to fairly stringent ones, from mechanical carburetors to more efficient computerized electronic fuel injection (NASCAR not included), from chrome trim front and rear to actual protective bumpers, from virtually no Japanese cars to full ranges of small, efficient, well-built people-movers from Toyota and Datsun (Nissan), with Honda well on its way.

But it also stands out as having offered up some of the worst beasts we've ever had thrown at us. Lest we forget the 165-hp 1975 Chevrolet Corvette? Or those pillars of efficiency, the Pontiac Parisienne and Ford Elite? How about Detroit's answer to radical downsizing--the Ford Pinto, the Chevy Vega, and the lamentable end-of-an-era Cadillac Cimarron? Of course, that was a very tough time for the American car industry (did I mention, ouch?).

It was a time of frantic trial and error, experimentation, a Band-Aid or two. And we were the guinea pigs.

Which leads to the real issue here. We're in another period of huge, wrenching change. The trials are on. And gearheads and ordinary drivers are once again stuck in the cage, with the shaken look on our faces and thought-bubbles above our heads reading, "What do I do when my current ride starts giving up the ghost? Should I be looking for Konis and sway bars for the Prius? Is it going to cost $80,000 or more for good, clean fun?"

My dilemma (if you can properly call it a dilemma): my 2002 BMW M3 has 105,000 miles on the odometer. Yes, its running great after the swapping in of some new shocks, bushings, plus a few odds and ends like window regulators and switches. With the standard 5,000-mile synthetic-oil changes, I'm guessing it will continue to charge on. But for how many miles? Click and Clack say high mileage now means 200,000 miles. But 100,000+ miles does not a newborn make.

And I really do want to be true to my conscience through good deeds as well as righteous words. So I look around and ask, 'What would I replace the E46 with that will give me the same four-seater utility and kick-in-the-butt pleasure, but isn't going to have the entire Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs blowing kisses my way? Should I ask the good folks at the UN Climate Conference?"

Tesla Model S Sedan

Tesla Model S Sedan

My M3--my future car?

With history swirling around us like so much uncombusted gasoline, it's fair to ask how right my car is for this moment.  Is it really the right time for a V-8? Is it time to set aside my passion, work through my arrested development issues, and finally grow up?

Fat chance.

So we get to the real questions swirling around the collective car-freak consciousness. Who will be the first to step up with the car, or line of cars, we're all looking for?

Will the Tesla four-door deliver as promised, and will we have the guts to place the $60,000 bet?

Will BMW or Volkswagen introduce a great-handling high-torque diesel GT? Or will Cadillac come out with a flat-tracking hydrogen-powered sport wagon?

How long will it take to bring grunt to the run of the mill Honda hybrid? How gradual a move will we need to endure?

Will I have to swallow the '75 Corvette lima beans before I'm allowed the Corvette Z06 dessert?

The good news is, everybody seems to have something in the pipeline. But how long is that pipeline? How far away is the light at the end of it? And what will be flowing through it in place of "bubblin' crude?"

All of this I sit and ponder while scanning eBay, looking at the listings of low-mileage, pre-V-8 M3s and Audi RS4s, thinking that the interim move to make may be two steps backwards before taking the giant leap forward.

Just what Detroit, Munich, and Tokyo don't want to hear.

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