NEW YORK - Museums usually study the past, but one museum, with help from automotive experts, tried to figure out the future of the automobile.
No, it's not the rocket-powered vision of former crystal-ball-gazers, but it is filled nonetheless with dramatic changes in technology, design and maybe even ownership patterns.
Ultimately, the Museum of Modern Art in gridlocked midtown Manhattan has used its two-month-long exhibit of nine new cars and a related symposium to drive home this point: By using advanced technology and innovative design, carmakers can cope with the environmental and societal problems their products cause and still satisfy most customer demands for comfort, performance and utility. They can do it with advanced materials, new powerplants and better ways of using interior space.
'I am ultimately optimistic about the future of the automobile,' said Christopher Mount, the assistant curator of the museum's architecture and design department, who organized the exhibit.
This upbeat view came from someone who lives in New York City, doesn't own a car and admits he was skeptical about what he would find when he began planning the exhibit and symposium.
He and his museum colleagues chose for the exhibit nine cars that they say embody the kinds of problem-solving technologies and design features that will be needed in the 21st century.
Mount said his principal goal was to find cars with 'good design that is affordable and available to everyone.' They range from the Ford Ka, which is marketed in Europe, to the DaimlerChrysler CCV concept, a low-cost car made of recycled plastic and designed for developing countries.
The exhibit, 'Different Roads: Automobiles for the Next Century,' is displayed in the museum's sculpture garden, through Tuesday, Sept. 21.
The museum began its tradition of exhibiting automobiles with a 1951 show. Symposium participant Ron Hill, chairman of transportation design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., said that initial show 'helped to de-trivialize the art and pursuit of designing automobiles.'
While the latest exhibit focused on hardware, some speakers at the symposium concentrated on possible changes in the car-owner relationship. They envision a system in which a consumer could buy time-shares of a variety of vehicles in a pool. He or she then could choose, for example, the small commuter car for around-town errands, the pickup truck for weekend hauling or the convertible sports car for a first date.
Jim Hall, vice president for industry analysis of AutoPacific Inc., a consulting firm, said the groundwork already is laid: 'Leasing has done a lot to decouple the concept of vehicle ownership. There are people for whom it is just usage of a car.' Hall said vehicle sharing would be the equivalent of 'selling miles to customers,' or comparable to allowing consumers into company car programs.
Dan Sturges, director of the New Mobility program at the German-American design firm known as 'frogdesign,' envisions a similar development in communities that choose to allow only golf-cart-sized vehicles in their neighborhoods. Residents would share bigger, longer-range vehicles for trips outside the neighborhoods.
Here are other viewpoints that were presented at the Sept. 7 event:
Symposium speaker Robert Riley, author of a book called Alternative Cars in the 21st Century: A New Personal Transportation Paradigm, said the excitement he sees among designers and engineers convinces him they are up to reinventing today's cars and trucks.
While it is true that current vehicles are far cleaner and more efficient than those of the past, the expected worldwide explosion in car and truck population makes more big changes
necessary. Otherwise, Riley said, there will be environmental and economic disaster.
'If it wasn't broken, we wouldn't have to fix it,' he said.
Not everyone is optimistic.
Jane Holtz Kay, author of Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back, said the 'tech fix' won't overcome all the car's problems.
Harald Diaz-Bone, a scientist with the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy in Germany, said he is concerned that European travel habits are becoming more and more like those in the United States. 'We are using more of nature than we have,' Diaz-Bone said.