In fewer than 120 years, automobiles have evolved from ungainly, unreliable and uncomfortable horseless carriages to clean, comfortable and efficient machines.
Consider the typical car of 1915. Fuel stations were few and far between, so you had to carry extra cans of smelly gas on board. The engine and chassis had to be lubricated manually. The windshields were brittle and the headlights were dim and unfocused. Spark and throttle settings needed constant tweaking and carburetors went out of tune weekly.
As durable, efficient and comfortable as cars are today compared to their forebears, tomorrow's cars may be just as far ahead of today's.
BETTER FUEL ECONOMY
Take fuel efficiency. Last summer's spike in the cost of gasoline in the Midwest focused many people's attention on the need for even better fuel economy. Some exciting possibilities lie in the near future. Mitsubishi has been experimenting with gasoline direct injection on small production runs, and it may be seen more widely in the next few years.
GDI borrows some of the fuel-saving features of diesel engines but works with regular gas and lower compression ratios for quiet operation, high fuel economy and low emissions.
Saab has developed an engine that uses computer controls to vary the compression ratio, which is fixed in current engines. This helps maximize the engine's efficiency.
Better fuel economy also will come from better transmissions. Six-speed automatics, which are better able to summon the right gear for the driving situation and available engine power, may be commonplace in the future. With continuously variable transmissions there are no individual gears, such as first or second, only pulleys or cones that provide an infinite number of ratios, which creates a more efficient system.
Increased comfort will come from active suspension. Already available on one Mercedes-Benz model, active suspension provides the ultimate in spring and shock absorber control during high-speed driving and makes low-speed driving more comfortable.
All of these technologies will improve the breed, but it is the passenger compartment that will see the greatest number of changes in the next 15 years.
Many of these innovations will come from Visteon Corp. and Delphi Automotive Systems Corp., the two biggest U.S. makers of electronic wizardry. Mark Horvath, multimedia brand manager at Visteon, said we will see more vehicles equipped with technologies only seen in luxury vehicles now.
Satellites will be the key to future in-car entertainment and commerce, said Tim Tiernan, manager of advanced vehicle architecture at Visteon. The kinds of help we can get today from services such as GM's OnStar and Ford's new Wingcast will be even faster and more direct, so that police, fire, ambulance, wrecker and roadside assistance will be at our service more quickly.
The driverless car isn't imminent, but Tiernan says we will be gaining on the concept by 2010. One possibility is a combination of radar, sonar and cameras that can be hooked to a car's throttle, brakes and steering to keep the car in the center lane at a high rate of speed.