Autos poised for an evolution

Jan. 1, 2020
The ?future car? is bound to include more than mere aesthetic changes. Expect leaps and bounds in all areas.

Australian director George Miller envisioned an apocalyptic future when he helmed the Mad Max movies. It’s a future he foresaw falling into chaos and violent ruin as petroleum supplies depleted and warring road gangs battled over what he called a “tank of juice.”

Though petroleum reserves are quickly disappearing (and the world seems ill-prepared to deal with energy shortages) the results will be far from apocalyptic.

The world is gradually shifting over to a hydrogen economy, and as scientists, engineers and politicians plan the world of tomorrow, they’re predicting the automobile has a central place. But, it no longer will be the gas burning, resource-depleting beast you’re used to.

Instead, automobiles will take their first great evolutionary leap, transforming into mobile information stations with revolutionary levels of luxury, safety and usability. They’ll also enlist a clean, green attitude that won’t bring the world crashing down in a vicious blaze of economic and environmental mayhem. In the very near future, road life, ironically, could turn out to be the best, most civilized life of all.

Lightening the load

You know those armed forces recruiting ads aimed at next-generation headbangers? The ones with the thundering soundtracks and talk of heavy metal? Forget about them. These military types are true lightweights — so to speak.

No industries arguably are more weight conscious than defense contractors and automakers. Both fight a constant battle to build vehicles strong enough to perform rigorous duties but light enough to deliver performance and efficiency. Because military applications typically are more critical and better funded, some of the most significant advances for both industries start there. None of the most recent developments have proven more important than carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFP).

Made from woven carbon fibers and resin, CFP offers the strength and stiffness of steel with half the weight (30 percent weight reduction compared to aluminum). The reduced weight allows military craft to add on heavy communication and munitions systems and still operate over a wide area without increased strain on fuel supplies.

Scientists believe CFP can provide similar benefits to automakers. Current studies suggest a potential 68-percent weight reduction and 40-percent increase in fuel efficiency in vehicles equipped with CFP parts in place of steel and aluminum. CFP parts are nothing new to the aftermarket, which for decades has supplied ultra-light, ultra-expensive hoods and panels for performance enthusiasts. Automakers have taken note.

Mercedes-Benz entered the fray three years ago with its 2003 SLR Mclaren, the first series car to be fitted with a carbon fiber front structure. At the same time, BMW equipped its 2003 M3 CLS with a CFP roof. A year later, Chevrolet added a CFP hood to the 2004 Z06 commemorative edition Corvette. Acura included both a CFP hood and spoiler on its 2004 NSX-R. As market forces drive down material costs and advances in automation make CFP parts available to large production lines, expect to see increased usage of this material.

 While manufacturers are cutting the weight of existing parts, they’re also targeting the removal of others. Drive-by-wire technology is replacing mechanical systems with electronic ones that relay driver impulses through wires. Gone are the usual physical connections between driver and control systems — pipes, heavy hydraulic pieces, etc. Electronics and computer controls take over, just as they do in commercial and jet fighters. 

Corvettes and Mercedes SL series vehicles already feature by-wire technology to optimize throttle and braking performance. Planned applications of by-wire are more ambitious, perhaps none more so than General Motors’ Hy-wire concept sedan. GM is coupling the by-wire technology with a fuel cell plant so it probably won’t be available to consumers for another four years or so. For now, it offers an intriguing look at the wired future. How does that future look? Imagine driving your car with your kid’s (or your) PlayStation.

The Hy-wire’s by-wire system, the X-drive, controls steering, braking and other vehicle systems from a central control panel — what was formerly the steering wheel (which no longer technically will be a wheel).

The driver accelerates by twisting either the right or left handgrip (like a motorcycle) and brakes by squeezing the brake actuator located on the handgrips. Gliding the handgrips up and down steers.

Electronic motion sensors, like the ones in expensive computer joysticks, transform these motions into a digital signal the central computer can recognize. Buttons on the controller switch the car from neutral to drive to reverse.

The advanced appearance of the Hy-wire is extended to other areas, further emphasizing its lightweight, functional design. Propulsion and control systems are contained within its 11-inch thick skateboard-like chassis, maximizing interior space for five occupants and cargo. The Hy-wire features no engine compartment, and therefore no engine to see over, opening visibility up from front to rear.

Even the traditional dashboard is gone, replaced by a 5.8-inch (14.7-cm) color monitor displaying vehicle readouts (mileage, fuel level, speed) along with rear-view images captured by video cameras on the sides and back of the car. A second monitor placed beside the driver displays navigation, climate control and stereo information.

In case you’d like your front seat passenger to take over the controls or would like to pretend you’re driving down the English coast, the central controller shuttles from side-to-side on a horizontal bar that stretches across the width of the vehicle.

Airless tires

When the Hy-wire is ready for production, it and many other vehicles might one day sport the most significant advancement in tire technology in 50 years — airless tires. Michelin has introduced two airless tires that could be industry standards in the next 15 years — the Airless and the Tweel.

The Airless features a series of polymeric rings arranged radially around a wheel hub. Attached to these will be a reinforcing belt/tread package.

Even more intriguing is the Tweel, a hub and spoke design that delivers performance previously only available from pneumatic tires. Flexible spokes take the place of air. They fuse with a flexible wheel that deforms to absorb shock and rebound with what Michelin calls “unimaginable ease.”

Tweels offer the benefit of being able to perform independently of each other. This permits an optimization of vertical stiffness (affecting ride comfort) and lateral stiffness (affecting handling and cornering) never before available.

Airless and Tweel development should have a profound effect on the tire industry. Gone will be the days of dangerous freeway blowouts, flats and checking tire pressure, along with performance issues such as balancing between comfort and traction. Also extinct will be former profit centers such as balancing, mounting and repairs. At the most, future tire customers will need only to swap out treads.

It’s an infotainment mobile

Born before 1970? Odds are you’ll never know the agony and ecstasy of the few, the proud — the technogeek. Imagine always having digital nirvana at your fingertips only to watch it slip away as next generation upgrades hit the market six months later.

The deep, dark tragedy of being a digital nerd is common among the current youth generation. Automakers and aftermarketers are laboring overtime to engineer products that meet the current needs of these new buyers and are still flexible enough to engage future upgrades. Manufacturers are finding the best way to tap into the digital generation is by tapping into its heart — the Internet.

For generations, the main techno-focus in automobiles has been audio. Recent additions to this industry have included satellite radio, which gives listeners access to new, expansive, ultra-clear worlds of radio programming and video. So popular has the video side proved that many vehicle buyers, particularly those with children, consider the mobile DVD player a necessity, not an option. From this stage, manufacturers are looking at the next great leap — accessing greater sources of audio and visual resources through the Internet.

DaimlerChrysler, to date, has taken the biggest steps. Working with companies like Siemens, Sun Microsystems, T-Mobile and Jentro, DaimlerChrysler has introduced the first automobile to feature third-generation Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (3G/UMTS) services. UMTS is a wireless communication system that builds on the capability of mobile technologies like digital cellular and cordless to deliver wideband information to moving receivers. Experts see more than 2 billion people using some form of UMTS in the next five years.

A variety of multimedia services include live video conferencing, broadband access to the Internet and video monitoring with access to traffic observation cameras and news services. The UMTS service also includes video and music downloads as well as an off-board navigation system that secures driving directions and information on local sites and entertainment.

Beyond accessing the Internet, some engineers are looking at making the most of its services by delivering wireless and other broadcasts on as advanced mediums as possible. In some cases, this has meant fitting concept vehicles with large, state-of-the-art flat screen television monitors. Since size matters, a few auto manufacturers have begun equipping concept vehicles with screens that would put your local multiplex cinema to shame.

After obtaining use of unlimited audio and video, surely the next best thing is to have the choice to be free of it. Engineers are making sure passengers don’t have to suffer through the entertainment and business choices of other passengers. For example, The Media Lab of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has created the Audio Spotlight, which steers sounds so they can only be heard within a predetermined area along a specified path. Made of a disc-shaped loudspeaker with a small laser guide-beam mounted in the middle, the Audio Spotlight transmits ultrasound aimed in a straight line and made to give off audible sound only along that path. The sound is restricted to just one listener.

Removing the nut behind the wheel

Even with auto engineers working overtime during the next 100 years, they probably won’t be able to hit the goal nearest and dearest to your heart: making sure every driver is as good as you.

Regardless how efficient, clean running and safe motor vehicles become, the people driving them either will be too slow, too fast, too reckless or too cautious. Scientists do have a number of upgrades planned to help with the most difficult of driving tasks. Many actually will assume control of a vehicle when placed in dangerous situations.

Beginning in 2000, DaimlerChrysler began taking steps to “collision-proof” vehicles with its PROTECTOR Electronic Crumple Zone. PROTECTOR uses radar to determine how far a vehicle is from an obstacle ahead. When a driver comes too close to a moving or stationary vehicle, PROTECTOR takes control, either stopping or slowing down to meet a safe, pre-set distance.

In the trucking industry alone, DaimlerChrysler believes its PROTECTOR technology can prevent 80 percent of all truck on truck rear-end collisions and more than 30 percent of all truck accidents on highways.

DaimlerChrysler also has plans to develop technology capable of identifying traffic lights, road signs and pedestrians even in conditions of limited visibility — at night, in fog or during heavy rain or snow. Cameras and microphones will join numerous sensors to “see” and “hear” what is taking place around the vehicle. On-board computers will interpret the data and respond either by issuing instructions and warnings or by directly intervening in the vehicle’s operation, making driving (believe it or not), essentially idiot-proof.

Other futuristic systems include those that take full-time control of a car in specific driving areas like, for example, busy metropolitan areas. As roads become more congested, some civic planners say such systems will become necessities. Scientists are looking at tying vehicles into driving networks that will take control and allow vehicles to operate just centimeters apart at high speeds.

Trials are already under way in Great Britain using car management systems with on-board GPS receivers tied to local speed limits. Some experts see civic traffic systems in place by 2010. Of course, if you’re looking to travel in the city with someone else at the helm, you could always take public transportation. But how cool is that?

Final word: Out with the old

During the first 100 years of their history, cars were mechanized carrion feeders. Fueled by the fossilized remains of plants and animals, they fed on death and lived on borrowed time, waiting for the oil to run out.

Fortunately, all of this should change with next-generation vehicles using renewable, clean running fuels featuring bodies made from recyclable materials. You could probably make the argument that we’ve made our vehicles smarter than ourselves. They should survive the next century. Whether we do, on the other hand, is a different story altogether.