Flipping through any batch of late-night sci-fi re-runs is an exercise in hypotheticals. Even among the myriad alternate realities, utopias competing with dystopias, and extraterrestrial life forms, nearly all ask about a common element of the far-distant future: What will we drive?
From The Jetsons to Star Trek, the answers couldn't differ more dramatically. But because tomorrow's vehicles are likely to evolve from today's innovations and imaginations, BusinessWeek.com asked a group of scientists, designers, and self-professed car aficionados for predictions of the far-out auto future.
Ahmed Ghoniem and Yang Shao-Horn, both MIT professors of mechanical engineering, agree that as the availability of oil continues to wither, consumers will be presented with a variety of alternative fuels to choose from. Just as brokers advise clients to distribute investment risk, the fuel portfolios will diversify. Shao-Horn notes: "Consumers will have many more options, since we can't put all our eggs in one basket."
Hybrid technology, which today still enjoys only niche popularity on the North American sales charts, will become truly mainstream, much like airbags and antilock breaks. Vehicles, no matter their power source or price point, will incorporate an assortment of microtechnologies aimed at conserving and recapturing otherwise lost energy.
But that will require major developments in battery technology, including smaller, lighter units with increased capacities. Ghoniem suggests looking to today's consumer electronics for a hint of what's to come. "Lithium ion batteries that we use in laptops and cell phones are promising for these applications," he says.
Ray Wert, an editor at the gear-head blog Jalopnik, also foresees the rise of alternate, nonpetroleum fuels in the wake of dwindling oil supplies. For Wert, though, the outcome of the jockeying alternatives—including hydrogen, diesel, and biofuels—remains difficult to predict. "Oil may not disappear," Wert says, "but this summer showed us a preview of what we'll probably see in terms of price at the gas pump."
Products coming to market today also represent future developments in embryonic form. Chrysler's (DCX) newly announced MyGig digital-entertainment system that can store photos and music on a built-in hard drive would be only a jumping-off point.
The current struggle between Apple (AAPL) and Microsoft (MSFT) for control of the living room could even be displaced to the dashboard. "Right now you've got both trying to make a play on the O/S that'll be running your car—not only the entertainment system but your entire driving experience."
In another outgrowth of current developments, Wert expects cars to begin taking more and more control over driving functions. Electronic stability controls that improve handling at the limits, and high-end features like Lexus' self-parking system, are just the beginning of automated oversight of your driving. Wert jokes: "Expect an electronic nanny with you every step of the way."
The most radical flights of fancy, however, may emanate directly from major manufacturers' brain trusts and design studios. Whether the product of high-concept art or lucrative Hollywood product placements, official concepts often point to where design might be headed.
In a dark vision, Ford's SYNUS concept is an armored truck that looks like a miniature tank and provides vault-like security around an ultrahigh-tech interior. The armored car is intended to roll safely on the tough, urban streets of the future. The rear door closes via a four-spoke spinner similar to the ones found on heavy-duty safes and vaults.
Toyota's (TM) one-man i-Unit, meanwhile, focuses on an individualistic "personal mobility." The prototype can change the orientation of its cabin depending on speed, improving aerodynamics and thereby reducing fuel consumption at higher speeds. Wireless technology could allow multiple units to communicate with each other, allowing coordinated movements.
But likely the most explicit melding of science fiction and automotive prediction occurs when film studios team up with auto companies. Audi's RSQ concept was designed for the big-budget, silver-screen adaptation of I, Robot. The sleek sports coupe rolls on spherical wheels and has automatic butterfly doors.
Indeed, the result is a hodgepodge of brand-building, prognostication, fantasy, and advertising—proving that even the most far-out products of auto futurism can still affect today's business.To take a peek into the future of the automobile, click here.