Reinventing The Wheels

Fuel cells, crash-proof cars -- auto makers are forging the future now.

In think tanks and on test tracks from Tokyo to Motown to Munich, automotive technicians are brainstorming the future of the automobile. It's a fierce race, with companies like Toyota, General Motors, and BMW vying to lock up the latest in digital, imaging, and even biological technologies. "The field is so competitive that we'll visit a university and find out that GM was there yesterday and Honda is coming tomorrow," says Jeff Makarewicz, general manager for materials engineering at Toyota Motor Corp.'s (TM ) technical center in Ann Arbor, Mich. The goals of the big auto makers are certainly ambitious: They want to break free from the grip of petroleum, develop cars that are smart enough to avoid accidents, and continually enhance the pleasure of motoring. Says Raymond Freymann, head of German auto maker BMW's vehicle research and technology unit: "Our job is to translate crazy ideas into reality."

Not all the crazy ideas will make it into the showroom, of course. With carmakers locked in a brutal price war and suffering from massive overcapacity, it's inevitable that much of the industry's $55 billion combined yearly R&D budget goes toward practical advances like new model development. And car buyers faced with limited budgets may be inclined to choose a souped-up sound system over side air bags. That explains why some of the most impressive gadgets are sold as optional equipment -- and show up first in luxury vehicles.

Auto researchers face another constraint. Consumers are notoriously touchy about any new technology that comes between them and the driving experience. Seven years ago, a General Motors Corp. (GM )-led consortium conducted tests in which fully automated cars were driven over 8,000 miles on a span of highway outside San Diego. The whole thing came off without a hitch -- except that passengers groused that they wanted more control. The lesson? "We have to be very careful in introducing new technology not to make our customers' eyes spin," says Jon Bucci, a manager in Toyota's advanced technology department in Torrance, Calif.

Still, these are heady times for auto researchers. Here's a look at the most promising areas of innovation:

PROPULSION

The biggest challenge facing auto researchers is the one that has bedeviled the industry ever since the first Mideast oil shock of the early '70s: how to replace the internal-combustion engine. Researchers are working on three different approaches to solving the problem -- fuel cells, engines that burn both hydrogen and gasoline, and hybrid gas-electric cars.

After years of false starts, some engineers believe they're getting close with fuel-cell propulsion systems. In theory, power is generated by pumping hydrogen through a series of plates, or stacks. They strip the hydrogen of its electrons and create a charge. That electricity is stored in batteries and used to power electric motors. There's no need to plug into an outlet, and the exhaust is water vapor.

This process could result in a total rethinking of car design, and not just under the hood. GM, which has spent more than $1 billion on fuel cells, demonstrated some of the most advanced technology when it built the stacks and batteries right into the floors of its AUTOnomy and Hy-wire concept cars. That gives their platforms a kind of skateboard look and frees up heaps of space. Hy-wire can hit 100 miles per hour on electricity generated by the fuel cells. What's more, there's enough power to control steering, braking, and acceleration with electronic controls instead of mechanical parts. So the fuel-cell vehicles are much lighter than today's cars.

But several hurdles must yet be cleared before fuel cells can take over. Where, for example, will the hydrogen come from? It can be produced in refineries, like gasoline, but energy companies won't invest in hydrogen refining until they see real demand. Then there are the challenges of storing hydrogen -- it must be held in liquid form at -422F or under heavy pressure as a gas. Both processes require big, expensive tanks, and the act of managing temperature or pressure takes away some energy generated by the stacks. It's also unclear which companies would be willing to build a new network of hydrogen filling stations.

As a result, fuel-cell vehicles remain extremely costly. While Honda Motor Co. (HMC ) and Toyota currently lease a few dozen fuel-cell autos to municipal governments and academic institutions in the U.S. and Japan, industry officials estimate that these experimental cars cost more than $1 million each to build. And Japanese auto execs aren't counting on selling them to the masses anytime soon. "I believe it's going to take 30 years until we see this technology being as common as today's technologies which are utilized by tens of millions of cars," says Takanobu Ito, president of Honda R&D Co.

GM is more optimistic. It hopes to have affordable fuel-cell-powered models on the road in the next decade. BMW, meanwhile, isn't very interested in fuel-cell technology right now. Instead, it is developing an engine that can burn hydrogen or gasoline. The company has been investing in the technology since 1976 and now has a test fleet of 7 Series luxury sedans that are fitted out with engines that can switch at a driver's command between the two fuels. BMW's Freymann says that in three years or so, future 7 Series sedans will be equipped with the engines. A private-public consortium has already built a hydrogen filling station in Munich, and another will open in Berlin in November.

In the meantime, drivers conscious of the environment and fuel costs can buy a hybrid gas-electric car. These vehicles are suddenly popular, even though they cost $3,000 to $5,000 more than typical gas-powered autos. With waiting lists that can stretch for nine months in the U.S., Toyota recently announced it would boost production by 50% of its popular Prius sedan, which uses electric motors to assist gas engines. Honda is about to add a hybrid Accord and has produced such futuristic prototypes as the ultra-lightweight, 94-mpg IMAS. A hybrid sports car concept with industry-leading aerodynamics, a shaftless drive-by-wire steering wheel, and side cameras, the IMAS was modeled after a road racing bicycle.

SAFETY

Powering the car is key. But making sure it doesn't crash is another preoccupation of auto makers these days. The big players are focusing on two kinds of technologies: safety devices to detect and avoid possible collisions, and navigational advances to help cars stay out of traffic jams and find their destinations more easily.

Imagine a car that's smart enough to avoid fender benders -- or back itself into that tight parking space at the supermarket. As digital cameras, radar, and navigational devices become less expensive and more reliable, researchers are looking for ways to incorporate them into systems that detect objects in blind spots and avoid collisions. Toyota plans to offer rear-mounted cameras in all its cars as it upgrades its lineup. Earlier this year, the company rolled out a system in its top-of-the-line Lexus 430 that warns drivers if their car is too close to the vehicle ahead. Ford Motor Co. (F ) has a prototype Mustang outfitted with a similar system.

Honda took the technology a step further. Starting in Japan last June, the company offered a system on its Inspire compact that uses buzzers and lights on the instrument panel to warn drivers of possible danger. If the warnings are ignored, the car will take up the slack on seat belts and then proceed to apply the brakes slightly. If that doesn't work, the vehicle is programmed to tighten up the seat belts and brake firmly -- though not so sharply as to stop dead in its tracks. Similar devices are being employed to fight driver fatigue.

This fall, Nissan Motor Co. (NSANY ) will be the first auto maker in the U.S. to offer yet another twist on collision avoidance -- lane-keeping technology. A small front-mounted camera detects when a car starts drifting from a lane without a turn signal and beeps a warning to the driver. While this technology has been available for years in Japan, the system -- developed by Anaheim (Calif.)-based Iteris Inc. (ITRSA ) and France's Valeo -- had to be improved before its introduction to the U.S. to account for a wider variety of road conditions. It will be offered as an option in the Infiniti (IFNY ) FX45 SUV.

Of course, the best way to avoid collisions is to stay out of busy traffic. Honda's new Acura RL luxury sedan, which goes on sale this fall, will be the first U.S. model equipped with a computer navigation system that tracks live traffic flows on screen and flags bottlenecks caused by accidents or construction. The version Honda developed jointly for the U.S. with XM Satellite Radio Holdings Inc. (XMSR ) of Washington, D.C., uses satellites to cover more than 20 cities. Honda also equipped the RL with telematics that allow dealers to send audio or text e-mails about maintenance issues directly to customers' cars via satellite.

COMFORT

All these advancements stand a chance of making cars more fuel-efficient and the roads safer. Still, for many drivers and their passengers, nothing is more important than how they feel inside their car -- the driving experience itself. With the dramatic expansion of the luxury-car market in recent years, brands are under increasing pressure to add the kinds of creature comforts that distinguish a $40,000 car from one selling for half that.

Pay a visit to the suburban Detroit design studio of Lear Corp. (LEA ), one of the biggest suppliers of car cabins in the world. Here, young designers work with materials as exotic as bamboo and Ecuadorian Tagua nuts to create distinctive car interiors for tomorrow's luxury cars. Other auto makers are trying to make the car a more accommodating living space. Mazda Motor Corp.'s (F ) new Verisa compact car, sold only in Japan, features a mini-dressing table that folds out from the glove compartment -- complete with makeup mirror and lamp.

Of course, these enhancements aren't as much technological as design innovations. But they still sell cars. With global competition growing tougher all the time, drivers can look forward to further developments in the race to reinvent the automobile.

By David Welch and Chester Dawson

With Gail Edmondson in Munich, and Ian Rowley in Utsunomiya, Japan

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