With Cars, Some Technology Is Smarter Than Others

Modern cars are wonders, but until recently carmakers ignored the most important technology of all: fuel-efficiency

For years, cars were low-tech machines that belched smoke, and could be fixed by someone with a third-grade education and a monkey wrench. No longer. Today's automobiles are masterpieces of integrated technology, near-perfect marriages of fiberglass and microchips that offer more comfort and cutting-edge features than a space shuttle. But the question on many drivers' minds these days is whether the current crop of cars is smart in the right way.

Here's the problem: Brilliant engineers in Detroit, Toyota City, and Stuttgart have spent millions of man hours coming up with better ways to deploy a side air bag or hold a coffee cup. But what is becoming increasingly apparent is that they should also have been spending more time and money devising technology to improve fuel-efficiency in a car people actually want to buy.

At some point over the past few decades the auto industry found itself focusing more on the superficial aspects of cars. True, safety and reliability ratings have soared across the board for nearly every manufacturer, yet these were refinements, not radical adjustments. Auto designers have never lacked for bold ideas, but it has been the fault of management for failing to push harder in new directions and take risks. This short-term focus is responsible for landing automakers, especially the Detroit 3, in their current mess.

How big of a mess? In June, auto sales fell 18% across the board, with only a few smaller or more fuel-efficient cars such as Honda's (HMC) Fit and Accord showing a modest gain. Sales of trucks, SUVs, and luxury cars were all down—28.8%, 37.7%, and 21.6%, respectively—from the same month in 2007, according to Autodata.

Shifting Gears

Since the early days of the automobile, visionaries and crackpots alike have experimented with different ways to make a car go. Yet since the Stanley Steamer, there has been little serious competition to the internal combustion engine. That's because for the first 70 years or so of the automobile's existence, gasoline was so cheap no alternative was needed. But with the energy crisis of the 1970s, the long-term viability of gas-powered cars was first seriously called into question. However, instead of taking the hint and throwing themselves into developing serious alternative engine technology, for the most part the automakers did nothing.

Fortunately, that is finally changing. Over the past few years, as the price of oil has climbed and car sales have suffered, automakers have scrambled to offer more fuel-efficient vehicles. Some makers, such as Toyota (TM) and Honda, were already bringing hybrid cars to market, including Toyota's Prius, and most had some form of alternative-fuel skunkworks in their budget. But for the most part they were caught flat-footed by the sudden surge in demand for fuel-economic cars.

Take BMW (BMWG) and Mercedes-Benz (DAI), for example. Both companies are renowned for the performance and elegance of their cars, but they had been so successful making diesels for the European market that they never seriously explored hybrid or electric technologies. Their hope was that diesel would one day become a viable alternative in the U.S., where for years many states, such as California and New York, have banned the sale of noncommercial diesel vehicles. (Currently the Mercedes E320 Bluetec is the only diesel car that can be leased—but not purchased—in these states as of October 2007.

) But with the price of diesel pushing $5 a gallon it remains to be seen if, despite its superior gas mileage, it will ever become a meaningful alternative in the U.S.

Alternative Time Line

What is interesting, though, is to see that the automobile industry has a surprising history of exploring alternate technologies, even if sometimes unrealistically. For example, in the 1950s Ford (F) created concepts around two very radical notions: the nuclear-powered Ford Nucleon and the Ford Levicar Mach I, which operated using maglev (magnetic levitating) technology. Neither got beyond the concept stage, but it is intriguing to see that forward-thinking engineers were already thinking about non-gasoline-powered cars.

Modern concept cars are less fanciful by comparison, but they will probably have a much bigger practical impact. Alternative power sources like battery power and hydrogen are starting to look practical in the near- to medium-term, representing a significant change.

For years, those alternatives have been seen as promising but always over the horizon, due to technological drawbacks and lack of consumer demand. Those hurdles are shrinking fast, especially as consumer demand for alternative energy has skyrocketed along with gas prices. Big advances have also been made in battery technology, and the computer software that regulates the newer power trains.

All this is leading to breakthroughs. Just last month Honda announced the start of production in Japan for the first hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle in its lineup, the FCX Clarity. Honda has three dealerships in Southern California set to service the cars. The dealerships are near some of the nation's few hydrogen refueling facilities that are accessible to the public. The first five retail customers include actress Jamie Lee Curtis.

An "Exciting Time" for the Auto Industry

Meanwhile, concept cars are experimenting with a wide range of alternative power sources, alone or in combination: fuel cells, natural gas, conventional gasoline engines, clean-burning diesel engines, and battery power. Automakers are also tackling less glamorous but equally important barriers to high fuel efficiency, including weight and aerodynamics.

The Toyota 1/X concept car, for instance, weighs only about one-third as much as the Toyota Prius, thanks to the use of strong but light carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic in the frame. Because it's so light, it can employ a smaller conventional engine, only 500cc, in combination with rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, similar in concept to those used in a laptop computer.

Not only has BMW built a working hydrogen-powered car of its own, it has also more recently developed a concept car called the GINA, which has a flexible fabric skin that can actually change shape as it moves, to improve aerodynamic performance.

"This is a very exciting time to be in the automotive industry," says Tom Purves, the new CEO of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, a division of BMW. "I think 100-some years ago, if we were sitting here and one of us had a steam car, one of us had an electric car, and one of us had a car that ran off internal explosions caused by gasoline, I don't think any one of us could have foreseen that it would be the gasoline engine that became the dominant one."

A century later it would seem that maybe the wrong technology won after all. Hopefully during the next 100 years we can do better.

Click here to see a roundup of high-tech, fuel-efficient concept cars.

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