6. Sooner than we think, HAL takes the wheelThe creepy facets of autonomous driving.
Artificial intelligence at the wheel of a car may sound like science fiction, but the reality of unmanned driving began eight years ago when a bunch of computer-controlled prototypes gathered in the Mojave Desert. Today, California and Nevada have a set of rules to govern robotized motoring, and Google has a fleet of cars that steer, brake, and accelerate automatically. Production may still be more than ten years away, but the first partially autonomous automobiles will be available much sooner. Equipped with radar, sonar, cameras, and lidar technology (laser-based light detection and ranging), these intelligent machines might actually be market-ready long before the product-liability and user-acceptance issues have been resolved. Autonomous driving is the next big thing on the way toward the ultimate goal of total accident avoidance. Picture the situations that require automatic steering and brake inputs: closely packed convoys running at speeds of up to 80 mph, automatic lane discipline, self-acting lane changes, autonomous passing, oncoming and cross-traffic monitoring, traffic-light and right-of-way recognition, and "landing strip" navigation that uses roadside QR codes to neatly transition a mixed-mode vehicle to autonomous mode.
7. Starting up is hard to doThe newest crop of carmakers struggles to survive.
Tesla and Fisker need all the support they can get, because establishing a new automobile brand is an arduous task -- especially when your groundbreaking, upmarket hybrids are repeatedly short-circuited by economic hiccups. At the low-tech end of the table, the ultrabasic Tata Nano hasn't sold well in its Indian home market. Qoros, a partner of Chery, is the latest Chinese manufacturer claiming it has a car that can compete in major export markets. Coda is still struggling to get its modest EV into gear, and Next Autoworks has withdrawn a loan application to the Department of Energy, putting an end to its dream of an energy-efficient, U.S.-built econobox. In Europe, Venturi and Mindset are among the most prominent startups whose fate is in limbo. Such struggles don't come as a surprise in an age of consolidation when even big names like Oldsmobile, Plymouth, Saturn, and Saab have bitten the dust. The fact is that none of the newcomers has yet made a lasting impact on an increasingly demanding and volatile market. Why? In some cases, the selling proposition is not sufficiently unique. In others, the cars aren't competitively priced. In all cases, distribution is a very tall hurdle. And the competition never sleeps...
8. Reduce to the maxHow downsizing is going to change the character of the automobile.
Downsizing is not just the flavor of the moment, it's the flavor of the decade, in all price and size classes. For Bentley, downsizing means using a V-8 instead of a W-12. At Mercedes, V-6 volumes will eventually dwarf the V-8's. BMW continues to phase out the legendary straight six in favor of more efficient four-cylinder engines. VW and Ford have already started, in some markets, to replace the long-running four-cylinder with more frugal three-cylinders. To save fuel, every second cylinder is switched off under part throttle. For exactly the same reason, weight will be significantly reduced across the board. To reach this end, lighter materials, more efficient assembly techniques, modular architectures, and miniaturized electric motors, A/C compressors, and starter batteries will be used. Thanks to advanced onboard electronics, innovative fuel-saving driving modes -- such as coasting at idle speed and energy recuperation -- will become commonplace. Engine-related efficiency enhancers include variable compression ratio and valve control, variable displacement, a camshaftless engine with electromagnetic valve actuation, higher injection pressures, sequential turbocharging, reduced friction, lighter valvetrains, and innovative combustion-chamber design.
9. It takes more than meritWhy alternative-propulsion systems are falling behind schedule.
Does the success of alternative propulsion depend solely on the strength of the engineering concept? The answer is no. These are the unresolved questions affecting nascent green technologies: Are purchase price and running costs subsidized? Can batteries be charged with low-cost off-peak electricity? Is the manufacturer carrying the risks related to battery performance and battery life? Is leasing (vehicle and/or batteries) an option to buying? Is the vehicle eligible to use HOV lanes and special designated parking spaces? How long before a nationwide network of quick-charge stations will be in place? What's being done to boost the underdeveloped hydrogen infrastructure? When will the next generation of batteries come onstream -- and how much more powerful, lighter, and smaller are the new lithium-oxygen cells going to be? Is induction charging a realistic technology? What are the chances of the battery exchange system pioneered by Better Place gaining widespread acceptance? Can a full hybrid be the answer -- or is it just an overpriced interim solution? Is a range extender a worthy alternative, or is it more prudent to wait for a plug-in hybrid? Do electric vehicles make sense only in an urban environment? And the major question: as far as the true environmental impact goes, is an electric power point really greener than gasoline or diesel?
10. Big Brother is backSuperclever new driver assistance systems are a blessing and a curse.
When Mercedes introduced traction control back in 1987, many enthusiasts were outraged by this act of spy-in-the-cab incapacitation. Twenty-five years later, you can't buy a new car that's not fitted with stability control -- and we wouldn't want to. There's no doubt that modern driver assistance systems are here to stay. Electrification will soon further underline the significance of the little black box, which is indispensable in coordinating multiple propulsion sources, let alone controlling traction, stability, and vehicle dynamics through electronic torque vectoring. In addition to familiar computerized helpers like brake assist, automated parking, blind-spot assistance, and active cruise control, we're about to experience fresh wizardries such as lane-discipline assist (which automatically follows the road), congestion assistance (self-acting braking and acceleration at speeds of up to 40 mph), main beam assist (its dynamic LED light pattern avoids oncoming vehicles), adaptive ride comfort assistant (a pair of cameras scans the road and modulates damper action), and anticollision assistant (via active steering). A brave new electronic world? Perhaps. But no chip-controlled overkill would be complete without the progressive tanning assistant that replaces the cabin light with an ultraviolet bulb capable of providing that coveted "weekend in the Bahamas" look in the time it takes to complete the morning rush-hour crawl.