Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Future Cars 2005

I love car shows. That's partly because I fell in love with cars as a teenager, but also because car shows give you more hints than you'll get anywhere else about the models that might be in showrooms in a few years. That has become a much more interesting question than it used to be, as automobile powerplants have morphed to run on different fuels, or hybrids of gas and electricity, and in some cased to eschew internal combustion altogether. Even though most of the cars at auto shows are simply early versions of next year's models, or experiments in letting styling departments run wild, every now and again you get to see something truly novel and future-changing. This year's Tokyo Motor Show has at least one car that might fit the latter category.

While it's fun to see rakish new designs, and encouraging to see a true sports car that would get 70 miles per gallon (of diesel), it's truly cool to glimpse a car that fundamentally redefines what automobiles can do. Look at the Nissan Pivo. Not only is it all-electric, running on Lithium-ion batteries like your laptop, but the passenger compartment can swivel through 360 degrees of motion, altering entirely the dynamics of parking or "backing out" of a space. Other nice touches include drive-by-wire and tv screens on the pillars, linked to tiny external cameras, eliminating those pesky blind spots that complicate passing.

I concede that we may never see a Pivo in a showroom. It will likely go the way of the four-wheel-steering feature that a couple of manufacturers tried to introduce a few years ago. But it exemplifies what I have in mind when I suggest that a real breakthrough in performance--by which I mean the vehicle attributes on which consumers place a premium--could throw our glacial estimates of the rate of market penetration for hybrids and fuel cell cars into a cocked hat. Give people something truly new, exciting and useful, and they might line up in droves to trade in their old cars at a clip matching the turnover rates of the 1950s and 1960s, when people bought new cars every 2 or 3 years, instead of every 6 or 7. That would have major implications for our future energy consumption.

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