What's The Car Of 2035?

By AutoObserver Staff March 22, 2011

The car of 2035.jpg

Nick Nigro is a transportation fellow at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change in Arlington, Va., and was project manager on the center's "Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions from U.S. Transportation" report. In addition to his work in the public policy arena, Nigro, an electrical and computer engineer, was software manager at Oasis Semiconductor, a Waltham, Mass., start-up.

In movies such as the iconic "Demolition Man," we’re led to believe the future will be filled with cars well advanced from those on the road today (in the case of the Sylvester Stallone action flick, our cars will instantly fill with foam upon a collision). But what do the real experts think about the cars we’ll be driving in the future? For example, will our cars drive themselves like Google’s modified Toyota Prius?

The Pew Center on Global Climate Change answers some of these questions in our recently released report, which focuses on reducing the U.S. transportation sector's greenhouse-gas emissions and oil use. The "Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions" report details options available to automakers for building the cars of the future. It doesn’t attempt to predict the makeup of the car market in the future — that’s up to the consumer. Instead, the report highlights that many combinations of vehicles could significantly reduce fossil-fuel use and greenhouse-gas emissions in the future.

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Keys to Improving Efficiency
From much-improved fuel economy to alternative drivetrains, a car in 2035 will look a lot different on both the inside and the outside if we embrace calls to move away from oil and reduce the environmental impact of our passenger vehicles. In addition to simply driving less, there are three key factors in saving oil and reducing greenhouse-gas emissions from cars: reducing friction, making cars lighter, and building more-efficient and alternative drivetrains.

One way to improve fuel economy is to make cars more aerodynamic. Air and the road are the primary forces that act against propelling your car forward. If automakers reduce a car’s aerodynamic drag (the resisting force of air) by 10 percent, its fuel economy improves about 2 percent. The Mercedes-Benz E-Class Coupe and the Toyota Prius have the lowest aerodynamic drag of any cars on the market today, but General Motors’ 1996-2003 EV1 bested the Prius by a wide margin. Also holding your car back is the rolling resistance of your tires. Here too, a 10 percent decrease in rolling resistance improves fuel economy by about 2 percent. Many tire makers now offer tires with lower rolling resistance.

The next factor is the car’s weight. In this case, reducing weight by 10 percent yields a 7 percent increase in fuel economy. We will need a lot of help from scientists and engineers to achieve substantial weight reduction, though. One possibility is manufacturing our cars with carbon fiber–reinforced polymer. We could achieve weight reductions of 40 to 45 percent with this strong and light material, which could improve fuel economy by about 30 percent.

The last factor covers the most ground — more-efficient and alternative drivetrains. Here is where we have to introduce the alphabet soup of car types (see the table below):

alt veh chart.jpg

First, it’s important to understand there is still much room for improvement in the fuel economy of conventional vehicles. Primarily, this is because carmakers have spent the last two decades investing most of their research and development in acceleration performance and other attributes that were more important to consumers than fuel economy. With a renewed focus on fuel economy standards by the federal government, automakers are quickly responding to meet the new goals. If these standards continue to be ratcheted up over time, it is reasonable to expect conventional cars will deliver 50 mpg by 2035.

A conventional hybrid electric vehicle could get upward of 75 mpg by then. If so, the HEV will be fierce competition for other alternative technologies in the future car market. One alternative has been available for some time — cars powered by biofuels. Presently, we blend biofuels with gasoline, and we will continue to do so. Running cars almost entirely on biofuels (such as 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline, or E85) is possible today, but not very popular because a refueling infrastructure doesn’t exist. Our report expects blending gasoline with biofuels to be part of the future fuel mix, but doesn't expect many cars to run purely on biofuels.

Plugging Away at Fuel Efficiency
Another alternative drivetrain is just now entering the U.S. car market. 2011 is the year of the plug-in electric vehicle (PEV, which includes PHEVs and EVs). The Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf, and soon-to-be-released Ford Focus EV, Mitsubishi i-MiEV, Smart ED, and plug-in Toyota Prius are providing consumers a glimpse into the future. A PEV offers a quiet and responsive ride because it relies on an electric drivetrain.

GM EN-V prototype.jpgMost people will be able to recharge their vehicles at home or work, removing the need to stop at gas stations, but there still are factors that make it difficult for PEVs to compete with conventional vehicles today. The key areas of progress necessary for PEVs are cost reductions, battery and electric drive improvements, and consumer acceptance. Pure EVs have a range limited to about 100 miles. The Chevy Volt overcomes the range limitation of the Leaf and Focus EVs with a backup gasoline “range extender.” But it does so at a price nearly twice that of its conventional counterpart, the new Chevy Cruze.

Consumer demand will ultimately determine how many of these vehicles will hit the road. At the beginning, though, incentives provided by government can help. Consumers buying PEVs would allow automakers to reduce costs through the two pillars of cost reduction — learning-by-doing and economies of scale. Advancements in battery and electric-drive technology could increase the range of a PEV to nearly 300 miles per charge, which would allow a PEV to compete with a conventional vehicle. To get there, however, automakers will need new kinds of batteries that aren’t commercially available today.

Lastly, consumers must accept things that differentiate PEVs from conventional gasoline vehicles, including range limitations and the likelihood that refilling future cars may take longer than five minutes. The conventional vehicle has a 100+ year head start on the mass-market PEV. There are millions of Americans who are considered early adopters and will do just about anything to have the “next big thing.” However, mainstream car buyers are more skeptical of new technologies. PEVs will have to appear mainstream in all facets to make a real splash in the car market.

Reinventing the Gas Station
Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles will reach the market in the next few years, but will face a considerable barrier — a lack of refueling infrastructure. They do not have the range limitation of an EV, as you can drive nearly 300 miles on a single tank of hydrogen, but they require a refueling infrastructure that doesn’t yet exist in the United States today. These vehicles also face similar challenges to PEVs, including high initial costs that will have to be reduced.

Our report finds, though, the car of 2035 could be remarkably different from today's cars — if Americans take action in the public square and the marketplace. Citizens need to support public policies such as fuel-economy standards that push us away from oil. And consumers must embrace advanced technologies so public policy, technological progress, and market success can be mutually reinforcing. In the end, the differences between today's cars and those of 2035 are up to car buyers.

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rwilliston says: 1:35 PM, 03.22.11

The variable that is hard to define are changing government regulations. Cars like the Honda CRX from the 1980's were getting the same performance as the Honda Insight Hybrid of today, but likely could not do so if we added the regulated 500+ pounds of airbags and other safety features mandated for today's cars. If however, there was no risk of running into three ton SUVs with bumpers aimed at your windshield, then the safety regulations could be relaxed and the cars become feasible.
Government regulations could change if there is a strong will to eliminate all imported oil from the Middle East. All they would have to do is legislate away the SUVs and favour cars under 1000 cc or less like they do in Japan. Who knows, maybe one day the lumber and granite industries will have powerful lobbyists in Washington and we'll all be driving Flintstone cars. The one constant is that any projections of the future car are always wrong. Most automakers have problems projecting the models they are currently in the process of making, the Pacers and Bricklins of the world all started as sound attempts to address current industry trends that were caught by changes in the market. When Ford designed the jelly-bean shaped cars of the 1980s, they successful but were thought too futuristic for the market. Since then the market has shifted to hulking, retro SUVs, so where is that future now?
So now I have two points. Design trends are not linear and the influence of government regulations on trends cannot be overestimated.


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