Future shocks 

With the new-car show season in full swing, it’s natural to take the automakers’ word for it concerning what we commuters will be driving in the near future. After all, they’re the folks who make the cars and trucks we’re addicted to.

But, ahem, this ignores a rather fundamental reality: that we, the consumer-commuters, ultimately dictate with our wallets and our installment-loan coupons what they, the auto pushers, are allowed to sell. Otherwise, we would still be driving the bloated Caprice Classics, Fairlanes, and Le Barons that were forced to extinction by clever, fuel-stingy imports in the ’70s and ’80s.

In defiance, then, of the auto shows with their cautious mix of available new cars and timid prospective concepts, the following four oracular predictions are meant to divine the depths of our automotive appetites over the next decade. If they seem strange and outlandish, they’re meant to be—just like the family minivan, in-car cell phone, and satellite navigation system only a scant 15 years ago.

Electronics

A radical electronics revolution has probably the best chance of obliterating the present-day paradigm defining what an automobile should be. Right now, consumers are enthralled by the e-candy gadgets that are filling cockpits to the point of dysfunctional distraction. But the real revolution lies beyond the CD/MP3/DVD/Satellite radio sound systems, the GPS navigators, the audio e-mailers that are titillating early adopters and confusing the unwary.

It is my outlandish prediction that the next 10 years will see the electronic transformation of the vehicle from its present status as an overdeveloped wheelbarrow into an electro-mechanical “network packet” navigating between destinations like those digital pulses streaming along the Internet’s superhighways. The rudiments are already with us: interactive, remote-sensing cruise control that adjusts to other cars and road conditions; continuously improving mapping data for guiding GPS systems to exact addresses; wireless communication infrastructures like GM’s OnStar and Microsoft’s new Car.NET that can provide ongoing, “actionable” feedback en route.

Once it clearly dawns that more e-gadgets only mean more distractions for a vehicle operator, the need for an operator during simple commuting will be eliminated in favor of a system of specifying destinations that vehicles can reach on their own. At this point, the erstwhile driver will have been relegated to the role of “delegating manager” for the duration of his or her trip.

And the category is . . .

The not-so-distant future will see the elimination of the fundamental distinction between “cars” and “trucks.” Indeed, it’s clear that the process has already begun when The Wall Street Journal can trumpet the following headline: “New SUVs Mimic (Gasp!) Minivans.” The age of the SUW—the Sport/Utility Whatever—is already upon us, and the blurring of category lines will only accelerate. By 2011, I predict that the terms “car” and “truck” will either be synonymous, or that they will both give way to something like “pod.” And these clever pods will exploit advances in variable seating for different numbers and sizes of people. Moreover, they will accommodate the easy stowage of different cargoes.

Mass transit

Ten years from now, inner-city traffic in the nation’s 30 largest cities will simply be unbearable. It is unbearable in at least one-third of these metropolises already. But inner-city traffic will not disappear. It will downsize. Even draconian fiat will fail to separate freewheeling, free-willed commuters from their “pods,” and yet an answer to congestion will have to be found.

That answer will be a network of “land ferries” that can transport commuters and a new generation of microcars from the hinterlands and suburbs into the cities and back again. Sized for one or two people—like the sheltered scooter-derived designs already being offered by such makers as BMW and Corbin—these personalized-urban-commuters (PUCs) will preserve and ease independent mobility in crowded centers without exposing their operators to the dangers and discomforts of long-haul travel in too-small vehicles.

Transportation patterns will resolve themselves into “node-and-link” networks. The long-distance legs will be served by land ferries shuttling our PUCs and ourselves between the various urban and suburban concentrations, where we will then be free to PUC about on our own. The ferries themselves may employ new or existing rail systems; or they may simply become adaptations of our Interstate highway network using glorified tandem- and triple-trailer transports providing comfortable amenities for passengers and dense yet secure parking for our PUCs.

Fuels

There will be no breakthroughs in fuel systems by the year 2011, but there will be important transformations of existing technologies. At the most banal level, super-efficient diesel oil will be scrubbed and purified using technology that already exists to transform natural gas into clear, odorless, virtually particle-free diesel power.

The exciting technology currently in development known as fuel cell power will become ever more practical as commuters gravitate to microcars and PUCs. From a variety of “starter” fuels, including simple water, fuel cells render hydrogen gas, which is then carefully exploited to charge electric motors. Managing this volatile and potentially dangerous fuel will be greatly simplified by the fuel-stingy microcars we will want in our cities.

Gasoline will endure since manufacturers like Honda have already found ways to clean its related emissions to the extreme. But because today’s refined gasoline is relatively inefficient at transforming a given volume of fuel into energy, it is likely that 10 years from now, gasoline will be relegated to long-haul applications and to the next generation of hybrid, gas-electric vehicles.

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