Your New Car—Smaller, Safer, and Smarter than You
Business + Economy

Your New Car—Smaller, Safer, and Smarter than You


Your morning meeting was cancelled, so your car resets your alarm, giving you an extra hour of sleep. Once awake, you ease in behind the wheel, where you are greeted by your personal assistant. Call him "Robby." Robby automatically plays the same music that was streaming in your home, heating the interior to your preferred temperature and switching off the house lights as the car pulls away. As you drive, Robby monitors your heart rate to anticipate stress.

This may seem like a scene from a futuristic movie, but it's the real thing. The Ford Evos Concept Car — which stores information in the Cloud for ultimate connectivity — could hit the road within a decade, according to some experts, with the various technologies being rolled out in stages. "This car shows the future of where Ford is going," said Jim Buczkowski, Ford Motor Company's director of electronics research. The car is one of many that engineers are pilot testing today for the highways of tomorrow. 

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For today's millennials, who will comprise the bulk of future buyers, the freedom of driving has been replaced with the freedom of sharing information with their friends, so allowing drivers to remain connected will be a focus, says Mark West, chair of transportation design at The College for Creative Studies. In June, Apple announced that it is working with several large auto makers to use Siri for voice activation. Mercedes-Benz is already using it in its new A-Class.

But all these high-tech advancements will not come cheap. Self-driving cars — already on the road for testing in Nevada and available within the next 10 to 15 years to consumers — will also initially be pricier offerings. The federal government is currently working with car makers to provide equipment on transportation signals as well as in cars  that can communicate with each other to avoid accidents. This year, the Department of Transportation (DOT), in conjunction with the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, will be deploying 2,800 vehicles on the streets of Ann Arbor this month to test the technology, a project that alone costs $25 million, with approximately 80 percent funded by DOT.

Among the most radical departures is Volkswagen's hover car, a two-seater, zero-emission vehicle that flies just slightly above the ground, unveiled this year and designed for the Chinese market. Simon Loasby, director of design at Volkswagen China, says there are no current plans to create this kind of car for the masses, as that would require a "sea change in how people think about automotive mobility, as well as tremendous investments" in research and development and infrastructure. He said the goal was to better understand the needs of the Chinese people and develop auto innovations to satisfy those needs. Gabriel Shenhar, senior auto test engineer for Consumer Reports, says he imagines the hover car as a solution for a select group of consumers in urban environments, but says it's not practical for most people.

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Luxury buyers will continue to be the main market for electric vehicles, at least until there are major breakthroughs in battery technology. The vehicles are well equipped, and appeal to a more premium audience, said VanNieuwkuyk. A case in point is Tesla, which received 30,000 orders for its new four door electric Model S that retails for $50,000.

Fuel cell cars, zero-emission cars powered by hydrogen, have better range than electric vehicles — closer to 100 miles — but the current $200,000-plus sticker price isn't expected to significantly decrease beyond $50,000, says, Mike Omotoso, senior manager, global powertrain at LMC Automotive, nor has there yet been a commitment by the government to provide the fueling stations needed to create the infrastructure for the cars.

The People’s Car
But while affluent drivers will be the main beneficiaries of high-tech advancements in the near future, consumers on a budget will also see improvements. Mike VanNieuwkuyk, executive director of global automotive at J.D. Power and Associates, says more vehicles will accommodate smart phones, displaying the driver's favorite apps. MirrorLink, developed by Nokia, and backed by a dozen car companies, allows a driver to plug a phone into the USB port, where information is displayed in the center screen of the car. It's due in large volume by 2014, not just as a luxury technology, even in early rollouts.

Tough fuel economy requirements, mandating that car makers get an average of 54 miles per gallon across their entire fleet by 2025 will mean that there will be far more fuel efficient offerings for consumers. And, as car makers succeed in significantly ratcheting up the fuel economy of gas-powered engines, those cars will continue to attract the budget buyer, says Omotoso. He predicts a plethora of gas-powered cars that could get up to 40 miles per gallon.

Cars are also getting smaller. Scion introduced the iQ at this year’s Detroit Auto Show, calling it the “smallest four-seater on the market,” weighing a mere 2,127 pounds and retailing for $15,265. Volkswagen and Mercedes also unveiled concepts for tiny two-seaters. There’s even the bare-bones, $2,500 gas-powered Nano from India that’s been called the “People’s Car” — though Omotoso believes it is too primitive to hold sway in the U.S.

Electric car makers are also looking to appeal to a more mainstream audience. Tesla, for example, is known for their pricy electric sports cars, but plans to release a third generation of the four-door electric Model S by 2016 that will retail for $30,000. "Tesla is meant to be a brand and product for all," says spokeswoman Christina Ra. David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research, says EVs will begin to decline in price as a whole, since he believes that within five to 10 years, battery technology will become more economical, putting these vehicles in the reach of more mainstream buyers.

Over the next 10 to 20 years, hybrids will also come down in price, making them comparable to gas-powered vehicles, and attractive to budget buyers as well, says Bruce M. Belzowski, an assistant research scientist for the Transportation Research Institute. For Ford products in particular, buyers of all income levels will have several choices, says Alan Hall, a Ford spokesman. "You will pick the car you want and choose the powertrain that makes the most sense for your wallet," he says.