Road test in 2108

How it’ll look in an­other 90 years

Autocar - - THIS WEEK -

So what will the cars tested by Au­to­car 90 years from now be like? One thing seems cer­tain: de­spite all the talk, they won’t be fully au­ton­o­mous. There may be fully au­ton­o­mous de­vices on the road but they won’t be cars. If you’ve ever parked in Heathrow’s busi­ness car park and got one of those funny lit­tle bub­bles to take you to the ter­mi­nal, you don’t think you’re step­ping into a car when you climb aboard, you think you’re step­ping into a driver­less pod, be­cause that is pre­cisely what it is. Cars that don’t need driv­ers aren’t cars, and that’s the end of it.

But do they need wheels? The wheel is pretty old tech – about 6000 years old, in fact. So will it re­ally be re­placed within the next 90? Pos­si­bly. Wheels and tyres are space-in­ef­fi­cient, re­quire heavy and com­pli­cated sus­pen­sion sys­tems, wear out and cre­ate enor­mous amounts of fric­tion. They also limit the amount a car can turn. But if the car could hover, all th­ese prob­lems go away. You may re­mem­ber the ex­tra­or­di­nary ekra­noplans built by Rus­sia dur­ing the Cold War . Th­ese were craft ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing vast num­bers of troops at 300mph, fly­ing just above the sur­face of the sea, ex­ploit­ing what’s known as ground ef­fect – the aero­dy­namic re­la­tion­ship be­tween a ve­hi­cle’s body, or wings, and the sur­face below. They failed partly be­cause the So­vi­ets were short of money and partly be­cause the ekra­noplans only worked on calm wa­ter.

On land, there would be no such prob­lems. Su­per-light­weight cars would use ground ef­fect at speed and adjustable thrusters that turned them, kept them sus­pended at low speeds and slowed them down. The sci­en­tists and en­gi­neers read­ing this may now be re­al­is­ing you don’t count me among your num­ber.

Okay, so per­haps that’s too great a leap. So here’s an­other pre­dic­tion your grand­chil­dren can laugh at when leaf­ing through a 90-yearold back is­sue of Au­to­car in 2108: the en­tire elec­tric car rev­o­lu­tion with which we are con­fronted to­day will have been and gone. Some­time around 2030, it starts to be­come clear that the trans­form­ing tech­nol­ogy that will put the is­sues of range anx­i­ety and charg­ing times fi­nally to bed is as far away as ever. In the mean­time, sup­plies of the met­als re­quired to make bat­ter­ies are be­com­ing se­verely de­pleted while the true en­vi­ron­men­tal cost of min­ing those met­als and dis­pos­ing of dead bat­ter­ies – which are rarely men­tioned by car man­u­fac­tur­ers and al­most never con­sid­ered by the pub­lic – be­come starkly ap­par­ent.

So the in­dus­try faces re­al­ity and realises it’s been sit­ting on the an­swer to all its prob­lems for decades. Mas­sive ad­vances in re­new­able en­ergy sources mean it is now not only pos­si­ble but also eco­nom­i­cally vi­able to pro­duce hy­dro­gen with­out steam­ing it out of nat­u­ral gas, and sud­denly fuel cells be­come flavour of the month, year, decade and cen­tury. At once cars have a clean source of fuel, de­cent range and re­fill­ing times only slightly slower than petrol. Hy­dro­gen will be pro­duced by elec­trol­y­sis us­ing power cre­ated by wind, wave and so­lar en­ergy. Cars could even use so­lar pan­els to

The in­dus­try has been sit­ting on the an­swer for decades

make their own hy­dro­gen and never have to re­fuel at all. And their only emis­sion would be wa­ter.

As for the way cars look, this is where I en­vis­age the least change. The hard points of car de­sign – the need to ac­com­mo­date a given num­ber of hu­man be­ings, their lug­gage and some kind of propul­sion sys­tem – aren’t go­ing to change, nor will the laws of physics. Cars will be­come much lighter and con­sid­er­ably more aero­dy­nam­i­cally ef­fi­cient. Those need­ing to gen­er­ate aero­dy­namic grip won’t do it by the mount­ing of drag-in­duc­ing wings on the car’s up­per sur­face; they’ll do it all un­der­neath, and not just with dif­fusers but by ac­tively suck­ing out the air from be­neath the ve­hi­cle, a tech­nol­ogy first used in rac­ing al­most half a cen­tury ago. Drop­down skirts will seal the car to the ground when re­quired.

Car in­te­ri­ors, how­ever, will be trans­formed. All in­stru­men­ta­tion will be pro­jected via vir­tual headup dis­plays, all com­mands will be ex­e­cuted by voice or ges­ture. Switches, stalks, but­tons and di­als will cease to ex­ist in the form we know them to­day. Cab­ins will be­come clean and beau­ti­ful spa­ces once more: be­cause cars will be lighter and the ma­te­ri­als that build them will be stronger, there will no longer be the need for wind­screen pil­lars as thick as a weightlifter’s thigh.

And, of course, there will be some au­ton­omy, prob­a­bly what is known to­day as level four, where the driver not only hands over con­trol to the car but can work, rest or play in­stead. But this will only be in strictly con­trolled ar­eas such as mo­tor­ways, dual car­riage­ways, ma­jor A-roads and city cen­tres – all the places you don’t much fancy driv­ing any­way.

But the real point is that wher­ever we go in the next 90 years, it will be a very short dis­tance com­pared with where we’ve been in the pre­vi­ous 90. Con­sider this: 90 years ago, a de­cent fam­ily car was a prim­i­tive box that would strug­gle to hold a 50mph cruise. It was noisy, un­com­fort­able, danger­ous and un­re­li­able. To­day, that car is a Volk­swa­gen Golf. Split the dif­fer­ence be­tween then and now and, give or take a few months, the best fam­ily car you could buy in 1974 was also a Volk­swa­gen Golf – a mod­ern, re­li­able, safe, fuel-ef­fi­cient, front-drive mono­coque hatch­back. The rate of evo­lu­tion has slowed dra­mat­i­cally in the past gen­er­a­tion, and will con­tinue to do so in the next – and the one af­ter that.

Fos­sil anal­y­sis re­veals that cer­tain species of shark stopped evolv­ing mil­lions of years ago, be­cause their de­sign could no longer be im­proved. The car has a way to go be­fore it reaches that point, but it is a ma­tur­ing prod­uct and the days of its great­est changes lie far be­hind.

Bat­tery EVS will be dead and fuel cell cars will rule the world, re­act­ing hy­dro­gen and oxy­gen – and with wa­ter as their only emis­sion. Will cars in 90 years still have wheels, or will they just float or even fly? Wheels are old tech, so per­haps their time has come.

If a car needs down­force, this is where it will be cre­ated, with su­per­so­phis­ti­cated dif­fusers and fan sys­tems that don’t add drag. Cars will still be steer­able even if not all the time, ei­ther by wheel or joy­stick. Cab­ins will be sim­ple, clean and lux­u­ri­ous. Ex­pect vis­ual aero­dy­nam­ics to lead to very clean sur­fac­ing and cars painted in ul­tra-low fric­tion ma­te­ri­als.

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