The automotive industry has always been evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Each model follows the last with subtle changes rather than groundbreaking new ideas. There may be an extra cylinder or two, a component made from alloy or composite instead of steel, but when was the last time you looked at a new car and said "Wow, that really is different"?
Douglas Adams observed that some of the most revolutionary ideas come from finding something old to leave out rather than finding something new to put in. In the evolution of cars, manufacturers keep adding things. We have cubic yards of billowing airbags, stacks of computers that control every function from stability control to DVD players, air conditioned gloveboxes (ironic, considering the primary function of gloves) and enough cup holders to warrant the development of new beverages.
Every time we add something to a vehicle, we add mass, complexity and expense. Three things that end up being the downfall of most technology, and the exact opposite goal of the most successful consumer products from the last 20 years. Computers started out being heavy, expensive and needing extensive training to use. My current Apple MacBook Pro is lighter than a half-year stack of issues of this magazine, more economical than the previous generation and is amazingly easy to use. Apple gets it: smaller, cheaper and less complex.
In the past few years, several companies have shown highly simplistic and basic concept cars. Small displacement, space-efficient, aero-dynamic and lightweight. Designers have created seats that are a quarter the weight and a third of the thickness of a conventional seat. Such a thin profile means better knee room for rear passengers in a smaller vehicle. The seat is just as comfortable-the designers just found the necessary components to leave out. A few years ago, VW took this concept to the extreme with its GX3 concept: a three-wheeled topless sports car. It showed that even our basic idea of a vehicle may need changing.
At the recent Frankfurt show, I talked to every tech guy, engineer and mechanical nerd I could find. We spoke about the thrust of the show being 'Green.' Every company was showing new technology developed to augment a current product, making it greener. Hybrids, hydrogen power and natural gas retrofits are all systems that are additions to what is already in place. Everyone who wasn't a marketing person said-off the record-that the answer is simple: remove mass.Newtonian physics tells us the less mass a vehicle has, the less force it takes to move it and less energy is required to create that force. We can use more efficient forms of energy, even use more environmentally friendly forms of energy, but that adds up to more mass, complexity and expense. The three things that will kill the car as we know it.
Hybrids are expensive and complex. Production and disposal of the batteries is arguably worse for the environment than the combustion emissions they save. Burning hydrogen is great because the only emission is water, but we have to get hydrogen from somewhere, creating more pollution and expense. Burning hydrogen in cars is extremely complex. Fuel systems freeze up and the car still has to be able to run on gasoline. So there is the complexity and mass of two different fueling systems. Natural gas seems a decent fuel, but again, do we really have the infrastructure in place to make it feasible? Will building that infrastructure make it so expensive that it quickly becomes unrealistic?
Simplifying is the easy solution. Identifying what we can live without in a vehicle is the first step. The MINI is a great example. Most people seldom carry passengers and large amounts of cargo at the same time, so you choose by having the seats up or down, depending on what's in the back. We can also make cars less complex. Maybe a basic investment in helping everyone become a better driver would help manufacturers feel better about not computer-aiding everything.
Cheaper has to happen, with all the emerging markets around the world. A $40,000 family car isn't going to fly in China and India. Cars like the VW Up, which can be a globally shared platform, are the future. Companies can't afford to build a completely different product line for every market.
The Smart car was originally conceived in a joint venture between Mercedes-Benz and Swatch. Maybe it's time we pulled other non-automotive companies into the fray to mix things up. Anyone else wonder what the iCar would look like?