One often sees concept cars being criticized for being too conservative in design, playing it too safe, sticking to the tried and true. But how daring can prospective car designs realistically be, not just in terms of styling but with a view to technology, performance, and safety features? When it comes to imagining the car of the future, will we ever catch up with the authors of pulp science fiction and Hollywood’s flights of fancy?
Flights of the imagination
We’ve seen futuristic conceptions of automobiles since there have been automobiles. No doubt the most prevalent image of a future car is an airborne one, a science fiction staple in movies and TV — from the one-man rockets of Buck Rogers and the family-friendly flying saucer cars of The Jetsons, to the Landspeeder hover cars of Star Wars and the flying taxis of The Fifth Element. But if in 2019 we’re to be flying around in a Spinner, as the 1982 movie Blade Runner predicted, we’d better get the development of flying cars accelerated. The way it looks at present, we may stand a better chance of sending a DeLorean into the future. It was easy for the press release for Blade Runner to attribute the Spinner’s flying ability to three engines — jet, internal combustion, and anti-gravity — but bringing such lofty imaginings to reality are a whole other story.
The future is now
So has any progress at all been made on a flying car that doesn’t operate on ink from a comic book artist’s pen? Well, concept cars weren’t always conservative. In 1956, Ford’s design team imagined a car called the Volante Tri-Athodyne, which with two fans in the rear and one up front would apparently have VTOL capability (Vertical Takeoff and Landing), like a helicopter. Unfortunately, this sleek beauty remained grounded in the teasing form of a 3/8 scale model. However, these ducted-fan type designs were looked to repeatedly for aero-car concepts in the years to come, including the US Army’s research into creating a “flying jeep.” Into the 80s, the ducted-fan approach continued with such efforts as Boeing’s proposed Sky Commuter. More recent attempts at a personal airborne vehicle, though, still sound more like miniature airplanes than flying cars as envisioned in science fiction. For instance, the prototype VTOL called the Moller M400 Skycar would be restricted to taking off from and landing at heliports and airports. The AeroMobil, shown at the Pioneers Festival in 2014, might get 430 miles out of a single tank of fuel, but it also requires 200 meters in order to take off, and 50 to land. That might not exactly amount to an airport landing strip, but it still doesn’t quite sound like something that’s ready to go from one’s garage to the sky.
Flying in the face of safety
Despite the fact that we may not be buzzing around the skies of 2019, particularly not with a beautiful android riding shotgun, it does seem just a matter of time before we see some sort of aero-car in use, even if it is restricted in where and how it can be used. The main obstacle may simply be that flying cars are just not economically feasible, in terms of the resources needed to power them. Also, there are the obvious dangers inherent in letting people move up and down in the air when they’re causing enough accidents now just moving forward and back on the ground. One imagines that automated piloting systems, based on satellite navigation information, would be crucial. Science fiction stories such as those in the Punktown series of books envision a network of “navigation beams” that airborne vehicles would travel along; in essence, a virtual system of elevated highways, to ease the congestion of street-bound traffic. Still, it’s impossible not to picture aero-cars crashing into the sides of buildings, and into each other, much to the detriment of the man on the street.
More down to Earth
Trying to keep things grounded, what other radical innovations have science fiction sought to predict that might be more within the realm of possibility? Well, onboard computer systems might not have quite as much personality as KITT in Knight Rider, but they exist and keep becoming more sophisticated. That can only be a good thing, so long as no one ever puts HAL 9000 in charge. Tomorrow’s car will go well beyond the functions of today’s GPS to determine not just which is the best route to take, but will have been following your behaviors closely enough to suggest routes to you, in addition to controlling the air conditioner or heat to what it has memorized are your personal preferences. The concept of a self-driving car is another of those just-a-matter-of-when propositions, and will no doubt be built upon global positioning system navigation. A system of sensors will also be required to keep the car — and the driver, if not asleep — aware of its immediate surroundings. But what good is a smart car if it’s still dependent on prehistoric fuel? Alternative means of getting a car where it needs to be are probably the foremost concern for cars of the future, and many a design is underway. These include cars with a lithium-ion battery powering an electric motor in all four wheels, to cars that use compressed air as their means of propulsion. And what are the cars of tomorrow made from? Designers predict bodies and chassis created from lightweight but tough carbon fiber and other composites, even with such material as seaweed incorporated in them, while others envision cars that are all but grown organically, having bodies partially formed from plant matter such as trees.
Car safety in the future
The Department of Transportation and the University of Michigan have collaborated on a project called V2V (Vehicle to Vehicle), which involves cars and trucks communicating with each other to avoid accidents, and signaling to the driver not only when a crash with another vehicle might be imminent, but a collision with a stationary object or risk to a pedestrian. Even more impressive technologies are being worked on, that would recognize when a driver is nodding off in sleep based on monitoring their head position, or which would actually sample a driver’s sweat to determine whether the operator is driving with too high an alcohol content. A Japanese company is even working on a technology that, through contact with the steering wheel, would monitor the driver’s heart rate and warn of an impending cardiac incident. As for the outside of future cars, we’ll no doubt be seeing external airbags to protect a car from impacts with other vehicles and obstacles. Because the bottom line is, no matter how wild the imaginings of car developers, as they salivate at the latest multiplex SFX extravaganza, vehicle safety design is always going to have to factor into the equation.