The road ahead for the cars of tomorrow

Inside its Futurama Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair in 1939, General Motors presented “the wonder world of 1960”: its hopeful vision of a then impossibly distant future.

Predictably for the world’s largest carmaker at the time, GM’s exhibit focused largely on transportation, and featured automated, seven-lane highways snaking through enormous cities.

As visitors voyaged in moving seats through the pavilion, a sonorous male voice described this new world. “The motorist of 1960 finds this motorway safe and efficient,” he declared.

Automobiles, Futurama predicted, would travel at a speeds of “up to 50mph” and be kept at safe distances by radio control technology.

Some of the Futurama ideas were fanciful, such as the giant hangar for docking airships. Others, however, were more prescient – the exhibit anticipated the growth of the US interstate highway system, for example.

Seven decades later, GM forecast trends in urban driving at another world’s fair in another country: the Expo 2010 in Shanghai.

The Detroit carmaker, which now sells more vehicles in China than in the US, displayed the EN-V, a quirky, tiny concept vehicle developed with its main joint venture partner, Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp (SAIC).

GM and SAIC designed the two-seat, two-wheel electric runabout to alleviate concerns around a rather more dystopian future of congested, polluted and borderline unworkably populous megacities such as Shanghai.

GM showed three variants of the minicar, with different Chinese names: Xiao (“Laugh”), Jiao (“Pride”) and Miao (“Magic”), meant to showcase the “infinite possibilities” cars will offer in 2030.

Using GPS and vehicle-to-vehicle sensing technology, the EN-V can drive autonomously, leaving users free to work or surf the web. It weighs less than 500kg and is roughly five feet long – small enough to squeeze into tiny spots, or even be parked in a flat.

“Miao will transport you magically and seamlessly throughout the urban landscape,” GM declares. “With Miao’s infinite knowledge of urban highways and byways, you’ll arrive at your meetings not only ahead of time, but also with your work completed.”

The EN-V might seem more like fairground candyfloss were it not for the fact it highlights core concerns facing the car industry – and real technologies that GM and many of its competitors are developing for use in burgeoning big cities.

As millions of new drivers in the developing world buy their first vehicles, carmakers are desperate to capture their business and brand loyalty.

BMW, the industry’s biggest luxury producer, is developing a new group of electric vehicles dubbed “Megacity”, while its rival Audi is resuscitating a version of its defunct small A2 for use in cities with populations of 5m-10m.

Carmakers are responding to growing pressure from consumers, regulators and urban planners to develop compact, clean and affordable vehicles that contribute less to congestion.

As the US and now China have discovered, building more highways only brings more cars on to the road.

The solution, claims GM, will lie in breakthrough vehicles that are versatile, small, electric-powered and able to pivot 360 degrees or move crabwise thanks to motors in their wheels.

Carmakers are also experimenting with shared ownership schemes that, in addition to meeting growing demand for car sharing, ensure that vehicles are in frequent use rather than taking up space on streets or in car parks.

“We need to come up with solutions that are mass producible, and solve problems for the masses,” says Chris Borroni-Bird, the senior GM executive behind the EN-V. “If we don’t solve how people drive in cities, we aren’t going to solve the global environmental issue.”

According to GM, radical downsizing is one of the answers. The EN-V is essentially a glorified version of the two-wheelers popular around Asia, with a passenger cabin added to allow for climate control, welcome in the continent’s often-muggy climes.

Next year, Renault will launch the Twizy, a 6.5-foot-long, 3.2-foot-wide electric “urban car” in which two passengers sit in tandem.

But for officials grappling with solutions to urban driving in the future, size is just one factor to address.

Carmakers and traffic officials in the US, Japan and elsewhere are also studying ways of using GPS, wireless communications and sensors to create a network between cars and public authorities. This will ease congestion and, with time, allow autonomous driving. GM’s Borroni-Bird calls the concept the “mobile internet”.

Cars that drive at optimum speeds, avoid jams and never crash use less energy and can be made smaller by eliminating much of the hardware needed in conventional cars. The convergence of “networked” driving with electric car technology will allow drivers of the future to be routed to the nearest free charging point where they can top up their batteries.

While carmakers traditionally saw public transport as a threat, they are now seeking synergies with it in schemes that offer short-term rentals or that meld driving with other ways of getting around.

Daimler is experimenting with a plan that allows drivers to pick up one of its Smart-brand minicars on the street for short-term use, much like the bicycles-for-hire schemes in London and Paris. It says demand for the cars has been brisk in Ulm, Germany, and Austin, Texas, the two cities where its “car2go” pilot is taking place.

PSA Peugeot Citroën recently launched a product where customers pay for “mobility units”, worth €10 ($12.70) each, that can be redeemed for short-term hire of a family car, a sports car, a scooter or even a bicycle.

Yet not all carmakers are betting that urban drivers will want radical solutions, much less tiny, cheap motors such as the EN-V, whose top speed will be just 25mph.

While BMW has thus far only released sketches of its Megacity, the car will probably look more like conventional ones on the road, even if it is electric powered. Three years ago, its board green-lit “Project i”, a think-tank, and it began studying mobility trends and ways to get customers into its cars in the future.

The project team visited large cities in Asia, the US and Europe, talking to customers and policy-makers. City planners expressed concerns about cars’ emissions, but not their size. Customers said they wanted a safe, premium car, and that a two-seater was not good enough.

“People don’t want to make any sacrifice when it comes to electric cars,” says Ulrich Kranz, head of Project i. “They want us to deliver excellent quality, sufficient space for up to four passengers plus luggage, and a good range.”

Renault also reckons its scooter-like Twizy will appeal only in some markets, amid continuing demand for conventional-sized cars in places such as India. If so, GM may be wrong about minicars relegating urban congestion to the history books.

After all, as Thierry Koskas, Renault’s programme director for electric cars, points out: “Emerging markets still want real cars.”

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