Concept cars can predict the future
They don't just look cool. Concept cars can be a crystal ball into the future. Here's what the most recent crop tells us.
Toyota NS4 Concept
Concept cars — futuristic, imaginative creations that automakers trot out to showcase new designs, technologies or corporate intentions — are a highlight of the auto show circuit. There are a lot of them, and the lifecycle is pretty much the same: pre-show hype, the car's unveiling, and on to the next concept. It's hard to keep track of the ones that are truly innovative and easy to forget the ones that, well, aren't.
But when you sit down and cull through more than a year's worth of concept vehicle debuts, patterns start to emerge that give a clue as to what your car may look like in the not-so-distant future. (Note: By "future" we mean the near future, and by "concept" we mean fairly functional, intact vehicles — no sketches for flying cars or wacky one-off shade-tree projects.)
Here are several things you may notice about your next car, all of which can be traced back to a concept released in the past few years.
Your Next Car Will Likely Be a Hybrid or EV
Sorry, petrol fans: If concept vehicles are any indication, everything from hot hatches to near-luxury sedans to top-of-the-range supercars will be powered by some form of a hybrid or electric drivetrain. That's right, most of the recent high-power sports concepts run on hybrid or electric power: Ferrari F70 — check; BMW i8 — check; Jaguar C-X16 — check; and Lexus LF-LC — check, again.
The more everyday fare is well-represented, too, with everything from the Nissan Ellure concept unveiled in Los Angeles in 2010 to the Mitsubishi i-MiEV II that bowed in Tokyo in 2011 to the Chevrolet Code 130R sport sedan shown at this year's North American International Auto Show in Detroit. All are powered by some form of gas-electric system.
There's no reason to think automakers will pull a gasoline bait-and-switch for any production models as they have in the past. While concept-vehicle tech can sometimes be pie-in-the-sky fantastic, the 54.5 mpg corporate fuel-economy (CAFE) standards set for 2025, along with tightening emissions standards worldwide, are all too real and will require that most of these vehicles actually be built as hybrids and EVs.
Your Car Will Have an Odd Number of Doors
Far-out styling is expected on concept vehicles, but one very pragmatic detail has been popping up from Shanghai to Chicago: Be they hatchbacks, shooting brakes or wagons, a whole bunch of concepts are of the 3- or 5-door variety.
Chalk it up to automakers' newfound obsession with efficiency. A rear-loading hatch is simply the easiest way to boost cargo space without sacrificing interior room. How else to explain the Hyundai i-oniq shooting brake (Geneva), the Subaru Advanced Tourer wagon (Tokyo) or the Nissan Invitation, Suzuki G70 or Audi A2 (Geneva, Tokyo and Frankfurt, respectively), plus literally dozens of other hatchbacks that have dominated the shows? And while hatches and wagons are concept fare typically shown in Europe and Asia the go-to sales demographic for the segments the Ford Fiesta ST concept (Los Angeles), Kia Trackster (Chicago) and Mercedes-Benz A-Class concept (New York) all took a bow in the United States.
Your Car Will Have Carbon Fiber and Other Lightweight Bits
Right now, carbon fiber, aluminum space frames and other super-lightweight alloy bits are expensive, very expensive. The stuff is found mostly in supercars and high-end luxury sport sedans. But thanks to technological, scientific and manufacturing advancements, those materials are getting cheaper and easier to work with. Given that cutting weight is one of the easiest ways to boost fuel efficiency — and given that fuel-economy standards are only going up, and fast — suddenly automakers have a serious incentive to find cost-effective ways to incorporate superstrong and ultralight materials.
It's why a number of concepts geared toward the everyday driver, such as the Buick Envision crossover and BMW i3 city car, have made use of carbon-fiber frames. Volkswagen used an aluminum space frame for similarly featherweight strength in its Nils concept, which was unveiled in Frankfurt in 2011.
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Your Car Will Have a Heads-Up Display
If you want to see the bleeding edge of in-car tech — the high-concept stuff that will eventually trickle down to your everyday commuter — you turn to the top-of-the-line Audi and Mercedes-Benz vehicles. If you want to see what those two German manufacturers have planned for the future, you visit their respective booths at the Consumer Electronics Show.
In 2011, both automakers showed different visions of highly advanced contact-analog heads-up displays; the term means the system overlays information directly on objects seen through your windshield. The displays were fully interactive, customizable and controllable from the driver or passenger seat — and sometimes interacting between the two — with nothing but hand signals. Sure, the eventual production versions will debut on the high-ticket models first. But this is the sort of thing that makes its way, after a few product cycles, down to the Buicks and Hondas and Kias of the world.
Your Car Will Have Cameras Instead of Mirrors
Backup cameras may still be somewhat novel in the real world, but the most recent concepts have begun to harness the same technology to replace rear-view and side-mounted mirrors. Toyota's FT-Bh and NS4 concepts, revealed at Geneva and Detroit, respectively, send real-time information from rear-facing cameras to the driver, replacing the need for rearview and side mirrors. Kia, too, is in on that game with its stunning GT concept, which has side-mounted video screens in place of mirrors. It's a no-brainer, save for the fact that current vehicle safety laws have not yet caught up to the technology, making such mirror replacements illegal — for the time being.
Your Car Will Go More Than 80 Miles on a Gallon of Gas
Many of the attributes pointed out on this list — hybrid drive systems, superstrong lightweight materials, even the smaller and more practical body styles — are part of a larger pattern, which is an industrywide drive toward fuel efficiency and lower emissions. As such, many of the concepts shown throughout the past year have boasted ultralow emissions or ultrahigh miles per gallon (or mpg equivalent), or both.
Take the Mitsubishi PX-MiEV II, for example. Originally shown in Tokyo in 2009, an updated concept vehicle, much closer to production-ready, was unveiled last year boasting 140 mpg from a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine and a pair of 60-kilowatt electric motors.
The Honda AC-X plug-in sedan concept, shown at the same show, is quoted at a massive 260 mpg from its combination of a 1.6-liter 127-horsepower gas engine and 120-kilowatt electric motor, and the natural-gas-powered Toyota FT-Bh is quoted at 134.5 mpg. The Kia Ray concept, a plug-in hybrid sedan concept built on the Forte platform and shown in Chicago, is quoted at 202 mpg.
Meanwhile, the Hyundai i-oniq, Nissan Invitation and Infiniti Emerg-E concepts all produce far less than 100 grams per kilometer of carbon dioxide, something we will see advanced production vehicles looking to match very soon.
Josh Condon has covered everything from nanotechnology to champagne and caviar for the likes of The New York Times, Popular Science, Men's Journal, Cargo and RL Magazine. He's recently relocated from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Los Angeles and is spending way, way more time in his car as a result.
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A Real Concept car would be one that the working class can afford. Price it at $5 Grand and have it get at least an honest 50 MPG. Only the richest can afford to own and maintain one theese days. What good is it if the avrage worker making $10.00 to $15.00 an hour can't afford to get to work. Let alone pay the repair cost if it needs just basic service. If you can do thatyou might just sell millions of them and really stimulate the economy. I sure as heckk cant afford a years pay for a vehicle and pay for housing and food .
For much of the eighties, GM was making record profits. They used these profits to build plants in Mexico and Canada, and to pay huge bonuses to the CEOs who figured out that it was worthwhile to shut down whole cities (i.e. Flint, MI) so that they could use cheaper, foreign labor. Japan, and more recently Korea (Hyundai, Kia) have invested huge sums to build their factories here in the U.S. While these may not be the top paying union jobs your grandfather had, they are a lot better than the unemployment that the guys at the GM plant in Janesville, WI, for example, are now making. It's not where the profits go, it's what they are used for. Bob Lutz's bank account isn't any more accessible to me or you than the CEOs of Honda, Toyota, etc.
I have a Scion Xa that consistently gets 33 MPG in town and a lot more on the road. That car sells used in great shape for around $7k. That's economy up front and all down the road too.
So if and when the manufacturers can gives us a genuine savings comparison that makes sense of their new cars vs my used example, I might buy one.
On the other hand, if lots of people do buy them, maybe the price of gas will go down for all of us, thereby making their new purchase even less an economic good deal and making my Scion an even better and cheaper alternative.