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It's the Only Way to Live.
In Cars.

Jamais Cascio

Imagine shooting down the highway on a nearly-silent carbon fiber missile. You don't wear a leather jacket when you're riding; you wear kevlar. This isn't just a motorcycle, it's a lightning bolt from the future, a dagger pointed at the heart of the dinosaurs in Detroit and in Tokyo.

Driving into the future

George Jetson had his flying saucer. Mad Max had his Mustang Interceptor. In the near future, we'll have our Hypercars.

The world of individual transportation is changing. Responding to the need to get more people to more places without sacrificing personal independence or further degrading the environment, the automotive industry, private researchers, and government have come up with an assortment of technologies to change how our cars work internally and behave on the road. Some of these are relatively prosaic -- electric cars predate the internal combustion engine, of course -- but others, such as "Intelligent Vehicle-Highway Systems," are enormously complex, relying heavily on ever-increasing computer power.

ZEVs, DEVs, and the EV-1

In the United States, the post-World War II expansion was tied inextricably to the growth of a car culture. The postwar transformation of suburbs, songs, and sex can be linked directly to the rise of individually owned transportation.

The car's popularity in this country has had its price; the environmental and political impact of the automobile has been enormous. Gasoline price sensitivity, dependence upon foreign sources of oil, and (above all) smog have led many to question the automobile's future. But despite the best efforts of many environmentalists, the US has not built its cities -- or its economy -- in a way that is friendly to mass transit. For better or worse, cars will remain the key mode of personal transportation over the next few decades.

In order to meet its EPA-required reductions in air pollution but without attempting a social revolution, California passed rules requiring the seven largest car companies doing business in the state to start selling zero-emission vehicles (designed to produce little or no pollutant tailpipe exhaust) by 1998. Other states soon followed suit.

Not everyone agrees that zero-emission vehicle rules are the best way to deal with pollution. Reason magazine put together a case against electric-vehicle mandates, focusing on the problem of deferred emission: electric cars must be charged, resulting in more powerplant emissions. Arguing in opposition is the California Air Quality Management District in its White Paper on electric cars, a pretty good overview of the arguments for electrics. It directly answers many of the points raised in the Reason article. The RAND Corporation offers a fairly balanced analysis of the California ZEV regulations and their alternatives.

Perhaps the most visible zero-emission (or deferred-emission) car currently available is GM's Saturn EV-1, formerly known as the Impact. (Before you link to the site, be warned -- it's fairly hard to navigate, and presumes that you have a 17" monitor on a T-1 connection.) The EV-1 is, despite its jelly-bean-of-the-future styling, a very traditional electric car. Heavy, short-range, and expensive, the EV-1 is much more a starting point than a goal.

"She'll make point-five past light speed"

Amory and Hunter Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) published a paper in 1995 called Reinventing the Wheels. In it, the Lovinses suggest that the car as we know it (made of steel, requiring fuel every 250 miles or so, dirty) is obsolete, and that advances in materials technology and manufacturing could make possible a vehicle that was safe, clean, and fun to drive, and could get over 100 miles (perhaps over 200) to the gallon. They called this next generation of automobiles Hypercars.

This is no fantasy. Documents at RMI's Hypercar pages lay out in careful detail the engineering and economics of these vehicles. The design they use is referred to as a hybrid electric vehicle (HEV), as it uses both electric motors and liquid fuels. Initial Hypercar/HEV designs use gasoline engines as adjuncts to their electric motors; future HEVs would use fuel cells.

The key to the Hypercar is the use, wherever possible, of advanced materials such as light, very strong carbon fiber in place of much heavier steel. Although carbon fiber is far more expensive than steel, far less of it is used for each vehicle; the overall costs work out roughly the same.

The Rocky Mountain Institute is not the only group looking at HEVs. MlT's research on HEV/Hypercars is going well; its site contains an excellent set of Internet resources on hybrid-electric vehicles. The United States Department of Energy is also understandably interested in hybrid electric technology. The DOE underwrites some basic research on HEVs, expecting that development of new energy storage technologies will have broad application. The DOE site has a good set of HEV-related links.

The business world is also beginning to pay attention. The business magazine Asia Inc took a look at the concept in a 1995 article, "Hyping the Hypercar." The article's key point is that Hypercars represent a way for China to allow for individual car ownership while minimizing the environmental impact of cars for over a billion people. China is ready to start its next phase of national modernization, and manufacturers around the world are hungry for that market.

So where are the big U.S. and Japanese auto companies in all of this? Good question. They are probably keeping their research quiet in the interest of competitive advantage; they could also simply be ignoring advances that may revolutionize their industry the way the personal computer changed the big-mainframe world.

The Hypercar/HEV concept includes quite a wide array of energy storage media, including advanced batteries with liquid electrodes, carbon flywheels, and fuel cells. The variety of power-source options is one of the idea's more promising aspects: production need not be contingent on the success of a single technology. Research into advanced energy generation and storage has potential spinoffs: fuel cell technology could readily be used for building or neighborhood energy generation, and better batteries would revolutionize mobile computing and communications.

Highways smarter than the drivers

Some people don't want to just improve the cars: they want to improve the roads, too. Intelligent Vehicle Highway Systems comprise a number of information technologies to be embedded in cars and roadways to better route and control traffic. Something of a catchall for information-dense transportation systems, IVHS has attracted interest from universities and industry, and, to a smaller degree, from government.

One of the best overviews of IVHS comes from the Department of Defense's Information Analysis Center. The review of the Human Factors Program for IVHS stands out as a straightforward description of the system's constituent technologies. These include:

Advanced Traveler Information Systems:
In-vehicle navigation, signaling, and safety advisories. This involves the use of global positioning system units and radio data communications.

Advanced Traffic Management Systems:
To monitor and control traffic to avoid congestion. Sensors embedded in roadways keep track of vehicle confluence and notify onboard control systems.

Advanced Vehicle Control Systems:
Sensory enhancement and obstacle avoidance through automated systems. Perhaps the most radical of the IVHS concepts, this moves partial or total vehicle control from the driver to a systemwide data and control network.

Many IVHS modifications require changes to cars as well as to highways. Such changes must be implemented in a way that does not make driving (as we know it) impossible. IVHS critics refer to an old Soviet joke: "As part of the great modernization, the Politburo decided that we should drive on the right side of the road, not the left. So the first year, they switched all the trucks..." IVHS must initially coexist with non-networked vehicles without disruption or danger.

Many elements of the IVHS model would work well as stand-alone equipment (such as GPS navigation devices). Even if an Intelligent Vehicle-Highway System were not fully in place, drivers with access to the network would benefit. But the intent is clearly to design a complex system able to do far more than individual cars and drivers could match. The evident parallel is with networked information systems. The personal computer gave individuals power; the network of personal computers enabled individuals to extend that power to an organizational or even global scale. IVHS, if successful, would make automobile and truck travel more efficient, less stressful, and quite possibly faster than currently possible.

Unlike the strong role the Department of Energy plays in HEV development, the United States Department of Transportation hasn't been on the forefront of IVHS research, choosing instead to underwrite state level and industrial research. The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories, best known for nuclear weapons design, a really big mothballed tokamak fusion reactor, and the really really big Shiva laser system, is one source of IVHS research in coordination with industry. Universities have also been cooperating with electronics, software, and automobile industries in IVHS development. Texas A&M, the University of Manitoba, and UC Berkeley all have active IVHS research programs.

Let's park this thing

Attempts to get us out of our cars have tended to provoke either disdain or anger, depending upon the level of taxation required. It's encouraging to see proposals for improving the quality of our transportation lives that don't assume a transformation of our society. Intelligent Highway Systems, Hybrid Electric Hypercars, even first-generation electrics like the EV-1 are examples of an attempt to work with the cultural grain, not against it.

At the same time, the changes these proposals suggest are revolutionary. From the economic impact of new energy production methods to the subtle perceptual shifts of networked vehicles to the simple pleasure of improvements in air quality, the way we live our lives will be very different -- and in most cases, much better -- in the coming decades due to the transformative effect of these technologies.

Happy motoring!

  • For another take on Intelligent Vehicle Highway Systems, read Howard Rheingold's Tomorrow.

rafeco said:

If you're looking for something that could change the face of civilization as we know it, the spread of tropical diseases to the rest of the world (or the mutation of existing diseases to new strains that can't be treated) have a much better chance for success than a disastrous run-in with an asteroid.

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Advances in materials technology and manufacturing could make possible a new generation vehicle, one that was safe, fun to drive, clean, and could get over 100 miles to the gallon -- perhaps even over 200 mpg. Hypercars.

It's encouraging to see proposals for improving the quality of our transportation lives that don't assume a heretofore unproven ability to completely transform society.

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