The car is undergoing a slight metamorphosis but as our most highly evolved form of individual transport, it will survive.

Quo Vadis? Where to? To which end? These are some of the most commonly asked questions, anywhere, anytime, anyplace. They pertain to just about the whole spectrum of life, from minutiae to the broader strokes and strongest currents sweeping us along.

Life, it seems, is either boringly inert or maddeningly tumultuous, the latter habitually painting a picture reminiscent of Jackson Pollock canvasses: entangled masses of chaos from which we have to take our bearings.

So, to unravel, we do the sensible thing and create structures, devise systems and erect institutions to govern and socially engineer us. We organise schooling and health care and transport, we aim at law and order and peace and prosperity. And yeah, for our monetary affairs we entrust banks.

Until Bad Day at Black Rock strikes.

Then, suddenly, the future looks a whole lot different to the predicted outcomes. Just ask Greece, Spain and Ireland. Exactly the same happens in the car industry, even though shifts are not always as seismic as in the wider – and wilder – beyond. Still, car companies come and go. Technologies come and go. Styles come and go. Loci of focus come and go.

The future is never a stable thing. To give an answer, then, on the future of the car, or the car of the future, we have to make the point that even big automotive companies differ on where we should go, and how to get there. So many routes, so many roads.

One thing is for sure, though: there’s no harm in exploring alternative ways of powering vehicles. As pressing issues go, the conservation of energy is right up there. So, the car gurus – engineers, technicians, scientists – have come up with a couple of their own solutions.

Like electricity.

Now, the idea of an EV – or electric vehicle – is nothing new. Electric locomotion even predates the internal combustion engine. In 1828 already, Hungarian Ányos Jedlik invented a model car powered by an electric motor. A number of other inventors followed, producing small-scale electric cars in the 1830s and onwards, with battery capacity and rechargeability being the main problems – as it is today. Despite that, commercial EV application was established in 1897 already, as a fleet of New York City taxis. Barely two years later, a Belgian built racing car powered by electricity set a world land speed record at just under 110 km/h.

Remarkable, really – seeing that EVs are again at the forefront of future technologies. So convinced is Nissan and Renault’s Carlos Ghosn about battery power, that he has virtually put all his eggs – from both companies – in the EV basket, with the Renault Zoe and Nissan Leaf as two shining examples of where we are heading, the Leaf having been crowned as World Car of the Year 2011.

It’s not all plain sailing, though. It is notoriously difficult to harness enough battery power for long distance vehicle propulsion and it is equally difficult to charge batteries in double quick time. Beyond that arises the question of battery pack replacement – which is very expensive – and what to do with expired packs.

EVs, on the other hand, display unparalleled acceleration, thanks to the instant availability of maximum torque. And if you’re into the zen of driving – Robert M Pirsig – you’ll find smooth progress without gear changes, coupled to the serenity of totally silent propulsion.

Let’s face it, then: city driving in future times will be all about EVs like the Zoe, the Leaf or Toyota’s interesting looking FT-Bh concept car. What’s quite unique about the FT-Bh, is an extremely low weight (about 600 kg) and even lower drag coefficient (0.235). Driven by a 1-litre 2-cylinder engine running on the Atkinson cycle, in combination with lithium-ion batteries, Toyota reckons that the FT-Bh would use just more than 2 litres of fuel to cover 100 km. A compressed natural gas hybrid, as well as a plug-in hybrid, will also be possible.

Another interesting aspect about the Yaris sized Toyota concept, is the clothing-iron body shape of traditional EVs, made famous (or infamous) by Toyota’s runaway best-selling hybrid, the Prius – but now defined by a highly innovative design language drawing from the world of insects. Nothing else on the road looks like the FT-Bh; the graphics might just be the most original since Flaminio Bertoni’s Citroën DS of the mid-50s.

Typically Renault, the Zoe city car has also been endowed with a lot of personality, picking up from the legacy of the first Renault Twingo, which was designed by Patrick le Quement to look like a pet that you wanted to house at night, next to the fireside. That’s not all, though. Zoe is also the only electric vehicle featuring Renault’s Chameleon charger, which is compatible with all power levels, allowing the Zoe to be charged at the rate required by the car’s driver, in terms of time and cost. Low to intermediate charging levels, for instance, extends battery life and puts less pressure on the power grid. If Renault’s Quick Drop battery tech is available, you can also swap power packs in three minutes before covering a distance of around 200 km, purely on electric power.

EVs won’t only be good for pottering along in city traffic, though. Tesla has been at the forefront of developing an EV sports car, and BMW has joined in the action with a progressive looking i8 which, again, will be propelled by an electric system (placed over the front axle) in combination with a twin-turbo 3-cylinder combustion mill (over the rear axle). Massive instant torque, plus eDrive’s combined power output of 260 kW, will ensure a 0-100 km/h run in less than five seconds for the light-weight Beemer, whilst fuel consumption will be pegged at 2.7 litres/100 km, when driven appropriately. The i8, boasting a Spyder version as well, presents an exciting sculptural and organic surface structure dubbed “i stream flow” which complements the rather more upright and conservative i3 city car beautifully.

Audi has gone one step, or three steps further, by placing an electric motor on each wheel of a concept car known as e-tron. Together, these four motors will produce 4500 Nm of torque, allowing the e-tron to smash through the five second barrier for the 0-100 km/h dash. A two-electric motored e-tron, combined with a twin-turboed 3.0 TDI diesel-V6 has also been shown in the meantime, and Audi plans to place fleets of all-electric A3 e-trons in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver and Washington DC in the not too distant future.

Another interesting engine concept is Mercedes- Benz’s DiesOtto – a 1.8-litre 4-cylinder twin-turbo petrol mill delivering 175 kW of power and 400 Nm of torque using conventional spark ignition (a la the Otto-cycle) when working hard, but changing to diesel-engined principles, like compression ignition, at constant highway speeds. I’ve had the pleasure of driving the DiesOtto in an S-Class Merc – and being driven in the aquatic-looking F700 concept car powered by DiesOtto – and there is no doubt that, as a 4-cylinder, the engine is easily good enough to drive a car weighing in at two tons.

Even more interesting is hydrogen fuel, like a couple of 7-series units being run by BMW in Berlin. I’ve driven this car as well, and the change between standard fuel and hydrogen (which is fed from a tank in the car’s boot) is virtually imperceptible. Ditto for Honda’s FCX Clarity, a hundred percent hydrogen effort which I drove in Japan – and it goes like a normal car, except that it’s very quiet.

Full hydrogen amounts to zero emissions, of course, which is highly desirable – but also extremely expensive, in terms of rigging the infrastructure to manufacture, transport and store a specialised fuel at so many outlet points. Honda’s idea, in any case, is to develop complete hydrogen grids to fuel your whole environment, from car to house to schools to offices to shopping malls – including banks, ha ha.

Other big automotive changes envisaged by futurists are telematics to inform car users about road conditions – including the positions and actions of other cars – plus cars that are not only completely crash evasive and crash safe, but also piloted by remote control on a master grid, pretty much like mini-trams, but with the ability to untangle us from the maddening chaos of so many vehicles zooming about like ants on a Jackson Pollock canvas, before delivering us to highly individualised end destinations. Punch in a target and beam me along, Scottie – inside a capsule with four wheels, of which at least two can steer.

The rest, though – in terms of shape, capacity to carry people and method of propulsion – remains open to many variables. The future, as it is, presents many different targets and possibilities.
Yet, the car will find its way. That’s in the nature of its business, not so?

By Egmont Sippel

Published by Playboy South Africa July 2012