The car of the future will definitely be a new breed of vehicle as well as problematic for car makers, not to mention the technicians who'll be responsible for fixing them.
Powered by hydrogen and loaded with telematics and drive-by-wire components, it will use so many new non-automotive technologies that it will have to be built by a new auto industry.
Today's industry couldn't handle the job, agreed a panel discussing technology at the Automotive News World Congress, held recently in Detroit.
Auto makers will have to retool factories and supply chains to build vehicles without engines, transmissions, axles, radiators, exhaust systems, hydraulics and hundreds of other parts no auto maker can do without today.
A matter of survival
Many traditional suppliers who make those parts probably won't survive the transition from the internal combustion engine.
``It's very important to have these technologies on your radar screen and position yourself for the transformation,'' said Larry Burns, General Motors Corp. vice president for R&D planning.
``It's going to happen. I don't think it is a question of whether, I think it's a question of when. We can sit back and wait and be made obsolete, or we can obsolete ourselves. That's the path that we are trying to get on.''
GM's AUTOnomy fuel cell car, unveiled in January at the North American International Auto Show, dominated the panel discussion. Not only is the drive-by-wire, reconfigurable car the most advanced vehicle ever displayed at the show, it came along at the same time the Bush administration told of plans to replace the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles.
PNGV, a Clinton-era program, sought to develop an 80-mpg sedan. President Bush will ask Congress to fund Freedom Cooperative Automotive Research or Freedom CAR, which will fund the development of fuel cells.
A fuel cell vehicle uses hydrogen to generate electricity through a chemical reaction and emits only water vapor. All of the world's major auto makers are working on fuel cells, but few agree on the source of hydrogen, which can be derived from gasoline, natural gas, methanol and even water.
Mr. Burns said he thinks GM will have the technology perfected by 2010 to start cranking out such cars as the AUTOnomy by the hundreds of thousands.
But most auto makers agree that fuel cells stand little chance of commercial success if there isn't a re-fueling infrastructure that is as accessible for consumers as are today's gasoline stations.
Hydrogen and more
Assistant Energy Secretary David Garman said not much of Freedom CAR's budget-likely to be in the $120 million range-will be spent on developing hydrogen refueling stations, especially since there is no agreement on the source of hydrogen. The money is better spent, he said, on improving the power output and efficiency of fuel cells.
``The government is going to be involved in the sorts of things that are long term, that are difficult and that probably require breakthroughs in very basic science,'' he said.
Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler A.G. have partnered with Ballard Power Systems of Vancouver, British Columbia, on fuel cells, as have Honda Motor Co. and BMW.
But Gerhard Schmidt, Ford's director of research, said the auto maker is not confining its use of hydrogen to fuel cells. Under Mr. Schmidt's direction, Ford engineers have built and tested a small sedan with an internal combustion engine that runs on hydrogen. Mr. Schmidt thinks that such an engine, which also makes no harmful pollution, could be manufactured easier and for much less than a fuel cell vehicle.
He said Ford is working on several technologies designed to make a gasoline or diesel engine run cleaner and more efficient. ``There are many unanswered questions regarding the future of fuel cell technology,'' he said.
``Hydrogen, for sure, is one of the most environmentally responsible fuels. But does a nontraditional fuel demand a nontraditional powertrain? We believe there's a reasonable opportunity for a hydrogen-powered internal combustion engine.''
The AUTOnomy car makes use of other exotic technologies, such as by-wire systems that replace, with electronics, all of the mechanical linkage that connects the brakes, accelerator and steering systems.
David Wohleen of Delphi Automotive Systems Corp. and Marios Zenios of Motorola Inc. said their companies are poised to play a major role in the development of such cars. Delphi is a fuel cell component supplier, while Motorola is a telematics leader.
Much of Delphi's work on technology involves developing ``smart cars,'' or those that, through sensors and by-wire systems, enable the car to automatically avoid an accident and to anticipate the needs of the driver and occupants. But big hurdles remain.
``Within five to seven years, I think steer-by-wire is possible. The key is to get a fault-tolerance system that can handle the possibility of anomalies,'' Mr. Wohleen said. Mr. Zenios said telematics can transfer data from the car to pinpoint a technical problem, but its key selling point would be to keep the vehicle's occupants informed and entertained without the driver being distracted.
``Driver safety is built in to our definition of telematics,'' Mr. Zenios said. ``Everything has to be done hands-free as much as possible so that the driver can keep his eyes on the road. The extensive use of voice recognition and easy-to-use controls is paramount.''