The future of the automobile

By Herman Silochan

Once again, I donned my winter jacket, warm long johns and snug shoes for my annual trip to Detroit. With a winter blow brewing on the southwest 401, taking Greyhound instead makes sense. Boarding the bus is like entering an aircraft, security is heavy, my seating is tight, and laptop connections are superb. But I sleep instead.

The annual Detroit Auto Show is bell weather for the American economy’s performance. This year, things are looking up, the doom and gloom of the past four years appear to be over, the crowds flock in to ogle the curves and sample high tech gizmos. All companies have taken off the wraps. I am in auto heaven.

New Hyundai Genesis

Last year, I wrote about an electric car in your future, well, there are more concepts than ever this year, and many ready for production.
If there is a success story, it’s right before you as you enter;
Hyundai is on a big roll, its offerings are diverse as any and better than many. From the basic bread-and-butter Elantra right up to the high end luxury Genesis, you are looking at a company with a global reach from its humble Korean origins. Many industry observers opine that Hyundai over the last forty years has become an engineering phenomenon in anything mechanical. They also make huge ships. You remember the rust-bucket they made in the 1970s, the Pony? Well that embarrassment is now forgiven.
New hybrid Cadillac

The next expansive display beyond is Honda, marketing its range of products with obvious pride. In case you didn’t know it, Honda is the world’s biggest producer of all sorts of gasoline engines, from power lawn mowers, snow blowers, small tractors, cars of course, and even corporate jet planes. An extensive showcase tells it all. If the Civic is still among the all-time best sellers of compact cars, then the new mid-range Accord is definitely setting standards as to what a reliable but very advanced sedan should look like and still outperform the competition.

How do you define the term “advanced” in today’s automotive climate? What is the new benchmark?

BMW electric concept

Well, absolutely no company can ignore hybrids, i.e. a combination gasoline/electric power plant. Much of the engineering difficulties to harmonize the interplay of driving force between the combustion engine and the electric motor have been overcome; where there is a constant advance of technologies is in the life of batteries. It’s like light years between what was offered ten years ago, and today. Excuse the voltaic pun.

Even the luxury Cadillac is offering a hybrid, the ELR, based on the slow selling Chevrolet Volt; still, overall, General Motors and Ford are betting that there is a gas/electric hybrid in your future. The beautiful Ford Focus all-electric might be an international winner if its range is increased from its present 122 Km. Practical as a city driver, you get 110MPGe [Miles Per Gallon Equivalent].

This brings us to Tesla, that daring Fremont, California based company which has garnered positive attention to its three pure lithium-ion battery systems. Their cars are absolutely gorgeous with a practical looking spaceship dash. The crowd around their booth was huge, almost as big as around the new 2014 Corvette Stingray. Tesla now has for sale the Model S with prices from US$53,000 to $73,000, a range of 260 miles, plus an eight year battery warranty. A company rep told me that they have a back order of 60,000 cars. With the US economy on an upswing, Tesla should do well, and if battery technology improves as the industry predicts, we shall see more all family oriented electric or electric/gasoline vehicles out there, not just those red and white silent running post office vans.

Fiat owned Chrysler is going at it at a slower pace, maybe because its present sales of all gasoline engines are hot, why interfere with a good thing, even if very long term planning is integral to this industry.

So, let’s look at a possible bump in the world of gasoline energy, a perceived abundance of it in the coming decades. Maybe it is so, or not so. You see, the United States of America is predicted to once again become the world’s biggest producer of oil by 2020, thanks to improvements in shale oil extraction technology. Environmental concerns be damned, being the top energy dog is what counts. If in the coming decade the price of gasoline drops, even by twenty percent, then the incentive to buy a higher priced gas/electric car will diminish. But extending reliance on pure gasoline cars is a sunny prediction; remember as well, that overall global energy consumption will have a parallel rise. All the same, forecasting of shale oil production is an evolving mixture of technology, voodoo economics and political manipulation. To put it bluntly, we are not too sure. So it still makes sense for Dodge, GM and Ford to bring out even wider, longer and more powerful Rams, Silverados and F-100s even as they tout their gas/electrics.

The three big Germans, BMW, Volkswagen-Audi and Mercedes Benz, do have an incentive towards all electric or electric/hybrids – gas in Europe is getting pricier by the year. The frugal inexpensive Volkswagen’s TDI diesel Jetta is definitely worth a look. As it is, Toyota with its Prius now into its third generation, it is tried and proven. Its competitors, the Honda Civic Hybrid, Honda CR-Z, Chevrolet Volt, Nissan Leaf ( a full electric) will see their sales climb, albeit slowly. Potential buyers are looking for that magic price drop and an extended battery range. I expect it will happen over the coming five years – maybe.

And yes, photographing all those super-expensive gas guzzling exotics, like Ferrari, Maserati, Bentley, and Rolls Royce is the real reason why we attend car shows. Form over function is what moves us.