What Will the Car of the Future Hold for You?

In the late Fifties a cover of a leading do-it-yourself magazine pictured helicopter-like flying cars and predicted we’d all be driving one by the year 2000. Ten years later a similar magazine suggested that we’d all have cars with turbine engines under the hood that could run on salad oil or kerosene as easily as on gasoline. By the Eighties those supposedly in the know predicted that technology would conquer the problems associated with the electric car. New batteries, they said, would finally take electrics out of the horse-and-buggy era and make them viable.

Now, as we are ready to collide with the 21st Century, we ask yet again, what is the future of the automobile? And, at the risk of sounding a bit dull in the face of earlier prognostications, the best guess is that the cars of the next decade or so will be much like the cars of today. The internal combustion engine, burning gasoline, will remain the powerplant of choice, and cars will continue to be constructed largely of stamped steel, aluminum alloy, glass and synthetic rubber. The major changes will come, as they have in the last 10 years, as a result of improved electronics and computer power.

Why aren’t the predictions more reach-out, more titillating? The major reason is that consumers seem to like today’s vehicles pretty much as they are. Sure, they are looking for advanced features in their next car purchase, but the features they want are more in the nature of refinements than breakthroughs.

One company that makes a living studying and predicting consumer behavior is J.D. Power and Associates, the Agoura Hills, California-based market research firm. And according to the company’s most recent study, the 1999 Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Feature Contenting Report, eight of the top 10 new technology automotive features demanded by consumers are safety-related.

Some of these features, like side-impact airbags, run-flat tires and electronic traction control, are already fitted on many of today’s cars. Anti-lock braking systems (ABS), which first began to appear on American market vehicles little more than a decade ago, have become the most desired safety feature among consumers surveyed, with 93% reporting they want this feature on their next new vehicle. The consumer demand for ABS has quickly moved it from a system offered only on top-of-the-line luxury cars to a popular staple.

"Consistent consumer demand for ABS has resulted in this feature becoming standard on the majority of new vehicles sold today," said Jacques daCosta, senior manager of product research at J.D. Power and Associates. "It is important that automotive manufacturers and suppliers address consumer demand for new features as they have with ABS, in order to achieve high levels of customer satisfaction and optimize vehicle content where the demand is the greatest."

The fact is that auto manufacturers track consumer desires very closely, and therefore future cars will incorporate those features that most buyers want most while eschewing those that seem to fall flat with potential buyers. In this age of cocooning, safety is a particularly hot issue and the adage that "safety doesn’t sell" has been proven wrong.

One safety technology that J.D. Power and Associates predicts will be a winner with the public is the "smart" airbag that can sense whether a passenger seat is occupied and how heavy the person who occupies it is. In a collision, "smart" airbags don’t fire at all if the seat they’re protecting is unoccupied, and they fire with a graduated amount of force depending upon the weight of the occupant if someone is in the seat. (Heavier passengers require more force to be restrained properly.) Some 63% of those surveyed said they’d like to have "smart" airbags in their next vehicle, ahead of such currently available safety features as daytime running lights (61%), run-flat tires (59%) and electronic traction control systems (55%).

Other safety equipment that also registered reasonably high on consumers’ lists included rear-passenger airbags, adaptive cruise control (which helps allow for traffic conditions) and automatic 911 cellular telephone dialing in case of an emergency.

When it comes to non-safety systems, the demand for new technology lessens significantly. In fact, the top non-safety items peak in demand where the safety items leave off. Number one in this area is the proximity sensor, a device that aids in parking maneuvers by sounding an alarm when the vehicle gets close to objects. Some 38% of consumers would like to see this technology on their next car.

Navigation systems, which typically use a combination of Global Positioning Systems and computer mapping, are desired by 34% of consumers. And hybrid transmissions that can be shifted manually or left in automatic mode are on the shopping lists of 31%. A feature that was shown on a famous show car of the Fifties — rain-sensing windshield wipers — is desired by 28% of consumers surveyed.

More advanced, Buck-Rogers-like tech features are somewhat down the list. Just one quarter of consumers would like their next car to have a built-in personal computer. And slightly fewer than that (23%) would like to have voice activation for the control of heating, air conditioning and stereo equipment within the vehicle.

Perhaps the most advanced feature that registered on the study was the gas/electric hybrid powerplant. With a couple of Japanese manufacturers, one of them Honda, about to introduce hybrid-powered vehicles in the next year or so, it must be heartening to note that 20% of consumers said they wanted this technology in their next vehicle. Less heartening, however, is the price consumers said they would pay for a hybrid powerplant — an average premium of just $1,000. While the hybrids that are set for introduction are not nearly as costly as the pure electrics that preceded them, they will still be considerably more expensive than comparable gasoline-only cars.

So, as the year 2000 moves inexorably toward us, two dueling factors seem as true today as they did a century ago: nothing is as inevitable as change and the more things change, the more they stay the same.

-- Jack R. Nerad