Reinventing the Wheels

Fuel cells, crash-proof cars -- auto makers are forging the future now.....

Published: 06-Oct-2004

In think tanks and on test tracks from Tokyo to Motown to Munich, automotive technicians are brainstorming the future of the automobile. It's a fierce race, with companies like Toyota, General Motors, and BMW vying to lock up the latest in digital, imaging, and even biological technologies. "The field is so competitive that we'll visit a university and find out that GM was there yesterday and Honda is coming tomorrow," says Jeff Makarewicz, general manager for materials engineering at Toyota Motor Corp.'s (TM ) technical center in Ann Arbor, Mich. The goals of the big auto makers are certainly ambitious: They want to break free from the grip of petroleum, develop cars that are smart enough to avoid accidents, and continually enhance the pleasure of motoring. Says Raymond Freymann, head of German auto maker BMW's vehicle research and technology unit: "Our job is to translate crazy ideas into reality."

Not all the crazy ideas will make it into the showroom, of course. With carmakers locked in a brutal price war and suffering from massive overcapacity, it's inevitable that much of the industry's $55 billion combined yearly R&D budget goes toward practical advances like new model development. And car buyers faced with limited budgets may be inclined to choose a souped-up sound system over side air bags. That explains why some of the most impressive gadgets are sold as optional equipment -- and show up first in luxury vehicles.

Auto researchers face another constraint. Consumers are notoriously touchy about any new technology that comes between them and the driving experience. Seven years ago, a General Motors Corp. (GM )-led consortium conducted tests in which fully automated cars were driven over 8,000 miles on a span of highway outside San Diego. The whole thing came off without a hitch -- except that passengers groused that they wanted more control. The lesson? "We have to be very careful in introducing new technology not to make our customers' eyes spin," says Jon Bucci, a manager in Toyota's advanced technology department in Torrance, Calif.

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