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USA: Driving into the future

Alternative fuels and autonomous vehicles were the topics at the Western Automotive Journalists’ Future of Transportation conference last month at Club Auto Sport in San Jose.

With great timing, the event coincided with our weeklong loan of a 2012 Chevrolet Volt, an electric car featuring the most advanced technology of any automobile in the market.

The best way to sum up everything we learned from both experiences? In the words of Aaron Robinson, technology editor of Car and Driver magazine, “The future is going to take a lot longer than most people think.”

Based on what we heard and saw at the conference, the future certainly looks exciting. Outside, we could drive hydrogen fuel-cell cars supplied to customers by Mercedes-Benz and Toyota, battery-electric cars from Nissan and Mitsubishi, and high-efficiency diesels and hybrids from a variety of manufacturers.

In one presentation, Sven Beiker, director of Stanford University’s Center for Autonomous Vehicles, showed us the self-driving car his group developed with Google. It can guide itself through city traffic to a specified destination without any intercession from the driver.

New technology takes a while

The common theme of all the presenters – including engineers from Honda, Kia, Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi, Toyota and Volkswagen – was that adoption of new technologies is never as simple as it might look. It is likely to take 10 years for cars like these to reach the market in any serious numbers. Even then, given other factors like social acceptance and infrastructure support, what does become available in your dealer’s showroom (if there are still showrooms then), will look much different than what we saw at the conference.

Fortunately, the consensus among presenters was that in the interim, it is reasonable to expect present technology to continue to make inroads on the pressures of energy availability, environmental pollution and personal safety.


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