FutureCar: Accelerating Into the Future

Looking at three- and four-wheeled automobiles, high-mileage cars, driverless vehicles, hybrid supercars, and more

FutureCar: Accelerating Into the Future, a one-hour special from IEEE Spectrum, explores the latest technological advances for the automobile, and previews cars we may see in the not-too-distant future.

Transcript

Susan Hassler: This is “FutureCar: Accelerating Into the Future.” I’m Susan Hassler.

Glenn Zorpette: And I’m Glenn Zorpette. Today we drive through a new landscape of autos.

Susan Hassler: Big and tiny cars, basic and ultracool ones.

Glenn Zorpette: Steady and slow autos, and cars that look so good that troopers won’t give you a ticket.

Susan Hassler: We hear about fuel-efficient cars, but...

Phil Gott: They don’t sell, bottom line.

Glenn Zorpette: Experts say Americans only want fuel efficiency if there’s a quick pay-off.

Phil Gott: So, the consumer, they would really like their cake and eat it too.

Susan Hassler: So what do Americans really want?

Lawrence Burns: To think that there’s just one right answer is I think too simplistic.

Glenn Zorpette: We’ll kick some tires, take some test drives, and give you plenty of... [car sound: vroom, vroom]

Susan Hassler: But first, this news.

Susan Hassler: This is “FutureCar: Accelerating Into the Future.” I’m Susan Hassler, editor in chief of IEEE Spectrum magazine.

Glenn Zorpette: And I’m Glenn Zorpette, executive editor of IEEE Spectrum, where we aggressively report on new technology. And we love cars.

Susan Hassler: And we bet you do too. Now, this is not just about transportation. For some of us it’s about who we are.

Child’s voice: Vroom, vroom!

Glenn Zorpette: From the time we’re kids…

Child’s voice: Vroom!

Susan Hassler: To our growing-up years…

Glenn Zorpette: Cars move us. They can even fuel our dreams.

Child’s voice: Vroom!

VOX POP (voices of people on the street):

I like a Bugatti. It’s a really fancy car. Like a lot of rappers have. And it’s like the fastest car in the world.

A Jaguar. It looks, like, so old and classy. I always liked it as a little kid.

I like the older cars, so probably an old Ford Mustang or an old Chevy Camaro. I like the old cars because they tend to have more curves, more detail, more personality.

I’ve always thought that when I get old enough I just want a car. But if I had a dream car it’d probably be something expensive that everybody could be jealous of.

I would have to go with a 1969 Corvette Stingray. I like the body style, and it has a decent amount of horsepower. Like every other young kid I like to go fast, and also, like the faster you go, I dunno, it’s just fun.

Glenn Zorpette: Veteran automotive writer John Voelcker spends all his working hours focused on cars, and yet he still fantasizes about the perfect ride.

John Voelcker: I guess my dream car is one that doesn’t quite exist yet. It would be something that has stunning lines, 300 or more miles of all-electric battery power, lightning performance, and I could afford, say, [US] $30,000 or more. And it’s not quite here, but I wouldn’t be surprised if one gets here in the next 10 years.

Susan Hassler: Today we’ll tell you about some vehicles that are here now, on the roads, and some, like Voelcker’s dream car, that’ll arrive in the future.

Glenn Zorpette: We’ll look at three- and four-wheeled automobiles and high-mileage cars, driverless vehicles, hybrid supercars, and more. But before we charge ahead, let’s look back.

Susan Hassler: Since the advent of the modern car in 1886, with the Benz Patent-Motorwagen by German inventor Karl Benz, surprisingly little has changed.

Glenn Zorpette: We talked to Larry Burns, who was head of research and development at General Motors.

Larry Burns: It’s amazing: If you were an archeologist and you dug up a 1900 vintage car and you dug up a 2000 vintage car, you’d look at it, you’d say they have the same DNA, the same fundamental design DNA. Mechanically driven energy from oil, powered by combustion, controlled mechanically and hydraulically, driven by a person, operated pretty much independently.

And what’s exciting right now is that we see a new DNA, a new design DNA for the automobile beginning to mature, electrically driven in addition to mechanically driven. Using diverse sources of energy, which can be in the form of electricity or hydrogen on board the vehicle as well as fossil fuels. Having the vehicle operate with electric motors. Very importantly, being able to control it digitally or electronically. And literally having cars that can drive themselves.

Glenn Zorpette: Ah, right. Cars that can drive themselves.

Susan Hassler: Autonomous vehicles. We’re going to hear a lot more about those later in the show.

Glenn Zorpette: But listen now to why transit systems expert Bill Lieberman says he’s excited about cars driving themselves.

Bill Lieberman: The promise is that they’re going to increase safety by eliminating human error in driving, and I think that in itself is very exciting. They also have the potential of increasing the capacity of our roadways by permitting much closer vehicle spacing at high speeds. So that could help alleviate congestion in many areas. It could also reduce travel time for users through GPS guidance and synchronization with traffic signals, that sort of thing. And so overall, I think there’s going to be an increase in convenience for travelers, both by eliminating the stress of driving when you can just sit there, and you’re just monitoring a vehicle, not actually driving. And it lets you do other things while you’re driving, whether it’s reading or talking on the phone.

Glenn Zorpette: You know that driverless cars can also do remote parking?

Susan Hassler: I really like this one: The car will drop you off at your destination and then go off by itself and find a parking space.

Glenn Zorpette: What?

Glenn Zorpette: Before we roll on with fancy high-tech vehicles, we’ll revisit one from the past—the three-wheeled car. We’d heard stories from an old friend in London about how three-wheelers were greeted in England 50 years ago.

Stephen Beard: This is Stephen Beard, European correspondent for Marketplace, and I remember how we thoroughly mocked three-wheeled vehicles back in the 1950s and 60s, when I was a kid.

Glenn Zorpette: These unsteady three-wheelers wobbled slowly along, never reaching 45 miles per hour.

Stephen Beard: It wasn’t really regarded as a proper car. We all thought it was a huge joke. When we heard one coming along the road, we’d all run out and jeer at it and even throw eggs at it.

Glenn Zorpette: Beard says that Britain’s three-wheeled cars were widely regarded as a low-rent and ramshackle mode of transportation.

Stephen Beard: It was just a deeply unglamorous vehicle. I mean it just had no chic at all. It seemed to represent a total lack of aspiration.

Glenn Zorpette: No more! The three-wheeler is back, and today it’s got great aspirations. Or expectations. Whatever.

Glenn Zorpette: That’s no ordinary vehicle you’re hearing. It’s a T-Rex, a three-wheeled car. It can hit 145 miles an hour, accelerate from zero to 60 in under 4 seconds, and get up to 35 miles per gallon. The T-Rex, built in Montreal, Quebec, by Campagna Motors, is one of a number of bite-size three-wheel cars on the market. T-Rex is the fastest and the most expensive of the bunch, so we sent Judith Ritter out for a drive with Campagna Motors tech support honcho Benoit Gillis.

Judith Ritter: Okay, let’s give it a try. How do I get in here? It’s 6 inches from the ground. It’s like a limbo contest.

Benoit Gillis: Okay, you grab the bars. You sit on the vehicle. And then you pop up both feet at the same time on the vehicle, and then you slide right in.

Judith Ritter: Okay, I got one leg in. Now I’ve got to get the other leg.

Benoit Gillis: We’re going to turn the ignition on to check that everything’s on the vehicle, so the vehicle’s on auto control. It’s for the fuel. The only thing left to do is push the little engine start button.

Judith Ritter: The feline-looking three-wheeled T-Rex at Campagna Motors is an odd little car, perfectly suited for a Marvel comic book hero. Powered by a six-cylinder BMW motorcycle engine, it comes in blinding red, orange, and yellow and sits so close to the ground you can stretch out your hand and pat the asphalt for good luck. And you’ll need it as the open-sided car hurtles down the road.

Judith Ritter: No doors, no airbags at 140 miles per hour? That gives one pause for thought, like “Is this safe?” Campagna’s CEO, André Morissette, says so.

André Morissette: The center of gravity makes them inherently safe on the road because you’re not going to lose control; you’re not going to tip over. You know, they really stay on the road.

Judith Ritter: That’s good. I’m a fan of gravity. And, oh yeah, a lot of crash test dummies died for my safety. Turns out T-Rex has Transport Canada’s crash test seal of approval. Unbelievable! Whoa! Yikes!

Judith Ritter: T-Rex is the fastest and most expensive of its type, but there are a number of other three-wheelers on or about to hit the market. And the idea itself isn’t new at all. The first three-wheeled vehicle was designed back in 1769. It was steam powered. In the late 1800s, Karl Benz (yup, that Benz) came out with a few, and in 1909 the Morgan Motor Company launched the first of a long line of three-wheeled cars, and it still makes them.

Judith Ritter: Today’s big players for little cars are the soon-to-be-launched electric Toyota i-Road and the Elio. That’s an ecocool three-wheeler in production and already taking orders. And there’s this one: T-Rex. But there’s nothing ecoevangelizing about it, Morissette says. When he hands over the keys, the assignment he hands out is: Have fun!

André Morissette: Our vehicle has been designed from the ground as a recreational vehicle. They don’t have a mission to become a utilitarian vehicle, so you can do your grocery on a daily basis. You obviously can, like you would do the grocery with a Lamborghini. But that’s not the intent of the vehicle. You’ll get the type of feeling you’ll have to pay in a regular car a half a million dollars for. It’s really a feeling like nothing you’ve experienced before. And it’s exciting. It’s adrenaline pumping. It’s like having your own personal Formula One for the street.

Judith Ritter: You can get your adrenaline pumped for somewhere between $54,000 and $67,000. There are only 100 to 150 of these made-on-demand cars built a year, and most of them go to a global male midlife-crisis demographic. And while these petrol-head favorites will always find a market for well-heeled thrill seekers, the other three-wheeled models are truly serious business. They aim to be cost-saving nonpolluters with just a little style thrown in. There are hurdles as states and countries figure out just whether the three-wheeler is a car or a motorcycle. But here on the outskirts of Montreal, Quebec, no such problem. Canada has a separate category for three-wheelers. And driving T-Rex, that category could be called impractical, but it’s just, oh, so cool.

Judith Ritter: I just want to know one thing, Ben. Can I make one on my 3-D printer? I’m Judith Ritter in Montreal.

Glenn Zorpette: When Stephen Beard heard about this new three-wheeled car, he put away the prejudices of his English childhood.

Stephen Beard: Well, it’s chalk and cheese. It’s a completely different animal. It looks very hot. And indeed I can see a middle-aged man with a receding hairline wearing goggles, haring down a country lane in this vehicle.

Glenn Zorpette: Still, there’s a long way to go to convince people that three wheels can be cool.

Susan Hassler: We sent the fearless Teresa Chong out to New York City’s Times Square to ask people’s opinions about three-wheeled cars.

Teresa Chong: And would you buy a three-wheeled car?

Person on the street: Never!

Teresa Chong: Why is that?

Person on the street: Ho ho, if you can buy a four-wheeled car, what would you want a three-wheeled car for?

VOX POP:

I’ve never seen a three-wheeled car.

I seen one the other day. It’s nice, and it’s small, like compact, so it would be good for inner cities like this.

I don’t think I can take a three-wheeled car seriously. It’s just like a tricycle on steroids, isn’t it?

Teresa Chong: Would you buy a three-wheeled car?

Joe on the street: No, there’s better things to spend your money on.

Teresa Chong: Like what?

Joe on the street: Four-wheeled cars!

Glenn Zorpette: Okay, okay we get it. On to four-wheeled cars.

Susan Hassler: They’re coming up in a moment. Stay with us.

Glenn Zorpette: We’re back with “FutureCar.” I’m Glenn Zorpette.

Susan Hassler: I’m Susan Hassler. And now we’re going to explore just how far we can go on very little fuel.

Glenn Zorpette: Many drivers would be happy to get 35 miles per gallon in their car. But what if you could get nearly 10 times that? What if you could drive 3,000 miles using only $40 worth of fuel?

Susan Hassler: Giselle Weiss takes us to Wolfsburg, Germany, for a look at the technology that’s making it happen today.

Train conductor: Meine Damen und Herren, der nächste Halt ist in wenigen Minuten Wolfsburg. In Wolfsburg werden die Anschlusszüge erreichen. [Ladies and gentlemen, the next stop, in a few minutes, is Wolfsburg. In Wolfsburg, you will catch connecting trains.]

Giselle Weiss: The town of Wolfsburg is one of Germany’s several “motor cities.” Specifically, it’s the headquarters of Volkswagen, the largest carmaker in Europe, and the producer of vehicles such as the Golf, the Passat, and the fabulously successful Beetle. I’m here to check out VW’s XL1. It’s the company’s first plug-in hybrid, and so efficient that it can get over 300 miles to a gallon of fuel.

Volker Kaese: If you’re coming to the car, it’s a quite amazing design. And the design is one reason why we have such a low fuel consumption.

Giselle Weiss: That’s Volker Kaese, head of the XL1 project. The secret to lowering fuel consumption, he says, is to decrease a car’s wind resistance. For inspiration, the XL1’s designers took a close look at sharks, masters of aerodynamic efficiency. The result is a car that’s “tailed,” wider at the front than at the back. The basic structure is a lightweight, carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic shell called a monocoque. It’s typical of Formula One racing cars.

Volker Kaese: This is not a sheet. This is carbon-reinforced plastics, as well, the outside panels.

Giselle Weiss: Everything is designed to minimize drag. The gas tank holds just 2.6 gallons. The passenger’s seat is slightly offset from the driver’s seat, to save width. The side mirrors have been replaced with small cameras, called e-mirrors, an innovation that seems alarming at first.

Volker Kaese: But you have this very good rear view.

Giselle Weiss: We settle ourselves into the XL1’s bucket seats. Volker pushes the ignition button, and we start off in electric mode.

Volker Kaese: That’s it. That’s the sound. And all what you hear is the wheels on the street.

Giselle Weiss: Volkswagen introduced its first 1-liter car in 2002. In that one, and a subsequent prototype, the two seats were situated one behind the other.

Volker Kaese: Now we’re driving 70 kilometers per hour, and all what you hear is the bearings and the wheels working. Normal sound. Now I’m accelerating. You hear it? It’s more sportive. And I get electric energy and the combustion energy for accelerating.

Giselle Weiss: We speed up some more, and the fuel consumption registers 1.2 liters per 100 kilometers on a screen on the dashboard. That’s not quite 300 miles per gallon, but it’s still a lot. Test drivers comment on the sound of the diesel engine. Ruth Holling, Volker’s colleague at Volkswagen, says that’s because the car’s minimal damping to keep the weight low and the rear location of the engine make it more audible. Volker and Ruth have planned a little experiment for me to demonstrate the XL1’s low wind resistance. While I stand by the side of the road holding a microphone, first Ruth, in a VW electric Golf, and then Volker in the XL1, will each drive by in battery mode at 100 kilometers, or 65 miles, an hour.

Volker Kaese: This is the average and maximum allowed speed on a German Landstrasse. Road between cities but not a highway.

Ruth Holling: Rural road.

Volker Kaese: What is it?

Ruth Holling: A rural road.

Volker Kaese: Rural road. Okay. Rural road. Okay, wonderful!

Giselle Weiss: The e-Golf departs, returning a few minutes later and passing by. Then comes the XL1. With no engine noise, all you hear is the tires and the aerodynamics of the car bodies. This may not be rocket science, but the XL1 definitely sounds quieter. The European Union has mandated sharp reductions in fuel emissions for new cars by 2020. That’s why high-efficiency technologies like the XL1 matter. But hold your horses. At €111,000 (about $150,000), the XL1 carries a hefty price tag. Moreover, Volkswagen only intends to market 200 of the vehicles, and it won’t be sold in America. The first car was delivered to a customer in Germany at the end of May. Although this product by itself will not solve the problem of emissions, some innovations are already being applied to other VW cars.

Volker Kaese: This car is, all in all, it’s like an engineer’s dream. We have this monocoque. Carbon-reinforced monocoque in serial production. We have these wonderful e-mirrors. Everyone said, no, this is something for submarines, and if you want to watch night-fishing boats. No, you can have it in a small, small box in the door of the cars. And now, the people can buy it.

Giselle Weiss: The idea behind the XL1 was very specific: to combine low fuel consumption and great design in a single vehicle, and to show that it could sell. To make a superefficient car that is also really cool. For the people. Some of the people. I’m Giselle Weiss in Wolfsburg, Germany.

Susan Hassler: In one sense the car of the future—America’s future at least—is already here. Just, well, not here in America.

Glenn Zorpette: Cars that routinely get 40, 45, even 50 miles a gallon have been on sale in Europe and elsewhere for years. High-mileage versions of cars we already know, like the Ford Focus and Volkswagen Passat.

Susan Hassler: This new wave of high-mileage cars is rolling our way—you’ll see them more and more as the decade unfolds.

Glenn Zorpette: Steve Tripoli hit the road to find out why they’ve taken so long to arrive.

Steve Tripoli: On a converted drag strip in rural Connecticut, Jake Fisher is putting a luxurious Audi A7 through its paces.

Jake Fisher: We have to hold on for a little bit here, while we have to take the car safely up to the maximum cornering.

Steve Tripoli: The drag strip is now Consumer Reports magazine’s auto test center. Fisher, the magazine’s head auto tester, says this diesel version of the A7 is getting about 30 miles a gallon overall, impressive for its class.

Jake Fisher: This is a big car, this is a heavy car, and it’s getting fuel economy basically that you can get in a Chevy Cruze, a small car.

Steve Tripoli: Back in Consumer Reports’ garage there are lots of high-mileage cars to test. Fisher leads me in.

Steve Tripoli: So these aren’t your personal vehicles here.

Jake Fisher: These aren’t my personal vehicles! Hi, my name is Jake Fisher and I own 65 cars, no, um, this….

Steve Tripoli: Well, tell me about the cars in this garage. Tell me what you’ve got here today.

Jake Fisher: Well, there’s quite a lot here, and a lot of new technology.

Steve Tripoli: Including a Ford C-Max plug-in, a VW Jetta with a combination of hybrid power and turbocharging that Fisher hasn’t seen before, and a BMW 3-Series with a small diesel engine. They’re all new to American buyers, but about half the cars in this garage have been available elsewhere for some time. Why haven’t domestic buyers seen them?

Phil Gott: They don’t sell, bottom line.

Steve Tripoli: Phil Gott is an industry analyst with IHS Automotive. Gott says Americans often say they want high mileage. But they also want more performance and a very quick payback for pricier fuel-sippers from their gas savings.

Phil Gott: So, the consumer, they would really like their cake and eat it too.

Steve Tripoli: Europe’s models often feature engines that shut down at stoplights, continuously variable transmissions, and high-mileage tires as well as advanced engines. Those packages cost more. When Americans see that price tag, mileage often takes a back seat. So carmakers hold back on bringing them here. But that’s changing. More buyers are willing to pay for higher mileage and lower pollution. Fisher, industry analyst Phil Gott, and carmakers themselves say American buyers start choosing differently with gas prices in the $3.50 to $4.00 range. Europe pays twice that for fuel. The equation’s changing here for two reasons, says Volkswagen of America’s Doug Skorupski.

Doug Skorupski: One, the U.S. customer is asking for higher-mileage vehicles, and that’s partly due to the increased fuel prices that we have, and also just as important are the greenhouse gas emission regulations and CAFE [corporate average fuel economy] requirements that we have to comply with.

Steve Tripoli: Rising pollution concerns reflected in the Environmental Protection Agency’s CAFE mileage standards are driving change and becoming as much a factor as cost savings for many buyers. Industry analyst Phil Gott says if the government is serious about the CAFE goals of cutting pollution and oil consumption, mandating higher-mileage cars alone won’t do the job.

Phil Gott: You know, one of the things that we keep saying is one of the simplest things to do to get people to be more fuel conscious in both their driving habits as well as their choices of vehicles is to raise the price of fuel, through fuel taxes.

Steve Tripoli: Proposals to raise those taxes have come from across the political spectrum, but none have garnered enough support. Now more diesels are meeting EPA pollution rules. And that, says Jeff Breneman of the U.S. Coalition for Advanced Diesel Cars, means more carmakers can start bringing in diesels to meet their EPA mileage mandates.

Jeff Breneman: So, most of the automotive forecasters are predicting that the diesel market share in the U.S. is going to continue to rise, most think to about 10 percent by 2020.

Steve Tripoli: Some models top that already. Volkswagen says fully 30 percent of U.S. buyers for its large Passat sedan are choosing diesel. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, since Consumer Reports tests show the Passat’s four-cylinder diesel getting 50 miles a gallon on the highway. I’m Steve Tripoli reporting.

Ambient voices: “Tracy, are you out on the track?” “We’re on the rack road, Mike.” “I’ll be on the fuel circuit for a while.” “Copy!”

Susan Hassler: Automakers today are adopting different strategies as they strive to build cleaner, higher-performing cars.

Glenn Zorpette: Chevrolet is marketing the Volt, a plug-in hybrid. Mercedes and Volkswagen are keen on diesel engines. Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai are all developing fuel-cell vehicles.

Susan Hassler: We asked Larry Burns, the former R&D chief at General Motors, which of these he sees as the most promising.

Lawrence Burns: To think that there’s just one right answer is I think too simplistic. President Clinton wanted to have the best hybrid vehicles, so he created the PNGV [Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles] program so we could get to an 80-mile-per-gallon hybrid vehicle. And then President Bush felt that fuel cells and hydrogen would be promising. I think his quote was, “A child born today will be driving a fuel cell vehicle as their first vehicle.” Then President Obama threw his support behind lithium-ion batteries and plug-ins, and said we’re going to have a million battery-electric vehicles on the road by 2015. That pendulum can’t keep swinging around these individual answers. All of them are important. The size of the challenges that we’re facing, especially with respect to climate change, is enormous. So we have to get to scales that really matter here to solve these problems. And the only way we’re going to do that is through a portfolio of solutions.

Susan Hassler: That’s auto executive Larry Burns.

Glenn Zorpette: A portfolio of solutions—or, more accurately, a circus of possibilities—is what our next story is all about.

Susan Hassler: Every year Shell, the oil company, invites a hundred teams from universities and high schools to downtown Houston, Texas. They come from all over North and South America.

Glenn Zorpette: Their goal is to design a car that drives around a track using the least amount of energy. We sent reporter Luke Quinton to find out how these young engineers do it.

Luke Quinton: Driving through Houston is a reminder that the car is still king. Six lanes are blocked with cars; stacked overpasses dangle above. But I’m about to see some very strange cars. Unique experimental cars that leave the usual miles-per-gallon numbers in the dust. And they do it, even though some of them sound like a lawnmower.

Luke Quinton: So what’s under the hood here?

Justin Anderson: Well we’ve got a little Honda 35-cc engine. It’s a four-stroke.

Luke Quinton: That’s Justin Anderson, from a tech high school in Oklahoma. And what do people usually use it for?

Justin Anderson: Weed eating. It’s a weed-eating motor.

Luke Quinton: So you’re riding on a Weed Eater.

Justin Anderson: Pretty much! Exactly. One hundred and five pounds on a Weed Eater, that’s all it is.

Event announcer: The success of the Eco Marathon is determined by the distance each team travels using the least amount of energy on the track.

Luke Quinton: So what do you expect this thing to get today?

Justin Anderson: I’m saying we might get about five. Five hundred.

Luke Quinton: Five hundred miles per gallon? And how fast do you think he’s going to go?

Justin Anderson: Oh, I’d say he’ll probably do about 25.

Luke Quinton: 25 miles per hour? That’s pretty good?

Justin Anderson: Not bad for a little four-stroke weed-eater motor.

Event announcer: Some of our previous winners and performances include last year’s Laval University from Canada, which achieved 3,587 miles per gallon in their prototype class.

Luke Quinton: The competition is divided into two groups: Urban concept vehicles are the more practical cars, and they have normal features, like mirrors and wipers. The other group are the prototypes, cars like Daniel Wang’s, where aerodynamics get extreme.

Luke Quinton: This looks like a surfboard. What is it?

Daniel Wang: It’s actually aluminum honeycomb, but we painted it as a surfboard. You like it?

Luke Quinton: I love it! Honeycomb is a light, tough material that looks a lot like cardboard. And it’s one of the reasons these cars are shaped in a hundred different alien forms. Here’s Jonathan Hamway from the University of Toronto team, describing their black prototype.

Jonathan Hamway: It’s a very sleek car. It’s very low profile, it’s a very small car meant for a single person, and the driver lies down flat in the vehicle with the engine at the back. It’s got three wheels—two up front, one in the back, so it mimics the shape of a teardrop.

Luke Quinton: The prototypes are sleek and strange. One looks like a transparent form-fitting coffin, and we saw its driver have a small panic attack from the claustrophobia. The urban concept cars, on the other hand, are a cross between old soapbox racers and, say, a Smart car. At the end of every run, cars enter a white tent that is packed, stocked with professionals in lab coats. Glass vials of ethanol, diesel, or gasoline line the wall.

Owen Peterson: Temperature is 39.5 degrees Celsius. Volume is 103.6 milliliters.

Luke Quinton: Instead of gas tanks, these cars carry fuel in laboratory glass.

Owen Peterson: We’re measuring the temperature of the fuel we add to the vehicle in the burette. It’s the long cylinder that measures millimeters. When the fuel’s hot, it expands, and so we’re measuring it in the burette at a lower temperature and the tank at a higher temperature. So we do a correction, to get the most precise measurement of fuel consumption.

Event announcer: With 2,712.5 miles per gallon, receiving 1,000 dollars is the University of Toronto team, University of Toronto Supermileage, with their vehicle number 97.

Jonathan Hamway: Two thousand seven hundred twelve miles per gallon, which is just underneath the first place. So it was really tight between us and Laval. The entire weekend it was really close between us both, just going back and forth. They took it in the end. I don’t think any of us have had a good night’s sleep in the last three months. It’s been absolute insanity. But it just—it feels so great right now. I mean, we’re getting close. Like, 2,700 miles is, I believe, maybe I’m mistaken, but pretty much from here to Toronto? Maybe I’m incorrect about that. I might be.

Luke Quinton: And you could do that on one—

Jonathan Hamway: One gallon of fuel.

Luke Quinton: One gallon of fuel. Yeah, that’s amazing. Jonathan was a little off, actually. From Houston, 2,700 miles is almost to Toronto and back again. Leaving the contained chaos of the Shell competition, I’m kind of relieved to get into my own 2006 Toyota. It’s no prototype, but my car is a lot more comfortable. And three times faster. Leaving Houston behind, with only a pitiful 30 miles to the gallon, I’m Luke Quinton.

Susan Hassler: Stay with us for more “FutureCar.”

Glenn Zorpette: We’ll be right back.

Susan Hassler: We’re back with “FutureCar.”

Lawrence Ulrich: All right. Going to take the BMW i8 for a spin. It’s very exciting. We’re going to kick this into sport mode now. That’s enough of the efficient. We’ll see what happens when this engine fires to life. Oh, yeah, it’s quick.

Glenn Zorpette: Lawrence Ulrich, car reporter extraordinaire, is in the studio with me. Lawrence, what is that lovely sound?

Lawrence Ulrich: Well, Glenn, BMW hopes that sound is the very future of sports cars. But what you’re hearing is not an old-fashioned V-8 engine chugging gasoline. Instead, that ear-tickling rumble belongs to the i8. This is a futuristic, mind-blowing, plug-in hybrid that can sip fuel or rip to 60 miles per hour in less than 4 seconds.

Glenn Zorpette: You mean it can do both?

Lawrence Ulrich: It can. And it’s gorgeous. You know, it looks like something Tom Cruise would drive—and he did—in the most recent Mission Impossible movie. But this i8 is real, on sale now at a cool $137,000. For that, drivers get a cutting-edge, four-passenger sports car, mostly made of lightweight carbon fiber, that weighs 1,500 pounds less than Tesla’s Model S electric car.

Glenn Zorpette: So how does it work?

Lawrence Ulrich: Well, there’s an electric motor below the hood, and it powers the front wheels. Out back, a tiny, three-cylinder gasoline engine drives the rear wheels. Put it all together and you’re talking 357 horsepower and a car that’s as fast as a Porsche 911. But you can also cover 22 miles on electricity alone, use the engine to recharge the battery while you’re driving, and still get nearly 40 miles per gallon on the highway.

Glenn Zorpette: That’s pretty amazing. But if it’s got a dinky Mini Cooper engine and an electric motor, what’s making that racy sound?

Lawrence Ulrich: That’s actually BMW’s synthesized rendition of a high-performance engine, pumped through the audio system whenever you mash the gas. It sounds so gutsy, so realistic, that passengers will never guess that electricity and a motorcycle-size engine are doing all the work.

Glenn Zorpette: Nice. So where did you go in this sweet ride?

Lawrence Ulrich: Well, we cruised from BMW’s American headquarters in New Jersey and found some, well, faster-paced roads in the horse country of New York. And we couldn’t resist pulling into Wide World of BMW, a dealership in New Jersey. We knew what would happen next.

Dealership employee: I’ll be honest with you. I’ve been in the business 22, going on 23 years. You don’t get the—it’s metal to us, you know? This is the first car that I’m surprised.

Lawrence Ulrich: Right. Like you said.

Dealership employee: These are people that—we drive BMWs all day long. The mechanics are in and out of the shop. They sit in them. It’s a job. But this is more than just a car for us.

Lawrence Ulrich: Yeah, if I pulled up even in an M3, which to me is a dream car, you’ve seen a hundred of those. People wouldn’t even look.

Dealership employee: No one’d stop you. They saw you pulling in, and they started walking through the dealership just to get an eye on it. And I’ve seen the car up close. BMW’s had it at events and conferences and stuff like that, and still I come out and want to see it.

Lawrence Ulrich: Even the local cops were impressed. So is this car so cool that I could pass you going 100 miles an hour and you’d, like, give me a break?

Police officer: You get a pass on something like that. If you were on a slower-moving road, I would stop you just to get a look at it, though. Most guys would.

Glenn Zorpette: But unfortunately, most guys can’t afford it.

Lawrence Ulrich: Sad but true. But the BMW shows there’s hope for the rest of us: Twenty years ago, the first carbon-fiber-intensive street car actually cost $1 million. That was the McLaren F1, from the company that pioneered the material in Formula One racing. But BMW has perfected a technique to mold carbon-fiber parts in minutes rather than hundreds of hours. And that starts with basic material from a green, hydropowered plant in Washington state. So now you’ve got the ability to mass-produce not only the i8 but the new BMW i3, an electric city car that costs just 42,000 grand. That’s by far the most affordable carbon-fiber car ever made.

Glenn Zorpette: And making cars lighter delivers a domino effect of gains—less need for weighty, expensive batteries on board, faster acceleration, better mileage, and quicker charging times. And they’re still very strong and safe.

Lawrence Ulrich: Absolutely. You get the best of both worlds here—a fuel-sipping plug-in and a stunning, exotic sports car. Whether you’re a tree hugger or a gas guzzler, the BMW will make everyone jealous.

Glenn Zorpette: Lawrence Ulrich, thanks so much.

Lawrence Ulrich: You bet.

Glenn Zorpette: You can see photos of the BMW i8 on our website, Spectrum@ieee.org. And now for something completely, or very nearly, silent.

Susan Hassler: That’s the sound of a hybrid vehicle.

Glenn Zorpette: Cars have, over time, gotten a whole lot less noisy, especially electric ones, which can be near-silent at low speeds. That’s created a problem for pedestrians, particularly visually impaired ones, who can’t hear them coming.

Susan Hassler: So some carmakers have added electronic sound generators to their hybrid and electric cars. Others haven’t wanted to do that, but soon it’ll be required.

Glenn Zorpette: David Schneider has our story.

David Schneider: To get a better sense of what cars of the future may sound like, I headed to Nissan’s North American Technical Center in Farmington Hills, Michigan, just outside Detroit. There I talked with Heather Konet, a Nissan engineer who helped design the pedestrian-warning sounds that were added to her company’s popular electric car, the Leaf.

Heather Konet: The sound had to address several different stakeholders. The first, most importantly, was the pedestrian. The sound had to be detectable for pedestrians. Second of all, the sound had to not be intrusive to the community. It couldn’t contribute to noise-pollution problems. It couldn’t be especially above what internal-combustion engine sound does. And then, third, it also had to be acceptable to the driver. We had some basic ideas of what the sound should be like, and we worked with a Hollywood sound designer.

David Schneider: The result? That sound is the result of careful scientific investigations into human hearing and perception. It contains frequencies that distinguish it from road noise and make it noticeable to young and old alike. How’d that Hollywood sound designer like it?

Heather Konet: From an aesthetic standpoint, maybe that sound wasn’t his favorite, it’s fair to say. Well, let me demonstrate the reverse sound.

David Schneider: Oh yeah, okay. Sounds like a truck backing up. But not all automakers have adopted this distinctive backup sound, as I had learned earlier while investigating some other electric cars in my home state of North Carolina. What kind of car do you have?

Prius owner: It’s a Toyota Prius C, 2012.

David Schneider: Did you know about the sound?

Prius owner: Yes. We’d heard other Priuses do it, in parking lots and the like.

David Schneider: All right, well let’s give it a go. And you have no objection to that sound.

Prius owner: Oh, not in the least, no. It doesn’t bother me at all. And it makes perfect sense. I mean otherwise the car is virtually silent, and dangerous, because people can’t hear it.

David Schneider: Now listen to his Prius in reverse. It sounds the same. This seemed strange to me until Heather Konet explained the current position of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, which is setting regulations for these sounds.

Heather Konet: They are basically leaning towards having the same sound for forward and reverse: You could use something different but definitely couldn’t use a beeping sound.

David Schneider: But wait, Nissan’s Leaf beeps in reverse. Why’s that?

Heather Konet: Our studies have clearly shown that the reverse sound is very effective. So we are still of the opinion that it should be allowed by the final rule.

David Schneider: Whatever the government decides, it’s likely that different automakers will adopt somewhat different sounds. To get a sense of the variation, I visited a couple of North Carolina’s electric-car dealers, starting with the Fiskar Karma, a plug-in hybrid reputed to have an especially futuristic sound.

Brent Putnam: My name is Brent Putnam, and we are at Flow Fiskar and Lotus of Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

David Schneider: So does a Fiskar Karma sound like George Jetson’s car? You remember that. Or maybe it’s like one of those police cruisers in Blade Runner? Listen to the Karma now.

Fiskar salesman: Most of the people that have bought the Fiskar, when it started up, they find the sound interesting and unique. They are not put off by the sound at all. Usually brings a smile to someone’s face.

David Schneider: But you’re not going to hear that sound much: Fiskar went bankrupt, and its new Chinese owners haven’t resumed production. So if you’re shopping for a plug-in, you’ll have to look elsewhere. How about something less sexy, like the new electric Smart car? To check one out, I talked with Chris Neuman, a Smart car salesman in Cary, North Carolina. What does this car sound like?

Chris Neuman: Hmmmmmm.

David Schneider: So you think it’s purposefully made somewhat irritating?

Chris Neuman: Yes, why would you want a pretty sound, like a bird or something? “Oh, there’s a bird coming.” No! There’s a car coming.

David Schneider: His colleague Cherrie Braun drove me around the parking lot too, so I could hear what the electric Smart car actually sounds like.

Cherrie Braun: Sounds sort of like a ’50s spaceship sound, you know, the one that would have come down over Roswell or something.

David Schneider: Okay, now that you’ve heard them, would you be able to distinguish, say, a Prius from a Leaf, from a Smart car, from… [sound of Jetson’s car]. Will all cars in the future alert pedestrians with such sounds? Nissan’s Heather Konet.

Heather Konet: There’s discussions, I think, within the industry of what’s the next evolution of pedestrian-related technology. You know, vehicle sound itself may not be the perfect solution. Sound can very easily be masked by traffic noise. Traffic noise can be really loud—as loud as 80, 90 decibels. It’s almost impossible to make a sound loud enough to compete with that. Also there’s people with hearing impairment—severe hearing impairment that you can’t get around with a vehicle sound. In the future there may be a more sophisticated solution that maybe addresses some of those things. The vehicle is connected to the pedestrian wirelessly and could provide warnings via cellphone. In the future, solutions like that may provide value in addressing this quiet-car issue.

David Schneider: In Farmington Hills, Michigan, I’m David Schneider, backing out of this story in a rented Mazda 2.

Glenn Zorpette: In 2009 Google confounded the experts on what robots could do by unveiling a self-driving car. Google followed up five years later with a smaller car that has no steering wheel—just an on-off switch.

Susan Hassler: That motivated the big automakers to develop robocars for the commercial market. First was Mercedes-Benz. In 2013, Mercedes sent an experimental sedan car on a self-driven jaunt across Germany.

Glenn Zorpette: Phil Ross traveled to Stuttgart, Germany, to check out a version of that car.

Phil Ross: For legal reasons, I wasn’t allowed to sit behind the wheel, so Mercedes engineer Jens Desens took me for a drive. We headed for the autobahn, which to my slight disappointment was not one of those that famously lack a speed limit.

Jens Desens: So now we are on the highway and I switch on the distronic.

Phil Ross: The distronic is basically cruise control with radar. In this car it’s set to 130 kilometers, about 80 miles per hour. At first, nothing seemed out of the ordinary, but then Desens started gesturing with both his hands and kept on gesturing. And the car stayed in its lane while minding the gap to the car in front.

Glenn Zorpette: This is what’s known as active cruise control, right? And it’s now in a lot of production cars, not just Mercedes, isn’t it?

Phil Ross: Yup. But listen to the good part, when our robocar comes up behind a slowpoke.

Jens Desens: And now he is overtaking him.

Phil Ross: The car decided to overtake him?

Jens Desens: Yeah. I do nothing. The last thing I did is pressing this knob.

Glenn Zorpette: Wow, so the car was really taking charge there.

Phil Ross: True, but Desens is quick to point out that a human driver might react differently from this car’s automated system. For example, I might have decided to overtake the car well before the computer did.

Jens Desens: That is one of the big differences between the human driver and the system.

Phil Ross: The radar can look ahead only about 200 meters. A human driver can look much further, especially on a long stretch of road like the autobahn. Mercedes has to follow telecom rules that limit a radar’s wavelength and range. And radar is absolutely key to this technology. Radar, along with a series of cameras that circle the vehicle, allows the car to see everything around it. But its cameras only work well if both the light and the weather are favorable. Negotiating all these variables is what has given Mercedes engineers headaches for decades.

Ralf Herrtwich: With autonomous driving, it starts with sensing the environment of the car, obviously. But you have to go beyond that.

Phil Ross: Ralf Herrtwich is a lead engineer at Daimler.

Ralf Herrtwich: It’s not just what’s happening now or what is out there now. What’s more important is what’s gonna happen in the next second, yeah?

Phil Ross: So even with three cameras and eight radars in the front, middle, and back of the car, negotiating real-life driving situations is incredibly complicated.

Ralf Herrtwich: We as human drivers, what do we do? We sort of try to push our way into our paths or have eye contact with whoever is coming from the other side. And that’s no option for an autonomous vehicle. So you have to find other ways to navigate this terrain.

Glenn Zorpette: Terrain that changes depending on where you are, I imagine, like a small rural town where cars may have to share a one-lane road, or a big city with lots of cross-traffic, cyclists, pedestrians.

Phil Ross: Right. And the computer needs to learn to differentiate between all these scenarios. While I was in Germany I made another stop in the city of Ulm and met a Mercedes radar engineer, Carsten Wink, who’s working on this very issue. He’s building a Doppler radar system that can classify objects by slight differences in their movement.

Carsten Wink: We have different colors, which represent different Doppler velocities on a pedestrian.

Phil Ross: We’re in the car with this screen in front of us, and he shows me shapes representing static features like trees and metal posts. So then another guy from the Mercedes radar lab walked in front of the car. With each step, his advancing leg moved only a few feet per second faster than his stationary leg, but that was different enough for the Doppler radar to pick up.

Carsten Wink: He’s going away from us, then he’s coming back, and then you see the most impressive effect.

Phil Ross: The advancing foot is one color, the stationary foot another.

Carsten Wink: And with this information, we can classify that this is a pedestrian and not something else which is moving.

Phil Ross: Like an animal or a bike.

Glenn Zorpette: So where does that leave Google’s vision of a car without a steering wheel, a car that can routinely do what Google once did as a stunt: take a blind man out to buy burritos?

Phil Ross: Well, Mercedes engineer Jens Desens thinks that’s still a long way off. Maybe five years? Ten.

Jens Desens: Fifty?

Phil Ross: Fifty? You think so?

Jens Desens: Far away.

Glenn Zorpette: Fifty years? But the technology that you’ve shown us so far seems so close already!

Phil Ross: Sure, I mean, they’ve made huge strides. Shrunk the radar system from the size of three suitcases down to a handheld. And learned to differentiate between another car, a pedestrian, a dog, a guardrail, a pothole. But what they still can’t do is teach the car to see and think like a human.

Jens Desens: I think we need to learn the intelligence. And these technical computers, they are thinking different. And we have not really a picture how human beings do that. And this is the big problem.

Phil Ross: They’ve made huge strides in the technology in recent years, but we’re not quite ready for full automation. Not yet.

Glenn Zorpette: Not yet, eh? Okay, thanks. That’s Phil Ross, reporting in Stuttgart, Germany.

Susan Hassler: There are many advantages to autonomous vehicles, but transit-systems expert Bill Lieberman cautions about possible drawbacks of self-driving cars.

Bill Lieberman: The challenges are that it actually could increase overall vehicle miles of travel. Transportation folks talk about VMT, vehicle miles of travel, as kind of a basic measure of the use of automotive or other vehicular means of travel. The higher the VMT, the more fuel consumption, the more air pollution, the more congestion.

The more these vehicles encourage use, there’s a chance that all of these issues that we’ve been trying to attack just get worse. It’s going to perpetuate or maybe even increase the use of our roadway infrastructure and the costs associated with upkeeping that infrastructure. So it’s not going to help in those areas.

Glenn Zorpette: And that’s it for “FutureCar: Accelerating Into the Future.”

Susan Hassler: For transcripts of this program, and expanded stories, check out the IEEE Spectrum website: Spectrum.ieee.org.

Glenn Zorpette: We had help from the staff of IEEE Spectrum, and Prachi Patel, Mia Lobel, Ethan Snow-Foley, Nikolai Woulfin, Lucca Shavelle, Emily Johnson, and Paul Ruest at Argot Studios in New York.

Susan Hassler: Our technical producer is Dennis Foley. Our executive producer is Sharon Basco. I’m Susan Hassler.

Glenn Zorpette: And I’m Glenn Zorpette. This IEEE Spectrum production is presented by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks for listening.

Young boy: I like future cars! Vroom, vroom, vroom, vroom, vroom!

NOTE: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners and may not perfectly match their associated interviews and narratives. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum’s audio programming is the audio version.