Issue 21 - Letter from the Editor

Issue 21 - Letter from the Editor

By Mark Spellun

Driving Into the Future
In December 2007, Congress raised the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for the first time in more than 20 years. According to the new regulations, the United States’ average fuel economy is supposed to reach 35 miles per gallon by 2020. While this is a 40 percent increase from when CAFE standards were last set in 1984, just like then, the new standard won’t demand new technological breakthroughs from the auto industry. Manufacturers will only have to make minor modifications, like offering smaller and lighter vehicles, as they already are in Europe, where an average of 40 miles per gallon is the mandate.

But what if the days of making incremental changes to cars were over? There are signs that we are on the verge of a technological revolution that might make the CAFE standards a thing of the past. Larry Burns, vice president of research and development and strategic planning for General Motors, thinks the automotive sector is moving into a period similar to 100 years ago, when there were several forms of auto propulsion. “In the late 1800s, there were more than 3,000 auto companies using different technologies, from steam to wood to coal to internal combustion engines to batteries,” he says. “And somehow in the next 10 to 20 years a dominant play surfaced: the internal combustion engine.”

Today companies are experimenting with biofuels, batteries, and hydrogen fuel cells. GM and Toyota are aiming to bring a pluggable hybrid to the market by 2010 (see “Go, Clean Racer, Go,” page 76). Rapidly improving battery technologies (see “Electrifying Breakthroughs,” page 39) could help make the first mass-market electric car finally become a reality. And in our interview with GM’s Burns, he even dares to dream about cars that drive themselves (page 81). Cars that don’t crash because of human error, he says, can be significantly lighter and therefore more fuel-efficient.

We’re entering into a period when the internal combustion engine may quickly become outdated and what we think of as driving will be altered significantly. And while the roster of companies leading the charge includes many of the automotive industry’s major players, innovations are also being provided by newer companies like Tesla,, and Fisker Automotive, who compete with auto manufacturers on the technological front. Not  long ago, people talked about GM and Ford as marketing companies—behemoths whose products had essentially stagnated but which they annually repackaged to the market as something new. But today, if automotive companies don’t start becoming more like technology companies, they will end up like the US television manufacturing industry: extinct. While none of us here at Plenty want to witness another American industry’s downfall, putting together an issue about what the car of the future might look like made one thing clear: We can’t wait to see how all the innovation shakes down and rolls out onto our roads.

Issue 25

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