Almost the instant the automobile was invented, engineers began dreaming up futuristic interpretations of the driving experience—and manufacturers began touting those visions as the promise of a bright tomorrow.
"Sometime in the future, the completely streamlined torpedo car may come into use," predicted Streamlines, a 1936 film from Chevrolet. "Elevated highways, wide and level, may let us go 120 miles an hour." A 1940 General Motors film, To New Horizons, envisaged a safe distance between cars "maintained by automatic radio control," and "the elimination of congestion and the elimination of interference from all the various converging motorways." Ford's Styling and the Experimental Car, circa 1964, went so far as to compare car designers of the day to da Vinci—assuming he might have been hip to "a practical dream car" that pushed 170 miles per hour.
Today, some of those visions, since realized, seem oddly pedestrian. True, we still lack torpedo cars, and "the elimination of congestion" remains pure fantasy. But GPS instruments aid in navigation and can give us a heads-up on traffic; Lexus's Pre-Collision System has a radar sensor that monitors the speed and distance of the vehicle ahead of you and automatically increases braking power if a collision is imminent.
Likewise, the bright tomorrow imagined now by Detroit and Japan feels less exotic than it used to. Much of it centers on turning the car into a glorified entertainment center. "What if the radio station playing in the backseat is different than in the front seat?" says Mark Chernoby, vice president for advanced vehicle engineering at Chrysler Group. "What if your car in the garage can link up with your home PC via Wi-Fi and download your daily ride of music automatically? All these things are possible, and probably in the near term."
Thankfully, sexier stuff may follow. "At some point, tires will 'speak' to the road and the curbside will 'know' you've arrived, so you may not need a parking meter," says K. Venkatesh Prasad, Ford's technical and group leader for infotronics research. "When you drive into a McDonald's, the menu might pop up on a display screen. Instead of moving to the business, the business will move to you."
That technology is at least 20 years away. Meanwhile, automakers are betting big on hydrogen fuel cells—which besides getting us out of the oil business, could be a lot cheaper to manufacture than traditional engines. Sexy? Not really. But it could lay the groundwork for the next generation of technologies—maybe even one that can eliminate traffic jams.
A version of this article appeared in the April 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.