Future tense in tomorrow's car?

Future tense in tomorrow's car?

23 Apr 2010

chris-scanlon-thumb Dr Chris Scanlon
Email: c.scanlon@latrobe.edu.au

What a concept car can tell you about life in the future.
Originally published in The Punch on 21 April 2010

I have glimpsed the future of motoring and it turns out that in twenty years from now we’ll all be zipping around in ludicrously over-accessorised Segways. At least that’s if General Motors has any say in the matter.

I'm just popping out for a broccoli colonic…
GM’s new ‘Electric Networked Vehicle’, or EN-V,  which was recently shown to the motoring public in Shanghai, looks like a Segway on steroids, which is not all that surprising given that it was developed in partnership with Segway.

Weighing in at less than 500 kilograms, measuring just 1.5 metres long and powered entirely by electricity, the EN-V is being touted as a solution to pollution, urban congestion and road accidents.

According to GM’s Director of the EN-V program, Chris Borroni-Bird, ‘this vehicle represents a complete vision of the future — not only a vehicle, but a complete mobility system’.

It all sounds exciting, until you realise that for this ‘complete mobility system‘ to take off, quite a few things will need to change. For starters, given that the EN-V only seats two people, families would have to be composed of two — and only two — people.

In addition, in GM’s vision of the future we’ll all be eating out a lot more, since the EN-V has no boot in which to stow a big grocery shop. Alternatively, GM’s engineers may be assuming that in the future we’ll all be growing food in our backyards.

Another possibility is that they’re banking on the development of foods in capsule form, or perhaps they’re hoping that in the next 20 years humans will be have the capacity to photosynthesise, thus eliminating the need to eat altogether.

Not only will we not have to eat or buy food, we’ll all live in cities where the most travel anyone will ever have to do are short trips on well maintained roads.

And then there’s the whole pollution thing. For countries like Australia which are heavily dependent on fossil fuels for electricity generation, we’ll also have to develop a completely new energy source if the EN-V is to be truly emissions-free.

But, of course, I’m getting ahead of myself. The EN-V is a ‘concept car’, which means that it will never go into full production. As the New York Times reported, the point of the EN-V is to showcase ‘what might be possible by 2030’.

This is a nice idea, but what are we supposed to do about congestion, pollution and accidents now? Of course, the EN-V isn’t really about the future at all. Concept cars like the EN-V are really about addressing the public relations problems that car companies have in the here and now.

These high-tech baubles are supposed to get us to believe that car companies such as GM are really run by misunderstood environmentalists. This explains the tortuous acronym EN-V, which — Gosh! Did anyone else notice?  — are the first three letters in the word ‘environment’.

This is particularly important for a company like GM, which has a poor record when it comes to the environment. After all, this is the same GM which fought against Californian government laws in the late 1990s that mandated automakers begin to make emission-free cars.

This is the same GM that went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that the one electric car that it did put into commercial production — the EV-1 which was produced by GM between 1996–1999 — was removed from roads when the project was cancelled.

As the 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car showed, despite being popular in California, GM only ever leased the EV-1 and reclaimed the vehicles when the leases were up. Many EV-1s were subsequently destroyed, even though some customers claimed that they had offered to extend their leases and to sign a waiver absolving GM from future maintenance costs.

The handful of EV-1’s still in existence have reportedly been deactivated, and the few universities and car clubs that own them have to sign an agreement with GM promising not to run it as an electric car.

If GM and other car companies want a real concept to address urban transport problems, then forget about pimping Segways. Instead, how about devising a low emission, low cost public transport system? Better still, make it child- and old person-friendly.

And while you’re at it, try working out how these might be integrated into a city’s existing infrastructure and road network along with other commercially viable low/no-emission vehicles.

It might not be as sexy, but it has more chance of solving urban transport problems than a publicity stunt.

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