The automobile will continue to be a key part of society in the 21st century, but it won't be your grandparents' sedan. Expect more "smart" technologies like route guidance and warning systems, as well as a vehicle that's friendlier to the environment.
At a two-day conference last week on MIT's Vision for the Automobile, 14 experts made these and other predictions and described the research that will make them a reality. The speakers included 10 MIT researchers whose diverse affiliations ranging from the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics to the Sloan Automotive Laboratory are proof of the "interdisciplinary approach" to automobile research that Chancellor Lawrence S. Bacow said is unique to MIT.
A significant theme of several talks was reducing the car's impact on the environment. In the 21st century, "we must turn the automobile into sustainable transportation," said Dr. Wolfgang Reitzle, group vice president of Ford's Premier Automotive Group. "I personally feel that challenge and responsibility."
Dr. Reitzle, whom Dr. Bacow introduced as the premier "car guy" of this decade according to the automotive press, went on to describe some of Ford's environmental efforts. For example, he said the company's single largest project is in the development of fuel cells (an alternative power source). "So we really believe in these for the future, but basic science breakthroughs are still needed to make fuel cells practical and affordable."
Professor Daniel Roos also emphasized the importance of sustainability. In addition to cutting emissions, he noted that we must also cut congestion. "If our cities get totally gridlocked, then the automobile ceases to be an effective mode of transportation," said Dr. Roos, the Japan Steel Industry Professor of Engineering in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.
But while emissions solutions will rest in the development of new technologies, he said, gridlock and congestion will require institutional and political change. Some examples of such changes: car-sharing, "congestive pricing" in which commuters pay higher tolls to drive during rush hour, and increased telecommuting.
Several projects underway at the Sloan Automotive Lab are adding to the knowledge base for problems related to automotive emissions. For example, said Professor John B. Heywood, it's easy to keep emissions down once an engine's running; the hard part is controlling emissions during engine startup. The latter is a major research activity at the lab, which is directed by Dr. Heywood, the Sun Jae Professor of Mechanical Engineering.
Another major project at the lab involves making friction less of a problem, said Professor Heywood, who noted that "half the power we use in operating our cars is used in overcoming friction." The lab's consortium on engine lubrication is working on a model that will predict oil consumption with some accuracy, and exploring the complexities of the engine's piston-ring system. The latter is the major source of friction.
Several speakers also discussed the growing impact and implications of information technology on the automobile. In addition to the incorporation of "goodies" like night-vision imaging systems, our cars could become electronically linked to each other as part of an integrated transportation system that could, for example, direct drivers to alternative routes in the event of traffic jams.
"We are entering a period of significant change in automobile human-machine interaction driven by information technologies," said John Hansman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics and expert on information technologies as applied to air and ground transportation. These technologies are making the car easier to operate, but Professor Hansman warned that drivers are becoming increasingly distracted by an influx of "secondary systems" like cell phones. His lab is exploring ways to address the problem.
Who will be buying the cars with all these goodies? "People over 50," said Joseph Coughlin, director of MIT's AgeLab. As a result, the AgeLab is exploring how in-vehicle information systems and wireless services affect the safe, comfortable operation of a car by older drivers. Key to that effort: Miss Daisy, a cherry-red Volkswagen Beetle that the researchers have equipped with technologies like a collision-avoidance system. Although Miss Daisy has no engine, everything else works, and force-feedback systems give the feel of driving.
The researchers then run computer simulations with older volunteers that require the drivers to use these technologies. The idea is to slowly load up the driver with these technologies to determine what constitutes information overload. "We want to optimize the design and integration of the technologies," Dr. Coughlin said.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 23, 2001.