Through The Crystal Ball: The Future of Vehicle Transportation

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March 30, 2009

By Bob Difley
GM Design Team Wins Award at Los Angeles Auto Show

These are tough economic times for investors and venture capitalists as we all know, but even more so for those invested in green ventures and alternative sources of energy. With gas plunging to around $2 a gallon, millions of jobs being lost, and the RV industry suffering a lack of buyers and financing, the push toward alternate fuels has been shoved to the back burner.  But these difficult times will not last—or so we’re told. And I believe it. The problem right now is a lack of confidence. Confidence that your job is secure. Confidence that your investments will lose even more of their value. Confidence to take on the debt of buying an RV. Confidence by lending institutions to make loans as borrowers’ ability to pay is challenged. And confidence in RV manufacturers that they can sell what they build.

Like dominoes, when lenders start lending, buyers will start buying, and RV companies will build what they can sell. Unfortunately, what they build will probably be more of the same, the safe road, rather than the road of innovation, of trying green materials and hybrid fuel configurations, of downsizing and employing more European design concepts to make more efficient use of space.
Following Winnebago’s lead with their popular Sprinter chassis coupled with a small diesel engine capable of producing 15 mpg and more in a 24 to 27 foot Class C, that is about as adventurous as we can expect other manufacturers to be during this recovery period.
However, when the times improve, here are a few innovative directions that futurists in the transportation sector are predicting. It’s just a guess as to how far ahead you may have to look to see these innovations, but they are actually in the testing phases now.

  • As well as downsizing, niche manufacturers may start producing classic RVs, such as the 1965 Condor or the original Winnebago Brave, that appeal to classic vehicle buffs and without all the computer modules so backyard mechanics can work on them.
  • As those inventive engineers and entrepreneurs start to take market share away from the major car companies with their high tech offerings (Tesla electric sports cars are an example) we may see mergers between Toyota and Microsoft, or GM and Samsung. This would give car companies entry into cutting edge battery and software technology, new materials, and other high tech advances to keep them competitive.
  • Nanotechnology researchers are working on vehicle bodies that have shape memory built in, so that when you put a dent in it, it fixes it self—pops out into the shape it remembers.
  • Biodegradable plastics, made from the starch in potatoes or rice, will be used to replace the metal and fiberglass fender, side, and door panels of cars and motorhomes. And when it’s life is over, you bury it in your yard where it decomposes and fertilizes your arugula and squash.
  • Spray painting color onto these panels will also become a remnant of the past, as smart color will be a part of every vehicle, where owners can electronically change the color to match their moods.
  • And eventually, software will be designed that will enable vehicles to drive themselves, sensing danger and braking, and determining the space between you and the vehicle ahead and adjusting speed accordingly. Then we can sit back and fully enjoy the passing scenery as we tour our national parks and scenic byways. I could even write my blog. Ahh, perchance to dream . . .

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  2. John Shelton – Thanks for the comments. What I’m hearing from you and the other commenters seems right on target. I would like to see these fuel systems develop, but still think that before the RV manufacturers will be willing to put a lot of bucks into building such vehicles, they will need some incentives–either tax breaks, stimulus money, government guarantees, etc.–hoping that the RV buying public is as forward thinking as you all are. We can only hope . . .

  3. Thomas Becher

    I read about changing colors on your car way back 60 years ago in MY WEEKLY READER and it still isn’t here. Why? Because no one REALLY cares. How about a fuel cell the will provide some juice to charge my batterys while i am sitting here in the desert on BLM land, listning to my little Honda run. If I did this a lot i’d get some solar, but thats not in the cards right now. We already carry the fuel (propane will work) it would also heat our water and it would be QUITE. Remember the old saying, When Pigs Fly

  4. John Shelton

    Forgot something Bob!! I have not been to the website yet that you refer to here, but the photo really reminds me of a vehicle that GMC produced a few of back sometime in the early or mid-50’s. I saw one of them auctioned by Barrett-Jackson a couple or so years ago. Was really a neat vehicle that you stepped into on the curb side and walked up 3 or 4 steps to the driving compartment. The more recent GMC Motorhome that had front wheel drive with the Oldsmobile engine and transaxle wasn’t a bad vehicle if you could stay on pavement. (I forget what they called this Motorhome)

  5. G Shea

    I agree we need to reduce all non renewables. but until we can, CNG IS the answer. We don’t need to drill very many more holes, and according to my mechanics at the bus lot, the CNG gets close to the mileage of diesels. They tell me they think that the abuandance of it (in the US no less!) is why they pay 40% less for it. Many bus fleets are or have converted to CNG, and T Boone Pickins seems to think it will help. I am not saying it will solve every aspect of the problem, but diversifying our uses can exndend the resources we have while other answers are found. It also would please those who listen to Mr Gore, as it is way cleaner than diesel and gas. I think doing something like CNG is btter than the current plan ie do nothing…What happened to change???

  6. John Shelton

    Dan Rambow, Your flying car prototype made its maiden voyage just a few weeks ago. The manufacturer prefers to call it a drivable airplane. Neat two place vehicle with enough storage space for a few bags. I want one……..even at $200,000. 400 mile range.

    I think it is quite possible that Vulpine is dead on target as to the interim highway vehicle power system. It is my understanding that a locomotive propulsion system lacks the battery pack that is currently thought to be necessary for a highway vehicle. The diesel engine drives a generator which, in turn drives the electric motors which drive the train. There is no energy storage system (except for the diesel fuel) in this system. A highway vehicle that I predict will become popular in the coming years will be a pure battery powered electric motor drive with an onboard diesel or gasoline powered generator. One can drive to work and to the grocery store on battery power and recharge through their home electric system and not use a drop of motor fuel for weeks at a time, but will have the capacity to recharge the batteries enroute with the onboard generator and have unlimited range by filling up at currently existing fuel outlets. A small gasoline or diesel engine that runs at a constant sped and near constant load can be engineered to be MUCH more fuel efficient and built at a lower cost than an engine that has to power a vehicle from a standstill to 75 miles per hour and uphill and down.

    I will not be here to see it, but I make no prediction as to what the rest of you will be driving 35 or 50 or 75 years from now.

  7. @G Shea: In my personal opinion, switching over to CNG is just about as economical as drilling more holes in the ground. In fact, that’s exactly what you’d have to do. Add to this that if you switched even half the car, trucks and other gas-powered vehicles to CNG, you’d probably run out of that form of gas just as quickly as we’re running out of oil. Why? Because you’re not improving the economy of the vehicle; if anything, you’re degrading it. The average vehicle running on CNG gets roughly half the mileage on the same volume of fuel that they would on gas or diesel.

    No, changing us from one non-renewable resource to another is not going to fix anything. New technologies are needed quickly and redesigning existing technologies must be used as an interim until the new technologies can hold their own.

    It’s not just oil we need to reduce demand on, it’s all non-renewable fuels.

  8. This month represents my first full year as an Rv’er.
    My travels have taken me from a quick overnight in Delaware, to a cross country trip over two months long…..My companion Liz and me have loved every minute of this new found freedom…… That freedom is what we purchased a 21 ft 2006 Dodge / Mercedes powered 5 cyl diesel, conversion by Pleasure Way. If I had a dollar for every time other Rv’ers and onlookers wanted a tour I might have paid for all the fuel we did use… Bigger is sometimes better but for us the size, drive ability, comfort, and 22 to 24 MPG it gave us a chance to really be free. The new class B and C motor homes are just what we needed….. The future is here just have to look…..

  9. G Shea

    How about some CNG powered motorhomes? It works for buses (I know from driving them). Many bus systems have converted their entire fleet to CNG, if stations would sell it, it could be a big part of reducing our need for oil.

  10. Vulpine – I think that you and GM agree. The vehicle shown in the photo is a diesel/electric hybrid. It sounds like a great concept to me. You can read more about this concept RV at: Thanks for the great explanation of the future of diesle/electric RVs.

  11. Charles – Thanks for the comment and the challenge. I just knew someone would ask me that. Fortunately I do know what it is. This is a concept RV created by GM and displayed at the L. A. Auto Show. You can read all about it here:

  12. As I’ve commented in another thread, one good possibility as an interim technology would be a diesel/electric RV in the same line as diesel/electric locomotives used by the railroads. If the diesel directly drives a generator which charges a decent battery pack as well as providing direct power to the motors under load, you should be able to realize as much as two- or even three times the economy as a direct-drive system we use now. Considering that electric motors have almost-infinite torque at 0rpm that drops off as speed increases, a strong transmission with two or three gears could let a low-horsepower electric motor power a full-sized motorhome pretty effectively. I’d guess a 100bhp motor could probably do what 300hp gas or diesel does now. By using a 100hp diesel to power the generator, supplemented by the battery pack for acceleration, you should see a significant fuel savings.

    The same could be done for cars as well. The only drawback is that Diesel fuel doesn’t handle sub-freezing temperatures as well as gasoline.

  13. So what is with the picture – pique our curiosity and then say nothing about it. I think you need to come out and tell us what we are looking at – if you know!

  14. Dan Rambow

    Ok Bob, I hear you, all these new-fangled RV gagets and designs. But I’ve heard it all before, when I was a young lad, back in the early 60’s we were promised (if we lived through the nuclear war) that we would have flying cars by now!

    I want my flying car, then on to these new RV’s 🙂

    It is true that much of everyday life now is beyond what most of the wildest predictions of science and technology predicted 50 years ago (except for that darned flying car) Even Dick Tracy’s fabulous wrist radio from the 30’s is far outclassed by today’s [cell phone/computer/navigator/video camera] devices that all the teenagers carry around these days.

    But unfortunately, basic motive power hasn’t made any revolutionary changes yet, very refined, yes, but the basic gas and diesel engines still work the same way as they did 50 years ago and they still power the vast majority of our vehicles around the world.

    I hope we can get out of the hand-out mode soon, that seems to only pay for past debts and mistakes, and instead direct efforts to produce new goods and services that others want to buy, that will truely fund research into new ways of powering our vehicles.