Understanding Emerging Technology on the Auto Market

Buying a new car, truck or van today is much different from even just a few years ago.  New technologies are now available, causing much confusion on the part of consumers.  What does “drive by wire” mean?  Is a hybrid the best option for your needs?  Are electric cars a good choice?  What’s a “fuel cell” vehicle and where can you buy one?  These and many other questions can cause confusion and difficulty.  Here are the answers to a few of the most common questions.

Fuel Cell Vehicles – A fuel cell vehicle uses a hydrogen fuel cell to create electricity.  This electricity is then used to power an electric motor.  This type of vehicle (in its purest form) uses no gasoline and emits only water vapor as exhaust.  Sounds great, where do you buy one?  Unfortunately, fuel cell vehicles are not a reality at this point in time.  While almost every automaker has a prototype currently in testing, the technology is not sufficiently developed for consumer use.

Hybrids – Hybrid vehicles have been around for a long time.  These use an internal combustion engine mated to an electric motor and help you reduce the amount of fuel used, as well as the amount of emissions produced by your vehicle.  However, hybrid technology has changed greatly in the past few years.  Emerging technology, such as that used on the Chevy Volt (due out in 2010), allows you to drive for a full 40 miles without using a single drop of gas.  Compare that to current technology, which only allows you to save about 25% on your average gasoline usage.

Electric Cars – The electric car has long been the holy grail of the auto industry.  While GM and several other automakers previously offered all-electric vehicles, they are no longer on the US market.  This is due to several factors, including the infeasibility of electric cars outside an intensely urban environment.  In short, they are of very little use in areas outside major cities.  In addition, these cars have to be plugged in to charge overnight, during parking and in other situations to ensure that the battery has sufficient power to get you where you need to go.  While electric cars may be the future of the industry, they are certainly not the present.

Drive by Wire – Drive by wire refers to the replacement of mechanical or hydraulic systems in automobiles with electrical systems.  For instance, power steering is often a complicated affair of hydraulic lines, reservoirs, pumps and more.  A drive by wire system greatly reduces the complexity of this system, replacing hydraulics with an electronic system.  This enables cars to be considerably lighter and more user-friendly. 

In addition, drive by wire systems are appearing in other areas of automobile manufacture, including prototype electric steering (i.e. no traditional steering column) and may debut on the auto marketing for consumer use in just a few years.  These systems are the future of automobile technology and will be combined with other technology, such as fuel cells or advanced hybrid technology of more comprehensive benefits.