The Evolution of Next-Generation Cars

ron-cogan-capitol-hillThere are many outspoken and polarizing proponents of the various fuels and technologies at play today. This has been the case for several decades now and isn’t likely to disappear anytime soon. Many electric car enthusiasts do not see a future for internal combustion or even hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. Hydrogen proponents point out that fuel cell vehicles make more sense than battery electrics since hydrogen generally offers greater driving range and fuel cell vehicles can be refueled in under five minutes, while battery electrics cannot. Biodiesel enthusiasts point out the obvious benefits of this biofuel and even as this fuel gains momentum, wonder why support isn’t stronger. Natural gas advocates see huge and stable supplies of this clean-burning fuel now and in our future, without the truly significant commitment to natural gas vehicles this should bring. And those behind internal combustion vehicles achieving ever-higher efficiency simply wonder what the fuss is all about when conventional answers are here today.

So in the midst of all this, where are we headed? Simple. In the right direction, of course.

As I was writing about these very fuels and technologies some 25 years ago, it wasn’t lost on me that the competition for dominance in the ‘green’ automotive world of the future would be hard-fought and long, with many twists and turns. As our decades-long focus on the ‘green car’ field has shown us, the state-of-the-art of advanced vehicles in any time frame is ever-changing, which simply means that what may seem to make the most sense now is likely to shift, and at times, shift suddenly. This is a field in flux today, as it was back then.

When Nissan powered its Altra EV back in 1998 as an answer to California’s Zero Emission Vehicle mandate, it turned heads with the first use of a lithium-ion battery in a limited production vehicle, rather than the advanced lead-acid and nickel-metal-hydride batteries used by others. Lithium-ion is now the battery of choice, but will it remain so as breakthrough battery technologies and chemistries are being explored?

Gasoline-electric hybrids currently sell in ever-greater numbers, with plug-in hybrids increasingly joining their ranks. Conventionally-powered vehicles are also evolving with new technologies and strategies eking levels of fuel efficiency that were only thought possible with hybrid powerplants just a few years ago.

What drives efficiency – and by extension determines our future path to the high efficiency, low emission, and more sustainable vehicles desired by consumers and government alike – is textbook evolution. Cars are adapting to meet the changing needs of future mobility and the imperative of improved environmental performance. Some of these evolutionary changes are predictable like lightweighting, improved aerodynamics, friction reduction, and enhanced powertrain efficiencies. Other answers, including the fuels that will ultimately power a new generation of vehicles, will be revealed over time.

So here’s to the cheerleaders who tell us quite vocally that their fuel, technology, or strategy is the answer to our driving future. One of them may be right. But the fact is, the evolutionary winner has yet to be determined.

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