Car of the Future

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The Independent Online
Body: Frame and body are aluminium, which is lighter than steel. Objections that aluminium is not green, because so much energy is needed to make it, have been overcome by widespread recycling.

Fittings, including the 'chrome', are of recyclable plastics. The car can be broken down in such a way that parts can easily be sorted and reprocessed by specialist disassemblers (originally established by BMW), which have driven old-fashioned scrapyards out of business.

This is only one of a growing number of body styles (it is loosely based on the Calstart concept car from the 1993 Geneva motor show). Three-seaters, cars that mimic those of the Thirties or Sixties, as well as traditional saloons and estates are all available. Vehicles that have nothing in common on the surface will share the same frame - just as they did up to the Fifties.

Inside there is also a vast choice: the owner can individualise his car as he does his house. One traditional luxury, air conditioning, has disappeared. Instead seats are heated or cooled internally, using less energy.

The car does not have mirrors: TV cameras show what is happening behind and around. The windows are 'smart': they darken automatically in the sunshine and are treated to resist water; there are no windscreen wipers.

Electronics: The car is packed with electronics, many developed by companies over the last 20 years under the EC's Prometheus safety and traffic flow programme. The heart is the navigation system, which links the vehicle into a terrestrial equivalent of an air traffic control system. On main roads the car can travel as part of a convoy, keeping a fixed distance from the one in front: vehicles can travel much more closely than would have been safe in the past because a computer reacts faster than the human brain. If there is trouble ahead, the convoy will slow down.

It would be possible to make the driver redundant in towns and on main roads, but so far consumer resistance has blocked this. Instead, a range of systems are installed to increase driver information, which is fed into a Pilkington 'head-up display' in the windscreen, originally developed for fighter aircraft.

The display includes a screen that picks out pedestrians up to 400 yeards ahead, even in fog, using GEC's 'far infra-red' camera mounted at the top of the windscreen. Near vision is improved by ultra-violet and infra-red lamps that boost headlight illumination.

A navigation system stores road maps on a compact disc. A television display shows where the car is and a synthesised voice gives directions. The system can receive traffic information, work out routes that avoid jams and roadworks, and pinpoint available parking.

The car also has a neutral network that monitors driver behaviour and sounds an alarm if it detects loss of concentration.

Engine: This car is a hybrid. The wheels are turned by a powerful lightweight electric motor - technology developed by the aerospace industry in the 1980s. With a nickel-cadmium battery pack, it can be driven as an emission-free electric car in town. The battery pack is larger and heavier than a petrol engine's battery but much smaller than it would be for a purely electric car.

When batteries run low, or if full power is needed in the country, they are charged via a sophisticated electronic management system that employs a small gas turbine or jet engine. The turbine, which runs on diesel fuel, is much lighter than an internal combustion engine, thanks to advanced ceramics. It also creates less pollution. Drivers get used to the noise - a high-pitched whine - and to a tachometer that registers up to 100,000rpm.

Although turbines have been used in the past as primary engines (eg, by Rover and BRM in the Fifties), they like to run at a constant speed, making them ideal as generators. Volvo made the first turbine electric hybrid as a concept car in 1992. It had a top speed of 108mph and could run for 416 miles on a tank of fuel. This car has one of the more advanced of the many engine systems now available; most cars still use some form of internal combustion engine.

Tyres: The look of a tyre has not changed much, but Pirelli now makes them from a compound that reduces the area in contact with the road - and so keeps the car's rolling resistance to a minimum.

Controls: Brakes have a regenerative energy system, developed in the US by Dowty Aerospace (part of TI). It feeds electricity back into the batteries when brakes are applied. Brakes, accelerator and steering are linked to the pedals and steering wheel by computer. Now old hat in airliners, this is 'fly-by-wire' technology applied to the car. Suspension characteristics can be changed at the press of a button, giving a balance between handling and comfort that can range from that of a racing car to that of a limousine. There is an electronically controlled gearbox with infinitely variable ratios.

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