RAC Cars News


What can we expect from future cars?

By raccars Published

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With self-driving cars fast moving from 'Tomorrow's World' to reality, what will future cars do?

At one time autonomous driving was something that Hollywood producers used in depicting the future in sci-fi films. Now, however, like it or not, it's becoming clear that autonomous driving is the future. Gradually cars have been fitted with more and more driver assistance features which, while they may carry huge safety benefits, inevitably take some of the entertainment out of the driving experience.

At the same time, big engined performance cars have been demonised as environment killers. Manufacturers are increasingly being squeezed to provide safer, faster, more luxurious and cleaner cars for lower prices, but where will it all lead?

The end of the combustion engine?

Fortunately for those who genuinely enjoy driving, it's in manufacturers' interests to continue to provide engaging vehicles. They'll probably look somewhat different to those we're driving now but powertrains are going to be the main area of revolution. Quite simply, the combustion engine as we know it has had its day. The existing combustion process is too inefficient to compete with electric powertrains, so while some future cars may still contain an engine, its primary function will be to back up an electric motor rather than to drive the wheels.

Engineers are working on developments of the Stirling engine, which functions through an external heat source and was originally supposed to be an alternative to the steam engine. Using heat to create electricity is the subject of substantial research at the moment. Those cars that do use some form of combustion engine are unlikely to retain the four stroke units we use now, and engineers are experimenting with the concept of spit cycle cylinders. The fuel they burn is also up for discussion, with ideas such as a petrol/diesel hybrid and the use of synthetic fuels to mix with fossil fuels.

Future cars to be powered by hydrogen?

Hydrogen is also gaining ground as a potential solution to the world's fossil fuel problems. The success of hydrogen as a mainstream fuel option is currently in the balance as manufacturers wait for additional infrastructure for refilling. 200 stations are due to be in place world-wide by the end of 2016. Industry analysts suspect that if the investment is forthcoming and the execution well handled, a decent hydrogen infrastructure could see millions of hydrogen cars enter the market between 2020-2040. Far Eastern brands are leading the hydrogen charge, particularly Honda, Hyundai and Toyota, with the Mirai being one of the first mainstream hydrogen fuel cell cars available.

Another barrier to hydrogen uptake has been manufacturing costs but Toyota has found a way in which to automate and streamline the process to make it commercially viable. With a billion pounds of investment to spend on supporting the development of hydrogen fuel and fuel cells in Europe over the next five years, its prospects as the basis for future cars look good.

Batteries, fossil fuels and tyres

Meanwhile, EV manufacturers are working hard to overcome the technology's biggest stumbling block: range. New battery technology should increase average range to 500 miles between charges, and charging time should also be cut dramatically. Batteries will become lighter and cheaper, with the capacity to store far more energy.

After years of gloomy prognostications, the fossil fuel crisis has abated somewhat, with fuel providers predicting that petrol and diesel will become easier to obtain and cheaper to buy thanks to modern discovery, extraction and refinement processes.

Elsewhere on cars, tyres are expected to play a larger part in road safety, using wireless technology. Tyres will be used to help cars share knowledge about road conditions. Tyres could also become adaptive, changing shape and pressure to best suit the road conditions.

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