Naughton: The Car of the Future

This week in Japan, Honda rolled out the future of personal transportation: the FCX Clarity, a hydrogen-powered fuel-cell car that emits only water from its tailpipe. It can go 280 miles on a tank of hydrogen—a renewable fuel that has nothing to do with fossilized dinosaurs—while getting the equivalent of 74 miles per gallon and doing zero to 60mph in less than nine seconds. The first Clarity rolled off the assembly line Monday and the Hollywood crowd is already lining up to lease it for $600 a month. Jamie Lee Curtis is one of the first. "This is a must-have technology for the future of the earth," Honda President Takeo Fukui said at the rollout. "Honda will work hard to mainstream fuel-cell cars."

Sounds great, but sadly the mainstreaming of fuel-cell cars will come much farther downstream. Honda, for all its good intentions and buzz-worthy PR, is heavily subsidizing the Clarity, which actually costs several hundred thousand dollars to produce per model. Fukui says it will take 10 years to get the price of the Clarity below $100,000. And they only plan to lease 200 Clarities over the next three years. The biggest roadblock, though, is beyond Honda's control—the almost total lack of hydrogen filling stations. That's why Honda is making the Clarity available only in southern California, which has 19 hydrogen fueling stations but really only three you can pull into like a regular gas station. So should Jamie Lee Curtis want to take a road trip to Vegas in her new Clarity, she will be stranded on the Strip.

So what will the rest of us be driving in five years? The answer is not so much "Jetsons" as it is "Smallville." Auto experts and futurists say our rides in 2013 will definitely be more high tech (though not as futuristic as fuel cells), but the most noticeable change will be their size. We're already downsizing at a rapid clip. But instead of replacing the Hummer with a Honda, by 2013 there will be new models on the market that offer seven-passenger seating, in a significantly smaller package. Under the hood, we'll have hybrids, diesels and turbo-charged engines that are good on gas and not so bad at burning rubber. But we'll still be riding on fossil fuel—just less of it. "Five years from now," says auto analyst Lincoln Merrihew of TNS Automotive, "we should have smaller, lighter and more fuel-efficient vehicles but not necessarily slower ones as turbos capture some former glory and since electric vehicles accelerate pretty briskly."

Driving the change, of course, is $4 gas and runaway oil prices. Another accelerant is new federal regulations that require all automakers' new models to achieve an average of 31.6mpg by 2015, up from about 25mpg today. By 2020, they have to hit 35mpg.

Still, despite the panic at the pump we're all experiencing now, analysts believe gas prices will eventually fall. (I know, you don't buy it. I'm having a hard time myself). The economists at Global Insight predict that by 2013, the average price of gas will drop a buck to $3.08 per gallon. That's why they don't expect all of us to squeeze into tiny Smart cars like the Europeans (who endure $7 a gallon gas). "When the gas bubble bursts and prices go back down, this hysteria will die down," says trend watcher Wes Brown of the Iceology consulting firm in Los Angeles. "The reality is that people need vehicles of different sizes. "We can't all fit into a Prius."

But many more of us will be fitting into Prius-style gas-electric hybrids. J.D. Power and Associates predicts hybrid sales will reach 1.1 million in 2013, accounting for 7 percent of the total U.S. auto market, up from 2.5 percent today. And by then, we'll have 89 different hybrid models from which to choose, up from just 16 today. Among those: three new versions of the Prius—a sport wagon, a family sedan and a tiny mileage miser about the size of a Smart. GM's plug-in hybrid, the Chevy Volt, also will be on the road by then, offering 40 miles of pure-electric drive before a tiny engine kicks in to recharge the battery (not propel the wheels like current hybrids). Honda also has two new hybrids coming—a small family car and a sporty two-seater. In fact, there will be hybrids in every shape and size. "Hybrids will be the new status symbol," says John Wolkonowicz of Global Insight. "Having a hybrid in 2013 will be like having a V8 in 1955."

Pure-electric vehicles also will hit the road, but in much smaller numbers. Nissan and Mitsubishi will roll out electric cars aimed at urban drivers. Tesla, the Silicon Valley start-up, plans to add a $50,000 electric luxury sedan to compliment its $98,000 roadster. But even with new battery technology, electric cars will still require hours of recharging time, which makes them less convenient than hybrids and conventional cars. "Hybrids will be mainstream," says J.D. Power analyst Mike Omotoso. "But electric vehicles will just be a niche vehicle for people in large urban areas, mostly on the coasts."

Diesel cars also could come on strong, since they offer a 25 percent to 30 percent boost in mileage over conventional cars. And the diesel option is cheaper—between $2,000 and $3,000—than going hybrid, which costs about an extra $4,500. That's why J.D. Power predicts diesels will outsell hybrids and command 8 percent of the U.S. market by 2013, up from 3 percent now.

Not everyone agrees, though. The diesel downside: a bad rep for being clanky, smelly and belching smog-forming pollution. That's why they aren't sold in some states with strict green laws, like California. Honda and European automakers are working on clean diesels that will overcome those problems. But soaring prices are eroding diesel's attraction. A gallon of diesel currently averages $4.80, 72 cents more than gasoline and nearly $2 more than a gallon of diesel cost a year ago. "People will do the calculations on diesel," says Wolkonowicz, "and it won't add up."

The fact is, most tire kickers in 2013 will still choose conventional cars. But they'll have green touches, like solar panels in the roof or dashboard. And they'll be powered by smaller engines that manage to squeeze out more mileage and muscle at the same time. Many will be equipped with four-cylinder engines that directly spray a fine mist of gasoline into the cylinders to save on fuel and are augmented by turbochargers to boost horsepower. Ford says its version of this engine, which it calls EcoBoost, can jack up fuel economy by 20 percent. Such an engine could power future Mustangs, giving the pony car better mileage without losing much giddy up.

Yes, there will still be muscle cars in five years; they'll just be leaner and more efficient. (Think Michael Phelps instead of Barry Bonds). In fact, just about all cars will go on a diet. Minivans will be replaced by mini-minivans, which will still seat seven, but in a footprint about the size of a Toyota Corolla. (Maybe we'd better go on a diet, too.) SUVs will give way to CUVs, or crossover utility vehicles, which will still ride high, but on smoother-riding car chassis that is better on gas. (Think Nissan Murano or Ford Edge). Big family cars will be overtaken by smaller sedans like the Honda Civic, now the No. 1 selling car in America. Economy cars will lose ground to even smaller models like the Toyota Yaris, which gets 36mpg on the highway.

But as we downsize, we'll bring along our outsized expectations. That means small cars will no longer be Spartan affairs. They'll be loaded with leather, surround sound, Bluetooth-enabled, voice-activated entertainment systems with GPS navigation providing real-time traffic conditions while making your dinner reservations for you. Of course all of this luxury in such a small package will drive up the price. "Don't be surprised, by 2013, to be paying $22,000 for a compact car that today costs $15,000," says Wolkonowicz.

Our rides will definitely be different in five years, but the highways won't be transformed. That will take a little longer, but as Honda proved this week with Clarity, it is inevitable. "You probably won't be able to just go to your dealer in 2013 and buy a hydrogen fuel-cell car," says Wolkonowicz. "But if you push the clock ahead to 2030, it's very possible that they could be the dominant car on the road." The road to our hydrogen future may be long. But smaller, more fuel-efficient cars are just around the corner.