Technology: Cars of the Future

Tom and Ray Magliozzi like to joke that they have faces for radio. Now you'll get to judge for yourself. The hosts of NPR's wildly successful "Car Talk"—better known to many of their 4 million weekly listeners as Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers—will be making their small-screen debut in "Car of the Future," an Earth Day episode of "Nova" on PBS. Then, in July, PBS will begin airing "As the Wrench Turns," an animated series loosely based on the lives of the brothers and the off-the-cuff banter that has been the hallmark of their show for more than three decades.

In "Car of the Future" Ray decides it's time for Tom to junk his sputtering 1952 MG Roadster. Armed with alarming statistics—that a quarter of the oil ever consumed was pumped in the last decade; that placed bumper to bumper, the earth's 800 million cars would circle the planet 100 times—they go in search of a suitable replacement. The brothers crack wise at the Detroit Auto Show and the corollary underground AltWheels festival in Boston. They ride, and help refuel, a hydrogen-powered bus in Iceland. They visit automotive engineers at universities and think tanks, all in the interest of finding something—anything—that might help Americans break free from Big Oil's tight grip. If the underlying message is grim, Click and Clack provide a dose of humor, curiosity and good nature. It's essential if inconvenient viewing (apologies to Al Gore).

NEWSWEEK's Brian Braiker and Arlyn Tobias Gajilan recently spoke with Tom and Ray Magliozzi after the "Nova" and PBS shows were announced at a press briefing in New York. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: When you were growing up, what was your vision of the car of the future?
Ray Magliozzi:
I was a real nerd growing up. I read Popular Science and Scientific American. And I was ticked off because those bums promised that within 30 years you could safely drive the car of the future with no hands or feet, and that you could watch television and interact with your kids. It's been a lot more than 30 years since I read that, and not much of that has happened. Your kids can watch a DVD, but you still have to drive the car yourself.

What did you see, in the course of filming the special, that excited you the most?
Tom Magliozzi: Nothing. There was nothing quite different, and it was just more of the same stuff that we had all heard about. We didn't believe that any of it is going to turn into the car of the future.

So there is no car of the future?
Tom: Oh, there is, but we don't know what it is.
Ray: I don't think that Dean Kamen is going to announce tomorrow that he's got the car of the future.

NEWSWEEK just interviewed him . He's working on water purifiers and robotic arms right now.
[Laughs] Tell him to call me. Because I gotta say, as exciting as the technology behind the Segway was, it was a pretty big disappointment. From him I kind of expected the car of the future: the car where you throw banana peels in, close the lid and convert the stuff into hydrogen right on the spot. I guess the most promising thing is the hybrid and the plug-in hybrid.

You said in the press briefing this morning, "Get a Prius." That's as close to an endorsement as we've ever heard out of you guys.
It's probably as close as you're going to get, [because] even it has its shortcomings. Technologically it's a complex little car. I think when these cars get old, people who buy them secondhand are going to be disappointed at the size of the repair bills. Not to mention the cost of replacing the batteries.

What do you think is going to be the most problematic thing for the Prius?
It turns out the steering on that car is pretty complex … Are they going to figure it out and refine it and simplify it? Yeah. Does that mean we shouldn't pursue these cars because they're complex? No. They just have to figure out how to do it. And we just have to figure out how to fix the stupid things. [Laughs]

A lot of the interesting innovations highlighted in your special were not coming out of Detroit. They were from think tanks and independent car manufacturers. Will their ideas trickle up?
I wouldn't be surprised if [Detroit was] drawing on outsiders, because there's too much new technology that has to come in the next five to 10 years.
Tom: It's not going to come from [the big automakers] until it's proven somewhere else.

You guys wrote a letter to Congress about the energy bill that included a list of technology that could improve engines.
We cited seven or eight or 10 technologies that already exist. The question is whether Congress should force automakers to have cars get 35 miles to the gallon by 2020. And of course all the Detroit guys said, "Oh no, that can't be done!" In the past when they've been asked to do something like that, whether it's to improve safety, they always say, "We can't do it. People won't be able to afford the cars. It'll put us out of business. We'll all be driving tricycles." In every case their predictions have been so wrong it's unbelievable.
Tom: They lie!
Ray: And they have a vested interest in keeping the status quo. They know how to make money with what they're making, and they don't necessarily know how to make money with new technologies. And they don't want stuff foisted on them.

What types of technology did you recommend in the documentary?
We cited start-stop technology, which makes your engine stop when you're at a traffic light, regenerative braking, cylinder deactivation, turbos, diesels, direct-injection gasoline vehicles, hybrid diesels, lightweight materials. Our vehicles weigh 6,000 pounds. It's preposterous! All of these technologies are out there right now. Is it that simple to put any one or combination in current cars? No. But they've got 12 years to do it. And the truth is they could probably do it in two or three years. They've milked the SUV craze as much as possible, and now the public is going to demand more fuel-efficient vehicles, especially with gasoline prices getting up to near four bucks a gallon. I secretly hope they go higher, because it'll push the process along.

Did you get any response from Congress?
A bunch of compliments and a few pieces of hate mail. We get that every week. [Laughs]
Ray: It's usually directed at Tom! Because of the way he looks. [Laughs]

You guys started as a call-in show for people with busted cars. Now you're writing letters to Congress, trying to effect policy change. How do you feel about becoming activists?
We're not activists.
Tom: We call a spade a spade. If they happen to be senators and they're jerks, we tell 'em they're jerks. They need someone to tell them they're jerks.
Ray: I don't think anyone can really argue the fact, although there will be plenty of people who try, that it will be beneficial for everyone if all of our vehicles get better mileage. If scaling down the size of the vehicles is what does it, that's clearly what we should do first. There are some people who argue that the best way to do that is to let the marketplace take over. I think it's a combination. People will make decisions based on what makes sense for their pocketbooks. At the same time I think they need a little prodding. It was about time we said something, because we felt very strongly about it.

Do we need 200-horsepower cars?
Ray: No, we don't. But if we're going to differentiate this year's model from last year, what do the ads say? "Twenty-five more horsepower this year." The newest Volvo, which is a six-cylinder, gets better mileage than the previous five-cylinder. They made some great breakthroughs, and they could have taken that and they could have diminished the power a little and used that technology to get even more miles to the gallon. But the automakers use that new technology to get more power instead of more economy. They'll rethink that a little.
Tom: Now, it's sad that the foreign companies have taken on the same things. They know they have to compete with General Motors, and the only way they can do that is to have one that goes fast.

You're fortunate enough to live in a city with a decent public transportation system. Do you take advantage of that?
I walk.
Ray: I ride my bicycle a lot when the weather's nice. I probably drive more than I should.

How many cars do you own?
I own three cars. One I never see because my son borrowed it a year and a half ago.
Tom: I don't own any.

But what about the Dart you always mention on the show?
The Dart was totaled by a truck many years ago. I sort of have access to a 1973 Fiat Spider. Nice car. But it won't start. [Laughs]

When I saw the title for this special, "Nova: The Car of the Future," I thought it was an ad for a Chevy Nova.
[Laughs] When that car first came out, everyone who spoke Spanish said, "Don't you know what 'no va' means?" [Laughs]