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With a title like Car of the Future, you might expect to see a flying vehicle that folds up into a briefcase so you can stow it under your desk at Spacely Sprockets. Prepare to be disappointed on that score. As the April 22 installment of Nova shows us, what we’ll be driving in the decades to come has less to do with design than with how it will be powered. Hydrogen, ethanol, electricity, lithium ion batteries – something, anything, other than gasoline.

But don’t head to the bank for a car loan just yet. Most of the proposed technology appears to be a decade or longer away, and what’s currently available on the market requires mortgage-sized financing.

This entertaining, eye-opening hour of television takes us to the expos and research labs where engineers are creating the next generation of vehicles that can help reduce our dependence on foreign oil and limit those emissions that contribute to global warming. Our narrator is John Lithgow; our guides are brothers Click and Clack, the silly but smart hosts of NPR’s 20-year-strong Car Talk, Tom and Ray Magliozzi (now in their late 60s and 50s, respectively; elder bro Tom is the one who yuks when he laughs).

The siblings deliver a fast-paced show that takes us to far-flung places such as Iceland, where hydrogen-powered public buses emit water-vapor exhaust. And they make it easy to understand some of the reasons that car culture in the United States has been slow to change.

One reason – something you rarely hear talked about – is fuel delivery. The U.S. has approximately 170,000 gas stations. To turn those into, say, hydrogen stations would require a massive changeover in infrastructure. It’s pointed out that such an effort would be easier to accomplish in China, where cars are becoming more prevalent but haven’t yet taken over the roads.

After that visit to Iceland, the Magliozzis crisscross the U.S. in search of new technologies. On the fuel front, they find work underway to make ethanol more efficient using corn husks and cobs, rather than kernels. At a Colorado think tank called the Rocky Mountain Institute, they encounter the Hypercar, an ultra-lightweight vehicle made of carbon fiber composites rather than steel. Aircraft manufacturers and auto-racing teams are successfully using carbon fiber composites to build safer and more fuel-efficient vehicles, but until automakers are willing to retool their factories to mass-produce these vehicles, the Hypercar is ridiculously expensive.


Too bad – for safety reasons alone, it’s the most exciting of the technologies presented in the program. What’s not to like about a car that’s barely scratched when hit with an ax?

At the University of California-Davis, the brothers see a prototype for a plug-in hybrid car that recharges through a wall socket. As for what effect changing from gasoline to electricity would have on pollution, the experts say that emissions would be reduced by 40 percent. And we’re told that if car owners recharged their vehicles at night, there would be no strain on the existing electric grid.

A company called Tesla Motors shows off an electric sports car that runs on 6,831 lithium ion batteries – the kind used in laptops – and General Motors gives a peek at its electric car, the Chevy Volt. If you drive less than 40 miles a day and charge up at night, you’ll never need gasoline. But as GM spokesmen acknowledge, until the batteries are safer, cheaper and more reliable, the Volt won’t be ready for market.

It’s disappointing to realize that, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, there’s been meager progress in the U.S. toward developing alternative fuels. As Car of the Future reminds us, President Bush did acknowledge in a State of the Union speech that “for too long, our nation has been dependent on foreign oil. This dependence leaves us more vulnerable to hostile regimes and to terrorists.” But our congenial hosts never get anywhere near the political debate.

The show also notes that in the 1970s, after our first serious oil crisis, automakers improved mileage standards. Cars averaged 13.1 miles per gallon in 1975; that number went up to 22 mpg in 1987. But when oil prices later fell, the public got used to cheap gas and mileage standards didn’t change. Now the sales of trucks and SUVs have doubled, and the average mpg is down to 20.2.

The ultimate question is whether the country will abandon its desire for horsepower in exchange for higher fuel economy and cleaner air. Having spent nearly $50 to fill my tank this morning, I know I’m ready.

(The site is loaded with additional programming related to Car of the Future.)

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