The once and future car

By Keith Leonard, Esquire

The technology involved in motor vehicles has dramatically advanced over the last thirty years. Features such as anti-lock brakes and traction or stability control are now standard on many vehicles. Hybrid vehicles that use electric power as well as gasoline are commonplace on roads around the world. Automakers have begun marketing self-parking cars which can help anyone park a car, even those who cannot otherwise parallel park.
Whether it is the weather, the economy, or the result of a sporting event, there are always people willing to make a prediction about it. It is no different in the automotive industry. However, predictions made about cars or trends in the industry are often wrong, and sometimes ridiculously wrong. For example, consider the following quote from BusinessWeek magazine in its August 2, 1968 issue – “With over 50 foreign cars already on sale here, the Japanese auto industry isn’t likely to carve out a big slice of the U.S. market.” And we all know how well that prediction turned out.

Between 1903 and 1969, the pages of Popular Mechanics magazine were full of predictions about the future of motor vehicles (and other parts of our daily life). Traffic jams would not be a big problem in the future because in the January, 1951 issue, personal helicopters were predicted as being available in the future, capable of carrying two people and small enough to land on the lawn of your home.

In the November, 1940 issue of Popular Mechanics, the reader was also offered a glimpse into the future of the automobile. The engine of the car would be in the rear of the vehicle and the vehicle would be more spacious. The car would be made from various synthetic materials, including molded plastics. The author did correctly predict that automotive glass of the future would be made so as not to shatter and less likely to cut the passengers in the vehicle in the event of an accident; today’s automobile glass is designed to come apart in small, safer pieces. While the exact forms of the safety devices that have been developed over the intervening years were not predicted with accuracy, the overall concept of building more crashworthy cars that keep its passengers safer was accurately predicted.
In 1967, authors in the magazine were predicting that the automobile of the future would have acceleration, braking, and steering all combined in a single airplane-type control. Mercedes Benz has in fact come up with a joystick “steering wheel” and designed it into a research prototype of its SCL600 model that was introduced in 1996.

Mapless driving was also predicted in the magazine in 1967; the driver could dial in a code number for the destination to be read by route guidance equipment inside the vehicle. Routing instructions would then be transmitted to the driver by a voice or visual display in the car. That prediction should sound quite similar to today’s GPS systems that determine a car’s location by triangulating with transmitters in satellites in space.

Some type of “flying car” has been predicted on multiple occasions in Popular Mechanics magazine, with the earliest prediction occurring in 1928. The 1928 version was propeller driven, with the propeller being able to be put in a horizontal position above the car to allow it to ascend into the air like a helicopter. By 1943, there were two types of flying cars predicted, one (the roadable plane) intended to be a plane first, and the other (the Aerocar) was supposed to be a good automobile first. Both types were primarily for use in the Midwest and the West in the United States, with a third type, the “helicab”, designed for the Northeastern region of the country and able to carry up to five persons. The version of the flying car predicted in 1957 was to be a “flying fan” type of vehicle, using the same principles of a ducted fan for its flying platform. However, despite such recurring predictions, no cost effective way of personal air travel still exists for us.

So, what will the future hold, at least in terms of motor vehicle travel? In 2009 alone, Americans wasted 4.2 billion hours and $87.2 billion dollars in fuel costs while stuck in traffic jams. What can be done to reduce such wastes in our lives? Would flying cars simply replace traffic congestion in one place for another? Would some sort of a special license be required before you could drive a “flying car”?

How about significantly reducing the dependency on fossil fuels to operate our motor vehicles, or at least on foreign produced oil? There are predictions that it will take 100 million electric cars (out of the current 250 million cars and light trucks) to eliminate any such dependency on foreign oil.

What advances will be made in the coming years in car safety, considering the multitude of reasons for crashes? Motor vehicle safety has come a long way from the introduction of safety belts in vehicles in the 1960s. Legislatures and police have aggressively taken steps to crack down on the driver who has been drinking before sitting behind the wheel.
However, an often overlooked cause of vehicle crashes is the sleepiness of the driver of a vehicle. At least Volvo, Saab, and Mercedes Benz have developed some form of drowsy driver alert system for their vehicles. Estimates in November, 2009 were that as many as 1.9 million drivers had had a car crash or a near miss due to drowsiness in the preceding year. A person who has been awake for more than 20 hours is impaired to a level equal to a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08%, the legal limit in all states. Despite such facts, I know of no one who has ever been arrested for being under the influence of a lack of sleep while driving.

Remember that laws are constantly changing and are often not uniform throughout the United States. Do not place unqualified reliance on the information in this article. Always contact legal counsel for detailed advice.
If you have a particular issue, law or problem you would like to see addressed in a future column, please contact me at, or Leonard, Sciolla, Hutchison, Leonard & Tinari, LLP, 215-567-1530.

[Editor’s note: at the end of March 2012, both U.S based Terrafugia and Pal-V of Holland announced successful “first flights” of prototypes for their street-usable aircraft or flying car. Both companies say their craft will require buyers to obtain an aviation license through 20-30 hours of training. Terrefugia has set an initial price of $279,000 for their vehicle.]


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