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Here's what cars will look like in 2017

Five years from now, don't expect the cars and trucks you see on the road to look dramatically different.

  • The image of cars in a showroom

Don’t expect the cars and trucks you see on the road five years from now to look dramatically different from those that are currently available — or those that will be available within the next year or so.

With the possible addition of a few fuel-cell-powered models that could be available by then — and on the road in very limited numbers — the 2017 fleet will comprise mostly the same types of vehicles you can get in 2012.

With two big differences: in 2017 they will be more energy efficient and they will be more connected.

In addition, while the range of propulsion technologies available will be familiar — gasoline, diesel, hybrid, plug-in hybrid and battery-electric — the proportion of sales each represents may by then be quite different.

The drive for improved energy efficiency is already well under way and it will continue at full tilt at least until 2017. It has to.

In both Canada and the U.S., fleet-average fuel consumption for new cars and light trucks must be reduced to 6.9 L/100 km (34.1 mpg U.S.) by the 2016 model year. That’s federal law.

The regulations are far from straightforward and there are certainly some loopholes that can be exploited. And not every vehicle produced will have to achieve that target.

But, in broad terms, every vehicle sold that exceeds the limit will have to be offset by one or more that does better to keep the average down.

There is no single silver bullet that will enable automakers to achieve that goal — at least not yet. Which is why they are taking such a shotgun approach to the technologies they are adopting, mixing and matching them to optimize their cost effectiveness, while they probe the edges of the consumer-acceptability envelope.

And that is why you will continue to have a broad range of powertrain choices available through 2017. The market (the collective you) will still be sorting out what it will and what it won’t accept.

Almost certainly the number of electrically-driven vehicles on the market — either hybrid or fully-electric — will increase between now and then. So, probably, will their market share, in percent of total sales.

But the combination of a purchase-cost premium — even after government subsidies — and concerns about recharging time/acess and driving range anxiety for full electrics, will continue to keep them off the shopping lists of the great majority.

Even some of the most optimistic forecasters don’t expect their share to exceed 20 per cent by 2020. Which means that there will also have to be significant improvements in conventionally-powered vehicles to meet the regulatory mandate. We’ve addressed many of the technologies they are likely to adopt in these pages.

Things like: direct fuel-injection; turbocharging; variable valve control; cylinder deactivation; automatic stop-start; multi-speed or continuously-variable (CVT) transmissions; and reduced-rolling-resistance tires.

But that may not be enough.

Vehicles are likely to become both more aerodynamic and lighter — which could also mean that they will become smaller but also that they will adopt more lightweight materials.

High on the list of alternatives are aluminum and carbon composites, as well as plastics and a variety of high-strength steels that offer equivalent strength with reduced weight.

In short, the vehicles of 2017 may not look or drive much different from today’s vehicles, but in and under the skin they will be much more fuel-efficient than they are today.

While improvements in fuel-efficiency will be driven by a combination of government decree and customer demand, it is the latter that will keep pushing the limits of vehicle connectivity.

In spite of widespread concern over driver distraction, there is no let-up in sight with respect to the expansion of connectivity technologies.

Anything your smartphone can do now, your car will be able to do by then — probably sooner and more, in fact.

But there is another level of connectivity, or at least spatial awareness, that should make 2017’s cars and trucks even safer than today’s.

Features such as blind-spot monitoring and lane-departure warning are already widely available among mid- and higher-level cars. Like other safety technologies that started in premium models and worked their way down-market, these features will almost certainly make the same transition.

And we’ve only just begun to tap the potential for incorporating GPS positioning into crash prevention technologies. By 2017, who knows?

mgmalloy@aol.com

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