This year, IEEE Spectrum's survey of the hottest new car technology shows a trend toward radical experimentation. Desperate times mean that even today's most outrageous concept cars may soon seem tame, even quaint.
As the price of oil shot up only to crash down, the credit markets imploded, and consumers closed their wallets, automakers faced what some wags call carmaggedon. Overnight, Detroit's giants were pushed to the edge of insolvency, and even mighty Toyota recorded its first operating loss in 70 years. Consolidation is in the air. Soon there will be fewer car companies, and they will be making fewer kinds of cars.
For a glimpse of that future, consider Volkswagen. It builds more than a dozen separate models, totaling well over 1 million units a year, on the basic components of its Golf/Jetta/Rabbit line. For another view, look at upstart Chinese automaker BYD. It is the offspring of a battery company that began making cars only five years ago, yet in December BYD launched the world's first production plug-in hybrid.
The day of electric-drive cars seems to have come round at last. Even Europe's diesel diehards seem to be throwing in the towel, and the Chinese government appears to have shifted its development priority from diesel to electric drive.
Of course, all sorts of new electronic goodies continue to crop up inside the passenger compartment. The delivery of data via cell-phone technology is getting better, media and other entertainment systems are getting more sophisticated, and there are signs that mechanisms can begin to supplement or even supplant the driver's judgment. Still, many of these goodies seem to come from a time that suddenly looks very distant, the time before the twin meltdowns of the automotive industry and the world economy.