• Otter Views: Future Cars

    A 1950s Disney special I watched in childhood has warped my appreciation of automotive transport ever since. I think the show was titled “Cars of the Future.” The Disney cartoon character Goofy was involved somehow, as were the tinkerer Gyro Gearloose and the floppy eared hound Pluto.

    I may be mistaken about the characters. It was 60 years ago, and my mental odometer has gone around many times since then.

    In any case, the imaginary cars Goofy and Gyro introduced were to my eight-year-old mind the very acme of coolness. Their styling was sleek and avionic, totally unlike the massive, bullet-grilled rhino cars then rolling off Detroit’s assembly lines. The Detroit cars had huge, ludicrous “tail fins.” The Disney cars had wings.

    What impressed me more than their futuristic designs were the Disney cars’ performance features. Some were cartoonish, but others seemed so sensible I’m surprised they were never adopted. One car drove itself along a “smart highway” while its occupants swiveled their seats around and played card games on a table.

    Another car could park laterally. It would roll up to a tight city space, the wheels would turn 90 degrees, and the car would zip in sideways. No backing in repeatedly and bouncing off the curb; no horns honking from the rear.

    Other Disney cartoon cars from the 1950s prefigured the specialty movie vehicles later driven by James Bond. One amphibious car could motor out onto the water like a boat, then fill its ballast tanks and churn underwater like a submarine. That was a true hybrid.

    Another of Gyro’s creations was a car-plane. At the touch of a button, hidden wings, tail and ailerons would extend from the chassis and lock into place, and the moving car would take flight. A variation was the car with a hot air balloon levitation button. I’ve often longed for this feature when approaching gridlocked traffic or a toll booth.

    At age eight, I had little grasp of physics, mechanical engineering or Newton’s Laws of Motion, so my disbelief was easily suspended. Sadly, it still is. I look at the cars we have now – even the swankiest concept cars at Pebble Beach – and wonder why they still have to parallel park. And why do most still burn fossil fuels? Where’s the Algae-Romeo?

    We have smart phones, smart bombs and smart houses. Shouldn’t we have smart cars and smart highways by now? It doesn’t seem too much to ask, after all this time. From the perspective of the 1950s, this is not just the future, but the far future. Those two great fictional touchstones that once represented the distant future – “1984” and “2001” – have long receded in our rear-view mirrors.

    We’ve been to the moon and back. We’ve built a manned space station and sent probes to Mars. A European spacecraft is about to land on a comet, for Pete’s sake. Yet while all this innovation has taken place, cars have remained fundamentally unchanged for a century.

    This really hits home at the Concours d’Elegance. Primped, painted and polished to a fare-thee-well, the Concours cars are as lustrous as Vermeers and in about the same price range. They also represent a vast span of automotive history.

    From the early 1900s come wood-trimmed, canvas-clad land yacht buggies as tall and black as top hats. These have running boards, lanterns for lights, and goggles for the drivers. From our own era come sleek, ground-hugging sports cars with gull wing doors, titanium trim and insanely powerful engines.

    Yet for all their differences in appearance and performance, the 2014 cars are basically the same as the 1904 cars. They all have two axles, four wheels, steel frames, internal combustion engines, and the same petroleum-based fuels.

    “Where are the solar cars and the hydrogen cars?” I wondered as I strolled the grounds one year. “What about the flying car? And where’s the one that turns into a boat?”

    In fairness, the Pebble Beach event is more about automotive luxury, history and perceived value than about innovation. It does showcase some stunning “concept cars,” but these are basically just faster, sleeker, more radical-looking versions of their predecessors. The Disney cars would feel out of place on that putting green.

    The automotive world still has its Gyro Gearlooses, though. Google report- edly is developing a self-driving car. “Plug-in” electric cars and hybrids are proliferating. And in the Tesla, entrepreneur Elon Musk has created a stylish electric car that can outperform its petrol-fueled contemporaries. Now he just has to figure out how to sell it.

    Elsewhere, universities and foundations post million-dollar prizes for significant breakthroughs in car safety, mileage, efficiency and power sourcing. And creative artists dream up vehicles like Donald Fagen’s steam-powered Kamakiri. “It’s not a freeway bullet, or a bug with monster wheels,” he sings, “it’s a total biosphere; the farm in the back is hydroponic; good fresh things every day of the year.”

    So, there’s hope for the automotive future, whenever it arrives.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on August 15, 2014

    Topics: Otter Views

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