Sci-fi style saves fuel, adds cool
Those Jetsons -- the forward-looking cartoon family of the 1960s -- were on to something with their bubbly, teardrop-shaped space car.Given the changing public consciousness surrounding high gas prices, which now hover around $4 a gallon and seem to be moving onward and upward, people are not just going to want more fuel-efficient vehicles.
A group of top designers at the nation's largest automakers also predicted that consumers will want vehicles that look fuel-efficient, too -- not unlike the Toyota Prius, which makes as much of a design statement with its aerodynamic kidney-bean shape as it does with its 46-m.p.g. fuel rating.
So expect the cars of the future to look a lot more like the futuristic, vehicles from yesteryear's science fiction films and cartoons.
"Everything is going to be aerodynamic," Patrick Schiavone, director of design for Ford Motor Co.'s North American trucks and SUVs, said during a Tuesday luncheon at the Detroit Athletic Club hosted by the Automotive Press Association.
The event was sponsored by the Detroit Institute of Ophthalmology, which will host its annual "Eyes on Design" show June 15 at the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House in Grosse Pointe Shores. The show is a benefit that supports the visually impaired with education and research.
"Gas prices will change taste," agreed Greg Howell, exterior design manager for Jeep at Chrysler LLC.
Howell is also the designer of the 2008 Chrysler Eco Voyager, an aerodynamic family vehicle of the future, which looks a bit like a modern interpretation of the Jetsons' flying car.
Schiavone, who narrated the panel discussion, said aerodynamics can improve a vehicle's fuel efficiency by 3 to 4 miles per gallon. Those are important gains when you consider that they come just by changing the vehicle's sheet metal and without major improvements to the powertrain, which tend to be far more expensive for the returns they offer.
"This might be one of the cheapest ways to get better fuel economy, just to reshape the vehicle," Schiavone said.
Howell noted that Chrysler is pushing stricter aerodynamic rules internally as one way to improve fuel economy, a decision that has designers like him spending a lot more time in wind tunnels, where they are figuring out clever ways to reduce wind drag on tires, side mirrors, bumpers and the like. Wind drag reduces fuel efficiency by forcing the vehicle to use more energy to pass through the air.
In the past, consumers in focus groups haven't been too interested in purchasing extremely aerodynamic designs, despite their fuel efficiency, likening them to science projects.
But the panel of designers -- which included Robert Bauer of Nissan Motor Co., John Cafaro of General Motors Corp. and Dave Marek of Honda Motor Co. -- seemed to agree that these air-friendly shapes might be more welcome in light of higher gas prices and help create a new design aesthetic for the 21st Century.
"People will identify with cars that they wouldn't have in the past," Howell said. "I think the scientific-looking car niche will be growing."
Schiavone said the time has come to start testing out these wildly aerodynamic vehicles, like the Ford Probe V, in the marketplace.
"Isn't it time?" Schiavone asked. "America right now is in such a transition. ... The auto industry is about to change at lightning speed."