Hybrid? Full Electric? Inside Tomorrow’s Cars

It was an ironic twist that bottlenecked Los Angeles freeways kept me from getting to the L.A. Auto Show to check out some cars of the future. Ideally, they’re ones that will get better mileage, prevent more accidents, and leave a smaller footprint on the planet. So instead I steered over to the Hollywood Hills, where I caught up with Tara Weingarten. She’s editor-in-chief of the automotive news website VroomGirls, which makes car news a little more female friendly (an innovative idea in itself). I asked Weingarten about some of the industry’s current bright spots. And what’s coming next?

Hybrids finally seem to be taking root. Have they gone mainstream?
Yes, I think that’s exactly the trend. Hybrid cars like the Prius are doing very well in California. And as California goes, so goes the nation, at least automotively. Detroit has a long way to go to catch up to the Prius, in terms of how many hybrids domestic manufacturers are selling. Alternatively, I saw you’re driving the Jetta Hybrid. Whoever thought Volkswagen would come out with hybrid technology, since the company has always favored diesel? And it’s great. Now BMW has a few hybrids, too. I think we’re going to see more and more models like these.

The wheels behind the Change Reaction road trip of California.

What improvements are needed to make electric cars more ubiquitous on the road?
Full-on electric will continue to come no matter what. They’ll need to have a range that matches what a car company has. A normal gas-powered car has a range of 300 to 350 miles. Now, some of these electric car models have a range of about 75 on a single charge. The car makers will need to push that number up.

Can hydrogen and fuel cell technology be a game- changer?
With hydrogen, it’s really interesting technology. But until now, it’s been a marketing ploy. They haul out these test vehicles and say “Check this out, isn’t it great?” But then you have to ask, “Okay, can you make more than three of them?” BMW has done a heck of a job marketing their hydrogen-powered 7-series sedan. But basically it’s brought out for journalists, celebrities and high-profile early adopters to drive for a brief time. They aren’t for sale, the technology is way too expensive right now to make it a viable fuel type. We don’t see anything coming anytime soon, like in the next few decades, that’s anything more than a marketing ploy.

Let’s go inside the car. Tell me about some James Bond-style toys and improvements.
Well, companies are using more eco-friendly materials. They’re using recycled water bottles to make the dashboard and the carpets. Bamboo has made its way into a lot of vehicles. The steering wheel in the new Lexus is made of bamboo, which is an easily sustainable and renewable material. It’s pretty, too. Then there are seats made of corn husk, banana peel, and sugar cane in cars that Honda and Ford and other companies are making.

Write a haiku of your thoughts on driverless cars.
I just like to drive
No robot can drive my car
I’ll do it myself

Wow, not bad.
Let me say something else. I have a Porsche. I love to drive. But I also don’t want to kill this planet. So I’m a conflicted person and I’m probably not the only person out there who loves sports cars and the sound and feel of an internal combustion engine. I don’t mind joining the latest trend of driving an electric or a hybrid, but for people who can afford it, I’d also like to keep around my fun car as a little knock-around.

Last question: The Jetsons. How long before we’re all flying?
Ha! You know, the Nissan Leaf interior looks like it’s from the Jetsons. I think they were channeling the Jetsons when they designed it. I don’t think we’ll ever have those hovercrafts. We have too many bad drivers here on the ground. Can you imagine up in the air?

Changing Planet