The True Future of Automotive

No Flying Cars!

Last November, the Ford Motor Company made an announcement that shocked die-hard Mustang fans; the Mustang is not only being turned into an SUV, but it’s going to be electric.

The original gasoline-powered models will still be available, but later this year, the new Mustang model will be an electric-powered SUV with a range of almost 300 miles. Ford’s web page states it will get to 60 miles per hour in around 3.5 seconds and will have an ultra-fast charging time.

The new Mustang Mach E, an electric-powered car, will have 1,400 horsepower. That should leave a few gasoline engines in the dust.

The future is here, as far as electric goes. German automotive giant Volkswagen announced last year that by 2025 it will produce 1.5 million electric vehicles. But where are our flying cars?

That’s right. Flying cars. Over the last 75 years, most books about the future promised we’d all be flying around instead of being stuck in traffic on terra firma. Remember The Jetsons? Those domed, flying vehicles that Jane flew out of with all of George’s money in her purse? Or in the Back to the Future movies, where the future’s vehicles were able to have a hover conversion, allowing them to soar through the air.

Popular physicist Neil Degrasse Tyson has been asked about this several times, and on one popular podcast he shot the idea down, stating that we already have them; they’re called helicopters. A helicopter, he explained, needs to create a downward thrust equal to its weight it order to fly, meaning it is capable of causing too much damage to anything around it upon taking off or landing. Not to mention, the noise. Plus, do you really want just anyone with the capability to fly?

In 1971, a company called Advance Vehicle Engineers was established with the sole purpose of inventing a flying car. The founders were the late Henry Smolinski and his business partner, the late Hal Blake, and two years later, they came up with the AVE Mizar. There are videos available online of the duo’s modified Ford Pinto that had to be strapped into a harness made of wings from an old Cessna Skymaster airplane, then driven down a runway and gracefully taking off.

Incidentally, Smolinski and Blake were killed when their creation fell back down to earth after a test flight went wrong. It seems the wings came off mid-flight. At least the Pinto didn’t catch fire mid-air.

We should probably forget about flying cars anyway, according to Peter Hatges. Hatges advises the automotive sector in Canada through his role as managing director of KPMG, a corporation the provides advisory services to several industries including automotive around the world. He went a little further than Degrasse-Tyson in his assessment of the flying cars.

“They’re called private jets, and they’re downright expensive,” he joked. “And you can’t have just anyone flying them, that’s not safe.” Hatges says electric is the future for automobiles, and even though we already have them, look for electric cars and trucks improve even more.

“Batteries will get more out of a charge, better drive trains, less expensive, and look for lithium ion batteries to improve,” he said. “The world has set targets for electric vehicles and to reduce the reliance on the internal combustion engine, and countries are moving forward on that.”

In order for drivers to get fully on board with electric, the infrastructure servicing the vehicles have to get better. Hatges’ company released a newsletter to its shareholders entitled, “Canada’s Automotive Future,” which Hatges uses to illustrate the issue of getting a charge to an individual vehicle.

For over a century now, drivers have been accustomed to being able to refuel their vehicles everywhere. Canada, as well as the United States, has not built up enough capacity to provide the same convenience for electric vehicle drivers.

“If you’re out driving in the desert and you run out of fuel, you can have a 40-litre gas tank strapped on to whatever you’re driving and fill up on the spot,” he said. “That will get you to whatever gas station you can find, but it’s much different for electric vehicles, some of those may charge in a couple of hours, some may need a lot more time, and this needs to improve.”

Currently in Canada, there are approximately 7,700 public charging stations as of the beginning of this year. Out of that number, approximately 500 of those are what are known as “Level 3” charging stations, that can provide a full charge in about 20 minutes. The rest are “Level 2” charging stations, which take several hours to charge, but cost about 100 times less to install.

Hatges said further investment is on the way from all levels of government, including the Electric Vehicle and Alternative Fuel Infrastructure Deployment Initiative, to which the Canadian Government has invested $96 million to establish a nation-wide charging network for electric vehicles, natural gas stations and stations for hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles in urban metropolitan areas.

He added that the vehicles themselves could look very different in the next few years. Electric vehicles have fewer moving parts – no fan belt, for example. Some analysts in the last few years have predicted needed a whole new breed of auto mechanic to fix future problems.

But what about self-driving cars, one may ask? They are currently being tested and studied. Google started an autonomous driving technology development called Waymo in 2009 and it’s still researching, looking at not just every day drivers, but robo taxis and delivery as well. Google confirmed there had been some crashes in test areas, but are currently operating automated taxi services in Phoenix, Arizona.

General Motors got in on the self-driving car project a well, with its GM Cruise project. Cruise operates the world’s second largest autonomous fleet, at 180 vehicles, and as of earlier this year, were manufacturing self-driving cars on an assembly line in Orion, Michigan.

Argo AI is Ford’s entry into the automated vehicle area. And of course, Tesla is also researching, with Tesla founder Elon Musk promising that by the end of 2020 there would be one million fully autonomous Tesla’s on the road as part of an owner/ridesharing network.

As far as Hatges is concerned, self-driving cars may work well, but they were always about safety first and foremost, and not just taking a nap while the car takes you where you need to go.

“It was always about avoiding collisions, making driving safer,” he said. “Reducing fatalities and accidents, and it needs to be in an environment that can handle it.”

So, the future is coming for automotive, with some of those old books we used to read now seeming prescient. Some may say we should have been to that point by now. Hatges has a defence for that.

“It takes a long time to design, create and market a new vehicle and still keep it safe, but the industry is on the way towards its goals,” he said. “And with everything that is happening right now, we could be waiting even longer.”

Hatges said he wonders what effect the current pandemic situation may have on meeting those goals, with work stoppages and isolation occurring around the world. In Canada, the consumers better hope there’s a vaccine, or we may never meet the goal set last year: only zero-emission cars sold in this country by 2040.

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Past Issues

September 29, 2020, 5:00 PM EDT