Designing Transportation for the Future As gas prices hover above $4 a gallon, many wonder what impact the economic crisis will have on the future of transportation. Geoff Wardle, director of advanced mobility research at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., offers his insights.
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Designing Transportation for the Future

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Designing Transportation for the Future

Designing Transportation for the Future

Designing Transportation for the Future

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As gas prices hover above $4 a gallon, many wonder what impact the economic crisis will have on the future of transportation. Geoff Wardle, director of advanced mobility research at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., offers his insights.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Back in the '50s, Henry Ford used to say big cars, big profits - small cars, small profits. But in 2008, sales of big cars are falling so fast that some people can't get rid of them, like driver Derek Hunter, who we heard from yesterday on this program.

Mr. DEREK HUNTER: They wanted to give me $8,000 for my SUV, but they're selling them on the lots for still over 20. You know, I'm thinking I don't mind taking a little bit of a wash to help my situation out, but I can't give it away.

MONTAGNE: This week, we're exploring the different ways that Americans are coping with high gas prices. To hear more about what carmakers are planning, we invited Geoff Wardle into our studio. He teaches transportation design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

Mr. GEOFF WARDLE (Teaches Transportation Design, Art Center College of Design): I think we're just about to see a rash of products hitting the market from startup companies who will be launching electric vehicles or alternative power-train vehicles in the near future, which will actually be quite startling in their energy efficiency.

So I think even if some of these companies don't actually make it into a sustainable business, the amount of interest they arouse in the media will start to change people's perceptions quite rapidly about what's possible.

So we'll see - I mean, we've heard quite a lot about the Tesla, which is perceived as a high-end sports car, but nevertheless, it's proved that you can make an electric alternative-energy vehicle sexy and desirable.

MONTAGNE: Is there a chance we'll see a fuel-cell or electric vehicle that's priced for the masses within, say, a reasonable time, like within the decade?

Mr. WARDLE: I think we will see battery electric vehicles becoming quite accessible from the mainstream manufacturers, and also alternative-fuel vehicles.

MONTAGNE: Give us some specific examples of what America's big three are doing.

Mr. WARDLE: We know that General Motors are working very hard on what they perceive as the next big thing in hybrids, which is the plug-in hybrid. And it's an adaptation of the Prius concept of hybrid, where not only does the vehicle run on a mixture of gasoline and electric motors, but you can plug the car in at the end of a journey and charge the batteries up.

In the longer term, what vehicle manufacturers will need to be looking at will be to design vehicles to have much lower fuel consumption, so looking at building them out of different materials, changing the architecture of the vehicles so that they are more aerodynamic and looking at a lot of other technologies that reduce the gas mileage.

MONTAGNE: What about the issue of safety? One thing that - it seemed to motivate a fair number of people into buying SUVs, these fuel-celled, these electric vehicles, they seem little and potentially not safe. They have that appearance.

Mr. WARDLE: Right. But from a technical point of view, it is possible to make a small vehicle have a structure that will withstand an impact with a larger vehicle.

In the longer term, for 85 percent of the people in somewhere like Los Angeles who are driving along to and from work, we need to be driving a suitable vehicle for that journey, which would be a small one-seater or two-seater vehicle. And so looking further down the road, when we find a much greater percentage of people might be using such cars, then the chances of hitting a larger vehicle are reduced because there won't be many large vehicles left on the road.

MONTAGNE: All in all, what you're saying, though, is that there's going to have to be a change in how people in this country approach driving. Is there, or rather maybe is there maybe not, a magic-bullet vehicle? That is, one car that answers all the problems?

Mr. WARDLE: I don't think there's a magic-bullet vehicle as such, because we have different transportation needs each journey we make. But where there are great possibilities for change is in looking at the very automotive industry itself. So instead of you or I going along and choosing a Mazda or a Ford, we'll actually be comparing those companies to see what kind of total mobility package they can offer us.

So that means that we would have in our everyday lives some access to whatever kind of vehicle we needed for a specific journey. So that requires quite a major shakeup in the way that manufacturers think of themselves.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much.

Mr. WARDLE: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: Geoff Wardle is the director of advanced mobility research at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

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