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The Car of the Future, or Was George Jetson Right All Along?

By Matthew L. Feagins

We’ve all seen the opening credits to the Jetsons and wished we could have a cool flying car that can fold into a briefcase. Now that future is finally here. OK, maybe not that distant a future. But we now have cars so small that you feel as if you are in that suitcase.
With the advent of A-segment vehicles into the U.S. market, we now have the joy of driving such small cars as the Smart ForTwo, which is a recent arrival in the U.S., and the not-much-larger Mini Cooper.
Because both cars are also fuel efficient, they are sold out for months due to the onset of $4-per-gallon gas. Have we reached a tipping point? Is it the death of the SUV and the pre-eminence of the small car? It remains to be seen if it’s a fad or a permanent shift in America’s buying habits. But one thing is for certain: Domestic and foreign car makers are gearing up for permanently higher gasoline prices.
What does the future portend?
Smart Cars and Other Hot Wheels
The Smart car is probably the most hyped vehicle of its type (tiny, urban-runabout-size cars) to enter the U.S. market in years. Its diminutive size is a huge factor. At 8-foot, 8 inches long, it can fit sideways into a regular-size parking space. The Honda Civic measures comparatively huge at nearly 14 feet, 9 inches long. And with a turning radius of 28 feet, the Smart car can literally run rings around other cars — even the Civic needs 35.4’ feet,
With about twice the fuel economy of a full-size pickup or SUV, these small cars are selling briskly, while large vehicles fester on the lot. Don’t go redesigning those parking garages just yet, though. At only about 30,000 sales per year, the Smart car is still dwarfed in sales for one month by the Ford F150 (more than 40,000 per month for the latest figures).
Even the Honda Fit, one the newest small-car darlings, is selling at a clip of about 70,000 per year. Admittedly, if both of these cars were easier to find, their selling numbers could be greater. But they still wouldn’t approach the bestselling Civic and Corolla at about 600,000 per year in the U.S. (about 50,000 per month).
If anything, these numbers suggest a big gulf widening between small cars on one end and large trucks on the other. Recently, car sales had settled in the midsize segment, with such stalwarts as the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. Now the sales numbers suggest that a return of the stalls for compact cars only may be returning.
A- and B-segment vehicles are not available just from Japanese and European companies. With the return of the Fiesta to the American market, Ford will be the first domestic maker to bring a Fit-size vehicle to the U.S. market. Chrysler should be following soon with a car based on the Nissan Versa and one worked on with the Chinese company Chery. General Motors will not be left out of the party, with cars brought in based on their European division vehicles.
Hybrids
The Toyota Prius has been the quintessential hybrid in the American market. With a sales rate that could reach about 200,000 in the U.S. this year, it is far and away the most popular hybrid. But it is still outsold by its corporate cousins – the Corolla and Camry – and is nowhere near the top 10 sellers of all automakers.
Of course, other makers now sell hybrids in the U.S., such as the Chevrolet Silverado hybrid, Ford Escape hybrid and Nissan Altima hybrid. Most of the competitive makes do not use a dedicated platform as does the Prius to help keep costs low. But as other makers dive into the market, specialized hybrid-only models will multiply, and along with that, sales volume. Some pundits speculate that hybrid sales should reach about 1 million by 2012.
What does this mean for the parking industry? Probably not much as of yet. Because of the wide variation in models utilizing hybrid systems, the car/truck size of such models will probably not affect the average vehicle size any time soon. The Prius, for example, is 14 feet, 6 inches long and 5 feet, 7 inches wide, or about the same size as Toyota’s own Corolla at 14’, 8 inches long and 5 feet, 8 inches wide. But as is common with vehicles these days, the next generation will grow slightly to accommodate American’s ever-widening waistlines.
Plug-in Hybrids
Plug-in hybrids appear to be the future of automobile technology. General Motors, Ford and Toyota have announced the inclusion of this type of technology into their future vehicles. Plug-in hybrids use a combination of battery-powered electric motors with range-extending gasoline or diesel engines for long trips. GM, for example, has committed to bringing its Chevy Volt onto the American stage before the end of 2010.
The Volt is planned to have an electric-only range of about 40 miles before the gas engine kicks in. It will accept a standard 110-volt household plug or 220-volt system for charging. The 220-volt system could possibly cut the charge time to three hours from six hours. An upcoming version of the Saturn Vue will have a similar system based on its two-mode hybrid system.
Toyota’s upcoming system for its Prius automobile is rumored to have an optional solar panel on the roof to charge it while it waits in the sun. The Prius is also rumored to come as a plug-in one of its future incarnations.
Because about 75% of the American population drives less than 40 miles per day, in some of these vehicles, users will see the use of no gasoline at all during their daily commute. This could bring back the use of the personal car for commuting, which many have all but abandoned to taking the bus or train due to high gas costs.
The electrification of automobiles will present its own set of opportunities / problems for the parking industry. Adding 110- or 220-volt plug-in systems to the parking facility’s infrastructure could be done to promote these types of systems or as incentive to park in their facility over competitive facilities. Parking on the roof may no longer be a punishment for some users if they could simultaneously charge their cars via built-in solar panels. But as with small cars, I wouldn’t go radically redesigning your parking facilities just yet. GM plans on making just 10,000 units the first year to test the systems and keep high initial costs under control.
The Dinosaurs
Like the giant dinosaurs of the past, the giant trucks and SUVs are undergoing a quick die-off as people convert to more efficient cars and crossovers. Ford will convert three truck factories to make small cars. Nissan is going to sell rebadged Dodges and convert its truck factory to commercial truck production. Toyota is consolidating its truck production in one factory. GM will close four truck/SUV plants by 2010.
That is a lot of production capacity taken off-line. But unlike the dinosaur, there will still be plenty of capacity left, and trucks/SUVs will retain a relatively large chunk of overall market share. As of June 2008, light trucks still held a 44% market share versus 50% just a year ago – a drop of 6%. Despite this drop, trucks still represent a hefty share of the market and should still have a relatively large presence for the years to come.
The Flying Car
Yes, people are working on George Jetson’s flying car. The Moller International Skycar is already accepting deposits on its flying car. Of course, this version is not really fit for parking in the company garage, but should be able to fit into your home’s garage – if you can fly it from your driveway!
The future is here, or nearly so. Americans are undergoing a serious gut check on their vehicle choices, and the car companies are taking it on the chin as a result. But it will take years of high gas prices before it materially affects the vehicle mix enough to redesign parking facilities to meet the new reality.

Matthew L. Feagins, a Principal with Walter P Moore, is a member of the National Parking Association’s Parking Consultants Council. He can be reached at mfeagins@walterpmoore.com.

Article Abstract from October, 2008




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