The N.Y. International Auto Show: High-tech under the hood

Exhibits offer a preview some snazzy vehicular technology

It's 2008 already. Didn't the magazines promise us flying cars by now?

Actually, there is some cool upcoming technology at the New York International Auto Show this year (which runs March 21-30 at the Jacob Javits Convention Center). However, most of it is under the hood rather than on display.

A lot of this year's excitement is about the promise of alternative fuels. Cars that can burn ethanol (E85) fuel are yesterday's news. Several hydrogen fuel-cell cars from major manufacturers are already on the road or are about to start trials, with an eye toward commercial release in 2010. For example, the Honda full-size FCX Clarity will begin limited marketing this summer in Southern California (one of the few places where there are any hydrogen filling stations at all), while there are already 100 examples of Chevrolet's Equinox in service in Los Angeles, the District of Columbia and the New York area.

Gasoline-electric hybrid technology is moving into bigger and bigger cars (including a hybrid Cadillac Escalade) with ever-greater distance ranges, as auto manufacturers embrace and try to enhance lithium-ion batteries.

Meanwhile, the X Prize folks, who gave away $10 million for the first nongovernment space flight, want to do the same for the first production-capable consumer car with a mileage exceeding 100 mpg or its equivalent. Sixty-four teams have already signed letters of intent to enter the competition, which will culminate in a staged cross-country race in 2009.

For most gadget buffs, however, the future is already here. Stuff like GPS systems, in-car computers and music beamed from satellites are already available in almost everything with four wheels these days (if only for an extra fee). Most of the tech exhibited at the show consisted of improvements on what we already have.

Except for one thing. There was a flying car. No, really!

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The Smart Fortwo: half the length of most cars.

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Car or toy? You choose

The Smart Fortwo, built by Mercedes, weighs about 150 pounds shy of a ton, is 8.5 feet long -- half the length of a conventional car -- and 5.1 feet wide. Sitting in a Smart car feels like nothing so much as sitting in a soapbox or a bumper car. Unlike a bumper car, however, the Smart cars have six airbags and a full set of controls and are designed for daily commuting. The 8.7-gallon tank takes (believe it or not) premium gasoline. Prices start at $11,590; company officials say there's a waiting list of about 30,000 people in the U.S.

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Take a ride with Gran Turismo 5.

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Virtual vehicles for a fun ride

Lexus and Subaru are both letting attendees virtually drive their new cars, using the upcoming Gran Turismo 5 video game. The Lexus kiosks have wide video screens, realistic force-feedback controls and full surround sound. Subaru adds neat elevated, full-motion pods that tilt when you go around turns but don't actually rotate or eject you when you spin out -- which is just as well, since I saw no seat belts anywhere.

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This connector charges a car in 30 minutes.

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You want to get really charged up?

One complaint about fully-electric cars is that they take forever to charge. Mitsubishi is showing an electric prototype version of its Japanese iCar; this connector, which leads to an external box that plugs into a 110v outlet, can provide a 50-kilowatt charge to a li-ion battery in 30 minutes. Another connector on the other side of the car doesn't use the transformer and can charge in seven hours. This thing is so far away from U.S. production that the prototype has the steering wheel on the right-hand side; it isn't slated for initial testing in Japan until next year.

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Sync offers Bluetooth and voice control.

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And you thought cell phones were distracting

Microsoft's Sync, already available in a number of Ford's 2008 vehicles, is going to be rolled out across the manufacturer's car lines. The communication and entertainment system allows Bluetooth communication and voice control of some (nondriving) functions, such as mobile phones and digital music players. The multifunction Sync screen shown here is from Ford's Transit Connect truck, a kind of commercial minivan popular in Europe and targeted for the U.S. next year.

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The AirCar may one day take to the skies.

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It's a bird! It's a plane! It's ... a car?

Milner Motors, based in Vancouver, Wash., is showing a hybrid of a different sort: its experimental (needless to say) AirCar. Fully extended, the wingspan is 28 feet; when the main wing and forward canard are folded in, the vehicle is only 7 feet wide, making the whole thing about the size of a Toyota Corolla. In the air, the AirCar is designed to cruise at 200 mph; on the ground, it's got an 85 mph top speed. The prototype, when done, will be drivable but not flyable. The company says it will find a partner to do the engineering work required to get the thing into the air. Sold as a kit plane, the AirCar is expected to cost about $450,000.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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