In automotive skunk works around the globe, designers and engineers are already plotting the car that you'll drive in 2015.
The big question is, will it look any different to the one you're driving now? The experts are divided but if the past six years are any guide, stand by for some dramatic changes.
In 2003, one in three Australian car buyers chose a large car. Since then, large car sales have halved and one of them, the Mitsubishi 380, has disappeared altogether. Smaller cars – ranging in engine size from 1.0-litre to 2.0-litres – outnumber large cars by almost three-to-one and now take up more than a third of the market.
Driven by the financial crisis and dwindling oil reserves, the industry is in the middle of a revolution as profound as the switch from horse and cart to internal combustion engine. The next decade could see more change in the cars we drive than the last century.
The lofty twin goals of zero emissions and zero fatalities will be the guiding pillars of vehicle development in the next six years, and beyond - driven partly by government mandate and partly by economic necessity.
In Europe, car makers will have to comply with tough laws that require their average CO2 emissions per car to be less than 120 grams per kilometre.
To give you an idea of just how high the bar is being set, less than a dozen models on the Australian market currently come in under that number.
Our top-selling model, the Holden Commodore, emits more than twice that level (next month a new engine will reduce emissions by 12 per cent).
The rules will be almost as tough in the US and Asia, which means all imported cars in Australia will, by default, be greener. So what else is likely to change by 2015?
Traffic jams are likely to be quieter and healthier affairs as most manufacturers are moving rapidly towards stop-start technology, which turns off a car's engine when it's stopped.
Even when the traffic is crawling, there will be some cars that emit only a soft whir as they use their electric motors in lieu of their petrol powerplants. There may be fewer low-speed fender benders blocking up the traffic flow as well, with most manufacturers already dabbling in technology that senses a collision and applies the brakes if the driver isn't paying attention.
People may have lost the art of reverse parking because there will be technology to do it for them. Automatic parallel parking systems are already available on affordable cars such as the Toyota Prius and Volkswagen Tiguan.
Head-up displays on the windscreen will tell the driver how fast they are going, whether they are too close to the car in front and when to make their next turn.
By 2015, all new passenger cars and a large slice of late model second-hand cars will have stability control — which can prevent a car from skidding out of control — as standard equipment. The life-saving technology will become mandatory on new models from 2011 and could have a dramatic effect on the road toll. Of course, that won't stop government safety authorities from taking the credit.
Luxury cars should be able to read road signs, while some satellite navigation systems will be able to give real-time warnings on potential safety hazards, traffic snarls and even where to find the cheapest fuel (already available on Fords in the US).
Audi Australia boss Joerg Hofmann says the cars of 2015 will also have a strong focus on pedestrian safety, with bonnets and grilles redesigned to protect pedestrians from serious injury. “We are heavily working on really sophisticated sensor and camera systems where a car will automatically avoid collisions with either pedestrians or another car,” he says.
Along with safety and fuel efficiency, in-car entertainment will be another significant driver of vehicle technology.
Drivers will continue to demand an environment replete with the latest technology — integrated Bluetooth, surround sound stereo, rear-seat entertainment, live television, wireless Playstation. Jaguar's XJ sedan, due here next year, has a screen on the dash that can display satellite navigation maps to the driver and live television or a DVD to the passenger.
The key, if you talk to some designers, will be personalisation. We're already seeing it on the Mini, the Fiat 500 and the Kia Soul, where buyers can choose from a wide range of internal colour schemes, right down to the shade of interior mood lighting. By 2015, you may be able to choose the colour of your instrument panel lighting.
A word of warning: don't spend too much on a car radio in the lead-up to 2015. In Britain, they've just announced that FM transmissions will cease in 2015, when the country's radio network will switch from analogue to digital.
Ben Sullivan, an automotive specialist with market research company Synovate, says in-car entertainment will be all about plugging in personal devices such as mobile phones. “It will be all about convergence, like the iPhone. All people will be looking for is a plug-in point and a screen,” he says.
“We'll be more spoilt. We won't have to turn a key to get into the car and start it. Our phone will automatically pair with the car; we won't have to turn on the windscreen wipers when it rains or the headlights when it gets dark.”
Sullivan says the internet will play a much bigger role, with real-time assistance on traffic snarls or road conditions.
“Cars will talk to each other,” he says.
For drivers who want to reduce their environmental footprint, there should be half a dozen plug-in electric vehicles to choose from. Holden, Nissan and Mitsubishi have all said they will have a plug-in on local roads by 2012, while Kia will begin selling one in 2013 and Toyota's next generation Prius will have an electric-only range of about 20 kilometres.
Nissan's local boss, Dan Thompson, says it will be selling its Leaf electric vehicle to retail customers in Australia by 2015. The car will arrive on local streets in 2012 but mainly on a trial basis with fleet customers.
“By 2015 in Australia we will certainly have moved into the retail part of the business," he says. "I guess the real open question is how quickly we can get to mass market appeal with the car.
“A lot of the acceleration of uptake on the private side will depend on the initial level of government support that's provided.”
Thompson predicts that by 2020, the electric car will have established itself as a mainstream option.
“By 2020, it's a different story and we're on to second and third generations of the technology and it certainly will be mass marketed across a good part of the world by that point.
“Our targets here locally would be that 10 per cent of our sales would be EV by that point.”
Audi's Hofmann is less bullish about alternative technologies entering the mainstream in the mid-term.
“I think you'll have the same sort of models you have at the moment," he says. "I think Australia will have a higher share of diesel engines on the road. You may say the first electric vehicles coming out but really at a very early stage.”
Hofmann doesn't see a carpark dominated by hybrids, either. “Hybrid is a technology that does not have a long-term future," he says. "We consider it as a step in between.”
He says the company was investigating hybrid options but putting its main focus on diesel technology.
“We would like to step from diesel to electric," he says.
"We are 100 per cent focused on electric. But it takes a while to get these cars into serious production. You still need improvement on the battery technology. Knowing our internal schedules, serious production of electric cars will still be in its very early stages in 2015.”
Sullivan agrees. He says the roads will “look a lot like they are now”.
“There will be too many reasons to reject electric vehicles," he says. "Even if you were to get a price advantage, you would still get resistance. There would be uncertainty about reliability and how the technology works. The Government would need to drive the shift in attitude. Otherwise people will just think, why should I leap first, why should I take the risk.”
And spend the extra money. Estimates about the price of electric cars vary but Mitsubishi's tiny i MiEV recently went on sale in Japan for about $60,000 (suggestions are that it could sell here for less than $50,000), while the General Motors Volt is expected to cost $US40,000 ($48,000) when it's released next year.
But Thompson dismisses concerns about costs. Under the Nissan model, he says, the overall cost of owning an electric vehicle will be comparable to a conventional car.
How? Nissan plans to sell its Leaf to customers minus the battery. The battery would then be leased on a similar plan to a mobile phone, with the repayments equating to the cost of filling up the tank of a petrol car each week.
Battery technology remains the key to electric car acceptance. At the moment, battery performance falls short of car buyer expectations but the level of attention it is being given suggests development will be as rapid: think mobile phones.
Some of the biggest names in consumer electronics are on the job.
Hitachi plans to make 70 times more car batteries by 2015 than it presently does. Korean companies LG and Samsung are ramping up their production capabilities, while Panasonic and Sanyo are working on a joint battery development program with five of Japan's leading car makers.
Even IBM is getting into the business of building car batteries. The end result could be that electric cars arrive much sooner than we think but most analysts believe petrol-electric hybrids will be the dominant alternative technology in 2015.
Consulting firm McKinsey has predicted that the hybrid market will grow to 14 million units by 2020. Toyota plans to introduce eight new hybrids into the Australian market in the next four years.
The chief engineer for the Prius, Akihiko Otsuka, predicts hybrids could outsell diesels within a decade as hybrid costs come down and diesels require expensive modifications to allow them to comply with tougher emissions regulations.
“We still have things we can do to reduce the cost of hybrids,” he says.
The sleeper technology is hydrogen fuel-cell technology. Fuel cells are seen as the holy grail of alternative vehicles because, unlike plug-in electric vehicles, they don't rely on energy from coal-burning power stations. Their development has been fraught with difficulties but Toyota is now predicting it will have a fuel-cell vehicle on sale by 2015.
Honda has its FCX Clarity fuel-cell car in limited production now, with Hollywood stars among its first 200 special customers.
Kia plans to begin mass production of a fuel cell vehicle — initially for commercial applications in Korea — by 2012, with a target of 30,000 units a year by 2018 and one million a year by 2030.
Drive looks at the cars you could be driving by 2015.
At the moment our city cars are still quite large by European standards. Expect that to change by 2015. Suzuki has just put its toe in the water with the new 1.0-litre Alto city car and Hyundai is poised to follow suit.
The new breed of city cars will be powered by small, possibly turbocharged engines, with more manufacturers moving to three cylinders.
Hybrid and electric power will also come to this segment of the market, while diesel-powered small cars will be more common in 2015. Toyota is rumoured to be developing a hybrid version of its Yaris, while Mini is already leasing electric versions overseas. BMW is planning a four-seater electric car smaller than the current Mini for release between 2012 and 2015, while Mitsubishi will have its i MiEV electric car leased to fleets in Australia from 2010 and will be selling to private customers by 2012. This segment is likely to be the battleground for the world's new automotive powerhouses, China and India.
Aside from Nissan's Leaf electric car, this segment will showcase two very different approaches to hybrid technology in the Toyota Prius and the Holden Cruze.
The Prius predominantly uses its petrol engine for propulsion, with support provided from the electric motor; the Cruze does it the other way around, with a small petrol engine recharging the electric motor when it runs out of juice. The next Prius, which should be due around 2015, will have about 20-kilometre electric-only range. Toyota should have a cheaper Corolla hybrid on local roads by 2011. Conventional petrol and diesel-powered cars are still likely to rule the roost, though. The Cruze will pose a big threat to Commodore's reign as the nation's top-selling car.
Will the traditional Aussie six-cylinder sedan survive until 2015?
Not likely, says Sullivan. Downsizing will be the trend over the next six years. Ford recently announced it would offer a four-cylinder engine in the Falcon from 2011. By 2015 it will be the dominant — if not the only — engine choice for the car. The next generation Falcon, due in 2014, could also be a front-wheel-drive car, or it could disappear altogether as Ford moves to a single global platform based on its European-designed Mondeo.
Holden has announced it will move to a smaller-capacity V6, but will Australia's favourite car still be a popular choice in 2015? Not according to Sullivan. He says large cars will be an endangered species by 2015, as their traditional fleet-buyer base deserts them for more efficient locally-built alternatives such as the Holden Cruze and Toyota Camry hybrid.
“There won't be large cars as we know them. They've probably got one generation more,” he says.
“The only reason the large car market exists is government and large fleet sales. Without that, there would be insufficient volume to sustain a plant.”
He says any continued support of the Commodore by government fleets “would smack of hypocrisy” in the face of its much-vaunted Green Car fund, which has spawned the Cruze.
The locals will also come under fire from European family cars with diesel engines. Audi has confirmed it will import the frugal “e” version of its mid-sized A4 soon. That car uses 4.6 litres of fuel per 100km — almost the same as the recently superseded Prius.
Sullivan believes that the range of hardcore off-road vehicles may shrink as buyers become more realistic about their motoring needs. “The market is getting so small that it will become hard to justify the investment in new models,” he says.
The choice of mid-sized 4WDs is also likely to shrink, while hybrids and diesels will become dominant choices. The Lexus RX450h is the only hybrid off-roader available at the moment but expect others to follow. Apart from the fuel-savings, electric motors provide driveability benefits for off-road vehicles. The seamless delivery of power and the instant torque are ideal for pulling boats up slippery ramps, while driver aids such as hill descent and traction control can be controlled more precisely by an electric motor than a conventional internal combustion engine.
Lexus' luxury rivals, including BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche, will all have a range of hybrid off-roaders by 2015. But the technology will filter down to more affordable softroaders as well. Downsizing will also grip the SUV market.
We'll see ultra-compact off-roaders that are really just high-riding hatches. And fewer off-roaders will have 4WD. Most will drive only two wheels and use electronic aids for mild off-roading.
Hofmann believes lightweight materials and electric motor assistance will deliver guilt-free sports car thrills by 2015. At the top end, Ferrari is promising its first hybrid supercar by 2015 (its earlier 2007 FXX Mille Chile hybrid concept, pictured in gallery, mated an electric motor not to the engine but to the gearbox), while Lamborghini, McLaren and Lexus will also have well-advanced plans for petrol-electric sports cars.
As with 4WDs, the prospect of a motor at each wheel offers performance advantages over petrol-only cars. Electronic launch control devices combined with the instantaneous torque of an electric motor could see 0-100km/h times reduced along with fuel bills. Porsche is not yet convinced about hybrid technology for its sports cars, mainly due to concerns about the additional weight of the battery and the effect it may have on weight distribution, the holy grail of the sports car maker.
Hybrid sports cars are likely to share the limelight with an increasing number of diesel-powered sports cars such as Audi's diesel TT coupe.
Sullivan says luxury cars will always have a place in the market, no matter what happens. “There's always a market for indulgences like $500 handbags,” he says.
But he predicts luxury car makers will struggle to come up with meaningful ways of distinguishing themselves from less expensive cars, such is the pace of in-car entertainment development. The internet could provide the key to keeping ahead of the pack, with voice-activated email, intelligent satellite navigation that reads road signs and adapts route guidance based on real-time traffic conditions. Radar technology and cameras will edge the industry closer to the crash-proof car, with technology that can brake, steer and adjust throttle settings to avoid a collision.
Luxury car buyers will continue their push into the big volume markets, with prestige brands including BMW, Fiat and even Aston Martin all looking at little cars with big price tags.