Back to the Future: The Cars of Tomorrow, Today

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jun 20, 2016

Here we go again, forward into the future. BMW is celebrating its centennial with Vision Next 100, and we’re getting a range of cars for an imagined 2050 and beyond.

Mini Vision Next 100 is a self-driving chameleon that adjusts to its pampered occupant. (BMW photo)I’m enjoying the latest cars, which include a Mini and a Rolls-Royce. The electric Mini, with an entirely transparent front end, is—of course—autonomous. It is “available to everybody at all times, picking drivers up autonomously from wherever they like, and adjusting the car’s appearance, driving characteristics and connectivity to suit the user’s personal lifestyle.” Personalized connectivity—what could be more au courant?

Instead of an engine, there’s just open space. It’s reminiscent in a way of the 1950s Isetta, whose whole front end (complete with steering wheel) was hinged for easy entry and exit. The steering wheel slides from left to right, but most of the time it’s out of the way because it’s not needed. A simple crossbar substitutes for an instrument panel. Who needs instruments? The car’s computer is in charge, not you. Whatever information you need is projected onto that futuristic front end in tomorrow’s version of heads-up display.  

Perhaps the Rolls' deficiency in the styling department are made up by the quiet efficiency of Eleanor, its built-in personal assistant. (BMW photo)The Rolls, poked by the ugly stick (though the traditional grille is retained), comes with a personal assistant named “Eleanor.” She “not only drives the vehicle but also fulfills the customer’s every wish throughout the journey.” I’m not sure I want to visit all the possibilities there.

Since the automobile was invented, we’ve looked forward as to how it might evolve—usually getting it spectacularly wrong. Here are a few concepts from the 1950s, the golden age of futurism in the auto industry.

The Ford Nucleon: rear-end collisions weren't part of the planning. (Ford photo)The Ford Nucleon. Nuclear power’s potential infected pop music in the fabulous 50s. You mean you haven’t heard Atom Bomb Baby by the Five Stars or Radioactive Mama by Sheldon Allman? So why not a nuclear-powered car that would need refueling (by guys in white suits) only every few years? Ford was excited about it, and built at least a model of the Nucleon, which would have a full-blown reactor in the trunk. Only 20 years later, Ford had its exploding Pinto crisis—imagine the effect of having your Nucleon rear-ended!

Darryl Starbird's Predicta (based on an early T-Bird) is typical of fabulous 50s bubble tops. (Darryl Starbird photo) Bubble tops. Fifties futurists were obsessed with building cars that looked like rocket ships, notwithstanding the fact that traveling on terra firma is totally different from being earthbound. “In 50 years, Cars Flying Like Missiles!” bannered the Chicago Daily Tribune in 1959. (By 2009, you were supposed to pull into a refueling station and get “replacement energy capsules.” Hence show cars with rocket fins (those actually made it into production) and pod-like plastic bubble tops (which didn't). In addition to frying the skulls of occupants, they also made simple ventilation nearly impossible. One of my favorite bubble tops was Darryl Starbird's Predicta, one man's vision of the future--complete with in-dash TV. No, driver distraction wasn't a concept yet.

That's the Chrysler Turbine car at left, on display at the Frist in Nashville. They were all that delicious copper color. (Jim Motavalli photo)Turbine power. The Chrysler Turbine Car was famously the star of the New York World’s Fair in 1964, but two years before that GM trotted out its own turbine car, the Firebird III. A rocket car par excellence, it featured an “electronic guide system” that could “rush it  over an automatic highway while the driver relaxes.” That part of the vision will be realized, but sadly turbine power (fine for planes or generating electric power) never proved practical for terrestrial vehicles.

The Firebird II combines two misguided future visions--rocket design and turbine power. (GM photo)I find it amusing that most 50s science fiction simply avoids the question of how people get around when they’re actually on the surface of a planet. Movies solve this problem by taking whatever futuristic concept car Detroit, Tokyo or Munich has conjured up and having people drive around in that. It’s all incredibly wrong, but so what?

Here's the Mini Vision Next 100 on video. Remember that BMW fields "ultimate driving machines," so we see the car with driver intact. But Alex is free to take a snooze whenever he wants, then hand the car over to Kate:


 

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