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PopSci: Flying cars 'not around the corner'

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(CNN) -- The future of cars is being shaped as much by today's debates over energy and consumption as by the imaginations of engineers and designers.

Three trends seem be emerging, according to Popular Science automotive editor Eric Adams: a move toward vehicles powered by something other than gasoline, vehicles that are safer and cars that take on more of the driver's functions.

Adams recently spoke to CNN.com's Manav Tanneeru about those trends, which will be covered in the May issue of Popular Science. Dedicated to the future of cars, the issue will include concept vehicles created by the magazine in collaboration with designers, researchers, engineers and consultants from the auto industry.

Here are some of Adams' comments, which have been edited for space and clarity:

On the energy debate

"Gasoline prices go up and down on an annual basis, but it seems like every summer, the up part is getting higher and higher, even though it goes back down under $3 or $2. So there's a creep going on there. [There is a] growing, almost sudden, awareness of the very real impact petroleum consumption is having on the environment, [and] people are starting to react to it in a way that automakers have to respond to. ...

"Automakers are seeing that, and they're responding to it. They are starting to not only offer more hybrid models and more fuel-efficient models, but they are starting to push research and development further.

"Chevrolet recently unveiled Volt, which is an electric hybrid. It's an electric car that has a gasoline engine on board, but its sole purpose is to charge batteries. If they can make that happen, it would be revolutionary. You would get a car that can do 150 mpg and most average daily driving would be completely electric, so it's zero miles per gallon. ...

"There's no reason that it can't be built tomorrow if they had the batteries. The batteries are the only thing that's going to hold it up. It will be at least five years before anything like that is on the road and maybe as long seven or eight years. It depends on how fast the scientists can cough up a battery that can last and be safe and robust."

On the future of car safety

"We're at the point now where we really can't improve the physical safety of the car. The crash zones are amazing, the seat belts, the air bags, all the stuff is making actual impact much more tolerable for people. The next step is now to avoid impact.

"Mercedes-Benz has a car that uses radar sensors in the front. ... If a crash is imminent, it will initiate emergency braking that will grind the car to a stop really fast. Volvo has a car that will flash a red bar if it senses something is out of place in terms of where you are going and what's in your way, just to make sure you are paying attention and you see it. ...

"You have distance-keeping cruise control systems. It sounds benign because it sounds just like cruise control, but what it is doing is allowing you to stop and go in traffic without rear-ending anyone and also helps keep a safe distance from the car in front of you. That kind of thing will evolve into systems that do more and more. ...

"I [recently] drove a BMW all the way across the state of Pennsylvania into New Jersey without touching the gas or the brake a single time. Now I never had to come to a complete stop with freeway traffic the whole way, but the point is that I drove that whole distance with the car doing the work. ...

"The same true is with a Mercedes [model] with a cruise control system that can come to a complete stop. I drove it from the Lincoln Tunnel all the way through the New Jersey Turnpike without touching the gas or brake once, and that was through stop-and-go traffic. That was with the car braking all the way down to a stop and starting up again.

"All these things are creating a broader picture of an increasingly more capable car, and there are cars in Europe and Asia that have even more capabilities. There is a Honda in the United Kingdom, I think, that will drive itself and actually steer itself so that it stays in its lane. We have things like lane departure warning systems in cars, but all they do is alert you if you are drifting out of the lane, it won't nudge back you into your lane. Cars in Europe and Japan will do that. ...

"There is also the Lexus self-parking system where a rear-mounted camera will look at the space and the computer will assess what's there, what the open space is, and you help it select where to go. You then hit a button and it will back into the space for you. It will parallel park for you or move into a perpendicular spot all by itself."

The tipping point

"We're eventually going to start getting toward a tipping point where all this technology is going to be showing up in cars. The problem is that you can't really give back the skill sets that you take away. ...

"For example, automatic transmission, when it was first introduced, was a luxury item and was completely unprecedented. But now you can't take that away. If there was suddenly a worldwide shortage of automatic transmissions, we'd be [in trouble]. We're talking 20 to 30 years down the road, but once you take these skill sets away, you can't expect them to come back. At that point, cars are going to have to take over even more and they are going to have to completely drive themselves."

On the driverless car

"Things like anti-lock brakes and stability control will evolve to eventually incorporate things like sensors that are not only aware of the driving and road conditions, but also the terrain and the path the road is going to take.

"So if you are coming up to a turn and you think you can make it, but the car knows very well you cannot, it will stop. Or if you are approaching a turn at 30 mph and the computer has determined that you need to be doing it at 20 mph in order to make it safely through, then it will slow the car down to get you through that turn. It's going to do interventions like that to prevent you from getting into trouble. If it sees that you are drifting out of the lane onto oncoming traffic, it will take over the steering and put you back in the lane. ...

"Cars are already starting to compensate for [our] foibles, and eventually they are going to have to start compensating for more and more of those foibles as the bar is raised. Right now, no one is supposed to be able to drive and put on makeup or talk on the cell phone at the same time. But eventually cars are going to start saying, 'OK, hit this button and you can put on your makeup and you can talk on your cell phone for five minutes.' "

Changing the road as well as the car

"When Tom Cruise is driving out in the country [in 'Minority Report'], he is clearly driving a car and it's on a conventional, old-fashioned road. But, when he goes into the city, he's on this new type of road that accommodates all this funky driving. He drives up buildings or skyways and high-speed driving where, clearly, the driver is not doing the driving, and the car is doing the driving or the system is doing the driving.

"There might come a point decades from now where there is some sort of large-scale infrastructure re-creation of the driving landscape, where entirely new types of roads are possible and as a result, entirely new types of driving are possible.

"You won't need to fly because you can drive 300 mph [from New York] to Washington, D.C., and get there faster than an airplane because you're in these high-speed tunnels where the car's computer merges in with the rest of the traffic and just shoots down like a bullet down the road. And you'll have nothing to do with it -- you'll be watching a movie."

When cars fly

"Popular Science has for decades toyed with the idea of a flying car. ... It has become a joke in pop culture because everyone has always said there is a flying car in our future and that it is only 10 years away. The reality is they are not 10 years away. There are a lot of roadblocks to that technology.

"But in the future, if some sort of new system emerges and some sort of new technology emerges that can make the car safe, lightweight and able take off from very short distances and even vertically, then it's possible the whole way we get from A to B is completely different. It's like this seamless integration of air and ground maneuvering, and that's a possibility.

"But, the stuff that we are seeing now that people are touting as flying cars is not possible. ...

"[The flying cars of 'The Jetsons'] are not around the corner, but they are around several more corners, and it's going to take a long time to get there."


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Chevrolet's Volt represents an emerging trend of vehicles being fueled by a gasoline alternative.

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