Nov 28, 2011Science and Technology
Foreign automakers in the driver's seat as technology puts U.S. further behind

Back in the day, the United States – when it came to the automotive industry – was in the driver's seat.


But this is no longer the case.


On Monday Toyota Motor Corp. President Akio Toyoda revealed that the company has developed a car of the future, a car that looks a little bit like a “giant smartphone” – as the company attempts to take the lead in technology at the upcoming Tokyo auto show.


The company will also be showing an electric vehicle and a tiny version of the hit Prius gas-electric hybrid at the show, which opens this weekend's biannual Tokyo exhibition for the auto industry.


The experimental Fun-Vii, which Mr. Toyoda referred to as a “smartphone on four wheels,” works like a personal computer and allows its drivers to connect with dealers and others by tapping a touch-panel door.


It is too soon to tell whether the Fun-Vii will be industry-changing, or if it merely has all the bells and whistles that make a new product appealing, but Mr. Toyoda is excited.


“A car must appeal to our emotions,” Mr. Toyoda said on Monday at the preview.”


This appeal to the emotions is nothing new to the U.S. market, as the automakers in this country have gone for the bigger-is-better model for many, many years.


Think about it. It’s only been within the past two decades or so where automakers in the U.S. have gotten serious about moving away from the big, gas-guzzling vehicles that many of us have gotten so used to driving and riding in.


The economy, ecological concerns and the depletion of our energy sources have forced the “big boys in Detroit” to rethink their strategies.


While we were guzzling gas and riding high, Japan, and a some of our other world neighbors, have been busy getting on the fast track with more efficient vehicles.


This is not to say that U.S. automakers have totally ignored the issue, however. For a while things have been getting better. There are several hybrids and other fuel-efficient vehicles produced in the U.S. Ford appears to be a frontrunner. Also, there is hardly a vehicle made here that doesn’t have major technological advances – as well as the shiny bells and whistles – though Japan seems to be leading the way. From a consumer’s vantage point, too, things seem to be sliding backward a bit here.


We just can’t seem to get past the bigger-is-better mindset.


The American-made muscle car has made a bit of a resurgence in the past few years. This summer, for example, it was reported that despite the rising cost of fuel, many Americans opted for the gas-guzzlers over fuel-thrifty hybrids. According to, the combined sales of Ford Mustang, Dodge Challenger and Chevrolet Camaro – all American-made, midsize fun cars – topped the total of environment-loving hybrids. Americans scarfed up 19,476 of the pony cars, Autodata figures show, compared with 17,852 hybrids. 


These figures may not suggest that we’re speeding down the road toward the “good old days” of motoring, but they are significant.


The auto giant Toyota is also planning to sell a totally electric vehicle, the FT-EV III, which is still a concept or test model, and is yet to get a price tag, but is designed for short trips such as work commutes and grocery shopping, running about 65 miles on a full charge.


So far Toyota has sold more than 3.4 million hybrids worldwide. Honda Motor Co., also aggressive with hybrid technology, has sold 770,000 hybrids worldwide.


Toyota’s new small hybrid will be named Aqua in Japan, where it goes on sale next month. Overseas dates are undecided. Outside Japan it will be sold as a Prius.


Toyota is also premiering a fuel-cell concept vehicle, FCV-R, at the show.


Zero-emission fuel cell vehicles, runnng on hydrogen, have been viewed as impractical because of costs. Toyota said the FCV-R is a “practical” fuel-cell, planned for 2015, but didn’t give its price.


Ford Motor Co. isn’t taking part in the show, and that says a lot.

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