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Report From ETC: Re-imagining the Future

Top executives from the automotive, computer, and pharmaceutical industries lay out their visions of technological advance.
October 1, 2003

A world in which a global computer system provides helpful advice, medicines are tailored to individual patients, and people zip around in hydrogen-powered cars is possible with enough effort and investment, a group of speakers told the audience at Technology Review’s Emerging Technologies Conference, held last week at MIT.

The Wednesday morning panel, entitled “Where Technology is Heading,” featured leaders from three different industries. In all cases, they talked not just of individual inventions, but of reimagining an entire field.

Lawrence Burns, vice president of research and development and planning at General Motors, wants to reinvent the automobile and the power infrastructure that’s grown up around it. Over the last century, he said, cars have become safer, cleaner, and more fuel efficient, but the essential technology has not changed. Cars still run on internal combustion engines that burn petroleum, and they’re still controlled mechanically, with steering wheels and foot pedals. But what if they used fuel cells for propulsion, hydrogen for fuel, and electronics and software for control? “We realized we could literally reinvent the automobile around these technologies,” he said.

GM, Burns said, has begun development of a vehicle with small electric motors on each wheel in a skateboard-like chassis; it has about 40 moving parts instead of the approximately 400 in today’s cars. The main body of the car would be docked into the chassis and would not be constrained by the hump of a fuel line or the cumbersome steering wheel. A driver would accelerate by twisting a handle and apply the brakes by squeezing it, and could turn over the controls to the person in the other seat with the flick of a switch.

To make this possible, and to open up the automotive market to the 88 percent of the world’s population that doesn’t own cars without fueling a burst of greenhouse gases, it will be necessary to develop a hydrogen fuel infrastructure. Right now, Burns said, it costs about $500 to get a kilowatt of energy out of hydrogen, and that has to come down to about $50 per kilowatt to be comparable to internal combustion. Burns said that GM hopes to reach that goal by 2010. But the real key is getting the hydrogen to the cars, which could mean generating it at home. “Hyrdogen’s challenge is its distribution cost, not its generation cost,” Burns said.

If fueling up may get closer to home, computing is spreading out. David Tennenhouse, director of research at Intel Research, imagines a global computer network with “fingers” reaching everywhere, sensors scattered around the world, and embedded processors in various devices. “We need new sensors and actuators, new ways of connecting our computers to the physical world,” he said. “Information technology has barely scratched the surface of where it can be used.”

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