Bill Ford, Ford executive chairman, stands next to the all-new 2011 Explorer at an event in Millennium Park in Chicago on July 26, 2010. The redesigned SUV includes safety features such as inflatable seatbelts, and over 30 percent better fuel economy than the current model Explorer. UPI/Brian Kersey | License Photo
Ford Motor Co. Executive Chairman Bill Ford envisions an automotive future much like the transportation system in the futuristic 2002 science-fiction movie "Minority Report."
In that dystopian vision of a computerized world where people are arrested for "precrime" before they can commit a crime, the best thing going are the sleek cars that drive and park themselves. The hero-cop played by Tom Cruise has a futuristic Lexus that glides up the side of a high-rise building and parks itself on the wall outside his apartment.
Ford says as the world's population grows from the current 7 billion to 9 billion the number of vehicles will quadruple from 1 billion to 4 billion and motoring will look very different to avoid "global gridlock."
"We have to change the way we think of our cars," Ford, 54, great-grandson of automobile industry pioneer Henry Ford, told the 2012 Mobile World Congress technology show in Barcelona, Spain. "We tend to think of cars as independent, individual devices. Now we have to look at them the same way we look at laptops, earphones, tablets -- as pieces of a much richer network."
Ford predicts future cars will drive themselves in "platoons" of vehicles electronically linked for efficiency. "We will take increasing advantage of cars as a rolling collection of sensors, eliminating traffic accidents at intersections."
Don't laugh. The ground is already being broken for vehicle-to-vehicle communication systems that can avert accidents.
By mid-century, Ford says pedestrians, bicycles and cars will be linked together into a single connected network and vehicles will be able to navigate on their own.
"You'll be able to plot and reserve a parking space before your trip, and your car will park itself when you drop it off, maximizing parking density."
Science-fiction is becoming science-fact in the near-term with wireless V2X technology being developed to allow vehicles to communicate with traffic lights, and work and school zones.
Consumer Reports, in its annual auto issue, describes how smarter cars will even be able to detect traffic patterns at intersections and warn a driver -- or slam on the brakes -- if a car is about to be plowed into from the side.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator David Strickland says V2X is "the next major safety breakthrough" and the federal agency estimates such a system could avoid or minimize 80 percent of accidents involving non-impaired drivers saving tens of thousands of lives.
In the mid-term 2017-25, Ford predicts the "auto-pilot" driving technology will allow a driver to take control if needed.
Beyond that it's anyone's guess.
Obama courts big labor, praises American workers
President Barack Obama, who doesn't want anyone to forget his administration's contributions to saving the U.S. auto industry, courted UAW leaders in Washington last week.
"Take a minute to think about what you and the workers and families you represent have fought through," Obama told the United Auto Workers Convention in Washington Tuesday.
"Just a few years ago, nearly one in five autoworkers were handed a pink slip. Four-hundred-thousand jobs across this industry vanished the year before I took office. And as the financial crisis hit with full fury, America faced a hard and once unimaginable reality: two of the Big Three -- GM and Chrysler -- were on the brink of failure.
Obama said with the economy in free fall, he made the right call by betting on U.S. manufacturing and the auto industry with $60 billion in taxpayer money. Former President George W. Bush had already invested $24 billion to keep GM and Chrysler from turning out the lights before he left office.
Three years later, the U.S. auto industry is roaring back posting near record profits and sales.
"The other option was to do nothing, and allow these companies to fail," the president said. "In fact, some politicians said we should. Some even said we should "let Detroit go bankrupt."
Obama chided his critics saying, "If we had turned our backs on you, if America had thrown in the towel, GM and Chrysler wouldn't exist today. The suppliers and distributors that get their business from those companies would have died off, too. Then even Ford could have gone down as well."
More than 1 million good-paying U.S. jobs would have disappeared in the middle of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, he said.
Obama said for many auto industry jobs are more than a paycheck; they're a source of pride and a path to a middle-class life.
"They make it possible to own a home, to raise kids and send them to college, to retire with some dignity and respect. These companies are worth more than just the cars they build," he said. "They're a symbol of American innovation, the sources of our manufacturing might. And if that's not worth fighting for, what is?"
Obama said he'd bet on the American worker every time.
He said he has visited Chrysler workers near Kokomo, Ind., GM workers in Spring Hill, Tenn., Ford workers building the new Explorer at the Chicago Assembly plant and those making the F-150 pickup -- the top-selling pickup -- in Kansas City.
The president said he sat in a brand-new Chevrolet Volt hybrid fresh off the line at GM's Detroit-Hamtramck plant in Michigan in 2010, and liked it.
"The Secret Service wouldn't let me drive it. But I liked sitting in it. It was nice. I'll bet it drives real good."
To chants of "Four more years," Obama said he would buy a Volt at the end of his second term.
"Five years from now, when I'm not president any more, I'll buy one and drive it myself."
Volts merging into the fast lane, hits brakes
Sales may be less than hoped for but the Chevrolet Volt is moving into the express lane in Southern California.
Drivers of the extended-range, gas-electric hybrid with the low-emissions package standard on California cars can use commuter car pool lanes, cutting total driving time by an average 36 minutes per day, the Detroit Free Press reported.
GM resumed producing the Volt in early February after stopping manufacture two days before Christmas to investigate a fire in a Volt that had been deliberately crash-tested.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration conducted an investigation into two battery fires that occurred after Volt crash tests in November and concluded the vehicle was not dangerous.
GM is putting a tougher casing around the car's battery pack and adding sensors to detect battery fluid leaks.
On Friday, GM announced it was suspending Volt production for 5 weeks starting March 19 because of slow sales.
"We have to maintain the proper inventory levels," GM spokesman Chris Lee told the Detroit News.
Fewer than 8,000 Volts were sold last year, when Chevy had hoped to put 10,000 of the $41,000 hybrids on the road. Volt buyers in California qualify for an extra $1,500 rebate in addition to a $7,500 federal tax credit for buying a hybrid vehicle. A no-emission all-electric vehicle qualifies for a $10,000 tax credit.
"The Volts with the low-emissions package are certain to be a strong draw for California commuters looking to travel the state's notoriously congested freeways in the carpool lane," Chris Perry, Chevy's vice president of marketing, told the Free Press.
CR picks more top cars
Consumer Reports, which rates new vehicles on a 100-point road test scale, gives the nod of best car to the 2012 Lexus LS 460L, which scored 99.
The BMW 135i was second with 97 points, followed by the Infinity G37 sedan (95), Toyota Camry Hybrid XLE (95), Audi A6 (3.0T) with 93 points, Infinity M37 (93), Nissan Altima 3.5 SR (93), Chevrolet Corvette Z06 (92), Hyundai Genesis 3.8 sedan (92), Toyota Camry XLE V6 (92), Audi A8 L (91), Lexus ES 350 (91) and Nissan Altima 2.5 S (91)
The Jeep Wrangler Limited had the lowest road test score of 20, followed by the Jeep Liberty (27), Smart fortwo (28) and Toyota F J Cruiser (36).
The CR road test incorporates more than 50 individual tests and evaluations on how a vehicle performs during acceleration, braking, fuel consumption, comfort and cargo space.
The top family car was the Toyota Camry Hybrid; the sporty car, Ford Mustang; small SUV, Toyota RAV4; affordable family sedan, Hyundai Sonata; family hauler, Toyota Sienna V6; sports sedan, Infinity G; green car, Toyota Prius; small car, Subaru Impreza; pickup, Chevrolet Avalanche, and family SUV, Toyota Highlander.