The NY International Auto Show: Hi-tech under the hood

The coolest tech toys from New York Auto Show, including a prototype flying car

It's 2008 already. Didn't the magazines promise us flying cars by now?

Actually, there is some cool upcoming tech at the New York International Auto Show this year (which runs from March 21-30 at the Jacob Javits Convention Center). However, most of it is under the hood rather than on display.

A lot of this year's excitement is about the promise of alternative fuels. Cars that can burn ethanol (E85) fuel are yesterday's news. Several hydrogen fuel cell cars from major manufacturers are already on the road or are about to start trials, with an eye toward commercial release in 2010. For example, the Honda full-size FCX Clarity will begin limited marketing this summer in Southern California (one of the few places where there are any hydrogen filling stations at all), while there are already 100 examples of Chevrolet's Equinox in service in Los Angeles, the District of Columbia, and the New York area.

Gasoline-electric hybrid technology is moving into bigger and bigger cars (including a hybrid Cadillac Escalade) with ever-greater range of distance, as auto manufacturers embrace and try to enhance LiIon batteries.

Meanwhile, the X Prize folks, who gave away US$10 million for the first non-government space flight, want to do the same for the first production-capable consumer car with a mileage exceeding 100 mpg or its equivalent. Sixty-four teams have already signed letters of intent to enter the competition, which will culminate in a staged cross-country race in 2009.

For most gadget buffs, however, the future is already here. Stuff like GPS and in-car computers and music beamed from satellites are already available in almost everything with four wheels these days (if only for an extra fee). Most of the tech exhibited at the show consisted of improvement on what we already have.

Except for one thing. There was a flying car. No, really!

Car or toy? You choose.

Dude, where is the rest of your car? The Smart fortwo, built by Mercedes, weighs about 150 pounds shy of a ton, is 8.5 feet long -- half the length of a conventional car -- and 5.1 feet wide. Sitting in a Smart car feels like nothing so much as sitting in a soapbox or a bumper car. Unlike a bumper car, however, the Smart cars have six airbags, a full set of controls and are designed for daily commuting. The 8.7-gallon tank takes (believe it or not) premium gasoline. Prices start at US$11,590; company officials say there's a waiting list of about 30,000 people in the United States.

Virtual vehicles for a fun ride.

Lexus and Subaru are both letting attendees virtually drive their new cars using the upcoming Gran Turismo 5 video game. The Lexus kiosks have wide video screens, realistic force-feedback controls and full surround sound. Subaru adds neat elevated full-motion pods that tilt when you go around turns but don't actually rotate or eject you when you spun out. Which is just as well, since I saw no seat belts anywhere.

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