Driving Directions: Getting There Green

Detroit Auto Show's Car of the Future Is Loaded with Green and Convenience Features

Johnson Controls' ie:3 showcases lightweight technology and advanced amenities.

DETROIT--I have seen the car of the future, but it will only go if you push it. The car, showcased at the Detroit Auto Show, is the ie:3 and it's Johnson Controls' non-mobile platform of technology you are likely to see on cars by 2015. How about a drop-in recharger bin for smart phones, speakers integrated into the headliner and a fabric cover for the dashboard that allows a great amount of storage in what is usually dead space.

Johnson Controls makes everything from the lead-acid Sears Diehard batteries in many cars today to the lithium-ion pack in the S400 Mercedes Hybrid (through the Power Solutions division), and it also produces a whole host of interior technologies with every major automaker as customers.

johnson controls ie:3

The Johnson Controls ie:3 is a showcase for green, lightweight technology. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I was taken through the technology by Michael Warsaw, a vice president of design and marketing. The car started life as a Kia Soul, but it's been transformed into a very lightweight and generic B-segment electric car with 23 kilowatt-hours of prismatic batteries in the (flat) floor. If it were produced, it would likely have a 100-mile range.

The lightweight natural fiber seats in the Johnson Controls car are cantilevered to fold up and create storage both front and rear. "We've found that in emerging markets, the rear seat is really a premium position," Warsaw said. "And that's one reason we've incorporated a 45-degree recline into them." The fabric lid on the dashboard and door pockets is also very lightweight and adds more storage.

Just about everything on the car slides out of the way if need be, including the shifter and main command console. Like a kid's puzzle, it can all be arranged to suit the driver. You might raise questions about meeting safety standards with applications like that, but Warsaw assured me everything I was seeing meets current laws. Airbags and seatbelts are part of the package.

A pop up and adjustable heads-up display (incorporating speed and other vital information) is reflected off a curved piece of glass and floats in the driver's view of the road ahead. A display screen replaces the traditional instrument panel, and also the entertainment center, which uses a 6.5-inch "transflective" cluster display that looks good even in harsh sunlight. During my tour, Howling Wolf was playing on the Blues Station through those invisible headliner speakers.

 Many of the show cars on display in Cobo Hall have fake interiors that are designed just to look futuristic. The ie:3 looks similar -- the driver's seat of the U.S.S. Enterprise comes to mind -- but it's actually functional and eminently deployable by 2015. 

If you remember Amory Lovins' concept of the 1,000-pound hypercar, you'll realize that it's the weight, stupid. That was abundantly clear on the floor of the Detroit Auto Show today. Automakers are in a fuel economy race, both to meet tougher regulations and to satisfy consumers suddenly alive to the concept. I attended a Ford dinner tonight, and Barb Samardzich, a vice president of global product programs, pointed out that most of the low-hanging fruit in bettering fuel economy has to do with reducing weight: If the carmakers can get a whopping 700 to 800 pounds out of a car platform, they can similarly downsize the engine. And everyone benefits, and the planet is happy, too.

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli is a senior writer at E/The Environmental Magazine, a regular contributor to the New York Times and author most recently of Naked in the Woods: Joseph Knowles and the Legacy of Frontier Fakery.
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Forward Drive: The race to build "clean" cars of the future.
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