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a man in a puma concept car in new york The Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility (P.U.M.A.) electric prototype vehicle in New York City on April 7, 2009. The P.U.M.A.increases mobility freedom with zero emissions and reduces congestion in cities. (Photo: Steve Fecht for General Motors)

Cars of the Future

Automakers roll out new kinds of cars meant to get you around while protecting the environment

By Jennifer Dignan | null null , null

Maybe you've seen some tiny, odd-shaped cars driving around your neighborhood. Or perhaps someone you know owns a hybrid or an electric car.

If not, just wait. The cars of the future are going to be smaller, more fuel efficient, and have lower emissions than the cars of today. And they're going to look a lot different than the cars you're used to seeing.

At the New York International Auto Show, happening April 10-19 in New York City, and at other auto shows around the country, carmakers are unveiling what could be the future of the automobile.

General Motors (GM) and the Segway company revealed one type of future car: the Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility vehicle (P.U.M.A.). The P.U.M.A. is a small cart-like vehicle that seats two people and is powered by batteries.

Right now, the P.U.M.A. is just a concept and might never reach production. Other advances in automobile transportation are closer to reality.

Several super-small cars, or mini cars, are already available, or will be available soon. For example, Mercedes' Smart Car is popular in Europe, and is beginning to appear on U.S. streets. Chrysler's GEM Peapod and Toyota's iQ are two more itty-bitty, bubble-shape cars that should be available in the U.S. within the next two years.

One reason for the trend toward smaller cars is that they are highly fuel-efficient. Fuel-efficient cars benefit the environment by reducing the amount of natural resources used to power them. Plus, they save drivers money at the gas station.

Interest in alternative-fuel cars is growing, as well.

Right now, most cars are powered by gasoline, which is a nonrenewable fuel. It contributes to both climate change and air pollution. One day, we will see cars powered by more-eco-friendly fuel sources, such as biodiesel, hydrogen, solar power, and electricity.

Hybrids are one type of alternative-fuel cars. A wide range of companies, from Toyota to General Motors to Lexus, make hybrid cars, trucks, and sport utility vehicles (SUVs) that run on gas and electricity.

Other companies, like BMW and Tesla Motors, have put cars on the road that run on hydrogen and electricity. Right now, these cars can be more expensive than gas-powered ones. As time goes by, though, both the cars and the systems for creating and delivering alternative fuels will continue to improve and become more affordable.

But it may be more than just cars themselves that change. In the future—maybe the very near future—the way that we use cars may be different.

One radical change might be the appearance of Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) systems, or pod cars. They are designed to carry individuals or small groups of people traveling together. They run on electricity and have zero emissions.

Another new approach to transportation is being developed at the Michigan Institute of Technology's Media Lab.

Researchers at the Media Lab are working on City Cars, electric two-passenger vehicles that collapse and stack together like grocery carts. The idea is that you would pick one up from the nearest “stack” when you need it and return it to the nearest stack when you are finished.

Small, fuel-efficient, and alternative cars are clearly on the road to the future. Stackable cars, pod cars, or tiny vehicles like the P.U.M.A. may be following close behind. And who knows what else might be around the bend!

TELL US WHAT YOU THINK

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blog it Do you think people will want to drive smaller, more-eco-friendly cars in the future? Do you have any other ideas for what cars should be like in the future?

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