Diesel trucks and cars pass windmills near Banning, California.

Diesel trucks and cars pass windmills near Banning, California.

“There is no more beautiful sight than an American made car.” This week, in front of a crowd of auto industry workers and executives in Michigan, President Trump fired up his audience by making good on an earlier promise to reopen a review of fuel-efficiency standards introduced by President Obama.

The President said the high Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards were a top complaint from auto executives, and again promised that what was driving his policy was American jobs for American workers. What’s next for the American car and the American car industry?


  • Sonari Glinton NPR Business Desk Correspondent; covers the auto industry, consumer goods, and consumer behavior
  • Chris Gerdes Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University, and Director of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford. Served as the first chief innovation officer at the United States Department of Transportation.
  • Levi Tillemann Managing partner at Valence Strategic, which helps companies navigate change related to technological shifts in robotics and artificial intelligence; author, "The Great Race: The Global Quest For The Car Of The Future"; former adviser for the U.S. Department of Energy
  • Robin Chase Co-founder and former CEO of Zipcar. She is also the founder and former CEO of Buzzcar, a peer-to-peer car sharing service in France, acquired by Drivy
  • Uwe Higgen Managing Partner at BMW i Ventures; former Head of the BMW Group Technology Office USA

The Surprisingly Mundane History Of The "Car Of The Future"

From the May 1932 Popular Science

The phrase “car of the future” has been appearing in printed literature since the late 19th century. At first, it seems, it was in reference to rail cars. But soon, imaginations were taken over by what J. George Frederick called the “automotive habit of mind” in a 1915 article in The American Review of Reviews.

“The car of the future,” Frederick wrote, “is the car of moderate price; not necessarily the extremely cheap car, for the craze for the very cheapest cars in the market, irrespective of quality, design, luxury, and service, is only a forerunner of the taste for the really good moderate-priced car.”

This was seven years after the Ford Model T made car ownership feasible for many Americans. And soon, once they were in this “habit of mind,” Americans began dreaming of enhancements to their Tin Lizzies. Maybe no publication fueled these fantasies more than Popular Science, which routinely published articles and covers of futuristic ideas for personal transportation. But while we imagine that people of the past were preoccupied with flying cars, a search through the Pop Sci archives shows that, more often than not, the car of the future was seen as earthbound, but lighter and more fuel-efficient than the current year’s model. But there were still a few wild predictions. Here are a few of our favorites:

October 1927: Too Many Cars With Bad Gas Mileage

The magazine’s first mention of the “car of the future” was in an article about a General Motors lab in Ohio, where hundreds of engineers were trying to solve the issues of the contemporary auto. “Refiners are at their wits’ end to produce enough gasoline to operate the so-called modern automobile and truck. The wanton consumption of horsepower in propelling heavy motor vehicles portends disaster,” GM president Charles F. Kettering says. “Investigations have shown that the average automobile carries on its everyday travels the equivalent of only 1 1/2 persons. The streets of our large cities are absurdly congested with these great empty vehicles.”

The piece goes on to say the car of the future will have an automatic transmission, and be lighter, driving for 50-100 miles on one gallon of gasoline. Sounds familiar.

November 1929: Still Too Heavy

Two years later, Popular Science ran a piece by engineering professor E.H. Hamilton, who also complained that cars were too heavy and that manual transmission was an inconvenience. He speculates that 16-cylinder engines will drive overpowered cars with bodies “Shaped much like an airplane fuselage, with only a small portion of the wheels protruding below the body and no external mudguards or windshields to cause air resistance.”

May 1932: Just A Wheel

“Amazing motor-driven hoop may be car of the future,” declared the magazine in a piece about a giant iron wheel (see above) that, in a demonstration for the reporter, cruised at about 30 miles per hour.

May 1938: The Self-Stopping Car

“Pushing down a brake pedal on a car of the future will operate a stop light that emits infra-red rays,” writes E. W. Murtfeldt, adding that these rays will be detected “by a photo-electric cell on the front of a following car” and “energize an electric circuit and apply its brakes automatically.”

Murtfeldt also speculates that future highways would be built above railroads, with one tier for buses and another for cars, avoiding the spaghetti of highways that would proliferate in the following decades.

February 1941: Enough Already

From the June 1940 Popular Science

After running the above image in June 1940, Popular Science got a letter from a confused reader: “Away back in June, you showed on your cover ‘the car of the future,’ due to come in two years. The body was high with many windows. Then in November you showed ‘the car of the future’ again, but it was very different, with a low body and hardly any windows. Now, which will really be the car of the future?

The editors wrote back “What the car of the future will really be like is anybody’s guess.”

April 1967: Proto-Prius

This issue began a “Detroit Report” with a description of a car that, 40 years later, would essentially be the Toyota Prius: “The auto companies are looking into the idea of making a car with both battery power and a gasoline engine—the electric motor for city driving and the piston engine for highway use. Experts say such a car would satisfy emission-control demands of big cities, yet give the car unlimited range for intercity travel. Battery recharging is simple—an extra generator feeds electricity to the power battery when the car runs on gasoline.”

April 1969: A Tiny Pontiac

In another prediction that sort-of came true, Popular Science profiled an experimental Pontiac that looks like a muscular Smart ForTwo.

July 1970: No More Drunk Driving

A brief mention in this issue details an innovation that would keep impaired drivers off the road: a keypad that displays a five-digit code that drivers would have to enter in a limited period of time in order to start the car.

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