Auto Industry Poised for Growth in 2011; Fueled by Improved Efficiency, Technology & Functionality

With the economy on the mend and a generation of new electric vehicles headed to market, 2011 has the potential to be a key year in reshaping the automotive industry, according to industry analysts. Roughly 11.5 million Americans bought a new car in 2010, up from 10.4 million in 2009.  Despite having to fight for every sale in 2010, many automakers made money — even General Motors. 

According to a new Trend Watch survey by the Turnaround Management Association, 37% of responses identified the automotive industry as the industry most likely to improve in 2011.  Improved effieciency, technology, and functionality are expected to top the list of automotive trends for the new year.

EFFICIENCY

Toyota will be the first major automaker to offer mass-​produced, factory-​built plug-​in hybrid vehicles that can be recharged via any common 110 volt outlet.  A plug-​in hybrid makes it possible to recharge the car’s batteries without using the gas engine at all. Not only is fuel economy much improved but range is increased and the car can be driven at higher speeds on battery power alone, too. For commuters whose trip into work is less than 30 miles or so each way, it ought to be possible to operate the car entirely on battery power alone — without burning a single drop of gasoline.

The 2011 Nissan Leaf will be the first all-​electric (no internal combustion engine onboard) vehicle offered for sale by a major automaker since the GM EV1 back in the 1990s.  With its roomy interior, the five-​passenger Leaf could serve as a family’s primary car, which Nissan hopes will broaden its potential market appeal.  As a pure electric car with no onboard gasoline engine, the Leaf also qualifies as a Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) and is eligible for special tax breaks and driving privileges available to such cars at both the federal and state level, particularly in California.

The forthcoming Chevrolet Volt is somewhere in between a plug-​in hybrid like the 2011 Prius and a pure electric car like the 2011 Nissan Leaf. Like the Prius, the Volt has both an electric motor/​battery pack and a small internal combustion engine. But unlike the Prius and other hybrids, the Volt’s gasoline burning engine is only used to provide back-​up power for the engine’s onboard battery packs in the event their charge runs low. It is not connected to the drive wheels or transmission. In effect, the Volt carries around its own built-​in generator — making it independent of recharging stations.

TECHNOLOGY

New technology making its debut in 2011 includes the UVO (your voice) system on the 2011 Kia Sorento SUV.  The new UVO system allows hands-​free, voice-​activated operation of the car’s stereo as well as plug-​in accessory devices such as MP3 players, PDAs and USB memory sticks. The driver can also send and receive phone calls (and text messages) via voice prompt. UVO features adaptive software that helps it learn each driver’s different voice pattern — and it’s fluent in multiple languages.  Accordig to Kia, UVO should help drivers keep their eyes on the road — and their hands on the wheel — instead of looking at and fiddling with lots of buttons as they drive.

The 2011 Lincoln MKX will be the first production vehicle to dispense with traditional pushbuttons, knobs and switches for audio and climate controls. These have been replaced by touch-​sensitive pads that respond not to pressure but to the proximity of a finger swipe — which disturbs a minute electrical field, which triggers the operation of whatever function the driver wishes to engage — such as adjusting fan speed or the stereo’s volume.

Acura has developed an audio system that “listens” to the environment inside the cabin and adjust its output frequencies to cancel out unwanted exterior noises.  The vehicle’s interior is fitted with small microphones that register unwanted noise, such as the sounds emanating from the engine compartment under hard acceleration. This, in turn, triggers the system to emit precisely timed reverse-​phase audio signals through the speakers, which renders the unwanted noise frequencies less audible to human ears.

FUNCTIONALITY

Sport-​utility vehicles and crossovers in November 2010 hit their highest share of new vehicle sales in eight years compared with sales of cars and pickups, a USA TODAY analysis shows. With gas prices rising, the comeback is a sign that family haulers are beginning to shake their image as gas guzzlers. Many new SUVs no longer have heavy truck frames, but are car-​based, with unibodies that integrate that frame and body. That cuts weight and raises gas mileage. Crossover SUVs had half the sales share industrywide of traditional SUVs in 2002, General Motors says. Now crossovers outsell them 3‑to‑1. Families that put off new vehicle purchases are starting to open their wallets. "Pent-​up demand is slowly being released," GM's Tom Henderson says. For families, the rolling box is a necessity. "They have always needed 'utilities,' whether it was minivans or sport-​utilities or car-​based crossovers," Ford Motor sales analyst George Pipas says.

[Source: Trend Watch Forecast.  Turnaround Management Association.  30 Dec. 2010.  Web. 31 Dec. 2010; "Improved Fuel Efficiency Leads SUVs to a Comeback."  NADA.  30 Dec. 2010.  Web.  31 Dec. 2010; Peters, Eric.  "Automotive Trends To Look For In 2011."  National Motorists Association Blog.  9 Sept. 2010.  Web.  31 Dec. 2010.]