British chauffeur Richard Lewis recently led a caravan of Range Rovers and Jaguars
through the back roads of Warwickshire to the Butchers Arms pub in the wee
town of Priors Hardwick. A mere 20-minute drive it was, but when Lewis got
the assignment he frantically keyed the destination into every vehicle's sat-nav system and still, once under way, monitored the caravan's
progress by cellphone.
Can't be too sure, in a place where poor signage, indifferent lane markings,
streets that unexpectedly change name in mid-stride and other charms of 2,000-plus
years of road-building make for a navigational minefield.
All technology, to paraphrase the politician, is local: While Americans were
still regarding in-dash nav systems as a novelty, the technology was being
hammered out in the ancient cities of Europe. Ditto in Japan, where the notoriously
indecipherable urban infrastructure of Tokyo, for example, means that building
addresses don't run in numerical order, but in the chronological order in which
the buildings were built.
It can be a culture shock for an American to see that there's more varied technology, and sometimes higher technology, in someone else's backyard. Curbside at Tokyo's Narita Airport, for example, where the American early adopter turns green after confirming that most basic cellphones are chic-er, cooler, more Web-enabled. On the road, he sees a strange variety of nifty new cars designed to solve local energy-cost and space-squeeze problems. Their economy may be going down the drain, but the Japanese, according to W. David Marx, an editor at bilingual Tokion magazine in New York, have â€no
guilt whatsoever about throwing away old technology and embracing new technology."
No one has accused Americans of a reluctance to throw stuff away, of course,
but when it comes to cars the focus is not so much on the bleeding edge as
the reliable middle. Jim Bulin, whose outfit, The Bulin Group, studies how
different cultures and age groups approach cars, thinks that Americans appreciate
innovation as much as Europeans and Asians, but that we're less interested in the newest gadgets than in reliability: â€Make
it more trouble-free. Make it more convenient. Keep me out of the dealership."
Funky hybrid minivans, roadsters with interchangeable body parts, turbo-diesel
cars that get 90-plus mpg, four-wheel-drive subcompacts-these don't fit into that picture. Americans value power over efficiency, size over performance. Were it even legal, the latest nifty kei car-built for Japanese microcar parking spaces-would
get squashed like a bug in a market where the hottest SUV is kissing cousin
to a military vehicle.
Sure, America appears to be getting serious about next-generation automotive
technologies, like fuel cells. And, simply by virtue of the size of our market,
American customers eventually see most of the new auto tech. Yet product introductions
lag behind offerings in Europe and Asia, where new technologies are tested
and tweaked. Hence you can't yet buy the cars on the following pages. Let's see what you're
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.