What could tarnish autos' golden era

The automobile's latest era of style, innovation, affordability, and, most of all, choice faces some serious challenges.

Three sharp nails in the road ahead threaten to send the auto industry onto the shoulder.

Urban traffic: Every day, bumper-to-bumper congestion dampens Americans' enthusiasm for driving, and new highway construction can't keep up with the growing population of cars.

In some cities, such as Los Angeles and Boston, rush hour lasts virtually all day.

Several cities restrict cars to certain roads on certain days. Some exclude autos altogether from downtown areas. All this limits the freedom of movement cars represent.

Several consortia of government and automakers are working on "intelligent transportation systems" - an innovation that promises to let drivers read the newspaper, surf the Web, or comb their hair in traffic, while still allowing the flexibility of destinations and travel times that cars do.

But such systems also turn personal automobiles into little more than transportation robots, dampening the joy of driving.

Emission restrictions: The Kyoto agreement on global warming and other pollution concerns have led to tighter restrictions on gasoline consumption.

California recently passed a law requiring trucks to match autos for fuel efficiency and pollution production by 2007. The law effectively bans diesel engines as a way to meet the tighter restrictions.

"If other states and countries look like California, the good times could come crashing down," says Brett Smith a researcher with the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the University of Michigan. As in the 1970s and '80s, design resources could be diverted from meeting consumer demands to meeting government requirements.

On the other hand, such regulations can spur innovation, such as Chrysler's four show cars here that hit the road with alternative fuels.

"All these cars are just one big invention or one small invention from being useful," says Mr. Smith. And indications are that the automakers will find ways to make them work. The only question is whether they will be both practical and affordable.

So far the automakers' efforts have staved off new federal regulations, but other states are looking closely at California's model.

Mergers: A glut of automakers and production capacity has put the squeeze on profits. Consolidation has already begun.

Daimler-Benz's purchase of Chrysler reduced Detroit's Big Three to the Big Two. Volks-wagen bought Bentley, Rolls-Royce (briefly), Lamborghini, and Bugatti and wants a piece of Volvo. Stories abound about suitors for Nissan and purchases by Ford. In the end, this can only mean less competition, less innovation, less choice, and higher prices for consumers.

The question isn't whether the new automotive golden age will roll to an end, but when.

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