In 1958, Ford introduced the Nucleon, a car that was powered by an atomic reactor and got 5,000 miles (8,047 kilometers) per charge of uranium (or whatever radioactive material it used to make itself go). You say you've never seen a Nucleon? That's probably because Ford never actually offered it for sale. It was a non-functioning demo model exhibited at auto shows and still available for viewing at the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan. It never really had an atomic-powered engine and probably couldn't have gone around the block, much less 5,000 miles (8,047 kilometers), using uranium as a fuel.
In 1975, Toyota demonstrated a hybrid-electric car at the Tokyo Motor Show. The Prius, right? No, it was the Toyota Century Hybrid, a version of the Toyota Century with a hybrid drive train. Toyota never brought it to market, though they showed several more versions at auto shows over the next several years. By the time the Prius came out in 1993, hybrid drive trains were second nature for Toyota engineers.
At the 2011 Tokyo Auto Show, Toyota introduced the Fun Vii, a car that looks like a cross between a giant computer mouse and a smartphone. It can display images and text on its touch-screen exterior and has a dashboard that features a friendly character called the navigation concierge who gives advice to the driver. Think you'll see this car in a Toyota showroom anytime soon? It's possible, but don't bet money on it.
All of these vehicles are concept cars -- a staple of auto shows the world around. And while concept cars generate lots of news and buzz, the truth is that they rarely become production vehicles. In fact, they aren't intended to become production vehicles. A concept car is exactly what the name implies: a car designed to demonstrate a concept. They serve many purposes. Concept cars can be used to test the feasibility of new technologies. They provide a useful gauge of public interest in new automotive features. They generate publicity for the automaker when they appear at auto shows or in magazine photographs. And they allow automotive designers free reign to explore out-of-the-box ideas that could either revolutionize the automobile industry or disappear into the dustbin of automotive history.
In most cases, concept cars aren't fully functional and may not even be full size. That's why they're often displayed where onlookers can't get close enough to look under the hood or get an idea of how big they are. When concept cars are called on to do more than sit on a display pedestal at an auto show, they may use a drivetrain borrowed from an existing production car.
While concept cars themselves may not make it to market, they provide the basic DNA for cars to come. Many of the features in modern cars, including the hybrid-electric drive train, showed up in concept cars first, sometimes decades before these features made it to market. When automakers are ready to roll out a new production car, they don't make a concept car first. They make a production intent vehicle, which really works and is actually intended for the marketplace. But concept cars rarely get beyond the auto show circuit.
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