I recently sat down with the kids and watched 2001: A Space Odyssey. Most people these days have trouble with the long, long scenes and intentionally viewer-interpretable ending of the film, so I had to find one of the shortened versions of the film on YouTube and try to explain key parts. The goal was to help them understand how many cultural references came from the film, and understand its position in literary and film history. It might not be the most exciting, action-packed film, but it broke important ground that Star Wars and the Star Trek movies were able to follow, among many other things.
While the original film is still widely discussed and even debated today, many people don’t know that the story continued. Arthur C. Clarke wrote three sequel novels, and one of them became the sequel movie 2010: The Year We Make Contact. Unlike the original film, which ended in something resembling a fever dream or acid trip, this 1984 sequel was faster paced, easy to understand (everything’s explained, including some things from the first film), and featured geopolitical intrigue instead of inexplicable aliens and a space baby.
In the second film, Dr. Heywood Floyd, the head of the National Council of Astronautics (the film’s equivalent of NASA) is found nine years later cleaning a motor of something at the Very Large Array in New Mexico, having been forced out of his job in disgrace after the computer mass murders the crew and Dave Bowman gets lost in the first film. While played by a different actor, he’s the guy in the first film who went to the moon and made a video call with his daughter from a space hotel. Now working for a university, he’s given the opportunity to accompany the Soviet Union’s crew sent to investigate things around Jupiter.
If you know much about the history of Russia in recent decades, you probably know that the Soviet Union didn’t survive to see 2010, but let’s keep in mind that this film was made in 1984, prior to the Soviet collapse. At the time, it seemed perfectly reasonable for the Soviet Union to be competitive with the United States in space in 2010. There really wasn’t any way for them to predict this.
But, there is one thing they got almost right: electric vehicles.
In one of the early scenes in the film, Dr. Floyd has to break the news to his wife and son that he’s going on a space mission, and will be away from home for years. Spacecraft were a lot more advanced than they really were by 2010, but they still had to put people in hibernation for a long trip to Jupiter. While exercising to get his body ready for the space mission, his son rides along beside him in some sort of go-kart, and the pair get passed by a very aerodynamic car.
As the scene goes on, the car passes near the camera, and instead of the typical rumble of a combustion engine, the car makes the sounds of an electric motor as it goes by. I couldn’t get a fantastic look at it, but the car looked strangely familiar. I knew I had seen it somewhere before, so I had to Google it. Fortunately, one website had the answer: the vehicle was the Ford Probe IV concept car.
In real life, the Ford Probe IV was not an EV. It was built in the early 198os, and served to show what an efficient future vehicle might look like. It was built for maximum aerodynamic efficiency, with Ford claiming it was the most efficient practical passenger car built up to that date. The drag coefficient was calculated to be only .15, or barely more draggy than the upcoming Aptera (at least by shape, but the car does have a larger frontal area). The vehicle had active aero systems, including a computer-controlled suspension to raise and lower the car for lower drag on the highway, active shutters, covered wheel wells, a belly pan, and many other things to keep the air flowing.
But, it wasn’t electric. It came with an efficient four-cylinder engine, tilted back from vertical to save room and reduce drag. This engine was connected to a typical automatic transmission from the Ford Escort, but with stronger parts.
But, the Probe IV was otherwise a good predictor of future EV design. The cheaper way to make an EV appear in the 1984 film would have been to just drive a conventional car or some other cooler looking concept car by and add EV sound effects. Instead, they chose an efficient vehicle, likely knowing that EVs were only going to be practical in the future in efficient shapes, due to the cost of batteries and the need for more range.
The future ended up proving them right. The 2011 Nissan LEAF (introduced in the 2010 calendar year) was no conventional car.
Like the Probe IV, the LEAF was a mass-market oriented 4-door family vehicle, but with wildly different looks. To achieve reasonable range without costing $200,000, Nissan’s designers had to optimize for aerodynamic efficiency. The end result was a very weird looking car by conventional standards. From the front, it looked like a weird bug or frog. From the rear, it looked like some kind of space pod.
So weird were the looks of my 2011 LEAF that it attracted stares on the road from many, and nasty particulate matter from the diesel bros who felt threatened by it for some unknown reason (coal rolling). With the statute of limitations long run out, I can also admit to having raced it on a few occasions at lights, embarrassing some rice burners up to 40 MPH, which was bad for their egos due to the somewhat ugly nature of the vehicle.
But, comparing the car from the 2010 film to this real electric car from the real 2010, it’s pretty obvious that the film’s makers got EVs right, all the way back in 1984. Not only were there really EVs on the road by then, but they had to be focused on efficiency more than their conventional styling.
Featured image: A picture of the Ford Probe IV concept car, taken from the Ford Heritage Vault. Seam in image is where the multi-page image was divided by the brochure’s binding.
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