Don’t you love the idea of “laser cars”? It’s straight out of 1950s science fiction, yet it’s becoming real, and for more than novelty items. I Googled the phrase and came up with these surprising results:

  • Amazon yielded the Maxsa Dual Laser Parking device, which guides his or her vehicles into position. Useful if you are in tight quarters. One buyer chimed in, “Surely I can figure out how to park the car in my own garage without yet another device with blinking lights?” But he then said the darned thing has become indispensible.
  • And, of course, lasers, along with sensors and wireless technology, are a vital part of tomorrow’s self-guided cars. Reports the Daily Mail, “Drivers will be able to sleep, read, work or watch television behind the wheel of their cars at 70mph on the motorway, using technology being developed by scientists. A system which will lock cars together using sensors and wireless technology, allowing up to 10 at a time to cruise in ‘car train’ convoys, could be unveiled within two years.” That's how it works below:

OK, I’m as gullible as the next guy, but expecting self-guided convoys of cars on the interstates in two years is really, really wishful thinking.

But you know what is definitely coming? Laser spark plugs. Reports Popular Science, “The spark plugs driving combustion in your car may soon be getting an optical uprade…Laser ignition systems, which are exactly what they sound like, could replace spark plugs as the primary means to ignite the fuel-air mix in engines, boosting fuel efficiency and cutting down on carbon emissions.”

“Every laser jock wants to run an engine with laser ignition,” said Dr. Steven Woodruff, a research chemist at the Department of Energy.

The advantages of lasers are manifold, since they allow engines running on leaner fuel ignited by a really hot spark. If you did that with conventional plugs, you burn out the electrodes, which are a heavy wear item. Laser plugs don’t need electrodes, and could theoretically last a really long time. This is the final nail in the tune-up coffin. First the points, then the rotor, then the capacitor — all gone.

Lasers can make engine timing more uniform, and be controlled to allow more even burning. Highly fuel efficient lean-burn engines running on natural gas (or a gas/hydrogen mix) are one application for these plugs, which operate efficiently in high-compression engines.

We first saw laser plugs back in 1974, Photonics Spectra reports, but they were nowhere close to being ready for the market. They had to wait for the small, ultra-powerful lasers that scientists make today. One caveat: These lasers are like the high-voltage batteries in electric cars — hands-off. If you tampered with it while the car was running, you could be blinded. As with the battery vehicles, safety interlocks will be in place.

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

Here come the laser cars
laser cars