By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/27/2009 8:54:35 AM ET 2009-04-27T12:54:35

Want your car to automatically brake to avoid a crash, fly high over traffic-clogged roads or get 100 miles per gallon? Too bad, because while all of those things are technically possible, they are impractical for legal or financial reasons, which means you can't have one anytime soon.

There are some cool possibilities out there. There are cars that can steer themselves, brake to prevent collisions, run on electric power only, fly in the air and double as boats on the water. Others can get 100 mpg, cost only $2,500 new and feature a jet fighter-style, head-up instrument display. Yet another employs split-screen video technology to let the front-seat passenger watch a movie while the car is in motion.

“Oh, but I can get some of those things,” you insist. Not really. The technology exists today, for example, that allows your car to take over the steering for a simple task such as staying in a lane while driving on an interstate highway. Some new models employ a watered-down version of this feature to help encourage drivers to keep the car in the intended lane.

The new Toyota Prius, for example, uses its electric power steering to turn the steering slightly to keep the car in the lane if you start to drift out of it Other makes, such as Volvo and Nissan, don’t turn the steering, but suspend the power assist, except in the correct direction to keep the car in the lane, or they may selectively apply the brakes (as they can do with electronic stability control) to shepherd the car into its lane.

But we’ve all heard the stories about people who thought cruise control for the gas pedal meant they didn’t have to steer, either, and subsequently crashed. The fear is that these same people would misuse automatic steering, say in a neighborhood, and run over pedestrians while texting a tweet about not having to steer the car.

And rather than following the obvious course of action by jailing the negligent driver, some lawyers would contend that fault lay with the car manufacturer, and sue the fenders off them.

Potential legal worries
Car-makers, recognizing the impossibility of making automatic steering completely fool-proof, instead will not offer the technology for sale. So for now, look at cars like the Prius for the closest thing to automatic steering.

The same potential legal issue prevents automatic braking in vehicles to prevent collisions. Cars like the Mercedes-Benz S-Class have radar that scans for possible collisions, and use electrically actuated brakes that could stop short of most collisions.

But if the vehicle does strike an abruptly appearing obstacle, like another car that runs a red light at an intersection, the manufacturer can expect to be sued because, the thinking goes, the car didn’t prevent the crash.

So instead we have systems like Mercedes’ which only act once you’re already in trouble to reduce the force of an impact. The S-Class clamps on the brakes only with about half the potential braking force, and only when the car’s computer concludes that a collision is inescapable. The idea is that the driver has already caused the crash, so the car can act to reduce the severity of resulting injuries without too much exposure to legal liability.

Technical difficulties, high cost
The obstacle to mass production of affordable electric cars, 100 mpg cars, flying cars and cars that can double as boats is the combination of technical difficulty and high costs.

Electric cars still face mileage range challenges relating to their very heavy and costly batteries. And extremely fuel-efficient cars at this point are either ridiculously expensive or laughably impractical.

Time and research should overcome these hurdles, however, and we will see such cars reach mass production in the next five to 10 years, even if media darlings like the $109,000 electric Tesla do not achieve their optimistic sales goals. Keep an eye on the Automotive X-Prize contestants to see what future 100-mpg models might look like.

Flying cars and boat cars
In addition to cost, flying cars and boat cars face tougher challenges. A flying car would be noisy and would give rise to all manner of legal headaches involving where and how it such a vehicle could be flown and by whom.

Image: Prototype of combination plane and car
Terrafugia, Inc.
The Transition, a combination plane and car, is shown on its maiden flight last month at Plattsburgh International Airport in Plattsburgh, N.Y.
That hasn’t stopped Terrafugia, Inc., which in March test-flew the Terrafugia Transition, which is essentially an experimental airplane that can be driven on the street. As an aircraft, it operates from regular runways — not your driveway — and requires a pilot’s license.

The boat car’s biggest problem historically has been that cars make lousy boats, and vice versa. When have you heard “It drives like a boat!” used as a compliment for a car’s handling prowess?

Beyond the sheer coolness of being able to charge down a boat ramp, splash into the water and continue on, the reality of living with a combination boat and crummy-to-drive car (like the old Amphicar, built in the 1960s), that you could drive into the nearest river if you wanted to, quickly loses its appeal for most people.

But manufacturer Gibbs Technologies says the Gibbs Aquada will be different, that its sporty boat car will be fast enough in the water to pull a skier. It isn't known when the Aquada will be available, or how much it will cost.

Also, don’t look for lightweight flying cars to stand proudly in front of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration headquarters any time soon, touting the outcome of the latest round of crash tests, because road safety is not a priority when you are trying to get the car to fly.

The Tata Nano and helmets
The $2,500 Tata Nano, from India — dubbed the “cheapest car in the world” — won’t be offered for sale in the United States in its current form or at its current price because it will not meet stringent federal crash test standards.

So blame Uncle Sam, if you want a scapegoat, for preventing you from buying a 33-horsepower deathtrap. For $2,500, you’re better off buying a mid-‘90s Honda instead. It will have airbags and makes that much power running on one cylinder.

Feel free to complain to your representatives about obsolete laws prohibiting you from getting cool new in-dash video systems, like the one in the 2010 Range Rover. It employs split-screen technology that shows two different images depending on whether the screen is viewed from the left or the right. So while the driver’s side can show a map, the passenger’s side can be showing a DVD.

In the United States, regulators ban any video that can be viewed from the front seat while the vehicle is in motion. Until the law is changed to prohibit only the driver from watching TV, passengers won’t be able to see episodes of “The Office” while stuck in rush-hour traffic.

The same is true for those cool virtual reality, head-up display (HUD) helmets fighter pilots wear to help them track targets and threats all around the sky.

Most states prohibit drivers from wearing helmets (Wait a minute. I have to wear a seatbelt, but I can’t wear a helmet?). At this point, head-up display helmets are being tested by some race car drivers, and the helmets are limited to projecting information like vehicle speed and engine RPM onto the windshield ahead of the driver on cars like the BMW M5 and Chevy Corvette. 

Finally, there is the self-destructing car. OK, having a car that automatically blows up anyone who steals it, like Mad Max’s car did in "The Road Warrior," is extreme — unless you’ve never had a car stolen. And such a car doesn't exist (yet).

Get your wheels ripped off, though, and you’ll know why they used to hang horse thieves. Fortunately, even though we are too civilized to blow up car thieves, General Motors’ OnStar telematics service does have the technology to track the car, notify police and slow the car to a stop when the cops are ready to slam the thief’s face onto the asphalt.

The only thing more we could want is automatic steering that could drive the car with the suspect directly to the nearest jail.

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