01/18/2011 10:59 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why Is Our Automotive Future Always Better Than Our Automotive Present?

Want to see the future? There is no better place than the North American International Auto Show, which opens to the public in Detroit this week, and as always, has on display an array of dream vehicles whose new technology and innovative features rev the imagination.

That tomorrowland vision is a big part of the draw for the more than three quarters of a million visitors this year's show is expected to attract. But it's not just a Detroit phenomenon, it's not merely a gathering of gearheads, and it's not your average product convention -- each year and across the country, millions flood into auto shows large and small.

Some of the folks who attend are actual shoppers, checking out the automakers' current offerings. But while all the models on the floor clamor for visitors' attention, these shows are routinely stolen by the concept cars. They are the real stars, with crowds paying the price of admission and swarming around them in pursuit of entertainment, certainly, but also the reassurance of what those concept cars intimate will soon be our everyday transportation reality.

And what our attraction to today's concept cars suggests is that we'd very much like the car to solve a host of problems the car itself has created. Streets so crowded with vehicles that parallel parking has become nigh impossible? Here's a car that parks itself! Commute so long you're afraid of falling asleep at the wheel? Here's one that will avoid a crash and save your life! Chauffeuring your kids all over town making you nuts? Here's one that provides them individualized entertainment so you can focus on the road (or your phone call)!

Occasionally the concept cars that wow at these shows become production models, although even then, the movement from dream to street can be painfully slow. For example, this year the Chevy Volt, which has made its auto show appearance year after year as a just-out-of-reach innovation, has only this year become available for sale, and even then in limited numbers and at a daunting price. In fact, over the past decade, the alternative fuel vehicle has overtaken the exotic sportscar as the concept car of choice. (Although we also can get both at once: the hybrid Porsche 918 RSR is causing a stir this year).

Judging by the jostling crowd of hybrid and electric concept cars at this year's shows, Americans are hoping for a future in which we don't have to worry about gas prices, peak oil, drilling disasters, or global warming. And we want our vehicles to keep our families safe, as the tableaus of crushed cars and crash test dummies attest.

A walk around the auto show might imply that we've already converted our fleet into one of safe, nonpolluting vehicles. But SUV sales resurged in 2010, and JD Power and Associates forecasts that a full decade will pass before hybrid and electric vehicles account for even 7 percent of the global market. So while the bevy of electric offerings is certainly good news, let's not fool ourselves into thinking we've conceived our way out of the problems, environmental or otherwise, that the car continues to produce. While the coming 2016 CAFE standards mean a greater number of higher mpg cars are available -- more good news -- the auto industry is resisting the next round of standards meant to maintain the slow but steady progress of the past couple of years.

If we want our automotive present to be more like our imagined automotive future, one in which we suffer from less traffic, less pollution, less spending on gas and debt, fewer drilling disasters, and fewer crashes, we have to get real. These problems will be solved only if we add improved transit options and more walkability and bikeability to our solution set. The good news is that this means we don't have to go to the auto show to be told what might come someday or wait for Congress to better regulate the national fleet's safety and use of fossil fuels. We can go to the bike store, the town hall, and the voting booth and ask for a better transportation future now. It may not be as glamorous, but it's a concept worth swarming around.

Catherine Lutz, an anthropologist at Brown University's Watson Institute, and Anne Lutz Fernandez, a former marketer and banker, are the authors of Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and its Effect on our Lives (Palgrave Macmillan).