A couple of entries in my cluttered Paris auto show notebook are worth mentioning. There is, for example, the matter of four-speed and five-speed automatic transmissions. You can kiss them goodbye. General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. are planning to fill the global car market with millions of six-speed automatics by 2008.
That means the hyper-competitive Asian car companies will match GM and Ford in the super-transmission war, or perhaps go them one-speed better. Germany's Mercedes-Benz has already moved in that direction with the recent introduction of its seven-speed 7G-Tronic automatic.
Generally speaking, the more gears an automatic transmission has, the more efficiently it allows a vehicle's engine to run. That could save fuel. The caveat is needed because car companies have all the discipline of a teenager with a fast car and a new driver's license.
The industry is known for coming up with a fuel-saving technology with one hand and then, in pursuit of bragging rights and subsequent sales revenue, offering a fuel-wasting technology with another. The trend toward super-efficient, multi-speed automatic transmissions is a good example of this: It's coupled with a raging horsepower war in which 200-horsepower cars now are regarded as wimps.
A stroll through the Paris auto show gallery is instructive. Sitting nicely on the floor of Paris Expo Hall 1 (the show ends Oct. 10) is a pretty 2005 Porsche Boxster S roadster. It has a 280-horsepower engine, 22 more horsepower than available in the 2004 model, and a new six-speed manual transmission.
But 280 horsepower, although a considerable amount of oomph for a car as small as the Boxster S, is nothing when compared with the 4.3-liter, 490-horsepower V-8 stuffed inside the new "entry level" Ferrari F430. The F430 comes with a sophisticated Formula One six-speed racing transmission that can change gears, according to Ferrari engineers, in 150 milliseconds. The car can move from zero to 60 miles per hour in four seconds and reach a top speed of 200 mph.
* Drinkers Can't Drive This One. Sweden's Saab Automobile AB, owned by America's GM, is developing a key to lock drunk drivers out of corporate fleet cars. Appropriately enough, it's called the "Alcokey."
It is supposed to work like this: You've driven a company car to a party or a client dinner where you've had a few drinks. Your company does not want you to drink and drive. You can crash and hurt or kill yourself and cost the company money. You can crash and hurt or kill someone else and cost the company one heck of a lot of money.
To help avoid such catastrophes, all of the company's cars come with a mandatory Alcokey -- essentially a remote-control fob with a small mouthpiece and an embedded alcohol sensor.
You blow into the mouthpiece at the end of the fob to provide a breath sample, which is transported via a narrow internal tube to the alcohol sensor. The sample is analyzed. If you are sober, a small green light illuminates on the fob, meaning that you are okay to put the key in the ignition and start the car. If you are drunk, you get a red light on the fob. You can still put the key in the ignition, but the car won't start because the red-light fob electronically immobilizes the engine.
How does the fob "know" if you are legally drunk? That's easy. The software instructing the engine-disabling device is adjusted to the legal definition of drunk -- a matter of calibrating alcohol limits -- in the region where the car is registered.
Alcokey is currently a technical work in progress. But many European countries are backing the project, which is expected to yield a marketable product in a few years. In some countries, such as Sweden, where alcohol last year played a role in 29 percent of highway fatalities, Alcokey could become a mandatory device.
That means Alcokey, or something like it, could be mandated in the United States as well. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, drunk driving was responsible for 41 percent of the traffic deaths on U.S. roads last year.