A Gearhead's Motorhead

Automotive editor John Voelcker wants to explain

PHOTO: John Voelcker

One afternoon in November 2003, John Voelcker was driving the back roads near Woodstock, N.Y., when he got a call from a colleague from his days at IEEE Spectrum in the 1980s. It was Glenn Zorpette, now Spectrum ’s executive ­editor, who wanted to know whether Voelcker would like to do a feature story called ”Top 10 Tech Cars”--but Zorpette could hardly finish the question. ”Are you kidding?” Voelcker shot back. ”Of course I would!” And he’s done it ever since.

This January he went to the North American International Auto Show, in Detroit, one of the global auto industry’s most ­visible events. In three days packed with 37 ­scheduled media events, Voelcker ­interviewed engineers and ­executives; attended a ­blizzard of receptions, dinners, and social events; and ­eyeballed a lot of ­vehicles (the photo above shows him standing in front of Toyota’s A-BAT hybrid concept truck). He boiled it all down as part of this year’s story.

Voelcker—now Spectrum ’s automotive editor—has attended technical conferences in Florida, California, and Washington, D.C., and auto shows in London, Los Angeles, and his hometown of New York City. He’s driven a fuel-cell vehicle on a U.S. Marine Corps base in California and watched college engineering teams compete on General Motors’ tracks in Michigan and Arizona.

The most memorable venue, he said, was the abandoned ­officer housing at a former Air Force Base in California’s high desert. There Voelcker watched robotic ­vehicles navigate ghostly ­suburban streets amid dozens of ­identical Ford Taurus sedans piloted by ­professional stunt drivers, in the DARPA Urban Challenge.

What drives this self-admitted ”motorhead,” the son of an electrical engineering professor? ”Between now and the end of my life, what we call an ’automobile’ will change profoundly,” he says. ”I want to help explain those changes and get people thinking about what they mean.”

See Voelcker's article ”Top 10 Tech Cars” in this issue to learn more about what’s happening this year.

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