The automobile is undergoing the most sweeping technological changes since it was invented more than a century ago. A bold statement, but true. The gasoline-burning internal combustion engine no longer holds a monopoly as new propulsion systems come to the fore. One of the most exciting is the hydrogen fuel-cell electric drive system that delivers decent range and quick refueling and is pollution-free at the tailpipe. Another is the battery-electric car that can now provide the same acceleration and thrills as any conventional supercar—maybe even more.
The other big news is the marriage of the automotive and computer industries. The rule of thumb these days is that the average new luxury car contains more lines of software code than a jet airplane. One important area of innovation is driver assistance technologies such as adaptive cruise control, lane control and crash avoidance systems. They are a big step toward the ultimate ideal of autonomous driving. Google proclaims that the era of completely autonomous driving has arrived, but the auto industry believes drivers will have to remain at least minimally engaged with their vehicles for the foreseeable future.
The greater challenge for automakers, at least for now, is learning how to unleash the full power of the Internet, social media and smart phones in their cars, SUVs and trucks in a way that
does not distract the driver and cause accidents. After years of experimentation, the best methods of doing that are appearing.
Once again, Chief Executive teamed up with Edmunds.com to pick three exciting technologies on the market this year. We also offer a glimpse of what is on the horizon.
Imagine stepping out of your car and going around to the rear exhaust pipe while the engine is running. You kneel, place your face by the pipe and breathe deeply. Insane, right? Not with Toyota’s hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, the Mirai—because the only thing that comes out of the tailpipe is steam or water. There is no carbon dioxide, no particulates; nothing but H2O. We drove a pre-production version of Toyota’s $57,500 hydrogen car on a test track in Japan and on a short freeway and surface-street route in Southern California and concluded that there was no loss of functionality or performance in the vehicle. The car performs like a refined version of Toyota’s popular Prius.
Mirai’s fuel cell separates the electrons from the hydrogen to supply electricity to the drive system, then combines the left-behind hydrogen atoms with oxygen to produce water, which is emitted. The environmental consequences of hydrogen-fueled electric cars are enormous. Someday the air in Los Angeles might actually be tolerable.
However, questions must be answered. First, where is the hydrogen going to come from? Toyota’s vision is to initially produce hydrogen from natural gas, which can be done at a fuel station or in central plants with truck or pipeline delivery to the stations. The process requires a lot of electrical power, which produces carbon dioxide—which will require overcoming the issue of capturing and storing that CO2 so it doesn’t enter the atmosphere.
Toyota and other automakers with hydrogen cars in their futures—Hyundai, Honda, Mercedes-Benz and General Motors—all are exploring methods of hydrogen capture and storage. The second question is whether a hydrogen-fueling infrastructure can be built to support fuel-cell cars. What will it cost to build and who will pay for it? Toyota understands the argument, which is why it is introducing the Mirai in California only, at least in the beginning.
In Southern California, several different fuel suppliers, some backed by automakers and all with state support, are building hydrogen fueling stations along what is nicknamed the Hydrogen Highway, where the a fuel-cell car can operate reasonably normally. Questions may linger, but hydrogen cars are one of the most stunningly bold attempts to re-imagine the automobile and transform its impact on the environment.
Remember BMW’s iDrive when it debuted in 2001 on the 7 Series? A small silver knob sat on the console between the two front seats and linked up with a computer screen in the dashboard. The driver was expected to move the knob in three different ways to manage more than 200 permutations for climate control, entertainment, phone and other functions. It was infuriating
because the driver had to memorize too much. Figuring it out took time and caused distraction.
Since then, auto manufacturers have been experimenting with ways to allow drivers to engage with ever more sophisticated communications and computing capabilities like making extensive use of a CAN Controller. After nearly 15 years, a truly workable solution has arrived in Ford Motor’s Sync 3 system, a highly intuitive touch screen system that allows a driver to quickly command the full functionality of a vehicle’s systems.
Several advances made this possible. First, Ford moved away from the Microsoft software it used in the two previous versions of Sync (roundly criticized as too complex) and embraced BlackBerry’s more natural operating system, called QNX. Second, thanks to improvements in voice recognition software, the Sync 3 software no longer constantly asks the driver to repeat commands. Third, Ford decided not to hard-wire a telephone into the car but rather to use Bluetooth to sync up with the driver’s cell phone.
The net result is an infotainment panel system that operates like a smart phone. You can even pinch the screen to change dimensions, just like you can on a smart phone. The main categories
of functions, including navigation, are all displayed on the Sync 3 screen at the same time to make for ease of use. Ford says the Sync 3 system has been the most heavily researched program in its history—and it shows. Sync 3 will be available on 2016 models beginning this fall.
The stunning surge of power happens immediately. The driver of Tesla’s Model S P85D supercar has a choice, while standing still, of choosing a sports mode or an “insane” mode. If he taps the insane mode and hits the accelerator, the electric engines on the front and rear axles of the vehicle provide instant torque of a sort that simply does not exist in conventional automobiles. If you don’t believe us, look at the YouTube videos of the faces of passengers as a professional driver hits the pedal.
It’s almost an afterthought that the car reaches 60 mph in a bone-crunching 3.2 seconds, on par with McLaren, Ferrari and Lamborghini. The P85D, unveiled in October 2014 and now available commercially, generates 691 horsepower because the rear engine produces 470 hp and the newly added front motor brings an extra 221 hp. All that power is available as soon as the accelerator pedal is depressed. There is no lag. The thrill is indeed in the torque.
The P85D looks like Tesla’s well-known single-motor Model S. The new dual-motor model might be considered pricey at $120,000, but not if benchmarked against the likes of a Ferrari, which can easily cost twice that much. The addition of a front motor added nearly 300 pounds to the vehicle’s weight, making it a heavy car at more than 4,900 pounds. But the driver does not notice any bulking up and the extra weight has a minor impact on the range that the vehicle’s lithium ion batteries can provide. Accounts differ but the vehicle still has a range of about 280 miles when driven with a bit of restraint. Using different criteria, the EPA rates it at 242 miles. The bottom line is, it still has plenty of range.
The car also boasts the latest automated driving technologies, including radar and ultrasonic sensors that can read and respond to speed signs and adjust the vehicle’s speed accordingly. More software upgrades, including automated steering will be sent wirelessly to the vehicles for download. Welcome to the future.
MOTION SENSING CONTROL SYSTEMS
These systems will use in-dash cameras and sensors to sense and respond to your hand motions. That will allow you to tune the radio, adjust volume, answer the phone, turn on windshield wipers and control air conditioning and heating systems with mere flicks of your wrist. Apple is one of the leading developers of this technology.
AUTOMATED TRAFFIC JAM DRIVING
Several automakers, including Mercedes-Benz, are working on systems that will combine already-available active safety systems (lane keeping, active cruise control, frontal collision avoidance,
pedestrian avoidance) to enable drivers to let the car do most of the work in traffic jams. Drivers will still have to keep their eyes on the road and be ready to intervene, but commutes should be a lot less stressful.
GM will launch Connected Cars technology (also called V2V, or vehicle to vehicle) soon in a new Cadillac. These Caddys will be able to talk to each other, sharing traffic conditions and road speed information so that drivers can avoid problems identified by those who traveled the same route earlier. Toyota also is planning a V2V system for several of its Toyota and Lexus models. Once the two automotive giants show it works, others will follow and with a common channel dedicated to V2V, it won’t be too long before cars will be talking to each other.
GIANT TOUCH SCREENS
The sporty electric car’s 17’’ touchscreen is the one of the first things most people notice about the Tesla Model S. The large screens make it easier to read navigation system maps, heater and AC system control functions, audio system channels and song titles, even smart phone text messages. Tesla may have been first, but it won’t be alone—Volvo has said it will begin installing giant touch screens in its cars within a year or so, and others will follow.
CARS THAT SENSE YOUR MOOD
Other systems will train cameras on the driver’s eyes, watch facial features and combine that data with information from sensors in the steering wheel to make a judgment about the driver’s mood. If the driver is clearly angry, the car could respond by slowing down; a drowsy driver might get a jolt from a vibrating steering wheel and a word of caution to pull over for a cup of coffee. The Media Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology is a leader in developing this technology.