LinhPTK | May 8, 2017
Technology is evolving faster than we can keep track. Communication, entertainment and security have been the focus of most major brands across every imaginable product front. While the common factor is that everyone seems to be wanting more from less, where does that put mobility? People have to move from one place to another, commute. How long will it be before things as we know them completely change?
When the car was first created, the makers were laughed at and people actually wondered how anyone could get into a metal contraption and depend on it to get them anywhere. Well, that certainly changed soon after. With the Ford Model T being put together on a production line, never before seen for an automobile before, things were looking on the up for the four-wheeled mode of transportation.
Fast forward to the present, and we have a number of kinds of four-wheeled vehicles. The lines between segments have been blurred and there, quite possibly, exists a car for any requirement in the world – literally. We have three-door compact cars small enough to fit into the tightest of inner city streets and some even tiny enough to fit into the gaps between parking spaces of other more mainstream car models. These cars have come about because of growing concerns for the population explosion and, of course, global warming. Every molecule of carbon dioxide, every drop of fuel now makes a difference.
Down the middle we have four-door coupes, convertible compact sports cars, crossovers which look like scaled-down SUVs but promise exceptional all-road ability and everything from combinations of those mentioned, like the BMW X6 and Mercedes’ new GLE-Coupe. Yes, there is actually something for everyone.
On the other end of the spectrum, lies the big SUV. Still quite a rage in the United States and several other parts of the world, large seven-seat SUVs sell like hotcakes, and their big engines and fat tires mean that their carbon footprints are unquestionably large. There are efforts being made to contain these numbers without compromising on the size of the vehicle and its abilities: hybrid drive-lines, turbocharged and downsized engine, front-wheel drive with marginal four-wheel drive incorporation for when it’s really needed. Yes, all of these matter, but are these going to be there where are we headed?
Breakthroughs happen almost daily somewhere in the world and its only at international motor shows that we see what’s been happening behind the scenes at every auto major. The marriage of electricity and combustion has revealed some very interesting prospects. The advent of the diesel-electric hybrid has led to sensational bottom-end torque with eye-popping fuel economy figures. Car as compact as the Volkswagen Golf, as useful as the Volvo V60 and as large as the Audi Q7 have begun to mate electric motors to conventional combustion engines to deliver multi-mode drive possibilities – stunning acceleration or stellar fuel efficiency and range – depending on what the user is looking for at that moment. Basically, no one wants just one car anymore, it’s got to be two, or even three cars in one. Where do we go from here?
The advent of self-driving cars is also upon us, well, almost. While BMW, Mercedes, GM and Volvo have interesting, fully-functional self-driving cars, they’re more of an option than something fully-fledged. They still allow the user to take over driving responsibilities with an array of electronic aids like radar-based adaptive cruise control, laser-assisted pedestrian and obstruction recognition with automatic braking, and GPS-based satellite navigation supporting them. The key point here is that the driving is an option in any of these cars. If you want to drive, you most certainly can. Google, on the other hand, has gone one step further and has revealed a self-driving prototype with no provisions of a driver whatsoever. The car is quite compact, will seat four and will travel at reasonable speeds, identifying obstructions and taking care of the commuting business – great for people who want to go from A to B without any hassles of using their arms and legs, or any of their senses for that matter.
However, there are a number of people who prefer to actually drive themselves. No , they’re not enthusiasts per se, but they would rather drive than be driven anywhere. And it’s for these people that the future is quite interesting.
The merging of battery-power and fossil-fuel-driven engines has led to an interesting turn of events. One can have a compact 2.0L four-cylinder engine and a setup of electric motors, which deliver incredible fuel economy, sometimes to the tune of 90 mpg. How is this possible? The gasoline engine only kicks in when needed, to top up the battery or to provide additional drive when the situation calls for it. The car’s onboard computer analyses everything from steering position, throttle pedal position and vehicle speed, like the stability control system, but in this case to smartly propel the car, using electric power most of the time, which can be a significant 80 hp and over 170 lb-ft at times. Furthermore, the gearboxes have been getting more ratios and usable speeds to enhance both performance and fuel efficiency simultaneously. Keeping the engine in the optimum operating band helps everything from durability, reliability and, most importantly, delivers lower fuel consumption and exhaust emissions while also needed less trips to the service station.
All of these factors working together mean a more user-friendly ride and also significantly bring down operating costs and dependence on the environment. However, there’s another mixed-notion theory. In the end, electric cars need to charge up using juice from the power socket. Unless there is clean power generation, using solar or hydro electricity power plants, there is still consumption taking place.
One way around this is having alternative means of charging. The use of solar panels isn’t new as well. The Nissan Leaf is an electric car which has to be charged as you would any electric car, but also features solar panels that take the load off the primary power source, for things like the air conditioner or the stereo. Car users can still enjoy these functions, only, they needn’t worry about that use depleting their overall travel range.
Range – that’s one of the most limiting aspects of electric cars. From what’s been buzzing around the automotive industry of late, the arrival of newer-generation more efficient options is not far. What are these options? Larger capacity batteries which don’t weigh as much, but can store a significantly higher amount of charge, thus lasting longer and providing manufacturers with the option of addressing many of the users’ requirements of equipment previously unimaginable in an electric car. The 48-volt electronics, seen on some prototype Audi cars, also puts them in a strong position for handling recharging of these sources quicker and more reliably.
Another important element, the supplementary power plant or generator, is seeing down-sizing making its presence felt. Like BMW and MINI, a 1.5L three-cylinder gasoline or diesel motor can do wonders when it comes to power generation with minimal use of fossil fuels. Mercedes have gone a few steps further with their G-Code concept compact crossover. Brake energy regeneration aside, even the photo-voltaic paint helps to charge the battery, albeit minimally. And let’s not count out proper alternative fuels.
Fuel-cell vehicles earlier thought to be improbable, have seen a resurgence with Honda, Toyota and even Audi joining the bandwagon with everything from compact family shuttles to luxury sportbacks being powered by hydrogen. The only real problem with hydrogen propulsion is the cost involved in creating and sustaining the systems. But, on a high note, these technologies seem to be heading for mainstream production rather soon, and tests have been very encouraging for manufacturers.
Natural gas, hydrogen, electricity and good old gasoline and diesel will soon be equal parts of the road if things go as planned. That the planet demands it, needs it to happen is another thing altogether. Whether we drive sharp, angular machines safe for pedestrians, or curvy, rounded shapely cars which probably will never crash into one another, is entirely on how much we change, and how much we make manufacturers change of their designs. The onus is on us to be more responsible drivers and share the road amicably, with due care and consideration for everyone else out there.