The two big changes in cars themselves over the next ten years will be in electronics and engines. Electronics are taking over more and more of a car’s controls, and are now making it possible to connect cars as well as drivers with the outside world. It is only a matter of time before the industry switches from 12-volt batteries to 42-volt ones to meet the extra power demands of all this equipment.
At the same time demands for yet more reductions in tailpipe emissions of carbon dioxide and noxious gases such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides are causing changes under the bonnet. With Hollywood stars such as Harrison Ford and Cameron Diaz thinking it cool to arrive at Oscar ceremonies in their little hybrid electric Toyotas, alternative fuels are firmly on the consumer as well as the regulatory agenda. Toyota has handed out free Priuses to the glitterati to get attention.
But for the moment the action is electronic rather than electrical. Telematics, which connects computers and other electronic devices by radio, has been under discussion for a long time, but has been slower than predicted to take off. At the Detroit motor show in 2000, with the dotcom bubble still fresh in people’s minds, pride of place on Ford’s stand went to a very plain, cube-shaped car called the 24:7. It looked like a small child’s drawing of a car, a box with a wheel at each corner. The dashboard had a computer screen, and the driver was meant to log on to “his” or “her” car. The vehicle could be programmed to perform differently for different users, and its software would adapt the communications devices to each user’s needs. It was connected to the internet, so if you were stuck in a traffic jam you could use the time to check your e-mails or browse the web.
It was wired, weird and typical of the times. Now carmakers have gone back to talking about design, speed, handling, ride and comfort. Yet electronics in cars are becoming more important in all kinds of ways. For example, electronic circuits determine the optimum fuel/air mixture, ignition sequence and valve timing on a modern engine 6,000 times a minute. Without that kind of technology, there would have been none of the dramatic improvements in cars’ fuel economy over the past 20 years.
Electronic devices also decide within microseconds of a crash how to inflate the airbags. Modern cars have about 80 such electronic control units, in effect tiny computers, with software running to 1m lines of code; electronics are replacing mechanical parts as the nervous system of the modern car. Its ride and handling characteristics can be changed simply by altering the software settings for the steering, suspension and brakes.
The use of telematics takes all this a giant step forward. Telematics connects cars with the outside world and with each other. Early experiments such as the automated highway in California on which electronically linked cars were whizzing along while the drivers dozed off or read the paper will probably never lead anywhere. But the growing use of on-board electronic devices monitoring the car’s mechanical systems, and the arrival of digital radio (which is better at transmitting electronic signals), look set to produce real benefits. Unbeknown to drivers, systems built into cars already record, for instance, when and where airbags inflate; this information is used after a crash to find out exactly what happened.
Some analysts say that within three years there will be telematics devices in two out of every three new vehicles in America, compared with only one in 20 in 2000. Over the same period the number of users of satellite navigation systems is expected to rise from 1m to 30m.
The Age of Telematics
Currently the industry is debating three main telematics applications for cars. The so-called front-seat market covers safety and security devices, including traffic reports and route-mapping via satellite navigation displays, and automatic connection to emergency services in the event of an accident. That means the paramedics will know how to find a crashed vehicle even if the occupants are in no state to tell them where to look.
The “back-seat” market promises on-demand digital movies and interactive games. The third application is the transmission of technical information from computers monitoring the car’s mechanical parts direct to the manufacturer or dealer. This makes it possible to diagnose faults remotely and even predict the impending failure of parts of the car. Some enthusiasts also forecast voice-activated internet connection without a mouse or keyboard, but tightening rules against driver distractions may stop this before it gets going. Another obstacle to the spread of on-board devices may be the availability of hand-held ones, in the same way that carphones have largely given way to mobile phones.
One sector where telematics is already making a huge impact is commercial traffic. For all sorts of security, safety and operational reasons, freight companies find it invaluable to know where their lorries are and what they are doing at any one time. On-board GPS systems make this possible. In Britain, such a system is being introduced as part of a road-pricing scheme for lorries on some motorways.
Telematics could also help to make cars safer. The American government’s road-safety body has calculated that lane drift on motorways is responsible for 43% of all fatal accidents on highways there. Telematics devices now being installed in luxury models tell the driver when he strays sideways or gets too close to another vehicle. If these were widely adopted, they could help to make driving much safer. Some cars now have a form of cruise control that stops the vehicle colliding with another. Fiat has even demonstrated a “driverless” car that can spot and steer round obstacles on a test track.
The next phase will involve electronics taking over from mechanical controls on vehicles. A combination of electronics and pneumatic power could be used to open and shut the valves on each cylinder of an engine, eliminating the complex mechanical valve drives of today. Steering and braking could also be controlled electronically and operated by tiny electric motors, in theory at least, so cutting the need for heavy metal brakes and pedals. Transmissions could become entirely electronic. After all, aircraft have been “flying by wire” for 20 years, so it should not prove impossible to convert mere motor cars.
But for the moment, such gee-whizz electronics applications could be marred by a problem familiar to every PC user. Luxury-car owners can find that their fancy new Mercedes or BMW suddenly goes awry because of a software glitch. And there are now so many electronic devices built into cars that manufacturers are having to install sophisticated electronics networks to integrate them. An executive at one parts company says that electronics in a car are seven times more likely to fail than mechanical parts. No wonder the manufacturers are now working together to draw up common software standards. According to an apocryphal industry story, Microsoft’s Bill Gates once quipped that if GM had kept up with technology as the computer industry had, people would be driving around in $25 cars. To which one GM wag replied, “Would you want your car to crash twice a day?”
After 40 years when environmentalists’ main grouse about cars was the damage their emissions of nitrogen oxides caused to local air quality, the emphasis has now switched to carbon dioxide, which is thought to contribute heavily to global warming. A few years ago the European Commission persuaded carmakers in Europe to agree to a voluntary deal to cut overall emissions across their car fleet by 25% by 2008, or face the imposition of strict emission rules for specific models. This summer California drafted regulations requiring car manufacturers to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide by 30%, starting in 2009.
The manufacturers are likely to challenge this in court. They point out that carbon dioxide itself is not toxic, and a state has no right to apply what are in effect fuel-economy rules, the prerogative of federal government. But California’s governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has already expressed his support for the legislation behind the carbon-dioxide rules.
California already has regulations that will require at least 10% of a car company’s fleet to be “zero emissions” vehicles (ZEVs) from the start of next year if the company wants to continue to sell in the state. California accounts for a tenth of America’s car market, so its state government’s environmental policies are taken seriously. After some concessions on the timing of the ZEV ruling, Ford and Chrysler dropped court actions to block the rules, and now every manufacturer is scurrying to get a ZEV ready in time.
The only conceivable ZEV is a car powered by an electric motor that runs on a fuel cell. A fuel cell combines hydrogen with oxygen from the air to produce water. The process generates an electrical current strong enough to power a car. Honda was the first to get a ZEV ready for the market, but nearly all the other car companies are working on their own versions. GM recently drove a fuel-cell minivan from the Arctic Circle to Portugal to test the robustness of the system. But fuel cells are still about ten times more expensive to make than internal-combustion engines, and cost, technical and safety problems remain to be resolved in setting up a distribution system to get hydrogen into the cars.
Meanwhile most car companies are introducing hybrid-electric cars, emulating Toyota’s Prius, of which 200,000 have already been sold. Hybrids hook a small petrol or diesel engine to an electric motor and a storage battery. The electric motor runs the car in slow and stop-start motoring and the conventional engine cuts in on the open road. The battery also provides extra power for acceleration. It is kept charged by the conventional engine and by the energy generated during braking.
In theory, once all the bugs have been sorted out fuel cells should deliver better total fuel economy than any existing engines. Allowing for the resources needed to extract hydrogen from hydrocarbon, oil, coal or gas, the fuel cell has an efficiency of 30%. That is twice as good as the internal-combustion engine, but only five percentage points better than a diesel hybrid.
But once hydrogen is being produced from biomass or extracted from underground coal or made from water, using nuclear or renewable electricity, the way will be open for a huge reduction in carbon emissions through the whole system. Experts such as Larry Burns, head of research at GM, reckon that only such a full-hearted leap will allow the world to cope with the mass motorisation that will one day come to China and India.
In the meantime, given the questions still to be resolved on fuel cells, hybrids are widely seen as the best way of cutting carbon dioxide and other emissions for the next 20 years. Another interim solution, according to Gerhard Schmidt, Ford’s head of research, could be burning hydrogen in internal-combustion engines; this is less efficient than using it in fuel cells, but would ease the transition to hydrogen fuel cells in due course, allowing time to build a hydrogen distribution system. One way or another, electricity is changing cars.