Can Cars Keep Their Cool, Even at 100 Miles Per Gallon?

A look at the top tech cars of 2013 with car critic Lawrence Ulrich

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Steven Cherry: Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.”

Most of us love our cars. We at Spectrum love them, both as consumers and as journalists. So each April, we look at the state of the art in an article we call “Top Tech Cars.” The past few years, our roundup has been by one of the automotive world’s top newspaper journalists, Lawrence Ulrich. He comes by his love of cars naturally, having grown up in Detroit, even though these days he lives almost exactly 1000 kilometers east of 8 Mile, in Brooklyn. He joins us by phone.

Lawrence, welcome to the podcast.

Lawrence Ulrich: Hey, how are you today?

Steven Cherry: There are two cars that maybe portend the most for the future of the automobile: the Tesla Model S sedan and the Infiniti Q50. I think I’m most excited about the Infiniti, but you put the Tesla car at the top of your write-up. Now, we think of Teslas as expensive sports cars, maybe not as pricey as a lot of them, but still not in the budget for most of us until our midlife crisis. But the Model S is a sedan with a sedan’s pricing?

Lawrence Ulrich: Sedan pricing, sure, by the terms of, you know, in the rare world of Mercedes S-Classes and BMWs and those kinds of cars. It’s right on par with those starting about US $90 000. And, of course, that’s sticker shock, as you mentioned, for a lot of buyers. But we’re going to be seeing more affordable versions that trade a little bit of the power and driving range for a little bit lower price, with one starting as little as $60 000.

Steven Cherry: Now, this is a fully electric car, no gas engine at all. But it’s not just limited to commuting…

Lawrence Ulrich: No, and that’s what’s really significant about the Tesla. Everyone thinks of the electric car as being kind of tethered to home use by that electric cord, with very long recharging times and very short driving ranges. The Tesla kind of turns that formula on its head. This car will go up to 300 miles on a single charge, and that’s far and away a record for electric cars.

Steven Cherry: And it gets 150 miles in a 30-minute recharge at Tesla’s supercharging fuel stations?

Lawrence Ulrich: That’s correct. And, again, they’re trying to kind of break that leash, and Tesla’s basically begun installing its superchargers, you know, extremely powerful 90-kilowatt chargers, on the East and West Coast. And the idea is that you kind of link these together—one strategically located in Delaware and one in Connecticut—and that will allow owners to make the Boston to DC run stopping only twice for electricity along the way, figure about a 30-minute stop at each break.

That’s, of course, still a little longer than the 5 minutes it takes to fill up with gasoline. But by the time you get your beef jerky and use the bathroom, it’s definitely not as bad as hanging around 6, 8, 12 hours waiting for a charge.

Steven Cherry: Right. And coming from home, it gets almost 300 miles. So if I’m making that 250-mile trip to the Adirondacks from me, from New York City, I don’t have to stop at all really.

Lawrence Ulrich: Absolutely. And, again, you still have your home charging available. What people sometimes don’t think about electric cars is how often is your own car sitting idle, whether at work or at the curb or at the parking lot?

Steven Cherry: Now, it uses lithium-ion batteries with basically the same chemistry as the same problematic batteries on the Boeing 787, the Dreamliner. Should we be worried about Teslas bursting into flames on the highway?

Lawrence Ulrich: [Laughs] No, absolutely not. Lithium ion does, depending on chemistry, does have the possibility of a runaway. The Boeing selected a chemistry that is significantly more volatile than the ones in the Tesla and most automotive applications.

Steven Cherry: And Tesla, actually, the battery unit is really a bunch of these little batteries put together. And since scale is kind of important to this runaway phenomenon, it’s…

Lawrence Ulrich: Exactly. It’s just a bunch of cells linked together—quite a few of them. It still raises the issue: This is a very large and weighty expensive battery pack, and that’s still probably the biggest obstacle to electric cars, is trying to get the cost of these batteries down. This pack weighs well over 1200 pounds and costs, you know, tens of thousands of dollars, and that’s why you can see the more affordable models will be using smaller battery packs that have less range but manage to—each time you move up in battery capacity, you’re pretty much adding another $10 000 to $12 000 onto the price of this car.

Steven Cherry: So let’s turn to my midlife crisis car, the Infiniti Q50. Its big distinction is drive-by-wire, and I guess among other things, I guess that means it has no mechanical connection between the steering wheel and the front wheel. Does it feel different to drive it?

Lawrence Ulrich: Well, we haven’t driven it yet. This is one of the ones we haven’t tested. It’s still in preproduction form. We’re still probably a few months away from our first test, and everyone’s got their fingers crossed. Our hunch is, from an enthusiast’s standpoint, it won’t feel as good, at least initially. There’s something about that analog connection between your hands and the wheel. And, you know, a vast majority of cars have switched to electrically assisted steering instead of hydraulic steering, with some loss of feel in some cases. It’s an ongoing process.

But this is something entirely different. This is the world’s first car with a full steer-by-wire system. When you turn the wheel, what’s happening is computers and sensors are monitoring how much you’re turning the wheel, and they’re translating that into electric operations of steering rack. There is no physical connection between your turning of the wheel and the turning front wheels of the car themselves.

Steven Cherry: Now, Nissan and Infiniti—Infiniti is Nissan’s high-end line—Nissan says it should be a lot quieter, I guess, in terms of sound, but also quieter in terms of the feel of the road, because basically it’s a smart powertrain that’s smoothing out the ride?

Lawrence Ulrich: Absolutely. Think about that. When you’ve got a mechanical linkage between your steering wheel and the wheels, the impacts of the road are necessarily, at some point, transmitted through that steering column. You feel it through shake and vibration in your hands. Of course, nothing like—we can all remember the cars of the ’70s or ’80s, depending on how old you are, and SUVs and just how much that wheel would shake and how much you would feel when you would drive over a pothole. This will completely eliminate any vibration through the steering wheel.

And, again, there are some instances when you say, “Well, I want some of that, the classic Porsche feel, where I want to feel that granularity of the road. I want to know exactly what that contact patch is doing at the road.” So they’re going to want to have some feel filter through, or it’s going to feel just like operating a joystick with your hands. And my hunch is that not too many drivers are going to enjoy that feeling. Then again, give it 10 or 20 years, maybe that will be the new standard of what natural steering feels like.

Steven Cherry: Now, is it also quietly keeping the car in the middle of the lane as well?

Lawrence Ulrich: That’s the advantage of steer-by-wire, right? And probably what’s most significant about this car is obviously we’re seeing more and more automated functions, and, again, we already have cars that can regulate their own brakes and regulate their own throttle to, you know, follow other cars in traffic without hitting the gas or brake. That’s a pretty common feature on luxury cars called “adaptive cruise control.”

This is the next natural step, is to begin to have cars steer themselves. To do that, you have to fully automate the steering. General Motors has its own system that we’re going to see probably within about two years. Not only will the vehicle follow cars in traffic and regulate their own speed, but using cameras that are already operating to view lane markers and to keep the car centered in the lane, they’re going to combine that with GPS data, so you will actually be able to convoy down the highway, and the car will regulate its throttle, brake, and steer itself along curves along major highways.

Steven Cherry: I guess the big question for car makers is, The technology seems to be getting to self-driving cars almost imminently, but are the drivers going to be there just as quickly?

Lawrence Ulrich: Oh, you’ve hit it on the head. The technology exists. As the Six Million Dollar Man said, “We have the technology.” It’s pretty much here today. It’s a matter of integrating the systems, but it’s, of course, a matter of making them practical and safe and to pass muster with regulators.

A highway is the first kind of frontier. It’s a controlled situation. Maybe highway lanes, people tending to go the same speed, the same direction, that’s a lot easier nut to crack than having cars operating through intersections. And it scares people and it scares regulators, the idea of a—there’s already a Federal Communications Commission standard frequency that’s set aside for car-to-car communication that’s another piece of this puzzle. You know, what happens if a hacker decides to try to break into that system and wreak havoc with the roads? It’s going to be a very tempting proposition for the kind of people who like to hack, you know, enjoy the challenge of hacking computer networks today.

Steven Cherry: Yeah, the Infiniti is not self-driving, obviously, but it has a lot of redundancy for its self-driving capabilities. Does that add a lot of safety, or is it mainly for our peace of mind?

Lawrence Ulrich: It’s a little of both. We’ve seen it, the systems in aviation, and, again, aviation regulations required a lot of redundant operation, and this is going to be the same. The Infiniti has three different electronic control units, so those would have to fail in a chain in order for the system to fall apart. And the Infiniti even does maintain a mechanical linkage, but it does with a mechanical clutch that keeps it separate, so even in the case of a catastrophic electrical and computer failure, it would re-engage physical control.

But in the future, it does seem silly to have that level of redundancy, because one of the geniuses of this is that in the future you could eliminate that mechanical linkage entirely, which would save weight, complexity, and space. You know, you would gain some vehicle packaging space, and you would lose some weight, and those features would definitely be helpful.

Steven Cherry: It’s funny that you mention weight, because that’s where I’m going next. Another big trend this year is something that’s called “lightweighting,” and, for example, you write about a new Range Rover that weighs less than the smallest BMW sedans…

Lawrence Ulrich: Well, the chassis—overall weight, that would be wonderful—but yes, the chassis of the new Range Rover, it’s the first SUV in the world that they built on an entirely aluminum chassis. So the basic structure of this vehicle weighs about 400 pounds, and that’s pretty remarkable in a Range Rover size, you know, big honking four-wheeling SUV. And that’s actually 50 pounds less than the steel chassis of your typical performance compact sedan, you know, 3 series BMW being an example.

Steven Cherry: Now, this is in preparation for some pretty serious fuel-economy standards in the U.S. What are they, and when are they?

Lawrence Ulrich: Absolutely. U.S. and Europe and every automaker sees the writing on the wall, and its particularly a challenge for the biggest, most-thirsty trucks, pickups, SUVs. In America, the Obama administration finalized standards that would nearly double today’s fuel economy, and that’s a 54.5 mile per gallon average by 2025, maybe a few miles per gallon more in Europe by 2020. But around the world, regulations continue to dovetail, and basically, carbon dioxide emissions is pretty much a function of how much fuel you burn. So you can pretty closely track what you want to get to in carbon dioxide emissions by what miles per gallon your car is getting.

Steven Cherry: Now, you looked at a plug-in diesel electric hybrid, the XL1 from Volkswagen that it bills as the most efficient car in the world. And I guess some of that is lightweighting and some of that is that the gas engine is diesel, and some of it is a sports-car-like, low-to-the-ground design?

Lawrence Ulrich: It’s everything. That’s right. That car is kind of the extreme iteration of what might be achievable. Again, it would probably be a very high-cost vehicle at the moment, but it does show what could be done. This car could potentially get well over 200 miles per gallon, and every combination, every piece of the arsenal that automakers have: It’s extremely lightweight with carbon-fiber construction. It’s exceedingly aerodynamic. It has a tiny diesel hybrid plug-in engine that’s low powered. It’s not going to be racing any sports cars, but it’s extremely efficient.

Steven Cherry: Now, another car you write about, the Mazda 6, does something pretty cool that’s different: It has a regenerative braking system, but it’s not in a battery. How does that work?

Lawrence Ulrich: Well, it uses a capacitor, and, of course, the beauty of a capacitor is much less weight and size than a battery, and for small electric loads, it’s probably a pretty good solution. Very fast recharge, very quick discharge, and you can use this system to pretty much power all the accessories of the car—the headlights, the climate control, the audio system can all be generated with heat energy that’s captured at the brake, quickly stored, and then quickly discharged to run your electrical systems.

Steven Cherry: Yeah, and you write that it boosts fuel efficiency by something like 10 percent. Now, that seems like something that could be in the arsenal of every car.

Lawrence Ulrich: Well, re-gen braking is part of every hybrid that you buy, Toyota Prius, on and on. All the Ford hybrids use conventional regenerative braking, and they’re getting more and more efficient. They’re capturing well over 90 percent of the lost braking energy and converting that to electricity. And, again, it’s just the sign of automakers just trying to find every last little bit. Things like 2 and 3 percent don’t sound like much to us, but, of course, to engineers, they realize that even small percentages like that linked in a chain add up to really meaningful gains.

Steven Cherry: And I guess what I meant was that you don’t have to have a full hybrid system here. You could just add the capacitor to a regular car.

Lawrence Ulrich: Right. And we’re definitely seeing that regenerative braking was just the province of hybrids, and we’re definitely going to be seeing re-gen used more and more on conventional cars to get those small gains. And the other significance of the Mazda—a diesel engine, the first-ever Japanese diesel sold in America, and a technology, of course, that Europe and the rest of the world relies on, clearly their most dominant technology compared to electrics and hybrids in other countries. And America’s finally maybe starting to see the light. It was always tricky, our regulations on non-smog-forming NOx, especially in California and states like that, where we’re so strict that European diesels had a very difficult time passing muster. But now new emissions solutions are finally giving diesel a little bit of light here.

Steven Cherry: I guess we should make clear that diesel does a lot better on fuel efficiency, and these aren’t your father’s noisy, smoggy diesel engines.

Lawrence Ulrich: No, they’re very quiet. Maybe you’ll hear a mild ticking at idle, but none of that notorious chug-chug-chug, none of the black soot out of the tailpipe, much stronger acceleration because of turbo charging. I mean, some of these cars are the BMW diesels, and they are a blast to drive. They’re fast, they have great torque for passing, we’re seeing them used in Radio Audi as proof of concept, winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans, dominating it with diesel-powered racers.

Steven Cherry: Well, Lawrence, we’re just about out of time, and we didn’t even get to talk about some of the great oxymorons here: a fuel-efficient Dodge Ram pickup truck, a new Chevy model that’s even smaller than a Mini Cooper and uses a phone instead of a navigation system, and looks like you’d fit this car in the trunk of a 1965 Chevy Impala, and a midsized car from Ford that gets 100 miles per gallon.

Lawrence Ulrich: That’s right. And it shows that fuel economy is no longer just the province of the tiny economy car. It goes from the smallest to the largest, where you’ve got giant pickup trucks adopting V-6 engines and fuel-saving strategies—you know, the Dodge Ram to get itself all the way to 25 miles per gallon, Ford, you know, conventional family sedans and crossovers that are doing 47 miles per gallon in conventional form and over 100 miles per gallon in plug-in form. It’s a real brave new world out there.

Steven Cherry: Very good. Well, people just have to read the April issue of Spectrum themselves or find the article online. Thanks for joining us today.

Lawrence Ulrich: Thank you, Steven.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with car critic Lawrence Ulrich about the top tech cars for 2013 and beyond.

For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Steven Cherry.

This interview was recorded 4 February 2013.
Audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli
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