Okay, this may be a premature welcome. The ball hasn’t dropped yet, in fact I don’t think Dick Clark has had a chance to mount it yet. But here in the final quarter of 2011, we approach a new year that brings many new things with it.
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Ever heard the phrase, “Four on the Floor” – commonly found in sentences of the 1960s? Well, thanks to the engineering folks at Porsche, we can usher in the new year with not four, but seven speeds on the floor! Many of us will drive to times square at least partially on battery power – gliding along silently in the night air. Others will ride downtown on the fastest and most feared production superbike in the world: the BMW S1000RR. Were you expecting a Japanese name? Times certainly have changed, and in the motoring world, they’ve mostly changed for the better. Nonetheless, as we near 2012, it’s fair to ask, “what’s next?” It is also prime time to ponder whether or not we should embrace the cars and technologies of tomorrow, or cling stubbornly to the jerry-can mounted on our Jeep.
No one pictured us to be here, quite where we are, just a few short decades back. Our battered globe is worse for wear, and bearing the weight of the largest population demand it’s ever fed, clothed and sheltered. We’ve nearly sucked our way to “peak oil” – some would argue we’ve recently hit it, and it’s time to look for alternative sources of energy to fill the void oil will inevitably leave behind. Subsequently, fossil fuel consumption and emissions are on the radars of every major automotive manufacturer. Engines are shedding cylinders, donning turbos, and shrinking in displacement while the ‘horsepower war’ of the ’90s has morphed into the ‘efficiency war’ of late. Alternative drive concepts – new and old- are sprouting like dandelions on your neighbor’s lawn. But there are other winds of change that are blowing automotive designs in new directions.
Population shift toward extra-urban living has created ‘Super Cities’ or ‘Mega Cities’ as some have coined them. A mega city is defined as a city with a population in excess of 10 million people. There are over 20 cities around the world that meet this criteria including Mumbai, Tokyo, New York and Mexico city – a few containing a population close to 20 million – shall we call these ‘Super-Mega Cities?’ Typically containing over 2,000 people per square kilometer, space efficiency has become the new frontier for those living within a mega city’s boundaries. Since nearly half of the world’s inhabitants are now living in an urban environment, space efficiency has now become a dominant force in automotive design.
Not to be outdone by the matters of fuel consumption, emissions and space efficiency, social trends are also on the minds of automotive designers. Generation Y is button-tapping, Facebook-updating, technology obsessed. The youth and young adults of today are more excited about Bluetooth connect-ability than the presence of a limited-slip differential when checking out a new car. This preoccupation with electronic gadgets and wizardry poses a problem for performance drivers and sports car aficionados of the future, because the will of the masses generally shapes future designs.
Finally, we cannot overlook the social importance of going – or at least looking – “green.” While the overall message of conservation and respect for our planet is good and worthwhile, the “Green Movement” has been corporately high-jacked at times to sell the public on products that are not necessarily positive for the environment. The tide of opinion has swung to find the luxuries of yesterday as offensive indulgences today. It’s about as fashionable to drive an Escalade as it is to wear a mink coat, and running over a mink in your Escalade while wearing a mink coat would pretty much nullify your Green Peace membership card and send the directors into seizure. The general public has picked up a healthy consciousness of environmental responsibility – and while many still appreciate automotive artwork, its tenets have been redefined.
We’ve outlined the guiding forces of future automotive design, namely consumption, emissions, space efficiency, sustainability, and social acceptance. We can already see where this is taking us, with cars such as the Volt, Leaf, e-tron, i3 and i8 marking the future of automotive design. So we’re brought back to our original and ultimate question: should driving enthusiasts embrace the technology stuffed cars of our future?
For an opinion piece, I’ve been awfully dodgy so far. My short answer is yes, but I must draw a line in the sand. Where new technologies and gismos do not interfere with a pure and unadulterated driving experience – bring them on. But when layers of technology begin to numb the driving experience, automotive makers have gone too far.
It’s fair game to sell cars on the coattails of new technologies. Let’s face it: technology sells. People love to talk about gismos as much as (or likely more than) they enjoy using them. If a plethora of redundant technologies helps car makers sell enough units to fund the production of cars I want to drive – then it’s hard to argue a downside. Some new technologies may even be useful or save lives, for example the blind spot detection system which vibrates the steering wheel during ill-advised lane changes. What do I care if my M3 has electronic stability and traction control? – as long as I can turn it off. My beef is with modern trends and technologies that permanently erase the reasons I love driving. The recent proliferation of technology has already taken a few prisoners. Even admittedly fantastic cars such as the Nissan GTR somehow miss the mark when it comes to driver involvement. The genius of its electronic aids allows the hefty car to seemingly defy physics with blurring speed and handling. But if circling a racetrack is reduced to guiding a four wheeled computer around corners; a measure of passion, excitement, and romance is lost.
Steering feel has been a hotly debated topic of late, what with BMW and even Porsche moving to electronic-assist steering. As BMW has yet to hit the bull’s eye, I’m curious to sample the latest from Porsche to determine of they’ve nailed the recipe. If they’ve managed to replicate the immensely communicative feedback found in the wheel of the 997 without a layer of rubbery ambiguity – then I’m an ardent fan and supporter. But if steering feel has been sacrificed on the alter of efficiency – count me out. At least your 911 will have 7 notches on the gear-shift to distract you from the lame steering. The best electronic-assist steering I’ve sampled thus far is found on the BMW F20 1 series. It is light and communicative, if slightly synthesized. Encouragingly, the trend is one of improvement, so it’s only a matter of time until someone gets it right – and most everyone else follows. While we wade through the waters of change, it’s important to remember that the ultimate execution of new technologies will not happen overnight. Mechanical perfection is seldom found the first time out.
In closing, we should embrace the cars of our future, because we live in the ‘now’ and modern realities have fundamentally changed what’s possible in automotive design, as highlighted above. I recall former M director, Dr K Segler explaining to me in an interview that he would love to bring the E30 M3 back into production – but it is simply not possible in the modern world of safety standards. His best advice was, ‘If you want to buy an E30, buy one,’ but BMW for their part will do everything in their power to build the ‘E30 of today.’ I’m paraphrasing, of course, but you get the gist.
In the war of analog verses digital – I stand firmly on the side of a passionate, raw driving experience. Sprinkle as many technologies over my car as you wish – so long as I can turn them all off, fasten my helmet, and feel for grip. Oh… and I would prefer if you made them optional to keep the price down – performance tires are expensive!
Special thanks goes to “RacecarBMW” and “La Ma” for suggesting this topic for discussion. Do you have an automotive topic on your mind? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, tweet your idea on twitter to @shawn_molnar, or leave your thoughts in the comment section below. See you next Monday!
Now it’s YOUR turn. Are you for or against the digitalization of the automobile?