A weekly look at all that sucks in car culture, and some good bits
Readers, myself included, have arrived at a point in our lives where the long delayed design revolution of cars is taking place. Without sounding morbid, I know I’ll not live to see the best of the innovation, but what seems to be coming in my lifetime are safer cars, built with durable, sustainable materials. There’s a clue to the new digital age in the photograph above – no switches.
Taking a gander at the immediate future, I scoured around to see what technology has in store for us. So far, cars that float silently above broken tarmac and pot holes are not on the horizon. However there is progress in other ways. On the surface, to a guy like me who prefers basic cars, a radio the only sophistication, it all looks like magic.
The trend is for more luxurious cars, the interiors of some better than our own living room. Car manufacturers recognise that, though the fashion hasn’t reached small cars as yet. That will happen very soon, but prices will rise. Luxury is crammed into the executive end of the market, and the very high end for people who paper their bedroom walls in bonds and dollar bills.
The clue for the new came in the form of television and electronics giant Sony pop out of nowhere with a fully formed car. Sony’s decision to build its own car for the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) highlighted just how big a role car technology is going to play in the next decade. Their concept, the Sony Vision-S, is essentially a test bed and a promotional tool to show how differing techs have made greater progress than expected – but it’s significant that Sony should put their best into a car.
I expect we shall see dashboards without a single button or switch within the next two years. Tesla, cars with the large computer screen mid-dash, show the way. Their latest announcement of a small city car at a low cost, will be free of all protuberances, even doors handles. The car will recognise your voice. Voice recognition is the next big thing. Speech recognition company Cerence tech already supports the ‘Hey Mercedes’ feature in MBUX. It demonstrated a system that mixes speech commands, gesture control and eye tracking to leave no need for physical switches at all. Downside? What will it cost to renew the motherboard when it collapses?
The advent of 5G is going to speed up our mobile phones’ data connection. We shall see clever use of the ultra-fast bandwidth to check for obstacles in a car’s path – and to ping a warning to other road users, pedestrians or cyclists who are in the way. That has to be good news for dropping the number of injuries from cars. The tech is called Cellular Vehicle to Everything (C-V2X) and it’ll be on production cars from 2022. A separate advance are windscreens that will darken the top quarter when hit by strong, direct sunlight. I can’t think sun visors will become unnecessary, but the sudden glare that blinds momentarily, has us pull down the visor, will block the flash to the retinas.
I can see sensors and more sensors as the next best things. Sony made the Vision-S because it wanted to show off its expertise in sensors and the software that interprets their data. Within the next two years, it seems inevitable that cars of the Vision-S’s size will have not just radar and stereo cameras, but also some limited Lidar capability that will help the vehicle to better judge the world around it. Lidar systems send out laser pulses to measure distances.
When the Grim Reaper gets firm grip of my shoulder I’ll not miss self-drive cars. When they arrive the time has come to take a bus, or a taxi if you can afford one. There’s a huge cost in developing fully self-driving cars, hence they get announced every month followed by silence. Automated cars are for airport to railway station or car park. Reports tell the tale that even Level 3 automation – where the driver has to be ready to intervene – is taking time to perfect. The city of the future wants self-drive cars but all I can see are lazy drivers texting while they pick their nose. Removing the human from control of the automobile sounds mad to me. Surely, all businessman and woman want is a car that calls their boss automatically to tell him the traffic is awful and they’ll be late into the office, while they take an extra hour in bed at home.
For my part, the two greatest inventions are the electric blanket, and heated car seats. No need to wait ten minutes for the engine to heat up. Switching on the bum and back warmer on a freezing Scottish morning is divine. (All cars can be retrofitted.) Car tech giant Valeo has a ventilation system that uses face-recognition and infra-red cameras to judge how warm each passenger is and adjust settings accordingly. It’s said to be much more efficient than normal air-conditioning. That may be true, but I like toasted feet.
The future future
In all this hunger for the new, the fashionable and the gimmick, my concern about the immediate future lies in two areas; (a) the digital take-over of cars that allow algorithms to follow your every move, and (b) a loss of freedom of movement cars brought to the masses last century.
I’ve always enjoyed driving, and still do. For me, a smart kid from a poor community, owning a car was liberating. I dislike flying. It isn’t natural for man or plane. Without a car I would have not have journeyed so far and wide as I have, nor seen the world or met so many interesting people. I think that goes for others too, certainly those who have taken a car across Europe or a visit to Ireland.
In the UK, city fathers are clamping down on car use, and the price of cars is increasing, pushing the mass of wage earners, the self-employed and the poor to forego owning a vehicle that can take them and their family almost anywhere there is a road. Brexit makes car travel to Europe a bureaucratic nightmare.
Now that we see cars can be a relatively clean, safe place to be, it’s sad that freedom to roam is fast constrained by authority and may soon be for the well-heeled alone. Either that, or we become a nation driving cleverly stuck together old wrecks, like the Cubans.
GROUSEY’S FOOTWELL FINDS.
What miracle cure is this?
Wireless chargers that can power up electric cars without the hassle of plugs and leads are to be introduced on British streets for the first time. Wireless charging works by making use of the fluctuating magnetic field developed by the alternating current in a charging pad to create another alternating current in the receiving pad, which is then converted to direct current and used to charge a vehicle’s batteries. The Department for Transport will run a £3.4 million trial on a taxi rank next to Nottingham railway station to assess the convenience, speed and time-saving benefits. The project will also develop the first vehicle identification and billing process, enabling the commercialisation of the system. If successful, it is likely that grants will be given to local authorities to introduce it on residential streets and off-street parking sites as well as taxi ranks in coming years. If this solution works, the end of the combustion engine is nigh.
So, it’s like this. My 22 year-old cute little RAV4 SUV needed new front seat belts. The law states car makers must produce them for up to 15 years, and then can change the design for new models. Toyota don’t make the ones I need anymore. Breakers yards have none, companies specialising in renewing old belts dismiss mine as too far gone. That leaves buying a donor car cheap that has belts that retract – or my good car is unfit to drive. And it was near perfection, five years, modernised to a high standard. Sigh.
Best car to hold value
Smart buyers buy second-hand. Let those with big pockets take the VAT and devaluation hit. That aside, which car holds its value best for the average buyer? If you want to buy a vehicle you can have confidence won’t plummet in value as soon as you drive it off a forecourt, it is the Toyota Prius Plus. It sits top of the best value chart. Forget cab owners use them. It retains two thirds of its value after 30,000 miles covered over three years – an achievement that can’t be matched by any other mainstream vehicle. I knew a man who sold helicopters who bought a new Ferrari. Three months later he sent it back because he didn’t like driving it. It dropped £35,000 in trade-in value. Ouch!