AUTOMOTIVE FUTURE

January 25, 2018


Portions of this post are taken from Design News Daily Magazine, January publication.

The Detroit Auto Show has a weirdly duplicitous vibe these days. The biggest companies that attend make sure to talk about things that make them sound future-focused, almost benevolent. They talk openly about autonomy, electrification, and even embracing other forms of transportation. But they do this while doling out product announcements that are very much about meeting the current demands of consumers who, enjoying low gas prices, want trucks and crossover SUVs. With that said, it really is interesting to take a look at several “concept” cars.  Cars we just may be driving the future is not the near future.  Let’s take a look right now.

Guangzhou Automobile Co. (better known as GAC Motor) stole the show in Detroit, at least if we take their amazing claims at face value. The Chinese automaker rolled out the Enverge electric concept car, which is said to have a 373-mile all-electric range based on a 71-kWh battery. Incredibly, it is also reported to have a wireless recharge time of just 10 minutes for a 240-mile range. Enverge’s power numbers are equally impressive: 235 HP and 302 lb-ft of torque, with a 0-62 mph time of just 4.4 seconds. GAC, the sixth biggest automaker in China, told the Detroit audience that it would start selling cars in the US by Q4 2019. The question is whether its extraordinary performance numbers will hold up to EPA scrutiny.  If GAC can live up to and meet their specifications they may have the real deal here.  Very impressive.

As autonomous vehicle technology advances, automakers are already starting to examine the softer side of that market – that is, how will humans interact the machines? And what are some of the new applications for the technology? That’s where Ford’s pizza delivery car came in. The giant automaker started delivering Domino’s pizzas in Ann Arbor, MI, late last year with an autonomous car. In truth, the car had a driver at the wheel, sitting behind a window screen. But the actual delivery was automated: Customers were alerted by a text; a rear window rolled down; an automated voice told them what to do, and they grabbed the pie. Ford engineers were surprised to find that that the humans weren’t intimated by the technology. “In the testing we did, people interacted nicely with the car,” Ford autonomous car research engineer Wayne Williams told Design News. “They talked to it as if it were a robot. They waved when it drove away. Kids loved it. They’d come running up to it.” The message to Ford was clear – autonomous cars are about more than just personal transportation. Delivery services are a real possibility, too.

Most of today’s autonomous cars use unsightly, spinning Lidar buckets atop their roofs. At the auto show, Toyota talked about an alternative Lidar technology that’s sleek and elegant. You have to admit that for now, the autonomous cars look UGLY—really ugly.  Maybe Toyota has the answer.

In a grand rollout, Lexus introduced a concept car called the LF-1 Limitless. The LF-1 is what we’ve all come to expect from modern concept cars – a test bed for numerous power trains and autonomous vehicle technologies. It can be propelled by a fuel cell, hybrid, plug-in hybrid, all-electric or gasoline power train. And its automated driving system includes a “miniaturized supercomputer with links to navigation data, radar sensors, and cameras for a 360-degree view of your surroundings with predictive capabilities.” The sensing technologies are all part of a system known as “Chauffeur mode.” Lexus explained that the LF-1 is setting the stage for bigger things: By 2025, every new Lexus around the world will be available as a dedicated electrified model or will have an electrified option.

The Xmotion, which is said to combine Japanese aesthetics with SUV styling, includes seven digital screens. Three main displays join left- and right-side screens across the instrument panel. There’s also a “digital room mirror” in the ceiling and center console display. Moreover, the displays can be controlled by gestures and even eye motions, enabling drivers to focus on the task of driving. A Human Machine Interface also allows drivers to easily switch from Nissan’s ProPilot automated driving system to a manual mode.

Cadillac showed off its Super Cruise technology, which is said to be the only semi-autonomous driving system that actually monitors the driver’s attention level. If the driver is attentive, Super Cruise can do amazing things – tooling along for hours on a divided highway with no intersections, for example, while handling all the steering, acceleration and braking. GM describes it as an SAE Level 2 autonomous system. It’s important because it shows autonomous vehicle technology has left the lab and is making its debut on production vehicles. Super Cruise launched late in 2017 on the Cadillac CT6 (shown here).

In a continuing effort to understand the relationship between self-driving cars and humans, Ford Motor Co. and Virginia Tech displayed an autonomous test vehicle that communicates its intent to other drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians. Such communication is important, Ford engineers say, because “designing a way to replace the head nod or hand wave is fundamental to ensuring safe and efficient operation of self-driving vehicles.”

Infiniti rolled out the Q Inspiration luxury sedan concept, which combines its variable compression ratio engine with Nissan’s ProPilot semi-autonomous vehicle technology. Infiniti claims the engine combines “turbo charged gasoline power with the torque and efficiency of a hybrid or diesel.” Known as the VC-Turbo, the four-cylinder engine continually transforms itself, adjusting its compression ratio to optimize power and fuel efficiency. At the same time, the sedan features ProPilot Assist, which provides assisted steering, braking and acceleration during driving. You can see from the digital below, the photographers were there covering the Infinity.

The eye-catching Concept-i vehicle provided a more extreme view of the distant future, when vehicles will be equipped with artificial intelligence (AI). Meant to anticipate people’s needs and improve their quality of life, Concept-i is all about communicating with the driver and occupants. An AI agent named Yui uses light, sound, and even touch, instead of traditional screens, to communicate information. Colored lights in the footwells, for example, indicate whether the vehicle is an autonomous or manual drive; projectors in the rear deck project outside views onto the seat pillar to warn drivers about potential blind spots, and a next-generation heads-up display keeps the driver’s eyes and attention on the road. Moreover, the vehicle creates a feeling of warmth inside by emanating sweeping lines of light around it. Toyota engineers created the Concept-i features based on their belief that “mobility technology should be warm, welcoming, and above all, fun.”

CONCLUSIONS:  To be quite honest, I was not really blown away with this year’s offerings.  I LOVE the Infinity and the Toyota concept car shown above.  The American models did not capture my attention. Just a thought.

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