25 Jul 2014

I'm Just Not Impressed With The Technology Of Modern Cars

Modern cars are technologically advanced wonder-boxes.  But the vast majority simply don't impress me.

I don't mean in terms of their luxury, refinement, efficiency, reliability (although a lot aren't that reliable) or relative cheapness I mean that modern cars aren't a great deal different from those of the 70s when you think about it.

Yes a 2014 Ford Focus is all of the above to the nth degree over and above a 1974 Ford Escort but they are both constructed as a steel unibody with an internal combustion engine and have a boot, four seats, the engine at the front, a plastic interior, air-filled tyres and some wiring which connects all the electrical bits.

So a modern Focus has electric windows - whoop-de-doo. That's an electric motor and some more wiring which is hardly futuristic.  50% of new cars are sold with FM/AM radios - no progress there then.  

Independent suspension, heated seats and steering wheels and massively improved fuel economy are good things but these are just the result of a rather slow evolution in car technology in general.  They're nothing amazing, just the product of legislation, customer demand,  and many, many hours of R&D and testing.

If I'm to be impressed I want to see massive leaps and bounds in materials, tyres, drivetrains and, ooh some kind of je ne said quoi.  I want to be blown away by something I don't even know exists.

When was the last time that happened?

I suppose electronics has been the big step in automotive terms.  I suppose I'm impressed with digital radio, CAN bus wiring and engine management software.  

I am massively impressed with satellite navigation but that wasn't even invented by the car industry, and its adoption has been incredibly slow, and some systems (Peugeot Citroen to name one) are absolute rubbish.

Some things are beyond my ken and I'm impressed by them because I don't understand them. I mean how the hell do tyre pressure sensors work? That's impressive because it's black magic to me.

But not a lot else is.  It's all just basic engineering and electronics with not much in the way of true, knockout innovation with a big dollop of pazzazz.

To my mind all cars should be built the way a Volkswagen XL1 is as a bare minimum. Carbon fibre is brilliant and futuristic but it should be affordable and right now it isn't.

The XL1 costs £98,000, and it has 27bhp. That's expensive and rather pathetic. It weighs less than 800kg. The Citroen C4 Cactus weighs less than 1,000kg and that's much bigger and has more interior space.  Aside from lightness the Cactus' innovation is some plastic bubbles on the doors.

The XL1 may be innovative in some areas (280mpg isn't too bad I suppose) but it is a still just a hybrid with a diesel and electric engine.  That's not so innovative. It's just taking today's engineering to the nth degree.

To really impress me I expect to see, within a few years, a car that weighs 800kg, has at least 150bhp, returns 300mpg if hydrogen powered or if electric to do 500 miles on a charge and be capable of fully recharging in 10 minutes.

This car will also need adaptive cruise as standard and full phone integration with voice recognition that actually works.  It'll run on something more advanced than mere rubber tyres with air in them.  I don't expect punctures in the future. It won't need a service until it's at least three years old and it'll have integrated solar PV to run everything except the engine.

If car makers can sell me a car that does all of the above, and add a few more features that no-one outside of some lab has thought of yet, at a cost of £15,000 then I'll be impressed.

But until then I'll be underwhelmed.

By Matt Hubbard