The Tech In The Machine

Technological Innovations That Have Changed (and are Changing) Modern Motoring

Innovation is a wonderful thing.

Every single day, technology and the drive to push it further have enhanced, improved, or even revolutionized the way we live.

Personal computers have enabled us to do more, accomplish more, and pursue advances in nearly all facets of modern life. Microwave ovens ensure we can have a hot meal in minutes, not hours. Washing machines mean we spend more time with our families rather than scrubbing laundry. Digital cameras have eliminated the need for film, meaning you can enjoy your photos in real time on the screen or have them printed at home. Innovation in communications -particularly the smartphones and Internet- have enabled us to stay in touch wherever we are, and have given us a practically free option over long-distance phone bills. And, of course, there’s the greatness of the do-it-all smartphone; the modern-day Swiss army knife.

Setting those aside for now, it is the automobile -the primary and preferred manner of personal mobility- that has been undergoing a revolution of late. Technological advancement in a variety of fields, components, materials, information technology, software, and many other aspects have been pushing the automobile -itself a 132-year old invention- to be far better, much faster, and exceptionally safer.

Over the next few pages, we will take a look at the many key innovations in the field of automobile tech, and see how they are revolutionizing personal mobility.

 

MANUFACTURING & MATERIALS

CAD/CAM

One thing is for sure: computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) have greatly improved, accelerated the development, and reduced the costs of modern cars.

The ability of car manufacturers to design, render, and conduct virtual testing of automobiles digitally on the computer means that they can almost fully work out a lot of kinks, bugs, and issues before an actual car even starts its engines. This capacity to perform what were once time-consuming processes in the virtual world has greatly accelerated the pace and reduced the operational costs of the respective research and development (R&D) departments of carmakers.

Of course, each brand still has to produce concepts, test mules, prototypes, and pre-production cars to conduct real world testing with, but a lot of it is being augmented by CAD. And once tested and verified, the exact dimensions and specs of the components will be used for the manufacturing process.

Robotics

Advanced robotic arms aren’t exactly the pictures of the future that movies painted for us; you know, the kind where robots look so eerily lifelike, can go anywhere, and can even take over the world. But the contribution of current robotics technology is vital to the automotive industry, especially when it comes to producing cars with exceptional quality, precision, and consistency.

Many modern automobile factories already include robots in key roles. From basic spot welding to building the frame or chassis, to assisting with carrying large and heavy interior pieces into the cabin, to painting the body-in-white to exact tolerances, robots help enable carmakers to achieve results through programming that were previously too difficult to do so with the precision demanded of modern, safer automobiles.

Ultra High-Strength Steel / Boron Steel

Unless your car belongs to the more exotic brands or performance model category where materials such as carbon fiber and aluminum are quite common, chances are your car’s body and frame are all made of steel. Unlike aluminum, steel of the same thickness is very heavy, and unlike CFRP, steel of the same thickness is not as strong, meaning carmakers have to use more of it. More mass means more fuel consumed, longer braking distances, and slower acceleration.

Lately, volume carmakers have been using a different version of steel, one that is much stronger than the standard versions of steel at the same thickness. This means manufacturers can use less of the material on the frame or monocoque but achieve the same rigidity. Or even better.

 

PERFORMANCE & EFFICIENCY

Dual Clutch Transmission

Perhaps one of the catchiest names in technology has to be the dual clutch transmission; an advanced form of the automated manual gearbox.

In essence, dual clutch gearboxes are two transmissions in one unit. As the name implies, there are two clutches, and each has its own gears; one clutch handles odd-numbered (1, 3, 5, 7 or more) gears, while the other clutch handles the even-numbered (2, 4, 6, or more) gears, and both of which can engage the propeller shaft/transaxle.

This arrangement allows for superfast shifts; when one clutch is in use (i.e. 3rd gear), the other clutch is already spinning up (i.e. 4th gear), and the transmission will shift simply by disengaging one and engaging the other instantaneously. And being that it’s essentially an automated manual gearbox, there is very little power loss compared to “classic” hydraulic automatics.

The working concept for the technology isn’t new; earliest patents date back to before WW2. It was only in the 80’s that computers became small and sophisticated enough to be fully fitted into a car, and Porsche made use of this in their racecars.  Today, DCTs take many forms, and can be found in the parts bins of many major automobile manufacturers. They can be expensive, are increasingly complex, and aren’t as smooth as traditional automatics at city speeds, but the efficiency and quicker shifts are definitely their best-selling points.

Continuously Variable Transmission

CVTs are, without a doubt, one of the most widely used transmissions in the market. And with good reason: continuously variable transmission technology has improved so much in the last couple of years.

CVTs are stepless transmissions that can easily be the most efficient arround, being able to vary their ratios automatically to suit a certain RPM and speed; at least in theory. Early examples weren’t particularly reliable, but today’s models have improved dramatically in efficiency and reliability. And they’re being used to handle higher horsepower applications, like in the Subaru WRX.

Variable Geometry Turbocharger

Turbochargers are actually simple to explain: it’s a compressor (read: fan) that uses exhaust gases to spin up a propeller that forces more air into the engine. More air (compressed air pressure in the intake system is known as boost) plus more fuel equals more power.

Turbos, however, suffer from a phenomenon known as lag, which is the time it takes to spool (read: speed up) the impeller to create usable boost for power because there is insufficient RPMs, or less exhaust gases to spin the turbine. Variable turbochargers are changing all that.

In essence, variable turbochargers have impellers that can change the angle of the blades/vanes either by some kind of actuator device or electronic servo. This enables the turbo to adjust itself to work with the level of exhaust pressure of the engine at lower RPMs. For gasoline engines, it works wonders for sustained power, but the biggest benefits are attained with diesel motors, generating more power and flatter torque curves.

High Pressure Direct Injection

In the old days, cars had mechanical carburetors that allowed fuel and air to mix in the intake manifold before entering the combustion chamber. The natural progression from that is electronic fuel injection (EFI) wherein fuel is squirted (injected) at very high pressures under the control of the central computer, or ECU. This method is more efficient than carburetors, but today, the technology has improved even further.

A lot of newer automobiles have a system called direct injection. As the name states, the fuel injectors feed the fuel directly into the combustion chamber, meaning only air makes it into the intake manifold. Unlike EFI, direct injection uses even higher pressures to effectively “mist” the fuel in the chamber; this method means less fuel is required (more efficient) and produces a cleaner, more complete burn (more power).

Direct injection was more widely used to improve the performance, efficiency, and emissions of diesel engines, but lately, even gasoline motors have been benefiting from the technology.

Hybrid Drive

A hybrid drive system is perhaps the very definition of the best of both worlds. Simply put, a production hybrid drivetrain is one that combines the “traditional” internal combustion engine with an electric drive system.

The gasoline or diesel engine hybrids provide direct propulsion to the wheels while simultaneously acting as a charger/generator for the hybrid battery, which in turn runs the electric motor (or motors). Advanced electronics allow the system to switch between the two systems independently (depending on the execution of the hybrid drive) or can run both at the same time to provide more power.

The engine itself is typically smaller than what is expected for the car’s size because it is augmented by the motor. The smaller engine is usually tuned to produce less emissions, while the electric motor itself has zero emissions and even produces max torque from the get-go.

Hybrids are not yet as widely accepted in the domestic market, but since they require no special infrastructure compared to pure electric vehicles (special charging stations), hybrids are the more practical option for a low-emissions future.

 

SAFETY

Anti-lock Braking System

In the 90’s, an anti-lock braking system (ABS) was a safety feature reserved for top-of-the-line models. Today, the landscape is different, as ABS is now present in most new vehicles, including even some base models.

The principle of ABS is simple: prevent the loss of steering control because of “locked” front tires under heavy (read: emergency) braking because automobiles need to have extremely strong brakes to the point that they must be able to override the engine’s power.

ABS is activated when the system detects locked wheels while the vehicle is in motion, and sends out a very fast pulse (you can feel it on the brake pedal) to break the lock and keep it on the threshold. This prevents a skid and gives the driver some vital, crash-avoiding steering control.

Stability Control

One of the greatest strides in automobile technology is the advent of advanced safety systems meant not to save you in the event of a crash, but to prevent one. They’re known as stability control and traction control systems.

In essence, stability and traction control programs control the brakes and engine respectively, by detecting if the wheels are spinning at different speeds, much like you would get in a slide.

Stability controls can modulate the brakes individually to keep the vehicle in a straight line, reducing the loss of control that results from skids. Traction control does the same, but acts more on retarding engine power and torque to mitigate slides.

Crumple Zone

Vehicle safety has made great strides in the last couple of decades, and one of them is in the field of crumple zones and passenger safety cells.

In the old days (‘50s to ‘80s), cars were built to last, using masses of thick and heavy steel to create a body structure that -when faced with a moderate crash- can simply be straightened out by a good tinsmith. The problem with that mass and rigidity is that it passes on the shock of the crash -in full- to the occupants.

Today’s cars are different. Carmakers engineer (and relentlessly test) their automobiles to have a rigid passenger cabin and design everything else around it to crumple and absorb the impact. This is a direct result of racing technology where teams build their cars to have everything be expendable -except the cockpit- to cushion the blow of a crash.

Engine bays and trunks are intended to be soft and collapse unto themselves, and on some cars, the engine itself is positioned to slide under the cabin instead of straight back towards it. The cabin is likewise reinforced to prevent intrusion, and inner pieces like dashboards and door trims are made of softer material to prevent further injury.

 

CONNECTIVITY & CONVENIENCE

Bluetooth and USB Connectivity

Bluetooth has revolutionized wireless connectivity ever since Angelina Jolie made it popular in Tomb Raider, enabling us to link our smartphones to a myriad of other devices from headsets, keyboards, to even hard drives. The same goes for USB (Universal Serial Bus); a unified computer connector system that allows direct connections between a variety of devices as well.

Together, these systems have allowed occupants to connect their smartphones, tablets, or other compatible devices directly to their cars to play music and make or take calls. In fact, the impact of Bluetooth and USB connectivity have already begun the phase out of optical drives, or CD players in automobiles, much in the same way that the latter rendered cassette players obsolete.

The latest version of these connectivity options include more advanced smartphone integration through Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.

Integrated Human Interface Systems

One of the most significant advances in automobile tech is the rise of integrated interface systems to control the many functions and features of modern cars.

They go by different names: Mercedes calls theirs COMAND APS, Mazda’s is called Connect, Audi’s is branded as Man Machine Interface, Ford’s system is known as SYNC, BMW’s is referred to as iDrive, Chevrolet has MyLink, Lexus’s version is the Human Machine Interface, so on and so forth. They’re also executed differently from one brand to another: some use a controller, some use a knob, some have a trackpad, some have buttons, some use the touchscreen, some have a voice command system, or a combination of all of the above.

Whichever the case may be, what these systems have in common is their goal for integration as well as intuitive and user-friendly control over the many features of the car.

Assisted Drive Systems

Technologies such as cruise control have been around for a while, but car manufacturers are taking the concept of convenient long-distance cruising even further with features such as adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist and automatic braking.

Adaptive cruise control is the logical upgrade to the standard cruise control. The system uses either a camera or a radar/sonar emitter or both, all to detect cars in front while driving on the highway. Depending on the pre-set distance, the system will modulate the throttle (regardless of the pre-selected cruise speed) to maintain a safe distance to vehicles ahead.

Lane departure warning and lane keep assist are quite intriguing, and were made possible by electric power steering. In practice, these systems alert the driver when the car is drifting from one lane to another by visually reading the road lane markings. Early systems made a warning pop up on the screen, but subsequent systems give the wheel a gentle tug to either alert the driver or pull the car back into the lane.

Automatic braking systems are also interesting. Using a variety of sensors, the system detects a potential collision and acts accordingly. Early versions were intended to prime the brakes in anticipation of the driver actually applying them, but current versions enable the car to slow down significantly on the highway or even stop completely at city speeds. Some versions can even detect pedestrians and come to a stop on its own.

 Autonomous Drive Systems

The real waves of the future, however, are autonomous driving systems, and they are made possible by increased electrical automation in the steering, throttle control, and brakes. By integrating all these systems, some carmakers are able to get a car to drive itself, to a degree.

Tesla offers an upgrade to their models, and it allows the car to cruise on the highway safely, stop in traffic, and keep going. Last year, we were able to try out Nissan’s system in the Serena MPV, and remarked at how unusual but convenient it can be. Many other carmakers are working on their own prototypes, including non-car manufacturers such as Google and Apple.

We are still far from versions of the technology that Hollywood has made us covet (remember the Audi R8 concept in I, Robot?) but it’s not too far away, given the pace that they’re going. Today’s autonomous cars still can’t navigate streets or drive you from one destination to another using GPS, but the steps being taken are great strides in a new direction for mobility.

Despite that, something tells us that there are many out there who would still prefer to drive by themselves rather than be driven by automation, but in our kind of traffic, we wouldn’t mind handing off a bit of the stress to a computer that doesn’t feel much of it.

mm
Executive Editor