Top 10 techno-cool cars

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  • COVER STORY

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    the hood or behind the dashboard. Thanks to the technologicalexpertise they acquired, those auto companies could often turn ona dime when governments, oil cartels, or some other deus exmachina suddenly put the screws on fuel economy, emissionscontrol, oil supply, or plain old safety. The technological rivalry wasquickened in recent years as microchips and other electronic wiz-ardry got about as cheap to toss around as confetti.

    Many of these technologies are hatched in specialty compa-nies such as Robert Bosch GmbH (Gerlingen, Germany) andDelphi Corp. (Troy, Mich.) and tend to seep into the entireindustry all at once, making it hard to single out one or anothercar for special praise. Therefore, in IEEE Spectrums list of toptechnocars, we preferred ideas expressed in a unique exem-plar, preferably a vehicle from the current or the upcomingmodel year. We looked for significant jumps in performance,convenience, or comfort, rather than the incremental improve-ments that, chained together, account for most automotiveprogress over the long haul. We favored bold technologies,knowing full well that some might not trickle down to the fam-ily sedan for many years, if ever. Also, we wanted the stuff to becool. Engineers, after all, are entitled to salivate once in a while.

    Top10Techno-Cool

    Cars

    Top10Techno-Cool

    CarsSpectrum picks the 10 most technically sophisticated cars for 2003 By Philip RossT he auto industry is quick to entertain new ideasbut slower to implement them. Although RobertBosch perfected diesel fuel injection in the 1920s,it was decades before the technology made it intothe mass market for gasoline engines. Mostly,the auto industry waited for technology to prove itself else-where. Antilock brakes were first used in aircraft landing gear;GPS navigation in military and nautical applications; seat beltsand noise abatement in aircraft; and build-to-order sales in PCmanufacturing. Car companies, for the most part, contentedthemselves with the niceties of designartfully molded sheetsteel, glowering grilles, white walls, and cup holders.

    In defense of Detroit, there were sound reasons for thistechnological wariness. A fuel-saving gizmo costing more thanthe fuel it saved would make no sense. Safety features that weregodsends to sailors and aviators mattered less in cars, least of allto the drivers who had to pay for them. Neat inventions thatmade engineers salivate often left dollar-wise buyers cold.

    For some time, though, this picture has been changing. Pres-sure came first from auto manufacturers outside the UnitedStates, where drivers often cared deeply about what went under

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    February 2003

    Volvo Safety Concept Car

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    As the first car equipped with Bluetooth wireless technology, the 9-3 linksall the cars wireless devices that obey the drivers voicecellphones,PDAs, computersthrough a voice-control system. If youre wearing aheadset, you can make a telephone call from up to 10 meters away. The car,

    which lists for US $26 000 to $39 000, can access the Internet as well as satel-

    lite navigation, including a guidance system that helps avoid traffic jams.

    Other gadgetry includes a range of a drivers own custom-set prefer-

    ences for features ranging from the temperature controls to the rain-tol-

    erance of the windshield wipers and whether or not the burglar alarm is

    armed. Safety features, always a Saab

    specialty, include head restraints that

    move closer to your head during a crash,

    plus air bags all over the place. Oh, yes, it

    also has an engine: a 2.0-L, turbocharged

    version of the four-cylinder Ecotec, made

    by Saabs owner, General Motors.

    Saab 9-3

    The Bluetooth-enabled cellphone

    fitted in the Saab 9-3 can access

    any other Bluetooth-enabled device

    in the car, such as a PDA. TOP

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    Bluetooth connects it all together

    Showcasing safetybeyond the box

    The see-through A-pillars

    [above] help eliminate the

    blind spot created by the roof

    supports in most cars.

    Based on the S60 sedan, this two-door sportwagon has, since 2000, been showcasingfuturistic safety technologies, which areeven proving practical in some cases. Surely pro-

    duction cars will inherit at least a few of this

    Volvos many tricks for conveying relevant visual

    information to the driver, including night vision

    and see-through A-pillars; controls that automat-

    ically adjust seat, pedals, and even the floor when

    the driver, for which it has been preprogrammed,

    sits down; warning systems that cover blind spots

    and use sound and light alarms; and rotating

    headlights that follow the lead of the front wheels

    as they turn.

    Then there is a fingerprint access system that

    locks out thieves and a heartbeat detector that

    sniffs out left-behind infants and pets. In the worst

    casewhen a sensor detects a hostile life form,

    Star-Trek style, hiding in the carthe driver can hit

    a button that alerts the police. The truly paranoid,

    with access to a freewheeling aftermarket, might

    prefer to fit the button to an ejection seat.

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    Honda Civic GX

    Relying solely on natural gas, this Hondahas been languishing in fleets since itsintroduction four years ago for lack ofenough true gas stations. In the 2004 model

    year, Honda will break out of this niche by selling

    the car for US $20 510 at retail along with a

    home refueling station. The stations are to be

    made by FuelMaker Corp. (Toronto), in which

    Honda has a 20 percent equity stake, and will

    feed off a homes piped-in cooking gas to

    recharge the compressed-gas tanks overnight.

    Such steps are necessary because the GXs

    1.7-L, four-cylinder engine was from the first op-

    timized for natural gas, unlike flexifuel

    designs that also burn gasoline. That means it

    can take full advantage of the fuels high octane

    level, providing excellent performance and

    superlow emissions (and 20 percent less green-

    house gas, too). Among the technical tricks

    used to achieve all this is a continuously vari-

    able transmission. A tankful will carry it more

    than 300 km in the city, 420 km on the highway.

    The natural gas refueling station

    for the Civic GX can hang on the

    wall of a garage.

    Compressed hydrogen fueling stations like this

    one [right] will be set up in California.

    Honda FCX

    The FCX is the first car for the U.S. market thatis powered purely by fuel cells. It meets zero-emissions standards by exhaling watervaporno noxious fumes and no greenhouse gases.

    In the coming year, Honda will lease about 30 of the

    four-seaters in California and Tokyo, areas where it

    plans to set up fueling stations selling compressed

    hydrogen gas.

    The proton-exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells,

    provided by Ballard Power (Burnaby, B.C., Canada),

    put out 78 kW. When supplemented by an ultracapac-

    itor, whose porous electrodes afford far more surface

    area per gram than do the nonporous plates of con-

    ventional capacitors, the car can accelerate about as

    well as Hondas Civic. The ultracapacitor also stores

    energy recouped during braking, when the motor

    runs backward to function as a generator. The 156-L

    fuel tank goes under the floor, rather than in the

    trunk, so the driving range is about 350 km, yet cargo

    capacity is normal. Honda made two crucial techno-

    logical decisions: to achieve zero emissions, it opted for

    hydrogen rather than natural gas, and to avoid a hybrid

    (gas-electric) design, it went with the ultracapacitor

    rather than batteries.

    Refuel it at home with an optional $1000 (natural) gas station

    Fuel-cell powered, ultracapacitor equipped

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    Cadillac is the first U.S. marque to sport keyless entry and ignition [top left]. Other

    electronic goodies include suspension management at the touch of a button [bottom].

    This all-new two-seater, descendant of the1999 Evoq concept car, uses several high-tech features to control the ample output ofits 4.6-L, V8 engine, in a rear-wheel drive config-

    uration. The most novel feature is a ride-damping

    device based on an electrorheological fluid, whose

    viscosity changes from one millisecond to the next

    as an imposed magnetic field affects a suspension

    of magnetic particles. It fits into Delphis suspen-

    sion-management StabiliTrak system, which is

    also used in other Cadillacs, to sense changes in

    the road surface electronically and manage damp-

    ing and roll control accordingly. These controls,

    and the chassis itself, are to be shared with an

    upcoming Corvette, which presumably will be

    tuned more for tight control (and less for smooth

    ride) than the Caddy. A third feature is the radar-

    enhanced automatic cruise control, which main-

    tains a constant speed until the car gets too close

    to a vehicle in front of it, at which point it slows

    down enough to maintain a constant distance. The

    XLR, estimated to sell for US $75 000, is the first

    U.S. marque to carry keyless entry and ignition

    (pioneered in 1999 by Mercedes-Benz), in which a

    card in the drivers wallet opens the car and lets

    him start it up by simply pushing a button.

    The Multi-Media

    Interface in

    the center console

    [left] controls

    a cellphone,

    navigation, climate

    controls, and

    the feel of

    the cars

    suspension.

    Computer controls galore

    The most wide-ranging computer-coordinated electron-ic systems are to be found in this US $73 160 Audi,whose Multi-Media Interface controls a mobile tele-phone, satellite navigation system, tautness of the air sus-

    pension system, as well as audio, heating, air conditioning, and

    assorted goodies, all with a dial and some buttons. Other

    standout features include its aluminum-rich construction,

    making for a light package, even given the extra machinery

    needed for its four-wheel drive. Also nifty are an override that

    lets the driver take direct, temporary, manual command of the

    automatic transmissions gear-

    box and shift, plus a radar-

    enabled cruise control that

    maintains a constant distance

    from the car in front (a feature

    available in several other high-

    end cars this year). Like the

    Cadillac XLR, the A8 allows for

    keyless ignition, but goes it one

    better by offering a fingerprint-

    sensing pad, not only to thwart

    impostors but also to set up a

    particular persons desired seat

    configuration, radio channels,

    and other favorites.

    Cadillac XLRSuspended on electrorheological goo

    Audi A8

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    Diesels, until recently famous forfuel frugality but infamous forsmoke, are being tamed all overEurope. Fiats Stilo 1.9JTD is one of the

    best-mannered of them all. Available in

    Europe for 15 360, it incorporates both

    a new diesel engine, produced in con-

    junction with parent company General

    Motors Corp., and a particulate filter.

    The 1.2-L, four-cylinder engine

    begins with the known trick of pre-

    injecting fuel in order to increase tem-

    perature and pressure, then takes it further, splitting the injection into a

    series of closely spaced, smaller injections. The carefully timed dribble of fuel

    burns ever so smoothly, eliminating irregularities of combustion and thus

    heightening performance while reducing noise and emissions. Further

    cleanup comes in the particulate filter, a silicon carbide structure coated with

    catalysts that trap 90 percent of diesel particulates, enough to eliminate all

    smoke. When the filter feels its full upafter about every 700 kmit heats

    itself enough to oxidize the trapped particles into carbon dioxide and water.

    Mercedes-Benz SL500Braking by wire

    The SL500s by-wire braking system, the first in a mass-produced car, equips the driver with a more sensitive, com-puter-assisted response to crises. The usual hydraulicallycontrolled brakes are no longer prime; the brake pedal you push is

    like a mouse click to a computer. This, in turn, controls the hydraulic

    pressure applied individually to the discs on each wheels brakes,

    according to algorithms that account for g forces, wheel speed,

    steering angle, and engine output, as well as the drivers responses.

    If, for example, the drivers foot suddenly shifts from the accelera-

    tor to the brake pedal, the system goes straight into crisis mode.

    To address the worry about software bugs and electrical snafus,

    first voiced when by-wire controls appeared in aircraft many

    years ago, Mercedes also includes a hydraulic backup system

    for the front wheels, forgoing any savings in weight or cum-

    bersome connections that the system might have provided. The

    braking system links seamlessly to a stability control system and

    an active suspension system, which helps keep all parts of the car

    on the ground when taking a corner. That ride-smoothing savvy

    comes with a powerful 5-L V8, which is to be followed in about a year

    by a juiced-up model equipped with a 5.5-L, turbocharged version of

    the engine. Mercedes says the new engine in its US $98 000 auto-

    mobile will be half again as powerful, at around 450 hp (335 kW).

    The brake-by-wire system in the SL 500 relies on electronic signals relayed from the

    brake pedal to the actuator to the electrohydraulic brakes at each wheel.

    Fiats 1.2-L four-cylinder diesel engine [right] cuts the smoke by

    ensuring smooth and more complete burning of the fuel.

    Fiat StiloA smokeless diesel

    COVER STORY

    Electrohydraulic brakes

    Actuator

    Actuator

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    Chevrolet Trailblazer

    Anew engine technology that switches halfthe cylinders on or off, depending on load,will debut later this year in the 2004models in a range of General Motors large and

    medium-sized SUVs. The SUVs will use the pow-

    erful Vortec V8 engine, and although GM hasnt

    named just which models will get it first, the

    Chevrolet Trailblazer is a logical choice. GM

    recently loaded it up with more pulling power

    than ever before, and it would be nice not to

    waste all that muscle when idling at a red light.

    GMs displacement on demand technol-

    ogy uses a solenoid to switch a valve that shuts

    off half the cylinders. The process is managed

    by computer, unbeknownst to the driver, so as to

    keep the engine near its optimal load and its

    subsidiary systems coordinatedthe throttle,

    transmission, and emissions controls, for in-

    stance. The company claims a fuel savings of

    825 percent, depending on driving conditions.

    Need power on a hill? Then use

    all eight cylinders. But if the load

    is light on a straightaway,

    GMs displacement on demand

    engine saves fuel by firing only

    four cylinders instead of eight.

    Toyota Prius Five years after its introduction inJapan, Toyotas five-passenger Priusremains the most family-friendlyhybrid on the market. Capturing the hearts

    of drivers as diverse as vehicular engineer-

    ing consultant Victor Wouk and Hollywood

    bombshell Cameron Diaz, it squeezes more

    growl from the liter than the rest, while cut-

    ting emissionsthis fall it won a tax deduc-

    tion for clean operation, the first such con-

    cession in the United States. The green

    trick is accomplished by using an electric

    motor to top off the output of a small (1.5-L)

    engine. When more power is needed, the

    gearbox draws on nickel metal-

    hydride batteries to drive an electric

    motor, and when more than enough

    powers on tap, the excess goes to

    charge the batteries. A power-split-

    ting gearbox yokes engine, generator, and

    motor either in parallel or in series, depend-

    ing on circumstances.

    In parallel, the engine, the motor, or

    both drive the wheels; in series, the engine

    drives the generator, which in turn drives

    the motor. This flexible arrangement keeps

    the engine running at optimal load. Further

    efficiencies stem from using the motors as

    generators to recover braking energy and

    from sculpting curves on the undercar-

    riage, even in out-of-sight areas, to reduce

    aerodynamic drag. Mileage, estimated by

    the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

    at 5 L/100 km (45 mpg), on the highway,

    actually reaches 4.7 L/100 km (50 mpg)

    in city traffic; some users report more

    than 3 L/100 km (75 mpg) in particularly

    snarled traffic.

    Four or eight cylinders on-the-fly

    Hybrid lists for a mid-range $20 480, with delivery

    The Prius packs a gasoline engine and an electric

    motor in its engine compartment [right]. The

    display indicates power flow from the batteries to

    the motor [above] or from engine to batteries.

    Index:

    CCC: 0-7803-5957-7/00/$10.00 2000 IEEE

    ccc: 0-7803-5957-7/00/$10.00 2000 IEEE

    cce: 0-7803-5957-7/00/$10.00 2000 IEEE

    index:

    INDEX:

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