Pickup trucks have suddenly become America’s latest battleground in electrification: Whether General Motors’ reborn Hummer, deep-pocketed start-ups like Rivian, or Tesla’s Mad Max-style Cybertruck, companies are angling for a slice of a wildly popular and lucrative market.
Ford, whose F-Series pickup has been America’s best-selling vehicle of any type for 38 straight years—it finds 900,000 customers in a good year—is targeting mid-2022 for its own all-electric F-150. Until then, its redesigned aluminum-bodied 2021 F-150 delivers a pair of electron-centric gains: Primarily, it has the first full hybrid system in any full-size pickup, with class-leading EPA fuel economy of 24/24 mpg in city and highway driving.
But as with the blistering acceleration of a Tesla, or the 1,000-horsepower and off-road wizardry of the upcoming Hummer, it’s the F-150’s secondary benefit that has the truck world buzzing: An ingenious mobile generator that can deliver up to 7.2 kilowatts of clean, continuous power.
Dubbed Pro Power Onboard, the system recruits hybrid hardware, including a 1.5-kWh, liquid-cooled lithium-ion battery below the cargo bed, and a 35-kilowatt (44 horsepower) motor/generator sandwiched between the 10-speed automatic transmission and twin-turbocharged, 3.5-liter gasoline V-6.
The hybrid powertrain generates 420 horsepower and a mighty 570 pound-feet of torque, enough to propel this roughly 5,850-pound truck to 60 mph in 5.3 seconds. That’s quicker than a Porsche Panamera V-6 sedan, and the Ford can also tow up to 12,700 pounds and haul 2,120 pounds in its cargo bed. To divert some of that electric muscle, Ford adds a power inverter that converts DC power to AC. A covered panel in the cargo bed integrates four 120-volt power outlets, plus a dedicated 240-volt circuit with a NEMA 30-amp twist-lock connector. Inside the passenger cab, 110-volt outlets peer from the front console and back seat.
Whether margarita-blending tailgaters, campers, or construction workers and other hands-on pros, truck fans have been discussing the toys, tools and even houses they might power with 7,200-watts of juice on hand.
“You can hook up your space heater, make your coffee and smores, connect a grille, a mini-fridge—it’s fun,” said Nigar Sultana, Ford’s Pro Power Onboard feature owner.
Ford has produced a chart showing potential uses, including simultaneously powering enough equipment for a construction crew to frame a house. A compound miter saw and circular saw, gang battery charger (for portable tool batteries), hammer drill, air compressor and flood lights would together draw about 7,000 watts. Mobile metal-shop workers could power a TIG welder, plasma cutter, chop saw, angle grinder, air compressor and work light. On the recreational side, beyond typical camping or tailgating gear, truck adventurers could charge a pair of electric dirt bikes and air compressor, with enough left over to griddle some burgers. Ford itself has used the F-150 to charge its Mustang Mach E electric crossover that goes on sale in December—the ouroboros of EV charging, but it can be done. During my test of a top-shelf, $74,000 F-150 Limited version, I plugged in a toaster oven and Bluetooth speaker, while hunting for friends with welders and other gear to give the system a better workout.
Sure, truck owners could do all that with a robust, portable gasoline generator. But Sultana says Pro Power Onboard is a more-elegant, integrated solution: A 5.5-kilowatt generator can weigh more than 200 pounds, takes up roughly 14 cubic feet or of valuable bed space (plus a gas canister for a refill), and is obnoxiously loud and polluting when it’s running. In addition, the F-150’s dedicated power electronics smooth out voltage ripples to produce a clean sine wave, allowing the truck to power laptops or other sensitive electronic equipment.
The truck’s lithium-ion battery supplies power until it’s depleted, at which point the gasoline engine starts up to generate electricity and top off the battery. Ford says the system can operate at maximum output for 32 hours on a full tank of gas, with the truck either in park or in motion. A Secure Idle function, familiar from Ford’s Police Interceptor models, allows the engine to idle while locking doors and the transmission to ensure no one can drive off with the running truck.
The Ford’s enormous, 12.0-inch center touchscreen shows power draw in watts for each of two circuits. The Ford Pass smartphone app monitors usage remotely or controls it within onboard Wifi range. Ground-fault detection shuts the system down if necessary, with a reset via the app or touchscreen.
To put that power in household terms, Ford says the system can power 28 average-size refrigerators. That odd metric aside, the Ford could clearly supply an electrical lifeline in case of power outages, saving a freezer full of steaks, keeping the lights (and widescreen TVs) running, and sparking envy in the darkened homes of neighbors. Energy regulations, Sultana says, prevent Ford from marketing that capability. But the idea of vehicle-to-home power, or vehicle-to-grid, has been in play for some time. That includes Nissan Leafs being used as mobile power backup after Japan’s 2011 earthquake. Companies are also floating bi-directional smart home systems to store grid energy in EVs, return it to homes during emergencies, or save money during peak usage periods.
Ford’s 7.2-kilowatt system adds $750 to models with the PowerBoost hybrid drivetrain. The automaker offers a less-robust 2.0-kilowatt system on non-hybrid models, or a standard 2.4-kilowatt unit for hybrid F-150’s. The hybrid tech itself adds a significant $1,900 to $4,495 to the F-150’s price, depending on the model. But a high-quality gas generator alone can cost more than $2,000, and does nothing to boost fuel economy or trim pollution for the truck itself.
With the F-150, Ram 1500 and Chevy Silverado routinely taking the top three spots in U.S. vehicle sales, pickup fans clearly don’t blink at lavish trucks whose average transaction price soared to $49,888 in 2019, more than $12,500 higher than the average ticket for all new cars. The coming crop of all-electric pickups, with the $112,595 Hummer Edition 1 expected to be first from the gate late next year, may kick those transaction prices even higher. With the F-150 PowerBoost, and electric trucks to come, we’ll see how many truck buyers are willing to pay a premium to cut energy costs and global-warming emissions—or just throw one hell of a tailgate party.
In April of 1966, a shiny white Chevrolet Impala became the first car off the assembly line of a new General Motors plant in Lordstown, Ohio. It was the glorious start of what became a checkered history for the area. This blue-collar town survived an infamous labor strike in 1972, the Chapter 11 bankruptcy of GM in 2009, and a string of unmemorable small cars—including the Chevy Vega and Cavalier—before emerging as a symbol of industrial rebirth with the production of the Chevy Cruze in 2010.
But things soon went to hell again, and GM shuttered the plant in 2019. Even then, the pain wasn’t over. The plant became a political football for President Trump, who urged local residents not to sell their homes, because of jobs he promised to restore. He later rebuked GM for not building COVID-19 ventilators in a factory it no longer owned. (By that time, GM had sold the mothballed plant to Lordstown Motors Corp., a long-shot electric-truck startup.)
Now, nine-lives Lordstown is getting another chance to play a significant role in the automotive future. Whether it succeeds hinges on the biggest multibillion-dollar question in the global auto industry: Can GM, or any legacy automaker for that matter, transform itself into a true rival to Tesla, whose electric cars—and sky-high stock price—dominate the EV space? To do that, it’ll need better, stronger, more-affordable batteries. That’s where GM’s Ultium project comes in.
Honoring its own promise to bring jobs back to northeast Ohio, GM, in partnership with South Korea’s LG Chem, has begun building a US $2.3 billion battery factory in Lordstown. This joint venture, called Ultium Cells, will have the capacity to produce at least 30 gigawatt-hours of batteries each year—50 percent more than can emerge from Tesla’s Gigafactory in Nevada. Huge as it is, that investment is just a small fraction of the $20 billion that GM will be pouring into electric and autonomous cars by 2025, en route to the “all-electric future” touted by the company’s CEO, Mary Barra.
GM’s plan calls for building 1 million EVs a year by mid-decade, for both U.S. and Chinese customers. The first Ultium-powered model, expected to be out late in 2021, will be a GMC Hummer pickup, reborn as an EV with up to 1,000 horsepower. Once the symbol of unrepentant gas-guzzling, the Hummer should now pass muster at any Silicon Valley cocktail party with its electric power train and zero tailpipe emissions.
This electric Hummer will roll out of a revamped $2.2 billion EV plant in Detroit—the vanguard for 20 new electric models bearing the marques of Chevrolet, Cadillac, and Buick by 2023. Slated also for production is the Cruise Origin, a self-driving, ride-sharing EV from GM’s autonomous-car subsidiary. And all of them will, of course, need battery packs.
The sprawling Lordstown battery plant, which will be big enough to encompass 30 football fields, is where GM aims to churn out 250 million Ultium cells a year by 2025. Those will be large-format pouch cells, a marked departure from the cylindrical-can cells Tesla and Panasonic produce for use in EVs.
Tesla originally packed 8,256 of its cylindrical “18650” cells (18 millimeters in diameter and 65 mm long) into the 100 kilowatt-hour versions of the Model S sedan and Model X SUV. These were only mildly reworked versions of the same Panasonic batteries found in many laptops—indeed, using off-the-shelf batteries was key to Tesla’s startup strategy. Yet the batteries have proven reliable in their new role, holding up well for many charge-discharge cycles.
To supply the latest Model 3 and Model Y, Tesla’s Gigafactory began producing the more energy-dense “2170” cell, which has 46 percent more volume than an 18650 but is still barely larger than an AA battery. A Model 3 with a 75-kWh battery holds 4,416 of these cells.
In September, Tesla announced plans to move eventually to a larger, “4680” cell, which will hold five times as much energy as the 2170 cell it will replace. GM is taking a bigger leap in that direction: Its large-format cells each contain about 20 times the energy of Tesla’s 2170 cell.
Each of GM’s large-format cells includes a stack of planar electrodes, which are immersed in a polymer electrolyte and wrapped in an aluminum-polymer pouch. Those cells can be stacked vertically or horizontally within scalable modules. A pack containing from 6 to 24 modules will provide between 50 and 200 kWh, depending on the vehicle. The 200-kWh version will become the largest available for any production EV, with double the storage of Tesla’s biggest pack.
GM’s 200-kWh pack contains two stacks of modules wired in series for a total of 800 volts, allowing 350-kilowatt fast charging, enough to extend range by something like 160 kilometers (100 miles) in just 10 minutes. That matches the Porsche Taycan’s industry-topping charge speeds. Single-stack, 400-V packs will permit charging at a still-robust rate of 200 kW. (The majority of Tesla’s Superchargers are limited to 150 kW.) And whatever the configuration, GM will be tracking the performance of its battery modules with a cloud-based monitoring system [see “EV Phone Home,” below].
How much better are these upcoming batteries and the ingenious architecture that supports them, which GM calls BEV3, compared with GM’s existing BEV2 models?
Consider the 2020 Bolt hatchback, built on the BEV2 platform. In my recent week-long test, the Bolt proved its ability to squeeze 417 km (259 miles) of range from a modest 66-kWh pack, up from 383 km in the previous version. That is similar to the 354 km of range for a standard Tesla Model 3 with a 50-kWh pack. But Tesla can manage 531 km from its longest-range Model 3, with 75 kWh aboard—and 647 km from its thriftiest Model S with 100 kWh of energy storage. GM had work to do to match or beat those statistics.
Tim Grewe, GM’s global director of electrification and battery systems, says that Ultium 1.0 batteries offer 60 percent more energy density than those found in the Bolt. And that’s just the start. “The Bolt had a great lithium-ion chemistry, but we had to take it to the next level,” Grewe says.
Doing so demanded a proprietary nickel cobalt manganese aluminum chemistry, one that reduces by 70 percent the amount of cobalt normally required, which is important because cobalt is the priciest element used in batteries and is often mined under inhumane conditions. Tesla is on a similar track toward low-cobalt cathodes for the cells destined for future Model 3 production in China. Rather than being cylindrical, those cells will be prismatic. But they will be packaged in aluminum housings instead of the laminate pouches used for GM’s cells. Both designs aim to maximize energy content in a given space, though pouch cells lead the industry at the moment, with 90 to 95 percent packaging efficiency.
Grewe describes the cathode in a lithium-ion cell as a “parking garage” for electric ions. The problem is that the cathode’s oxide structure begins to break down after thousands of charge-discharge cycles. Doping the cathode with aluminum can help avoid degradation, as does adding certain kinds of cladding to the structure, while also boosting thermal stability, “so all the parking spaces stay open,” Grewe says. He affirms that such measures put the industry’s much-discussed “million-mile battery” squarely in sight, a battery that will be especially valuable for the upcoming autonomous Cruise Origin EV.
Those Ultium 1.0 batteries are key to the forthcoming Hummer EV, the high-end version of which generates a shocking 1,000 horsepower from a trio of electric motors. This Hummer should combine a 3-second rip from 0 to 60 miles per hour (0 to 97 km per hour) with commando-worthy off-road skills—and still travel about 640 km (400 miles) on a charge.
GM says even its smallest and most-affordable new EVs will have ranges of at least 482 km (300 miles), despite having packs as small as 50 kWh, about 25 percent less energy than the current Bolt. “If you’re not getting at least 300 miles from a new EV architecture, you’re doing something wrong,” says Andy Oury, GM’s lead engineer for high-voltage battery packs.
It’s not all about range and performance, though. Price is key. Because battery packs are so expensive, legacy automakers continue to lose thousands of dollars on every EV they sell. Even Tesla’s minuscule profits have mainly come from selling emissions credits to rival automakers, not from selling cars.
GM is confident that the Ultium program will drive cell costs below $100/kWh, long the holy grail of battery development, hastening the day when EVs achieve price parity with fossil-fueled cars. But that’s still a ways off: Prices for Li-ion cells may have fallen by 87 percent since 2010, according to analysts at BloombergNEF, but remained a daunting $156/kWh in 2019.
“We haven’t seen the bottom of the cost curve,” Grewe says. Company executives estimate that battery costs are dropping 4 percent per year on average, with energy density rising by roughly the same amount. And GM has boldly announced that it will turn a profit on every Ultium-powered EV it sells.
Even as GM races to bring these new EVs to showrooms, the company is developing ways to produce even better batteries, some that contain zero cobalt and zero nickel. Much better performance could also be in store. At GM’s EV Week in March—where reporters were offered sneak peeks of 11 upcoming EVs—the company showed a working prototype of a lithium-metal cell, built at its Tech Center in suburban Detroit. That lithium-metal battery could provide nearly double the energy density of Ultium 1.0 cells—boosting driving range to 800 or more kilometers—if it could be made to perform reliably in the real world, which is still a big if.
Better batteries alone can’t guarantee success for GM or any other automaker looking to transition its fleet to electricity. They’ll also need to produce cars that people really want, in everything from design to technology.
The Chevrolet Bolt was a solid first step in that direction for GM back in 2016. But the Bolt never really caught on, arriving just as the United States was fleeing small cars for SUVs. So GM will reverse the Bolt’s self-effacing, Birkenstock approach with the decidedly in-your-face Hummer pickup (followed by the SUV), aimed at the same Silicon Valley Bro crowd that’s gone wild for Tesla’s prototype Cybertruck. GM plans to follow the Hummer with nearly 20 all-electric stablemates, including the Cadillac Lyriq SUV, a Caddy sedan, Chevrolet Silverado pickup, and crossovers from Chevy and Buick.
Tesla delivered about 367,000 cars in 2019, whereas GM sells 9 million around the world in a good year. But if you consider just electric vehicles, the tables turn: In the United States, GM sold just 16,400 Bolts in the last year, as Tesla raked in 223,000 enthusiastic customers for its all-electric lineup. GM must leverage its global scale and manufacturing know-how, if it intends to become a serious rival to Tesla.
To start, GM plans to simplify. Its full range of BEV3 offerings, from hulking all-wheel-drive pickups to perky front-drive crossovers, can be built with just 19 combinations of batteries and drivetrains. That compares with 550 combinations for GM’s internal-combustion portfolio.
The jigsaw commonalities of BEV3, paired with Ultium battery modules, will drive down cost and complexity, Oury says. The packs incorporate a load-bearing, crash-worthy structure, cooling, a high-current circuit, and electronic sensors—all in an elegant, space-saving design.
To give one example of how simplicity matters, previous GM packs had fiendishly complex cooling systems, some that grew out of hydrogen-fuel-cell development. Pricey, one-off components hogged space, such as the 150 cooling fins used in GM’s now discontinued Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid. At scale, that’s millions of parts that couldn’t be used on any other GM model, Oury said: “For even 100,000 vehicles, that’s 15 million fins per year, gone.”
In contrast, the Ultium battery modules integrate their own thermal management, “so each module brings along its own scalable cooling,” Oury says. An aluminum plate with thermally conductive adhesive connects cells to a high-strength steel “cold plate.” Pouch cells are “wrapped like a taco” to eliminate lower flanges, saving both cost and mass.
The single-height battery packs in most EVs require design compromises, Oury says. But GM can work around the usual constraints by being able to orient cells horizontally or vertically. That allows power-packed, double-stacked modules for beefy trucks, or slim, vertically oriented modules that boost range for lower-roofed cars without stealing passenger space.
Some Ultium-equipped EVs will squeeze 22 kWh below the rear-seat footwell alone, more than the plug-in Chevy Volt held in its entire pack. “We call it a multiheight battery pack, and it’s unique in the industry for these large-format cells,” Oury says of the seating-friendly arrangement.
GM’s $20 billion move to develop a giga-topping factory, unrivaled pack storage, and a line of 400-mile SUVs and pickups surely has Tesla’s attention. But that competition might well be seen as a good thing, given the company’s stated mission to spur the transition to sustainable energy. If so, Mr. Musk should be very happy this holiday season: GM has given him the gift of a serious rival. Batteries included.
This article appears in the December 2020 print issue as “GM Bets Big on Batteries.”
About the Author
Lawrence Ulrich, an award-winning automobile journalist, regularly writes about cars for many magazines, including IEEE Spectrum.
When Jarod Shelby looked to capture evidence of his SSC Tuatara gunning to new world speed record for production cars—on a public road in Nevada—an iPhone wouldn’t cut it. He had to requisition a T33 jet as the “camera vehicle” to keep pace with his 1,750-horsepower hypercar.
Between that subsonic jet’s gyro-stabilized nose camera, two Guinness record observers, and GPS data from about 15 satellites, the evidence is in: On 10 October, on a 11-kilometer stretch of State Route 160, between Las Vegas and Pahrump, the Tuatara time-warped to an insane top speed of 533 kph—that’s 331.15 mph. That blew away the Koenigsegg Agera RS’s one-way high of 458 kph, achieved on the same closed-down desert highway in 2017. The Tuatara’s two-direction average of 508 kph—the key record, in accordance with rules to account for wind and road-grade changes—easily topped the Bugatti Chiron’s 490-kph pace on Volkswagen’s Ehra-Lessien test track in Germany.
It’s all part of what Shelby dubs “the land-based space race.” If you’re thinking there’s a little competition going on, you’d be right.
The Tuatara represents a decade of development for Shelby, a former go-kart racer and mechanical engineer who founded Shelby Supercars (now SSC North America) in his Richland, Washington hometown in 1998. Shelby—no relation to Carroll Shelby of Ford v. Ferrari fame—first captured the auto world’s attention with his Ultimate Aero, which set its own record in 2007 by nipping 412 kph.
“What’s crazy to me is how technology advances,” Shelby says. “When we broke the world record in 2007, it was so difficult to design a car to surpass the McLaren. Who would have thought that 13 years later, we’d go 75-mph faster, in a car that you could drive to dinner with your wife and valet?”
Valet? If you can afford the Tuatara’s US $1.9-million price, you can afford Jeeves, too.
The Tuatara’s fast food includes a twin-turbo, 5.9-liter, all-alloy V-8 created by Nelson Racing Engines, the Chatsworth, Calif. company that builds specialized powerplants for racing and the street. The clean-sheet design features a flat-plane crankshaft and a lofty 8,800-rpm redline.
Tom Nelson, the company’s founder, says the bespoke engine sounds… glorious.
“It’s like a mechanical symphony to me,” Nelson says. “And at the top end is where I really love the sound.”
No detail was left to chance for the record run by Oliver Webb, the 29-year-old British pro whose resume includes a European LeMans Series championship. For one, unlike a Bugatti, backed by the global might of the VW Group, Shelby couldn’t blow up his roughly $150,000 engine and casually drop in another. Its single engine not only survived a year of rigorous testing and development, but helped set the speed record on its first attempt. For buyers of the seven-figure beast — even if most will never see even 240 kph (150 mph)—durability is a rightful concern. Shelby plans to build 100 copies of the Tuatara, aptly named after a New Zealand reptile whose DNA is among the fastest-evolving of any vertebrate.
The engine’s turbine wheels, exhaust valves and 3D-printed exhaust collectors are formed from Inconel, the nickel-chromium-based super alloy that’s used in Formula One racing. Connecting rods are a special grade of titanium. Machined-gold pins connect wiring harnesses, ensuring they don’t loosen or corrode. Rotating masses are trimmed by 25 percent versus even Nelson’s typical engines, quelling the second-order vibrations large, flat-crank engines are prone to have. An army of sensors, including 11 for exhaust temperatures alone, will put the Tuatara in a protective limp mode if any operating parameter exceeds tolerances by 15 percent. The engine’s jewel-like build shined through when Nelson and his team ran the engine well beyond its normal range on a test balancer.
“You can spin this crankshaft to 10,000-rpm, put a wine glass on the balancer, and it won’t move,” Nelson says.
The computerized oversight came in handy in a week of “low-speed,” roughly 400-kph preliminary tests in Washington state, when the Tuatara’s exhaust-gas temperatures shot as high as 1, 077 degrees Celsius (1,970 degrees Fahrenheit).
“We couldn’t figure out what was going on, and we were going to abort,” Nelson says.
The team theorized that fuel ignition was lagging because the ignition coils weren’t going to ground quickly enough. A new resistor in the ignition system did the trick.
“It was like magic, the exhaust temperatures dropped 300 degrees,” Nelson says.
All the power in the world won’t help if a hypercar can’t overcome monstrous aerodynamic drag as it approaches 500 kph. Jason Castriota, the former Pininfarina designer responsible for several Ferrari and Maserati models, penned the rear-drive Tuatara’s slippery shape. That includes a class-best coefficient of drag of 0.279. That compares with a relatively truck-like .340 for the $1 million McLaren P1, one of history’s fastest showroom cars. A circulatory system of air channels directing air in and out of the body helps the Tuatara defeat drag, keeps systems cool and generates better than 360 kilograms (800 pounds) of downforce at V-Max. That keeps the car pinned to the ground while maintaining its ideal balance, with 63 percent of aero pressure over rear wheels, from 240 kph to its apogee, at which point the Tuatara was covering 1.5 football fields per second.
Stability became more critical after dawn on 10 Oct., as a slight but perilous crosswind made for a hair-raising record attempt. Forecasts called for winds to soon top the 10-mph safety limit. The mildest ripple beyond that, and Webb would be taking his young life in his hands. Webb’s wife was home in Los Angeles, seven months pregnant and too anxious to watch.
With nearly 200 people on site, including a film crew, Webb grew concerned about mounting pressures and expectations. Reality was intruding, quickly: This was a two-lane thread of asphalt through the Mojave, traversed daily by tourists dreaming of a Vegas payday, not a wide-open airport tarmac or racetrack with runoff and barriers for safety.
“He said, ‘I’m only going to do one more run; I’m willing to go one more time and give it my all.’” Shelby recalls.
Webb blasted off, focusing eyes as far into the distance as possible, the dotted-white line going solid in his vision as the howling Tuatara punched a hole through the air. Shelby and his two sons jumped into a rental van and raced to the end of the course. They encountered Webb, overcome with emotion, and figured the record bid had failed.
“Oliver was sitting on the ground when we pulled up, head in hands, and it didn’t look good,” Shelby says. “He said, ‘I’m done, I’m never doing this again; the wind pushed me right onto the shoulders.”
“But all of a sudden he looked up, smiled, and said, “I saw a really big number on the display, but I had to look away to save the car.”
Pulling the data, Shelby saw that big, big number: 331.15 mph. Webb stretched out on his back on the highway, exultant.
“He was the fastest man on the planet,” Shelby says of Webb. “And this isn’t the finish line. We’re ready to scale up, and look forward to working with customers.”
The land-speed battle isn’t settled, either. Along with Sweden’s Koenigsegg, Texas’ John Hennessey may be gunning to top SSC’s breakneck pace. They’d better ante up. Nelson says the car was running about 200 horses below its ultimate capacity. Webb, in the swashbuckling style of a born racer, says the Tuatara has more to give.
“With better conditions, I know we could have gone faster,” Webb says. “As I approached 331 mph, the Tuatara climbed almost 20 mph within the last five seconds, and it was still pulling well. The crosswinds are all that prevented us from realizing the car’s limit.”
When the battery dies in your smartphone, what do you do? You complain bitterly about its too-short lifespan, even as you shell out big bucks for a new device.
Electric vehicles can’t work that way: Cars need batteries that last as long as the vehicles do. One way of getting to that goal is by keeping close tabs on every battery in every EV, both to extend a battery’s life and to learn how to design longer-lived successors.
IEEE Spectrum got an exclusive look at General Motors’ wireless battery management system. It’s a first in any EV anywhere (not even Tesla has one). The wireless technology, created with Analog Devices, Inc., will be standard on a full range of GM EVs, with the company aiming for at least 1 million global sales by mid-decade.
Those vehicles will be powered by GM’s proprietary Ultium batteries, produced at a new US $2.3 billion plant in Ohio, in partnership with South Korea’s LG Chem.
Unlike today’s battery modules, which link up to an on-board management system through a tangle of orange wiring, GM’s system features RF antennas integrated on circuit boards. The antennas allow the transfer of data via a 2.4-gigahertz wireless protocol similar to Bluetooth but with lower power. Slave modules report back to an onboard master, sending measurements of cell voltages and other data. That onboard master can also talk through the cloud to GM.
The upshot is cradle-to-grave monitoring of battery health and operation, including real-time data from drivers in wildly different climates or usage cases. That all-seeing capability includes vast inventories of batteries—even before workers install them in cars on assembly lines.
“You can have one central warehouse monitoring all these devices,” says Fiona Meyer-Teruel, GM’s lead engineer for battery system electronics.
GM can essentially plug-and-play battery modules for a vast range of EVs, including heavy-duty trucks and sleek performance cars, without having to redesign wiring harnesses or communications systems for each. That can help the company speed models to market and ensure the profitability that has eluded most EV makers. GM engineers and executives said they’ve driven the cost of Ultium batteries, with their nickel-cobalt-manganese-aluminum chemistry, below the $100 per kilowatt-hour mark—long a Holy Grail for battery development. And GM has vowed that it will turn a profit on every Ultium-powered car it makes.
The wireless management system will let those EVs balance the charge within individual battery cell groups for optimal performance. Software and battery nodes can be reprogrammed over-the-air. With that in mind, the system was designed with end-to-end encryption to prevent hacking.
Repurposing partially spent batteries also gets easier because there’s no need to overhaul the management system or fiddle with hard-to-recycle wiring. Wireless packs can go straight into their new roles, typically as load-balancing workhorses for the grid.
“You can easily rescale the batteries for a second life, when they’re down to, say, 70-percent performance,” says Meyer-Teruel.
The enormous GM and LG Chem factory, now under construction, will have the capacity to produce 30 gigawatt-hours of batteries each year, 50 percent more than Tesla’s Gigafactory in Nevada. The plant investment is a fraction of the $20 billion that GM is slated to pour into electric and autonomous cars by 2025, en route to the “all-electric future” touted by CEO Mary Barra.
A reborn, electric GMC Hummer with up to 1,000 horsepower will be the first of about 20 GM Ultium-powered models, mainly for the U.S. and Chinese markets, when it reaches showrooms next year. It will be followed by a Cadillac Lyriq crossover SUV in 2022, and soon thereafter by an electric Chevrolet pickup.
Andy Oury, GM’s lead architect for high-voltage batteries, said those customers will see benefits from the wireless system, without necessarily having to buy a new car.
“Say, seven years from now, a customer needs an Ultium 1.0 battery, but we’re already using 2.0.,” Oury said. “As long as they’re compatible, we can install the better one: Just broadcast the new chemistry, and incorporate new calibration tables to run it.”
Tim Grewe, GM’s director of global electrification, says consumers may soon expect batteries to last four to five times as long as today’s, and companies need to respond. To that end, the wireless system stores metadata from each cell. Real-time battery health checks will refocus the network of modules and sensors when needed, safeguarding battery health over the vehicle’s lifespan. Vehicle owners will be able to opt in or out of more extensive monitoring of driving patterns. Analyzing that granular data, Grewe said, can tease out tiny differences between battery batches, suppliers, or performance in varying regions and climates.
“It’s not that we’re getting bad batteries today, but there’s a lot of small variations,” says Grewe. “Now we can run the data: Was that electrolyte a little different, was the processing of that electrode coating a little different?
“Now, no matter where it is—in the factory, assembling the car, or down the line—we have a record of cloud-based data and machine learning to draw upon.”
The eco-friendly approach eliminates about a kilogram per vehicle, as well as three meters of wiring. Jettisoning nearly 90 percent of pack wiring ekes out another advantage: Throughout the industry, wired battery connectors demand enough physical clearance for human techs to squeeze two fingers inside. Eliminating the wiring and touchpoints carves out room to stuff more batteries into a given space, with a lower-profile design. Which leaves plenty of room for a thumbs-up.
Norway, already a world leader in EV adoption, will soon mark a world’s first: An Oslo-based fleet of Jaguar I-Pace taxis that can charge wirelessly even as they queue up for passengers.
That inductive charging technology, developed by a former NASA engineer at Pennsylvania-based Momentum Dynamics, aims to solve perhaps the biggest disconnect in EVs: How to bring convenient charging to the urban masses—including apartment dwellers and drivers of taxis, buses, and delivery trucks—without clogging every inch of prime real estate with bulky, unsightly chargers. The conundrum becomes more pressing with the introduction of new electric models, and each additional government mandate for fewer fossil-fueled cars and lower carbon emissions.
A great example of that action to combat climate-change is Oslo, whose ambitious ElectriCity plan will require that all taxis produce zero tailpipe emissions by 2024—effectively banning even gasoline-electric hybrid models. The result of punitive taxes on fossil-fueled cars and enticing incentives for electric models: 50 percent of Norway’s new cars are now EVs, a higher percentage by far than any nation. Norway’s government has decreed that all new cars must be zero-emissions by 2025.
That carrot-and-stick urgency led to a partnership between Jaguar, Momentum Dynamics, Nordic taxi operator Cabonline, and charging company Fortam Recharge. The group aims to create the world’s first wireless-charging taxi fleet. To that end, Jaguar is equipping 25 I-Pace SUVs with Momentum Dynamic’s inductive charging pads. The pads, which are about 60 cm square, are rated at 50 to 75 kilowatts. As the cars work their way through taxi queues, the Jaguars will stop over a series of inductive coils embedded in the pavement. Using resonant magnetic coupling operating at 85 hertz, a charging pad will route enough energy to a taxi’s batteries add about 80 kilometers of range for every 15 minutes hovering over the inductive coils—with no physical plugs or human hookup required.
Rather than fill batteries to the brim, the idea is to replenish them in shorter bursts whenever the opportunity arises.
“The concept is grazing, rather than guzzling,” says Andrew Daga, chief executive of Momentum Dynamics. “You just keep adding energy back in as you need it.”
Daga argues that current charging models—including the “one car, one plug” idea and the reliance on ever-more-potent DC chargers that can degrade battery life—are ultimately unworkable for congested cities, mobility fleets, and impatient drivers or riders.
“More frequent interactions with the grid are necessary,” Daga said. “It’s all about thinking differently about how fueling is going to be done in a world of electric vehicles.”
The company’s breakthrough was born from outer space and inner snow. Daga’s co-founder, Bruce Long, who died in 2018, was an electrical engineering professor at Bucknell University. During Antarctic expeditions to measure glacial activity for Penn State’s geophysics program, brutal elements inspired a wireless solution for recharging electronic equipment. Fine snow kept blowing into Long’s sensitive instruments whenever their cases were cracked open to replace batteries. Daga, who had worked on the 35-meter-long solar power arrays of NASA’s International Space Station, had already been envisioning ways to reduce their weighty aluminum cabling. That sparked the wireless energy transfer idea that’s the basis for Momentum Dynamics’ current project.
The company is also collaborating with China’s EV giant Geely, which also owns Volvo and Lotus. Momentum executives say they’ve also struck a deal with an unnamed European manufacturer to produce a wireless charging urban delivery truck.
This is just the latest turn in the road for Momentum Dynamics. In 2015, the company began proving its concept with electric bus trials in four U.S. cities. The transit trials featured a Chinese-built BYD bus in Wenatchee, Wash. that slurped energy from a charging pad installed along its route at a rate of 200 kilowatts. That’s on par with some of the fastest DC chargers, enough to “keep the bus in 24/7 operation, without ever going back to the garage” to recharge, Daga says.
Daga points out that taxi or ride-hailing drivers are genetically disposed to avoid downtime—whether that means waiting in line for gasoline pumps or detouring for lengthy charges at depots. With an inductive system, “they won’t lose a single minute of revenue time charging their vehicle.”
The company claims its technology delivers 94-percent charging efficiency, which holds steady as scalable power climbs to 200 or even 350 kilowatts. That’s a winning contrast with DC fast chargers, whose efficiency drops sharply at higher power because of massive resistance and the resulting heat that demands liquid-cooled cables, which themselves create more energy losses.
“It’s the perfect charging technology,” said Morgan Lind, chief operating officer of Recharge Infra, a division of Fortam. Recharge Infra tabbed Momentum Dynamics after learning it could deliver 50 kilowatts or more through a roughly 18-centimeter air gap between vehicle and pavement—a huge improvement over companies that promised no more than 11 kilowatts.
Backers cite several spin-off benefits. With systems buried entirely underground, the plan eliminates: chargers to compete for prime parking space or sidewalks; moving parts and worries about vandalism or damage from elements; and wired infrastructure, including unsightly towers and arms for electric buses, to pollute the view.
“It makes the experience of refueling invisible,” Daga said. “We could get clean cities and clean streets at the same time.”
Furthermore, says Daga, inductive systems will deliver a daisy chain of gains. With enough charging pads, they could keep vehicle batteries in a permanent “sweet spot” between 75 and 85 percent capacity, avoiding deep cycling that kills batteries before their time. Largely freed from range concerns, EVs could carry smaller battery packs, trimming their daunting weight and cost, while further boosting energy efficiency.
For taxi fleets or passenger cars, Momentum Dynamics is developing software to track even the briefest charging events and bill customers automatically, similar to an automated tolling system. The company has also developed a near-field communication system, which would allow autonomous cars to align and connect with charging pads. Bi-directional charging could let cars contribute supplementary power to the grid.
Lind says the Jaguar taxis should start running their meters, and no-fuss chargers, by year’s end. Lind called Norway—with five million residents, but a determination to wean itself off of fossil-fueled vehicles—an ideal, if tiny, test bench.
“We are an extremely small country, but we see that we can be a guiding star to many other countries,” says Lind. “The avalanche of EVs is coming, and there’s no stopping it.”
A gasoline engine up front, a transmission in the middle, and a fuel tank in back: For decades, that’s the way most automobiles were designed.
Electricity has changed that equation. And the Bollinger B1 sport-utility and B2 pickup are among the new electric vehicles (EVs) that show car designers are taking full advantage of the freedoms afforded by electric propulsion.
Bollinger Motors, based in suburban Detroit, this week announced it has received U.S. patents for its clever Frunkgate and Passthrough features on its brawny US $125,000 electric SUV and pickup.
The race to bring self-driving cars to showrooms may have a new leader: Volvo Cars said it will partner with Silicon Valley-based lidar manufacturer Luminar to deliver genuine hands-free, eyes-off-the-road highway driving beginning in 2022. That so-called “Level 3” capability would be an industry first, as companies from Tesla to Uber thus far have failed to meet lofty promises to make autonomous driving a reality.
Sweden’s Volvo, owned by Geely Holdings of China, said that models based on its upcoming SPA2 platform (for “Scalable Product Architecture”) will be hardware-enabled for Luminar’s roof-mounted lidar system. That includes the upcoming Polestar 3 from Volvo’s new electric-car division, and a range of Volvo-branded cars and SUVs. Henrik Green, chief technology officer for Volvo, said the optional “Highway Pilot” system would allow full autonomous driving, but only “when the car determines it is safe to do so.”
“At that point, your Volvo takes responsibility for the driving and you can relax, take your eyes off the road and your hands off the wheel,” Green said. “Over time, updates over-the-air will expand the areas in which the car can drive itself. For us, a safe introduction of autonomy is a gradual introduction.”
Luminar’s lidar system scans a car’s surroundings in real time, firing millions of pulses of light to create a virtual 3D map without relying on GPS or a network connection. Most experts agree that lidar is a critical linchpin of any truly autonomous car. A high-profile skeptic is Elon Musk, who has no plans to employ lidar in his Teslas, and scoffs at the technology as redundant and unnecessary.
Austin Russell, founder and chief executive of Luminar, disagrees.
“If cameras could do everything you can do with lidar, great. But if you really want to get in the autonomous game, this is a clear requirement.”
The 25-year-old Russell said his company’s high-performance lidar sensors, operating at 1550 nanometers and 64 lines of resolution, can spot even small and low-reflective objects—black cars, animals, a child darting across a road—at a range beyond 200 meters, and up to 500 meters for larger, brighter objects. The high-signal, low-noise system can deliver camera-level vision at 200 meters even in rain, fog or snow, he said. That range, Russell said, is critical to give cars the data and time to solve edge cases and make confident decisions, even when hurtling at freeway speeds.
“Right now, you don’t have reliable interpretation,” with camera, GPS or radar systems, Russell said. “You can guess what’s ahead of you 99 percent of the time, but the problem is that last one percent. And a 99-percent pedestrian detection rate doesn’t cut it, not remotely close.”
In a Zoom interview from Palo Alto, Russell held up two prototype versions, a roof-mounted unit roughly the size of a TV cable box, and a smaller unit that would mount on bumpers. The elegant systems incorporate a single laser and receiver, rather than the bulky, expensive, stacked arrays of lower-performance systems. Luminar built all its components and software in-house, Russell said, and is already on its eighth generation of ASIC chip controllers.
The roof-mounted unit can deliver 120 degrees of forward vision, Russell said, plenty for Volvo’s application that combines lidar with cameras, radar, backup GPS and electrically controlled steering and braking. For future robotaxi applications with no human pilot aboard, cars would combine three to five lidar sensors to deliver full 360-degree vision. The unit will also integrate with Volvo’s Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS), improving such features as automated emergency braking, which global automakers have agreed to make standard in virtually all vehicles by 2022.
The range and performance, Russell said, is key to solving the conundrums that have frustrated autonomous developers.
The industry has hit a wall, unable to make the technical leap to Level 3, with cars so secure in their abilities that owners could perform tasks such as texting, reading or even napping. Last week, Audi officially quit its longstanding claims that its new A8 sedan would do just that, with its Traffic Jam Pilot system. Musk is luring consumers to pay $7,000 up-front for “Full Self-Driving” features that have yet to materialize, and that he claims would allow them to use their Teslas as money-making robotaxis.
Current Level 2 systems, including Tesla’s Autopilot and Cadillac’s SuperCruise, often disengage when they can’t safely process their surroundings. Those disengagements, or even their possibility, demand that drivers continue to pay attention to the road at all times. And when systems do work effectively, drivers can fall out of the loop and be unable to quickly retake control. Russell acknowledged that those limitations leave current systems feeling like a parlor trick: If a driver must still pay full attention to the road, why not just keep driving the old-fashioned way?
“Assuming perfect use, it’s fine as a novelty or convenience,” Russell said. “But it’s easy to get lulled into a sense of safety. Even when you’re really trying to maintain attention, to jump back into the game is very difficult.”
Ideally, Russell said, a true Level 3 system would operate for years and hundreds or thousands of miles and never disengage without generous advance warning.
“From our perspective, spontaneous handoffs that require human intervention are not safe,” he said. “It can’t be, ‘Take over in 500 milliseconds or I’m going to run into a wall.’”
One revolution of Level 3, he said, is that drivers would actually begin to recover valuable time for productivity, rest or relaxation. The other is safety, and the elusive dream of sharply reducing roadway crashes that kill 1.35 million people a year around the world.
Volvo cautioned that its Highway Pilot, whose price is up in the air, would initially roll out in small volumes, and steadily expand across its lineup. Volvo’s announcement included an agreement to possibly increase its minority stake in Luminar. But Luminar said it is also working with 12 of the world’s top 15 automakers in various stages of lidar development. And Russell said that, whichever manufacturer makes them, lidar-based safety and self-driving systems will eventually become an industry standard.
“Driving adoption throughout the larger industry is the right move,” he said. “That’s how you save the most lives and create the most value.”
The sudden arrival of the new coronavirus has caused shortages of ventilators, face masks, and respirators. And those shortages have now sparked automakers, quite unexpectedly, to enter the business of manufacturing critical medical equipment.
On the surface, it makes little sense: What do the makers of Mustangs and Chevrolet Volts know about ventilators? Automakers have been first to admit—not much at all.
“We’re not the experts here, but we can help the experts,” Mike Levine, Ford spokesman, said in a phone interview.
Instead of reinventing the wheel, automakers are leveraging their expertise in fast manufacturing, logistics, and supply-chain operations. Ford CEO Jim Hackett has said it currently takes GE about 27 hours to build a ventilator, but estimates Ford can cut production time in half, to around 13 hours.
In 2019, the auto industry finally started acting like its future was electric. How do we know? Just follow the money.
General Motors just announced it was spending US $20 billion over five years to bring out a new generation of electric vehicles. Volkswagen Group has pledged $66 billion spread over five years, most of it for electric propulsion. Ford hopes to transform its lineup and image with an $11.5 billion program to develop EVs. And of course, Tesla has upstaged them all with the radical, scrapyard-from-Mars Cybertruck, a reminder that Elon Musk will remain a threat to the automotive order for the foreseeable future.
This past year, I saw the first fruit of Volkswagen Group’s massive investment: the Porsche Taycan, a German sport sedan that sets new benchmarks in performance and fast charging. It lived up to all the hype, I’m happy to say. As for Tesla and Ford, stay tuned. The controversial Tesla Cybertruck, the hotly anticipated Ford Mustang Mach-E, and the intriguing Rivian pickup and SUV (which has been boosted by $500 million in backing from Ford) are still awaiting introduction. EV fans, as ever, must be patient: The Mach-E won’t reach showrooms until late this year, and as for the Rivian and Cybertruck, who knows?
As is our habit, we focus here on cars that are already in showrooms or will be within the next few months. And we do include some good old gasoline-powered cars. Our favorite is the Corvette: It adopts a mid-engine design for the first time in its 67-year history. Yes, an electrified version is in the works.
Chevrolet Corvette Stingray C8
The middle: where no Corvette engine has gone before
Base price: US $59,995
By now, even casual car fans have heard that the Corvette has gone mid-engine. It’s a radical realignment for a car famous for big V8s nestling below long, flowing hoods since the ’Vette’s birth in 1953. Best of all, it works, and it means the Stingray will breathe down the necks of Ferraris, McLarens, and other mid-engine exotics—but at a ridiculous base price of just US $59,995.
Tadge Juechter, the Corvette’s chief engineer, says that the previous, seventh-generation model had reached the limits of front-engine physics. By rebalancing weight rearward, the new design allows the Stingray to put almost preposterous power to the pavement without sacrificing the comfort and everyday drivability that buyers demand.
I got my first taste of these new physics near the old stagecoach town of Tortilla Flat, Ariz. Despite having barely more grunt than last year’s base model—369 kilowatts (495 horsepower) from the 6.2-liter V8 rumbling just behind my right shoulder—the Corvette scorches to 60 miles per hour (97 kilometers per hour) nearly a full second quicker, at a supercar-baiting 2.9 seconds.
This Stingray should top out at around 190 mph. And there are rumors of mightier versions in the works, perhaps even an electric or hybrid ’Vette with at least 522 kW (700 hp).
With the engine out back, driver and passenger sit virtually atop the front axle, 42 centimeters (16.5 inches) closer to the action, wrapped in a fighter-jet-inspired cockpit with a clearer view over a dramatically lowered hood. Thanks to a new eight-speed, dual-clutch automated gearbox, magnetorheological shocks, and a limited-slip rear differential—all endlessly adjustable—my Corvette tamed every outlaw curve, bump, and dip in its Old West path. It’s so stable and composed that you’ll need a racetrack to approach its performance limits. It’s still fun on public roads, but you can tell that it’s barely breaking a sweat.
Yet it’s nearly luxury-car smooth and quiet when you’re not romping on throttle. And it’s thrifty. Figure on 9 to 8.4 liters per 100 kilometers (26 to 28 miles per gallon) at a steady highway cruise, including sidelining half its cylinders to save fuel. A sleek convertible model does away with the coupe’s peekaboo view of the splendid V8 through a glass cover. The upside is an ingenious roof design that folds away without hogging a cubic inch of cargo space. Unlike any other mid-engine car in the world, the Corvette will also fit two sets of golf clubs (or equivalent luggage) in a rear trunk, in addition to the generously sized “frunk” up front.
The downside to that convenience is a yacht-size rear deck that makes—how shall we put this?—the Chevy’s butt look fat.
An onboard Performance Data Recorder works like a real-life video game, capturing point-of-view video and granular data on any drive, overlaying the video with telemetry readouts, and allowing drivers to analyze lap times and performance with Cosworth racing software. The camera-and-GPS system allows any road or trip to be stored and analyzed as though it was a timed circuit—perfect for those record-setting grocery runs.
This hybrid is tuned for performance
Base price: US $156,500
Consider the Polestar 1 a tech tease from Volvo. This fiendishly complex plug-in hybrid will be seen in just 1,500 copies, built over three years in a showpiece, enviro-friendly factory in Chengdu, China. Just as important, it’s the first of several planned Polestars, a Volvo sub-brand that aims to expand the company’s electric reach around the globe.
I drove mine in New Jersey, scooting from Hoboken to upstate New York, as fellow drivers craned their necks to glimpse this tuxedo-sharp, hand-built luxury GT. The body panels are formed from carbon fiber, trimming 227 kilograms (500 pounds) from what’s still a 2,345-kg (5,170-pound) ride. Front wheels are driven by a four-cylinder gas engine, whose combo of a supercharger and turbocharger generates 243 kilowatts (326 horses) from just 2.0 liters of displacement, with another 53 kW (71 hp) from an integrated starter/generator. Two 85-kW electric motors power the rear wheels, allowing some 88 kilometers (55 miles) of emissions-free range—likely a new high for a plug-in hybrid—before the gas engine kicks in. Mashing the throttle summons some 462 kW (619 hp) and 1,000 newton meters (737 pound-feet) of torque, allowing a 4.2-second dash to 60 miles per hour (97 kilometers per hour). It’s fast, but not lung-crushing fast, like Porsche’s Taycan.
Yet the Polestar’s handling is slick, thanks to those rear motors, which work independently, allowing torque vectoring—the speeding or slowing of individual wheels—to boost agility. And Öhlins shock absorbers, from the renowned racing and performance brand, combine precise body control with a creamy-smooth ride. It’s a fun drive, but Polestar’s first real test comes this summer with the Polestar 2 EV. That fastback sedan’s $63,750 base price and roughly 440-km (275-mile) range will see it square off against Tesla’s sedans. Look for it in next year’s Top 10.
It has the automation of a much pricier car
Base price: US $24,330
The U.S. market for family sedans has been gutted by SUVs. But rather than give up on sedans, as Ford and Fiat Chrysler have done, Hyundai has doubled down with a 2020 Sonata that’s packed with luxury-level tech and alluring design at a mainstream price.
The Sonata is packed with features that were recently found only on much costlier cars. The list includes Hyundai’s SmartSense package of forward-collision avoidance, automated emergency braking, lane-keeping assist, automatic high-beam assist, adaptive cruise control, and a drowsy-driver attention warning, and they’re all standard, even in the base model. The SEL model adds a blind-spot monitor, but with a cool tech twist: Flick a turn signal and a circle-shaped camera view of the Sonata’s blind spot appears in the digital gauge cluster in front of the driver. It helped me spot bicyclists in city traffic.
Hyundai’s latest infotainment system, with a 10-inch (26-centimeter) monitor, remains one of the industry’s most intuitive touch screens. Taking a page from much more expensive BMWs, the Hyundai’s new “smart park” feature, standard on the top-shelf Limited model, lets it pull into or out of a tight parking spot or garage with no driver aboard, controlled by the driver through the key fob.
That fob can be replaced by a digital key, which uses an Android smartphone app, Bluetooth Low Energy, and Near Field Communication to unlock and start the car. Owners can share digital-key access with up to three users, including sending codes via the Web.
Even the Sonata’s hood is festooned with fancy electronics. What first looks like typical chrome trim turns out to illuminate with increasing intensity as the strips span the fenders and merge into the headlamps. The chrome was laser-etched to allow a grid of 0.05-millimeter LED squares to shine through. Add it to the list of bright ideas from Hyundai.
It outperforms Tesla—for a price
Base price: US $114,340
Yes, the all-electric Porsche Taycan is better than a Tesla Model S. And it had damn well better be: The Porsche is a far newer design, and it sells at up to double the Tesla’s price. What you get for all that is a four-door supercar GT, a technological marvel that starts the clock ticking on the obsolescence of fossil-fueled automobiles.
This past September I spent two days driving the Taycan Turbo S through Denmark and Germany. One high point was repeated runs to 268 kilometers per hour (167 miles per hour) on the Autobahn, faster than I’ve ever driven an EV. From a standing start, an automated launch mode summoned 560 kilowatts (750 horsepower) for a time-warping 2.6-second dash to 60 mph.
As alert readers have by now surmised, the Taycan is fast. But one of its best time trials takes place with the car parked. Thanks to the car’s groundbreaking 800-volt electrical architecture—with twice the voltage of the Tesla’s—charging is dramatically quicker. Doubling the voltage means the current needed to deliver a given level of power is of course halved. Pulling off the Autobahn during my driving test and connecting the liquid-cooled cables of a 350-kW Ionity charger, I watched the Porsche suck in enough DC to replenish its 93.4-kW battery from 8 to 80 percent in 20 minutes flat.
Based on my math, the Porsche added nearly 50 miles of range for every 5 minutes of max charging. In the time it takes to hit the bathroom and pour a coffee, owners can add about 160 kilometers (100 miles) of range toward the Taycan’s total, estimated at 411 to 450 km (256 to 280 miles) under the new Worldwide Harmonized Light Vehicle Test Procedure. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) seems to have sandbagged the Porsche, pegging its range at 201 miles, even as test drivers report getting 270 miles or more. Porsche hopes to have 600 of the ultrafast DC chargers up and running in the United States by the end of this year.
That 800-volt operation brings other advantages, too. With less current to carry, the wiring is slimmer and lighter, saving 30 kilograms in the electrical harness alone. Also, less current is drawn during hard driving, which reduces heat and wear on the electric motors. Porsche says that’s key to the Taycan’s repeatable, consistent performance.
In its normal driving mode, the Turbo S version kicks out 460 kW (617 horsepower) and 1,049 newton meters (774 pound-feet) of torque. The front and back axles each have an electric motor with a robust 600-amp inverter; in other models the front gets 300 amps and the rear gets 600 amps.
The Porsche’s other big edge is its race-bred handling. Though this sedan tops 2,310 kg (5,100 pounds), its serenity at boggling speeds is unmatched. Credit the full arsenal of Porsche’s chassis technology: four-wheel-steering, active roll stabilization, and an advanced air suspension offering three levels of stiffness, based on three separate pressurized chambers. Porsche claims class-leading levels of brake-energy recuperation. It’s also Porsche’s most aerodynamic production model, with a drag coefficient of just 0.22, about as good as any mass-production car ever.
Porsche invested US $1 billion to develop the Taycan, with $800 million of that going to a new factory in Zuffenhausen, Germany. For a fairer fight with Tesla, a more-affordable 4S model arrives in U.S. showrooms this summer, with up to 420 kW (563 hp) and a base price of $103,800.
Audi RS Q8
Mild hybrid, wild ride
Base price (est.): US $120,000
I’m rocketing up a dormant volcano to the highest peak in Spain, Mt. Teide in the Canary Islands. There may be more efficient ways to test a luxury crossover SUV, but none more fun.
I’m in the Audi RS Q8, a mild-hybrid version of the Q8, introduced just last year. I’m getting a lesson in how tech magic can make a roughly 2,310-kilogram (5,100-pound) vehicle accelerate, turn, and brake like a far smaller machine.
The RS Q8’s pulsing heart is a 4-liter, 441-kilowatt (591-horsepower) twin-turbo V8. It’s augmented by a mild-hybrid system based on a 48-volt electrical architecture that sends up to 12 kW to charge a lithium-ion battery. That system also powers trick electromechanical antiroll bars to keep the body flatter than a Marine’s haircut during hard cornering. An adaptive air suspension hunkers down at speed to reduce drag and center of gravity, while Quattro all-wheel drive and four-wheel steering provide stability.
A mammoth braking system, largely shared with the Lamborghini Urus, the Audi’s corporate cousin, includes insane 10-piston calipers up front. That means 10 pressure points for the brake pads against the spinning brake discs, for brawny stopping power and improved heat management and pedal feel. Optional carbon-ceramic brakes trim 19 pounds from each corner.
Audi’s engineers fine-tuned it all in scores of trials on Germany’s fabled Nürburgring circuit, which the RS Q8 stormed in 7 minutes, 42 seconds. That’s faster than any other SUV in history.
Audi’s digital Virtual Cockpit and MMI Touch center screens are smoothly integrated in a flat panel. A navigation system analyzes past drives to nearby destinations, looking at logged data on traffic density and the time of day. And the Audi Connect, an optional Android app that can be used by up to five people, can unlock and start the Audi.
Audi quotes a conservative 3.8-second catapult from 0 to 100 kilometers per hour (62 miles per hour). We’re betting on 0 to 60 mph in 3.5 seconds, maybe less.
The Manhattan skyline paints a stunning backdrop across the harbor. My Red Hook apartment happens to be a short walk from this temporary circuit; so is the neighborhood Tesla showroom, and an Ikea and a Whole Foods, both equipped with EV chargers. In other words, this densely populated city is perfect for the compact, maneuverable, electric Mini, that most stylish of urban conveyances.
It’s efficient, too, as Britain’s Mini first proved 61 years ago, with the front-drive car that Sir Alec Issigonis created in response to the gasoline rationing in Britain following the 1956 Suez crisis. This Mini squeezes 32.6 kilowatt-hours worth of batteries into a T-shaped pack below its floor without impinging on cargo space. At a hair over 1,360 kilograms (3,000 pounds), this Mini adds only about 110 kg to a base gasoline Cooper.
With a 135-kilowatt (181-horsepower) electric motor under its handsome hood, the Mini sails past the Formula E grandstand, quickening my pulse with its go-kart agility and its ethereal, near-silent whir. The body sits nearly 2 centimeters higher than the gasoline version, to accommodate 12 lithium-ion battery modules, but the center of gravity drops by 3 cm (1.2 inches), a net boost to stability and handling. Because the Mini has neither an air-inhaling radiator grille nor an exhaust-exhaling pipe, it’s tuned for better aerodynamics as well.
A single-speed transmission means I never have to shift, though I do fiddle with the toggle switch that dials up two levels of regenerative braking. That BMW electric power train, with 270 newton meters (199 pound-feet) of instant-on torque, punts me from 0 to 60 miles per hour (0 to 97 kilometers per hour) in just over 7 seconds, plenty frisky for such a small car. The company claims a new wheelspin actuator reacts to traction losses notably faster, a sprightliness that’s particularly gratifying when gunning the SE around a corner.
It all reminds me of that time when the Tesla Roadster was turning heads and EVs were supposed to be as compact and light as possible to save energy. The downside is that a speck-size car can fit only so much battery. The Mini’s has less than one-third the capacity of the top Tesla Model S. That’s only enough for a mini-size range of 177 km (110 miles). That relatively tiny battery helps deliver an appealing base price of $23,250, including a $7,500 federal tax credit. And this is still a hyperefficient car: On a subsequent drive in crawling Miami traffic, the Mini is on pace for 201 km (125 miles) of range, though its battery contains the equivalent of less than 0.9 gallon of gasoline.
Following a full 4-hour charge on a basic Level 2 charger, you’ll be zipping around town again, your conscience as clear as the air around the Mini.
Vintage Fiat 124 Spider, Retooled by Electric GT
A drop-in electric-drive system gives new life to an old car—like this 1982 Spider
System base price: US $32,500
Vintage-car aficionados love to grouse about the time and money it takes to keep their babies running. Electric GT has a better idea: Skip ahead a century. The California company has developed an ingenious plug-and-play “crate motor” that transplants an electric heart into most any vintage gasoline car.
I drove an orange 1982 Fiat 124 Spider that Electric GT converted to battery drive. With a relatively potent 89 kilowatts (120 horsepower) and 235 newton meters (173 pound-feet) of torque below its hood, and 25 kilowatt-hours’ worth of repurposed Tesla batteries stuffed into its trunk area, the Fiat can cover up to 135 kilometers (85 miles) of driving range, enough for a couple hours of top-down cruising.
Best of all, the system is designed to integrate exclusively with manual-transmission cars, including the Fiat’s charming wood-topped shifter and five forward gears. This romantic, Pininfarina-designed Fiat also squirts to 60 miles per hour in about 7 seconds, about 3 seconds quicker than the original old-school dawdler.
Electric GT first got attention when it converted a 1978 Ferrari 308, best known as Tom Selleck’s chariot on the U.S. TV show “Magnum, P.I.,” to electric drive. The company’s shop, north of Los Angeles, is filled with old Porsches, Toyota FJ40s, and other cars awaiting electrification.
The crate motors even look like a gasoline engine, with what appears at first glance to be V-shaped cylinder banks and orange sparkplug wires. Systems are engineered for specific cars, and the burliest of the bunch store 100 kWh, enough to give plenty of range.
With system prices starting at US $32,500 and topping $80,000 for longer-range units, this isn’t a project for the backyard mechanic on a Pep Boys budget. Eric Hutchison, Electric GT’s cofounder, says it’s for the owner who loves a special car and wants to keep it alive but doesn’t want to provide the regular babying care that aging, finicky machines typically demand.
“It’s the guy who says, ‘I already own three Teslas. Now, how do I get my classic Jaguar electrified?’ ” says Hutchison.
Components designed for easy assembly should enable a good car hobbyist to perform the conversion in just 40 to 50 hours, the company says.
“We’re taking out all the brain work of having to be an expert in battery safety or electrical management,” Hutchison says. “You can treat it like a normal engine swap.”
Toyota RAV4 Hybrid
A redesigned hybrid system optimizes fuel economy
Base price: $29,470
The RAV4 is the best-selling vehicle in the United States that isn’t a pickup truck. What’s more, its hybrid offshoot is the most popular gas-electric SUV. No wonder: Forty-four percent of all hybrids sold in America in 2018 were Toyotas. And where many hybrids disappoint in real-world fuel economy, the RAV4 delivers. That’s why this Toyota, whose 2019 redesign came too late to make last year’s Top 10 list, is getting its due for 2020.
My own tests show 41 miles per gallon (5.7 liters per 100 kilometers) in combined city and highway driving, 1 mpg better than the EPA rating. Up front, a four-cylinder, 131-kilowatt (176-horsepower) engine mates with an 88-kW (118-hp) electric motor. A 40-kW electric motor under the cargo hold drives the rear wheels. Altogether, you get a maximum 163 kW (219 hp) in all-wheel-drive operation, with no driveshaft linking the front and rear wheels. The slimmer, redesigned hybrid system adds only about 90 kilograms (about 200 pounds) and delivers a huge 8-mile-per-gallon gain over the previous model. Toyota’s new Predictive Efficient Drive collects data on its driver’s habits and combines that with GPS route and traffic info to optimize both battery use and charging. For example, it will use more electricity while climbing hills in expectation of recapturing that juice on the downhill side. And when the RAV4 is riding on that battery, it’s as blissfully quiet as a pure EV. Toyota’s Safety Sense gear is standard, including adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist, and automatic emergency braking. Next year will bring the first-ever plug-in hybrid version, which Toyota says will be the most powerful RAV4 yet.
Ford Escape Hybrid
This SUV has carlike efficiency
Base price: US $29,450
Years ago, Americans began abandoning their cars for SUVs. So by now you might think those SUVs would be achieving carlike efficiencies. You’d be correct. Exhibit A: the new Ford Escape Hybrid, with its class-topping EPA rating of 5.7 liters per 100 kilometers (41 miles per gallon)in combined city and highway driving. That’s 1 mpg better than its formidable Top 10 competitor, the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid. Where the Toyota aims for a rugged-SUV look, the Ford wraps a softer, streamlined body around its own hybrid system.
That includes a 2.5-L, four-cylinder Atkinson-cycle engine, and a pair of electric motor/generators for a 150-kilowatt (200 horsepower) total. A briefcase-size battery pack, about a third the size of the old Escape Hybrid’s, tucks below the front passenger seat. The Toyota’s rear electric motor drives the rear wheels independently and thus offers only an all-wheel-drive version. The Escape forges a mechanical connection to the rear wheels, allowing both all-wheel drive and front-wheel-drive versions. The latter is lighter and more efficient when you’re not dealing with snow, ice, off-roading, or some combination of the three. The 0-to-60-mph run is dispatched in a whisper-quiet 8.7 seconds, versus 7.5 seconds for the Toyota. The Ford fires back with powerful, smartly tuned hybrid brakes that have more stopping power than either the Toyota or the gasoline-only Escapes can manage.
Tech features include a nifty automated self-parking function, evasive-steering assist, and wireless smartphone charging. A head-up display available on the Titanium—Ford’s first ever in North America—projects speed, navigation info, driver-assist status, and other data onto the windshield. FordPass Connect, a smartphone app, lets owners use a smartphone to lock, unlock, start, or locate their vehicle, and a standard 4G LTE Wi-Fi system links up to 10 mobile devices.
A plug-in hybrid version will follow later this year with what Ford says will be a minimum 30 miles of usable all-electric range. All told, it’s a winning one-two punch of efficiency and technology in an SUV that starts below $30,000.
Aston Martin Vantage AMR
High tech empowers retro tech
Base price: US $183,081
Take an Aston Martin Vantage, among the world’s most purely beautiful sports cars. Add a 375-kilowatt (503-horsepower) hand-assembled V8 from AMG, the performance arm of Mercedes-Benz. Assemble a team of engineers led by Matt Becker, Aston’s handling chief and the former maestro of Lotus’s chassis development. Does this sound like the recipe for the sports car of your dreams? Well, that dream goes over the top, with the manual transmission in the new Vantage AMR.
Burbling away from Aston’s AMR Performance Centre, tucked along the Nürburgring Nordschleife circuit in Germany, I am soon happily pressing a clutch pedal and finessing the stick shift on the Autobahn. The next thing I know, the Aston is breezing past 300 kilometers per hour (or 186 miles per hour), which is not far off its official 195-mph top speed. That’s a 7-mph improvement over the automatic version. This stick shouts defiance in a world in which the Corvette C8, the Ferrari, the Lamborghini, and the Porsche 911 have sent their manual transmissions to the great scrapyard in the sky.
But what’s impressive is how seamlessly the company has integrated this classic technology with the newest tech, including an adaptive power train and suspension. The AMR’s 1,500-kilogram (3,298-pound) curb weight is about 100 kg less than that of an automatic model.
The seven-speed manual, a once-maddening unit from Italy’s Graziano, has been transformed. An all-new gearbox was out of the question: No supplier wanted to develop one for a sports car that will have just 200 copies produced this year. So Aston had to get creative with the existing setup. Technicians reworked shift cables and precisely chamfered the gears’ “fingers”—think of the rounded teeth inside a Swiss watch—for smoother, more-precise shifts. A dual-mass flywheel was fitted to the mighty Mercedes V8 to dampen resonance in the driveline so the gearbox doesn’t rattle. The standard Vantage’s peak torque has been lowered from 681 to 625 newton meters (from 502 to 461 pound-feet) to reduce stress on transmission gears.
Aston also sweated the ideal placement of shifter and clutch pedal for the pilot. A dual-chamber clutch master cylinder, developed from a Formula One design, moves a high volume of transmission fluid quickly, but without an unreasonably heavy, thigh-killing clutch pedal. A selectable AM Shift Mode feature delivers modern, rev-matching downshifts, eliminating the need for human heel-and-toe maneuvers, with thrilling matched upshifts under full throttle.
The Graziano still takes a bit of practice: Its funky “dogleg” first gear sits off to the left, away from the familiar H pattern of shift gates. Second gear is where you’d normally find first, third replaces second, and so on. The layout originated in old-school racing, the idea being that first gear was unneeded, unless you were rolling through the pit lane. The dogleg pattern allows easier shifting from second to third and back without having to slide the shifter sideways. Once acclimated, I can’t get enough: The shifter grants me precise control over the brawny V8, and the Aston’s every balletic move. More improbably, this sweet shifter on the AMR won’t become a footnote in Aston history: It will be an option on every Vantage in 2021.
This article appears in the April 2020 print issue as “ 2020 Top 10 Tech Cars.”
With global consumers tethered to their smartphones, automakers realize their cars need to deliver a similar infotainment experience—even if that means sharing the ride with Google and other tech giants. The long-awaited Android Automotive OS system debuts in a few months in the 2020 Polestar 2, and will ultimately power millions of cars from General Motors, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, and the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance.
If you’re not familiar, Polestar is the new, electric and high-performance division of Sweden’s Volvo Cars and its China-based parent Geely Auto Group. And the Polestar Precept, an electric concept car unveiled online on Tuesday, after the coronavirus forced the cancellation of the Geneva International Motor Show, suggests a bright future for both Polestar design and Android OS.
The automotive sun visor has been around for nearly a century, first affixed in 1924 as a “glare shield” on the outside of a Ford Model T. Yet despite modest advances—lighted vanity mirrors, anyone?—it’s still a crude, view-blocking slab that’s often as annoying as it is effective.
Bosch, finally, has a better idea: An AI-enhanced liquid crystal display (LCD) screen that links with a driver-monitoring camera to keep the sun out of your eyes without blocking the outward view. The German supplier debuted the Bosch Virtual Visor at the recent CES show in Las Vegas.
The term “5G” typically makes people think of the smartphone in their hand, not the tires on their car. But Pirelli has developed the Cyber Tire, a smart tire that reads the road surface and transmits key data — including the potential risk of hydroplaning — along a 5G communications network.
Pirelli demonstrated its Cyber Tire (also known as the Cyber Tyre) at a conference hosted by the 5G Automotive Association, atop the architect Renzo Piano’s reworking of the landmark Lingotto Building in Turin, Italy. That’s the former Fiat factory where classic models such as the Torpedo and 500 (the latter known as Topolino, or “Little Mouse”) barrelled around its banked, three-quarter-mile rooftop test track beginning in the 1920’s. Engineers of that era, of course, couldn’t begin to fathom how digital technology would transform automobiles, let alone the revolution in tires that has dramatically boosted their performance, durability and safety.
Using an Audi A8 as its test car, Pirelli’s network-enabled tires sent real-time warnings of slippery conditions to a following Audi Q8, taking advantage of the ultra-high bandwidth and low latency of 5G. Corrado Rocca, head of Cyber R&D for Pirelli, said that an accelerometer mounted within the tire itself—rather than the wheel rims that send familiar tire-pressure readouts in many modern cars—precisely measures handling forces along three axes. That includes the ability to sense water, ice or other low-coefficient of friction roadway conditions.
The sensor data can be used to the immediate benefit of safety and autonomous systems onboard a car. It can also be used in the growing realm of vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) or vehicle-to-x communications (V2X), which means the once-humble tire could become a critical player in a wider ecosystem of networked safety and traffic management. Obvious scenarios include a car on the freeway that suddenly encounters ice, with tires that instantly send visual or audio hazard warnings not only to that car but also to nearby vehicle and pedestrians, as well as to networked roadway signs that announce the potential danger, or adjust prevailing speed limits accordingly.
“No other element of a car is as connected to the road as the tire,” Rocca reminds us. “There are many modern sensors; lidar, sonar, cameras, but nothing on the ‘touching’ side of the car.’”
Virtually every new car is equipped with anti-lock brakes (ABS) and electronic stability control (ESC) systems, which also spring into action when a car’s wheels begin to slip, or when a car begins to slide off the driver’s intended course. But the Cyber Tire could further improve those systems, Rocca said, allowing a car to proactively adjust those safety systems, or automatically slow itself down in response to changing roadway conditions.
“Because we’re sensing the ground constantly, we can warn of the risk of hydroplaning well before you lose control,” Rocca says. “The warning could appear on a screen, or the car could automatically decide to correct it with ABS or ESC.”
Aside from data on dynamic loads, the Cyber Tire’s internal sensor might also communicate in-car information specific to that tire model, or the kilometers of travel it has absorbed.
Pirelli is also developing the technology for race circuits and driving enthusiasts, with its Italia Track Adrenaline tire. With tire temperatures dramatically affecting traction, wear and safety, this version monitors temperatures, pressure and handling forces in real time. That combines with onboard GPS and telemetry data to help drivers improve their on-track skills. The system could deliver simple real-time instructions — such as color-coded screen readouts as a tire rises to or beyond optimal operating temperature—or using popular telemetry tools, a granular analysis of the tire’s performance after a lapping session. (At the highest levels of Formula One racing, cars are equipped with roughly 140 sensors, which collect 20 to 30 megabytes of telemetry data every lap).
With 5G, V2V and V2X systems still in the development phase, Pirelli can’t say when it sensor-enabled hunks of rubber will reach the market. Automakers ultimately lead the adoption of new tire technology, and many are leery of new tech until they’re sure consumers will pay for it. Car companies are also cautious about ceding the networked space in their cars to outside suppliers—witness their glacial, grudging adoption of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. But Pirelli says it’s working with major automakers on integrating the technology. And Rocca says that, like ABS in its nascent stages, smart tires could become common on vehicles within a decade. It’s almost enough to get us wishing for a winter storm to try them out.
Anyone who’s owned a vintage car can tell you—and boy, will they tell you—how much time, money, and maintenance is required to keep their baby running. And don’t forget the gasoline, garage oil puddles, or tailpipe pollution involved.
A California startup may have the answer: A plug-and-play innovative motor to convert that finicky old gas-guzzler into an electric car. Eric Hutchison and Brock Winberg first gained attention by rescuing a moldering, V-8-powered 1978 Ferrari 308—you may know it as the model that “Magnum: P.I.” drove on TV—and transforming it into an electric marvel. Now, the co-founders of Electric GT have developed a DIY, electric “crate motor” that will let traditional gearheads or EV fans do the same.
“A lot of guys go out for a weekend in a classic car that’s 40 or 50 years old, but they get a ride home with AAA; it ends up being a one-way trip,” Hutchison says. “Here, you’re taking out 95 percent of the maintenance, which is the biggest problem with classic cars. So this is for enthusiasts who love their cars, but want a fun, reliable car that’s good for 100 or 125 miles on a weekend drive.”
Powerful central processor predicts the car’s ideal path and helps the driver achieve it
Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (or “ADAS”) tend to be about slowing drivers down: braking cars automatically, or preventing errant maneuvers into looming obstacles. But Lamborghini is helping drivers go faster, via the new digital wingman in its latest supercar, the Huracan Evo.
With a 5.2-liter, naturally aspirated V-10 engine at the center of its alluring body, the Huracan produces a bellowing 640 horsepower. That power plant, and a light-but-strong chassis formed from aluminum and carbon fiber, let the supercar go from zero to about 100 kilometers per hour (60 mph) in 2.9 seconds; its top speed is a heady 325 km/h (202 mph). Strapped aboard this $265,000 Italian bull, some drivers will want all the help they can get.
I first tested the Huracan at Willow Springs International Raceway in California. The track’s historic “Big Willow” circuit—with just nine turns over 2.5 miles, roller-coaster elevation changes, and infamously high speeds—was a fine proving ground for the Lambo’s newly integrated systems.
Like many modern supercars, the Huracan is obsessed with getting all that engine power to the pavement as safely and efficiently as possible: The Huracan features a slick “torque vectoring” all-wheel-drive unit that can instantly apportion power to any of its wheels. All-wheel-steering can automatically turn the rear wheels either in opposition to the fronts, to boost agility at lower speeds, or in tandem with front wheels to aid high-speed stability.
But the Huracan’s big new brain is the real advance. The company calls it LDVI, for Lamborghini Dinamica Veicolo Integrata. That’s a mouthful, but LDVI is actually a powerful central processor that analyzes a driver’s behavior, compares it against feedback from onboard sensors and systems, and combines it all to keep the car on the pilot’s intended path. This happens even at the extremes of speed, when one wrong move might otherwise send the car spinning into a ditch.
That onboard tech includes a comprehensive set of gyroscopes and accelerometers, located at the car’s center of gravity. They measure the car’s acceleration along lateral, longitudinal and vertical axes, as well as the body’s roll, pitch, and yaw rates. The latest version of Lamborghini’s magnetic suspension continuously adjusts the dampers at all four corners in response to data from those dynamic sensors. And the brand’s familiar “ANIMA” controller lets drivers select Strada (street), Sport, or Corsa (track) modes that change the car’s driving personality.
Previously, Lamborghinis could only react passively to the driver’s inputs to the steering wheel, throttle and brakes, and make adjustments in a familiar feedback loop. But the new LDVI applies “feed forward” logic so that it’s no longer simply reacting, but actually predicting the ideal set-up for the moment to come. Driver inputs are processed in real-time, and systems are adjusted in lightning-quick, 20-millisecond increments. External conditions are monitored via the aforementioned sensors that measure tire grip and cornering forces at all four wheels, and feedback from the active suspension.
The result is a supercar with a sixth sense for the person behind its wheel and for the situations it’s encountering. The basic Strada set-up is ideal for newbies or a chill commute. Here, the digital nannies won’t allow injudicious lead-footing: A clumsy pilot’s demand for, say, more acceleration when he’s already dialed in too much steering on a corner will be met with countervailing forces to quickly right the ship. But dial the Huracan to Sport mode, and the Lamborghini is primed for Fast and Furious hijinks, allowing a skilled driver freedom to slide sideways and otherwise push the handling envelope. In Corsa mode, everything is buttoned down for the track with the aim of achieving the fastest possible lap times. Among the adjustments is diverting more power to front wheels to maximize traction and balance. Lamborghini data shows that LDVI allows drivers to carve a faster, more-efficient path through curves, with fewer human steering corrections.
Of course, some drivers—count me among them—enjoy being in full control and having to correct their own mistakes. For the most part, LDVI does work transparently and behind the scenes: Unlike primitive stability and traction systems of 20 years ago, you never get the sense that the car is withholding full power or dumbing down the experience. My one quibble was with the operation of the active rear steering, which sometimes seemed to tweak the car’s cornering attitude when I wasn’t looking for help, thank you very much. But moments of obtrusiveness aside, LDVI advances the modern supercar, and that’s a great thing. Its smarts make high performance fun, safe, and accessible—including for image-conscious buyers who have more money than driving talent.
Lincoln and Amazon are the latest companies to harness smartphone apps for easy vehicle entry
Roll-up windows. Cigarette lighters. Physical ignition keys. All of these features have gone virtually extinct in modern automobiles. The quaint metal key gave way to transponder fobs, which led to “proximity keys” that don’t leave your pocket at all. Now, smartphones are becoming the new gatekeepers, as car companies roll out features that let drivers unlock and start their cars through an app.
Volvo began offering its subscription-based On Call service in 2016; it allows owners to use the company’s smartphone app to lock, unlock, and start their cars. With it, users can also remotely check vehicle fuel levels, receive service alerts, or send destinations to the onboard navigation system.
Tesla, which has never been shy about beta testing on its customers, then attempted to sell a car with no fob at all: The Model 3 sedan was initially available with only smartphone-based entry and ignition, and a backup RFID card. Beset by customer complaints of spotty operation, Tesla began offering a familiar fob last fall for an extra US $150. Yet that fob didn’t allow the “passive entry” of the smartphone system, requiring owners to push a button to enter or lock the car.
Now it’s Lincoln’s turn. Ford’s luxury division will bring two SUVs to market this year, the midsize 2020 Aviator and compact 2020 Corsair. Traditionalists will still receive a standard fob, but adventurous types can pay extra for the Lincoln’s app-based, optional “Phone as a Key” system.
The 2019 Ram has been garnering early praise for several technologies unheard of in full-size pickup trucks: a Tesla-like touch screen, a coil-spring rear suspension and self-leveling air suspension. But its best tech trick is under the hood: mild hybrid power. It’s called eTorque, and it’s standard on every V-6 Ram and an option on Hemi V-8 models.
Mild hybrids can’t propel themselves on electricity alone, but they can supplement gasoline power and trim fuel consumption. On the Ram, a liquid-cooled motor/generator connects to the Pentastar V-6’s crankshaft to deliver an electric boost of 8.9 kilowatts (12 horsepower) and as many as 122 newton meters (90 pound-feet) of torque. It’s powered by a 48-volt electrical system, the new wave in automotive electricals, with a DC/DC converter and a compact, 0.4-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery.
That 48-V system permits the use of engine stop/start tech that cycles so seamlessly that it’s nearly undetectable: The Ram rolls from stoplights under electric power before it cranks the gasoline engine to whispery life, without the shuddering or noise that make typical stop/start systems so annoying.
Throw in an incredibly creamy ride, and a back seat (in Crew Cab models) with more legroom than any full-size luxury sedan, and you realize how far we’ve come from the days when the General Motors GMT 400 was hailed for having independent front suspension with torsion bars.
Ram says the eTorque system saves 5 centiliters (1.7 ounces) of fuel for every 90-second stop. Do that just 10 times a day and you’re conserving 190 liters (50 gallons) of fuel a year. It also saves energy through regenerative hybrid brakes. The latest, 227-kW (305-hp) Pentastar V-6 adds variable intake-valve lift and cam phasing that can run the efficient Atkinson combustion cycle, familiar from hybrids like the Toyota Prius. The 295-kW (395-hp) Hemi V-8 adds its own goodies, including fuel-saving cylinder deactivation, electronic mass dampers on frame rails and active cabin-noise cancellation, the latter two techs designed to erase telltale vibrations when the Ram runs on just four cylinders.
The upshot is the kind of fuel economy once associated with family cars. The V-6 Ram has an EPA fuel economy of 12.4 liters/100 kilometers (19 miles per gallon) on local roads and 9.8 L/100 km (24 mpg) on the highway, and an unmatched driving range of 1,000 km (624 miles) on a tank of gasoline. Even the burly V-8 eTorque model manages up to 17/23 mpg, in a truck that can tow a whopping 5,783 kilograms, or approximately one African bull elephant.
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