People often ask me what the future of motoring holds, after all my day job is working with car companies to develop prototypes of the cars of the future. But the long term plans of the big car companies is only part of this story.
It’s true they try to guess the future, often a new car design will be in production for seven years with a facelift half way through, and it takes between three and five years to do all the engineering so all in all a totally new model may still be going strong a decade after the initial plan was agreed. And when you are investing billions in factories and engineering facilities you need to feel that your guesses will be fairly close to what the future will actually hold.
So many experts are consulted; economists, engineers, scientists, sociologists and pundits all make contributions in one way or another, and gradually a fuzzy picture of the future coalesces.
But times are changing.
Oil supply is uncertain, it’s not so much that it’s running out, more that politics and economics mean that prices will carry on going up and the reliability of supply is less certain than ten years ago. And when a critical factor like oil becomes iffy then long term plans become impossible to make, this means that it is far safer to plan for alternative fuels, and electric drives seem relatively easy to plan for (see a previous post). But even the role of alternatives is not clear cut, there is renewed interest in making fuel by reversing the combustion process with electricity. Petrol and diesel burn and turn mostly into water and carbon dioxide whilst releasing energy, so by combining water and carbon dioxide and putting loads of energy back in you get fuel. So depending on where the electricity comes from this has the potential to be carbon neutral and also has the benefit that the car industry doesn’t have to invent new engines. This could be the next big thing, really very big. Unless it’s easier to plan for electric drives or some other technology, in which case this will get too little investment and never get anywhere.
Fuel is a hugely contentious issue these days, both for its cost and its environmental effect.
Have you ever seen people complaining that they don’t get the claimed fuel economy from their car? The problem is drivers are hugely inconsistent, I am famed for squeezing higher fuel economy figures from almost any car, but a colleague of mine usually manages to use twice as much fuel as me on the same journey! And it’s not just MPG, its how many litres of fuel you have to pay for each month, and part of that is what route you choose and traffic flow.
But there are some bigger issues that will influence the future, did you know that road deaths in the UK have just started going up? About two thousand people are killed on the UK roads every year, that is an astonishing statistic, how the hell can we live with this situation? Almost all of these are caused by driver error.
These problems are contributing to the drive towards fully autonomous cars, although the main drive is the fact that most drivers hate driving and would rather be on the internet or chatting to friends, so having a robot chauffeur is a real selling point. We have already seen self parking cars gain popularity, and Volvo were the first to introduce collision avoidance where the car will do an emergency stop if it gets worried. All the car companies I know of are working on autonomous cars, they are still many years off, but within a decade they will be widely available.
Autonomous cars have the potential to reduce journey times, slash road deaths and injuries, reduce insurance costs, reduce financial losses, and reduce emissions. Manufacturers also benefit from a reduction in warranty costs caused by customers abusing their cars. And intriguingly once a car becomes autonomous the interior design focus changes dramatically towards being an entertainment or business centre, windows become less important, seats facing forward is no longer mandatory, just imagine the possibilities.
But in the shorter term there is still a lot of work going on refining existing technologies.
You may have noticed that engines are getting smaller again, coupled with much higher boost levels, such as the lovely little Ford three cylinder unit or the sprightly VW Tsi. This trend is set to continue over the next ten years at least, with a greater presence of electric hybrid drives to ensure the engine is used only at its best efficiency.
But something is coming that might make these plans irrelevant.
And it’s the weather.
People have noticed that the weather is becoming increasingly inconvenient. The climate is warming up, in the UK this means that crops are getting ruined year after year. I’m fairly close to the farming community and a startling thing is that most farmers I’ve spoken to can’t remember when they last had two consecutive good years. This year our food prices will go up, although to be fair we have very cheap food in the UK to start with, and there may be shortages of certain types of food. Initially grains will be diverted from animal feed stocks to feeding us directly,, driving up animal feed and thus meat prices will be the first to go up. This will drive inflation up and this in turn worries politicians, and when politicians get worried they usually pass some badly thought out laws.
But it’s not just food, floods have caused huge damage and disruption costing the country a fortune.
You can see where this is going can’t you? Yes it’s our old foe climate change, for decades people have been warning that there was a problem, and for over a decade the car industry has taken this very seriously but the problem has always been that the message we’ve been receiving has been confused and complex, making it impossible to know who to believe and so what to plan for. This is partly because the climate is a hugely complex thing, and our understanding of it is still in it’s infancy, what’s shocking is the lack of funding for this science, which takes us back to politicians.
Politicians react to popular opinion, more so near an election. So no matter what the real truth of the matter is (how about massive investment and incentives for zero carbon drives and proper funding for climate research? No, ok then spend the money on nuclear weapons we will never use.) politicians now have a population with ridiculously expensive fuel, flooded homes and food shortages. The people want this mess sorted out, so the standard scenario is that in this situation politicians choose someone to blame and pass laws to restrict the ‘bad thing’ that is the alleged cause of the problem.
Car companies are a bit worried about this situation, not knowing what laws will be passed on emissions or what taxes will be applied to fuel and different types of car means that long term plans are near impossible. Obviously 6.0 litre V8s will get hammered, but what about a 2.0 or a 1.5 litre turbo unit? If the top of your current range has a 3.0 V6, what should you plan to be using in ten years time? Maybe even a sub one litre engine will still get hammered?
And what about the cars due for release in 2013, many years of work and many millions, sometimes over a billion, have gone into getting each one into production. They simply have to be in production for their intended production life span or the company may suffer serious damage, and for very high volume producers like Ford or VW loosing the market on a new car because it gets taxed to oblivion or fails new emissions limits could bring it to its knees. This is serious stuff.
But more serious is the very real change in our climate, if greenhouse gasses are the problem then we have to engineer a technical way of ripping it out of the atmosphere in astonishing volumes, after all we’ve been pumping tons of shit into the air for hundreds of years and there is one hell of a lot of it up there now. And it’s not just CO2, Methane is far worse and a lot of that comes from our passion for meat, there are many factors and it all needs sorting out.
If the politics dictate that petrol and diesel suddenly face being taxed to death, or even banned, then all of a sudden getting funding for reformed fuel or electric drives will become a lot easier, because investors can see the benefit.
But time is running out, and what we need is some sort of certainty so long term plans can be made and investments made. Tell the car industry that cars in ten years time will have to be all electric and we know what we have to work with, sure it will be hard but it will get done. If its gas or reformed fuel or whatever, just let us know.
So what’s the next big thing? Could be reformed petrol, could be hydrogen, could be electric, could even be banning cars and everyone working from home (ok, not that). One thing that I have seen across the board is that there is an increased focus on putting more fun into motoring, there are some fabulous drivers cars in the pipeline. Longer term there are loads of fascinating technologies in their infancy that could change our lives fundamentally, some are being funded and some are just starting out. But in all honestly it all depends on politics, and one thing no one can predict is politicians.
When I was little I remember listening to old people talking about a time when there where no cars, the feeling of excitement and wonder when they saw their firs one, a feeling mixed with a little fear as the mechanical marvel seemed to take over every aspect of life. Where once they played in the road now the car was king, and a ruthless one at that. Communities divided by a constant steam of deadly traffic.
Of course today we take the car for granted. Many have moved away from the workers slums into suburbia and now rely on the car to support this freedom.
We teach our children ‘road sense’ so they can cross the road safely. Most drivers are not deadly speed demons (although in town most people still speed, 40 in a 30 zone IS deadly). Society adjusts and we move on.
Now it seems that its my turn to sound old because I remember a time when there were no PCs.
I remember the excitement of my first Sinclair ZX80, the awe of seeing the colour ZX Spectrum.
But now I feel the fear.
Now don’t get me wrong here, I am a great believer in the usefulness of computers, I have a degree in computer systems engineering, I have made a career out of devising and tweaking computer control systems for cars.
But still, now I feel the fear.
When I was studying to become and engineer, every step of the way I was told of the importance of doing things properly. With a large computer program one has to exactly and correctly specify what it should do in every detail. One must also specify what it must not do! Once the program is written then it must be tested against this specification and every possible combination of circumstances must be tested. That way there are no ‘bugs’ and unexpected effects.
But life is not like that.
The software (and also hardware now) on almost everything is so complex that it requires a computer program just to be able to test it.
No one programmer can do the whole thing, its just too big, so we have teams. So now we have programs to help the teams work together without bits getting left out and prevent miss interpretations etc.
But we live in a capitalist society. Its not just the engineers that create products, its corporations. Many individuals with their own beliefs on how things should be done dictating the boundaries and detail of what the engineer can do but without a sound understanding of the technicalities.
Money has too be made (exceptions include Linux (three cheers)) and so whole chunks of code from other programs are grafted in to new programs, the people producing this new program may not know the details of how this chunk was written and all its effects. Sometimes there may be a ‘surprise’ effect caused by the interaction of this chunk with the rest of the program, other chunks grafted in or indeed other programs running on the same machine or network.
Testing takes time and money and delays the launch date. Some things just cant be tested completely due to their nature, for example if your program predicts the weather then how do you test every possible combination of weather across the whole world and still meet the deadlines.
Also the hardware too is so complex that it is not commercially viable to test everything, or indeed possible. With several million transistors on a single chip is never going to get tested for the effects of every combination of individual transistor failures.
So that’s where we are today. Our systems are only partially tested and often a patchwork of other peoples work all stuck together with hope and optimism. Or indeed sometimes cynicism.
Many consumer products are made by inexperienced teams and pushed out by unscrupulous corporations (particularly in countries where software standards are not enforced) and are largely unproven.
Many of us have experienced the result of this growing problem, such as the PC just locking up when you try a new program or simply getting slower and slower as time goes by. These bug and software faults are so common that many people think it is normal for computers to behave like this. For instance the PC I am writing this on is twelve years old, it still does everything it was designed to and since running Linux it hasn’t slowed right down or ground to a halt, yet still most people accept that computers need replacing every other year and expect it to slow down over time. It must be realised that it doesn’t have to be this way, technically, but commercial pressures will continue to make the problem worse and this will be compounded as more and more code is piled on to bring use ever more features.
Complexity is a big problem and is the subject of many a professors career, things are getting more and more complex and there is no proper engineering control on it.
Now, the reason that I am writing this is not just to have a good whinge about my computer crashing or indeed to complain about commercial forces ruining good engineering. Those things make me angry, but they are not the cause of my fear.
The fear stems from how we are using these systems as a society, how we are relying on the unreliable.
Computer systems are now increasingly being used as part of the law enforcement system, finance control, travel systems and even food production
Speed cameras always cause a good argument so I will stir thing up a bit further. Now I know very well that excessive speed increases danger of injury and general twisting of machinery and putting a speed camera outside a school is no bad thing.
The issue for me comes from the fact that the picture generates an automatic fine for a person. There is no human judgement in the loop, bang, guilty until proven innocent. And that’s wrong.
A friend of mine suffered from a theft from his car, not the usual sort of theft, the number plates were stolen. It turns out that persons of criminal persuasion are stealing a car then cruising round till they find an identical type of car and putting those plate on theirs. Then they can generate speeding fines and parking tickets with impunity and even commit serious crime knowing full well that the system will point the finger at some one else. It even cause the police to waste time with the wrong chap, keeping the heat off the criminals long enough for them to make their escape.
Guilty until proven innocent, trial by computer, not good, not very British.
Maybe soon we will all have ID cards. This means that criminals only need to forge one item instead of a string off items as at present, thus making their life easier. The systems used for security are simply to complex to be testable, and driven down on price so the quality is marginal. Its simply not reliable.
If you want quality you have to pay for it because quality systems take more time to engineer and more time to test and it all costs money.
We are entering the beginning of a time when cars become more autonomous, adaptive cruise control will adjust the car speed to the traffic conditions, lane assist can nudge the steering to stop you drifting off your chosen path, we even have auto parking systems. It is a logical step to bring all these ideas together and link them to the sat nav to create fully autonomous cars, Google are investing heavily in this idea. Once the systems become common there will be increasing pressure to ban manual driving, after all an autonomous car doesn’t get road rage, doesn’t speed, can see through fog, never gets distracted and should never crash. All those computer systems running all those programs written by thousands of different people at different times in different places and controlling your car….
In the near future there will be an attempt to make remote vehicle arrestors mandatory on all new cars. This system uses ABS systems that have full authority breaking and engine management systems to bring a car to a halt using a radio command that only police will have. In a simplistic world this is great, you report your car stolen and the police can bring it to a halt when the conditions are safe. No more getaway cars. Well, unless criminals use older cars, but that loophole is easily solved by making classic cars illegal and crushing them all!
The problems include accidental stopping of the car (you cant prove the software completely due to its complexity and you cant prove the hardware completely because you cant test every failure and every type of possible radio interference etc), incorrect use by the police or other agencies, vehicle being stopped by criminals equipped with illicit stopping systems for the purpose of car jacking. Finally there is always a way to bypass the system, always a loop hole, a bug, a back door or an ‘unintentional feature’.
I was on a train in Germany last year which suddenly stopped in the middle of no where without warning, brakes full on. Luckily I had finished my coffee so the cup was empty when it slid of the table. The cause of this potentially dangerous emergency stop was a software error in the very system that is supposed to protect the train from crashes.
Our corporate based society does not allow for well written systems to be made as profitably as the quickly written ones.
This is a real problem and is getting worse as more systems are used.
In my life I rely on a mobile phone, I rely on my car, my computer, email, bank direct debits, automatic payments, alarm clock, microwave, fridge, washing machine, traffic lights etc. The power feeding my home is controlled by systems all linked together in a network. The amount of chlorine in the water I drink is monitored electronically. Aeroplanes are flown expertly by computers over my head, the air traffic is controlled by other computers.
I use my switch card to pay for car tax, the little computer in the post office reads my details and talks to one of many networked computers at the bank, the figure in my account file is reduced and a message sent to the post office bank computer to tell it to increase the number in its account. Then a message is sent to a computer at DVLA and it changes the value of a variable in a file so that when another program does its daily check of who has tax it will not automatically send a message to another computer to send me a fine and automatically turn me into a criminal. I never see these computers and they never see me. But they can bankrupt me accidentally or send me to jail.
These systems are not designed completely by engineers, the specifications and design constraints are created by politicians and computer sales executives who simply don’t understand.
When I was a child, I was proud to be British, a country that believed in tolerance, understanding and fair play. I was proud of my country.
Now I am scared of my country and the automatic systems that rule my life.
My bank local branch has just got rid of all its cashiers, you have to use the machines now. Signatures have been replaced with PINs.
Make no mistake, these systems give us great ability as a society and as in individual. The principles of the systems are very good, it’s often empowering and can change lives for the better. Even this blog site gives me a platform to express my beliefs and concerns in a way that was impossible a generation ago. I am a great believer in technology.
But as far as I can see if we are to rely on systems then they must be reliable.
Also, there must always be a human in the loop when ever civil liberty is at stake.
And finally, there must always be a manual back up for those odd days when thing don’t quite work the way they should.
Or at least the truth from an engineering perspective. And that is an important distinction because of course the main catalyst for the change is political, there may be some very fine environmental and technical reasons for the change too, but politics holds all the aces. It can make oil prices prohibitive, it can subsidise new technologies that herald breakthrough innovations.
You see, every life changing new technology had to start somewhere, it usually starts off prohibitively expensive and a bit unreliable. Just think about those early mobile phones the size of a suitcase with a battery life of only a few minuets and call costs a hundred times greater than a normal land line. Or even the first computers, the size of a large room and less brains than a digital watch. The format is well established; pour loads of funding into research, laugh at boffins making experimental machines with questionable ability, wait for a company to spot the potential, get it into production and within ten years every competitor is developing better versions.
But electric cars are a bit of an exception because at the dawn of motoring they were a front runner, even Porche’s first car was electric. 130 years ago petrol was not readily available, you bought it in cans for quite a lot of money, car journeys were very short and cars were so expensive that only those with a large estate could afford one. Electric cars had the advantage over those first fledgling petrol cars in many ways, they were faster, quieter, much more reliable and had no starting problems. They didn’t even need a gearbox or clutch mechanism, so driving them was a far simpler affair than a crash box piston powered chariot.
But the materials technology needed to advance battery design was simply not there, the early EV hit a performance limit that it couldn’t break free from. The second problem was in motor control, all they had was switches, and as motors became more powerful the need for fine control at low speed became more problematic.
By comparison funding poured into petrol engine design, at that time it was far easier to improve than electric cars and oil companies were understandably keen to see this new product thrive. A couple of world wars forced engine design ahead very rapidly, not least to power aircraft from the humble Tiger Moth to the magnificent Spitfire.
Very rapidly it became far easier to make a high power, low cost petrol engine, opening up the possibility of cheap mass market motor cars.
Electric vehicles didn’t stand a chance. Half a century ago there was simply no reason to invest in electric vehicle research, emissions concerns had not yet manifested, climate change was unheard of and oil supplies were plentiful. A few enthusiasts continued to attempt to make electric vehicles, enjoying their simplicity and quietness, but materials technology would still limit their capability.
But times change, and now with political difficulties in oil supply, a far greater and ever developing understanding of emissions problems and climate change, coupled with massive advancements in technology there is an overwhelming desire to find alternatives to petrol and diesel.
This means that funding is now pouring into research in electric vehicles. But as mentioned above this is merely the first stage in a product becoming a commercial success, early adopters such as Honda with the Insight and more recently Toyota with the Prius have been suffering the commercial pain of subsidising less than ideal technology, but remember this is another essential stage in a technology’s development.
I hope that gives you an idea of where we are; about half way to getting a really useful, cheap and effective electric vehicle. There is now sufficient funding from a sufficiently large range of institutions, governments and corporations that the rest of the development process is pretty much inevitable, after all they all want to see a return on their investments.
Of course electric cars are not the only option for reducing CO2, existing piston engines could be re-engineered to run on hydrogen, and that fuel could be obtained by electrolysis of water. Storing hydrogen is a bit tricky unfortunately, but there are some exciting new developments that could make it a viable option. This has the advantage of using existing engine technology, but introduces large inefficiencies due to the process of hydrogen manufacture, its transport and the low efficiency of the internal combustion engine. You’d be lucky to turn 15% of the electrical energy used in hydrogen production into energy at the car’s wheels. and as ever you loose all that energy as soon as you apply the brakes.
The observant amongst you will know that lost energy from braking could be recovered by hooking up generators to the wheels and using the recovered energy to power the wheels on the next acceleration, as in KERS and other regenerative brake systems, but then you are carrying part of the weight and financial burden of the electric car but without all the benefit.
When you consider the total path from the source to the wheel the electric car can work out significantly better, potentially getting 50% of the source energy to the car wheels.
The other interesting possibility is gaining some, or possibly all, of the electricity from solar cells built into the car body. Various companies are developing composite body panels and special paints that act as solar panels that can be unobtrusively incorporated into the car design. In the UK the average energy from the sun through our legendary gloomy cloud is enough to power a small family car for about ten miles each day, so if all the car does is the school run and weekly shop then there could potentially be no fuel cost. Although as ever with new technology the first cars to have this feature will be hideously expensive and totally negate this benefit, but in time it will become a viable option.
Emissions are not the only reason for going electric, as the technology matures and becomes cheaper it will eventually become far cheaper to make an electric car than a combustion engined one. On a modern small car the engine and associated emissions systems can easily cost more than the rest of the entire car, getting this cost down is a huge incentive to car companies that struggle to make a profit at the best of times. in fact car companies have been trying to get up into electric cars for decades, remember the Ford Think?
There are many other benefits too, electric drives lend themselves to the ever increasing demands of advanced traction and stability control systems. As driver aids such as auto parking gradually evolve into fully autonomous self driving cars, having a simple method of accurately controlling the torque at each wheel becomes increasingly important.
When you put all these factors together the case for electric vehicles becomes compelling, and when you add in the political desire to reduce dependence on unstable oil producing countries the argument becomes overwhelming.
Obviously we are not quite there yet, historically the big problem has always been the battery. Old methods resulted in heavy, expensive and physically large units with limited range, they haven’t really changed in over a century. But in the last ten years or so there has been renewed investment, finally, and whilst there is still a long way to go we are definitely on the road to success already.
In fact as the ‘power density’ of batteries improves, eventually it will exceed that of petrol. This means that eventually electric cars will be lighter for the same power when compared to a petrol or diesel car, or more interesting to a racer like me, an electric car will be more powerful for the same weight. Imagine massively powerful electric supercars with precise control of the torque at each wheel from its four wheel motors, the ultimate in performance. The future world of electric vehicles is a very exciting place.
So there it is, electric cars offer huge benefits to the environment, car companies, drivers and world politics. They are not perfect yet, but within a decade or two they will be as ubiquitous as mobile phones.
And yes, before you ask, I still prefer the sound of a V8. But as long as the car accelerates as if it had one then maybe I could cope, after all we can always simulate the sound!
For more news about electric cars why not follow Robert Llewellyn, a superb ambassador for the EV revolution:bobbyllew
And you must follow Jonny Smith and his fabulous drag racing electric car ‘Flux Capacitor’: Carpervert
The car industry is a very spacial environment, with some very special people in. It seem to attract an amazing mix of personalities and a huge range of talents. Making cars fires some people with an enthusiasm that drives them far beyond the limits of their own talent, it’s a curios business, not quite like any other area of industry.
The history of the car industry is littered with the corpses of dead dreams, idealists, optimists, dreamers have all had a hand in making the story, but equally so have rogues, villains and cheats. It’s even more colourful than the newspaper industry!
Sometimes it’s just one name that signifies the loss of hope, the crushing of dreams and the tragic culling of ordinary hard working decent folk’s jobs. Names like Delorean are well known, but he is unusual in being almost universally held guilty, more often opinion is ferociously split. Names like Eagan, one camp see him as securing the future of Jaguar
with a wealthy parent (Ford), others view his skill in presenting a failing company as being a raging success as nothing more than a traditional used car salesman, some love him, some hate him, this is more often the case with the main characters in the industry.
There are a couple of key facts that are far too often overlooked when bloated executives prepare a new daring business plan for a car company. Firstly it takes a hell of a lot of money, time and people to develop a good car. I think the Ford Focus cost something like four billion dollars, seven years and a couple of thousand people to develop. That’s a huge investment, and a really long wait for a return, remember that is four billion over seven years and not one salable car produced, it would be many years after production started before any return on investment was made. In the Focus case it turned out rather well, but that’s not guaranteed, remember the Scorpio? That was designed many years before launch, as are all cars, can you predict what cars will look like in five years? Can you make a style that will fit in nicely on the high street in ten years time? It’s really easy to poke fun at the tragedy of the Scorpio, a car that lost Ford the D sector market so utterly that they found it more cost effective to just buy Volvo instead of trying to resurrect it, but when you look at the Mercedes that came out a few years later it looks very similar so they were not that far off.
Car design is a massive gamble, huge in fact. Not only does the product have to meet all the customers expectations, but it must meet incredibly stringent legal requirements too. I won’t bang on about the incredible scale and breadth of technical challenges, suffices to say it makes rocket science seem easy by comparison. I’m struggling to thing of another high tech, multi computer controlled, real time systems that has to function in specific ways even whilst being crashed.
It’s a sad fact that throughout the history of car design incompetent management have made the tragic mistake of thinking that the technical things they don’t know about must be easy. Just look at the once magnificent Rover K series engine, originally designed with a closed deck block, no head gasket worries there, solid and robust. But a decision was made to stretch it to a capacity well above it’s original design limits, this is not an engineers decision, this is a managers decision. This decision necessitated the loss of the closed deck and the inevitable sensitivity of the head gasket, but the mangers did what they so often do and pushed it through. Then they had a the clever idea of saving money by making the smaller engines in the same way, thus making the formally robust 1.4 just as fragile as the 1.8. The rest is history.
This is just one example of management not understanding the importance of investing in new designs to meet new targets. This problem is often scaled up to include whole companies, not just one car part. Trying to produce a new model without the correct investment in time, money and people results in inadequate products. Inadequate products result in reduced sales, and so less revenue coming in. Now a clever management team would spot this and invest in a new product to get sales up again, this is a long term strategy and makes successful companies. But a poor management team will notice the falling revenue and react the wrong way by tightening spending, reducing investment and continuing to bang out inadequate cars but with shinier badges and brighter paint.
When BMW sold Rover they had already made the investment in the 75, from that point on not one new model was developed. The Phoenix chaps made no obvious attempt to replace the old Honda derived 400/45/MGZwhateverthehellitwas etc. Remember it costs billions to develop a new car, they ‘invested’ millions, so no new platforms, no new engines, no new sales. From the moment they announced their plans most people inside the industry knew it was just a matter of time before the company sputtered to a tragic and unnecessary halt. The fact the the government also were convinced to invest millions into the failing company merely shows that ministers were either clueless or had other motives for handing over money to the increasingly wealthy board members.
Compare this with Jaguar, a company that had suffered inadequate investment since the grim days of the ’70s. When Ford took stock of what they bought and found out the truth they swallowed hard and started investing in making new models such as the XK8 and the S type, they also invested heavily on a complete redesign of the XJ plus they funded the development of Jaguars own legendary V8 even though Ford had a wealth of V8 engines available. They invested heavily and sales increased. No one is perfect and the idea that the X type would out sell the BMW 3 series was flawed, that decision cost them dearly. And the conservative styling of the S type and the XJ limited appeal. But again they saw struggling revenues and invested in new models, the current stunning XJ, XF and XKR were all funded by Ford. They bought Land Rover when BMW split up the Rover group and used the Jaguar engines in a range of new models there too. Unfortunately for Ford their own cash flow problems meant they had to sell Jaguar Land Rover before they saw the return on the investment, but their decision to invest in new engineering has resulted in Jaguar Land Rover posting billion dollar profits.
The same success from investment can be seen at companies such as Rolls Royce and Bentley. Morgan is a fascinating departure from the norm, they have steadfastly remained focused on doing what they do best, on servicing their unique customers demands, resisting the brainless call to expand excessively. They have stayed small but crucially stayed profitable, it is a very clever model and one that any aspiring business leader should make time to understand. But even they have understood the need to invest in new models, but where they could not afford to design their own parts they have bought in parts that meet their needs, benefiting from someone else’s investment and avoiding the trap of under investing in designing their own engines etc.
Focused investment at the right level generates success. Under investment generates failure.
So you see, if a mainstream car company announces it is going to make new models then there needs to be a large amount of money behind it to work, billions not millions. It also need the facilities and people to make it happen, thousands, not hundreds.
If you see a company that historically designs only one new model at a time then they will have the facilities and people to do only that. If they announce that they will suddenly make five new models at once then they will need five times more people, larger facilities and huge investment.
It is sad to see that there are such companies about in the UK, making bold plans but with a fraction of the required investment. The same old story, with inevitably the same old ending; lots of trouble, usually serious.
One of the great problems with a conventional car engine is that most of the fuel’s energy gets thrown away through the exhaust (about 30%) and radiator (another 30%ish), in fact your car engine is lucky to extract 33% of the energy from the fuel, and that’s only at full load, at low loads your petrol engine will be below 10% efficient! So wouldn’t it be great if there was a way of trapping all that heat energy and getting more out of it.
Enter stage left the Sterling engine, invented by an eccentric Scottish vicar in 1823 and now used in many combined heat and power systems for large buildings.
The name is now applied to a whole range of ‘hot air’ engines – the idea is that you have two pistons and cylinders that are connected in some way. A hot cylinder heats up the gas inside it, causing expansion, the gas is then pumped to a cold cylinder and contracts, thus pulling that piston up. As the heat energy can be totally used up by the engine, in theory it could be 100% efficient. Sounds simple doesn’t it.
Small Sterling engines have been made that work on a temperature difference of only a few degrees, so holding it in the palm of your hand makes it work! The trouble is that they are not very powerful for their size because you need a lot of surface area to transfer the heat energy into the working gas in the cylinders. This gas, often helium because of its excellent heat transfer ability, is trapped permanently in the engine. The more gas you have the more energy can be pumped round, improving efficiency, but this requires high gas pressures and very good piston seals which has been the downfall of some optimistic designs over the years.
Because the fuel is burnt outside the cylinders, this is called an external combustion engine, same as steam engines. And as the combustion is continuous, there is very little noise, almost silent. And they can work on pretty much any fuel, petrol, diesel, coal, chip fat or even junk mail.
It’s unfortunate that in practice, complete heat transfer never happens so the total fuel efficiency ends up being only 10% better than a conventional internal combustion engine. But the main benefit comes when the two types of engine are used together, the exhaust and coolant from the internal combustion engine being used to run the Sterling engine, together extracting up to 70% of the fuel’s energy. Obviously this ends up being a big, complicated heavy lump, but that hasn’t stopped people putting it into cars.
A simple version of a Sterling engine has two cylinders driven 90º apart, one cylinder is heated up and the other is cold. The two cylinders are filled with your working gas, possibly helium, and joined by a big tube which contains a regenerator. That is a posh word for a sort of radiator, or heat exchanger, that keeps the heat on the hot side of the engine and the chill on the cold side, this is a very important part and has a massive effect on the engine’s efficiency, a good one will recover 95% of the heat energy.
You may be surprised to hear that one of the most successful Sterling engines was made by Phillips, better known as purveyors of electric shavers and expensive tellys. The Dutch company of boffins started on the design in 1938 but were delayed by an inconvenient world war. The work lead to a very nice portable generator set that enjoyed modest sales success, but the focus of my ramblings this month is the 4 cylinder engine, based on their work and made by United Sterling of Sweden, that was fitted to a Ford Pinto in 1974. The V4X31 used base engine parts from the Saab V4 and was the first car to be driven directly by a Sterling engine. It produced 115bhp at only 3500rpm and worked at about 40% efficiency.
The V4X31 was an early insight for Ford who were working with Philips on a 4 cylinder 170 bhp swash plate engine, that’s where the crank is replaced by a tilted disk, as each piston rod pushes down on the disk; pushing it round in a circle.
Cunningly, in both these engines, they managed to get both the hot and cold cylinders in the same bore, the lower piston having a hole in the middle for the con rod of the top piston. At this point you really need to look at my hastily crayoned diagram, because I am now going to say ‘rhomboid drive’!
Apart from being a great phrase to baffle the pub expert with, rhomboid drive is the way they managed to get both con rods to move up and down with absolutely no side movement, essential when one con rod goes through the middle of a piston, hopefully without any gas leaking out of the hole.
The system uses two cranks in parallel which are geared together at the bell housing end of the block. Each piston has a fixed con rod dropping down to a joint where two articulated con rods are attached, one going to each crank. Who ever thought that one up probably didn’t get out much.
To stop the gas leaking out, which was nitrogen at 150 Bar, the piston seals were nylon sleeves that rolled up and down, a little like rolling nylon stockings down, funny lot the Dutch. It also had the added benefit of having virtually no friction.
Of course the home mechanic could possibly try constructing a simple sterling engine by converting a V twin bike engine to run with one cylinder being heated from the coolant or exhaust from a conventional engine, the other cylinder being water cooled. You could remove the valves from the heads and connect both inlet ports together with the pipe containing the regenerator, which could be an old intercooler cut down, and something similar nailed on to the exhaust ports too. Then belt drive it onto the conventional engine’s front pulley.
It wouldn’t be light but on something like an old Range Rover it could bring the fuel economy up to diesel levels and deliver something like another 50bhp for free. Which is nice.
There was a time when ‘Jaguar’ and ‘V8’ could not be uttered in the same breath, which is odd when you consider the majesty of the Daimler 2.5 and 4.5 V8s used since the ’60s.
But by the end of the ’80s it was becoming clear that the weight of the gorgeous Jaguar
V12 was just too much, plus its enormous physical size was hampering car design, particularly for crash performance where you need some crumple zone rather than solid engine. The engine was revolutionary in the ’70s, but in the ’80s the labour intensive assembly and expensive parts was costing the company more than it was making. For the last years of the XJS the V12 was not even on the official brochures, it was only its legend that was keeping sales alive.
The AJ6 and AJ16 6 cylinder engines were making almost the same power and saved about 120kg which made a huge difference to the cars handling. But even this engine was showing its age.
New shorter engines were needed in order to allow sufficient room for an effective crumple zone. The engines needed to warm up more quickly, for both customer comfort and the ever tightening emissions regulations. This needs more precise cooling in the heads and block plus the use of considerably less metal. The piston ring system needed to control the oil much more accurately and piston friction had to be lowered. Indeed, friction throughout the engine needed to be reduced to meet the fuel economy and emissions targets.
With these issues in mind, a number of alternatives were looked at in the late ’80s, including a V12 derived V6 with the lost power being returned by using a brace of turbos. Another V6, an Orbital 2 stroke engine which gave the same number of power strokes per rev as the old V12 engine, was looked at but oil control and refinement never quite met the targets. They even looked at a number of engines from other companies, which could be bought in without the huge cost of developing their own engine.
During the dreaded BL days there had been some discussion of using the Buick derived Rover V8, which had substantial advantages in terms of weight (in fact it weighed half as much as the V12), cost and size. Unfortunately, most of the advantage came from the fact that it was relatively thin walled and so suffered in refinement a little. But in reality this could have been developed out, as was the case in the final fling of the Rover V8 inside the P38a Range Rovers.
But that venerable V8 was itself a relic of the ’60s and ultimately suffered from the same issues as the old Jaguar engines, in terms of efficiency and emissions. It also struggled to meet the power demands of modern cars, the 4.6 version only putting out 220bhp.
So the bold decision was made to design a completely new Jaguar engine, one that would meet the forthcoming challenges of regulations and customer expectations. Originally code named the AJ12, the project used a single cylinder research engine to examine a number of different combustion chamber, cylinder head/ port and cam options. This data showed that a 500cc cylinder with 26 degree ports and a four valve configuration gave the best economy and performance for Jaguar applications.
Although AJ12 never resulted in a physical engine, the data was used to study a modular engine design concept, concentrating on a 4 litre 8 cylinder and a 3 litre 6cyl, but also looking at a 2 litre 4 cylinder, a 5 litre 10 cylinder and a 6 litre 12 cylinder engine. This would require some rather sophisticated machinery to be able to make all those variants, sharing common components such as piston and valves but little else. As the analysis data grew, it became clear that the complexity of doing all those variants would be crippling, so it was decided to concentrate on 6, 8 and 12 cylinder V engines. Thus the project now became known as AJ26, 26 being the sum of 6, 8 and 12.
But this would be hugely expensive, the fuel bill alone for testing engines runs into millions of pounds per year. At this time Jaguar was privately owned and as such there was simply not enough spare cash to invest in new products. What was needed was an owner who could suffer the financial hit in the long period between investment and return.
When Ford became interested in buying Jaguar, it was only natural to see if one of their many engines would fit the bill. Indeed it was not uncommon for Jaguar owners in the USA to retro fit a Yank V8 so there was some precedence for this already.
But work had already started on the fledgling Jaguar V8 and the Whitley team, lead by Dave Szczupak, were passionate about seeing it through, they had looked at all the requirements and designed something that would give the legendary levels of Jaguar refinement and power whilst being small, light and efficient. But there would be a long road to go, from a concept to a fully customer ready production engine. Typically it takes around 7 years, that’s a long time to ask an investor to wait for a return.
Ford looked at the arguments for both Ford engines and for the new Jaguar engines, after all the data was analysed and the requirements understood, they decided to invest the millions needed by Jaguar to make their own new engine. But this would be dedicated tooling for just the V8, all other variants were not to be.
The first year had been largely given over to defining the requirements, the specifications for each part of the engine such as how much heat goes into the coolant and the oil, how much force is needed to turn the engine over, valve train stiffness, noise levels as well as the major things like the power and torque levels.
This had lead to the basic design, this was put into the new computers and virtual tests run to establish the best coolant flow paths, the best inlet and exhaust port shape, the cam profiles and the such. A huge amount of data was produced and analysed, without making a single engine. Somewhat different to the early days of the V12 when development was a matter of calculated guess work and then lots of test engines trying it all out.
The calculation gave most of the answers, but some elements still required real world testing. To this end some elements of the new engine were experimented on in isolation, using a current production ‘slave’ engine as a base, giving rise to some odd reports in the press of the new engine being based on this that and the other engine. For example, in order to try different bore and stroke combinations on the single cylinder rig, the engineers looked about for existing parts from all sorts of manufacturers, at one point it was using a Peugeot piston and a Mazda con rod!
The first V8 engines were run on test beds in late ’89 and the first car to receive one was an XJ-S, one of the cars that had just finished being used to evaluate the twin turbo AJ16 in fact. As is always the way with the first ever engine installation, nothing fits, mounts, hoses, air intake and exhaust manifolds all had to be fabricated for the job. Steve, one of the mechanics on the job, recalls ‘they gave me a bag full of exhaust tube and various bends and told me to get on with it’. At the end of ’90, after a couple of weeks of trial and error fitting work the first 4 litre V8 Jag burbled into life and was universally admired by the small select audience of management privileged enough to see it, particularly in America which was a crucial market.
It weighed about the same as the old 6 cyl but had more power and a greater spread of torque, thanks to the new variable cam timing system. But there was a small problem, it didn’t sound like a ‘Jaguar’. Although very appealing, the V8 burble sounded like any normal mid size car in the USA and part of the Jaguar magic was the very high levels of refinement and quietness. Sound is such an emotive thing and much debate was had as to what the new engine should sound like, eventually the decision was made to make it quiet and an enormous amount of work went into designing complex intake and exhaust systems. It is interesting to note how this has changed now such that the current XKR even has a device built into the bulkhead to help you hear the engines magnificent growl.
The first car I drove with the new V8 was an XJ40 in about ’93 at the Ford research centre in Dunton, Essex. The car was based on the XJ12 body, code namedXJ81, which had completely new metal work in front of the bulkhead in order to accept a V engine. This car was bristling with new technology, it had one of the first electronic throttle systems and this particular car had a manual gearbox but with an automatic clutch. As you shifted gear the systems would move the throttle and clutch so as to give you smooth gear shifts. It was marvellous to drive but ultimately it was easier to just use one of the excellent ZF 5 speed auto gearboxes instead.
Its interesting to note how Jaguar has had a history of technological innovation, and how right from the start Jaguar was showing Ford new things. In return Ford showed Jaguar how to massively improve production processes, improving quality and reducing costs. This relationship is continuing to this day, I am pleased to say, with both sides benefiting.
As the engine developed, the early tunes were used to check and refine the basic performance and emissions characteristics. Then cars were used to tune the transient response, that is to say how the engine responds to acceleration, deceleration and gear shifts. This is always a very difficult balance between good drivability and good emissions, a slightly rich fuelling on acceleration give very good drivability but will fail emission completely on hydrocarbons alone.
Part of the solution was to ensure the automatic gearbox control system ‘talked’ to the engine control system. This kept the throttle, fuel and spark precisely in tune with the change in engine speed during the shift, allowing the engine to anticipate the changes rather than have to react to them after the fact.
After the engine had received a good stable tune, it was time to test it in all the harsh climates it would face in the real world. Traditionally this involves driving it in the Arctic and in the deserts of Arizona or Africa. But now tests could also be done in Fords climatic test chambers which drastically cuts down the development time and expense. As well as cold and hot climate tests, the new cars had to be tested in extremes of damp to check the corrosion resistance of the components and all the wiring. Then there is the rough road testing, both on specially prepared test track with a range of harsh surfaces, and on shake rigs where computer controlled hydraulic rams try to shake the car to pieces. In short, a lifetime of use and abuse is concentrated into a matter of months. By the end of ’94 a huge amount of data had been produced and all the necessary changes had been made, the results were looking very good indeed.
After this year of climate and durability tests, the final tweaks could be made and then it was time to start running the cars at government approved test centres to get the various certifications needed to sell a new car. At the same time further tests were re-run in house just to confirm that the final version was working as expected.
In parallel to all this development, the production plant was tooling up. First prototype tooling is made and the whole assembly process is tested, any special tools or assembly methods are identified and the first set of workers are trained. The first few test cars were built this way, as were the cars eventually used for the journalists to drive at the launch in ‘95.
The cost of production tooling is huge, the Bridgend AJV8 plant cost Ford £125 million. So it was vital to be certain that everything was right before the orders were placed, this could only happen when all the test data was in and all the tweaks had been tested. This is still true today and is one of the reasons it takes so long to get a new idea into production.
So, in ’96, seven years after the project started, the first XK8s were sold with the all new, entirely Jaguar, V8 engines. A new era had begun.
The original 4.0 litre V8 went through many detail revisions, and endured the dreded Nickasil debarkle that struck many alluminium bored engines of that era. All the lessons learnt were rolled out together in the later 4.2 litre version of the engine, this unit has a reputation for toughness as well as performance and has been raced with some success too. When Land Rover joined the group it was a natural choice to replace the less than reliable BMW V8 with the trusty and powerfull Jaguar unit. In Discovery it was stretched to 4.4 litres in naturally aspirated form but was left at 4.2 for the supercharged variant, 400bhp seemed perfectly sufficient for a Range Rover back then…..
As with all technology in this rapidly changing modern world, eventually it needed a rethink to regain ground lost to competitors who had brought out engines with the latest innovations. The very name ‘Jaguar’ conjures thoughts of tradition and heritage, but it is easy to forget that a fundamental part of that tradition and heritage is innovation; pushing the boundaries back and surprising the car-buying public. In the 70s and 80s, arguably they made the world’s only mass production V12, and at its launch the XJ6 set new standards in refinement and performance coupled with superb looks and all at a very reasonable price. And whatever you may personally think of the XJ-S, it was a very bold move and still has a very strong following.
The all new AJ-V8 GenIII five litre V8 engine demonstrates the continuation of that innovative tradition, capable of delivering over 500 bhp in a selection of very civilised luxurious cars. And as a demonstration of the engine’s strength, a basically standard engine, a tad over-boosted in a slightly modified XF-R was driven at 225.6 mph on the iconic Bonneville salt flats, faster than the XJ220 super car.
It is interesting to draw a comparison with the magnificent old Jaguar V12, intended to provide approximately 20% greater performance than the 4.2 XK six cylinder engine of the time.
In a similar way, the new AJ-V8 5 litre replaces the 4.2 V8, and pushes power levels up by similar amounts; from 420 to 510 bhp for the R version. However, some things are radically different this time round; the new larger engine manages the rather impressive trick of being significantly more economical than the engine it replaces. An astonishing achievement but absolutely essential in today’s, also radically different, environment.
The V12 was also very advanced for a road car engine at the time, in both its concept and manufacture; it was all alloy and designed for fuel injection from the outset, although they were forced to run carburettors temporarily on the E Type. By comparison the new V8 also uses the latest materials and sports an advanced fuel injection system which heavily influenced the engine design, specifically the cylinder heads with a central fuel injector in each combustion chamber.
The injection concept was proved out before any prototypes were made, on a highly modified current production engine taken out to 4.5 litres. The first real prototype engines were created in 2004 and were immediately and relentlessly tested in engine dynamometers, where each engine can be tested in isolation under precisely controlled conditions. Some engines did specific tests such as trying to deliberately foul the spark plugs, or push the performance limits, and others were run on durability cycles designed to stress components to the max, many a time I walked past a test cell where the exhaust manifolds were glowing bright orange as an engine was run at full tilt.
It is of course the people that really make a company, such as the crack team of expert technicians who build and prepare engines ready for testing, often covered with so much complex test equipment that the engine is totally obscured. Or the chaps in the dedicated powertrain machine shop, a small room packed with tools to weld, cut and machine almost any component, often at short notice, using a mix of the ultra new and the traditional techniques that have served Jaguar engine development for many decades. Research by its very nature involves the unforeseen and as a team, their resourcefulness and creativity has saved many a day. It is the talents of dedicated people like this that form the ‘DNA’ of the company.
After initial assessment of the engines, it soon became clear that the naturally aspirated version would meet its performance targets with ease, something that is quite rare in the rest of the car industry, and the supercharged version could exceed expectations without effort so the original power target was raised from 500 to 510 bhp.
The first car I drove with a prototype engine, in 2007, was one of the first engineering ‘hacks’ and so the engine tune was still splendidly raw. It is from this point that skilled engineers start refining the car’s response, making the car do what the driver wants rather than just reacting to crude mechanical inputs. Before work could begin, this particular car had to be driven from Gaydon, where it had been assembled, to Whitley for testing. As I was making that journey myself I volunteered to take the test car, unfortunately it was pouring with rain and as yet there was no traction control – this lead to a few moments of unintentional entertainment and a degree of sideways progress, but even at that embryonic stage it was still a wonderful car to drive.
Indeed it is an essential part of the vehicle’s development to test drive in every type of likely environment so that the design can be finalised before test cars are sent for official emissions certification all over the world. So cars are out and about with disguise kits on years before launch, trying to avoid the hoards of press photographers camped out in the hedges near the factory. Whenever ‘spy shots’ of a new car are printed, it’s standard practice to work out who was driving and then mock them mercilessly, although sometimes it can land the driver in real trouble if more is revealed than is wise.
As ever, refinement is an essential Jaguar characteristic and this has been achieved by ensuring the moving parts are perfectly balanced in the traditional manner, but also with the new Gasoline Direct Injection (GDI) system, where the fuel is forced directly into the combustion chamber at very high pressure. It controls combustion in such a way as to minimise vibration and noise, effectively by shaping the way the cylinder pressure rises, as well as reducing emissions, better fuel economy and higher performance as if the system raises the fuels octane rating. The whole engine is designed round the system and a lot of hard work ensures all the different factors work in harmony, from the computer synchronised high pressure pumps to the crystal operated injectors that give a sequence of perfectly formed fuel pulses.
The technology has near magical control, when you hit the start button the engine will synchronise, analyse the current air and coolant temperature, check the oil level and temperature, check all the sensors are working, set the fuel pressure on the twin double-acting high pressure pumps, check and adjust throttle angle, set all four cam positions, charge up the ignition coils and the 160 volt injector control circuit and be ready to fire the first cylinder within one revolution of the engine.
And it’s not just the engine that makes for a stunning drive; the gearbox is a lighter yet stronger version of the ZF 6 speed which works in a detailed and complex harmony with the engine, exchanging data and requests in a high speed electronic conference. For instance – when changing gear the gearbox asks the engine to adjust power to balance the kinetic energy left in the drive train and so removing any cause for a jolt or surge, it all happens in a fraction of a second, all for your driving pleasure.
It’s all very impressive stuff and a million miles away from the possibilities available nearly 20 years ago when the design of the last V8 started. The sheer volume of work that goes into the new engine merits a celebration: so for the privileged few of you who get to drive one of these wonderful cars, please take a moment to look under the bonnet, a lot has gone into that modest space.
One in a million.
My boss told me “so that means your design will defiantly kill two people per year!”.
That was 20 years ago, when I was a fresh faced engineering graduate in my first job at a global car maker. I was designing bits of engine management system, and as ever I had gone through every type of conceivable failure and worked out how well it was protected against. But one very obscure scenario involved the car stalling on a hypothetical level crossing near a strong radio transmitter, a bit tenuous but it is a situation that could happen, I had gone through the figures and worked out that it was a million to one chance that the engine would not restart, resulting in something bad involving a train and sudden localised distortion to the car (ok, a crash).
I thought that this was a remote chance, but my then boss pointed out that the systems would be put on about 2 million cars per year in Europe, hence his terminal conclusion.
I redesigned it. No one had to die.
But even so, I am sure there could be even more obscure situations I had never even thought of, I probably could have spent years going through more and more complex scenarios, but the the car would never have been made. So we have to draw the line somewhere.
How common are uncommon faults?
Cast your mind back to Toyota’s ‘sticky pedal’ problem, millions of cars work fine yet a handful of unverified complaints necessitated a total recall. You just can’t take chances, even if almost every car is perfect.
Of course Toyota are no worse than Ford, Mercedes and all the rest, all volume products suffer from occasional problems, largely due to the scale of production and of course because we want our complex cars dirt cheap, and that’s not going to change any time soon.
When an industry has to make very complicated machines with highly sophisticated features that are used by the general public who have only minimal training, and have to endure a vast array of harsh environments including salt spray, Arctic freeze, road shocks and days on end in scorching sun, things are going to be difficult. And when this problem is massively compounded by having to make the car as cheap as possible, something has to give.
Times this set of problems by the millions of cars made every year and the law of averages is definitely not on the side of car makers. If you think about it, the mere fact that when something does go wrong it makes the headlines tells us something about the utterly fantastic job that all these companies usually do.
If the average Joe knew anything of the vast amount of sheer hard work that goes into creating cheap, economical, useful and reliable cars they would bow down in reverence, and those that fancy their chances at suing for spurious accidents would hang their head in shame.
But hardly anyone knows about all that fantastic engineering work, it doesn’t make sexy TV programs, it’s not vacuous and glamorous enough to make it into the glossy magazines. So every one just accepts that every machine should work perfectly no matter what, and are utterly surprised on the very rare occasion that it doesn’t.
So how often do things fail? Well things are much more likely to go wrong when any product is either new or reaching the end of its designed life, the first few miles a car experiences show up any glitches in production and then once these are sorted most modern cars will trundle on for over a decade without significant problems (assuming its correctly maintained). During the cars early life car makers measure things in returns per thousand and generally they run well below 5, that’s 0.5% of cars having any sort of fault at all in the first year of ownership. Good models will run at less than 0.005%, and these faults could be anything from a cup holder breaking to an engine failing. The trouble is that if you churn out a couple of million cars a year then even these tiny numbers mean there will be hundreds of failures in the field, unfortunately these make good stories. Manufacturers hate even these small numbers of faults, obviously every company’s dream is to have no failures at all, and indeed some models achieve this, and they are all striving to eradicate all potential for failure. But occasionally I think its a bit sad you will never see a headline reading ‘millions of car turned out to be pretty good actually’.
Cars are amazing.
Here’s a challenge for you; think of a machine that has to work in heavy rain, baking sun, snow, ice, deserts, be precise on tarmac yet still cope with cobble stones, Suffer grit and gravel being blasted at it from underneath and do a huge range of complex mechanical tasks at temperatures between -40 to +50 C, last over a decade whilst being shaken, accelerated, decelerated by novice users in a crowded and complex environment.
There are no other machines, just motor vehicles, which have to contend with all this.
But it doesn’t stop there, the engine is retuned every combustion cycle, hundreds of times each second in order to meet the incredibly stringent emissions laws, pollutants are measured in parts per million, the tests are so sensitive that simply exhaling into an emissions test machine would cause the limits to be exceeded (note; these are not the simple emissions testers used at MOT stations, the MOT emissions limits are laughably lax by comparison to the certification tests the manufacturer has to do).
To give you a very rough idea of the amazing computing power needed to control and engine to these limits, a modern engine control box (ECU) may have around 25 thousand variables, tables, maps and functions. It calculates mathematical models of how the air flows through the intake system, how the pistons and valves heat up and how the catalysts is performing, it analyses the subtle acceleration and deceleration of the flywheel every time a cylinder fires, it listens to the noise the cylinder block makes and filters the sound to decide if the engine has the slightest amount of knock (in fact some engine deliberately run the engine into borderline detonation to extract maximum efficiency). It talks to the gearbox to anticipate gear changes and control torque so that the gearbox ECU can precisely control the energy input into the drive line during a gear shift. It analyses the long and short term behaviour of every single sensor and actuator to automatically compensate for ageing and wear as well as diagnosing and compensating for any faults.
But it doesn’t stop there, on some cars the suspension analyses the road and adapts to suit, the auto gearbox monitors the drivers ‘style’ and changes the way it works to please them. The brakes check wheel speed thousands of times a second and deduce when a tyre is about to skid, not when it already has started skidding, and relieve brake pressure just before it happens to ensure the tyre provides maximum grip and stability.
The climate control breathes in cabin air through tiny aspirated temperature sensors and adjusts valves and flaps to discretely meet your comfort needs. The stereo selects a nearby station as you drive along and seamlessly switches in so you never have to retune in order to continue to listen to Radio 2 on long journeys. All sorts of things are controlled and monitored from fuel pumps to light bulbs.
All in all an average family car might have between five and ten computers working together, sharing information and jointly controlling the car, a typical example would be the ABS unit supplying road speed info to the gearbox so it knows what gear to select. Luxury cars can have over 50 different computers, even the seat heaters have self diagnosing control brains in and talk to the car on a serial bus, and they all interact with things like the battery management systems which may at any time request all these systems change the way they are operating in order to cope with some adverse situation.
The way these systems work together can be very complex, for instance stability control uses the ABS system to apply brakes on individual wheels in order to pull the car to one side as well as requesting a certain wheel torque to ensure the car goes in the desired direction, this torque is controlled by the gearbox and engine working together too, the engine can react almost instantaneously by altering the spark angle (these events happen so fast that the engine has to wait for the airflow to reduce going into each cylinder even though it moves the throttle immediately, because of the air’s inertia!).
Components have to operate faultlessly for millions of cycles, if an engine or drive-line fault develops then the systems must identify it, adjust the mode of operation to minimise risk to car and people, and alert the driver, just like having an expert mechanic on board.
In addition the car has to be comfy by isolating key frequencies from being transmitted by the suspension and engine mounting systems, prevent wind noise from the gale force breeze rushing past the shell, stop the metal box that makes the cabin sounding like a metal box and muffle the many kilowatts of noise running through the exhaust pipe.
It also has to be economical, using every drop of fuel sparingly, compromising the shape of the car itself to reduce drag whilst still allowing enough space to get everything in and have enough air flow round the hot bits to stop them degrading.
But as well as being frugal it also has to perform well, even a modest family hatchback these days has the performance of a race car from the ’60s, indeed there are many saloons with well over 500bhp now, compare this with the 1983 F1 race winning Tyrrell with 530 bhp. Yes our super comfy mobile entertainment centres have the performance of an older Formula 1 car.
And not only does it have to balance all these driving related tasks but it also has to have a really good sound system and have most of the comforts of home, some even have cup holders and fridges.
Not even the Space Shuttle has to contend with this level of sophistication. I can’t see rockets running catalytic converters and exhaust mufflers any day soon.
And here is the kicker; as well as coping with all that, it also has to perform special functions in a crash. We have multiple air bags, who’s operation is tuned to the ‘type’ of crash detected, we have automatic engine cut, hazard indication, seatbelt pre-tensioning and some cars even ring for help. The structure is designed and tested to ensure it collapses in a controlled manner, the engine design is constrained by pedestrian head impact tests on the bonnet, even the steering wheel is designed to steadfastly hold its position as the cars structure a few feet in front of it is crushed at a rate of up to 15 meters per second.
Name me one other machine that has to detect, reliably, when it is about to be destroyed and then deploy safety mechanisms in a controlled and measured manner during the actual process of its own destruction. You’ll struggle with that one.
Now this feat of engineering would be amazing even with an unlimited budget, but the fact is that cars are made as cheaply as possible, which just take the achievement from amazing to utterly astonishing. In fact you can buy a basic car for the price of a really good telly, that’s bonkers.
Please take a few moments to look at your own car, and marvel. And if one part goes wrong by all means take it back and get it fixed, but do try to be sympathetic to the scale of the problem engineers face.
I noticed something interesting during the Toyota recall, the media could have played a very useful role and helped society, I say ‘could have’ because what they actually did was the complete opposite.
What they could have done is reported actual news, facts presented objectively such as ‘a small numbers of cars may have a fault causing the pedal to be stiff’. That is a fact, it gets the info over simply and effectively, you know what is being said. Simple.
They could have gone further and said something like ‘if your pedal feels stiff visit your dealer, but first check the floor mat hasn’t got stuck under the pedal’. That would be helpful.
But they didn’t do that.
No, what actually got reported was along the lines of ‘mum of five in death plunge tragedy’ and ‘is your car a ticking time bomb of doom?’. Stupid, dramatised gossip that conveys absolutely no useful information.
But of course this scaremongering helps to boost sales of that form of media bilge, so expect more useless crap in the future about every important storey going.
And this is a real problem, not only because it leaves us all badly informed and scared, but because the car companies now know that being honest and open has become the wrong thing to do.
All media has a responsibility, and its time they (we) faced up to it.
The media has given UK industry a bit of a battering in the last few years, in fact ever since the high profile industrial collapses in the 70’s the media dwells on doom and gloom stories rather than all the good news that the industrial sector has consistently produced.
I was talking to a bloke last weekend at an arts festival, he was an ordinary chap who happened to have no real interest in cars but as he knew I am a motoring journalist he made conversation by asking what car I would recommend. Being very proud of the UK car industry I immediately replied ‘any car as long as its made in Britain’, he looked quite astonished and said ‘I didn’t think there were any cars still made here’!
This shocked me, the UK makes over 1.5 million cars a year with factories churning out products from Jaguar, Land Rover, Lotus, Toyota, Morgan, Ford, Vauxhall, Rolls Royce, Nissan, Honda, Bentley and BMW to name but a few. About 75% of these are exported bringing in over £25bn to the UK, globally British skills, both in manufacturing and engineering design are recognised as being world class which attracts investment and creates jobs. But we very rarely hear anything about this on the news, in fact when Lotus dropped a few hundred jobs last year it made national news, but when Jaguar recruited about 3500 this year there is no national coverage, I find this very frustrating and also more than a little suspicious.
I am sure the fact that most of the big media organisations are tied up with the financial sector has absolutely no influence on their bias, but it is remarkable how even the phraseology favours the ‘markets’ at the expense of industry. For instance take a look at exchange rates, to sell things we make abroad we need the pound to be cheap and affordable, but the media call this situation a ‘weak’ pound. But when the pound is expensive and unaffordable, which crushes export sales, reduces production and leads to job losses, they refer to that situation as a ‘strong’ pound. Its ridiculous, until you look at the financial sector who benefit greatly when the pound is expensive, and suffer when its cheap.
And the whole idea of being ruled by a stock market that panics like a frightened weasel, moving their money from one company to another, taking support away when its most needed, is utterly ludicrous. A system where a few chaps in blazers in London transfer money when they see their bonuses start to drop, causing a hard working company many miles away to loose several jobs even though they have a full order book, must surely be immoral?
So you might argue that as there are so many people now working in the financial sector that it balances out, when money is tight in industry it must be flowing in the financial sector? Well maybe it does, but the thing I notice is the difference in the way that money is distributed.
I read a report a while ago comparing average wages, I think it said something like average car industry wages were 25k and finance was 36k, or something like that. But the distribution of those wages is dramatically different, many people I have met who work in the city earn less than 20k, normal average office workers, many earn less than 18k and really struggle to pay the bills. The equivalent in the car industry might be factory line workers who earn a basic of about 25k and with usual overtime could be on 35 to 40k, thus allowing them more spare cash to pump back into the economy.
By comparison at the top end of the pay scale things are the other way around, senior managers in the car industry might be on 60k, but their counterpart in finance may be on double that. At director level the difference is even greater, there are no million pound bonuses in the car industry, no seven figure salaries, and all the better for it.
There are two results of this, firstly the car industry benefits more of its employees, the wages are more evenly distributed across the whole workforce and more of the cash finds its way into the local economy. But secondly the car industry is much less appealing to the super rich, the rewards are slimmer for directors, and for investors the dividends are modest.
Over the decades the press has made industry seem grubby and declining which has damaged its image severely, now UK industry is struggling to recruit the people it needs for continued growth because generations of young workers have been put off by the media image, preferring the relative ‘glamour’ of finance.
Career choice at an early age obviously shapes the subjects kids study at school and the exams they take at the end. The media bias has driven huge numbers to study softer subjects, and whilst I have absolutely no objection to anyone taking these subjects we desperately need to rekindle the enthusiasm for learning how to make things, how to design and engineer things, how to turn dreams into tangible working products that people can buy. This mismatch of candidate’s skills and job requirements, coupled with the apathy toward industrial work puts the country in the ridiculous position of having a large pool of unemployed youngsters and an industry being forced to recruit from abroad.
This situation has to change, the notion that an economy can run on the service and financial sectors alone is clearly flawed, how can a country prosper when all it does is sell someone else’s products to its own populous?
Also the idea that we can be solely a ‘knowledge’ economy, where we design stuff but make it elsewhere is idiotic. All that happens is the detailed knowledge of a product gained by actually making it gradually migrates to the place where it is made, all the product knowledge seeps away until the manufacturing area has greater understanding and technical expertise than we do. Then what do we design? ‘For Sale’ signs maybe.
I don’t know what the solution is, but do I know that what I see around me is terribly unfair and inefficient, like a misfiring engine it sort of works some times but keeps stalling at junctions. I think its time this country had a new engine, one driven by selling world class products globally, building real skills and doing useful jobs that benefit everyone.
The world has changed dramatically in the last few years, it is a truly global market place with massive opportunities. It is still in a state of change, but everything is starting to settle in, global players are establishing bases across the world, making networks and building brands that people in every country recognise and desire.
This phase is absolutely critical to long term success, if we miss the opportunities now someone else will definitely take them away. Now is the time to build our industry, just as it is in every country, to make it fit for the new market place. We are already leading in many areas such as luxury cars and motorsport, everyone who cares about the future should push the government to give all our industries a fighting chance by moving red tape, developing a tax system that promotes growth, investing in education and promoting our industry across the globe.
But let’s start by promoting our excellent industry to ourselves, spread the word.