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Car Electronics Going Nowhere?

What's happened to electronic advances in cars?

by Julian Edgar

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No one reading this needs to be reminded of the advances that electronics has given us. The communication medium you are now using (the World Wide Web) barely existed 15 years ago; the LCD you are probably now viewing was available but at prohibitive cost. Look around your lounge room – the hard-drive based video recorder, the multi-function remote, digital TV broadcasting – all show the advances that consumer electronics have made in the last 10-15 years. And they actually are advances!

But what about cars? Each year we’re being sold purported advances in car electronic technology that actually achieve stuff-all real benefit.

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In fact, instead of being better off, we’re paying in cash and fuel consumption for a plethora of unwanted and unneeded electronic gadgets: in-car entertainment, climate control, electric seat adjustment, active steering, electrically-operated handbrakes, parking proximity sensors and auto-dimming rear vision mirrors.

They’re being foisted upon us to disguise the fundamental lack of design progress being made in cars.

We’re paying in fuel consumption? How so? Well, how much do you reckon a seat weighs that contains no less than 6 electric motors – some quite hefty in size? Or a sound system that includes a CD stacker, eight speakers (including a subwoofer) and two amplifiers? It’s not even possible to physically pick up the wiring loom of a modern car – it’s simply too bloody heavy.

And how much do all these gizmos cost to develop?

You can be sure that if this stuff was taken out and the resources devoted to better engineering of the basics of the car, you’d be paying less and going further on the same tank of fuel.

Yes, there have been some significant electronic breakthroughs in car design. Trouble is, all but one happened long ago. In the mean time, the engineers have turned to developing just eye candy…

Engine Management

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It’s now well over 20 years since we first saw family priced cars with electronic engine management.

In its ability to reduce exhaust emissions; to improve starting, power and economy; and allow the widespread introduction of other technologies like turbocharging, engine management was a genuine breakthrough. (Yeah I know cars existed before engine management. But don’t bother writing in and telling me the joys of carbies and points; simply, you’d have to be a technological illiterate not to see the clear benefits that electronic engine management brought.)

But contrast that with (say) electronic throttle control. These days, nearly all cars are sold with a throttle that’s run by an electric motor. You put your foot down and a pair of potentiometers relay signals to an ECU that checks them for compatibility with one another and then decides how much throttle it will actually give you. The latter depends on engine temp, the torque output of the engine at those revs – a whole bunch of internally mapped stuff. Gee whiz indeed.

But so what? Apart from integrating more smoothly with the cruise control and allowing the system to close the throttle on you, what’s the huge benefit? In fact, many people complain that the throttle response of these systems is dull – one of the original aspects that engine management helped improve over points and carbies!

And the engineers who design and then map the electronic system spend literally years on the project, including time on esoteric aspects like anti-surge control that stops incompetent drivers kangaroo-hopping.

What if instead they spent that time and money developing active aerodynamics, using just the same sort of actuators and control logic to drop the drag of a car by 25 or 30 percent at highway speeds?

Or what about infinitely variable intake manifolds, rather than the archaic two step long/short runner changeover that’s now common?

Forget kangaroo hopping: how about better fuel economy?

Or take engine knock sensing. The ability to run ignition timing as advanced as possible for the conditions of fuel octane, intake air temp and engine load is of great benefit - it provides optimal power and economy. Er, trouble is, that technology was available in family cars well over 15 years ago.

Direct fire ignition, where troublesome distributors and ignition leads made way for multiple coils – another approach 15 or more years old.

Even ABS – a worthwhile gain to be sure – has been around (even on family cars) for many years.

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In fact, about the only really worthwhile breakthrough I can see in the last decade is the fitting of electronic stability control, which has the potential to prevent many accidents. (In fact, statistics show it is doing just that.)

The Hoopla

But you’d never believe from watching the ads and listening to the salesman that every new model is anything but a grand exposition of cutting-edge technology. Sure, since the ’50s in the US (when annual styling updates were introduced), car manufacturers have been selling cars on the latest-is-best philosophy. But now it’s electronics that is underpinning much of the hype.

Have you seen our twin DVD screens, sir?

Do you realise this car has auto windscreen wipers, madam?

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This auto transmission now has six ratios and Adaptive Logic Control. (No sir, I don’t know why it needs that many gears when in fact this year the engine is larger and has an even broader torque curve than before. Sir.)

Madam, this seat has three memories – and oh no madam, it’s not just the seat! When you press the button it also adjusts the external mirrors and the position of the steering wheel. That’s right, sir, the steering column now has two electric motors in it.

Have you seen the rear window blind, madam? It rises and falls at the touch of a console button. And you know what? It automatically drops down when you are reversing!

This parade of smoke and mirrors disguises the fact that the rate of progress in the fundamentals of car design – say, fuel economy, packaging and performance - has over the last decade been disgraceful.

Fact: the 1994 EF Falcon 5-speed I owned a few years ago got better real world fuel economy than a current Falcon.

Fact: most SUV-type vehicles have incredibly bad interior packaging that sees 15 and 20 and 30 year old cars look amazingly spacious. (Just sit in a 1960s Austin 1800 or look in the load area of a 1980s Holden Camira wagon.)

Yes, in an accident I’d certainly prefer to be in a current car - but if I wanted to be really, really safe, I’d never ride a bicycle, never walk anywhere. In fact, I’d stay cosseted by cotton wool in my bathroom, praying that natural disaster wouldn’t befall me….

Missed Opportunities

So where should advances have taken us?

For starters, it’s bizarre that engine management systems are still running pretty well the same air/fuel ratios that they always have. If you burn less fuel, you get better fuel consumption – but cars still use a 14.7:1 air/fuel ratio. (At least the madness of high-load 12:1 and 11:1 air/fuel ratios has just about ceased in new cars.)

Running leaner air/fuel ratios has emissions as well as economy significance – the output of oxides of nitrogen skyrockets. So, how to solve the problem of high oxides of nitrogen emissions when running lean air/fuel ratios? – hmm, seems like a good research project for the engineers.

Maybe for those engineers currently working on the software control of the next model’s 10-way power seat design…

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Aerodynamics has stalled. At highway speeds most of the petrol that your car burns is used to push the car through the air. In the mid-late Eighties, manufacturers (finally!) recognised this and moved almost across the board to slippery shaped cars. Aero drag coefficients dropped in just a few years from mid 0.4 figures to mid and low 0.3 coefficients.

But since then? Almost no change.

In fact, most manufacturers now don’t even bother stating the drag coefficients of their new cars – let alone the total drag found by multiplying the coefficient by the frontal area. [And the bizarre thing is that the poor internal packaging mentioned earlier is not the result of sacrifices made to produce low drag cars – cars (like SUVs) with the poorest drag figures often have the poorest packaging!]

The number of production models with electronically-controlled moveable aerodynamic surfaces can be counted on the fingers of one hand, yet such an approach has the potential to substantially drop open road fuel consumption without any around-town downsides.

The advances in electronics are also not being employed with any kind of engineering rigour. LEDs consume less electrical power, have faster light-up times and effectively never break. You’d expect then to see LEDs being used on – at least – all rear lights and indicators. (As in fact they are on most new trucks.) But on cars that’s still the exception not the rule – instead, manufacturers have moved to using coloured LEDs for instrument panel and foot-well illumination because then they can talk about the ‘cool blue’ lighting!

Solar cells? They’ve improved in efficiency at the same time as costs have decreased. So why don’t many cars (especially here in sunny Australia) use solar cells to keep the battery topped-up and the internal fan ventilating the cabin when the car is parked? Mazda once sold a car with this feature and the new Prius has this as an option, but otherwise, there’s been no sign of such lateral thinking.

Alternative fuels? Almost zero progress, with local LPG system technology lagging decades behind petrol fuel injection. In Brazil 30 per cent of newly sold cars are able to run on either petrol or alcohol, with the alcohol made primarily from locally grown sugar cane. In those cars, the engine management system is programmed to adapt itself to the appropriate fuel – whether that’s petrol, alcohol or any mixture in between. Yes this flex-fuel technology is coming from more manufacturers – but after how long?

Wood from the Trees

But the problem is far more fundamental than not applying some obvious technologies: simply, car manufacturers have lost the wood for the trees.

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They pack in more and more trivial and irrelevant equipment, making cars heavier. (Even a small car these days has a mass of 1300kg.) To cope with the increased weight, they fit larger brakes, heavier suspension and wider tyres. The wider tyres increase rolling resistance and accelerating the heavier mass requires more fuel, so producing more pollutants and to a large extent decreasing the effectiveness of tighter emissions standards. To be market competitive, apparently the next model is always required to have even more equipment and more power, so the circle continues.

It seems no manufacturer ever steps back and lays out the criteria for the functionality of a car, ignoring what others are doing and simply trying to achieve the best outcome.

The mind boggles at the thought of what innovative and original car designers like Ferdinand Porsche and Alec Issigonis would now be able to do with the exotic materials, CAD/CAM design techniques, well instrumented wind tunnels and electronic control systems at the fingertips of today’s designers.

One thing’s for sure: they wouldn’t be designing 1.8 tonne cars with amongst the worse interior packaging in automotive history, hugely powerful and equally thirsty, and loaded to the gunwales with complex electronic gadgets designed primarily to just entertain and amuse.

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