Looking back to the past for ideas to come up with car for tomorrow

We put Car Clinic temporarily on hold as we delve into a series of articles taking a long, critical look at the motor vehicle from bumper to bumper, fender to fender, trafficator to trunnion, thinking about what was, what is, and what will probably be.

This is a series of essays that will, hopefully, open a not-so-new facet for this column and restore the original concept of in-depth analysis of all things motoring.

The late, great English motoring journalist, Leonard John Kensell Setright (1931-2005), once declared conventional cars to be great travesties of engineering ideals.

He was right. Inefficient, heavy, and dangerous, the one invention of the past 200 years that is both accessible and exciting has been the motor vehicle, second only to the personal computer in the impact it has had on instigating changes and improvement in human society.

By stages the car has evolved from a horseless carriage to an egg-shaped, computer-controlled technological marvel of a mobile living room-cum-office of sorts.

Engineers have done their best to optimise the efficiency of the motor vehicle. Unfortunately, science is a fickle mistress: where they struggled to improve one area, it was at the expense of another.

To make cars less dangerous to both their users and those around them, a myriad safety systems have had to be legislated into motor vehicle design, with the result that cars are now much heavier than they used to be.

Weight is the enemy of efficiency. To improve the efficiency of the motor vehicle by optimising aerodynamics, the design suffered. Today’s silhouettes are far from evocative and most modern saloons and SUVs are becoming blatant facsimiles of each other.

The evolution of motoring could be an indicator of where the industry is headed, but this is a half-half kind of bet. History tells us that innovation does not always follow expectation, and vice versa.

A case in point: the Jensen FF was the first 4WD passenger car in the ’60s, but this technology was largely ignored by manufacturers because buyers were not interested in it.

It took another 20 years before Audi simply destroyed the competition in the world rally championship with the 4WD Quattro for people to wake up and realise that yes, 4WD does have its advantages outside of a rock-crawling, mud-plugging SUV.

The result is that now almost every single vehicle make has a 4WD version somewhere in its lineup. There are some key aspects — call them system parameters if you will — of motoring that can be used as a sort of automotive crystal ball, an oracle from which we can try to predict what the car of tomorrow will be like.

These system parameters we will take into consideration over the next few weeks as far as the motor car is concerned are the following: propulsion types, control systems, infrastructural layouts, safety considerations and design language.

1. Propulsion

It started with a team of horses (or oxen, or elephants, or even buffaloes, depending on location) before graduating to the steam train and eventually the discovery of petrol via the fractional distillation of crude oil. Internal combustion engines powered by fossil fuels have been in use in one form or another over the past 130-odd years.

Highly charismatic (the mere fact that a car is powered by a series of rapid explosions has led to the emergence of the petrolhead community, just for the exhaust noises, if nothing else), petrol- and diesel-powered engines have two very big problems, the first being that they are highly inefficient.

Petrol engines have an efficiency of about 35 per cent while that of diesel engines in roughly 40 per cent.

The efficiency improves ever so slightly when turbochargers are introduced into the equation. Take note: by efficiency, I do not mean fuel economy, but rather, the ratio of energy not wasted versus energy applied.

Boffinry in material science and engine development has led to a major improvement in fuel efficiency (the amount of work done by an engine per litre or gallon of fuel, or what we call “economy” or “consumption”), but has not done much for combustion efficiency.

The problem with combustion efficiency is the inherent characteristics in both the hydrocarbons and atmospheric oxygen; when the two are ignited, the energy released in the resultant explosion from the oxidation reaction will be dissipated as noise, heat and light in predetermined ratios.

It is only the heat we are interested in; not much can be done to reduce the sound and light fractions in spite of oil companies’ best efforts in conjuring more “efficient” fuels such as Shell FuelSave.

There are only two obvious and viable alternatives to generate rotational motion to power a motor vehicle. The first would be to burn something other than a hydrocarbon.

The alternative has to be just as explosive, if not more, and it has to have better combustion properties to justify the demotion of hydrocarbons as a power source.

That alternative is hydrogen, the most common element in the known universe. Not only is it highly explosive, but the resulting byproduct of that combustion is water, and water only. This squarely handles the second major problem with burning fossil fuels, namely environmental pollution.

Fossil fuels, being hydrocarbons, have not-so-pleasant combustion byproducts, chief among them being oxides of carbon, the real culprits in global warming. For these types of fuel to burn well in a car engine, several additives are used – additives to prevent knocking and/or preignition, cleaning agents, additives to prevent dissolution in water, to prevent freezing, to prevent degradation over time, etc. And these additives too, once burnt, form oxides; oxides of sulphur and nitrogen.

These contribute to the formation of acid rain as well as making the air generally less breathable. But with hydrogen combustion, the end product is oxides of hydrogen. In other words: water.

There are several issues with having hydrogen as a fuel. First is the ironical fact that, despite hydrogen being the most abundant element in the universe, it is extremely difficult to get hold of.

This is because hydrogen is always tied up with other elements to form molecules of different substances: water, acid, alkali, ammonia, petrol, plastic, sugar and just about anything else imaginable.

Extracting pure hydrogen is energy-intensive and very expensive. It is, therefore, hard to justify.

Hydrogen is also very difficult to store: being the smallest possible atom, it leaks through literally any kind of container you put it into, including metal canisters and plastic urns.

Prolonged storage is, therefore, impractical. It has to be used as it is generated, which is even more impractical. Not everyone lives near a hydrogen extraction plant.

Lastly, hydrogen might be highly explosive, but its combustion characteristics are unusual and nearly impossible to control accurately, unlike hydrocarbon combustion.

That leaves one other alternative power source: electricity. Running a car purely on electricity has its attendant difficulties, chief among them being range anxiety and battery weight.

That — together with prohibitive development costs felt at the end user-level in the form of sticker prices — might explain why purely electric rechargeable cars, while pioneering the electron-powered revolution, haven’t really caught on. Having a car that generates its own electricity seems to be the easy way out, but how?

One can’t have a hydroelectric power project on board their vehicle, nor can one use steam. In this day and age of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Al Qaeda, Iran and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, nuclear powered vehicles are definitely out of the question. There is no telling to what use the fuel will be put by those with terrorist inclinations. So what now?

It is ironical that the self-same propulsion type being eschewed in the first-place has been resorted to as an onboard power generator. This is where the hybrid powertrain comes in: the combination of a (small) internal combustion engine and an electric power pack.

The deployment methods lie on one of two sides: there is the use of both powertrains to power the wheels. The engines may be used alternatively, like in the Toyota Prius, whereby electricity is used in low speed, low demand driving and the petrol/diesel engine comes in during high load/high speed situations.

If one motor runs out of juice, the other could take over. An adaptation of this is in the world of performance cars dominated by names like Porsche, Ferrari and McLaren.

The electric motor is not so much a palliative for emissions as a sort of boost device to bump up the already enormous horsepower from the internal combustion power unit. Just like the Prius, the engines are either used simultaneously or alternately.

Part of the recharging process is from the use of regenerative braking, where the kinetic energy lost during braking, rather than getting lost as heat, is transformed into electrical energy and stored in capacitors located within the car for later use (preferably in overtaking situations).

The other side of the divide is the use of the petrol engine purely as a generator. The engine does not power the wheels; rather, it powers a dynamo, which creates electricity, which then powers the wheels.

It might sound redundant, but it is actually a more efficient way of tapping the available energy in a gallon of fuel. You see, with a conventional drivetrain, the energy losses are huge (hence the efficiency percentages quoted earlier).

There are heat losses, frictional losses and energy spent rotating heavy transmission components. Rotating a dynamo does not require an elaborate transmission, and thus a lot less energy is wasted.

Secondly, of the electricity generated, very few losses are experienced as a result of flux leakage, eddy currents or internal resistance. The overall effect is that this type of electric hybrid is much more energy efficient and thus more powerful compared with a similar sized internal combustion engine.

A good example is the Fisker Karma car, a stunning sedan with the looks and performance numbers that belong to a forced induction V8 but sporting an engine displacing a “mere” 2.0 litres. The drivetrain magic happens after the electric motors.

That doesn’t mean that purely electric cars are out of the picture – far from it. Tesla Motors is continuously revolutionising the electric automobile sector by addressing the two biggest failings of electric cars: range anxiety and charging times. Performance, while a worry, has never really been inaccessible for electric cars.

Tesla has been working on a fully electric car that is not only not unattractive, but practical in everyday life as well. The culmination of this struggle lies in the recently launched Model 3.

This cars boasts a range of 215 miles (344km) on a single charge and reduced powering times owing to a concept interestingly referred to as “supercharging” by the car maker.

The D series of the model lineup — the P85D and P90D — might have names like diesel-powered vehicles, but these are the performance masters. Clearly, as far as propulsion systems go, the future lies in Tesla’s kind of approach, and the future is now.

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