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Observations From an Auto Show

January 28th, 2011 Comments off

The Washington, DC Auto Show kicked off today.  And although it’s not the premiere event on most automakers’ calendars, it is an important occasion, given the vast intersection between the auto industry and policy makers.  It’s also the auto show that’s easiest for me to attend, given that it takes place in the city in which I work…

So, as I wandered through the automakers’ displays, taking note of the new models on the floor (…and I’m talking about the cars, not the barbie-esque spokespersons demonstrating how to recline the seats…), I made a few observations.  And here they are.

Fiat 500 Sport

Fiat is here. Yes, I’ve been excited about the arrival of the Cinquecento for some time.  And Chrysler … err, Fiat had quite a few on display in various colors and trim levels.  This is a nice car. ..It’s a small car.  (Grown people may not be able to fit in the back seat.)  But I think it will sell at least as well as the Mini Cooper (its only real competition) has done.  Molto bene!

Chrysler may be back from the brink, but its future isn’t certain. One of two automakers that the government saved from complete collapse (the other being GM), Chrysler finally has an updated line-up reaching the market.  It is much improved (the new Jeep Grand Cherokee is awesome, and the new Durango and Charger are impressive as well); but I get the feeling their first step post-rescue, while big, is still a little shaky.  I’m skeptical that any of these vehicles (other than the Cherokee) will sell in large numbers.  And it’s telling that their Fiat 500 display was the most crowded spot in the entire Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep/Fiat area while I was there.

Buick is relevant. GM started turning Buick around not long before the General found itself at the edge of the cliff.  Through their restructuring, the Buick brand was saved, and now has an expanded (and impressive) model line-up.  The Enclave is arguably the best looking vehicle in its class, the Regal GS is bad-ass (yes, I said a Buick is bad-ass), and the upcoming Verano is a small car for grown-ups.  Now, if only they could come up with better model names…

Acura isn’t. Honda’s premium brand, for some reason, has decided to make cars that nobody wants to buy.

Ford C-Max

Ford is on a tear. From where I stood, Ford had the biggest presence at the Washington Auto Show, and had the vehicles to back it up.  They’re making great cars lately – the new Taurus, Focus, Fiesta, and Explorer (not to mention the EcoBoost powertrains, as well as hybrids and pure electrics) are at the top of their class.  The new C-Max is impressive as well.  Ford was the only Detroit automaker that didn’t require government assistance – and now they’re flaunting it.

The Mercedes Benz SLS AMG isn’t nearly as attractive in person as it is in the pictures. Sad, but true.

Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

Right now, I’d rather be Hyundai than Toyota or Honda.  It used to be that the Korean imports could only hope to match the quality, performance, styling, and reliability of the two biggest Japanese brands.  Now Toyota and Honda would do well to aim for Hyundai.  Hyundai claims that the Sonata hybrid is designed to be the first hybrid you want to buy.  They may be right.

Mini is a brand. Sure, the modern Cooper has been around for a few years now, but it’s basically been thought of a sub-brand of BMW.  Now with the (ugly) Clubman and the (still ugly but I want one anyway) Countryman, they’ve got a whole line-up. And they don’t have any competition.  (Well, scratch that, due to my first observation above!)

Nissan may be a one-trick pony. With all the (well-deserved) hype about the Leaf, people may have forgotten that Nissan makes other vehicles, too.  Apparently, so has Nissan.  They still make some good cars, but their design language – which had gotten just a little avant-garde in a desirable sort of way – has taken a wrong turn.

2011 Audi RS5

Audi makes the best interiors.  And exteriors. VW’s premium brand gained a reputation for making the inside of their vehicles one of the most eye-pleasing environments into which a person could deposit him (or her) self.  That’s still true.  And the exteriors have followed suit.  Add to that cutting edge technologies such as Quattro, TDI, TFSI, and the aluminum space frame, and it’s no wonder Audi saw sales increase last year more than rivals BMW or Mercedes.

And finally, people need to be informed by folks who understand. The official auto show guide, in describing the 10 most efficient vehicles (as rated by the EPA), said that if a (all-electric) Nissan Leaf had a 14-gallon gas tank, it could travel over 1300 miles… What?  How does that work?  What good is a gas tank on an electric vehicle?… (OK, it works by calculating the energy content of gasoline – approximately 33.7 kWh per gallon – and falsely assuming that, because the EPA fuel economy label says that the Leaf uses about 34 kWh to travel 100 miles, it could travel over 1300 miles on the energy content of 14 gallons of gasoline.  The EPA fuel economy label also says the Leaf gets 99 MPG.  Which is a nonsensical metric for an electric vehicle.)

Differences

September 16th, 2010 Comments off

This is a real car:

Nissan Leaf

And this is not:

Edison2 Very Light Car

And if you happened to be walking down L’Enfant Promenade in Washington, DC this afternoon, it’s quite likely you would have seen both of them.

The first car is Nissan’s new all-electric vehicle, the Leaf, which you will be able to buy (or at least order) within the next few months at your local Nissan Dealer.  (And if you haven’t seen the new commercial, go watch it now.)

The second is the Edison2 Very Light Car.  It was in town because the Progressive Insurance Automotive X-Prize winners were being announced.  (You can read about them here.)  The Edison2 won the prize – the five million dollar prize – in the mainstream class. …Really?  Mainstream? This car doesn’t look mainstream to me.  It does meet the definition of mainstream as defined by the PIAXP folks.  It does carry four passengers, and is presumably capable of transporting them around on public roads with some modicum of comfort, safety, and practicality.  It’s motivated by a 1-cylinder, E85-capable 40 horsepower motorcycle engine.  And it can do this because it weighs a scant 800 pounds.

The Edison2 will never be sold to the public. But it’s interesting for a few reasons.  It demonstrates that there are ways to build a 100 mpg car that doesn’t use electricity as its fuel – namely, through the use of lightweighting and aerodynamic improvements.  (It also demonstrates what a group of individuals who cut their teeth in auto racing can do when they focus on fuel efficiency.)

The Leaf, on the other hand, is remarkable in that it’s so unremarkable, while at the same time being unlike anything the mass market has seen.  It’ll cost around $24k (after the $7500 federal tax credit), which is pretty inexpensive considering its 24kWh battery that gives it a 100 mile range between charges.  And it’s a nice car – with better tactile feedback and quality of materials than many other conventional cars in its price range.  It’s roomy, handles well, is quick off the line, and is quite fun and intuitive to drive.  My test-drive was brief, but easily enough to convince me that Nissan likely has a success on their hands.  (It should be noted that the Leaf was not an entrant the Automotive X-Prize competition.)

The Edison2 may have won the Automotive X-Prize competition (and the $5 million purse).  But my guess is that a year from now, it will be the Nissan Leaf that will have won consumers’ hearts.  And even the hearts of a few polar bears.

Peeks, Leafs, and Curves

April 25th, 2010 Comments off

Just over a week ago, I opened my mouth about V-Vehicle Company, and the fact that they appeared to be dead in the water.  Apparently, the folks at VVC read my post, and thus decided to give a few journalists a sneak PEEK of their affordable, efficient, composite-bodied compact.  According to Autobloggreen, it looks like a cross between a VW Golf and a Dodge Neon. …Who knew ThatCarBlog had such an effect on the automotive start-ups?

2011 Nissan Leaf

In other news, this week Nissan revealed that 6,635 people in the U.S. have paid $99 to reserve a Leaf … in only 3 days.  This is notable for several reasons.  First, lack of customer demand was one of the reasons GM cited in the early ’90s for the limited availability (and eventual cancellation) of the EV1 program.  (Of course, when customers … demanded … the EV1, GM’s stance was, “Oh, they’re not really serious.”)  Demand for the Leaf, which won’t be available until the end of the year, is already stronger than expected – a very good sign for Nissan (and EVs in general).  Secondly, compared to the expectations and media chatter surrounding Chevrolet’s Volt, hype surrounding the Leaf has been relatively limited.  This deserves mention, considering the Leaf will arrive at around the same time as the Volt, and it’s an all-electric vehicle (compared to the Volt’s plug-in-hybrid … er, extended-range-electric propulsion architecture).  Many folks still consider pure EVs to not quite be ready for mass-market consumption.  …And finally, the 100-mile range Leaf will cost $25,280 after tax incentives, about $7k less than the Volt.

2011 Audi RS5

And on a final note … I just can’t stop staring at Audi’s new RS5.  This is one sexy car, with subtly striking CURVES and amazing performance potential.  OK, so the 450 hp, 4.2 liter V8 underneath its hood may not be the most efficient power plant imaginable, but with an average fuel economy of 22 mpg, it’s not nearly as thirsty as most cars of this caliber.  And with such visual appeal on the outside, it’s hard to pay attention to what’s on the inside…

The Sound of Silence

February 19th, 2010 Comments off

Seems I’m linking back to myself a lot lately…

Last year, I bored you with a description of a speaker embedded in a car’s exhaust system, used to help tune the exhaust note.  Well, it turns out Honda/Acura has been doing something similar for a while, only using the speakers that are already inside your car.

They call it Active Sound Control, and the system uses anti-phase sound waves (which I also previously talked about) to cancel the “unwanted” engine noises from the cabin, while allowing the more pleasing snarls to tickle your eardrums when the throttle is to the floor.  (The irony here is that I’ve yet to come across a Honda or Acura that actually produced any sound which could be described as aurally exciting.)  Honda is offering the technology on their new Crosstour (a car which I’m oddly intrigued by), and Acura on their TSX, RL, and ZDX.

This is cool technology.  But I can’t help but think it’s just technology for technology’s sake – sort of a Rube Goldberg device for correcting the deficiencies of their engine designers and exhaust system engineers.  (Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time Honda employed an over-engineered solution for a simple taskbut that time I was impressed.)

Maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps using the stereo to cover up engine sounds is a more efficient solution to unwanted cabin noise than a well-designed engine, proper attention paid to exhaust tuning, a chassis developed with NVH in mind, and sufficient levels of sound-absorbing insulation.  (For what it’s worth, GM chose the insulation route with their Quiet Tuning technology in their Buick brand.)

In my opinion, a more holistic approach would be better than Active Sound Control.  As in most cases, it’s better to treat the source than to mask the symptom.

Quattro Formaggio

December 20th, 2009 Comments off

For 37 years, I lived in the south.  (And technically I still do, though most would call my current locale the Mid-Atlantic.)  And in the south, we only get snow once – maybe twice – a year.  And when we do, it’s typically an inch or two (and the governor still usually declares a state of emergency).  Despite this, all three vehicles in my household’s garage have all-wheel- (or 4-wheel-) drive.  I’ve insisted on it.

Now, many folks believe all-wheel-drive is only useful in snow or mud (or otherwise slippery conditions).  I recall about 8 years ago, when I test-drove a VW Passat, I asked the salesman about 4Motion – Volkswagen’s all-wheel-drive system.  His reply was, “You can’t get that down here!  Those are only for up north!”  (…We then went to the Audi dealer and bought an A4 Avant – with Quattro all-wheel-drive – instead.)  And sure, the biggest advantage for a vehicle in which all 4 wheels are driven comes when the weather gets treacherous.  …I’m thinking about this now, because I recently had the opportunity to drive through the middle of The Blizzard Of ’09.  It took 6 hours to go what is normally a 2-hour drive.  Toward the end, I saw rear-wheel-drive cars pirouette across icy bridges, front-wheel-drive cars struggle to exit nearly level parking lots, and even an overturned tractor-trailer.  Overall, I probably witnessed over 50 vehicles nosed into a guardrail, stuck on the shoulder, or otherwise scarred and motionless.  (Quiz:  What do you think the car was that stood out to me out as being the most unusable in the snow?  Answer at the end of the post.)  The A4 soldiered on, as if the event were simply a light rain.

Audi Ski JumpOf course, an AWD vehicle isn’t the only way to handle snowy roads.  A capable driver with a front-wheel- or even a rear-wheel-drive car (especially with a limited-slip differential) and proper tires can maneuver quite well.  (An even smarter driver may decide to stay inside and enjoy some hot buttered rum!)  But physics dictates that the more contact-patches moving the car along, the more likely it is to move at all.  (Stopping is a different matter.  All cars have 4-wheel-brakes.  Unfortunately, it’s the loose nut behind the steering wheel that is often the weak link!)  The fact that I saw a few 18-wheelers (with two driven axles, totaling 8 wheels) spin their tires and go nowhere on the slightest incline testifies to the road conditions 2 nights ago.

But what about the 99% of the time when you don’t need all-wheel-drive?  I mean, doesn’t it just add weight and inefficiency?  Well – yes, it does.  But, it’s still worth it.  Drive a front-wheel-drive car near the limit – try to accelerate while turning.  The front-end will just plow (that is, understeer, or in NASCAR-speak:  push) to the outside of the turn.  A rear-wheel-drive car is much more sporting in that regard, but apply too much power and the opposite effect occurs:  oversteer, when the rear-end breaks loose.  But an all-wheel-drive car can make even the worst driver look talented.

And what about that other 1% of the time when the weather dictates that an all-wheel-drive system might be beneficial? Absolutely worth the price paid (which is usually no more than a DVD or a navigation system).

QUIZ ANSWER:  I saw several of the latest generation Dodge Magnum wagons during my drive.  I think every one of them was stuck.  If you live north of the US/Mexico border, you probably shouldn’t buy one.

Plastic

November 11th, 2009 Comments off

I hate plastic.  Mostly because it, mysteriously, doesn’t dry in the dishwasher.  But also because a lot of things that used to be made with more durable materials (and that are now made with plastic) don’t last very long.

On the other hand, plastics have been beneficial in many respects, especially in the auto industry.  I remember people complaining a few decades ago when polyurethane and polypropylene fascias replaced the large chrome bumpers that were on most cars, but the truth is the use of these plastics allowed for better aerodynamics, sleeker designs, and even improved safety.

ZF Carbon Fiber Reinforced Polymer Strut

ZF Carbon Fiber Reinforced Polymer Strut

ZF Transverse Leaf Spring Axle

ZF Transverse Leaf Spring Axle

The latest issue of Automotive Engineering International describes how plastics are taking the next step in automotive design: being incorporated into suspension components and other structural areas of the car.  For example, ZF is developing a transverse-leaf-spring rear axle utilizing glass-reinforced plastic for the spring itself, as well an upside-down carbon fiber-reinforced polymer strut and plastic spring for the front suspension.  In addition to the benefits of lighter weight (and lighter unsprung weight, which magnifies the handling benefit) the strut can be manufactured with an integrated signal fiber that acts as a strain gauge, providing a warning of any impending structural failure.  (This is not to suggest the chance of a structural failure with these components is any greater than with traditional steel suspension parts.  Formula 1 and Le Mans Prototype race cars have been using composite suspension components for years.  And in fact, these  components may actually be safer, since they won’t rust when exposed to road salt and water, and they can actually let you know when there’s a problem!)

Additionally Bayer MaterialScience is developing polycarbonate windows for use in road-going vehicles.  This again is a case where technology that has long been used in motorsports is making its way to the masses.  The problem with polycarbonate windows has historically been the ease with which they scratch.  That’s not a big deal in racing, where the windshield gets replaced frequently.  But Bayer has developed coatings which make polycarbonate windows stand up to the rigors of life on our nation’s highways.  Here, too, we have the benefits of reduced weight (especially up high in the vehicle, where it affects handling) and increased safety (no shattered glass).

The use of plastics and composites will play a significant role in the design and manufacture of lighter, more fuel-efficient vehicles. (What’s next, plastic engines?!)  …Given how far we’ve come with plastics, it seems that by now someone would have made a plastic child’s sippy-cup that would emerge dry from the dishwasher…

Technical Minutiae

November 9th, 2009 Comments off

When it comes to cars, I’m fascinated with technical minutiae.

In the tech Q&A section of one of the car magazines I read, the question was recently posed, “Are there any disadvantages to direct-injected engines?”  Many automakers are switching from port-injection to direct-injection in an effort to increase performance and fuel-efficiency.  (What’s the difference?  In traditional port-injected engines, fuel is squirted into the incoming stream of air before it goes past the intake valve into the combustion chamber where it is ignited.  Direct-injection, on the other hand, involves injecting the fuel directly into the combustion chamber – and air is the only thing that enters via the intake port.)  Direct-injection is used in many high-end and mainstream vehicles now, and will probably make its way further down-market very soon.

MicroscopeTurns out, there are a couple of concerns with direct-injection that aren’t immediately obvious.  One involves the intake valve itself.  Along with the air that flows past it is the small amount of gases that leak past the piston-rings and into the crankcase, returned into the intake stream via the PCV (positive crankcase ventilation) valve. This is essentially the “oily” air that resides in the bottom half of the engine.  Over time, the PCV system could cause oil-residue to build up on the back-side of the intake valve.  In an older port-injected engine, the gasoline washes this residue away, but in a direct-injected engine, this residue never gets cleaned off.  (Ford solved this problem by adding an additional filter to the PCV system.)  Another concern is that directly injecting gasoline into the cylinder could wash the oil-film from the cylinder walls, increasing wear of the rings.  My guess is that this will turn out to be a non-issue, given the amount of testing that goes into proving the fundamental combustion processes of engine technology.  But this is what I find fascinating – there are significant repercussions to even slight design modifications.

It’s sort of the law of unintended consequences.  (Increased ethanol production caused a spike in the price of tortillas, anyone?)  Not long ago, I had a conversation with an automotive engineer that was studying the role that lubricants (i.e., your motor oil) play in auto emissions – a role that is increasing as vehicles become more fuel-efficient.  Motor oil formulations have been (and will continue to be) altered in order to reduce their contribution to tailpipe emissions.  As an example, the amount of zinc dialkyl-dithio-phosphate (ZDDP) was recently reduced in engine oils, due to its detrimental effects on emissions equipment (such as catalytic converters) over time.  Unfortunately, it’s the ZDDP that helped to protect the metal-to-metal impact surfaces in engine valve-trains up until the 1990s.  Owners of cars built before then are now experiencing increased camshaft and lifter wear, upsetting a lot of folks who drive classic (and near-classic) cars. …A slight change somewhere results in unforeseen consequences somewhere else…

At this point, if you’re still reading, your eyes have probably glazed over.  Technical minutiae isn’t for everyone.  But sometimes, it’s the tiniest of details that matter.

An EcoBoost Ego Boost

October 13th, 2009 Comments off

If you keep up with what’s happening on the auto-scene, you’ve no doubt heard of Ford‘s EcoBoost effort by now.  EcoBoost is essentially Ford’s moniker for adding forced induction (i.e., turbochargers) to high-compression engines to produce power equivalent to that of a V8 (or a V6) with fuel economy comparable to a V6 (or a 4-cylinder).  Automakers have been doing this for a number of years now, but Ford is making it a core part of their strategy to boost their brands’ fuel economy, spreading the technology through virtually all of their models.

2010 Lincoln MKS

2010 Lincoln MKS

I just finished watching the 6 vs 8 – Showdown at Loveland Pass episode of Speed Test Drive on Speed Channel, in which the Lincoln (Ford’s luxury brand) MKS (with a twin-turbo EcoBoost 3.5L V6 making 355 hp and 350 lb-ft of torque) was pitted against a Mercedes E550 (with a 382 hp 5.5L V8), BMW 550i (360 hp 4.6L V8), Maserati Quattroporte (400 hp, 4.3L V8), and Jaguar XF (385 hp, 5.0L V8).  The challenge was to see if the 6-cylinder Lincoln could keep up with the V8-powered European luxury/performance brands in a 3.7-mile hill climb up Loveland Pass in Colorado, with the finish-line nearly 12,000 feet above sea-level.  Expert rally / hill-climb champion racer Rod Millen was given the honor of piloting each of the vehicles.

The result?  The Lincoln came in second, with a time of 172.7 seconds – a couple of seconds (and about 0.8 mph) slower than the BMW, and several seconds ahead of the Mercedes, Jaguar, and Maserati that came in 3rd, 4th, and 5th respectively.  More striking is the fact that the Lincoln actually reached the highest top-speed on the course (109 mph), demonstrating that it was the handling, not the engine, that caused it to fall just short of the BMW’s pace.

I’ve never driven Loveland Pass.  I have driven over Independence Pass – 100 feet higher than Loveland Pass – and realize what a challenge this test actually is.  I also know how anemic normally-aspirated cars can be at extreme elevations – a fact that certainly played to the boosted Lincoln’s strengths.  And if you’re wondering why the car with the least power appears to be the fastest, note that it’s not the peak horsepower that matters – it’s the area under the torque curve, and the Lincoln’s is wide and flat.

I’m impressed.  That the Lincoln can run with, and even outshine, Europe’s best in any test has got to be an ego-boost for Ford.  But I’m even more impressed with Ford’s efforts to bring the technology to all of their vehicles.  The EcoBoost engine in the new Ford Flex (reviewed here by Autoblog) makes nearly 100 hp more than the normally aspirated V6 Flex, with the same fuel economy.  (I’d like to see them replace that old Duratec V6 with an EcoBoost 4-cylinder.)  The same engine is used in the high-performance Taurus SHO.  And there are even plans to use a version of it in Ford’s light-duty trucks.

I grew up in a Chevy family.  (Growing up the rural south in the ’70s, you were either a Chevy family, a Ford family, or a Chrysler family.)  And though my preferences have shifted to a few German marques, I’ve got to give Ford credit.  While the other American manufacturers have gone through bankruptcy and major reorgs in the last year, Ford has not only managed to survive, but they’ve introduced interesting new technology, all while manufacturing some of the better hybrids on the market.  And that, more than anything, should boost their ego.

ecoboost logo

Porsche Goes Lithium, Saturn Leaves Orbit

October 8th, 2009 Comments off

Buried in the pages of the November issue of Road & Track is a short description of the 2010 Porsche 911 GT3 RS.  (For those unaware, the 911 is Porsche’s bread-and-butter sports car.  The GT3 version is the ultra-high-performance, race-bred version of the 911.  The RS is the insane, barely-street-legal, over-the-top version of the GT3.  It’s the one I want.)  It’s got all the goodies you’d expect, but one option really sticks out in my mind: a lithium-ion battery to replace to the conventional lead-acid battery, resulting in a 22-pound weight reduction.  Now, this isn’t a hybrid or electric vehicle of any sort.  The battery is used, as it is in any conventional car, to turn the starter and to power the accessories when the car’s not running.  And while racers have used down-sized lead-acid batteries (barely capable of starting the car) for weight savings for quite some time, this is the first time I’m aware of that a manufacturer has offered a Li-ion starter battery.

There are folks that criticize Li-ion batteries as being too unsafe and too expensive to be a real solution to automotive energy storage.  There are even those that suggest lead-acid batteries are more than capable of storing the energy we need in hybrid and electric vehicles, not to mention the starting-duties of internal combustion engine cars.  (I’d agree with respect to starter batteries, but certainly not the other points.)  But now Li-ion has made it’s way into what most would agree would be lead-acid’s territory for the foreseeable future!  Sure, it’s probably an expensive box to check on your GT3 RS order form, and it really is a niche application.  But it may also be a glimpse into the future of automotive batteries.  (Though I do find it ironic that Porsche is offering this option to save 22 pounds – less than 1% of the weight of the vehicle – while they’ve refused to offer weight-saving and arguably more practical options on their GT3 to the North American market in the past, such as carbon-fiber fixed-back racing seats.)

2010 Porsche 911 GT3 RS

2010 Porsche 911 GT3 RS

In other news, it was announced over a week ago (and how did I miss it?!) that the deal whereby Penske would acquire the Saturn brand and sell vehicles under a contract-manufacturing agreement with various automotive OEMs won’t happen happen after all, and the Saturn brand will disappear.  I find this disappointing, simply because it was a new business model in the automotive world, and I was interested to see how it would work out.  Unfortunately, I guess I now have my answer:  not well.

Do You Hear What I Hear?

September 10th, 2009 Comments off

Eberspächer, a German-based company focused on automotive exhaust systems, heaters, and electronics, has recently demonstrated a new product:  a speaker integrated into a vehicle’s muffler, with the capability of significantly affecting the exhaust sound.  “So what?” you might ask.  Well, as described in Automotive Engineering International, there are numerous applications for this technology.

First of all, it could be used to enhance the sound of the tiny little 4-banger – or the quiet rattle of the diesel engine – in our cars.  Conversely, where noise limits are enforced, it could be used to subdue the scream from the high-strung V8 in your Ferrari F430 with the flick of a switch.  (This is done by generating antiphase sound waves – basically, the inverse of the sound being produced from the engine.  The waves cancel each other out – a phenomenon I played around with when I did digital signal processing research in college.  But I’m getting off-topic, and you’re getting bored…)  Furthermore, with talk of the dangers of electric vehicles quietly roaming our city streets, plowing down unsuspecting pedestrians who fail to hear them approaching, the Eberspächer system could be used to produce an exhaust note of any sort to upcoming EVs.

Le Mans PosterHhhmmm.  I’m a bigger fan of a properly tuned exhaust note than most anyone I know.  (To get a sense of what I’m talking about, watch the movie Le Mans in Dolby Digital.  Tell the kids to hush when the Porsche 917 screams down the Mulsanne Straight.  That, to me, is the greatest sound ever made.)  But the automotive purist in me appreciates the fact that these sounds come from the mechanical process that’s moving the car!  Auto OEMs, as well as the aftermarket, have devoted a lot of resources into improving and enhancing the sound coming from our vehicles’ engines.  (Respective examples are the Motor Sound Package offered on various Porsche models in the past, and the fart-can exhausts that people tend to affix to their souped-up Hondas – though any “improvement” from the latter is agruable.)  But they’ve always relied on the engine itself – not some artificial audio source.

Applications making EVs audible might be a more worthy cause, though I tend to think the safety issue there is overblown.  (In cities, where pedestrians are used to crossing the street, people tend to use their eyes as well as their ears to give them an indication of when it’s best to step off the curb.  And at higher, high-way speeds, noise from the tires and air flowing around the car tend to equal that of the engine anyway.)  To me, the most ideal use of this technology might be in PHEVs/EREVs once they’re traveling in charge-sustaining mode (i.e., when the engine comes on to keep the battery charged).  It seems to me that, say, once the engine turns on in the Chevy Volt or Fisker Karma, it would most optimally run at a constant rpm to generate electricity – maintaining this speed whether the car is traveling at a steady speed, accelerating, or even (in some cases) sitting at a stop-light.  That would be a bit unnerving to the driver, who’s used to the engine sound having some sort of relationship with what the car’s doing.  (As an aside – Constantly Variable Transmissions have specific gear-ratios programmed into their software in part for this exact reason.)  Perhaps the Eberspächer system could be used to help recreate the aural experience to which the consumer is accustomed – one more tool to help smooth the transition to electrified vehicles.

Now, go watch Le Mans!