When J.D. Power released its annual customer-satisfaction survey in June, the issue that most irked American car buyers was not wind noise, inadequate acceleration or anything else related to the actual process of driving. It was unsatisfactory voice recognition. Drivers now expect cars to be rolling information-technology bubbles, and automakers are remaking the driving experience accordingly.
So far, car companies have had trouble keeping up with computing advances. While Apple issues a new iPhone annually, General Motors needs to finalize in-dash hardware and software years before a car reaches the market. But automakers could soon cede much of the software development to the same engineers who write smartphone apps. Today you can connect your phone to your car using a USB cable; the vehicle’s software will load your music and your contacts. Soon the smartphone will become the car’s computer, hosting the software that now runs in-dash applications. The smartphone is “a powerful free computer the customer is bringing into the car,” says David Bloom, an engineer at the BMW Group Technology Office. And it will make the cockpit—the navigation screen, the gauges, the voice that tells you “left turn ahead”—just as easy to customize and update as a smartphone is today.
To prevent a flood of digital information from becoming a deadly distraction, engineers have begun to rethink the way cars communicate with their drivers. Earlier this year, for example, Audi unveiled a concept for an augmented-reality system that projects information about the terrain (points of interest, names of buildings) onto the windshield, overlaying it on the scenery ahead.
Automobiles can also send information to their drivers using tactile feedback. The 2013 Cadillac XTS sedan uses vibrating motors in the seats to warn drivers of dangers such as the movement of cars through blind spots. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and AT&T Research Labs have collaborated to design a prototype steering wheel that uses vibrations to convey instructions from the navigation system. As the car nears a turn, 20 tiny motors buzz at an increasing frequency in a clockwise or counterclockwise pattern, letting the driver know which direction to go. Kevin Li, an engineer at AT&T who worked on the prototype, says that the brain “stitches together” these discrete vibrations, creating the illusion of a continuous line of motion. The engineering team has been in touch with automakers, and Li says the haptic steering wheel could be deployed right away.
Five times stronger than steel yet two thirds the weight, carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic (CFRP) has for two decades been the chassis material of choice for racecars. But carbon fiber has always been time-consuming and labor-intensive to manufacture, so it hasn’t been economical for passenger vehicles. Increasingly efficient manufacturing methods are bringing down the cost. Next year, BMW will begin selling its i3 electric city car, the first mass-produced automobile with a carbon-fiber chassis. The four-seat i3 chassis, which BMW calls the “Life module,” weighs just 265 pounds, or 50 percent less than a steel structure. (CFRP is also 30 percent lighter than the most advanced extruded aluminum.)
A BMW joint venture has invested $100 million in a Washington State factory that manufactures carbon-fiber “tows”—bundles of 50,000 carbon-fiber filaments, each filament 1/10 the width of a human hair. Those tows are thicker than the 6,000-filament bundles used in previous aerospace and auto applications, so it takes fewer of them to weave into the carbon-fiber fabric that undergirds CFRP. In BMW’s process, workers ship the tows from Washington to Germany, where they’re woven into a fabric, then pressurized and impregnated with liquid plastic. CFRP can then be molded into structural components in less than 10 minutes—a process that once took hours.
The i3’s carbon-fiber chassis saved enough weight to offset the mass of the car’s hefty lithium-ion battery pack. In fact, BMW engineers were able to reach 100 miles of driving range using a smaller, less expensive battery than competitors (21 kilowatt-hours versus the Nissan Leaf’s 24-kilowatt-hour pack). By next year, the automaker plans to begin building more than 1 million carbon-fiber structural parts annually. Joerg Pohlman, managing director of BMW’s Washington venture, says that while carbon fiber still costs more than aluminum, he is “absolutely confident” that BMW can slash costs to a par with aluminum once it begins building cars in volume. “You will see composite structures in normal passenger cars in much less than 10 years,” he says. That’s a development that could make cars faster, more efficient and more crash-resistant than ever before.
Drive an electric car slowly around town, and the charge remaining in the lithium-ion battery will decrease with perfect predictability. But hard acceleration is hell on batteries. Hit the highway, and the remaining driving range will drop precipitously.
Pairing batteries with ultracapacitors could fix that. Unlike batteries, which store energy chemically, ultra-capacitors hold a charge in an electromagnetic field between two electrodes coated in porous activated carbon. This allows them to absorb electricity as quickly as an outlet can dispense it and discharge it just as fast. In a car, that translates into fast recharging and powerful acceleration.
Right now, the best ultracapacitors hold only about 5 percent as much energy as a comparably sized lithium-ion battery—not enough to power an electric car, but enough to work in a supporting role. Carmakers such as Peugeot are already experimenting with ultracapacitors for regenerative braking and start-stop systems, which save fuel by cutting the engine at red lights before starting up again as soon as the driver touches the gas pedal. The next logical step is to add ultracapacitors to electric cars to handle the tasks that put excessive strain on batteries. Joel Schindall, a professor of electrical engineering at MIT, is researching ways to use nanotubes to improve ultracapacitors. “The best solution,” he says, “is a hybrid where the battery is optimized for total energy storage, while the ultracapacitor satisfies the peak power demands during acceleration.” Schindall and other scientists are working to create ultracapacitors that can store more energy by improving electrode materials on the molecular level. If they succeed—if ultracapacitors can one day approach the charge-carrying capacity of lithium-ion batteries—they could solve one of the more vexing problems facing electric vehicles: slow recharge times. The fastest fast-charge station takes 30 minutes to recharge an empty battery. (Any more current begins to damage the electrodes.) Ultracapacitors, by contrast, could soak up a full charge in a matter of minutes.single page
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