Automobile News From Around the Web

Below are some automobile-related links I’ve accumulated over the last few months.

Where Self-Driving Cars Go to Learn:

Arizona has since built upon the governor’s action to become a favored partner for the tech industry, turning itself into a live laboratory for self-driving vehicles. Over the past two years, Arizona deliberately cultivated a rules-free environment for driverless cars, unlike dozens of other states that have enacted autonomous vehicle regulations over safety, taxes and insurance.

Too much regulation leads to stifled innovation, but too little regulation can lead to more dangerous roads for us humans. It sounds like Arizona is closer to the latter scenario.

Cadillac’s hands-free feature fixes the worst parts about driving:

Because you can leave your hands by your sides, the system uses an infrared camera mounted on the steering column to make sure you’re still ready to take over if things go south. It tracks your eyes, nose, mouth and ears and figures out where you’re looking. If you’re looking forward out the windshield or checking your mirrors, you’re fine. But let’s say you start staring out the side window or worse, at your phone, the car prompts you to start paying attention by flashing the green steering wheel light. If you ignore that, the flashing light on the wheel and accompanying audible warning for too long, the car will slow down, stop, turn on the flashers and call the authorities via OnStar.

We’re still in the awkward phase of autonomous vehicles. Roberto Baldwin notes in the link above that even though you still have to actively pay attention, being completely hands-free did drop his stress levels and fatigue. So while it’s not full autonomy, it’s progress.

Tesla Unlocked Florida Drivers’ Batteries Before Irma:

Since last spring, Tesla vehicles purchased with a 60kWh battery option have actually come with a 75kWh battery. The company’s software electronically limited the range to 60kWh, though it gave drivers the option to upgrade to full capacity at any time—for several thousand dollars.

On Saturday, the blog Electrek reported that some drivers of 60kWh Teslas in Florida suddenly found their cars showing 75kWh of range, even though they hadn’t paid any more money. A Tesla spokesperson confirmed to Electrek’s Fred Lambert that the company had unlocked the batteries’ remaining capacity remotely, via software update. That would give them about 30 miles of additional driving on a single charge. The move reportedly came in response to a request from at least one Florida driver who needed the extra range to get out of danger.

Telsa is walking a fine line here. What are their guidelines on what are acceptable situations for unlocking additional range on their vehicles? This feels a little too much like a puppet master pulling strings.

Arch Motorcycle

Who knew Keanu Reeves has been customizing bikes since 2007.

A lot of celebrities serve as figureheads or brand ambassadors for companies they contribute little to, but it’s clear from Wired’s video that Reeves is very hands-on in the design process.

Prior to this bike discovery, Reeves was impressing me with his weapons and martial arts training for his John Wick movies.

He’s getting cooler with age. You don’t see that happen very often.

Combustion Ain’t Dead Yet

Mazda’s engine breakthrough promises big fuel efficiency gains:

Mazda has made the announcement car manufacturers have been working towards for years: it’s releasing the first commercial compression-ignition gasoline engine. Dubbed SkyActiv-X, the engine will be available in 2019 and promises up to 20-30% more engine efficiency than the current SkyActiv-G, and up to 45% more than Mazda’s 2008 petrol engine.

Current gasoline engines rely on a spark plug to ignite their air-fuel mix. The SkyActiv-X will ignite the air-fuel mix spark-free through compression, like a diesel engine. This, according to the Japanese manufacturer, combines the advantages of petrol and diesel engines to achieve “outstanding” environmental and power performance.

I share my father’s fascination of the perfecting of technologies facing extinction. The basic, underlying design of engines has not changed in over 100 years, but the gains in every aspect — size, speed, weight, efficiency – are incredible.

The truth is technologies rarely get “killed”. Compact discs supposedly “killed” vinyl records and MP3s “killed” compact discs, but neither records nor CDs are dead (yet). In fact, vinyl sales have hit a 25-year high this year.

I’m fairly confident internal combustion engines will eventually be replaced by newer technologies (like electric/battery), but I’d like to think gasoline-powered cars will stick around long enough for me to buy an old muscle car.

Update: Bill Burr brings up a good point on this clip from one of his podcast episodes about why mileage averages haven’t moved much over the last 40 years.

Car Companies Are Still Struggling with Interface Design

Headline from The Verge:

The 2017 BMW 5 Series emphasizes design over intuitive software

First off, shame on whoever the editor is for creating that headline. They’re conflating design with the superfluous. Design isn’t how it looks, it’s how it works.

How many times do we have to go over this?

If you do eventually get your phone connected over Bluetooth, you have a few options for controlling iDrive. The most novel way is with those gesture controls. I was excited to try them because, as I’ve learned after playing around with many gadgets, it’s often a gimmicky and faulty feature. I hoped that BMW had figured out the magic solution to making it an essential form of interaction. Spoiler: the company hasn’t. The gesture controls didn’t always function, and beyond that, I never wanted to rotate my finger in a circle to adjust the volume level or stick two fingers out to end a call. I tried to make the controls part of my driving experience and ended up never using them, although they were still a fun party trick that entertained my passengers. Buttons and knobs have a 100 percent success rate — why would I want to struggle to change the volume with a twirl of my finger when I could just turn the volume knob?

BMW’s voice commands also weren’t foolproof. The system registered people who have a full name in my phone book, like The Verge’s photographer Amelia Krales, but not addresses like 550 West 25th Street, or simple words like “mom.” Why is it always so hard to call my mom?

Incumbents always laugh at the idea of a newbie coming into their industry and stealing away market share, but the car industry is a great example of an industry ripe for disruption. This happened to the fixed-keyboard smartphones with the iPhone, it’s happening now to the watch world with the Apple Watch, but I’m not sure we can say it’s happening to the auto industry yet (Ford sold 2.5 million cars in 2016, Tesla moved 80K).

It frustrates me when I read about BMW creating it’s own (currently inferior) voice command system, when a lot of us already use Siri or ‘Ok, Google’. It’s bad enough we have redundant AI efforts happening at Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and Apple, but now auto makers are joining in. I understand not wanting to let the tech companies eat your lunch, but something has to give. Let us plug our phones into our cars, our lives are on those devices.

Mercedes-Benz is another company continuing to make cumbersome user interfaces. I recently drove a fully-loaded 2016 E Class sedan and for such a classy, well-engineered, and fun-to-drive car, the on-screen graphics and menus lack the visual sophistication you expect from a Mercedes (fonts are clunky, drop shadows are heavy-handed, background swooshes and texture are dated, animations are stiff), and are also confusing to navigate.

Citroën Origins

I’ve never been a Citroën guy, but this Citroën Origins site is great.

You can explore 360 degree views of the inside and outside of various models from 1919 to 2016. They also include vehicle specs and facts about all the models.

I wish every car maker had a site like this.

It’s Already Here

You can hail a self-driving Uber in San Francisco starting today:

Starting today, anyone in San Francisco who hails an UberX could find themselves in the backseat of a luxury, self-driving Volvo XC90, complete with leather interior, spinning LIDAR sensor, and a trunk full of computing power. It’s where I found myself last week, after being invited out to the Bay Area for a sneak peak before the official launch.

“The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

Porsche Mission E

Today’s previous post on artificial engine noises linked to Porsche’s announcement from last year on their electric Mission E:

Don’t call it a 911: Porsche spent much of its presentation at this evening’s Volkswagen Group press conference talking about the new 911, yes, but the real news is the Mission E — an all-electric four-seater with a design that’s well beyond anything Porsche’s ever made. The company is focusing on “long-distance driving” with this concept, but that’s not to say it won’t be exciting to drive: Porsche is promising 600 horsepower, a 0-62mph time “under” 3.5 seconds, a top speed of over 250 km/h (about 155mph), and a total range of over 500 kilometers (311 miles) while driving in a “sporty” manner. Those are Tesla Model S numbers, and it stands to reason that Porsche could command at least the same amount of money, too — well over $100,000 in top configurations. And the company says the Mission E can store an 80 percent charge in just 15 minutes using an 800-volt “Porsche Turbo Charging” system, even faster than Tesla’s Superchargers.

It’s now been over a year since the Mission E was announced and we still haven’t seen anything. I’m skeptical if Porsche has a the ability to assemble a team that can take on Tesla and their computer engineering and AI savvy.

I’ll believe the superior technical specs Porsche is flaunting when I see them.

A Wonderful Engine Note

Can electric sports cars be sporty without any engine noise?

Not only does a noisy engine give a visceral thrill, knowing that there are thousands of tiny explosions happening to keep you going, but it just sounds awesome. It would be a shame to lose it, and carmakers know it. Bloomberg says Porsche has been looking at artificially inserting noise into the cabin, perhaps via the stereo like some other manufacturers have done, or amplifying the high-pitched hum of the electric motor.

One side of me is appalled by the idea of a car with fake engine noises. The other side of me sees this as a merging of video games and real life.

If the simulation is indistinguishable from reality, does it matter?

Another question: if simulated engine noises become the new normal, will car companies copyright engine sounds?