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Diesel, electric, hydrogen or Google?

Today’s cars are faster, safer and more efficient than ever, but there’s much more to come from automotive engineers.

Published November 15, 2012

We have told you what we feel are the best new-vehicle choices, in a wide variety of categories here.

As I reflect on this all-star lineup, I think about the incredible progress the industry has made over the past decade or two.

In just the past few years, we have seen double-digit-percentage improvements in performance, fuel consumption and emissions — simultaneously.

It isn’t just low-hanging fruit, either. Engineers have been beating on the Otto Cycle (the fundamental thermodynamic principle behind the gasoline engine) since the 1860s; you’d think, by now, they would have squeezed the last smidgen of capability out of it.

Nope. Only about 30 to 35 per cent of the latent energy in a litre of fuel is being converted into kinetic energy. The rest is going mostly into heat, plus some noise. An engine engineer told me a few years ago that 50 per cent might be the highest we’ll ever get.

Diesel engines, too, have become faster, quieter and more efficient. It’s a shame that American emissions regulations, which measure the wrong things in my opinion, are conspiring against wider-spread adoption of the diesel engine.

Electric cars? I like to quote American writer Robert Bryce, who says, “Electric cars are the next big thing — and they always will be.”

Today’s electrics can travel about 150 to 200 kilometres on a full charge, depending on who you believe. The Baker Electric of 1913? About the same.

OK, so modern electrics are bigger, heavier, safer and go faster. But so do modern internal-combustion cars. Electrics just haven’t kept pace.

I still think hydrogen is the long-term answer, but we’ll have to wait a while for that. If only the energy engineers are wasting on electrics could be applied to hydrogen.

It isn’t just engines, either. New seven- or eight-speed automatics, CVTs and dual-clutch gearboxes all allow engines to operate in their optimum rev ranges more of the time, improving performance and efficiency.

Cars are also becoming better-equipped, more comfortable and quieter. Luxury features that used to be the exclusive preserve of expensive cars are not just trickling down, they are cascading down the price scale. You can buy a little Kia with a heated steering wheel for $20,000!

One downside of the influx of equipment has been an increase in weight. Thirty years ago, a compact BMW sedan might have weighed 1,000 kg. Today’s equivalent is 50-per-cent heavier. Much of that extra weight has gone into stronger, safer bodies. Hard to argue with that.

The next threshold in car engineering will be a Weight Watchers program. Several makers are already using aluminum — for fenders, hoods and trunk lids in some cases, and for entire bodies in others, such as Audi, Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz.

Aluminum is expensive to make and repair, but it can be recycled to a greater degree than steel. If that economy can somehow be baked into the initial cost, it might become more feasible.

Further out is carbon fibre, so far limited to low-volume, high-priced cars. The only material used in race cars, it is very strong, very light and infinitely formable. But it is very expensive. If we can find a way to apply that to regular cars, then we win, in performance, economy and safety.

Electronic controls have been applied to everything, most usefully with the braking and suspension systems. Anti-lock brakes and directional stability control, now standard on most cars, have saved countless lives by preventing crashes.

Electronics have also revolutionized infotainment systems, allowing us to integrate our lives into our cars. Music, radio, telephone, navigation, travel and emergency road-side assistance, e-mail, Internet, personal scheduling: the applications are limited only by our imagination, and our ability to multitask.

Google has already shown that driverless cars are feasible, if unlikely for another few decades. The technology exists. Whether the public is ready for it, and whether we have anyone prepared to make the necessary investments in infrastructure, are questions yet to be answered.

Again, I look back in history.

Dr. Ferdinand Porsche once said that, just as we have done with horses, if we come up with a better way to move people around, we will still want to drive because we love to drive.

Amen, Dr. Porsche.

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