Last time we had a big, big problem with cars, computers came to the rescue. This was after the second embargo, in 1979. The long gas lines scared us and we thought this was the end of an era, the end of the car as fun. Time to repent and mend our profligate ways, time to rid ourselves of our addiction to Foreign Oil. The dour Jimmy Carter was right for these penitent times.

We know what happened: the car flourished as never before. More models, more brands, faster, safer, bigger, smaller (not too often), more fun. The main culprit for this break with our vows? The computer.
First, computers made design faster, totally virtual. Then, databases, network and more software integrated the heretofore separated, if not adversarial, design and manufacturing processes. Then, computer struck again and invaded the cars themselves, sneaking into engine management systems, steering, braking, suspensions, climate control, entertainment, displays, navigation, correcting drivers’ mistakes, protecting them with restraints and airbags. Recently, the tech servicing my car proudly told me he’d loaded a new revision of software in my (car’s) transmission.
Many mistakes were made on the way, we had splendid failures, but, in the end, cars did get more reliable, safer and more fun than they were thirty years ago.

But computers had help. With contrition came penance in the shape of CAFE, the Corporate Average Fuel Economy number. In order to foreswear our dependence of Foreign Oil, our cars had to use less gas. Gas guzzlers got taxed with the tax of the same name, and our government told car manufacturers they’d have to pay huge fines if their output didn’t meet the mandated fuel economy number.
Begotten by lobbyists and raised by our elected officials, the CAFE regulation was true to its genes and nurturing: it featured a loophole big enough to drive the proverbial truck through it. Pun intended: light trucks got exempted from CAFE. You see, we can’t punish our farmers, our country needs them and they need their trucks.
This exemption gave rise to our addiction to SUVs. Arguing they were light trucks, using the same chassis, Detroit made tons of money building CAFE-exempt vehicles with big engines, four-wheel drives, all manners of creature comforts, seating 5 to 9 people, with trunks to match.
I know, I drove my family all over the West in a succession of GM Suburbans we owned over the years.Then, as we know, disaster struck in a combination of $4/gal. gasoline and a deep recession. Besides a huge amount of overcapacity the GM and Chrysler bankruptcies won’t be enough to absorb, where does this leaves us?
Put another way, will our computers and our government, with or, preferably without lobbyists, change the auto industry again?

Probably.

Let’s start with what Roland Barthes wrote more than half a century ago, in 1957:

“I think that cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals: I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object.”

I believe those words still apply. We still love (and hate) cars with the same passion, but with new constraints. Some call cars “transportation”, most of us are still transported, excited by these engines of freedom and self-expression. Some will see these drives as to be repressed, other will find new ways of expressing them. The Smart car, much more popular in European cities than in the US, the reborn Mini, the Fiat 500, also reborn, the very successful Toyota Prius are but a few examples of the industry’s ingenuity, of its own drive to adapt.
Computers are just tools, they’ll help express the way we cause cars to respond to a new kind of evolutionary pressure.
As for our government’s help, it has already come with stronger CAFE numbers, higher mileage requirements such as 39 miles per gallon for cars in 2016. And the SUV loophole is gone. For European readers, the magic number is 235, it converts miles per gallon into liters per 100 km as follows: mpg x l/100km = 235. So, divide 235 by 39mpg and you get 6 liters per 100 km, the mandated average for the automaker’s car fleet in 2016. Cars sold, not just engineered, the average fuel consumptions of all actual cars sold to customers, a tall order.

We already see smaller, lighter engines using turbos and sophisticated ECU’s (Engine Control Units), computers managing fuel supply, ignition, valve timing and catalytic converters. Weight being the number one fuel economy parameter, we’ll need to see more than just lighter engines with less cylinders, we’ll have to make lighter cars. For perspective, today’s Volkswagen Golf weighs twice as much as the first one born 35 years ago, 790kg for the 1974 Mark I and up to 1617kg for the 2003 Mark V. This is an industry-wide trend, safety improvements contributing some of the increased weight, creature comforts providing most of it.
If we don’t want to compromise safety, noting in passing we’re willing to do so when we ride bikes, we could have to go backwards in time, towards yesterday’s smaller cars. The Golf, as an example, grew by 50 cm, 20 inches in 30 years. Or we’ll have to find other ways for cars to lose weight: stronger, lighter alloys or composites.

The question of hybrids is left open, here. Their advantage against modern diesel engines in lighter vehicles isn’t a given. As for real electric cars, they’re part of a longer-term solution, not of the next five to ten years where they won’t have enough of an impact other than showing great promise. —JLG

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