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Mixing Fossil Fuel and Electrons

Zoom-Zoom. Vrooom, vroom. Beep-beep-beep, click, whir, bong. Pop quiz: which is the sound of a car? If you answered, “all of the above,” you’re right. Today’s cars have more computing power then even a high-end PC and more software, too. Yet, paradoxically, racing cars have less technology than before, a victim of competition rules and crass commercial realities.

In fact, racing is surprisingly low-tech. Even the pinnacle of the sport, Formula One Grand Prix racing, bans antilock brakes, traction control, and active suspension – features even a mid-price family sedan would have on its list of options.

If racing improves the breed, why are commonplace electronics banished? Shouldn’t this be where new and innovative electronics are tried and battle-tested? The answer comes down to your view of what motor sports is all about. Is it really about competition, or is it a spectator sport? In other words, do you care about the cars or the TV ratings?

Sadly, we can already predict the answer. Auto racing, like most every other sport, is a commercial enterprise, and as such, its first priority is to secure sponsorship and TV viewing rights. The sportsmanship, and certainly the technology, is secondary to the commercial ends. If it doesn’t improve the show, it generally doesn’t get included in the sport.

It’s no different in other sports. The rules of NFL football are largely determined by how the game will play out on television. Same goes for basketball and, to some extent, baseball. The commercial tail is wagging the competitive dog, and it’s an uneasy balance. As entertainment franchises, these sports are all great fun and very lucrative for the parties concerned. As tests of skill and strength (citius, altius fortius, and all that) they’re deeply flawed. But hey, that’s probably okay. Except in a few historical cases, (Spartan military training, anyone?) sports aren’t meant to be actual tests and assessments of human skill — they’re meant to be fun. They’re staged for the benefit of the audience as much as for the participants.

Nowhere is this more evident than in that peculiar perversion of automobile racing known as NASCAR. Ironic down to its very name (National Association of Stock Car Automobile Racing), the current crop of Nextel Cup racers are anything but stock. Indeed, there isn’t a single part in Dale Earnhardt’s “Chevrolet” race car that came off a Chevrolet, nor one piece of Ford iron in any of the “Fords” circulating around Lowe’s Motor Speedway. Instead, these “stock cars” are built according to a strictly defined template and specifications designed to make all the cars as similar as possible. To even the trained eye, they’re all interchangeable jelly beans, distinguished only by their colors and sponsor logos.

Honestly, NASCAR isn’t even racing. It’s billboards going around in circles for people who think the fizzy stuff in a Budweiser can is beer. NASCAR is to racing what Big Time Wrestling is to the Olympics: a fan-friendly, crowd-pleasing, simplified version of an actual sport. These cars aren’t meant to advance the art of automotive design in any way whatsoever; they’re merely chariots to parade their modern gladiators past the cheering crowds. There’s nothing remotely advanced – or even current – about the vehicles. Even NASCAR mechanics have said, in so many words, “If you wanted to build a real race car, this isn’t how you’d do it.”

So why is technology so absent from this form of motor sports? Is NASCAR an aberration, or is it typical of racing elsewhere? The answer is: a little of both. While NASCAR is certainly abnormal in many ways, its strenuous apathy toward technology isn’t unusual.

Around the 1980s, electronics had progressed to the point where some Formula One teams started to experiment with onboard electronics. A few sensors at first, just to record real-time data for later analysis. These grew into telemetry systems that would quickly upload their data in a burst after every lap as the car flashed past the start/finish line. These formerly passive systems then started taking an active role in managing the car. Hydraulic pistons mated to pneumatic valves and digital controllers created “active suspension” systems where the wheels automatically compensated for bumps in the road. Race cars could adjust their own ride height to compensate for the aerodynamic downforce on fast straightaways. Wheel-speed sensors combined with hydraulic valves developed into early antilock brake systems. The cars got faster and faster as the electronics got more and more advanced. Many – in fact, most – of these pioneering developments found their way into luxury automobiles years later. Today Cadillac, Mercedes-Benz, and others offer exactly these features. Antilock brakes in particular are now de rigueur on all but the cheapest cars.

Then all these driver aids were banned from Formula One and most other racing classes. At a stroke, racing technology stepped back 10–15 years. Even now, virtually all the modern conveniences we take for granted in our street cars are impermissible in race cars. The simple fact is, a race car outfitted with modern technology just wouldn’t be much fun to watch. Stability control would make it difficult (though not impossible) to get the car sideways, antilock brakes mean a racer would never flat-spot a tire, and traction control would make racing in the pouring rain merely a louder version of a sedate Sunday drive. In short, it would take away the spectacle and remove some of the competitive human element.

So we’re left with an odd dichotomy. Modern race cars have some astounding engine technology, with engines that rev to 20,000 RPM. Pistons are forged from space-age material and weigh just a few ounces. Carbon-fiber brake pads squeeze carbon-fiber rotors that glow cherry red like a spacecraft on re-entry. Race cars routinely pull 4g to 5g in high-speed cornering – so much force that drivers sometimes wear pressurized suits to avoid blacking out. Yet the average Toyota Camry has more electronics technology, more microprocessors, and more software in its navigation system.

Racing no longer points the way toward future road-car technology. It’s irrelevant. Or at least, it’s prohibited by the rules. Racing may improve the breed, but only very indirectly. The money that Ford, Toyota, Ferrari, and other automakers earn by racing does eventually trickle down into their road cars. But it’s just as likely that the road-car technology will migrate up into racing.

So what technology does get into road cars? The short answer is, just about anything people will pay for. The electronics content of new cars has risen dramatically in recent years, and it shows no signs of slowing. Automotive electronics is very profitable, and it’s one way for automakers to differentiate themselves from one another.
For example, GPS navigation systems were once the exclusive domain of high-end luxury cars, where they sold as $4000 options. There’s nothing like $4000 worth of electronics in a navigation system (even accounting for the amortized development costs and safety certification), so these were quite profitable little items. Even now that prices have come down, satellite navigation systems are still pricey and profitable.

The average new car comes with about a dozen microprocessors inside, controlling everything from the engine to the radio. High-end models like the Mercedes-Benz S-class or the BMW 7 series include more than 100 microprocessors and microcontrollers. Some are subtle, like the chips inside the rear-view mirrors. Others are obvious, as in BMW’s much-maligned iDrive. Late-model Volvos have more than a mile of wiring inside. Mercedes is switching from copper wire to fiber-optic networks, mostly to save weight. From little bitty 8-bit controllers to 32-bit PowerPCs, there’s a use and a purpose for just about any kind of automotive embedded system you can think of.

Most of these advances, such as antilock brakes, traction control, and stability control, have been safety-related. For the most part, these are a good thing, although I worry about the new generation of drivers who may never develop the skill to drive a car properly without these aids.

It may be heresy, but I wonder if safety advancements can go too far and become counterproductive. For example, a few automotive OEMs are experimenting with feedback mechanisms that shake the steering wheel if the driver is (in the judgment of the system) about to wander out of his lane or veer off the edge of the road. Another proposed system flashes a red light if you signal for a lane change while there’s a car visible in your side mirror. Apart from being utterly dependent on correctly predicting the driver’s intent, these systems might just make the modern driver lazy. Why look in your mirrors if you know the car will warn you of nearby traffic? Why not take a little nap if the car promises to wake you before something interesting happens?

Some studies have shown that heads-up displays actually distract drivers rather than helping them. Although these seem to work great in military fighter jets (as far as we know), they might well be a hindrance on the road. Evidently the constant visual updates overload our ability to process incoming visual cues, such as moving objects outside the car. Paradoxically, we may need the HUD to tell us of things we can already see.

Some electronics improve reliability or make the car run more efficiently, such as engine-management systems that monitor and control airflow, fuel mixture, temperature, or ignition detonation. These functions used to be the domain of clever but finicky mechanical devices, and nobody mourns their loss. Today’s engines and transmissions run far more efficiently and reliably than their mechanical forbears.

Finally, some automotive electronics are just gadgets. Navigation systems, DVD players, satellite radios, and the somewhat creepy OnStar system are all examples of nonessential but profitable new devices.

Another item that falls into this category is the hands-free cell phone in the car. By now we’ve all discovered (directly or indirectly) that talking on your cell phone while driving is a supremely bad idea. It’s distracting and dangerous, and, based on recent data, is as hazardous as driving after three beers. Yet we all feel it’s our birthright to speak to anyone on the planet at any time we please, circumstances be damned. Several states have sensibly banned cell phone use in moving cars, but technology once again comes to our rescue. Or, at least, to the defense of the cellular providers.

Enter the hands-free calling option for cars. Usually based on Bluetooth technology, this allows you to use your existing (Bluetooth-enabled) cell phone in the car without actually touching it. You can recite numbers to dial the phone or shout out names in your address book. All very slick and high-tech – but entirely beside the point.
Turns out, holding the phone was never the problem. It’s a psychological thing, not a manual dexterity thing. Talking on the phone while driving is dangerous no matter how you do it, because it’s an unnatural division of mental focus. Talking to a passenger in the seat next to you isn’t distracting. Talking to someone who’s not there is.

There are also apparently a few bugs in the system — at least in the version I saw. A friend was keen to show off his car’s hands-free system, especially the way it automatically detected the presence of his cell phone in his bag. We got in the car and drove off, and sure enough, within moments he received an incoming call. Trouble was, the phone rang inside his bag and he had to dig it out to answer it. Somehow his nice new car (which shall remain nameless but it’s the leather-clad version of Toyota) had detected his phone but failed to switch over the speaker and microphone. My friend had to actually reboot the car – turn the ignition off and back on – to make the system work. This is progress?

We’ve all heard stories about people driving over cliffs or off bridges because “the GPS told them to.” Over-reliance on technology is never a good thing, but it’s somehow more troubling in cars than in, say, DVD players. An automobile is about the only thing we handle every day that can easily kill people (outside of Texas, anyway), so it’s important to get these things right. It may just be a generational thing. Maybe today’s drivers make stupid mistakes because we didn’t learn to drive with GPS, antilock brakes, or hands-free cell phones. Maybe tomorrow’s drivers, raised amidst all this technology, will fare better. Or maybe Darwinian forces will kill off the ones who don’t adapt. That’s the trouble with electronic safety measures. There’s no incentive to get better.

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