the changing landscape of automotive technology in 2016
Last year, I wrote a short round up of the most impressive automotive technology from 2015. Self-driving vehicles, electric motors and connected cars were the three hot topics. Early in 2016, I realised all three of these advancements in one car when I drove the updated Tesla Model S. The Model S, fully connected with apps, is capable of autonomous driving on the motorway or in town, and is fully electric. It's safe to say then, that we need some new points for our 2016 roundup.
If 2015 was a year of new technologies, 2016 has been the year of refinement and acceptance. Last week, BMW illustrated this point beautifully by launching two hotly anticipated vehicles. One, built to save the rainforest, the other designed to rip up asphalt. They sound like two very different cars; they are however, two versions of the new BMW 5 Series.
The first is the BMW 530e iPerformance. Taking everything BMW has learned from the BMW i8 and i3, the 530e is a symphony of refinement. It can do 28 miles on pure electric, has autonomous driving capability, no loss of luggage space and will do 0-60mph in 6.1 seconds. Though electric hybrids are not new, significant improvements have been made in the performance, implementation and charging networks that are needed to support these new vehicles.
In 2016: Hybrids became a genuinely sensible option
2016 has seen hybrids move into mainstream production lead by the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, which has sold over 100,000 units. Better gearboxes and more intelligent software have allowed for greater range and comfort, but the biggest change is in consumer perception. Performance hybrids such as the McLaren P1 have added a cool factor, and intelligent marketing from the industry has educated customers that most trips only require a modest electric range. Electric hybrid technology looks likely to receive increasing investment in 2017 with manufacturers such as VW, Mercedes-Benz and BMW having confirmed this intention already.
Though battery technology looks likely to dominate the next few years, 2016 saw several manufacturers look into alternative fuel cell technology. Most notable was Toyota’s Mirai, the first real mass market hydrogen vehicle ever produced.
The second car BMW released last week was the M550i xDrive. With a revised version of the M5’s 4.4L V8, the M550i produces 100 less horsepower. What’s all the fuss about then? Well, it will do 0-62mph in four seconds, that’s 0.3 seconds faster than the M5. So how, you ask? Well, mostly it's the addition of all wheel drive, but an improved eight speed transmission tuned for smarter turbochargers also makes a big difference.
In 2016: We finally accepted that the naturally aspirated engine is dead
2016 has seen significant advancements in performance efficiency. Turbos have long been seen as a tool to gain economy by sacrificing performance. Recently, twin and triple turbo configurations have been refined to deliver more consistent power through the rev range. So good are turbos today, that 2016 will be known as the year hell froze over, as Aston Martin added two turbos to its new DB11. The new Audi SQ7 became the first mass produced car to use an electric turbo. By using an electrically assisted turbocharger, Audi was able to fill in the gap in power at the low end, reducing turbo lag significantly.
With the world accepting that performance aids such as electrification and turbocharging are a necessary evolution, manufacturers have got on with making them the best that they can be. If they continue at the brisk pace set in 2016, we will likely see some significant improvements in the three and four cylinder mass-market engines.
What has perhaps been most interesting about 2016, is the way the industry has finally accepted that performance and economy don't have to be opposites. The constant push for economy has significantly hampered manufacturers, but this year real progress was made. Ferrari, Porsche and McLaren all set the trend in 2015, but their vehicles were unattainable for most. The fastest accelerating production car on sale in 2016, was the all-electric Tesla P100D. For £130,000, you get a 0-60 time of 2.5 seconds, five doors, seven seats and a big boot. In fact, of the ten fastest accelerating cars on sale in 2016, four were hybrid or electric and only two were naturally aspirated.
So, what will we see in 2017?
Electrification will be everywhere: From electric turbos to gearboxes, electric motors provide a solution to engine downsizing by providing near instant power when it's needed. As battery technology improves, electric motors will be lighter, smaller and more powerful, making them the ideal tool for adding performance without sacrificing economy.
You will be on camera all the time: With insurance companies embracing video technology and manufacturers installing cameras for autonomous driving purposes, it's not hard to see a trend. Manufacturers will start to provide camera access to insurers and perhaps even customers, and YouTube will be filled with yet more bad driving videos.
Your car won't let you do anything dangerous: Next year will see regulations imposed through new technological advancements. You phone won't work when you're driving, the traction control will only go off when you're on a racetrack and your headlights will turn on when it's just a little bit overcast.
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