SPECIAL FEATURE: Unraveling the DNA of the Car of the Future, Part One

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【Summary】This multipart special feature looks at the rapid advancements in the automobile over the past twenty years, to the car of the future. From the humble beginnings of the electric car, to fully autonomous, internet connected vehicles equipped with advanced safety systems, powered entirely by electricity.

Original Eric Walz    Jan 18, 2018 10:00 AM PT
SPECIAL FEATURE: Unraveling the DNA of the Car of the Future, Part One

Part One: The Rapid Transformation of the Car in the Last 20 Years

The internal combustion engine powered automobile has been in production for over one hundred years. Throughout this time, engine technology has changed, harmful emissions were cut, and fuel efficiency has greatly improved. However, gasoline or diesel fuel has remained the sole source of power for automobiles throughout most of the past century, until recently.              

Although some automakers have tried outfitting vehicles with alternative power sources such as electric motors starting in the 1980's, it wasn't until the 1990's that battery and technology advancements improved the feasibility of an electrically assisted or a fully electric powered car.

1996: The First Electric Vehicles Hit the Streets

In 1996, General Motors introduced the EV1. It was the first mass-produced and purpose-designed electric vehicle of the modern era from a major automaker, the first GM car designed to be an electric vehicle from the outset along with being the first and only passenger car to be marketed under the corporate General Motors (GM) name instead of being branded under one of its divisions.

The decision to mass-produce an electric car came after GM received a favorable reception for its 1990 Impact electric concept car, upon which the design of the EV1 drew heavily. Inspired partly by the Impact's perceived potential for success, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) subsequently passed a mandate that made the production and sale of zero-emissions vehicles (ZEV) a requirement for the seven major automakers selling cars in the United States to continue to market their vehicles in California.

The General Motors EV1

GM's EV1 opened the doors to other automakers. The evolution started rapidly, as automakers introduced the first wave of vehicles powered by electric motors. In 1997, Toyota introduced the Prius, a game changing vehicle. The Prius was the first mass production plug-in hybrid vehicle in Japan. It was subsequently introduced worldwide in the year 2000.

Since that time, Prius sales have skyrocketed into the millions. The Toyota Prius is now sold in over 90 global markets, with Japan and the United States being among the largest. Global cumulative Prius liftback sales reached the milestone one million vehicle mark in May 2008, two million by in September 2010, and surpassed the three million mark in June 2013.

The Prius Prime variant achieved the highest miles per gallon equivalent (133 MPGe) rating in all-electric mode of any vehicle rated by EPA with an internal combustion engine. Global sales of the Prius c variant passed the one million mark during the first half of 2015.

Cumulative sales of one million were achieved in the U.S. by early April 2011, and Japan reached the one million mark in August 2011.

As of January 2017, the Prius liftback is the world's top selling hybrid car with almost four million units sold. The Prius family of models reached cumulative sales of 6.1 million units in January 2017, representing 61 percent of the ten million hybrids sold worldwide by Toyota since 1997.

The First Generation Toyota Prius - 2000-2003

Honda also entered the EV race in the 1990's. The Honda EV Plus was the first battery electric vehicle from a major automaker with non-lead acid batteries. Approximately 340 EV Plus models were produced and released that year.

Honda's EV Plus was taken out of production in 1999 when Honda announced the release of its first hybrid electric vehicle, the Honda Insight. The EV Plus allowed Honda to learn about advanced battery use in an electric car and to meet California Air Resources Board requirements for zero-emission vehicles, the same as the EV1.

The EV Plus served as a test bed for the flat, pancake-style motor, electronic control unit, power control unit and the Nickel–metal hydride battery (NiMH) later used in Honda hybrids and developed further in the first Honda FCX Fuel Cell Vehicles made from returned (decommissioned) EV Plus chassis.

With the introduction of the Prius and Honda Insight, Hybrid-electric car sales in the U.S. have climbed steadily since the year 2000 according to data compiled by the United States Department of Transportation. In the year 2003, 46,700 plug-in hybrids were sold. Than number climbed to 84,199 in 2004. Throughout the next ten years sales of hybrid electric vehicle increased year-over-year.

By 2015, sales of plug-in hybrids reached 383,404, indicated that the car buying public was willing to forgo their fossil fuel powered vehicles, in favor of more efficient, environmentally friendly options.

The Humble Beginnings of Tesla

In the summer of 2004, a product designer named Malcolm Smith got a phone call from a hardware person he used to work with named Martin Eberhard, who now works for Silicon Valley based EV startup SF Motors. "I can't tell you what we're doing," Eberhard said, "but why don't you come check out this car I have."

Curious, Smith headed over to Eberhard's tiny Silicon Valley office in downtown Menlo Park, California. Eberhard and his business partner, Marc Tarpenning, showed Smith a rough business plan and some rough specifications for a groundbreaking new electric sports car they wanted to build. Like most people at the time, Smith was a bit skeptical, but he also curious.

He realized that Eberhard and Tarpenning were combine barely available technologies to form a technological breakthrough, a high performance electric car. "Well," Eberhard said, "let's go for a ride." Smith hopped into this strange tiny yellow car with Eberhard. The tiny yellow roadster felt handmade — which it was.

As they pulled onto Sand Hill Road, the now famous thoroughfare that's home to Silicon Valley's largest venture capital firms, including Sequoia Capital and Kleiner Perkins, Smith was impressed.

During the drive, the car was noticeably quiet, as it had no internal combustion engine. Eberhard had a unique way to impress his passengers in the experimental electric car. Eberhard slowed the car to 10 mph. "Try and touch the dashboard," he told Smith. As Smith reached out, Eberhard hit the accelerator, a trick he would later try out on future passengers to show off the car's instantaneous acceleration.

Smith's hand never made it to the dash. The all-electric two-seater built by AC Propulsion, could accelerate from zero to 60 in under 4 seconds. G-forces threw Smith back, deep into his seat. That's when it hit him. "I get it," Smith thought. "This isn't a nice little science experiment."

It was a highly technical vehicle. No other car gives you 100% torque in an instant, he realized, but a high-performance electric motor can provide that. Another realization Smith had, not all electric cars are tiny odd looking cars or golf carts, even if the auto industry didn't have the will to show otherwise.

The 2008 Tesla Roadster

Smith would go on to become one of the first 20 employees of Eberhard's new car company. His official job title — vice president of vehicle engineering for Tesla Motors.

As Eberhard's young company grew, he'd continue to ask would-be recruits to touch the dashboard, before throwing them into their seats with the torque of an electric sports car, properly unleashed. Tesla would go on to make its first car from these humble beginnings — the Tesla Roadster.

However the Roadster was just part of Tesla's plan to be the first mass production electric automaker. The Roadster was a limited production, exotic vehicle, but it showed Tesla's prowess, and that a electric vehicle does not have to be boring and bland.

Tesla went public in 2010 and made history. The company became the first American car company to do so since Ford Motor Company in 1956. Since then, Tesla's stock has soared as the company keeps rolling out new features and models while simultaneously capturing the imagination of a curious public. Tesla proved that electric cars could be stylish, high-performing, and desirable.

With the attention garnered from the Roadster, the company procured enough funding to design and build the Model S, a car that would alter the entire automotive industry upon its release in 2012. With the success of the Model S, Tesla proved that there is a market for all-electric vehicle.

What if an Electric Car Could Drive Itself?

In 2009, Google had an idea to improve the world — a self-driving car that would provide mobility to those that cannot drive, and significantly reduce traffic accidents and fatalities caused by human error.

Hidden inside a garage at Google's moonshot Project X headquarters in Silicon Valley, a team of engineers quietly began working on self-driving technology, as well as a self-driving car. Initially, Google's engineers outfitted a fleet of Lexus SUV's with cameras, GPS, LiDAR, and hardware to control the steering and braking. The vehicles were a common sight on Silicon Valley streets, where the company conducted extensive testing of its self-driving technology.

An Early Google Self-Driving Car

Google's success in creating a self-driving car that can safety navigate public streets showed that self-driving cars were no longer just science fiction. The company showed that this technology is a reality, and could very well change the world.

In November of 2017, after years of testing and perfecting self-driving technology, Waymo, the new name for Google's (now Alphabet) self-driving car program, reached an important milestone. Its fleet of self-driving vehicles had driven over 4 million miles, without a major incident.

ADAS: Safety Before Autonomy

While self-driving cars still are under development, current regulations require an operator in the vehicle if using any available autonomous functionality. However, many ADAS (advanced driver assistance systems) are available now and some of this autonomous technology has make its way into production vehicles. For example, many of today's vehicles offer automatic braking as an option, great to have the event of an imminent collision with an object that suddenly appears in front of the vehicle.

Additionally, adaptive cruise control allows a car to safely travel at the same speed of the surrounding vehicles. Other features such as GM's ‘Super Cruise' allows automated driving on many highways, with technology designed to keep the car positioned in the center of a lane at highway speeds. Today, many automakers offer lane-keeping assist technology. Even Tesla has a system which it calls ‘Autopilot', allowing automated driving on many roads.

All of these advanced safety systems still require a human driver to monitor them, in case something goes wrong. However, the automotive industry is slowing working towards level 5 autonomy, which means no human driver is needed. Until that time, many vehicles with likely have some sort of autonomous driving capability.

An Electric Car World

We are now experience a convergence of automotive technology. Electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles are a common sight on U.S. roads, where twenty years there were none. These new vehicles are being outfitted with advanced driver assist systems, radar, cameras, and self-driving capability.

In September of 2017, China made an unprecedented move that just may give a big boost to the electric car industry. China's vice minister of industry and IT, Xin Guobin, has revealed that the country's government is developing a timetable for a ban on sales of fossil fuel vehicles. Although no timetable has been set as of yet, it signals the beginning of the end of the internal combustion engine car. Other countries have followed suit.

The U.K. said it will ban sales of diesel  and gasoline-powered cars by 2040, two weeks after France announced a similar plan to reduce air pollution and meet targets to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius. Norway and the Netherlands are considering a more aggressive way to put an end on fossil fuel cars years — by banning them outright.

The car of the future will be electric, internet-connected, and partially or fully autonomous. Whatever form the future car takes, it will be an interesting journey along the way to get there.

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