Today’s Special Tech Tips is another guest post from Travis Phillips. Hopefully he won’t get his own blog so I can keep getting these guest posts.
Fresh off a visit to the Portland International Auto Show, it seems that an auto-themed spin down tech lane might be in order. Of course, it was the Portland auto show, so take a moment to set your expectations appropriately: there will be no recap of the radical and dazzling concept vehicles … because in Portland, there are no concept vehicles. Heck, there won’t even be a recap of the Mercedes-Benz or Jaguar sections … because there were no Benzes or Jags on display. Boo. But, whatever. Moving on …
Before diving into the tech part of the auto show, let’s just say that some automakers get the “show” part of “auto show” better than others. In case any automakers are reading the InfoBox blog, here’s just a pinch of constructive criticism on how to improve their showing amongst the other exhibitors in a cavernous expo hall:
One: if you’re going to have a stage, make it compelling. Chevrolet got it: a crowd gathered around the turntable for the new Volt. Sure, the car is an important one for GM, but folding seatbacks aren’t very captivating unless they’re presented by a vixen in go-go boots (note: Ford most certainly did not get the hot presenter memo).
Two: if you’re going to show your cars, really show them. Fire up the electric goodies, crank up the radios, show off your tech and put your best models on the floor for people to check out. How disappointing is it to jump into a car tricked-out with cutting-edge tech, a jammin’ stereo … oh, and especially power seats—only to realize you can’t experience any of it because the battery is disconnected? Apparently Chevy focused a little too singularly on the go-go boots memo, because they (among others) didn’t get this one. It was particularly obvious glancing at the back seat of their all-new Cruze: with the power driver seat immobilized in its most rearward position, the rear seat was rendered completely unusable.
But on to the tech …
The most common, obvious and perhaps timely tech on display centered around efficiency. Hybrids, of course, continue to proliferate. Toyota and Lexus had plenty of their gas-electric vehicles on display (though the Prius-based Lexus HS250h was conspicuously absent) and Honda hyped its sporty new CR-Z (well, sporty looking anyhow) as well as Civic and Insight models. Ford, Porsche, Volkswagen and GM also brought their gas-electric hybrids.
As you might guess, nobody seemed to pay much attention to the efficient (cough, cough) Escalade hybrid, but nearby, the Chevy Volt did attract a lot of interest—and it probably wasn’t just about the go-go boots. If GM has done as good of a job with the Volt as first impressions indicate, I’d argue that it could be a game-changer like the Prius was 10 years ago. Why? For starters, the Volt’s primary motor is the electric one. The gasoline “range extender” only serves to charge the batteries if needed. Other hybrids, like the Prius, rely on the gasoline engine as a primary motor. As such, the Volt not only uses less gas, but this makes it the first product in the plug-in hybrid market—a product the green set has been prodding Toyota for … but Toyota has yet to deliver. The Volt’s hybrid setup also puts to rest buyers’ uneasiness about the limited range of electric-only cars (more on those in a moment). Of course, the Volt also has the potential to be a game changer in another, non-tech way: GM needs a world-class vehicle that’s just different enough from other autos in order to lure buyers back into their dealerships.
Unfortunately, there were no Volts on the expo hall floor to sit in and play with, but Chevrolet’s website indicates that the Volt has a trunkload of other tech goodies that’ll make the propeller spin on your beanie. Not only can you program your car to charge during off-peak hours (in case your utility company has lower nighttime rates), the stereo has DVR-like functionality to pause live radio and the nav system has built-in traffic reporting. But the tech trick that really geeks me out is the upcoming OnStar MyLink mobile app that will allow remote locking, starting and vehicle info from a smart phone. Gimmick? Maybe. But anyone who’s used Zipcar’s mobile app knows how cool it is to tap your phone and unlock your car (BTW – the Zipcar app is much quicker and better than it used to be).
Moving on from the Volt, the show featured a couple of all-electric cars too. The tiny Mitsubishi i-MiEV was on display and will apparently hit our shores late this year. And Nissan was there with their all-electric Leaf which is now on sale in Oregon and a few other markets. For the record, the Leaf looks better in person than in photos. In the special “Eco” section of the car show, Tesla had one of their Lotus-based electric sportsters on display, though the manufacturer didn’t have a presence elsewhere—and no one apparently told them you have to plug the power into the wall as well as the car. In any case, it’s great to see more automakers branching out with mass-production electric cars, though I expect they’ll see limited acceptance amidst range-anxious drivers in our sprawling suburbs and with cheap gas (at least compared to other parts of the world).
Clean diesel and flex fuel rounded out the alternative power options at the car show. VW and Audi touted their TDI vehicles (is brown really a good color for a diesel?) while BMW was mum about their efficient oil-burner options and, as previously noted, Mercedes was, well … absent.
I’ll hold most of my commentary about the futility of flex fuel, except to say that while the infrastructure would be easy to convert, the technology is pretty much a waste until there’s an efficient way to produce the fuel without monopolizing immense tracts of land and/or cannibalizing food-producing crops. Regardless, a few GM vehicles sported their flex fuel badges and the trunklid of the new Saab 9-5 promised “BioPower.” Incidentally, the BioPower moniker conjures up visions of a trunk-mounted composter or, um, something more appropriate in a Burning Man-bound Vanagon. Not exactly the image Saab might want to portray in a $40k-plus luxury-sport sedan. But Saab has always targeted “quirky,” so maybe I’m just not the target market …
Aside from the no-fuel, low-fuel and flex-fuel tech of the car show, there were a few other trick tech gadgets on display:
The Range Rover’s slick thin film transistor (TFT) LCD dashboard is pretty cool. And who knows, if Land Rover hasn’t improved on their (ahem) legendary reliability, maybe it can play movies while you’re waiting for roadside assistance (Land Rover had it programmed for a serene sunset scene to greet auto showgoers).
Also featured on the Land Rovers, and on even better display in the new and similarly gargantuan Infiniti QX56 are surround-view cameras and parking-distance sensors. Eerily, the cameras provide 360-degree views around your hulking SUV and the sensors (with visual support on the Infiniti’s center LCD screen) squawk to let you know of impending disaster. In the real world, it’s probably appropriately alarming … with people circling the vehicles at the auto show, it’ll just give you a headache.
Perhaps my favorite feature of all was the “Snow” setting on several of the new Infiniti models. I hoped the on-off settings would allow the driver to adjust the weather for more expedient or more adventurous driving. But my great hopes were dashed when I discovered that the “Snow” setting only adjusts the throttle response and traction control to better cope with slippery conditions.
It won’t melt the snow, but LED tech is all the rage these days in the auto kingdom. Daytime running lights, taillights, interior illumination … even inside the exterior door handles of the new BMWs (in case you had a hard time finding them at night, I guess). If I’ve got my engineering science correct, LED lighting and other efficient electrical systems should lighten the load a car’s electrical system draws from the engine, thus improving fuel efficiency. In reality, I find it hard to believe LED brake lights really save much gas, but they do look cool. Circling back to the snow topic, I’ve yet to hear whether or not they suffer from the same lack of snow-melting ability that challenges LED traffic signals in blustery weather. If anyone is willing to loan me a new Audi, Cadillac or Range Rover for testing, I’ll get right back to you …
Finally, on two other mostly non-tech related notes, @pdxmikek will be happy to gush in his usual Mini-fanatic fashion about the new Countryman and how the Mini’s onboard computer can be connected to your iPhone. That, and the new Mazda2 comes in an amazing electric green color that provides a stunning match with Mike’s electric green polo shirt.
And with that, happy motoring!