Rapid Auto Tech Advances Target Fuel Goals, Connectivity

The Toronto Star

January 21, 2014

Automotive technology advances at a relentless pace. But it's typically a measured pace?more evolutionary than revolutionary.

Taken a year at a time, the progress may seem slow. But look back five years, and it's apparent the paradigm has changed.

A scan of the vehicles making their debuts at the Detroit Auto Show reinforces that point.

Most are on a whole different technical plane than the vehicles they are replacing, which themselves advanced the state of technology just a handful of years ago.

The two key driving forces behind this uptick in evolutionary pace are the government-mandated need for reduced fuel consumption?as has been the case for several years?and the consumer-driven want for ever-increasing levels of connectivity?which appears to border on insatiable.

Add to that mix the constant pressures for improved safety and the opportunities created in that respect by advances in connectivity and related electronic technologies, and the net result is technical evolution on steroids.

Perhaps the biggest tech news from this year's show, at least in terms of market impact, is Ford's decision to build the body structure of its F-150 pickup almost entirely of aluminum.

Doing so reduces the mass of the truck by a whopping 330 kilograms.

The result of this, when engineers are scrambling to shave grams off component parts, promises to be a dramatic reduction in fuel consumption.

A few current cars and SUVs have all-aluminum structures, but this is the material's first large-scale use in a mass-market pickup truck.

It's a bold move by Ford, considering that the F-Series is the best-selling vehicle of any kind in both Canada and the United States, with total volumes of more than a million units in its best years.

Its annual sales top 120,000 in Canada alone.

Although it may be a gamble perceptually, given Ford's tough-truck image, it is less so technically, given that other tough vehicles such as the Land Rover Defender and military Humvee also use aluminum body structures on a steel frame.

And while it may be the most extreme example, the F-150 is far from the only new vehicle claiming weight reductions in Detroit.

Improved aerodynamics are also a popular focus of attention, with the same goal of reducing fuel consumption.

Mercedes-Benz's new C-Class sedan claims a coefficient of drag of just 0.24 and the Chrysler 200's is said to be 0.27?both impressively low for their vehicle types.

Both exemplify another trend, as well: the downward transfer of once-exotic technologies from premium levels to more popular and affordable models.

The new C-Class offers the same suite of Intelligent Drive safety technologies introduced last year in the top-of-the-line S-Class.

And the Chrysler boasts a list of 66 safety and advanced driver-assistance features, including forward collision warning with autonomous braking, lane-departure correction assist and a segment-first park-assist function that works for both parallel and perpendicular spaces.

The widespread adoption of driver-assistance technologies is rapidly paving the way to near- or fully autonomous vehicles in the not-too-distant future.

Various forms of connectivity are enabling that effort, including GPS, radar, laser, ultrasonic and, increasingly, camera-based technologies.

But connectivity with cellphone networks remains at the core of much of the consumer-focused technology in today's vehicles, and its roles and capabilities are ever increasing.

In effect, the vehicles have become mobile devices themselves, enhancing and multiplying the capabilities of handhelds and wearables, including becoming their own wireless hot spots.

Lest you think the green vibe that dominated auto shows in previous years has been lost, it has not?as witnessed by Toyota's display of a fuel-cell-powered concept vehicle that's destined for production in 2015.

But everybody is on the green bandwagon, so individual products such as new hybrid models don't stand out as much as they once did.

Ditto for performance innovations. Power outputs just keep increasing, even as engines become cleaner and more fuel-efficient.

But most follow the same now-established pattern of downsized engines with direct injection and either turbocharging or supercharging to more than compensate for the decreased displacement.

The evolution continues.

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