Revolutionary changes are happening at almost every level of the motoring industry: how cars are powered, how they are controlled (or control themselves), how they are owned, and how they are made and by whom. We take a look at five trends happening right now, from self-driving cars to wheel-less wonders.
The latest batch of electric cars are producing figures that are simply crazy. Consider the Lotus Evija coupe, the first new Lotus since the venerable British company was taken over by Chinese carmaker Geely. To be delivered to customers from next year — at £1.7 million ($2.85 million), ex factory! — it has two motors and huge batteries providing 1,471 kW to all four wheels.
Yes, 1,471 kW! That’s 2,000 metric horsepower, more than Bugatti, Ferrari, Lamborghini or any other production road car in history, and represents a bold play to re-establish Lotus as a leading sports car company.
In the luxury car field, meanwhile, there is even more activity, taking advantage of electricity’s other benefits: smoothness, quietness and clean running. Jaguar has its I-Pace SUV and has announced a flagship XJ limousine that goes all-electric from next year. Audi and Mercedes have launched their first battery SUVs, Porsche is readying its Taycan sedan, and Aston Martin is relaunching the Lagonda brand as an all-electric competitor to Rolls-Royce. And that’s just a small sampling.
Bentley’s EXP 100 GT concept, with exquisite styling and a claimed range of 700 km, is described as a “future grand tourer”. However, it contains much technology soon destined for the showroom.
It’s the “sky-high solution” that several major carmakers, plus Uber, Boeing and others, are working towards. The aim is to unlock the almost limitless firmament for personal transport. The 21st-century flying car is closer to an upsized, people- carrying drone.
Uber, which plans to supplement its on-road ride-hailing with millions of short-hop electric-drone trips per day, says it will be cheaper than staying on the ground, and a great deal quicker because of the relative speed of the vehicles and the lack of congestion. An “Uber Air” trial will start in Melbourne, Australia and in US cities LA and Dallas from next year. Mercedes-Benz’s Volocopter 2X, with 18 rotors, has already undergone air taxi trials in Dubai.
We recently inspected the US-built Skai eVTOL (that’s the commonly used acronym for Electric Vertical Take Off and Landing vehicle) and spoke to Peter Falt, from Designworks, which had a leading role in its creation. Falt says the carbon- fibre-bodied machine will be cheaper than a small propeller plane, meaning private ownership is likely (most other plans are built around the shared model).
“It takes five people at 100 knots for 400 miles,” says Falt. That’s 185 knm/h and 644 kilometres. “Most of the others are battery-operated; this runs on hydrogen, which gives it the energy density to achieve those distances and those payloads.” The Skai is designed to be autonomous, though Falt says the technology is ahead of the laws, hence it has a driver’s seat. “Some people will want to fly,” he adds, “and it can also be ground-controlled.”
Falt says airplanes need runways, while eVTOLs can come in from any angle and any altitude. Far less infrastructure is needed. The Skai has three motors, each independently powering a pair of rotors to ensure maximum safety. Falt says mass production will start soon, with “tens of thousands a year” planned.
Several fully electric “hypercars” have been unveiled, including the Lotus Evija, Pininfarina Battista and Singapore-designed and -engineered Dendrobium D1. However, most established supercar makers are shifting first to petrol-electric hybrids. Ferrari and McLaren, for example, believe this gives the best balance of instant torque, low weight and large range for those who want to drive “fast and far”. Maserati will say goodbye to its last naturally aspirated V8 at the end of this year and promises all future new models will have “electrification solutions”. The first will be a compact hybrid sports coupe, to be unveiled in March next year.
The biggest question about ever-quicker hypercars is, “Where can you use them?” This may have inspired an interesting trend: the emergence of racetrack-only cars, offering much lower weight and higher speeds than any road car can achieve.
Two examples — designed for owners to have fun on circuits, rather than to race — are the Brabham BT62 coupe, made in Australia by a company headed by David Brabham, son of three-time Formula One world champion Sir Jack; and the Rodin Cars FZed, made in New Zealand. Both run on slick tyres and have massive wings to give racecar-style downforce. The Rodin is based on a Lotus open- wheeler from a few years ago and brings F1-style speed and thrills for €600,000 a throw (plus taxes and charges).
Many senior automotive executives aren’t quite as bullish about self-driving cars as they were a couple of years ago. No one’s giving up, however. With literally trillions of dollars spent around the world on transport, the financial potential is too big. Huge progress has been made in recent years, but the last little bit is proving harder than initially imagined. Making a so-called Level 5 car, which is to say one with no driver controls that can operate in any conditions, was an early 2020s goal for many companies (including Mercedes-Benz).
Now they are talking about mid-2020s and even 2030. That said, many companies will soon conduct “robotaxi” trials in major cities. Some will have a “safety driver” sitting up front to take over if necessary, or will be video- monitored from a control centre; others will operate only in geo-fenced areas to make sure robotaxis are well separated from pedestrians and cyclists.
In the meantime, Level 3 and Level 4 cars will be on private sale within two years. BMW promises its 2021 iNext will autonomously stop for red lights, slow for roundabouts and adjust to the set speed limit. More significantly, when on a divided highway, it will drive for hundreds of kilometres with no human intervention. The “driver” could in theory watch a film or read a book — though legislation is still adjusting to this possibility. When the iNext hits the exit ramp to drive into urban areas, it will signal the driver to take back control.
Two Wheels (And Even No Wheels)
The future of personal transport isn’t only about cars (flying or otherwise). One area of intense activity is the “last mile question”, which always seems to be voiced in imperial measurements. Solutions include autonomous pods and, increasingly, small electric scooters or folding bicycles for those short hops from house to train station, or satellite car parking station to CBD. Electric scooters, once seen only in toy shops, now involve major manufacturers. An example is Audi’s e-tron Scooter. Designed to fold neatly into the back of its new e-tron electric SUV, it weighs 12kg but can carry a business executive at 20km/h, emission-free, in places where cars are almost certain to be at a standstill. Said to be as manoeuvrable as a skateboard (riders steer it by shifting their weight on the deck), it will be on sale at €2,000 ($3,070) from the end of next year.
It’s not coming to consumers anytime soon, but it’s worth noting that a jet-powered hoverboard was recently used by French inventor Franky Zapata to cross the English Channel. His trip involved considerable discomfort, he admitted, and plenty of risk since his backpack was filled with fuel. But at least it shows that at some point, a tiny personal flying machine or a sort of electric scooter of the air, is not beyond possibility.