The Electronic Evolution


evolution20160621Fast Times looks at some of the latest in automotive technology

Historically, the automobile has been a symbol of how a multiplicity of mechanical systems works in chorus to provide nearly effortless mobility.

But concomitant with the rise of computers and the Internet, today’s cars go a few steps further by becoming full-blown “tech-fests.” Indeed, some new cars have so many gadgets as standard that these could keep technophiles thoroughly bemused (at least, until the next techno trend comes out) and make Luddites thoroughly befuddled.

To make sense of it all, Fast Times looks at how some of these technologies work and whether or not these should matter at all.

Electronic stability control
One aspect where computer technology has really made waves in motoring is vehicle safety. In the olden days, if you had a powerful rear-wheel-drive car and booted the throttle too hard into a tight corner, you only had sheer driving talent to save you from spinning out and possibly crashing. But with electronic stability control (ESC), it is entirely possible to buy a 707-horsepower, rear-wheel-drive family sedan like the Dodge Charger Hellcat and complete a journey in it without careening into the nearest solid object.

The system works by orchestrating a car’s anti-lock braking system and traction-control system, along with a host of electronic sensors, so that the vehicle maintains a steady and controllable course. Put another way, if you enter a turn with far too much speed and throttle, ESC will automatically cut back the power and apply the brakes in each wheel so that you don’t understeer nor oversteer.

ESC is particularly effective in slippery conditions, where even the most careful driver could be caught out. The 2015 World Health Organization Global Status Report on Road Safety said ESC should be mandatory in all types of vehicles around the world, but less than one in four countries (excluding the Philippines) currently require it to be installed as standard equipment.

Collision-mitigation braking system
Staying with safety, collision-mitigation braking system (CMBS) is making waves for its life-saving abilities. Much like how adaptive cruise control uses a camera and sensors to maintain a certain distance from a moving vehicle in front, CMBS uses the same principles for braking.

At city speeds—typically, below 30 kilometers per hour (km/h)—the system scans for obstacles ahead and will automatically slam on the brakes if the driver doesn’t react quickly enough to an imminent collision. The system also works at higher speeds, but can only slow the vehicle down to lessen the harms of a crash.

Fast Times was able to test this system first-hand when the revised Ford Focus debuted in November last year. In that test, Fast Times found that although the system worked flawlessly in stopping the car at speeds below 20 km/h, other factors like a slippery road surface could still cause a crash.

Lane-keeping assist
So far, computers have helped in lessening the dangers of going around turns and moving forward, but these can also step in when one is deviating from the right path. Although this sounds like something from a homily in church, it’s actually a system called lane-keeping assist (LKA).

Using a camera, LKA detects road markings and will automatically tug the steering wheel in case the car deviates too far from the proper lane. Of course, this system operates under the presumption that there are clear road markings in the first place, which is unfortunately not the case in many of Philippine roads.

Adaptive suspension
Moving from systems that keep motorists safe, modern technology has also pushed the boundaries of a car’s ride, handling, and performance. One of the most substantial innovations in this respect is adaptive suspension.

A typical suspension system is designed to maintain a certain level of damping at all times, but this fixed set-up doesn’t always work on all types of roads. For instance, a car with suspension tuned softly for comfort will be extremely competent in ironing out road imperfections, but will also make it like a cruise ship in a maelstrom when pushed into corners. Conversely, a car with suspension tuned stiffly for minimal body roll around turns will completely pulverize the rider’s spine the moment the car runs over a hard object that is larger than a marble.

An adaptive set-up uses electronically controlled dampers that allow drivers to specify how soft or hard they want their car to feel. Mercedes-Benz takes this concept to extreme levels with their Magic Body Control (recently introduced in the new S-Class), which uses a camera to detect road imperfections and automatically tunes the suspension depending on the severity of the imperfection.

Dynamic engine mounts
An engine mount is typically a metal bracket with rubber, polyurethane or fluid inside it that not only keeps the engine from hitting the car’s body, but also dampens the vibrations it produces. But put some techno-wizardry in it and you’ve got something that can actually contribute to a car’s handling.

A dynamic engine mount, much like the one Porsche uses in some of their top-end 911s, works by automatically stiffening when under pressure. In other words, it’s like an anti-roll bar, such that it counters the momentum of the engine leaning out during hard turns for more flat cornering.

Smartphone mirroring
One place where technology definitely makes itself felt is in vehicle infotainment systems. Gone are the days when you could shut the annoying radio DJ up by turning a dial or pressing a radio preset key, with these two antiquated modes replaced by ever-growing touchscreens.

Now, many of us are used to the touchscreens on our smartphones and tablets. Familiarity breeds convenience, which is why carmakers have made efforts to make their infotainment systems as easy to use as possible by allowing certain smartphone interfaces to be mirrored into their cars’ touchscreens.

Self-driving cars
Most of the preceding items in this list may soon become completely irrelevant with the rise of autonomous cars. Companies from Google to Tesla have done extensive research and testing into these cars and the benefits seem compelling.

Imagine going anywhere you want, without the hassle of aching limbs from operating pedals or turning a steering wheel. In addition, because the cars are designed to talk to each other and aren’t operated by creatures whose driving faculties can be overcome by rage, sleep deprivation, or too much alcohol, the probability of road crashes is substantially lessened.

However, detractors say the cost of developing infrastructure for these vehicles is enormous. Also, laws on culpability in crashes will have to be changed, as you can’t exactly sue a car for bad driving. Finally, there are those who argue that, like computers and other electronic devices, autonomous cars can be hacked and can go haywire.


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