The motor show season is now in full swing, having kicked off with the Geneva show in early March, and Battersea Park hosting our own London Motor Show from 4th to 7th May.
It’s clear from all the shows that after years of little real change, car technology is now developing very quickly, with just about every manufacturer proclaiming huge strides forward in self-driving, electrification, and connectivity. So let’s look at what’s happening in those three key areas:
Although some of the excited announcements from car makers could have you believe otherwise, a world where human drivers are totally unnecessary is still some years away. There are five clearly-defined stages or levels before we arrive at fully autonomous, or self-driving cars which need no human driver, as the graphic shows.
Tesla are probably furthest down the path at present with their Models S and X ‘Autopilot’ feature, which allows the human driver, under certain circumstances, to hand over responsibility for steering, acceleration and braking completely to the car, but the driver must be ready to take over if necessary. Legislation means that the driver still needs to keep their hands on the steering wheel, however.
Interestingly though, whilst other manufacturers may not publicly be quite as advanced as Tesla, their latest models are increasingly quietly incorporating many of the elements which will make autonomous driving a reality for many of us in the not-too-distant future. It will be a close-run battle to see who is the first mainstream manufacturer to make Level 2/3 self-driving cars available to us all, however Nissan’s ‘ProPilot’ system which will be available on their latest Qashqai and Leaf models, due on sale from later this year, promises to provide full autonomous braking, steering and acceleration control on suitable roads, albeit without the lane-changing capabilities of Tesla models.
Looking further ahead, Tesla, Ford and Volkswagen are all promising full level 4/5 self-driving by around 2020, so the technology is clearly developing quickly.
Nissan’s Leaf, launched in 2011, was the first real usable electric car of recent times, with space for four people and their luggage, together with a usable range of up to 100 miles. Since then almost every manufacturer has jumped on the electric car bandwagon, not least because of
the ever-growing opposition to diesel power. Range capabilities of most models have however stayed stubbornly at the 100-mile maximum mark, again with the honourable exception of the two Tesla models, which achieve up to 250 miles range.
However, things are changing quickly, and a 200-mile range could soon be the norm. Why is this important? Well, breaking that 200-mile barrier is believed to be a psychological turning point in the acceptability of electric cars, so electric car sales are likely to increase significantly, aided by the latest government road tax changes which further penalise all petrol (and diesel) powered cars.
As well as the forthcoming mid-priced Tesla model 3, several other new and updated models offering the magic 200-mile range are promised for late 2017 and beyond, including an updated Nissan Leaf, the car which started it all. Sadly, though, and particularly with the news that General Motors have sold off Vauxhall, the UK will almost certainly not receive a Vauxhall version of GM’s Chevrolet Bolt, an impressive 200-mile car already on sale in the USA.
The computing power of new models is increasing dramatically, meaning that a huge number of new features are becoming available. Many cars now offer Apple Carplay and/or Google Android, allowing you to play Apps direct from your smartphone. How useful this is depends on your needs, as not every App is compatible. CarPlay, for example, will not allow you to access Google Maps and its useful live traffic information. Other features are of more clear-cut benefit, such as systems which detect that the vehicle has been in an accident and automatically alert the emergency services.
Overall, though, much of these much-vaunted connectivity features may be of limited value to many drivers… although manufacturers may in fact be the real beneficiaries by being able to access the masses of data generated by the average car. Be aware, as well, that many of these connected features rely on using data on your mobile phone, and you could easily inadvertently rack up a significant bill.
Self-driving, electrification, and connectivity – these are just a few of the changes currently taking place in the motoring world: we are indeed living in exciting times!
Andy Goundry spent his entire working career in vehicle design and development, and, since retirement has continued a close involvement with vehicles, writing for specialist magazines and websites, as well as producing his own motoring website www.autonews.uk.com