Saturday, November 18, 2006

The Future of Automobiles

My wife and I were car shopping last weekend, and we saw the future of automobiles. It was both an inspiring and depressing view, all at the same time.

Being a little bit of a car and driving nut, I've always tended towards the performance and handling side of the car market. Even my wife's current "grocery getter and kid hauler" is a sport model mini-station wagon Audi A4 that in some ways is more fun to drive than my old '95 Porsche 911. And while I've always been intrigued by the prospects offered by advancing hybrid gas-electric technologies, the earliest commercial efforts towards "green" cars like the Honda Insight and the Toyota Prius always left me underwhelmed despite the amazing gas mileage because the performance just wasn't there.

But last Saturday, after test driving the latest crop of performance autos Audis, Beamers, and Volvos, we drove the new Lexus Hybrid mini-SUV.


My first impression as the salesman pulled the car up in front of us was a momentary visceral response of surprise and fear of being run over. The car was completely silent as over a ton of steel rolled up right next to me solely on battery power. It was just unnatural how so much mass could move without a gas engine that you could hear coming, and before I could help myself, I actually looked to be sure that someone was at the wheel of the car, and that it wasn't rolling out of control to crush us. My second thought, after noting the salesman at the wheel, was that I was going to need to immediately adjust the care with which I looked both ways when crossing the street.

Despite my skepticism, I climbed into the car to find pretty much what you would expect in any luxury SUV from Japan or Germany: great fit and finish, fine materials, clearly organized controls and labels, 8-way adjustable leather seats. The salesman made a point of telling me immediately that the car was already running. "How the hell can you tell? It's utterly silent!" I thought. Ahh. A tiny blue light on the dashboard.

So off we rolled, out of the lot and onto the busy streets of weekend Concord, CA. The only sound that accompanied the start of our journey was the whisper of the air and the tiniest of rumbles from the rubber meeting the road. At irregular intervals, the engine would start, and to my surprise, while you could hear the engine start and stop if you paid attention, there was no hitch or vibration or change in the ride whatsoever as it shifted from electric to gas power.

Then the salesman turned on the in-vehicle information display with an active diagram showing where the power was coming from at any moment, with a schematic of the car showing the effects of the engine, battery, and regenerative braking. High cool. My wife's comment at the time was, "...well, we clearly can't have THAT on if we expect him to pay any attention to the road."

Overall, the drive wasn't high on the handling ladder (admittedly it was an SUV) though there was plenty of horsepower. But it was remarkable that there wasn't anything different or troubling from the new hybrid technology other than the 30% improvement in gas mileage (a much better rating, in fact, than our little sport wagon of one half the size) and the freaky stalking behavior of the silent motor. Now we're not likely to get such a big vehicle at this point, but when the technology makes it into the smaller sports oriented cars, it will be a no-brainer. And it is clear to me that hybrid technology will eventually comprise the future of ALL automobiles, and that they have already become a viable quality consumer products now.

So what was the depressing part? The fact that this 3rd-generation hybrid from Japan was so freakin' fantastic, and that the American companies are just getting started (and headed towards bankruptcy). But maybe there is hope for a US auto maker if Tesla Motors can get their car into production. I met a couple of the company's founders a few weeks ago, and we commiserated that they were going through the NSTA crash test trials. The thought of building 20 of these sexy little $100k numbers just to destroy them was depressing. Be sure to check out their web page. They might not have the impressive window-rattling vroom vroom when you throw down at a stop light drag, but they will kick-ass in a very quiet and sneaky way.


Anonymous said...

What? no screeching tires? Where were you driving? Phil

Anonymous said...

Today I am going to Lexus to test it Phil