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Driverless cars closer

Tesla promises autonomy within ‘two to three years’ | by Andrew Frankel

All the talk at the Detroit Motor Show was of autonomy. It seems to matter very little whether you like the idea of cars that drive themselves, they’re on the way and, depending on whom you talk to, they’re not far away at all. Tesla’s Elon Musk says he’ll have a fully autonomous car on sale in two to three years, and while Nissan’s Carlos Ghosn poured scorn on the idea, saying it would be 2020 at the earliest, Musk’s record of defying convention says
much for itself.

This is also the opportunity likely to be taken by non-automotive companies to become car brands. Google is very open about its self-driving car project and has already racked up a million-plus autonomous testing miles in the US, while Musk claims Apple has recruited more than 1000 engineers to work on their all-electric, autonomous offering.

Of course, when the first autonomous car goes on sale depends as much on your definition of the term as anything else. Right now there are luxury cars on sale that require no driver input at all to cover hundreds of miles: they steer themselves along motorways, always maintaining a constant distance to the car in front and only insist you keep some finger pressure on the steering wheel for legal reasons. Mercedes will soon introduce cruise control that will allow the car to approach a slower vehicle on the motorway, look around and if the outside lane is clear, indicate, pull out, overtake and pull back in again, all without the driver having to do a thing.

As ever there is more than one dimension to the introduction of this new technology. There is the science – and the idea of a car that could deal with Hyde Park Corner in the dark and rain all by itself still seems faintly implausible – but also the legislation. Will cars be able to drive themselves with no occupants, to collect their owner from the pub and, if drunk, will he or she then be liable if it crashes on the way home? Or on the way there… And there is a final piece of the puzzle, the one that everyone tends to overlook but which can quite easily delay the introduction of new technology by years or, in the case of hydrogen fuel cells, decades. Even once the tech is sorted, it still has to be packaged into a car and brought to market at a price the customer is prepared to pay. I expect Elon Musk will have a fully autonomous car on sale in two to three years, but it will be at least as long again before such things become widely available.

***

Fresh engine for DB11

Aston Martin has started dropping hints about the all new DB11, due to be unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show in March, not least the fact that it has a new 5.2-litre, twin-turbo V12 on the way. Nobody has said this new engine is destined for the DB11, but as the old normally aspirated 6-litre
V12 it replaces is the only powertrain ever to sit under the bonnet of its DB9 predecessor, it seems a certainty the new engine will be in the DB11 from launch.

Where has Aston found a brand-new motor? No one is saying, though it is believed to be related to the existing V12 originally designed by Ford, but so extensively re-engineered as to legitimately be seen as a new engine.

Reducing capacity and adding turbochargers will allow Aston Martin to claim radically reduced fuel consumption (the DB9 is now one of just a tiny handful of cars on sale in the UK unable to post a 20mpg combined consumption figure), while giving it access to as much power as it is ever likely to need. As an example, if Aston Martin introduced the engine only with the same specific output as, say, a Ford Fiesta with the 1-litre Ecoboost motor, it would come to market with 640bhp. As no DB9 ever had more than 540bhp, it seems more likely that Aston will kick off with about 600bhp, allowing it to claim a massive power rise while giving it room for manoeuvre for all the more powerful variants that later DB11s and other Astons will use. In the meantime, using low levels of boost initially will enable Aston Martin to use a relatively high compression ratio to improve throttle response. Aston Martin has released a short film on which it is possible to hear the new V12 being revved. Unlike many new turbo installations, this one is unlikely to attract criticism for its lack of aural theatre.

***

Faraday to build cars

Thousands of miles to the south and west, the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas brought the unveiling of the Faraday Future FF Zero1 concept car, a single-seat, all-electric 1000bhp slice of futuristic racer that has not one chance in a million of making it into production.

And there we could leave it, were it not for the fact that Faraday Future is an American company well resourced by (reputedly) largely Chinese money. It has just concluded a $1 billion deal that will enable it to build a factory in the Nevada desert, near Las Vegas, with jobs for 4500 people. And this concept is the first tangible insight into the direction its creators intend to pursue.

Unsurprisingly, Faraday’s first real product is likely to be in the SUV genre, will be entirely electric and will drive itself. However there is speculation that Faraday plans an all-new ownership model where customers don’t own an individual car but pay a subscription that lets them tailor what they drive to their needs. During the week you might drive a small city car, before swapping to something larger with a longer range at the weekends.

***

Merc reveals latest E-class

Mercedes-Benz has unveiled its all-new E-class saloon, a high-volume, high-profit vehicle whose success is crucial to the company’s balance sheet. The styling is either classically Mercedes or tediously derivative of existing models, depending on your point of view, but there’s no doubting the extent of the changes beneath the skin.

It sits on an all-new platform that uses high-grade steel where greatest strength is needed and aluminium where it is not, resulting in a weight saving of more than 100kg despite an increase in overall length of 43mm.

Just two powertrains will be available at first, both four cylinder, 2-litre units. In the UK the focus will be on the diesel, an all-new engine to replace the 2.1-litre unit that’s been gaining friends for its fuel consumption and enemies for its vocal nature. The brand-new engine has 192bhp and is claimed to return 72.4mpg and 102g/km CO2 emissions. This means the reign of the new Jaguar XF, reviewed elsewhere as the most fuel-efficient and CO2-friendly car in the category, will be somewhat short-lived. It’s worth bearing in mind that the XF can only reach its 104g/km CO2 target with a manual gearbox and 161bhp. All E-classes come with a nine-speed auto as standard.

More interesting models for enthusiasts will come on stream later, including a twin-turbo 3-litre petrol engine with 328bhp and a brand-new 3-litre 264bhp straight-six diesel. The Mercedes-AMG E63, with an output tipped to be close to 600bhp, should be with us before the end of the year.

***

Changing times at Ferrari

For the first time since it was bought in 1969, Ferrari is no longer under the direct control of the company formerly known as Fiat. As 2016 broke, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles distributed its 80 per cent ownership among its shareholders, providing one Ferrari share for every 10 FCA shares held. A further 10 per cent of the company was floated on the New York Stock Exchange last year, the price falling from a high of $56 in October to a little under $44 at the time of writing. However, the Agnelli family and Enzo Ferrari’s sole surviving son Piero still enjoy a combined 49 per cent of the company’s voting rights. Fiat’s influence over Ferrari might have devolved, but it has by no means been taken away entirely.

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