Andrew Frankel -F–, ord has announced its
intention to phase out CD players from its cars and move to an all-digital future, and the only surprise is that it’s taken this long.
Forget cassettes and 8-tracks, the MP3 player is to the Compact Disc what the CD was to a wind-up gramophone. The CD slot in your dashboard exists for the same reasons as rear seats in an Audi TT — something you neither need nor use, but would still be uneasy without. It’ll pass. A CD stacker system in the glovebox will seem as quaint a notion in five years time as a music centre in your living room does today.
But the iPod is already merely the present, not the future. These little miracles are, in fact, inherently flawed as a source of in-car entertainment. For a start they are highly coveted prizes among the light-fingered community. Secondly, it is broadly accepted that the MP3 files they play cannot touch the sound quality of a properly recorded CD. I have performed informal back-to-back tests, playing the same track in the same car both from the CD on which it was recorded and the MP3 player onto which it was then copied, and by and large the sound degradation was small but significant. The answer, as ever, lies in the internet. You may have heard of Apple’s iCloud, the webbased system that stores all your files remotely so you don’t have to, relieving your computer of the burden and you of the fear of losing your information. There is no reason why this cannot work for music or indeed any other kind of files played in cars either. Your ‘collection’ exists in the virtual world and is played on demand and at top quality, eliminating the need to carry a costly and aurally challenged MP3 player. In fact there
would be no need even to have a pre-loaded chosen set of songs to call upon. For a small fee or subscription and at no notice at all, you should be able to listen to just about any song ever recorded. Makes the latest Now That’s What I Call Music! compilation CD seem a little old hat, don’t you think? predictably, Rolls-Royce is finding there is no great appetite for its electric Phantom as it sails silently through its world tour. “I’d
be lying if I said we had people offering us large bundles of cash for it,” said someone who’d know. As expected everyone likes the very Rolls values of its near-silent power train and massive torque from rest, but the issue of range is a challenge too far. Rolls has not officially canned the project and the tour continues, but I think it more likely we’ll see pigs in space than this Phantom on general sale. the rather more affordable end of the all-electric market things are not looking too great either. In the first half of this year a fraction over 600 electric cars found their way onto UK roads despite the existence in the market place of credible product sold by Peugeot, Citroen and
Mitsubishi, not to mention the supposedly game-changing Nissan Leaf. The pasting meted out to the Leaf and Peugeot Ion on Top Gear is unlikely to have helped either.
Are these the wrong cars powered by the wrong technology, or the right cars waiting for a slow-to-adapt market to get used to the idea?
First, you can read nothing into the stats: the Peugeot/Citroen/Mitsubishi clones are ludicrously expensive even by electric car standards and not representative of what will become the norm, while the Leaf has only just gone on sale and was, to begin with at least, seriously supply-limited.
On the other hand you could (and I would) argue that life is going to get more and not less difficult for electric cars. Right now if you want an environmentally saintly car, electric is the only option. But soon the Vauxhall Ampera (below) will go on sale with its petrol-powered range-extending generator on board, and then people will be able to enjoy all the benefits of an electric car with zero tailpipe emissions safe in the knowledge that when the batteries run out of juice, the car does not. And the guilt of running a small petrol engine for a short amount of time to complete your journey seems a small price to pay for banishing range anxiety. Remember, too, that the Ampera represents just the first generation of range extenders, using an off-the-shelf petrol engine which was never designed for this purpose. The next generation will come with purpose-built motors to boost their range. Audi has already shown a tiny 250cc rotary engine while Jaguar is seriously looking at gas turbines. Next month I
will bring you impressions of the Fisker Karma, the world’s first true range extender GT car, but can tell you now that to call it credible is putting it mildly.
Of course there will also be a next generation of batteries that will last longer and charge more quickly, and I don’t doubt the currently lamentable charging infrastructure will improve. But which would you bet on becoming established in the market place first? A technology developed by car manufacturers alone, or one that requires governments around the globe to invest colossal amounts of public money into building a charging network the world is not yet sure it wants?
Electric cars do have a future because, looking far, far ahead, it’s impossible to see cars being powered by anything else. But this is a long, long game car manufacturers like Nissan are playing, far longer even than Toyota took on when it clutched the hybrid nettle to its bosom at the end of the last century.
Until then I fear cars like the Leaf (which I liked so much it earned my vote on the European Car of the Year jury) will suit brilliantly those who use it as a second car for the school run or suburban commuting, but remain essentially a niche product. By contrast I can see in less than 10 years range-extending hybrids becoming the norm and not the exception. month’s Frankfurt Motor Show already looks like one of the busiest yet. It’s the show hacks like least because it’s so
gargantuan you spend more time walking between stands than visiting them, which is not an efficient way of working, but it’s so important that bunking off is not really an option.
What am I most eagerly anticipating? It’s not some low-slung slice of exotica, but the concept of the next Defender that Land Rover will have on its stand. Being responsible for replacing this 64-year-old icon would rank among the car industry jobs I’d least like to have.
Do you go authentic, preserve the car’s integrity, keep the army happy but cut yourself off from those who’d like the image but not the discomfort? Or do you follow the money and produce a high-margin, high gloss off-roader in the sure knowledge that most private owners think parking on the school playing fields is fairly serious off-roading?
I think the answer is both. Look at the Toyota Land Cruiser, the car that has probably done most to destroy the Defender’s once mighty global popularity. Toyota make these rugged enough to be the wheels of choice in some of the most inaccessible places on earth, yet sufficiently luxurious to be sold under the Lexus brand in the US. But if a choice has to be made, for this car above all, authentic is the only way to go.