Change is scary. And for car enthusiasts, we’ll experience more change in the next 10 years than we have in the past 50, according to the head of Mercedes-Benz’ Silicon Valley R&D lab. While the whole automotive world could devolve into some Syd Mead-style sci-fi dystopia, for us — the gearheads willing to embrace the 21st century — the future will not suck. As a matter of fact, it’s going to be fucking awesome.
Now I’m all for grease-encrusted afternoons in a stuffy garage huffing caustic fumes and absorbing toxic fluids through my skin. It’s one of the few cathartic things left in my life. But over 15 years ago, I had an epiphany while picking up brake pads for my 510.
It was the height of the import boom, and strapped to the dyno at my local shop was an EK Civic stuffed with an engine pulled from an Integra Type-R. Wires led out of the engine bay and into the passenger compartment where a man with a laptop – a laptop! – the size of two stone tablets sat behind the wheel. Three hours later I had my first crash course in piggyback ECUs, the art of the reflash, and a solemn vow to never tune a carb again. I saw the future and I was all-in.
Taking Back Control
For years, the accepted consensus has been that the proliferation of complex electronics and scads of onboard computers would be the death of the shade tree tinkerer. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, swapping a computer-controlled diff is going to be a lot more complicated (and expensive) than its century-old counterpart, but think about the control it can afford. Being able to tweak the parameters on wheelspin, traction control, lock-up, and a host of other variables just takes a few lines of code. Want a bit more oversteer in the corners? Turn this (virtual) knob and the ABS will chatter away on the inside rear wheel. Steering a little too light? Press the up key a few more times.
And while there’s no fuel injection to tune on your EV, plugging in a tablet could garner you more range (at the expense of performance) or more power (at the expense of range). It’s always a balance, but it’s the control that matters. Tweak it on the fly to suit your needs, all with a few taps, swipes, and clicks.
Have computer, will travel.
It takes Dinan about a year to crack the codes installed by Ze Germans to extract the power BMW left on the table. But throw that code onto the web (think GitHub for ECUs), crowd-source it, and that year could turn into months or weeks. Few things are more motivated than a code-monkey-slash-turbo-junkie equipped with a computer, a four-pack of RedBull, and an unsatisfied girlfriend asleep in bed.
Don’t want to do the work yourself? Don’t trust yourself with calculating manifold pressure? Not sure about injector pulses? Buy a WRX, call up Cobb, get an AccessPort, and flash a trusted tune from the comfort of your driveway. Granted, this is all old hat now. But it’s getting even better.
Ride a Harley? I won’t judge (much). But Vance & Hines FuelPack FP3 has me itching for a 1200 Custom. Not only will it figure out what parts you’ve installed and auto tune your engine to match, but you can tweak everything from the rev limiter to ignition timing, all without an expensive trip to the shop, a wideband O2 sensor, or a dyno. Even better, you can upload your map, have V&H smooth it out, and then share it with other riders — and do all of this with your smartphone.
And you can buy it with all the money you’re saving by not blowing through three gallons of pumice hand cleaner every month.
The Future of Performance
Don’t kid yourself. The future of speed is electric. Yes, we’ve all read the glowing – and likely justified – praise of the Porsche 918, McLaren P1, and LaFerrari. We’ll hear even more about the BMW i8 (stay tuned). And of course there’s the Tesla Model S, which completely eschewed the EV-as-glorified-golf-cart trope by delivering on range, performance, and luxury (mostly). But it’s just the beginning.
Those cars range from $70k to $1m+, but like all high-end tech – from ABS to traction control, and yes, embedded data connections – it eventually filters down to us peons. But with the pace it’s accelerating, a high performance, fully electric, 200+ mile range sports coupe or sedan (or wagon!) isn’t just in the cards, it will drop on the flop.
Attainable prices breed adoption. Adoption breeds markets. Markets breed diversity. And that diversity will unleash a new breed of drivers unshackled by the past and hellbent on making the future fun.
Of course, there are hurdles. Battery capacity, charging, alt-fuels, and material sciences are at the forefront, but with some of the greatest engineering minds in the history of the world working on solutions, this technology is accelerating at a rate faster than we’ve seen in decades. Comparisons to the tech world aren’t just apt, they’re perfectly in line with our four- and two-wheeled world.
But relentless perfection (and some oil-slicked lobbying) won’t spell the death of the internal combustion engine. These technologies breath new life into it, not just with direct injection and turbochargers, but by merging disparate technologies into a blend of speed and efficiency.
The much-vaunted “torque fill” that lets an automaker like BMW slap a tiny engine amidships with a massive turbo and use an electric motor to fill in the lag before the snail spools up is just the start. And it does it all while returning the equivalent of 94 MPG.
Control that and you control the future of performance. And it gets even more compelling when you realize that the financial and technical barriers of building a DIY EV will plummet as the technology expands.
At my previous gig I commuted 40 miles roundtrip. That equated to about 1.5-2 hours on the road. Every time I ripped up the onramp only to be stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, all I could imagine was hitting a button and letting the car take control. Yes, I’m lazy. But if sleeping is the cousin of death, commuting is its ugly step-sister.
Still, there were opportunities to enjoy my drive to work. In a past life I commuted over the Altamont hills, some of the most underrated roads in Northern California. But informed worker-bees knew about my cherished stretches of tarmac, which meant being stuck behind a Camry dawdling along at 35 mph while apexes sat untrimmed. I can’t fault them. Toyota man doesn’t want to be stuck in traffic any more than you or I. But if he could flick a switch and let his rolling appliance join a road train on the freeway while he flips through the latest Eva Longoria spread in Maxim, the number of unsullied backroads grow exponentially.
And with the proliferation of sensors, hyper-accurate GPS, and data streaming into your car – the same connected tech that allows full autonomy, among other things – when I hit a patch of ice and my traction control logs the location, a warning will pops on your head-up display so you won’t join me in the weeds.
Does this open us up to an unfathomable level of surveillance? Yes. Are cops plugging USBs into the side of your car and downloading your speed, acceleration and braking data a possibility? Undoubtedly. But it’s uncharted legal territory and that means we can set the precedents.
But maybe you’re not into all this. Maybe you reluctantly carry a flip phone and still pine for the days of points. Or maybe you want to keep one foot in the past and another in the future. I’m with you. And you’re in good company.
A few years back I sat down with Antony Sheriff, the former managing director of McLaren, to talk about the then-new MP4-12C. I asked him about the lack of a manual option and he told me, “The dual-clutch gearbox is so good if you want to go quickly and drive easily. If you want to drive manual, buy a vintage car. That’s what I do.”
I’m thinking of a 918 and a Singer 911.
But since money is an object, there’s the M word.
I know there’s a two-wheels-bad faction in these parts, but just... go ride a bike. I’m not going stand on the seat of a Ducati Monster to espouse the virtues of one less car or glorify lane splitting or the best beard oil you can buy. But I will say that my desperate desire for a Caterham or the endless threats of buying a Miata have completely subsided since I started riding. They’re cheaper to run, cheaper to insure, stupid simple to wrench on, and deliver visceral thrills I haven’t experienced on the road since I got my license. And the electric bikes are getting better every year. Give it a chance. Or just buy that GTV you’ve been saving up for.
Rage With The Machine
We’re not just on the cusp of some moribund evolution in mobility; we’re diving headlong into the most monumental change enthusiasts have ever seen. And that future is ours to define. We’ll combine performance and efficiency and data into something new. Something that’s ours. Something we control. If you’re not on board yet, I understand, but life’s too short to leave this much potential on the table.