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The incredible, uncertain future of the motor car

Streamliniing the manufacturing process has been the biggest challenge for electric car makers  

It’s a good time to be a car lover. We’re at a juncture, a crucial one, where the mainstay of personal transportation is becoming less about a big, loud fuel-guzzling motor and more about the quiet electronics that work away in the background to enhance the experience of driving.

Cars have reached a point where those pedals you press are not always mechanically linked to the drivetrain. And while we wrap our heads around some of them parking themselves in an available slot, the truth is that a fair few can even drive themselves, if only existing laws would let them.

This does not mean that the much-coveted driving licence is suddenly redundant. Much like airline pilots who are still up there piloting planes which can also theoretically fly themselves, we’re going to be behind the wheel for the forseeable future, even though that wheel may eerily decide to turn by itself if it decides you aren’t being safe enough. What might become redundant is the use of fuel to power cars. Hybrid cars, which use a conventional engine combined with a battery in a bid to be more economical and environment-friendly, have been around for a while, but in the past few years, the dream of an all-electric vehicle has been rapidly coming to fruition. Cars that can cover a distance of 200 miles on a single charge, and charge rapidly enough to emulate the convenience of the conventional motor, are now on roads, and the prices are coming down rapidly.

Even hardcore petrolheads, who had long associated electric cars with mild hybrids like the Toyota Prius, stopped and took notice when Tesla Motors, the most recognised name in all-electric personal transport, unveiled ‘Ludicrous Mode’ on their flagship Model S sedan, utilising the inherent characteristics of electric motors to achieve acceleration figures that put most supercars to shame.

Cars like the Tesla, and to an extent any upmarket model from any manufacturer, are blurring the categories we can slot these machines into. They can now read road signs, navigate by themselves or use your phone to find their way, keep you in lane and at a safe distance from other cars, and even receive software updates to unlock functions that they did not possess the day before. As anyone living in Delhi would know, electric vehicles that have similar range to those of their fuel-burning counterparts would solve many problems associated with modern transport.

Let’s not get those cheque books out yet though, because there are a few mountains to cross. While range is less of a concern than before, cost still is. The loose definition of an electric car for the masses has been a vehicle that can do 200 miles on one charge, and cost under $35,000. American automotive giant GM was the first to achieve this, with the recently announced Chevrolet Bolt. Tesla themselves have started accepting pre-bookings for their sub $35,000 Model 3 sedan, and have already got around 4,00,000 bookings for a car that, optimistically, might be available in 2018.

The other problem is the supply chain. Current vehicles are the product of a manufacturing system perfected over the better part of a century. The cars of the future rely less on complicated combustion engines and more on volatile battery technology (fully electric cars have no engines, just motors attached to the wheels and massive batteries to power them). All of a sudden, Panasonic (who has been Tesla’s main supplier of lithium-ion batteries), and LG Chem, who have inked a deal with upstart electric carmaker Faraday Future, are becoming big names in the automobile space. The difficulties of this manufacturing process is that production is slow, with Tesla estimated to make 2,000 cars a week, which is a little over 1,00,000 a year. Put that figure next to the 4,00,000 pre-orders a car they haven’t officially started manufacturing has already racked up, and you see the problem.

All this amounts to an exciting future for the motor car. Research on battery technology is progressing at breakneck speed, and environmental concerns have reached a point where everyone is clamouring for the electric car.

Self-driving technology is also gaining ground, with Google’s long-running project having completed over 20,00,000 miles of testing on public roads, and Uber already testing out self-driving cabs in Pittsburgh in the US.

It might be a while before we become passengers behind the wheel and drive into charging stations instead of fuel pumps, but the future is coming. The motor car is set for a major overhaul; it’s just a matter of putting all the pieces together.


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Printable version | Sep 23, 2021 7:15:42 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/The-incredible-uncertain-future-of-the-motor-car/article16074859.ece

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