Long read: What is the future of driving for fun?
It’s the driver doing this, not the car – but for how much longer?
With the dawn of the all-electric sports car almost upon us, we ponder (in a Cayman GT4) what it means for the true driving enthusiast
The cattle-grid rattles under the car. Not for the first time it occurs to you that as a way of heralding the arrival of a great experience, there’s none more understated than the humble cattlegrid. But there they are, at the start and finish of many of the country’s greatest roads.
You know this car and you know this road. It’s why you’ve brought it here. You know the drill, too: a kick of the clutch and a blip of the throttle. You’ve already decided how many gears you’re going to drop. Then down goes the foot. Let it build. You feel the engine respond and hear it, too: the induction noise hardening, the exhaust note sharpening. The revs rise, but slowly at first. There’s no external assistance from turbos here, but you’re happy to wait. At 4000rpm it starts to build, at 5000rpm it’s beginning to fly. So you let it go, growling and howling its way past 6000, 7000 and onto 8000rpm before you deftly dip the clutch once more, a mere fraction of a second before the limiter cuts in.
Okay, so the car happens to be a new Porsche Cayman GT4, but in essence, and saving details like where the red line on any given car might be, what I’ve outlined is an experience enjoyed in one form or another by millions of enthusiastic drivers not just for years or even decades, but for more than a century. Good car, good road. Good fun. That really is all there is to it.
Let’s do it all over again, except we’re a few years into the future and the car is not a 414bhp Porsche but an electric hypercar with around 2000bhp. If you think that sounds like science fiction it’s not: there are already at least three that have been shown with outputs of 1900bhp or more and which are now being readied for production. The cattle grid rattles under the car. There’s no clutch to kick nor even a paddle to pull, let alone a stick to shift. There is no decision-making process because there’s nothing to do. Except put your foot down. You can still do that. So the car now tries to transmit 2000bhp plus all that attendant and instant torque to the road.
Of course it has four-wheel drive, but that’s still a 911 GT3’s worth of power per tyre. Of course it can’t dump it all on the Tarmac, which is perhaps as well. Full throttle in a Bugatti Veyron is a pretty bewildering experience and these cars have double the power. I wouldn’t be able to guarantee the security of my breakfast under such an assault. I’d want to know my passenger was in good nick, too, before springing such a surprise. Perhaps a disclaimer on the passenger door, you know, like the ones they put next to the more vomit-inducing rollercoasters. Involuntary acceleration-induced myocardial infarction: the legals would be interesting.
But that doesn’t happen. The systems kick in and you are hurled forward only at the rate at which your chocolate slicktermediate tyres can handle – which will still be enough to make you feel uncomfortably giddy and your passenger really rather ill. Is that fun? Maybe for some.
But what then? Well, and just as an example, Lotus says the Evija will get from rest to 186mph in fewer than nine seconds. Well, you’re not going to reach that speed in public and you won’t start from rest. So just how long do you think you’ll be able to bury the throttle – which, remember, is the only thing this car requires you to do to save steer and brake – before some sense, common or survival, makes you lift? How long can this extraordinary but potentially somewhat disquieting experience be enjoyed? Or should I say endured? Not long. And then what? Slow down and do it all over again?
Perhaps. But with nothing to listen to and nothing to do save flexing a hoof, I think the novelty might soon wear off, and that’s just for the driver.
I am being mischievous here, because I’m clearly not comparing like with like. We have already reported that the 2022 Cayman will have a fully electric powertrain at least as an option, but it’s not going to have 2000bhp and the car won’t cost £1.7 million-plus. But I’m doing it to illustrate a point, namely that just because it’s easy to provide electric cars with huge power doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. But I understand the temptation. How else do you present electrification as interesting to the enthusiast? These are cars that make no sound worth listening to, don’t need gearboxes and deliver all they have to offer at once. They’re long on instant gratification and thereafter worryingly short on giving the driver stuff to do.
And that’s an enormous problem, not for manufacturers making electric cars as mere transport – in fact, for them it’s probably a net bonus – but for those with reputations for producing genuinely fun and sporting cars to maintain. As statements of the bleedin’ obvious go, to observe that the more involving a car is, the more involved its driver will be is right up there with the best. But so too is it true.
The reason I love old cars is that they’re mostly rubbish. If they are to conduct themselves from one place to the next with any degree of decorum, you have no choice but to get involved. And that means there’s always stuff to do. Among your many other roles, you are the engine management, responsible for using the tools at your disposal – the clutch and gearbox – for ensuring the motor remains in that narrow band where it sounds and performs the best. And that’s not just fun, if you get it right it’s pretty satisfying, too.
Back in the near future you could, of course, synthesise much of what has been lost, and perhaps that will happen. The car you drive now is perhaps already synthesising more than you might imagine, from the feel of its electric steering to the sound of its engine. So why not equip your electric car with a sound selector? You could go to work sounding like an Italian V12 and come home sounding like an American V8. But there’s still no gearbox. No, but you could programme the electric motors to behave as if there were and tailor the sound to suit. You could choose your own ratios, too. All seems a bit artificial, doesn’t it? But then so is life, increasingly. I read that E-sports (which I don’t understand at all) is now a $1 billion industry with close to half a billion viewers, and they all know that what they’re doing or watching isn’t real, so maybe it doesn’t matter.
In some areas electric sports cars will be better than those we have now because they will be able to let you enjoy driving in ways that are either impossible or unwise today. People like me love to talk about sliding cars, but you can’t just oversteer anywhere on demand, even in a car like a Cayman GT4, at least not safely. Electric cars promise to bring a new level of controllability, because power can be released to the four corners of the car and controlled to the last electron in a way that’s simply not possible with the blunt instrument that is even the sharpest of internal combustion engines. And it doesn’t stop there. Remember that electric cars can put their centres of gravity at earthworm altitude and that while they seem hopelessly heavy right now, they’re already getting lighter, and that process will accelerate dramatically when someone in the near future works out how to productionise a solid-state battery.
So it’s far from all doom and gloom and I’m trying to figure out whether it says more about me or the cars of the future that I’m still struggling to get excited about it. How important is it that what is perceived is the same as what is actually happening? A sound is a sound and a slide a slide – why should it matter whether they occur naturally or are manufactured in laboratories? But it does matter, at least to me, and for two reasons. One is the same reason my wristwatch is mechanical rather than electronic, even though that makes it both far more expensive and less accurate than it could be. I like engineering, oil and metal, cog and wheel engineering. It feels authentic. I can see how you can synthesise almost any noise, and even almost any feeling. But you can’t synthesise character. The greatest appeal of the Cayman GT4 is not its speed or grip, nor its balance and poise. It’s the car’s character; it is what makes me want to drive it. And you can’t fake that.
Stuck in the past though I must accept I am, my second concern lies far into the future: follow the logical progression as cars become electrified, their sound, feel, action and reaction increasingly synthesised. Where does that road end for the enthusiast? In an arcade game that marketing departments will call a simulator, where you can oversteer to your heart’s content without wearing out your tyres, annoying the public, parking your car in a field or spending hours getting to the right road and back. Then all those selfish speed demons and road hogs who once had the temerity to try to enjoy driving in public can be confined to practicing electronic automotive onanism, safe and secure in their own bedrooms.
If that sounds like fun to you, good luck. For me, and for as long as I still can, I’ll stick to driving real cars on real roads. It’s an effort for sure, but I’ve never come across a proper enthusiast who didn’t think the effort was worth it.
Solid-state batteries: the answer to the enthusiast’s prayers?
Possibly. Probably, even. But not definitely. On paper we all stand to benefit from solid-state batteries in cars because they charge quicker and go farther. But enthusiasts stand to gain the most because they are lighter and need a fraction of the cooling required by conventional lithium ion batteries.
That in turns means cars won’t need such robust structures or suspension to support them and will be able to use narrower tyres, smaller brakes and so on. As with every time you deduct weight from a car, this is the circle of virtue in which you exist.
But you’re still dealing with a battery so it’ll not sound any better. And while the theory of solid-state batteries is sound, finding an electrolyte that actually works in practice and which can then be produced reliably and affordably by the million remains very much work in progress.
James Dyson appears to have bet the farm on the technology, while Toyota reckons it will unveil a car with a solid-state battery next year – but whether it will actually put one on sale is another matter altogether.
But you only have to look at the Prius to know that when Toyota starts making noises about new technology, it’s not doing it just to grab the headlines.
The first (and only) sports EV
Evidence of just how thorny a problem designing a purely sporting electric car can be is found in the fact that, to date, only one person has tried. And they didn’t get very far. One of the most trenchant critics of the original Tesla Roadster is none other than Elon Musk himself, who loved his so much he shot it into space.
The truth was that while the Roadster was interesting, it just didn’t work in reality. It was quick but prohibitively expensive, had a deathly dull sound and at least in its early days was at times more than a little lacking in the reliability area. Worse was the decision to base it around the platform of a Lotus Elise. For a start it required so much modification that Musk described it as like deciding to do up your house and ending with just one basement wall of the original structure still standing. It sat on a slightly lengthened wheelbase which would not have helped agility, but worse – far worse – was the fact that it weighed around 1300kg, or at least half as much again as the Elise.
I drove one once, briefly, found the exercise of academic interest alone and wondered then as I do now how an electrical architecture can be adapted into providing a truly inspirational powertrain.
Source: Autocar Online