5 things petrolheads need to know about the future of motoring
It's not all doom and gloom
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The electric revolution is coming – in fact it’s already well underway. Internal combustion appears to be on the way out. The CEO of BMW’s M Division, Frank Van Meel, recently said that soon all M cars will be hybrids and maybe even EVs, while Ferrari, that last bastion of noise and V12 thunder, has announced its intentions to build an electric supercar.
It would seem then that the electric future is all doom and gloom for us old fashioned petrolheads. Or is it? This summer, I made my way down to Shell’s Make the Future Live festival in London, an exhibition of smart energy ideas, the Shell Eco-marathon, and a thought-provoking Intelligence Squared podcast hosted by Alexander Armstrong. It was a great event that got me thinking – what will the future be like for car fans like you and me?
Here are 5 things petrolheads need to know about the future of motoring:
1. Petrol can be eco-friendly
Upon arrival at the festival I was greeted by something familiar to all petrolheads – a racetrack. The Shell Eco-marathon is an energy efficiency challenge, so there were no barking V8s or glowing brake discs here. As the name suggests, the Shell Eco-marathon is all about economy – university students from around the world compete in ultra-lightweight and aerodynamic cars they’ve engineered to be as efficient as possible.
There are three main energy categories – battery-electric, hydrogen, and internal combustion. Teams compete to see who can cover the furthest distance on the least amount of energy and the numbers were staggering! Using just one litre of petrol (or equivalent), these cars could travel from London to Rome and back to London again.
These young engineers aren’t alone in believing petrol has a future either. Mazda is currently developing a whole new kind of petrol engine, the SKYACTIV-X, which aims to combine petrol performance with diesel economy thanks to spark-controlled compression ignition. It’s all very clever stuff that, if successful, could see us tearing about in noisy fire-breathers for years to come.
2. Electric cars are actually pretty cool
While they’re having an immense surge of popularity right now, electric cars are nothing new. In fact, some of the very first cars in the world were electric way back in the mid-1800s. But it hasn’t been until recently that they’ve really started to become a viable choice for buyers.
With minimal running costs, government incentives and zero-emissions, it’s easy to see why normal car buyers are making the switch to EVs. But what about those of us who care more about performance than efficiency? Well it turns out; electric cars can actually be really fast. I know, who’d have thought it? Having recently experienced Ludicrous Mode in a Tesla, I can confirm that the speed freaks among you have absolutely nothing to worry about. While electric cars may not have the noise or the raw feel of a dino-burning supercar, that instant shove of torque is completely addictive. And with Shell’s Recharge rapid charging service rolling out across UK forecourts, you no longer have to worry about having enough charge to get home.
3. Hydrogen is coming
One of the most interesting things I saw at Make the Future Live was actually an unassuming Toyota. With five doors and a big boot, it looked a little out of place surrounded by all the latest cutting-edge tech until I realised exactly what it was. The Toyota Mirai looks like any other mid-range family car, but it’s powered by hydrogen.
Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will potentially offer an even cleaner alternative to electric cars, because they don’t produce any harmful emissions. The only emissions are heat and water. Also, in the UK, Shell uses electricity made from 100% renewable sources to make its hydrogen. While the technology is still in its infancy, hydrogen fuel pumps are already popping up around the UK, with Shell having two stations in Cobham and Beaconsfield. And you can go more than 300 miles in a hydrogen car without refuelling.
4. Autonomy won't take over
Hmm, this is a tricky one. For us, autonomous cars sound like the beginning of the end. A car that doesn’t need a driver would leave us with nothing to do on a weekend, we’d have to take up golf or morris dancing or, dare I say it, cycling.
With mixed results, driverless cars are already on the roads. Almost all mainstream carmakers are investing in autopilot systems but I for one can’t see a time where you can buy a car without a steering wheel. As a species, we like to be in control, and trusting a computer to dodge the flotsam and jetsam of British roads at 70mph sounds utterly terrifying. While I can see this technology making it into city centres, an entirely autonomous vehicle with no human controls is unlikely in the foreseeable future.
5. There will always be enthusiasts
In the same way that horses have gone from being daily transportation to weekend playthings, so too will internal combustion cars. If we’re using hydrogen and electric power to get around, we can use petrol to have fun.
As long as there are those of us willing to pay for it, there will be fuel in the pumps, and as long as we demand them, there will be V8s, turbos, manual gearboxes, loud exhausts and all those wonderfully childish things that make us grin inanely. If there is a market for them, car companies, however small or niche, will build them for us.