Automotive Improvement

Each new generation of the BMW 3 Series or the Volkswagen Golf or the Mercedes S Class is, as one would imagine, better than the previous. It's the natural and (mostly) forward progression of nearly everything, except, for some reason, Chevrolet, who think that adding random bits of black plastic anywhere they can makes their cars desirable. So why, then, do I feel like cars aren't actually improving that much? Oh, they're getting stronger and lighter and faster and safer and more economical, but so much of the improvement made to cars these days is with an adjustment to a computer. There aren't a huge amount of mechanical engineering advancements in the auto industry taking place at the moment. In fact, the biggest advancements are monocoque chassis technology and the double clutch gearbox, both of which I'm pretty sure are actually magic and, as such, don't count as mechanical engineering. Different materials are being used, but even suspension and axle technology come from the 60s. The Lamborghini Aventador, for example, uses the same sort of suspension (push-rod) that was used in the Lotus 22 F1 car. Similarly, the Ferrari 458, one of the most advanced cars on the planet, uses double-wishbone suspension, which, according to a quick Wiki-check, was invented in the 1930s.

Automotive Improvement

So what's the deal? All the better damping and better four wheel drive systems, all the airbags and automatic wipers, LED headlights and lane-departure warnings, radar guided cruise control and emergency braking systems, are a result of fiddling around with a computer. That isn't to say they're not amazing bits of technology that make life more convenient for many (and allow for safe texting and driving), but that the mechanical engineering going into cars seems to have plateaued a bit. New improvements in cars are almost always aerodynamic or electric in nature. The headline technology on the LaFerrari isn't its massive V12 engine (which is basically the same monster it's been since the Colombo engines of the 40s), it's the KERS system, the electric motors, the domain of the electrical engineers. I find it hard to believe that we have reached the peak of mechanical engineering, and understand the best ways to distribute forces and energy throughout a car. Since I know about as much about engineering as George W. knows about…well, anything, I can't really talk. It seems, though, that the rate of improvement for mechanics is decreasing, and being replaced by better electronics.

Automotive Improvement

What, then, is going to be the peak of the car? When even a Ford Fiesta will be made out of carbotanium with an electric motor/battery combination that gets 500 miles out of a 20-minute charge, what will Pagani be building? And when will that peak be? It appears that the last big obstacle to overcome is fuel sources. And, if automakers decide to move forward with electricity, then the battery is the biggest thing to work on. Once (I doubt this is an if) scientists find a way to make a small, lightweight, high-capacity, and quickly-rechargeable battery, there isn't much left to develop. Sure, the expensive technology will need to be more wide-spread so that everyone can have magnetorediarrhealogical dampers and 700 bhp 4WD Daewoos made from Kevlar and ectoplasm, but I think the car as we know it is reaching its peak very rapidly. I think the culmination of the car will occur when they look like they did back fifty years ago, weigh next to nothing, are as safe as tanks, and go like Caterhams. I'll give it another hundred years.

Automotive Improvement