The Drive‘s 2017 Innovation Awards
The best automotive ideas, experiments, and just-plain-cool stuff from the year that was.
2017 marked a year when things started to get really weird for the auto industry—and the point after which it will only get weirder. Major global tech companies like Apple, Google, and Amazon are elbowing in on the auto-mobility space; car companies, fighting back, now want to be tech companies as well; and everyone is trying to figure out how to make cars drive themselves—if they're not already going straight to building autonomous drone taxis. And speaking of autonomy: despite everyone overhyping the hell out of the upcoming invasion of fully self-driving cars (still a ways off, folks, sorry) impressively capable real-world semi-autonomous driving was on full display from several manufacturers this year, enough to suggest a real tipping point.
But leaving the big-picture stuff aside, it's time to take a moment to celebrate the more granular innovations, the ones with real-world impact: ideas and clever bits of technology or engineering that make your car go faster, ride smoother, grip tighter, or entertain your kids better so you can get from here to there in peace. Because while grandiose headlines and sci-fi posturing are all well and good, very few companies have ever made something more widely loved than a heated seat in winter.
Infiniti VC-Turbo Variable Compression Engine
Eking greater thermal efficiency out of modern internal combustion engines may be the least sexy R&D project in the entire auto industry. Still, with the prosaic ICE likely dominating over electric vehicles for decades to come, the push for better mileage and lower emissions will continue to clash with luxury car buyers’ desire for power and torque. Infiniti’s new variable-compression engine, introduced in the 2018 QX50, nails both goals by adjusting the compression ratio of all four cylinders simultaneously, in real time. The ratio can vary from 8:1 to 14:1, based on conditions and driving style, to boost power or maximize efficiency.
It’s the end of a two-decade-long development process, the success of which hinged on more recent advances in computer processing power. In addition to the ECU controls, the system uses an electric motor, a space-age Harmonic Drive reduction gear, and a multilink mechanism to vary piston travel continuously inside the cylinder.
The result is the torque and efficiency of a diesel with the particulate emissions of a gasoline engine. The 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder also toggles between the traditional Otto cycle at low load and the Atkinson cycle—a more efficient process whose torque deficit is usually mitigated in hybrid cars with an electric motor—at higher loads. All in, the new powerplant produces a competitive 268 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque.
As trick as this engine is, Infiniti will soon have company in the space as competitors lug their own entries to the ICE-tech science fair. But there’s no doubting the persistence of tiny explosions fed by earth juice as a means to move cars around—nor Infiniti's achievement in reaching an important milestone in combustion.
Cadillac's SuperCruise system might not have been first to the semi-autonomous highway-driving game, but it might be the best. The remarkably focused system has one job: to take over commuting duties on closed highways under workable conditions. That means Cadillac and its mapping partner, Usher, have scanned all qualifying limited-access freeways in the U.S.—no oncoming traffic thanks to divided medians, and no intersections thanks to on- and off-ramps—with hyper-accurate GPS mapping, so the car can tell the driver when SuperCruise is or isn't an option.
Once the system makes itself available, a simple push of a button hands over control of the car ... to the car. Those in-car systems that previously had acted as safety-assistance features for the driver, like adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, and lane-keep assist, combine to become, in a sense, the driver. That makes the human being a back-up to those systems—and SuperCruise won't let a person shirk his responsibility. The Driver Attention System continuously scans the driver's face to make sure he's paying attention to the road ahead—and not gazing out the side window or at a phone—and will deactivate quickly if attention is not being paid. It's a remarkably hard system to fool.
The fact that SuperCruise is a hands-free feature proves yet again how well this system was thought-out and executed, because there's no confusing who (or what) is ultimately in charge of the vehicle, as with semi-autonomous technologies that require a hand on the wheel, even as the system turns that wheel. In the Cadillac CT6, if your hands are on the wheel it means you are driving and the car's safety systems are backing you up; if SuperCruise is engaged and your hands are off the wheel, the system is driving, and you are the back-up.
SuperCruise won't do everything for you; it won't change lanes, or avoid obstacles in the road. And that's the point: SuperCruise is a system designed to take much of the hassle away from the most mind-numbing type of driving—the highway commute—but in exchange for driving the car, it insists the human being continue to monitor the situation. You can't nap or watch "Harry Potter," but our own grueling real-world testing over 20 hours in the course of two days showed that driver fatigue was cut significantly, possibly even by half or more, even on very long drives. Once the cat is out of the bag on how well this tech works, the average American commuter won't leave home without it.
Chevy Colorado ZR2 Multimatic DSSV Technology
What do you get when you throw F1-inspired shocks on an off-road basher of a pickup truck? There's no trick answer here: The result is a stable, firm ride on pavement and a pliant, spine-cushioning ride in the dirt. That's the magic of Multimatic's Dynamic Suspensions Spool Valve technology, originally developed for Formula 1 cars and used in an off-road vehicle for the first time in the 2018 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2.
Fancy packaging aside, the tech that underlies traditional shock absorbers hasn't changed much over the last century. The hollow tube contains a small piston, a stack of metal discs of varying stiffness, and pressurized oil. When the shock compresses—e.g. when the vehicle hits a bump—the fluid is forced through holes in the piston head and around the stack of washers, ideally at a speed that creates a comfortable ride for the occupants without bottoming out the suspension. Most importantly, the absorber acts to settle the springs and keep the car from bouncing off the road.
For such an integral component, there's a lot of inexact science surrounding traditional dampers. Since a lot of it comes down to just how bendy those washers are, there are variables that even engineers can't control—namely, just how well the discs will perform as the oil heats up from heavy use. By using a series of spool valves, which are separated from the main dampers in the ZR2, the Multimatic units can control fluid flow with much more precision, which results in a more controllable ride.
But it doesn't end there. By utilizing several spool valves (hence the shock's funny shape) the team has essentially given the ZR2 several different suspension profiles—one for on-road use, one for off-road use, and one for extreme off-roading—with the ability to switch between them on the fly. Pulling the spool valves out of the main dampers also allows more suspension travel. Overall, the new suspension gives the ZR2 far more capability and usability than most in its class. And yes, you can jump it.
Rimac Concept One
Getting car guys to respect electric vehicles is like getting Russians to switch to gin. And yet, Croatia’s Mate Rimac is all-in on the challenge. After all, Rimac’s hero is Christian Von Koenigsegg, builder of the fastest hypercar on the planet. Rimac isn’t far behind.
Despite a high-profile crash involving The Grand Tour’s Richard Hammond, Rimac’s Concept One EV hypercar is a true technical and performance achievement. With each wheel powered by its own liquid-cooled electric motor, the Concept One produces a total output of 1,073 horsepower and 1,200 pound-feet of torque. On street tires, that translates to zero to 60 in 2.5 seconds and an electronically limited top speed of 221 mph.
But flashy numbers are only part of the Concept One’s performance story. The killer app for EV sports cars is seamless vectoring among all four wheels, distributing torque with exquisite accuracy for maximum grip in all conditions and under all g-loads. Rimac engineers have made calibrating and tuning the Concept One’s software a top goal, in an effort to extract the greatest performance benefit from the car’s four independent motors.
The Concept One’s major competitor isn’t from Mr. Koenigsegg, it’s the 1,341-horsepower EP9, a rival electric hypercar built by China-based EV company NIO. Earlier this year, the EP9 rounded Germany’s Nürburgring Nordschleife in 6:45.9, nearly besting the record for all street-legal vehicles. Still, Rimac, now in the midst of a corporate expansion, is developing its next-generation hypercar, which will build on and refine the Concept One's tech further. Rivalries and one-upmanship are reliable catnip for car nerds, and the Rimac story is a chance for EVs to get at least a grudging nod from hardcore enthusiasts.
Bentley Rotating Display
There are innovations that reimagine the human experience of motion—the seat belt, cruise control. Then there are innovations that are cool for the sake of being cool. The rotating dashboard in the new Bentley Continental GT is the latter.
Building off Audi’s Virtual Cockpit, Bentley added a set of luxurious dials to the same infotainment screen in your eye line, and opted to turn the rest of the dashboard into a fascinating piece of art-meets-James Bond.
In one instance, you're looking at Bentley's razor-sharp 12.3-inch touchscreen. But with the touch of a button, the dashboard rotates electrically, exposing a set of three temperature gauges that look as though they were handcrafted in a London watchmaker's shop.
The third panel is a simple wood veneer that matches the sumptuous architecture—that's right, it's that kind of interior—of the Bentley's cockpit. The rotating dash is nicknamed the Toblerone, and it's the brainchild of Bentley's head of Interior Design, Romulus Rost, a man who, in addition to having a Bond villain's name, obviously has a taste for 60s-era spy gadgetry.
Our hats off to Bentley for taking something old—the dashboard—and making it feel futuristic without a whiff of pretension. That's innovation we can get behind.
Mercedes-AMG Project One Turbulent Jet Ignition
The very expensive quest for high-efficiency combustion in Formula 1 became significantly more important when F1 banned refueling in 2009. Nearly a decade has passed since that crucial rule change, and while the F1 racecar is no longer powered by a mere “engine” (it’s a hybrid power unit and don’t you forget it), the pressure to burn fuel at peak efficiency has only increased.
That led to the application of Turbulent Jet Ignition, a system developed in a much different form by Mahle, the German parts manufacturer. The F1 innovation, thought to have been introduced by the Mercedes AMG team, uses a separate combustion chamber adjacent to where the fuel and air are pre-fired with a sparkplug, before being injected into the cylinder. Nearly perfect efficiency in the burning of the fuel, less residue, and an engine that can go further, on less fuel, with no loss of power.
Now, it is believed, Mercedes plans to equip its Project ONE supercar with the same turbo-charged V6 hybrid “power unit” and deploy single-injector TJI in a production car for the first time. Gasheads unite in applause: This represents a level of fuel efficiency that should applauded, even as civilization is making the rapid shift to an all-EV fleet. Enjoy the bang while you can.
Chevrolet Corvette ZR1
As we at The Drive found out while talking with Chevrolet Performance Vehicles exterior design director Tom Peters at the L.A. Auto Show, every example of the 2019 Corvette ZR1 comes laden with aerodynamic optimizations to help it try to shatter road course lap records. The car’s new front fascia—one of its most distinctive features—looks the way it does largely to handle the increased breathing and cooling demands of this 755-horsepower Corvette. Even the tiniest details were considered for competitive advantage; the underside of the plastic honeycombs that cover the front air intakes, for example, have millimeter-sized ridges that help push the air through at the optimal angle.
The ZTK Performance Pack kicks the ZR1 up another notch, adding a front splitter equipped with an agro carbon fiber end cap, and a gargantuan, infinitely adjustable “High Wing” rear spoiler that generates up to 950 pounds of downforce—without adding drag. That’s enough force that the wing can’t simply be mounted to the trunk, as with lesser cars; instead, it’s rooted directly into the frame, because that’s the only way it can handle the wing’s might. The fact that the giant spoiler makes the ZR1 look even more badass is just icing on the aerodynamic cake.
Dodge Challenger SRT Demon PowerChiller
The Dodge Challenger SRT Demon stormed into the New York Auto Show amid a cloud of hyperbolic descriptions that would make even the sleaziest of headline writers blush. But we drove it, and really, we f***ing loved it. And while you may be scratching your head at the sight of a big, fat, 840-horsepower muscle car on a list of the year's greatest innovations, a lot of unique tech went into making this extreme slice of Americana possible.
And no, we're not talking about the backseat-delete option, but rather the PowerChiller air cooler system that helps lower intake temperature, and boost horsepower. Instead of using highly specialized coolant (or ice), the Demon uses a liquid-to-air system that loops the car's air conditioning system through the intercooler, diverting the cold refrigerant from cooling the cabin to cooling the air being sucked into the engine.
Yes, that means it gets a bit warm in the driver's seat during those quarter-mile passes. But the end result is worth it: Dodge claims the unique setup is capable of lowering the intake temperature by up to 45 degrees Fahrenheit, essential for eeking out every one of those 840 horses from the 6.2-liter supercharged V8 engine. Why does this help? Colder air is denser, meaning there's more oxygen molecules in a given gulp for the engine to burn. It's the first unit of its kind fitted to a production car, and a true piece of innovation on what might be the most old-school American car on sale today.
Lincoln Navigator / Ford Expedition Slingbox Integration
Being able to watch television programming in the car is hardly ground-breaking. Luxury sedans, minivans, and SUVs have come factory-equipped with aft-row monitors designed for suckling on the teat of mass media for more than a decade. Usually, that's meant second- and third-row sitters have been forced to depend on whatever DVDs or Blu-Rays they still have kicking around. But the new Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator boast a feature not frequently seen since the days when stretch limos boasting boomerang antennas were commonplace: The ability to watch live TV on the move.
FoMoCo has chosen to go about it in a distinctly 2017 way, however. Instead of depending on over-the-air broadcast transmission (how 20th Century that would be), the new full-size SUVs have partnered with Sling Media to fling their owners’ cable or satellite feeds to the Expedition and Navigator. So long as you’ve got a Slingbox hooked up at home, folks sitting in the car can use the rear-seat entertainment system to watch live television or shows stored on their DVRs by routing it through the in-car wi-fi. Granted, you’ll have to pony up for the monthly data bill to keep the TV flowing, but that’s a small price to pay to with in the Navigator's second-row thrones watching Game of Thrones live as it airs.
Honda Odyssey CabinTalk
“Convenience” is a tricky proposition in an automobile. One man’s head-up display or heated steering wheel is another man's overpriced, potentially failure-prone gadget. That brings us to the CabinTalk feature in the 2018 Honda Odyssey minivan. This optional, in-car PA system lets front-seat passengers—we’ll call them “mom and dad”—communicate with children through the kids’ wireless headphones, or via third-row audio speakers. It’s part of the Honda’s new, Android-based Display Audio system, itself a major advance over the Honda’s previous unit—you know, the one with no freaking volume knob, and no shame. Touch an onscreen icon, and CabinTalk pauses onboard Blu-ray video or streaming apps and mutes all audio sources. Parents can then drop wisdom straight into children's ears via a microphone feed. They can also keep an eye on back-row passengers, without having to swivel around, via the camera-based CabinWatch.
Toyota tried something similar with its own Sienna minivan, but parental commands only played through speakers, with sound quality so garbled that it recalled a New York subway announcement. The Odyssey’s system works much better. But maybe not as well as Honda would have it, for reasons that have nothing to do with the technology. In a company video highlighting the system, an attractive, put-together Odyssey mom asks, “Anybody hungry back there?” The headphone-clad children snap to attention, nodding and smiling in grateful unison, a family fantasy we haven’t seen since Wally and the Beav. “OK, we’re stopping in about five minutes,” the mom says, beaming with pride at her adorable brood.
Parents will see right through this little charade: CabinTalk is expressly designed to help parents interrupt their kids’ life-or-death video missions, in the way that Donald Sutherland’s villainous President Snow keeps popping up onscreen to bait and bully Katniss in “The Hunger Games.” Naturally, a parent’s authoritarian intrusions will spark similar youth revolts in the Odyssey, including when children are watching, well, “The Hunger Games,” or singing along with Camila Cabello and Young Thug.
But it’s hard to blame Honda for the state of digital communications and family relations, in which each advance in connectivity seems to leave us more disconnected and anxious. And at least this way, no one has to yell.
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