PERSPECTIVE: Can a 700bhp supercar save the planet?

PERSPECTIVE: Can a 700bhp supercar save the planet?

Generally speaking Hybrids are, to be diplomatic, a bit pap aren’t they? I mean, have you actually ever seen fuel consumption figures (and I mean actual fuel consumption figures, not the manufacturer ones) from a Hybrid that have been genuinely impressive? Figures that you couldn’t get from a carefully driven diesel and make up for the fact that Hybrids are, according to a report on popsci.com, consuming supplies of rare earth metals at a rather alarming rate? I haven’t.

There’s a very good reason for this, and the explanation is ingrained in the history of the motorcar. It’s on display since the very first time a cart turned a wheel without the help of a large mammal… or maybe a slave. In fact, now that I think about it, it’s evident in the history of technology and innovation itself – from the space shuttle to the computer.

Do not touch what you cannot afford

High end cars like the Mercedes S Class often have pioneering technologies prior to the mass market

Look back at any piece of automotive technology and where the application has appeared first or been most effective. Every single one of them has appeared at the top of the tree in an almost ‘money no object’ car. The S-Class is an exception, but even that is a high end car. In fact, long before the car became a form of mass private transportation it was a play thing of the rich. The money they were willing to pay for the privilege of being able to rip around their estates at a neck-snapping 17mph meant that manufacturers had an incentive to make the technology work better, making the older technology more accessible, obsolete and, therefore, cheaper.

The list of technology that has filtered down from high price applications would basically be a list of everything that appears on modern, affordable, cars: ABS, light-weight alloy wheels (remember how rare those were in the early nineties?), disc brakes, turbochargers, superchargers, independent suspension, etc, etc. Even tyres benefit from this ‘top down’ paradigm.

Engine technology is exactly the same. No matter what the environmental set would like people to believe, we know that an engine that generates 500bhp from 6.2 naturally aspirated litres is a massively efficient donkey. Figure out how to get more power from a given amount of petrol for the people willing to pay £50k for a car and you’re figuring out how to make the petrol engines lower down the range far more frugal. To give an idea of the pace of progress the twin-turbo, 5.5 litre 536bhp V8 in the current CL63 generates just 7g/km more CO2 than the Mark 1 Focus RS, which had a two litre turbocharged four with 200bhp.

The only piece of automotive tech that I can think of that hasn’t taken this tried and tested route to mainstream success and, when you think about it, is the only piece of road car technology that is a bit rubbish is the Hybrid power train.

Mass Production

The Toyota Prius - has a car ever divided opinion so much?

The first mass-produced Hybrid was the original Toyota Prius. It wasn’t exactly cheap, costing around $30k to produce, even though it was sold for around half that in Japan. And there’s your first problem: the manufacturer was forced to lose money on every car it sold in order to get it to market. That’s hardly an incentive for other manufacturers to dive in to the market and start some kind of efficiency race, driving the technology forward, is it?

Either way, it was very much aimed at the mass market and was built down to a price point. And so are its competitors.

I wonder how different things would have been if the technology had been developed by supercar manufacturers? Imagine if Ferrari had got stuck into Hybrid technology back in the late nineties? Or if Audi had used Lamborghinis as a test bed for high performance Hybrid drivetrains and got into a massive fight with the Red Car Company offering ever smaller petrol motors with ever more powerful electric motors as the Hybrid tech improved? Pushed the boundaries of battery technology – forcing suppliers to reduce weight and increase capacity. Imagine if they had picked up photovoltaic coatings. Can you imagine what it would have been like if F1 had committed to Hybrid technology (properly) ten years ago?! Where would we be now?

Porsche 918

Is the Porsche 918 the future of supercars?

Anyway, this is why I think the 918 Spyder is a far more important car than the coverage it has been getting suggests. Porsche had dealt the first Hybrid-powered blow to the supercar market, and it’s a whopping great big haymaker. Here is a genuinely beautiful car (not some weird quasi-futuristic design abomination that most Hybrid car manufacturers seem inclined to produce) that has 738bhp and will, according to Porsche, out-mpg a Toyota Prius if you drive it sensibly.

How long will Ferrari be able to resist? Lamborghini? Pagani and Koenigsegg? Not long I suspect and, as these guys start producing Hybrid cars whose sole purpose is to smash the faces in of their competitors rather than sell millions, Hybrid powertrains will, after ten years on the market, finally be at the point at which they should have started.

Where will we be in another ten years? I have no idea, but I’d bet my life that as Hybrid supercars start appearing on the market batteries and electric motors will be more mind-blowingly advanced than we could have ever imagined. Perhaps then we’ll get a Hybrid (or even fully electric) car at the sub £30k price point that actually works better than one with an internal combustion engine.

P.S. As a dyed-in-the-wool petrol head, I find the fact that noises like this, this and this are destined to disappear at some point in the near future deeply upsetting and basically everything I wrote in those last four paragraphs had me crying into the keyboard. But, as a tech-head, I also find the development of the technology to be depressingly slow.

  • Angry_Exile

    Hmm. Yes, it's stunning and it's impressive and unarguably it's the sort of thing that hybrids should have started off with. But surely the problem of consumption of other resources, such as the rare earth metals you mentioned, still exists. Worse, if the peak oil doomsayers are to be believed then a hybrid isn't going to be much better off since it still needs fuel to burn. Personally I'd rather see most effort going into long term alternatives for cheap energy and into getting the fuels needed to carry on making those wonderful engine noises from the Fischer–Tropsch process. Get that right and the need for hybrids at all disappears. On the other hand I'd be slightly sad for the Porsche 918 if that happened. Is it too much to wish for to have room for both?

  • SteveDR

    I guess the central posit to Pete's article is that technology has traditionally filtered 'down' from high-margin luxury cars and therefore the route that the industry has taken up until now (i.e. Prius-type mass products) has not been the most fruitful way to evolve alternative energies.

    Ultimately the average car buyer (and that means the majority) don't care how the car gets them from A to B, as long as it does so cheaply and without much effort, that's why most car enthusiasts have feared the evolution of hybrid and/or electric vehicles. But cars such as the 918 Spyder might achieve two things, firstly demand for alternative energy vehicles with an emotive soul, and secondly an increased rate of development in alternative energy powerplants as manufacturers see a shorter pay-back period for their investments.

    Companies like Toyota have led the way, but it's been a long-term investment and there are only a few cash rich car companies with the means to follow suit. What the industry needs is shorter investment cycles – either through much higher potential volumes (the Toyota route) or by higher margins per unit (the Porsche route).

    If such profit margins are feasible then I'm hopeful that we'll see more diverse approaches being applied, but I suspect this will only be feasible with bespoke cars such as the 918 Spyder (and to a lesser extent the Tesla Roadster), rather than re-engineered mainstream cars such as BMW's V8 Hybrid models.

    There are still a lot of unknowns about the 918 Spyder, so here’s hoping our optimism is well founded.

  • Anonymous

    Gentlemen,

    Your new car design is right here…

    http://squareandc.net/Auto%20for%20Website.html

    and in some philosophical depth, here…

    http://squareandc.net

    A whole new world… 🙂

    Already here.