Complexity or Electricity

On August 28, 2016 by WMac

A few auto-journalist personalities recently published some material that dovetailed rather thought-provokingly.  First was Aaron Robinson of Car & Driver, who penned an article titled “Have We Reached Peak Engine?”  Next was Freddy “Tavarish” Hernandez of Jalopnik.com, who wrote a somewhat less-cleverly-titled piece called “BMW Engines Are Gigantic Pieces of Sh*t.”  Tavarish’s rant sent Road & Track Editor-at-Large Sam Smith into a Twitter flurry that really got me thinking.

The overall thrust of those bits is as follows: internal combustion engines are so boxed-in by a combination of market vector and government regulation that they are becoming too complex and too prone to expensive failure to remain viable in the long term.  This is tragic because very few modern cars, brilliant as they may be in the showroom and on the test drive, will survive long into the future because their very hearts are terribly over-stressed from the moment they begin beating.

In 1997, the newly redesigned Corvette made 345 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque from a 5.7-liter naturally-aspirated V8.  For 2017, Porsche’s 911 Carrera S houses a 3.0-liter horizontally-opposed six-cylinder engine that makes 420 horsepower and 368 pound-feet.  That’s 75 more horses and eighteen more torques from an engine barely over half the size of the Corvette’s LS1.

This is, of course, only possible with massive added complexity: twin turbochargers, each with its own manifold, wastegate, and diverter valve, direct injection with the fuel atomized into the cylinders at up to 3625 psi, millions of lines of engine management code, a two-stage water pump for cooling, and an automatic engine stop/start system.  Generally, the more components something has, the more likely it is that one of those components will break.  I shudder for the hapless third owner of a 2017 991.2 Targa 4S who gets a “great deal” on his flashy new-to-him ride in year 2025.  Actually, I do more than shudder—I flee to listings of Lexuses with Toyota’s ubiquitous 3.5-liter V6 in them, because if I’m not already saddled with a car payment I fear I’ll wind up becoming that very same Targa-buying idiot.

But nevermind—the point of all this is that if an automaker wants to build and/or maintain a reputation for long-term reliability, they must consider electric-only cars as central to their future, because electric motor/generators are by their nature just the opposite of the complexity I’ve just described.  They’re very simple things—all you need are some loops of wire, a magnetic field, and some motion.

Porsche does have a reliability reputation worth protecting.  It has shown serious intent to protect that rep by launching itself down the electric path—and investing heavily in its Misson E concept.  Seven hundred million euros have been set aside for Mission E-enabling upgrades to the already-existing factory in Stuttgart.  Workers at that same facility have “agreed to abandon future wage increases along with other concessions totaling several hundred million euros” in order to free up the cash so Porsche can make the Mission E into production reality.  And the car itself, well…just look at it.

06-2048-2048

The future is those achingly beautiful lines wrapped around an eight-hundred-volt electrical system that produces over six hundred horsepower.  The future silently carries four passengers three hundred miles at speeds up to 155 mph, then recharges back up to 80% range capacity in 15 minutes.  The future is simpler, it’s better, and it’s coming in 2020.  I need to start saving my pennies…and avoiding anything overly complex in the meantime.

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