Jeremy on: car technology
Don’t look now, but your car is spying on you
If you are extremely boring, you may recall that in the practice for last year's Japanese Grand Prix, the rear wing fell off Vitaly Petrov's Caterham. And he crashed immediately.
This was by no means a one-off. We regularly see the back end fall off a Formula One car, and the result is always exactly the same. Lots of dust, a track covered in carbon-fibre shards, a safety car and a rather perplexed driver sitting in his battered cockpit wondering what in the name of all that's holy went wrong. One second, he was driving a car. The next, it was a hovercraft.
As a viewer, of course, we know full well what happened. That rear wing was providing downforce. At 240kph, it was like he had an elephant on the back of his car. But then, suddenly, the elephant jumped off. And he was in the barrier.
We understand this. We know, because we've been told by people with spectacles and unsavoury sanitary habits that an F1 car generates so much downforce it could be driven upside down.
Which begs the question. What would happen if, while I was driving down the motorway, the rear diffuser fell off my Mercedes-Benz? The simple answer is: nothing at all. I simply wouldn't notice.
The truth is that everything could fall off. The front splitter. The boot spoiler. The doors. The roof. The lot. And, apart from a noticeable increase in noise, the car would continue to track straight and true.
Strange, isn't it? If the wing falls off a Formula One car, or an aeroplane, those inside are in a fair bit of trouble. But if the wing falls off a Ford Escort Cosworth, nothing happens. This is because air is a cruel and unpredictable mistress and is not to be trusted.
I hate to keep banging on about the Lexus LFA, but I crave your forgiveness once more. It has a sizeable rear wing that pops out of the bootlid at a predetermined speed, and it appears, like all aerodynamic aids on road cars, to do nothing at all. Except cause people to point and say, "What a plonker."
And yet. At the Willow Springs race track in California, I suspected it was actually there for a reason. There are two extremely fast corners on this circuit, and, after a dozen or so laps, I noticed something. The faster I went round them, the faster the car seemed able to go. Somehow, then, this car was marshalling the air. Organising it. Using it. And I don't trust this at all.
It makes no sense. If you go round a corner at 130kph, you will crash and die. But if you go round it at 200, you will live, go home afterwards and make sweet love to your wife. And all thanks to forces you can't see, touch, feel or smell. It's witchcraft, if you ask me.
But then we are seeing more and more sorcery in cars these days. Take the automatic parking systems now offered by Ford, Volkswagen, Toyota and Kia. They are very clever. Sensors work out whether a space is big enough and then actually steer the car into the gap.
How? You are a sentient being. God shaped you. You evolved. Bits that didn't work were discarded. Bits that did were developed. You can do maths in your head and wire a plug. You are the cleverest being in the solar system. And yet...
While you sometimes struggle to work out the correct angle for parking a car, some electrons and a bit of copper wire manage it every time. This is not possible.
I recently watched a film called Avengers Assemble in which the baddie has a sort of walking stick that can not only shoot down helicopters but also convert complete strangers to his way of thinking. Impressive? Not compared to a double-clutch gearbox it isn't.
The idea behind this system is that when you have changed from second to third and then into fourth, fifth gear is prepared by a sort of metallic butler, so that when you pull the paddle it can be delivered instantly. I get that.
But sometimes, of course, you decide to change back into third. The metallic butler cannot possibly have known you would do this. Third, then, is still in the larder, under the cheese board. He's going to have to sprint back into the kitchen and find it. And yet, somehow, he has it ready as well. And that's a bit sinister.
There's more. Cars can now tell when it's going to rain and when it's about to go dark. They know about traffic jams that lie in your path and where the speed cameras live. And some have iron filings in their shock absorbers which can change the properties of the hydraulic fluid. In other words, they can alter matter.
Volvo, meanwhile, is using the forces of darkness in its quest to ensure that, by 2033, no one is ever killed or seriously injured in one of its cars. Already, it has lights which illuminate if you stray out of your lane or if there is a car in your blind spot. But it also has a device which can spot a forthcoming accident and take action to make sure it doesn't happen. In other words, Volvo has built a car which can see into the future. And then make sure a different future happens. The engineers have built a car, then, which can mess with the space-time continuum.
Toyota, meanwhile, has created a device which can tell what sort of mood you're in. I'm not making that up. Psychiatrists study for seven years before they are allowed to practise on people, and, even then, they make mistakes. But Toyota has a sensor which monitors 236 aspects of a driver's face to make sure he isn't distracted or sleepy. Or aroused. Or in any way unable to make the correct decision in an emergency. It can see through sunglasses. And there's no point hiding your weaknesses and your insecurities behind a beard, either, because it can see though those too.
Think about that for a moment. Your car is marshalling the air, seeing into the future and simultaneously checking to see if you are overcome with regret or envy or lust for the girl you just overtook.
It can also take messages from your friends, receive digital radio waves, stop without skidding, direct you to an obscure address in any country in the world, and use heat from your most recent braking manoeuvre to produce more power on the next straight. Its seats can massage you, its air-conditioning plant can filter out pollen, its catalytic converter can convert one gas into another and it can cover a mile in 20 seconds. For the price, then, of a fitted kitchen, you get an athlete, a shrink, a health and safety officer, a road map, an adrenalin pump, a god and a sorcerer.
And yet, despite all this, it is still propelled by a series of small explosions. Much as it was a hundred years ago. Weird, isn't it?