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Opinion: surely electric cars can emulate old drivetrains, just like new computers do with old games?

Imagine: a restomodded Porsche 930 Turbo featuring programmed, period-correct lag

Published: 08 Jul 2024

Not to start this column on a downer, but I can’t be the only one who has a sneaking suspicion that we may be living through the last era of truly fun, characterful cars. That when the apocalypse finally comes we won’t all be ripping around in thunderous V8 muscle cars arguing over the last thimbleful of petrol – you know, the sort of apocalypse where the hardest bit is pretending you’re not having a good time. Instead it’ll be a sea of bricked EVs with dead batteries, stubbornly refusing to biodegrade.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the arguments in favour of EVs. I’ve even enjoyed the novelty of receiving an instant torque facelift. The next car I buy will almost certainly be an EV. Ultimately, though, it’s hard to deny that the properties of a combustion engine add to a vehicle’s unique character.

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But because I spend all my time playing video games, and the only tan I get is from completing a 1990s Sonic the Hedgehog game on a poorly maintained CRT television, I got thinking about emulators. If you’re not familiar with the concept of an emulator, it’s a piece of software used to play retro video games on newer, vastly more performant hardware. Think using an atom-smashing two grand gaming PC to play a pixel-accurate version of the original Pac-Man.

If we can emulate old video games, I ask as someone whose knowledge of physics ends at GCSE level, surely we can also emulate old drivetrains? When petrol becomes prohibitively expensive, terminally unavailable or just morally reprehensible, imagine a restomodded 1980s Porsche 930 Turbo that could, at the press of a button, flit between modern EV performance and period accurate turbo lag. With more power and torque than you’d ever need available instantaneously from a modern electric motor, software could restrict that by simulating the revs and providing a virtual torque curve that should be basically indistinguishable from the real thing. After all, those are some of the calculations modern simulator racing games are doing already.

You could either mate the motor to a mostly original gearbox, or just have the software emulate the gear changes too. You’d have to pipe simulated engine noise through the car’s speakers, of course, but we’ve allowed that to happen on our watch already. And while weight is a perennial issue with EVs, it directly scales with range, and what class of car does fewer miles and ventures out less frequently in the wintertime than a classic?

I’m under no illusion that this is an original idea that will finally make me my fortune after a misspent youth playing video games. I’m sure people with larger foreheads than mine are working on this very concept as we speak. What my idle daydreaming does provide me with is hope. Hope that even if the automotive landscape changes to the point where it’s unrecognisable, I might still one day be able to enjoy the 930 Turbo’s legendary turbo lag in the brief moments before it teleports me backwards into a hedge.

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