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Electronics in Cars. Where is it all going… where did it come from?

Electronics in cars:

Dr Porsche apparently once said that the last car we drive will be a sports car. I suppose the key word in this sentence is ‘drive’. Many years ago I almost thought he could be right and the last Porsche would eventually replace the race horse but now seeing that even Porsche will be entering the Formula E series and produce its own electric car makes me wonder.

At the age of 18, some years ago, I could regularly be found in the garage taking apart and cleaning or simply repairing my newly acquired Mini Cooper van, even the cylinder head came of and ports would be re polished. Driving it was of course even more fun and if something did go wrong then back in the garage it went and parts were replaced. I was fairly crazy about cars and this passion would continue though my entire life as a car enthusiast and then car designer.

1974. Mini Van, a wolf in Sheeps clothing. 100bhp from a racing engine…brilliant!

Following my studies in London and after a small stint at the British Leyland styling studios I moved to Porsche. If I was passionate about cars before this was like going into overdrive but in a strange way.
A fascination for cars on the one hand doesn’t compensate for the daily stress of creating them. Being a designer means you are paid to deliver and be creative. There are days when it’s easy and days when you wished you could throw it all in. Being a car designer also changed your perspective of the car. Of course you loved them and enjoyed driving them but the typical ” men at the bar” discussions about how fast your Golf ( or Porsche) went generally disappeared.

As a designer every day is spent looking ahead, the next model range then the one after that and all the time you are accompanied by that strange group of people…engineers.

Future visions of the car have existed since the first one drove. Companies had their advanced styling departments working on them. In the 50’s General Motors stylists became fairly obsessed with Jet Plane influenced design and produced amazing show cars. Alfa went aerodynamically crazy with their BAT series of cars produced by Bertone but at that time, and for many years ahead endless car concepts would remain styling visions as most technological solutions didn’t exist.

1959 General Motors Firebird 111 Concept

1953 – 55. The ‘BAT’ cars from Bertone

As the 80’s arrived we all became more aware of one particular and daunting field, electronics.
I’m not sure if any of us really saw what was coming…did anyone?

One day in particular remains in my memory of this electronic revolution. Porsche was developing the incredible F1 engine for TAG, techniques AVANTGARDE.

The engine was being tested for the first time in the 1979 Mclaren pre-season chassis. Hans Metzger, Porsches engine developer “God” was there as where all the engine specialists. John Watson set off and all ears listened to the car driving its laps. These ears had listened to every 908, 917, 911 engine that they had designed and where so tuned that they could spot or hear a problem a km. away. Some ‘ears’ apparently able to pin point even which cylinder was misfiring!. As John Watson parked the car after a few laps (unusually) not much was said and all eyes followed some unassuming chap with a large ‘laptop’, possibly from Bosch, approaching the car. He plugged in a cable. Metzger and others gathered and looked over his shoulder and I remember someone saying “what does it say”.
“It” the computer had arrived..and it didn’t intend to go away.

Testing McLaren at Weissach. Fascinating group of Porsches surrounding the MaClaren.

Computer technology continued its development during the 80’s but it wasn’t so noticeable in our ‘styling’ field. Engine management systems where improving motor efficiency, some active suspension systems were being developed and shown to the public. Porsches 959 used and showed this technology in the mid 80’s.

In interior design we had the first LED and digital displays. In the background the development of electronics due to this new style of early nerd continued. Even in the 80’s we began to realise that this group of engineers didn’t care what they were working on as long as it was electronic…we referred to them as the “washing machine” engineers

From the beginning of the 90’s I spent 10 years at the BMW think tank, The BMW technic GmbH. In 1992-93 we produced a full electric car vision, the E1. This car wasn’t a styling show car shell but a fully engineered drivable prototype which weighed 850 kilos with a range of around 80 kms.

It represented everything that would later become the BMW i3. Of course what was lacking back then then was the real need for an electric car and suitable battery technology, other wise weight and size are very similar. The think tank engineers also produced a lot of developments that we in design simply didn’t understand..who needs a side stick driven car as in an Airbus!
Never the less Design made a frame work for these visions or created their own but I certainly remember the resistance, ironically from the ‘visionary’ designers, to this ever greater cloud of electronics on the horizon.

Our concept cars of the 90’s included a number of new innovations and we had fully driving concepts showing the first real navigation systems and mobile phones, head up displays and advanced lighting systems. Complete Electric car concepts, following the E1, were basically ignored by BMW for another 15 years though other companies did produce concepts

BMW Technics, 1999, “Piece de resistance” was the BMW Z22. A car never shown to the public. A full CFK monocoque car carrying over 70 innovations, mostly electronic. It had complete drive by wire systems and of course it did drive itself…god forbid..it drove itself!

Interior. The car had active steering meaning the steering ‘wheel’ moved very little.

In 1999 and it drove itself to the point that a total computer freeze on BMWs test track meant in crashed, gently…it simply rolled to a stop against the barrier. This of course didn’t stop our “nerds” they simply disconnected most systems ( as “they” didn’t like each other) and tested on with the remaining 5 or 6 needed for driving. The “Washing machine” developers were there to stay. Over the following years numerous departments grew and recruited more and more electrical/ computer engineers. Our daily design life would never be the same again as the world in general !.

Where this electronic development was going was no longer a question. It was going non stop… Automated and on its own. You no longer got in a car and simply turned a key, no that was to easy.

I have a personal theory that it is the aim of all electronic engineers to produce the self driving car simply so that the driver wouldn’t be distracted ( by actually driving the car!) from using and adjusting the endless new and mostly unneeded systems they where developing.

Over the last 30 years we have seen a non stop electronic development bombardment and it’s not stopping. Of course the mechanical side of cars themselves have made endless developments but to be honest this pails in comparison to the computer and electronic developments.
Yes cars are slowly becoming lighter (again!) but mainly due to extreme high tech materials and they are becoming more efficient ( sensible use of electronics!) and more reliable and now, almost 18 years after the Z22 rolled into the barrier we are beginning to see the self driving cars of which Tesla is very much in the news an BMW has opened a huge new centre to research this field.

There was a time when designers were meant to look ahead often much further than engineering solutions but this has changed now. I think it’s fair to say that electronic innovations have overtaken the styling visions.

How odd it is that in films such as blade runner 2048 the car still looks remarkably old fashioned almost bat mobile like.. how it flys remains a blue screen mystery.

As the future progresses and we see advertising for new models claiming just how connected you are…. to your friends, Facebook, Google maps, twitter and others hiding around the corner. Of course there’s a mention of the power and equipment but wasn’t the car originally all about freedom and movement, getting away from the crowds, escapism. Not stopping on a Scottish highland road in your brand new BMW 7 series simply because the computer crashed ( happened reguarly to a friend).

I’m afraid Dr Porsche was both right and wrong. Maybe in 20 years when we take a seat in our totally connected Porsche “washing machine” to be automatically transported to our destination we will be reminded, when a now very vintage 911 Porsche passes us and the driver has a big smile on his face…. that driving once meant something else.

Yes there will still be the classic Porsche and the fully electric or atomic or even cow poo driven Porsche.
I think I know which one I would take!!

1987. A Sunday morning drive in the Black forest


7 responses to Electronics in Cars. Where is it all going… where did it come from?

  1. So cool to read this!
    I’m currently repairing the 3.2 Carrera of a friend, pretty much like the red one in your picture.
    As @kartfahrer said here: http://grandretro.com/2018/05/911-sc-der-letzte-seiner-art/
    this generation of the 911 marks the beginning of a new time with electronic control for the motor management.
    There’s two comments I have:
    – compared to my 10 years older 2.7, the Bosch Motronic of the 3.2 is a great advance in ignition (e.g. no more tedious adjusting of the breaker contact) and injection (“mechanical control system” is almost a contradiction in itself).
    – At the same time, in the cars of the eighties, yet you don’t get yelled at, if you decide to set off without the seatbelt fastened or dare to start the engine without the foot on the brake.
    I’m beginning to appreciate the eighties …

    • Hi Johannes,
      certainly agree in all matters of motor management… these are the hidden and sensible tools I expect from electronics.
      – I have the feeling that modern cars are turning us into thoughtless idiots. Of course the navigation system doesn’t break down nowadays… but when it does… 🙁
      – My car reminds me with 2 different sounds to where my seat belt, constantly tells me my infotainment system is switched off!!… and upon leaving the car …dont forget your handy!

  2. thank you for the story…lot to think about. In the male genes we want to act
    and steer….especially on new roads ? For the daily commute to work it would
    be perfect/helpful to bundle people going same way by car.

    For long distance travel i like the idea to help myself with simple tools.
    because of the story that you get stuck in the scotish highlands with a modern
    Bmw…like the story the owner of a vw bus t6? cant drive home because he and the local vw dealership cant close his roof and sleeping tent in south of italy ?

    call me old fashionated…my four youngest cars are from the eighties and early nienties…never thought about cars from that century and their electronic
    problems…still…
    My brother owns an i3…mostly his wife brings the kids to kindergarden…is that
    economic in any sense ???

  3. thanks for the comments…
    i think there are so many times when modern electronics make our life difficult but on the other hand I think its all about the right balance between high and low tech.
    The i3 is probably great car, i remember these projects starting before I left BMW Design…. they have certainly invested heavily into those projects…. we will see what the future brings.

  4. what worries me most is the so called “connected drive”. The possibility to access the car’s electronic and software over the internet. Data security is not even the most important issue, but what about hackers invading your car or viruses sneaking in?
    So far my cars do not have this “feature”, they are just too old.
    And I would not want it. But how to avoid it? Stop buying new cars?

    • Stop buying new cars … I come to a conclusion somewhat close to this one.
      In the past decades I have tried to have cars that combine practical aspects with as much fun to drive as possible. That doesn’t work any longer, because my daily car driving has entirely stopped being fun anyway. It’s just too crowded out there. I think for the daily business I will have a simple and cheap car, as environmentally friendly as possible, maybe even electrical. For the fun driving it will be a classic car and it will take place on a Sunday morning from 6 to 8.

    • just image hundreds of connected cars traveling at a decent speed and then there is a server breakdown….
      Please let me keep my steering wheel 🙂

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