Blog

Short blog posts, journal entries, and random thoughts. Topics include a mix of personal and the world at large. 

Save the combustion

It’s the week of Frankfurt Motor Show, and just like the Geneva Motor Show earlier this spring, the buzzword is electrification. European automakers are scrambling to meet looming fleet emissions standards, and the most expedient way to offset the pollution from petrol and diesel engines is to produce many emissions-free electric cars. Major players like Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz are investing billions, and it seems much of the industry is hell-bent on making this electric revolution happen, consumer demand be damned.

From a utility perspective, I have nothing against electric cars; I’d love to own one as a daily runabout. However, the electric car infrastructure remains highly inadequate, especially for apartment dwellers like me who lack the ability and space to charge a car “at home.” EV charging stations are nowhere near as ubiquitous as the age old gas equivalent, and the few charging spaces at work gets taken up by the super early birds.

As it stands, an electric vehicle is unfeasible for me, and I assume, a significant many other as well. What I’m seeing at auto show like Frankfurt and Geneva is heavy action on the supply side from manufacturers, but no movement on incentivizing the demand side of the equation. Tax rebates aren’t going to do anything for me with regards to the lack of charging ability.

From a thrill of driving perspective, I have everything against electric cars. The low decibel whirl of electric motors cannot compete with the melodic crescendo of my GT3’s naturally-aspirated flat-six that revs to 9,000 RPM. I fell in love with cars for their mechanicalness and the sweet noises those oily bits make, and electric vehicles represents the absolute antithesis. For sure, the accelerative forces of a Tesla Model S is something to behold, but car enthusiasm is far above and beyond simply pure straight-line speed.

In the past decade, there’s been a movement amongst car geeks to save the manuals, to preserve the manual gearbox option in interesting cars; maybe it’s time to start another movement: save the combustion.

Who needs a proper garage anyways. This owner of a Honda Beat in Japan doesn’t think so.

Thoughts on the Porsche Taycan

Photo credit: Porsche

There was a bit of a stir in the automotive world yesterday. Car twitter was rightly abuzz regarding the world premier of the Porsche Taycan, the German manufacturer’s first ever purely electric car. The final synthesis of the Mission E concept from 2015, the unveiled Taycan looks appropriately futuristic, but immediately Porsche. In abstract it looks like a more taught, sleeker Panamera, which is no bad thing at all. Though I am still not a fan of the rear “light-bar” design language that have permeated the entire Porsche range, principally because I don’t think it belongs on the 992 911. Here on the Taycan, the rear-end styling is quite alright.

The buzz on twitter was largely of salivation at the impending head-to-head battle between the Taycan and the Tesla Model S. Finally, they’re saying, there’s a worthy competitor to Tesla’s electric vehicle (EV) dominance. Tesla has done well to cultivate an Apple-like frenzy and devotion to its products, but Porsche is coming in with 70 years of history and legend. Arguably the most recognizable and storied sports car brand on the planet, Porsche is leveraging its tradition and pristine reputation to entice EV buyers.

Even without poaching potential Tesla customers, I bet there’s a sizable legion of ‘Porschephiles’ ready to pluck down the admittedly considerable cash for a Taycan (~$150,900 base price for the Taycan Turbo.)

Electric vehicles are still, relatively speaking, a rich person’s game, especially in the class of six-figure cars like the Model S and this Taycan. Therefore, purchasing decisions are highly emotional, rather than logical; I think the people online comparing mechanical specs and numbers between the Porsche and the Tesla are completely missing the point. Both the Model S and the Taycan is or will be faster than 99.9% of cars on the road; and buyers aren’t going to care about dimensional short-comings of the interior, if any. What do the brand and car symbolize, and how it makes the driver feel, will be the differentiating factor.

Porsche’s got both in spades. The Taycan won’t be the hyperbolic “Tesla-killer”, but it’s definitely going to steal some sales away from the EV manufacturer in Fremont.

What I’m more pondering about, seeing as electric vehicles is the new beginning and future of Porsche vehicles, is will Andreas Preuninger and the boys and girls at Flacht get a crack at the Taycan? A track-focused electric sports car in the ethos of a 911 GT3: surely that particular Taycan will be rear-wheel drive, and with as much light-weighting technology as possible (the Taycan comes in at a hefty 5,100 pounds.) So instead of heavy batteries, perhaps a switch to super capacitors? Maybe Williams’ flywheel technology?

And what exactly would you call the ‘GT3’ version of the Taycan? Taycan GTE?

I’d really like to know the answers.

Where's the EV infrastructure?

The past few weeks I’ve been writing about automotive industry quickly evolving to mass electrification. The annual Geneva Motor Show confirmed that is indeed where auto manufacturers are heading, and very rapidly. Fairly soon we’ll be seeing electric vehicles all over dealership lots, hoping to find a good home that will hopefully be fitted with an appropriate charger.

And there lies my only contention with electrification: the charging infrastructure, or lack thereof. Lots of automakers are talking up plans for electric vehicles on a massive scale, but none I can see are discussing the other side of the equation. Gasoline-powered cars have gas stations; where’s the convenient equivalent for electric power?

Some will point out “refueling” stations will be obsolete because owners can charge at home; but what if you don’t have a home? My apartment certainly does not have any sort of provisions for charging, and neither does my workplace. You can give me an electric vehicle for free today and I’d have no practical way of using it. Driving to a charging lot to then wait many hours to “fill up” a car seems like a tremendous waste of time.

Owning a home isn’t in my future, not with the historically astronomical homes prices in the San Francisco Bay Area. Basically, I won’t have the ability to charge an electric car at the place I’m living in, and if manufacturers want to sell me one, they – or someone – need to build out a charging network facsimile to the traditional petrol station. Ideally I should be able to visit a charging station, and fill up the batteries in less than 10 minutes.

Automakers are coming in hot on the supply side, but without a proper infrastructure, will the demand side be there? Up until now, most people who have purchased electric vehicles own a home, therefore capable of installing home chargers; that’s certainly the case with owners I know personally. If electrification of the automobile is indeed the future, then those of us not lucky/rich enough to own a home will need a different solution.

Perhaps this massive infusion of capital by automakers into electrification will be one huge waste of money. I don’t think we can yet know.

Then on some days you just want to pig out.

Then on some days you just want to pig out.

Are we sure about electric vehicles?

Somewhat surprising news from Porsche today when it announced the next generation Macan sports-utility vehicle will be entirely electric. The current lineup of petrol engines will be no more. It seems the Taycan sedan is but the first salvo in an all-out assault on electric vehicles for the company in Stuttgart.

The announcement came as a surprise to me because the current Macan is the best selling Porsche car by some margin - 1/3 of all Porsches sold annually, a veritable money printing machine. To switch the motive power of their most popular model to completely electric within one generation is quite a strong bet: that our immediate motoring future is electric.

My question is: are we sure about this?

Due to marketing forces I can’t understand, much of the auto industry is shifting focus to electric; the upstart Tesla have really started a revolution (pun fully intended) indeed. Manufacturers are either already producing fully electric cars (Jaguar i-Pace, Audi e-tron, BMW i3/i8, etc) or are actively gearing up to make them (Mercedes Benz, GM, Honda, etc). The discussion doesn’t include hybrid powertrains anymore - that is so early 2000s. Rather, the industry is poised to ween itself off the internal combustion engine.

There is one marketing force I can understand: money. Innovation brings customers to the showrooms, and for better or worst, Tesla have made electric cars the glamorous thing to own. Much like television makers jumping from 3D to 4K and soon 8K, enticing people to upgrade for no practical reason (3D is dead, and 4K programming is not the least ubiquitous), automakers are seeking a similar splash in a super mature industry. They see Tesla causing Apple-like frenzy with each vehicle launch, and they want in on that action.

Outside of money, where is the impetus for electric vehicles exactly? People want to make the argument of zero emissions, but don’t batteries need to be mined and produced? Energy generation in cities and countries - to charge the cars - surely isn’t free of pollution. Even if I were to grant that electric vehicles are cleaner in aggregate than the petrol counterpart, the massive infrastructure overhaul required to accommodate this new mode of “fueling” isn’t going to be inexpensive, either.

Not to mention charging times have yet to even come remotely close to that the traditional gas station. And plenty of people don’t live in quarters that can easily integrate vehicle charging. My apartment of no parking garage sure isn’t one.

Obviously a huge part of this is me simply being a curmudgeon about electric cars. I grew up on and adore the petrol combustion engine, and it will be a sad day indeed when that technology is left to the history books. These latest wave of news just makes it seem like that day is right around the corner. Automakers have switched attention to electric at a much faster rate than I had expected and wanted. Porsche plans to have half of their vehicle lineup be electric by 2025, and that really isn’t that far away.

It’s good to see, then, not all manufacturers are abandoning the petrol engine: Mazda will soon mass-produce a compression-ignited gas engine - the Japanese company have yet to produce even one hybrid model. Meanwhile, Toyota isn’t yet convinced on the idea that electric vehicles are the bright future other automakers are so dumping R&D money into.

Wouldn’t it be hilarious if electric cars turn out to not be the future of motoring.

Ah yes this is much better.

Ah yes this is much better.

The combustion engine is here to stay

The internal combustion engine is forever… at least until the electric motor proliferates fully and take over the automotive landscape. For now, like fervent NRA gun owners, you will take the gasoline engine from my cold and dead body.

An enormous factor to driving enjoyment is the sweet sounds emanating from the engine bay (preferably from a natural-aspirated motor), and as we all know, the electric motor merely hums; it’s so quiet that the government have to implement in sound regulations just so blind persons on a sidewalk are able to detect an oncoming vehicle.

The lack of noise is not a knock against electric cars: having ridden in a Tesla I think they are fantastic, and crucially far kinder to the fragile environment. For a car enthusiasts however, electric is a bit of a one trick pony: its accelerative properties are face-tearing and world-beating indeed, but in terms of driving fun, that’s really about it. Until they’ve engineered more energy density into the batteries, these two-ton electric cars can’t possible dream of handling like a traditional sports car.

Not that that matters to the general public. It’s been reported that in the last quarter, Tesla outsold the venerable Mercedes-Benz in America, so there’s proper appetite for these lumbering electric barges. Mercedes-Benz have taken notice, and will soon produce the EQC, the company’s first ever completely electric car. Audi will be entering the market as well with the e-tron SUV. BMW isn’t likely to delay much longer in delivering an electric SUV in its “i” family of vehicles.

Jaguar is wondering why isn’t anybody noticing their all-electric I-PACE that’s on sale now.

No surprise the big three German luxury automakers have elected the SUV as platform of choice for their respective EVs. It’s a smart move: sports-utilities of all shapes and sizes are flying off dealer lots, leaving the traditional sedans in the rear-view. Also important is that Tesla currently hasn’t got an SUV in its lineup (the Model X is a glorified minivan), so that’s a market opportunity to capitalize on.

With mainstream auto manufacturers joining the Tesla market, does this signal the beginning of the mass proliferation of electric-vehicles? Will the combustion engine soon be relegated to the halls of automotive museums? I reckon it is indeed the beginning of the shift, but the trajectory will be immensely long. The technology and infrastructure is not yet competitive against the typical gas station. Until a car can be fully charged from empty in less than 10 minutes, and one doesn’t need to strategically plan just to find a station, the electric car will remain a very nice novelty.

Because there’s also the matter of entry cost: the current crop of electric cars capable of going beyond 200 miles on a single “tank” (sorry, Nissan Leaf) are beyond the reach of the typical customer. Over 17 million cars are sold in America each year; it’ll take quite some time and effort before electric-vehicles will show up on the pie-chart.

My beloved internal combustion engine will be here to stay for a long time.

Weekend recreation.

Weekend recreation.

Volkswagen shatters Pikes Peak hill climb record

This past weekend was the annual Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, and Volkswagen shattered the overall record by some 15 seconds. The German marque built a bespoke all-electric race-car just for the event, utilizing the power advantage in high-altitude to great effect in beating Sebastien Loeb’s time that had stood since 2013.

You can color me thoroughly unimpressed. 

For sure I think VW has done a tremendous achievement of engineering. Pikes Peak's immense elevation meant it was only a matter of time before electric power would come to dominate the hill climb event. Suffering none of the symptoms that ail combustion engines in super thin air, electric motors gives full, consistent power, limited only by the size and store of the battery.

So kudos, Volkswagen, but it hardly moves my needle. 

Electric cars are wonderful and will supposedly save the planet from climate ruin but for me it’s a type of vehicle I would not own personally. I’ve felt the searing acceleration of a Tesla before and while it’s an amazing party trick, the novelty of a Model S ends there.

I fell in love with cars because of their sheer mechanicalness: the miracle of formed metal and coupled gears harnessing thousands of mini-explosions per minute into motivative drive. The cars that stir the soul are those that reveal its mechanicalness to the driver: the constant shake of a connected gear-lever, the whine of a supercharger, the hiss of a turbo waste-gate purging, and the pops and bangs during an off-throttle lift. 

An electric car have none of those qualities. A plush Mercedes S-Class sedan doesn’t have them either. I’d never purchase the latter so why would I entertain buying former? Indeed electric vehicles can handle and turn a proper corner just as well as an internal-combustion car - VW now owns the Pikes Peak record after all, but more than astonishing numbers and stats it’s how a car makes me feel behind the wheel that ultimately determines its value. A Tesla Model S and a Porsche 911 GT3 occupies stark opposite ends of that spectrum. 

I predict as electric vehicles proliferate in the coming decades, purely internal-combustion cars will be relegated to the expensive segments like super sports-cars - akin to fine handmade mechanical watches and their cheaper quartz-movement counterparts. The discerning few of us will seek those out and keep the analog spirit alive for as long as possible. 

Waiting for dinner, waiting for sunset, waiting for god. 

Waiting for dinner, waiting for sunset, waiting for god.