In the not-so-distant-past, the convenience and safety features we take for granted on modern automobiles were the stuff of science fiction. A new exhibit, The Future is Now, opening April 28 at the Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, looks at the use of such forward-looking technology in modern sports cars, and the museum is actively seeking vehicles for display.
Today, a modern engine may use overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder, enabling better breathing and (generally speaking) higher revving. While such engines are relatively new to low-cost production automobiles, the first example of an overhead camshaft, four-valve-per-cylinder engine dates to 1912, when Peugeot adopted the then-revolutionary design for a Grand Prix racing engine. Duesenberg’s Model J inline-eight, introduced in 1928, used a similar design, though given the brand’s hefty price tag, this wasn’t widely adopted.
The quest for additional power has plagued automakers since the internal combustion engine was designed, and supercharging – which uses engine power to spin a compressor, forcing additional air into the cylinder under pressure – pre-dates the invention of the automobile. First used to flow more air in blast furnaces in the 1860s, the initial use of a supercharger on an internal combustion engine came in 1878, when Scottish engineer Dugald Clerk adapted it to a two-stroke engine of his own design. Mercedes introduced a pair of supercharged-engine models in 1921, and supercharged engines soon became common – or at least not uncommon – on racing cars in the prewar years.
While supercharging helped an engine produce additional power, it came at a cost. Spinning the compressor within the blower robbed an engine of horsepower, though this was paid back with interest when boost was delivered. Turbocharging, on the other hand, used spent exhaust gasses to spin a compressor, creating additional power that did not require horsepower from the engine. The trade-off was turbo lag; until a turbocharger spooled up, it offered little performance gain.
To solve this problem, modern turbocharged engines have adopted several novel solutions. Some use sequential turbochargers, with a small, low-mass impeller delivering a bit of boost at low rpm while a larger second unit delivers noticeably more boost at higher rpm. Some engines accomplish the same with variable vane compressors, which can be set to spin up quickly or provide greater flow depending upon an engine’s demand.
Acura’s chart showing the contribution of the front motors (in red), the rear motor (in blue) and the internal combustion engine (in white).
Modern supercars eliminate this power problem by introducing a completely new system – batteries and an electric motor. Acura’s new NSX, for example, combines a 3.5-liter twin turbo V-6 with three electric motors (one in the rear transaxle and two up front), adding the benefit of all-wheel drive without the complexity of a front driveshaft and differential. Electric motors also make peak torque at 0 rpm, meaning that the NSX is already accelerating – quickly – under electric power as the internal combustion engine gathers steam. Other manufacturers who use such hybrid powertrains in their range-topping supercars include McLaren (in its P1), Ferrari (in its LaFerrari) and Porsche (in its 918 Spyder).
To quote tiremaker Pirelli, “power is nothing without control,” and modern sports cars offer a dizzying array of electronic programs to aid traction, braking and even drag strip launches. Anti-lock brakes migrated to the automotive world from the aerospace world, with Dunlop’s mechanical Maxaret system first used on the 1966 Jensen FF (which also employed a Ferguson four-wheel drive system for added safety). Later, Ford marketed an optional system called Sure-Track (developed by Kelsey-Hayes) on Thunderbird and Lincoln Continental Mk III models, though this was employed on rear wheels only. In 1971, Chrysler introduced four-wheel anti-lock brakes as an option on select Imperial models.
Electronic stability control would come later, in 1995, when Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Toyota all introduced computer-based systems designed to aid drivers in recovering control during a skid or spin (within the laws of physics, of course). Today, such systems are standard on new passenger vehicles below 10,000 pounds, with sports cars and muscle cars often equipped with systems that allow a driver to select varying levels of intervention.
Tesla’s Model S electric sedan, which can be operated in “Autopilot” semi-autonomous mode. Photo courtesy Tesla Motors.
Today’s semi-autonomous cars are capable of driving (on primary roads, anyway) with little human input, and the push from automakers is to develop fully-autonomous cars – which require no driver input – in the coming years. While such technology may soon exist (or does exist, depending upon one’s perspective) for urban-dwellers in warmer climates, the days when a self-driving car can function with foolproof reliability through a Vermont winter – and on Vermont’s numerous dirt roads – remain in the distant future.
Do you own a modern hybrid supercar? A semi-autonomous electric car with sporting intentions? If so, the Simeone Museum would like to hear from you. Visit SimeoneMuseum.org for addition details, but be prompt about it – The Future is Now opens April 28, and runs through May 13.