In a year when Detroit launched a comeback, the real news in the automotive world came from Washington, D.C. In July 2011, President Barack Obama announced a historic agreement with 13 automakers to increase fuel economy to 54.5 miles per gallon for cars and light duty trucks by model year 2025. The agreement meant little to consumers looking for cars in 2011, but it meant a great deal to the engineers designing next-generation vehicles.
During the course of the year, mainly in anticipation of such declarations, automakers around the globe launched new technologies aimed at helping them reach the aggressive fuel economy goals. They rolled out plans for hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and electric cars. They announced motor-generators for mild hybrids. At the same time, they also unveiled technologies aimed at helping with safety and vehicle connectivity...
Here's a look at the five biggest trends.
1) Vehicle electrification: In what may be the biggest news for electric cars in the past decade, the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf hit the streets in 2011. Sales numbers have been small -- 8,048 for the Leaf and 5,003 for the Volt through October -- but manufacturers of both vehicles promise those numbers will rise. The Volt and Leaf weren't the only electric cars to make headlines, however.
At the Detroit Auto Show in January, Ford announced plans for the Focus Electric. GM also shook up the automotive world later in the year by announcing its first all-electric car since the ill-fated EV1. Called the Spark EV, it will begin production in 2013. Luxury automaker BMW said it would also roll out an all-electric production vehicle known as the i3 in 2013. Other electrifications include the jumbo-sized 102EX concept car from Rolls Royce and the DeLorean EV, an electric car that marries existing vintage-1980s DeLoreans with a lithium-ion-powered electric drivetrain of today.
2) Going hybrid: Toyota made waves in 2011 by rolling out the full-hybrid compact station wagon Prius v, while also unveiling the Prius PHV, a plug-in hybrid vehicle that will hit the road in 2012. In 2011, hybrids were also a theme for Ford, which said it is planning two: the C-Max hybrid and the C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid. BMW said it would also join the hybrid parade when it announced the i8, a luxury hybrid slated for 2014 that will use an electric drive at the front wheels and an internal combustion engine at the rear. A twist on the hybrid theme also came from Buick this year, as it announced its so-called "mild hybrid" eAssist technology, which offers start-stop capabilities and regenerative braking, but not hybrid propulsion.
The Volt's interior gives the feel of a fighter jet cockpit. (Source: GM)
3) Connectivity: The demand for connectivity in the vehicle is growing, and automakers, in a bid to outsell one another, are ratcheting up their efforts in this area. In September, a group called the Car Connectivity Consortium (CCC) unveiled an open standard aimed at making it easier for smartphones to "talk" to a vehicle's center console. Known as Mirror Link, the new open standard enables owners to bring their phones into their vehicles and connect, not only to the center console display, but to the steering wheel knobs and buttons that control various functions. Connectivity was also the theme for Cadillac's CUE, which allows users to operate entertainment and information controls with taps, flicks, swipes, and pinches, à la the Apple iPad. Taking it one step further, Chevrolet also announced the availability of Internet routers in its Silverado trucks.
4) Safety MCUs: Rollout of safety standards, such as ISO 26262, was an important step forward for autos in 2011, especially as automakers increasingly use electronics to control the stability and steering of vehicles. ISO 26262 enables the development of electronic systems that can prevent dangerous failures in airbags or steering systems. The standard rollout was accompanied by hardware introductions from Freescale Semiconductor, Texas Instruments, Infineon Technologies, and Renesas Electronics, all of which were targeted at safety.
5) Ethernet in the car: Ethernet, a databus that made its name in the PC world, began its migration to the automotive world in 2011. A coalition of automakers and automotive suppliers formed a special interest group aimed at driving broad-scale adoption of Ethernet in the vehicles, largely to serve the expected boom of camera-based applications in the car. Applications -- while appearing limited at first glance -- are substantial, since automakers are preparing to integrate as many as 15 cameras in vehicles for parking assist, lanekeeping, adaptive cruise control, and collision avoidance. Freescale, NXP Semiconductors, Broadcom, and Harman International are joining forces with BMW, Hyundai, and others on the effort.
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To keep up with our Chevy Volt coverage, go to Drive for Innovation and follow the cross-country journey of EE Life editorial director Brian Fuller. On his trip, sponsored by Avnet Express, Fuller is driving a Volt across America to interview engineers.
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