Are you tired of hearing about autonomous cars self-driving their way into a future that makes us all passengers in our own vehicles? I am too, especially after hitting up both CES and the 2017 Detroit Auto Show back-to-back this month and enduring a deluge of propaganda from automakers seemingly determined to erase the human factor from the on-road equation.
Luckily, it’s not all bad news for those of us who will be buried with our steering wheels clutched in our stiff, dead fingers. Prowling around the depths of Cobo Hall I found a few bright lights shining towards a tomorrow where people still get their hands dirty, knuckles continue to get busted when wrenches slip, and people aren’t afraid to bring their weird ideas to life in metal and glass.
Let’s take a quick look at 3 fun things from the Detroit auto show that have nothing to do with self-driving cars.
Michigan Hybrid Racing
Remember when someone told you – probably while rebuilding a carburetor – that ‘modern cars are so complicated you can’t work on them yourself?’ The next time you hear that old chestnut being bandied around, feel free to remind the naysayers about Michigan Hybrid Racing. This team of college students have not only organized their own race team for the Formula Hybrid series, but they’ve also built a battery-assisted open-wheel car and campaigned it at New Hampshire Motor Speedway against other schools.
This rad racer is made up of a 250cc, one-cylinder gas motor that works together with an all-wheel drive setup that features in-hub electric motors up front (with pull-rod suspension sitting on top). Chief Engineer Gwynneth Cunningham told me that the students built their own battery management systems for the 2016 edition of the series, and are looking to add regenerative capability to charge up the batteries mid-competition now that more detailed information about these specific lithium-ion power packs themselves has become available. Fun fact: the batteries weren’t allowed in the basement of Cobo Hall because they’re considered a hazardous, and potentially explosive material. Science!
This Tiny Shell Concept Car
At the very far end of the Cobo Hall Automobili-D showcase, sitting in its own roped-off enclosure, I found one of the most unusual vehicles at the Detroit auto show. With seating for three – one in front and two crammed in the back like miniature clowns – this Shell Concept Car is intended to show off what is possible in terms of automotive design without sacrificing the internal combustion engine.
At least, that’s its stated purpose. When I found it, it was being hooned around one pillar to the next, then spun in ever-tightening circles while its ultra-narrow tires squealed in protest. Zooming in with my camera, I could see the nausea rising on the faces of the unfortunate duo strapped into the back of a car easily no bigger than a golf cart, and could almost hear their silent, yet desperate pleas for the driver to end his shenanigans and let them escape their tiny torture chamber. Finally, the ordeal was over, the canopy was popped open, and out stepped…John Hennessey? Yes, that’s really him, confirmed Pamela Chavez Rosen, motorsports advisor for Shell Oil Company. Well, that explains the donuts, then.
Thyssenkrupp’s Steer-By-Wire Mid-Engine Sports Car
Electric power steering gets a bad rap when it comes to mimicking the feel we’ve all gotten used to from a traditional manual or hydraulically-assisted system. In some cases, this is well justified – there are a number of uninspired factory street cars repping an e-steering system – but like any technology the state of the art is advancing at a rapid rate.
Why should you care about the Thyssenkrupp steer-by-wire system that’s outfitted to the mid-engine coupe they’ve got sitting in Cobo Hall? The one that lets you actually steer the car’s wheels using a tablet or phone running the right software, if you really wanted to? There are two compelling reasons.
The first is simplicity: with no mechanical link between the steering wheel and the front wheels required, a steer-by-wire system is incredibly versatile in terms of what projects it can be installed into. Hot rods, race cars, and home-built off-roaders are all potential steer-by-wire recipients, allowing you to forgo complex adapters, finicky steering column kludges, and jury-rigged rack transplants.
For the performance crowd, moving to a steer-by-wire system is appealing for all of the above, plus the significant weight and space savings that go along with deep-sixing all the mechanicals required to run a traditional steering setup. All you need is the motor on the rack and the sensors in the cabin column and you are good to go, letting you ditch the excess ballast of older designs and profit from all that saved weight and space. Remember – just because you CAN steer it with an iPad, doesn’t mean you HAVE to steer it with an iPad.
Now let’s look at the tiny car again.
Hee Hee. Silly auto industry.