Toyota reckons the future of driving is a box on wheels – and that’s a good thing

The Toyota e-Pallette is quite literally a box on wheels - and a possible vision of our motoring future

TOYOTA seems to have forgotten that it’s a carmaker. Or at least that’s the impression you’d be entirely right for getting if its latest offering is anything to go by.

Just when I was readying myself to find out what it’ll be unveiling at this week’s Detroit Motor Show – a successor to the Supra, perhaps, or a long overdue rework of the C-HR’s rear end – it turns out that it’s gone to the Consumer Electronics Show instead, which is a sort of American tech-fest where everyone excitedly looks at laptops and smartphones.

Obviously it couldn’t unveil a car because that’s old hat, 20th century tech – a box on wheels, if you like. So the world’s biggest automotive giant decided to unveil just that. A box on wheels. And Toyota will thank me for calling it that.

The e-Pallette might look like something you’d attack with an Allan key after a weekend visit to IKEA but that’s exactly the point; it’s meant to be empty, and already there are various big names who are touting this autonomous cube as ideal tools for their business. Amazon likes it because it can be used as an autonomous delivery drone, and Pizza Hut reckon you could fill it up with chefs and ovens and dispatch it to wherever there’s a party packed with peckish students. Uber reckon it’ll take off because you can pack it with people (and not have to pay a driver to take them anywhere), and if you stretch the wheelbase it can even perform the sort of work long-distance lorry drivers are paid to do.

But whether I sign up as a fan depends entirely on whether it can fitted with a towbar, should it ever make production. Toyota has touted the idea of the e-Pallette being used as a hotel room on wheels too, but I’d be much more interested in sticking my MGB GT on a trailer, hitching it to the back and then using it as a sort of autonomous motorhome that transports me and my wheels on petrolhead holidays.

I’d love the idea of taking my pride and joy to, say, the Scottish Highlands without having to spend the first day of my holiday resting because driving up there in a 45-year-old sports car is so tiring. Or opening the door of my autonomously-driven luxury suite to discover I’m in the Alps or some sun-drenched bit of Spain or Italy. I love driving, but I’m sure even the most ardent petrolhead would happily let a machine take care of the M6 on a congested Friday night.

Toyota might actually be onto something with a car that’s a glorified box on wheels. The challenge now is to make sure we’re still allowed to drive all those wonderful cars that aren’t.

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RoboRace needs one thing – some human competition

Roborace is a new series for autonomous racing cars - no drivers required!

UNLESS you were fed oversteer with your alphabetti spaghetti from an early age it’s very hard to make it as a professional racing driver.

There are exceptions to the rule but generally to make the grade in top flight motor sport you need to have a sizeable amount of raw talent, a proven track record of working your way up through increasingly scary single-seaters, total fearlessness about losing it on a slippery right-hander and a considerable amount of cash – and even then you might get a politely worded letter of rejection from Sauber.

But it’s going to be even harder with the latest racing series that’s being launched, because it’s so tech-savvy that it dispenses with those pesky human drivers entirely.

I suppose RoboRace was inevitable in an age where you can do your shopping by drone and Donald Trump is forever contemplating ordering a nuclear launch from one of his golf courses. The series has a very cool name and vehicles that can crack 200mph but there won’t be any split-second decisions on whether to take the racing line through chicanes.  It’s not even a remote control affair; all the racing will be done on engineers’ laptops beforehand, programming the cars to strut their stuff autonomously.

The tech itself is a smart move. Back in the 1950s Jaguar made a big deal about its Le Mans-proven disc brakes filtering down to its XK150s and Mk2s and it’s the same story here; if the future of driving really is autonomous, then surely having it honed in the white heat of motor sport is a good idea? I know the Government’s very keen on self-driving cars, but there are still all sorts of logistical headaches to clear up, and sorting it on a race track is safer (and more fun) than doing it on the M57.

But what I’d like to see isn’t a load of autonomous cars racing each other; it’s man versus machine, which is surely what all motor sport is about in the first place. Who wants to see a load of glorified laptops dancing around one another when they can watch one robo-racer set a time around a circuit or up a hillclimb, and then see if any of their human-operated counterparts can beat it?

I bet most kids in a Honda Type-R reckon they could kick a robot’s arse at a track day – and in doing so, they’ll be helping to improve the future of driving for the rest of us. Bring it on.

Why I’m looking forward to Cholmondeley supercharging its Power & Speed event

Cholmondeley has plenty of supercars - but not enough variety

I’VE DECIDED to dispense with New Year’s resolutions this year. It’s largely to avoid the pain of stumping up for a gym membership that’ll inevitably expire of own accord by about February, but mainly because I’d much rather work on the goals I’ve already got, thanks.

Goals which probably ought to include not spending so much of my summer sauntering around the grounds of stately homes in Cheshire. The sort of places I used to dread going to on school trips are now familiar stomping grounds because they’re where car shows are held every other weekend during the summer, and I almost certainly spend far too much time at them.

But I genuinely wonder whether Cholmondeley Castle is going to be one of them. What was once openly touted as the North West’s answer to Goodwood took a breather last year because its organisers were having a long, hard think about the event and – at the time of writing at least – no firm announcement about whether the Power and Speed event will be back for 2018.

I went religiously for at least five or six years and loved the spectre of Ferrari F40s and Jaguar D-types being punted angrily up the Marquess of Cholmondeley’s garden path. Nor was it just cars; the howl of the Avro Vulcan’s Rolls-Royce turbojets as it flew over the 2015 event was one of my all-time favourite moments of any car show I’ve been to. What originally started out as the Pageant of Power had momentum aplenty behind it, but even by the time it was renamed two years ago jaded old scribes – like me – were moaning it was getting a bit staid.

For years I could take you to an event and tell you roughly where all the cars would be on display and which ones would be taking part in demonstrations, because year-on-year virtually nothing changed. It was still a superb mix of cars, but it was one we’d all sampled before. So seeing it being rested altogether last year wasn’t that surprising.

Yet I really hope that while the Cholmondeley show’s been off the road it’s been given a thorough service, a bit of a valet and fitted with a turbocharger, because the likes of you and I shouldn’t have to go all the way down to Goodwood to hear what a Bugatti Chiron sounds like at full chat.

Let’s hope the organisers make it their New Year’s resolution to freshen it up, get some new cars in and change things around a bit in time for this summer. It’s better than a gym membership you give up mid-February, after all…

The Suzuki Jimny is a proper off-roader. A Vauxhall Viva on stilts isn’t

The Vauxhall Viva Rocks has just gone on sale across the UK

ON THE other side of the world Suzuki’s crack team of engineers are doing what I thought would never happen. After nearly 20 years they’re finally preparing a replacement for the Suzuki Jimny – which is a good thing, because it’s a proper small off-roader.

It’ll look a bit macho, but that’s because it’ll have four-wheel-drive, chunky tyres and proper ground clearance. But I am bored to tears with virtually every new car being launched nowadays attempting to look like an off-roader, but coming across instead as a bloated, watered-down pastiche of one. It’s though an entire generation of outdoor types have stopped aspiring to be Ray Mears and have settled for being Ant and Dec on I’m A Celebrity instead.

Take the new Vauxhall Viva Rocks. Its makers are doing exactly what Rover did with the Streetwise 15 years ago – jacking a perfectly good hatchback up by about an inch, cloaking it with all sorts of cosmetic add-ons to make it look a bit like an off-roader, and convincing roughly no one. The Viva’s a perfectly good car, of course, but this new one is being given mud-plugging aspirations it can’t possibly live up to. It won’t even crawl over a kerb to escape a supermarket car park, which was always the town centre party trick of proper off-roaders.

It’s the same with all the other dreary, derivative crossovers and sports activity vehicles clogging up the new car market at the moment. Why, for instance, is a sporty brand like MG making them? Why are Maserati and Lamborghini joining the fray? And why would you buy a BMW X1 or X3 when a 3-Series Touring is a far, far nicer car to drive in the real world?

I suspect the answer’s because I grew up in a household with two old Land Rovers and am desperately out of step with today’s I’m A Celebrity­-loving crossover buyers, but I still long for the day these cars go out of fashion and people go back to buying hot hatches, swoopy coupes, and plush saloons instead. Oh, and proper off-roaders, with four-wheel-drive and fancy locking diffs, for that matter.

If you want a small, outdoor-type sort of car then by all means buy the new Jimny when it arrives, because it’ll be able to escape the muddy field a Viva Rocks won’t.

So what if the Fiat Punto is a bit 2005? We already knew that

The Fiat Punto is based on a design originally introduced in 2005.jpg

IT’S THAT time of year again; yep, the one where you encourage an elderly bloke you’ve never met to wobble around on your icy rooftop in the middle of the night, having helped themselves to several glasses of sherry. What could possibly go wrong?

Assuming our red-jacketed chum manages to do all his festive deliveries without slipping and plunging into some poor soul’s back garden there’s a fair chance we’ll have a few presents to open on Christmas morning. I’m sure there’ll be plenty of you unwrapping Star Wars merchandise and shiny smartphones, but I think I can safely predict that even the richest of festive recipients won’t be getting a lovely new Fiat Punto as a present.

That’s largely because – despite Fiat’s efforts to jazz it up over the years – it is a 12-year-old design, meaning it comes from an era when watching Lost and having the Crazy Frog as your ringtone were all the rage. So you’d have to be a brave buyer to go for one over a much newer Fiesta, Corsa or Polo.

We already know that the Punto is looking a bit ancient – which is why Euro NCAP’s decision to put it through a crash test it’s already conducted has left the car world a bit baffled. The safety boffins have made a fairly big deal about the fact it failed to score a single star in its safety test in a world where five is the norm these days. It’s a product that is well past its best-before date, at the expense of the unsuspecting car buyer. Not my words, but Euro NCAP’s.

Anyone who remembers what happened when the Rover 100 picked up a dismal score will know that this might as well be the kiss of death for Italy’s favourite supermini – but it’s worth remembering that in 2005 the same generation of Punto picked up a five-star safety rating. So which is right, and where does it leave all of us who can’t afford to drive brand new cars?

It’s laudable that Euro NCAP wants to raise the bar when it comes to safety but retesting an existing model and giving it a completely different rating runs the risk of rendering all the other old results meaningless. I’m sure all of you out there driving about in Fiat Puntos – or just about any other car over about three years old – must be thrilled. Why not just set a benchmark for all cars to achieve and keep it there, so it’s easy for normal people to understand how much safer cars are getting?

I’m looking forward to driving home for Christmas in my three-star Toyota Avensis. Which is either a car with decent – but not brilliant – safety, or a deathtrap so dangerous I might as well wobble around on an icy rooftop afterwards.

The new London black cab has an unlikely rival for your cash this Christmas

The new TX black cab uses hybrid technology to cut down on emissions

IT NORMALLY happens somewhere between Wham! and Shakin’ Stevens at the office Christmas do. It’s way past your bedtime, you’ve visited the free bar once too many, and you’re about to regale your boss with that story about how you snuck into the stationary cupboard and did something that’d land you with a police caution anywhere else. In other words, it’s time to fall into a taxi for the ride home.

But it’s almost certain – unless you’ve got an employer generous enough to whisk you down to the capital for your night out – that it won’t be the new TX black cab. It’s a lot smoother and quieter than the old TX4 taxi it’s replacing, and there’s fancy Volvo-sourced switchgear to enjoy, but it’s unlikely to make it anywhere north of the M25 for at least another six months. It’s also unlikely to win many taxi-driving friends up here for the same reason most of us think a three-bed house in London is a stupid idea; it costs an eyewatering amount of money.

£55,000, to be exact. To be fair the new taxi does come with some sophisticated electric motors and a Volvo engine as a range extender, none of which comes cheap, but it’s hard to imagine the fine taxi-faring folk of the North West forking out the price of a Range Rover Velar for something to replace their 08-reg Ford Focus Estate.

Happily, there is an alternative. If you really do want to do the falling into the back of a taxi while slightly hammered after a Christmas party thing properly – and there’ll be opportunities aplenty over the next few weeks – why not persuade a mate to buy the outgoing London Taxi for a laugh?

They are, as it turns out, ridiculously cheap if you know where to look. Go hunting for one – and it doesn’t really matter if it’s the original TX1 or the much later TX4, because if you’re a festive and mildly sloshed partygoer they’ll feel exactly the same – and prices start from just £800 for something a bit battered, and from nearer £1500 for one with some life left in it. And – as Top Gear viewers might remember from an episode earlier this year – these things can hack just about anything.

If you need a roomy diesel chariot and you can’t bear the though of buying a Renault Scenic or Ford C-Max then an old black cab is a much quirkier alternative. You’ll be the envy of your mates too; drive into town to pick them up from their Christmas party on a Friday night and they’ll love you forever.

You could even charge ‘em a few quid for the privilege. That might catch on…

My unlikely advice for newly qualified drivers

Navigating remote areas without satnav is a skill all new drivers should master

GET LOST! That’d be my main piece of advice for any newly certified car nuts who – as of this week – will have ripped their L-plates up after passing the revamped driving test.

You might have already read that as of Monday anyone nervously edging out of the test centre in a borrowed Vauxhall Corsa will have to do a new, modernised test aimed at better reflecting what it’s like to drive in 2017. Out go the three-point-turn (sorry, ‘turn in the road’), and the reversing around a corner (the bit I always failed on), and in come parking up on the opposite side of the road and more independent driving.

But the real eye-grabber is that in four out of five tests you’ll be expected to take your instructions from a squawking TomTom sat smugly on the dashboard. I’m all for people being taught to drive with satnavs properly – hopefully it’ll mean fewer Ford Fiestas being driven off slipways into the sea – but I worry that driving without them is going to become a lost art.

I very rarely drive with any satnav on; I’ve never owned one and only ever resort to my phone’s inbuilt system when I’m well and truly stuffed. Having been directed to an nodescript Dutch postcode on the wrong side of Rotterdam and nearly missed my ferry home as a result, I’ve had my fingers burnt by satnav mischievousness before. Then there are all the times when you end up in an obscure bit of countryside when the system stops working, or simply when a mate gives you duff directions. It’s only then that your ability to read tiny 1930s road signs or pulling over to ask people with strange accents for directions comes into its own.

My worry is that new drivers are going so used to using satnav on every journey that they’ll end up completely unstuck should the system stop working.

Which is why I’d suggest the first thing anyone passing the new test should do is persuade a mate to blindfold them, stick ‘em in the passenger seat and drive them to a tiny village somewhere in the Trough of Bowland. Admittedly this will look like a scene from a poorly-funded gangster film – particularly if your first car is a Vauxhall Adam – but once the blindfold comes off and you swap seats you have to navigate your way home, using only signs, intuition and a coffee-stained AA road atlas.

Only then, having mastered the art of making it home the authentically old-school way, can you be truly qualified in getting about behind the wheel. If you can’t, get lost.

Practice makes perfect, after all…

Why the new TVR Griffith is better than it looks

Photos are struggling to do the new TVR Griffith justice

THE CAMERA – contrary to what you might have learned from the late Bob Holness on Catchphrase – almost always lies.

In an age when just about every computer has access to Photoshop there’s a modicum of miracles you can perform when it comes to cropping, colouring and cloning just about every aesthetic evil out. It’s easy to eradicate the power station from the shot of that cute cottage you’re thinking of buying or to banish the blemishes from Kendall Jenner’s face. It happens with cars too; that’s why press shots of anonymous new superminis appear to have been shot on the set of a Doctor Who episode.

But it always baffles me how a set of professional shots can sometimes make a new car look worse. Remember the Alfa GT? In every press shot and road test it always looked a bit bland somehow, but approach one in the metal and it’s a wonderfully sinewy, curvy looker of a car. It’s not something that happens often, but it was only the other day I realised it’s happened with the new TVR too.

Regular readers might recall that I was already getting excited about the new Griffith, but while the engineering (courtesy of McLaren F1 guru Gordon Murray) and the vaguely unpronounceable name of TVR’s new home (courtesy of Wales) ticked all the right boxes plenty of my fellow petrolheads reckoned the looks were nothing to write about.

But having now seen the car for real I can confirm that the car’s biggest problem right now is the utterly rubbish set of press shots being used to publicise it. When I caught sight of the new car TVR had given it the challenge of being parked next to a load of classic Chimaeras, Tasmins and Tuscans, but it passed with flying colours.

The new Griffith might not have any otherworldly angles or strange slashes masquerading as air intakes, but it has proper, Vinnie-Jones-does-nightclub-bouncer presence. It even appears to be slightly peeved that you’re staring at it. Which will you be, because it’s aggressive and hugs the ground in a way that just doesn’t come out in the photos.

It also sounds a bit scary too, if the video of a Cerbera test car fitted with the new car’s engine is anything to go by. But the real question will be what it feels like, because the Griffiths and Chimaeras I’ve driven always have a slightly incendiary demeanour, and there’s only one way to find out if the new one stacks up.

Dear Father Christmas…

SEAT’s safety-conscious Leon – Guardian Angel or gadget overkill?

SEAT is now displaying its new Leon safety car at motor shows

A SEAT Toledo, a sun-kissed dual carriageway and a few generous dollops of over-confidence are all you need. Forget track days; if you want to experience some on-the-edge motoring just hop into a taxi at Barcelona Airport.

Every time I’ve ever taken the journey it’s been exciting and terrifying in equal measure, because the chap behind the wheel drives like a stunt double from one of the Bourne movies. There’s tailgating, brave overtakes, questionable undertakes and last minute manouveres that’d make an F1 driver wince. I’m never sure whether to give the taxi firm’s number to the police or to Red Bull’s talent spotters.

Yet it’s obvious that someone at SEAT’s headquarters – based just up the road from Barcelona, of course – has partaken in a few of these pulse-raising outings too. Because it’s just come up with a car that on the face of it aspires to make all of us safer, but is surely engineered entirely with Mediterranean taxi drivers in mind.

On the outset its new experimental car is ostensibly a Leon hatchback but it has no fewer than 19 safety systems on-hand to make sure you don’t bin it into the central reservation, which when used in conjunction become what SEAT calls its Guardian Angel mode.

Deep breath. It includes a built-in breathalyser that won’t let you start the car if it detects any hints of John Smiths or hears you bigging up some bloke you met two hours earlier as your new best mate; an eye sensor that tracks your peepers to make sure you aren’t about to nod off; a voice assistant that gives you a patronising pep talk if you’re doing more than thirty, and a system that lets your mum set the speed limit remotely when you’re popping to the shops in it. At least that way you can’t be grounded for misbehaving in it. Oh, and of course there are black boxes monitoring your every move.

Obviously if all 19 of these high-tech helping hands do make into every taxi in the whole of Catalunya then I’ll be able to depart the airport a bit more confident that I’ll make it into Barcelona intact, but I worry if SEAT genuinely thinks this is the future of driving. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for safer driving, but festoon a car with this much mumsy gadgetry and I worry the impression it’ll give is that you needn’t bother with sharpening up your own skills. Why bother when your Guardian Angel has got things covered?

Let’s have gadgets later and proper, in-depth driving tuition first. Starting with my taxi-driving chum, naturally…

Why the Wheeler Dealers Escort Cosworth resto will have you hooked

The Ford Escort RS Cosworth is the first car to be tackled by the new Wheeler Dealers duo

I’M NOT sure if it’s possible to hack into someone’s Sky Plus box but you’d find nothing particularly shocking if you raided mine.

There’s the new series of Red Dwarf, a couple of episodes of Robot Wars and – guilty pleasure time – an ace documentary I recorded a couple of years ago about the making of Thunderbirds. In London media bubble speak it’s all on message content for my target demographic – in other words, the sort of stuff you’d expect a thirtysomething bloke to watch. Except the Harry Potter. That’s my wife’s. Honest!

But what you won’t find much of is motoring telly. Of course there are old episodes of Top Gear and James May’s excellent Cars of the People but the truth is that when you work with cars all day it’s very hard to sit back and find automotive telly that’s genuinely enjoyable. A reality show about some Americans swearing at a rusty Ford in a workshop – and there are many – just doesn’t really cut it.

The new series of Wheeler Dealers, however, just might. Last Saturday I got the chance to watch the first episode ahead of its January 2018 launch, and the new on-screen partnership between presenters Mike Brewer and Ant Anstead really works. Even my wife – who prefers watching Harry Potter, remember – thought it was truly watchable petrolhead telly.

The show’s opening episode already had me at “Hello” because it chronicles the purchase and restoration of one of my favourite cars, a Ford Escort RS Cosworth, but it’s the way that Ant makes the nerdy technical bits feel weirdly accessible that really drew me in. There’s a lovely scene where he strips a turbocharger down to its nuts and bolts, but explains everything in the sort of language even Donald Trump could understand. There are charmingly hand-drawn diagrams on blackboards too, just in case you think a wastegate is something the binmen use to collect your recyclables.

There’s something compelling about the pair’s on-screen banter too – even if you loved the show when it was Mike Brewer and Edd China it’s hard not to find the new partnership effective, because it’s still a show fronted by two blokes who really love – and know a thing or two about – old cars. My only grumble is that it still feels like a show aimed at America first (so Donald Trump definitely WILL understand), but on the opening episode alone I reckon Wheeler Dealers is onto a winner.

It’s made it onto my Sky Planner, put it that way!