autonomous

Why I want Lotus fighting our corner for the future of motoring

David is hoping for Lotus involvement in greener motoring - and more cars like the Evora

THERE were a couple of confused-looking faces in the audience as Lotus’ new boss laid out his plans.

Last weekend I was at the company’s factory in Norfolk for its 70th anniversary party – and while the place was packed with Esprits, Elises and Evoras the focus was just as much on what the new chief exec had to say about the sports car specialist’s future. Feng Qingfeng has been instilled at the top of the Lotus tree by its new Chinese owners – and they’ll be investing heavily in making sure it carried on innovating. In clever design, hybrid technology, and, er, autonomous driving.

The sports car faithful shrugged their shoulders at that last bit. Why would the company that brought us the Elan Sprint – and the Europa Twin Cam, the Esprit Sport 300 and the Evora S for that matter – be ploughing its know-how into cars that do the fun bit for you?

I scratched my head a bit too. Chucking an Elise at a corner and marvelling at how wonderfully connected its steering and suspension make you feel to the action is just about as petrolhead as you can get. The one thing that defines every Lotus is how all that clever tech makes it revel in a decent road. Which, actually, is why you’d want Lotus to stick its oar in when autonomous driving’s concerned.

We’re on the cusp of an era of electrically-powered cars that are entirely different to ones a lot of us have grown up with, but while they’re safer and cleaner than ever before they’re also heavier, bulkier and as a result more dim-witted when conditions get a bit dicey. If we aren’t careful we’ll end up sleepwalking into a world of technologically brilliant, but tremendously dull, plug-in hybrid crossovers that have engineered all the enjoyment out.

In the battle for clever, greener motoring I’d definitely want the chaps who brought us a 170mph Vauxhall Carlton fighting our corner. When Lotus weren’t racing in Formula One and building Emma Peel’s wheels of choice they were sprinkling their engineering know-how into everyday cars, and I reckon they’ve got a big part to play in making sure that tomorrow’s cars go around corners properly. So please, Mr Qingfeng, let’s get Lotus doing its bit.

Although a new Esprit would be lovely too, now that you mention it…

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Vinfast – great looks, shame about the name

No, it's not a new Tesla or BMW - but Vinfast would be flattered if you thought it was
VINFAST. It sounds like the name of some nasty new energy drink or a pill you’d pop to cure ingestion – but it’s actually a new range of cars dreamt up over in Vietnam.

The new wave of carmakers not-so-quietly plotting on world domination in Asia have never been terribly good with names. The first one I can recall coming over here was the Great Wall, a double-cab pick-up truck from China which not only referred to a mighty landmark but also the vehicle’s aerodynamic and performance qualities. Then there’s the Byton, which its makers said was meant to sound well-heeled and vaguely aristocratic but just reminds me of four children and a dog going on adventures.

But one thing Vinfast definitely didn’t get wrong was the styling. I actually did a double take when they sent me the first pictures of their two debut models because I thought they’d mixed up with a press release from Tesla or BMW – but no, the first Vietnamese car company to have a crack at winning over cynical Brit motorists have utterly nailed it in the looks department.

It’s early days so there’s no word on what sort of engines its new off-roader and saloon will have under the bonnet, whether you’ll be able to plug them into a three-pin socket in your garage or if they’ll be able to navigate Switch Island on a busy Friday night autonomously, but they have at least revealed how they managed to make their new offerings look so good. They didn’t – they gave the job to some Italian blokes instead.

If you’ve got this far down this week’s column without giving up and heading straight to the Champion’s sport page then you won’t need me to tell you who Pininfarina is, but it’s worth remembering that they did the Ferrari F355, the Peugeot 406 Coupe, the Jaguar XJ6 Series III and the original Fiat 124 Spider. So it should be no surprise that with a new carmaker eager to get peoples’ attention paying the bills and no previous history as baggage that the Italians would be able to turn a blinder – and they have. Okay, so the V-shaped logo on the radiator grille smacks of late Nineties Vauxhall, but the rest of it is as good as anything you’d find coming out of Turin or Stuttgart.

So you’ll be able to buy it here next year, right? Erm, nope. Despite Vinfast launching its cars at the Paris Motor Show next month it says it wants to play it safe and focus on selling cars back home – and it might launch them here in a couple of years, by which time they’ll be starting to look a bit dated. It’s a shame, because on looks alone I reckon it’d do well here.

Still, at least it’ll give ‘em time to come up with a better name!

Tesla tech I can trust – but Mr Middle Lane Hog? Not a chance

You might trust Tesla tech - not the other drivers passing you nearby
TESLAS can do all sorts of completely bonkers – and therefore, entirely brilliant – things that you didn’t know you needed or wanted from your next car.

There is no point, for instance, in it having something called a Ludicrous Mode that enables you to outdrag a Lamborghini Aventador from the traffic lights. Nor do you need an infotainment system that lets you pretend you’re Roger Moore, circa 1977, outrunning the baddies in an early Esprit, or a remote-control system that lets you move the car out of awkwardly tight parking. And you definitely don’t need your next purchase to fund a motoring tycoon who fires his own cars into space for fun. But this is Tesla, so you can do all of these things, and more.

But one thing you definitely can’t do – at least in the eyes of Hertfordshire Constabulary, anyway – is to show off its impossibly smug autonomous driving mode. You might have seen in the news that Bhavesh Patel has been banned from driving, because he decided to let his Model S have a go. Not on a private test track, but on the M1, while he was in the passenger seat.

The last thing I’d want to do is condone Mr Patel driving like a berk (or not at all), but what the incident does prove is just how much of a tightrope Britain’s powers-that-be and the world’s motoring giants are treading when it comes to autonomous driving. Tesla’s tech, weirdly, I think I’d have trusted with a not terribly interesting stretch of motorway, but would I have had an ounce of faith in the chap in the rented Insignia inevitably 200 yards up front in the middle lane? Not a chance.

I’ve said before that while I love driving, and will be a broken man if my right to enjoy it at the helm of an early MX-5 on a Welsh mountain road is ever taken away from me, there are plenty of occasions when in a distant future I’d happily retreat to a Tesla’s rear quarters. My current commute, for instance, is one long, straight flat road that has no overtaking opportunities and a lorry on it that’s inevitably doing 39mph – that’s an hour a day where I could be learning Italian or writing poetry while Elon Musk’s electronics strut their stuff. I know that I wrote in this very column 18 months ago about a self-driving Tesla that was involved in an accident, but technology improves and gets ever safer.

It sounds wonderful – but Britain would have to go autonomous in one huge, legally-binding lunge if it was to ever embrace it properly. Until then the road will be an unhappy mix of diehard traditionalists (that’d be me, then), the vast majority of people who’d love to have their cars do all the hard work but aren’t legally allowed to, and the dimwits in between, who are too busy cutting people up in their rented Insignias to care.

Until then I’ll happily enjoy the Model S’ other mad features. Any Aventador owners fancy a race, then?

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 re-testing the over-70s isn’t the key to safer roads

Even autonomous cars like this Volvo cannot completely eliminate accident risks

ROGER Daltrey hoped he’d die before he got old but I reckon there’s loads of things to look forward to.

Cheaper car insurance, for starters. Opportunities aplenty to play golf or go on coach tours of North Wales. Or, if you’re my recently-retired father, all that free time to mend the MGB in the garage.

But Roger – who’s still very much alive and well at the age of 73 – probably won’t be looking forward to doing another driving test. Yet he and just about every other motorist over the age of 70 might be forced to, if a petition that’s already gained more than 250,000 signatures is submitted to Westminster and taken seriously.

The circumstances that prompted it were truly tragic – an 85-year-old pensioner out for a drive in his classic Mercedes-Benz SL momentarily got confused, hit the wrong pedal, and ended up killing a pedestrian. The petition it prompted is calling for all motorists over the age of 70 to be given mandatory retests every three years, to prevent similar incidents ever happening again.

I’ve been following the issue with interest ever since this truly horrific incident happened back in 2012. I’ve every sympathy for Ben Brooks-Button, the widower of the woman killed and the man who nobly started this petition – but I’m not sure mandatory retests are the answer.

Statistically speaking if the suits at Whitehall are going to retest anyone it’s the generation I was part of not all that long ago – the 18-24s, with their Calvis Harris MP3s booming out of their mum’s borrowed Corsas. Nearly a quarter of them have a crash within two years of passing the driving test. It’s even worse if you’re under the age of 19; not only do you still get ID’d going into nightclubs but you’re involved in nine per cent of the nation’s big collisions, despite only making up 1.5 percent of the motoring population.

So should they be made to redo the test every three years? Of course not, and with the possible exception of anyone who works in sales and has an Audi A3 or A4 nor should anyone else. What we should be offering are courses that don’t cost a fortune, and a campaign that encourages people to think of driving as a skill to be honed and perfected, like tennis or playing a piano. We’re never going to get rid of all the incidents on Britain’s roads (and that includes ones caused by autonomous cars, so anyone suggesting that as answer can get back in their box), but we can bring them down by encouraging people to sharpen their skills.

Maybe the Government can hire Roger Daltrey to do the jingle. I hope I drive before I get old?

Tesla should keep at it with autonomous cars

Tesla is one of the champions of autonomously guided cars

THE LIST of inappropriate things to do during a Harry Potter movie isn’t very long.

My contribution to the ranking happened during a screening of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in one of those old-fashioned cinemas that stops for refreshment intervals mid-flick. The brick-like Nokia in my coat pocket buzzed and – in a moment straight out of Trigger Happy TV – I answered it and rather loudly described to a mate how rubbish I thought the film was. Offending about 60 nearby children in the process.

But it turns out becoming a cinematic pariah is a fairly safe thing to do during a Harry Potter film. Driving a Tesla while watching one, as you might have seen in the news last week, apparently isn’t.

The story – the Tesla incident, not JK Rowling’s fictitious wizard – goes that a chap driving a Model S was so confident of the electric luxury saloon’s autonomous driving mode that he allegedly fired up the in-car TV screen for a quick diversion to Hogwarts. Back in the real world a lorry pulled out in front of his car, and – according to Tesla’s statement on its own website – neither he nor the car’s autopilot picked out the truck’s white trailer against a brightly lit sky in time.

It is – like any fatal car accident – a tragedy that should be learned from in order to reduce the chances of it happening again. The difference is that this one puts the question of how much trust you’re prepared to put into self-driving cars in a whole new perspective.

Only a few weeks ago I argued autonomous cars were a belting idea, and even after this horrific accident I’d still argue the idea has potential. But to suggest that taking drivers out of the picture will spell the end of car accidents is dangerously naïve.

Think about how many times you’re being flown somewhere on autopilot. The chances of being involved in a crash are miniscule compared to being injured or killed in car – even more so when you discount the air crashes that are caused by human error – but there’s still a very remote chance something will happen. Regardless of whether it’s you or the electronics dictating the drive it’s impossible to eliminate the risk completely.

Both the Tesla accident and a crash between one of Google’s self-driving cars and a bus back in March show there’s a lot more work to be done before you can hire your Ford Focus as its own chauffeur. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea.

If you do like your Harry Potter films, I’d suggest sticking to your sofa for now.

Originally published in the 13 July edition of The Champion