Tomorrow's Tech Today: Cool Innovations, from Smart Windshield Wipers to Start-Stop

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Sep 28, 2012

FLAT ROCK, MICHIGAN—Thanks to a federal government finally getting tough on fuel economy, this is an age of innovation. Carmakers know that to get to 54.5 mpg by 2025 they have to come up with the kind of cutting-edge improvements that hasn’t exactly poured out of their tech centers in the last three decades.

This is about more than electric cars; it also forces huge leapfrogging in terms of conventional internal-combustion engines, which now benefit from direct injection, advanced turbocharging, cylinder deactivation, start-stop technology, new forms of hybridization and more.

Cars will soon have automated systems that sense danger ahead and apply the brakes without driver intervention. (Bosch photo)They can’t do it all themselves, and that’s why it’s a Golden Age for companies like Bosch, the auto supplier founded in 1886. According to new president Mike Mansuetti, the company did $72 billion in sales in fiscal 2011, $9.8 billion of it in the U.S. Some 60 percent of the company’s business comes from automotive (it makes dishwashers, too).

There’s no reason in the world you should care about all this. But the company makes some fairly cool stuff that I think you’d enjoy hearing about. There's the emergency braking system seen in the photo above, totally practical today but not yet on cars. And also, windshield wipers. I’m still burned up by the movie Flash of Genius, which is the real-life story of how Ford burned inventor Robert Kearns back in the 50s, stealing his invention of the intermittent wiper. I know, I know, it’s hard to appreciate the value of intermittent wipers today, but imagine having to switch them on and off during sprinkles and you get the general idea.

That blue Ford Focus has the smartest windshield wipers. (Jim Motavalli photo)The Bosch version, as seen on the Ford Focus, replaces a single motor linked to a complex linkage with two small motors, each with a direct-drive wiper. They take up vastly less space, can operate independently, and cover much more of the windshield. They’re even smart enough to know when the windshield is dry and shut themselves down. Here’s a video that demonstrates the miracle of the modern wiper:

Hybrid owners are familiar with start-stop technology—they’ve gotten used to their engines shutting down at stoplights, then starting right up seamlessly when their foot lifts off from the brake. But start-stop has a bright future on conventional gas cars, where it can yield a 15 percent fuel economy savings. According to Bosch’s Ulrich Muehleisen, start-stop is on only five percent of new American cars but 50 percent in Europe.

The problem, Muehleisen explained, is that European regulations give automakers a four to five percent credit for start-stop, but only two percent in the U.S. All that’s expected to change by the 2014 model year, when new American rules kick in. And that should lead to a big jump in start-stop, up to 50 percent of new cars by 2016 (as Europe soars to 80 percent).

The 2013 Mercedes-GLK incorporates the start-stop tech that's huge in Europe, not yet caught on in America. (Mercedes-Benz photo)I sampled start-stop on a Mercedes-Benz GLK and found it so seamless that it’s hard to imagine any car buyer not wanting it. To make it work smoothly, battery sensors are constantly monitoring the cells to make they’re able to handle the start-stop cycle. After all, you wouldn’t want your car to stop and not start.

Another cool tech that is unlikely to personally benefit me is a self-parking feature that I sampled in a Mercedes A-Class. The screen-based system, seen in both Benzes and BMWs, is a step toward the full autonomous driving many people think will be with us by 2040 or so—you do the gas and brakes, it does the rest. I don’t think I need it because I’m a whiz at parallel parking, but it’s great for people who flunked their driving test trying to do it.

Pass a parking space and the system measures it to see if your car will fit. Pull up and select reverse, and it expertly spins the steering wheel to slot you into the space. It’s kind of eerie, as if the Invisible Man was driving. Here’s a video of what it looks like:

Diesels haven’t yet caught on with the American public, though their market share is growing. According to Bernd Boisten of Bosch, “We are bullish on the technology for North America.” The company counts 54 clean diesel launches by 2017, and 12 of them next year (including a diesel Chevy Cruze and a version of the Jeep Grand Cherokee). The “take rate” for diesel, meaning the percentage of people who choose diesel on a given model, is up to 30 percent from 12 percent in 2008.

I was very impressed with a common rail 2013 VW Beetle TDI I drove around Bosch’s Flat Rock proving grounds (with the high banking blocked off, darn). The TDI, which hit the market last summer, just performed like no diesel I’ve ever driven in anger—it was instantly responsive, fast off the line, a great cruiser, and I wasn’t seeing a cloud of black smoke as I drove. Still, hybrid cars are getting awfully good and they present intense competition for diesels.  

This VW Beetle is a TDI diesel that will make you rethink diesels: no smoke, pokey acceleration or ugly noise. (Jim Motavalli photo)Finally, I drove a Peugeot 3008 Hybrid4, not available in the U.S. but the first diesel hybrid on the market in Europe. Fuel economy is in the mid-40s, but it’s no slow-poke—I dialed in sport mode and gunned it to good effect. Here’s a video:

Peugeot has been off the American market since 1991, after sales of 20,000 had trailed to 5,000. Maybe this is the car to revive the company’s U.S. fortunes, but they’d probably do better bringing in something with less of a Euro feel. I’ve often asked why we don’t have diesel hybrids, since you’re combining two very fuel-efficient technologies, and I’ve usually been told such cars would be too expensive. Peugeot seems to have put the pair together, and some 15,000 have already been sold—in Europe, that is.

It’s fun to see tomorrow’s tech today. It gives you confidence that automakers really will be selling us 54.5 mpg cars in 2025. 

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