Category Archives: Automotive

Special E Type trilogy with the Spyder GT

Ever imagine what a great world it would be if the Jaguar E-Type had lived on past the 1970s, and not just in name, like other classic car models that have evolved into completely different animals, but in all its curvy, original-form glory? That’s the world Eagle lives in, its series of restored, modernized and reimagined cars ensuring that the E-Type family remains small but thriving. This month, it launched its latest special edition, the Spyder GT, a convertible tourer with hardcore sporting on its mind.

Founded by Henry Pearman, Eagle started off in 1984 as a traditional restoration business, buying, restoring and selling original E-Types to customers. Engineer Paul Brace joined the shop in 1989 and helped Pearman transition from simple restoration into high-caliber restomods.

In 1991, author John McLaren came to Eagle with needs that a standard restoration couldn’t meet. McLaren wanted to fuse the pure driving experience of his classic E-Type with everyday reliability and performance fit for the new decade. Eagle got to work, and the Eagle E-Type was born.

Instead of a standard restoration (which Eagle still offers today), the Eagle E-Type is stripped down until every part down to the tiniest bolt can be carefully inspected and replaced where necessary. Eagle then rebuilds the car to the customer’s specifications, pulling new pieces off its shelf of modern components and packages. The new car has the look and character of a classic E-Type with the technology, reliability and performance of a more modern car. It’s a process that takes around 4,000 hours, according to Eagle.

Twenty years after launching the successful Eagle E-Type restomod series, Eagle took another big step forward in its quest to preserve the E-Type legend. Working with an American client to identify something truly special – more special, that is, than a fully rebuilt, modernized, custom-spec E-Type – Brace sketched out the E-Type Speedster. The client fell in love, and the Speedster (pictured below) launched in 2011.

Touring cuts through the madding SUV crowd

Four-wheel drives might be taking over the roads, but old-fashioned station wagons are still getting some love in Europe. Volvo, king of the wagons, launched the V90 last year, and Mercedes has kept the ball rolling with the slinky E-Class Estate. Never one to be left out, BMW has whipped the covers off the G30 5 Series Touring, which has been treated to the same tech-onslaught as the sedan, but has room for the family, pets and all their baggage.

Before we go any further, it’s worth looking at why wagons deserve a bit of love. Although the world has gone crazy for faux-wheel drives, the whole city SUV concept is flawed. Extra ground clearance is crucial if you’re taking on the Rubicon Trail, sure, but it dulls handling and adds drag on city street. It’s the same story with four-wheel drive, which is crucial for scrabbling up sandy dunes, but just adds weight and ruins fuel consumption on a dry, smooth freeway.

Because they’re not pretending to be something they’re not, wagons don’t need to make these compromises. They usually have more luggage space than the equivalent four-wheel drive, and because they’re not designed to look tough and off-road ready, they drive like normal cars. To our eyes, the traditional wagon shape is damn sexy, too.

On paper, the new 5 Series Touring checks all those boxes and more. For one, it rides on the same platform as the sedan, and comes with the same set of semi-autonomous systems. That means it will handle steering, throttle and brakes at up to 210 km/h (130 mph) on the highway, provided the driver is on hand to take over should anything go wrong. Wayward pedestrians are protected by the auto-emergency braking system, and the car will actively steer itself to aid drivers swerving around an obstacle.

Free form platooning on the fly

As self-driving cars continue to develop, there are a number of big questions that need answering. For one, we need to know how autonomous cars will deal with their human-driven counterparts, because what makes sense to a tired driver doesn’t necessarily make sense to a computer chip. A team from École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) might have found a solution, developing an algorithm for self-driving cars to platoon, merge and move around more freely.

Anyone who’s been keeping an eye on self-driving vehicles will have read about “platooning,” where wirelessly connected autonomous vehicles move in close formation at the same speed along public highways. Because all the vehicles in a platoon are connected, they can travel closer together than their human-driven counterparts, cutting traffic and improving aerodynamic efficiency.

This has been put to the test in Europe (among other places), where fleets of autonomous trucks drove from their respective factories to Rotterdamwithout human input.

According to EPFL, the problem with platoons is the fact they move as one big block. That works fine when there are three or four vehicles involved, but big convoys can be difficult to manage. They also don’t communicate with traffic around them, so human drivers are in the dark about what’s happening.

The team in Lausanne proposes a “cooperative and distributed system.” Instead of a single leader dictating what the rest of the fleet does, this system suggests each vehicle adjust its speed and position individually based on what the other individual (connected) cars around them are doing. As all the vehicles are linked up, each knows what the sensors on the cars around them is seeing, helping deliver something approaching 360-degree vision.

When a car wants to join the convoy, the algorithm uses the information it’s receiving from the cars in the platoon to reshuffle them. This could involve making one car slow down to form a gap, something humans do daily on the highway. The research team started by testing the system in simulations, before scaling up to miniatures and, eventually, actual cars.

There are a few potential issues, mainly stemming from the fact that the algorithm is rooted in the idea of vehicle-to-vehicle communication. Although connected car technology is widely regarded as crucial to successful self-driving cars, very few cars currently on the road are kitted out with the requisite wireless capabilities.

Even cars with a human driver can benefit from the software, however, using a modified display to show drivers when the autonomous cars around them plan on merging, changing lanes, speeding up and slowing down. The team at EPFL is hoping this proof of concept will be enough to convince manufacturers it’s worth developing software to bring older cars up to date with more modern connected vehicles.

Successor to be a lighter

The McLaren 650S is still fast and handsome but its basic shape and design is rooted in the MP4-12C launched back in 2011, making it a dinosaur compared to its rivals. That’s all set to change at the Geneva Motor Show in March, when a new Super Series model launches. We don’t know what it looks like yet, but we do know it will make use of a new carbon tub, run with a more efficient aerodynamics package, and pack in a drift mode. Excited yet?

One of the biggest calling cards to any McLaren is the clever adaptive chassis system, which allows the character of the car to be altered with the flick of a switch. The system has been given a comprehensive makeover for 2017, using 12 more sensors than previous iterations to provide more information about what each wheel is doing. This information is fed to the central Optimal Controller algorithm, which adjusts the suspension setup accordingly.

If the adaptive chassis is the greatest strength of McLaren cars, it has also been criticized for making them feel a bit disconnected. It doesn’t help that turning off traction control involved pressing three buttons, twisting two knobs and hoping the wind was blowing in the right direction. That seems set to change with Variable Drift Control, which will allow the driver to fine-tune the amount of Stability Control intervention through the central touchscreen.

“Proactive Chassis Control II generates a significant amount of additional grip, but not at the expense of the balance and feel of the car,” says Mark Vinnels, Executive Director of Product Development at McLaren. “The depth and breadth of handling precision and ride comfort in combination with the peerless level of driver involvement in the second-generation McLaren Super Series is simply extraordinary.”

Salute to the classic Australian V8

Australian car manufacturing is coming to a close, putting an end to more than a century of automotive excellence from Down Under. General Motors Holden will close its plant on October 20, but won’t be going gently into that good night. Instead, the team at Holden Special Vehicles has created the GTS-R W1. It’s powered by an LS9 V8, and just 300 examples will be built, providing a fitting (smoky) farewell to the classic Australian V8.

For those who aren’t aware, Holden Special Vehicles is the Holden equivalent of AMG or BMW M. It takes family sedans and turns them into rolling rear-drive smoke machines, able to rip massive burnouts on command. They’re also pretty sharp handlers, too, showing a remarkable turn of speed for big, heavy four-door sports-car wannabes. And, to cap it all off, you can even buy an HSV wagon and ute.

The GTS-R W1 is designed to take everything learned by HSV over the past 30 years, and use it to create the ultimate Australian sports car. Power comes from a supercharged LS9 V8 making 474 kW (636 hp) of power and a monstrous 815 Nm of torque. It might seem a strange thing to say about a big V8 but this is a fairly exotic engine, with connecting rods and inlet valves made from titanium, dry-sump lubrication and a carbon airbox. Ferrari won’t be losing any sleep, but the idea of a four-door family sedan with the engine from a Corvette ZR1 is still exciting.

The Nissan NV Cargo X will deliver

When it comes to delivery vans, there isn’t usually much to get excited about. They’re typically big boxes on wheels, designed to hustle parcels and boxes about the city in the most efficient way possible. The one-off Nissan NV Cargo X is an exception to the rule. With a proper off-road suspension, Cummins diesel engine and bright sticker kit, it’ll get your package delivered – no matter the destination.

Based on a standard NV2500 HD van, the Cargo X has been reworked from the ground up for off-road duties. The standard suspension was thrown out in favor of a fully bespoke off-road setup, which now has enough suspension travel to accommodate a set of 37-inch tires under the wheelarches. Interestingly, the front suspension shares nothing with the regular van, but the rear end maintains a more conventional leaf spring design.

Also new on the NV Cargo X is the front bumper and skid plate, 10,000-lb (4,536-kg) winch and a custom off-road LED lighting rig. Coupled with the huge lift kit and a custom sticker wrap, the changes make for a Nissan unlike any other, although the finished product can’t quite match the Toyota Sienna Ultimate Utility Vehicle when it comes to rugged looks.

Mean looks aside, the biggest change to the van comes under the hood. Gone is the petrol V8, and in its place is the Cummins diesel powertrain from the Titan XD pickup. Although its 310 hp (231 kW) of power won’t set the world on fire, the 752 Nm (555 lb ft) of torque is perfect for effortless low-speed rock crawling.

The final area to receive attention is, as you might expect, the load bay. Given more the 230 cubic feet (6,513 liters) of cargo space to work with, Nissan has been able to kit it out with all the tools you’d expect to find in a dedicated support vehicle, making this a self-sustaining adventure vehicle. With an air compressor, fluid storage, a full-size spare wheel, recovery rope and tracks, jack and a portable welder, you can venture into the wilderness and be confident of coming back in one piece.

Unlike most concept cars, the Cargo X is actually a fully functional van, which has already been put through its paces on the Pyeatt Draw trail in Arizona. Nissan says it handled the rocky, muddy ravine with aplomb and based on the video below, we’re inclined to agree.

An era for Rolls Royce

There are plenty of luxurious cars out there, but there is only one Rolls-Royce Phantom. The current Phantom VII kicked off BMW ownership for Rolls-Royce 13 years ago and, although there’s something timeless about luxury cars like the Phantom, it’s well overdue for a replacement. As the marque prepares to launch a new flagship, the final Phantom VII has rolled off the production line in Goodwood, looking just as imperious as you’d expect.

Although plenty of Phantoms have ended up in the hands of sheiks and rappers, the final flagship Roller has been commissioned by a “renowned” collector, who has turned to the craftsmen in Goodwood for a totally bespoke interior with a nautical theme. The wood trim on the doors features marquetry of a 1930s ocean liner, which is coupled with special stitching designed to evoke rippling water.

Everyone from Bentley to Mercedes has tried to lift the quality of their cabins with a fancy clock in recent years, but few can match the timepieces embedded in the dashboard and rear cabin of the final Phantom. The bezel, which sits clear of the face, can be rotated to reflect 24 different timezones – a feature potentially useful while crossing continents in road-going comfort.

On the outside, the Phantom is finished in “Blue Velvet” paint job with twin coachlines running around its flanks. The tires have also been treated to a set of pinstripes, and the Spirit of Ecstasy on the bonnet is solid silver. We shudder to think what the options cost, but they certainly look fantastic.

Now production of the Phantom VII has wrapped up, the Goodwood factory will switch its focus to getting the Phantom VIII up and running. The new car will be built on an all-new, all-aluminum architecture shared with the Project Cullinan four-wheel drive, and promises to deliver a level of luxury beyond what the current car can manage. We can’t wait to see what that looks like.

Self driving cars are learning fast

Among all the questions about self-driving cars, one of the most serious relates to safety. No one wants to put their lives into the hands of a driverless car with anything less than bulletproof reliability, and a high-profile autonomous accident could set the breed back by years, forcing the likes of Google to subject their cars to millions of miles of testing. Those miles are starting to make a difference, too, with new figures showing the number of self-driving disengagements dropping from 2015 to 2016.

Disengagements, or the driver taking over from self-driving software, are one of the most important metrics when it comes to the testing of self-driving cars. Google (and its Waymo self-driving project) describes them as a “natural part of the testing process,” because they help identify situations where the self-driving software didn’t know what to do, forcing the driver to take control.

Based on the latest disengagement reports submitted to the Californian DMV, the number of situations confusing autonomous systems is dropping at a rapid rate. Last year, Waymo cars covered 635,868 miles (1,023,330 km) and reported just 124 disengages, compared to 341 disengages in just 424,331 mi (682,895 km) during testing in 2015.

That’s a significant improvement, an improvement which Google says has come despite the cars being tested in tricky urban situations, from sharing the road with cyclists to handling multi-lane intersections. When the car does hand off to the driver, the team says it can extrapolate that data to fit hundreds of different scenarios in simulation, adding billions of miles worth of valuable knowledge to the program.

Google isn’t the only company making big strides in its testing program. Ford suffered just three disengagements in 590 miles (950 km), two of which were caused by cars overtaking at high speed during a lane change. BMW only suffered one disengagement on Californian roads in 2016, despite covering a not-insignificant 638 miles (1,027 km).

What does this prove? Well, self-driving cars still aren’t ready for the big time. If there’s no steering wheel in the car, and that’s what Google is planning, there needs to be no chance of confusion or disengagement. Still, the progress being made is impressive, and shows the future of self-driving cars might not be all that far away.

Surgery in surgeons

Minimally invasive surgery often sees robots acting as a surgeon’s hands inside the patient’s body. Such robots are large and cost several million dollars, and although smaller handheld instruments are out there, their straight-stick design means they’re not as dexterous as a skilled surgeon’s own hands. A new “needle driver” from a University of Michigan startup, FlexDex Surgical, is designed to precisely mimic the motions of a surgeon’s wrist and translate it to a tiny flexible claw, with no electronic or computerized components.

Anchored just above the surgeon’s wrist, the FlexDex has a gyroscopic handle that can be rotated, twisted, and angled in three dimensions, while the rest of the device stays still. Those motions are translated through a cable down the length of a metal shaft to the tip, where a two-pronged clamp closely follows those instructions like a tiny robotic replica of the surgeon’s own hand.

The pinchable claw and precise rotation lets the FlexDex specialize in internal suturing. For existing devices, a task that fiddly usually requires big, awkward movements on the surgeon’s side, but the FlexDex’s center of rotation is in the same spot as the human wrist. According to the team, that means its movements aren’t inverted like other instruments.

“If I move my hand up, the device tip goes up,” says Jim Geiger, co-inventor of the Flexdex. “Wherever I move my hand, the tip of this instrument follows.”

The long-used Da Vinci line of surgical robots may be more versatile and provide finer control, but they also come with multi-million-dollar price tags that can keep them out of reach of small or remote hospitals. For a much more reasonable US$500, the FlexDex can help these facilities provide minimally invasive surgery, which is less traumatic and painful than being cut right open, and takes far less recovery time.

“I was amazed by the sophistication of the (Da Vinci) technology,” says Shorya Awtar, co-inventor of the FlexDex device. “At the same time, I had a strong instinct that this functionality can be achieved much more simply and cost-effectively. At its price point, this technology would not reach patients across the globe.”

So far, the device has been tested in a few different procedures for examining abdominal organs and inside the lungs, but in future FlexDex plans to put it to work treating hernias, and in hysterectomies and prostate cancer removal.

Fancier and more frugal

Passengers who travel on Amtrak’s high-speed Acela Express service in the US will soon be able to do so more comfortably and more regularly. The rail operator has unveiled designs for next-generation, high-speed trainsets that will replace its existing rolling stock and offer greater capacity.

The new trains are being introduced as part of a wider scheme to upgrade infrastructure for the Acela Express, which runs between Washington DC and Boston via 14 other stops. Produced by transport company Alstom, they will boast a number of modern passenger conveniences like improved Wi-Fi access, personal power outlets and USB ports, the likes of which are being added to services elsewhere, too.

Amtrak says that, in addition to improved comfort for passengers, there will also be an improved boarding experience and food service, along with a third more seats than the trains being replaced. Passengers will apparently benefit from a smoother ride, in part as a result of an “anticipative tilting system.”

This tilting system is completely train-borne, so it doesn’t require special track installations. It pairs data on the line’s parameters with information gathered by onboard sensors, allowing the system to locate the train’s position on the line and prepare to tilt for upcoming bends. This allows the trains to take curves at higher speeds and with greater comfort for the passengers onboard.

When they first enter operation, the new trains are expected to have a top speed of 160 mph (257 km/h), a decent increase on the 150 mph (241 km/h) that the current models are capable of. Subsequent infrastructure improvements along the Northeast Corridor (NEC) rail line, however, should enable them to eventually travel at speeds of up to 186 mph (299 km/h).