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The future of auto is now is now

Because we are now officially in 2018, which qualifies for me as “the future,” I want to keep you all up to date on the most important developments and technologies making their way into road-legal sports cars in the past few years. There are so many  (from autonomous driving to active health monitoring), but I’ve chosen my favorite two. And, yes, they both have to do with speed.

The first is the most science fiction of any of them: cars that change shape. (The boring term is active aerodynamics—“active aero” for short.) In different situations, a car is best suited by different weights and forces on different parts of the car. So if you’re going down a one-mile straightaway toward a 90-degree turn, you need to press those tires into the track to ensure you don’t lose any grip and then slow down really quickly to make that turn.

How does active aero come into this? Well, sports cars are generally simple in formula—lots of power, very little weight, and outlandish styling. The problem is, if a car is light, how do you mash those tires into the track?

Take the McLaren P1. The car itself weighs basically nothing, but with 903 horsepower and only rear-wheel drive, it needs a way to put that power on the tarmac. The rear wing will rise as you speed up in order to generate downforce, but after you push past 156 miles per hour, the wing has to go down a little lower because the weight generated would otherwise collapse the suspension. And when you come to that corner, the wing will pop up vertically to serve as an air brake and double the total braking power of the car.

Cars like the Ferrari LaFerrari even use active aero to shift a few panels to let the flowing air cool the brakes, and even design the mirrors to channel air into the engine. Cars are literally morphing to go faster while they drive.

The second technological improvement in cars may not seem very new to you: hybrid power. In the most basic terms, hybrid power describes an electric motor or battery system aiding the normal gas engine to produce power more efficiently and linearly. You have seen hybrid power in action in pathetic little eco cruisers like the Toyota Prius, and now they have begun to throw it into basically every car. Even the newest model of the Ford F-150 pickup truck is going to have a hybrid option.

Part of the hype grows from Obama-era standards for cleaner emissions, and hybrids are a great way to get started. The other part is that despite the jokes people like me make about hybrids, they save lots of money and may be helping us save the planet as well.

So why, then, do I like hybrid power? Well, the two cars I mentioned earlier (McLaren P1 and Ferrari LaFerrari) both total over 900  horsepower, and both of them…are hybrids. Yes, these two track-murdering, spine-shattering, record-breaking vehicles are hybrids. For the first time, hybrid tech is being put in supercars in order to make them go faster. They get cracking gas mileage and trundle along quietly in the cities, but, more importantly, they haul.

You see, in a normal car powered by a turbo-charged engine (think the McLaren P1), the turbos take a second to “spool up” and start shoving air into the engine. This is called turbo lag. With the hybrid systems, however, the P1 enjoys life without any of these slowdowns. And the Ferrari may be able to shift gears in mere milliseconds, but on the track those are the moments that count. So with the hybrid electric system, the car has power even in those tiny milliseconds. Torque also gets boosted by the constant power of the electric motors. For once, the hybrid is not boring, but it’s instead a development in the continuing improvement and constant seeking of more speed.

I’m personally excited about these two developments because they reject the sentiment around cars now, which argues they can only get so much faster. The golden age has passed, and we are basically on a plateau of incremental differences in speed, suspension, and technology in cars. These two (and more I could not fit) developments prove that the world of cars will continue to evolve and that, yes, there is still more speed to eke out of these vehicles.

These developments also point to an intersection of two worlds that have long seemed to be at odds: speed and environmentalism. I can’t wait to see what else comes of this union. Saving the world at 200 miles per hour? I’m all for it.

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