FROM THE ARCHIVE: Probing The Inaccuracies – The Automobile

Author’s Note: This article was the second in the Probing The Inaccuracies series, first written in November 2009.

More Power Doesn’t Always Mean More Speed

So, you want to make your car go faster, so it would be a good idea to jack up the power, right?

Not necessarily. There are far more factors in play than the amount of power that you’re producing. The amount of torque is more important than the raw power, and that’s before you get to things like weight, transmission, suspension, chassis design, aerodynamics, et cetera.

The power generated by a car is a function of its level of torque and the revolution speed of the engine. A car with either low torque or a low revolution speed isn’t going to generate much power, while a higher-revving car in the vein of the Honda Civic or a car with a high torque, such as the Dodge Viper, will produce much more power.

But there’s no point producing a huge amount of power if you can’t transmit it to the road. The world is full of car designs by back-shed mechanics and huge car companies alike which produce ridiculously high amounts of power and torque, yet can’t take advantage of it except when the pedals are under the feet of trained professionals. You see, in order to use that torque effectively, you have to use a sufficient transmission.

Some of the most famous cases of a car having far too much torque for its transmission to handle come from the AMG division at Mercedes-Benz, famous for its factory-modified sports models. Some of their more powerful cars include 6.3 and 6.5L V12 engines, which produce so much torque that not only have they had to use a five-speed transmission because their newer seven-speed automatic can’t support the torque, but they’ve had to artificially limit the torque level to help stop their tyre-shredding might.

An excess of power was also experienced in the prototype engine of the TVR Cerbera Speed 12. The Speed 12 was a 7.3L V12 engine produced by TVR for motorsport, and was produced by fitting two of TVR’s straight-six engines to a common crankshaft. The motorsport engine was limited by the addition of air restrictors, and when it came to trying to produce a road-legal car with the engine, they removed the air restrictors and attached the unrestricted engine to a dynamometer rated for 1000 horsepower. The engine produced so much power as to break the shaft of the dynamometer, and TVR estimated that it had produced 940 horsepower. Not deterred, Peter Wheeler, then owner of TVR, took out a prototype car with the Speed 12 engine and declared it far too powerful for useful use. It’s perhaps useful to note that this is a man who regularly competed in the Tuscan Challenges and who didn’t put airbags or ABS into his cars because he didn’t trust them, a man who owned a company where the cars had attained a reputation for ferocity and insanity, and that was what it took for him to relent. A single Cerbera Speed 12 was later sold, with the engine detuned to 800 horsepower.

Let’s say you’ve modified your ridiculously powerful car with a transmission capable of smoothly taking the strain. Surely, you’ll be able to go fast now? Yes, but within a very narrow context. Those insanely modified 1000 horsepower Skylines that I’m sure you’ll have heard about and seen on the front of modified car magazines are only fast in one direction: In a straight line. While modifying these cars for outright power, these people have sacrificed the ability to use these cars effectively around a track. I don’t really care if your tuned Skyline has more power than some trains if you can’t use it effectively for anything but drag racing.

When it comes to circuit racing or road use, there are still far more pressing issues which dictate if your car will be effective. Weight is one of the most pressing issues. You see, every extra kilogram of weight on your car is an extra kilogram that the engine will have to move, and an extra kilogram that the brakes will eventually have to stop. Racing cars are rarely more than a tonne, and commonly much less. I’ll address this issue regarding modified motors later on, but when it comes to a racing car, the lowest weight possible is imperative.

A properly-sprung suspension is just as imperative. American car manufacturers have long been developing their fast cars for long stretches of motorway, as opposed to the European and Japanese approach of modifying them for the track and for twisting country roads. While various American car manufacturers are beginning to see the importance of car dynamics, chief among them being Chevrolet with their Corvette – tested at the Nurburgring and produced as a grand touring racer for the Le Mans Series of endurance races – for a long time, a less powerful car from the likes of Lotus could easily beat the most powerful muscle cars around a track.

Finally, we have the issue of aerodynamics, and this is one where laypeople often confuse matters. I’ll get into this one closer with my next point, but a car which is shaped like it’s made of Lego obviously isn’t going to go as fast as a car specifically designed for favourable aerodynamic qualities, unless there’s a gross power difference.

Every so often, a car manufacturer manages to combine these qualities to make a powerful car which can go outrageously fast in most conditions. The Koeniggsegg CCX is a good example, with 800 horsepower. The Bugatti Veyron, somewhat surprisingly, considering its protracted and difficult development, is a fabulous example, being the fastest-accelerating production car in the world. However, despite the amazing top speeds and accelerations of these cars, remember something: The Ariel Atom, a car with only 300 horsepower, can almost match them around a racing circuit by virtue of its extremely low weight. The Bugatti Veyron, despite its huge amount of generated power and torque, isn’t even as astounding a track car as you’d expect – it’s a heavy car at almost two tonnes, and isn’t set up for track conditions.

Big Spoilers on Front-Wheel Drive Cars? That’s Just Stupid!

I noted that I’d get back to aerodynamics. This really is an issue which people seem to get wrong far, far too often, and it irritates me greatly.

You’re doing it wrong!

The spoiler is a device which could be described as an analogue to an aeroplane wing, except that instead of generating lift, it’s mounted upside down in order to produce downforce. In a rear-wheel or four-wheel drive car, a spoiler can help to avoid instability in corners by forcing the driving wheels into the road, controlling the rear end of the car as it comes out of a corner and thus reducing excessive oversteer and the possibility of a spin-out.

In a front-wheel drive car, though? Not such a great idea. In a front-wheel drive car, many of the positive benefits of having a spoiler are lost. A front-wheel drive car is inclined to understeer in any case, and adding a spoiler on the back just increases that inclination. Essentially, you’d try to turn a corner on a track and either you’d end up having to slow to a crawl, or else you’d end up unable to turn the corner and just end up crashing into a wall.

That’s not the only problem with misplaced spoilers. Something which few car modifiers take into consideration is the fact that a spoiler adds drag. It doesn’t increase acceleration and it doesn’t increase top speed – in fact, it reduces both. What this means for car modifiers is that they might add a spoiler to their front-wheel drive car and end up slowing it down. Well done, you stupid clots, you’ve just made your car worse.

But maybe I should consider something else as well. You see, there are various limitations on a front-wheel drive car which limits the amount of power that can effectively be transmitted to the front wheels alone – torque steer among them. The front-wheel drive cars that the boy racer community uses are typically lukewarm Japanese hatchbacks with no more than 200 horsepower. They don’t usually go at speeds where the spoiler will actually work effectively, and this just makes me laugh. These fools have decreased the maximum speed of their car with a device that they’ll usually never have any reason to use, and which is placed onto a car for which it serves few practical benefits.

They’ll never learn.

Big Wheels And Spinning Rims Make A Car Slow

There’s been a popular movement recently to put the most ridiculously gigantic wheels possible onto cars, accelerated by shows like Pimp My Ride. I contend that this popular movement is spread by a series of morons.

There’s a grain of truth in the idea of changing your wheels. The wheels that are used are made of various alloys, typically stronger and lighter than the materials used on production cars. A modern alloy wheel does make a lot more structural sense than the 1960s wire wheel. It’s a pity, then, that the grain of truth appears to be surrounded by a Sahara of stupidity.

Large wheels add weight to a car, which has already been suggested to be an important component in producing a fast car. What’s more, it’s unsprung weight as well, which isn’t supported by the suspension, and therefore, a large set of wheels is going to ruin the driving dynamics of your car. Great work, dolts. Your massive wheels have just slowed down your car again.

What’s worse than the overly-large wheel, which at least makes some sense on a car like a Rolls-Royce Phantom (although if I see people trying to bling up that specific car any more, I will erupt with rage at their corruption at the core values of a Rolls-Royce), is the additions to a wheel in the vein of a spinning rim. This is probably the ultimate and most tasteless variant of the “form over function” principles which seem to guide many of the more clueless car modifiers. These devices have absolutely no practical benefits, adding unsprung weight which can’t even be justified, and frankly, I’d rather have a more subtly designed car which can actually field the performance to back its looks.

This isn’t just a problem that exists with wheels – the stereo systems of a car are one of the most popular modified components. Now, there’s nothing wrong at all with wanting a good stereo system in a car – within reason. But these car modifiers are rarely reasonable, and their stereo system layouts indicate this perfectly.

First of all, it’s hopelessly stupid to load a car which is ostensibly designed to be fast with a whole load of heavy electronic components. Again, every kilogram that you put into your car is one more that the engine has to pull along, and the weight of a stereo system isn’t going to improve the performance of your car in any way. Secondly, it is completely unreasonable to have a stereo system loud enough to hear it from the other side of a country. As soon as you can hear what a driver is listening to while they have the windows shut, the music is almost certainly too loud. Now, I wouldn’t mind this so much, but boy racerdom seems to come with a like of the most horrific music ever devised by the human mind. When I’m trying to sleep, concentrate on driving myself or else listen to my own music, I don’t want to be interrupted by a constant repetition of whatever “oonts, oonts, oonts” crap that these tasteless individuals seem to think is appropriate.

Facepalm time, methinks.

Drifting Is For Posers And Rally Drivers

Drifting is one of those favourite sports of the car modifier, along with drag racing. Now, strictly speaking, drifting should be taken as more reasonable than just massively turbocharging your Skyline’s RB26DETT engine to the point where you have to reinforce the cylinder heads and just zooming off in a straight line. You need a different type of car for drifting, and you need to keep it under control. You don’t get the big spoilers which are endemic in the car modification scene. Yet, you don’t see most racing drivers drifting during a race. Why? Because it’s completely impractical!

Drifting around corners doesn’t increase your speed around a circuit with modern, downforce-heavy cars – it slows it down. When you’re drifting, you are specifically allowing the car’s driving wheels not to grip properly, which means that you’re not transmitting the power of the car onto the road. Instead, you’re wasting your energy hopelessly spinning the wheels and, in the process, wearing down your tyres.

Now, there was a time when you may have seen drifting in an automobile race. During the 1950s and 1960s in Formula One, the cars had almost no downforce and rock-hard bias-ply tyres, and so, with their massive amounts of power, they were inclined to oversteer very often. Indeed, the late 1960s were probably the most dangerous time for circuit racing ever, with deaths all too common on the Formula One circuit, and legendary drivers like Jackie Stewart, John Surtees and Denny Hulme attaining their reputations by stepping into fundamentally unsafe cars and giving Death the finger.

However, in the late 1960s, developments by Lotus and other teams in Formula One led to the fielding of the first spoilers, which drastically increased downforce and led to a battle of technical driving, with precision being imperative. (Note: The huge power and rear-central position of a Formula One engine makes it a very useful application of spoilers – unlike the lukewarm hatchbacks you occasionally see it on). Since then, drifting has been considered a waste of time, and some of the most spectacular racing comes from the wet when drivers try to battle the rain to maintain their technical driving in less-than-desirable conditions.

Unfortunately, nobody seems to have told film makers and computer game designers that drifting is a waste of time. It’s absolutely endemic. I know that if I sit down and watch a film like The Fast and the Furious, that I’m going to see people drifting. I know that if I play a game like the Need for Speed games, that drifting is going to be imperative to win.

Some of you will not realise how frustrating it is for somebody who has spent their time watching technical displays of driving on a circuit to suddenly see people throwing their cars around on drifting – or be expected to do it in a driving game. I suppose the next time I see somebody drifting around corners in a computer game that I’ll be inclined to say, “Go straight, not sideways, you stupid clot!”

But then, there are places where drifting actually is useful. It isn’t on the circuit, where precision cornering is the order of the day, but instead on the rally track. The title may have made you think that I was suggesting that rally drivers were just posers – not by any means. They’re extremely talented drivers who can deal with conditions that would frustrate most circuit racers. Now, real life circuit drifters can be exceptionally talented as well, but then, I feel that they’ve wasted their time going sideways instead of conforming to effective driving techniques.

Any non-tarmac rally circuit will have very loose particles under wheel, and attempts at circuit-style driving will only result in very slow times. The rally driver does manage to get quicker results from a car by drifting it around corners using techniques like the Scandanavian Flick. However, when they get onto tarmac, do they drift around then? No! That would hurt their times in the same way that circuit-style racing hurts their times on dirt or gravel.

Now, you’re not going to hold a game like Mario Kart to any semblance of physical accuracy, so drifting is still acceptable there. Games like Need for Speed and the Ridge Racer series, on the other hand, aren’t so lucky. I would call upon driving game makers to stop this horrible obsession with an inefficient technique, because really, I feel you can have just as much fun with a slightly more realistic model which doesn’t use something which irritates me so much.

Nitrous Oxide Is Not Magic

Here comes yet another device, probably popularised by The Fast and the Furious, that seems to have become popular with the car modifying community, even if most of them never use it. In the media, nitrous oxide is portrayed as some sort of magic device, which sends a car into “win mode”. If this is the mechanical knowledge of computer game designers, I don’t want them tinkering with my car.

Nitrous oxide is an additive, usually contained in a separate tank in the car, which increases the oxygen level inside the combustion chamber while it is being injected, effectively increasing the combustion rate of the fuel and therefore the horsepower. It can be effectively used to increase the acceleration of a car while it is being injected. However, it’s far from being magical – it’s absolutely loaded with limitations.

Nitrous oxide most effectively increases the acceleration rate of a car at low gears. There’s absolutely no point, as many games would have you do, in injecting nitrous oxide into your engine when you’re already close to top speed. It would be far more effective to use it when you were just coming onto a straight, but then, arcade driving games don’t rely on the brake pedal very often, do they?

Of course, this would be presuming that nitrous oxide was actually a practical idea for racing – but it’s not. Nitrous oxide may increase horsepower, but that will probably strain a car’s components. I’m still waiting to see a show or a game where somebody puts nitrous oxide into their car with the pretence of making it into a winning car, and then has his engine explode immediately because he’s put it into a car with insufficiently strong components.

Even if you do have a car which can use nitrous oxide effectively, it adds weight to the car, making it more difficult to steer around corners, and then, you can only use it at limited intervals, because extra power around a corner is just going to increase any tendencies to understeer or oversteer.

And this guy’s ruined his engine forever.

There’s another reason why racing cars don’t use nitrous oxide – because they already have oxidisers in their fuel. They use methanol fuel, which has a high octane level and an increased oxygen count over standard unleaded petrol, and therefore don’t need ridiculous contrivances like nitrous oxide. In real life, nitrous oxide is usually for losers who can’t build a car properly in the first place, with very limited applications in the world of motorsport.

Unfortunately, this inaccuracy doesn’t look like it’s going to die out any time soon, and it will likely be perpetuated in the short term by the introduction of the KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) technology in Formula One. This system allows various manufacturers to store kinetic energy while braking in electric or mechanical systems and use it for a small amount of time per lap, effectively giving themselves an 80 horsepower increase for the duration of the KERS boost. Actually, it’s a very interesting system – precisely because it’s limited by the weight restrictions that I talk about above. A car with KERS is going to be heavier than one without the system, and it isn’t a game-breaker either – almost all of the Formula One races of the 2009 season were decisively won by cars without KERS, and the possible re-introduction of the system in 2011 won’t necessarily change that situation.

If driving game manufacturers must include some sort of boost system, I’d hope they look at KERS first, making cars with a boost heavier than ones without, instead of perpetuating an inaccuracy about the massive advantages of nitrous oxide. As it stands, the boost isn’t done well in driving games at all.

The Turbocharger Isn’t Magic Either

Unfortunately, nitrous oxide isn’t the only “go faster” technology which people portray inaccurately. The turbocharger isn’t properly understood either.

The turbocharger, short for the now-antiquated terminology, “turbo-supercharger”, is a device fitted onto the exhaust of a car, consisting of a turbine which is propelled by the exhaust gases of a car in order to force more oxygen into an engine. The word “turbo” isn’t just a synonym for “fast”, then; it relates to the component that the turbocharger is made from.

I expect that many people treat the turbocharger as a “win more” device, basically massively improving a car’s performance. Unlike nitrous oxide, it’s actually practical to put onto a production car, but like nitrous oxide, it’s limited by various restrictions.

A turbocharged engine can be outrageously powerful, producing huge amounts of power from a very small engine. The aforementioned RB26DETT engine in the Skyline GT-R series is a 2.6L twin-turbo straight-six which can produce more than 600 horsepower with a stock engine block, and up to a megawatt (1300 horsepower!) with specially-reinforced components. The 1980s saw a massive development of turbocharger technology in Formula One, with 1.5L engines producing 1500 horsepower in qualifying trim. Despite these huge amounts of power, there is one distinctive limitation that a turbocharged car can have which a naturally-aspirated car doesn’t: Turbo lag.

“Turbo lag” is the name given to the phenomenon in turbocharged cars when, at low revs, not enough exhaust gas is going through the turbine and as a result, the car is slowed down. Particularly endemic in turbocharged cars in the 1980s, it has improved significantly since then, but often necessitates a twin-turbo design, where a smaller turbocharger runs at low revolution speeds and a larger turbocharger runs at higher speeds. A turbocharged diesel engine will almost always get a benefit from the turbocharger; a turbocharged petrol engine won’t always benefit.

For production cars, improper turbocharging can also lead to unreliability – even engine explosions. Trying to fit a massive racing-car spec turbocharger to a turbocharged hatchback is not only going to give the car so much lag that you’d have to start it at full revs, but it’s also likely going to make the car overheat or even explode. Too much turbocharger boost is not safe for an engine, and in a spark-ignition engine, maximum boost is usually limited to about 1.5 bar.

Turbochargers can be useful devices. They’re very useful at some of the higher echelons of motorsport, but they’re not some sort of amazing device that can instantly make cars go faster. Anybody who thinks that they are should gently be directed towards the books on motor vehicle technology before it’s too late.

Petrol-Electric Cars: Not The Future, And (Mostly) Ridiculous

I move onto an issue which is more in line with most people’s normal lives. The hybrid car is one of those new technologies which various car manufacturers are trying to push forward. In this age of ever-decreasing petrol reserves, any sort of efficient alternative to the reciprocating petrol engine would be a step in the right direction. Whatever the alternative happens to be, though, I doubt it’s going to be the petrol-electric hybrid.

My feelings towards the petrol-electric hybrid is that it’s a marketing exercise, a way to make people feel better about the planet without actually having to do anything. The problem is that it doesn’t work that way. The petrol-electric car isn’t particularly more efficient than its petrol alternatives, and is, when practical tests of efficiency are used, often less efficient than an equivalent diesel engine.

A petrol-electric hybrid works on simple principles. Along with a standard, albeit usually low-power, reciprocating petrol engine, it has a secondary electric motor, which propels the car at low speeds, with the petrol engine taking over at higher speeds. The electric system is usually recharged by regenerative braking, a way to convert the kinetic energy of a car into electrical energy, or, when the batteries run out of power, by an alternator powered by the petrol engine.

Such a system is very complex, and with complexity comes weight. Weight, as anyone who remembers the first point will have realised, is one of the enemies of car design, particularly when it comes to speed. So, hybrid cars aren’t particularly quick, but then, when you’re driving a car like a hybrid, I don’t suppose that speed is your main objective. But weight also leads to lower fuel economy, which means at high speeds where the electric engine is unable to keep up, it’s at a decided disadvantage versus more conventional cars.

So, let’s take a closer look at the fuel economy of the hybrid. A car like the second-generation Toyota Prius gets a fuel economy of about 65mpg (imperial), according to official UK statistics. That’s pretty good, actually, but it would be a lot more impressive if the Volkswagen Polo Bluemotion (a diesel) didn’t get figures more akin to 80mpg. The official statistics don’t tell the full story either – according to more practical tests by What Car? Magazine in the UK, the Toyota Prius can only get about 50mpg when driven in a normal fashion, which starts to put it down near a series of more powerful and larger diesel engines, let alone the Polo Bluemotion, which could probably call upon a 70-75mpg fuel economy with practical use.

Actually, petrol-electric cars aren’t particularly good for the environment either. Because the Toyota Prius has components sourced from all around the world, and isn’t even built in the American or European factories, they have to ship the cars around the world, probably causing more emissions than they’ll ever save by virtue of their hybrid engines.

Then, there’s those batteries. They’ve got a limited lifespan, somewhere on the region of eight years. This doesn’t hold up well compared to conventional cars. European and Japanese cars in Europe often last for more than a decade, with my own car being twelve years old. Certain collector’s sports cars, particularly a car like the MG B, could last much longer. Many of them are now thirty or more years old. Because it’s not cost-effective to replace the batteries in an eight-year-old hybrid, the whole car will be scrapped, and it is for that reason that a Toyota Prius is considered by some sources to be more damaging to the environment over its lifetime than a Land Rover Discovery.

The Toyota Prius: That veneer of environmental consciousness is merely a veneer.

“But my favourite celebrity drives a Toyota Prius,” you might say. Well, obviously, there’s a problem with that sort of reasoning. When it comes to matters of automobiles, celebrities are more often than not very ignorant as to how a car works. Go and ask somebody like Leonardo di Caprio how a catalytic converter or a gearbox works.

Well, maybe you’ll have a hard time getting in contact with him. Now, there are celebrities who know a lot about cars, people like Jay Leno and Rowan Atkinson, and a few very talented racers in the set, including the late Steve McQueen and Paul Newman. Do you know what sorts of cars they drive? Big V8 or V12 supercars, not pokey little milk floats with stupid hybrid engines. The fact that so many celebrities seem to be driving cars like the Prius and the horrible, abominable, disgusting REVA G-Wiz is precisely because they want to be looked at as having done something to save the planet without actually having to realise that they’d have done a lot more by buying a diesel.

At this point, it might look as I’ve completely shrugged off the hybrid as a possibility altogether, but surprisingly, I haven’t. There is still one hybrid technology that I think might have some practical benefits, and I’m surprised that it wasn’t developed sooner. All you have to do is replace the petrol engine with a diesel engine, and you get the diesel-electric hybrid. It’s more difficult to produce, but suddenly, the fuel economy goes from 65mpg to somewhere over 100mpg. That sounds a lot better, doesn’t it?

(Currently, Vauxhall are looking at a concept for a diesel-electric hybrid that can theoretically get 170mpg, but of course, being attached to General Motors doesn’t help the chances of that technology being developed any time soon.)

Flying Cars: Completely Impractical And Not That Clever

I finish with a feature of cars which almost everybody associates with the future. It’s very present in science-fiction: the flying car, avoiding traffic jams by just flying over them. Nobody’s ever made a practical, efficient design, and I’m convinced that nobody will make a mass-production flying car which actually has any practical benefits.

The flying car, unfortunately, has the fundamental weakness of being impractical. A flying vehicle needs to defeat gravity – which needs a lot of power directed downwards. We can generate hovercraft now, but they have a limited hover range, and can’t be controlled. In order to give the vehicle an effective command of the skies, it’s going to have a lot of lift, which requires a lot of energy.

Once you get your flying car into the air, you’ve got another problem. While cars on the road can rely on friction to stop, flying cars can’t. So, in order for it to stop, you’ve got to spend substantial amounts of energy in propelling it the other way.

By the time that we develop a technology that allows us to have flying cars, we’ll likely have more efficient ways of travelling around anyway. But don’t despair! Not all flying cars need to be made into an obsolete idea – those used for racing may remain. For once, I’m going to allow for Rule of Cool to apply to an inaccuracy, and suggest that flying cars used for racing will remain precisely because they are impractical. These flying cars, such as the ones in F-Zero and Wipeout, work on a better level when you suggest that they are driven by extremely talented drivers that know that they’re impractical and dangerous, and that they drive them for other people’s entertainment. For once, the popular opinion has allowed an inaccuracy to survive – and I welcome it!

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