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    Your Car Is the Most Complicated Gadget You Own

    Written by

    Derek Mead


    Cars are more powerful, more efficient, and smarter than they've ever been—and only getting more so. Indeed, your ride is the most complicated gadget you own. So how does one integrate the rapid advancement of mechanical and electronic systems into a cohesive whole?

    Recently, Cadillac handed a group of auto journalists—as well as yours truly—the keys to a next-generation CTS sedan, and had us all drive through the New York countryside to check out the new car. (Full disclosure: The drive also included a stop for lunch at a particularly old-school French restaurant, where I felt quite underdressed.) Now, reviewing luxury sedans isn't exactly Motherboard's usual fare, and I haven't driven enough competitors to start now. What the drive did offer was a chance to discuss the years of development and engineering a car goes through, via a chat with John Plonka, the engineering manager of the CTS program.

    A wee bit of background: Notable about the 2014 CTS is that the car lost a few hundred pounds over the outgoing model, despite growing larger. Also, the new range of powertrains focuses on higher-tech, smaller displacement engines, with a 2.0 liter turbo four-cylinder, a 3.6 liter V6, and a 420 horsepower twin-turbo V6. It's a sign that American drivers, who once expected their big cars to have V8s and didn't trust turbochargers after some disastrous attempts in the 80s, are now opening their eyes to advanced methods of developing efficient power. As you'd expect for a brand-new luxury car, they're chock full of myriad electronics and gizmos, like seat bolsters that vibrate if you drift out of your lane. And as you'd expect, the twin-turbo Vsport model was very quick.

    Chatting with Plonka, it's clear that the market's increasing embrace of technology has led manufacturers to try to outdo each other at every turn, from active suspensions to touchscreens and smartphone integration. It's a tall order, especially considering ever-stricter regulations on emissions, fuel mileage, and safety. Plus, at the end of the day, you have to make it all work together so people want to actually drive what you've built.

    MOTHERBOARD: Technology has really exploded in cars in the last decade. Where do you think the market is going? Is the end point autonomous cars?

    Plonka: That's where some people want to go, I think there's a place for that. But I think at Cadillac you're always going to have the choice to really drive your car. We're about providing a driver-centric experience, and making these cars enjoyable to drive.

    Do we want to include autonomous driving features? Absolutely. Our customers value those features. With this car, we've got lane departure warning, and things to help keep you safe and alert your attention if you get distracted on the road. We have all of the technologies, the radar systems, to not only alert you, but assist you with the panic brake assist or the autonomous braking. The rear virtual bumper is a fantastic system, I imagine in New York it'd be really helpful. When you're backing up, it can actually bring the car to a stop.

    Those are all features that we're incorporating, while making sure that they're not intruding into your experience driving the vehicle.

    I think it's really interesting to think about where the line's going to be drawn for how much you hand over to the car and how much you keep. It's a question we've never had to ask before.

    The CTS in particular is all about staying connected to the road, but comfortably in this safe shell. You know that the car is aware of its surroundings, and that it's going to help alert you to any dangers, and even help you avoid them.

    At the same time, when there is no danger, you're fully in control and connected to the road.

    Did you think 15 years ago that these are the types of things people would wonder about? That we'd have self-driving cars?

    [laughs] The dreamers have always had it, and the sci-fi is definitely becoming reality. I'm glad to see that we haven't gone too far. We're not trying to make this a sensory deprivation chamber. It's not meant to be a place where you get in and teleport to where you're going. It should be about the drive. We want people to be able to enjoy that.

    Even the act of balancing physical buttons with touchscreens is an engineering and design challenge, one which varies fairly widely among carmakers. Considering that drivers need to be able to utilize the tech without being overly distracted or confused, it's a rather key area of development.

    A car is like the ultimate interface, and that design challenge is fascinating to me.

    Absolutely, and having to avoid driver overload. There's so much input from everything going on around you. It's something that we have to show restraint in the industry, so that we don't have how we integrate technology legislated and dictated to us. It's one of those things that we're constantly fighting. I think we're pretty in tune to what our customers are looking for from an interface standpoint, and want to provide all of the features that they want while at the same time looking out for their best interests. You know, making sure that they can stay safe while they're operating their vehicles.

    How does legislation fit into that?

    There's always the threat of legislating how things can work. You see the ever-increasing safety requirements on vehicles. That's not to say I'm for or against regulation, but we don't want it to constrain what we do. We want to be able to offer the customers what they're asking for, and do it in a safe way.  If we're responsible in that respect, then regulation is not required. That's our goal, to have the flexibility to offer customers things like Q but do it in a way that keeps them safe while driving.

    It's not meant to be a place where you get in and teleport to where you're going. It should be about the drive. We want people to be able to enjoy that.

    Americans were really concerned about cars' efficiency in the 70s and early 80s, which led to a lot of uninspired cars. Now things have gotten more powerful and more efficient, and yet people are still looking to save more gas money.  How do you balance that?

    It varies by market. Obviously the luxury market we're working in right now, fuel economy is important, but it's not necessarily top three in a reason for purchase. While we obviously are sensitive to it, our goal is to provide an engaging driving experience overall that is not painful to the pocketbook. Efficiency is important, but it's definitely with an eye towards performance and delivering a driving experience that's enjoyable.

    There are some competitors that have done things that makes the driving experience less enjoyable in the name of ultimate efficiency. And while that lets you claim a really good number on your window sticker, it takes away from the overall experience. Poorly executed engine start-stop systems are a good example of that. We're sensitive to that in that anything we do in the name of efficiency can't be a negative from a driving standpoint.

    For American drivers, especially in the luxury segment, people are so conditioned to focus on cylinder count. How do you convince people that you can still have power with smaller engines?

    I think the answer there is you have to get in and drive. The numbers tell some of the story. When you get into the twin-turbo Vsport, the numbers are impressive. 420 horsepower, 430 lb/ft of torque. It'll do zero-to-60 in 4.5 seconds. That's plenty of fast, and the numbers sound good.

    But until you really get in and feel what happens, you don't know how fast it is. They developed the induction system specifically to reduce the amount of air volume between the compressors and the cylinder inlets. By doing that you eliminate the turbo lag, or virtually eliminate the turbo lag, and you get this immediate response. As soon as you tip into the throttle. That's what I think people equate cylinder count with. They equate that with the torque that you feel. With the twin-turbo V6, you get that immediate torque response when you dip into the throttle.

    It's really about getting people into the car. You can attract them with the numbers, but they really have to drive it to understand that the technology can give you that same driving experience, but still give you very good efficiency. We expect the V-Sport, although certification isn't done yet, it should be in the mid-20s for highway fuel economy. That's pretty impressive for a car that will do the Nürburgring in 8:10.

    How much focus do you have on efficiency?

    You're not only looking for power density, you're looking for efficient packaging. With the pedestrian protection standards that are common in Europe, and will eventually be coming to the US, packaging the powertrain underhood is important, and still giving that low appearance and styling that we want, and not having all of our cars look like big jellybeans. I mean, that's what the regulators would have us do, so we have to become more efficient from a fuel economy standpoint, but from a packaging standpoint, to be able to meet all of the more stringent crash regulations.

    Quick: Name a current luxury car without LEDs somewhere on its front fascia. Yeah, you can't. 

    So turbos have made a comeback, and hybrids are popular. What about diesels in the US?

    It's a tough sell. It's a really tough sell. There were so many bad ones put out there in the 80s, and there are so many of our customers that remember that. I think it's got a stigma still in the US. It's unfortunate. I've driven some just phenomenal diesel engines, where they're torquey, they're responsive, they're not much noisier than their gasoline counterparts. I would love to see them make a bigger push in the US, but it's very difficult to get over that stigma.

    They're starting to make a comeback though.

    Yeah, definitely. A good friend of mine drives one actually, and he loves the fact that he's got 600 miles range on his little station wagon. It's great, I wish I could get more drivers to do that here. I would say we're ready to offer them, but it's not going to be before the market demands them.

    From an engineering standpoint, how do you balance what you think is probably best with market expectations? 

    It's done early on in the program. A lot of what we're doing is forecasting where the consumer demands are going to shift over time.  A lot of it is looking at future government regulations. If you look at the vehicle development cycle, it's long; it's measured in months and years. When you look at powertrains development cycles, it's even longer. We've got a powertrain team that's looking at trends in the market and regulation changes that are coming, and we're already working on those powertrains that you'll see seven or eight years down the road. It's a matter of defining early on in the program what this segment really needs, and what the appropriate powertrains are for that.

    How many people work on a car like this in the development phase?

    I would say it's hundreds. On the design side of things, there are a lot of hands that touch the vehicle during the styling development. You've got dozens of engineers that are working on the car long before you build a prototype vehicle, they're just working on the prototype architecture of the vehicle. The basic dimensions and layout of the car. And then when you get into the actual execution of it, you've got probably 100 engineers working on it at any given time when you split up all of the different components. 

    I was surprised by how much weight you guys took out of these things. Is that because materials are getting cheaper, or because you're using them better?

    No, nothing is getting cheaper. It's a combination of appropriate application of high-tech materials—using aluminum where it makes sense—but I also like to look at it as good old fashioned efficient engineering. It's using the fundamentals, using straight-line structural members. To use that material in the most efficient manner. Every time you have to put a kink in a linkage or a body structural member, it become less efficient. When you start with the more efficient geometry, you can be more efficient in your material use. 

    Cutting that weight helps in every way, yeah?

    It's the key to everything. When you start to add mass, it snowballs. As you add some additional body weight, now you need bigger, heavier brakes to stop the car. Now you've added more mass. It just snowballs, so you have to stop it right at the beginning.

    We really had a focus on counting overall vehicle mass in grams, not kilograms. When you have that mindset, when somebody comes in and says, "I'm going to make a change to this part," and we ask how many grams it'll add. If they say, "Oh, it'll add 100 grams"—in the old days, that's a tenth of a kilogram. No big deal. But 100 grams is a lot. If every engineer is focusing on how much grams his part weights, it's just a different mental model. We used it starting on the ATS, and now we just applied the same mindset to the CTS to keep the weight down.

    That's the holistic approach to efficiency.

    Right. And it had to be there from day one. It's a lot more expensive to try to take it out later. If you engineer everything to be lightweight, on the edge, and as efficient as possible, then as you develop you can strategically add mass where you need it. That's a much more successful approach.