Planes, trains and automobiles

2012 Chevrolet VoltCar launches usually follow a predictable format: you fly somewhere to drive a few cars, talk to some engineering types then fly home, all the time cocooned in a bubble of the manufacturer’s making.

And what’s becoming clear in the car industry is that there’s very little new left to explore, at least in pure mechanical engineering terms. This was ably demonstrated to me during a recent drive of Chevrolet’s new Volt. Now, the Volt is something genuinely special – a mass market electric car with a petrol engine as a range extender to cure any range anxiety – and performs well. Due in the UK in 2012 it’s likely to be popular with the people who have understandably dismissed a pure electric car due to its limitations.

Mechanically it drives like a regular car. It boasts conventional suspension and there are no trick, high-cost metals in its construction. Granted, the battery technology is clever and so are the electronics that manage it all. But this was all put in the shade by the funicular railway used as transport to get from the driving destination to the overnight hotel.

Built in 1888 it was constructed as a means of transporting guest to said hotel 884 metres above sea level. Still in use today, it’s an impressive sight and works seamlessly. And don’t forget, like all the century-old bridges, tunnels and other engineering projects, the construction of this railway was undertaken without the fancy technology we take for granted.

It’s because of this that such projects are so impressive, and highlights how little progress has been made in recent years. The basic principles were discovered many years ago and have been refined to death ever since.

1936 Chevrolet SuburbanThis is also true of the third major way of travel: flying. Save for the likes of Concorde – itself an old design – there’s nothing really radical about the planes we use today. The basic shape and principals of fight are the same now as when the Wright bothers took to the sky. Furthermore, the plane you board tomorrow might not be as brand spanking new as you think it is.

What will be new is the electronics that fly the plane, control the railway points systems and manage the flow of power from the battery to the wheels of Chevrolet’s Volt. The wheel was invented a long time ago, but it’s the software engineers of today that will shape our future. Only now are we starting to fully appreciate the skills of such people and gradually dropping the ‘nerd’ and ‘geek’ nametags.

The tools of the future will be the mouse and keyboard, not hammer and axe. And while that’s progress in itself, the sad thing is we probably won’t see so many grandiose traditional engineering projects undertaken simply because the demand won’t be there. Why bother tunneling under the sea at great expense to lay a railway line when laying a fibre optic communications cable will be easier and more useful.

The Volt is a good car but it still has four wheels, a conventional steering wheel and is made out of metal. In truth that’s little different to the Chevrolets of 100 years ago.

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