Ah, Japan… the land of the rising sun, raw fish, cartoons for adults, terrifying robots, and many, many other clichés. But of far more interest to me, James, your esteemed host and automotive super-fan, is the best-of-the-best car tech unveiled at the Tokyo Auto Show 2015.
Yet another car show? Why do I care?
Okay, I’ll admit there are quite a few car shows knocking about these days, usually featuring manufacturers showing off absurd concept cars which will never see the light of day (with the possible exception of Citroen, who have brought the profoundly concept-car-styled C4 Cactus to market – I’ll let you make up your own mind about those side panels…) However, we’re at an interesting time now with lots of innovative car tech slowly emerging out of the R&D labs, and what better venue than uber-techy Tokyo for the manufacturers to show off their wares?
Petrol – where we’re going we don’t need petrol (or diesel)!
This is undoubtedly how Dr Emmett Brown in Back to the Future would describe the hugely exciting emergence of hydrogen fuel cell cars. These boast the key benefit of electric cars (no nasty stuff coming out of the exhaust) without compromising the other attributes of conventionally-fuelled vehicles – quick to refuel, good range, and decent performance. Unless there really is a breakthrough in battery technology which renders electric cars non-dreadful, my money’s on hydrogen fuel cells as the automotive power source of future.
Sadly, there may be a bit of a wait until that happy future reaches us, as whilst many manufacturers have demonstrated fuel cell prototypes, only a handful have released production models (the Toyota Mirai being the poster-boy at the moment) but these are expensive whilst still being loss-making for manufacturers, are on very restricted regional release (e.g. exclusively in California), and there’s not yet a decent hydrogen refuelling infrastructure. Give it time though – the technology continues to improve and become more affordable, and loads of manufacturers are planning to release production fuel cell models in the next couple of years, including Ford, Daimler, Renault and Nissan.
Keep your eyes on the road! Or not?
Self-driving cars are another hot topic, and one that leaves me a little torn… if you hadn’t worked it out yet, I actually quite like driving, so the concept of the world becoming one giant Uber fills me with a sense of deep loss. However, assuming that you can turn off Mr Cyber Taxi Driver when you fancy, the idea of being able to catch up on sleep or The Apprentice while being safely navigated around the swerving lorries and muppets with no lane discipline on the M25, does start to sound rather appealing. There’s also a decent safety argument here – autonomous braking is already preventing accidents.
In Tokyo, Nissan have the most to show in this area. Their self-driving concept, the IDS (Intelligent Driving System), features a flurry of sensors – laser scanners, 360 degree cameras, radar, and artificial intelligence which could soon safely change lanes, navigate cross-roads, understand traffic signals and anticipate pedestrians about the step into the road. Most intriguingly, it’s also claimed to learn from your driving so that it can imitate your driving style when on auto-pilot – so under no circumstances lend yours to your 17-year old son. This should all be achieved without the Nissan IDS becoming sentient and rising up against its human overlords (hopefully).
What about the cool concept cars?
In amongst the ludicrous efforts, one stood out as genuinely stunning, and with a nice engineering twist too: the Mazda RX-Vision. Visually, it resembles the latest generation Mazda MX-5 crossed with a Jaguar F-Type crossed with a Mercedes-AMG GT. From an engineering standpoint, it represents a return to the rotary Wankel (stop giggling, what are you, 8 years old?) engine. This was last seen in the RX-8, off the market since 2012, so hopefully they’ve used the time to refine the rotary tech and keep the benefits, including huge power-to-weight ratio, and minimise some of the disadvantages, such as its rather thirsty appetite for both fuel and oil.
Lastly, the Nissan Concept 2020 Vision Gran Turismo (yes, they’ve actually built a real one) offered a truly insane, Batmobile-meets-adolescent-bedroom-wall glimpse of what their next epic GT-R may look like. Bring it on, Tokyo – this is what car shows are for!