Vehicles

OUR 4X4 FUTURE?

What’s in Land Rover’s concepts today will be in the vehicles of tomorrow. Transparent bonnets aren’t the only thing that will blow your mind! Story by Robert Pepper Well, ok, maybe these things won’t be in your 4X4 tomorrow, but certainly in a few years. In the last couple of decades Land Rover have invented Hill Descent Control, popularised traction control and were first out of the blocks with Terrain Response, an adaptive system that sets up the vehicle for different terrain. These technologies are now standard in some form on pretty much every new vehicle, but not all of the inventions have been successful first time out, most notably deleting the manually lockable centre diff in the Discovery 2. That’s the nature of innovation – some you win, some you lose. And you lose some customers too, as this focus on technology has the anorak-wearing, rivet-counting, leaf-spring driving Green Oval faithful spewing old-world expletives into their instant coffee, but the fact is that Land Rover have decided they will be the ones to lead the way in off-road innovation, and that old guard is never going to buy anything more electric than a 15 amp fuse. Land Rover have a long and proud 4X4 history, but they’ll only make it another 60 years if they lead the charge for technically advanced vehicles. So now they’ve released the Discovery Vision Concept, which is like looking through a portal into the future. In the “had to happen sometime” category there’s Remote Control Drive, where you ‘drive’ a Discovery from outside the vehicle using your smartphone. For reference, check what your kids are doing on their PlayStations. Land Rover say this will be handy for negotiating tough terrain, and it’s hard to disagree there as it’s the ultimate spotter – none of this “oh, sorry, THAT left” business, or if there is, it’s all your own fault. You could also use it to drive the car through open gates without getting back in, or to hook up trailers, or to slot into tight parking bays. And if you’re incapacitated in the bush you could drive out just using your fingers, although the system works only at very slow speeds. I expect in the future the car’s many cameras could relay their pictures to your smartphone so you can see things from the car’s perspective as you control it. A related technology is All Terrain Progress Control, which is simply the car crawling along using Laser Terrain Scanning to create a 3D map of what’s in front, reconfiguring and driving itself according to what it finds. Toyota already have this in the form of Crawl Control, albeit without the scanning. I’m speculating here, but maybe in the future deployable drones and information from other cars ahead will provide more information for the car. If you the driver prefer to be involved there’s All Terrain Coach which has the car give you recommendations on system setup, and Enhanced All Terrain Coach which projects a path over the terrain in front for you to follow with specific reference points – place your wheel right there – using something called Laser Referencing.   In the “didn’t see that coming” basket – but not literally – is the transparent bonnet. Yes, you look through the bonnet at the ground, so you can see where the wheels are and what you’re driving over. The benefits of this are obvious – much, much easier wheel placement off-road. But the car doesn’t really have a transparent bonnet, it’s actually just a clever camera simulation which makes the bonnet appear transparent by projecting the camera image onto the windscreen, which is made of “smart glass”. This smart glass can do more than just project images or data for a heads-up display of information like speed, revs and the like, similar to what military fighter jets have been using for some time now as it’s better to keep the driver/pilots eyes up, looking ahead. The smart glass can even darken or lighten according to what it senses or what the car wants to do. If all that isn’t enough of a change then you’ll also need to get used to how you control the car too. There aren’t any steering column stalks for things like lights and indicators, because mostly the car will auto-sense when they’re needed based on what it thinks or what you’re doing, and when you do want to take control you’ll use your voice or gestures. Gesture and voice control is by no means new. The basic technology has been around for decades, and many cars have voice control already, but it’s never really taken off because people don’t feel comfortable talking to objects. Word recognition is unreliable as well as slow, there’s the potential for confusion and overall it’s just quicker and easier to simply press a button. But as with all technology, voice and gesture recognition will improve, our attitude to it will soften and one day it’ll become the norm. I’m sure when telephones were invented people felt uncomfortable using them, and now look at us, permanently hunched over smartphones. But in the meantime, does anyone else see inadvertently exciting times if gestures or words are misunderstood? Aside from the completely new designs, some existing technologies have been refined, notably Land Rover’s Terrain Response system which was a world-first, introduced on the Discovery 3 back in 2005. This system reconfigures the car’s systems to suit one of five terrain types – grass/gravel/snow, mud/ruts, sand, rocks and normal mode for on-road driving. The driver simply selects the appropriate program and the traction control, throttle response, auto gearshift points, suspension, stability control and other systems are subtly modified for best effect on the terrain in question. For example in sand there’d be late up and downshifts for power, whereas for grass/gravel/snow the gearshifts would be early to avoid wheel spin. Over the years Terrain Response has been continuously tweaked and improved. For example, in the MY2014 Discovery 4 the system recognises when wheels are in the air and automatically increases the sensitivity of the traction control to suit. And in the current Range Rover there’s Automatic Terrain Response which senses the terrain and auto-picks the best mode for the car. This concept is extended further now to Adaptive Terrain Response which, in conjunction with the Laser Terrain Scanning, configures the car before it gets to the terrain. Finally, this removes a long-standing problem of all electronic systems which is that they are reactive, needing to wait for a problem before they do anything. More speculation on my part, but imagine the car knowing a wheel is about to hit a drop-off and extending the suspension down into the hole, or conversely at speed realising one wheel is about to hit a bump and relaxing the suspension just in time, on that wheel only, or proactively locking the differential just before a wheel lifts. The improvement in offroad capability would be immense.   The innovations keep on coming inside the vehicle too. All seven seats are individually moveable and configurable, including conversion to tables, and Land Rover have emphasised that the third row is just as important and well catered for as the first and second. Of course, the seats are electric, so with a wave of your hand you could change the interior layout of the car – handy if you’re approaching with children in tow – and in future perhaps it’ll sense you’re approaching and pre-emptively set itself up in your preferred configuration.   Once inside, Land Rover are keen to save you every little bit of inconvenience, so if you want to talk to someone in a different seat row the in-car video conferencing system will let you see their face without the trouble of needing to turn around to actually look them in the eye. Feels wrong to you, but your kids will accept it as normal. It’s how they talk to their friends now anyway. Maybe those cameras can keep an eye on the kids fighting in the back seats and automatically administer justice from time to time; perhaps ten seconds with no Internet access or something.   The concept also shows a vehicle with what’s known as suicide doors, which are rear doors that open backwards, not forwards, like on the Toyota FJ Cruiser and Mazda RX-8. The name comes from the fact that the doors aren’t automatically closed under acceleration or by the wind at speed, which is why they’re always designed so that the front doors must be opened before the rears can be opened. However, that constraint doesn’t make sense for the Discovery with its family-practical focus, so my guess is the real car will either have conventional rear doors, or there’ll be some sort of electronic interlock that prevents the rear doors opening at speed. Once you depart the car you can take your gear with you as built-in to the vehicle will be Detachable Door Cases – luggage storage systems with wheels. No word yet on how many snatch straps or shackles will fit inside them.   The Discovery concept is designed to be a family base vehicle, so there’s electrically operated fold-out door sills (doubt they’ll be rock sliders) on the sides, with LED lights that automatically illuminate ground so you can see what you’re about to step on. At the rear a gesture will see an Event Platform (think flat board on the rear like a ute tailgate) extend on which you can stand, or carry things like bicycles. So there’s a lot of new technology on the way, and Land Rover also say that this is “just the beginning”. The company’s mission statement is clearly to be the leader in premium all-terrain vehicles, which means on-road/off-road and modern versatility. It’s also safe to say that with their recent run of year-on-year record sales and ongoing investment from megacorp parent Tata Group they will be well poised to continue amazing us with innovations. But is all this tech what we want, or need? Here opinion will be divided. Land Rover say that “by enabling better vision and decision-making, they aim to provide the driver with more of the right information at the right time, helping progress through seemingly impassable terrain, and leading to more confidence, security and enjoyment on any terrain.” That’s true, unless you are the sort of person who actually enjoys meeting the challenge of driving on difficult terrain in which case it’ll be less, rather than more fun. But that’s me, and probably you. There are many others who don’t care how they get to their destination so long as they get there, and if the car does the driving that’s just fine as there’s more time to do something else such as, well, update Facebook I suppose. I think those two camps will never be reconciled, and it is clear which one Land Rover belongs to. But don’t be hating Land Rover, as you can rest assured the other manufacturers will be moving in that direction too. Change is inevitable, and technology can’t be uninvented.       One question that will always be raised is that of reliability. I don’t think that will be a problem as many of these systems are not essential for the car’s basic mobility, and reliability of 4X4s is today reaching unprecedented levels and only likely to improve still further. However, it is possible to poorly design systems such that failure of an apparently unnecessary system – Laser Terrain Scanning, say – could render the entire car inoperable. I hope that design trap is avoided. Finally, could this concept car be used for recreational offroad touring? As with all press releases the answer lies in the language used over time, and here Land Rover talk of using features for “…picnics and watching the polo to changing kids’ muddy rugby kit”. That’s not quite the same as crossing deserts, overland camping or enjoying a dune drive. But that said, I think these new Landies will certainly be offroad-capable because Land Rover have also been very consistent with language about work in rough terrain with words such as “Unsurpassed All-Terrain Capability”. This is because off-road capability is a big part of why people buy the vehicle. I call it the “diver’s watch” syndrome, where people buy watches that are water-resistant to say 200m knowing they’ll never go deeper than a quick snorkel. Same deal for Land Rover, the buyers like to know they could, even if they never will. I am also quite certain that the technology in the Discovery concept will see it outperform today’s lifted and locked heavy-duty trucks and it will leave today’s vehicles scrabbling for grip as it cruises with aplomb. Will these technologies ever be real? Definitely yes. All, and more not even mentioned here are within the bounds of reality today, and Land Rover have a recent history of showing concepts then delivering, such as the LRX which became the Evoque, and the Adaptive Terrain Response and Wade Aid on the DC100 which are now features of the latest Land Rovers. So love it or hate it – that’s your choice, but the only question is when, not if.

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Unsealed 4X4

Unsealed 4X4

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