TechCrunch occasionally reviews cars. Why? Vehicles are some of the most complex, technical consumer electronics available. It’s always been that way. Vehicles, especially those available for the consumer, are the culmination of bleeding-edge advancements in computing, manufacturing, and material sciences. And some can go fast — zoom zoom.
Over the past 12 months, we’ve looked at a handful of vehicles from ultra-luxury to the revival of classic muscle cars. It’s been a fun year full of road trips and burnouts.
In the last weeks of 2018, we drove Audi’s first mass-produced electric vehicle. The familiar e-tron SUV.
I spent a day in an Audi e-tron and drove it hundreds of miles over Abu Dhabi’s perfect tarmac, around winding mountain roads and through sand-covered desert passes. The e-tron performs precisely how a buyer expects a mid-size Audi SUV to perform. On the road, the e-tron is eager and quiet, while off the road, over rocks, and through deep sand, it’s sturdy and surefooted.
A few months later, we got an Audi RS 5 Sportback for a week. It was returned with significantly thinner tires.
This five-door sedan is raw and unhinged, and there’s an unnatural brutality under the numerous electronic systems. Its twin-turbo 2.9L power plant roars while the Audi all-wheel drive system keeps the rubber on the tarmac. It’s insane, and like most vacations, it’s lovely to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live with the RS 5.
At the end of Spring, a 2019 Bentley Continental GT blew us away.
The machine glides over the road, powered by a mechanical symphony performing under the hood. The W12 engine is a dying breed, and it’s a shame. It’s stunning in its performance. This is a 200 mph vehicle, but I didn’t hit those speeds. What surprised me the most is that I didn’t need to go fast. The new Continental GT is thrilling in a way that doesn’t require speed. It’s like a great set of speakers or exclusive liquor. Quality over quantity, and in this mechanical form, the quality is stunning.
In late May, we drove Audi’s 2019 Q8 from Michigan to New York City and back. To the passengers, it was comfortable. For the driver (me), it wasn’t very pleasant.
Yet after spending a lot of time in the Q8, I found it backwards. Most crossovers provide the comfort of a sedan with the utility of an SUV. This one has the rough comfort of an SUV with the limited utility of a sedan. Worse yet, driving the Q8 around town can be a frustrating experience.
The BMW i8 is a long for this world, so we took it out for one last spin, several years after reviewing it just after it was released.
The BMW i8 is just a stepping stone in BMW’s history. An oddball. It’s a limited-edition vehicle to try out new technology. From what I can tell, BMW never positioned the i8 as a top seller or market leader. It was an engineer’s playground. I love it.
This fall, we went to Las Vegas to get the first taste of Ford’s latest GT500. It’s exhilarating and yet manageable.
During my short time with the 2020 GT500, I never felt overwhelmed with power when driving it on city streets. The 2020 GT500 is an exercise in controlled restraint. Somehow this 760 HP Ford can hit 60 mph in 3.3 seconds and still be easy to putz around town. It’s surprising and a testament to the advances made within Dearborn.
Supercars are often an exercise in excess, and yet the McLaren Senna GTR is something different. It’s a testament to how McLaren operates.
Sliding into the driver’s seat, I feel at home. The cockpit is purposeful. The track was cold with some damp spots, and the GTR is a stiff, lightweight race car with immense power on giant slick tires. Conventional wisdom would suggest the driver — me in this case — should slowly work up to speed in these otherwise treacherous conditions. However, the best way to get the car to work is to get the temperature in the tires by leaning on it a bit right away. Bell sent me out in full “Race” settings for both the engine and electronic traction and stability controls. Within a few corners — and before the end of the lap — I had a good feel for the tuning of the ABS, TC, and ESC, which were all intuitive and minimally invasive.
Read the review here.
2020 BMW M850i xDrive Coupe
A grand tourer for the modest millionaire. With all-wheel drive, a glorious engine, and heated armrests, the 850i is exciting and comfortable anywhere.
2019 Ford GT350
Forget the GT500. The GT350, with a standard gearbox and naturally aspirated 5.2L V8, this pony car gives the driver more control and more thrills than its more expensive, supercharged cousin.
2020 BMW M2 Competition Coupe
This small BMW coupe is perfectly balanced. It’s powerful, controllable, and, during our week with it, gave endless thrills (and donuts). This was my favorite car this year.
2019 Ford Raptor
Need a pickup that’s faster than a sports car? You probably don’t, but if so, we discovered the Raptor was capable and enjoyable if not a bit unwieldy in traffic thanks to its wide body.
BMW today announced that it is finally bringing Android Auto to its vehicles, starting in July 2020. With that, it will join Apple’s CarPlay in the company’s vehicles.
The first live demo of Android Auto in a BMW will happen at CES 2020 next month. After that, it will become available as an update to drivers in 20 countries with cars that feature the BMW OS 7.0. BMW will support Android Auto over a wireless connection, though, which somewhat limits its comparability.
Only two years ago, the company said that it wasn’t interested in supporting Android Auto. At the time, Dieter May, who was then the senior VP for Digital Services and Business Model, explicitly told me that the company wanted to focus on its first-party apps in order to retain full control over the in-car interface and that he wasn’t interested in seeing Android Auto in BMWs. May has since left the company, though it’s also worth noting that Android Auto itself has become significantly more polished over the course of the last two years.
“The Google Assistant on Android Auto makes it easy to get directions, keep in touch and stay productive. Many of our customers have pointed out the importance to them of having Android Auto inside a BMW for using a number of familiar Android smartphone features safely without being distracted from the road, in addition to BMW’s own functions and services,” said Peter Henrich, senior vice president Product Management BMW, in today’s announcement.
With this, BMW will also finally offer support for the Google Assistant after early bets on Alexa, Cortana and the BMW Assistant (which itself is built on top of Microsoft’s AI stack). The company has long said it wants to offer support for all popular digital assistants. For the Google Assistant, the only way to make that work, at least for the time being, is Android Auto.
In BMWs, Android Auto will see integrations into the car’s digital cockpit, in addition to BMW’s Info Display and the heads-up display (for directions). That’s a pretty deep integration, which goes beyond what most car manufacturers feature today.
“We are excited to work with BMW to bring wireless Android Auto to their customers worldwide next year,” said Patrick Brady, vice president of engineering at Google. “The seamless connection from Android smartphones to BMW vehicles allows customers to hit the road faster while maintaining access to all of their favorite apps and services in a safer experience.”
BMW announced Thursday it will spend more than €10 billion euros ($11.07 billion) on battery cells from Chinese battery cell manufacturer Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. and Samsung SDI.
The deal comes just days after BMW unveiled its first purely electric premium mid-size sedan, called the i4. The all-electric sedan, which won’t be available until 2021, is powered by the company’s fifth-generation eDrive platform and part of the company’s upcoming onslaught of EVs.
BMW’s original deal with CATL, which was announced in mid-2018, was for €4 billion worth of battery cells. This new contract is from 2020 to 2031, the German automaker said.
BMW Group will be the first customer of CATL’s battery cell factory that is under construction in Erfurt, Germany. BMW played an active part in establishing CATL in Germany, according to Andreas Wendt, member of the Board of Management of BMW AG responsible for purchasing and supplier network.
The automaker also signed a long-term supply contract with Samsung SDI for its fifth-generation electric drivetrains. BMW’s contract with Samsung SDI, which is worth €2.9 billion, is valid from 2021 to 2031.
“In this way, we are securing our long-term battery cell needs,” Wendt said at a supplier event Thursday in Seoul, South Korea.
And if BMW sticks to its electric vehicle agenda, those needs will be substantial. The automaker plans to have 25 electrified models in its lineup by 2023. “Electrified” can mean plug-in hybrids or all-electric vehicles, and BMW has created a flexible vehicle architecture to be able to offer both varieties and respond to market conditions.
More than half of the 25 models will be fully electric, the company said. The BMW Group has said it will double its sales of electrified vehicles between 2019 and 2021. The steepest growth curve will be through 2025. The company has predicted that global sales of electrified vehicles should increase by an average of more than 30% every year.
BMW just took the wraps off its first purely electric premium mid-size sedan. Appropriately called the i4, the vehicle is powered by the company’s fifth-generation eDrive platform and is just part of the company’s upcoming onslaught of EVs. But put down the credit card. This car isn’t coming until late 2021, at the earliest.
Right now, BMW says the i4 will produce 530 hp, making it more potent on paper than BMW’s formidable M3. Combined with the 80 kWh battery, it’s good for a 0 to 62 mph sprint in about four seconds and a top speed of 125 mph. The WLTP cycle, which is different from the EPA ratings, clocks in at 600 kilometers, or about 373 miles.
The i4 uses the fifth-generation BMW eDrive, which will be first available in the iX3 in 2020, followed by the iNEXT. BMW says this platform features a brand new electric motor, power electronics, charging unit and high-voltage battery. The battery implementation in the i4 is flat, according to BMW’s press release, and weighs 550 kilograms. For reference, the battery pack in the Tesla Model 3 weighs 480 kg.
A lot of questions remain about the i4, including the final design. BMW is showing off the model with camouflage, signaling there could be changes in the sheet metal. The price is still yet to be announced, along with how it will sit within BMW’s 4 series lineup. Right now, the i4 looks excellent, but it’s still a few years out, and the landscape will likely look different by the time it hits dealers.
BMW has been equipping its cars with in-air gesture control for several years and I never paid attention to it. It seemed redundant. Why wave your hand in the air when there are dials, buttons and touchscreens to do the same? Until this week, that is, when took delivery of a BMW 850i loaner equipped with the tech. This is about the future.
I didn’t know the 850i used gesture control, because, frankly, I had forgotten BMW had this technology; I stumbled upon it. Just make a motion in the air to control the volume or tell the navigation to send you home. Now, in 2019, with giant touchscreens set to takeover cars, I find BMW’s gesture control smart and a great solution to a future void of buttons.
It’s limited in use right now. There are only a few commands: volume, nav, recent calls, and turning on and off the center screen. It’s easy to see additional functions added in the future. It’s sorely missing the ability to step back a screen. I want that function the most.
Here’s how it works: to control the volume, take one finger and spin it in the air above the center stack. Anywhere. The range is impressive. A person can do this next to the screen or two feet away. A person’s arm could be resting on the center armrest and lift in the air and twirl their finger. Bam, it controls the volume. Put two fingers up – not spinning, like a flat peace sign – and the screen turns on or off. Make a fist and open it twice to load the navigation or phone (user picks the function).
After using the system for several days, I never had a false positive. The volume control took about 10 minutes to master while the other gestures worked the first time.
In this car, these commands work in conjunction with physical buttons, dials, and a touchscreen. The gestures are optional. A user can turn off the function in the settings, too.
I found the in-air control a lovely addition to the buttons, though. At night, in the rain, they’re great as they do not require the driver to remove their focus from the road. Just twirl your fingers to turn down the volume.
I’m not convinced massive touchscreens are better for the driver. The lack of actual, tactile response along with burying options in menus can lead drivers to take their eyes off the road. For the automaker, using touchscreens is less expensive than developing, manufacturing, and installing physical buttons. Instead of having rows of plastic buttons and dials along with the mechanical bits behind them, automakers can use a touchscreen and program everything to be on screen. Tesla did it first, Ram, Volvo, and now Ford is following.
In-air gesture control could improve the user experience with touchscreens. When using BMW’s system, I didn’t have to take my eyes off the road to find the volume — something that I have to do occasionally, even in my car. Instead, I just made a circle in the air with my right hand. Likewise, BMW’s system lets the user call up the nav and navigate to a preset destination (like work or home) by just making another gesture.
BMW debuted this system in 2015. The automotive world was different. Vehicles were
Sila Technologies, the battery materials company that has partnered with BMW and Daimler, landed $45 million in new funding and hired two high-profile executives, including Kurt Kelty, who led the battery cell team at Tesla for more than a decade.
Kelty, who was on Sila Nano’s advisory board, has been appointed vice president of automotive, according to Sina Nanotechnologies. The company also hired Bill Mulligan, the former executive vice president of global operations at SunPower, as its first COO.
Kelty was most recently senior vice president of operations at indoor vertical farming company Plenty . But he was best known for his time at Tesla, where he was a considered a critical link between the automaker and battery cell partner Panasonic.
“As part of Sila Nano’s advisory board, I’ve seen the results of the breakthrough battery chemistry firsthand and I could not pass up the opportunity to take it a step further and lead the company’s automotive partnership efforts,” Kelty said in a statement.
The company said Monday that additional $45 million in investment came from Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, bringing its total funding to $340 million. Earlier this year, Sila Nano secured $170 million in Series E funding led by Daimler AG.
This latest investment and expanded leadership team comes as the company, which is valued at more than $1 billion, aims to bring its first batteries to market.
Sila Nanotechnologies has developed a drop-in silicon-based anode that replaces graphite in lithium-ion batteries without requiring changes to the manufacturing process. The company claims that its materials can improve the energy density of batteries by 20% and has the potential to reach 40% improvement over traditional li-ion.
Here’s what that all means.
A battery contains two electrodes. There’s an anode (negative) on one side and a cathode (positive) on the other. An electrolyte sits in the middle and acts as the courier that moves ions between the electrodes when charging and discharging. Graphite is commonly used as the anode in commercial lithium-ion batteries. However, a silicon anode can store a lot more lithium ions.
The basic premise — and one that others are working on — is this: by replacing graphite in the cell with silicon, there would be more space to add more active material. This would theoretically allow you to increase the energy density—or the amount of energy that can be stored in a battery per its volume—of the cell.
Using silicon also helps reduce costs. In the end, the battery would be cheaper and have more energy packed in the same space.
The company says its innovative approach can be used in consumer electronics like wireless ear buds and smartwatches as well as electric vehicles and even energy storage for the grid.
The company started building the first production lines for its battery materials in 2018. That first line is capable of producing the material to supply the equivalent of 50 megawatts of lithium-ion batteries, Sila Nanotechnologies CEO Gene Berdichevsky, an early employee at Tesla who led the technical development of the automaker’s Roadster battery system, told TechCrunch back in April.
Sila Nanotechnologies said Monday that it will continue to ramp up production volume and plans to supply its first commercial customers in consumer electronics within the next year. The company said it also plans to go to market with battery partner Amperex Technology Limited and automotive partners BMW and Daimler.