“The Torque Shifter”

I’ve long been obsessed with EVs, ever since getting a remote control Traxxas Rustler. It was 2WD and had oodles of torque, at least for about ten minutes before the NiCAD batteries wore out. It could do wheelies. Wheelies!

That was about 20 years ago, and now electric motors and batteries have made such progress that we are seeing a full-tilt fight between manufacturers to gain EV dominance over the next decade. People are taking electric motors and more-and-more inserting them into older vehicles for a bit of fun, something that interests me enough to have made an entire website about it called SwitchMotive.

But one thing that has always bothered me a little about consumer EVs, and that is that the progress of moving from CO2-emitting ICE vehicles to EVs seem coupled with increasing driving automation. Automating the laborious work of commuting is worthy work. But for a subset of enthusiasts such as myself, something seems to be getting lost in the transition.

The specific complaint that seems to be the biggest friction point that I’ve seen is how quiet EVs are. From the outside, this is the most obvious hallmark trait of EVs. For those who have seen videos of Tesla Model S P100Ds beat out fire-breathing Dodge Demons at the drag strip, it can be disconcerting to see the silent linear acceleration nonchalantly assassinate what was intended to be the king of all drag cars. It is a anxiety-inducing harbinger that those who have for decades associated big, loud engines with fast quarter mile times.

But I think the fear is more complex and runs deeper than the fear of our cars being quiet. There’s no existential crisis there. The real crisis is that our control over these machines is waning. There was a respect to be earned with speed in the past, it forced us to conquer our own fear and build skills over years. Speed forced innovation and a wizardry in suck/squeeze/bang/blow physics, hard-earned in backyards and single stall garages. Now real speed takes setting the dial to Ludicrous and mashing the accelerator, something any Silicon-Valley executive can do hours after purchase.

The future doesn’t look good for fun driving, and that’s what has enthusiasts clinging to their Jerry cans. With EVs comes a single gear and no third pedal, with EVs comes one-pedal driving and the brake rarely if ever used, with EVs comes level 3, 4, and eventually 5 automation and the socially acceptable practice of literally sleeping at the wheel.

I believe it doesn’t have to be this way. I think for most people, automated EVs and public transportation will continue to improve to the point where moving around is safe and nigh effortless. I applaud this future. But we also need a way to satisfy the human-machine connection, feeling at one with the vehicle, in a future that seems more inclined toward taking away control.

I have spent many hours on walks and in the shower pondering this question: how do we make EVs exciting for the driving enthusiast? Really, I am asking the question for myself. I respect the speed of EVs, I want vehicles that are cleaner, more reliable, and faster. But I don’t want to lose any driving engagement in the process. It is a difficult challenge. Any solution must not be too contrived. Throwing speakers in the back of an EV to make loud vroom-vroom noises is not cool, just as fake vents aren’t cool. Cool things are purposeful. Also, it must not hinder progress. For example, adding gears to enable a manual shifter to bring back some driver engagement sounds like a good idea, as gears always multiply torque. But at the end of the day if a motor can spin up to 20,000 rpm and has enough torque to shred tires, there’s no logical reason to add the weight and complexity of gears.

Then, a few innovations in EVs came together when discussing this very problem with Spencer Hehl. AWD torque-vectoring is really the crucible from which the idea of “The Torque Shifter” emerged. Once only a curious and complex bastion of off-road vehicles and niche supercars, AWD torque-vectoring is seeing a resurgence with electric vehicles because if you put a motor at each corner it becomes incredibly easy to control the torque to each wheel – just change the torque to each motor.

The ideal algorithm that controls AWD EV torque vectoring, aka how much torque to put at each wheel in any given situation based on computer code, is not a settled matter. There are competing algorithms that are endless study in research labs, both public and private. More than a few PhDs have been likely given on the grounds of a more innovative algorithm for torque vectoring.

That makes sense. Driving is a dynamic environment with many factors to consider. Steering angle, vehicle weight, vehicle weight distribution, the friction of the tires, the friction of the road, the deflection angles of the tires… the list goes on. At any given moment, these all can be considered input variables, with the output being the optimal driving line. Then, consider that the “optimal driving” line (especially on a race track) often consists of multiple apexes that inform each other, and creating an optimum algorithm now has to take into account the future optimal driving line. In practice, this is possible with predictive analytics and GPS coordinates and situational awareness (e.g. “I am at this GPS coordinate, traveling at this velocity, therefore I must be racing at Sonoma Raceway, and must take into account these upcoming curves.”).

It’s heady stuff.

And it’s all based on taking more control away from the driver. How do you implement torque vectoring, which inarguably creates a faster line around a track and creates a more stable-feeling driving experience, without making the whole experience feel artificial?

Introducing “The Torque Shifter.”