Muscle cars will be last to go driverless, execs say

Michael Martinez
The Detroit News

Royal Oak — The muscle cars of the future likely will be made of lighter-weight materials and have more efficient engines, but don’t expect them to be driverless.

Performance executives from Ford Motor Co., Dodge and Chevrolet put the brakes on any talk of autonomous Corvettes, Mustangs or Vipers on Thursday morning at “Horsepower Wars,” WWJ-950’s annual business breakfast at Duggan’s Irish Pub.

“We probably as a group will be the last to adopt autonomous technology,” said Tadge Juechter, chief engineer of the Corvette, to applause from the audience. “The whole purpose of our cars is to enjoy the driving experience, not to check out your email while you’re moving from one place to the other.”

The executives were quick to note that autonomous cars likely will be commonplace 20 years from now. But Tim Kuniskis, CEO of the Dodge brand said, “There’s still going to be people who want to get in their cars, have fun and enjoy driving.”

Juechter said autonomous technology could help improve performance vehicles’ computer functions and driving capabilities, and that some technologies that will be present in the cars 20 years from now probably don’t exist.

“We’ll have our Jetsons car out by then,” joked Jamal Hameedi, chief engineer of Ford Performance.

For now though, the performance segment appears to be in fine shape.

“This is the golden age of performance cars right now,” Kuniskis said. “Someday we’re all going to be old and sitting in our chairs watching cars go by and talking about 2015.”

Enthusiasts can choose from any number of head-turning muscle cars: the 707-horsepower Challenger Hellcat SRTs, 650-horsepower Corvette Z06 and the Mustang GT350 with more than 500 horsepower. Still to come: Ford’s GT supercar, which will get more than 600 horsepower out of a 3.5-liter EcoBoost engine and a 2016 Camaro that will get a new 3.6-liter V-6 and the LT1 6.2-liter V-8.

“We see this performance trend roaring back stronger than it’s ever been,” Kuniskis said. “We don’t think it’s going to die out.”

While strict fuel economy and emissions regulations could put a damper on some performance model fun, the panelists said the unique technology going into the vehicles make them better than ever before.

Turbochargers are helping automakers get more horsepower out of smaller engines, lightweight materials like carbon fiber and other composites are keeping the vehicles quick, and automatic transmissions and new safety technology are making them easier to drive.

“It’s an innovation testbed for our entire company,” Hameedi said. “We’re really pushing the envelope of technology and innovation.”

The panelists said it’s getting harder to keep their future cars under wraps during testing.

“All of my gray hair is from the Internet and social media,” Hameedi said.

Hameedi said Ford was lucky to have kept the GT supercar under wraps after developing it in secret in a basement room of its product development center. Very few in the company even knew of the GT, and the room was only accessible with physical keys. It had no badge readers or scanners.

Its crosstown rivals haven’t been as lucky.

“It drives me crazy,” Kuniskis said. “I had a conference room swept for bugs. We had a meeting and 20 minutes later it was on a forum.”

Juechter said GM has a problem with drones circling over its Milford proving grounds. “We talk about arming our security guards with shotguns to take those things out as they come over the fence, but the neighbors wouldn’t like that,” he said.

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