The Fiat 500 is the latest smash-hit car to be confirmed for a fully electric future. And it’s coming sooner than you think. Fiat’s marketing boss Francois Olivier has told TopGear he’ll be revealing the new 500 EV on the Fiat stand at next year’s Geneva motor show. A curious move, as the 2019 star of Fiat’s show is the adorable, boxy, deliberately utilitarian Centoventi concept – basically a new, all-electric Panda. “Collectively as carmakers we’ve been thinking about giving people a choice of 200km range, because we didn’t dare say 100km range – it sounds too low. 200km is a compromise, and while 400km is nice, it’s expensive. If you have something premium and expensive that’s perfect, but you wouldn’t see a Tesla with a base model of the range. It makes sense to make the best offer of range and embed it in a premium priced car. That’s the way we’ll go with the 500.”
So, it’ll be electric, premium-priced, and the finished, production-ready version will be revealed in 364 days time. How much? Well, Olivier says that the idea is to pitch the price towards the toppy end of what people pay for the current 500. Though the all-new 500 will be electric-only, Olivier confirmed the existing 500 will remain on sale alongside it, with petrol power. He hinted there are more upgrades to come to keep that car fresh, for as long as it can be sold. It’s already a 12-year old design underneath. Fiat’s done an electric 500 before – the 500e, which bombed. In fact, it was such a loss-maker, late Fiat boss Sergio Marchionne publicly appealed for people not to buy it, to save the company money. Hopefully, some hard lessons have been learned there. That car was front-wheel drive, but we can’t resist asking if the new car will copy the original Cinquecento’s rear-engined, rear-drive layout.
Now, what about an electric Abarth 500? A 500 with ‘ludicrous mode’ to take on the new Mini Copper S E. Francois was keen, but not committed. “In an electric car the torque is crazy, and you have unbeatable acceleration. I’m not saying there will be an electric Abarth 500, but let’s say I am a big believer [in the idea]. It would be a fun-to-drive urban rocket!” The current 500 has been a massive money-spinner for Fiat and brought much twee retro joy to our streets. In the near future, the lines between us humans, our smartphones and our cars will blur. They’re already starting to smudge, but companies like Harman are using the CES tech show in Las Vegas to flex their muscles and show what’s possible. With the help of an angle grinder and a roll-over hoop, Harman has created a Fiat 500e for the future. This two-seat spider (on incredibly cool wheels, we might add) is packed to the rafters with tech to make your life that little bit easier. Or… have you screaming at the dashboard until you’re blue in the face if it doesn’t work.
See, just as we’re starting to talk to invisible people in our homes via Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, we’ll soon be doing it in our cars too. But what Harman has managed to do is provide a system that differentiates your commands to make sure that Google doesn’t end up buying your bog roll and Alexa doesn’t try and play with your thermostat. So, now on the drive home you can be stuck in traffic and do your weekly shop, make sure your house is warm when you arrive, pull some tunes on Samsung Bixby, then turn the lights on as you pull in the driveway and ring the doorbell for someone to open the door and roll out the red carpet for your arrival home after work. Are you ready for that?
But as it’s well-known for its audio work, Harman has also gone to town with the speaker system. Not only can the 3D sound make you feel you’re part of the band you’re listening to, but you can be wherever they were when they recorded it thanks to something called ‘Virtual Venues’. So if you want to feel like Bono playing at Wembley, it can recreate it. Or if you want to be some indie band in a dingy pub in Leeds, it can do that too. And it’s not just the driver and passenger who benefit from Harman’s audio nouse though, as pedestrians are also treated to external sound synthesis so they can hear the silent EV coming, preventing them walking out and being unintentionally mowed down. We’ll note that down as a ‘Good Thing’.
Elsewhere, Harman is taking tech further as it’s produced a system to help the inevitable integration of autonomy. It’s been developing biometric systems that monitor you as soon as you sit in the driver’s seat. So it’ll recognize your face, then be able to set all your preferences (music, seat position, what’s on your shopping list to order on your home) but will also keep a check on your eye movement, head position, and pupil diameter to make sure you’re alert and when to intervene if you’re not driving autonomously. But it’ll even go further and basically look into your soul and keep a check on your emotional activity, cognitive load (your thoughts, basically) and heart rate. In the future systems like these will work in synergy with a multitude of sensors, lidar systems, and external cameras to make sure the handover from robot to human driving is seamless. Well, that’s the plan. When it’ll actually happen is down to the people who work out the legislation. But the tech is ready and waiting. Are you?