Beauty and the Beast – IEEE Spectrum

Illustration of a car Bugatti placed on a trophy.

Illustration: Sean McCabe; Above: Fiat; Average: Christine Balderas / iStockphoto; Below: Bugatti Automobiles SAS

High-circulation magazines do some things well, but serious coverage of technology is usually not one of them. First, these are business stores for which technology coverage usually means financial development reports of companies that accidentally offer technology-related products or services, as opposed to, say, plumbing fixtures or hockey puck. The following are popular science magazines that offer a monthly holiday with boyfriends, vehicles and dreams. One of them takes UFOs seriously; another put the Bugatti Veyron supercar on its cover recently to present its annual innovation review.

Now, the Veyron is truly wonderful engineering, as we said when we wrote about it – 10 months ago in our “Top 10 technical cars”Report. But technological innovation is more than just cars, gadgets and thick IPOs. There are software and semiconductors to begin with, most of the important technical advances of the last 30 years. Without software and semiconductors, boyfriends, flying things and monstrous technical successes would not be possible.

For confirmation, take a look at the five technology projects we have selected for this issue as “winners” in our annual list of winners and losers. You will find a great deal of remarkable semiconductor technology and software used in brilliant ways.

Innovative Silicon’s new super-dense memories promise to increase the performance of all types of microprocessors and may even make them cheaper as they do. Vanu’s cellular base station project pushes the boundaries of software-defined radio, allowing mobile phone providers to expand and improve their services with a simple software upload rather than an extremely expensive hardware repair. RapidMind, a cheeky Canadian company, has put together a software development platform that helps programmers cope with the difficult task of fully unleashing the astounding power of IBM’s radical new microprocessor. And BT Group is taking advantage of its high position in telecommunications by embarking on a bold plan to transform its telephone networks – every last meter of them – into one of the greatest triumphs of software innovation, the Internet Protocol.

Perhaps best of all, it has a new Magneti Marelli engine controller that can automatically detect and hold any mixture of gasoline and ethanol – from 100 percent ethanol to none. It even allows the engine to burn natural gas. Everything is done in software that changes the amount of fuel in the cylinders and the weather. The controller is already mounted on a 1.4-liter engine in a version of the Siena sedan sold by Fiat in Brazil.

Sienna is so ordinary that it makes the Chevy Aveo look bold. Unlike the brutal Bugatti, Sienna cannot travel 408 kilometers per hour. And unlike the Terrafugia Transition concept vehicle, also described in this issue, it cannot fly. What Sienna can do is provide affordable and economical transportation anywhere in the world, no matter what type of fuel it has. If your definition of “innovation” goes beyond development, which immediately satisfies investors, lovers of rich cars or lovers of gadgets, you should love home Siena. Beauty really is not deep in the skin.

Go to Winners and losers articles.