Almost casually, Michael Pfeifer announces from the driver’s seat, “We’re going to do a lane change.”
Sounds good, until he adds, “Usually we do this on the test track at Weissach. It’s not good to do on the normal road.”
Not only do normal roads normally have traffic, but we are going down that road at nearly 100 mph, and not in some super slick sports car but in a sports utility vehicle, and SUVs are known to roll over when drivers do things as stupid as sudden lane changes at 100 mph.
But this vehicle doesn’t somersault off the road. It responds more like a jet fighter in dogfight mode. Even when Pfeifer repeats the maneuver again and yet again.
Back in our lane, Pfeifer calmly shares another announcement. “The PSM works.”
You may recall from Part 1 of this adventure that we were with the Porsche engineering team, driving camouflaged Cayenne prototype vehicles through the Canadian winter. While we were there, another group of Porsche engineers were in Sweden, working on new software for the Cayenne stability control system, aka Porsche Stability Management.
Pfeifer was part of that team and now we are in Australia, in the heat of the Down Under summer, for another round of Cayenne development work that includes validating that the new PSM software works.
We are driving on the Stuart “Highway.” I put highway in quotes because this is basically a 2-lane country road that travels north/south across the Outback. But at least it is paved; there is no paved east/west path across a wilderness the size of the continental United States west of the Mississippi River.
There is precious little traffic on the Stuart. Perhaps every half hour or so as we drive north we encounter one of the famed Australian road trains, a semi-tractor pulling three trailers, and doing so at considerable speed.
Ah, the joys of traveling with automotive engineers. At our first roadhouse stop — the Aussie roadhouse is a gas station/repair shop/restaurant/motel/campground and a rare but welcome refuge from the road — the engineers do the math to calculate the force involved should you be run over by such a mass moving at such a rate. What a pleasant thought to plant in their passenger’s head.
We are in Australia, on our way from Adelaide to “the Alice,” in other words, from the country’s southern coast to Alice Springs, a city pretty much in the middle of the continent. From there, many of us will fly to Sydney and back home while others will continue north, all the way to Darwin, where examples of every blend of gasoline the Cayennes might encounter in various countries around the world are waiting to test the vehicles’ various powertrain setups.
Road trains are only one of the strange things we encounter. Upon arriving in Adelaide, we learn that we are on Australia Central Standard time and to set our watches back by half an hour! Few places on the planet — Afghanistan, Iran, Newfoundland — have time zones 30 minutes off normal.
Our second night in Australia, we arrive at one of the most unusual towns on the planet. Coober Pedy looks like a community built of anthills, which are actually the piles of dirt piled up by local miners, who are responsible for producing 70 percent of the world’s opals.
But where these people live is underground, all the better to escape the unbearable heat and red dust storms. Even the local church and the hotel in which we stay are dug like mines below the surface.
We will depart from the highway several times on our trip. Sometimes to do some off-roading — the Cayennes actually show amazing capabilities, even when rock crawling — and also to visit Uluru and the Olgas. Uluru is the rock formerly known as Ayers but now by its Aboriginal name and appears as a massive red iceberg floating on an Outback sea. The Olgas (Katra Tjuta to the native peoples) is a smaller cluster of such rocks not far away.
Around 850 miles into our trip we stop at a roadhouse, stock up on snack food, refuel the vehicles and… discover one of the prototypes will not restart. Engineers attack the car as if they were making a pit stop during a NASCAR race. The hood is up, dashboard panels are removed, cables stretch from laptop computers to a variety of sensors. Codes are checked and rechecked, and then checks and rechecked yet again. And again.
The vehicle does not start. A satellite phone appears and people in Germany, where it is 3 a.m., are awakened. More codes are tried. Perhaps it’s hardware, not software? Parts will be shipped by air, but until they arrive the team this vehicle will have to be towed.
Not to worry, notes Juergen Kern, the development team leader. On his last visit to the U.S., Kern found and bought a military-style tow bar to add to the development team’s gear and now, at last, he would be able to put it to use. In fact, he adds, this will be a good opportunity to see how the Cayenne does as a tow vehicle.
Problem is that someone has to ride in the disabled prototype as it is towed. That means riding in a vehicle with no air conditioning and in temperatures well into three figures. Veteran engineer and trail boss Peter Hass volunteers for the first shift and Kern for the second.
Hours later, we arrive at a motel, where there are telephone and online conversations with Germany and additional hours are spent trying to find why the car will not start. Exhausted, even engineers finally call it a night; work will resume in the morning.
Morning comes, and there is a fresh discussion around the car when, pretty much on a whim, the youngest of the engineers climbs into the car, tries the key and starts the car.
Turns out it was a hardware issue. High temperatures caused two electrical contacts to expand and separate. A new switch should fix the issue, but it will also have to be designed, produced, installed and tested in all sorts of weather conditions.
The engineers point out that they want such problems to show up while they are testing and so any issues can be remedied before customers get behind the wheel.
“We’re proud,” Kern told me. So proud, “we want to tell people that this is the perfect new Porsche.”
But the engineers cannot do that. In fact, he adds, “we have to hide everything.”
Eventually, however, the covers come off, the Cayennes go on sale, and in the entire car company — and its growling lineup of sports cars — is saved.