High-Quality Shots Of Unpainted Chinese J-20 Stealth Fighter Offer New Capability Insights

The steady flow of intriguing new images of China's stealthy heavy fighter-interceptor, the J-20, continues over seven years after the jet first appeared. The aircraft is already in operational service with the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and it continues to evolve and spread its wings, participating in increasingly high-profile joint-exercises and deployments near hotspots along China's borders. Three new shots help us better understand the build quality of this game-changing machine as well as handicap some aspects of its true capabilities. But above all else, like I have stressed since its first appearance, the photos are a reminder that China's ability to make great leaps in aerospace materials and manufacturing sciences should not be underestimated.

The latest images, which recently emerged on Chinese internet, show a J-20 without its gray paint and in its primer coating flying out of Chengdu Aircraft Company's plant and test airfield. We have seen the J-20 in its yellow undercoatings before, but these images are very detailed in comparison to the vast majority of the shots that have surfaced in the past. Note that the dragon symbols on the nose and tail were added in post-processing and were not actually painted on the aircraft.

The images show the areas where antennas are embedded below the J-20's skin, as well as where other stealthy composite structures are used to minimize the aircraft's radar cross-section. The J-20's large Diverterless Supersonic Inlet (DSI) is shown in great detail as well, including various porous panels that also help separate turbulent boundary layer air from its skin—a process required to feed its engines with stable airflow throughout its flight envelope.

The jet's giant maneuvering canard foreplanes are also displayed in grand fashion. These control surfaces help to give the big jet its agility, although they are unlikely to move much when the aircraft is in combat cruise configuration where minimizing its frontal radar signature is critical to its survival. They also work as big air brakes during rollout after touching down.

A Luneburg lens is also seen attached below the jet to provide an ample radar return. Like American stealth fighters, these bolt-on devices are used to help air traffic controllers see the aircraft during transient flights and for some training operations. In some cases, they also work mask the true nature of the aircraft's radar signature.

On the J-20s nose, apertures for a missile approach warning system and what could eventually be a distributed aperture electro-optical system are seen, as are formation light strips embedded seamlessly into the jet's skin. A single pitot tube in the exact same place as the one found on the F-22 is also visible.

Maybe the most interesting of all is the under-nose optical sensor system. In the past, China has been quite sensitive about showing off this chin-mounted sensor enclosure, with it being blurred out in official J-20 images and videos. For a long time, the enclosure didn't really even exist, with an aerodynamic fairing acting as a placeholder. Then it seemed as if a fairly simple looking golden-mirrored enclosure with a far wider field of view than the one we see in these latest pictures appeared for a while. But this was likely just another placeholder—one with the added benefit of confusing foreign intelligence agencies.

Now, after years of avionics development, which has included the use of a specialized flying avionics laboratory, a real chin-mounted electro-optical capability looks to have become operational on China's growing J-20 force, and the PLAAF is more willing to show it off in pictures. Remember, very little actually leaks out of China in regards to sensitive weapon systems without the government allowing it. In other words, they let us see what they want us to see.

Many have posited that this enclosure is intended to house an analog to the F-35's Electro-Optical Targeting System (EOTS). But based on these images, it seems to have a far more limited purpose.

The F-35's EOTS enclosure offers a far wider field of view than the one seen on the J-20. This is necessary because it replaces the turreted targeting pods found on most western fighters that are used primarily to engage ground objects. With this in mind, the J-20's optical sensor is likely air-to-air centric, with limited to no ground attack capability at this time.

Instead of acting as a multi-role optical ground surveillance sensor and laser designator for dynamically targeting objects on terra firma—as is the case with EOTS on the F-35—this sensor's enclosure appears to offer a far more limited field of view oriented towards the forward hemisphere of the aircraft. This points to it being used primarily as an air-to-air targeting and situational awareness sensor system. It's worth noting that the F-35's EOTS has integrated air-to-air functions as well, but air-to-ground remains its predominant use.

The J-20 was supposedly designed with a faceted, turret-mounted infrared-search and track (IRST) system—a critical sensor found on all Russian-built fighters that will allow the J-20 to better survive in a high-threat air combat environment even against America's advanced stealth fighters (read all about IRSTs in this past feature of mine). Known as EORD-31, the J-20's IRST lifts upwards out of its nose in front of the windscreen when in use.

The large, diamond-like aperture for this system is clearly seen in photos of the jet, but its development could be delayed. In its place, Chengdu Aircraft Corporation engineers could have mounted a fixed IRST sensor in the stealthy ventral enclosure below the aircraft's nose. This would allow for the J-20 to maintain a constant radar signature while using its IRST.

Alternatively, and more likely, the sensor inside the under-nose enclosure could be the other planned primary optical sensor for the J-20 that would work with the aircraft's IRST, radar, end electronic support measures, and other combat systems. Dubbed the EOTS-86, this sensor surely operates at shorter wavelengths than an IRST and allows for long-range visual identification of potential threats.

Used in conjunction with the IRST, it would allow the J-20 to silently detect and engage targets at beyond visual ranges—with the IRST detecting and the EOTS-86 identifying targets—even while operating under the most restrictive rules of engagement and without emitting any electromagnetic energy that can be detected by opposing forces. Even without the help of the IRST, the EOTS-86 would be able to be slaved to the J-20's radar and could provide visual tracking and identification of targets in a way in which its radar cannot.

America's F-15C/Ds are employing Sniper targeting pods in a very similar fashion and are slated to receive an advanced long wave-length IRST sensor as well. The Super Hornet will also feature a similar mix of capabilities and the F-35's EOTS does long-range airborne visual identification as a secondary function, but the jet lacks a traditional IRST entirely.

But once again, this sensor cannot be used to the extent of the F-35's EOTS. It would be used for target identification and possibly targeting from the frontal hemisphere only, not from steep angles below or even behind the aircraft as traditional targeting pods are capable of. It probably doesn't have a laser designator either. But just as a situational awareness tool alone, and a passive one at that, it represents a potent capability even the F-22 doesn't possess.

It's also possible that a true multi-role sensor similar to the F-35's EOTS and its wide-field of view faceted sapphire glass enclosure will find its way on the J-20 sometime in the future as its mission set expands and as China's sensor know-how improves. But that simply doesn't exist at this time.

In these photos, we also get to see the fine details of the construction of the J-20's outer airframe, and they look very similar to those found on the F-22, and in some cases, on F-35, although the aircraft doesn't feature the continuous curvature structures of the latter aircraft and is far more akin generally the F-22 in this regard. Still, the construction quality appears to be quite impressive, with the near seamless joining of structures, sawtoothed access hatches and operating doors, edge-aligned apertures, and overall smooth surfaces.

None of this comes as that much of a surprise as China has become a master at cyber espionage and the theft of classified intellectual property from America's most capable defense contractors. In particular, these operations have targeted stealth aircraft programs, with vast amounts of data being stolen over the last decade or so. Still, as I have said for many years, the J-20's overall shape and configuration has far more in common with defunct Russian fighter programs than American ones.

The PLAAF's ascent from a third-rate air arm to the USAF's most threatening peer state competitor has been dizzying. And keep in mind, the J-20's design is now nearly a decade old. China is working very hard at moving into the broadband low-observable combat aircraft arena in the form of unmanned combat air vehicles and possibly a new stealth bomber that could emerge from the shadows at any time. China's medium-weight J-31/FC-31 stealth fighter is also showing signs of drastic maturation and is now in its second iteration of a flying prototype.

The J-20 remains a highly interesting machine that will continue to improve in the coming decade. Powerplants have been a continuing issue for type, but China is making strides when it comes to indigenous engine manufacturing capabilities as well. But even without extreme kinematic performance, the J-20 appears to be a potent and stealthy sensor and weapons platform that could prove to be very challenging to deal with, especially when combined with creative cooperative platform tactics.

Yet what's most impressive is that China has leapfrogged Russia when it comes to advanced fighter aircraft design in most respects. And by many indications, that disparity will continue to widen with each passing day as the J-20 fleet grows and evolves while Russia's Su-57 program stagnates towards irrelevance.

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com

Army Tried To Get Data On Soviet Lasers With Bond-Like Sensors Hidden In Consumer Cameras

When it comes to intelligence gathering, one of the biggest hurdles can just be finding a way to get close enough to the target to get any meaningful data. During the Cold War, the U.S. Army devised a small sensor that sounds straight out of a James Bond movie, which an individual could hide inside a camera lens to try to discreetly record the signatures from lasers on Soviet armored vehicles, helicopters, and other weapon systems in East Germany.

The Army’s then-brand-new Intelligence and Security Command initiated the project, nicknamed Trivial Tiger, in 1977. Declassified details of the program are included in an INSCOM history covering activities during the 1978 Fiscal Year, which a private individual received through the Freedom of Information Act request in May 2018. Government transparency website GovernmentAttic.org then posted a copy of this document online in July 2018.

“A means of delivering these microminiaturized devices into the proper area was studied with the resultant sensor/camera piggy back configuration,” according to the historical review. “[The] object of the project was to acquire Electro-Optics signals believed associated with such tactical devices as field artillery range finders, helicopter-borne target designator, and other weapons associated systems that might use lasers to increase offensive operational effectiveness.”

It’s not entirely clear how the system worked or what kind of data it necessarily recorded and how. The sensors themselves were modified variants of devices that INSCOM had first developed under a separate project called Gravel Stream. Almost all of that section in the history is redacted, with only a portion of the last sentence left uncensored.

US Army troops patrol the Berlin Wall in West Berlin in 1986.

It says “[redacted] position horizontally polarized, thereby changing its mini-directional transmit capability, severely impacting on the possibility of success,” which could reflect trouble with placing the sensors and attempting to operate or receiving information from them remotely. This could explain the decision to convert two of the five Gravel Stream types into the hand-held Trivial Tiger versions. It could also imply that the sensor was recording information about possible laser signatures in a format that could be transmitted via radio frequency.

We do know that the Trivial Tiger configuration was small enough to slot in between a regular Nikon camera and a 1000 millimeter telephoto lens. This had to be the case since the U.S. Military Liaison Mission to Commander in Chief, Group of Soviet Forces in Germany, routinely used these cameras already. Inserting the sensor inside made it less likely that the Soviets would notice anything out of the ordinary.

A rare 1970s-era Nikon Nikkor-P 1200mm f11 lens, similar to the 1000mm lenses that the U.S. Military Liaison Mission would have had access to in 1978, attached to a modern DSRL camera.

The kind of laser systems the history describes were just beginning to come into their own in the 1970s and gathering any information on what frequencies they operated on or their other characteristics would have been immensely important to the U.S. military. With this information in hand, American engineers could devise defensive systems to detect and even counter them.

These could warn friendly forces on the ground, at sea, and in the air of impending attacks, since laser range finders or designators would be indicators of enemy forces targeting them. This might also alert those same forces that they were under surveillance or that an enemy was just nearby based on those signal signatures. Today, laser warning receivers are a common feature in various self-defense systems for vehicles and aircraft.

And planning to give them to the U.S. Military Liaison Mission made good sense given its unique situation. This unit was the product of a broader deal then-allied powers – the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and France – agreed to at the Potsdam Conference in Germany very shortly after World War II. The ostensible goal was to set the ground rules for the occupation and rebuilding of the German nation and to increase transparency about military activities between the various parties to prevent any confusion or dangerous altercations.

The trailer below for the documentary Keep The Cold War Cold includes video footage that members of the U.S. Military Liaison Mission captured during their operations in East Germany.

Even as the Soviet Union drifted apart from its former allies and Germany came to exist as two separate countries, the Military Liaison Missions continued to operate in both the East and the West. Both sides understood the inherent intelligence-gathering value and worked to exploit it as much as possible.

The U.S. mission liaising with Group of Soviet Forces in Germany was no different and operated out of a building in the city of Potsdam in East Germany proper with its personnel exploiting quasi-diplomatic status to move with relative freedom around East Germany taking pictures and recording video of military facilities and activities whenever possible. As such, the unit was, until 1990, a highly reliable source of information about new Soviet equipment and combat doctrine.

The Trivial Tiger sensors would have been a perfect addition to the Military Liaison Mission’s intelligence gathering toolkit. Even if the Soviets had become aware of the equipment, it’s not clear how they would have been able to directly counter it short of seizing the cameras from American personnel, which would have caused a major incident and threatened the mutually-beneficial liaison arrangements across Germany.

The situation could still be dangerous for all involved, though. In 1985, a Soviet guard shot and killed a member of the Military Liaison Mission who was taking pictures of a base in Ludwigslust, East Germany. The Soviets claims that U.S. Army Major Arthur Nicholson refused to heed warnings that he was in a restricted area.

A low-quality scan of a picture a member of the U.S. Military Liaison Mission in East Germany took of a MiG-23 combat jet.

After subsequent negotiations, the Soviets issued a blanket order to their forces not to use force against Western military personnel unless under direct threat. They violated this policy again in 1987, wounding another member of the U.S. Military Liaison Mission. After the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, the issue became increasingly moot.

We don’t know if the Military Liaison Mission ever received the sensors, though. They were only delivered for testing during the 1978 fiscal year and we do not have access yet to the historical review for the next fiscal cycle. We do know that the U.S. military shared information about Trivial Tiger with its counterparts in the British Commanders'-in-Chief Mission to the Soviet Forces in Germany. Spreading the sensors around to other allied elements would have made good sense and increased the opportunities to potentially collect valuable information.

To think that the Army had developed this sensor package, which was small enough to conceal inside a camera without being detected, more than four decades ago, one can only imagine the advanced equipment that the service’s spies have access to now.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com

For Better or Worse, the Nissan Juke Is No More

According to a report by Automotive News, Nissan's ever-polarizing Juke subcompact crossover is—in the U.S. at least—discontinued. Dead. Donezo. Finito.

The report explicitly blames its demise on weak U.S. sales brought on by the Juke's, er, divisive styling. In 2017, Nissan reportedly sold just 10,157 Jukes in this country, 48 percent less than the year before.

The small crossover has, however, found decent success in the European market where Juke sales totaled approximately 95,000 in 2017. In fact, the company's plant in Sunderland, U.K. just celebrated building its millionth Juke two weeks ago. Europeans apparently love this crossover so much, they went and built a million of 'em. Yeah, I was surprised too.

The millionth Juke.

On American soil, however, the Juke will soon be replaced by the Kicks, a new subcompact crossover from Nissan with an equally silly name but styling that's quite a bit less outlandish. Starting at $18,965, the Kicks will undercut the car it replaces by more than $1,000.

Automotive News reported the Juke was originally built as a "sports car crossover" aimed at single, young males who would then trade up to a 370Z rather than a Rogue or Pathfinder. We'll leave it up to you to decide how successful the Juke was in garnering a cool-guy, sporty-car image but the sales figures don't lie. Perhaps the wild-looking Nissan was just too cool, too edgy for most American buyers.

And with that, we bid it adieu.

2019 Model Year Nissans Will Remind You to Check the Back Seat

Nissan announced Tuesday that it will expand standard availability of its "Rear Door Alert" system, which reminds drivers to check their back seats before leaving their vehicles, across eight more of its four-door offerings, in addition to the Pathfinder in which it is already included. A Nissan spokesperson outlined to The Drive how RDA determines whether to alert the driver

"If a rear door is opened before the vehicle is started, then not reopened after the driver turns off the ignition and gets out (front door opened), the display warning will appear along with a six-chirp distinctive exterior horn honk," the spokesperson explained to The Drive in an email.

2019 model year Nissan vehicles that will feature RDA include the Pathfinder, Rogue, and Altima. The Drive has also learned that the 2019 Infiniti QX60 will be equipped with RDA, and that the feature's implementation will not inflate the retail price of any 2019 model year vehicles, or those beyond. The Japanese automaker intends to add the feature to all of its pickup trucks, SUVs, and sedans by the 2022 model year. Nissan's spokesperson declined to comment on whether Infiniti products will follow a similar trajectory.

Marlene Mendoza

Rear Door Alert was designed by a pair of Nissan engineers, Elsa Foley and Marlene Mendoza, who explained the system's origin in Nissan's press release.

"The idea was inspired when I accidentally left a pan of lasagna in the back seat of my car overnight," stated Mendoza, who was pregnant at the time. "The worst thing was the car smelled for days, but it made me ask myself, 'what if I left something far more important back there?'"

Though Nissan confirmed RDA has been in development for a significant period of time, its announcement comes in the wake of the death of a three year old, forgotten in a hot vehicle in Texas. It also comes a year past a tragic week in 2017, when 11 children died in similar, unassociated accidents.

Hats off to Mendoza, Foley, and Nissan for bringing this system to market; you may save lives. Doing so with such a simple system is admirable from both humanitarian and engineering viewpoints.

Two Near-Misses at Ports of Jersey Airport Spark Concern About Drone Laws

Two near-misses between recreational drones and commercial aircraft descending at the Ports of Jersey Airport in the Channel Islands have sparked renewed concerns for regional drone laws and the potential for disaster, according to The Jersey Evening Post.

Ports of Jersey Airport claim they’ve reported 20 incidents revolving around irresponsible or illegal drone use to the police in the past three years. The most recent incidents, one involving a commercial airliner and the other a large corporate jet, saw drones flying a mere few hundred meters from the planes as they descended onto the runway.

While airport officials are urging residents to adhere to the regional safety laws and drone regulations which staunchly prohibit any unmanned aerial vehicle piloting within two miles of the airport, some are calling for a more refined registration process which could result in more direct identification and consequent punishment for this kind of activity. While local laws state any incursion on no-fly zones could result in a $2,625 (2,000 pounds) fine or lengthy drone ban, aerial photographer Marc Le Cornu suggests mandatory registration could force awareness and much-needed transparency.

“There is a strict layer of regulation that everyone should be following,” said Le Cornu, who runs aerial photography company Bam Perspectives. “If everyone sticks to the rules then the skies should be safe. A registration process would be a good thing. If when somebody buys a drone they have to sign an acknowledgment of the law and do a short safety test then that should create more understanding about the laws.”

While a basic refresher of regional drone laws upon purchasing a UAV is admittedly a step in the right direction, irresponsible drone use is simply an unfortunate reality everywhere. Realistically, a complete eradication of illegal piloting isn’t feasible, and it seems as though the proverbial stick is just as effective as the carrot. For Ports of Jersey Airport director Stephen Driscoll, at least, seeking justice through local law enforcement, in addition to educating the public, is an unequivocal necessity.

“It is an offense to fly a drone within two nautical miles of the Airport or higher than 400 feet without prior permission from Jersey’s Air Traffic Control,” said Driscoll. “Both of these near misses have been reported to the Civil Aviation Authority, the director of civil aviation and the police, who are investigating. While it is not known if the intrusion was deliberate, drone users should be aware of the potential catastrophic impact as a result of their inappropriate actions.”

Driscoll recently took part in a U.K. workshop focused on flight safety legislation, in the wake of substantial increases in near-misses between drones and aircraft in Great Britain. While the number of these potentially disastrous incidents was lower than expected in Germany, both the U.K. and Switzerland have seen disconcerting results during the last few years. Halfway across the world, New Zealand airline officials have called for harsher penalties for those aerially jeopardizing aircraft safety, as well. It isn’t that these officials are staunchly against drones themselves, or the vast benefits resulting from their affordability and technological sophistication. They merely want to protect the vital integrity of their airports. Remember, an aircraft colliding with a drone is far more dangerous than hitting a bird.

“The benefits attached to using drone technology are clear and at times can provide valuable assistance to the work of blue-light services,” said Chief Inspector Mark Coxhall. “Equally though, the clear risks associated with drones outside of the law and guidance offered by our partners, Ports of Jersey, can be a serious matter. Anything that could compromise the safety of the public will always attract our attention and working closely with partners we hope to avoid such eventualities.”

In short: don’t pilot your drone near an airport, regardless of what you call home. While the specific regulations regarding distance and no-fly zones may differ from region to region, common sense should indicate that even the slightest risk of interfering with aircraft transporting passengers should be avoided at all costs. Educate yourself about the local laws, and adhere to them. While a fine and potential prison time should be enough to deter irresponsible users, the possibility of putting other people’s lives in real danger could result in such irrevocable damage, nobody should want that on their conscience. Stay safe. Fly responsibly.

A New BMW Z4 M Probably Isn’t Happening: Report

We know the new Supra-based BMW Z4 will come in a mildly-hot M40i guise but don't count on a revival of the hardcore Z4 M. According to Car and Driver, BMW M boss Frank van Meel stated that the M40i will likely be as fast as the Z4 gets, alleging that there just isn't a market for a full-M roadster.

"Let me put it this way: I think the M40i is the perfect positioning regarding performance of that car," said van Meel. "It's quite close to the M2, so we're really happy with the overall concept of that car being an M40i. If you would go any higher, it would be very, very narrow in customer groups."

When we reached out to BMW for further comment, a company spokesperson supported van Meel's stance by pointing to the last Z4 M's limited sales figures. According to BMW M Registry, just 5,387 cars were produced in its two-and-a-half year production run from 2006 to 2008, and 3,041 of those were sold in North America.

The BMW rep told The Drive, "Those numbers are closer to limited or special edition production numbers today such as the upcoming M3 CS and M4 CS than to full production vehicles. Both are also based on already existing M vehicles." Around 500 M3 CS's and 500 M4 CS's are allocated for the U.S.

The last-gen E89 Z4 made from 2009 to 2016 never got an M model.

In contrast, it has been rumored that the Toyota Supra that shares a platform and engines with the new Z4 will eventually be offered in four distinct performance tiers including a super-hot GRMN version, which apparently stands for Gazoo Racing tuned by "Meister of Nürburgring."

2019 Mercedes-AMG C63 S First Drive at Germany’s Maniacal Bilster Berg Circuit

There's a great story about a Swiss watchmaker who inadvertently saved the luxury watch business back in the 1970s. At the end of that decade, the watch world was in the middle of a revolution. The entire industry had decided, with incredible speed and solidarity, to abandon complex mechanical movements in favor of battery-powered quartz, which had every seeming advantage—not only was it more accurate and more reliable, but cheaper as well. And, like many revolutions before it, there was an attempt to erase the past: watchmaking machinery was destroyed across Switzerland, the tooling junked for scrap. The future was embraced by all; no one looked back.

Except for one guy, a watchmaker at Zenith named Charles "Charly" Vermot, who decided to stash what he could of the company's machinery, complications, and tools behind a false wall in a forgotten attic in Le Locle, where it stayed hidden for a decade.

It took around 10 years for watch buyers to yearn for something that watchmakers had assured themselves would never again be in demand: old technology. Customers—the important ones, the ones with money—realized they didn't want to invest in the futuristic and efficient; instead, they wanted to obsess over expensive, complex, imprecise things. And so the whole luxury Swiss watchmaking industry had to be rebuilt using only Charly Vermot's small secret cache of hipster paraphernalia.

And then something even stranger happened: demand for mechanical wristwatches kept growing, moving from luxury goods down through increasingly accessible price points, and kept growing even as mobile phones obviated the need for dedicated timekeeping instruments, and kept growing until now, when even the horological tourists can find something interesting and reliable and of good value. And if you're armed with a bit of knowledge and are willing to spend, your options are unprecedented, kaleidoscopic; the most obsessive and well-financed drop ungodly amounts of money on what are essentially intricate toys.

It feels we are at this same place with the performance car. Family sedans like the Toyota Camry and Ford Fusion can come packed with more than 300 horsepower, and if you're willing to spend—around $70,000 to start, with a tolerance for many tens of thousands more—there is an expansive world of power to be had, much of it packaged in novel ways far beyond the imagination of a decade ago; not just sport coupes and sedans and rocket wagons, but unhinged SUVs and whatever you call that odd, brutish new crossbreed between a hot hatch and a crossover. [A hot cross bun? —Ed.] Most have at least 400 horsepower, and all will hit 60 mph in around or under four seconds and can hustle competently—sometimes astonishingly so—around a race track.

How to spend that money, if you have it? Purists will flock to the refreshed 2019 Mercedes-AMG C63 S, which does all that and probably more, because this "bedrock" AMG product (Mercedes's term) seems to do all things at once, while going very fast and possibly sideways.

The most important part, the excellent and evocative 4.0-liter bi-turbo V-8, remains thankfully unchanged—that means 469 horsepower and 479 pound-feet of torque standard, and 503 hp and 516 lb-ft for S models—though it sits within a slightly revised front end with lower air intakes, a more pronounced diffuser, and most noticeably, the vertical slats of Mercedes's elegant Panamericana grille, which AMG uses to denote its most potent products. In matte gray, with muscular wheel arches and aggressive character lines, the C63 S has the look of a mean, steroidal bullet.

My first run around Bilster Berg, a rollicking, 2.6-mile rollercoaster circuit carved from the surrounding Teutoburg forest in Bad Driburg, Germany, felt appropriately dangerous—not just because of the constant elevation changes and blind turns, but also because I seemed to being doing battle not just with the track, but the car: It bucked and jumped and spooked under hard braking, shoving me off the line and out of the power band, sapping confidence and speed in equal measure.

It was not supposed to be this way—and, it turned out on subsequent runs, it did not have to be. Despite old-school touches like that big growly V-8 and rear-wheel-drive, the Mercedes-AMG C63 S is a high-tech and highly customizable machine, with nine different adherence settings from the AMG Traction Control (first seen in the AMG GT R coupe and now exclusive to S models), adjustable with a thumb dial on the lower-right side of the thick, flat-bottomed steering wheel. The car, in other words, requires you pay proper attention to its setup.

Selecting either Race or Sport+ mode, turning ESC off (that system was unintentionally engaged during my first run, which explained the car's panicked interventions) and dialing Traction Control down into the lower settings delivered an entirely different vehicle: stable, eager, responsive, lightly driftable, and monstrously fast, with the torque's full brunt hitting at 2,000 rpm. The C63 S coupe still bobbed and weaved like a muscle car through Bilster Berg's most aggressive corners—the low center of gravity and grippy Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires can't fully overcome the car's 4,096 pounds—but it was a remarkably surefooted dance around an especially dynamic track, from a car that is also expected to pull double-duty as a luxurious highway cruiser. (The car's marketing brief is made clear, however, with the addition of the Track Pace option, which records lap- and sector times, and will use the head-up display to show upcoming corners, braking points, and more for the several circuits that come pre-loaded with the software; the system can also use GPS to learn new tracks.)

Partial credit for that footwork goes to the retuned AMG Ride Control suspension, with its electronically-controlled limited-slip rear differential, adaptive dampers, and dynamic engine mounts that automatically adjust based on the driving modes: Comfort, Slippery, Individual, Sport, Sport+, and, for S models, Race. The car can be further programmed—in addition to Ride Control and traction control choices and the three suspension-stiffness settings—with AMG Dynamics, which monitors speed, steering input, and vehicle yaw and continually adjusts the torque-vectoring and stability control in favor of whatever the car thinks the driver wants to do. (To aid the translation, a driver must first identify his skill level among the AMG Dynamics categories: Basic, Advanced, Pro, and Master; the last mode is embarrassingly named, and conjures the image of a middle-aged man sitting in a hotted-up C-Class, contemplating whether he considers himself a mere Professional or has finally earned the elusive title of "Master," immediately before sending the car into a wall.) Most everything can be controlled, often redundantly, using the various dials and toggles and knobs on that hefty and wonderful steering wheel, for easy on-the-fly adjustments.

On the road, those endless settings and modes prove largely irrelevant. The Comfort setting is indeed more plush, though the ride quality, like the heavily bolstered and minutely-adjustable sports seats, is stiff overall. Best to leave it in Sport for the increased throttle response and sharper steering, because the C63 S actually feels energized and engaged at legal speeds, which is not always the case with the high-output competition. AMG's seven-speed Speedshift MCT has been swapped for a nine-speed Speedshift MCT 9G transmission (like its predecessor, it uses a wet clutch design instead of a torque converter, which Mercedes says provides better response and "faster bursts of speed"), which is good for fuel economy, but is definitely a lot of goddamn gears; really, too many gears. In everyday driving, nine gears isn't exactly the same as an infinite number, but it starts to feels close. Yet the shifts are noticeably crisper than in the old box, and top speed is up to 180 from 155 mph, so there's that.

Mercedes's maximalist interior design language works well in the C63 S: it has elegant carbon fiber bits in all the respectable places, the way rich old women wear diamonds; quilted leather and bright metal; and an optional 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster with reconfigurable displays including virtual analog-style gauges—which are striking, if less dignified than actual analog gauges. The basics are arranged as a proper driver-oriented cockpit, and the layout and ergonomics are both lovely; most everything is robust, nice to touch, and easily accessible. There's definitely a sound system in the car—I checked—but with the option of eight cylinders shot through an extra-loud exhaust setting, why not just listen to that wild, cracking song?

That engine, as per AMG tradition, is built by hand in Affalterbach. That detail is a wonderful anachronism, and a potent anecdote for the potential luxury-car buyer, many of whom trade in such things. It is also a focal point for a question about the future: the Mercedes-AMG C63 S is a riotous and astoundingly capable machine, a pinnacle of modern car-making; but what if, unlike in the watch world, we've not on the other side of a great transformative shift, but on the cusp of one? What if "modern car-making" is finally, actually about to mean something radically different? What if we're in the moment right before the quartz apocalypse?

That seems likely. Global regulatory pressure based on the fact of a finite amount of oil and the worrisome threat of man-made climate chage is pushing us away from the gas-powered engine, but more than that, electric cars—and not just Teslas, but Rimacs and and Volkswagen I.D. Rs and Porsche Taycans—have finally begun to turn the heads of car enthusiasts with their extraordinary performance. Automotive battery technology is already stacking its advantages.

Nothing will happen so rapidly or definitively as with the watch world's zero-sum choice of battery power over mechanical—the auto industry is simply too big, too globalized, and too regulated for such drastic action. It's safe to say the internal combustion engine will never fully disappear—but it will become increasingly rare. Sometime soon, gas-powered cars will only exist in developed countries as low-tech rural necessities, like horses—or as high-ticket luxury items for sport and entertainment, like fancy horses. So the question is: will the mere performance car, even the very best examples, be considered purebred enough to survive the latter transition? Or will future gas-powered luxury signifiers only endure at the very highest echelons—only as true supercars, or even more than that?

Regardless of the answer, here's a solution: Buy a 2019 Mercedes-AMG C63 S. Expect it to start in the mid-$70K range (final pricing has yet to be announced), and then prepare to spend a whole bunch more on options. Enjoy the hell out of it and give it meticulous attention and care; store it well and keep all the maintenance records. Then, one day down the line, when the world has moved on, someone obsessive and obscenely well-financed will show up at your door, eager to drop ungodly amounts of money on your rare, intricate, outdated toy.

And then you tell that person to go pound sand, because there will be no possible way to put a price on it.

A Bugatti Veyron Converted to Rear-Wheel Drive Is a Master of Donuts

Weighing in at over 4,000 pounds, the Bugatti Veyron is a heavy car. Its awkward handling and abysmal turning radius, attributed partly to its weight as well as its permanent all-wheel-drive system (plus a massive wheelbase), is a common complaint among owners and bottlenecks the driving experience of a car that was once the pinnacle of automotive performance.

Houston Crosta, founder of the Royalty Exotic Cars rental company in Las Vegas, has solved the issue that plagues Bugatti's most iconic hypercar by converting his donut-obsessed Mansory Bugatti Veyron to rear-wheel drive, as detailed in a video posted on the company's YouTube channel. In just a day and a half and with help from fleet manager Jesse Tang, Crosta was able to complete the conversion.

While swapping a car's drivetrain is no easy task, taking apart a car as exclusive and expensive as a Veyron isn't as hard as it sounds. Thanks to Bugatti's acquisition by the Volkswagen group, most of the Veyron's internals are familiar to those who have worked on other VW exotics such as Lamborghini Gallardos and Audi R8s, which Crosta and his team have experience with. To make the Veyron send all 1,100 horsepower (roughly) to the rear wheels, Crosta essentially had to remove the front differential, which meant taking apart the entire front axle– the hardest part of the ordeal.

After a brief test drive, the car miraculously throws no fault codes and the only apparent changes to the car's driving behavior are improvements. "Everything is better now," Crosta explained in an interview with Road & Track. "If you're a good driver, and you enjoy cars, you'd love it. It feels like a car with this much power should."

What do you do when you have a rear-drive Bugatti with brand new tires? You pull off the smokiest of burnouts, which is exactly what Crosta did. According to R&T, Royalty Exotic Cars had previously fitted the Mansory Veyron with bespoke wheels that could fit much cheaper 355/25R21 Pirelli P Zero tires, a $3,000 set of tires rather than the $40,000-plus set that factory Veyrons use.

Watch the rear-wheel-drive Veyron shred its Pirellis below.

Mazda Motorsports to Withdraw From Road to Indy After 2018 Season

Mazda Motorsports announced on Tuesday that it will withdraw its sponsorship from the Road to Indy program after the 2018 season.

Mazda has been involved with the ladder-style initiative including the USF2000, Pro Mazda, and Indy Lights series since 2010. In doing so, the Japanese brand has provided millions of dollars in scholarship funds for up-and-coming open-wheel drivers while also helping to provide a nationwide platform for developing professionals in the sport.

John Doonan, director of Mazda Motorsports, gave the following statement regarding the decision:

“On behalf of Mazda, I’d like to thank Andersen Promotions and everyone involved with the Road to Indy for a wonderful nine years, but the time has come for Mazda to focus our resources into other areas of our motorsports footprint. We have truly enjoyed our role in developing young racers into Indy 500 hopefuls, and we look forward to continuing our relationship with Andersen Promotions through the Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup. The 2018 USF2000, Pro Mazda, and Indy Lights champions will receive Mazda Advancement Scholarships for the 2019 season and the annual $200,000 Mazda Road to Indy Global shootout will also be held in December of this season."

Doonan continued, explaining that the manufacturer will persist in other disciplines of motorsport, including "grassroots club racing initiatives, the Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich, the Mazda Road to 24, and Mazda Team Joest.”

Mazda will continue its IMSA efforts with Team Joest as well as the Global MX-5 Cup series which involves those in the Road to 24 program.

Andersen Promotions owner and CEO Dan Andersen responded to the news Tuesday afternoon by saying, "We would like to thank Mazda for nine tremendous years in supporting and headlining the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires."

“They have been a great partner and their scholarships have helped so many drivers achieve their dream of progressing to the Verizon IndyCar Series," Andersen continued. "Mazda has been a key player in establishing and helping to grow our driver development system into the unparalleled program it is today. They remain with us through the end of this season and will once again be awarding each of our series’ champions a scholarship to move up to the next step in 2019 as well as the winner of the USF2000 $200K Scholarship Shootout in December.

“As their marketing objectives pursue new horizons, we at Andersen Promotions are committed to maintaining the outstanding ladder structure we have in place for 2019 and beyond. We are currently in discussions with several potential companies as we actively pursue a new partner.”

Development drivers compete in road course, street course, and oval configurations as part of the MRTI.

The MRTI group takes part in race weekends throughout the country, accompanying the big-league Verizon IndyCar Series from track to track.

Of the 33 drivers that competed at this year's running of the Indianapolis 500, 25 of them were products of the MRTI ladder.

Nevada Launches Drone Safety Center to Educate and Protect Residents

The Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems has launched the Nevada Drone Center of Excellence for Public Safety. Together with the FAA, it’s overarching purpose is to combat frequent drone incursions on public and private airspace, as well as educate residents and provide workshop sessions to promote safe and legal drone use as the number of registered UAVs in the country continues to grow.

According to the NIAS, the NDCOE aims to save lives, reduce near-misses with commercial aircraft, and protect a healthy level of privacy in this modern drone age of ours. The underlying purpose here, in addition to the above, is presumably to instill ethical and legal UAV use before the seemingly inevitable nationwide commercial drone traffic becomes reality.

Overall, it seems as though educational hubs like the NDCOE are necessary. We’ve seen plenty of irresponsible and illegal drone activity over the past few years, ranging from invasions of privacy and interrupting public sporting events, to colliding with airplanes and smuggling contraband into federal prisons. In addition to clarifying federal regulations, the NDCOE will aim to foster drone use in wildfire fighting, medical deliveries, and gas-leak detection. Nevada, it turns out, is the perfect place to situate this center.

“In addition to fostering major advances in UAS technology with testing partners like the FAA, NASA, and Switch, Nevada is also home to the most registered drone users in the nation in Las Vegas,” said Paul Anderson, Executive Director of the Nevada Governor’s Office of Economic Development. “This dynamic makes such a program as the Nevada Drone Center of Excellence for Public Safety a natural step as drones increasingly become a bigger part of our daily lives.”

The University of Nevada Las Vegas recently completed a state-wide survey in collaboration with NIAS, which found nearly 80 percent of respondents concerned about hobby drones colliding with airplanes, and 90 percent of people worried about UAVs entering FAA-designated no-fly zones like sports venues or concerts. Drone incursions, it seems, are the primary focus of this new center, motivated by both the public’s fears and the seeming increase in correlated incidents.

Dr. Chris Walach, the Senior Director of both the NIAS and Nevada’s FAA-designated test site providing UAS Integration Pilot Program participants with secure airspace, believes that the NDCOE will have vast, positive ramifications on the industry at large.

“We are taking an aggressive approach toward solving the complex UAS Industry challenge of mitigating drone incursions into the National Airspace System (NAS)—one of the toughest FAA challenges today,” said Dr. Walach. “What we are doing in Nevada will be of immense value to the DOT, FAA, DHS, DOJ, commercial airlines, visitor venues, and the UAS Industry. This new center will help advance infrastructure protections, drone detection innovations, enhance air safety, and expand air commerce in Nevada.”

Educating the public on responsible, legal, and ethical drone use is arguably one of the most important factors of this modern, affordable drone landscape we’re experiencing. Too many unnecessarily dangerous incidents have occurred for aviation authorities and UAV experts to dismiss, and the NIAS launching an all-encompassing hub to learn about these issues is a great place to start changing course.

Additionally, this could potentially lead to a more reliable airspace, which the FAA and its commercial clients could finally take advantage of with medical deliveries and e-commerce. Hopefully, more drone enthusiasts prone to risky UAV piloting will learn to mend their ways and clear the air for the rest of us eager to see standardized aerial deliveries in our lifetimes.