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5G New Radio: The technical background

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Although 5G is being heavily marketed as a new technology, it’s neither particularly new nor a single technology. If mobile technology were a long-running TV series, 5G is a mid-season reboot, with new characters introduced alongside the old, new plot arcs complementing existing storylines, and a publicity drive that rather overstates the case. However, the possibilities for future development are much enhanced.

There have been three major new generations of mobile technology: 2G replaced analogue with digital; 3G began the switch to data-centric networking; and 4G completed that move. 5G has three main focuses — mobile networking, IoT, and very high-performance industrial control — of which mobile networking will be the most important for most people over the next few years, and which is best thought of as a continuation of 4G’s Long Term Evolution (LTE) under a new flag. Indeed, this stage of 5G is known as NSA (Non Stand Alone) as it will run alongside and interoperate with existing LTE networks. SA (Stand Alone) comes later.

Which is not to say that there aren’t significant innovations in 5G. While the 5G standardisation process covers core network and base station topology as well as other aspects of running high-performance networks, most of the factors that will affect our first experiences of 5G are affected by the subset of standards called New Radio, or 5G NR. Although work on NR was only started in the spring of 2016, it quickly rolled up the until-then very disparate research area and has already produced a number of nearly-there pre-standard references (see boxout below).


15, that difficult stage…

5G NR is developed by a group called 3GPP, the 3G Partnership Project, and the first version of the standard is called Release 15. 3GPP is so called because it was first formed to standardise 3G; it has considerable authority as an international group that brings together standards committees, regulators and industry bodies, and the legal issues over renaming it were too onerous when 4G came along. Release 15 is the 18th major standard, which fact is an excellent indicator of how organisations at this level actually work.

Release 15 has been produced at some speed. Starting in early 2016, a preliminary release in March 2018 was declared complete enough for manufacturers to start preliminary production, By the third quarter of 2018, both Ericsson and Huawei said they’d deployed more than 10,000 base stations on that release. A further standard update appeared in September, with a ‘feature freeze’ final pre-standard version of Release 15 promised for December. However, chips developed by Qualcomm to the September release were reported by industry site Light Reading to have proved incompatible with the March-release-based base stations, potentially requiring a hardware swap.

A three-month delay in finalising 3GPP’s Rel 15 standard (phase 1 of 5G) has resulted in a knock-on delay to Rel 16 (phase 2 of 5G).


Image: 3GPP

As a result the December freeze has been postponed to March 2019 with knock-on delays for Release 16, which is expected to bring the low-latency and high-speed aspects of 5G to prominence. The difficulties, according to 3GPP, were caused by a lack of communication between the technical subgroups working on the Radio Access Network side, those defining the overall system configuration, and those in charge of the core network configuration. Citing overwhelming workloads, the 3GPP said that there had been no time for a coordination meeting of all the subgroups prior to the September release.

The industry is sympathetic, with players like Samsung saying that they’re not changing their roll-out plans. Samsung is expected to show a 28GHz-enabled 5G handset at Mobile World Congress in February 2019.


5G NR includes major advances over LTE, each with specific benefits.

Spectrum

Most importantly, there’s masses of new airspace. 5G NR includes millimetre-wave (mmWave) spectrum (>24GHz) for the first time, with the first release of 5G including frequencies from below 1GHz up to 52.6GHz. The high-frequency spectrum (> 6GHz) comes in many different bands that vary by region, as well as many that are not yet fully available due to existing services that must be closed or moved.

5g-spectrum-bands-worldwide.png

Different spectrum bands are being made available for 5G NR around the world, on different timescales.


Image: Ericsson

The high-band allocations can support very high data rates and intensive frequency reuse, providing very dense, high-performance networking. They have very limited range for a given transmission power compared to lower bands and more stringent health and safety limits, and they are more susceptible to environmental issues like heavy rainfall and seasonal leaf growth. Conversely, the very small wavelength makes it much easier to build very high-performance antennas of small physical size.  

The high bands will be used to overlay existing LTE networks, providing much higher bandwidth on demand to reduce LTE (and eventually, 5G) mid- and low-band congestion, as well as fibre-speed home and office fixed wireless access (FWA) broadband. The 28GHz bands have seen the most attention, with the UK breakdown by region and operator being typical of how a territory already well-serviced with LTE will allocate resources:

5g-ofcom-28ghz.png

Image: Ofcom

Ultra-lean design

Ultra-lean design is a key 5G NR design principle, reducing energy consumption and interference. LTE relies on a number of always-on signals transmitted by base stations — beacons that show which cells are available, reference channels that terminals and base stations use to configure data links, command channels for tracking mobility and so on. In LTE, these signals don’t take up a significant percentage of the overall channel usage, but 5G will have a much denser network with more cells, which will on average have quite a low actual usage rate. The always-on signals will thus take a greater percentage of power, and will interfere more with adjacent cells, leading to lower throughput.

Wherever possible 5G reduces or switches off such signals until they’re actually needed. The reference signal, for example, is only transmitted once data transfer is under way. This means the handset and base station have to optimise the signal on the fly, but the overall benefit to throughput for the network is notable.

Ultra-lean design is also a key component of forward compatibility, a specific requirement in 5G NR for curiously unspecific ends. The basic rule is to leave as much room as possible in implementations to allow future developments. In practice, this means minimising non-data carrying transmissions (reducing overall interference and spectrum use), having a high degree of frequency and time-domain flexibility in 5G designs, and providing paths for reconfiguration in the future both in the hardware and in the specification itself.

This latter decision came about through experience with LTE, which encodes a number of design decisions in the specification such as when and where error-correction happens: if a new service finds these decisions inefficient or even disabling, then there’s nothing that can be done. A reconfigurable standard can improve on old decisions. Also, new basic technologies such as software-defined radio (SDR) have moved much radio engineering from hardware into software, meaning that changing operating characteristics in ways that once took a complete hardware revision can now be pushed out as a software update. 5G is the first generation to fully embrace this.

Modulation and framing

5G modulation and framing is also an increment from existing ideas, but a significant one. Like LTE (and recent wi-fi standards, and just about every modern digital wireless system), 5G NR uses ODFM as its underlying modulation scheme. ODFM (orthogonal frequency division multiplexing) combines multiple subchannels within a channel, and is known to be both robust against interference and efficient in its use of frequencies. It’s also highly flexible, as different numbers of subcarriers can be added to increase a channel capacity, or numbers reduced to provide much lower-power, lower-bandwidth options.

5G NR can choose subcarrier spacing from 15kHz to 240kHz, with a maximum 3300 subcarriers in simultaneous use on one channel. However, channels can be no more than 400MHz wide. The standard is frequency agnostic, meaning any subcarrier configuration can be used on any band. In practice, the mid- and low-band frequencies below 6GHz have markedly different channel and noise characteristics, as well as different maximum bandwidths, to the high-band allocations, so will use 15 to 60kHz channel spacing, while high-band will use 60 to 120kHz. There are currently no 5G band allocations between 6GHz and 24.25GHz, but the standard allows for optimal ODFM configuration to match any future expansion into this spectrum.

5g-odfm-schemes.png

5G ODFM usage models, channel bandwidths and subcarrier spacing.


Image: Qualcomm

Not all devices on 5G NR have to support all bandwidths, which is a change from LTE. Furthermore, 5G NR supports adaptive bandwidth, letting devices move to a low-bandwidth, low-power configuration when appropriate, and gearing up to higher bandwidths only when necessary. This creates the opportunity for very low average power devices that can still deliver high performance — IoT networks, for example, which normally only need small amounts of data for telemetry, but nevertheless need to be able to update their firmware for security and feature patches. The 5G NR specification refers to these different configurations as ‘bandwidth parts’, and in theory a device can support multiple bandwidth parts simultaneously on the same channel, although the first 5G NR release limits devices to one bandwidth part at a time.

Within a subchannel, data is divided up into frames of ten milliseconds each, further subdivided into ten 1ms subframes. Those subframes are themselves divided into slots of 14 OFDM symbols apiece. Thus, wider bandwidth subchannels have more OFDM symbols per second and each slot thus gets shorter, but the basic frame structure stays the same. At the lowest subcarrier spacing, 15kHz, the frames are identical to LTE, simplifying compatibility.

LTE and similar systems allocate bandwidth to different devices by slot, but 5G NR has a mechanism for a transmission to start within a slot, effectively creating what are called ‘mini-slots’. This is especially useful for the high bands, which can have very large OFDM symbols and thus the ability to use just a few to carry a relatively short message improves both channel reuse and latency. Another potential advantage is if, or when, 5G expands to unlicensed spectrum, which normally comes with a ‘listen before use’ rule to prevent interference. If a channel appears quiet, the ability to start a transmission without having to wait for a slot boundary reduces the chance of another device grabbing the channel.

Other low-latency adaptations in 5G NR are tight requirements for data transmissions to start after a channel is granted, and restrictions on processing delay for data streams. This is achieved in the higher network layers by changing header structures so that processing can begin without the full packet information being known, and at the physical layer by having the radio receive essential information from reference and downlink control signals instead of deriving it from the symbol stream.

Beamforming

5G NR has a much more advanced concept of beamforming than LTE. Beamforming is the manipulation of the signals fed to and received from complex antennas to create beams in space that focus power in a particular direction. LTE could do this for data; 5G NR extends this to control channels too, while increasing the precision and adaptability overall for operation under different conditions. At the high bands, beamforming will mostly be used to increase range by energy focus, while at the mid and low bands below 6GHz, where attenuation is less of a problem, beamforming will be a key part of MIMO, the multiple-in multiple-out spatial channel technique that increases bandwidth for multiple devices in the same area. Although not part of the first release, 5G NR will support distributed-MIMO, where a user can receive different parts of the same data stream from multiple sites.

5g-beamforming.png

With FD-MIMO, the antenna system can form beams in both horizontal and vertical directions, giving coverage in 3D spaces.


Image: Sharetechnote.com

This touches on the other major areas of 5G beyond the radio: how base stations communicate with each other and with the core network, how the operators manage the whole system for reliability and profit, and what shapes the new network uses built on the back of these technologies will take. Don’t expect the full picture to become clear for three to five years: 5G in 2019 will be as much about groundwork as immediate results.

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The all-electric EQS is ground zero for Mercedes’ most lavish tech

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Lavish and electric, the 2022 Mercedes-Benz EQS doesn’t look like any other car the German automaker offers, and neither does the rest of the range come near its frankly excessive tech and gadgetry. Unveiled today, and headed to US dealerships in fall of 2021, the new EQS won’t only be America’s first taste of Mercedes electrification, but the headliner for a whole range of luxury features it’s been working on.

EQS MBUX Hyperscreen

We’ve already spent plenty of words describing Mercedes’ epic new dashboard, but the MBUX Hyperscreen does seem to elicit an outsized response. A 56-inch wide single sheet of curved glass hides three different displays, blurring the edges so that it resembles one, vast panel.

There’s a 12.3-inch display for the driver’s instrumentation, another 12.3-inch display for the front passenger, and an even bigger 17.7-inch OLED touchscreen in the center console. As you’d hope, Mercedes’ UI designers have made good use of all those pixels on offer. A new, zero-layer structure means no more sub-menus to delve through, with all of the key features presented contextually.

Mercedes is using AI to power that, learning from the commonly-used features for each driver and making sure the Hyperscreen presents them as appropriate. A fingerprint sensor recognizes the driver and automatically switches between one of seven profiles, so that the customizations the EQS makes for you aren’t skewed by another person. As for those virtual buttons, a combination of actuators and pressure sensors promise to give the feel and response of physical controls.

Automatic Comfort Doors

Having someone hold the door for you is nice, but having the car open the door as you approach is even nicer. The EQS adds motors to all four of its doors, powering open when you tap the pop-out handles or, if you so prefer, when you get close to them.

When you’re about 20 feet away, the door handle slides out silently. At around five feet, the door unlocks and the driver’s door automatically swings open. They close again either when you tap a button inside, or when the driver puts their foot on the brake pedal. Alternatively, all four doors can be operated through the MBUX infotainment system.

As you’d expect, there are extra smarts built in for safety. Ultrasonic sensors for each door monitor the area around the EQS, as do cameras in the side mirrors, and proximity sensors. If you try to open the door when, say, a car is approaching the side of the EV, it will stop to avoid a collision. The same goes if the powered door could inadvertently hit a wall or another obstacle, with the system preventing them from getting damaged.

Automatic comfort doors will be an option on the EQS, but it’s hard to imagine not checking that particular box on the order form.

Energizing Nature

Mercedes launched its Energizing Comfort system back on the 2018 S-Class, blending relaxing soundtracks, ambient lighting, massage seats, and even fragrances for themed soothing programs like “Warmth” and “Vitality.” The EQS adds to that with three new Energizing Nature programs.

Called “Forest Glade,” “Sounds of the Sea,” and “Summer Rain,” the soundscapes were created with Emmy Award-winning sound recordist Gordon Hempton. Famous for his nature audio, Hempton’s soundscapes are combined with lighting and images, among other things.

In Forest Glade, for example, there’s birdsong, rustling leaves, and the HVAC system creates a gentle breeze as though you’re sitting in the woods. Warm music and a subtle fragrance are included, too.

For Sounds of the Sea, you’ll hear soft musical soundscapes mixed with wave and seagull sounds. The HVAC will blend warm and cool airflow, as though you’re sitting by the bay watching the waves.

Finally, Summer Rain takes the sound of raindrops on leaves as its core, blended with distant thunder and pattering rain, as more ambient music filters through. Each is based on Hempton’s “Quiet Planet” audio library, remixed by Mercedes’ sound design department into 10 minute long pieces.

Since you might not realize it’s time to wind down, the EQS’ Energizing Coach will automatically suggest when it’s time to run an Energizing Comfort program. If you’re wearing a Garmin wearable, or a Mercedes-Benz vivoactive 3 or Venu smartwatch, MBUX will even use metrics like personal stress levels or your recent sleep quality to make those recommendations even more timely. Or, you can simply say “Hey Mercedes, I’m tied,” and MBUX will automatically start the Vitality program.

EQS Power Nap

You might not expect Mercedes to bake in a feature that encourages you not to drive the 2022 EQS, but that’s just what the Power Nap feature does. It’s designed to provide a potent break during stressful days – or while you’re waiting for a DC fast charge to top the batteries up.

There are three phases to each nap – falling asleep, sleeping, and waking up – with the EQS automatically putting the seat into a relaxing recline, closing the side windows and the sunshades, dimming the ambient lighting, and even activating the air ionization system. Soothing sounds begin to play through the audio system, while a starry sky shows on the central display and, if the front passenger is snoozing too, on their front passenger Hyperscreen panel too.

When it’s time to wake up, there’s another soundscape designed to be more activating, paired with a fragrance. The seats will give a subtle massage and their ventilation will turn on as well. Finally, Mercedes says, the seat moves back into its usual position and the sunshade across the panoramic glass roof opens. Just in time to make the most of all those electrons.

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2021 Mercedes-AMG A35 4MATIC Review: Spark Joy

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It’s easy to get addicted to excess, especially when it comes to buying a new car. Bigger engines, bigger trucks, bigger power figures, and the inevitably bigger price tag to go along with it. Sliding sneakily in-between all that is the 2021 Mercedes-AMG A35 4MATIC, a comparative minnow in size, horsepower, and – in AMG terms, at least – price, but which lands even more of a punch because of it.

It helps that I already really like Mercedes-Benz A-Class. The smallest sedan in the automaker’s range looks the part, straddles a reasonable balance between luxury spec and affordability, and its 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine is unexpectedly well matched to its chassis and suspension.

In short it distills a lot of the appeal of “big” Mercedes into something a little more attainable and, for that matter, reminds us that just because a big chunk of car buyers are going with SUVs these days, that doesn’t mean sedans are passé. It also proved to be catnip to the tuners at Mercedes-AMG.

The result is the 2021 AMG A35 4MATIC, which just so happens to be the cheapest point of entry into AMG ownership. Sales kick off at $45,850 (plus $1,050 destination) though, as with any German automaker, the options list offers an easy way to send that spiraling upward. Even in “base” spec, though, you get a surprising amount.

It starts with an exterior makeover, cranked up even further with the $1,550 AMG Aerodynamics Package with its new front apron with large splitter and flics, bigger rear lip spoiler, and gloss black rear apron and diffuser blade. The $750 AMG Night Package adds different grille, splitter, and side panel inserts, swaps most of the exterior chrome trim for gloss-black, and dresses up the tailpipes to match.

The result is something that builds on the A-Series Sedan’s already handsome, shark-esque aesthetic with legitimate presence. It’s not outlandish, or excessive, but neither do you feel like you’ve been shortchanged by AMG.

At its heart is the 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-4, as in the A220, but here it’s tuned for 302 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque. That’s a healthy 114 hp and 74 lb-ft more than in the regular ‘Benz. It’s an “AMG-Enhanced” engine, not one of the division’s fancy hand-made monsters, but you’re looking at double the cylinders and $20k more before you find one of those in a C63 Sedan.

0-60 mph comes in 4.6 seconds, hitting the gas pedal delivering a brief moment of thought as the turbos consider, and then the A35 surging forward playfully. The steering feels meaty and nicely weighted. On the opposite side, the beefy steel brakes never felt anything less than over-specified. Dare I say I enjoyed it more than I did the significantly more expensive 2021 AMG GT 43 4-Door Coupe?

Excess on paper, or at the track, or even on the Autobahn, is compelling. Out in the real world, it can often just be a shortcut to speeding tickets or just plain losing your license. Like some of the more entertaining cars on the market, the A35’s appeal is intrinsically tied up with its relative limitations, and the fact that you can actually graze the redline without risking it getting impounded.

It barks and crackles, with shouty gurgles on downshifts in Sport and Sport+ mode. Probably some of that is “enhanced” for the cabin but honestly it all sounds great, and manages to miss that edge of fakery some other performance cars struggle with. The 7-speed Speedshift DCT gearbox is suitably named, with its fast changes and its hunger to hold lower ratios as long as possible. The metal paddles, though, feel equally pleasing and snap you up and down smoothly.

The downside is that Comfort mode is, well, not exceptionally comfortable. Even with $990 AMG Ride Control Sport Suspension the limits of adjustable dampers become apparent on longer drives, especially given AMG has clearly erred on the side of firmness rather than Mercedes-esque plush. It’s not outrageously stiff – though the Sport and Sport+ modes are admirably flat even in sharp cornering – but this is not so much a sedan of dual personality as it is a sporting car that will grudgingly restrain itself when so demanded.

Little exemplifies that quite like the DCT gearbox. Everything that makes it so pleasing when you’re driving urgently adds up to a more jerky experience as you slow to a halt. At one point I caught the telltale “oh look, he stalled it” pitying glance from the driver alongside me at the lights, as I juddered to a halt next to them.

Far smoother is MBUX, Mercedes’ generally excellent infotainment system. It gets twin 10.25-inch displays to play with as standard on the A35, crisp and bright, with a touchscreen, a trackpad, and a steering wheel touchpad to navigate. Or, you can bark out “Hey Mercedes” and ask for just about any feature or setting instead.

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are supported – though they don’t expand to make the most of the whole infotainment display, which looks a little odd – and if you add the $1,295 Multimedia Package you get navigation with augmented reality arrows overlaid onto a live camera view of the road ahead. That’s shown on the center screen, mind; if you want an AR HUD you’ll need a new 2022 EQS.

The panoramic sunroof, power front seats, dual-zone climate control, blind-spot warnings, ambient lighting, and keyless start are all standard. So too, for better or worse, is the “AMG Design Trim” which adds shouty graphics across the passenger side of the dashboard. Combined with the color-changing light strips it leaves the cabin either playful or played-out, depending on your taste for such things.

There’s plenty of room in the front, and the dashboard feels a lot like Mercedes’ other sub-E-Class offerings. The shiny black plastic still isn’t my favorite, but the switchgear and trim generally feel solid. In the rear there’s okay legroom and headroom, while the 8.6 cu-ft trunk is also fine if nothing special. It feels right-sized for what it is, definitely more practical than a 2+2 coupe.

My review car had the $500 AMG Performance steering wheel in leather and faux-suede, $400 drive mode pods bolted onto that wheel, $460 for SiriusXM, $850 for the Burmester audio system, $500 for heated front seats, and $200 for wireless phone charging. The $800 Premium Package adds power folding side mirrors, keyless start, and auto-dimming mirrors.

Combined with the styling and performance extras, plus destination, it nudged the 2021 A35 up to $56,020. Not cheap by broad standards, no, but definitely competitive for a performance sedan with luxury branding. Were it my money, I’d probably leave off all but the sports suspension, nicer steering wheel, heated seats, and maybe the AMG Aero package and handsome $800 alloy wheels, and still be under the $52k point. Running costs needn’t be exorbitant either: the 25 mpg figure for EPA combined consumption isn’t too difficult to hit, as long as you resist the urge to play too much.

2021 Mercedes-AMG A35 4MATIC Review

I’m as much a sucker for a big, burbling V8 and a vast performance sedan as anyone else. Nonetheless, there’s something about the AMG A35 which, as Marie Kondo might say, just sparks joy. It feels, quite honestly, cheap for what you get and how it feels put together.

That’s cheap relatively speaking; cheap with all the usual provisos and qualifiers. Much in the same way, those with a family to consider or anybody needing a car that makes more than a vague, passing stab at comfort may find the A35 the round peg for their square hole. It makes compromises, they’re just more around practicality and cosseting than anything else.

I find it hard to pick fault with AMG’s decisions here. And honestly, if you need more of that slick Mercedes’ glide, the A220 4MATIC delivers. The 2021 AMG A35 4MATIC is all about fun, usable and shouty in equal measure, and the only excessive thing here is the size of my grin.

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A Ferrari EV is coming in 2025

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Ferrari will reveal its first all-electric car in 2025, the automaker has confirmed, putting to rest long standing will-they-or-won’t-they speculation about whether an EV really can find a place in the Italian supercar-maker’s range. The timeline for the new Ferrari EV was confirmed during its Annual General Meeting, held today.

“We are continuing to execute our electrification strategy in a highly disciplined way,” John Elkann, chairman and acting CEO at Ferrari, said in his address. “And our interpretation of application of these technologies both in motor sport and in road cars is a huge opportunity to bring the uniqueness and passion of Ferrari to new generations.”

That electrification strategy has already seen two hybrid production models hit the roads, though not doing away with the gas engine howl that the automaker is known for. Instead, a plug-in hybrid drivetrain was developed, combining a 4.0-liter twin-turbocharged V8 with three electric motors. One motor is on the transmission, while each front wheel gets a motor apiece.

“As you would expect, we have started by setting the bar high,” Elkann explained. “In leveraging our know-how from motor racing, we have created the wonderful technical achievement and driving experience that are the SF90 Stradale and the SF90 Spider, our hybrid cars. They are in the very finest Ferrari tradition in both its styling and its performance.”

Unsurprisingly, as we’ve seen from other hybrid performance cars, there’s a whole lot to like about Ferrari’s PHEVs. Far from putting economy as the priority, they deliver 986 horsepower and 590 lb-ft of torque, with gas and electric working in tandem. They also mean the two SF90 variants have all-wheel drive.

Still, the 7.9 kWh lithium-ion battery driving the electric motors doesn’t exactly deliver impressive EV-only range. In fact, the cars are rated for about 16 miles of electric driving in their selectable eDrive mode. It’s something we’re expecting the Ferrari EV to address.

“We are also very excited about our first all-electric Ferrari that we plan to unveil in 2025 and you can be sure this will be everything you dream the engineers and designers at Maranello can imagine for such a landmark in our history,” Elkann teased. “So, we see this exciting decade of accelerating change as opening even more ways to push to new levels the boundaries of excellence and passion in everything we do.”

Exactly what Ferrari has in mind remains to be detailed. The automaker has already startled purists with confirmation that it plans an SUV, with the Ferrari Purosangue using a front-mid engine layout and, the company has insisted, delivering the fastest speed in its segment when it launches.

SUVs are an obvious target for automakers to go electric, given the typically larger size and the expectation of extra weight. Nonetheless, that’s not to say all-electric performance cars are in short supply. Tesla continues to insist that it’s building its new Roadster, while the Lotus Evija is among several other car companies’ electric wares coming over the next few years.

For Ferrari, the Purosangue will be unveiled in 2022, the automaker has said. Meanwhile, Elkann said at today’s AGM, there will be three new Ferrari models unveiled in 2021.

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