Automotive & transport

The Wright stuff

How can a lone inventor called Ian Wright do what global auto-makers like Ford and GM have failed to do and produce an all-electric car with just three moving engine parts that accelerates faster than a Ferrari Enzo or a Porsche Carrera GT? The answer is that he started with a clean sheet of paper. The car in question is called the Wrightspeed X1 and thanks to an injection of capital by PayPal founder Elon Musjk, the vehicle is expected to go on sale soon at a price of around US$ 100,000 (that's about $570,000 cheaper than an Enzo and $330,000 cheaper than a Carrera GT).Battery-powered cars have been around since the late 1800s and thanks to California's strict anti-emissions regulations, companies like Toyota and Honda have been making and selling electric vehicles for years. However, until now, the technology hasn't been quite right and people have been unwilling to pay for an all-electric car just because it's good for the environment. Moreover, the more cars move away from the internal combustion engine and become mobile technology platforms, the more vulnerable car companies will become, because their knowledge of computers, batteries and electronics is far behind that of the high-tech industry. Hence an engineer that used to design routers and switches for Cisco Systems is perfectly able to out-design GM and Ford when it comes to electric vehicles. The Wrightspeed X1 is powered by 538 pounds of lithium-ion batteries that balance low weight with high power with a range of about 100 miles. Recharging takes 4.5 hours. What makes the car unique though is an onboard computer that keeps the car at a constant state of optimum acceleration whenever the accelerator is pressed. So could Silicon Valley be the new Detroit? Given that most paradigm shifts come from the outside the answer is a definite maybe.
Ref: Business 2.0 (US), May 2006, 'Silicon Valley's New New Thing', M. Copeland.
Search words: cars, electric, vehicles, batteries, innovation

High and mighty

The British government has recently increased the level of road tax paid by owners of 4x4 vehicles. Superficially this is because 4x4s are gas-guzzlers that pollute the environment. In the US, a direct action group called the Detroit Project has even accused 4x4 (SUV) drivers of promoting terrorism on the basis that they consume more than their fair share of oil reserves thereby making the US more reliant on foreign oil - which in turn provokes US military action in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s is hell-bent on harassing 4x4 drivers while the New Economics Foundation (a UK think tank) has described 4x4s as 'Satan's little run-arounds'. But is this so? A typical spin in a 4x4 emits less than half the CO2 produced by a dishwasher on an economy cycle - but we don't label dishwasher owners as 'evil', 'selfish' or 'greedy'. So what's it all about? Maybe the answer is that the campaign has less to do with what 4x4s do and more to do with what they represent. 4x4s are a very visible sign of consumption, but so too are Mercedes. So perhaps the attack has more to do with middle-class anger against the aspirant working class and the idle rich? In other words, the middle-class is angry with people that have ideas above their station wagon.
Ref: Spiked Online (UK), 23 March 2006, 'What's behind the war on 4x4s?', B. O'Neill,
Search words: 4x4, SUVs, protest, direct action

Parking for the mobile generation

According to city planners as much as 80% of urban traffic is comprised of people trying to find somewhere to park. Enter Spotscout, a Cambridge (US) based company that seeks to connect people with knowledge of parking spaces with the people that need them. The carspace marketplace works by broadcasting the availability of public parking spaces in real time but also by allowing private owners of parking spaces to set a price for the use of their space. Searching, reservations and payment can all be made online using a suitably equipped mobile (cell) phone or other mobile device. The company is initially launching in New York and Boston but has plans to go nationwide.
Ref: Springwise (Neth), 6 April 2006, 'Mobile exchange for parking spots',
Search words: parking, mobiles, cities, spaces

Retro rockets

In the US one of the latest auto fads is buying 'grandpa' cars. Teenagers are buying cars like Chevrolets, Buicks, Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs from the 1970s and 80s, partly because they are so 'out' they're 'in', but also because the cars are simple to understand and easy to fix. There are no onboard computers or sealed boxes of electronics and mechanically-minded owners can work on their cars by themselves.Another explanation for the trend is the influence of TV shows like MTV's 'Pimp My Ride' but the main reason is probably a mixture of low-cost, mechanical simplicity and nostalgia. There is even a new magazine dedicated to the tricked-out old motor trend - Donk, Box & Bubble. Companies like Ford are all too aware of this trend but it's very complicated to make something simple. It involves un-inventing technologies, which is an anathema to technologists, so the young people old car fad will probably stay at the grassroots level.
Ref: The Wall Street Journal, 9 May 2006, 'Hip to Be Square: Why Young Buyers Covet "Grandpa" Cars', J. Saranow.
Search words: simplicity, nostalgia, cars

The re-invention of the bicycle wheel

If the price of oil keeps climbing, city streets become more crowded and roads become more expensive to drive on, then surely one solution is the reinvention of the bike wheel. As pedal bikes start to disappear on the streets of Beijing they are making a slow reappearance on the streets of European cities as commuters become fed up with public transport and the high price of private car ownership. Recent innovations include schemes like Call a Bike in Germany (Munich, Frankfurt, Cologne and Berlin) where bikes can be rented by the hour or by the day thanks to smart security and payment technologies. Bikes are unlocked by sending the security code to the Call a Bike control centre via a touch-tone phone. Users then pay six Euro cents per mile which is collected when the bike is returned to a secure location.
Ref: Springwise (Neth), 16 May 2006, 'City bike schemes'.
Search words: bicycles, cycling, cities