Automotive & transport

Pay-as-you-go everything

A company called Applied Location in Toronto is developing a product called the SkyMeter that could radically disrupt how everything from insurance, car parking and traffic management is operated. The idea is to use a GPS system to pinpoint a car's location to within 1.5 metres. This information is delivered in real time and also captures data such as speed so traffic can be monitored centrally to reduce congestion.As examples, traffic flow could be adjusted by reducing road or bridge toll costs during off-peak times; individual parking meters and pricing could be similarly adjusted in real time; and car insurance could be bought on a pay-per-minute or pay-per-mile basis because cover could be bought in real time with insurance companies assessing risk depending on precise location, time of day, speed and even the weather.
Ref: Business 2.0 (US) October 2006, 'The Next Disruptions'
Search words: GPS, pay-as-you-go, user pays
Trend tag: connectivity

The future on wheels

Flipping through any number of late-night sci-fi shows is an exercise in future hypotheticals, and nearly all of them - from The Jetsons to Star Trek - explore a common element of the future: What will we drive and will it fly? For the most part, tomorrow's vehicles are likely to evolve from today's innovations. asked a group of scientists, designers and car aficionados for their predictions on our far-out auto future. First cab off the rank was the future of oil and alternative fuels. MIT professors Ahmed Ghoniem and Yang Shao-Horn agreed that as the availability of oil withers, consumers will be presented with a variety of alternative fuels to choose from, suggesting our 'fuel portfolios' will diversify, that 'consumers will have many more options, since we can't put all our eggs in one basket'. They believe hybrid technology will become truly mainstream - that all vehicles, no matter their power source or price point, will incorporate an assortment of technologies aimed at conserving and recapturing otherwise lost energy. This will require major developments in battery technology, including smaller, lighter units with increased capacity like the lithium ion batteries used in laptops and mobile phones. Oil may not disappear, but the price hikes we saw in 2006 offer a glimpse of the future and open the door for future fuels like hydrogen, diesel, and bio-fuels that are jockeying for position as the next fuel. In the not-too-distant future we might see the current struggle between Apple and Microsoft for control of the living room displaced to the dashboard. Already, Chrysler's new MyGig digital-entertainment system that can store photos and music on a built-in hard drive in a move that hints at accentuated 'dashboard computing'. We might also expect cars to begin taking more control over driving functions; indeed an electronic nanny might be along for the ride, as with the Lexus self-parking system. And in an increasingly dangerous world, we can expect demand for higher security, beyond the en-vogue demand for the latest Hummer. The Ford Synus is effectively an armoured truck that looks like a miniature tank and provides vault-like security around an ultra high-tech interior, while Toyota's one-man i-Unit focuses on 'personal mobility' with improved aerodynamics and better economy complete with wireless technology to enabling coordinated movement in between multiple units.
Ref: Business Week (US), 2 October 2006, 'The Future on Four Wheels', M. Vella.
Search words: transport, cars, design

Car paint on demand

Chemical companies PPG and BASF are developing just-in-time paint systems that use a neutral base coat and add colour pigments at the point of spraying. This gets around the need to purge and cleanse between colour batches at the plant that traditionally meant cars are built and shipped with a limited and predetermined colour range. The antidote to Henry Ford's famous clanger, 'you can have any colour you want - as long as it's black,' the new systems will allow car colours to be personalised when ordered. BASF is also perfecting glow-in-the-dark paints: one highlights a car's normal body colour at night; another called 'electrolumiscent pigment', changes colour by reacting to a small electrical charge. And it gets better! One day car paint might not be paint at all, but instead a high-tech colour-changing plastic. General Electric Plastics foresees the end of spray shops with Sollx, a durable plastic film just 0.5mm thick, well suited for bonding to plastic panels. Car designers are excited by Sollx's 'thermochromatic' capability, that it can change colour in different temperatures - for a flashy red in winter, and a cool white in summer. And motorists will no doubt be relieved if that next ding in the car park doesn't mean a trip to the panel beaters. Alongside developments in paint technology, nanotechnology products (molecular-scale engineering), such as nano car wax, provide some benefit as a wax already on the market that fills in those tiny cracks more effectively and gives you a shinier vehicle.
Ref: Qantas Magazine (Aus), October 2006, 'Paint Necessarily So’
Search words: Paint, colour

Green Insurance

The UK's first eco-friendly car insurance, Ecoinsurance claims to offer customers a clean conscience and a greener planet, at little or no extra cost. Your insurance policy comes with carbon offsets for 20 per cent of your car's CO2 emissions, with an extra 10 per cent discount for customers who drive cars that emit less than 100 grams of CO2 emissions per kilometre. The company is also working with an eco-friendly network of garages, paying appointed repairers extra to ensure that they recycle old oil and old car parts or dispose of them properly. Their commitment to the environment goes deeper than your typical green-wash or Green PR initiative with Ecoinsurance's parent company, Co-operative Insurance, the first insurer in the world to commit to an ethical engagement policy.Meanwhile, in America, Travellers Insurance is offering hybrid car drivers a 10 per cent discount on their insurance premiums, not least because they are classified as lower risk and deemed 'preferred customers' - older, more responsible and stable income earners.Is this just a gimmick or something more substantial? In the UK, banks like HSBC are offering a "Green sale" and an Australian winemaker is sending letters to existing and potential customers in Britain saying that their wines are now carbon neutral - and they will send you a case or two by air if you want to buy some. Enough already!
Ref: Springwise (Neth) 30 October 2006, 'Greensurance.
Search words: green, insurance, sustainability, carbon
Trend tags: sustainability

Microorganisms on the move

A research team in Japan working on developing a tiny motor driven by the protein kinesin, have turned their attention to the use of bacteria to power small engines. Yuichi Hiratsuka and his team have built a hybrid micromachine that is powered by gliding bacteria which travels on a silicon track in a combination that takes advantage of the precise engineering of synthetic devices along with the efficient energy conversion and potential for self-repair of biological systems. The group suggest cells using the mycoplasma mobile bacteria could be used as a micro pump, eliminating the need for external pumps, becoming a 'true on-chip device'. They also believe there is potential to construct an electric generator system which converts chemical energy into electric energy. Looking ahead, Hiratsuka suggests, 'we would like to make micro-robots driven by biological motors, which could move around and do mechanical work in the micrometer world'. It is thought that several proteins in the bacteria cause them to move. The cells work 'more efficiently and intelligently' than machines driven by proteins and molecules, and since microorganisms such as mycoplasma proliferate on a diet of sugar they are a more stable power source than molecular motor proteins. The team has flagged potential improvements by genetically engineering the bacteria or adding chemicals that urge the cells to move in a uniform direction with chemical clues. Another option, that avoids any potential biohazards, is the use of Mycoplasma mobile 'ghosts', which are not actually alive but can still get the job done. Mycoplasma is not the only microorganism that has been identified to effectively power up and drive micro devices. At MIT they are working on the green algae Chlamyodomonas, a gliding bacterium that moves using energy provided by photosynthesis. Chlamyodomonas swim toward light and are being used to carry cargo and unload it at designated places. Alternately, Dictyostelium amoeba is a bacterium that will crawl toward a specific chemical substance. Over at UCLA they have designed a miniature device that moves like an inchworm with muscle cells that repeatedly contract and relax. Micromachines will need to be mass-produced if they are to be of any real use; scientists are looking at self-organisation as a possible solution. Microorganisms also require an environment favourable to life; the human body provides such an environment, suggesting the micromachines inside the body might be one of the first real application points for this technology. Gulp!
Ref: The Nikkei Weekly (Japan), 16 October 2006, 'Microorganisms drive micro motors',
S. Kodama. See also, 'New motor first to be powered by living bacteria,' L. Zyga
Search words: Bacteria, motors