Automotive & transport

Safer seat belts

Mandatory improvements to seat belt design are being considered by regulators in the US in an attempt to reduce the number of fatalities caused by rollover accidents. Ideas include the adoption of so-called 'four-point' belts currently used in racing cars.

Ref: Detroit News (US)

Very cheap car

Indian conglomerate Tata is considering the creation of a 600cc car that would sell at a cost of US $ 2,000. The cheapest car currently sold in India is the Maturi 800 which costs US $4,860.

Ref: Financial Express (India) 7 November 2004.

Safer drivers

According to a survey commissioned by a German car magazine 44% of men say they adjust their style of driving when a female passenger is sitting in the car. Only 29% of women said they drove differently when a male passenger was sitting in the car. Meanwhile, research in Canada says that women have weaker spatial awareness than men which could account for their more timid (safer) driving style.

Ref: (UK), Perception (Quoted in The Times - UK).

On the road to nowhere?

The Institute for Public Policy Research (a UK think tank) has recommended that the government scrap compulsory road tax and introduce a national congestion charge instead. The cost of the charge would be related to the time of day, location and distance travelled thereby reducing congestion at peak periods. However, given that most road trips are events over which people have little or no time control (going to work, dropping children off at school etc) the idea looks like it might be a dead end.

Ref: Spiked Online 28 July 2004. See also The Future of Transport 20 July 2004 (Department of Transport).

Seeing in the dark

70% of pedestrian deaths happen at night so engineers at Honda in Japan have come up with a bright idea called the Intelligent Night Vision System. Two infrared cameras mounted at the front of a vehicle sense 'warm' objects in the dark. Images are then matched to known shapes such as humans or animals. Distances are then calculated and an alarm sounded.

Ref: New Scientist 11 September 2004.

More smelly ideas

You've probably heard of Harley Davidson the fragrance so how about Hummer the scent. Yes, that's right, men aged 25-45 can now buy a can of deodorant or a bar of soap that looks like the front end of a Hummer SUV. Quite what you'll smell like is anyone's guess.

4x4 + 11%

People that drive SUVs are 11% more likely to die in a car crash than people who drive ordinary cars according to US safety figures.

Ref: New York Times (US)

(The New York )Times Square Station?

The New York transport authority is considering plans to sell station-naming rights to corporations.

Ref: Various including: Guardian (UK). Sense Worldwide (UK). New York Times (US)

If you've locked your keys in the car again press 4

ProTech is a company set up by an ex-University of California Physics professor to develop vehicle stopping technology - but we're not talking about brakes. Modern cars use computer chips to control the engine and if you send enough radio waves at a car you can overload the system and shut the engine down. Users could include the police pursuing stolen vehicles. Another company in the US is already selling a system that enables you to remotely shut down an engine or open a locked door with a phone call. Simply dial a number, key in a special code and dial 3 for engine cut off, 4 if you've lost your keys and want the doors open or 5 if you'd like to limit your son's speed to 30 miles per hour.

Ref: Various, including The Guardian (UK), Sydney Morning Herald (AUS).

Great idea but

Saab is developing an ignition key that also acts as a breathalyser. If you're sober a light goes green and the key will start the car. If you're drunk the light turns red and prevents you from starting the car. Only question is, what stops you asking someone who hasn't been drinking from blowing into the mouthpiece?

Ref: Drive /SMH (AUS)

Oil versus gas

Will China become the world's biggest market for hydrogen powered cars? There are technical barriers to overcome and a well-funded fossil-fuel lobby to defeat, but it could happen. China's growing appetite for cars means a growing demand for oil - which in turns threatens national security.

Ref: Newsweek (US), 13 September 2004.

Making roads safer for younger drivers

In Australia learner and provisional drivers are restricted to between 80 -90km/h. In the US another tactic has been the introduction of night-time driving bans and restrictions on passengers. In Delaware, for example, a curfew operates between 9pm and 6am whilst in Indiana provisional drivers are not allowed to carry passengers for the first 3 months unless someone aged 21+ with a licence is also in the car.

Ref: Wheels (AUS) October 2004.

An emotionally driven car?

Toyota has been granted a US patent for a car that smiles at other vehicles. It can also wink, cry, glow with rage and wiggle its ariel with delight. The idea is that currently drivers can only communicate to other drivers with a horn or hand gesture out of the window. It would therefore seem to be a good idea to allow cars (or drivers) to communicate their feelings when other drivers show kindness or hostility towards them. However, drivers are increasingly overloaded with information and we suspect that this idea is a bit of a lemon. A better idea might be to increase the range of noise (horn) options available to drivers or to simply remove the control of cars from drivers altogether.

Self-driving cars a step closer

The idea of networking cars (thereby reducing or removing the need for people to drive them) has been around for a very long time. Until quite recently most experts predicted that one-day roads would have to be pulled up to embed technology to enable cars to drive themselves. However, the development of satellite navigation (accurate to a few inches), distance sensing systems and lane-adherence technology means that the roads can stay exactly as they are. Indeed the technology already exists to allow drivers to give a destination command and then sit back and enjoy the ride. Owners of Sunseeker power boats can already do this as can pilots of Global Hawk fighter jets. What are some of the possible consequences of such a move? Well for starters cars really would turn into mobile homes with work, sleep, cooking and entertainment facilities. How far are we away from this world? Most estimates say around 20 years.

Ref: Fortune (US), 14 June 2004.

Smart curbs

What would happen if you compared the way cars are built to the way buildings get built? What if you asked an architect like Frank Gehry to design a car? These are some of the questions that are currently being answered by MITs Media Lab in conjunction with General Motors. One thing that would certainly happen is that cars would be thought of as single systems that interact with other systems (other cars, buildings, roads etc) and they would also be seen as information platforms as much as transportation devices. The project, to design a city car for the future, has already come up with some intriguing blue sky ideas - like 'smart curbs' that report their availability as parking spaces (thereby creating a futures market in parking spaces), and cars which can change length according to the number of passengers being transported.

Ref: New York Times (US), 6 September 2004.

Car sharing gets serious

Here's an innovative concept to solve urban traffic congestion - the pay-as-you-go car. The idea is essentially a car sharing scheme with a difference. You join a club and get a membership card. The card then gives you access to a number of cars parked across the city. The cars are fuelled up and ready to go and the keys are inside the car. Swiping your membership card unlocks the door and records your mileage when you've finished your journey. There's no paperwork because you book the cars online. Once you've got to where you're going the car alerts new users to its whereabouts and a bill is sent to you via email. Payment is made automatically.

Ref: Rob@Cynic. See