Automotive & transport

Driven to Distraction

The American approach to traffic control, with heavy signage and specially tailored speed limits, is designed to make roads as safe as possible, but there is one man that claims it does quite the opposite. John Staddon, professor of psychology and brain sciences at Duke University, has compared the US and UK systems of road safety and found that excess use of signs and cautionary speed limits could be doing more harm than good. He claims that any sign on an intersection or stretch of road distracts the driver from the task at hand – driving. Stop signs are not only distracting, but teach drivers to be less observant of cross traffic. In addition, excessive use of signs, especially those that are known to be enforced, will mean drivers are looking out for approaching police rather than looking at the road. Speed signs can be just as dangerous.

The US speed limit system makes allowances for every curve or traffic condition, and adjusts the speed limit accordingly, sometimes changing the limit every few hundred yards. This kind of handholding promotes a reliance on instructions, to a point where drivers are no longer using their own judgement or even common sense. Statistics report that over the past 30 years in the UK, as traffic control has been simplified (by adding roundabouts and standardising speed limits), traffic fatalities have fallen by around 50%. And in the US, traditional intersections that have been replaced by roundabouts have seen a reduction in accidents of around 40% and a reduction in fatalities of up to 90%. Some European towns have gone to the other end of the spectrum, eradicating street signs and other traffic control methods almost completely. Drachten in Holland and Kensington High Street in London – high traffic, pedestrian-dense areas – are among those that have removed stop signs, stoplights and even sidewalks. The aim is to create and environment where both drivers and pedestrians are more aware and more cautious. The result is that pedestrian accidents are reduced (by as much as 40% in some areas) and traffic is actually slower.
Ref: The Atlantic (US), July/August 200, ‘Distracting Miss Daisy’, John Staddon,
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Search words: Speed, speed limits, safety, fast, slow, driving, signs
Trend tags: Data visualisation

Smart Parking

In San Francisco, a move is underway to introduce a wireless sensor network that will hopefully put an end to the city’s parking and traffic problems. The system works through a series of small plastic sensors, one of which is attached to each metered parking spot. When the sensors are linked via the network, the result is a real-time database of parking spot vacancies. This information can be displayed to drivers through displays on street signs or available through the screens on smartphones. Drivers may also be able to pay by cellphone, meaning they won’t have to return to their car to top up the meter.

San Francisco will initially test 6,000 of its 24,000 metered parking spaces, with plans to go ahead with a two-year $95.5 million program to improve infrastructure. A hefty price to pay for parking, but it could actually save lives – in 2006, a 19-year-old was stabbed to death over a fight for a parking space. The parking system will also help relieve congestion. It is estimated that drivers searching for on-street parking make up as much as 30% of traffic in CBDs. A yearlong study of a district in Los Angeles reported that drivers looking for parking spots drove the equivalent of 38 times around the world, and in New York drivers searching for metered parking in just a 15-block area of Columbus Avenue drove 366,000 miles every year. Once installed, it’s hoped the wireless system will play an integral part in managing and improving city services. The sensors could be used to monitor the speed of traffic, identify traffic jams and even check air quality.
Ref: The New York Times, 12 July 2008, ‘Can’t Find a Parking Spot? Check Smartphone’, John Markoff.
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Search words: Parking, mobile phones, spaces
Trend tags: Digitalisation, connectivity, RFID

On-Board Weather

In-car technology is advancing to the point where cars can check the weather, fuel prices or even their own oil. These benefits are available thanks to the combination of high-speed cellular networks, onboard computers and GPS systems, which calculate a car’s location. Sirius satellite radio is behind some of the applications. By tapping in to data from credit card transactions, Sirius can identify (and deliver to drivers) the cheapest petrol prices across a country. They are also planning a weather service that will overlay weather maps directly over the navigation screen, meaning drivers can chose a route that will avoid storms or fog. An application from Hughes Telematics works in conjunction with a car’s onboard computer to check the car’s status. Drivers can then log onto the company’s website to check their oil levels, tyre pressure or receive an ‘all-clear’ report for emissions, which can be taken to the DMV.

Going forward, it’s expected that radio frequency identification (RFID) will have a bigger role to play in applications for drivers. Currently limited to tasks such as paying tolls, it’s expected that within 10 or 20 years, RIFD could advance to the point where it could help with the driving. Cars with the technology would automatically keep a suitable distance from the car in front, reducing collisions and therefore traffic jams. Data from the car such as speed, fuel status and destination would be sent to a central computer, which would use the information to monitor traffic. RFID could also be used in connection with a car’s registration, monitoring a car’s emission profile, number of trips and peak hour travel to calculate registration fees.
Ref: Popular Science (US), June 2008, ‘Help from above’.; The Australian, 3 July 008, ‘Electronic tags to take the thinking out of life’, Chris Chapman.
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Search words: On-board monitoring, controls, weather
Trend tags: Dashboards

Re-inventing City Wheels

In 2007, General Motors unveiled their plan for a battery-driven electric car that they hope will put them ahead of the pack – namely Toyota – in the electric car market. The Chevrolet Volt, as it will be known, is still in the planning stages, but GM hopes to have it in showrooms by 2010. If all goes to plan, the Volt will fully charge overnight from any electrical socket, and go 40 miles on a single charge. Which may not seem like a lot, but it’s estimated that three-quarters of Americans commute less than 40 miles per day. After the charge runs out, a small gasoline engine will ignite, recharging the battery on the go. Because of this engine, the car will be classed as a hybrid, but unlike other hybrids, the engine’s sole purpose is to recharge the battery – not power the wheels.This technology is not entirely new. Back in the early 1990s, engineers testing the EV1 hooked up a generator powered by a motorcycle engine, allowing the car’s battery to recharge on the road. The idea never made it any further, as at the time, the focus was on purely electric cars that burned no petrol at all.

The battery is the biggest hurdle to overcome with any electric car. Batteries with enough power to drive a car have until recently been far too large, too heavy and far too expensive to be practical. The advent of lithium-ion batteries has gone some way towards solving the problem, but creating a battery that is sufficiently lightweight, durable and, more importantly, affordable is still a gargantuan task. GM hopes to market the Volt under the Chevrolet brand – GM’s biggest selling, but also one associated with lower prices than its Cadillac brand. With the battery alone expected to cost in the realm of the high four figures, selling the Volt at Chevy prices is likely to result in a loss for GM. GM maintains that battery prices will come down and petrol prices will go up, but critics say that unless fuel reaches $10 a gallon (where now it’s $3 or $4), the Volt is not going to be a profitable business proposition.
Ref: The Atlantic (US), July/August 2008, ‘Electro-Shock Therapy’, Jonathan Rauch.
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Search words: Electric cars, city cars, hybrids
Trend tags: Environment

India’s New People-Carrier

Another car making waves, for more than one reason, is India’s new Nano. Heralded as the cheapest car ever made, the vehicle from India’s Tata Motors is putting car ownership within the reach of millions of people. When the chairman of Tata Motor’s, Ratan Tata, set out with the vision of the Nano, he gave significance to the price tag – $3,000 is considered the minimum amount for a life purchase. In keeping to this envisioned cost, Tata Motors have had some advantages over foreign carmakers. For a start, labour, raw materials and overheads cost less in India than they do in, for example, Detroit. The fact that Tata has a steel plant in close proximity to their West Bengal Tata Motors manufacturing plant doesn’t hurt either. But this was only part of the equation – Tata went to great lengths to meet their desired end price, a lot of it being cut by losing weight from the car. This will also work out cheaper for owners in the long run, with the lightweight Nano getting a hugely efficient 47 miles per gallon.

The Nano has been praised for potentially providing independence and social mobility, but there are concerns about the effect of putting so many new cars on the road. An estimated 8 million Indians currently own cars, with a further 18 million able to afford one. However the release of the Nano could see the country’s potential for car ownership reach around 30 million people. In 2004, 92,618 people died in traffic accidents in India. This represents a mortality rate of 14 people per 10,000 vehicles – the rate in the developed world sits at around 2 per 10,000 vehicles. Pollution is also a concern. The Nano is designed to be fuel efficient (with carbon emissions on par with European standards), but any amount of emissions will add to the current pollution problem – especially if the cars sell as well as expected.
Ref: Wired (US), 23 June 2008, ‘India’s 50-MPG Tata Nano: Auto Solution or Pollution’, Daniel Roth.
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Search words: India, Tat, nano, low cost, cars, Innovation