Automotive & transport

The Future of Car Safety

The Department of Transport in the UK has the aim of making cars so safe that there are “zero accidents”, which you may find laudable or laughable. There are more people driving, further cars on the road, and even more opportunities to crash. But thanks to high-tech design features, we may be able to lighten the prognosis.Early next year, cars will be able to recognise speed limits and warn the driver, though it would be easy (but autocratic) to create a device that uses the satnav system to slow the car to the speed limit automatically. By 2011, eCall will be deployed, which reduces response time to emergencies through automatic alert and information providing. External airbags, bouncing bonnets, and bumper bags are on the way, but whether they save pedestrians or block vision is another matter. The EU is proposing maximum limits of 130g of carbon per kilometre by 2010 and fuel-cell motors may arrive later (and even interchangeable parts so cars last forever), but making the environment safe is not the same as safe driving.

Carmakers are trying to wring every last efficiency from the internal combustion engine and, like many old technologies, it’s not ready to die yet. Engines will become smaller and lighter and will have valve-control systems and superchargers to increase power. Most agree that, while hybrids are a good bridging technology, most cars will eventually run on batteries alone, say, by 2020.

In 20 years, the UK may have a system where cars can speak to cars, warning them about traffic patterns and road conditions. Volvo has already created the City Safety system where the car recognises if another car is right in front or about to collide, and applies the brakes. One Finnish research centre believes “intelligent” car safety systems are the future, with the most promising being electronic stability control. German researchers are working on developing “cognitive automobiles”.

Right now, there is a black box system being trialled, which records every unsafe action by a teenage driver and lets their parents know. Safe driving, perhaps, but we think this is very unsafe parenting. It looks dangerously like another manifestation of the nanny state driving it home.
Ref: The Times (UK), 19 July 2008, 'Zero accidents the high-tech route to the future of car safety'. J. Naish.
The Economist (UK), 13 December 2008, 'Stopping in a hurry'.
The Economist (UK), 6 September 2008, 'The road ahead'.
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Search words: high-tech design, zero accidents, crash tests, airbags, pollution, fuel cells, steering, bumpers, electronic stability, cognitive automobiles, hybrids, emissions, internal combustion engine.
Trend tags: risk, safety

New Roles for Old Engines

What is over 100 years old and still won’t die? The internal combustion engine, and engineers are finding new ways of making it roar. The supercharger is not a new invention – 1920s racing cars had them – but they work better with stronger engines. The Chevrolet Lacetti can climb a winding alpine track all the way up in top gear. The supercharger could be used to reduce the size of all car engines by 50%, keeping the greenies and the speed kings happy.

Another system is high-tech valve control, developed by a French supplier, which uses electromagnetic controls to open and shut valves. This makes it possible to shut down cylinders, switch from four-stroke to the Atkinson cycle (used by the Toyota Prius), and cut fuel consumption and emissions. Fiat’s new Multiair system combines valve control, a turbocharger and a two-cylinder engine to create a car that performs like a four-cylinder and saves 20% in fuel. Similarly, Daimler’s DiesOtto uses variable valve control, fuel injection and turbocharging to switch between petrol for high speeds and diesel for low to medium speeds.

Some diesel-powered cars can already get 80mpg but the small car will break the 100mpg barrier very soon. All it needs now is the will to drive small cars, which exists in Europe, but is still lacking in America, Russia or China. And there is another problem – if it becomes cheaper and more acceptable to drive small cars, will this encourage even more people to buy cars?
Ref: The Economist, 16 August 2008, 'The old motor roars back'.
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Search words: internal combustion engine, superchargers, valve control, electromagnetism, fuel consumption, petrol, diesel, two-stroke, four-stroke, hybrids.
Trend tags: energy

Air Batteries

Many of us have to recharge the battery of one gadget nearly every day, whether it’s the laptop, mobile phone, or toothbrush. Hybrid cars are about to be powered by lithium-ion batteries, which include a combustible liquid electrolyte, but Toyota hopes to develop something better. Its proposed metal-air battery generates electricity through a reaction between oxygen in the air and a metal like zinc at the negative electrode, and would have five times the storage capacity of a similar size lithium-ion.

Air batteries are already used in hearing aids and pocket pagers as button batteries and currently do not perform well in large sizes. It is far more likely that people will adopt electric cars if a higher performance rechargeable battery is developed. In fact, a study group in Japan recently wrote that batteries must have seven times higher performance than today and cost 40 times less to make. Wouldn’t it be good if all batteries could recharge themselves – not just those of cars – and they all used the same charger?
Ref: The Nikkei Weekly, 11 August 2008, Next electric cars could run on air batteries. Anon.
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Search words: hybrid cars, lithium-ion, batteries, metal-air batteries, energy storage, hearing aids, forklifts, electric cars.
Trend tags: energy storage

Three Billion and Counting

While America questions whether it should continue to prop up its ailing car industry, Brazil, China, Russia and India (the BRICs) are revving up for cars, cars, and more cars. Last year, GM sold twice as many Buicks in China as in America. As the boss of Renault-Nissan said, “Nothing can stop the car being the most coveted product that comes with development”. While Western carmakers can look to these markets for demand, they can’t count on taking them all from local carmakers.

By 2010, ten of the biggest global carmakers will be manufacturing up to 1.6 million cars a year in Russia. Russian carmakers sold only 756,000 passenger vehicles last year, compared to 1.2 million in 1990. In India, Tata Motors dominates the commercial vehicle market, produces India’s local modern car, and has created the Nano, the $US2,500 “people’s car”. China has about five carmakers (including Cherry and Geely) that last year took 60% of the passenger-car market, and they believe they can rival foreign brands. Meanwhile, a trade body in Brazil predicts that by 2013, Brazil will be the sixth biggest car producer - more than 5 million cars, 80% for the domestic market.

There are subtle differences between each market and, as usual, local carmakers are best placed to understand them. Half the fuel used by cars today in Brazil is ethanol, which protects them from high oil prices. Where Brazilians prefer their cars small, Russians like big cars, especially big and wide SUVs. Chinese buyers are described as “brand snobs” who expect to be able to buy the best, but they also have relatively few petrol stations and are better placed to introduce electric cars. In India, sales of motorcycles outstrip those of cars by 500% but that may change as GDP increases and cars like the cheap-looking Tata Nano make cars more affordable.

Of course, car ownership has its own problems. Developing countries see cars as a sign of progress, because they can cover longer distances to work, purchase a wider range of goods (which increases retail competition), and look more affluent. But they also have to deal with health-sapping pollution, dangerously poor roads that reduce speeds and increase accidents, and meet worldwide standards for reducing emissions. If emissions grew in line with ownership, 2050 could see temperatures rise by 3 degrees from pre-industrial levels.It is inevitable that developing markets will get their cars, for good or ill. It is not so inevitable that Western governments can continue to bail out their car industries. Somewhere between the need to create jobs and the need to accept that jobs have migrated to developing countries, there has to be a concerted drive to ensure that the car does not continue to make a mess of the planet.
Ref: The Economist, 15 November 2008, 'A global love affair'. M. Symonds et al.
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Search words: carmakers, Detroit, BRIC countries, Tata Motors, cheap cars, safety, motor bikes.
Trend tags: BRICs

Parking Trends

There’s a joke that says someone from Birmingham cries if his dog dies but a Londoner cries if he gets a parking space. There is no doubt that, in modern cities, parking is a luxury. But how should we deal with it? One of the main reasons why cities are congested, ugly, and sprawled is because of minimum parking regulations and, according to Donald Shoup, is the high cost of free parking (also the name of his book). The book posits that there is no such thing as a free parking space.

The cost of providing parking always goes into the cost of development of nearby buildings and then boosts the cost of goods and services sold on these sites. It also makes housing more expensive. People on low incomes who do not own cars still pay these costs. When parking is not free, people tend to migrate to the places where it is free, even though they pay the cost of parking when they buy. Free parking also distorts the perceived cost of travel, making buses or trains seem less attractive. Shoup suggests leasing on-street parking to private owners. The cost of parking should reflect market demand while ensuring a small oversupply so drivers do not have to cruise up and down. The proceeds from the leases could then go to beautifying the area or cutting council rates.

In some ways, it is not such a radical idea, since many people in built-up areas of cities already pay for parking and are accustomed to feeding the meter. But what would happen if the main thoroughfares in these areas offered free 2-hour parking? Would drivers stay longer and spend more in the shops to the benefit of local traders? Or would it increase street congestion to intolerable levels? We think that paid parking is a better idea, overall, but perhaps the proceeds could go to charity instead of fatcat councils. At least then, parking would seem to be doing some good.
Ref: Policy (Aus), Winter 2008, 'There’s no such thing as a free parking space'. C. Seibert.
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Search words: minimum parking regulations, development, leases, off-street parking, urban sprawl, low incomes, public transport.
Trend tags: Urbanisation, congestion