Automotive & transport

Open source autos

Riversimple is a revolutionary car concept, spawned by Hugo Spowers, which aims to put existing technology and innovative ideas together in new ways via open source licence. The Riversimple design is a hydrogen-powered car that you lease, rather than buy, and the lease includes fuel costs. This is the opposite concept to owning a car, which means obsolescence and high running costs.

The two-seater car is made of carbon fibre and looks like a giant bug, with doors that open upwards like wings. It runs on four hydrogen fuel cells and has an electric motor on each wheel, more efficient than one sitting above. When the car brakes, half the energy generated is stored (known as regenerative braking). It will cost drivers about GBP 200 per month to lease, including fuel, tyres and other variable items, and will reward both owners and drivers if it is fuel efficient.

The company is a limited liability partnership so that all stakeholders, from staff to neighbours, can have a say in the way it is run. It also means that everyone has an investment in making money without causing more environmental damage. Potential investors are already gathering for the next round of funding. This goes to show that there is always someone willing to follow a dream and, for some, nothing is quite as appealing as a dream car.
Ref: The Spectator, 11 July 2009, Crazy car, crazy company: but maybe it’s the future. Edie Lush.
Search words: hydrogen car, Riversimple, systems integration, batteries, open source development, leasing, fuel efficient, limited liability.
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Search words: Open source, car design, business models
Trend tags: Open innovation

Railway trends

One of the reasons that everyone likes to complain about railways is because they are too popular – and this causes all sorts of problems. With railway traffic in the UK up 35% in ten years, and improved safety and better punctuality, you could be forgiven for thinking that nothing is wrong. But the fact is that there aren’t enough trains.

Forecasts suggest that twice the number of passengers will take the train over the next two decades, due to road congestion, higher urban employment, or planetary concerns. There are plans for longer trains (who sat and counted carriages as a kid?) and longer platforms, and for more electrification (still only a third of Britain’s railways are electrified). More exciting, there will be a high-speed service from London to Birmingham.

But where is the funding going to come from? Train fares in the UK are already the highest in Europe – twice as expensive than the runner-up, France. The government is not keen to increase its subsidy (already 4 billion pounds a year) and, given the constraints on spending, the railways are not likely to get it.
It’s unfortunate because trains are great for combating climate change and people are being urged to take public transport whenever they can. They can’t be rewarded with higher ticket prices. This leaves a lot of people standing on the platform complaining: when and where is the next train?
Ref: The Economist (UK), 6 June 2009, Pay up, pay up, and board the train. Anon.
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Search words: railways, congestion, electrification, expensive, government subsidy, debt.
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Why we don’t want a quiet drive

For anyone who was looking forward to the pleasant, gentle hum of electric/hybrid cars in place of the throaty roar of internal combustion engines, here is some bad news. The future is something called “synthesised engine noises”. Believe it or not, people want cars to sound like cars and – worse still – quiet cars have been found to be unsafe. Nobody hears them coming.

An American study conducted with both blind and sighted participants found that a hybrid car could not be detected until it was too close for comfort. When the experiment was repeated, the hybrids had to be 65% closer than a petrol car before respondents could deduce from which direction it was coming. In other words, cars have to make a sound before we become aware of them. That is what we’re used to.

One answer is to create a different sound inside the car from the one outside, and to direct the external sound using speakers. This ensures that only the people who need to, hear it, rather than everyone in the surrounding area. Even more compelling, perhaps, would be the ability to download engine sounds, like ringtones. One can imagine a few teenage boys who would be thrilled to have such a choice (especially when the car in question is his mother’s “uncool” hatchback). A car with a unique engine sound may then be as desirable as the unmistakable sound of a certain brand of motorbike.
Ref: The Economist (UK), 9 May 2009, The sound of silence. Anon.
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Search words: hybrid, electric, cars, hearing, noise, safety, speakers, downloads, synthesised engine noises.
Trend tags: environment

Performance with a clean conscience

The image of green products often suffers from being seen as slightly folksy, hippy, or left of centre. Tesla Motors, run by the unstoppable space entrepreneur, Elon Musk, has already exploded that image with a cool, electric roadster that cost $140 million to develop and can accelerate from zero to 60 in less than four seconds. (He has also developed a rocket, or observation satellite, through SpaceX.) He is clearly a man to be reckoned with and, if anyone can make people drive electric cars, it might be him. Much press has been given over to his flammable personality and conflicted relationships, but less to his dazzling entrepreneurialism. Now that Daimler has agreed to buy just under 10% of Tesla, it is a sign that the big carmakers are watching with more than just idling interest. Tesla is now planning a Model S, a $50,000 battery-powered saloon for the rest of us who can buy neither rockets nor roadsters. Moving from the luxury niche to the mainstream may be harder than it looks, because people not yet paying more to be green. But if it goes like a rocket, they might.
Ref: Financial Times, 25/26 July 2009, The future is in his hands. John Reed.
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Search words: Tesla Motors, satellite, electric cars, roadster, carbon, Daimler.
Trend tags: environment

Time for trucks to save the planet

Many of us feel guilty when we get in the car, even in this fuel-conscious era. But this is nothing compared to the truck industry, which guzzles through fuel at the same rate as it did in 1969. Rather than focusing on manufacturing hybrid or electric trucks, engineers are working to tweak existing designs so that they work more efficiently. That is not difficult: only 6.5% of the energy in a long-haul truck’s fuel is used to carry the cargo inside it!

A frightening 89% of fuel is wasted via waste heat, aerodynamics, idling, tyre rolling resistance, and transmission drag. Waste heat, for example, can be converted to electricity, or to generate steam, which can drive the engine itself or power a refrigerated container. Another idea is to curve the back of the truck and blow a jet of air from it to reduce the turbulent airflow that uses unnecessary fuel. Making trucks longer via extra trailers also helps, although many US States prohibit a second trailer.
Fuel is wasted when the truck bumps over uneven roads, so shock absorbing features can help reduce this. Finally a Dutch company, E-Traction, is developing electric motors for trucks and buses that fits inside each wheel. This is much more efficient as, without gearing and transmissions, the only moving part is the wheel itself. Of course, companies that run massive fleets of trucks, like Wal-Mart, have a huge investment in helping them run more efficiently and, whether or not their considerations are green, the result is the same. It also seems fairer on car owners, who are already cleaning up their acts.
Ref: New Scientist (UK), 15 August 2009, Bad boys clean up. Phil McKenna.
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Search words: trucks, fuel consumption, hybrids, waste heat, airflow, aerodynamics, E-Traction, drag.
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