Automotive & transport

Charge it to my car

It seems unlikely that people will give up their cars in the near future but the way they buy, fuel, maintain and use them will certainly transform. The disruptive technology is the plug-in electric car. There are 700 million registered vehicles in the world today, set to triple over the next 20 years, so there is no time like now for disruption. If western companies resist this trend, Chinese and Indian companies will take up the slack.

Why should plug-in electric cars revolutionise travel? First, to reduce dependence on oil; America just announced it would spend $US2.4 billion supporting electric cars. Second, to reduce emissions - this depends on using electricity from renewable sources rather than coal, which is comparable to driving a petrol-powered car. Third, electric vehicles convert more than 90% of power into motion, compared to the combustion engine’s feeble 20%. As with all solutions, there are problems to overcome: perceived total price and relatively small driving range with current batteries.

Today’s electric cars - parallel hybrids, like the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic Hybrid - are not disruptive technologies and use conventional manufacturing and servicing. Brand new electric cars, like the Chevrolet Volt, are series hybrids, where a small engine powers a generator to keep the battery charged. This means a car can travel 81% further. Tomorrow’s hybrids are likely to have in-wheel engines, which offer high engine efficiency, reduce the need for a drive train, and give more flexibility for design.

Better Place, an Israeli-Californian company, offers an innovative alternative. It plans for charge points at home, work, and other places, so drivers can charge whenever electricity is off-peak, quickly swap batteries if needed, and even sell back to the grid when they don’t need it. This is known as vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology and allows grid operators to keep renewable energy and more efficiently manage peak demand. While this demands some extra infrastructure, it costs only $US500 a car to give up oil, translating to US$100 billion saved in America. Some experts believe more than 80% of cars worldwide will be electric by 2050.

There are skeptics of course! First, the lithium ion battery still needs improvement, particularly the safety aspects of overcharging and discharging. It is forecast that electric cars will expand the value of the battery market from US$9 billion to US$150 billion by 2030. Second, people need to be persuaded to spend more on their cars now to save money in the future – not an easy task. Third, not every driver has a garage where they can plug their car into the mains overnight. Last, there are many vested interests in keeping the entire car industry functioning with oil dependence.

It is up to governments to encourage a change of attitude and behaviour through incentives, such as road pricing, congestion charging, discounted parking, and carbon taxes. Since electric cars are so disruptive, the people who drive them must be disrupted too. Especially in a recession, you cannot charge them too much to change.

Ref: Cosmos Magazine, no 29, The Electric Revolution. Tim Thwaites.
The Economist, September 5 2009, Charge! Anon.
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Search words: plug-in, electric cars, renewable energy, emission standards, batteries, hybrids, Better Place, electricity grid, “juice points”, vehicle-to-grid (V2G), lithium, China, greenhouse gases, road-pricing, congestion charging.
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Why cars are the “ultimate mobile device”

Electric cars may be the next revolution in driving but manufacturers and software companies have other ideas for the cars we still have. These ideas may say a lot more about the drivers than they do about cars. As one car critic sadly laments, carmakers now offer “lowest common denominator” innovation, assuming ineptitude rather than driving ability. New technologies are simply “idiot proof”.

We have self-dipping headlamps (“high-beam assist”), capless fuel fillers, self-parking, and wing mirror-mounted proximity warning lights. There is stability control, active cruise control, fatigue detection, blind-spot activation, and collision mitigation. Just how important are these, in the face of the outdated technologies, like the combustion engine and highly unenvironmentally friendly tyres?

One commentator even thinks that carmakers should start to act more like software companies giving drivers access to all the applications and more than they get on their mobile phone. He says the car is the “ultimate mobile device”. Sat-Nav is only the beginning. A car could be set to super-performance mode for you-know-who and granny mode for hmm. Already geeks at Stanford University have developed a car that drives itself.

The question now is why we are so incredibly creative with inventing new applications for old ideas, but find it so hard to drive properly. One reason may be that people are getting too busy and too tired, and they just can’t concentrate on driving anymore. They can’t concentrate on anything - it’s too much trouble. Or perhaps it’s true “the nut behind the wheel” is the “most unreliable part of the car”.

Ref: Car (UK), 1 January 2009, Critics. Greg Fountain., Fortune, 26 October 2009, An app store for autos?, Michael V Copeland, Sydney Morning Herald (Aus), 25 September 2009, Crash me if you can. Richard Blackburn.
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Search words: Mercedes, headlights, drive safety, road rules, applications, iPhone, virtual driver, Ford, Microsoft, Synch, collisions
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A smart robot on wheels

If it’s true that people are not the best drivers, then it may be most effective to design a car as robot. Cruise control was the cautious beginning, self-parking was relatively acceptable, and adaptive cruise control, which detects cars and responds) is next. But people need to trust smart cars, to meet their need for a sense of control.

The driverless car is the ultimate robot on wheels. The DARPA Grand Challenge, begun in 2004, was won in 2007 by Carnegie Mellon University with a car that travelled 96kms in an urban environment in 4 hours and 10 minutes. Driverless cars may not be so important for you and me as they are for the US military, but smart cars are coming and they must be safe, practical, and the lines of responsibility must be clear. As Dr Anders Sandberg notes, “it is not enough that a car is smart, one must be able to spend time with it too”.

Smart cars will also spend time with each other, via networking. If cars are able to communicate with each other, they can jointly plan their behaviour, report road conditions, and warn of hazards. Networking them may run counter to privacy, but may allow “social running”, which alerts people with the same interests as the driver to some special event. At the same time, autonomous cars may lead to legislative difficulties, as it will be more challenging to ascertain driver fault in an accident.

The future of smart cars is not all serious. It is suggested that they may be able to choose destinations for us (say, on your birthday), pay for green lights, facilitate romance across lane lines, decide which order to do trips in using your Outlook calendar, or change their personality according to the driver. Finally, there will be car hackers, who will think it very funny to thwart your car’s intelligence by placing strategic objects that interfere with radar and you find yourself inexplicably at your mother-in-law’s!

Ref: Carwinism, 21 June 2009, A street full of robots. Dr Anders Sandberg.
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Search words: robot, “platooning”, driverless car, DARPA Grand Challenge, networking.
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Why there are too many cars

Everyone knows the global downturn decimated the car industry, except in China. But as inventories, balance sheets, and the availability of credit all improve, there is still an intractable problem – too much capacity. It is particularly blatant in Europe, where not one factory has closed, but government rescue of ailing manufacturers in America did not help the cause either.  Carmakers at Frankfurt were doubtful there would be a strong cyclical rebound this time.

There are three main reasons why. First, demand has been artificially buoyed by scrappage incentives, which does not bring well-off people or companies to the market. Second, the factories have been making smaller, cheaper cars that reduce margins. For example, while fixed costs are much the same for, say, an Audi Q7 and a Fiat, the variable costs are only slightly higher for the Audi, even though it sells for four times the price of a Fiat. Third, leasing finance is no longer so available nor so cheap. Last, emissions legislation puts an awkward dent in the trend for bigger, more luxurious vehicles.

Carmakers are faced with a change of strategy and stop using profits from bigger cars to subsidise smaller ones. They might need to reduce manufacturing costs by reducing unnecessary technology, or make smaller cars more exciting, and thus more expensive, to drive. How ironic it is that people are becoming more willing to drive smaller and fewer cars to save the planet, but carmakers have to find a way to make them buy more cars to save the industry.

Ref: The Economist (UK), 19 September 2009, Small isn’t beautiful. Anon.
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Search words: small cars, Frankfurt, lease finance, overcapacity, scrappage incentives, emission legislation, Fiat, pricing.
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Sensitive new age cars

One of three big trends coming out of Frankfurt this year was touch-sensitive screens, already ubiquitous in mobile phones and computers. These screens are starting to make those knobs and dials look highly old-fashioned. While new electric cars are able to locate charging stations via a touch screen, the new Range Rover allows the driver to check GPS while the passenger watches a DVD on the same screen.

The next trend is bioplastics, plastics which contain organic materials like soy or corn. This does not mean you can eat your car, but it does mean they will contain less petroleum and be more able to degrade at the end of their life cycle. They will first be used for interior fittings, but will find their way into door panels and other exterior components, creating a more sustainable car.

Third is clean diesel, Audi, Mercedes and Volkswagen are all selling clean diesels in America this year because they run better on biofuels. It is now possible to produce biofuel using algae, rather than using valuable farmland to do it. The use of non-corn-based ethanol should help to give diesels a boost, especially as they are often more expensive to run than petrol-based cars. The combination of biofuels, bioplastics, and touch screens suggests a more sensitive new age car may be starting to drive the industry.

Ref: MSN Autos, December 2009, Car tech trends for 2010 – and beyond. Erik Sofge.
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Search words: Biofuels, bioplastics, touch screens, ethanol, algae, analogue, diesel