Automotive & transport

The shocking truth about electric cars

Did you know that, for every $1 spent on petrol, 85 cents is wasted in heating the engine block and the surrounding air? This means you spend only 15 cents going down the road. This equates to $US400 billion dollars of oil money going down the pipe. At current rates of development, it will take 350 years for the internal combustion engine to reach the over 200mpg efficiency of electric cars. It is certainly a shocking thought.

In California today, only 30,400 cars run on batteries and their owners have to deal with their reputation (“small ugly golf carts”), limited range, and few places to recharge them. Small wonder they have a bad name. But switching to electric cars would eliminate about half of US oil consumption because that is how much imported oil goes into making petrol. It would also eliminate air and noise pollution from cars immediately. It is hard to imagine such an efficient silence. And since the electric motor has only one moving part, there is little need for the currently thriving industry of maintenance and new parts. Bang goes the traditional business model!

Of course, changing the way the auto industry works is likely to be slower than a bicycle, simply because there are so many vested interests in the status quo. There are 117,000 petrol stations in the US, or one station for every 2,500 people. But if each station became a recharging place – and was rewarded for becoming so fiscally - there would be instant infrastructure for electric cars to make them vastly more popular. The batteries would have to charge quickly, unlike home plug-ins that take all night, on standardised chargers that accept all brands of car. Current manufacturer plans to use different structures for their batteries will cause chaos and discontent. Imagine if each brand of car needed a different kind of fuel!

There need to be standards to which each car and petrol station conforms so that rapid charging becomes the norm. The cost for a transformation to electric cars is touted to be about $3.5 billion, which is not much considering the massive savings in oil, lessened dependence on it, and improved quality of life from reduced pollution.According to industry forecasts, only 10% of new cars will be battery-driven by 2020. There is also the question of whether electric cars and the industry to support them are about to become mainstream. And will it be led by disruptive innovators like Elon Musk of Tesla Motors, or will the present incumbents, like Renault-Nissan, use their collective muscle and decide to enter the market. It is easy to see why the idea is so disruptive – and therefore, so shocking to the industry.

Ref: The Futurist (US), March-April 2010, 'Roadmap to the electric car economy.' by M.l Horn. See also, The Economist (UK), 6 February 2010, 'A Netscape moment.'
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Search words: electric cars, batteries, charging, pollution, oil dependence, Tesla, fuel, standards, plug-ins, disruptions.
Trend tags: Sustainability

More (and less) resistance to rubber tyres

Tyres use about 20% of the energy needed to power a car so it makes sense to look for fuel economy by reducing the “rolling resistance” of rubber tyres. Unfortunately, tyres need that resistance to grip the road and without it, drivers take corners sideways and wear out the tyres more quickly. And there is consumer resistance to new ideas.

Now chemical engineering, using tiny structures called “nanocomposites” or “metamaterials”, can create more efficient tyres. They can be used to coat the inner lining of a tyre to retain air for longer, or give the tread a compound that provides the right amount of traction. With a billion tyres manufactured each year, any minute changes to tyres will have far reaching effects. For example, a “durable security compound” in Michelin’s Energy Saver tyre claims to have perfect control of the molecular strands formed by 14 synthetic ingredients. Goodyear also offers Assurance Fuel Max tyres that will save the owner enough petrol to drive more than 4,000 extra kilometres.

The alternative to rubber tyres is to produce them from biopolymers, such as Russian dandelion and guayle, a desert shrub. Yokohama is promoting a tyre made of orange peel – 80% of the tyre comes from sources other than petroleum. It costs only $US20 more to buy four of these tyres than to buy traditional ones. Moreover, the company has even fitted Porsche racing cars with them. No doubt, this is designed to give these tyres consumer a-peel. Gives new meaning to having more fruit in the diet.

Ref: The Economist Technology Quarterly (UK), 6 March 2010, 'Rolling out the changes.'
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Search words: tyres, energy, rolling resistance, tread, sustainable, metamaterials, orange peel, petroleum, Porsche.
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The collapsing cost of shipping

Next time you see a freight ship, consider the containers that hold all the imported goods you take for granted. The design, a steel container that could be moved easily between lorries, trains or ships, dates back to 1956 and an upgrade is well overdue. A Dutch engineer is proposing a collapsible, fibreglass container, the Cargoshell, which weighs only three quarters of the usual design and collapses to less than a quarter in size. It is less corrosive, easier to clean, buoyant, and producing it releases only a quarter of the CO2 usually generated in manufacture.Ship owners benefit when there are more goods travelling one way than the other, because they can collapse the empty containers and make more room for full ones. If the containers were bundled in groups of four, they could also be loaded more quickly and take up less space at port. It takes only 30 seconds to fold or unfold them with a forklift truck. The design is currently being tested to see if it meets international standards.Since there are 26 million of them worldwide carrying a volume of 140m (twenty-foot equivalent units) today forecast to reach 180m by 2015, the invention could be very profitable. Its lower weight may be more attractive than its collapsibility, as the real obstacle is likely to be cultural. Everyone has an investment in keeping things the way they are, and it will take one brave shipping company to break the mould.

Ref: The Economist Technology Quarterly (UK), 6 March 2010, 'Flat pack.'
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Search words: shipping containers, steel, fibreglass, collapsible, port, fibreglass, sustainable, strength, weight, Cargoshell.
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How to tell your satnav where to go

If anecdotes are anything to go by, people like telling their satellite navigation system (satnavs) where to go. They think the satnav is frequently wrong. There is a good reason for this. Most systems are not very intelligent because they are not personalised. The next generation of satnav will know much more about how you like to drive and where, for example, whether you prefer to take scenic routes rather than motorways.

Perhaps the best use of a satnav is avoiding traffic jams. While warning signs on motorways can alert drivers to upcoming hazards, they are too unsophisticated to say that it might still be faster to stay on the road than divert to another route that everyone else has chosen. New units will be able to take information from special FM radio signals, traffic sensors, mobile phones or even satnavs in other vehicles, to take account of current traffic conditions. Users will have to pay for this kind of up to date information.

MyDrive is a new piece of software, developed by Journey Dynamics (UK), that analyses the idiosyncracies of your driving behaviour. For instance, you may stop every day at the same service station or only use back roads to work. Knowing this ensures that the satnav delivers intelligent data so the driver feels that it really is “right”.

Satnavs with built-in data connections offer drivers the ability to download updated maps or add tourist information. Some will be able to talk to the car’s other systems, for example, prepare the brakes for a sudden bend ahead where cars are parked. These will only work in cars with built-in satnavs, rather than portable units bought later. However, it will probably not be long before every car has one because they will be sold on the basis of safety. The risks of driving are being slowly eliminated. It will become as unthinkable not to have a satnav as to go without a mobile phone.

Ref: The Economist Technology Quarterly, (UK) 5 September 2009, 'The road ahead.' .
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Search words: satellite navigation (satnav), real-time information, planning, traffic, preferences, apps, portable or built-in units.
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On your bike (but not yours)

Hiring a bike in the city is not a new idea, especially in Paris or Barcelona. But hiring a different bike, for each separate leg of your journey, is new. Commuters in Hokkaido, Japan, recently tested a new system where volunteers could wave their mobile phones for payment, and collect a bike at seven automated rental ports. They could not rent for more than 30 minutes but they didn’t need to. They could take a train to the city and rent a bike from the station. They could rent another one after work to go to the gym, then rent one back to the station. The value for commuters is reducing traffic congestion, parking problems, and environmental impact. They might also lose weight and save time spent in traffic. There was a similar test program in Tokyo where 50 bicycles were available at five stations. But the Minister of Environment is hoping that such a scheme will operate all round Japan. Clearly, the scheme cannot have measurable benefit unless there are numerous rental stations for convenience and bicycle lanes on the roads for safety. People have to want to ride bikes. One person commented the city looked tidier without bikes being left everywhere, although, personally I rather love it. Reminds me of Copenhagen and Oxford.

Ref: The Economist Technology Quarterly, (UK), 5 September 2009, 'The road ahead'.
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Search words: satellite navigation (satnav), real-time information, planning, traffic, preferences, apps, portable or built-in units.
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