Automotive & transport

An end to sticky jams?

Technology may yet get us out of commuter and traffic jam hell. At Expo 2010, GM has a vision of the future, from remote controlled convoys to vehicles that tell each other what they’re doing. Instead of big, thirsty, cars, it features small vehicles plugged into electric – and wireless – networks. It predicts that people will be relieved from the hassle of driving and have more free time behind the wheel (though what people will do with this free time is unclear).

We are drawing closer to a radical re-imagining of the private driving experience with the need to manage our limited transport networks more efficiently and more sophisticated and inexpensive technologies, from GPS to WiFi to Lidar (think radar but with light waves). And crucially, we are possibly getting to grips with one of the biggest problems of all – traffic.

Audi recently demonstrated the idea of traffic signals communicating with cars. The EU’s Safe Road Trains for the Environment (SARTRE) focuses on controlling the speed of, and distance between cars in a traffic lane. The programme, to be tested in Spain next year, creates highway ‘platoons’ in which groups of vehicles move automatically behind a human controlled lead vehicle. This uses fuel more efficiently and could end ghost jams - clogged traffic caused by variations in driver speed and sudden braking.

One of the winners of the US Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s 2007 Urban Challenge was a fully automated vehicle. However, there are two different schools of thought about smarter traffic.One argues that the future of traffic technology is in co-operative systems - cars that communicate with other cars or with the infrastructure. The second says the future is going to be handheld and based on personalised information. MIT argues that, within more sophisticated markets, navigation algorithms could be tuned to the needs of individual drivers, for example, minimising the risk of unexpected delays for some drivers or facilitating the search for bargains for others. Put bluntly: you will soon get the journey you’re willing - or able - to pay for.

Ref: The Financial Times (UK), ‘Goodbye to all this’ by T.Vanderbilt, June 26, 2010
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Search words: Cars, traffic, congestion, traffic control, MIT, GPS, WiFi, Lidar, US Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s 2007 Urban Challenge, Safe Road Trains for the Environment (SARTRE), Audi

When robots rule the road

Then next person who annoys you on the road might be a robot. If the writers of Popular Science are right, then robotic cars are on their way. Later this year, a driverless Audi TT will attempt to race up Pikes Peak, a mountain in the US. If a robot can do a mountain run, then the daily commute to the office or the school run could be next.

One of the magazine’s predictions is Rapid Response 2.0 – an all-purpose rescue vehicle. It has modular mission flexibility with the ability to rapidly revamp for a new task by simply swapping gear, and indestructible tyres that can absorb shock and withstand gouging rocks and broken glass without getting a flat.

Another highlight is the electric luxury racer – a zero emissions car that doesn’t have to sacrifice power or comfort. With advanced materials, it will be ultra light and frighteningly fast. Like a Porsche Panamera for a post-oil world.

Ref: Popular Science (US) ‘Future drive’ May 2010.
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Search words: Cars of the future, robots, tyres, zero emissions, Audi

Carmakers gear up for China’s middle class

China’s rapidly growing car market has always been split between domestic and foreign carmakers, and both thrived by aiming for different customer segments. But now the two may be heading for a collision. In the past, global car brands targeted rich consumers, while Chinese manufacturers catered for the low-cost or value customer. But now they’re invading each other’s markets.

Chinese carmakers are trying to climb the ladder of luxury up to the premium levels previously dominated by companies like Audi and Mercedes. The most striking example of this is the Chinese company Geely’s purchase of Volvo, Sweden. And both Chinese and foreign carmakers are chasing a new market – people who are just getting affluent enough to buy a car.

It’s a booming market. The number of Chinese households with an annual income sufficient to buy a no-frills car could nearly double over the next four years to 65.6 million. This growth is too good to ignore. Just as Chinese made cars are improving in quality, so foreign makers are trying to design cheaper models with the two converging into a single, more competitive market.

GM has gone back to the drawing board with its engineers and “designing smart” to save money, such as the driver and front passenger sharing centre mounted power window switches. Meanwhile, Nissan is set to launch a sub-compact car called the March and Toyota is considering producing a smaller and cheaper version of the Yaris.

However, it’s a risky business. Emerging market growth does not make the sector less cyclical. In an intensely competitive business with long investment lags, over-exuberant sales projections can leave carmakers overexposed to a single market or saddled with underused production lines when boom turns to bust. Carmakers have seen it before with some overinvesting in Brazil a decade ago and suffering when the market slumped badly in 2002.

Ref: The Australian (Aus) ‘China’s local, foreign carmakers gear up for rising middle class’ by Norihiko Shirouzu, May 11, 2010, The Financial Times (UK), ‘Selling cars to Asia’ August 14, 2010, The Financial Times (UK) ‘Chinese carmakers in great leap forward to luxury’ by Patti Waldmeir, April 24, 2010
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Search words: China, carmakers, Chinese consumers, GM, Geely, Volvo, Audi, Mercedes, Brazil

A car club without the membership fees

Would you be tempted to join a car club if you didn’t have to pay a membership fee? French carmaker, Peugeot, has created a new car hire/car club scheme in the UK called Mu. Already established in Europe, it is a cross between traditional car hire and the car clubs that have flourished in some British cities in recent years.

It’s cheap – a Peugeot 207 costs GBP75 for a weekend plus petrol - and it’s not just limited to cars. You can also hire large and small vans, scooters and even bicycles from your local Peugeot dealership. Peugeot says it’s not trying to compete with the likes of Hertz and Avis. But it looks as though Mu is a smart way of getting potential customers into dealerships to try out the firm’s range of cars in a type of extended test drive.

Ref: The Guardian (UK), ‘Car club with a difference’ by Miles Brignall, July 10, 2010
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Search words: Cars, car clubs, car hire, Peugeot, Mu, Hertz, Avis

Dealing with ‘range anxiety’

Over the next three years, most of the world’s major carmakers are planning to launch vehicles powered entirely by battery. They’ll have to deal with customers suffering from ‘range anxiety’ – constant fear that the battery may be about to run out. The range (or reach) of an electric car depends not just on battery capacity and condition, but also how precisely it is driven.

Despite ‘range anxiety’, electric cars have a lot to offer – they are quick to get going from standstill and have fewer components to go wrong. They are also quite cheap to run. But at this stage there is little standardisation between manufacturers when it comes to battery packs and sockets.

Recharging is still a challenge. It is currently only practical in a garage or a private driveway – something that many city dwellers do not have. Recharging stations are beginning to appear on some streets and at some workplaces, but it will take time to get all the infrastructure in place. Only then will range anxiety finally subside.

Ref: The Economist (UK), Technology Quarterly, ‘Powering the drive’ December 12, 2009
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Search words: electric cars, battery, recharging