Automotive & transport

Why the “world’s cheapest car” won’t sell

Heady sales in India of the Tata Nano in 2009, to buyers so enthusiastic they had to enter a lottery, have fizzled. It’s not lack of interest in cars. In fact, Tata Motors has seen sales grow more than 31% in 2010 and other carmakers, like General Motors, are selling more expensive cars to the rising middle classes. Some say the problem is that some cars spontaneously burst into flames, posing a serious question about their safety. Others claim that it’s all in the marketing.People living in slums, accustomed to fitting the whole family on a motorbike, may be able to afford to buy the car ($US2,200) but the running costs are much higher than a bike. Meanwhile, higher earners balk at driving a car touted as the cheapest when they can afford something with more cache. Not everyone wants to buy the “world’s cheapest car” because it says something about them.India is the biggest market for cars after China, with growing suburbs, more highways, and a youthful working population, and carmakers had better appeal to them. The Tata Nano may be priced competitively, but its marketing needs to remember that people have aspirations too.
Ref: Financial Times (UK), 3 December 2010, Tata to give ailing Nano a jump-start. James Fontanella-Khan.
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Search words: Tata Nano, India, middle class, “World’s cheapest car”, sales, marketing, safety, lottery.
Trend tags: Low cost

Crashing the parallax barrier

Cars are increasingly turning into moving infotainment centres so enter the parallax barrier. It allows you to see a different screen from your passenger. While you focus on the satnav, to find out whether you’re nearly at your destination, your companion can remain oblivious and watch a DVD. The secret is the extra layer of material between the screen and your eyes, called the parallax barrier. It is cut with tiny slits all over so half the screen’s pixels are seen at one angle, and the other half from another angle.

Strangely enough, the technology is not as new as it sounds because Sharp introduced the Dual-View in 2005, with mixed results. But Range Rover Vogue now carries the 7-inch screen Dual-View as an option and Mercedes-Benz has already made the Splitview standard in its large luxury S-Class. Of course, it’s impossible for you to see both screens at once without using a mirror. So there’s no danger of the driver being distracted by the DVD when she should be watching the satnav. The question is for how much longer any of us will be driving the car at all. (See The driver is an endangered species.)
Ref: Qantas Magazine (Aus), May 2010, Seeing double. John Carey.
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Search words: parallax barrier, screen, entertainment, satnav, Dual-View, Splitview, Hyundai.
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The driver is an endangered species

Gone are the days when Google was just a search engine and cars needed a driver. Google’s autonomous car project, started by Sebastian Thrun of Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, uses a Prius equipped with sensors to follow a GPS route all by itself. A robotics scientist sits in the car but doesn’t actually drive. Already, seven cars have travelled 1,600 kms with no driver and 225,000 kms with occasional intervention.

You might wonder what’s the point. But it seems robot drivers have a lot of advantages over the rest of us: they react more quickly, have all-round perception, and don’t get distracted or sleepy. (They probably don’t care what brand of car they drive either!) More than 37,000 people died in car accidents in the US in 2008. This kind of technology will save lives because cars will be able to drive more safely close together and because they are less likely to crash, they can be lighter and use less fuel.

Technology is driving much more quickly than the law in this area: the law says a human must be in control of a car. Yet robot drivers can drive more safely than humans. I'd predict that someone will one day sue a robot when there’s an accident. Fortunately, autonomous cars are many years from mass production and there will be a lot of heated discussion before they find their way on to your High Street or Freeway. But ultimately, they could transform our lives as much as the internet.
Ref: The New York Times (US), 17 October 2009, With Artificial Intelligence, Google car drives itself. John Markoff.
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Search words: artificial intelligence, robots, Google research, San Francisco, Prius, technology, law, autonomous.
Trend tags: AI, automation

Fuel is not always the driver

The Japanese may want to save money on fuel (who doesn’t?) but they still want style and features. Manufacturers who offer compact cars with distinctive designs and high quality driving functions are selling briskly, even though vehicle registrations have been falling. Nissan sold 10,900 1.5L Jukes in one month, compared to its target of 1,300. The Nissan Juke combines the power of an SUV with the agility of a sports car in a very funky design. The company expected its target market to be men in their 30s but more than 60% of customers are men over 40 (and 20% are women). Meanwhile, Volkswagen’s CrossPolo has a 1.2L engine with the power of a 1.8L engine and comes in bright, sporty colours. Motor journalists, not just in Japan, claim that small is the new big in 2011.

It appears manufacturers can’t afford to be boring with their fuel-efficient cars. In a recent Nikkei survey of Japanese consumers, 95% said they would be most interested in fuel efficiency, 67% were focused on price, and 47% wanted good body design. It would be interesting to repeat such a survey in other countries. Our guess is that design is a lot more important than these respondents claim. It may be a rational to choose fuel efficiency or price, but ultimately the decision is more likely to be emotional, as we found with the “world’s cheapest car”.
Ref: The Nikkei Weekly (Japan), 20 September 2009, Dynamic, agile compact cars chase more than fuel-efficiency alone. Mutsuo Kido.
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Search words: compact, fuel efficiency, Nissan Juke, Volkswagen CrossPolo, design, price, eco/safety.
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Range anxiety is official

With any new technology, a manufacturer must encourage consumers to overcome their resistance. One huge drawback of electric cars is fear they won’t last the distance. This has been termed “range anxiety”. GM believes it is so crucial to marketing electric cars that it has sought to trademark the term before launching the Chevrolet Volt later this year (imagine if they did this to prevent negative reviews from using the word!). The Volt can travel 40 miles on electricity alone but has a petrol-powered engine that generates electricity after that limit.

While 41% of respondents to a consumer survey said they would be willing to test drive an electric vehicle, 71% said they would worry about running out of power and 59% said they worry about the limited range. A GM spokesperson said “there is a threshold you do not want to cross. At some point that threshold plays on the consumer’s mind, either in the purchase process or the ownership experience.”

GM will emphasise range anxiety to compete with the Nissan Leaf. Naturally, the CEO of Nissan and Renault, has said 95% of the world’s population drives less than 100 kms daily. We think it doesn’t matter how far people usually drive, they will judge the car by how far they sometimes drive. For example, many people buy large cars so they can travel comfortably on holidays or occasional weekends, not because it suits them around town.
Ref: Wired (US), 31 August 2010, GM wants to trademark “range anxiety”. Chuck Squatriglia.
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Search words: GM Chevrolet Volt, Nissan Leaf, range anxiety, electric, power, trademark.
Trend tags: Anxiety

From supercars to supercapacitors

As most people now know, one of the drawbacks of electric and hybrid vehicles is range – or battery life. New battery innovations are emerging rapidly, but not fast enough to solve what is a pressing problem. Hence, carmakers (and others, including the UK’s Ministry of Defence) are looking at ways of removing weight or creating space in other areas.

One solution is to use carbon composites to add rigidity to a vehicle, and store energy. Such composites have been used in supercars for a while but, historically, such materials have been too expensive to produce to use in mass-produced vehicles.

Technically speaking, these materials do not act as batteries, but as capacitors or supercapacitors. But there are two conflicting issues. Such materials need to be rigid enough to stop the car falling apart (either as part of the chassis or the body itself), but they these materials must allow ions to flow. Some bright sparks think they have a solution to this, so I'm tempted to say we should watch out for cars with bodywork that store energy at some point 'down the road'.
Ref: The Economist (UK), 12 June 1020, ‘Making the bodywork’,
Search terms: battery, supercapacitor, rigid, ions, energy storage, carbon composites, bodywork, hybrid, range
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