Automotive & transport

Drivers are on the way out

The so-called “autonomous car” means that drivers are on the way out and what that really means for the driving experience is still too early to be tested. Most proponents of driverless cars make big claims for safety, given that people are essentially fallible and technology less so, and they claim there will be fewer traffic jams.

Nevada is the first American state to regulate trials of driverless cars on public roads and carmakers are moving ahead with features that ultimately lead to autonomous cars. In America, electronic stability control, which prevents skids through automatic braking, has become compulsory for new cars. Traffic deaths in 2010, at 33,000, were already the lowest since 1949.

Accenture claims 30% of a new car’s value is electronics, forecast to rise to 40% by 2020. It looks like a case of software becoming more important than the hardware. Volvo, for example, envisions that, by 2020, no one will ever be killed or seriously hurt driving its latest models. The new V40 brakes automatically before a collision, maintains a safe distance, and stays in its lane.

The Mercedes S-class, always a pioneer of new technologies, will have camera and radar so it can drive itself at speeds up to 25mph. The Mercedes F125 concept car will have cameras and radar designed to keep it within white lines, take it around curves and navigate stop-start traffic. While the system controls the accelerator, steering wheel and brakes, drivers are currently forbidden to take their hands off the wheel.

General Motors has designed a network of two-wheeled “electric networked vehicles” or podmobiles, which will be able to carry two people in cities. Modelled on the Segway, it will have sensing technology to find obstacles in its path, such as people or vehicles, GPS, and “vehicle to vehicle communications”.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges to this is whether driverless vehicles can co-exist with conventional cars. In some ways it is similar to UAVs co-existing with manned passenger planes (see Pilots are an endangered species). Then there is the question of who takes the blame in a crash. Last, will drivers want to have driving taken away from them? We know a few young men who won’t like it much.

Ref: The Economist (UK), 3 March 2012, Safer at any speed? Anon.
Sunday Times, 20 November 2011, Look, No hands! J Gillespie and D Tobin.
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Search words: Nevada, California, driverless cars, autonomous, Volvo, electronic stability control, Honda, control, Mercedes S-class, Lexus, lane-keeping support, podmobile, pedestrian detection system, safety.
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No more tears in the hunt for parking

Parking is a frustrating business that, at its worst, creates traffic congestion, wasted fuel, and excess carbon dioxide. A 2007 study in LA found drivers within a 15-block district drove 1.5 billion kilometers each year looking for somewhere to park! That equates to 38 trips around the Earth, 178,000 litres of fuel, and 662 tonnes of CO2. It’s definitely time to make parking easier.

Deteq Solutions, a start-up in the UK, has developed a “parking patch” made of cheap, low-powered sensors glued to the surface of each parking bay. This patch can detect whether or not there is a car parked there and wirelessly relay information to a base station. It works with RFID tags in parking permits and a smartphone app to tell drivers where the parking spots are. The system can also alert traffic wardens (a debatable advantage) and uses dynamic pricing to encourage people to park in cheaper spots. Similarly, San Francisco is trialing magnetometers in each parking bay, using a wireless network and dynamic pricing.

It sounds as if the new providers of parking technology have one eye on the drivers and one eye on the authorities looking for the financial benefit of parking spaces. Dynamic pricing is already used on roads, and there have long been Earlybird rates in parking stations, so it’s probably a short step towards dynamic pricing in parking. We’re not keen on more dynamic traffic wardens.

Ref: New Scientist (UK), 4 February 2012, On the hunt for a space. D Graham-Rowe.
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Search words: parking patch, RFID, Deteq Solutions, sensors, network, smartphone app, dynamic pricing, StreetSmart.
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Shock! - your next car may be electric

One US consultant forecasts 10% of new cars globally will be battery electric by 2025, but another 40% will include hybrids and plug-ins. This means half the cars will be at least partly electric. You may well be confused about the different types of clean energy cars and whether they are any better than “dirty” ones.

There are basically four types: battery electrics (run on battery packs), plug-in hybrids (act like an electric car then switch to a petrol generator), hybrids (electric-only or assist a gas engine), and hydrogen fuel-cell cars. The hydrogen fuel-cell, which produces electricity from hydrogen, uses the most abundant element in the universe.

The main challenge, according to this writer, is not having enough hydrogen filling stations. Daimler, Toyota, Honda and Hyundai plan to produce tens of thousands of hydrogen cars by 2015. So clearly, hydrogen is not a priority for them, or they see lack of infrastructure as too much of a hindrance (less than 100 hydrogen stations in the US, even fewer are public). Even so, Europeans, South Koreans and Japanese are committed to spending on hydrogen infrastructure.

Electricity infrastructure has its own problems too. Cars have to be charged somewhere, and congested cities are probably not the place. People who live in flats may have trouble getting permission for a charging station on shared space. So what’s the answer? (charging whilst driving from the roads themselves, perhaps?).Smart meters may be one, as they show how much electricity you are using at any moment and can shut down those you don’t need. An electric car is a heavy user of electricity and is best charged at low demand times.

In Tokyo, Panasonic has created an Eco Ideas House, which combines a 5 kilowatt solar panel on the roof with a 1 kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell in the backyard to generate electricity and a 5 kilowatt battery to store it. This is a more holistic way of looking at power generation. But Panasonic also sells home fuel cells that can supply 60% of a household’s power. A similar thing could not be done in America in the early 2000s because government did not subsidise it.

So this is the problem as we see it: there are vastly cheaper ways of running cars but it does not suit certain interests to run them that way. So through electric cars, we will be forced to continue our reliance on centralised electricity, which ultimately comes from, surprise, surprise, coal or nuclear sources.

Ref: The Futurist (US), March-April 2012, The road ahead for gasoline-free cars.
J Motavalli.
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Search words: electric cars, hybrid, plug-in, hydrogen, charging, infrastructure, Panasonic, Eco Ideas House, fuel cells, battery.
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Time to save pedestrians from your driving

We have become used to the idea of airbags for driver and passenger safety but now Volvo has come up with an external airbag to save pedestrians. It supports their determination that by 2020, nobody should be killed or injured in a Volvo. According to the Department for Transport (UK) 5,605 pedestrians were killed or seriously injured in 2010 and most were killed at speeds below 40mph.

Volvo originated the three-point seat belt, now widely adopted, and claims external airbags can save lives in 85% of accidents caused by impact. Sensors in the bumper detect when a person hits it, which triggers an airbag under the bonnet to inflate, covering hard edges round the windscreen and lifting the bonnet. It will be standard on the new Volvo V40 and Audi says it is working on a similar system.

Making pedestrians safe is a new slant for auto companies although wide adoption of low speed zones around schools and speed calming in residential areas has forced drivers to consider pedestrian safety. Curiously, Living Streets, which campaigns for exactly this, is concerned that external airbags could cause drivers to become complacent and rely on them. It would be interesting to find statistics on whether internal airbags caused drivers to become less safe in their driving.

Ref: The Sunday Times (UK), 11 March 2012, Air-cushioned car saves pedestrians.
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Search words: Volvo, pedestrian safety, external airbag, bonnet, pedestrian detection system, Department for Transport (UK), Living Streets.
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Does a black box make you see red?

We covered the story about young drivers having black boxes fitted in cars to lower their insurance premiums (Reward young drivers, don’t punish them). But what if black boxes, or telematics, were installed in all cars to help reduce everyone’s insurance premiums? On one hand, you could save money, on the other, you’re being watched all the time while you drive – and you could be punished!

The UK government recently met executives from the motor insurance industry to discuss the lowering of insurance premiums. These black box systems can watch your acceleration, braking, cornering, and time and place of driving, to decide how much you have to pay. It’s been dubbed, “pay as you drive” insurance. It’s easy to tout the safety angle, but groups like Privacy International see it as extremely invasive.

Currently insurance premiums are based on age, gender, car type, annual mileage, home postcode and where the vehicle is parked. Unlike this method, the black box method is completely personal. It may be easy to argue it is good for young drivers, since they are typically involved in accidents and premiums for boys 17-22 are currently 3,163 UK pounds per year (but 1,799 UK pounds for girls)! Black boxes assign a risk score, or a score for driving, which allows the insurance company to charge accordingly.

It is not surprising that insurance companies want to protect themselves from paying out because of bad driving. But black boxes in every car? We hope it will be a long, long time, if ever, before they are allowed to have that level of control.

Ref: The Sunday Times (UK), 19 February 2012, The spy in the cabin could soon have us all covered. J Mills.
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Search words: black box, UK, insurance, young driver, AA, Direct Line, Tom-Tom, Drivesafe, premium, privacy, speed, braking, acceleration.
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