Automotive & transport

Why driverless cars could be good for us

As we wrote last issue, do not underestimate the car. It does 70% of journeys in the west and more than a billion of them drive the world’s roads. This figure is forecast to double by 2020. Having said that, we have written at length about the driverless car, in stories such as Driving is just a distraction; Drivers are on the way out. But rather than focus on the cars themselves, what other changes might occur if nobody had to drive them?

The motor industry may revive, as its fortunes have certainly been flagging in places like America and Australia. Car use is currently peaking in big cities, often because of parking problems, but driverless cars do not necessarily need to park where they drop off their passengers. Driverless cars may clock up fewer miles too, with commensurate savings. (LA drivers within a 15-block district drove 1.5 billion kilometers each year looking for a park, which is 38 trips around the Earth, 178,000 litres of fuel, and 662 tonnes of CO2).

If cars drive less, they can become more like fashion items, potentially changed before the engines wear out. Their bodies could also be lighter, given that they will crash less or not at all. New models could be created more quickly and cheaply with fewer elements, like steering wheels or pedals, to include. Of course, electronic items would become paramount, giving makers of car entertainment systems an opportunity to outdo each other on quality and usability.

Driverless cars would compete with buses and trains for passengers, since travellers have never had to drive trains or buses. Comfort would become very important. Travelling salesmen might choose driverless, comfy Winnebagos rather than hotel rooms, to lay their heads.

No doubt, many people will lose their jobs. That includes cabbies, truck drivers and pilots – even much maligned parking wardens and traffic cops. Car rental places will have to rent driverless cars that offer pick-up and drop-off services anywhere. Parking stations will lose their value, reducing revenue for their owners and for local councils (this lark has been going on for too long). When people no longer need much insurance, motor insurers have to find another revenue stream (another lark gone).

On the upside, hospitals would have to deal with fewer injuries and emergency rooms would be more available for other kinds of medical crisis. Owners of roads would have to spend less on signage, guard rails, median strips, and other highway paraphernalia. People may be prepared to commute for longer, given it is much less tiring to be driven than to drive. Mum’s taxi may no longer be needed – she is freed up to do something better.

Of course, driverless cars bring up all kinds of practical concerns about existing infrastructure, regulations, legal rights and other troublesome logistics. For example, how do you give a robot a ticket?! It seems highly likely that vested interests will work hard to maintain any status quo that gives them a regular income stream. Watch out for insurance companies; they will be looking for the risks of driverless cars. One possibility is that cars will become ‘independently smart”, for example, ask for more insurance in difficult conditions and reduce it when conditions return to normal. Expect some kind of backlash, even from drivers.

Ref: The Economist (UK), 20 October 2013, Schumpeter: The driverless road ahead.
New Scientist, 22-29 December 2012, Who’s the driver? BW Smith.
New Scientist, 31 March 2013, Hands off the wheel, P Marks.
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Search words: motor industry, car, parking, fashion, electronics, entertainment, hotels, car rental, insurance, railways, car insurance, sensors, infrastructure, robot, data sharing, regulations, accidents, Velodyne, ‘independently smart’.
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Slow food, slow work, slow down!

Speed limits are falling in big cities and residential areas to protect pedestrians from injuries or death. In the UK, America and Australia, people are demanding legislation for lower limits. In Melbourne, Australia, most of the city’s visitors walk, so it is claimed the city should be serving them, not drivers, with only 30 kmh. In New York, 148 pedestrians were killed in traffic in 2012, prompting calls for 20mph. In Britain, Islington Council imposed in 2013 a 20mph limit on every road it controls, the first council to do so.

Low speeds reduce accidents. For example, from 1986-2006, London’s 20mph zones reduced casualties by 42%. Another study found 98% of pedestrians will survive a 20mph collision, compared to 93% at 30mph and 69% at 40mph. So there is no doubt that low speeds favour walkers. And walking is good exercise.

As always, drivers are not always happy to be slowed down. Many drivers will drive to conditions and ignore a speed limit that seems unrealistic. According to, in the US, Canada, and other countries, limits are often set using the ‘eighty-fifth percentile’ (the speed at or below which 85% of traffic is moving). The police also seem less than enthusiastic about enforcing low limits. We can’t help thinking there are just too many speed limits (especially around roadworks) and not enough recognition of the driver’s ability to drive to conditions. But this too will pass with driverless cars.

Ref: The Herald Sun (Aus), 25 October 2013, Melbourne City Council to consider 30km/h speed limits in the CBD. A Harris.
The Economist (UK), 2 February 2013, The slowing of Britain. Anon.
Animal New York. Speed limit could drop to 20 on residential streets.
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Search words: roads, speed limit, 20mph, London, New York, pedestrians, collision, Association of Chief Police Officers, legislation.
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The Chinese way of rail

It is only five years since China opened its high-speed rail system, but already nearly twice as many people travel by train as travel by plane within China. In fact, rail traffic has grown at around 28% a year for the last few years.
Just as all the industrialised nations have discovered, trains bring business. In a country the size of China, the ability to travel relatively quickly around it has brought many businesses closer to their customers and offered a large pool of educated workers to companies based in bigger cities like Shanghai and Beijing. A World Bank paper found Chinese cities connected to the high-speed rail network were more likely to see their workers become more productive. The trains themselves are punctual, clean, smooth and fast - 186mph or 300kph. They also cost less than half the price of an air ticket.

Not everything is good news – a high profile corruption case and a fatal tunnel accident, combined with the way families were relocated to build the railway, have marred China’s reputation somewhat. Moreover, the railways were financed with $US500 billion of short-term debt that is vulnerable to interest rate increases and, at some point, will have to be turned into long-term debt. A further $US100 billion a year will be invested in the railways each year, according to China’s new prime minister.

China continues to be a country of vast statistics. For example, the number of farm families who move to become city dwellers each year would fill New York. Many workers experience double digit wage increases each year. China has the second fastest growing aviation industry after India. Finally, with a network covering 10,000 kms and linking 100 cities, it is no surprise that China is showing the world its way with rail.

Ref: New York Times (US), 23 September 2013, Speedy trains transform China.
K Bradsher.
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Search words: China, high-speed trains, bullet trains, passengers, US, airlines, transportation, economic growth, productivity, corruption, research and development, employees, relocations, urbanisation, subways, investment, short-term debt, wages.
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A glowing report on planes

You are familiar with plasma TVs; the next thing is plasma-coated planes. It sounds peculiar, but plasma is a cloud of ions and electrons that forms when gas is ionised and ionised gas has a material on airflow. Plasmas applied to a plane wing reduce drag, which in turn reduces fuel consumption and CO2 emissions. Not only that, plasma glows!

Laminar flow refers to the way the layer of air nearest the surface of the aircraft wings should always be moving smoothly. When it doesn’t, it creates turbulence, which can make up a third of an aircraft’s drag. A team at the University of Tennessee devised a pair of electrodes, separated by insulating film, set it into the upper wing, then applied a high voltage. This ionised the air between the electrodes, creating a strip of glowing purple plasma along the upper wing. After testing it in a wind tunnel, they discovered that, as plasma forms, it creates an ‘ion wind’ that flows away down the wing and maintains laminar flow.

Researchers at University of Surrey claim that small plasma actuators could reduce frictional drag by 30%, which in practice saves 5% on fuel. Each year, US airlines consume 40 billion litres of fuel and could save $US1.5 billion and reduce CO2 emissions by 5 million tones. About a quarter of air accidents are caused by mechanical failure. Another upside of plasma is it costs little to manufacture and has no moving parts to maintain.

A more ambitious project, the Plasmaero collaboration, aims to control the flight of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) using plasmas alone. It would replace ailerons on planes, by adding actuators to both wings and operating them on one side to make the plane bank. This sounds risky to cautious aviators. But they could still be used as back-up control in standard aviation, just by coating the entire wing of a plane with plasma actuators.

The wind energy industry is interested in plasma technology for rotor blades on turbines, which also demand maximum ‘lift’. Moreover, the system may be applied to cars to smooth airflow, cutting fuel and CO2 emissions. The electrodes can be made so thin that it may even be possible to apply them as tape. We wonder if they could also be applied to athletes, for example cyclists, who need to minimise friction and drag. The possibilities of plasma!

Ref: New Scientist (UK), 9 March 2013, Flow with the glow. D Hambling.
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Search words: ‘the Dripper’, plasma, planes, ionised gas, airflow, fuel savings, drag, plasma generator, laminar flow, turbulence, electrodes, ‘ion wind’, wind energy, plasma actuator, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), mechanical failure, ‘virtual wing’, engines.
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Where’s a power point when you need one?

The biggest fear for an electric car driver is ‘range anxiety’, or running out of power. This is probably one of the biggest reasons why electric cars have not yet made much headway. Renault leads the electric vehicle market in Europe, where it has sold a rather meagre 34,000 electric vehicles. It is certainly early days.

The recharging problem came to a head this year with the bankruptcy of Better Place. As we wrote in 2009, Better Place was an Israeli-Californian company, which planned for charge points at home, work, and other places, so drivers could charge whenever electricity was off-peak, quickly swap batteries if needed, and even sell back to the grid (V2G technology). Better Place failed because only one company, Renault, had agreed to be a partner. Partnerships are important in this business.

Nissan believes most drivers will recharge at home, as they do their mobile phones, and this currently takes about 4 hours. Chargemaster, which installs public charging points in the UK, says drivers need to be able to pull in at supermarkets or petrol stations, or any other outlet. It has partnered with BMW to offer charging of BMWs. Groupe Bollore is betting, to the tune of $US2.3 billion, on developing better batteries using lithium-metal-polymer, rather than lithium alone. It recently began a collaboration with Renault on urban car-sharing and perhaps to produce its Bluecar at Renault’s factory.

Even so, manufacturers are slowly setting up supercharging outlets. Nissan is working with Ecotricity to install fast chargers at petrol stations in the UK. Honda, Mitsubishi, Nissan and Toyota are working together in their home market. The market innovator, Tesla, has started to build a network of superchargers for its US customers. So there is no question, power points are coming – but are the drivers?

Ref: Financial Times (UK), 19 November 2013, Infrastructure: Shortage of electric points puts the brake on sales. A Palin.
The Economist, 21 September 2013, Plugging away. Anon.
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Search words: electric vehicle (EV), Better Place, battery swap, Renault, range anxiety, charging, supermarkets, BMW, Netherlands, Ecotricity, Tesla Motors, superchargers, Groupe Bollore, car-sharing, Bluecar, lithium-metal-polymer battery, Pininfarina.
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