Automotive & transport

Pay as you go roads

The road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but you're going to pay in other ways too if you want to drive down it in the future. Or, to put it another way, 'freeways' in the US aren't -unless you're prepared to sit in a 60-minute traffic jam. 'Pay as you go' is a well documented trend which, along with the division of some products and services into free (or cheap) and paid (or luxury) segments is transforming society. So if 'economy' and 'business' works for airlines, and 'public' or 'private' works for medicine and education, why not apply the same principle to roads? This is what's happening all over the world with congestion charges to enter city centres and now it's happening with roads which are being divided into free and paid sections. The idea is a mixture of social engineering and civil engineering. Fast lanes are being converted into paid lanes, which motorists can move into if they're in a hurry or they're just plain rich ('Lexus lanes' as some people describe them). The clever bit is that the paid lanes are not compulsory and pricing can be adjusted according to traffic flow or time of day. Payment is made instantly via electronic tags inside your car. Of course the idea isn't new. Road tolls have been around since the invention of the motor car (longer in fact) but the idea is coming back into vogue because governments are no longer prepared to publicly finance infrastructure projects like roads. In the case of new roads this is fine, but the principle is also being applied to roads that have already been built using public money - so people are effectively paying twice. Nevertheless, the idea is sure to be a winner because people hate to wait (Americans now spend 46 hours a year sitting in traffic jams). The average speed during peak hours on '91 Express' lanes in the US is 65mph compared to just 15-20mph in the free lanes. So by paying US $11 commuters can save as much as 90 minutes on a regular trip.

Ref: New York Times (US) 28 April 2005. 'Paying on the highway to get out of first gear', T.Egan.

Can't see the road ahead for the trees?

Are you leading a carbon neutral life? The desire to be green (or, at least, be seen as green) has trickled down from countries, through companies to individuals. First we had Kyoto, then carbon emission trading (total market value US$35 billion in 2008 according to UN predictions) and then companies and organisations like the National Football League in the US jumped on the band-wagon by saying that they would plant trees to counter the emission from Superbowl XL. HBSC bank (UK) are also playing the tree planting game and even Bristol City Council (UK) says it will plant trees along its bus routes to counter city bus emissions. And of course Hollywood is getting in on the act too with celebrities like Brad and Leonardo queuing up to declare themselves carbon-neutral and buying cars like the Toyota Prius. There's even a car finance company operating in Australia that links your loan rate to how green your new car is and plants trees to soak up any likely emissions. Is this all a gimmick? We suspect it is, but then again every little helps.

Ref: Various including: Guardian Weekly (UK) 1-7 April 2005. 'Trendspotting: Are you carbon neutral?', M.Hann. See also 'Green Loans' ¨ Money section this issue (What's Next issue 5).

Car design goes local

We've had retro car design for years now (think new VW Beetle, new Mini, PT Cruiser etc) so is there a new design trend on the horizon? According to Car magazine the next big thing is local design. Let us explain. Ever since car companies went global and ever since they started using computers rather than pencils to design cars, cars have looked remarkably similar. Take the badge off a Toyota and replace it with a badge from a Nissan and see if anyone that isn't a car nut notices the difference. This wasn't always the case. Once upon a time a British car could only have been made in Britain and the same was true with cars from the US, Germany, Italy and France. They just looked and smelled whence they came. However, global markets, CAD software and focus groups changed all that. Not anymore. Car companies are re-discovering their roots and the new Mustang, Cadillac CTS and STS could only be made by Uncle Sam. Equally the new Infiniti Kuraza concept car could only have come from Japan. Is this an early example of how localisation (spawned as a counter trend to globalisation) is impacting on global product design? You tell us.

Ref: Car (UK), April 2005. 'Think locally, sell globally', G.Green.

Self-healing paint

Scientists at Bayer have invented a type of paint that fixes itself when it gets scratched or chipped. The product, called 2K-Pur Clear Coat, is a transparent final coating, which is applied after the colour has been painted on. The transparent layer gives some initial protection against minor damage and heals itself by 'flowing' over chips and scratches when heat is applied - for example by the sun or a hot car wash.

Ref: AutoExpress (UK).

Grab the wheel to get going

An inventor in the US, whose son suffered minor brain damage from a car accident, has invented a steering wheel that won't let you drive if you've been drinking. There are already devices that require drivers to give a sample of their breath prior to starting the engine, but this invention is based on touching the drivers skin. Over 16,000 people die annually in the US from drink driving related accidents, but it is unlikely that the device will be fitted as a standard option any time soon. Part of the problem is a perceived invasion of privacy, but a more practical issue is simply that the steering wheel does not know whether the person touching the wheel is the person who is driving.

Ref: New York Times (US) 29 May 2005. 'Steering wheel checks alcohol consumption'.