Automotive & transport

Nanotechnology hits the road

The year is 2025, you walk into a supermarket and alongside the cans of beans are small packets containing full-sized cars. When you get home you sprinkle the contents of the small packet on to your driveway and, right in front of your eyes, a brand new car grows. Science fiction? Not necessarily. There is no scientific reason why any object, from a car to a carrot, cannot be man-made on an atom-by-atom basis by nanobots. Indeed such a future has already been prophesised by Nobel Prize-winning Professor, Richard Feynman. But, using a more immediate timeline, what can we expect nanotechnology to deliver in cars over the next decade or so? Interestingly, the list is almost endless; scratch-free windscreens, anti-fog windscreens, scratch-resistant and graffiti resistant paint are just a few of the innovations that we'll see in the very near future. There's also self-darkening glass, glass that adjusts the level of thermo radiation and light entering the car (to warm or to cool the interior) and paint that acts as a giant solar cell. However, it's the most mundane idea of all that might be the most appealing - a self-cleaning car. Think of the exterior of the car as a giant Teflon frying pan. Every time it rains the water literally washes your car clean. The car then dries itself, being careful not to leave any streaking or other marks. Can't wait for that one.
Ref: Nanotechnologywire (US), 28 September 2005, 'Nanotechnology in cars'.

A quick history of the automotive future

With the escalating price of oil, it's a fairly safe bet that new fuels will be one of the largest breakthroughs in automotive innovation over the next decade. But what can we expect to see before that? To some extent the future of mass transport can already be glimpsed in today's luxury cars. For example, active noise reduction is a system whereby wind and road noise is reduced or cancelled out altogether by sending an opposite phase signal into the car through the audio system. This innovation is already available on the 2006 Honda Legend and will almost certainly find its way into lower-cost models very soon. Other examples of 'future technology' that are either available today - or will be launched in the next few years - include car-to-car networking, which allows individual cars to 'talk' to each other to warn about local conditions (BMW and Daimler Chrysler), adaptive cruise control, which allows cruise control to be used in city and even in rush hour traffic (Bosch), directional headlights, night vision systems and electronic handbrakes. Other ideas that are close to production include self-parking cars (Toyota and Citroen) and advanced driver assist (Honda).
Ref: Sunday Times (UK), 9 October 2005, 'This is the future, and it's sneaking into cars today', J. Nagley.

Follow that car

Cars that drive themselves have been around since the 1950s, although the idea has never really progressed beyond the concept and testing stage for a number of legal, social and technical reasons. Nevertheless General Motors (GM) claims it is building such a car and that it could be in production as early as 2008. Fat chance - although if what GM is really talking about is adaptive cruise control, it's a possibility. Adaptive cruise control is essentially a system whereby the car recognises that there is a car in front and sets a safe speed and distance using a clever mix of cameras and laser beams. If the car gets too close, the speed is reduced or the brakes are applied. Equally, if the car starts to stray out of the lane, power steering corrects the mistake or else the driver is alerted using beeps, flashing lights or vibrations. Of course, as with any solution there are problems. First, the technology won't work when there's no car in front (so it's not much use in the country or late at night for example). More critically, there are serious legal implications to this technology. Last, but by no means least, people actually like to drive their cars. Indeed, the car is probably the last private space that's available to most people and it's highly unlikely that drivers will give up control unless they are forced to.
Ref: The Economist (UK) 27 August 2005, 'Changing gear'.

Back to the future

Reports that General Motors (GM) is close to death may have been a little premature, but judging by one recent GM activity they may not be entirely off the mark. According to Planning Perspectives (a consultancy), 85% of GM's top 259 suppliers rated their relationship with GM as 'poor'. This is perhaps one reason why, for the past seven years, GM has held a secret show called TechWorld. This is a twice-yearly event where GM's top six suppliers showcase their thinking about the future. The problem is, if recent examples are anything to go by, the thinking isn't particularly advanced or futuristic. For example, how about a connection system for in-car iPods? Seen that already. Or how about a system that can warm up the interior of a car in less than 100 seconds? (so what!), or a car that won't start if it doesn't recognise the drivers hand on the door handle? (getting there). Then again, perhaps none of this is really very surprising, because GM is using the usual suspects to generate new ideas. Maybe a trip to a few custom car shows or hanging out with young engineers from other industries would rev things up a bit.
Ref: Various including AP, 8 November 2005, 'Secret show on car of the future' and Nikkei Weekly (Japan) 24 October 2005, 'Finger-vein ID system in handles'.

Good in parts

According to The Economist magazine, the stock market value of Daimler Chrysler is now less than the value of Daimler prior to the merger. The car industry has been obsessed with mergers and acquisition in recent years but it is debatable whether any of this activity has created any real value. Meanwhile, at the recent Frankfurt Motor show, there were three cars on display from Chinese manufacturers, and it is looking increasingly likely that Indian and Chinese firms will be the major beneficiaries of the increase in car ownership in markets outside North America, Europe and Japan. Given the scale and experience of the big carmakers, why are they in such a mess? Apart from the inward focus created by recent acquisitions, new entrants are unhindered by the operating costs and legacy payments (for example, pensions) of more established rivals. Moreover, most carmakers have too many brands. Another problem is that car companies are increasingly outsourcing their technology, production and distribution to others, leaving nothing more than marketing and design in-house. This is a nothing new historically, but if component suppliers own most of your intellectual property, you are potentially vulnerable. For example, the car industry already loses a slice of revenue to multi-brand retailers. So what if a group of parts suppliers got together, bought an assembly line and starting putting things together themselves using the Internet to connect with the end user? If this thought doesn't give carmakers a few sleepless nights they're not thinking hard enough about the future.
Ref: The Economist (UK), 10 September 2005, 'Extinction of the predator'.