Automotive & transport

Are we there yet?

One cheeky Times journalist commented: “you could almost mistake car manufacturers for environmental charities”. There is no doubt that car manufacturers have become vocal for the cause but it still seems too early to be asking, “are we there yet?”. It is stretching credibility perhaps for Range Rover to promote “carbon-offset”, Porsche Cayenne to go diesel, or for Tesla to unveil the Model S, an electric car for which it had not at the time received funding.

There are signs of change, albeit slow. Honda has released the Insight, an affordable alternative to the pricey Prius, the US government has pledged to spend $US2.4 billion for battery and plug-in electric car development, and leaders in France and Britain have promised to spend hundreds of millions on making electric and low-carbon cars possible. In fact, Deutsche Bank predicts that cars will change more in the next five years than in the past hundred. The choice between battery-powered vehicles compared to hybrids or hydrogen fuel-cell cars today is similar to that between cars powered by petrol, steam or electricity in the early 1900s.

Jeremy Clarkson, whose influence is huge in the motoring world, claims hydrogen cars, which need normal fuelling and produce only water as a direct emission, are the way to travel. JP Morgan believes in hybrids, saying the market will rapidly swell from half a million units in 2007 to 9.6 million in 2018. But hybrids still use petrol; the difference is energy used in braking is used to charge the battery. And all cars, regardless of type, take massive amounts of energy to produce. Greenies think that, if you make cars too eco-friendly, even more people will drive them!

Ref: The Times (UK), 30 March 2009, Greener cars? Will someone please hit the accelerator? S. Sanghera.
Source integrity: ****
Search words: green, fuel economy, electric, diesel, hybrids, hydrogen, emissions.
Trend tags: -

Too much Latitude for mobile users?

How many times have you asked on the mobile: “where are you?”. Those days are ending, thanks to Google Latitude, which allows all users to track and watch everyone in their contact list, wherever they are. It will be perfect for worried parents, paranoid partners, and employers who don’t trust their employees. But privacy campaigners believe that people could be pressured to use the service by parents or partners, or be unwittingly signed up if they leave their phone unattended.

Google experienced a similar response to Streetview, which showed people innocently climbing out of windows or getting into their cars, before Google agreed to screen them out. Google stresses that all users of Latitude must give permission to be tracked, and anyone who signs up can also hide or generalise their position. This ability to track defendants at crime scenes is already well established through the triangulation method. The question is whether regular people want to be tracked going about their ordinary lives. Heavy use of social networking sites and mobile phones suggests that young people, who are less privacy-literate, just might.

Ref: The Weekly Telegraph, 18 February 2009, Mobile mapping that means you’re never out of sight. Claudine Beaumont and Martin Beckford.
Source integrity: ****
Search words: Google, Latitude, “where are you?”, navigation, permission, privacy.
Trend tags: Location awareness


Why local car industries aren’t that local

When the Big Three carmakers – Chrysler, Ford and GM – were offered a massive $17.4 billion bailout, observers were quick to denounce it. The president of the European Commission even threatened to file a complaint with the World Trade Organisation. But as European governments moved to protect their own carmakers, it became increasingly obvious that the car industry is too globally interdependent to be able ignore the Big Three. If any of them failed, it would affect a long chain of suppliers from Mexico to China. In fact, it is becoming more difficult to claim that any local car industry is truly local (Britain’s certainly isn’t).

Jeffrey D. Sachs at Columbia University claims there are three reasons why it is worth looking after the carmakers. First, millions of jobs would be lost. Second, their demise is because of the collapse in all domestic car sales, rather than the US’s declining share of domestic sales. Third, public leaders should take responsibility for neglecting energy security, climate risks and huge household debt. Last, the shift to more sustainable cars should be shared between private and public sectors. Public policy should promote the purchase of hybrid and electric cars, help offset the initially high prices, and spend considerably more on energy R&D ($US3 billion annually, or less than 48 hours of defence spending).

Certainly the mood of carmakers at the Detroit motor show was sombre (except for the Germans!). Enthusiasm for hybrids and “electrification” was strong, although the success of electric cars depends very much on developing batteries that do not need frequent charging. BYD claims its batteries can run for 250 miles with only three hours of charging (see battery story.) In spite of a 50% drop in sales of hybrids in America in late 2008, it will not be long before petrol prices lift again. Then people will remember why they started buying green cars in the first place. We have short memories and shallow pockets.

Ref: The Economist, 7 February 2009, Too many moving parts. Anon.
The Economist, 17 January 2009, Bright Sparks. Anon.
Scientific American, February 2009, Transforming the auto industry. Jeffrey D. Sachs.
Source integrity: *****
Search words: US auto industry, Chrysler, Ford, GM, bankruptcy, bailout, R&D, sustainable energy, hybrids, electric vehicles, lithium batteries, France, Germany, Britain, Sweden, Japan, South Korea, parts suppliers.
Trend tags: Globalisation, glocal


No more naps

In Australia, the Stop, Revive, Survive mantra is well established on major highways because of the danger of drivers falling asleep at the wheel. Now scientists at two universities and Signal Network Technology are developing a device for detecting when this is likely to happen – early. Sensors in a camera will note eye movements, oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the car, and driving behaviour, to judge how tired you are. It is already used on the Mercedes S-Class and E-Class.

Volvo’s City Safety system does not prevent tiredness, but it does prevent a crash by applying the brakes when it senses the reflective surface of the rear of the car in front. It brakes later than most drivers would to make sure that they stay responsible. Some 75% of crashes occur below 30 km/hr and half of those are caused by failure to brake in time. Volvo’s current project is to make a version that can detect pedestrians (a non-reflective surface), which would probably save even more lives.

Ref: Popular Science, 31 March 2009, Meet the car that can’t crash. Joshua Dowling.
Popular Science, 31 March 2009, Tired of falling asleep at the wheel? WZ.
Search words: Volvo City Safety, sensors, brakes, crash, eye movements, fatigue detection device, gas levels.
Trend tags:
Source integrity: ***