Automotive & transport

The drive to remove cars from cities

It’s ironic that the home of BMW, Munich, has become a “walkers’ paradise” and one of many German cities belonging to a national network of “environmental zones” where only cars with low emissions may go. It’s all part of a new trend in Europe – to drive cars out of cities.

The opposite may be true in America, where cities adapt to accommodate driving rather than pedestrians. But in Europe, there are many signs that the car is no longer king: pedestrian areas, congestion charges, bike sharing, reduced on-street parking and, in Zurich, lights that are synchronised to be red. The city’s traffic planner says: “Our goal is to reconquer public space for pedestrians”. Such a move helps to meet the commitment made under the Kyoto Protocol. Drivers may well see red, especially if they’re in a hurry, but 45% of households are now without cars and 91% of delegates to the Swiss Parliament take the tram.

It seems a person using a car takes up 115 cubic metres of urban space in Zurich, compared to 3 cubic metres for walkers. Someone going shopping at Sihl City, a new Zurich mall, finds only half the usual number of parking spaces so 70% of visitors take public transport. There have been many examples of buildings constructed in other cities with little parking but a shared vehicle. Some might argue that taking traffic out of the CBD will reduce retail business but, in fact, it increases pedestrian traffic and people can stop to shop.

In Sydney, with only 1 hour or less parking spots, many drivers might feel they are not welcome anywhere within 5kms of the CBD. The hardest part is when a city, like Sydney, makes it difficult for drivers but doesn’t provide efficient public transport, big pedestrian spaces and even bicycles, to compensate. It takes a while to change the American mindset that privileges the car over people. Europe is showing us we’re each worth more than a car.

Ref: The New York Times (US), 3 July 2011, 'Traffic torments  by design' by E. Rosenthal.
Search words: America, Europe, traffic lights, congestion charge, Zurich, Munich, pedestrians, parking.
Trend tags: Sustainability, urbanisation
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Gone sailing – but there’s nobody aboard

Scientists love to create machines that will run on their own, not necessarily just for the thrill, but because they can go where people would rather not. The robotic boat can be used, for example, to clean up oil spills, maritime monitoring, or gathering weather data. The challenge is to be able to keep it afloat and moving in the right direction for long periods. The robotic sailing boat is rather like the automatic glider. Using thermals to stay up.

Mark Neal, a scientist in Wales, launched a boat called Pinta that was the first automoton to cross the Atlantic Ocean. All went well for 49 hours but then they lost contact. This was still an achievement. Yet such a boat needs to be able to run for months in all weathers, using only solar and wind power, and without becoming damaged, over salted, or covered in barnacles.

Roland Stelzer in Vienna manages Roboat, a 3.75m long boat that won the World Robotic Sailing Championship for the last 3 years. Its computer brain plots the best route using the winds and keeps it on course by adjusting the rudder. Meanwhile, a Dutch open source project called Protei, by Cesar Harada, raised money from Kickstarter to built a boat with a unique flexing hull to best harness the wind. Its chief aim is to clean up oil spills.

Boats and gliders aside, Google is lobbying Nevada to allow the use of driverless cars. The company has already test driven robotic hybrid cars more than 140,000 miles on California roads. The company did not say why Nevada was chosen as a test case. But new laws will be required to deal with the challenging problems of safety and reliability. Robot gliders, robot boats, robot cars: what’s next? Robot supermarket trolleys, perhaps, that actually go straight?

Ref: New Scientist (US), 14 May 2011, 'Robots head for the high seas' by J. Aron.
New York Times (US), 11 May 2011. 'Google lobbies Nevada to allow driverless cars' by J. Markoff.
Search words: sailing, Pinta, robot, Roboat, oil spills, open source, Kickstarter, Google, Nevada, bills, liability, Silicon Valley.
Trend tags: Robotics
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Taking the anxiety out of range anxiety

The main reason why people worry about electric vehicles (EVs), according to the media, is running out of power before they arrive. This is called “range anxiety”. But there are already a number of in-car apps to soothe the driver’s sensitive soul – and to help them squeeze more out of that 160km limit.

The big difference between an internal combustion engine car and an EV is that electric cars are “always on” and don’t need a running engine. This means you can “communicate” with the car while it’s sitting there plugged into the mains. The Nissan Leaf has an iPhone app, Carwings, which sends a message to your car to start its 6-8 hour charging program during off-peak times. It can even text you if someone dares to unplug the charger!

Another app, “pre-conditioning”, lets you remotely heat or cool the car cabin before you get in. This is usually a big draw on power but it works from the mains, conserving your driving power. BMW even has a battery warming function, which helps to boost range. In the future, if Renault has its way, there will be an app that lets you drive from A to C, stopping at town B on the way to use a pre-booked charging post. This will involve a complex combination of satnav data, post availability, booking and payment system and car ID – all on your smartphone.

The only downside of such applications is that, just as phones are trackable, the cars they communicate with will also be trackable. This might set off another kind of anxiety – tracking anxiety. At least it will give the media something else to write about.

Ref: New Scientist (UK), 14 May 2011, 'Electric vehicles herald rise of the in-car app' by P. Marks.
Search words: Nissan Leaf, range anxiety, electric vehicles (EV), “fourth screen”, smartphones, Carwings, charging, pre-conditioning, battery, satnav, tracking.
Trend tags: Connectivity, sustainability
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Robotics bikes?

Barclays has more bicycles in London (5,500) than branches in the world (4,750) and, through the Barclays Hire Scheme, wants to transform the way Londoners get around. People make more than 24,000 journeys a day on its bikes, most of them from the main railway stations to the office and back. Waterloo is the busiest railway station in Britain and demand for bicycles there is robust. There are currently 117,000 members, who pay 45 pounds per year for a plastic key that can be swiped on a bicycle’s docking station. Each docking station has a computer that updates every 3 minutes with information about nearby bikes.

While the scheme is still relatively small – only 5% of total cyclists in London - it introduces more people to the idea that London is a cycling city. This mindset may be difficult to grasp at first. (Some 20% of people were cycling round London as far back as 1904.) Another difficulty is coping with all the people who want to get from A to B while encouraging others to go from B to A and C to D. Otherwise, all the bikes end up in the same places. A bikeneck perhaps? There may come a time when the bikes ride themselves to the locations of highest demand. Ah – robot bikes!

Ref: Financial Times (UK), 7/8 May 2011, 'Follow that bike', anon.
Search words: Waterloo, Barclays Cycle Hire, docking station, Alkis.
Trend tags: Sustainability, urbanisation
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When the microchips are down

Here is an argument for standardisation in the auto industry. Renesas Electronics, a big supplier of microchips for cars, stopped production because of the March 11 earthquake in Japan. This in turn slowed car production to half its normal rate in Japan and to a crawl in the US and other countries. In the PC industry, manufacturers could simply have found another supplier. But in the car industry, chips are customised for each car model.

One of the reasons that industry relies on Renesas is because it’s the merged result of 3 semiconductor companies – Hitachi, Mitsubishi Electric and NEC Electronics. Carmakers in Europe, Japan and the US have already formed consortiums to work on standardising software and electronics standards for drive train, information and entertainment systems. It’s possible that the Japan crisis will encourage their efforts in this direction.

One of the dangers of hyperconnectivity is when companies all over the world rely on one company in one country to supply their critical needs. While it makes marketing sense to differentiate one model fully from another, it doesn’t make manufacturing sense to be so dependent on one supplier.

Ref:New York Times. (US) 14 May 2011. 'Lack of chips slows Japan’s car industry'
Search words: microchips, earthquake, Renesas Electronics, car production, PC, Toyota, semiconductor, manufacturers, standardisation.
Trend tags: Connectrivity, volatility, networks
Source integrity: *****