Are we there yet? The future of transportation

Neil Hodge gazes into the future of modern transportation and examines the incredible ideas that aren’t far from being implemented on a daily basis

For over a century, science fiction has been fascinated with the possibilities of revolutionising travel – going boldly to where no man has gone before, and via new, undreamt of technologies.

Some regions are already trying to use renewable energies and intelligent transport solutions as part of their sustainability programmes, with technologies that seem to be from the imagination of film director Fritz Lang. For example, Abu Dhabi is building Masdar City, a hi-tech, clean energy business environment, which uses electric vehicles and ‘Personal Rapid Transit’ vehicles (driverless automated vehicles) to ferry people around and to keep the carbon footprint as low as possible.

This year, space technology company SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft is launching into space using ruggedised solar arrays to power equipment during its inaugural flight to the International Space Station (ISS) – the first American commercial transport vehicle to do so.

The Dragon is a free-flying, reusable spacecraft, with some of its equipment, including heating and cooling systems, powered by a 5kW solar panel array that unfolds from protective fairings after launch. Its hold is made up of a pressurised capsule and unpressurised trunk capable of transporting pressurised cargo, unpressurised cargo, and/or crew members. NASA has agreed to allow SpaceX to send its Dragon spacecraft to rendezvous with the ISS in a single flight as part of its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) programme, a public/private partnership designed to cut the cost of venturing into space and augment NASA’s now recently axed Shuttle programme. The launch will test whether NASA’s COTS scheme can effectively compete with a largely globalised space race.

And space is not the final frontier for transport possibilities. Last July, Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg’s Solar Impulse HB-SIA aircraft returned to Payerne in Switzerland from Paris-Le Bourget after a 12:31 hour flight powered by solar energy alone. It flew 426km at an average speed of 40km/h. And in January of this year, the world’s largest solar-powered ship, the MS Tûranor PlanetSolar (which means “power of the sun” in J.R.R Tolkien mythology), docked in Abu Dhabi as part of this year’s ‘World Future Energy Summit’, completing its 48,000km round-the-world journey that began last September. The UN estimates that the shipping industry alone is responsible for 4.5 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Drive my car
However, it is an attempt to revolutionise the car that is attracting the most investment and attention – and justifiably so given that it is the most popular vehicle (as well as the most environmentally destructive) on the planet. And some of the innovations that are in the pipeline are simply » staggering and not far off implementation.

For example in December last year, Google was awarded a US patent for self-driving cars. The intellectual property rights relate to a method to switch a vehicle from a human-controlled mode into the state where it takes charge of the wheel itself. It explains how the car would know when to take full control, where it is located and which direction to drive in.

Google suggests that the technology could be used to offer tours of popular tourist locations or to send faulty models to repair shops. The application for ‘Transitioning a Mixed-mode Vehicle to Autonomous Mode’ was applied for in May, but had been hidden from public view until December. The patent describes using two sets of sensors. The first set identifies a “landing strip” when the vehicle stops. This then triggers the second set that receives data informing the machine where it is positioned and where it should go.

The internet giant says that the landing strip could simply be a mark on the ground, a sign on a wall, or lines or arrows showing where the vehicle should be parked. To detect which landing strip it has been parked at, the document says the car could activate a GPS (global positioning system) receiver to find its rough location and then use its sensors to detect trees, foliage or other known landmarks to determine its exact position. Alternatively, the filing says the car could read a QR code – the popular two-dimensional square barcode – which would have details about the landing strip’s location.

Telling the car precisely where it has been parked could be crucial to ensuring it knows where to go. The patent explains that GPS receivers are sometimes only accurate to about 30ft (9.1m). However, if the vehicle can monitor its path and knows where it started from, it can simply be told to drive set distances from that point, adjusting its direction at the appropriate places.

The patent describes how data provided at the landing strip could also tell the vehicle to look up an internet address which would let it know if it needed to drive itself to a repair shop, or simply move to another parking bay to ensure a hire company had its cars spread evenly across its various pick-up spots. It says the landing strip could also provide information about how long the vehicle should pause before driving off.

However, Google’s patent will not prevent others developing rival self-drive vehicles. The patent, which is effective in the US only, would only be enforceable to prevent other companies from using the same specific method and not to prevent other companies also providing autonomous vehicles in general. On the plus side, Google could charge rival developers a large fee for a licence.

Although the technology described may sound fanciful, Google has been testing a fleet of driverless cars for several years. The vehicles combine artificial intelligence with the firm’s Google Street View maps as well as video cameras and a dazzling array of sensors.

And experts say Google’s “passion project” could end up creating a valuable revenue stream. The firm has adapted a fleet of Toyota Prius and Audi TT models which have driven 160,000 miles, including travelling on Highway 1 between Los Angeles and San Francisco, with limited human input and more than 1,000 miles without driver involvement. The firm has also successfully lobbied the state of Nevada to pass a law requiring its Department of Transportation to create rules and regulations for autonomous vehicles on its highways. However, there has been no word so far on what these cars may cost to the public.

Engineers behind the project say that robots can react more quickly than humans, meaning the number of road accidents could be reduced. That might also mean more cars could be on the road at the same time, driving closer together thus increasing road capacity.

Expert’s say driverless cars could become a commercial prospect sooner than most people believe. “Google believe it is a technology that is here and now and will start appearing in motorcars in the near future,” says Professor Alan Woodward from the department of computing at the University of Surrey. “We already have systems that park your cars for you and automatically brake – the next obvious step is to have cars take over the routine driving. Google has funded a lot of this work at universities. Not surprisingly, if they think it is going to be big they want to patent it,” he says. Google is not the only organisation to look at developing intelligent cars. Last October scientists at Oxford University said that they have developed a new car that can “see” the world around it. The modified Wildcat can interpret data from technology such as cameras, radar and lasers to drive itself. The Oxford car differs from Google’s by having fewer sensors and relying more heavily on an on-board three dimensional map of streets. The basic map could potentially be maintained by local councils or highway authorities and updated by vehicles.

The project has been given £1.4m by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and is a collaboration between the university, BAE Systems and Nissan. The developers hope that the technology will eventually improve traffic safety and cut congestion. The project leader, Professor Paul Newman, said the car could drive without human intervention by being acutely aware of its surroundings. The sensors on this autonomously driven vehicle can pinpoint its exact location and enable it to respond to its environment more safely.

Prof Newman is convinced that on-board computer capacity will have an enormous impact on motoring in the future and believes that car companies will engage in an “arms race” to achieve the greatest number of minutes of autonomous driving per vehicle. “You can imagine one company advertising a model of car which, on average, drives itself for 10 minutes a day and then another manufacturer will come out with one that does 15 minutes,” he says.

The team say that computer-assisted vehicles will not get distracted or tired and can remotely connect to the internet to communicate with other cars. The Department for Transport estimates the of congestion will rise to £23bn-£24bn a year by 2025, so connected vehicles, like this prototype, could help alleviate some of those potential costs by avoiding jams and giving the driver time off to do other tasks.

“We need cars that do the thinking and concentrating for you, cars that do not insist you do the driving all the time,” says Prof Newman. “If the going is slow why can’t I watch the show I missed last night, Skype with the kids, read a book or send that last email and elect the car to handle the drudgery of the trip for me?”

Fueling tomorrow  
Developments in intelligent and eco-friendly transport are by no means limited to the developed world, internet giants and prestigious universities. India has also been busy developing fuel-efficient cars. At the beginning of January, Mahindra & Mahindra, the country’s leading utility vehicle manufacturer, unveiled its three-wheeler HyAlfa at the Delhi Auto Expo. The new car has positioned the Mahindra Group as the world’s first manufacturer to produce a three-wheeler that is powered with hydrogen. The vehicle is a joint-effort with the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO), the International Centre for Hydrogen Energy Technologies (ICHET), and India’s Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, and includes extended support of the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi.

Mahindra & Mahindra’s general manager for research and development, Dr Mathew Abraham, says that “the HyAlfa is the first vehicle of its kind in the world. It runs on nothing but compressed hydrogen gas and is incredibly engineered to run with absolutely zero emissions, which makes it a pleasure to drive on congested city roads. Hydrogen is, in fact, the technology and fuel of tomorrow and is the long-term solution to pollution, energy security & CO2 emission related concerns.”

The HyAlfa will hit the market in both passenger and cargo variants and is capable of delivering top mileage of around 65 km/hr on city roads. This cutting∞edge technology is aimed at providing eco-friendly mobility solutions. However, the vehicle has not yet been phased out for commercial production as this hydrogen fuelled vehicle has not proved itself as commercially viable just yet. Crucially, this is the key problem – while companies are clearly able to produce such efficient technologies, they have not been able to market them successfully to the public so far. Consequently, as sales are relatively low at the moment, the price of these vehicles remains prohibitively high, remaining out of the reach of many people who might be interested in buying one.

Who’s in charge?  
The result of this can be clearly seen in the US, which has the highest tally of gas-guzzling vehicles in the world, largely because petrol prices there remain lower than elsewhere in the world. The White House had hopes of putting 1.5m battery cars on the road by 2015, but 2011 was not a good indication of what Americans think of electric vehicles.

Hybrids, plug-ins and pure battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) accounted for little more than two percent of the total US automotive market last year, and if conventional gas-electric models, such as the Toyota Prius and Ford Fusion Hybrid, are removed from the equation, more advanced battery vehicles generated barely 20,000 sales. The figures certainly don’t look good for the industry: “I’d say they failed,” says Joe Phillippi, chief analyst with consulting firm AutoTrends.

While there are a variety of products already on the market, most come from niche manufacturers that barely even register on the sales charts. Last year brought about the introduction of two closely watched mainstream models: the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid and the Nissan Leaf BEV. General Motors had declared a goal of selling 10,000 Volts but will likely end the year at around 7,000. The good news for the maker was that momentum had been building during the final quarter but then Chevy found itself in the uncomfortable position of having to explain why several Volts caught fire weeks after being subjected to federal crash tests.

Nissan came closer to its 2011 target of 10,000 but it still does not hit what analysts believe are low targets. They point to the fact that Leaf sales have been slipping for several months, a worrying sign as Nissan prepares to open a new facility in Smyrna, Tennessee capable of churning out 200,000 battery cars annually.

The figures for 2011 could be low because last year there were still a relatively limited range of choices available for customers. However, that will not be an excuse in 2012 as US markets prepare to welcome more models. The options coming to an already congested automotive market are broad, ranging from the Fisker Karma, a plug-in sports car, to the Ford Focus Electric. There are electric minicars, like the new Mitsubishi i, and big SUVs, including the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Mercedes-Benz ML350 that Ohio-based Amp Electric is converting to run on battery power. There will also be mainstream offerings, such as the Toyota RAV-4 Electric, and products from aggressive start-ups, such as Tesla’s new Model S sedan.The Model S will aim to overcome one of the biggest drawbacks of battery power, offering buyers a choice of a base Model S with a range of 160 miles, or optional 230 and 300 mile battery packs, the latter adding $20,000 to the price tag. Most other pure BEVs are limited to less than 100 miles per charge. Even then, these are not cheap; battery vehicles are saddled by excessive price tags that are thousands – in some cases, tens of thousands – of dollars more than comparable gasoline vehicles.

There is no doubt that the possibilities for intelligent transport, greater fuel-efficiency and cleaner technologies are either in the pipeline or ready for the market. The problem is that the costs are still restrictive and that the products are largely confined to city driving, and still to those cities that have the infrastructure – and finance – to service them properly.

One way forward may be to follow the example of Abu Dhabi, with public sector investment leading the way to create a firm market and customer base. Until then, it looks unlikely that the world’s biggest carbon polluters – such as the US and India – are going to achieve their hopes of weaning the public onto more fuel-efficient and green cars.