July 23, 2012
Nothing like a hot, sticky July day to make you think that driving would have been one of the circles of Hell had Dante had a bad commute. These are the days when the grind can seen eternal, when it feels that life has become an endless trail of brake lights leading to the horizon, and that it shall always be so.
But take heart, my friends. To keep hope alive, I’ve compiled a sampling of some of the freshest thinking about changing the experience of getting around, and not just in cars. Some are imminent, others may never reach fruition. Yet most are focused on making this slice of our lives a little more bearable.
1) The flowing rate: If the highways near you are jammed every day, meet what may be your future. Xerox is working with the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority on a pilot program based on the idea that drivers pay a higher toll if traffic is heavier. Starting this November on notoriously crammed I-110, solo drivers will be able to pay to enter what used to be HOV lanes. The toll will start at 25 cents a mile, but can rise to as high as $1.40 a mile. The plan is to guarantee a consistent speed of at least 45 miles an hour. And they hope to do that by using algorithms Xerox is developing to control traffic flow by raising and lowering the toll as needed.
2) Rain, rain, go away: Know how headlights can sometimes seem pointless in a bad rainstorm? Well, scientists at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh noticed that too, and now have invented a model that can see through rain and snow. It works like this: A digital projector illuminates raindrops for several milliseconds while a camera mounted on the side of the projector captures each raindrop’s location; software predicts where those drops will come down within the driver’s field of view. Then light rays that would normally hit the raindrops are automatically switched off. That reduces glare and leaves only beams of lights that travel between the drops showing what’s up ahead. This is so much cooler than pulling over.
3) That’ll teach ya: Talk about getting tough on texting drivers. Researchers at India’s Anna University of Technology have developed a device that not only jams the phone signal of the person in the driver’s seat, but also sounds a tone to let people in nearby vehicles and passengers in his or her own car know that the driver’s distracted. But it wouldn’t stop there. The Cellphone Accident Preventer also has the capability to send your license number to the local police. That’s harsh.
4) Parting is such sweet sorrow: Or you could take the approach devised by Florida inventor Ronald Pothul. He calls it a “Dock-n-Lock” and it requires the driver to place his or her phone in a locker compartment. Otherwise the car won’t start, due to a non-removable ID chip on the phone. Only after the ignition is shut off will the locker open.
5) The road to power: Some day it will seem silly that we had to plug in electric vehicles to juice them up. A team of Japanese engineering students has taken the first steps in what could be our EV future by designing a way for the road itself to provide the power. They call it EVER–Electric Vehicle on Electrified Roadway–and it involves transmitting an electrical current through concrete and up through the vehicle’s tires.The group at Toyohashi University was able to transmit between 50 to 60 watts of power through a 4-inch block of concrete and produce enough of a current to light a bulb. Right, that’s a long way from juicing up cars on the interstate, plus the cost of building electrified highways would be enormous. But maybe, just maybe it will gain traction. (Forgive me.)
6) Bring on the peanuts: Later this year Qantas Airlines will start putting free digital tablets in the pockets of all seats on its 767 flights–and not just those in first class. Everyone will get access to 200 hours of free video and audio. And the airline ultimately saves money by no longer needing the in-flight entertainment systems that add weight to each plane.
7) But will there be iPads?: No one less than NASA is taking a run at reinventing the helicopter. Its Large Civil Tilt Rotor (LCTR) looks like a plane, but with two huge rotors at the end of each wing instead of small propellers. At take-off and landing those rotors spin parallel to the ground just as in a helicopter. For flight they swivel into position to act like propellers. The LCTR would be able to carry up to 90 passengers and make trips as long as 1,000 miles.
8) Don’t you hate being so predictable?: Here’s an innovation that’s not so much about how you get somewhere, but about where you’re going to be. Scientists at the University of Birmingham in the U.K. have developed an algorithm that uses, in part, the movements of your social group to predict where you’ll be 24 hours from now. The predictions proved to be far less precise if the “mobility patterns” of friends–defined as contacts on a person’s cellphone–weren’t factored in.
9) Park it anywhere: The idea’s been around since 2010, but now SoBi Social Bicycles programs are about to roll out in Buffalo and two still unnamed West Coast cities. Bike-sharing is starting to take off in some American cities, but SoBi takes the idea to the next level by combining it with GPS. Each bike has its own on-board computer which can be accessed through a SoBi mobile app. It tells you where a SoBi bike is nearby and then you have 15 minutes to get there and unlock it, using its keyboard and a confirmation code you’ve been given. When you’re done, you can leave the bike anywhere, instead of needing to return it to a share station. A combination of pedal power and a small solar panel helps charge the system.
10) Video bonus: Park it anywhere II: Check out this video of the Hiriko, the electric urban share car designed at the MIT Media Lab. It’s tiny to begin with, then folds up so you can fit three of them in the parking space one ordinary car would need.
More from Smithsonian.com
April 27, 2012
The United States and China are different in so many ways. We borrow, they lend. We like to fly solo, they value their roles in larger groups. We follow the exploits of people named Snooki, they do not know the depths of Snookiness.
Then there are electric bikes. China loves them, America, not so much. Actually, hardly at all.
Let’s run the numbers: Last year, about 25 million e-bikes were sold in China; in the U.S. the number was under 100,000. According to Pike Research, U.S. sales might climb over 100,000 this year and could reach as high as 350,000 in 2018. But that would still be a sliver of projected global sales in 2018, just under 50 million. And it would not only be dwarfed by the market in China–which will still account for almost 90 percent of worldwide sales–but also will fall well below e-bike purchases in India, Europe and Japan.
So why have e-bikes been in such tepid demand here? After all, they run on a battery inside the frame, which has a range of roughly 30 miles on a full charge. They’re very clean–no gas combusted–amazingly efficient, and can go almost as fast as a moped, up to 20 miles per hour. And they can flatten hills that make grown men weep. Or as Steve Roseman, founder of the San Francisco—based Electric Bike Network, told Outside magazine, it’s like “a fairy godmother tapped you on the shoulder and made you twice as strong.”
Okay, there is the price. A good electric bike can start at $1,000, about three times the cost of a quality bicycle; some models, such as the ones now being used by the Los Angeles Police Department, can cost as much as $5,000.
But it’s more than that. A bigger problem is that the people most likely to use electric bikes in the U.S. don’t much like them. In fact, ask most cyclists what they think of e-bikes and they’ll tell you they consider them just one notch above Segways on the sloth meter. A bike with a battery? Isn’t that cheating? Isn’t the whole point to pedal?
Plug and play
Well, yes and no. In China, particularly, electric bikes are a cheap way to get to work. Fitness is not a big part of the equation. You can pedal, but most Chinese don’t. The sensation has been described as something like gliding on a moving walkway at the airport.
Even outside China, e-bikes are coasting closer to the mainstream. Last fall Hertz started renting e-bikes in London. Also in the U.K., the first Electric Bike World Championship–appropriately an uphill race–will be held in Bristol this June. In Amsterdam, where pedaling to work is as routine as morning coffee, almost one out of every five bikes sold last year were battery-powered.
There are trends that could turn things around in the U.S. The obvious one is rising gas prices. Every time they flirt with $4 a gallon, electric bike sales in the U.S. bump up. If they hit $5, the bump could become a boom. There’s also the matter of aging Baby Boomers and Gen Xers who like to ride bikes, but no longer yearn to feel the burn. For them, it’s glide time. In fact, that’s a big part of the e-bike business in Europe.
While fewer than 2 percent of Americans bicycle daily, there’s no question that the number of people biking to work in U.S. cities increases every year. And as the packs of bikers grow in places like San Francisco and Seattle, where the hills are beyond brutal, expect a lot more of them to avoid the heavy pedaling and go electric.
An update: Since posting this piece, among the responses I’ve received was an email from
Boris Mordkovich, a greentech entrepreneur from New York who’s in the middle of a cross-country odyssey to promote e-bikes in the U.S. He emailed from Milwaukee a note including the following comment:
“You’ve mentioned that a big problem in the U.S. is that most of the people who are likely to use them don’t like them. It’s actually not entirely the case. Most of the people in the U.S. either aren’t familiar with electric bikes or have misconceptions about them, confusing them with scooters, motorcycles and everything in between. As long as that’s the case, they fail to see the benefits in them. However, as soon as they are explained what an electric bike is and how it actually works, or better yet, take their first ride on it, the perception changes drastically.”
Batteries not included
Of course, a lot of cool things are still happening with non-electric bikes. Here are a few of the latest innovations:
- A light touch: There’s no shortage of ideas for making bikers visible at night, but one of the more ingenious ones is GLOBARS, in which plastic tubing containing LED lights is wrapped into the handlebars.
- Glow with the flow: A bike called The Pulse provides an even more stylish way to keep urban bikers safe. The middle of the frame is coated with photo-luminescent powder to make it glow in the dark.
- Can a bike ever be too thin?: The aptly named ThinBike is designed for the urban biker with zero storage space. It features collapsible pedals and handlebars that can be twisted without moving the front tire, allowing the bike to shrink from 21 inches to six inches wide.
- I’m pickin’ up wood vibrations: Okay, this isn’t for everyone, but it sure looks like one sweet ride. It’s a bike handcrafted from ash wood in Spain that demands that you don’t dare wear sweat pants when you climb aboard. Or if your taste in wood runs more tropical, check out the creation of designer Craig Calfee, who has built a bike of bamboo, right down to the spokes.
Video bonus: How could electric bikes not be mainstream if Jay Leno has one? Watch him take it out for a spin.
February 27, 2012
Now that gas prices are scooting back up to $4 a gallon in the U.S. and some are predicting they’ll hit $5 by the end of the year, people are starting to ask questions again about electric cars. And not just “Why would anyone call a car a Leaf?”
So where are we with the Volt, the Leaf, the Tesla and all the other electric or electric/hybrid models hitting the market this year? Will more Americans begin to take them seriously?
Let’s take a reality check. Fewer than 18,000 Chevy Volts and Nissan Leafs were sold in the U.S. last year. President Obama still hasn’t backed away from his goal of having 1 million plug-in cars on American highways by 2015, but it looks like the only way that’s happening is if Oprah starts giving them away.
Most people have the same reservations they’ve always had. Electric cars cost too much–more than $30,000, even with a $7,500 federal tax credit–and they stir up feelings of ”range anxiety”–the fear of running out of juice in some place where no one’s ever heard of a charging station.
That said, this is the year we’ll see if electric cars become more than novelties. More car companies are making their first bets on the plug-in business. The Ford Focus Electric, now being sold only on the East and West Coasts, will be available nationwide this fall. Toyota launches its Prius Plug-in Hybrid in March. Last month, Honda shipped all-electric versions of its Fit model to California for trials, including at Google, which will make them part of its car-sharing fleet. Daimler will roll out an all-electric Smart car in Europe in September and Volvo is expected to unveil a plug-in hybrid station wagon.
The latest estimate is that about 70,000 all-electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles will be sold in the U.S. in 2012, still a piddling amount in the scheme of things, but a bump in the right direction.
Here’s the latest in the electric car saga:
- Riding the range: Envia Systems, a California startup, reportedly will announce today that it’s developed a lithium ion battery it says could extend the range of electric cars to 300 miles on a charge. (Now the range is closer to 100 miles.) If they’re right, that’s one high hurdle cleared. GM’s a believer. It invested $7 million in Envia last year.
- A big bet on batteries. BASF is a huge German chemical company, but not long ago said it will be investing heavily in creating components for electric car batteries. It will be opening a plant in Ohio later this year.
- My phone’s taking care of it: Volvo has joined a research project called Electric Vehicle Intelligent Infra Structure (or ELVIIS), which would allow you to use a smart phone to find outlets, set the timing for your battery charge and pay directly to your utility bill.
- Volts all around: Late in 2010 General Electric made a big splash when it said it would buy tens of thousands of electric vehicles for its employees who use company cars. It’s taken a while, but Chevy Volts finally started showing up in GE parking lots this month. GE, by the way, makes electric car charging stations.
- Emission impossible: California last month passed new standards requiring that 15 percent of the cars sold in the state by 2025 have “zero emissions.” That would mean almost 1.4 million cars in the state would be electric or hybrid plug-in.
- With friends like these: Turns out that even the federal government didn’t do much to ratchet up electric vehicle sales last year. Less than 5 percent of the 55,000 vehicles it bought were hybrids or electric cars.
- Fanning flames: The Chevy Volt took a PR hit when reports came out last year that a battery in one of the vehicles caught fire three weeks after a side impact crash test. After an investigation, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concluded that electric vehicles posed no greater fire risk than gasoline cars, but not before plug-in naysayers jumped on the story.
- There’s always a catch: Researchers at the University of Tennessee released a study earlier this month concluding that electric vehicles create more pollution in China that gasoline cars. The reason is that the EVs charge from the electric grid, which in China, gets almost all of its power by burning coal, the dirtiest source of energy.
- Your battery’s most sincerely dead: The story came out last week about a Tesla roadster that was “bricked” or rendered inoperable after its battery was allowed to drain completely. Apparently the owner had put his car in storage without realizing that he still needed to charge it. Not only would the car not start, the doors wouldn’t even open. Tesla contends that the car wasn’t to blame because the owner hadn’t properly maintained his vehicle. The only fix, said the company, was for the owner to buy a new $30,000 battery. Ouch.
Video bonus: During a recent speech, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich dismissed the Chevy Volt as an “experimental car” and cracked that you can’t put a gun rack in the back of one. Au contraire, says Georgia Volt owner J. T. McDole.