Monthly Archives: September 2012

Driverless Cars May Soon Haunt California Roads

This week California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill allowing driverless cars, like the ones currently being tested by Google, to be operated on all California roadways. The caveat is that someone, a licensed driver no less, will still need to be seated behind. a functioning steering wheel, ready, willing and able to take control of the vehicle at any time in case the computer has a meltdown.

Despite these caveats California has now become the third state, and by far the largest state, to allow autonomous vehicles to operate on their roadways. Also, because these cars are still being tested and legislators are manufacturers are still trying to understand how to integrate the technology needed in a streamlined sort of way that meets their specific engineering criteria, it will likely be at least five years, if not much longer until these cars start showing up in showrooms.

And how much will they really affect the way we get around now? The bill clearly states that a licensed driver must be seated behind the wheel at all times, so it’s not as if these cars will help blind people get around (as had been hoped) or help elderly seniors who have surrendered their license. No, these vehicles will likely only help the very wealthy multi-taskers in our society who want to be able to conduct business during their daily commute, or allow the laziest among us to watch a movie while they ‘drive’ around town.

Granted, once these vehicles prove they are safe and reliable it seems likely the regulations limiting their use may be lifted, but since it will be almost a decade until we see any autonomous cars on the road, and some real world testing will need to be done for several years before legislators take any action, it seems as if the 21st century will be mostly over before driverless cars really start making a difference in our lives.

The Future Of Racing Is Likely ‘Lectric

A new racing series is heading for a city near you–a city which is looking toward the future and trying to embrace electric powered vehicles instead of their fossil-fuel powered ancestors. Called the Formula E series, the new racing league features only electric powered vehicles and is set to debut in 2014.

They are calling it the Electric Grand Prix.

It has been demonstrated repeatedly that electric powered vehicles have much more torque and a much faster acceleration off the starting line than fossil fuel powered vehicles. That means in the short run they can blow a petrol powered vehicle off the race track without blinking. The question then becomes whether or not they can be manufactured in such a way as to allow them to keep up that mind numbing speed and torque for a long distance race.

Actually, forget the race track, this new speed series will take place on city streets, specifically those cities which are embracing electric vehicles.

Formula E chief executive Alejandro Agag believes the future of the automotive industry, particularly in cities, is electric. He hopes the auto race will help promote the wider use of electric cars.

Agag wants the Formula E series to take place in “the heart” of the world’s leading towns. It will be showcased in “cities committed to clean mobility and sustainability,” Agag told CNN’s Quest Means Business. “We think we can be of help to those cities that are promoting the use of the electric car, by making it more popular.”

Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro has already signed up to host the first race in 2014. From there race organizers are hoping to spread to other cities around the world. Agag said cities in Asia and Europe has expressed interest and he hopes to bring the race to North America sooner or later.

Push Button Start Poses Big Problem

With the advent of the electric car, or rather the resurgence of the electric car, consumers have had to relearn some of the skills they once thought they had mastered when it comes to operating a car. Engineers too have had to struggle with ideas that differ radically between fossil fuel powered vehicles and electric, or even hybrid electric vehicles.

One of the most common problems regards the electric start button these new automobiles come equipped with.

These new types of cars are very quiet, especially if their motor automatically stops running to conserve fuel (which is a common attribute of these new types of vehicles.) Drivers are often unaware that although the motor is not running the vehicle is still technically ‘turned on’ and consuming fuel either as electricity or petrol.

All push-button start vehicles have some type of audible alert system which warns the driver, either with a special tone inside the car, or in the case of the Chevy Volt, a beeping horn, that the vehicle is still running. However, some safety advocates say the audible tones are not enough to adequately warn drivers, and the system itself is flawed.

The problem has become prevalent enough that the NHTSA is now considering setting safety standards for keyless entry systems and push button starters. So far no new standard has been determined. Conversations and investigations are just now taking place and some people, manufacturers mostly, are claiming there isn’t even a problem for anyone to worry about.

While manufacturers and safety advocates argue over the relevance of a more severe warning system, engineers struggle with ways of making these types of systems more effective and less risky for drivers who simply might not be paying close attention to the status of their vehicle.

Pope Goes Electric!

If you are a ‘Pope Watcher’ then no doubt you have noticed his fancy new automobile. What you might not realize is his new ‘Pope Mobile’ is an all-electric Renault. Specifically, Pope Benedict XVI now has two new electric cars, both of them based on the Kangoo Maxi Z.E, an electric version of the Kangoo delivery van currently in use across Europe.

Pope Benedict has made no secret of his interest in renewable energy. Not so long ago he had solar panels installed on the roof of the Vatican. He has repeatedly said (through Vatican spokespeople) that he was eager to add electric cars to his line of armored vehicles.

And Renault has delivered in style.

The first of the Pope’s new vehicles is painted in a saintly shade of white, with the Papal coat of arms emblazoned across the doors. The car will be used when the Pope is traveling at his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo.

The second will be used by the Corps of Gendarmerie Corps in Vatican City, the Pope’s own personal police force, and is painted blue with a yellow and white stripe down the side. Each has 60 horsepower, and a range of just over 100 miles.

The only downside to the new electric ‘Popemobile’ is the limited range and speed caused by the additional weight of the body armor required for vehicles in which His Holiness rides. Proponents of renewable energy and electric vehicle in particular see this as a boon for their industry. For millions of people (Catholics) around the world and endorsement from the Pope is a feather in anyone’s cap.

U.S. Sets New High For Fuel Efficiency

President Barack Obama this week took the next big step when it comes to fuel efficiency standards by increasing the U.S. average for cars and light trucks to 54.5 mpg by 2025.

The move is being touted by both environmentalists, who see it as a way to decrease greenhouse gas emissions and pursue alternative fuel sources, and those who are interested in freeing the U.S. from dependence on foreign oil.

“These fuel standards represent the single most important step we’ve ever taken to reduce our dependence on foreign oil,” President Barack Obama said in a statement.

However, some are saying the move will cripple the U.S. infrastructure and is a direct attack on personal liberties, not to mention safety, because increased fuel efficiency will only be available in much smaller cars.

Previously, the standard was to be increased to 35.5 mpg by 2016, but the Obama administration felt the nation could do better. They also say the new standard will not only increase fuel efficiency and lower greenhouse gases, it will also spur innovation as automakers seek to bridge the divide between what the consumer wants and what the government wants them to provide.

The new fuel efficiency standards will save consumers $1.7 trillion in gasoline costs and reduce U.S. oil consumption by 12 billion barrels over the period, according to the White House.

And automakers say they are up to the task.

The fact is the United States is lagging behind most other industrialized nations when it comes to fuel efficiency. This is especially significant that for most of the 20th century the U.S. was a leader in innovation and technology. What is required now is a massive national effort to turn around manufacturing and technology industries and the Obama administration seems to be pursuing this.

Whether or not the automobile industry will be able to meet this new demand, and whether or not subsequent administrations will hold them to these new standards remains to be seen, but for now at least, it appears they are on the right track.