Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Future of the car

There have been many efforts to innovate automobile design funded by the NHTSA, including the work of the NavLab group at Carnegie Mellon University. Recent efforts include the highly publicized DARPA Grand Challenge race.

A picture of the Lexus LF-A concept car at the 2006
Greater Los Angeles Auto Show

Relatively high transportation fuel prices have not seriously reduced car usage but do make it more expensive.One environmental benefit of high fuel prices is that it is an incentive for the production of more efficient (and hence less polluting) car designs and the development of alternative fuels. At the beginning of 2006, 1 liter of gasoline cost approximately $0.60 USD in the United States and in Germany and other European countries nearly $1.80 USD. With fuel prices at these levels there is a strong incentive for consumers to purchase lighter, smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, Greenpeace or to simply not drive. These changes are resisted by those with an interest in maintaining the massive economy of car culture. Individual mobility is highly prized in dominant societies so the demand for automobiles is still strong. Alternative individual modes of transport, such as Personal rapid transit, cycling, walking, skating, and organised cargo movement, could serve as an alternative to automobiles if they prove to be socially accepted.

Electric cars operate a complex drivetrain and transmission would not be needed. However, despite this the electric car is held back by battery technology - a cell with comparable energy density to a tank of liquid fuel is a long way off, and there is no infrastructure in place to support it. A more practical approach may be to use a smaller internal combustion (IC) engine to drive a generator- this approach can be much more efficient since the IC engine can be run at a single speed, use cheaper fuel such as diesel, and drop the heavy, power wasting drivetrain. Such an approach has worked very well for railway locomotives, but so far has not been scaled down for car use.