Look ma, no hands! The 1997 Buick demonstration drive.
A big worry people have about electric cars is something called "range anxiety." We're used to cars that routinely travel 300 miles between fillups -- if a battery vehicle goes only 100 miles (sort of like a gas car with its fuel gauge permanently on "E") then are we going to be anxious all the time?
This problem was highlighted in a story I did recently about the Tesla Model S sedan. Tesla wants the car to have 300-mile range, but to do that requires an 85- to 95-kilowatt battery pack, and nobody's built one that large for automotive applications. Tesla is confident, but conventional wisdom says it will be large, heavy and expensive. That gives people, well, range anxiety.
But what if electric cars didn't need batteries at all? What if they could hook up to induction strips and inverters buried in the roadway and get their power that way? Liberation! It sounds like science fiction, but Korea's Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) is working on something exactly like that.
The Korean vehicles would be equipped with small batteries (with 50-mile range) to carry them between contact with the inverters. They really like it in Seoul, and have invested $2 million. The capital city has 9,000 buses, and would love to have them all wired for roadway electricity. KAIST is already running buses with the technology on its own campus, and is looking at a project on the resort island of Jeju.
An Israeli firm, Innowattech, with ties to the Israel Institute of Technology, is also looking at embedded electricity, but its model uses piezoelectric ceramic tiles and electricity released by the pressure of passing vehicle tires.
These approaches are designed to transmit power to vehicles, but they're not the fully automated driving envisioned by futurists (and General Motors with its Project PUMA partnership with Segway).
My colleague John DeCicco, a former automotive expert at the Environmental Defense Fund who now teaches at the University of Michigan, sees both embedded power and automated driving as a possible answer to our transportation problems.
"Twenty-first century people will be too good to drive," he said. "The future for personal mobility lies in being liberated from driving." In what he calls "post mobility," people will no longer see vehicles as replacements for the horse, but will be free to work and play in what will become a new personal space. Imagine what the porn industry could do with post mobility...
Here's what one such college-based experiment looks on the road (a bit clunky, but effective):
Since 90% of accidents are caused by human error, automated highways would not only ease congestion, but the carnage on highways (a steady 40,000 fatalities annually in the U.S.). In my book Breaking Gridlock (2001), I wrote, "The automated highway would only be possible on limited-access interstates. Drivers would proceed to an entrance ramp under their own power. Sensors in their car would then react to magnetic strips or other devices in the road surface and a computer would seize control. The driver would relax until his exit was reached."
A working model of an automated highway was a huge hit with the public at General Motors' 1939 World's Fair exhibit. GM tried out "hands-free" driving in the 1950s.
In 1997, The National Automated Highway System Consortium demonstrated what it could do on a blocked-off 7.5-mile stretch of I-15 in San Diego, California. A single file of eight driverless Buick LeSabres equipped with magnets, radar and video cameras in the rear-view mirrors followed visual cues along the road. The Buicks performed flawlessly, following serpentine tracks at speeds no hands-on driver could duplicate. But, with Honeywell studies showing that people had trouble making the switch from automated (on the interstate) to self-guided (on the rural routes) the program perished.
"Drivers who were...given an advisory to leave the automated lane exhibited a large number of collisions and lane incursions," the report says in the dry language of such documents. But that's not to say it couldn't work in the future. Liberating people from range anxiety is only the first step.
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