Cars, lorries, batteries computers and satellites.

Volvo car train

A convoy of cars. Each car was driving at 52 miles per hour just 6 metres from the car in front. It was perfectly safe because the cars sensed each others movements. Picture courtesy of the BBC. BBC Courtesy of my licence fee ūüôā

It is easy to dwell on the negative. But having recovered from my ill-advised journey into central London the other week, I have to admit that things are changing on the roads. And generally for the better. Consider these examples.

  • My friend John has traded in his Jaguar (25 miles per gallon: 11.3 litres per 100 kilometres) for a Ford Fiesta¬†(70 miles per gallon: 4.0 litres per 100 kilometres). The savings he makes each month will more or less pay for the car. The only things which have changed are that (a) less carbon dioxide is emitted as he travels to and from work and (b) he has a better quality radio to listen to.
  • The¬†BBC story of Volvo’s road convey¬†describes¬†a group of cars which automatically synchronise their motions to travel at optimum speed on a motorway. Technology such as this could lower fuel consumption and improve congestion and allow you to read a book while driving! What could possibly go wrong?
  • Electric cars are now useable.¬†They are still expensive, but given the general evolution of the price of technologically novel products, it is not unreasonable to expect that to change. As an example consider the new Vauxhall Ampera, a mixed petrol engine and electric vehicle. If you travel less than around 35 miles each day, then it will work entirely electrically. If you travel further – up to 300 miles – a petrol engine operating at its peak efficiency will generate electricity for the motor. It gets a pretty good review even from the Register.

And we are a long way from the limits of thermodynamic efficiency. The Ampera has a 111 kW motor. For a car weighing 1 tonne, an 11 kW motor  Рone tenth the power of the Ampera Рwould accelerate to 30 m.p.h in a perfectly acceptable 8 seconds and would reach 50 m.p.h after 30 seconds.

I mention these stories merely to point out that because fuel prices are high, innovation is now possible in the formerly closed sphere of road transport. Developments in batteries, computer vision, and satellite technology have made progress possible in ways which were barely conceivable even 10 years ago. In another 10 years, things will have changed again: who knows how. But things are changing.


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