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The car conundrum

November 1, 2002 12:00 AM
By Paul Burall in Challenge

The car is the bete noire of many environmentalists. And for good reason. Road transport already accounts for more than a fifth of all the UK's climate change emissions and is a major source of local pollution. Road accidents kill and injure large numbers of people - more than 3,000 killed in the UK and 900,000 world wide every year. And our car-reliant society increasingly excludes the quarter of the population with no access to a car.

Yet all efforts to wean people away from the car seem to fail, as John Prescott has discovered. Planners can site housing near to public transport and employment but the occupiers then choose to work somewhere miles away. People even insist on visiting friends and relatives, shops and other attractions in places which even the most extensive public transport system cannot easily reach.

The problem is that the disbenefits of the car are largely communal while the benefits are personal. The car gives freedom: we can travel where we want to go at a time of our own choosing in the privacy of our own space. These privileges are taken so much for granted that attacking them - whether through high fuel prices, access restriction,,;, or other disincentives - is seen by many as an attack on our fundamental rights.

But the battle to tame the car may not be lost. For, while changing people's behaviour may be well nigh impossible, changing the car itself is becoming a real option, Indeed, the technological impetus towards the almost benign car has already started.

We are already seeing a stepchange in car performance, Today's cars are ten times cleaner in local pollution terms than those manufactured a decade ago. Climate change emissions from the best of today's cars are coming down substantially too: Micro Compact Car's diesel Smart car and the petrol Honda Insight both deliver 83 mpg, the former by reducing size and weight and the latter, more significantly, by using a hybrid power system and regenerative braking. There seems little doubt that the 100mpg mid-range car could become standard in the near future, making feasible a 60 per cent reduction in climate change emissions.

Fuels are changing too. Dimethyl ether derived from natural gas is probably the best currently available, with very low pollutants and producing only half of petrol's 'wellto-wheel' greenhouse gas emissions. Bioethanol made from sugar beet or cereals is being added to petrol in a 10/90 mixture with no engine adjustment in variety of countries: if processing plants were set up here, car emissions could be cut by 3 million tonnes of CO 2 a year, 5 per cent of the total for road transport; this would require no more subsidy than is currently provided for the more-damaging LPG.

But these are just partial and interim solutions, for we are now on the verge of the big breakthrough, the genuine zero-emission fuel. In the last decade, hydrogen has moved from the lunatic fringe to the mainstream, with major oil and car companies pouring resources into developing hydrogen-powered engines and vehicles. BMW expects half of all its new cars to be using hydrogen by 2020; Ford is spending

$1billion over four years on the technology; Honda and Toyota expect to have hydrogen technology cars on the market within two years.

These vehicles will use on-board fuel cells that convert hydrogen gas into electricity by passing hydrogen over a platinum catalyst, water being the only byproduct. Initially, hydrogen is likely to be produced by converting gasoline on-board the car; the next stage could be the development of hydrogen filling stations, probably creating hydrogen on site from mains gas. True zero-emission vehicles will have to wait until hydrogen can be produced economically from renewable energy, although a viable alternative may to power fuel cells with bioethanol or other biofuels.

There is another major technological revolution in the offing, one that combines the potential of huge advantages with a direct challenge to the way we view the car. This revolution depends on bringing together the power of modem computers, sensors, and communications in a way that could fully automate the car, eliminating altogether the human factor in driving. Not only could this dramatically reduce the death and injury toll on the roads, but it could provide access to the car for people currently unable to drive for reasons of age or disability.

If this sounds like fantasy, consider the following:

Just as important in leading to the development of safe automated driving systems are the computer programs now being developed to forecast aberrant happenings that may require avoiding action.

These range from driver impairment monitoring technology developed by the Transport Research Laboratory to assess any deterioration in driver performance due to fatigue and/or alcohol to a system being developed by Nissan and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that learns an individual's driving pattern and predicts the next 12 seconds of likely actions.

Outside the motor industry, researchers at the Universities of Reading and Leeds have developed prototype CCTV technology that can differentiate atypical behaviour from the normal, in order, for example, to spot a car thief or shoplifter even before they have committed a crime. Another system can identify potential suicides on a train platform. It will not be long before these systems can be combined to provide automatic driving systems that never get lost, that can detect and avoid hazards more quickly than a human driver, and that are immune to alcohol, drowsiness, or distraction.

There are three obstacles to be overcome on the way to eliminating the driver from our roads.

The first - cost - may be the easiest to overcome, partly because the investment is primarily in equipment in individual cars rather than huge public infrastructure, and partly because this kind of equipment and software, once developed, is relatively cheap to mass-produce.

The second is the problem of standardisation. While automated driving systems could differ from car to car, they would be both cheaper and possibly safer if at least some components are standard including a system by which cars in the same vicinity can communicate with each other. Type approval will be required for any system, and this may provide the route to standardisation.

But, of course, the biggest obstacle is the human one. Will people trust their lives to an automated system? Can the macho drivers and those who simply enjoy driving be persuaded to give up their pleasure?

My guess is that safety and road capacity realities will eventually force the issue. From the safety point of view, once automated systems are proven to be safer by a factor of, say, ten or more than human-driven vehicles, then the pressure to automate will become irresistible.