Nissan is looking to schools of fish to learn about how to help people reduce car crashes and traffic jams. The car company developed tiny robots that move in fish-like groups of up to 7 without bumping into each other. Each uses a laser range-finder to measure the distance between obstacles. The data is constantly shared between peers via radio, allowing the group to travel as a “shoal” without bumping into each other. The technique allows the cars to travel side-by-side or quickly switch direction as a group [BBC News]. The robot is dubbed Eporo, which stands for Episode O (Zero) Robot, meaning zero episodes, or accidents, and zero emissions.
This is Nissan’s second attempt at designing a crash avoidance system based on animal behavior. Their last attempt was the BR23C robot, modeled after the anti-collision behavior of bumblebees (check out a video of the bee based bot here). The Eporo, however, imitates three rules of fish movement: avoiding crashes, traveling side by side, and keeping close to other members of the school [CNET]. Nissan plans to unveil the Eporo at the Ceatec conference in Tokyo on October 6.
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In a move that may give electric cars a literal and figurative boost forward, five battery-recharging stations have been established on California’s Highway 101, which will give certain electric cars enough juice to drive all the way from San Francisco to Los Angeles with one less-than-one-hour stop to recharge. But there’s a catch: At the moment, only Tesla Roadsters can charge at the stations [The New York Times].
One of the biggest concerns regarding all-electric cars is the limited driving range provided by a fully charged battery. The Tesla Roadster, for example, can go about 250 miles before pooping out, inspiring the new term “range anxiety”–the fear of running out of juice far from your home recharging station. This project is meant to demonstrate that ubiquitous availability of fast-charging stations could make that point moot [The New York Times].
An unusual vehicle known as “the fastest kettle in the world” has busted the speed record for steam-powered cars, a record set at the beginning of the automobile age. The sleek car, named Inspiration, achieved an average speed of 139.8 miles per hour over the course of the two required runs at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
The Inspiration may sound like a crawling turtle compared to the jet-powered car that holds the world’s land speed record: Thrust SSC roared up to a speed of 763 miles per hour in 1997. But the Inspiration, a British-built car, can claim other bragging rights: The car’s boilers can produce steam at a rate fast enough to make 23 cups of tea a second–an enjoyably British fact [The Guardian].
The popular “cash-for-clunkers” program instated by the federal government is clearly giving a boost to struggling auto companies by convincing people to trade in their old gas-guzzlers for new, fuel-efficient vehicles: More than 240,000 Americans have traded in their clunkers so far, and the program has already burned through its first round of funding [Time]. But as Congress debates adding $2 billion to the program, some calculations show that it may have only negligible environmental benefits.
The program‘s rules are lenient enough to raise the ire of some environmentalists–new passenger cars must have a fuel efficiency rating of only 22 miles per gallon, and must be only 4 miles per gallon more efficient than the old car being traded in for a consumer to get the $3,500 credit. Still, people have embraced not just the letter but the spirit of the law. Consumers are snapping up fuel-sipping cars, led by the Ford Focus and followed by models from Honda and Toyota. The average mileage of the clunkers was 15.8; the new cars average 25.4 miles a gallon. That’s a 61% improvement—much more than the program’s rules required [The Wall Street Journal, blog].
Just two months ago, we reported that the federal government’s hydrogen car program was going down like the Hindenburg, as the Department of Energy announced that it would slash research funding. At the time, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said that after years of research, hydrogen-fueled cars were still years away from commercial viability. “We asked ourselves, ‘Is it likely in the next 10 or 15, 20 years that we will convert to a hydrogen car economy?’ The answer, we felt, was ‘no,’” Chu said in May [CNET].
But the program has proven harder to take down than the flammable zeppelin: Both houses of Congress seem inclined to restore funding. The House of Representatives voted on an energy package on Friday that includes $153 million for hydrogen and fuel cell research, and the parallel bill that will go before the Senate currently includes $190 million for the program.
The Department of Energy is handing out nearly $8 billion in loans today, and $465 million of the funds will go to Tesla Motors to produce its Model S electric sedan, the company’s first attempt at a mass-market car. The company already manufactures the Roadster, a high-performance electric sports car. Nissan and Ford Motor Company will receive the other loans; they’ll get $1.6 billion and $5.9 billion, respectively, to help produce fuel-efficient cars.
Nissan will use the funds updating a plant in Tennessee to produce the company’s upcoming electric sedan, and Ford’s loan will help expedite production of cars that go farther on less fuel. Tesla was perhaps the wild card in the funding equation because it is a small startup. The company has delivered slightly more than 500 Roadsters to customers, and the government loan will help pay for a Southern California manufacturing plant for the Model S sedan, due in 2011. A second plant in the Bay Area will make battery packs and electric drivetrains [The New York Times].
The newest attempt at a viable hydrogen-powered car is a tiny two-seater that should have early adopters tootling around the United Kingdom next year, according its manufacturer, a startup company named Riversimple. While momentum has recently shifted away from hydrogen cars and back towards electric vehicles, company executives say their Riversimple Urban Car meets the challenges posed by hydrogen fuel cell technology. Its makers claim that by starting from scratch to build a small, efficient car they can make it commercially viable more quickly than the major auto manufacturers experimenting with adapting more conventional cars to hydrogen [New Scientist].
A prototype of the light-weight city car was unveiled today in London. Riversimple executives drove up in the vehicle, which has a top speed of 50 miles an hour and can travel about 200 miles before refueling with liquid hydrogen. The car is packed with novel approaches to car design, but company founder Hugo Spowers says it’s the business model that really sets Riversimple apart. Users willl lease the car for an estimated $315 per month, a price that includes the cost of hydrogen fuel and any repairs. The company asserts that in the leasing model, the vested interest for the manufacturer is in producing long-lasting, fuel-efficient, high-quality products [BBC News]. The company will first try a small pilot program in one (to be determined) city in England, where a gas supply company will partner with Riversimple to build fuel stations.
The electric car under development at General Motors has been heralded as a potential savior of both the American car industry and the environment, but in aftermath of the automaker’s bankruptcy filing many questions are being raised about the Chevy Volt’s future. GM executives swear that the cutting edge vehicle is still on track to reach auto dealerships late next year: GM executive Jon Lauckner says that the bankruptcy filing “has no bearing on the Volt, quite frankly…. We’re not anticipating any changes. November 2010 remains our date with destiny” [Wired.com]. Lauckner added that engineers have already begun assembly of the pre-production Volts that will be used to test handling and durability, and for crash tests. But some outside experts wonder whether bankruptcy courts will permit the expensive Volt program to continue.
The Volt could revolutionize driving for many commuters, allowing them to cruise to and from work without ever stopping by a gas station to fill up. Different than traditional hybrid or plug-in hybrid vehicles, the Volt can go 40 miles on a single charge on the electric engine and then a smaller, gasoline-powered combustion engine generates electricity for the motor, acting as a range extender [GreenBiz.com]. GM has said that the Volt should be able to drive 400 miles on a full charge and a full tank. The car is expected to sell for around $40,000.
President Obama proposed new fuel efficiency standards today, establishing the first nationwide regulation for greenhouse gases [Washington Post]. The proposal is centered around the strictest plan ever for increasing fuel standards for passenger vehicles, sharply raising pressure on struggling automakers to make more efficient cars and trucks [Reuters]. Under the plan, cars would be required to reach an average efficiency of 35.5 miles per gallon (mpg) by 2016—four years earlier than the deadline imposed by the 2007 energy bill. Light trucks would be required to reach 30 mpg.
The new rules would pose a challenge for car manufacturers: the White House estimates the current average efficiency to be 25 mpg. The new standards would resolve the spat between California and auto manufacturers over implementing the state’s emissions regulations [ClimateWire]. In return for the strict national rules, California will drop its plans to impose strict state-wide standards for fuel efficiency, which had been bitterly resisted by both carmakers and President George Bush. In practice California’s rules tend to override milder national regulations, as it is cheaper to follow them than to produce different vehicles [The Economist].
The dream of hydrogen fuel cell cars has just been put back in the garage. U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced yesterday that his department is cutting all funding for hydrogen car research, saying that it won’t be a feasible technology anytime soon. “We asked ourselves, ‘Is it likely in the next 10 or 15, 20 years that we will covert to a hydrogen car economy?’ The answer, we felt, was ‘no,’” Chu said [CNET]. While innovative new cars are a high priority, Chu declared that his department will focus on efforts that may pay off sooner, like plug-in electric cars.
Cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells have been a staple of clean energy dreams, as they’d produce only a trickle of water as a waste product, instead of sooty exhaust and carbon dioxide gas. The retreat from cars powered by fuel cells counters Mr. Bush’s prediction in 2003 that “the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen, and pollution-free.” The Energy Department will continue to pay for research into stationary fuel cells, which Dr. Chu said could be used like batteries on the power grid and do not require compact storage of hydrogen [The New York Times].