Cars may soon go airborne‚ drive themselves

THE sky is no longer the limit for the global motor industry. Recent demonstrations of flying-car prototypes have highlighted once again the extraordinary strides being made in automotive mobility.

Several companies around the world have claimed breakthroughs. Terrafugia‚ in the US‚ says it hopes to start selling vertical take-off cars next year. Its smaller models — with four wheels‚ wings that fold up and room for two passengers — fit in home garages. Powered by ordinary fuel‚ they are claimed to have a flight range of up to 800km.

Those who think the idea of flying cars won’t take off (pun intended) should look back a few years‚ to when motorists rebelled against the idea of technology allowing cars to override driver decisions.

Since then‚ antilock brakes‚ automatic parking and systems that take over the steering and braking if you stray out of your lane or get too close to the vehicle in front‚ are among many innovations that have reduced the importance of the driver.

In recent months‚ two companies have announced they are close to perfecting the self-drive car that will get itself from A to B without any driver involvement beyond punching in the destination.

A PwC report forecasts that electronics will account for at least 50% of cars’ total cost by 2030. In other words‚ onboard computing equipment will be worth more than chassis‚ wheels‚ tyres‚ engine‚ seats and bodywork combined.

The international business consultancy is one of two‚ with KPMG the other‚ to recently release reports on the future of the global motor industry.

Rick Hanna‚ head of PwC’s global automotive business‚ says the rush to increase cars’ technology content is not driven exclusively by driving needs. Internet-savvy younger generations want to be connected at all times‚ while business people expect their vehicle to act as a mobile office.

“The car is quickly becoming a computer on wheels‚” he says.

In the US‚ a recent survey showed that 47% of respondents were more interested in how their smartphones connected with the car‚ than they were in engine power‚ acceleration‚ driveability and other traditional priorities.

As a result‚ companies like Microsoft and Google are showing a keen interest in the motor industry. Japanese technology giant Panasonic is reportedly considering a $1bn investment in a lithium ion battery plant planned by Tesla‚ a US manufacturer of electric cars. Motor companies‚ however‚ are divided about the degree of change with which consumers can cope. Nissan and Mercedes-Benz have both revealed plans to build self-drive cars by 2020. Using artificial intelligence‚ monitor cameras‚ laser sensors and other forms of digital technology‚ the cars recognise road signs‚ stop and start where appropriate‚ respond to the movement of other vehicles and even overtake. Engineers say they are also close to enabling cars to “talk” to each other‚ to pass on information about traffic delays and accidents‚ so other vehicles can find alternative routes.

A survey of global automotive executives by KPMG‚ however‚ finds that 40% believe it will take at least 20 years before self-drive cars gain market acceptance‚ and 30% that they will never succeed.

History shows consumers are slow to embrace new technologies. The acceptance of hybrid (a mixture of electric and petrol power) and pure electric vehicles has been steady but slow in most markets. This is no doubt partly behind the KPMG finding that industry executives plan to place more emphasis on improving the traditional internal combustion engine in the next few years‚ rather than battery-powered technologies.

Executives are clearly concerned that “the positive outlook for e-mobility has been tempered somewhat by a lack of breakthroughs”. But it is also influenced by once-unimaginable improvements in internal combustion engine efficiency. Engines are becoming smaller without compromising power — cars in this year’s Formula One world championship will use 1.6l turbocharged engines – but also cleaner. Many modern internal combustion engines are more fuel-efficient and emit fewer exhaust pollutants than hybrids.

PwC takes more a more bullish view on hybrid and pure-electric vehicles‚ suggesting they could account for up to 40% of new-car sales in Europe‚ North America and Japan by 2025. Mr Hanna‚ though‚ thinks the dominance of internal combustion engines will continue for at least another 20-30 years.

Intriguingly‚ says KPMG‚ China seems to be showing most interest in electric vehicles as it battles to reduce pollution in its rapidly expanding cities. Beijing is regularly caked in impenetrable industrial and exhaust smog.

Late last year the Chinese government announced significant subsidies for people buying electric or hydrogen fuel-cell cars‚ and it is encouraging its motor industry to invest in these technologies. “Such moves suggest that China is aiming for pre-eminence in the more open‚ pre-electric sector (where no car maker has managed to achieve dominance)‚ rather than take on firms such as Toyota‚ which have attained a clear lead in hybrids‚” says the KPMG report.

“The focus appears to be on attaining technical leadership.”

Long-term‚ there is general acceptance that new technologies will have the final say‚ once engineers perfect fuel-cell science and create electric engines that don’t have to be recharged every 100km. One company claims to be close to developing an engine that can power a car for 800km. That would be a powerful antidote to the “range anxiety” that deters many people from going electric.

The shift will also be driven by changing social circumstances. The world’s urban population is forecast to grow by 72% by 2050. At least 70% of people will live in cities — defined as conurbations of at least 300‚000 people.

By 2025‚ 30 major cities will be home to over 500-million people. Tokyo is expected to have a population of 37.1-million‚ Delhi 28.6-million‚ Mumbai 25.8-million‚ São Paulo 21.7-million‚ Dhaka 20.9-million‚ Mexico City 20.7-million and New York 20.6-million.

Already it has been calculated that in São Paulo‚ one of the world’s most gridlocked cities‚ Brazilian commuters spend the equivalent of 27 days stuck in traffic each year.

These are issues automotive engineers can’t ignore. Can a city of 37-million people find parking for 20-million cars? Future design will have to consider urban planning‚ ecology and sociological issues.

Some overcrowded Asian cities already limit the days motorists may use their cars. PwC says more centres will follow suit. Car-sharing will become commonplace. A number of western centres run subscription schemes that allow members to pick up and drop off cars on the street as they need them. Vehicles are switched on and off by digital scanners.

KPMG international research suggests many families with more than one vehicle would be willing to give up the second one as long as an alternative were ready within 15 minutes. They just want mobility.

KPMG says: “The so-called ‘millennial’ generation of young adults appears less interested in traditional purchases such as houses and cars (preferring alternatives such as mobile devices and clothes)‚ and the challenge for the main car brands is to come up with a new way to meet their needs.” – David Furlonger
© BDlive 2014


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