The Future

Making roadways safer

Larry Jewett - December 01, 2011 10:00 AM


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I was fortunate enough to attend the 18th World Congress on Intelligent Transport Systems. It’s a conference and trade show that centers on the idea of improving transportation of all means, including automobiles.

Speakers from around the world gave presentations on what is being done, how it’s being done and why it needs to be done that way. It’s an incredible simplistic summary of a definitely complex topic.

The trade show centered on showcasing the products that are making our roadways safer or better. Many of the displays were directed at cities, who have an interest in monitoring traffic flow to relieve congestion and other aspects of the overall grid. For the consumer, of which there were few at this show full of professionals, we learned about crash avoidance technology, drowsiness awareness programs and audio/video connectivity within the modern car and the connectivity from that car to outside entities.

You really had the idea that you had walked into a science fiction display when, in reality, it’s science fact.

Most of the attention was on electronics and, as such, there was a substantial influence from Asian developers and carmakers. Ford was on hand to display the rear inflatable seat belts that provided additional protection to children in the event of a crash. General Motors had several locations, including one on the main floor with a Volt on display. This location also featured a video of GM’s EN-V, a concept that was unveiled last year in Shanghai. The video gave a demonstration time that would allow us to see them in motion in the convention center parking lot. It piqued my curiosity.

I grew up thinking we would be driving cars like George Jetson did on his daily commute (Where is Rosie when I need her?). I saw the various jet packs in action and traveled to the future with Buck Rogers. I thought automobiles as we knew them (and roads for that matter) were on their last legs.

Well, cars and roadways and interstates are still here and probably will be for a few more lifetimes, but there are still interesting developments that could play a role. GM’s EN-V is not designed for everyone, but it is a nice fit for those who live and thrive in certain environments under certain conditions.

It’s meant to go into areas of high population density and “density” is the key word in the sentence. We think of New York as a place of high population and it’s true, but throw in density and it’s not even in the top 25. Compare the size and total amount of people with a place like Bombay or Shanghai and New York is only moderate. (Manhattan itself ranks very high in density, but not at the top of the scale.) These are places where people live without cars; some require a government issued license. It doesn’t mean the people don’t want them, so that’s where this comes in. It’s compact, operated by a lithium-ion battery and has the ability to move without anyone in it (autonomous). You can direct it to a parking spot and retrieve it with your cell phone. It has collision avoidance technology and the ability to platoon with similar vehicles, keeping a set distance apart.

It’s a concept, developed at the tech center in Warren, Michigan, where staff members are continuing to learn about the first generation and develop the EN-V to the point where it may actually reach a world market. The U.S. is not going to be the first place you see it, no matter how “cute” you think it may be.

It has a lot of positives going for it if basic transportation is your objective. It will never be a collectible and will likely never have value beyond practical applications. It does become a threat when governments start mandating elements like zero emissions or other aspects that older vehicles can’t achieve. It blows away the mpg (miles per gallon standard) simply because there are no gallons.

Hobbyists will never own one. A vast majority of us will never see one driving through the neighborhood, but it doesn’t change the fact that it could be real and could be a part of the transportation culture much like the Smart car and the Fiat 500.