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Science and Technology

Robot drivers and the future of city cars

Sue Baker
What's the future of the motoring experience when cars are driving themselves?

Space is running out in our cities. Every day in London, Birmingham or any other major British conurbation, the evidence is there: queues of cars, nose-to-tail, filling the road space. Big Ben, the Shard and the Bullring tower above congested streets and frustrated drivers. It’s now 127 years since the car was invented and they are evolving at a faster rate than ever. But the shift to urbanisation is also gathering pace. So what does all this mean for the future of motoring?

It’s little wonder that many of Generation Y, known to marketers as millennials, seem less engaged with motoring than their baby-boomer parents. Born since the mid-1980s, these tech-savvy 20-somethings, newly in the workforce and saddled with student debt, seem less inclined to splash cash on cars than their forebears. That teenage milestone, learning to drive, has loomed a little less large for them than previous generations.

It’s not just growing congestion that has influenced rapid change in the motor industry; increasing environmental concern and an acute awareness that fossil fuels are finite are other major contributing factors. At the turn of the millennium a typical family car had an overall fuel consumption of not much more than 30 miles per gallon. In 2005, the average was 35 mpg, and the Global Fuel Economy Initiative set a target of improving this to 60 mpg by 2030. At the same time, cars’ output of carbon dioxide emissions ‒ one of the greenhouse gases blamed for affecting climate change ‒ needs to be reduced.

These goals have brought about a sizeable shift in motor-industry thinking over the past eight years. Cars are increasingly lighter in weight, more aerodynamically streamlined, have smaller engines and are far more fuel-efficient than they used to be. It’s now by no means unusual for small or medium-sized family cars to have average fuel consumption figures of 70 mpg or more. In last year’s MPG Marathon, an annual fuel-economy contest, the winning Ford Fiesta ECOnetic achieved a phenomenal 108 mpg.

Battery breakthrough

In the drive to cut consumption and fuel emissions, electric cars are proliferating, with a growing list of mass-market brands producing them in addition to diesel and petrol models. However, current battery technology has induced ‘range anxiety’ (defined as a fear of getting stranded should the battery run down) in many drivers who might otherwise consider them. Sales are relatively stagnant, despite government incentives ‒ a £5,000 purchase grant ‒ to encourage buyers to embrace this alternative.

However, improved charging techniques and developments in battery technology will gradually encourage more of us to consider plugging in to electric. Meanwhile, hybrid cars, which combine either a conventional petrol or diesel engine with an electric motor and battery pack, are growing in popularity. In a development pioneered by Peugeot-Citroën, some have the front wheels driven by the engine and the rear wheels propelled electrically to create an innovative form of four-wheel drive.

The new roadside assistance

The past decade has also seen rapid growth in electronic aids to improve car safety in urban congestion and assist the driver; famously, the least reliable component in a car is ‘the nut holding the steering wheel’. High-tech gadgetry that first appeared in very expensive cars has been steadily percolating down through the automotive market, so now there are plenty of relatively modest family cars with all kinds of sophisticated electronic ‘keep you safe’ wizardry. The camera or radar-based kit warns you if you stray out of your lane, alerts you to an unseen hazard in the car’s blind spot, guides you when you reverse, and even checks the sideways view as you nose out of a junction. Cameras built into the grille will spot something coming a few vital feet before you do.

‘City brake’ and collision-prevention assist systems intervene to apply the brakes and pre-tension safety measures if you fail to react quickly enough to an oncoming hazard, such as not noticing that the car in front of you has suddenly stopped. Even more Big Brother-ish is auto parking, in which the car makes use of a combination of sensors and cameras to identify and manoeuvre into a suitable parking space. Volkswagen had it first; now it’s spreading fast, and certainly takes the sting out of city-centre parking.

Relax, it’s a self-drive

The forthcoming generation of robocars use electronic systems, cameras, radar and laser sensors to measure distances between themselves and other traffic and to operate the brakes, propulsion and steering, with no need for human intervention. Trials are already under way; a specially adapted Volvo V60 has been tested on the road in London, and an electric Nissan Leaf in Oxford. Google’s driverless cars ‒ adapted Toyota Prius models ‒ have been tested successfully over 100,000 miles. GPS sat nav and electronic equipment will increasingly allow cars to communicate with each other, letting them move about a city and negotiate junctions and other hazards without (in theory) crashing into one another or anything else. It’s a Brave New World model that is almost here.

For those of us who grew up in the thrall of the motor car, there might be something rather depressing about all of this. The Mrs Toad in us may still be itching to grip a steering wheel, press a throttle pedal and enjoy the tactile and aural sensation of open-road driving; a whisper-quiet, self-driving electric city runabout doesn’t exactly cut it. But cities are struggling to cope with car congestion, and new solutions have to be found. One novel approach is Car2Go, a car-sharing service run by Daimler and Europcar, using electric two-seater Smart cars that can be booked via an app starting at 35 pence per minute unit. Other alternatives include Lyft and Sidecar, US-based services which use an app to match up people needing a lift with drivers of private cars. It’s a bit like digital hitchiking.

So will there still be a place for pure driver enjoyment in this automotive future, or is the fun of being behind the wheel inevitably doomed when everything is increasingly automated and digital? Well, driving in an overcrowded city at a snail’s pace is never much fun anyway, so technology that makes it safer and less stressful should surely be welcomed. That will still leave scope for some full-throttle pleasure on the open road in between cities. In our lifetimes, anyway.

The Futuristic Five

BMW i3

First seen as a concept city car two years ago and on sale from November 2013, the BMW i3 will be priced at around £25,000. It is very urban-friendly, with a turning circle nearly as tight as that of an iconic London black cab.

Renault Twin’Z

Renault already produces a range of electric cars, and is now pushing ahead with an urban city concept car called the Twin’Z, an electric supermini just 3.6 metres long, with side doors that open in opposing directions for easier access.

Toyota Yaris Hybrid-R

At this autumn’s Frankfurt Motor Show Toyota unveiled its city-size petrol-electric Yaris Hybrid-R concept. Looking ahead, the Japanese firm is promising to launch a hydrogen-fuelled Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle (FCHV) by 2015.

Mitsubishi CA-MiEV

As long ago as the 1960s Mitsubishi started researching ‘electro-mobility’, and it has just revealed this ultra-light, arrow-shaped electric concept car to showcase technologies for a city car of the future.

Nissan Autonomous Drive

Nissan has pledged to be ready to go into production with commercially viable Autonomous Drive vehicles by 2020, and is working with top universities, including MIT, Stanford and Oxford to perfect self-driving electric cars.

Sue is that rare breed, a female motoring journalist. Mad about cars since childhood, she was a Top Gear presenter before Clarkson, and has swum in the Fleet Street piranha pond. She’s on Twitter @carscribe. Image Credit: Steven Straiton

The Mrs Toad in us may still be itching to grip a steering wheel, press a throttle pedal and enjoy the tactile and aural sensation of open-road driving; a whisper-quiet, self-driving electric city runabout doesn’t exactly cut it
50%

The increase in electric car sales in the UK between October 2013 and 2014 (source: SMMT)

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