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Today’s science column


Edward Willett

Today’s top automobile tech

During the Academy Awards telecast on Sunday, I noticed for the first time an ad from a major car company promoting its development of hydrogen-powered cars.

Those are probably still 10 years away, but other technological advances for automobiles are here now. In an article in Spectrum, published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, John Voelcker lists what he sees at the current top auto-tech developments.

Leading the way: hybrid electric vehicles, in which gasoline engines serve as generators for powerful electric motors that actually drive the wheels. The Toyota Prius has been on the road for six years, but we’re about to see many more hybrids.

Among them are a couple of SUVs from Lexus and Ford. The Ford Escape hybrid will be out this summer, making it the first mass-produced hybrid SUV in the world, and the first hybrid of any kind built in North America. Ford says the Escape hybrid’s acceleration will be equal to, or even better than, the standard V6-powered non-hybrid Escape–yet it will use only half as much fuel. More hybrids will be coming from Ford in 2005. (Ford is also experimenting with vehicles that use hydrogen, not in fuel cells, but in standard internal combustion engines.)

Over at General Motors, they’re making a hybrid Silverardo pickup. It’s a “mild hybrid,” which means it still uses the gasoline engine to drive the wheels, but shuts it off whenever the truck is idling, using an electric motor to power the accessories. GM says this improves fuel economy 10 to 12 percent in urban driving. The truck will also provide 110-V, 20-amp AC current via standard electric outlets for up to 32 hours wherever you need it.

Among the other new technologies in the works are LED headlights, currently being tested by Hyundai. LEDs (light-emitting diodes) are already used in taillights, high-mounted brake lights, turn-indicator lights, and to light dashboards and car interiors. But so far they haven’t made it into headlights. One reason is that they normally only produce a single colour. To get around that, the Hyundai system uses a blue LED behind a phosphorescent cover that emits yellow light when stimulated by blue light. Blue light and yellow light mixed together produce white light. Another problem is that it takes multiple LEDs, carefully aligned, to produce a bright enough beam.

So why bother? Because LEDs consume half the power of halogen bulbs, switch on faster, are cooler, last more than 10,000 hours, take up less space, and, since they don’t have filaments, are much tougher.

The role of computers in managing car systems continues to increase. In its new XC90 SUV, Volvo is using computer power to reduce the risk of roll-over, an inescapable by-product of every SUV’s higher-than-a-car’s centre of gravity. Volvo’s Roll Stability Control uses a gyroscopic sensor to monitor the vehicle’s body-roll rate. If the computer senses that the vehicle is close to flipping over, it adjusts brake torque at the necessary wheels to reduce the cornering forces. It can also reduce engine power. A separate system, meanwhile, decides whether or not to trigger the airbags.

New BMWs can actually override the driver’s steering if his or her actions in an emergency seem to be making things worse. If the computer in one of the 2004 5-series sedans or 6-series coupes thinks the driver’s steering action is about to cause the rear wheels to break free, it can override or soften that action. It can even turn the front wheels up to 2.5 degrees in the opposite direction to avert a skid.

A Honda invention called the LKAS (Lane-Keeping Assist System) takes that even further. Like other lane-departure systems available in Japan, used mostly on trucks and other commercial vehicles, it warns the driver that the vehicle is drifting toward the edge of the lane (which it identifies by processing images from a windshield camera) by first playing a rumble-strip noise through the speakers, then vibrating the wheel. If that still doesn’t work, the LKAS takes over the steering of the car momentarily to keep the vehicle in its lane. (No word on how well that would work in a Saskatchewan blizzard.)

All these new products take electricity, hence another new development: cars with 42-volt electric components. It seems the familiar 12-volt systems are reaching their limit…just like six-volt systems had when GM introduced the first 12-volt system in 1955.

Our love affair with automobiles shows no sign of fading. And why should it? With new technologies, cars are becoming more loveable all the time.

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