Flying on the Ground

A new aerodynamic vehicle about to be introduced into the marketplace could change the face of cars as we know them. The new Aptera Typ-1 is an advanced vehicle that owes more than a little to aeronautic technology. The vehicle is designed to marry advanced aerodynamics with lightweight composite technology, creating a powerful, yet extremely safe, vehicle that is a joy to drive even for the most performance-minded individuals.

The Aptera Typ-1 will be available in all-electric and hybrid gasoline-electric models for less than $30,000. The electric version slated for delivery in 2008 with the hybrid model to follow. The all-electric model is said to have a range of 120 miles. In testing by the company, the plug-in series hybrid has achieved more than 300 miles per gallon, which translates to a range of more than 600 miles. Despite their lightweight appearance, both models are loaded with safety features.

"Unveiling the Aptera Typ-1 represents a pivotal point in automotive history as we mark the transition from research and development to manufacturing the most energy-efficient vehicle with a price tag to fit almost any budget," said co-founder and CEO Steve Fambro.

Perhaps we can excuse Fambro's hyperbole. It might not be a landmark in automotive history, but it certainly is a different approach to the automobile.  Through extensive fluid dynamics modeling and materials engineering, the Aptera team has created what it says is the most efficient, lowest-drag shape that can surround two occupants side-by-side. And at the same time it has made safety a priority in the design. Additionally, the car features three wheels, making it technically a motorcycle and eligible for most carpool lanes, even with just the driver aboard. 

The car has "two-plus-one" seating, offering ample room for driver and passenger while an infant seat (for newborns to children up to age three) can be located in the middle behind them. Despite the vehicle's compact dimensions, storage room is generous with enough space to fit 15 bags of groceries, two full-size golf club bags or even a couple of seven-foot surfboards as long as the infant seat is removed. (We're not sure what to do if your infant wants to surf.)  The vehicle is loaded with safety features. Among them are a front crumple zone, a front end that re-directs crash energy in a frontal impact, steel and composite side and rollover protection as well as driver and passenger side airbags.

The Aptera Typ-1 is available in two models. The all-electric model is powered exclusively with batteries and will get its driver around town for approximately 120 miles depending on driving conditions, load and speed. At night, you can simply plug the Aptera into any standard 110-volt outlet, and in just a few hours the vehicle will be fully charged and ready for another 120 miles.

The plug-in hybrid version of the vehicle might be the more practical of the two. It is powered by an electric drivetrain, but is also assisted by a fuel-efficient gasoline-powered generator, which stretches the range considerably. In typical driving, the hybrid Aptera may achieve over 300 miles per gallon, a range far beyond any other passenger vehicle available today. This drive system is similar to the electrically driven system proposed for the new Chevrolet Volt, which is now being shown in concept car form.

The most interesting thing about the Aptera Typ-1 is that it offers features that typically are not found on any vehicle, not even an advanced hybrid or all-electric model. Solar cells embedded under the roof operate an always-on climate control system, ensuring the interior never gets too hot or too cold. The dashboard display and infotainment system is controlled by an in-vehicle computer, which also controls the "Eyes Forward" vision system. By replacing the side mirrors with embedded cameras that display a 180-degree rear view in the front of the instrument panel, the system gives the driver complete situational awareness without taking his or her eyes off of the road.

Other standard features include driver and passenger side airbags, energy-absorbing and impact-deflecting passenger safety cell, and advanced drive computer with GPS navigation, CD/MP3/DVD player and XM satellite radio.  Among other features is a large rear-view camera and complete vehicle diagnostic system, LED interior and exterior lighting for maximum energy efficiency and an RFID (Radio Frequency ID) -- an automatic identification method so a driver never has to pull out their keys to enter or start their Aptera. The final bit of technical trickery is a USB port for powering a laptop or charging an MP3 player and other mobile devices.

For those who are intrigued by this new automotive device, fully refundable reservation deposits of $500 for the purchase of the vehicle are now being accepted from California residents on the Aptera Web site. The company says it will initially deliver vehicles in Southern California, then in Northern California and finally to other regions nationwide.

How Good Is Traffic Information?

It's happened to us all -- you're stuck in traffic when the traffic reporter told you everything was clear. "What's going on?" you ask yourself. "I thought my new real-time traffic system would prevent this kind of thing." It seems the old computer saying -- garbage in, garbage out -- applies to the new real-time traffic systems.

Now that the novelty of getting traffic information via a cell phone, computer, in-car device or handheld unit has become a given, it is time to ask the question just how good is the data that consumers are getting. One company that is raising that question is TrafficGauge, which has invested heavily in its own traffic aggregation server technology. The server incorporates real-time data from Departments of Transportation (DOTs) and private traffic information vendors.

Even then there can be problems, the company admits. The difficulties associated with traffic data feeds are threefold: each data feed is uniquely formatted, can be error-prone and has challenges with the collection mechanisms. This all makes the server technology complex. The aggregation server typically applies numerous algorithms to enhance or discard the vast amount of potentially erroneous data that is used to create the traffic map delivered to end-users.

TrafficGauge says its technology is the best in the industry because it has the largest numbers of paying subscribers who provide feedback via the 800-telephone number on the TrafficGauge handheld product. No other traffic aggregation company has 'real' customers who help by providing feedback that's used to learn, tune, and enhance server technology. The company claims the mobile market is much more demanding than the Web-based market, given that erroneous traffic information can be disproved in real-time by a commuter who experiences something other than what was reported. One of the largest challenges in the industry is that data is known to have problems because of the data collection challenges that are inherent in all traffic flow measurements.

Throughout the world, so-called Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) projects have been deployed to help efficiently control traffic congestion using technology. As a result of some of these projects, inductive loop sensors have been embedded in roadways to collect traffic data. Over time these systems have been extended and the information made public via transportation agencies. With the popularity of the Internet, Web sites that display traffic maps have become increasingly popular.

The problem is the loop sensors were deployed for reasons other than reporting traffic flow information to commuters. It was only later that the technology began to be used with ramp metering systems to control the flow of vehicles entering the highway dynamically. As the data needs and real-time nature of the ramp metering systems increased, so did the availability of real-time data. This next led to tools for traffic management sensors, which eventually led to the development of publicly accessible traffic maps.

The state and local information gathering systems all operate independently, and this has naturally led to major technology differences between data collection techniques. Given the lack of government agency standards and the complexity of collecting data in a harsh and inconsistent environment, it's a difficult challenge to collect and disseminate accurate and useful traffic information.

Private companies have also engaged in the business of collecting real-time traffic information. They use a handful of unique technologies like cell phone tracking, GPS automobile tracking and government-funded sensor deployments. The key technology developed by TrafficGauge is its traffic aggregation server which "elegantly" handles these different configurations and converts the various data feeds into a standardized format combining the strengths and masking the weaknesses of each data source.

Often, reports are plagued with erroneous data. Algorithms are applied to scrub the data helping to produce what customer feedback has called good information. As an example, the Los Angeles traffic sensor network typically has over 60 percent failed sensors. The server automatically weeds through this data mess with logic created from years of consumer and data experience.

Users of traffic data have high expectations in mobile applications where services are being put to the test on the road and being directly compared to the taillights directly ahead. Some traffic information providers often incorrectly report levels of congestion, painting an incomplete picture to the end user. TrafficGauge's unique map design conveys more information in a short amount of time compared to literal maps while still maintaining a much smaller display area. Recent acquisitions of Navteq, TeleAtllas and Traffic have left TrafficGauge as one of the only independent companies that provides traffic aggregation services.

The future of real-time traffic reporting should be rosier than its past. One can only hope that the current experiences of traffic information users won't sour them on the use of this technology in the future.

Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley writes about the auto industry and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.

Speed Bumps Get Smart

What is dumber than a speed bump? It's hard to imagine anything dumber than those elevated areas of roadways that force drivers to slow down, but now speed bumps are getting smarter. In fact they are so smart that you can't call them speed bumps anymore. Instead, the preferred term is "traffic calming device," which, while popular in Europe for decades, is still in its infancy stages in the U.S. But as time goes on, more and more cities across America have begun installing these devices as a solution to speeding traffic on residential roads.

What makes them smart? Well, first, they come in a variety of configurations depending upon need. And, second, they do their job -- slowing traffic -- silently and with no human intervention whatsoever. The newest of them are also removable, so that municipalities can make way for snowplowing in the winter.

First, let's define our terms. All traffic calming devices are not the same. For example, while we in the general public tend to lump all such devices under the speed bump label, there are differences between the devices. As defined by Traffic Logix, a key supplier of such devices in the United States, speed bumps are primarily used off the road in parking lots or alleyways. The speed bumps manufactured by Traffic Logix are 2.25 inches high and four or six feet long. 

In contrast, there are also speed humps. These are considered the most common traffic calming devices, and they are used to influence drivers to slow excessive vehicle speeds and perhaps avoid the route entirely. Circular speed humps are often installed in a series to create still greater irritation to drivers who negotiate them too fast, and they are most often used on residential streets, not highways or thoroughfares. They are designed to slow traffic to between 10 and 20 miles per hour. You'll often see them installed a mid-block, away from intersections. Studies conducted by the Institute of Transportation Engineers found that the installation of speed humps reduced traffic volume by 18 percent and collisions by 13 percent. Traffic Logix speed humps are either three or four inches high.

A similar device is referred to as a "speed table." Designed not to slow traffic as drastically as a speed hump, the flat-topped speed tables might slow traffic to the 20-35 miles per hour range. The long, horizontal-topped speed tables can often accommodate an entire car, so drivers are not forced to slow as much when negotiating them. Like speed humps, studies suggest that speed tables significantly reduce accidents.

The newest available devices are called speed cushions or speed lumps, and their major advantages is that they can slow car traffic without slowing the response time of emergency vehicles. Designed with several small speed humps in a group, they force cars and light trucks to slow to 15-25 miles per hour, but, because of their placement on the road, they allow larger emergency vehicles with wider tracks to proceed unhindered.

One city that has bought into the technology is New Haven, Conn., which has purchased and installed four speed humps and six speed lumps. "It might be sexier to go after people with guns," said Erin Sturges Pascal, a member of the board of Aldermen of the city, "but speeding cars are equally as deadly." She sees the traffic calming devices as ways to counteract anti-social driving behavior.

An expert on anti-social behavior, Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley writes about the auto industry, safety and la condition humaine from his home in Villeperce, France.

Sensory Overload and Your Car

If you're lucky, you have five operating senses. You are able to hear, smell, taste, touch and see. If you're psychic or you see dead people, you might have at least one more. Your car might not have five senses, but the senses that it does have, because of its modern technology, are extremely important. If those senses in the form of its sensors fail, you could well be stranded by the side of the road. Because of their sophistication, today's vehicles diagnose and address changes by themselves using computer technology. While the technological advancements that engines and other systems have experienced offer many benefits, the sensors must be maintained and checked regularly so that the vehicle can get maximum fuel economy and so that everything stays running smoothly.

In other words, "Pay attention to your 'check engine' light and your vehicle's sensors or you could pay the price," said Bryan Gregory Advance Auto Parts' director of consumer education. "Sensors monitor air-fuel mixture, engine temperature, air-flow, wheel speed and more, so essentially they are telling your vehicle's computer what to do. If your sensors fail, your engine may experience poor mileage and performance, and in severe cases, your engine may fail altogether."

We're pretty sure you won't like that. The good news is in most cases, a "check engine" light will illuminate to let you know that there is a problem. Many auto service technicians and retailers like Advance Auto Parts will scan your On-Board Diagnostic (OBD) port at no charge and print out the fault code to help you determine your next steps.

Unfortunately, the next steps are not all that easy for a backyard mechanic.  Access to the sensors is usually the most difficult part of the replacement process. In the case of oxygen sensors, the project can be simplified by using a specially designed O2 sensor socket that accommodates the sensor wiring. A Haynes Repair Manual specific to your vehicle can be very helpful when replacing sensors as well. It is recommended that if you are a novice at sensor replacement, gain a thorough knowledge of what you need to do and how you need to do it before you try to attempt changes. Advance Auto Parts offers a "Sensors 101" clinic on its Web site that can help you gain a better understanding of what is involved.

A good first step is to know the difference between the two types of indicator lights you are likely to see on your dashboard. "Warning Lamps," sometimes referred to quaintly as "Idiot Lights," most often deliver information about a suspected negative situation having to do with a single component, things like low oil pressure or excessive engine coolant temperature, for example.  "Malfunction Indicator Lights" (MILs), on the other hand, are tied to multiple systems. They generally provide warning that something is potentially amiss, but they don't give much of a clue as to what that is. MILs most often require a technician to download "fault codes" from the on-board computer as the first step to a fix.

The important takeaway is this: If a MIL comes on, pay attention to it and have it checked out by a competent technician. It might seem as if your car is still running properly, but there could be a key malfunction in the engine that might leave you stranded and your car, your life . . . basically everything. 

Cleveland-based Driving Today Contributing Editor Luigi Fraschini writes often about car maintenance issues, which, he says, is easier than actually fixing cars.

Cars That Drive Themselves

Imagine this, George Jetson: You hop in your car and, instead of driving to work, it drives you to work. Along the way, you catch up on your emails, watch videos on the dash-mounted screen, make phone calls or even do something archaic, like a crossword puzzle. You might even catch a few winks of much-needed sleep. All the while, your car drives you swiftly, silently and safely to your destination.

Think that's just a pipedream? Well, think again. That scenario is rapidly becoming not just a possibility, but a probability. And besides the obvious advantages to such new age technology, there are others as well. Safety is one.  The chance to do something real about traffic congestion is another.

So how are we going to get there? One hint, interestingly enough, comes from the world of the once much-maligned "military-industrial complex." Of course, that is the same group of disciplines that have given us such useful consumer products as satellite TV. Over the last several years the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has sponsored what it calls the "Grand Challenge," pitting unmanned, full-size vehicles against one another in a race over a very challenging course.

Volkswagen won the $2 million grand prize at the most recent 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge with a diesel-powered Touareg SUV named "Stanley."  (Naming the vehicles is optional.) Stanley defeated 22 other unmanned vehicles in a rigorous, 132-mile championship race over rough desert roads, mountain trails, dry lake beds and tunnels, using only onboard sensors and navigation equipment to guide it. Stanley performed flawlessly and achieved victory after six hours, thirty-five minutes. It never stopped to go to the bathroom, either.

Now, Volkswagen of America has announced that its Electronics Research Lab (ERL) and the Stanford University Racing Team will participate in this year's DARPA Urban Challenge on November 3. In that event an autonomously-driven diesel-powered Passat wagon, named "Junior" (in homage to Leland Stanford Jr., founder of Stanford University), will compete against a variety of other contenders on a 60-mile mock-urban course that will involve merging with traffic, crossing traffic circles and negotiating busy intersections while following traffic laws, which is more than many drivers do normally.

"We see an opportunity to further advance intelligent technologies for use in passenger vehicles of the future," said Dr. Burkhard Huhnke, director of VW's Electronics Research Laboratory. "The features developed for the Urban Challenge will ultimately benefit our customers by making driving safer and more enjoyable in today's increasingly dense traffic."

Autonomous driving is an important topic for Volkswagen Research. The last decade has seen several driver assistance systems come to market that improve vehicle handling and control in challenging driving situations. Driver-assistance systems, such as Electronic Stability control, Electronic Parking Assistance and Adaptive Cruise Control, have all been designed and implemented to make the task of driving safer, easier and more enjoyable. Each of these systems assumes some degree of vehicle control but does not take full charge of the vehicle.        

"While fully autonomous driving may be a possibility for the future, it is not Volkswagen's intent to replace the driver," said Huhnke. "By pursuing a stretch goal, such as an autonomously driven vehicle, we are able to advance certain aspects that will be of use in more conventional and current driver assistance and safety systems."

For this year's DARPA Urban Challenge, Volkswagen of America's ERL helped outfit the fuel-efficient Passat wagon TDI (diesel) with computer-controlled electromechanical power steering and electric throttle, gear shifter and parking brake. Custom mountings for the wide array of sophisticated sensors were also designed and built at ERL. Intel Core 2 Duo processors, with multiple processing units per chip, make up the car's "brains." Together with the software developed at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, the car will be truly autonomous.

While it is easy to imagine the military applications of autonomous vehicles in hot spots such as Iraq and Afghanistan, it is also easy to envision civilian applications. Computer-controlled vehicles that are aware of not only of where they are, but of the vehicles around them through "talk-back" technology, could travel safely in much closer proximity to other vehicles than is possible with today's human-piloted cars, something which could have very positive effects on traffic congestion. And "driver-error" might largely be eliminated from accident statistics.

Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley writes about the auto industry and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.