Driving through change

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The array of technology developed to aid drivers multiplies daily – and environmental concerns will only accelerate the pace of invention, says Jim Davies

I’ve never sat through an edition of Top Gear, nor do I intend to. Watching a clutch of chummy petrolheads drooling over the latest automotive porn isn’t my idea of entertainment – but hey, live and let drive.

For me, cars are purely practical – I did without one for as long as I could, but having moved to the country, it’s become a necessity. If I relied on the local transport links, I’d be best friends with a bus stop, and have to set out two days in advance for briefings and meetings. But such a long break from behind the wheel has meant I’m not the most confident of drivers, particularly in unfamiliar urban territory.

One thing that’s really helped me is modern car design. Windscreen wipers and lights that come on automatically. Climate control. Comfortable seats. Responsiveness. A DVD player to keep the kids entertained in the back. So many things are done for you that you can concentrate on the business in hand.

Best of all, there’s satnav. Perhaps it’s just that I enjoy being chivvied by an assertive female, but I find this little miracle indispensable. Now I know where I’m going, which lane I need to be in, how long it’s going to take, where the nearest petrol station is, whether there’s a speed camera ahead. OK, my travelling companion has her vagaries, but she has yet to lead me totally up the garden path or into a river bed.

Thanks to design and technology, the driving experience has enjoyed a step-change over recent years. But so far it’s been evolution. Now we need a revolution… and fortunately, it’s coming. Road travel has become so problematic that drastic measures are called for. Petrol prices are soaring. Road tax is set for another hike. Tolls and congestion charges are more common. We’re also paying the heavy ecological and infrastructural cost of too many cars on too few roads.

Prince Charles’s wine-guzzling Aston Martin may sound preposterous, but it’s just the start of what promises to be a host of radical changes to the way we design and use our cars. Research hubs across the globe are developing breakthrough technologies, some of which – like electric and hydrogen-powered cars – are coming soon. Tougher, lighter, more durable and recyclable materials that would cut fuel consumption and last longer are also in development. Modular design that would allow individual car parts to be replaced as they wear out is also gaining ground.

Further along, the ideas are more blue sky than grey Tarmac. Cars could be powered by omni-directional ‘wheel robots’, which mean you could park crab-like into a tight space. Wafer-thin programmable displays on the outside and inside of cars would allow you to change your car’s colour and dashboard every day. Intelligent in-car computers would learn about the way you drive – like braking too hard or oversteering – and make adjustments to the mechanics. Small, stackable cars could be parked outside city airports and railway termini like shopping trolleys – you’d use them for your onward journey and drop them off the other end. Cars might be towed along motorways, saving valuable fuel.

Hundreds of ingenious proposals are doing the rounds, and if the men in white coats have their way, motoring could be as stress free and eco-friendly as a walk in the park. So there are exciting times ahead – but you still wouldn’t catch me watching Top Gear.

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