This is an amazing time, with all our science-fiction dreams becoming concrete reality. It’s not just that cars are plugging in, they’re also on the frontlines of the tech revolution. Just about any communications device that will fit in the palm of your hand is also being incorporated into your dashboard. Here are three cool uses of technology in cars and trucks hitting the road either now or in the near future:
Ultracaps: The battery's hot-headed cousin
Here’s a hybrid vehicle without a hybrid battery. That’s possible with through the miracle of ultracapacitors, the battery’s close relative. Ultracaps are like batteries with ADHD. They’re great at charging fast (not the battery’s strong point) and discharging just as quickly. They’re not as good at holding large amounts of electricity over long periods, as batteries can. But they’re perfectly suited for hybrid applications, such as capturing, and then using, the energy from regenerative braking.
And that’s why we now have EMD hybrid truck conversions (above) that use the Ioxus 3000F ultracap instead of batteries for a 10 to 30 percent fuel efficiency improvement. Joe Ambrosio, general manager of Long Island-based EMD, told me that his four-year-old company converts both small and large trucks (class 2-8).
Garbage trucks are a good bet for this conversion, because they stop, start and use their brakes a lot. “It’s all about capturing the free energy that comes from braking, and ultracaps do that really well.” The EMD system adds an electric motor to the drivetrain. The ultracaps send their captured energy to that motor, which acts somewhat like a supercharger to power the vehicle in concert with the gas/diesel engine.
Mark McGough, the CEO of Ioxus, told me, “Ultracaps release energy much more rapidly than batteries as a class, and they’re more powerful. They can also charge faster.” He said that the market for ultracap hybrids is “about to explode,” in Japan first. Mazda is in the vanguard, and its i-ELOOP system will start appearing in Japan-market cars this year. Ioxus’ Jeff Colton says several other automakers are working on ultracap-based hybrid systems.
Honda is showing off HondaLink, an infotainment system (left) that will first appear on the 2013 Accord. Every automaker has to have infotainment today, and a big trend is having them use Apple’s Siri for voice recognition. Tesla’s Elon Musk told me the company is developing its own voice recognition by the end of the year, but is also considering working with the highly competent Siri. Honda’s system lets you use presets for Internet radio, among other features. Facebook and Twitter feeds are converted to audio for distraction-free driving.
HondaLink also has a special version just for electric cars, since the company is releasing a limited-edition electric Fit. Using your cellphone, you’ll be able to check your car’s charging status from home, pre-heat or pre-cool the cabin (a major benefit of plug-ins), and find open charging stations. Pre-cooling the car can be important — Nissan Leaf owners without battery cooling are finding that when the mercury soars over 100 degrees F, they lose range.
The University of California, Riverside is working on a smart GPS especially for EVs that will plot routes based not on the quickest route but one that minimizes energy use. The university says it hopes to increase EV range 10 percent using the system.
Put your car to work
I’m fascinated by the idea of personal car-sharing, which is basically renting out your own car for a set rate. California recently smoothed out the insurance obstacles and legalized the process, and personal car-sharing is flourishing there. Several companies are involved, including Relay Rides, which after launching in Boston and San Francisco has now gone national. If you sign up with the company, you keep 60 percent of the fees.
GM Ventures, the investment arm of the auto company, bought a piece of Relay Rides, and now it’s going to let Chevy, Buick and Cadillac owners with the popular OnStar option use it to make car sharing easier. As you probably know, OnStar is a subscription-based communications service that provides help if you get stranded, offers turn-by-turn navigation and remote diagnostics of what’s wrong with your car. How does it work to enable loaning your vehicle? OnStar enables remote unlocking of the car, so a car-sharing owner wouldn’t even have to be home when the renter arrived. There are 6 million active OnStar users, so it adds a big pool of potential car-sharing vehicles to the pool.
One caveat about personal car sharing: Some insurance companies don’t like it, even though Relay Rides has its own $1 million policy. And things can get dicey when a car-sharing vehicle is involved in a fatal accident. Here's how Relay Rides works, on video: