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Cars that 'think' may help drivers who don't

Story by David Adams


Not too far into the future, as you settle into the driver’s seat, your car will be keeping an ‘eye’ on your speed and factors such as weather and road conditions. After taking into account prevailing traffic conditions, it may also suggest the ‘greenest’ route … which won’t always be the shortest one.

When low on fuel it will tell you where the nearest petrol stations are, which one has the lowest price that day and which might be offering your personal or corporate loyalty program bonuses. As you approach a pharmacy, it may even remind you to replenish any medication you have diarised.

These scenarios are examples of how future motor vehicles are likely to incorporate so-called ‘context aware’ systems, through which the range of applications will be limited only by imagination.

In the ongoing push to improve road safety and vehicle efficiency, and ease driving stress, automotive IT researchers are also exploring new ways in which intelligent cars can communicate with each other to improve spatial awareness and traffic management, and communicate with road system infrastructure to provide drivers with accurate, up-to-the-minute information about road and traffic conditions.

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The sandwich factor for safer cars

By Belinda Humphriesalt

The dawn of unprecedented high petrol costs, plus the ongoing need to make cars safer, is adding extra relevance and urgency to research into light, but strong, automotive materials.

Two aluminium-based developments - aluminium 'foam' and aluminium honeycomb structural components - are showing promise in testing being undertaken. The timely research into these materials could be laying the groundwork for a new, lightweight generation of vehicles that would increase motorists' safety and reduce the hip-pocket pain from the petrol pump.

Dr Ruan says the research will provide a thorough understanding of the crashworthiness and energy absorption of materials and constructs such as aluminium honeycombs and foams and their products - metallic foam sandwich panels and foam-filled tubes.

"It will potentially open the way for their application in safer automobiles, and it will uplift design of environmentally friendly, lighter and safer cars," she says.

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Weight loss for healthier cars

By Tim Treadgold


Most of us could probably lose weight and live a healthier lifestyle. Well, the same applies to cars because light cars burn less fuel and pollute less. That’s why the ultra-lightweight metal magnesium is seen as having a big role in the future of transport – once a way is found to work with it.

For decades, magnesium has been the metal the car industry wants, but only if scientists can master some of its less attractive properties, such as being prone to galvanic corrosion when joined to other metals, and to cracking when joined by metal-forming processes (for example, clinching, self-pierce riveting). Solving the magnesium riddle would make a significant contribution to pollution reduction, especially carbon dioxide (CO2).

This is why a research team at Swinburne University of Technology is working with industry associates to find a way to join magnesium with aluminium and steel, the two main metals currently used in vehicle construction. And they might have done it – via a combination of lasers, self-piercing rivets and high-strength glue.

Dr Yvonne Durandet, a research engineer and project leader at the Industrial Research Institute Swinburne, says that at room temperature magnesium is not ductile, meaning it lacks the plastic or deforming qualities needed to be pierced and joined by a rivet.

“If the magnesium is at the bottom layer of a joint stack with another metal it can crack during the joining process,” Dr Durandet says. “So our research focus has been on finding a way to heat the magnesium using a laser to eliminate the cracking problem, while also using a high-strength adhesive to strengthen the joint and protect against any possible future corrosion.”

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Blink by blink, driving skill eroded by distractions

The way we see the world around us – as a whole or as components of the whole – is emerging as an important new field of research into driver distraction and responsiveness.

By Melissa Marino

altTraditionally, studies on driver distraction have focused on vehicle performance, such as the position of the car on the road and its speed, to assess the effect of distractions on driving. Now, however, psychophysiologist Natalie Michael at Swinburne University of Technology is adding a new layer to our understanding of car safety by concentrating on the driver.

In a complex and multi-dimensional PhD study under the supervision of Associate Professor John Patterson in the Faculty of Life and Social Sciences, Ms Michael is analysing physiological responses to mental distractions than can accumulate while driving, such as texting (illegal) or holding conversations. 

Volunteers participating in her study were wired-up with electrodes to measure their brain activity and heart-rate variability in a series of real and simulated driving tests.

Where previous studies have shown relatively stable lane position when using a mobile phone, for example, Ms Michael’s work is revealing underlying physiological responses which indicate that despite there being no immediate detriment to driving performance, demands on the driver are nonetheless building.

“Some measures of driving performance may remain relatively stable, or only change slightly depending on the activity, and that could lead one to infer that such distractions are not impacting on a driver,” she says. “But by using the physiological variables we might be able to show that in fact there are changes within the person and that these distractions are adding additional load, which could become problematic, depending on the driving circumstances.”

For example, if a driver is carrying an additional mental load they may not be able to deal appropriately with sudden unanticipated events because their mind is focused elsewhere.

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Car makers hear an electric buzz

Universities and other research bodies in Victoria are teaming up to put Australia at the forefront of electric car technology.  

By Barry Pestana 

altAs the world battles to keep a lid on carbon emissions and slow the tempo of climate change, electric cars are once more looking like the alternative to the petrol vehicles the world has come to rely on.

All but stalling after an initial burst of excitement a few years ago, research and development in electric cars is now humming in top gear, with several research institutions pouring talent and resources into producing prototypes of new-generation, and fast, electric cars.

In its 2010 research paper on electric vehicles, the Victorian Automotive Chamber of Commerce (VACC) says technological advances are changing the face of the automotive industry worldwide, in particular giant strides in battery technology. (Researchers at the Imperial College in London may have developed devices that create their own power.)

In Australia, the drive has been championed by institutions such as Swinburne University of Technology, Deakin University, RMIT University, La Trobe University and CSIRO, which are collaborating with each other and with overseas universities to research and develop lightweight battery-charged electric cars.

They are supported by several sponsors, including the Cooperative Research Centre for Advanced Automotive Technology, the AutoCRC. The CRC was created in December 2005 to secure an Australian position in the global automotive industry. Its participants are eight leading vehicle and component manufacturers, two state governments and 10 research institutions, with a total investment in research and training of $100 million over seven years.

Swinburne’s key electric vehicle (EV) projects are principally funded by the AutoCRC, which in January this year signed a memorandum of understanding with Hefei University of Technology (HFUT) in Anhui, China, to establish a collaborative research project with Swinburne. HFUT is regarded as a leader in EV research in China, with extensive links to that country’s automotive industry.

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