End to valets? Self-parking cars to be developed by 2015

Finding a parking space, particularly when you are rushing to catch a train or plane, can be a nightmare.

However this could soon be a thing of the past as a European Union-funded project is developing the technology to enable you to drop your car at the front of the station or airport and let it drive itself to a free space.

The EU believes that rising oil prices and environmental concerns will result in more Europeans switching to electric cars for short journeys, and taking the train or aeroplane instead for longer ones.

As a result there is likely to be an increased need for parking and charging support at train stations and airports, which is why the project, known as V-Charge, was commissioned.

Under the system you will be able to drive your car up to a station, get out and press a button on the paired smartphone app to indicate that the car is ready to be parked. It will then drive itself to a free spot and automatically connect to a vehicle recharging station.

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Such a system would provide minor time savings for each driver on each visit, but this could result in significant improvements to the station or airport’s parking systems as a whole and could lead to more people using a mix of transport options.

“The idea is that we can actually use technology to give people a better mix of public and private transport,” explained Dr Paul Furgale, scientific project manager for V-Charge and deputy director of the autonomous systems lab at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.

“With a fully automated park and ride, drivers can get out of the car and immediately board the train without looking for parking. This will save each driver several minutes a day.”

When the driver instructs the car to park, it will communicate with the server designated to the car park, which will indentify the best route for the car to take and send it instructions.

With a speed limit of 10km/h (6mph) when driving autonomously, the vehicle will be able to avoid collisions with other vehicles either by stopping or manoeuvring.

However, the electric cars that use this system will need to be heavily equipped to enable autonomous parking to be possible.

GPS systems are unreliable indoors, such as in a parking garage, so the cars need to be equipped with eight cameras, making the likely adoption of such a technology questionable.

The EU is also banking on a big rise in electric vehicles for the scheme to work, which could prove to be a poor choice if another technology becomes favoured.

For now, though, the technology is being refined to deal with complex environmental variations, and the team hopes to have a fully working prototype by September 2015.

“Parking areas can be extremely complex,” said Furgale. “The push in the last part of the project will be to really focus on dealing with dynamic environments and tracking dynamic objects on the scene.”

A complete version of the system will be commercially available within a decade, and the team believes some parts will be available sooner.


Images courtesy of V-Charge.


Sponge-like plastic: An unlikely way to reduce pollution and create zero-emissions technology

A type of plastic could be the solution to our reliance on greenhouse gas-producing fossils fuels, a group of scientists have found.

The group of scientists, including several from the University of Liverpool, said the plastic is like a sponge which can asorb carbon dioxide.

Use of the technology could lead to reduced pollution levels around the world.

The material, which is similar to the plastics used in food containers, may lead to the creation of zero-emission technology, the researchers said.

Andrew Cooper, who worked on the research said: “The key point is that this polymer is stable, it’s cheap, and it adsorbs CO2 extremely well. It’s geared toward function in a real-world environment.

“In a future landscape where fuel-cell technology is used, this adsorbent could work toward zero-emission technology.”

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The air cleansing technology could be used in projects such as the Hyper Filter Skyscraper, which was shaped like a pine cone, and is able to ‘breathe’.

The building concept was designed to inhale carbon dioxide and other gases and exhale oxygen – helping to clean up our over-polluted cities.

The new material is part of a wider piece of technology called an integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC). which will convert fossil fuels to hydrogen gas.

The material that has been created by the researchers is a brown, sand-like powder made by linking together many small carbon- based molecules.

It was inspired by the make-up of polystyrene – which is also able to adsorb small amounts of CO2.

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Another benefit of the potential technology is that it doesn’t take in any water vapour when it absorbs CO2.

This means that the parts of the material do not get clogged up and remain able to do their job for longer.

“Compared to many other adsorbents, they’re cheap,” Cooper said, mostly because the carbon molecules used to make them are inexpensive.

“And in principle, they’re highly reusable and have long lifetimes because they’re very robust.”