Navigant Research Blog

Google Glasses Best Use: Safer, More Efficient Driving

— March 28, 2013

A West Virginia legislator recently called for the use of Google Glass – a new consumer electronic device about to be launched by Google – to be banned while driving cars. The politician claims it is an attempt to avoid distracted driving. Unfortunately, he’s got it backwards. The use of Google Glass while driving should be encouraged, not forbidden. It offers a safer and more efficient user interface than we have today.  It also opens up possibilities for better control of the car, which means better mileage and less consumption of gasoline society-wide.

The fact is that the current practice of looking down to scan instrument panels or change the radio station is inherently unsafe. The Air Forces of the world realized that long ago and now the use of the head-up-display (HUD) is widely used by fighter pilots. HUDs were first developed for fighter pilots as a means to keep their line of sight pointed straight ahead while still being able to scan their instruments. The first HUD’s projected instrument displays onto the cockpit glass. Unfortunately, researchers found that this led to the pilots’ committing the sin of cognitive tunneling – the act of focusing on an item in the near field of vision instead of keeping their eyes focused at infinity on the wide field of vision (a good thing to do when you’re in the middle of a dogfight). Subsequently, HUDs were redesigned to give basic information in as visually simple a fashion as possible. By keeping only a few key readings on the windshield and displaying the data in simple geometric forms, the pilots soon found themselves permanently focusing on the wide field while subconsciously absorbing the information that was being presented to them – the ideal way to use an HUD.

A Google Glass-type device, likewise, is an ideal form factor for presenting limited but crucial information to a driver without interrupting their line-of-sight. The limitation of data is key: the answer to cognitive tunneling is limiting the amount of data being presented. The driver isn’t there to read a book, after all. By using an intelligent device like Google Glass, the car can present only the information the driver needs to see at the present moment (an unsafe speed warning, an upcoming turn to be made, an empty gas tank, etc.). The device can also bring advanced safety systems into play by broadcasting lane drifting warnings or other cars approaching that might warrant defensive maneuvers. Google Glass, all in all, has the potential to significantly add to the safety of the driver and riders.

Another key element that Google Glass can deliver is useful voice control. Although voice control is improving in automobiles, it is far more difficult to yell a perceptible command at a device that is 2-feet away from the driver’s mouth (ask anyone who has used Ford Sync about this issue) than it is for a device that the driver is wearing. Additionally, Google Glass is rumored to have bone conduction capabilities, meaning that it always detects when the wearer (and not an inconsiderate passenger in the backseat) is speaking.

The utility of Google Glass doesn’t have to end there. If a driver wants to save more fuel, a Google Glass app could provide an icon that provides persistent feedback on their driving habits. Simple changes to driving habits can easily lead to significant fuel savings. Too hard on the brakes? The icon could vibrate. Accelerating too quickly? The icon could glow yellow. That sort of persistent feedback is not possible from a smartphone or an instrument panel on the dashboard, but it could be easily processed by the wearer of a Google Glass device. This kind of driving would be especially advantageous for drivers of hybrids and pure electric vehicles, since optimization of regenerative braking habits is one of the easiest ways to improve mileage.

With all of the good things that Google Glass can do, it needs to be emphasized that it, like any consumer electronics device, must be limited while the user is driving. There needs to be a “Drive Mode” that shuts off visual text alerts, emails, and movie streaming while the wearer is driving. If that happens, and if the price drops considerably from its current $1,500 peak, it will be the norm for drivers to buckle in, adjust their seatbelts, and turn on Google Glass.


At Hannover Fair 2013, The Fuel Cells Ingredients Start to Stack Up

— March 26, 2013

The weather is starting to warm up, the days are getting longer, and there might even be lambs gamboling in the fields, but for energy professionals, on April 8 through April 12, there’s only one place to be: inside the hall of the Hannover Fair, Europe’s largest trade show.  Last year 185,000 people descended on the old World Fair site.

Hall 27, now the home of the expanded Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Group Exhibit, will be a mix of the usual buyers, analysts, students, and vendors, as well as people who are, frankly, lost.  As always I have a hit list of the companies I want to meet with and the trends I need to explore further.

In the fuel cell and hydrogen sector I see two key trends emerging this year, and Hannover provides a concentrated opportunity in advance of the production of our Fuel Cell Annual Report for 2013 to track down the data to back up (or not) what I am seeing.  So far the two big trends are:

Hydrogen from electrolysis.  This suddenly ubiquitous technology includes using methanated hydrogen to produce synthetic natural gas.  Companies at the Fair with product in this area include:  Acta (Italy), Ceram (France), CETH2 (France), Giner (USA), H Tec, H2 Nitidor (Italy), iGas (Germany), ITM Power (United Kingdom), McPhy (Germany).  MicrobEnergy (Germany), and Next Hydrogen (Canada).

The stationary sector strengthens.  Stationary applications still don’t attract the type of PR that vehicles do, but an increasing number of companies are on the verge of profitability.  Companies at the Fair that I will be looking for include: Ballard (Canada), Bosch Thermotechnik (Germany), Ceramic Fuel Cells (Australia), ClearEdge Power (United States), Convion (Finland), Elcore (Germany), Foresight Energy (China), and MVV Energie (Germany).

Also interesting is the rise in companies at the Fair with fuel cell-powered portable power products.  This market seemed to drop off a cliff a few years ago, but companies like myFC (Sweden), Lilliputian Systems (United States), and Horizon Fuel Cell (Singapore) could be driving a resurgence of interest in this area.


Why Emerging Economies Are Not Cleantech Cash Machines

— March 26, 2013

In our recent white paper, “Smart Energy: Five Metatrends To Watch in 2013 and Beyond,” Navigant Research forecast that, in terms of economic development, the area in the Southern Africa Power Pool (SAPP) will be the next high economic powerhouse, akin to Brazil, Russia, India, and China (BRIC).  A March article in The Economist seemed to agree with me.  With booming economic growth, an appetite for energy and new technologies, fast liberalizing markets, and encouraging overseas investment, many companies are lining up to export to Africa.

However, Africa is not going to be just a passive adopter of overseas technology.  The governments of South Africa and Kenya, among others, aim to turn their countries into high innovation and IP generating economies, with local value-added manufacturing.

Innovation can be measured by a number of metrics, including IP generation, the amount of government funding allocated to R&D, the number of PhD students, and the number of limited liability companies created.  As each of these grows, in theory, the dependence on imported products decreases.  A prime example of this is the transformation of the South Korean economy from heavy importer to leading exporter in under two decades.

As more and more developing economies seek to follow this path, moving away from being passive importers of new technology (especially in the cleantech space), companies will need to develop long term market entry strategies that involve local partners, local offices, and, increasingly, local manufacturing.

The economics of the United States, Germany, South Korea, and Japan are “old world” examples of this type of market.  The new generation ‑ Brazil, Chile, India, Indonesia, South Africa, Kenya, and of course China – has a high potential for rapid adoption of cleantech, including renewable energy, fuel cells, and advanced batteries.

Together these Tier 2 economies represent billions of dollars in potential revenue for cleantech companies, but they are not pots of gold.  The people of these countries are looking for partners to create local wealth , not multinationals that want to leverage the market and export the wealth.

Shifting from exporting to local production will require extra resources, a deep and realistic understanding of the markets, strong IP protection, and a high degree of flexibility.  Those who succeed will find new partners, rapidly growing markets, and access to highly educated workforces.  Those who fail will have to face the economic reality of limited markets with limited growth potential.


New Technologies Boost Fuel Economy

— March 26, 2013

While battery electric and hybrid vehicles are slowly gaining in popularity, they show no signs of becoming a significant portion of vehicle sales in the next several years.  Automakers, meanwhile, are busy exploring other aspects of vehicle design that will improve fuel efficiency.  Below is an update on some of these approaches:

Better Aerodynamics.  At speeds of 30 mph or less, aerodynamic performance has a minor impact on fuel efficiency.  Once freeway speeds are achieved, though, the energy needed to push the vehicle through the air dominates other factors.  Because drag is proportional to the vehicle cross-sectional area, the coefficient of drag (Cd), and the velocity squared, less energy is needed to maintain speed of smaller and smoother cars.  Significant improvements were measured on VW’s new XL1 hybrid when the conventional door mirrors were replaced with tiny cameras that projected the rear side view on to a small screen on the door where the mirror would normally be.

Reduced Mass. The energy required to overcome inertia and accelerate a vehicle is a function of its mass, so heavier vehicles need more energy to get them moving.  They also have to dissipate more energy to slow down and stop, which means bigger and more powerful brakes.  Electric vehicles with large and heavy battery packs suffer particularly in this department.  Automakers seeking to produce lighter vehicles face two big problems: alternative, lighter materials such as aluminum and carbon fiber are more expensive and often harder to work with, and lighter vehicles have to be stronger to keep the occupants safe from impact with heavier vehicles.

ICE Technology. The internal combustion engine continues to get incrementally more efficient.  Turbocharging and supercharging are now used for economy as well as performance, and features such as direct injection and higher compression have migrated from diesel engines to gasoline.  Downsizing the engine’s volumetric capacity without sacrificing performance is now a realistic option, and cylinder deactivation allows fuel saving when cruising while maintaining full power for acceleration when needed.

Stop-Start. Sometimes labeled “micro-hybrid,” the ability to eliminate idling while the vehicle is stationary has the potential to save a lot of money for drivers in heavy traffic.  Stop-start technology requires other vehicle systems to be electrified, which in itself can improve fuel efficiency.  New stop-start systems in development will add an electric “crawl” mode to extend the fuel savings in slow-moving traffic jams.

All these technologies are being introduced as new models come to market, but the challenge for automakers is to incorporate features that offer customer benefits without the steep price premiums that hamper EV sales.

Some of these innovations face regulatory hurdles.  To launch its XL1 hybrid in Germany and Austria, Volkswagen had to get special government dispensation because it lacks conventional external mirrors. The XL1 is illegal to drive in other European countries and in North America.  For some new technologies to take hold, lawmakers must revisit certain existing restrictions on vehicle design.


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