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High-Tech Times Article 035

Technology, Travel, and You

Welcome back to the High-Tech Times. One of the things I like most about Hawaii is that itís really hard to drive very far; not only does my car benefit from low wear-&-tear, but my otherwise-perfect wife canít get lost on an island!

Not so on the Mainland, where Iíve driven more than 1,000 miles on a very long day, at times slightly panicked that I had no idea where the next gas station was. But even our transportation is being revolutionized by technology.  My last trip included my highly-portable Garmin Global Positioning System (GPS) with detailed maps downloaded from a CD-ROM showing the entire western U.S.
So when I needed to locate a gas pump, I could quickly search for a location not too far down the highway, with or without a nearby restaurant. And in a few locations, I even found robotic gas pumps. After my credit card was authorized, the robot was able to locate my uncapped gas tank, accurately insert the nozzle, and quickly fill my tank to the brim without spilling a drop (more than I can do!). Shell is testing these robotic kiosks in California and Indiana, while Mobil, Amoco, and Exxon are testing them in 10 U.S. states and Europe.
Shell has also developed a radio-based payment method where customers simply wave a special card within 12 inches of the pumpís sensor; the card contains payment information as well as data on when the car was last fueled up, how much fuel was consumed, and your average mileage for the last dozen periods. When the robot detects a major drop in fuel-efficiency, your receipt politely recommends a tune-up. This system was developed in conjunction with a submarine manufacturer and radio-frequency ID vendor, not just a petroleum products company.
Europe has a jump on the U.S. in automotive robotics. Not only do many countries offer the same robotic services to pump your gas, but they also include an Internet browser in the kiosk. This browser allows you to check for traffic problems and to map out alternate routes to get around a gridlock. BP Amoco in Japan is testing the use of Windows CE-based devices that offer limited Web-surfing within a certain range of their wired gas stations; and, yes, drivers do have to get out of their cars to surf....
Louisiana implemented a windshield-mounted device that pays for bridge tolls (via bank debit) without the driver stopping when they found that drivers were causing fights with the toll-takers. Several European countries are testing the EasyPark system developed by an Israeli high-tech firm. Drivers electronically replenish a calculator-sized device that communicates with the parking meters, sets the appropriate parking rate, and computes the fee until itís turned off when the driver returns to the vehicle. To keep the parking meters as simple as possible, fees are automatically transferred to the cities or municipalities when the device is reloaded at special bank kiosks.
In Yokohama, Japan, Nissan has provided 20 hybrid electric mini-cars that residents and tourists can use for a short run to the market, sightseeing, office errands, or anything else that they need to do. This loaner program is based on a European oddity where people can rent or borrow a bicycle from one station and drop it off at another.
Nissan designed the car based on studies showing that 90% of all passenger cars travel less than 42 miles per day and that 90% of compact vehicles carry one or two occupants. Drivers simply swipe a credit card, pick up the keys, and drive around. With unmanned kiosks containing electric chargers every few blocks, the Nissan HyperMinis have proven to be extremely popular, and Yokohama has seen up to a 31% decrease in downtown traffic.
Ford announced at the North American International Auto Show that it will equip some of its cars with technology that brings the information highway right into your dashboard as early as this fall. Their ď24.7" concept car showed what Ford calls ďvoice?activated telematics systems,Ē or technologies that offer advanced in?vehicle communications and information services. These services include voice-activated controls, including telephone and Internet access, fuel gauges, and oil pressure, with the entire instrument panel actually a high?definition projection screen.
With a virtual dashboard, Ford claims it can position - or create - any required gauge to fit the needs of the driver, as well as positioning each gauge in the ideal location and configuration for each driver. Fordís CEO recently announced that Lincolns and some European Fords will offer voice?activated telematic systems for the 2001 model year (but not the virtual dashboard, quite yet). So in less than two months, you can buy a car that will automatically notify the police when your airbags go off in an accident, call your wife when you forget to go by the supermarket, and even monitor e-mail, schedules, and stock quotes via the Web.
But these technology advances do have their downside - at least for criminals.
New tracking technology in a rental car helped catch three teenagers red?handed as they drove a stolen car in Ontario, Canada. Despite voice warnings from a phone installed inside the car that they were being followed electronically, the teens figured that tossing the phone would solve their pestering problem. Not so: the car they chose was equipped with an "invisible cop" on board that told police exactly where to track them and the car down.
The technology uses GPS to relay and track information about a vehicle on request. Cars fitted with the device (that looks like a cell phone) are plugged into a secure network that can track its location in a matter of seconds. The coordinates are fed over the wireless phone network to the computer in the host?monitoring center, and police can see the vehicle as an icon moving across a digitized map.
Similar technology in the U.S. allows ďcar-sideĒ services where a central station can monitor how much fuel a car has, which doors are unlocked, and can even unlock doors for the driver (with the appropriate passwords, of course).
And you thought that you could still drive away from your technology problems...!
See you next month.