High-tech hotbed: Biggest buzz surrounds Toyota's single-person car

By From detnews| Apr 18 2007
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From a vehicle that drivers can wear to lasers that make a dark road visible without illuminating it, a glimpse into the future of automotive technology is on display this week at the SAE World Congress at Cobo Center.

Automakers and suppliers from around the world who converged Monday for the annual conference of the Society of Automotive Engineers showed off gizmos that seem out-of-this-world today, but could become as common as power windows or anti-lock brakes tomorrow.

Amid a host of technical paper presentations, dissected engine displays and seminars on such subjects as Computational Fluid Dynamics, the biggest buzz was about Toyota Motor Corp's personal mobility vehicle, the i-Swing.

The Japanese automaker touts the concept single-person vehicle as "wearable," because the driver fits snugly into the i-Swing and can use body motions to control the vehicle. Images and colors on an LED panel at the front of the vehicle can be changed to suit the driver's mood.

"The purpose is to use it on the road, and also on the sidewalk or in the supermarket or the shopping mall," Akihiro Yanaka, assistant manager of Toyota's Business Revolution project, said through a translator.

Standing about 6 feet tall, the i-Swing can operate in two modes. A two-wheel setting moves the driver at walking pace, where he or she can easily interact with someone at a counter or strolling alongside them. A three-wheel setting extends the wheelbase a foot, to about 4 feet, allowing the i-Swing to travel in a city street at up to 12.5 mph.

The i-Swing recalls another personal vehicle, Toyota's i-Unit, shown at the SAE show last year. That concept was bulkier, making personal interaction difficult, but the four-wheel vehicle could travel much faster.

Adding to creature comforts

Other innovations on display this year add to the creature comforts in more standard vehicles.

PPG Industries, which has a technical center in Troy, baked a pair of Chrysler 300s with heat lamps to demonstrate its heat-resistant auto glass. Richard Heilman, PPG marketing director, demonstrated how the vehicle with the "Sungate" glass was 20 to 30 degrees cooler.

"The benefit is you're more comfortable in a car (with this glass)," he said. "But more importantly, it allows you to turn down your air conditioner which can save 3 to 4 percent on your fuel economy." The infrared reflective glass also protects plastic and leather surfaces of the car, Heilman said.

The glass is gaining popularity in Europe and is installed on some luxury German sedans in the United States.

German supplier Preh Automotive displayed technology that could simplify the growing number of buttons and controls drivers confront in today's vehicles.

Programmable buttons allow drivers to choose which function they want to control: radio, heating/cooling or phone, for example. That selection changes the images seen on a 12-button display in the car. That way the same keypad that tunes the radio also can turn on the defroster.

"This allows you to integrate a lot of functions into a small package, which might be needed in a smaller car, like an electric vehicle," Preh engineer Matthias Lust said.

Night-vision gear on display

In a section of the conference center dedicated to the military, a small Milford company demonstrated advanced night-vision technology the National Guard is testing. It could some day make seeing dark roadways easier for drivers.

Common types of military night vision devices either sense heat or amplify available light (such as starlight). But that technology is prone to interference, such as not being able to penetrate a pane of glass.

Pursuit Vision's laser night vision makes objects visible by projecting a laser light undetectable by a human eye, and then recording reflections from that light with a specialized camera. It's somewhat like using a spotlight that only the camera can see. The result is a clearer image than produced by thermal night vision.

Successful military implementation could lead to a display that can aid night driving in standard passenger vehicles, Pursuit President David Dean said. The technology was originally developed within Ford Motor Co.

"For the military, this can see through glass, screens, even security glass, so it could be used in a checkpoint type of application," Dean said. "It absolutely could find its way into passenger vehicles in the next 10 years, if the cost of the technology falls enough to make it affordable."

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