Azure explores new and upcoming innovations that will make a positive difference on every scale, from the individual to the city. Here, we look at fuel-less flight, safer cycling and the Google self-driving car.
1 Solar Impulse, and flying on zero fuel
In June, the world’s first solar-powered airplane that can fly day and night took to the sky – a slender craft made from carbon fibre and 17,000 solar cells, with a wingspan larger than a Boeing 747’s. Although Solar Impulse, a Swiss-born project, will not likely disrupt commercial flight anytime soon (it seats only one), the team plans to circumnavigate the globe by 2015, proving that zero-fuel flight is on the horizon. – David Dick‑Agnew
2 Vanhawks Valour, and safer cycling
At first glance, the Vanhawks Valour looks like your average nice-looking bike. Its carbon-fibre frame, reinforced with carbon nano-tubes, weighs a mere seven kilograms. But what attracted $820,000 worth of Kickstarter backing in May is the extensive list of embedded features that will make it one of the safest bikes on the road.
This is the first commuter bike fully integrated with Bluetooth and networked with smart sensors. When a route is programmed into the rider’s cellphone, the travel plan syncs with LED arrows embedded into the handlebars, which blink when a left or right turn approaches. When a car enters the cyclist’s blind spot, the potential danger is detected and the handlebars vibrate via ultrasonic sensors. The suspension system is also wired for safety: if the bike shakes too much – the result of rough road or potholes, for instance – it alerts other Valour bikes of the disturbance so their GPSs can plan an alternative route. It even includes a search and rescue function in case of theft.
Valour resulted from four Toronto bike geeks – Adil Aftab, Niv Yahel and brothers Ali and Sohaib Zahid – pooling their varied backgrounds in the sciences to promote cycling as a more appealing form of urban transportation. Aftab, now 31, came up with the novel manufacturing process for carbon fibre while working at his family’s business Dita, which makes wooden field hockey sticks. The conversion to carbon fibre sticks also spurred the idea for applying the technology to the framework of bicycles. In October, the first Kickstarter supporters will receive an inaugural edition. The bike is also available on Shopify, starting at $1,249. – Matthew Hague
3 The Google self-driving car
It’s just so cute, the Google self-driving car. It looks like BMW’s Isetta from the early ’50s, a smiley little thing that says, “Oh, the places you’ll go” – but it is much more than just a self-driving car. As the Institute without Boundaries in Toronto concluded a few years ago, the autonomous car will be smaller, lighter, slower, and there will likely be one-tenth the number of them compared to regular cars. Parking garages will disappear, as the cars don’t really stop; they zoom off to pick up somebody else or do a sushi delivery.
The streets will be free of parking spaces and the intersections devoid of annoying traffic lights as the cars flow around one another. Of course, with this vehicle as the sole designated driver, happy hour will be fun again. The air will be clear of pollution, too, and the city much quieter without the sounds of electric motors and tooting horns. Downtowns will be re-greened with boulevards and parks.
Or maybe not. While most people hate the commute from the suburbs, Allison Arieff, editorial director at the urban planning think tank SPUR, predicts that travelling to and from work will become the best part of the day. “If you can read on your iPad, enjoy a cocktail or play a video game while commuting,” she pointed out in one of her New York Times columns, “time spent in the car becomes leisure time, something desirable.” That is what we are doing when not behind the wheel, so why not do it in our Google cars – our little mobile entertainment bubbles, which just happen to take us home. In this scenario, by the time driver-free transportation becomes a reality (predicted to arrive as soon as 2020), cities may well start to empty out, and commute time will become irrelevant. – Lloyd Alter