The trip of a lifetime?

THERE’S NOTHING quite as arduous as waiting in line to check-in at the airport, queue through security, and then wait for the announcement that confirms your flight is awaiting boarding.  Think of the time, and hassle, you could save if an alternative was offered with similar levels of luxury and speed comparable to that of a domestic or long-haul flight.  So what is this ‘alternative’?  It’s a two-wheeled vehicle that utilises the main arterial routes of a country to transport you from A to B.   

This is the audacious idea of 22-year-old, David Eburah, a final year automotive design student studying at Coventry University.  His ‘Route’ concept was recently short listed and chosen to feature at this year’s Detroit Auto Show as part of the 2009 Michelin Design Challenge.  Eburah explains to me that ‘Route’ can realistically fulfil its aim of offering personal transport to take on America’s highways by “competing against the capabilities of time and flexibility currently offered by airline companies”.

Surprisingly, ‘Route’ (pictured below) didn’t come about as part of his University studies, but rather the idea emerged during a yearlong placement with Disney Interactive between May 2007 and May 2008.  From a number of initial sketches spanning almost three months that saw his room transformed into an “idea generation area”, Eburah reached a stage four weeks prior to the competition’s submission date where his sketches were, as he referred to them, “presentable”.  What to make of the ‘Route’, though?

Eburah reassures me that the idea is really very simple.  In essence, all people have to do is ‘arrive and drive’.  Users don’t even require a driving license.  That’s because the ‘Route’ is controlled by a Global Positioning System (GPS) with no input – physical or mental – required on behalf of the occupant.  Steering, speed, and braking are all determined by the vehicle’s electronics, meaning people can sit back and relax until they arrive at their destination.  When I ask Eburah what implications this could have towards the safety of pedestrians and fellow road users, his response makes my reservations appear trivial.

“It’s been and continues to be proven that automated cars tend to be a lot safer,” says Eburah.  “So if more cars are automated or have a computer system, they can communicate with another on the road.  Additionally, these systems can react to the actions of other road users more quickly than any human could.  Because the systems have control over the vehicles, it can control their behaviour and characteristics, almost disciplining the vehicle.  In the ‘Route’, its computer will offer better performance and control than a human ever could.”

The idea of cars driving themselves and ‘interacting’ with one another is not new technology, with some of the world’s largest automotive companies toying with the idea, including Vauxhall and Volvo.  The Swedish company’s latest car, the XC60 has accident-avoidance and protective safety technologies as standard, and recently Vauxhall fitted its Vectra saloon with a number of lasers and cameras designed to ‘read’ the road  150 metres in front of the car.

'Route' Concept

Eburah's computer rendeing of his single seater 'Route' concept

By offering a hire car to people that can realistically achieve speeds of 2-300mph, the time saved away from the airport will mean reaching your destination at best, sooner, and at worst, at the same time, but certainly more relaxed for it.  And for however long that journey may be, the single occupant will be kept entertained and relaxed with computer graphic screens and surround sound system, with sleeping even an option.

The key feature of the ‘Route’ is its rear wheel with its built-in suspension system and engine, with both serving a purpose far greater than the freeing up of interior packaging space.  By moving the hub-motors horizontally across the wheel’s suspension via hydraulics, the balance of the vehicle can be altered, which improves handling dynamics when turning.  Expanding and contracting support arms are used to control the front and rear steering controls, too.

Powering the ‘Route’ is an engine fuelled by a series of lithium-ion batteries.  Long-distances can be covered and power prolonged due to the use of light-weight aluminium.  Eburah admits that when designing the ‘Route’, the environmental aspect was not foremost in his mind, but on reflection concedes that it does house a number of “hidden environmental aspects”.

“Even though I said the materials aren’t focused towards being environmentally friendly, one of the major properties of aluminium, for example, is that it’s lighter than steel, so that in itself serves an environmental purpose,” he argues.  “You therefore don’t need as much power to move the vehicle because there is less mass to propel.  The ‘Route’s’ materials are not focused on being environmentally friendly, however, there are built in properties that generically come with the material that provide that.”

To his credit, and to my surprise, Eburah took the time to learn an all-new computer programme called Modo to design his concept despite having prior knowledge and Alias, an industry recognised software.  He tells me that ‘Route’ was the very first design he made in Modo as part of “a study for learning the programme”.

He adds: “It turned out how I imagined it would.  ‘Route’ encapsulate the essence of something that could be made available in the future by showcasing what is capable with technology.”  Understandably, on reflection, there are a number of changes Eburah would like to make to the ‘Route’, comprising of cleaner, taughter surfaces, but how does he gauge the success of his design and the work that he has put into it?

“It’s successful because I’m happy with it.  But anyone within the design community knows that press coverage and having your design and name out there is much more significant than any prize.  The satisfaction and enjoyment comes from having your work presented to such a large audience.  That’s why I enter all of these competitions, and I believe mine was picked because not only did it adhere to the brief, but it also gives judges the opportunity to show people the possibilities of the future.”

The ‘Route’ is a long way off making production any time soon, but you have to admire the idea, and the very real possibility that some day this two-wheeled vehicle may well be hurtling past you at a terrifying rate of knots.  Unless, of course, you are the occupant experiencing what promises to be the trip of a lifetime.

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