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Social cars the next step in vehicle technology

By: Elizabeth Kuo
12 September, 2013

A competition open to all ages to find radically fresh, imaginative ideas on what the car of the future will look like has been launched by UTS' Engineering and IT faculty.

Scene: you are driving through a busy shopping centre car park, your senses on high alert for any parked car showing signs of life. As you cruise through, silently scanning your surroundings, you see a flash of brake lights, then the slow reverse of a car's tail. You pounce, marking your target with your indicating light. Breathe, the hunt is over. As you settle back into your car seat, you realise that a moment's hesitation could have meant you were still out there, trawling for that elusive car spot.

What if you never had to worry about fighting for a car spot again? What if your car could reserve a space for you, similar to how you can reserve movie and concert tickets? Smart parking is already a feature of some shopping centres overseas and is just one example of new technologies that will be embedded in social cars of the future.

Associate Dean of Research at UTS Engineering and IT Professor Mary-Anne Williams has witnessed first-hand vehicles that can drive themselves.

"This isn't science fiction, this is today," she said.

"If we have cars that can drive, park and navigate themselves, what's the next step in car technology?"

To become social.

In the near future it's possible that as cars drive themselves around they will interact with pedestrians, other cars on the road and the built environment, while at the same time sharing all this information with other vehicles, Professor Williams said.

"Autonomous cars will make much better use of the roads when they are coordinating with each other, and within a smart city. For example, they will have the ability to move forward simultaneously when the traffic light turns green, and to keep traffic moving more efficiently by choosing the best route to get to your destination."

To help create the ultimate socially-enabled car, Professor Williams will seek inspiration from the most curious and creative of minds: our children. Inviting those from age three to twelve to play "creative-technology designer", her competition aims to uncover fresh, imaginative ideas that can be implemented in university research.

"The idea of autonomous cars cuts across all engineering and information technology areas: energy, robotics, policy, sensor networks and communications," Professor Williams said.

"The opportunity for innovation is right here, and with these blue-sky ideas coming from our kids, we can turn the automotive industry upside down."

And it makes sense. Children have grown up watching movies where cars can talk and have personalities. To them, this is reality.

A bright yellow 1979 mini moke is the ambassador for this competition. Its simple construction makes it the perfect mascot, Professor Williams said.

"We've chosen the moke because we want any new technologies to be immediately apparent. It's just a chassis at the moment, and we can easily add arms, legs, turn it into a helicopter, a submarine… you get the picture."

The vehicle, built from scratch by engineers and technologists at UTS, also has an Australian registered number plate – SOCIAL. The competition has received interest from many industry organisations, including GoGet. Sponsoring $2000 in prizes, GoGet has also agreed to put SOCIAL in their fleet for people who enter the competition to drive it around Sydney.

It's a novel way to promote future car technologies, and a great way for the community to engage in research. To Professor Williams, this community aspect is most important.

"We want to give children the chance to shape the future, and impact on current research happening in our university."

To enter the Car of the Future competition, visit carofthefuture.uts.edu.au.

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