Natural, low-fi, and high-tech ideas that are improving our roads

This column published as "Old Problems, New Solutions" in February 2020 issue

David Matthews / February 03, 2020
David Matthews
Scotland may be known for bagpipes, whiskey, and the Loch Ness Monster, but that’s only scratching the surface.

Did you know Scotland has more sheep than people? Or that it boasts the highest percentage of redheads in the world? Or that its official animal is a unicorn?!

Most people are also unaware that thanks to favorable tidal conditions, constant sea temperatures, and unpolluted shores, seaweed is plentiful in Scotland and regarded as a delicacy in many areas.

But seaweed isn’t just for eating—it’s also used in medicine, cosmetics, and most recently as car fuel.

In fact, a car powered by Scottish seaweed completed a 50-mile journey through Denmark in December. It was part of an EU-funded project called MacroFuels tasked with developing cleaner alternatives to standard gasoline.

The Scottish Association for Marine Sciences cultivated around 4 tons of seaweed to be used as the raw material for the project. 

After being dried and fed into a wood chipper, another team of scientists in the Netherlands converted it into fuel by mixing the ethanol and butanol produced from the seaweed’s sugar with conventional fuels to create E10 and B10 blends. 

Scientists described the results of the test drive as “very promising” after the seaweed-based fuels behaved like conventional gasoline and diesel in both performance and emissions tests.

While the project proved that seaweed can be used to fuel private cars, scientists believe it could eventually be more important to commercial airlines, which are expected to consume 98 billion gal of fuel worldwide this year. 

Music to their ears

Apple AirPods wireless headphones were the hottest gift this past Christmas. While that’s good news for music lovers, scientists believe it’s bad news for pedestrian safety.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were 6,283 pedestrians in the U.S. killed in traffic crashes in 2018—a 3% increase from the previous year and the most since 1990.

Also on the rise during the same time was “twalking,” the act of walking while texting or otherwise staring at a screen, often with headphones on. Coincidence? 

Scientists at Columbia University think not, so they’re developing smart headphones capable of deciphering hundreds of street sounds in order to warn pedestrians of impending harm.

The headphones contain mini microphones and intelligent signal processing that detect and decipher hundreds of street sounds from up to
65 yd away. 

Machine-learning algorithms on a paired smartphone app identify the sounds, and if one is determined to be an approaching hazard, the headphones play an audio warning.

The technology, which won a development grant worth nearly $1.2 million from the National Science Foundation, is currently being tested on the noisy streets of New York.

In the meantime, researchers recommend that pedestrians stay alert, wear bright or reflective clothing, and leave the AirPods under the Christmas tree.

Simple solutions

Safety doesn’t have to be high-tech.

A new study from New Zealand shows that one of the best methods for improving driver safety is simply having another person in the car.

Researchers from Waikato University studied 500 drivers to see how safety and decision-making are affected by the presence of passengers. 

They found that drivers over the age of 25 felt more responsibility with passengers in the car and therefore were more patient and careful. 

Drivers also felt that they were safer drivers when passengers played the role of co-driver, providing a second pair of eyes and hands.

The key, though, was for passengers to avoid being a bossy backseat driver and instead give indirect advice. 

For example, if a driver is exceeding the speed limit, a comment like “Gee, I didn’t realize the speed limit here is only 45 mph” was shown to be more effective than yelling “Slow down before you get us all killed, you #@$% idiot! You drive just as bad as your mother!”

About the Author

Matthews has been chronicling the unexpectedly humorous side of transportation news since 2000. The stories are all true.

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