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Top 10 Tech Stories: Ten that titillated my innermost nerd

I spend my entire year poring over automotive trade magazines and engineering journals so you don’t have to. These were the stories that revved my motor most. If I missed your favorite, jog my memory in the comments section.

1) Hydrogen inches closer to reality.
There was loads of hydrogen news this year, with test drives of the Honda FCX Clarity grabbing the biggest headlines. Being first to "market," with a $600/month lease is indeed big news, but I was more knocked out by the promise of storing hydrogen at near gasoline’s energy density by carrying gasoline (or diesel, or E85) and stripping the hydrogen atoms off it in a compact and reportedly simple devise under development by Power+Energy. Stationary fuel-cell generators will be delivered to the Navy later this year. Keep your fingers crossed. If this works, the FCX Clarity could have lots of competition soon!

2) GM strikes back on the Green front.
First GM stole the 2007 Detroit Auto Show with the Chevy Volt concept, a plug-in electric car that can offer numerous range-extending devices ranging from a traditional generator bolted to a gasoline, E85, or diesel engine, to a fuel cell, or an enlarged battery pack. The Volt’s E-flex platform is being developed for production, with Opel and Cadillac concepts already in the works, and a team of engineers and designers at work solving the many problems this new architecture presents. Then, by rolling out its impressive two-mode hybrid SUVs, the General marched deeper into the Green Zone occupied almost single-handedly by Toyota. If sales go as planned, fuel saved by GM hybrids could quickly overtake the amount saved by all the Priuses and other Hybrid Synergy Drive vehicles in short order.

3) Bastard DiesOtto Engines.
It’s been the holy grail of gasoline combustion technology for decades: Run as lean as a diesel and initiate all-over combustion via compression ignition, but burn cleaner gasoline in a cheaper engine. The bugaboo was always the engine control technology. Well, Moore’s Law (cheapening and improving computing technology) and new sensors that can monitor real-time cylinder-pressure data for each cylinder during each revolution made it possible for me to drive a GM development vehicle that performed darned admirably. There’s still work to be done, but all the bigs are working on this concept, so expect to see it soon.

4) Robotic vehicles.
This year, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) challenged universities and their auto industry sponsors to develop fully autonomous vehicles that could navigate busy streets and parking lots in the presence of moving traffic. In marked contrast to the first DARPA Challenge, over half of the 12 finalist teams managed to complete the tricky task of going to five different check points, having been given the map only 24 hours in advance, and the order of the checkpoints just five minutes in advance. This was big news, and brings us a baby-step closer to a future of fast-moving, closely spaced traffic on automated highways.

5) Communicating cars.
Safely and efficiently accommodating the ever-growing number of personal vehicles squeezing onto our limited roadways is going to require some ingenuity, and one nice example of this I sampled this year is vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication. Chain-reaction accidents and fog pileups could be greatly reduced if a vehicle encountering a problem could warn others in the vicinity of the hazard, by communicating directly with nearby cars, and with the infrastructure to warn drivers farther out. We’ll also soon have cars that can communicate with their makers, accepting software upgrades automatically, reporting malfunctions and wear and tear, without the owner/driver ever knowing. And we’re promised the cars won’t narc us out to the speed-enforcement and Homeland Security types.

6) Seeing-eye cars.
New high-end cars will soon bristle with cameras that can look both ways when emerging from a blind alley, read traffic signs, warn of lane departures or blind-spot obstructions, discern pedestrians from stationary objects, identify "bogeys" ahead for intelligent cruise control systems, locate parking spots and guide the car into them, check for out-of-position occupants or drowsy drivers, and the list goes on. Cheap CMOS cameras and infra-red range-finding image sensors are making many recently unthinkable technologies possible and profitable.

7) Air hybrids.
I loved the story in our August issue about the ultra-light (1100-lb), super-cheap ($9000) commuter car that could drive 60 miles on 50 gallons of 4350-psi compressed air, a range that could be extended by burning fuel to reheat the expanding gas to approximate isothermic expansion. It may never be made safe or refined enough for western tastes, but its simplicity is admirable.

8) Morph-mobiles.
I also got pretty jazzed about the June item on shape-memory alloys, which can be formed, then deformed, returning to their original shape when heated. The initial applications will likely involve cables made of this NiTinol wire, which pull vents or aero wings, or assist handles into place when heated electrically. Further out we may get custom-formed seats and maybe even bodywork that can heal itself.

9) VVT for dummies.
Sorry, that’s a cheap shot. There’s nothing inherently "dumb" about cam-in-block pushrod engines, especially when they’re outfitted with a CamInCam camshaft that made its debut on the 2008 Dodge Viper. An ordinary INA cam phaser like those found on myriad overhead-cammers twists an inner shaft connected to the exhaust valves, rotating them up to 40 degrees relative to the intake lobes, which are mounted to a concentric hollow shaft. Minimal valve overlap makes for smooth, quiet idle and clean emissions, while big overlap boosts power when the hammer’s down. Between idle and 3000 rpm, depending on throttle position, the overlap increases to the maximum amount. The system is less expensive than two or four cam phasers on a DOHC engine, so expect to see this technology spread among other high-end OHV engines.

10) LED headlights.
Audi‘s European R8 supercar and Cadillac’s uber-blingy Escalade Platinum Edition debuted the latest technology in forward lighting. Light Emitting Diode headlamps emit a more precise light pattern and more closely resemble natural daylight than traditional halogen lighting. LEDs are environmentally friendly, using much less power and lasting more than 20 times longer than traditional halogen bulbs too. You’ll see a lot more of these soon.