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University of Portsmouth scientists reinvent the wheel

Scientists at the University of Portsmouth are using the latest breakthroughs in artificial intelligence to develop the world's first thinking car wheel.

The 'smart' wheel is being developed under a £200K Department of Trade and Industry-funded Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) project with Hampshire-based company PML Flightlink Ltd.

University scientists are providing the artificial intelligence systems for the wheels on the company's prototype eco-friendly electric super-car. The wheels use microcomputers to perform 4000 calculations per second and 'talk' to each other. The wheels use AI to think and learn as the car is being driven, making calculations and adjustments according to travelling speed and road conditions.

It is the first time artificial intelligence has replaced fundamental mechanics within a motor vehicle and will mean tighter control, a smoother ride and a safer drive, yet the driver remains in control of the car.

"Conventional wisdom says you can't reinvent the wheel. We have done just that. We have taken the wheel, given it brains and the ability to think and learn. It's a huge breakthrough," said Dr David Brown of the University of Portsmouth's Institute of Industrial Research.

Artificial Intelligence controls the suspension, steering and breaking systems, teaching it to adapt to bends in the road, potholes and other potential hazards, and compensating by adjusting the car's reactions. The information is retained in the computer’s memory and used the next time the car encounters similar road conditions. The car is learning as it drives and adapting its performance accordingly.

Dr Brown said: "Traditional suspension means the vehicle dips when the wheels detect poor road surfaces and you get a bumpy ride, while a tight corner means the drag will slow the vehicle down. Electronic traction control and suspension will counterbalance this kind of drop and drag effect but the driver won’t even know it’s there. It means a faster car but a safer one."

He added: "The next generation of vehicles have the potential to be fully autonomous, but where’s the fun in that? People get pleasure from driving and they will always want the freedom to drive how and where they please."

PML Flightlink designs specialist electronic motors and its electronic vehicle prototype has already received rave reviews at international motoring trade exhibitions.

The company has successfully converted a Mini into an electric vehicle (EV) with four direct-drive wheels, each with an electronic hub motor of 160 break-horse-power. This combined 640 bhp allows for an acceleration of 0-60mph in 4.5 seconds and a top speed of 150 mph (240 kph).

"It will out-perform a Porsche backwards," PML spokesman, Chris Newman said.

A small 250cc petrol engine charges the car’s battery while the car is being driven. In this mode it will run for up to 900 miles before needing to re-fuel, while in pure EV mode it will run for 200 miles. Previous electric models barely managed 60 mph (100kph) and had a range of less than 100 miles.

Mr Newman said: "Today’s electronic technology means that the old idea of an electric car is simply blown out of the water. With a performance of 80-100 mile-per-gallon compared with 40mpg with today’s average car it’s cheap to run and with hardly any mechanical parts, it will also be cheaper to maintain. In EV mode there are zero emissions, which means it’s very eco-friendly. It’s a car for the 21st Century."

The company projects that by the year 2012, 25 per cent of cars in production will be EVs or hybrids.

Lisa Egan | alfa
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