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4 cool tech ideas that are transforming the auto industry

Maybe tech won’t save the world, but these innovative concepts will make it just a little bit better. River power, pedal power, battery power and iPhone app power.

I’m no technocrat. I don’t think cool tech alone is going to get us out of the fine mess we’ve made of the planet. But everyday people come up with things that, while not saving the world, at least make it a tiny bit better. Here are four of them.

1) Electric apps: I love the idea of the iPhone PlugShare app, which not only finds available public electric car charging stations—some cars’ built-in software does that—but also connects users to a networks of share-friendly private owners with home chargers. Click on the map, and details of the station (accessible if the garage is locked, for instance) pop up. Here’s the video:

And another iPhone idea, for would-be early adopters: The iEV Electric Car Simulator. Take your regular drive in the gas guzzler, and the app tells you what it would have been like (cost, carbon generated) in a Tesla Roadster or a Nissan Leaf. You’ll also be able to check your driving habits against EV range, using the iEV algorithm. It could help you decide that an EV fits your lifestyle.

2) Lease that electric bike: Micah Toll is trying to “change the way people think about urban transportation. We want to take bicycles beyond recreational uses and replace cars on the road.” Toll, a recent University of Pittsburgh graduate, hooked up with two of his classmates to form Pulse Motors, which will market an electric bicycle, the student-produced Personal Electric Vehicle Zero, or PEV0. They’ve put 4,000 miles on prototypes, and plan to lease the bikes, at first just to students at approximately $1 a day. They’ll also sell the bikes, which have lithium-ion-phosphate battery packs and are speed governed to 20 mph, starting around $2,000.

According to Thorin Tobiassen, the ponytailed chief technology officer, the company’s goal is to get the production version down to 60 pounds from its current 70, and then start leasing. Campuses are only the start—Toll says the company has international plans, including expansion to Israel, which has a built-in electric charging network, courtesy of Better Place. Inc. Magazine identifies Pulse as one of 2012’s “Coolest College Startups.” Here’s Tobiassen on video:

3) River power: Graduate student Tim Bagatti pushed a button at Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering and set a miniature river in motion at seven feet per second. He’s part of a team that’s trying to capture hydrokinetic energy not from ocean waves, but from the abundant river currents in America. In the tiny river is what looks like a snow plow blade on springs, and the movement of the waves makes it bounce up and down vigorously. See it here on video:

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