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Businessweek Archives

"This Is Mission Control. Start The Car"

Developments to Watch

"This Is Mission Control. Start the Car"

Today, if a car's ignition switch stops responding, it probably means a costly repair to the wiring. For a military vehicle, it could mean dangerous delays on the battlefield. But fixing the malfunction could be as simple as rerouting the faulty command, thanks to new technology being developed at the Product Development & Manufacturing Center (PDMC) at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich.

PDMC is working with the National Automotive Center of the U.S. Army Tank Command and a consortium of carmakers to develop the technology, which uses radio frequencies instead of wires to send commands to vehicle equipment. If a control panel is damaged, critical functions can be transferred to another set of controls by an onboard computer. The consortium is currently testing the technology, which operates through a laptop attached to the vehicle's dashboard, in both a Jeep Grand Cherokee and a Hummer military vehicle. Future versions of the device will be integrated into the car's internal systems--and may even be operated and monitored remotely, says Patrick E. Dessert, PDMC director. The radio frequency system would replace much of the car's wiring. Dessert estimates that this could translate into $300 in savings per vehicle in warranty costs.By Jeff Green; Edited by Ellen LickingReturn to top

Aerodynamics Makes for Safer Trucks

Engineers often use wind tunnels to test aircraft designs. But Bob Englar is testing trucks. Based on months of experiments, the inventor and principal researcher at Georgia Tech Research Institute believes he can achieve a 35% reduction in aerodynamic drag on tractor-trailers by venting compressed air through small slots on the sides and back of the trailer. That reduction translates to roughly a 12% drop in fuel consumption. If this technology were applied to the whole U.S. fleet of trucks, it could save as much as 1.2 billion gallons of fuel a year, according to the American Trucking Assns., which enthusiastically support Englar's research.

Drag reduction is just one benefit, says Englar, whose work was done under contract with Oak Ridge National Laboratories. Controlled air gusts could also reduce rolling resistance--the friction of weighted tires on the road. By blowing air from vents at the top of the back panel on a fortified 65,000-pound truck, the engineer believes he can produce 12,000 to 15,000 pounds of effective lift. "It's as though the tractor-trailer were a wing," says Englar. There is also a safety payoff: By venting air from the bottom slots on the trailer, "traction is better, and so is braking," he says.By Neil Gross; Edited by Ellen LickingReturn to top

This Brain Protein May Loosen Parkinson's Grip

New research published in the Oct. 27 Science offers hope to the 1 million Americans suffering from Parkinson's disease. A team of international scientists led by Dr. Jeffrey H. Kordower of Rush Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago has used gene therapy to prevent the degeneration of brain cells in monkeys with Parkinson's. Ronald D.G. McKay, a neurobiologist at the National Institutes of Health, calls the study "a step forward," but cautions that "there is still a lot of work to be done."

The loss of muscle control and function that occurs in Parkinson's is caused by the progressive degeneration of certain brain cells called dopamine neurons. Previous studies with a specific brain protein called GDNF suggested that this molecule can prevent dopamine neuron loss. But delivering GDNF to the critical brain cells is difficult. To overcome this barrier, Kordower and his colleagues first used a sample of HIV that was gutted of its infectious genes to ferry the GDNF gene inside the neurons.

The group then directly injected this viral carrier, or vector, into the brains of the monkeys that had Parkinson's disease. One month after treatment, the monkeys that had been treated with GDNF had much better control over their movements than untreated monkeys. In addition, brain scans of GDNF-treated monkeys showed that the genetic medicine had stanched neuron degeneration.Edited by Ellen LickingReturn to top

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