The global engineer

E&T's globetrotting engineer test-drives (vicariously) a new generation of hire cars.

I know it's a terrible cliché, but I'm a woman who's never been able to reverse a car.

I'll do anything to avoid having to stare into the wing mirrors and go backwards to park. And when it's a hired car, it's even more terrifying. Nothing will make me take the chance of approaching a space from the rear. I know from personal experience that just one tiny tap in a hired car can cost a huge amount.

So I was delighted to come across the Pivo, the world's first 360-degree rotating car that you don't have to reverse. When you want to travel in the opposite direction, you just press a button and the whole body lifts up and spins around on its base.

The Pivo strangely resembles the Bubble Car my mother had when we were kids. But there's nothing retro about this concept car from Nissan. It's powered by a lithium-ion battery, making it zero emission in use, and eliminates blind spots by displaying its surroundings on screens inside the vehicle.

Unfortunately, you can't hire the Pivo. But you can see a model of it at the Science of Survival exhibition at the Science Museum in London, where it's fittingly housed close to other pioneering modes of transport, from original steam engines to the Mini and Apollo 10 command module.

When it comes to what is available from car rental companies, it's often more Fred Flintstone than futuristic. Most innovations concentrate on the interior. American car rental companies offer satellite radio with up to 170 channels including weather and traffic, usually free, and navigation systems for a daily charge.

Some companies equip their cars with OnStar's Safe and Sound service, which automatically sends a signal for help, if an air bag opens, and has a button to press in any emergency.

This spring, Avis introduced wireless Internet into its fleet, available through a unit that plugs into the cigarette lighter.

While this may make our experience of car hire more pleasant and, possibly, safer, it doesn't make it any more efficient or cheaper. Some American companies offer electronic toll payment, enabling renters to use express lanes at toll checkpoints, saving time and money.

CarDelMar has tried to tackle the often high cost of car hire by offering My Price - an Internet service where you can bid for the car you want, setting your own price. But the most pioneering approach to car hire is not to rent your own vehicle at all, however cheap, but to car share wherever you are.

Zipcar, where you rent by the hour, now operates throughout the US, Canada and in London. Once you've signed up, you get a credit-card key and can pick up a car at the nearest location, wherever you happen to be. The company says that for every car they rent in this way, up to 20 are taken off the road, thereby reducing congestion and overall fuel emissions.

Less stress

Fewer cars on the road means less stress for drivers which is what a group of scientists at the Technical University of Berlin are hoping to achieve. They believed the proliferation of in-car technologies has made driver distraction a vital, pressing issue, so they're developing a 'smart' dashboard that reduces the amount of information displayed when the driving conditions are demanding. By cutting distractions during periods of high brain activity, measured using electroencephalograms (EEGs), the team discovered they could speed up driver's reactions by as much as 100 milliseconds - enough to reduce braking distance by nearly three metres at 100kmph.

If you hire a car in India from Holiday Autos, it doesn't come with such sophisticated kit, but you can have a chauffeur to relieve the stress and pick you up from Delhi or Mumbai Airport. Holiday Autos provide standard Fords and Renaults, but now even Skoda is designing cars to be chauffeur-driven. In September, the Skoda Superb goes on sale - almost as long as a junior stretch-limo, with leather and wood interior.

Oddly, two wheels may offer more innovation than four. Anjou Tourism in the Western Loire has introduced the first GPS handheld guide for cyclists - and it's free. It covers a 65km trail, not only allowing riders to pinpoint where they are but what they're seeing. It carries an extensive database of local sights, from architecture to natural beauty spots.

While road transport winds slowly on, sea travel surges ahead. I've been updating you on the continuing quest to build bigger and bigger ships. Now P&O Ferries has just commissioned two new vessels from the Finnish shipbuilder Aker Yards for its Dover-Calais service - the largest ferries ever to operate in the 'short sea' sector. With room for 160 articulated lorries, these ferries double the capacity of the ships they're replacing. A third deck will carry 250 cars. (Aker Yards has big ambitions; it also built the recently launched Independence of the Seas, the world's largest passenger ship.)

It's such a pity that we'll still see rows of saloons and hatchbacks, rather than Pivos.

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