With petrol prices and environmental awareness both on the rise, 'smart cars' constitute an idea whose time is surely coming. They may seem like the stuff of futuristic dreams, but researchers at Chinese University's robotics laboratory are working to make those dreams a reality. The team, part of the university's mechanical and automation engineering department, has created a type of 'smart car' whose four wheels can all turn, communicate with each other and effectively learn the driver's habits. Their work fundamentally applies robotics expertise to car design. 'There are so many close relationships between robots and vehicles. We consider cars as robots for transport,' said Qian Huihuan, one of the researchers. 'And because travelling is essential to daily life we think we must expand the boundaries of what we can do with them.' In their latest project, the team - which consists of more than ten engineers - have created a system called the iStarter, which works to automatically stop a car's engine when it idles for more than 10 seconds, but will quickly restart itself when it senses the driver moving out of neutral. Their tests have shown the iStarter can cut fuel consumption by 8 per cent. 'Environmental pollution and the shortage of non-renewable energy are challenging problems, especially now when vehicles are everywhere,' said Qian, an assistant to Xu Yangsheng, pro-vice-chancellor of the university and professor of automation and computer-aided engineering. 'That's why two years ago we began thinking about ways to reduce fuel consumption and pollutant emission.' Now, two years later and having been funded to the tune of around HK$3 million from the Hong Kong Innovation and Technology Fund, the project has come to fruition. The team now plans to show the system to manufacturers. 'Then, it is possible we may see it on the road,' Quan said. Apart from saving fuel and helping to protect the environment, the laboratory has also tackled one of the more traditional components of motor vehicle: the front-wheel steering structure. 'Vehicles have been front-wheel steering for about 200 years. It actually limits cars' mobility and flexibility [in terms of fitting into tight parking spaces],' he said. 'At the same time, with more and more vehicles running and parking, it is important that we find ways to reduce the space required for parking manoeuvring and increase parking capacity within the limited space.' With HK$11million in funding, again from the Innovation and Technology Fund, the team began developing a four-wheel independent steering 'omni-directional' car in 2006. Tests have shown the vehicle increases space efficiency from 40 to 67 per cent and reduces the time needed for parking by about 50 per cent. A number of car companies have shown interest in the technology, but models are still undergoing testing in the Chinese University garage. 'Much effort and time is still needed before it can hit the road,' Quan said. The lab has also been working on safety issues aimed at reducing traffic accidents, which are especially rife on the mainland. Citing official figures, Quan said rear-end accidents - often caused by low visibility - were particularly common, making up about 70 per cent of all mainland traffic accidents. So, in 2009 the laboratory developed a vehicle-to-vehicle real-time surveillance and safety enhancement system, which lets vehicles fitted with a wireless local area network component share their respective positions, their travelling state and other on-the-road information . The system also allows 'vehicle-to-infrastructure' communication: when there is an accident, it will evaluate the severity - for instance slight bumping, airbag activation or a car flipping over, and sends out the information via GSM, GPRS or a 3G network. 'Some companies in vehicle onboard devices have shown interest, but are still evaluating it,' Quan said. In the US, vehicle-to-infrastructure communication - a step towards the goal of the 'driverless', or fully automated, car - has been a major area of development for more than a decade. For instance, General Motors' OnStar communication system alerts a 24-hour call centre staffed by 2,000 operators if any of its users crash. Motorists are immediately put in contact with an operator, which may help to save lives. Meanwhile, according to a report published in China Daily in July, a driverless car travelled about 175 miles, at around 55 mph, on an expressway linking Changsha and Wuhan - the capitals of Hunan and Hubei provinces - alongside other vehicles on the road. Remarkably, the car used no GPS assistance, instead relying solely on video cameras and radar sensors to see the road and the other drivers. The car, a Hongqi HQ3 developed by the National University of Defence Technology, was controlled by a proprietary artificial intelligence system in the car's trunk. The car managed to travel the long distance without any problems. 'Research on unmanned cars started late in China, but some technologies already meet international standards,' said He Hangen, a professor on the research team. In the US, some states are already on their way to passing legislation giving driverless cars a seal of approval - with Nevada doing so in June - and Google's driverless models have already driven 140,000 hours in tests. In June, a bill was passed in Washington state granting the Department of Transportation authorisation to draft a set of regulations and rules governing autonomous cars. Qian said vehicles in the future will be 'safer, more energy- and space-efficient, intelligent and easy to use'. By 'intelligent' he means systems which allow cars to learn from a driver's behaviour. An intelligent car-key system would know when someone other than the owner was driving and then alert the owner in case of theft. 'We will try to ultimately incorporate all the developed technologies into one vehicle, but it is better to be done step by step,' Quan said. The future of cars is likely to arrive bit by bit.