London’s Albert Bridge – a very pretty and illuminated part-suspension bridge – crosses the Thames between Chelsea and Battersea. It often appears in films and TV ads (Cheryl Cole’s new hairspray is the latest).
A few years ago, it was closed to traffic for over a year for repairs. Kensington and Chelsea council blamed ‘Chelsea tractors’ for damaging the fragile structure, which had a two tonne weight limit.
That turned out to be a load of spin: the damage was mostly being caused by London’s Black Cab fleet, which easily weigh over two tonnes with a couple of passengers on board.
After the re-vamp, the bridge’s weight limit was upped to three tonnes. With Black Cabs now less of a threat, the real problem for the bridge would clearly have been commercial vehicles, such as super-sized vans and lorries.
Common sense would suggest that the best way to prevent the vans crossing the bridge would be to install a height restriction. Instead, the council re-installed the dreaded width restrictors at each end of the bridge.
These pillars are permanently scarred by the impact of expensive premium metal as car drivers struggle to squeeze through the steel trap. I have a feeling that the distance between these tank traps has not been reconsidered since somebody measured a 1978 Ford Cortina across the mirrors.
Of course, cars are getting wider and wider, making it tricky to negotiate even common obstacles like supermarket car parks and 1970s multi-stories. Both Gatwick and Heathrow airports have recently laid out wider parking spaces, as the existing slots were likely to leave even a Vauxhall Insignia driver trapped inside his car, unable to open the driver’s door.
I’ve driven Autocar’s long-term Range Rover and as fabulous as it is, it is also fabulously wide. Indeed, in the UK I’d say it was verging on being too big. Unlike the Mk3 model, with its traditional flat sides, the barrel-sided new model is harder to squeeze around.
A few weeks ago, the inevitable happened. With London’s affluent streets filling up with the new, super-sized, Range Rover and Range Rover Sports, two of them collided in a narrow Chelsea street, resulting in one of the cars rolling over onto its side.
Yes, of course you shouldn’t be using a new-generation Range Rover as a car for local errands, but the punters love the luxury and high-point view. And buying one is all-good for the UK economy.
But still, these cars are now demonstrably more difficult to drive in urban conditions, whether it’s London’s gold-paved districts or the Waitrose car park in Leamington Spa.
Fear not, though, because a solution is being developed by JLR engineers as you read this. As part of a recent technical presentation at JLR’s Gaydon facility, we were shown very early work on ‘structured light’ – laser to you and me – projections.
Research engineer Paul Widdowson originally came up with the idea to project orange arrows onto the road surfaces after he got hemmed in on a motorway because the other drivers couldn’t see his indicators.
However, Widdowson demonstrated something even more useful. A green box is projected a few meters ahead of the vehicle and is the exact width of the car. Fitted to a Range Rover, the laser box – which can be seen in sunlight - would give a driver a way of picking through tight urban streets knowing the exact width of their vehicle as well as giving a clear indication when a gap is too narrow.