February 12th, 2009

Captain Obvious

Detroit is a victim of their own (and/or Honda's) success.

The industry (that's all the carmakers put together) tries to sell on the order of 11-12 million new cars every year because that's how many cars they build. The problem is it's hard to sell that many cars, even in the best of times - and it's even harder to sell them at any kind of decent profit. For years now the margins on cars have been extremely slim, and getting slimmer. Often as little as a few hundred bucks, net, per car.

Think how lousy a business that is. A car is a hugely complex thing made up of thousands of individual components that must be manufactured at various locations and then assembled into a single unit. Literally thousands of people and several weeks (if not months) of assembly process are involved in the creation of just one finished car.

Also, modern cars, once built, have an extremely long shelf life compared with the cars of the past. With decent care, they can last 15-plus years and more than 200,000 miles. But the auto industry continues to churn out new cars on the 1960s-era assumption that the entire fleet gets recycled every 5-7 years or so. Result? The inventory (new and used) stacks up.

And yet, each year, it seems another automaker jumps into the already overcrowded waters with yet another model to compete against the existing multitude. Making it ever harder to earn a buck off the already-there stuff.


Fast(er) algorithm for the 4-color problem developed.

How many different sudokus are there? How many different ways are there to color in the countries on a map? And how do atoms behave in a solid? Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization in Göttingen and at Cornell University (Ithaca, USA) have now developed a new method that quickly provides an answer to these questions.

In principle, there has always been a way to solve them. However, computers were unable to find the solution as the calculations took too long. With the new method, the scientists look at separate sections of the problem and work through them one at a time. Up to now, each stage of the calculation has involved the whole map or the whole sudoku. The answers to many problems in physics, mathematics and computer science can be provided in this way for the first time.