Automotive & transport

Robotic cars

According to enthusiasts of the technology, self-driving cars could prevent around 90 per cent of the 1.2 million traffic deaths and 50 million traffic injuries caused worldwide each year . They would also make traffic jams (and possibly parking spaces and taxi drivers) a relic of the past.

The idea is certainly appealing. In many situations driving is no longer a pleasure. In the US the average commuter spends 50 minutes per day at the wheel of a car. Allowing ‘drivers’ to do something else in the front seat could have its advantages.

The front seat could, for instance, become an office, entertainment centre or even a breakfast table, increasing personal productivity and reducing loneliness and boredom. Cars that can (safely) drive themselves may appeal to the elderly (many of whom cannot legally drive).

Self-driving cars could force a major rethink about what a car is and what a car is for. Autonomous cars could also challenge our ideas about how and why we purchase them. They are usually the most expensive items or assets that people own after their homes. Cars have been an emblem of individualism, mobility and freedom and identity for over a century, but younger people are already walking away from car ownership due to cost and impracticality. Nowadays, personal identity and mobility are often delivered via smartphone or social network.

Much of the technology that allows cars to drive themselves already exists. We have lane detection and collision avoidance systems, steering and braking assistance, advanced cruise control, GPS and Google maps. (You don’t seriously think that Google maps and Google Street View are being developed for people to find their way around the world by themselves, do you?)

Ultimately, we may abandon the whole idea of owning and driving our own vehicles. Instead we will subscribe to one - or many (as some already do). We will summon a vehicle with a tap of a smart device and leave it anywhere we like when we no longer need it. It will never run out of fuel (see inductive charging story below). The need for parking spaces or new roads will fall because cars will be constantly circling the streets looking for rides and drive closer together, making more efficient use of existing road networks.

However, history and associated cultural norms can take a long time to change, especially when associated with totemic objects (spiritual or social significance). Moreover, when we no longer need to drive cars, we may find we’d like to. Driving purely for pleasure may return. Surrendering control to a robot may prove too much for some people too (especially if the car locks you in each time ‘you’ drive). If there are fatal accidents caused by robots we may take time to trust them again.

As for turning cars into places of work and social connection, we might find this is precisely what people will wish to avoid. A car remains one of the last private spaces and the intrusion of yet more work (or people) may be resisted. As for boredom, even this can have its uses and many an idea arose out of a boring car ride.

Ref: Financial Times (UK) 21-22 September 2013, ‘Look, no hands’ by H. Foy and R. waters.
Search words: Self-driving cars, autonomous vehicles, robotics, deaths, boredom, pleasure, accidents.

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Wireless power transfer

Two of the biggest problems with electric vehicles are the time and inconvenience of recharging batteries and the range of the car once fully charged. One solution to inconvenience, and also a partial solution to range anxiety, might be in-road inductive charging.

Rather than finding a power socket and uncoiling a length of cable, you simply drive the vehicle onto a plate (or more accurately a coil) embedded in or upon the surface of the road. Electromagnetic induction then charges the vehicle wirelessly (no need for wires or plugs of any kind).

What’s new here is that scientists have developed a way to do this with an energy transfer efficiency of about 90 per cent. Markings on the road guide the vehicle, a bus for instance, to a specific spot and a coil fitted below the vehicle then picks up a charge from pads embedded in the road.

You could totally charge your vehicle while parked in a garage, car park or shopping centre (shopping centre owners take note) or you could simply extend the range of a vehicle by topping up the batteries en route.

If convenience is a major driver (ha ha) for the adoption of electric vehicles – and we think it is - then this technology could prove invaluable.

Ref: New Scientist (UK) 25 January 2014, ‘Invisible charge’ by P. Marks

Search words: Electric vehicles, batteries, inductive charging, wireless power, convenience, range.
Trend tags: Electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles.

Cars in China

In 2002, China’s population of a billion plus people drove just 21.4 million cars. By 2013, this number had grown six times to 137 million. Today, the Chinese buy more cars than any other country on the planet, and, in so doing, may be irreversibly changing it. They are certainly changing mega-cities, such as Beijing, where the air is filthy and occasionally dangerous to breathe. But why shouldn’t they?

Westerners made urban air filthy until quite recently (Paris still is) and since we’ve had a love affair with the car for the past 100 years, why not developing nations and the new middle classes too? In China, cars are part of the Chinese Dream – part of the long march from poverty to prosperity.

They represent success and, most importantly, the external projection of mobility and identity. If China has more road deaths each year than any other country (275,000 during 2010 according to the World Health Organisation) - or the air is too dirty – they are just by-products of progress.

If and when China’s 1.3 billion people start to acquire second cars (or have more than one child) due to pent up demand, the mind boggles. While car ownership is likely to expand much further, we’d expect they way they approach it to change fairly rapidly too.

China could be the first country to mandate the use of electric vehicles, thereby addressing pollution and air quality. We’d predict that a city in China will one day be the first to say that, if you want to drive in the city, you can’t. This is unless you are willing to let your car drive you, thereby addressing road deaths and problems of urban congestion and parking.

Ref: Time (US) 24 March 2014, ‘China’s Road Show’ by M. Schuman.
Search words: China, electric vehicles, pollution, deaths, ownership, progress, success, middle class.

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Hands-free driving

Here’s a second slant on self-driving cars. Of the 10 million accidents that occur in the US each year, 9.5 million are the fault of humans. Google’s self-driving car therefore makes a lot of sense.

As we’ve already seen, cars kill an awful lot of people. But in the context of almost three trillion miles driven every year by Americans, around 1 million car accidents isn’t really that many. People regularly drive while drunk, texting, or eating and while not paying proper attention - there could be many more accidents than there are.

There are essentially two broad solutions to making cars (people) safer and taking the chore of driving away from the driver. One is smart cars, the other is smart roads. Both are very old ideas.

The idea of putting tracks, or wires, in roads to steer cars - a cross between dodgems and trams – has been around since the 1950s and could work perfectly well, except we currently stumble to even stump up the cash to fix potholes. Making roads supersmart and keeping them clever - while constantly digging them up for repairs and to add/renew infrastructure – might be too difficult.

Making the cars themselves smart – so they drive themselves - has also been well addressed, but still looks like the better option. Progress has been considerable, even over the last decade, but the complexity of the problem should not be underestimated.

Human drivers, for all their stupidity, are still pretty smart. Humans can tell the difference between a windblown plastic bag in the middle of the road and a solid object, such as a piece of concrete. Shadows of trees are not usually confused with highway edges and it’s fairly easy to tell the difference between a child on a bicycle and a deer too.

Finally, while hands-free driving is certainly coming, it may take longer to arrive than some people think. Machines, even smart ones, break down and while we’re reasonably tolerant of computers and mobile phones not working, cars are another matter, particularly when the car is in control.

In short, a dropped mobile phone signal or crashed tablet is rarely a matter of life and death. A self-driving car going haywire at 70 miles per hour could well be.

Remember the Toyota recall of 10 million supposedly defective cars in 2009? It was rumoured that some cars were accelerating by themselves and a few people certainly died. This defect cost Toyota more than one billion dollars. Digital cars would also be a target for hackers and cyber-terrorists and, sooner or later, something will undoubtedly go wrong and someone will be killed by a car driving itself.

This explains the caution of the automotive industry, especially in the litigation-prone US and Australia. Car companies are also big companies and this will make them a target for electric ambulance-chasing lawyers as well as terrorists.

So what’s next? The answer will be natural caution and incremental levels of technology and trust in it. The big carmakers will proceed in the direction of driverless cars but at a slow pace. Technology firms will be less cautious, but even here the technology push will be subject to consumer pull and legislation will tend to obstruct it. For example, people are currently licensed to drive, but cars by themselves are generally not. The future will therefore arrive piece by piece with the odd crash, sudden braking and multiple pile-up.

Ref: The New Yorker (US) 25 November 2013, ‘Auto correct’ by B. Bilger.

Search words: digital cars, litigation, trust, crash, self-driving, Google,
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How to stop a speeding vehicle

Stopping speeding and suspect vehicles can be a difficult task. It can be dangerous too if the vehicle, or one in pursuit, collides with another vehicle or a pedestrian. The police have been using spike strips for some time, but these can be difficult to put in place.

One future solution might be to fire radio pulses at cars to scramble a suspect vehicle’s computer and prevent the car from being driven. This is an idea being pursued by the electronics form EV2 (based in the UK) and an EU-funded consortium responding to requests from police forces in Spain, Germany and France.

The idea is essentially to use an electromagnetic pulse to temporarily disable a vehicle’s control systems. Similar pulse weapons already exist for military use but, for civilian purposes, the requirement is temporary disablement, not permanent damage. Once stopped a vehicle may need to be quickly removed from the highway. Moreover, steering and braking needs to remain unaffected if the car is to be brought to a safe stop.

One prototype currently under development should be available for field testing by 2016 and will work from up to 60 metres away. However, the technology will presumably only work with newer cars that contain computer-controlled systems. If you want to evade the police in the future you could simply drive an older car.

Ref:New Scientist (UK) 14 December 2013, ‘Speed gun with a twist’ by P. Marks

Search words: Remote control, electromagnetic pulse, safety, speeding.

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