Automotive & transport

Artificial companions

If you thought the somewhat stern voice in your car GPS was annoying, get ready for something far worse. In Japan Toyota has designed a 4-inch robot that’s small enough to sit inside your cup holder.

Kirobo Mini, this little robot, is intended to relieve the boredom of long journeys and to make them safer too. The little computer critter has a body, head and two eyes equipped with facial recognition so it can identify human smiles and frowns and, presumably, identify individual drivers too.

It can understand human speech, which allows it to hold conversations with drivers or passengers. Cute? Maybe, but the pint-sized critter could be tedious too. The worst feature of the current research robot (you can't buy one yet) is because it seems like a cross between an annoying Furby and Sony’s AIBO dog-bot on heat. Worst of all though is its voice, rather like a talking dog that’s been breathing helium.

No doubt future versions will be able to read emails and sing to you too, in which case it might be better to get out of your car and walk. Then again, it might learn to make tea, get you a take away coffee or bring you your car keys.

Ref: Sunday Times (UK), 1 November 2015, ‘Not a toy, but Toyota’s little bundle of joy for tired drivers’ by D. Tobin.
Search words: computer companions, social robots, cars, driving, safety
Trend tags: Social robotics

They’ve got your number

Each day, if you drive a car in the UK, you are likely to be photographed at least four times and the images, along with date, place and time, will be kept on a central police computer for two years. That’s roughly 35 million number plates a day in the UK.

How is this done? The answer is the densest non-military surveillance network in the world, and you agreed to all of it. Or at least, nobody who knows about this system seems to have objected.

This is essentially an update of the automatic vehicle number plate recognition system (ANPR) that’s been around for decades - we didn't seem to mind about that either. Locations of these cameras are not disclosed by the police, but it’s fair to say some are located on the gantries and signs that span the motorway networks in the UK and within or on many, if not all, police patrol cars.

Interestingly, the creation of this network has never been debated or agreed by parliament and neither is the idea that the police are able to hold data linked to these images for two years (they’d like seven).

Of course 99 per cent of these images and data relate to innocent people, although of course it’s hard to tell without hindsight who is innocent and who is not. Will such surveillance ever subside? Highly unlikely and, if anything, such surveillance will expand considerably in the future, not only with tracking devices looking at the outside of our vehicles but with tracking inside too, most of which we'll agree to.

Ref: Sunday Times (UK), 13 December 2015, ‘We’ve got your number and 22 billion other ones too’ by J. Dunn.
Search words: CCTV, databases, privacy
Trend tags: Ubiquitous connectivity, global surveillance

Disruptive trends for the auto industry

If low-cost competition from emerging markets isn't enough, today’s carmakers also have to contend with increasingly congested megacities, self-driving vehicles, new technology-based competitors and digitally connected cars. This is according to Bill Ford, Executive Chairman of the Ford Motor Company and great grandson of the firm’s founder.

Other disruptive factors identified by Ford include: powertrain electrification, emission concerns, and active safety systems (blurring the line between cars you can drive and cars that drive you). Clearly, while cars used to be self-contained units or systems, they are now becoming linked to a series of other data points, including other cars, roads and directly to the car dealer or maker.

Another key change is largely generational, although this is changing. Fifty years or so ago, cars represented freedom and status and buying a car was a rite of passage for many people. This is less true today, especially as cities become too busy to park in and the cost of car ownership rockets, especially insurance.

Now status and identity are created elsewhere and personal mobility is achieved through public transport or via car sharing and access companies like Uber, Zipcar and RelayRides.

So what’s the future for Ford and other big automakers? The big carmakers will probably continue to be integrators of other peoples’ technologies – as they have for decades. However, the cars themselves will become part of a network or mobility eco-system linked not only to other cars but all forms of road transport and mobility forms, such as parking spaces, petrol stations and garages in real time.

The connectivity and data model here is perhaps Formula One, although in terms of ownership, it’s still an open question.

Ref: McKinsey Quarterly (US) Issue number 1, 2015. ‘Bill Ford charts a course for the future’ by H-W Kaas and T. Flemming.
Search words: Cars, cities, automation
Trend tags: Self-driving cars

The future of driving – is there one?

A quarter of auto accidents in the US are now caused by drivers fiddling with phones, according to the US National Safety Council. The solution to this, apparently, is more technology.

Rather than telling people not to use their phones while driving, the solution offered by Apple and Google (Car Play and Android Auto) is to incorporate hands-free access to mobile devices via a car’s controls. Of course, the real vision here is self-driving cars.

Imagine, for instance, finding your car in a crowded city via your phone, opening the door with an app and then having a conversation with your car about where the nearest good sushi place is, using real-time restaurant reviews and then having the car drive you there. You could even have a drink and not feel guilty about getting in the car on your way home.

Cars have been fitted with computers since the 1970s and a typical new car now has 50 to 100 computers embedded within it, running millions of lines of code. These can be used to remotely diagnose faults, which is hugely useful. Ford has recently opened a research lab in Palo Alto.

Tesla, also based in Palo Alto, has perhaps the most advanced computerised car, which features a 3G connection and 17-inch touch screen and there are rumours Apple has been working on a car for some time. However, there might be problems down the road given some of the history.

Ford introduced a touchscreen interface in 2010 that was plagued by problems, which is possibly why Ford slipped from 10th to 20th in Consumer Reports annual reliability ratings in 2011. Also in 2010 dozens of cars in Texas refused to start and started to sound their horns, which was eventually traced back to a rogue employee hacker at the leasing centre that sold the cars.

In 2013, computer security experts at a DEF CON conference in Las Vegas showed how easy it was to hijack the internal network of a 2010 Toyota Prius and take over critical functions like steering and braking.

Most big car companies are cooperating with big tech companies, who would clearly love to get their hands on the operating systems and even the entire platform.

Ref: MIT Technology Review (Special Edition) 2015, ‘Rebooting the automobile’ by W. Knight.
Search words: Accidents, phones, risks, self-driving cars
Trend tags: Self driving cars, car connectivity

Slippery customers wanted

Scientists at the materials science and engineering department at the University of Michigan have invented a coating that prevents the build-up of ice. The rubbery coating, which can be sprayed onto any surface, prevents ice from getting a firm grip and tends to fall off with gravity, wind or vibration.

Slightly altering the smoothness or rubberiness of the coating also changes the degree of ice repellence. Applications for the new material include car windscreens and aircraft wings.

Ref: Science Advances/Daily Telegraph (UK), 12 March 2016, ‘Spray-on coating may put car de-icers out in the cold’ by S. Knapton.
Search words: Ice
Trend tags: New materials