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Thursday, April 20, 2017

Toyota is Testing a Hydrogen Fuel-Cell Powered Semi

As reported by Engadget: Toyota built a larger sibling for the hydrogen fuel cell powered Mirai, a semi truck. The automaker is testing a water-expelling big rig at the Port of Los Angeles that it hopes will yield data that will help build a fleet of zero-emission trucks.

Called the "Portal Project," the study will determine how well hydrogen fuel-cell heavy duty vehicles work in a shipping environment. The truck itself will be use two Mirai fuel cell stacks and a 12kWh battery to power two motors connected to the rear wheels working in parallel. With a range of over 200 miles per fill up, the truck can haul a gross combined weight capacity 80,000 pounds.


"We think that there's a market demand for this technology in the ports today and there are no there are no competing services to diesel solutions," said Craig Scott national manager of Toyota's advanced technology group.

Tony Gioiello, deputy executive director of port development for the Port of Los Angeles said "the Port of Los Angeles has been a leader in working to reduce pollution from port operations, and we're excited at the potential for a true zero-emission heavy-duty truck to push our Clean Air Action Plan even further."

The truck and the project are part of Toyota's larger plan to help kick start an infrastructure for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles like the Mirai. Initially the automaker will hire its own driver to help collect data on the big rig and it's trips. But it eventually hand the keys over to the driver of a yet-to-be-determined shipping partner.

John O'Dell over at Trucks.com has the exclusive, behind-the-scenes story of Toyota's quest to build a fuel cell big-rig. The whole thing is an excellent read, revealing how Toyota managed to build this fuel cell-powered rig in roughly seven months, using two fuel cell stacks sourced from the production Toyota Mirai to power a custom-designed electric motor cranking out 670 horsepower and 1325 lb-ft of torque.

But it's the truck's performance that really blew our minds. Trucks.com reports that the 21,970-lb. Project Portal truck can accelerate from 25 to 55 miles per hour in just 6.3 seconds. Even better, a Toyota spokesperson tells Road & Track that the unladen rig can sprint from a stop to 60 mph in roughly 10 seconds.

That means the Toyota big rig would run neck-and-neck in a stoplight drag race against a bone-stock 1970 BMW 2002—though the more powerful 2002 tii, with its 9.0-second 0-60, would trounce the Class 8 truck.

Still, that's outrageous acceleration from a vehicle that tips the scales at nearly 11 tons before you hitch up the trailer. And as Toyota illustrates with video evidence, it absolutely runs away from a conventional big-rig pulling an identical, empty trailer from a standing start.


Tuesday, April 18, 2017

This Driverless Electric Pod could be the Delivery Guy of the Future

As reported by FastCompany:   Inside a new type of truck, there are no seats and no windows. The vehicle—which founders call a “T-pod”—is the first truck to be designed to never have a human inside. The driverless design makes it possible, the startup says, to run fully on electric power in a way that can compete with diesel semis on the road today.
Without windows or a separate cab, the truck looks essentially like an aerodynamic white box with wheels.
Since a truck hauling 20 tons of freight needs a lot of energy to move, it has to stop fairly frequently to charge; the T-pod can make it 124 miles before it has to plug in again. For other electric semis, charging time is a bigger deterrent, because it’s also wasting a driver’s time.
If you have to stand still maybe one-third of the time to actually charge, that makes the business case for having a truck driver in a battery-powered truck not that good,” says Robert Falck, CEO of Einride, the Sweden-based startup making the T-pod. “But if you remove them and create a system where the truck driver drives it remotely and controls a fleet, you overcome that problem.”
While the pods are on a highway, self-driving technology handles the vehicle, but the remote operator can intervene if needed, with one operator monitoring an entire fleet. When the pod reaches a city and moves onto smaller roads, each vehicle is assigned its own remote operator, who controls it for the rest of the journey. (This is in contrast with some competitors like Otto, Uber’s self-driving truck, which can’t be driven remotely on local roads).
Without a cab for a driver, the vehicle is cheaper to build than it otherwise would have been, and it can also be smaller. Like other electric vehicles, it will be nearly silent, and like other self-driving vehicles, it’s expected to be safer than human-driven trucks. It also won’t pollute.
“The system as a whole will reduce CO2 pollution to almost zero,” Falck says. Most trucks run on diesel, pumping out exhaust that causes both local air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Living near a major truck route–like the freeways leading out of the Port of Los Angeles and Long Beach–can make someone more likely to get asthma or heart disease. In the U.S., even though heavy-duty trucks make up only about 7% of road traffic, they represent 25% of total fuel use, and emit around half a billion metric tons of carbon dioxide a year.
Einride plans to test its prototype on Swedish roads in the summer of 2017, and test its first fleet in 2018, traveling between the cities of Gothenburg and Helingsborg. The founders say that although current laws haven’t been tested for self-driving vehicles, there is nothing technically illegal about using the trucks on Swedish roads. (Sweden has also proposed progressive legislation to allow testing of self-driving vehicles, and though the law may not be in place by this summer, companies can apply for permission to start testing early.)  To scale up, the company will also have to build a full network of charging stations. Einride aims to have a fleet of 200 pods by 2020.
“We have a really big mission here,” says Falck. “What’s driving the company is the belief that we can make a difference . . . [Society isn’t] reliant on oil, we’re reliant on the system that we have today, and Einride is solving that.”

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Promise of Self-Driving Cars Starts with Better 'Eye-Sight'

As reported by Engadget: San Francisco's Pier 35 usually hosts cruise ship guests boarding and unboarding their giant floating hotels. It's a cavernous building hundreds of meters long which actually makes it the perfect indoor facility for demoing what 22 year-old Luminar CEO Austin Russell hopes is the future of LiDAR. The company has developed a higher-quality laser sensor that just might make it the darling of the autonomous car world.


Laser-based LiDAR -- along with cameras and radar -- is one of the main components on most semi-autonomous vehicles. It creates a real-time three dimensional map of the area it's scanning and relays that information back to the car's self-driving system. The technology is so important that Alphabet's Waymo is suing Uber because it believes the ride-hailing company is using some of its circuit board designs. So it's a big deal to the future of driverless cars and Luminar thinks it can do better than what's already on the market.

Inside the giant building, Luminar CTO Jason Eichenholz demos on a screen what current LiDAR systems see. The walls and columns are visible and when someone rides by on a bike, a few moving pixels track the movement. Then he turns on Luminar's system and the difference is impressive. But it's not just the quality of the items being scanned that's important, it's how far out the sensor sees. Luminar placed a black panel 200 meters away from the system, and it was clearly visible on the display. Typical systems see about 30 meters away and when a car is barreling down the highway at 70 miles per hour, the further a sensor can see, the better.


Luminar's big jump in quality and distance took Russell five years and if you're keeping score, that means he started the company at age 17. "I looked really deeply into the LiDAR space and saw there was a severe lack of innovation -- for even the past decade -- in terms of advancing the performance to any significant extent with any new architecture," Russell said. So he built his own from the chip-level up.

Russell says his LiDAR has 50 times greater resolution and 10 times longer range than legacy systems and in the process he noted Luminar had to find "2,000 ways not to make this LiDAR." After a closed demo in the giant building, Luminar drove me down San Francisco's Embarcadero. The parade of cars, bikes and pedestrians were not just visible, but the detail of those people and machines was higher than I've seen on competing systems. It was a rainbow colored world of lines and shadows that when translated by a computer is the difference between an autonomous vehicle seeing a box and recognizing that mass of pixels in the distance as a small dog.


But is Luminar's technology enough to overtake Velodyne, the established leader in the space? Unless an automaker has their own proprietary system, there's a good chance the sensor on the top of that car is from Velodyne. Even Uber is using Velodyne while it's building its own LiDAR system (the one that triggered the Waymo lawsuit). But unlike the five years it took Luminar to get its LiDAR just right, the company is moving quickly to get the sensor into the market.

While Luminar wouldn't comment on the final price of their laser-based sensor, Russell did say that the company wants to create hardware that's affordable for all makes of vehicles. He told Engadget. "we tried to be able to make this affordable long term for all types of cars, from the Honda Fit all the way up to the Bentley." Meanwhile the high-end Velodyne HDL-64Ecosts about $75,000 with the less-expensive, but also less powerful Puck clocking in at about $8,000.


Luminar says it's been working with 100 partners in the autonomous driving space (but won't name any of them) and those companies will be receiving units very soon. Those partners will essentially beta test the system and share data and thoughts with Luminar. The company says it will then build and ship an additional 10,000 units from its Orlando facility by the end of the year. That's incredibly aggressive. But if it can pull it off, it'll be almost as impressive as the hardware they demoed on the streets of San Francisco.


Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Boeing Uses First FAA-Approved 3D-Printed Parts for the 787

As reported by Engadget: Boeing expects to shave $2 to $3 million off each 787 Dreamliner's manufacturing costs by 2018, thanks to 3D-printed titanium. The company has teamed up with Norwegian company Norsk Titanium to create the first printed structural titanium components for a plane. As Reuters notes, General Electric already prints fuel nozzles for aircraft engines. However, this is the first time a company is using 3D-printed components for parts of a plane that bear the stress of an airframe during a flight.

Boeing turned to 3D printing for the 787, because it requires more metal than its other models. Plus, traditionally manufactured titanium alloy can be very expensive, especially since the company makes 144 Dreamliners a year. The aerospace corporation's partnership is a resounding recommendation for printed metals in the aviation industry and is proof that companies are starting to trust the manufacturing process and its resulting materials.

From early 2016 to February 2017, Boeing worked with Norsk to be able to pass the Federal Aviation Administration's rigorous testing program for the components. The partners expect to get additional FAA approval for the material's properties and manufacturing process later this year. That will allow the Norwegian firm to make more 3D-printed titanium parts without having to get each of them approved, leading to even more savings per plane.



Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Unintended Consequences: Self-Driving and Electric Cars Are Going to Have Tons of Strange Effects on Society

As reported by MIT Technology Review: Electric cars will be good for the planet and autonomous vehicles will reduce the number of road accidents. That much we know. But what other impacts will the coming automobile revolution provide?
What's less certain is how they'll change the world. Benedict Evans, a partner at the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz and no stranger to tech trends analysis, has published some thoughts on what he calls second- and third-order effects of the disruption that’s going to play out on our highways. And his insights describe a future made fundamentally different by the technologies.First, a bit of managing expectations: without regulatory incentives, America’s electric car adoption looks like it will be slow to grow, and the first wave of autonomous cars might prove to be rather underwhelming. And while automakers and technology firms are indeed racing to reboot our cars—making these technologies seemingly inevitable—they are likely to take a while to get here.
Consider electrification. We know that losing the internal combustion engine will be good for the planet. But, as Evans points out, a lot will change when the supporting infrastructure for gas guzzlers disappears: many repair shops will be out of a job, because most car maintenance is focused around the motor. And gas stations no longer have a purpose, so what happens to the convenience stores that they contain—and the half of America’s tobacco sales that gas stations account for?
As for self-driving cars, every company involved in the nascent industry is keen to point out that autonomous vehicles will crash less frequently than those driven by humans. But the benefits of a car that can drive itself aren't limited to moving folks from A to B: it can also go park itself somewhere usually considered too inconvenient for human passengers, ready to be beckoned when needed. That means that huge swaths of land in the hearts of cities, currently used as parking lots, could be repurposed—potentially upending the real estate market.
These are just a couple of the examples Evans provides, and there are far more to consider. He also traces out large-scale ramifications for the electricity industry, as home solar storage systems for car charging help solve the problem of peak demand; increased commute distances made possible by autonomous cars that drive faster and fender-to-fender; and huge shifts in the public transit sector as on-demand autonomous vehicles break down boundaries between cars, taxis, and buses.
But it's the combination of these outcomes that's really interesting. In an America without gas stations and inner-city parking lots, where on-demand transport rivals public transit, and car crashes are nonexistent, the urban landscape is redefined. In Europe, most cities predate cars by centuries, and were always built to be walkable. They could easily revert to type. American cities, on the other hand, have been designed around the car. That means that the way they’re used could change altogether.
Ultimately, then, if some of Evans's scenarios actually play out, the automotive technology revolution might not just transform the cars we sit in—but our very environment, as well.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Homemade 'Iron Man' Suit Requires a Special Kind of Crazy

As reported by Engadget: Remember the, insane record-shattering flight of a jet-powered hoverboard? UK inventor Richard Browning thought that riding on top of a jet pack wasn't crazy enough, so he strapped six kerosene-powered microjets to his arms. That transformed him into a bargain store Iron Man, helping him get off the ground in what looks like the most dangerous way ever.

Each motor produces about 22kg (46 pounds) of force, so six are more than enough to heft Browning aloft. The device cost him £40,000 ($50,000) to build, but some of that cost was offset thanks to investors and partners like Red Bull.

"I can just strap this on and go flying at a moment's notice," Browning told Techcrunch, adding that a mountain bike was more dangerous. Judging by the footage of his early trials, however, his rig "Daedelus" looks insane on multiple levels. Powered by kerosene jet fuel, it looks like the fiery explosion would kill you if the crash or fall didn't, judging by the videos detailing his training (below).

However, Browning downplayed the danger, saying it's designed to go low and slow (walking speed and no more than 6-10 feet above ground), and uses a dead-man's switch that stops everything when not pressed. As for the kerosene, he says it's really not explosive or flammable in the relatively small quantities he uses. "If I fell in some unimaginably bad way and somehow burst my robust fuel system, I would just leak it very slowly on the floor," he says. There are also at least two people on hand with fire extinguishers during each test flight, and he wears a fire-proof suit.

After trying the suit with the rockets on both his legs and arms, he switched to an arms-only approach. That works well for him as an ex-Royal Marine and fitness enthusiast, but it would probably tire the average person's arms rather quickly.

In comparison with Franky Zapata's Guiness World Record-setting mile-and-a-half flight, the video flights (below) are pretty disappointing. Browning does eventually fly near the ground in a warehouse, as shown in the Red Bull video below. He controls the flight just by pointing his arms, in a process he equates to riding a bike. "If you let go, your brain does the rest."


Browning recently added a Sony-built heads-up display that can show fuel levels. Prior to that, he had to ask family members to feel the back-mounted tank "and judge by their facial expression" how much was left, he told Wired. The aim is to eventually build a device that could be used by rescue or military personnel, but for now Browning is just doing exhibitions, perfecting the device and hopefully staying in one piece while doing so.

Browning's even building a miniature, drone-powered model for his kids, too. As such, he really should rethink the name of his jet-powered craft -- Daedelus is the mythic Greek father of the original flying man and famous crash-and-burn victim, Icarus.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Falcon 9 first stage has landed on Of Course I Still Love You — world’s first reflight of an orbital class rocket.


Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Tesla Releases 8.1 Software Update and Improves Autopilot 2.0 Features: Autosteer at 80MPH and Summon

As reported by Electrek: Last week, Elon Musk said that Tesla’s highly anticipated 8.1 update was coming March 28-29 and he delivered this time. We reviewed reports of the update 8.1 (17.11.3) being rolled out to Tesla owners with Autopilot 2.0 hardware.

The 8.1 software update was also supposed to bring some UI improvements, but so far the release notes focus on bringing the Autopilot 2.0 system to parity with the first generation.

It increases the speed limit of the Autosteer feature to 80 mph (128 km/h) – up from 55 mph.

Tesla warns that the cameras will need calibration before Autosteer can be used at that kind of speed:
“Model S requires calibration before you can use Autosteer at driving speeds greater than 55 mph. Until the vehicle has finished calibrating, which takes place automatically over several days of driving on well-marked highways.”
Drivers can still use the system up to 55 mph in the meantime.

The Summon feature, which allows Tesla owners to move their vehicle in and out of parking spaces without anyone in the car, was until now only available with the first generation Autopilot. It is being introduced as a “beta” feature under the new hardware suite using ‘Tesla Vision’, the automaker’s own image processing system.

Tesla is also releasing ‘Auto Lane Change’, which is the last main feature of Autopilot 1.0 and allows for the driver to initiate a lane change simply by using the turn signal when Autosteer is activated.

Depending on the efficiency of those new features on the new hardware, Tesla could be close to feature parity with the first generation Autopilot.

There’s currently no sign of the Linux kernel update and the new browser, which were expected with 8.1, but it’s still early in the rollout.  Only a few Tesla owners with AP2 cars are reporting having received the update overnight.

We will report back when we have more information about the rollout and how the update will hopefully affect not only cars with new Autopilot hardware, but also pre-October 2016 Tesla vehicles.


Monday, March 27, 2017

Elon Musk’s SpaceX on the Brink of a `Wright Brothers moment’ with Reused Rocket

As reported by The Seattle Times: If the rocket that Elon Musk’s SpaceX expects to launch this week looks familiar, that’s because it is. 

The Falcon 9 rocket scheduled to take off from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, has flown before, marking the first time Space Exploration Technologies will reuse one of the 14-story-tall boosters it recovered from past missions. The reused rocket will ferry a communications satellite into orbit for Luxembourg-based SES, SpaceX’s first commercial customer, and signals a leap forward in Musk’s 15-year-quest to drive down launch costs and eventually create a human colony on Mars.

“This is a Wright Brothers moment for space,” said Phil Larson, a former space-policy adviser to President Barack Obama who worked for SpaceX and is now at the University of Colorado. “It’s as important as the first plane taking off and landing and taking off again.”

The rocket originally flew in April 2016 before landing successfully on an unmanned drone ship bobbing in the Atlantic Ocean. SpaceX has now recovered eight rockets in total: three by land and five by sea. The first rocket that was recovered is a huge source of pride and is now installed in front of the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California.

“The satellite industry needs more launch vehicles, and we need more access to space,” SES’s Chief Technology Officer Martin Halliwell said in an interview. “Rockets that can be flown, recovered and relaunched again help enormously. This is a hugely important milestone.”

Once derided as a crazy idea, rocket reusability is now seen as key to making space travel affordable.


Blue Origin, the space-exploration company founded by Amazon Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos, is working on New Glenn, a rocket with a reusable first stage that’s targeting its first flight in 2020. Parts of the Space Shuttle boosters were refurbishable, but no company has pulled off the “rapid reusability” that SpaceX is targeting to lower launch costs, said Larson, the former Obama adviser.

Recovering and refurbishing the used rocket booster that’s scheduled to fly again on Wednesday took SpaceX roughly four months, President Gwynne Shotwell said on a panel at an industry conference in Washington, D.C., earlier this month. Eventually, that turnaround time will drop to a single day as the company aims to reuse rockets much in the way airplanes operate today.

“I think Elon’s given us 24 hours, maybe, to get done what we need to get done, and it’s not a million people around a rocket scurrying like a beehive or an anthill,” said Shotwell. “That vehicle needs to be designed to be reflown right away.”

The cost of a Falcon 9 launch is roughly $62 million, according to SpaceX’s website, with modest discounts available for contractually committed, multilaunch purchases. SES, which has flown with SpaceX twice before, was the first commercial satellite operator to launch with the company back in 2013.

The SES satellite taking flight this week will enhance coverage for Latin America. The company has contracted with SpaceX for four additional missions, according to Halliwell.

“We won’t discuss the exact price, but we got a certain discount for being the first in line,” he said.

SpaceX, founded by CEO Musk in 2002, builds the Falcon 9 as well as the rocket’s Merlin engines in-house, taking a Silicon Valley approach to constant improvements and a tight collaboration between design and manufacturing. Musk has brought in executives from other industries to promote innovation. Andy Lambert, SpaceX’s vice president of production, previously spent more than a decade at BMW.

SpaceX has a $1.6 billion contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to resupply the International Space Station and a second pact valued at as much as $2.6 billion to transport crews to the orbiting lab. The company was recently awarded its second contract to fly missions for the U.S. Air Force and plans to send two private citizens on a trip around the moon late next year.

The reused rocket was first flown in April with the CRS-8 mission, a cargo resupply mission to the space station.

If Wednesday’s launch goes off without a hitch — and the rocket booster is once again recovered on the drone ship — SES will get its own piece of spaceflight history as a memento.

“Gwynne has promised us parts of the rocket,” Halliwell said. “We want them for the SES board room.”

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Google Maps Introduces New Location Sharing Feature With Real-Time Friend Tracking

As reported by Mac Rumors: Google today announced an update coming to the iOS, Android, and desktop versions of Google Maps will introduce a way for users to share their real-time locations with friends and family. Google's update differs from the location sharing in Apple Maps, Messages, and Find My Friends, which all lack the ability to follow friends around on a map in real-time. 

In Google Maps on iOS, users will be able to tap into the app's side menu, choose "Share Location," and pick from a selection of approved contacts who will see their current location. Contacts are pulled from existing Google accounts, and users can also send links through Messages to friends who aren't on their contacts list when they need to share their location. 


After a user's location is shared, their chosen contacts will see where they are within Google Maps, represented as a small face icon that moves in real-time according to where the sharer is located. A small icon above the compass in the app will remind users that their location is being shared for the period of time they requested, but they can also choose to end sharing early. 

Google today posted a video to detail a real scenario where its location sharing feature could come in handy, focusing on the creation of a surprise birthday party. The video also shows off how users can share their car trips with friends, so they can see an ETA on when the sharer should be arriving. 


Google said that location sharing will be rolling out worldwide sometime soon. Google Maps can be downloaded for free from the iOS App Store.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Self-Driving Cars’ Spinning-Laser Problem

As reported by MIT Technology Review: Many components go into making a vehicle capable of driving itself, but one is proving to be more crucial and contentious than all the rest.
That vital ingredient is the lidar sensor, a device that maps objects in 3-D by bouncing laser beams off its real-world surroundings. Self-driving vehicles being tested by companies such as Alphabet, Uber, and Toyota rely heavily on lidar to locate themselves on the detailed maps they need to get around, and to identify things like pedestrians and other vehicles. The best sensors can see details of a few centimeters at distances of more than 100 meters.
But self-driving technology has ramped up so fast that the nascent industry is suffering from a kind of lidar lag. Making and selling lidar sensors was previously a relatively niche business, and the technology doesn’t yet seem mature enough to become a standard component in millions of cars.
Most companies in the race to commercialize self-driving cars consider lidar essential (Tesla is a rare exception, relying solely on cameras and radar). Radar sensors can’t see much detail, and cameras don’t perform well in conditions with low light or glare. A Tesla vehicle ran into a tractor-trailer last year, killing the car’s driver, after the Autopilot software couldn’t make out the trailer against a bright sky. Ryan Eustice, vice president of autonomous driving at Toyota, recently told me it was an “open question” even whether a less ambitious safety system the company is working on could work without it (see “Toyota Tests Backseat-Driver Software That Could Take Control in Dangerous Moments”).
One problem is apparent from a casual glance at a prototype car: lidar sensors are bulky. They are why vehicles being tested by Waymo, Alphabet’s self-driving-car unit, are topped by a giant black dome, and Toyota’s and Uber’s sport spinning gadgets the size of a coffee can.
How a car with lidar sees the world.
Lidar sensors are also expensive, costing thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars apiece. Most vehicles in testing have multiple lidars onboard, and despite the relatively small numbers on the road, demand has become a problem. The Information reported last week that lidar manufacturers are struggling to keep up, forcing companies to wait six months for a new sensor.
All that helps explain the lawsuit brought by Waymo against Uber last month. Waymo says it has evidence that one of its top engineers, Anthony Levandowski, stole designs for custom lidar sensors before leaving to start Otto, the self-driving-truck company later acquired by Uber.
When I visited Otto’s garage last year, Lior Ron, another Otto cofounder, told me that Otto built its own sensor because those on the market didn’t have the range or other features needed for its 18-wheelers to pilot themselves safely on the highway. Waymo now says that Otto’s technology was in fact developed by its own team at a cost of tens of millions of dollars, resulting in more useful sensors that cost more than 90 percent less than those of a few years ago.
Better lidar is a core part of Waymo’s plan to make self-driving cars a mass market and a profitable proposition. The company has developed three different sensors that look for objects at different ranges. They would be an important and attractive part of the bundle of technology the company says it will license to established automakers.
Waymo is not the only one spending millions to address lidar lag. Last year Ford and Baidu, the Chinese search company investing in self-driving cars, jointly invested $150 million in Velodyne, the world’s leading lidar supplier. The company is building a new “megafactory” in San Jose that’s scheduled to start churning out lidars starting next year.
Still, many in the self-driving-car industry think lidar needs reinventing if it is to become practical enough. Velodyne is one of several companies working on designs that don’t use spinning mirrors to direct their laser beams out into the world, as the devices on the road today do. Versions that steer their lasers electronically, described as solid state, should be much cheaper, smaller, and more robust, because they don’t have moving parts.
An image from a patent filing shows how Alphabet’s self-driving cars use lidar to map the road ahead.
It’s a theory yet to be fully tested. Velodyne reported last December that its project had made a “breakthrough” that could make lidars as cheap as $50, but it hasn’t said when it will release a solid-state device. Startup Quanergy, which last year scored $90 million in funding, says it will start producing solid-state lidar sensors at a factory in Massachusetts this year and sell them for $250, but full details of their performance are unclear. Auto-parts suppliers Continental and Valeo are working on similar technology of their own, but they say it will come to market in two or three years.
Automakers including Ford and BMW have said they want to have fleets of autonomous cars operating on roads by 2021. The performance, cost, and looks of those vehicles will be shaped by progress on the sensors so crucial to today’s prototypes.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Driverless Flying Taxi Service set to Launch in Dubai

As reported by CNN: Dubai has announced yet another pioneering initiative, but this time it's not the world's first rotating skyscraper or 3D printed office. It's a fleet of flying taxis.
Small enough to fit into a car parking space when folded up, the one-seater passenger drones made by Chinese company Ehang are set to start picking up passengers in July this year, according to Dubai's Road and Transport Authority (RTA).
    The electrically powered driverless drones -- named Ehang 184 -- have already been seen hovering above the sand dunes near the city's airfield during test flights.
    "The 184 provides a viable solution to the many challenges the transportation industry faces in a safe and energy-efficient way," said Ehang founder and CEO Huazhi Hu when the vehicle was unveiled during the 2016 CES gadget show in Las Vegas.
    "The 184 is evocative of a future we've always dreamed of and is primed to alter the very fundamentals of the way we get around."
    The Dubai Road and Transport Authority have begun test flights The Dubai Road and Transport Authority have begun test flights

    Self-driving transport strategy

    While the exact details of the project's logistics are yet to be revealed, Dubai's RTA says the futuristic venture is part of a strategy to have self-driving vehicles (of all kinds) account for a quarter of journeys made in Dubai, by 2030.
    "This project supports Dubai's government's direction to become the smartest city in the world," HE Mattar Al Tayer, director general of RTA, said in an email to CNN.
    He adds that the drones, which he refers to as Autonomous Aerial Vehicles (AAV), are an easy-to-use innovation that can transport up to 100 kilograms -- enough for one person and a suitcase -- on a pre-programmed route through the city.
    "The passenger just needs to pick the destination through a smart screen [once inside the vehicle] and the AAV takes care of the rest."

    Monitored by ground control

    Powered by eight propellers, Ehang says the 184 (which stands for one person, eight propellers, four arms) will cruise at around 100 kilometers per hour.
    The routes will be programmed by a ground control center through an encrypted 4G network which will monitor the flight.
    Awesome as it might sound to sit back and take in the view as the rest of Dubai is stuck in traffic jams, there are some limitations to the technology.
    With a 30-minute maximum battery time, it won't take you very far.
    And then there are the usual concerns about drones in busy airspaces and the safety of driverless vehicles.
    But like it or not, automated passenger drones will become a reality, says Captain Ross Aimer, CEO of US-based Aero Consulting Experts..
    "It's the future," he told CNN. "We have the technology and it can be done. It's time."
    "The passenger drone is really just one step up from the delivery drones we've seen perforating the skies in recent years,"

    'What if?'

    A pilot himself, Aimer is watching the venture with great interest and has identified both pros and cons with the driverless technology.
    Among the caveats is the question of what happens if ground control loses the connection to the drone, he says.
    "That's most people's concern with any pilotless aircraft," says Aimer. "We have the technology to send a signal to that aircraft and control it and communicate with it, but what happens if that technology is interrupted for some reason?
    According to Ehang, in the event of any problems the drone will immediately land at the nearest safe spot. But that may not be enough to reassure everyone.
    As Aimer puts it -- "My question is: who's gonna be the man or woman crazy enough to be the first passenger?"