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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.