The Future is Here: Google’s New Self-Driving Car

google-new-self-driving-car-prototype-640x352Google has just unveiled its very first, built-from-scratch-in-Detroit, self-driving electric robot car. The culmination of years worth of research and development, the Google vehicle is undoubtedly cuter in appearance than other EV cars – like the Tesla Model S or Toyota Prius. In fact, it looks more like a Little Tikes plastic car, right down to smiley face on the front end. This is no doubt the result of clever marketing and an attempt to reduce apprehension towards the safety or long-term effects of autonomous vehicles.

The battery-powered electric vehicle has as a stop-go button, but no steering wheel or pedals. It also comes with some serious expensive hardware – radar, lidar, and 360-degree cameras – that are mounted in a tripod on the roof. This is to ensure good sightlines around the vehicle, and at the moment, Google hasn’t found a way to integrate them seamlessly into the car’s chassis. This is the long term plan, but at the moment, the robotic tripod remains.

google-self-driving-car-prototype-concept-artAs the concept art above shows, the eventual goal appears to be to to build the computer vision and ranging hardware into a slightly less obtrusive rooftop beacon. In terms of production, Google’s short-term plan is to build around 200 of these cars over the next year, with road testing probably restricted to California for the next year or two. These first prototypes are mostly made of plastic with battery/electric propulsion limited to a max speed of 25 mph (40 kph).

Instead of an engine or “frunk,” there’s a foam bulkhead at the front of the car to protect the passengers. There’s just a couple of seats in the interior, and some great big windows so passengers can enjoy the view while they ride in automated comfort. In a blog post on their website, Google expressed that their stated goal is in “improving road safety and transforming mobility for millions of people.” Driverless cars could definitely revolutionize travel for people who can’t currently drive.

google_robotcar_mapImproving road safety is a little more ambiguous, though. It’s generally agreed that if all cars on the road were autonomous, there could be some massive gains in safety and efficiency, both in terms of fuel usage and being able to squeeze more cars onto the roads. In the lead-up to that scenario, though, there are all sorts of questions about how to effectively integrate a range of manual, semi- and fully self-driving vehicles on the same roadways.

Plus, there are the inevitable questions of practicality and exigent circumstances. For starters, having no other controls in the car but a stop-go button may sound simplified and creative, but it creates problems. What’s a driver to do when they need to move the car just a few feet? What happens when a tight parking situation is taking place and the car has to be slowly moved to negotiate it? Will Google’s software allow for temporary double parking, or off-road driving for a concert or party? google_robotca

Can you choose which parking spot the car will use, to leave the better/closer parking spots for someone with special needs (i.e. the elderly or physically disabled)? How will these cars handle the issue of “right of way” when it comes to pedestrians and other drivers? Plus, is it even sensible to promote a system that will eventually make it easier to put more cars onto the road? Mass transit is considered the best option for a cleaner, less cluttered future. Could this be a reason not to develop such ideas as the Hyperloop and other high-speed maglev trains?

All good questions, and ones which will no doubt have to be addressed as time goes on and production becomes more meaningful. In the meantime, there are no shortage of people who are interested in the concept and hoping to see where it will go. Also, there’s plenty of people willing to take a test drive in the new robotic car. You can check out the results of these in the video below. In the meantime, try not to be too creeped out if you see a car with a robotic tripod on top and a very disengaged passenger in the front seat!


Sources:
extremetech.com, scientificamerican.com

Build Your Own Electric Car

https://i0.wp.com/f.fastcompany.net/multisite_files/fastcompany/imagecache/1280/poster/2014/06/3031851-poster-model-s-photo-gallery-01.jpgIt’s official: all of Tesla’s electric car technology is now available for anyone to use. Yes, after hinting that he might be willing to do so last weekend, Musk announced this week that his companies patents are now open source. In a blog post on the Tesla website, Musk explained his reasoning. Initially, Musk wrote, Tesla created patents because of a concern that large car companies would copy the company’s electric vehicle technology and squash the smaller start-up.

This was certainly reasonable, as auto giants like General Motors, Toyota, and Volkswagon have far more capital and a much larger share of the market than his start-up did. But in time, Musk demonstrated that there was a viable market for affortable, clean-running vehicles. This arsenal of patents appeared to many to be the only barrier between the larger companies crushing his start-up before it became a viable competitor.

electric_carBut that turned out to be an unnecessary worry, as carmakers have by and large decided to downplay the viability and relevance of EV technology while continuing to focus on gasoline-powered vehicles. At this point, he thinks that opening things up to other developers will speed up electric car development. And after all, there’s something to be said about competition driving innovation.

As Musk stated on his blog:

Given that annual new vehicle production is approaching 100 million per year and the global fleet is approximately 2 billion cars, it is impossible for Tesla to build electric cars fast enough to address the carbon crisis. By the same token, it means the market is enormous. Our true competition is not the small trickle of non-Tesla electric cars being produced, but rather the enormous flood of gasoline cars pouring out of the world’s factories every day…

We believe that Tesla, other companies making electric cars, and the world would all benefit from a common, rapidly-evolving technology platform.

https://i1.wp.com/media.treehugger.com/assets/images/2011/10/tesla-roadster-ev-rendering01.jpgAnd the move should come as no surprise. As the Hyperloop demonstrated, Musk is not above making grandiose gestures and allowing others to run with ideas he knows will be profitable. And as Musk himself pointed in a webcast made after the announcement, his sister-company SpaceX – which deals with the development of reusable space transports – has virtually no patents.

In addition, Musk stated that he thinks patents are a “weak thing” for companies. He also suggested that opening up patents for Tesla’s supercharging technology (which essentially allows for super-fast EV charging) could help create a common industry platform. But regardless of Musk’s own take on things, one thing remains clear: Tesla Motors needs competitors, and it needs them now.

https://i0.wp.com/www.greenoptimistic.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Siemens-electric-car-charging-stations.jpgAs it stands, auto emissions account for a large and growing share of greenhouse gas emissions. For decades now, the technology has been in development and the principles have all been known. However, whether it has been due to denial, intransigence, complacency, or all of the above, no major moves have been made to effect a transition in the auto industry towards non-fossil fuel-using cars.

Many would cite the lack of infrastructure that is in place to support the wide scale use of electronic cars. But major cities and even entire nations are making changes in that direction with the adoption of electric vehicle networks. These include regular stations along the Trans Canada Highway, the Chargepoint grid in Melbourne to Brisbane, Germany’s many major city networks, and the US’s city and statewide EV charging stations.

Also, as the technology is adopted and developed further, the incentive to expand electric vehicle networks farther will be a no brainer. And given the fact that we no longer live in a peak oil economy, any moves towards fossil fuel-free transportation should be seen as an absolutely necessary one.

Sourees: fastcoexist.com, fool.com

Powered by the Sun: Solar-Powered Roads

solar_roadsCurrently, there are nearly 30,000 square kilometers (18,000 square miles) of roads in the United States. And by some estimates, there are also as many as 2 billion parking spaces. That works out to some 50,000 square kilometers (31,000 square miles) of usable surface that is just soaking up sun all day long. So why not put it to use generating solar power? That’s the question a entrepreneurial couple named Scott and Julie Brusaw asked themselves, and then proceeded to launch a solar startup named Solar Roadways to see it through.

Their concept for a solar road surface has the potential to produce more renewable energy than the entire country uses. In fact, they’ve actually already developed a working prototype that’s been installed in a parking lot, and they’re now crowdsourcing funds in order to tweak the design and move towards production. Once completed, they hope to re-pave the country with custom, glass-covered solar panels that are strong enough to drive on while generating enough power to perform a range of functions.

solar_roads1These include providing lighting through a series of LEDs that make road lines and signs that help reduce nighttime accidents. Embedded heating elements also melt ice and snow and are ideal for winter conditions. The surface could also be used to charge electric vehicles as oppose to fossil fuels, and future technology could even allow for charging whilst driving via mutual induction panels. Amazingly, the team also found that car headlights can produce energy in the panels, so cars driving around at night would be producing some electricity.

Since 2006, Solar Roadways has designed and developed hexagonal glass solar panels studded with LED lights that could be installed on a variety of surfaces such as roads, pavements and playgrounds. These panels would more than pay for themselves and would benefit both businesses and homeowners as the energy generated from driveways and parking lots could be used to power buildings, and any excess can be sold back to the grid.

solar_roads3A glass surface may sound fragile, but the prototypes have been extensively tested and were found to be able to easily withstand cars, fully loaded trucks, and even 250,000-pound oil drilling equipment. The textured surface means it isn’t slippery, and since it can self-power small heaters inside to melt ice in winter, it’s supposedly safer than an ordinary road. As Scott Brusaw put it:

You first mention glass, people think of your kitchen window. But think of bulletproof glass or bomb resistant glass. You can make it any way you want. Basically bulletproof glass is several sheets of tempered glass laminated together. That’s what we have, only our glass is a half inch thick, and tempered, and laminated.

Recycled materials can also be used to produce the panels; the prototypes were constructed using 10% recycled glass. All of the panels will be wired up, so faults can be easily detected and repaired. They team have also designed a place to stash power cables, called “Cable Corridors”, which would allow easy access by utility workers. Furthermore, they also believe that these corridors could be used to house fiber optic cables for high-speed internet.

solar_roads2Obviously, this project isn’t going to be cheap, but Solar Roadways has already surpassed their goal of raising $1 million on their indiegogo page (they have managed to raise a total of $1,265,994 as of this articles publication). With this money, they will now be able to hire engineers, make final modifications, and move from prototype to production. They hope to begin installing projects at the end of the year, but a significantly larger amount of money would be required if they were to try to cover all the roads in the US!

However, given the increasing demand for solar technology and the numerous ways it can help to reduce our impact on the environment, it would not be surprising to see companies similar to Solar Roadways emerge in the next few years. It would also not be surprising to see a great deal of towns, municipalities and entire countries to start investing in the technology in the near future to meet their existing and projected power needs. After all, what is better than cheap, abundant, and renewable energy that pretty much provides itself?

For more info, check out Solar Roadways website and their Indiegogo campaign page. Though they have already surpassed their goal of $1 startup dollars, there is still five days to donate, if you feel inclined. And be sure check out their promotional video below:

Sources: iflscience.com, fastcoexist.com, solarroadways.com, indiegogo.com