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

The Future of Transport: High-Speed MagLev’s

hyperloopThis past summer, Elon Musk once again impressed the world with his futuristic design for a high-speed transit tube that could take passengers from Los Angeles and San Francisco in just 30 minutes. It’s known as the Hyperloop, a “fifth form” of transportation that would utilize linear electric motors, solar panels, and air cushions to achieve speeds of up to 1290 kilometers per hour (800 mph).

Unfortunately, Musk also indicated that with his current, busy schedule, it would be many years before a working demonstration could be produced. What’s more, he was unclear on what role, if any, he would play in its creation. The project was unveiled as an open-source venture, and he called upon business investors to take up the role of making it happen.

hyperloop1However, some investors have come forward to do just that. Gathering around the entrepreneurial collaboration platform known as JumpStartFund, these enthusiasts have come together to create a corporation that will see Musk’s concept through to development. This is no small task, seeing as how the price-tag (according to Musk) would be between 6 and 10 billion dollars.

JumpStartFund launched on August 22, and aims to give entrepreneurs a network through which to both seek funding and support as well as crowdsource the idea and collaborate with others to refine it. The Hyperloop concept, put up on the site by the JumpStart team, became the platform’s flagship project within its first week of launch.

hyperloop2Dirk Ahlborn, CEO and co-founder of JumpStartFund, said in an interview back in September:

We want to be the ones that actually make things happen. So of course we need to create a corporation. Whoever decides to dedicate more time to this than just logging onto the platform deserves to be part of this company.

Because Ahlborn and his co-founders have connections with SpaceX, they were able to talk over the idea with the company’s president, Gwynne Shotwell, and get the green light to feature it on the platform. Joining them are engineers Marco Villa and Patricia Galloway, who worked for SpaceX and the US National Science Board respectively and even held directorial and vice chair positions.

hyperloop3JumpStartFund is also accepting applications from members of the site to work full-time on the Hyperloop project in exchange for equity in the company. Ahlborn has also indicated that even naming the company will be a crowdsourced effort:

We want to find a way to give everyone the ability to be a part of this project. The whole concept is always going to be on the platform. Everything is going to be very transparent, and we intend to reserve a percent of future revenues for people that work with us on the platform.

And the Hyperloop is hardly alone when it comes to the future of mass transit. On the opposite side of the US, along the Northeast Corridor, The Northeast Maglev (TNEM) company is looking to create a superconducting magnetic railway that could take passengers from New York to Washington D.C. in 60 minutes, and from Baltimore to D.C. is just 15.

scmaglev-rendering-marylandAt present, this American company – which is backed by a Japanese government bank – is testing a maglev route in Japan that runs from Nagoya to Tokyo in Japan and is planned to be completed by 2027. In the US, their efforts are aimed at replacing the nation’s aging transit infrastructure, which is unable to cope with modern demand.

As Northeast Maglev CEO and chairman Wayne Rogers said in a recent interview with Co.Exist:

What’s happening is we’re operating on 1940s and 1950s infrastructure and drowning in congestion. This isn’t pie-in-the-sky technology. This is something that you could fly to Tokyo, sit on a train, and actually ride a train that goes 311 miles per hour.

Much like the Hyperloop, the train would run on a bed of air, levitated by a series of electromagnetic coils located on the track. While similar magnetic levitation projects along the corridor have been considered in the past, they repeatedly failed due to curves that would slow down the transit process, and passengers projections were consistently too low.

scmaglev-rendering-new-jersey-high-trafficThe current maglev project plans on using tunnels to bypass the curves, and train ridership is at an all-time high. However, the realization of the project will still require significant funds. As Rogers himself projects, the first leg of the route – from D.C. to Baltimore – will cost some $10 billion. As such, the company imagines it will require some additional federal support.

The company does have some high-profile support working in its favor, though. Its advisory board includes two former transportation secretaries, former majority leader Tom Daschle, Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, former Northwest Airlines CEO Doug Steenland, and George Pataki, Christine Todd Whitman, and Ed Rendell – the former governors of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

scmaglev-rendering-washington-stationAnd ultimately, Rogers and his company are hopeful, citing recent changes and the enthusiasm garnered by the Hyperloop project:

[T]he concept is different, the sponsorship is different, the routing is different, and the technology is different. I think one of the things [the Hyperloop] has done – without commenting on the feasibility of the Hyperloop or not – is it’s brought people’s attention to the problem and brings America back to the things it’s good at, which is thinking big things and implementing cutting-edge technologies on terrific projects.

Who knows? In a few decades times, we could be looking at a world where high-speed maglev trains crisscross every continent, carrying people between all major cities faster than jet planes, and at a fraction of the cost. Meanwhile, intercontinental transit could be taking the form of aerospace travel, jets that fly into the lower atmosphere at hypersonic speeds. It’s important to dream big!

And in the meantime, enjoy this promotional video from The Northeast Maglev company:


Sources: news.cnet.com, fastcoexist.com