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 Transit: The Solar-Powered Jetliner

skywhale1Solar-powered airplanes have already proven feasible, but only in the sense of single-seat, turboprop powered plane.s When it comes to a long-range, commercial jet aircraft, the field remains pretty sparse so far. But thanks to a Spanish designer, and some unconventional thinking, “whale planes” that are eco-friendly and combine the convenience of air travel with the luxury of a cruise ship might soon be a reality.

Oscar Viñals, from Barcelona, envisioned the “AWWA Sky Whale” concept plane as a mixture of today’s current designs and future concepts that don’t yet exist. The end result is like an Airbus A380, but with considerable expansion and designed to be powered by micro solar panels and four large hybrid electric engines that would rotate to ease takeoff and landing.

skywhale_specsIn addition to reducing noise and pollutants, it would also significantly reduce fuel burned during what is currently one of the least green modes of getting to a destination. Despite the introduction of more fuel-efficient and less polluting turbofan and turboprop engines, the rapid growth of air travel in recent years has contributed to increasing CO2 emissions in the upper atmosphere.

In fact, in the European Union alone, greenhouse gas emissions from aviation increased by a total of 87% between 1990 and 2006. In 2005, global aviation contributed roughly 5% to the overall “radiative forcing” effect that our annual emissions of CO2 have on Global Warning, but the added effects of water vapor and the disruption to cirrus cloud formations also enhances this role to a varying degree.

skywhale4One of the reasons aviation’s role in Climate Change is overlooked is because the focus tends to be on urban infrastructure and automobiles, which account for the vast majority of carbon emissions. But given the current trend of increasing travel, international economic development, and growth in tourist industries, aviation is likely to get a bigger slice of that pie down the road and clearer methods need to be devised.

Hence the concept for the Sky Whale, which Viñals imagines would come with other futuristic components . These include a self-healing skin with adaptable opacity, active wings that change shape as needed, and ceramic and fiber composite materials. He even has a plan for the plane to break apart on an emergency landing, with the wings separating from the fuselage to limit damage to the passenger compartment.

skywhale3The three-story aircraft, which could accomodate 755 passengers, would have a wingspan and height greater than any of today’s biggest carriers – 88 meters in comparison to the 80 meters on an Airbus A380-900 – making it the largest commercial aircraft in existence. However, the combination of active wings (which would also reduce drag) and the hybrid-electric systems would render it the most fuel efficient.

Another thing that Viñals imagines would make it into the design is virtual reality windows – aka. display glass that allows people to go online, watch movies, and experience in-flight entertainment simply by looking outside. Can’t imagine why this would be necessary, as the range of personal devices people are likely to have by this time ought to be entertainment enough. And failing that, the view should be enough to inspire!

skywhale5Naturally, much of this technology – particularly the healing smartskin – is still many years away. But judging by the reaction to his designs, there is definitely some hunger for innovation in how we fly. Given the range of ideas for mass transit (like the Hyperloop, podcars, etc.) and personal transit (robot cars, robotaxis), it’s only a matter of time before the way we fly becomes smarter, sleeker, and cleaner.

Sources: fastcoexist.com, cnn.com, gov.uk, europa.eu

The Future of Transit: Parking Chargers and Charging Ramps

electric-highway-mainWhen it comes to the future of transportation and urban planning, some rather interesting proposals have been tabled in the past few years. In all cases, the challenge for researchers and scientists is to find ways to address future population and urban growth – ensuring that people can get about quickly and efficiently – while also finding cleaner and more efficient ways to power it all.

As it stands, the developed and developing world’s system of highways, mass transit, and emission-producing vehicles is unsustainable. And the global population projected to reach 9 billion by 2050, with just over 6 billion living in major cities, more of the same is just not feasible. As a result, any ideas for future transit and urban living need to find that crucial balance between meeting our basic needs and doing so in a way that will diminish our carbon footprint.

hevo_powerOne such idea comes to us from New York City, where a small company known as HEVO Power has gotten the greenlight to study the possibility of charging parked electric vehicles through the street. Based on the vision of Jeremy McCool, a veteran who pledged to reduce the US’s reliance on foreign fuel while fighting in Iraq, the long-term aim of his plan calls for roadways that charge electric cars as they drive.

Development began after McCool received a $25,000 grant from the Department of Veterans Affairs and put it towards the creation of an EV charging prototype that could be embedded in city streets. Designed to looked like a manhole cover, this charging device runs a type of electromagnetic wireless charging technology proposed by researchers Marian Kazimierczuk of Wright State University and professor Dariusz Czarkowski of NYU’s Polytechnic Institute.

hevo_manholeThe charge consists of two coils – one connected to the grid in the manhole cover, and the other on the electric vehicle. When the car runs over the manhole, the coils conduct a “handshake,” and the manhole delivers a charge on that frequency to the car. Though HEVO has yet to test the device in the real world, they are teamed up with NYU-Poly to develop the technology, and have already proven that it is safe for living things with the help of NYU’s medical labs.

So far, McCool says his company has commitments from seven different companies to develop a series of delivery fleets that run on this technology. These include PepsiCo, Walgreens, and City Harvest, who have signed on to develop a pilot program in New York. By creating regular pick-up and drop-off points (“green loading zones”) in front of stores, these fleets would be able to travel greater distances without having to go out of their way to reach a charging station.

electric_carIn order to test the chargers in New York City in early 2014, HEVO has applied for a $250,000 grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. The organization has already granted a feasibility study for the green loading zones. According to McCool, Glasgow’s Economic Development Corps is also exploring the idea of the technology in Scotland.

But looking ahead, McCool and his company have more ambitious plans than just a series of green loading zones. Already, HEVO is developing a proof of concept to place these kinds of chargers along major highways:

The concept is simple. There is a way to provide wireless charging in an HOV lane. That’s a small strip at every yard or so that has another wireless charging plate, so as you go down the street you’re collecting a charge. One wireless charging highway.

However, this is just a first step, and a major infrastructure project will still be needed to demonstrate that the technology truly does have what it takes to offset fossil fuel burning cars and hybrids. However, the technology has proven promising and with further development and investment, a larger-scale of adoption and testing is likely to take place.

roadelectricityAnother interesting idea comes to us from Mexico, where a developer has come up with a rather ingenious idea that could turn mass transit into a source of electricity. The developer’s name is Héctor Ricardo Macías Hernández, and his proposal for a piezoelectric highway could be just the thing to compliment and augment an electric highway that keeps cars charged as they drive.

For years, researchers and developers have been looking for ways to turn kinetic energy – such as foot traffic or car traffic – into electricity. However, these efforts have been marred by the costs associated with the technology, which are simply too high for many developing nations to implement. That is what makes Hernández concept so ingenious, in that it is both affordable and effective.

roadelectricity-0In Macías Hernández’ system, small ramps made from a tough, tire-like polymer are embedded in the road, protruding 5 cm (2 inches) above the surface. When cars drive over them, the ramps are temporarily pushed down. When this happens, air is forced through a bellows that’s attached to the underside of the ramp, travels through a hose, and then is compressed in a storage tank. The stored compressed air is ultimately fed into a turbine, generating electricity.

In this respect, Hernández’s concept does not rely on piezoelectric materials that are expensive to manufacture and hence, not cost effective when dealing with long stretches of road. By relying on simple materials and good old fashioned ingenuity, his design could provide cheap electricity for the developing world by simply turning automobile traffic – something very plentiful in places like Mexico City – into cheap power.

piezoelectric_nanogeneratorMacías Hernández points out, however, that in lower-traffic areas, multiple ramps placed along the length of the road could be used to generate more electricity from each individual vehicle. He adds that the technology could also be used with pedestrian foot-traffic. The system is currently still in development, with the support of the Mexican Institute of Industrial Property, and will likely take several years before becoming a reality.

Exciting times these are, when the possibility of running an advanced, industrial economy cleanly may actually be feasible, and affordable. But such is the promise of the 21st century, a time when the dreams of the past several decades may finally be coming to fruition. And just in time to avert some of our more dystopian, apocalyptic scenarios!

Well, one can always hope, can’t one?

Sources: fastcoexist.com, gizmag.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

The Future of Transit: Elon Musk’s Hyperloop

hyperloopThe high-speed transit tube. It’s been a staple of science fiction for many years. Remember the tubes cars in Logan’s Run, the elevators in the Jetsons, or the tubes that shoot people around New New York in Futurama? Much like flying cars, they are a feature of a futuristic society that people have been waiting on. And thanks to Elon Musk, it might finally be coming true.

Yes, the same man that brought us the Tesla electric car, PayPal, and SpaceX is now working on a design for a high-speed transit system that works the same way as the pneumatic tube. In a series of statements and documents released yesterday, the billionaire entrepreneur unveiled his concept for a tube that could whisk passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco in just 30 minutes – half the time it takes an airplane.

hyperloop1In the newly released documents, Musk outlined the basic design, which would consist of a low-pressure steel tube that houses capsules which move back and forth. The aluminum capsules (or pods) would have skis on the bottom containing holes that pump out air, creating an air cushion. They would be propelled forward with magnets found on the skis as well as an electromagnetic pulse generated by a series of electric motors.

Linear electric motors placed at each destination would slow the pods down by absorbing their kinetic energy. That energy would then be put back into battery packs and used to accelerate the next pods, or stored for future use. Solar panels on top of the tubes would also provide energy. The pods, which have room for 28 people each, could leave every 30 seconds – transporting up to 7.4 million people on each route (SF to LA or vice versa).

hyperloop2At 1290 kilometers per hour (800 mph) the above ground Hyperloop system would be dramatically faster than a bullet train or even an airplane. Alongside boats, planes, trains and automobiles, Musk claims that the train would constitute a “fifth form” of transportation. And of course, safety would be paramount, with each pod being spaced apart by 8 km (5 miles), and the system would have an emergency brake.

The system would also be designed to deal with seismic shifts, which are common in California. In order to mitigate earthquake risk, the system would be built on pylons (the tube wouldn’t be rigidly fixed at any point). Adjustable lateral and vertical dampers would be placed inside the pylons to “absorb the small length changes between pylons due to thermal changes, as well as long form subtle height changes.”

hyperloop3What’s more, Musk was sure to play up the comfort value of the ride:

Once you’re traveling the speed you wouldn’t notice the speed at all. It would be really smooth, like you’re riding on a cushion of air. Maximum G-force of about half a G, comparable to what you might feel in an airplane but far less than what you would feel in a rollercoaster. Really quiet.

Musk estimates that price tag per ride would be $20 per person, making the Hyperloop more reasonably priced than train, plane, or automobile. The whole project would cost an estimated $6 billion if it contained “people-only pods,” but would be priced at $10 billion if it had pods for both people and cars.

As it stands, its not entirely clear when the Hyperloop would be up and running. What’s more, its unclear what tole Musk would play in its creation. Since he is currently occupied with developing things like a nationwide Supercharger network for Tesla and launching satellites with SpaceX, he thinks it could be three to four years before a demo could be finished. As for a full system that would run from LA to San Francisco, that could take between seven to ten.

hyperloop4In any event, the concept is open-source, and Musk is calling on inventors, engineers and investors to get involved. Given that it is a rather elegant solution to the problem of transit, such an idea is not likely to remain idle for too long. Originally inspired by the sad state of $70 billion California’s high-speed rail initiative, the Hyperloop could easily prove to be another transportation initiative that is never completed. At the same time, it might prove to be a “leapfrog maneuver”, bypassing lightrail completely and ushering in something better.

It might sound like a fantasy, but Musk has a reputation for making the impossible a reality. What’s more, engineers from both Tesla and SpaceX have been working on the concept for close to a year and some are now dedicated to it full-time. And given that nations like China, India, Russia and the EU are in need of expanded transit systems, don’t be surprised if we see something similar emerging overseas.

And be sure to enjoy this video of the concept, courtesy of Elon Musk and CBC news:


Sources: cbc.ca, fastcoexist.com

The Future is Here: The Hyundai E4U Eggmobile

hyundai-e4u-640x353As the world’s cities continue to grow, and air quality and Climate Change continue to worsen, people will need to find cleaner and more effective ways of getting from point A to point B. One option which is being widely considered is personal transit: vehicles that are smaller, smarter, convenient, and more energy-efficient than automobiles. That’s the concept behind the Hyundai E4U Eggmobile, a personal vehicle that merges the convenience of a bicycle with a car.

Another important aspect of the Hyundai concept vehicle is to create a personal transport that will succeed where Mopeds, scooters, and Segways have failed. Though these vehicles are all perfectly good means of getting around, they have not made much of a dent in most major cities, which are still clogged with cars and have public transit that is choked by daily armies of commuters.

hyundai_e4u-640x592The Eggmobile debuted at the Seoul Motor Show this year, where Hyundai was amongst many other automobile makers that were presenting ideas for personal mobility vehicles (PMV). Amongst its advantages is the ability to maneuver in any direction, even though its motor only moves in one. This is made possible by the “semisphere” that the Eggmobile uses, which unlike conventional tires, can rotate in all directions.

When the top of the semisphere is touching and vertically aligned to the ground, the vehicle moves by rotating the semisphere horizontally. Meanwhile, the two rear-mounted training wheels prevent it from spinning uncontrollably. In order to move the vehicle in any direction without hindrance from the training wheels, the E4U simply tilts, much in the same way a helicopter works by tilting its rotors.

hyundia_e4UThe driver, meanwhile, propels the vehicle with their feet, inclining them this way or that in order to generate propulsion. The severity of the tilt determines how fast the vehicle is to go. If this sounds a bit complicated, that’s because it is. At the Motor Show, the demonstration model only moved at a walking pace and the early reports say controlling one will take some getting used to.

What’s more, Hyundai has not yet released the crucial info on what kind of fuel the Eggmobile uses. However, odds are good it is either powered by a clean burning fuel or electricity. Only time will tell. The same holds true of when Hyundai plans to release it, or whether they truly intend to spearhead a fleet of PMVs with this particular mobile. However, given the time and money they invested in this concept, it’s hard to imagine they only pulled it for a single auto show.

Sources: Extremetech.com, news.cnet.com

 

The Future is Here: Robotaxis and Podcars!

2010 Zagato 2getthere Podcar

Fans of Total Recall may recall the Johnnycab, a robot taxi service that helped Arny get to where he was going and flee his armed assailants. Well, as it turns out, personal automated podcars (aka. robotaxis) are not a thing of the future anymore. Yes, as it turns out, Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates has a taxi service that consists of a small fleet of autonomous taxis which run entirely on electricity.

Invented by a European company named “2GetThere”, the service accommodates somewhere in the vicinity of 25,000 people per month. As part of the growing project to create a self-sustaining city that runs on clean, renewable energy, these rails are consistent with the city’s ethos and are expected to pave the way for clean mass transit. Best of all, the 2GetThere models don’t have weird-looking animatronic robot busts sitting in the front seat to creep you out and provide needless comic relief!

But of course, the UAE is not the only place where robotaxis can be found, nor is 2GetThere the only company investing in this revolutionary technology. In San Jose, the so-called “Capital of Silicon Valley”, similar efforts are being made to create clean, sustainable transportation. In this case, it takes the form of the Personal Rapid Transit System; or as it is more widely known, Podcars.

The system involves a series of on-call, point to point transit cars which move about on main lines and intermediate stations to find the quickest route to a destination. Under normal conditions, this means of transit has been shown to be faster than other forms of mass transit or automobile. The “matrix”, or looped layout structure of the network, allows for high-volume and is also expected to lessen the burden on conventional transit systems.

Granted, both networks are in their infancy, but both the science and the planning behind them is sound and expected to take off in the near future. Much like mag lev and light rail train systems, they are part of a growing Eco-friendly attitude towards city planning and mass transportation which is anticipated to become the mainstay of urban development and renewal in the 21st century.

And of course, Google and other companies are also hard at work trying to bring us other designs and concepts. Amongst them are true self-driving cars, the kinds that may very well involve robot drivers. But in all likelihood, these will take the form of truly “smart” cars – i.e. the kind that can guide themselves, pick optimal routes, and avoid accidents and traffic congestion. Sad to think that the days of driving might actually be coming to an end. But hey, at least we might save the planet in the process!