Autonomous cars and man’s future: The road ahead

With autonomous, self-driving cars likely to be commonplace by around 2025, these vehicles will change our roads, our relationship with our cars and society at large. Buckle up, a revolution is coming!

It’s no dramatic hyperbole to suggest that the automotive industry is destined to change more in the next 20 years than it has in the last 100. For a century, cars have consisted of a reasonably simple combination of four wheels, engine, steering system and pilot. Human and mechanics.

But the introduction of GPS technology alongside infrared and radar scanning, high definition cameras and, most importantly, the processing tech to stitch it all together has resulted in a truly disruptive game changer: the autonomous car.

mercedes-driverless-1Google, for instance, has chalked up over 700,000 autonomous miles in their (totally coincidentally) smiley faced, unthreatening driverless car, and this January Audi made a big fuss about driving the 569 miles from San Francisco to this year’s CES tech show in Las Vegas in an autonomous A7.

Volvo are running a scheme where 100 new owners will drive 50km of roads around Gothenburg autonomously in their new XC90s. Every automotive company right now is planning for the inevitable, in various stages of urgency.

The consensus – and there really is more heat generated around this issue than light – is that 2025 will most likely be when autonomous vehicles reach critical mass, sharing the road with human piloted vehicles.

However, as the most highly regulated industry on the planet, it won’t be the automobile manufacturers who will dictate the schedule, or even consumers, but the world’s governments. And right now they are in no hurry to direct resources into figuring out new driving laws.

Or the mind-boggling cost of overhauling our entire road system, traffic management and signposting. Or insurance regulations. Or driving tests. Or road tax. Or liability issues. Or…

Unexpected dangers of a driverless world

But suppose, for a minute, we live in a world of 100% fully automated cars, where human involvement is defunct. What will this world look like?

It won’t be the automobile manufacturers who will dictate the schedule, or even consumers, but the world’s governments

Well, first and foremost, it’s a much safer place to be. Road death is the eighth leading cause of death on the planet, with between 90% and 95% of car accidents the fault of human error. The economic cost of road accidents is estimated to be around $277bn in 2013.

So let’s do some fag packet maths, looking, logically at an industrialised western country like the UK. In 2013 there were 1,713 reported road traffic fatalities in the UK – the lowest since records began. (See! Cars are getting safer.) So allowing for the 5% of non-human error fatalities, that’s 1,627 fewer deaths on the road and virtually no injuries caused by accidents. Which is nothing short of terrific.

Great, right? Well, not if you’re a transplant ward in a hospital, and you rely on car accidents for your organs.

In Boston, for instance, 33 of their 267 organ donors were the result of car accidents. And if that still seems low, there were 105 organs harvested for transplant from those, amazingly generous people.

But where there’s tragedy, there’s opportunity. Indeed, Bre Pettis, founder and CEO of the 3D printing company Makerbot told Fortune that the process of 3D printing organs will have to come of age as a direct result of this shortfall in organ donations.

“We have this huge problem that we sort of don’t talk about, that people die all the time from car accidents,” says Pettis. “It’s kind of insane. But the most interesting thing is, if we can reduce accidents and deaths, then we actually have a whole other problem on our hands of, ‘Where do we get organs?’ I don’t think we’ll actually be printing organs until we solve the self-driving car issue.”

Designing the driverless city

City design will change enormously, even just in the short term. With great swathes of city real estate covered in car parks, self parking cars can cut down on that dramatically.

Without pesky humans parking selfishly, they can ease themselves into tiny spaces with just centimetres to spare. This frees up an enormous swathe of real estate that could be dug up and turned into parks, public spaces and real estate. Okay, mostly real estate.

That’s if cars need to be parked at all. The existence of car parks is based on the assumption that people own cars, or that cars will still remain parked for the current 95% of their lives that they lie dormant, as is the current situation.

Without pesky humans parking selfishly, they can ease themselves into tiny spaces with just centimetres to spare

Speeding fines? Thing of the past. Parking fines? Gone. Going through red lights? Well, there’ll be no need for traffic lights, signs or any other road based paraphernalia. Cars will all be interlinked on a terrifying global network, passing safety and orderly at junctions in an “After you. No, after you”-dance of software-driven politeness. This, of course, means none of that revenue going into the gaping maw of local council coffers.

“Great! Bugger them!” You say. Well, no. A huge amount of this revenue is invested into transport infrastructure and road maintenance. That revenue will have to be levied somewhere and somehow. See also fuel duty and car tax, also on the route of the dodo.

An RAC report estimated that in calendar year 2012, £24.78bn was raised in Fuel Duty and £5.87bn in VED (Vehicle Excise Duty, otherwise known as car tax) in the UK.

This totaled £30.65bn ($47.51bn), which will have to be recouped somewhere. We want to use the roads. They have to be paid for.

Fuel savings will be immense. Autonomous cars drive consistently and economically, without man’s strange insistence of moving one, righteous, car up the queue by overtaking, and aggressively lane-changing.

Morgan Stanley projected autonomous cars could save the US $170bn in lower fuel costs, and another $138bn in congestion avoidance. And that’s just fossil fuels. Which could also be a thing of the past.

Rise of the renewable car

A glance at one of the most disruptive entrepreneurs on the planet – Elon Musk – provides an indication of the future of automobile power, and it’s clean and renewable.

With the release of Tesla’s home battery, linked to a solar charger, his vision is to power cars, free and cleanly, via solar power stored in a highly capacity battery in your home.

And that’s just scratching the surface of electric power. Another option to charge your car is wireless induction charging – a primary coil is ferreted away in your garage floor, a secondary coil is incorporated into the floor of the car, and an alternating magnetic field charges the battery.

Eventually roads will be embedded with these chargers, with motorways actually juicing the car up as you use them.

Meanwhile, huge, flowery solar panel pavilions are being developed for cars, which unpack out of the boot, unfurl while they’re parked and juice them where they stand.

Another option is putting lights onto the roofs of cars which charge during the day and replace street lamps at night. What a concept!

Self-piloted cars will also be enormously empowering for sectors of society traditionally challenged by mobility issues. The disabled, old and blind, for instance, will be able to get anywhere, giving unprecedented freedom.

Drink-driving only exists while driving exists. And contrary to long-held beliefs of autonomous cars driving like nanas, with fewer accidents, and computer-making decisions limited only by physics and the decision-making speed of silicon, speed limits could be raised to what today would be considered insane heights.

Liability in the world of the self-driving car

The insurance industry is, as you’d imagine, watching developments with an arched eyebrow. And again, it’s not what you’d think.

Personal insurance will mostly likely become defunct, because as the car takes responsibility for safety, liability will shift to the manufacturers themselves, with the ABI – the Association of British Insurers telling Factor: “The key change – and the potential shift to product liability – comes when the driver is not expected to oversee or monitor the vehicle and when they have ceded full driving responsibility to the car itself.

The insurance industry is, as you’d imagine, watching developments with an arched eyebrow

“Our initial view is that if a system fails on a fully autonomous vehicle causing it to crash, liability would rest with the vehicle or system manufacturer. This potential shift in liability would only occur when a driver has actively given complete control to the vehicle and has no option to intervene.

“So whether or not there is a complete shift in liability from the driver to the vehicle is likely to depend on whether there is a clear option for the driver to intervene.”

But if we no longer buy cars, how can a manufacturer generate enough money to even cover this liability? Grey waters, indeed.

Driverless cars on the commute

Our interactions with cars will change forever. Do you commute? Well congestion will be eliminated.

Paul Godsmark, CAVCOE’s chief technology officer of the Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre Of Excellence told the Driverless Transportation website that just a step change in autonomous vehicle sharing from the current 1.2 people to 1.8, a 50% increase, would “remove most congestion from most cities. That’s the big win for autonomous vehicles.”

Those who still commute will claim back an average of 50 minutes a day in their cars. Where you’d be chewing the steering wheel or headbanging to Bohemian Rhapsody on the radio, now you can work, read, send emails, even work out.

Images courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

Images courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

With space in cars totally freed up – most design constraints like windscreens, safety pillars, number of doors etc. are based around a human driver – why wouldn’t you stick an exercise bike or a treadmill in your car? Good news for your waistband, not so much for drive-time DJs.

‘Sleeper cars’ will become available for long journeys where you’ll simply set off at night, tuck yourself into the incorporated bed, with blacked-out windows if there are windows at all, and wake up right outside your destination, be it Land’s End to John O’Groats, or a cross-Europe trip.

Automation driving job losses

Freight will be completely automated, putting every single lorry driver out of work. Deliveries will be automated, using the highways at night when there’s no congestion and economies of scale can be greater, without pesky regulations forcing weak-bodied professional drivers to take breaks.

If you drive for a living right now, can we politely suggest starting to look for a new vocation?

Pizza deliveries: automated. All deliveries: automated. If you drive for a living right now, can we politely suggest starting to look for a new vocation?

Indeed, individual car ownership with almost certainly wither and die. As autonomous cars become less an expression of your personality, bound by useage, design, handling and power and more an amorphous, vanilla everycar, there’ll be increasingly less reason to own one.

Even now, Millennials are far more interested in investing in the latest smartphone, tablet or wearable than anchoring themselves to five years’ more debt to purchase a car they rarely use, have little interest in and are taxed up the wazoo to keep.

We’ll change our entire relationship with the automobile, from something intensely personal into a commodity like a toothbrush or a saucepan.

Tim Dant, retired professor of sociology at Lancaster University told Factor: “The driverless car will change the intimate relationship that has developed during the 20th century between the user and their automobile.

“No longer will the embodied control over the device, the selection of route and manner of driving that makes it ‘mine’, be an expression of personality and identity. Instead it will be an autonomous machine that does the user’s bidding in its own systematised way.”

“Traffic congestion and ever-stricter controls over speed, parking and manoeuvring have already reduced the number of people who are excited about driving and the standardisation of design and functionality has reduced the consumer’s pleasure in choosing the right car for them,” Dant continues.

“What is more, in an increasingly privatised society the interaction between drivers on the road is a mode of ‘being in public’ that will disappear with the driverless car. It will of course make it much easier to ‘go by car’, but much more important will be the economic and social impact of the loss of skilled jobs – taxi drivers, bus drivers and lorry drivers for example – as business realises that a driverless vehicle can be operated at all hours with less risk and less cost.”

Privacy in the driverless world

Rather than own a vehicle, you’ll most likely whip out your smartphone and call an automated car, just like we would an Uber taxi today. Prod your destination into the app and off you’ll go, automatically billed at the end.

Sounds great, again? Hold up. This has severe implications to your freedom of information.

Planning to commit a crime? Don’t travel there or back in an autonomous car

With all cars packing GPS and your starting point, destination and current position all tied to an app, the provider of that app, and by association the government and police, can and will have a record of your position at every second of your journey.

Planning to commit a crime? Don’t travel there or back in an autonomous car.

The automobile changed the world, becoming a 20th century utopian ideal, delivering freedom and independence. Autonomous driving will turn the car into a commodity, a simple, smart, human-replacing means to an end, and our society is going to be feeling the impact for decades. Exciting times.

Scientists develop unprecedented method for delivering drugs to the brain

A new study has discovered that a specific peptide – a chain of amino acids – can be used to carry molecules and nanoparticles to damaged areas of the brain – effectively enabling technology that could lead to new therapeutics for traumatic brain injuries.

The scientists from the Sanford Burnham Prebys Discovery Institute (SBP) have published their findings in Nature Communications.

Erkki Ruoslahti, senior author of the study, explained: “We have found a peptide sequence of four amino acids, cysteine, alanine, glutamine, and lysine (CAQK) that recognizes injured brain tissue. This peptide could be used to deliver treatments that limit the extent of damage.”

brain-memory

In the US alone, around 2.5 million sustain traumatic brain injuries every year – usually from car crashes, falls or violence. While the initial injury cannot be repaired, the damaging effects from breaking brain cells and blood vessels can be minimised immediately following the injury.

“Current interventions for acute brain injury are aimed at stabilizing the patient by reducing intracranial pressure and maintaining blood flow, but there are no approved drugs to stop the cascade of events that cause secondary injury,” said Aman Mann, first author of the study.

Numerous candidate drugs that block events post-injury that can cause secondary damage are currently in preclinical trials.

Ruoslahti added: “Our goal was to find an alternative to directly injecting therapeutics into the brain, which is invasive and can add complications. Using this peptide to deliver drugs means they could be administered intravenously, but still reach the site of injury in sufficient quantities to have an effect.”

Schematic illustrating how the intravenously injected peptide would accumulate at the site of brain injury. Image courtesy of Ryan Allen, Second Bay Studios

Schematic illustrating how the intravenously injected peptide would accumulate at the site of brain injury. Image courtesy of Ryan Allen, Second Bay Studios

The CAQK peptide works by binding to components of the meshwork surrounding brain cells known as chondroitin sulfate proteoglycans. These large proteins increase in volume following injury to the brain.

“Not only did we show that CAQK carries drug-sized molecules and nanoparticles to damaged areas in mouse models of acute brain injury, we also tested peptide binding to injured brain samples and found the same selectivity,” Mann noted.

But the discovery goes even further. According to the scientists, the same peptide can also be used to create tools to identify brain injuries, by attaching it to materials than can be detected by medical imaging devices.

“And, because the peptide can deliver nanoparticles that can be loaded with large molecules,” Ruoslahti added, “it could enable enzyme or gene-silencing therapies.”

The technology has already been licensed by start-up company AivoCode, which was recently awarded a Small Business Innovation Research grant for further development and commercialisation.

It’s exciting news: the discovery could go a long way to developing a new, effective therapy for traumatic brain injuries.

31 scientific societies remind US lawmakers that man-made climate change is real

Thirty one leading scientific societies have today written to United States policymakers reconfirming the reality of man-made climate change and urging them to take action

The letter is intended as a reaffirmation of the message conveyed in a 2009 letter, at the time signed by eighteen leading scientific organisations, in the hope of providing authoritative information to those who have the power to work towards solutions.

“Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research concludes that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver,” the collaboration said in its letter to Members of Congress. “This conclusion is based on multiple independent lines of evidence and the vast body of peer-reviewed science.”

The letter has been signed by the leaders of organisations including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Meteorological Society, the American Institute of Biological Sciences and the American Statistical Association.

Image courtesy of Ocean Biology Processing Group at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. Above: image courtesy of ESA / NASA

Image courtesy of Ocean Biology Processing Group at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Above: image courtesy of ESA / NASA

The re-release of the letter, with its expanded consensus, is intended to drive home the dangers of greenhouse gas emissions from an objective perspective. With environmental issues often becoming politicised, the societies likely intend for their nonpartisan backgrounds to defuse accusations of political bias and enable them get straight to the science.

Citing the vast consensus of climate scientists and scientific organisations, including the US Global Change Research Program, the US National Academies and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the organisations’ message focuses on the negative impact that greenhouse gas emissions could have on many aspects of life around the world.

“To reduce the risk of the most severe impacts of climate change, greenhouse gas emissions must be substantially reduced,” the group said, adding that adaptation is also necessary to “address unavoidable consequences for human health and safety, food security, water availability, and national security, among others.”

Image courtesy of NASA

Image courtesy of NASA

Already in the United States alone, the group reports that climate change has seen increased threats of extreme weather events, sea-level rise, water scarcity, heat waves, wildfires and disturbances to ecosystems and animals.

However, American politicians’ likely compliance with the suggestions of the intersociety group is uncertain, given their history with climate change.

We will have to wait to see whether the recent Paris Agreement will be ratified, but it would not be the first time the US has failed to ratify an ecological treaty; the Kyoto Protocol was notably never ratified under the Bush administration.

“Climate change is real and happening now, and the United States urgently needs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” said AAAS Chief Executive Officer Rush Holt, executive publisher of the Science family of journals.

“We must not delay, ignore the evidence, or be fearful of the challenge. America has provided global leadership to successfully confront many environmental problems, from acid rain to the ozone hole, and we can do it again. We owe no less to future generations.”

Insects might be touted as the food of the future, but many of us remain unconvinced about bug-based meals. However, scientists have identified another approach to tackling future food shortages, and it’s set to be a lot more appetising to the average Westerner

As the global population continues to grow, we may need to search further afield for cheap, sustainable food alternatives.

A 2013 report from the World Resources Institute warned that Earth’s agricultural system faces a challenging balancing act. The challenge: “To meet different human needs, by 2050 it [the world] must simultaneously produce far more food for a population expected to reach about 9.6 billion, provide economic opportunities for the hundreds of millions of rural poor who depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, and reduce environmental impacts, including ecosystem degradation and high greenhouse gas emissions.”

Despite their high protein levels, many refuse to accept insects as the future of food

Despite their high protein levels, many refuse to accept insects as the future of food

Since then, a number of solutions have been proposed. Insects, for example, have been touted as a meat replacement for some time – they are high in protein, highly sustainable and represent a cheaper alternative to meat.

They have also been eaten widely in many parts of the world for years, including much of Asia.

And a 2014 study from Ghent University in Belgium revealed that one in five meat eaters from the Western world were ready to adopt bugs into their diet – with men more likely than women to accept them.

But researchers from the University of Hohenheim in Germany have recently proposed an alternative ‘future food’ that could be more palatable than adding crushed crickets to your dinner.

Forgotten grains

Friedrich Longin and Tobias Würschum believe that untapped consumer markets exist for ancient foods – such as einkorn, emmer and spelt – which fed large sections of the global population for thousands of years before industrial farming and the green revolution took centre stage.

In an opinion piece published in the journal Trends in Plant Science, the two plant breeders argue that consumer demand in the US and Europe for high quality, healthy food presents an opportunity to reintroduce ancient wheat varieties and other plant species, in turn increasing agricultural biodiversity (without the need for creepy crawlies).

“People are interested in diversity, in getting something with more taste, with healthier ingredients, and ancient grains deliver interesting things,” Longin explains.

By testing and analysing some of the thousands of varieties of ancient wheat species found in gene banks, agronomists and cereal scientists can select those best suited to both modern farming needs and consumer preferences.

And in terms of consumer preferences, I think we can safely argue that a new (or ancient) wheat variety would trump insects as an addition to the 21st century menu.

Take your pick

The wheat flour in widely available breads and baked goods comes almost exclusively from bread wheat – just one of three species, 20 subspecies and thousands of varieties of wheat cultivated and eaten across the world for centuries.

Ancient grain einkorn is one of those being considered

Ancient grain einkorn is one of those being considered

But the development of industrial agriculture and the green revolution in the mid-1900s focused on developing cultivars that produce a high yield and have short stalks which are less likely to collapse and expose the grains to pests or mould. And as other varieties ceased to be commercially viable, traditional dishes and regional food diversity also began to disappear.

However, many of these varieties still exist in gene banks.

In their research, Longin and Würschum screened hundreds of varieties of einkorn and emmer and tested the 15 best candidates at four different locations in Germany. The results proved the importance of looking at the plants holistically.

“When you look at einkorn, it is really fantastic looking in the field, but when you get the agronomic performance, it is low-yielding and it falls down in the rain. But then we found there were so many healthy ingredients, and you taste and even see it in the end product,” says Longin.

Leading by example

Spelt is an example of an ancient grain that has successfully been reintroduced into modern markets. The main cereal crop in Southern Germany, Austria and Switzerland, spelt had almost completely disappeared by the early 20th century. But after a rediscovery that started in the 1970s, today more than 100,000 hectares of spelt are grown every year in and around Germany, with an annual turnover of €1bn across Europe and an annual growth rate of over 5%.

The potential for these ancient grains is considerable, and the end results, according to the scientists, could create a self-financing strategy for providing high quality foods and preserving ancient species.

So let’s not forget about these grains of yesteryear. They may certainly prove to be more appetising than other ‘leggier’ alternatives.