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.

Solar Impulse plane arrives in Pennsylvania after brush with disaster

Solar Impulse 2, the solar plane currently circumnavigating the globe, has landed in Lehigh Valley International Airport in Pennsylvania, the US, after an incident at Dayton International Airport nearly put the project in serious jeopardy.

Bertand Piccard, Solar Impulse initiator and chairman, successfully piloted the plane from Dayton to Pennsylvania, departing at 4:02am local time yesterday, and landing 16 hours and 47 minutes later at 8:49pm.

However, before the plane was due to depart, an incident with the plane’s inflatable mobile hangar almost spelt disaster.

“What I was afraid of happened yesterday,” explained André Borschberg, Solar Impulse CEO, co-founder and alternate pilot, in a video recorded on 25th May shortly before the plane’s departure from Dayton. “To have a small accident which could jeopardise what we are doing. Suddenly the mobile hangar started to deflate and touch the aeroplane.”

Bertrand Piccard takes the now traditional in-flight selfie while flying from Dayton, Ohio, to Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. Images courtesy of Solar Impulse

Bertrand Piccard takes the now traditional in-flight selfie while flying from Dayton, Ohio, to Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. Images courtesy of Solar Impulse

This may not sound like a significant problem, but it could have caused major structural damage that would have taken months to repair and put the rest of the trip on hold indefinitely. This is because the plane is made of ultra lightweight carbon fibre, which is very strong when airborne, but fragile when on the ground.

“This aeroplane likes to fly; it doesn’t like to sit on the ground. And if you apply a little weight on the wing, you can be overloaded,” said Borschberg.

“I tell you, it was incredible,” he added. “But thanks to the reaction of the ground team, and thanks to the reaction of one guy Neils, he was the head of the ground team, he took the decision to reboot the system, and the mobile hangar started to reinflate again. But the major question at this moment was ‘did we damage the aircraft?’“

The departure from Dayton was delayed for a day while Solar Impulse engineers investigated the plane for damage, however the all-clear was given and the journey proceeded as planned.

Now the plane has arrived in Pennsylvania, it has almost completed its crossing of the USA, with its final stop, New York, only around 100 miles away.

The plan is to land at JFK International Airport, before embarking on the epic Atlantic crossing that will take the plane to Europe, and bring the plane a major step closer to completing its fuel-free round-the-world journey. However, the Solar Impulse team is still determining the best approach to this.

“There are different scenarios around how we’re going to fly the flight to New York, and when we’re going to approach the Statue of Liberty” said Michael Anger, Solar Impulse lead mission engineer and flight director.

“There’s one scenario where we arrive there early in the morning with the sunrise, and therefore we would need to take off very early in the morning, maybe 2 o’clock at night. And the other scenario is we fly into the night with maybe one hour before sunset and then fly into the night and then land very late in JFK.”

Scientists have just solved one of the biggest unsolved mysteries in galaxy evolution

Scientists believe that the intense interstellar winds created by low-energy supermassive black holes are responsible for turning galaxies into “featureless deserts”.

Galaxies begin their existence full of gas and dust, and actively form bright new stars, but as they evolve they become devoid of fresh stars and generally remain that way for the rest of their evolution.

Research by the Universities of Tokyo and Oxford have discovered this may be caused by galaxies hosting low-energy supermassive black holes.

Scientists have dubbed these galaxies, red geysers.

The winds found in red geysers suppress star formation by heating up the ambient gas found in galaxies and preventing it from cooling and condensing into stars.

Image and featured image courtesy of Kavli/IPMU

Image and featured image courtesy of Kavli/IPMU

“Stars form from the gas, but in many galaxies stars were found not to form despite an abundance of gas. It was like having deserts in densely clouded regions,” said the study’s lead author, Dr Edmond Cheung.

“We knew quiescent galaxies needed some way to suppress star formation, and now we think the red geysers phenomenon may represent how typical quiescent galaxies maintain their quiescence.”

Using a near-dormant distant galaxy named Akira as a prototypical example, the researchers were able to describe how the wind’s driving mechanism is likely to originate in Akira’s galactic nucleus.

The energy input from this nucleus, powered by a supermassive black hole, is capable of producing the wind, which itself contains enough mechanical energy to heat ambient, cooler gas in the galaxy and thus suppress star formation.

“We could not understand what was preventing this cooling from happening in many galaxies,’ said co-author Dr Michele Cappellari.

“But when we modelled the motion of the gas in the red geysers, we found that the gas was being pushed away from the galaxy centre, and escaping the galaxy gravitational pull.”

Image courtesy of SDSS/David Kirkby

Image courtesy of SDSS/David Kirkby

Scientists were able to make their discovery by observing how stars and gas move inside galaxies using the Mapping Nearby Galaxies at Apache Point Observatory (MaNGA) survey of galaxies.

“The discovery was made possible by the amazing power of the ongoing MaNGA galaxy survey,” said overall leader of the study, Dr Kevin Bundy.

“The survey allows us to observe galaxies in three dimensions, by mapping not only how they appear on the sky, but also how their stars and gas move inside them.”

Driverless cars are learning how to go faster in dangerous conditions

A Georgia Institute of Technology research team has discovered a way to make self-driving cars safe when they’re driven in hazardous road conditions or at high speeds.

Up until now we’ve seen driverless cars performing comfortably on roads in good condition, but by using advanced algorithms and onboard computing, together with installed sensor devices, the Georgia Tech team was able to maintain control of a driverless vehicle when roadway adhesion was limited.

So a driverless car would be able to perform in icy or, as the researchers tested, rally-style conditions.

“An autonomous vehicle should be able to handle any condition, not just drive on the highway under normal conditions,” said School of Aerospace Engineering professor and expert on the mathematics behind rally-car racing control, Panagiotis Tsiotras.

“One of our principal goals is to infuse some of the expert techniques of human drivers into the brains of these autonomous vehicles.”

The Georgia Tech researchers used a method called model predictive path integral control (MPPI) to keep their cars at the edge of their limits.

To create their MPPI control algorithm the team combined large amounts of car handling information with data on the dynamics of the vehicle, to calculate the most stable trajectories from the numerous possibilities.

“Aggressive driving in a robotic vehicle – manoeuvring at the edge – is a unique control problem involving a highly complex system,” said School of Aerospace Engineering assistant professor and project leader, Evangelos Theodorou.

“However, by merging statistical physics with control theory, and utilising leading-edge computation, we can create a new perspective, a new framework, for control of autonomous systems.”

Images courtesy of Rob Felt, Georgia Tech

Images courtesy of Rob Felt, Georgia Tech

The MPPI control algorithm was tested by racing, sliding and jumping one-fifth scale, fully autonomous auto-rally cars at the equivalent of 90 mph.

The cars carried a motherboard with a quad-core processor, a potent GPU and a battery. Each vehicle was also fitted with two forward-facing cameras, an inertial measurement unit and sophisticated wheel-speed sensors.

In order to maintain balance in the hazardous testing conditions the cars had to balance a desire to stay on the track with achieving the desired velocity.

The researchers refer to these two separate desires, which they managed to coordinate, as costs.

“What we’re talking about here is using the MPPI algorithm to achieve relative entropy minimisation, and adjusting costs in the most effective way is a big part of that,” said James Rehg, a professor in the Georgia Tech School of Interactive Computing.

“To achieve the optimal combination of control and performance in an autonomous vehicle is definitely a non-trivial problem.”