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.

Elon Musk isn't so keen on flying cars

"Obviously, I like flying things, but it’s difficult to imagine the flying car becoming a scalable solution,” Musk told Bloomberg Businessweek. “If somebody doesn’t maintain their flying car, it could drop a hubcap and guillotine you.”

Source: Bloomberg

Is the woolly mammoth about to come back from extinction?

Scientists from Harvard University say they are just two years away from creating a hybrid embryo, in which mammoth traits would be programmed into an Asian elephant. The embryo would essentially grow to be an elephant with a number of mammoth traits.

Source: The Guardian

Congress is repeatedly warned NASA’s exploration plans aren’t sustainable

An expert panel has wanred that while NASA might have some of the right tools to launch and fly to destinations in deep space, it doesn't have the resources to land on the Moon, to build a base there or to fly humans to the surface of Mars.

Source: Ars Technica

IMAX unveils first virtual reality center

The IMAX VR center, which opened this week, houses 14 different pods, each containing different VR experiences that allow users to temporarily escape real life. One of the pods takes users to the desert planet of Tatooine, which will be familiar to Star Wars fans.

Source: Variety

Could Alexa be forced to testify in an Arkansas murder trial?

A trial is about to begin over the mysterious death of a former police officer at a home in Bentonville, Arkansas. The case is significant because it could help decide whether prosecutors should be allowed to subpoena a virtual assistant.

Source: VICE

Dwarf planet Ceres emerges as a place to look for life in the solar system

Pockets of carbon-based organic compounds have been found on the surface of Ceres. The identity of the tar-like minerals have't been precisely identified, but their mineral fingerprints match the make-up of kerite or asphaltite.

Source: New Scientist

Beyond biomimicry: Scientists find better-than-nature run style for six-legged robots

Researchers have found a running style for six-legged robots that significantly improves on the traditional nature-inspired method of movement.

The research, conducted by scientists at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and the University of Lausanne (UNIL) in Switzerland, found that as long as the robots are not equipped with insect-like adhesive pads, it is faster for them to move with only two legs on the ground at any given time.

Robotics has in the past few years made heavy use of biomimicry – the practice of mimicking natural systems – resulting in six-legged robots being designed to move like insects. In nature, insects use what is known as a tripod gait, where they have three legs on the ground at a time, so it had been assumed that this was the most efficient way for similarly legged robots to move.

However, by undertaking a series of computer simulations, tests on robots and experiments on Drosophila melanogaster – better known as the common fruit fly – the scientists found that the two-legged approach, which they have dubbed the bipod gait, results in faster and more efficient movement.

The core goal of the research, which is published today in the journal Nature Communications, was to confirm whether the long-held assumption that a tripod gait was best was indeed correct.

“We wanted to determine why insects use a tripod gait and identify whether it is, indeed, the fastest way for six-legged animals and robots to walk,” said Pavan Ramdya, study co-lead and corresponding author.

Initially, this involved the use of a simulated insect model based on the common fruit fly and an algorithm designed to mimic different evolutionary stages. This algorithm simulated different potential gaits to create a shortlist of those that it deemed to be the fastest.

This, however, shed light on why insects have a tripod gait – and why it may not be the best option for robots. The simulations showed that the traditional tripod gait works in combination with the adhesive pad found on the ends of insects’ legs to make climbing over vertical surfaces such as rocks easier and quicker.

Robots, however, are typically designed to walk along flat surfaces, and so the benefits of such a gait are lost.

“Our findings support the idea that insects use a tripod gait to most effectively walk on surfaces in three dimensions, and because their legs have adhesive properties. This confirms a long-standing biological hypothesis,” said Ramdya. “Ground robots should therefore break free from only using the tripod gait”.

Study co-lead authors Robin Thandiackal (left) and Pavan Ramdya with the six-legged robot used in the research. Images courtesy of EPFL/Alain Herzog

To for always corroborate the simulation’s findings, the researchers built a six-legged robot that could move either with a bipod or tripod gait, and which quickly confirmed the research by being faster when moving with just two legs on the ground at once.

However, they went further by confirming that the adhesive pads were in fact playing a role in the insect’s tripod movement.

They did this by equipping the fruit flies with tiny polymer boots that would cover the adhesive pads, and so remove their role in the way the insects moved. The flies’ responses confirms their theory: they began moving with a bipod-like gate rather than their conventional tripod-style movement.

“This result shows that, unlike most robots, animals can adapt to find new ways of walking under new circumstances,” said study co-lead author Robin Thandiackal.

As bizarre as the research sounds, it provides valuable new insights both for roboticists and biologists, and could lead to a new standard in the way that six legged robots are designed to move.

“There is a natural dialogue between robotics and biology: Many robot designers are inspired by nature and biologists can use robots to better understand the behavior of animal species,” added Thandiackal. “We believe that our work represents an important contribution to the study of animal and robotic locomotion.”