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Archive for the ‘Autonomous Vehicles’ Category

Tesla is having an interesting year with its Autopilot capabilities.   Its software, supported by cameras, radar and ultrasonic sensors, can automatically drive on a highway including changing lanes and adjusting speed depending on surrounding traffic. It can find a parking space and parallel park itself. It even comes when called. The Summon feature allows you to call your car from your phone and have it meet you at your front door. How many times have you wished for that feature when you can’t quite remember exactly where you parked in that huge shopping center lot on a rainy cold day?

Joshua Neally is quite happy with his Model X. On his way home in Springfield, Missouri, he suddenly felt something like “a steel pole through my chest.” He let his Tesla autonomously take him more than 20 miles to the off-ramp near the closest hospital. Neally had to drive himself the final stretch, but he survived a pulmonary embiolism, which kills 50,000 people a year, 70% in the first hour.

On the other hand, Joshua Brown had a different experience with his Tesla Model S in Williston, Florida. His car’s sensor system failed to distinguish a large white 18-wheeler crossing the highway on a bright sunny day. Joshua was killed when the top of his car was torn off when it went through the trailer.

Tesla cars are not fully autonomous: they require the driver to remain alert and keep their hands on the steering wheel. Neally’s car got him safely 20 miles and off the freeway, but he had to manually drive to the emergency entrance. Brown was apparently watching a Harry Potter movie at the time of the crash; at least the movie was still playing when the car finally stopped after snapping a telephone pole a quarter mile from the accident.

Uber in Pittsburgh is offering rides in self-driving Ford Fusion cars. There is still a driver who has to be ready to take over at any time. The current software will not automatically change lanes, like when a delivery van is double-parked on a city street. The driver needs to take control to safely go around the obstacle.

Like today’s cruise control, you must engage the self-driving features, and manually braking or accelerating disables the self-driving features.

Surprisingly, bridges can be a problem for autonomous vehicles. One might think that nothing could be simpler than a bridge: a straight set of well marked lanes with a definite right side and minimal distractions like pedestrians and cross streets. But that simplicity is a big part of the problem. Without so many environmental clues like buildings, it is harder for the car to figure out exactly where it is. This is one reason Pittsburgh was chosen for this first Uber self-driving car rollout. Pittsburgh also has four seasons, an irregular grid of roads, and lots of potholes, and Carnegie Mellon University robotics center. The robotics center providing the self-driving hardware and software.

We are in the awkward learning phase with autonomous vehicles. Having someone behind the wheel to take over is problematic. It is hard enough to stay focused on driving when you are actually driving, let alone when you have very little to do.

The last word:

If you have one of the current crop of semi-autonomous vehicles, you must pay attention at all times. Tesla emits an audible chime when it detects that the driver does not have his hands on the wheel. Uber currently has a engineer behind the wheel, and another ride-along engineer in the passenger seat monitoring the car and taking notes.

If you are riding in a semi-autonomous vehicle, like the Uber cars in Pittsburgh, do not distract the driver. Treat the driver like you would in a normal vehicle.

On the other hand, Teslas had been driven more than 130 million miles in autopilot mode prior to its first fatality, compared to one fatality every 94 million miles in the US and every 60 million miles worldwide.

Always remember, these software systems are still in beta. You won’t trust your business to beta software; don’t trust your life to beta software!

Comments solicited.

Keep your sense of humor.

Walt.

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London CabWhen you travel around in London you encounter three moving icons that help define the city: the Underground, the red double-decker buses, and the black London cabs. You do not want to drive yourself in the centre city for several reasons: there are a lot of cars and little parking, they drive on the other side of the road, and they have a “Congestion Charge” that, for the casual tourist, is up to £14 per day, with a £130 per day fine if you are caught without paying the CC.

Last year I predicted that by 2030, London will be the first large city to completely ban non-autonomous vehicles within the City of London. And by 2040 within the entire metropolis of London. I may have been too conservative.

Auto-MateMarcello Raeli is a young Italian designer who grew up all over the world, moving with his parents every 4-5 years. His father was an architect and a painter, and Marcello yearned and learned to be a Designer of things that solved real people’s problems. He also loved Isaac Asimov’s science fiction stories and predictions of the future. He designs shoes, including “running” shoes that can bring the same augmentation that some amputee runners have discovered to a full-limbed runner. He also designs cars, from micro-minis to high performance cars.

Auto-Mate interiorOne of his latest designs is Auto-Mate, an autonomous time-share vehicle specifically for London. It seats up to four adults in comfort. Taking inspiration from the iconic red buses, red telephone booths, and the London Eye, the giant Ferris wheel by the Thames, the Auto-Mate is a sleek, futuristic-looking vehicle the same size as the existing London cabs. These vehicles provide transportation-as-a-service to anybody at any time of the day or night, and in any weather. The number of cabs on the street can change automatically based on demand. Over a relatively short time, the system will be able to predict need based on day of week, time of day, weather, or special event and have sufficient vehicles available to meet real-time needs.

London cab drivers, usually, are well trained and know their way around. They speak a form of English, sometimes not easily understood by Americans. The Auto-Mate can speak and understand dozens of languages, and keep quiet when that is what you want.

Raeli’s Auto-Mate is just a design today, but at the rate autonomous vehicles are evolving, sometime soon you may see these as you walk by Parliament.

There are, of course, those who want to slow down the adoption of autonomous cars. The NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) is currently planning on having guidance for the deploying of autonomous vehicles by July 2016. Issuing actual regulations normally takes about eight years; by providing early guidance, the US government will be able to react more quickly to this rapidly changing technology.

It is very hard to stop new technology. Already, Tesla’s autopilot function will automatically drive your car on a highway, including changing lanes and adjusting speed in response to nearby traffic.

The last word:

In January, General Motors and Lyft announced an alliance to create a network of on-demand autonomous vehicles in the US. Lyft is a ride-sharing service, and this alliance plans to eliminate the driver.

Ford is also allowing some car owners to rent their car to a stranger for short periods of time. For example, 12,000 Londoners offer time slots in their cars to pre-screened renters. The plan is that they can earn enough money to cover their car payments, thus having a vehicle for their own use for free. This car-sharing and ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft are starting a significant change in how we think about cars.

Cars are critical, especially for those of us of a certain age for whom a car represented freedom, a key disconnect from constant supervision by parental units and a means of getting where we wanted to go when we wanted. But, considering the cost of a car and the fact that most cars spend 95% of their time parked and unused, the significance of car ownership will probably decrease.

Maybe not for us over 30, but for the younger generations, the car is likely to cease to be a prized possession but just a means of getting somewhere, and it won’t have to be their’s.

Children born after 2015 will probably need a history lesson before they will understand what is going on in the Taxi TV show.

Comments solicited.

Keep your sense of humor.

Walt.

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MQ-9 Reaper

MQ-9 Reaper

We are used to the daily reports on the activities of military combat drones, and the accompanying public opinion both pro and con on their use. With the ability to control a drone from a long distance, the loss of a drone does not cause injury or death to the pilot. Since there is no pilot, the drone can be far lighter and have better performance since it does not have a provide an environment to support the pilot nor worry about subjecting the pilot to G forces beyond what a human can survive. According to Wikipedia, the first armed drone was flown by Iran in the late 1980s in the Iraq-Iran War.

QH-50DApparently, Wikipedia forgot about the Gyrodyne QH-50C DASH (Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter) Drone. The unmanned remote controlled helicopter was used by the US Navy on destroyers beginning in 1962 as part of the Navy’s counter to Soviet submarine threats. The drone could carry two Mark 44 homing torpedoes or one Mark 46 torpedo, the current NATO standard torpedo. The program was cancelled in 1969, but they continued to fly from Japanese destroyers until 1977, and as late as 2006 at the White Sands test range to tow targets and calibrate radar systems. During the Vietnam War, a television camera was added so the DASH SNOOPY’s (as they were then called) could be used as airborne spotters for naval gunfire.

DSC_4570The DASH Drone had two counter-rotating blades on a single co-axial shaft to control torque, so did not need a tail rotor. Since there was no crew, the drone was viewed as expendable. It used off-the-shelf industrial electronics with no back-ups. About 80% of the failures were the result of a single-point failure in the electronics, with only 10% traced to “pilot” error, with the remaining 10% traced to engine or other mechanical failures.

It weighed about 1,200 pounds empty, with a max takeoff weight of a little over a ton. It cruised at 58 mph, with a maximum speed of 80 knots (92 mph), and a range of about 80 miles. While it usually operated close to sea level, it had a ceiling of 16,400 ft. In its fully operational mode, it could be flown from a destroyer up to 22 miles without providing any warning to a submarine, until it dropped its torpedo into the water.

By comparison, the MQ-9 Reaper, pictured at the top of this post, has a top speed of 300 mph, a range of over 1,100 miles, and weighs in at 4,900 ponds.

The DASH Drone had two controllers:

  1. A “small” one for takeoff and landings that was used on the flight deck. (See photo above left.) This is not a handheld control with a joystick, but attached to the structure on the fantail of a destroyer. The circle in the center is not a screen, but a compass
  2. DSC_4568The larger controller was housed in the ship’s combat information center (CIC). It would fly the drone to the target location and release weapons using semi-automated controls, directed by the ship’s radar. The CIC had no windows, so the pilot could not actually see the drone or even how high it was. Sometimes, this had bad results for the drone. The CIC controller was, not surprising, an early 1960’s era computer, probably with tubes. That era computers were not known to be overly reliable.

rotocycleRemote control communications were via multi-channel analog FM, so these communications were strictly “line of sight.” If the shipboard transmitter did not have a clear line to the drone, it could not control it. Darkness and fog did not impact its communication, but the curvature of the earth and its needs to operate close to sea level restricted its range.

The manufacturer, Gryodyne, had created a very small single-seat helicopter for the U.S. Navy in the mid 1950s. This “Rotocycle” won the prize for the most maneuverable helicopter at the 1961 Paris Air Show. Again under contract with the U.S. Navy, Gryodyne removed the pilot seat and manual controls to create the DASH Drone.

The last word:

If you would like to see one and are in the Philadelphia, PA, area, check out the Delaware Valley Historical Aircraft Association Wings of Freedom Museum near the old Willow Grove Naval Air Station. This museum has a number of interesting military aircraft, including a QH-50C DASH Drone with both controllers. Come check them out, and maybe help them move to a bigger facility that will allow all of their aircraft to be indoors.

Comments solicited.

Keep your sense of humor.

Walt.

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As we are in the middle of the holiday season, our thoughts turn to 2016 and beyond. With so many really serious issues surrounding us, I decided to think about something fun: autonomous vehicles. After all, what could go wrong?

Police_stop_Google_carGoggle has been testing driverless cars for seven years, and one was finally pulled over by a policeman. On 12 November 2015 a policeman stopped a Google car in Mountain View, CA, for doing 24 mph in a 35 mph zone and impeding traffic. When the policeman noticed there was no one in the vehicle, he did not give the car a ticket. Two good things to note about this incident: The Google car knew what to do when pulled over by a policeman on the road, and the absence of a ticket leaves Goggle’s record intact: 1.2 million miles of autonomous driving and no ticket. That is the equivalent of about 90 years of driving experience.

When was the last time you got a ticket for driving too slowly? And as Google CEO Sergey Brin said in a 2012 interview, Google cars “do not run right lights.”

My predictions:

  • If you live in a metropolitan area, you will see an autonomous vehicle on a highway near you by 2020.
  • By 2025, a significant percentage of the long haul trucks you pass on the US Interstates will be autonomous vehicles, and by 2030 there will likely be only autonomous semi-trailer vehicles on the Interstates outside of metropolitan areas.
  • By 2025, large farms (1,000 or more farmed acres) will be exclusively using autonomous farm vehicles to grow crops like corn, wheat, and soybeans.
  • In 2030, London will be the first large city to completely ban non-autonomous vehicles within the City of London. And by 2040 within the entire metropolis of London. The City of London is the originally settled part of London, covering the area settled by the Romans in the first century AD through the Middle Ages. It is 1.2 square miles and includes most of the government and financial buildings. Metropolitan London includes 32 additional boroughs and covers over 3,000 square miles.
  • By 2025, we will see the first citywide Transportation as a Service These companies, possibly government run, will provide a variety of vehicles to move people and goods about the city on demand, integrated to the existing public transportation system. Expect to see them first in Detroit (sponsored by Ford), San Francisco (Google), and Seattle (Microsoft). We are seeing the first baby-steps towards this with Uber. Uber establishes the model of a mobile-app service that will take you when and where you want. The next step is to eliminate the driver.
  • By 2040, hardly anyone within a metropolitan area will own a car. Parking lots will start to be replaced by parks or a more campus-like environment for work, living, and shopping

Some neat things you will be able to do:

  • You will get limousine-like service going to and coming from the airport, and never have to worry about what is happening to your car while you are traveling, or even which lot you might have put you car. Same with shopping centers.
  • If you own an autonomous vehicle, you never have to take it in for service. Just send it on its own.
  • You can go shopping, summon a car and load it up, send it home, and then stroll around with a friend and get a cup of coffee. Summon another car to take you home where the first car is patiently waiting at your front door.
  • When you arrive at a strange city for a business meeting, you won’t have to worry about how to get to your destination. Just pick up an autonomous car at the airport or train station, tell it where to go, and even keep it for the entire trip. It will even be able to give you a quick tour of the town, or take you to some specific spot you have always wanted to see, or recommend a restaurant.
  • Older and disabled individuals will have all the mobility and freedom they want to maintain their lifestyle.
  • You will never worry about you, your teenager, or someone else driving drunk or otherwise impaired.

Autonomous cars will be able to react much faster than you can. I had an uncle who lived in rural, western Pennsylvania who always advised us “kids” to never hit a deer. Followed by, never leave the road or your lane to avoid hitting a deer. He further explained that if you cannot avoid hitting a deer, accelerate; do not apply the brakes. Why? When you brake hard, the front of your car drops, potentially lowering the front bumper by several inches. This increases the probability that the deer will be thrown up over your hood. If it comes at you feet first it will go through the windshield and likely cause substantial injury or death to you or your front seat passenger. If you accelerate, the front of the car rises, increases the probability that the deer will go under the car. In either case, it is bad for the deer and your car, but the likelihood you will walk away is increased if you accelerate. The trick is to get over the “there’s a deer” startle, then decide whether you can avoid the collision and take the correct action in about a second. An autonomous car will figure it all out in about a tenth of a second. An autonomous car is more likely to correctly react to a change in road conditions such as black ice or a suddenly flat tire. For one thing, it will never have to have a startled reaction before actually doing something.

In addition, every autonomous car will keep a record of its actions and where it went. Like the black boxes on airplanes and trains, this information will be useful when there are accidents to figure out what happened and if programming changes might be needed. This information will also be available to the government in case they want to know where the car has been.

Your car might also tattle on you. A Florida woman was reportedly arrested after her Ford implicated her in at least one alleged hit-and-run incident. The car driven by 57-year old Cathy Bernstein automatically dialed 911 to report a crash. The call is part of the car’s safety package, notifying first responders to help locate the driver or passengers who might have lost consciousness in the crash. The 911 call enabled police to locate the car without talking with anyone. Ms. Bernstein denied that there had been any accident. Ford said its software worked as designed.

Whether my predictions are correct or not will be determined over time, but autonomous vehicles are coming.

The last word:

“A strict observance of the written laws is doubtless one of the high virtues of a good citizen, but it is not the highest. The laws of necessity, of self-preservation, of saving our country when in danger, are of higher obligation.”

Thomas Jefferson, Third President of the United States, in a letter to John B. Colvin, 20 September 1810. John Colvin was a newspaper publisher in the Baltimore-Washington area who supported Thomas Jefferson.

Comments solicited.

Keep your sense of humor.

Walt.

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Self-driving buses are coming to San Ramon, California. The EZ10 is a driverless bus designed for short hops within a campus-like environment. Each vehicle carries up to ten passengers and has a ramp for wheelchairs and strollers. They are designed to carry you that “last mile” from a public transit stop to your workplace or appointment, and then back to the public transit connection when you are done.

EZ10The EZ10 is an electric vehicle with an eight-hour range that uses GPS to follow pre-programed route, with laser sensors to avoid obstacles and people.

Made by Ligier, the EZ10 is already in use in Finland and France, and soon to be used also in Spain. By the end of 2015, The Netherlands plans to use them on a seven-kilometer route between a major train station and the campus of Wageningen University and Research Center.

Probably one of the best features of the EZ10 is that it is another step in making the general public comfortable around driverless vehicles.

Some of us are old enough to remember the introduction of driverless rail-based public transit and the fear, uncertainty, and doubt that it caused. The first such system was the Victoria line as part of London’s Underground which opened in 1967. At this point, trains like Copenhagen’s Metro are capable of operating completely automatically, including door closing, obstacle detection and handling emergency situations. Copenhagen’s Metro carries about 55 million passenger trips per year.

Ligier Automobiles was founded in 1968 by Guy Ligier, a former racing driver and rugby player. It has specialized in small cars (microcars). One of the world’s first prototypes of automatic parallel parking was developed on a Ligier electric car in the mid 1990’s. As the name implies, microcars are small, seating only a driver and passenger, with a small gasoline engine or electric motor. Different countries have different rules on what is defined to be a microcar, but often they can be no more than 3 meters in length. In addition to the obvious fuel efficiency of such a light vehicle, in some countries they are treated like motorcycles for tax and insurance purposes. Austria, France, Germany, Italy and Spain do not require a driver’s license to operate them. Some microcars do not have a reverse; simply pick up one end and shift it around to park.

The last word:

KirobiMiniIf you would like to take a small step into driving automation on your own, consider getting a Kirobo Mini. Designed by Toyota, the cup-holder sized Kirobo Mini is a four-inch tall robot that can gesture, read your mood, and talk to you while you drive. Actually, you can’t get one just yet, but Toyota may install them in future Toyota vehicles to help keep you alert and calm. It could also collect information about driving habits that Toyota engineers could potentially use to build better features into their cars.

The original Kirobo was a slightly more than foot-tall robot that went to space in 2013 with Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata. Kirobo was designed to remember Wakata’s face so it could recognize and have conversations with the astronaut on the International Space Station and even relay information to him from Earth.

The Kirobo Mini might even be useful to help us keep alert during those interminable virtual meetings we all have to sit through.

Comments solicited.

Keep your sense of humor.

Walt.

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I recently posted a series on driverless vehicles, including long haul trucks, farm vehicles, and taxis. Is anything happening in the field? The short answer is a resounding “yes.”

I mentioned the Freightliner “Inspiration Truck” in my earlier post. Freightliner Trucks is headquartered in South Carolina and is the largest division of Daimler Trucks North America. But they are not alone in developing autonomous long-haul trucks. In Europe, a standard Mercedes-Benz Actos with their intelligent “Highway Pilot” system travelled about nine miles on the Bundesautobahn 8 motorway in southern Germany. Like the Freightliner autonomous truck, there was a human driver behind the wheel, but he did not touch the wheel or other controls.

MB Autonomous TruckAutonomous car development is moving forward at an ever-increasing pace. Right now, there are dozens of companies working hard on achieving a real driverless car. Here is a brief look at current trends at a few of them.

  • Google is probably in the lead, with a goal to not build cars but to provide the software necessary for others to manufacture the production vehicles.
  • QNX is a Canadian software company specializing in on-board systems to provide infotainment, movies, music, and control your car. Probably more than anyone else today, they understand the requirement that the software system cannot crash, because if it does, so does the car.
  • Delphi is known as a one of the world’s largest parts suppliers, which realizes that car components, including smart car control and software solutions, must be cost effective. Delphi is working on ways to reduce the complexity, cost and weight of these systems.
  • Cisco Systems in known for its network products, and is working with Continental Automotive on producing the security software and message routing hardware that are required to deliver connected autonomous car services.
  • Continental Automotive is a large European parts supplier similar to Delphi in the US. It announced in 2013 that automated driving is the core of its long-term business strategy, and is working on connecting cars to provide better real-time traffic and navigation, entertainment features, and hazard warnings.
  • Covisint is a Detroit-based company that is developing a secure communication and collaboration system to enable autonomous cars to communicate with traffic lights, emergency vehicles and other external factors.
  • Codha Wireless designs hardware and software that will allow to vehicles to form ad hoc networks while on the road. Cars and trucks within those networks will be able to share critical information including their speed, direction, whether they are braking or accelerating. The result could be a a larger Cloud-based intelligence that will allow each vehicle to see danger around a corner and what is ahead of that big truck they are following.
  • Autotalks is an Israeli company in the same space as Codha. It has produced the world’s first automotive-grade chipset ready for mass production. This technology analyzes the data transmitted by the on-board systems in nearby vernicles to, initially, warn drivers of any imminent danger and communicate with external transportation infrastructure such as traffic lights. Eventually this becomes part of the roadway control infrastructure.
  • Mobileye is another Israeli company that provides inexpensive monitoring technology that uses a single camera to warn cars of dangers such as pedestrians, leaving your lane, or a forward collision, plus provides intelligent high-beam lights, recognizes traffic signs including speed limits, and adaptive cruise control.
  • Nvidia is a California chip manufacturer that has specialized in game controllers. Their experience in crunching real-time images and spatial data makes their chips ideal in driverless car systems. One of their biggest aims is to make car systems upgradeable.

Most current cars and trucks contain computer systems were designed at least two years before the vehicle goes into production; driverless technology has moved on in that time.   Today, an “upgrade” requires a trip to the dealer. This is unacceptable when a safety upgrade needs to be done “NOW!”

None of these companies actually build cars. Car manufacturers will take all of these technologies working together to get to the goal of safe driverless vehicles. I would bet it will all happen sooner than the experts expect.

The last word:

The future driverless vehicles are dependent on the cloud. As these companies have proven, we either have or are close to the connectivity we need. My biggest concern is security. So far, car control systems are extremely vulnerable to attack, as was recently proven on a Jeep.

I am looking forward to self-driving rental cars: no more getting off a long cramped airplane flight in a strange city trying to figure out how to get to you destination.

With the near-universal adoption of autonomous vehicles, bars will be happy. MADD should be happy and may be able to disband in a few decades.

Comments solicited.

Keep your sense of humor.

Walt.

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