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Day Three at Pikes Peak Motorcycle Race With the Buckeye Current Team

Pikes Peak, Colo., 23 June—The bug of the day for the Ohio State students and their Buckeye Current electric motorcycle is a throttle that suddenly quits.

It surfaces in today’s first run to the summit in by Rob “The Bullet” Barber, the bike’s British pro driver. On the way down the motor cuts out, and though it takes Barber just a few seconds to reset the system, seconds matter.

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People Want Driverless Cars with Utilitarian Ethics, Unless They're a Passenger

At some point in the nearer-than-might-be-comfortable future, an autonomous vehicle (AV) will find itself in a situation where something has gone wrong, and it has two options: either it can make a maneuver that will keep its passenger safe while putting a pedestrian at risk, or it can make a different maneuver that will keep the pedestrian safe while putting its passenger at risk. What an AV does in situations like these will depend on how it’s been programmed: in other words, what ethical choice its software tells it to make.

If there were clear ethical rules that society could agree on about how AVs should behave when confronted with such decisions, we could just program those in and be done with it. However, there are a near infinite number of possible ethical problems, and within each one, the most ethical course of action can vary from person to person. Furthermore, it’s not just the passengers who have a say in how AVs behave, but also the manufacturers, and more likely than not, government regulators.

To try to understand how users feel about the potential for AVs to make ethical decisions, Jean-Francois Bonnefon from CNRS in France, Azim Shariff from University of Oregon, and Iyad Rahwan from the MIT Media Lab conducted a series of online surveys, full of questions about AVs in ethical quandaries, as well as how ethical decisions made by AVs might influence the user’s perception of them. And like many ethical problems, the results reveal inherent contradictions that may make the adoption of AVs more difficult.

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Day Two at Pikes Peak Motorcycle Race With the Buckeye Current Team

Pikes Peak, Colo., 22 June—The second day of time trials for Sunday’s motorized climb up Pikes Peak drops the motorcycle entries down a peg from yesterday: They climb the middle of the mountain instead of to the summit.

But every day is a bug-killing day. The student engineers from Ohio are systematically teasing out glitches in their all-electric motorcycle, the Buckeye Current. Yesterday’s headache was the burnout of the circuit feeding the bike’s noise maker, which is meant to shoo off any pedestrians who might not know that the race is still going on. The solution: an $8 car-alarm-like device purchased from a local purveyor, who specializes in just such emergencies.

Today’s problem is in the motor’s cooling loop, which includes a pump, a water supply and a radiator. (There’s another loop just for the inverter, which has a different optimal temperature.)

During the run up to the base from which he started yesterday—called the Devil’s Playground, because it’s a natural lightning rod—the motor gets a little hot. British pro rider Rob “The Bullet” Barber posts a good, fast run. But the heat problem might well doom his chances on race day, when he must ascend from the base to the summit, covering 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) and rising 1.4 km (0.9 mile).

When the motor begins overheating it tells the power-management software to reduce power from the battery pack. So, though the motorcycle keeps on going, it lose a lot of oomph. Goodbye, victory.

The team’s first guess is that the water was low because the system had sprung a leak. A quick fix might have involved encasing the thing in water-sealing goop. But before the grease guns can come out it begins to appear that the weak water flow had another cause: bubbles.

“I don’t think there was a leak,” says Brody Ringler, a third-year student mechanical engineering. “Air bubbles probably worked their way up, blocking full circulation, so there was still some heat transfer, but not enough. The motor was just starting to get hot enough to cause the system to pull back [on power].”

He figures his tweaks have fixed the problem. But the team will look into it again this afternoon, in the garage of a rented home in Colorado Springs that serves as their main laboratory here.

I ask team leader Aaron Bonnell-Kangas, a graduate student in electrical engineering, why no sensors had been installed in the cooling loop. “We did put in sensors, but they’re not working,” he says. “It was down on our list of bugs, and other things were more important. And putting sensors everywhere can increase the burden, adding more things that can go wrong.

Would another week of trial and error have been enough to clean out most of the bugs? “A week like this, followed by a month back in the lab, is what would make a difference,” he says. 

Then up come members of the main rival, backers of an electric bike called the Kommit EVT Zero FXS. The long name is testimony to the broad collaboration in the team, which involves MIT; Mirai, a Japanese racing firm; and Komatti, a U.K. team based in the Isle of Man (site of a famous motorcourse). They ask for electricity, and the Buckeyes graciously allow them to plug into their Cummins generator, a trailer-drawn behemoth that probably could supply the entire contingent of racers here.

The MIT team is having trouble with their charger, a key and expensive component, according to Bonnell-Kangas. A meter or two from where I’m standing they are working on exposed circuitry carrying high voltages. “The have an open box—not something I’d want to have,” he says.

He must be relieved that today, at least, the other team’s bugs are worse than his. Though the Ohioans say their first priority is to win the race not to set a record. And to do that you don’t have to outrun the clock—you only have to outrun your rivals.

Day One at Pikes Peak Motorcyle Race With Ohio State's Electric Motorcycle

Pike’s Peak, Colo., 21 June—Rob “Bullet” Barber, a veteran British motorcycle racer, shoots up the upper third of the mountain race course here in Pike’s Peak, Colo., with eerie silence. And that is not a good thing. 

He is riding the Buckeye Current, a monstrously powerful electric motorcycle designed and built by students at Ohio State University, and the rules of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb—being held Sunday for the 100th year running—require electric bikes to make a sound loud enough to warn errant pedestrians of their coming. This morning the noisemaker burned out, and making it work is the technical problem of the day.

“Electric bikes have to be louder than gasoline bikes are at their maximum,” grouses Aaron Bonnell-Kangas, of Columbus, Ohio, the leader of the team and a graduate student in electrical engineering.

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Pioneer of Electronic Stability Control Wins European Inventor Award

Anton van Zanten did pioneering work at Bosch on a key part of a smart car’s smarts, then went off into retirement respected by his colleagues but hardly known to outsiders.

That mismatch was rectified on Thursday, when the European Patent Office gave him the 2016 European Inventors Award for lifetime achievement, in Lisbon, Portugal. The award, presented by the president of Portugal, came in the shape of a sail.

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The AI Dashcam App That Wants to Rate Every Driver in the World

If you’ve been out on the streets of Silicon Valley or New York City in the past nine months, there’s a good chance that your bad driving habits have already been profiled by Nexar. This U.S.-Israeli startup is aiming to build what it calls “an air traffic control system” for driving, and has just raised an extra $10.5 million in venture capital financing.

Since Nexar launched its dashcam app last year, smartphones running it have captured, analyzed, and recorded over 5 million miles of driving in San Francisco, New York, and Tel Aviv. The company’s algorithms have now automatically profiled the driving behavior of over 7 million cars, including more than 45 percent of all registered vehicles in the Bay Area, and over 30 percent of those in Manhattan.

Using the smartphone’s camera, machine vision, and AI algorithms, Nexar recognizes the license plates of the vehicles around it, and tracks their location, velocity, and trajectory. If a car speeds past or performs an illegal maneuver like running a red light, that information is added to a profile in Nexar’s online database. When another Nexar user’s phone later detects the same vehicle, it can flash up a warning to give it a wide berth. (This feature will go live later this year.)

Lior Strahilevitz, a law professor at the University of Chicago, proposed a similar (if lower-tech) reputation system for drivers a decade ago. “I think it’s a creative and sensible way to help improve the driving experience,” he says. “There aren’t a lot of legal impediments in the United States to what Nexar is doing, nor should there be.” Eran Shir, Nexar’s co-founder, says, “If you’re driving next to me and you’re a dangerous driver, I want to know about it so I can be prepared.”

Nexar estimates that if 1 percent of drivers use the app daily, it would take just one month to profile 99 percent of a city’s vehicles. “We think that it’s a service to the community to know if you’re a crazy driver or not,” says Shir.

That community includes insurance companies, who Nexar suggests could save billions by cherry-picking only the best drivers to cover. Nexar has calculated that companies using its universal driving score could save $125 a year on each policy. Drivers benefit, too, from video and sensor footage stored in the cloud that they can use to support their side of the story following a collision.

Shir hopes that Nexar will also reduce traffic fatalities long before self-driving cars become mainstream. The app can highlight treacherous intersections, or detect a car braking sharply and send alerts to users several cars back or even around a corner. “This needs to be a real-time network,” says Shir. “We’ve optimized the way that cars communicate so that the latency is very low: about 100 to 150 milliseconds.”

Such targeted warnings require much more precise geolocation than that offered by normal GPS systems, which are typically accurate to within only 5 to 50 meters. Nexar’s app fuses data from multiple sensors in the smartphone. The accelerometer senses potholes and speed bumps, while the magnetometer (used for compass settings) detects when the car is travelling under power lines. “We use these, refreshed fifty times a second, to crowdsource features of the road and pinpoint where you are to within 2 meters,” says Shir. A side benefit is that the company has built detailed maps of road surface quality in its pilot cities.

Shir thinks that Nexar can also help drivers realize the vision of smart, connected highways. “We’re going into a hybrid world where autonomous vehicles and humans will share the road,” says Shir. “We won’t be able to shout at each other or ask someone to move. We need a network that will manage our roads as a scarce resource.”

For the past decade, the automotive industry has been struggling to implement dedicated short range communications (DSRC), a messaging system that lets a car transmit its location, speed, and direction to nearby vehicles and infrastructure. Shir thinks that apps like Nexar could leapfrog the billions of dollars and decades of roll-out time that such a system would likely demand.

“DSRC is dead in the water,” he says. “Instead of sharing information about a single vehicle, where you need a density [of equipped vehicles] of 10 to 20 percent to become effective, you can share the information of all the vehicles around you, and start with 1 percent. It’s a massive force multiplier.”

Over the next year, Nexar plans to launch its network features in 10 more cities, including San Diego; Washington, D.C.; Chicago; and Seattle. It will work towards that that magic 1-percent penetration mark where it could rate almost every driver and detect almost every incident.

Although ranking the driving performance of every vehicle in the United States might sounds legally dubious, Lior Strahilevitz says that it is probably legal: “Courts generally say that people generally have little or no expectation of privacy in the movements of their cars on public roads, as long as cars aren’t being tracked everywhere they go for a lengthy period of time.”

Nevertheless, Nexar will face some ethical dilemmas. For example, should the app inform users when it spots a license plate that’s the subject of an Amber Alert? Or contact law enforcement directly if the algorithms suggest that an erratically moving car is being operated by an intoxicated driver?

Although Shir says that Nexar is “not interested in generating more traffic ticket revenue for cities… or becoming the long arm of the FBI,” he admits that law enforcement could subpoena its raw footage and sensor data.

Ultimately, Nexar might succeed because drivers are constantly being rated, whether or not they are running the app themselves. If its algorithms are judging you anyway, you might not want to be the only one in the dark about that accident-prone pick-up in the next lane.

Electric Truck Startup Nikola Motors Claims $2.3 Billion in Preorders Before Prototype Is Even Ready

In May, Nikola Motors made two big announcements: The first was that it existed, and the second was that it was developing a US $375,000 hybrid electric semi truck called the Nikola One. The company promised that the truck, powered by lithium battery packs and a compressed natural gas generator, would be better than the current generation of semi trucks in every single way. Nikola said it would best its competitors in terms of power, efficiency, weight, speed, safety, cost of ownership, and durability. What’s more, the Nikola Motors team said, there would be a curved 4K TV in the sleeper cab in the back. Each Nikola One will cost $5,000 per month, but maintenance and fuel will be included at no additional cost for the first 1.6 million kilometers. This, says Nikola, will make it an attractive financial proposition for owners and operators.

With some mediocre digital renderings and this impressive list of specs, Nikola Motors opened up preorders. Yesterday, the company put out a press release saying that it had managed to generate “$2.3 billion in pre-sales in the first month” for a truck that doesn't even exist in prototype form, and won't be revealed to the public until December. So how'd Nikola manage to fill its coffers with a ten-figure haul from prospective buyers? Simple: Strictly speaking, it didn't.

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LIquidPiston Unveils Tiny But Powerful Rotary Engine

A new kind of engine has showed its stuff for the first time outside the lab, and though it merely made a go-kart go, it could well be the start of something big.

The engine is a rotary design, a pistonless setup that maximizes the power-to-weight ratio. It’s the fruit of a dozen-odd years of work by LiquidPiston, a startup co-founded by Alec Shkolnik, who has a Ph.D. in computer science, with a specialization in AI and modeling. The engine itself is based on combustion technology developed by his father, Nikolay, a Soviet-trained mechanical engineer who retrained in the United States as a physicist.

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Brits Can Now Insure Their Driverless Cars

Adrian Flux, a British insurance company that has long specialized in hard-to-insure vehicles, now specifically covers driverless features, beginning with today’s stalwarts, like automatic braking and extending to tomorrow’s, like lane changing and self-navigation.

It's one of the first concrete steps the insurance industry has taken to address a world in which accidents may be rare, damages low, and insurance policies inexpensive. 

The Norfolk-based insurer’s policy covers any faults that might affect the manufacturer’s software, outages in satellite service, and attempts by hackers to vandalize or commandeer a car. It even covers such seemingly human errors as failing to install a software updates within 24 hours of being notified of their availability and failing to manually override the car’s software when it’s about to make a mistake.

That last proviso may be of particular importance during the long transition from cars driven purely by hand to those driven purely by machine. The one accident in which Google’s car has been found at fault involved a decision by the car’s supervision driver not to override the software when a bus was approaching from behind. The result was a metal-rending scrape, but one that hurt nobody.

You may be wondering about the company’s name. It has no electronic meaning, having been founded in 1973 by a man named Adrian Flux who’d had trouble getting his kit cars insured. He expanded to offer car insurance to disabled people and other consumers to whom traditional insurers had given scant attention. The company notes on its corporate timeline that in 2010 it acquired another such insurer, adding powered wheelchairs to its menu.

Google Self-Driving Cars Are Now Allowed to Honk

Google self-driving cars are now allowed to honk when appropriate. That’ll likely be rare in the company’s Mountain View, Calif. home turf but more common, no doubt, should the car ever make it to Manhattan.

Honking is particularly valuable because it compensates for the inhuman silence of the electric drive on which Google’s cars depend. “Quiet isn’t always a good thing,” Google says in its latest monthly report. “Pedestrians and cyclists often rely on sound to alert them to a nearby car, particularly if they’re about to cross the street or change lanes. For people with visual impairments, the sound of an approaching vehicle can be critical information.”

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Cars That Think

IEEE Spectrum’s blog about the sensors, software, and systems that are making cars smarter, more entertaining, and ultimately, autonomous.
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