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What's Next in Bloodhound's Quest for the Land Speed Record

It’s a long road to breaking the world land speed record, but the latest attempt, the UK Bloodhound SSC project, has passed an important milestone with the unveiling of the almost-finished vehicle to the public. Nearly 10,000 people filed into an exhibition space in London’s Docklands—now a hub for the financial and media industries—over the past weekend to see the car that the team hopes will break the current 1,227 kilometers per hour (763 mph) record next year in a desert in South Africa, before returning in 2017 to make the biggest leap in the record’s history, to 1,600 km/h.

The Bloodhound project has been running for seven years, with the build program occupying most of the last four. The car, which will be propelled by a jet engine from a Typhoon fighter aircraft and solid-fuel-burning rockets activated by a liquid oxidizing agent, is about 95 percent complete, according to systems engineer Joe Holdsworth. For the exhibition, panels were removed from one side of the car and from its 2-meter-high tail so that visitors could see the jet engine, plus the supercharged V8 Jaguar engine that will operate the pump that will supply oxidiser to the rockets, and some of the network of over 500 sensors that will allow the team to monitor the airflow over the car and the stresses affecting its structure during its high-speed runs. Also missing were the airbrake flaps that will be the first system to slow the car down; the aerodynamic winglets that will ensure that lift and downforce are within in safe limits; the housing that will sit over the rear wheels; and the strake, a composite ridge that runs from the root of the tail along its spine, housing some of the vehicle’s electronic systems, including modems.

Photo: Stuart Nathan

Also still to be tested is the integration of the rocket oxidizer system. Its component parts—the Jaguar engine, the pump and its associated systems—have all been tested in isolation but not together. “We’ll take the systems out to our rocket supplier, Nammo, in Norway, and use their testing setup in the next few months,” Holdsworth said. On the initial record attempt, with 1290 km/h as the goal, the car will have one rocket. The team will add the other two for the 1,600-km/h attempt.

The electronics on the car will receive a shakedown when the car undergoes testing on an airfield runway in Cornwall, Southeastern England, which, according to chief engineer Mark Chapman, will take place by next Easter. Holdsworth added that the winglets and airbrake could also be tested at that time, although the projected speed at which the test will be conducted, about 320 km/h, would be too low for them to have much of an effect. “But it makes sense to test them,” says Chapman.

Other systems still to be proven include the cockpit electronics, which were installed by Corporal Hollie Jenkins, one of a group of military personnel from the Royal Electronic and Mechanical Engineers who have worked six-month shifts on the project. Then there’s the cockpit lighting system, which is adjustable to cope with the fierce sunlight the team is expecting at Hakskeen Pan, the record attempt site northwest of Cape Town. “We have a good idea of what the light conditions will be like,” Jenkins said, “but the final adjustments will be made with Andy Green [the project’s driver and current landspeed record holder] once we’re in the desert.”

The team is also still short of funding; part of the reason for the weekend exhibition was to attract additional sponsors. “The fact that we’re doing two record runs will work in our favor,” said mechanical engineering lead Mark Elvin, who estimates that the team needs about £10 million to complete the build program and pay for next year’s desert visit. “When we come back at the end of 2016 holding a new record, it’ll prove our capabilities and more companies will want to come on board for the 1000 mph runs.”

The weekend saw Andy Green, an RAF Wing Commander, almost constantly surrounded by children seeking his autograph. Enthusing prospective young engineers is a major goal of the project, and the exhibition included an education area where compressed air-powered vehicles could be built and raced. “The thing that’s most excited me leading up to this event has been seeing the visitors’ reaction, especially the younger ones,” said Mark Chapman.

The effect was electric, and not just for the visitors. Project director Richard Noble, who himself broke the landspeed record in 1983 and is a famously loquacious man, was rendered completely speechless when he first caught sight of the car in place at the exhibition—the first time any of the team members can recall that happening.

How Pedestrians Can Protect Themselves From Diesel Exhaust

I have a doctor friend, a lifelong germaphobe, who always holds his breath whenever someone walking toward him sneezes, then lets it out after the fellow has passed him by.

Now I find myself doing the same thing when a diesel vehicle comes along. My hypochondriacal tic began last week, when Volkswagen admitted that it had fitted 11 million diesel cars worldwide with engine-control software that cheats on the standard emissions test. The software clamps down on emissions when it senses that the car is running on a laboratory’s dynamometer, then lets the engine rip when the car is back on the open road.

Here the critical pollutants were nitrous oxides, or NOx. But diesel engines also make a lot of carbon particulates, which are caught in special traps. Even so, a lot of them get out, and like NOx, they’re bad for your lungs. Diesels predominate in European cities, so they’d have been the major source of both pollutants there even if their engine algorithms were honest.

It turns out my breath-holding is almost reasonable. A study presented at the European Respiratory Society's International Congress, in Amsterdam, finds that even a single diesel vehicle can create a brief spike in local particulates—and that these spikes are common on busy avenues but not on quiet back streets.

Lee Koh, a researcher at the Blizard Institute at Queen Mary University, in London, carried a monitor while walking along the two kinds of routes in London during the evening rush hour. Though the busy streets had only slightly higher average particulate levels, they alone showed local spikes. For example, when you stop to cross a busy road and so you are subject to a higher level of pollution compared to when walking away from the traffic,” she said in a statement that accompanied her presentation. 

Some spikes reached above 10,000 nanograms of carbon per cubic meter, which is three times the average rush-hour level in London, one of the most particulate-choked cities in Western Europe.

To avoid those plumes of diesel exhaust, Koh planned her walks with an app called Walkit. It’s just the thing for walkers as they wait for the day when diesel emissions controls use their own considerable brainpower excusively for good—and not for evil.

U.S. and European Cars Show Safety Differences in Crashes

A trade agreement between the U.S. and Europe hinges in part upon finding common ground regarding safety standards testing for vehicles. Such common ground could prove easier to reach if vehicle safety standards prove to be roughly the same on either side of the Atlantic. This past summer, a report that analyzed both U.S. and European car safety databases found differences in crash and injury risks for vehicles meeting U.S. and European standards.

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Emissions Testing Tech Puts Pressure on Carmakers

In late September, Volkswagen admitted to using software that activated hardware to scrub nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions during required emissions tests, but not during normal driving. The deception improved the cars’ gas mileage at the cost of emitting between 10 and 40 times the legal limit of NOx, a precursor gas to nitrogen dioxide (NO2), ammonia (NH3), and other gases that cause respiratory problems. In the last few years, newly maturing instruments of several kinds have converged on a single message: diesel exhaust in the real world is far higher than what carmakers advertise and what is permitted by the law in many countries.

Researchers from the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), a non-profit, and West Virginia University used instruments called portable emissions measurement systems (PEMS) to bypass several test cars’ onboard computers and measure road emissions before tipping off the EPA. While PEMS dates back over a decade, it and several other new types of increasingly affordable instruments are playing a growing role in uncovering industry practices and will be part of future emissions testing.

“There’s just been a general improvement in instrumentation,” says atmospheric chemist David Carslaw of York University in England. In order to conduct what may be the most comprehensive study so far of a city’s road-traffic NOx pollution, Carslaw and a colleague relied on roadside spectrometers, which use light to remotely detect the presence of molecules in a gas. The instruments are now more portable and affordable than ever. They tracked three types of nitrogen emissions (NO, NO2, and NH3), along with SO2, CO, and other gases for almost 70,000 vehicles in London. The chemists conclude that despite a dramatic tightening in emissions rules, real-world emissions in diesel vehicles remain almost unchanged over the 15 to 20 model years through 2012. London, like almost all major European cities, continues to be in violation of European rules on atmospheric levels of NO2, a byproduct of NOx emissions.

Roadside instruments such as those used by Carslaw offer the advantage of allowing researchers to quickly sample a large number of cars at well-defined locations without plugging into the cars’ computers. However, they reveal only an instantaneous portrait of any one car’s emissions, and most of the cars tend to be doing the same type of driving: either accelerating, cruising, or decelerating. Capturing any individual car’s emissions over a typical driving cycle requires installing hardware such as PEMS on the car itself, with a tube carrying gases from the tailpipe to the PEMS unit. Yet relying in part on PEMS studies, a September report by the non-profit group Transport & Environment found that just one in 10 new diesel cars tested met the so-called Euro 6 emissions standard that went into force that month.

Since results depend on everything from weather to traffic conditions, manufacturers have long insisted on laboratory testing to get new models certified. “It's important to have some sort of level playing field for the manufacturers,” Carslaw says. So regulators have defined standard test cycles that include acceleration, cruising, and deceleration on a kind of laboratory treadmill. Manufacturers or subcontractors must only report such indoor performance.

Yet researchers have long suspected that carmakers were adapting their engines and onboard computers to score well on out-of-date but still-legal test cycles at the cost of real-world performance. The practice is called cycle-beating and involves more cynicism than deception, since the cars, technically, comply with the letter of the law. In a study separate from its Volkswagen exposé last month, the ICCT reported that in a test of 32 diesel cars from ten different manufacturers, all but one model could pass today’s NOx standard. But the cars performed much worse against a newer standard that is more representative of today’s typical driving patterns. One model emitted 15 times the new NOx limit that will go into effect in the European Union in 2017.

“When you regulate something, you want to physically measure it and be as independent from the car's electronic system as you can. There's a big risk that as soon as you plug into the ports of a car you are effectively warning the car that you are measuring it,” says ICCT emissions researcher Vincent Franco.

Such studies suggest that carmakers and regulators are far from finished resolving their emissions issues. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) may force a recall of almost half a million cars. National regulators elsewhere are now investigating Volkswagen, which has admitted that 11 million cars worldwide contain the suspect software, and those agencies must re-examine other carmakers and the wider impact of their lax oversight.

“The other half of the story is how do we assess the impact, including health,” says Griša Močnik, chief scientist at Aerosol, an instrument company in Ljubljana, Slovenia. While a global tally will be difficult to obtain, one recent study pointed to NO2 exposure as the cause of 5,900 deaths in London alone.

The Volkswagen case, Močnik says, “is a proof of something that was suspected but that no one either did their homework or wouldn't say, ‘The emperor is naked.’”

Engineers, Ethics, and the VW Scandal

Volkswagen’s installation of a software “defeat device” in 11 million Volkswagen and Audi diesel vehicles sold worldwide has led to a massive vehicle recall in the United States and an official apology from the company’s now-ex CEO.

The clever and sneaky algorithm, installed in the emissions-control module, detects when the cars were undergoing emissions testing. It ran the engine cleanly during tests and switched off emissions control during normal driving conditions, allowing the car to spew up to 40 times the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum allowed level of nitrogen oxides, air pollutants that cause respiratory problems and smog.

“This is shocking,” says Yotam Lurie, a senior lecturer of business ethics at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel. “It’s shocking that the software engineers of Volkswagen overlooked and neglected their fiduciary responsibility as professionals. Professionals who have a semi-regulatory responsibility within the organization to ensure safety, in this case environmental safety, even when this is less efficient or economical.”

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BMW's Car Parks Itself While You Stand To One Side and Watch

Tired of picking your way past bicycles and crusty garbage cans to get aboard your car? Let the 2016 BMW 7-Series negotiate the garage, while you and the neighbors look on in wonder.

Like its semi-autonomous competitor, the Mercedes S-class, BMW’s new flagship luxury sedan can steer, brake, and accelerate on its own for short highway stretches. But the BMW one-ups the Benz as the world’s first production car that can park itself from a distance. That is, with no human inside.

BMW Remote Parking works in conjunction with a modern hunk of a key fob with a 2.2-inch, Gorilla-glass touchscreen. Owners pull up to their garage or a parking slot, roughly align the BMW’s nose with the space, shut off the engine, and hop on out.

Pressing a key button and swiping the screen activates the system: The car starts the engine, shifts the transmission into drive, releases the electric parking brake, and applies hydraulic brakes while ensuring that the vehicle remains safe and stationary. It’s akin to a driver’s holding down the brake pedal before initiating a move.

Next, press a “forward” arrow button on the fob, and the car crawls into the space. Drivers can release the button when the car is properly positioned, but the BMW will also stop itself before striking any obstacle, from a misplaced lawnmower to the family dog. Come the morning commute, a second button reverses the process, easing the car backward out of the space without the driver having to hop aboard.

Hector Arellano-Belloc, BMW technology spokesman, said the system is tailor-made for Europe and other markets where small garages and constricted spaces can make it a challenge to get in and then to get out.

“You can avoid scraping your doors in tight spots and use garage space more efficiently,” Arellano-Belloc says, since an owner doesn’t need to leave a wide berth to open the doors. “Technically, the system is pretty intricate, but it’s easy and intuitive for the owner.”

Four cameras aided by a dozen ultrasonic sensors create a 360-degree view around the car. A control unit allows communication (on both FlexRay and Controller Area Network buses) among the electric steering, engine, brakes, transmission, and stability control.

For safety’s sake, owners do have to babysit the car by standing off to the side or a few meters in back while the BMW does its thing. The system shuts down if someone opens a car door while it’s moving. And though the BMW can automatically adjust its steering angle by up to three degrees for proper alignment, for now it can only do forward-and-backward moves. For automated parallel parking, the driver must still sit inside and work the brakes while the car controls the steering and throttle.

The Bimmer’s other bummer is that U.S. regulators are taking their usual wait-and-see approach: Remote Parking is already on sale as a 7-Series option in Europe, but has not been approved for American showrooms.

“We’re pushing to get the proper authorization so we can utilize it here,” Arellano-Belloc says.

How Engineers at West Virginia University Caught VW Cheating

Volkwagen, which had just become the biggest-selling auto maker in the world, has been nabbed committing perhaps the biggest corporate cybercrime of all time. 

Its diesel cars were found to have cheated systematically on emissions tests run by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over the past seven years. This dirty trick allowed for a clean getaway for some 482,000 cars under the VW and Audi brand names.

The EPA found out, VW admitted wrongdoing and stopped selling the offending vehicles, and its shares lost more than a fifth of their value in the early hours of the next trading day. That’s the story up to yesterday. Now come the details of how VW’s deception was discovered.

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Volkswagen CEO "Sorry" for Emissions Cheating Software in Huge Car Recall

Most smart car features don’t trigger a recall of almost half a million cars and an apology from one of the world’s largest automakers. But last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it had discovered a software algorithm designed to help Volkswagen cars cheat on official emissions testing.

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A for Carpooling?

There are many reasons commuters rule out carpooling to work. Jumping into a car with a complete stranger can be terrifying and uncomfortable. It is difficult to find a driver who has the same exact schedule as you. The freedom to run to the dry cleaners or to grab take out on the way home makes having your own car feel so much simpler.

“Carpooling is not the preferred way to move people,” says Michele Berlingerio, a research scientist who studies urban dynamics at IBM Research in Ireland. There are some people who could, he says, “share a car every day, but there are potential barriers that cause people to be afraid of getting into someone else’s car.”

Some new software could change that. Two research groups, who are presenting their findings at the IEEE International Conference on Intelligent Transportation Systems this week, have devised algorithms that provide a matchmaking service to make your trip more enjoyable.

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Self-Driving Features Can Save on Electric Vehicle Battery Costs

Self-driving features could prove a smart move for electric vehicles even before fully robotic cars roam the streets. Self-parking and other autonomous features allow such cars to have a longer driving range with existing batteries, analysts say. Or instead, electric vehicle manufacturers could build future cars with the same range but smaller batteries that save on manufacturing costs.

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