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A Google Car Can Qualify As A Legal Driver

The U.S. highway safety agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, has determined that a computer system can qualify as the legal driver of a car, Reuters reports.

The opinion is expressed in a letter, dated 4 February, from NHTSA Chief Counsel Paul A. Hemmersbaugh to Chris Urmson, head of Google’s self-driving car project. The letter, which appears on NHTSA’s Web site, comes in response to Urmson’s request three months earlier that the government allow for the possibility of a car that truly drives itself.

“As a foundational starting point for the interpretations below, NHTSA will interpret ‘driver’ in the context of Google’s described motor vehicle design as referring to the SDS [self-driving system], and not to any of the vehicle occupants,” Hemmersbaugh writes. “We agree with Google its [self-driving vehicle] will not have a ‘driver’ in the traditional sense that vehicles have had drivers during the last more than 100 years.”

Accepting an AI as a legal driver eases the government’s rule-writing process and takes a clear step toward Google’s stated goal of bypassing the human role in driving altogether. Among other things, the ruling means that Google—and any other company—may design the various parts of an automatic driving system to deal directly with the artificial pilot without first clearing things with the primate who may be sitting in the front seat.

Google has long advocated going to full robotic mode in one fell swoop, jettisoning the steering wheel, the accelerator, and the brake pedal, so that no other human-operated control remains besides an on-off switch. But the major auto manufacturers have preferred adding what they term “advanced driver assistance systems,” such as lane-keeping and self-parking programs, with the goal of helping the human driver rather than supplanting him.

Google calls such half-measures dangerous because they may lull people into a false sense of security. Say you’re on the highway, daydreaming about lunch, when your car abruptly informs you that it will hand back control to you in, say, five seconds. You may well be flummoxed. Particularly if you’re in the back seat, rummaging about for a misplaced pencil or whatever.

What the letter makes clear is that a Google car, whatever the legal standing of its robotic system, must still conform to the letter of the law—and that means having a steering wheel, a brake pedal, and so forth. It notes that a lot of government rules will have to be rewritten before before anyone can drive—or rather, be driven by—a robotic car. But by saying so, it raises the possibility that such revisions are under consideration.

Deep Learning Makes Driverless Cars Better at Spotting Pedestrians

Today’s car crash-avoidance systems and experimental driverless cars rely on radar and other sensors to detect pedestrians on the road. The next improvement may come from engineers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), who have developed a pedestrian detection system that can perform in close to real-time based on visual cues alone. This video-only detection could make systems for spotting pedestrians both cheaper and more effective. 

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Google Wants Its Driverless Cars to Be Wireless Too

What’s the point of having a self-driving car if you still have to get out to plug it in? That’s a good question, says Alphabet, Google’s parent company. With that in mind, it is testing wireless charging systems for its electric self-driving cars. Documents filed at the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) suggest that Google is working toward cutting its robocars’ charger cables and beaming power to them instead.

The filings reveal that Google has been testing two wireless charging systems for its prototype electric self-driving cars in California. In February 2015, Hevo Power, a New York–based start-up, received permission from the FCC to install an experimental charger at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. Momentum Dynamics, located in the suburbs of Philadelphia, followed in July. The address on Momentum’s filing corresponds to the secretive X division where Google’s self-driving cars are being developed.

Both companies’ systems transfer power from a transmitter embedded in the ground to a receiver on the underside of an electric vehicle, using a principle called resonant magnetic induction. In this process, an alternating current passing through a tuned electrical circuit creates an oscillating magnetic field. That field then induces another alternating current in a second, nearby circuit tuned to the same resonant frequency.

Hevo’s installation at the Googleplex involved a prototype charger, called Alpha, that can deliver 1.5 kilowatts of power from a circular transmitter “embedded like a manhole cover” in pavement. Momentum Dynamics claims that it has developed wireless transmitters with power ratings of up to 200 kW—although the FCC filings did not disclose the specifications of the system Google is using.

Google engineers are now testing multiple chargers from Momentum Dynamics at Google’s HQ in Mountain View, and at the Castle Commerce Center, the former U.S. Air Force base in Atwater, Calif., where Google’s prototype vehicles undergo completely driverless testing.

Wireless charging will be essential if Google’s vehicles are to realize the vision of Chris Urmson, director of its self-driving car program. “We’ve heard countless stories from people who need a fully self-driving car today,” he wrote in December. “We’ve heard from people with health conditions ranging from vision problems to multiple sclerosis to autism to epilepsy who are frustrated with their dependence on others for even simple errands.”

Few of those people—let alone children or fare-paying passengers of autonomous taxi services—can be expected to recharge their robotic rides, says Omer Onar, a researcher at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and member of the committee writing the standard for wireless vehicle charging. “One expectation from a self-driving vehicle is to receive your power wirelessly without handling a cord or a wire or a plug,” Onar told IEEE Spectrum.

Andy Daga, CEO of Momentum Dynamics, agrees: “Self-driving vehicles will require an automatic connection to the grid without any manual intervention.”

The idea is that, initially, a self-driving car would position itself briefly over a charging pad between rides, and ultimately, the infrastructure would be put in place that would allow a car to continually recharge its batteries as it travels along the road. This could allow carmakers to use smaller, lighter batteries than those required for today’s electric vehicles, which carry all their energy on board. In addition to dramatically reducing an EV’s weight and offering design freedom, it would slash the price of the electric car’s most expensive component. Daga says that Momentum’s high-power chargers can already recharge electric bus batteries in a matter of minutes, allowing them to be in service virtually 24 hours a day.

Still, wireless charging for electric passenger cars remains in its infancy. A company called Plugless Power offers one-off home charging units for owners of Nissan Leafs, Chevrolet Volts, or Cadillac ELRs, but public infrastructure is almost unheard of. This might start to change late next year, when Onar expects his committee at the Society of Automobile Engineers to issue its final standard.

The uncertainty has not stopped companies like Hevo and Momentum Dynamics from exploring partnerships with operators of fleets of electric vehicles now. One of Hevo’s prototypes is charging electric buses in Los Angeles, while Momentum Dynamics has placed systems with Lockheed Martin, FedEx, BYD in China, and Proterra electric buses in California.

There is nothing to prevent either wireless charging system from being used on a self-driving car, according to Onar. “The additional power requirement for self-driving vehicles, even with a heavy computational load, is manageable,” he says. “And while interference may be a problem, shielding should mean that the passengers and the other electronics on the vehicle shouldn’t be affected.”

Momentum Dynamics and Hevo Power declined to confirm any involvement with Google, and Google itself noted only that it tests many different technologies for its self-driving vehicles. All the prototype cars currently being tested in public are recharged using traditional conductive charging cables.

Driverless Dutch Bus Takes Passengers on Public Test

Six passengers took an unusual ride last week. The shuttle bus they were on had no one behind the wheel. That short trial run along a lake in the Dutch town of Wageningen marked the first time such a self-driving vehicle had appeared on public roads in the Netherlands.

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Swiss Considering $3.4 Billion Cargo Tunnel for Automated Delivery Trucks

In the parts of the world where it seems that just about everyone has a car, we all want to get away from the crush of traffic. But after a certain point, traffic problems can’t be solved by building more roads. They’ll just generate more traffic, unless you do irritating things like charging money to use them. Switzerland, where the volume of road traffic directly related to the transport of goods is expected to increase by 45 percent over the next 15 years, lacks the infrastructure to handle that growth. So it’s in need of a creative solution, and fast. 

One alternative is building an expensive transit option like rail lines. But Switzerland is considering a novel (and even more expensive) solution: a $3.4 billion underground cargo tube full of automated delivery carts.

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Bosch Haptic Pedal Can Save You 7 Percent on Gas

It's very likely that the most significant detriment to your car's fuel economy is you, the driver. Consistently poor driving habits (like hard acceleration) can be responsible for up to 25 percent of overall fuel consumption. There are some straightforward ways to drive economically (like not treating every green light like the signal for the start of a drag race), but there's a limit to how much you can realistically accomplish, especially because cars themselves are becoming much more complicated.

The good news is that your car is much better at driving than you are. The bad news: It isn't quite good enough that it can do everything for you. Bosch has developed an intelligent haptic gas pedal that can help your car intuitively communicate with you about when to accelerate and when to brake in order to maximize fuel efficiency. These helpful hints could reduce your fuel consumption by up to 7 percent while also making you drive more safely. 

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The Chevy Bolt Won't Make a Dime for GM

Has GM beaten Tesla Motors to the punch? Has the world gone topsy-turvy?

In a feature article in the February 2016 issue of Wired, the journalist Alex Davies proclaims that Chevy, with its Bolt crossover, has stolen a march on the Bay Area start-up in the race to produce the first mass-marketed all-battery electric vehicle (BEV). (See my article, “A Tesla in Every Garage? Not So Fast,” on the challenges of producing all-electric supercars for the masses.)

Part of what makes Davies’s article so interesting is that is a refreshingly contrarian departure from the usual hagiographic treatment of Elon Musk, the precocious info-age Young Turk supposedly running rings around the sclerotic rust-belt competition. It is far past due for a clear-eyed discussion on the economics of BEVs, and Davies does explore this question in some depth. If GM is serious about battery electric vehicles, it has the wherewithal to be a major impetus in any EV revolution.

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Google Plans Four New Sites for Self-driving Cars

Google’s self-driving cars are likely to roll out to four more US cities in the months ahead, if a new filing at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is anything to go by.

On January 26, Chris Urmson, director of Google’s self-driving car program, requested renewal of the company’s Experimental Authority for radio transmitters operating in the 76 GHz range. These are almost certainly long-range radars fitted to Google’s prototype self-driving cars.

The heavily-redacted filing notes that the mobile transmitters are currently located in Mountain View, Calif., and Austin, Tex., but states that Google is planning to test in four additional locations.

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Obama's $4-Billion Self-Driving Car Plan Is All About Laws and Testing

Self-driving cars cannot become a reality in the United States until state regulations catch up with the technology. That is why the Obama administration has laid out a $4-billion plan to help create consistent state regulations on autonomous vehicles across the country and speed along testing of such vehicles.

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Smarter Cruise Control Can Boost Hybrid Fuel Economy and Safety

Many of today’s cars use adaptive cruise control technology to automatically adjust driving speed and keep a safe distance from vehicles on the road ahead. But a new study shows how automotive engineers could improve on adaptive cruise control technology to boost energy efficiency alongside vehicle safety

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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.
Contact us:  p.ross@ieee.org

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Philip E. Ross
New York City
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