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Tesla's Robocar To Driver: Accept the Liability, Buster

Tesla Motors has a new way of keeping drivers involved in the decision-making process for an otherwise self-driving car: To trigger an automatic lane-changing function, the driver would have to hit the turn signal.

The company says that the lane-changing function will eventually be made available via a software update, the Wall Street Journal reports. The car is already fitted with the necessary sensors and computing hardware.

You may well wonder whether adding this encumbrance renders the lane-changing function barely worthwhile. The real question is: worthwhile to whom? And the answer is: to Tesla. It wants to saddle the driver with the legal liability; it also wants its car to pass muster with regulators.

Pro-forma pettifoggery is hardly new to the digital world. How many people actually scroll down and read the boilerplate in the disclaimer that opens up when they update software—before going to the end to punch the “I Agree” button?

Tricks to involve the human driver are already happening. Take the first semi-autonomous car, the 2014 Mercedes S class. If the driver takes his hands off the steering wheel for more than 10 seconds or so, the car will first chide him, then make him pull over to the side of the road, just as parents are always threatening to do when their kids misbehave.

The technology for getting a car to pass another on the highway is already available. In early 2014, I rode in a Mercedes fitted with an experimental system programmed to pass any vehicle going below a certain speed if the car deemed the move safe. It worked like a charm.

But the Mercedes engineer had to sit behind the wheel—I couldn’t. “Legal reasons,” he explained.

Why the Flying Car Future Needs Robots

Terrafugia dreams of flying robot cars. The idea goes beyond some weird mash-up of science fiction tropes and aims at the practical issues of how to transform flying cars into vehicles for the masses. That means eliminating the need for drivers of vehicles capable of taking to the skies to get pilot’s licenses.

The Massachusetts-based company hopes to eventually move toward a semi-autonomous flying car called the TF-X. That flying car concept represents a class of “computer-controlled” vehicles featuring an automatic flight mode, auto-landing mode and the ability to automatically navigate around flight hazards, says Carl Dietrich, CEO of Terrafugia. Dietrich laid out his company’s vision during the Imagination series of talks at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival in April. 

“With a higher level of automation in a cockpit, we could make operating an aircraft actually easier than driving a car today; you just tell it where to go,” Dietrich said. “This kind of paradigm shift could allow non-pilots to learn how to safely operate a personal aircraft in as little as one weekend.”

A “practical flying car for the masses” requires the vehicle to be “safely operable by non-pilots,” Dietrich said. He envisions flying car owners as simply making high-level decisions about telling their vehicle where to go and then trusting the computer to fly the vehicle there.

Still, the flying car future as envisioned by “The Jetsons” needs more than just highly automated vehicles. Most flying car prototypes currently under development, such as Terrafugia’s Transition, resemble light aircraft that can fold up their wings and drive on roads like cars. Such a vehicle serves the needs of licensed pilots who want to enjoy flying more conveniently, but won’t help daily commuters seeking to avoid traffic gridlock on the way to work. That’s because they still require runways and airports to get airborne, which means they can’t replace the typical commute between home and the office.

The current airport infrastructure in the U.S. can only support about 200,000 planes, Dietrich pointed out. A flying car that requires airport runways would be severely limited by that infrastructure in trying to become a vehicle for the masses. Instead, Terrafugia wants the more futuristic TF-X flying car to combine the advantages of plug-in hybrid cars and robotic self-driving cars with the freedom of personal air travel in a way that goes beyond today’s mass airline travel. Dietrich explained how it might work:

TF-X is a plugin hybrid electric vehicle. You park it at home in your garage, charge it up like a normal hybrid vehicle today, drive it along the roads and highways just like you drive a normal car today, and take off and land vertically from small helipads using quiet and clean electric propulsion. We have vertical takeoff in areas where we don’t want to wake up the neighbors.

Replacing the flying car’s need for a runway with just a helipad the size of a tennis court makes the possibility of flying car commutes much more realistic. A flying car owner in the suburbs could simply drive his or her car down the street to the local helipad shared by the neighborhood. Even a relatively dense city such as New York City has room for about 400 helipads, especially in areas near the West Side Highway and the bottom of Manhattan Island, Dietrich said. There would be no helipads taken up by parked vehicles, ideally, because the flying cars would simply park at the usual garage, parking lots or street spots.

A flying car with the capabilities of the TF-X could transform a typical one-hour commute into a 15 minute commute, Dietrich suggested. That could translate into huge economic savings from the perspective of time lost while sitting in traffic. For example, the Terrafugia CEO said that flying cars might save an estimated $250 million a year in terms of time value for commuters going into San Francisco.

Both technical and regulatory challenges must be overcome before this vision of flying cars could possibly become a reality. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has no clear certification for this kind of flying vehicle just yet, but Terrafugia has been working with the government regulators to determine how its more immediate Transition flying car might be certified.

The more futuristic TF-X robotic flying cars would also need to “talk” with one another. This vehicle-to-vehicle communication would allow them to queue up for takeoffs and landings and avoid midair collisions—the job that air traffic controllers typically perform for centralized airports.

Any airworthy car would also need to be maintained according to stringent safety standards and have the ability to handle emergency scenarios—whether on its own or with the assistance of the human pilot or operator. The recent crash of a flying car prototype designed by Aeromobil serves as a reminder of the potential perils facing a flying vehicle.

Still, the flying car dream is tough to kill. Terrafugia already has a US $37 million backlog of orders from customers who want to buy its Transition flying car. More than half of those customers don’t have piloting experience, which suggests that even the more limited type of flying car represented by the Transition is drawing strong interest outside its private pilot market niche. Terrafugia aims to ship its first Transitions in less than two years and watch the flying car business take off from there.

Watch General Motors' Hilarious 1956 Movie on Smart Roads

It’s as fun to laugh at yesterday’s futurism as it is sobering, for today’s futurism may also become the butt of jokes. Take the 1956 GM promotional movie first screened at Motorama, a company show that traveled among major cities throughout the United States.

The too-corny movie was displayed yesterday during a talk by Prof. Alain Kornhauser, director of the transportation program at Princeton University, at RoboUniverse, itself a world-traveling trade show, now visiting New York City. Kornhauser said the footage perfectly illustrates one of the two strands of thought in self-driving cars—the one in which the road does the thinking.

A 1950s family is stuck in traffic and near the 1:50 mark, the teenage son thinks out loud about how driving might be like in another 20 years. Boom! The family’s old Firebird becomes a dual gas turbine-powered speed demon, its driver in quasi-military style radio communication with an “Autoway Safety Authority,” personified by a uniformed director in a glassed-in tower. 

Take a look:

That it all happens to crowds of similarly choreographed cars threading through cloverleaf interchanges in the middle of a desert, complete with rocky prominences straight of a Roadrunner cartoon, is icing on the cake.

Why You Shouldn't Worry About Self-Driving Car Accidents

The Associated Press is reporting on the number of accidents that autonomous cars have been in since September, when California officially issued permits for companies to test autonomous cars on public roads. At first glance, the accident rate is alarmingly high: four cars have been in accidents out of the 50 that Google (and other companies) currently have on the road, resulting in an accident rate significantly higher than is typical for a vehicle driven by a human. This sounds bad, but if you look at what actually happened, it’s nothing to worry about at all.

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Flying Car Inventor Survives Test Flight Crash

A flying car dream came temporarily crashing down to Earth for one inventor and his company during a test flight accident last Friday. The good news is that Stefan Klein, pilot and inventor of the Aeromobil flying car prototype, managed to survive the crash unscathed after he activated an emergency parachute system.

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The World's Most Dangerous Driving Simulator

If your last experience of a racing game was the old Pole Position on Atari in the ‘80s, you’ve missed the digital revolution that’s made simulators so realistic that you can almost smell the gasoline.

The latest, Motion Pro II from Los Angeles-based CXC Simulations, is perhaps the most true-to-life experience yet—as you’d expect from a professional simulator and training tool that starts from US $54,000. At its pulsing heart is a new force feedback steering controller than understands the moves of more than 1,000 cars—classic and modern, street machines or legendary racers of every vintage—and mimics minutia like the brutal forces of the late Ayrton Senna’s F1 McLaren in mid-corner, the feel of tires as they wear, and the lightening of a car as its fuel load decreases.

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Freightliner Unveils First Autonomous Semi-Truck Licensed to Drive Itself on Highways

Last night, Freightliner introduced the world to its Inspiration truck, a prototype for the first semi-truck capable of fully autonomous highway driving that's been officially licensed to operate on public highways in Nevada.

We were at the spectacular unveiling event, and today, we'll be at technology and policy workshops. We've also been promised live demos and a ride-along. We'll bring you videos and plenty more technical details in an upcoming post, but we have a lot of info from Freightliner right now, so let's take a look at the future of trucks. And by future, we really mean present, because this truck is driving autonomously on public roads right now.

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Audi Pixelated Laser Headlights Light the Road and Paint It Too

Audi’s new Matrix Laser headlights have wowed LeMans racers and may soon do the same for European drivers. But archaic regulations will keep Americans in the dark for now.

Lasers are the brightest, whitest lighting yet, better than the light-emitting diodes that only recently took over in cars, and because they can be directed just where you want them to go, they are in principle more efficient, too. That fine-pointed precision also opens up all kinds of possibilities for intelligent automated functions, notably projecting images onto roads.

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Automation in Cars: A $100 Billion Market by 2030

The advantages of autonomous cars seem so obvious and revolutionary that we don’t need really need a report from a research company to tell us that there’s going to be a huge market in vehicle automation. Nevertheless, Lux Research has actually crunched the numbers and told us what kind of premiums we should expect to pay over the next few decades for autonomy.

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Fabulous Footage of Dueling Supercars in Rome

Jaguar and Aston Martin, makers of Britain’s two top performance cars, have recently jumped on the cars-that-think bandwagon, with Jaguar touting virtual reality see-through pillars and posts, and Aston Martin signing a deal for self-driving technology.

Both brands will be showcased in “Spectre,” the next movie in the James Bond franchise, although it’s not yet clear just how much of the cognitative gadgetry will be shown. But if I were the director, I’d put in a bit of safety-first stuff just for laughs, the way Steven Spielberg did in “Jurassic Park,” when he let a panicked driver see a charging tyrannosaur through a rear-view mirror emblazoned with the words, “objects in mirror are closer than they appear.” (That idea was itself stolen from a Gary Larson cartoon.)

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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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