Cars That Think iconCars That Think

BMW's Chinese Robocar Tests Will Use Baidu's Maps

BMW is collaborating with the Chinese search-engine giant Baidu to provide its experimental self-driving cars with maps of select Chinese roads. And that's just as you'd expect, given that no self-driving car can manage without digital maps, and Baidu is the company that best provides them in China.

Maps are what drew Google (that other search-engine firm) to launch its pioneering robotic car project. Not the kind of maps that you now call up on your smart phone to guide you to your destination but maps that show the roads and what's alongside them, warts and all. That means every exit ramp, every driveway, and every curb.

A self-driving car must be able to perceive things itself, of course. But, like an NBA shooter on the basketball court, it also needs a clear sense of where it is.

One day, cars may have computer memories capacious enough to store detailed maps of all the roads in China. But even then they will need to be updated constantly to include changes, including changes as small as new lines painted on pavement and as large as the closing of a lane because of repair work.

Therefore, no amount of memory can free robotic cars from the need to talk to the road and to each other. Nor is any preinstalled feature likely to deprive Baidu and Google of a continuing stream of profits.

Mercedes Shows Off Self-Driving "Future Truck 2025"

Last week, Mercedes-Benz unveiled a demonstration truck in Stuttgart that shows the sorts of things it expects to be selling in the year 2025. The truck sports radical LED lighting, a sleek and aerodynamic design, and radar and camera systems to help the thing drive itself—at least on highways.

Mercedes also plants a human being firmly behind the wheel, just in case. The company has long been adamant about the continuing need to keep drivers as backup for robotics and vice-versa. In this view of automated driving, the point is to economize on fuel, improve safety, and give the driver a bit of rest—just not so much that he tunes out altogether. So, while the accompanying video shows the driver's chair swinging to one side as its occupant leans back to sight-see, it emphasizes that checking out is not an option:

In Mercedes' take, the driver, far from being "deskilled," will rather be empowered. "It is conceivable that the driver will be able to take on tasks previously performed by the scheduling team or which provide social contact," the company says in a press release. "Owner-driver businesses in particular will be able to perform office tasks conveniently on the move if required."

One problem with this vision, which the carmaker does not address, is the cost of it all. In February, when I went to Stuttgart to ride around in some of Mercedes' self-driving cars, Daimler engineer Jens Desens told me that the market for trucks was very different from that for cars. Fleet operators cared mainly about the bottom line, he explained. Some even go so far as to refuse to pay for such fripperies as air conditioning.

From the look and feel of the company's promotional video, Future Truck 2025 is fit for a rock star and his entourage, with comfy chairs and beautiful appointments. And that's the relatively cheap stuff. Who will pay for a robotic chauffeur that doesn't even replace the driver?

GM Hires Its First Cybersecurity Chief

General Motors has created the job of product security chief and filled it with Jeffrey Massimilla, who'd already been working for the company's infotainment business.

It's part of a trend: automakers and the people planning tomorrow's smart roads are worried that connected vehicles might present a fat, juicy target to hackers and malware. Ford Motor Company, for instance, recently ran help-wanted ads for cybersecurity experts. It's all because of many emerging vulnerable points that a hacker might use to get into a car's electronic guts.

"With connectivity comes responsibility," said Roger Berg, vice president for wireless technologies at Denso, in a talk at the ITS World Conference two weeks ago, in Detroit. "It opens you to attack." At the conference Denso, a Japanese auto supplier, demonstrated a system for cars to talk to other cars.

It's easy to give a car yet another link to the outside world, but hard to knit them all together securely. And today's cars offer a lot of links—WiFi, 4G, infotainment, GPS, services accessed through the cloud, even manufacturer-issued software updates. And once a bad guy or a bit of malware gets into one part of a car, it might penetrate to others, maybe even to the driver's phone.

It seems like a rolling rerun of how corporate computing lost its innocence in the 1960s and early 1970s. That's when administrators of mainframes hosting hundreds of accounts finally, and grudgingly, began installing password protection after dastardly people began stealing computer time from other people. At Northwestern University passwords were instituted in the mid-1970s after someone who called himself Robin Hood effortlessly impersonated professors with big computer budgets.

Password protection is probably not the way for cars, though. You can get into all sorts of trouble trying to type in multiple, dimly remembered passwords so that your car will finally turn off the windshield wipers.










Cars That Think but Won’t Talk

As automakers cram more intelligence into the vehicles that roll off their assembly lines, they’re touting the cars’ ability to converse with drivers. High-end models are designed to take voice commands and deliver information so that drivers rarely have to take their eyes off the road or their hands off the wheel. But as more and more consumers expect this feature, anecdotal evidence is mounting that shows today’s speech recognition systems are not up to the task.

Read More

How Your Phone Could Help You Avoid Paying Congestion Tolls

Engineers at MIT have come up with a way to cut traffic congestion that wouldn't cost a lot to build and needn't cost drivers a lot in the way of tolls. Rather than price you out of an area that's getting congested, the system, called Roadrunner, helps you steer your way around it.

"It has a display, running on your smart phone, that operates like a typical GPS device," says Jason Gao, who's studying for his Ph.D. in computer science. "You sit in your car, enter where you want to go, and it figures out how to route you. It's both a navigation system and a congestion-avoidance system."

His study, done under the supervision of Prof. Li-Shiuan Peh, was given a "best paper" award last week at the Intelligent Transport Systems World Congress, in Detroit. 

Because the system doesn't need a lot of roadside infrastructure it can be put in place quickly and cheaply. By contrast, London's road-rationing strategy requires cameras to scan license plates, and Singapore's requires radio gantries to keep track of every car. Roadrunner gets vehicles to talk to other vehicles via a mobile form of WiFi and to the infrastructure via cellular service, allowing it to work even if there are no other cars nearby. Also, because many of Roadrunner's parameters are defined by software, they can be changed on the fly. 

Of course, people who ignore Roadrunner's voice-based routing advice may end up paying a toll. But at least it would be their choice to do so. And, if it should be politically unpalatable to ration access to the roads by price (a strategy that favors the well-heeled), Roadrunner could use other criteria. "You can figure out other rationing schemes," Gao says. "Maybe by randomness, or by how far away your destination is."

Another big benefit is the system's private nature. "We don't need to know where you car is, just the region it's in," Gao says. "And if you're going to get a spot being vacated by another vehicle [that's leaving a region], the system doesn't need to know about it."

Gao, who worked under the supervision of associate computer science professor Li-Shiuan Peh, had to take into account hardware as well as system-wide problems. The experimental transmitter he and his colleagues are using is based on a gallium nitride chip, which with the right algorithm can conserve the battery's charge better than silicon can. "Our system works more efficiently at low power, and if it can communicate with another car that is very close by, it will, " Gao says. 

Right now their system is a dashboard-mounted device. The goal is to shrink it down to a chip that would go inside cell phones. That would make sense even if tomorrow's cars come with the guts of a smartphone built in, because pedestrians would also be able to put the chips to use. For one thing, it would warn you about nearby cars, and vice-versa; for another, it might allow your phone to share data directly with nearby phones without having to go through the Internet.

To check that the hardware and software worked, the research team tested their module on 10 cars in Singapore (which has a collaborative research partnership with MIT). To see whether Roadrunner can actually reduce congestion requires a far bigger test, one that so far has been done only in computer simulations.

"We simulated thousands of vehicles going down a congested road in Singapore," Gao says. "It worked much more efficiently than the existing electronic road pricing system, raising the average speed by 7.7 percent." It would look a lot better if you compared it to a system that had no congestion controls at all.

Google Works with NASA to Test Cars Without Backup Drivers

NASA employees could soon cross paths with an unusual sight — self-driving robot cars without any human drivers or even steering wheels. Google plans to test a new self-driving car by using NASA's 2000-acre Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, California in late 2014 or early 2015.

The planned tests would mark the first time that Google has tested its self-driving cars on streets without having a human driver for backup. The technology giant has already tested self-driving versions of Lexus and Toyota vehicles on California roads with human drivers behind the wheel and ready to take over — just as required by California state law. But the future tests at the NASA Ames Research Center can dodge state rules because the grounds represent federal property, according to state officials interviewed by the San Jose Mercury News.

Read More

Smart Headlights Make Driving With High Beams Safer

High beams are meant to light up dark paths and allow drivers to safely navigate through the night. Of course, any driver knows the presence of oncoming cars or heavy rain and snow make high beams useless and potentially dangerous. But programmable headlights that sense surrounding objects could allow drivers to use their high beams without blinding surrounding drivers or being blinded themselves by glare during inclement weather.

These “smart” headlights, developed by engineers in at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, blackout small parts of the beam that would otherwise cause problems for the driver. For example, the headlights can track oncoming vehicles and block light that could blind those drivers. They’re even precise enough to track precipitation and block out narrow slivers of light that could reflect off raindrops or snowflakes and cause glare.

Read More

GM Will Make a Car That Talks (to Other Cars)

Years ago, a British-branded auto company offered new owners an audio tutorial that boomed, “Who needs talking dashboards?” Thus did it sneer at the chattiness of competing cars.

Now, for the first time, a commitment has been made to build a car that truly talks, albeit only to other cars. Vehicle to vehicle communications (V2V) is coming soon, and it will come from General Motors, a company that can use some good publicity. On top of legal problems over its handling of a faulty ignition system, GM may well be facing the end of the long boom in car sales that helped to pull it out of bankruptcy. 

Read More

Smart Cars Would Save 420 Million Barrels of Oil Over 10 Years

Much has been made of smart cars’ potential to dramatically reduce the millions of automobile collisions that occur each year and the tens of thousands of fatalities that result from these crashes. But collision avoidance is only one of the benefits that giving cars bigger brains will yield. According to a report released on 28 August by the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, giving vehicles the ability to talk to each other and to roadside equipment could save 420 million barrels of oil over 10 years. Not burning that petroleum, says the report, will prevent roughly 70 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere. Additional enhancements to traffic infrastructure—say, coordinating traffic lights so drivers don’t have to stop and start at each intersection, or delivering information that lets drivers steer clear of traffic jams—could save an additional 117 million barrels over that same period.

Read More

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:

Senior Editor
Philip E. Ross
New York City
Assistant Editor
Willie D. Jones
New York City
Senior Writer
Evan Ackerman
Berkeley, Calif.
Lucas Laursen

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Cars That Think newsletter and get biweekly updates, all delivered directly to your inbox.

Load More