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Nokia Chief Says Net Neutrality Hurts Driverless Cars

The head of Nokia says a policy of net neutrality would deprive self-driving cars of the near-instantaneous data that they need. 

"There are some services that simply require a different level of connectivity," said Rajeev Suri at the World Mobile Congress, in Barcelona, on Sunday. "You need this differentiated quality of service." 

Autonomous cars use exquisitely detailed maps to refresh their onboard memory of the roads, and it greatly helps if they can enrich that data with just-in reports from other cars and the infrastructure itself.  Such vehicle-to-other, or V2X, communication can serve as a kind of auxiliary sensory organ. Nokia’s navigation business, Here, provides such services.

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Will You Need a New License to Operate a Self-Driving Car?

How do you train a driver not to drive? That’s a question officials in California are wrestling with. The U.S. state furthest along the road to self-driving vehicles is drawing up regulations for the operation of autonomous vehicles by the general public—and it may require motorists to undergo additional instruction or evaluation before they can be chauffeured by robots.

Self-driving cars promise a future where you can watch television, sip cocktails, or snooze all the way home. But what happens when something goes wrong? Today’s drivers have not been taught how to cope with runaway acceleration, unexpected braking, or a car that wants to steer into a wall.

“Driver training or driver readiness is a component that we are actively discussing,” says Bernard Soriano, deputy director for California’s Department of Motor Vehicles. “Some of the elements that the manufacturers have in their test-driver training programs could be something that we could consider.”

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Will Nissan Beat Google and Uber to Self-Driving Taxis?

Who will build the first robot taxis? Google has a working prototype but no experience in manufacturing cars. Uber, meanwhile, knows the transportation business but has only just started working on autonomous vehicles with Carnegie Mellon University.

Documents obtained by IEEE Spectrum suggest the first cab capable of driving itself (and that you won’t feel obliged to tip) might be made by Nissan. In January, the Japanese automaker announced that it would be working with NASA to “demonstrate proof-of-concept remote operation of autonomous vehicles for the transport of . . . goods . . . and people.” Using a California Public Records Act request, Spectrum has uncovered more details on the particular technologies Nissan and NASA plan to share and, more important, that the main goal of their collaboration appears to be the development of a fleet of remotely-supervised autonomous taxis.

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Mercedes Chief Laughs at Apple's Rumored Self-Driving E-Car

Dieter Zetsche, head of Daimler and also of its car-making arm, Mercedes Benz, has said he isn't having “sleepless nights” because of the rumors that Apple is planning to enter his business.

“If there were a rumor that Mercedes or Daimler planned to start building smartphones then they [Apple] would not be sleepless at night. And the same applies to me,” he told Australia's

Zetsche thus swatted down a week’s worth of feverish speculation that Apple was about to build a self-driving electric car. Rumor-mongers cite Apple’s recent hiring binge among car technology companies like Tesla and A123, the battery company.

Tesla and A123 are known more for their electric-drive technology than for self-driving savvy, but the theory is that Apple, formerly known as “Apple Computer,” would naturally gravitate to the software side of things.

It's hard to understand what Apple might achieve with a car of its own. Apple's luxury products have double-digit margins—perhaps as high as 69 percent for the iPhone—whereas the auto business lives on margins of just a percent or two, even in good times (like now). Even relatively high-margin car companies, like Mercedes, find it devilishly hard to make the smaller-margin econoboxes. U.S. automakers learned that lesson the hard way back in the 1970s when they suddenly had to meet stringent fuel-economy requirements by building subcompact cars. 

Maybe Apple just wants to sell high-margin stuff to carmakers. If so, it may simply want to play with e-cars and automated driving systems, the better to understand them.

Google—which could well be following that same strategy with its famous robocar project—is working  hard on the super-detailed maps robocars will need. Recent sightings of Apple-owned vehicles festooned with laser-ranging devices, or Lidar, may have more to do with mapping than with car-making.

Apple does have the wherewithal to make cars. Its market capitalization—the value of all its shares—today stands at US $766 billion, more than any other publicly traded company. At the end of 2014 it had $178 billion in cash, enough to buy both GM (market cap: $60 billion) and Daimler ($104 billion). If Apple threw in some stock, as well, it could buy every big car maker in the world.

Of course, the car companies would have to want to be bought. And Apple would have to want to buy them.

How Much Training Do You Need to Be a Robocar Test Driver? It Depends On Whom You Work For

California has strict rules about who can pilot the dozens of experimental autonomous vehicles cruising its public roads. Prospective test drivers have to pass a defensive driving course, have near-spotless records, and have at least a decade without a drunk-driving conviction. Crucially, they must also complete a special training program for autonomous vehicles, some of which can be as buggy as any Silicon Valley prototype.

But an investigation by IEEE Spectrum has uncovered that these autonomous training programs vary considerably in content, intensity, and duration. Drivers hoping to operate one of Google’s autonomous Lexus SUVs will spend at least five weeks on classroom lessons, in-car observations, hands-on sessions, and evaluations. Those itching to get behind the wheel of a computer-controlled Audi A7, however, could complete the carmaker’s training program in less than 2 hours.

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App Makes Traffic Jams Disappear With Flow Optimization

Usually, there’s a tangible reason why traffic on highways sometimes comes to a halt. Like, construction, or an accident. Or people slowing down to stare at said accident. But even after the accident (or whatever it was) is long over and cleared up, the traffic jam still exists. And sometimes, traffic jams form for absolutely no reason at all: you’re driving on the highway, traffic slows to a crawl, and then speeds back up again with no explaination.

The reason that traffic jams persist even when the cause has been removed is easy to understand (especially if you watch Alan Alda’s 1998 explanation [Episode 904, starting at 32:45]): When traffic stops, the cars coming up from behind usually have to stop faster than the cars at the head of the jam can accelerate. This causes a knot of stopped cars that propagates backwards along the highway, which can’t be resolved until the volume of cars decreases to the point that there are fewer cars coming up behind the knot than are exiting at the front. This may take a while to happen naturally, especially during rush hour.

But we can fix it, if we all work together. And there is, of course, an app for that.

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Volvo's Smart Cars Share Icy Road Alerts

Most drivers have to fight icy patches during bad winter weather by themselves. Swedish carmaker Volvo envisions a different world where cars share information with one another about slippery road conditions—and it’s building a roving swarm of 1000 smart cars to test the idea.

Volvo’s test fleet of cars would rely upon a cloud-based network to share information about driving conditions. If one car encounters an icy patch, it could transmit a slippery-road warning broadcast to other cars in the fleet. Another car that might have to stop and put on its hazard lights would also automatically broadcast its location to nearby vehicles. Those two features serve as first steps toward a grander vision for Volvo.

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Britain Will Rewrite Its Traffic Laws for Robocars' Sake

Britain plans to rewrite its traffic laws to account for robot cars, which take an all-too-literal approach to rules. 

“If everyone obeyed exactly what it said in the Highways Code, the roads would probably grind to a halt,” said Graham Parkhurst, head of an academic research program in Bristol, in an interview with the Telegraph. Parkhurst is also working on one of four pilot programs in British cities, each of which is testing out a different kind of low-speed vehicle.

Some changes will put a little more wiggle room in the law, to help robocars deal with aggressive human drivers. That way the robots won’t linger forever before changing lanes, nosing into an intersection, or laying claim to a parking spot. Other changes will redefine as legal such practices as tailgating, at least when done safely, as when robocars “draft” the car in front—a strategy known as platooning—to save energy that would otherwise be lost to air resistance. 

Britain’s flurry of activity on this front follows similar pronouncements in Germany and the Netherlands, and earlier ones in Japan, Korea and various states in the U.S.  Britain’s latest move goes  further than any other country has to welcome driverless cars to its roads, but the competition isn’t over by any means. All these policy shifts are mainly meant to improve the curb appeal of the various governments to companies developing autonomous vehicles.

The current British test cars are like the Google car, but less ambitious, because they mainly stay on sidewalks and go no faster than a golf cart. That makes everything much easier. At slower speeds you have much more time to react; among pedestrians you can stop at the least hint of a problem without getting rear-ended by the guy in back.

The four models use the entire range of sensors found on Google’s car, including laser range-finding, or lidar—and even add one or two that only make sense in close quarters and slow speeds. One car, for instance, even has touch-sensitive strips.

It’s all very good as an experiment, as much to probe pedestrian behavior as anything else. But maybe it’s better to think of it as part of a worldwide scramble by governments intent on getting their transportation sectors onto the on-ramp.

Totally Autonomous Cars May Not Evolve From Semi-Autonomous Ones

Robocar theorists fall into two camps: those who think driver-assistance features will evolve to perfection and those who think robocars will emerge in one fell swoop. The car makers favor evolution, Google favors revolution.

Now comes an interesting new argument for the revolutionary side, from Brad Templeton, a dot-com veteran who writes about autonomous cars. He bases his position on two observations: first, that driver-assist programs require the driver to remain vigilant, which people are bad at doing. And second, that such programs just haven’t been compelling enough to get many people to pay for them. Reason: you still need to supervise them.

Templeton cites the example of adaptive cruise control (ACC), which uses sensors and software to maintain a set distance between your car and the one in front: 

Uptake on it is quite low — as an individual add-on, usually costing $1,000 to $2,000, only 1-2 percent of car buyers get it. It’s much more commonly purchased as part of a ‘technology package’ for more money, and it’s not sure what the driving force behind the purchase is.

Legal and other considerations suggest that slow-and-steady evolution will never get these systems over the hump to full autonomy, he argues. Instead, a clean break is needed, one that doesn’t count the cost (at least on the first few cars that are sold). “The first car is the car of greatest risk, you will do all you can reasonably do to make it as safe as you can,” Templeton argues.

That will mean loading it to the gills with laser ranging systems (lidar) as well as radar, sonar, cameras, GPS, minutely mapped roads, and on and on. As for those driver-assist programs, bits and pieces of them may make it into the final product as self-contained modules. That way, there’d be a fully tested backup system—one that can at least pull the car over to the side of the road.

The first true robocar would thus be the first of its kind, and not the last in a series. And though this is, of course, the Google approach, there is no particular reason to expect it to bear fruit in five years’ time, as Google has asserted.

BMW Fixes Software Flaw That Would’ve Let Hackers Unlock Doors

Cybersecurity experts have been sounding the alarm about cars’ vulnerability to hacking for years. But it seems that every few months, they are able to provide new anecdotal evidence suggesting that the automotive industry’s efforts at securing data transmissions to and from vehicles has produced lackluster results.

The latest report came from German motorist association ADAC. The group’s researchers told BMW about a flaw in its ConnectedDrive software that would have allowed hackers to remotely unlock the car doors. (ConnectedDrive lets drivers control certain vehicle functions —say, locking doors, and warming the cabin on a cold February day—from their smartphones; it also offers a suite of services and apps including real-time traffic information and restaurant reservations.) 

According to Reuters, ADAC researchers were able to simulate the existence of a fake phone network. The BMW cars then attempted to access it, allowing hackers to alter functions activated by the car’s SIM card.

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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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