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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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Does Ridesharing Economics Make Sense Now, Even Without Self-Driving Cars?

Autonomous cars lend themselves to lending themselves, proponents like to say: we'll rent them instead of owning them. That way, we'll make better use of a smaller number of cars and thus pay much less on average per passenger-mile.

If so, then your next car may well be your last—that is, if you can keep it going for the 3 to 50 years it may take before cars become fully, utterly robotic. Three if you're a techno-optimist like Sergei Brin, of Google and its famous Google Car; 50 years if you're a technopessimist, like Volkswagen research director Jürgen Leohold.

Or maybe you've already bought your last car no matter which side is right. An entire ecosystem of car sharing is aborning right now, thanks to startups like Uber and Lyft, and it's based on merely human drivers. True, sharing would be even more attractive with robots, which probably explains why Google recently invested US $348 million in Uber. The startup was recently valued at around $18 billion—half again as much as Fiat.

How much money would full-bore carsharing save? Larry Burns, the former head of research for General Motors and now the director of the Program on Sustainable Mobility at Columbia University, has estimated that we'd need just 15 percent as many cars as now. That would cut costs per mile by 75 percent in Ann Arbor, Mich., according to his calculations.

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Why Can't the Government Run Vehicle-to-Vehicle Communications?

Government, at one level or another, oversees every transportation issue you can think of: air-traffic control, maritime traffic, road signage, even pothole filling. Why can't it also run vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications, a feature the feds recently mandated for future cars? 

Because the U.S. Department of Transportation is strapped. Short. Hard up. Penurious. Distressed. Embarrassed. Stony-broke. On the rocks. Most glaringly, the department's Highway Trust Fund is teetering on insolvency

A couple of hundred pages into its report last week that sang the praises of a car-connected world (like preventing 500,000 crashes a year and a lot of traffic jams), the department noted that "arguably" the federal government should run that world directly or through contractors. However, it continues, "DoT research to date has not fully explored a public governance model...Due to the current fiscal environment it does not seem plausible."

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Driving Tracker Zubie Wins First Nokia Connected Car Funding

The only pedal you'll be pushing to the metal in the future will be the brake. Even then, your car or an aftermarket device will probably chide you if you hit it too hard. That's because devices that plug into your car will offer you suggestions—and commercial deals—to improve your driving behavior. Last week Zubie, the South Carolina maker of such a device, announced an investment of US $8 million from Nokia's Connected Car Fund (see our coverage of the fund's May launch). This is the fund's first investment, signaling how important Nokia considers this class of device.

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Google Wants Option to Test Autonomous Motorcycles and Trucks in California

Photo: ZUMA Press/Alamy
This autonomous motorcycle competed in the DARPA Grand Challenge in 2005. It didn't get too far, but one of its creators, Anthony Levandowski, was hired by Google to work on the company's self-driving car program.

"Very easy rider: Google plans robotic motorbike." That's the title of an article in the U.K.'s Sunday Times from last week. As far as we know, Google isn't planning anything of the sort. What the Times was talking about were some comments by Ron Medford, the Director of Safety for Google's Self-Driving Car Program, about California's recently adopted Regulations for Testing of Autonomous Vehicles by Manufacturers. Google wasn't the only one to make comments on the regulations, either, and we'll take a look at a few of the more contentious ones.

So here's how this all started. Late last year, the California Department of Motor Vehicles asked for public comment on its proposed autonomous vehicle testing regulations. A bunch of interesting people contributed to try to influence the regulations, including Google's Ron Medford, who is a former deputy director of the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Medford sent the DMV an email and also showed up to a public hearing.

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How Fast You Drive Reveals Where You Drive

Don’t believe the hype. Insurance companies wanting  information about what you do in your car say that they can’t use it to track your location. But a team of computer engineers at Rutgers University in Piscataway, N.J., have shown that to be untrue. The engineers say they’ve figured out how to create a fairly accurate map of where a car has traveled based solely on where it started and a stream of data indicating how fast it has gone—no GPS or cellular triangulation is necessary.

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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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New York City
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