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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."
Just saying cars must talk to one another by a given date won't get it done. Somebody has to set standards, oversee implementation, and maintain the system. The department estimates that annual maintenance cost at $60 million, which it says could be covered by adding a fee of $3 onto the sales price of each new car.  
Of course, the main cost for buyers will be equipment such as sensors and communications channels. That could come to as much as $350 per car by 2020, the DoT estimates. And carmakers are worried that they may find themselves liable for the injuries the V2V system may cause. Every safety system, even airbags, sometimes has unintended consequences, and a jury may not care that the system causes far fewer injuries than it prevents.
These are the sorts of problems that Uncle Sam used to solve with a big sweep of his arm. But that was in the days when government administration was in the hands of experts who worked toward a relatively small number of well-defined goals—like digging canals or putting a man on the moon—and could do so with little Congressional interference and plenty of public support. Those days are gone, the political philosopher Francis Fukuyama argues in a recent, much-discussed essay.  Fukuyama bases his case on the U.S. Forest Service. He might just as well have chosen the highway system.

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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Conflicting Studies Suggest Cellphone Ban for Drivers May Not Work

California's ban on using hand-held cell phones while driving aims to reduce driver distractions that can lead to fatal road accidents. The policy's premise came into question during a recent study that found no change in accident rates for California during the six months before and after the ban became law. But the study results may simply raise bigger questions about whether cellphone bans for drivers represent effective tactics for keeping people focused on driving rather than on their mobile devices.

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Warning: This Robocar Video is NSFL


NSFL: Not Safe For Living

When self-operated elevators were new, certain people—okay, mature people—hesitated to ride them. Other people—okay, little boys—punched every button and then jumped out, squealing with self-satisfaction.
Some things never change: new functions are still getting automated, and little boys are still idiots. 
Here, in a video we freely acknowledge noticing only after posted it, some anonymous jokers from Germany show off as the backseat drivers of an Infiniti Q50. As we reported at its debut, the Q50 is the world’s first drive-by-wire car, one in which the main connection between the steering wheel and the wheels being steered is digital rather than mechanical.
The car cruises down a curving highway with nothing in charge but a lane-keeping system—a technology intended to help drivers, not replace them. As a commenter at noted, using it as an ersatz human drive is precisely the abuse the new Mercedes-Benz S class prevents by requiring the driver to lay hands on the wheel every dozen seconds or so.
And, yes, the music you hear is the “Ride of the Valkyries,” from Die Walküre, the second opera in Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle. It’s a fine piece of music. But the guys in the backseat of that Infiniti are still idiots.


Black Hat 2014: Hacking the Smart Car

Walk into a BMW, Infiniti or Cadillac showroom, and you might see a host of enticing new cars. Chris Valasek, on the other hand, sees targets for an attack. 

He and a colleague have conducted the first industry-wide study of remote hacking possibilities (not actual hacks) for smart cars. The researchers are presenting their work at this week’s Black Hat security conference in Las Vegas.

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Robocars Love the Draft

Drafting—trailing behind a car to take aerodynamic advantage of its motion—is something novice drivers are taught never to do: if you get too close, it’s curtains.

That’s why it figures so prominently in discussions of autonomous cars, which never lose their concentration. And when such tirelessly attentive cars and trucks run together in platoons, the resulting fuel savings can be as big a selling point as the leisure you get from not having to pay attention to the road. Up ahead of you are other cars, similarly in thrall to the lead car. That lead car can be controlled by a professional driver, as in the case of a European experiment that concluded in 2012 (described in IEEE Spectrum by Erik Coelingh and Stefan Solyom, engineers at Volvo, which participated in the project). Of course, when fully autonomous driving finally arrives, that professional will lose his job, too.

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The UK OKs Self-Driving Cars on Its Roads

Soon, the United States won’t be the only place where cars regularly drive themselves. The UK government announced this week that it will permit driverless cars to traverse its roads beginning next January. The nation’s Department for Transport is set to review existing road rules to determine which ones need to be updated to accommodate self-driving vehicles. The agency will try to differentiate between how the laws will apply to vehicles in which the driver and the car trade off control versus cars that never cede control to a human.

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Lawsuit Targets Ford, GM Over Song-Ripping CD Players in Cars

A new music copyright lawsuit against U.S. car manufacturers may be one of the more puzzling rearguard actions fought by the U.S. recording industry in recent memory. The lawsuit has set its sights on Ford and GM for selling cars that can rip CDs onto vehicle hard drives—a legal tactic that may be doomed in the face of past court rulings that favored similar song-ripping devices.

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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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