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Chinese Drivers Welcome Our New Robocar Overlords

poll released today suggests that driverless cars appeal most in China and India and least in Japan, with English-speaking countries—the only comparison group—taking the middle ground.

The Japanese position at the bottom and India’s near the top are strange. Could Japan’s reputation for robo-philism be unjustified? Was the surveyconducted online—unrepresentative of opinion in China and India?

In their paper on the survey, authors Brandon Schoettle and Michael Sivak, of the University of Michigan, address the second question. They argue that “though the respondents in these two countries may not be representative of the overall population, they are likely to be representative of those individuals who would comprise the initial market for autonomous and self-driving vehicles in these countries.” 

Here are some key numbers. Respondents who were “very interested” in having a totally self-driving car peaked at 47 percent in India (a little ahead of China) and cratered at 8.5 percent in Japan. The median respondent (that is, the one at the 50th percentile) was prepared to pay US $1600 extra for such a car in China; the sum was just a tenth as much in India, and precisely zero in the other four countries.

To probe the minds of possible early adopters, the pollsters list the premium that the 75th percentile would pay:  $8,000 in China and $2,350 in Australia, with the U.S., Britain and India coming in a few hundred dollars lower. In Japan, these 75th percentilers would pay a paltry $465.

So how to explain Japan’s apparent coolness to autonomous vehicles? Maybe its reputation for liking robots has been exaggerated. Maybe one’s attitude to robots is irrelevent to the decision to buy them. Or maybe the Japanese are simply further along the famous Gartner hype cycle than we are; maybe they’re standing where the rest of the world will be, soon enough.

Harman Cancels Out Road Noise, Without Headphones

Automakers used to make their rides quieter with padding, special bushings, and thicker glass. But now that fuel-efficiency standards are forcing them to jettison every unneeded gram, they are leaning toward the active alternative: electronic antinoise.

Bose pioneered antinoise, first in audio headphones and more recently in cars, where its system cancels low-frequency noise from the engine by using the speakers to broadcast a wavepattern half a cycle out of phase with that noise. When the peaks of one wave meet the troughs of the other, they cancel out. The rest is silence.

Now comes Harman, of Stamford, Conn., with a system that tackles road noise. The problem was that this kind of sound doesn’t come from a regularly reciprocating engine and so can’t be predicted in a straightforward way. But Harman’s engineers found a trick. 


“We have accelerometers mounted on points in the car, selected to have a high correlation with noise,” explains David Jumpy, an audio engineer at Harman’s research center in Farmington, Mich. “The reaction of the air space in the cabin of car can be predicted based on the analysis we do on a vehicle’s structure.”

Events, like hitting a bump in the road, must be registered and acted on in milliseconds. But, as with engine noise, the frequency is low and the waves are  long, “so you can create a decent-size zone of cancellation in the cabin.” Wind noise creates waves so short that a movement of your head can muss up the antinoise effect.

Harman’s research partner, Lotus Engineering, of Britain, said in a press release that automotive antinoise could be considered a spinoff of its own work in the 1980s on active suspensions for Formula 1 cars. Active suspensions model the basic cause of road noise—the varying connection between wheels and pavement.

Both Harman and Lotus Engineering declined to say when the road-quietening system would debut, or in which car.

Bose wouldn’t say whether it planned a road-noise antidote of its own. However, a spokesman did point point out that the company’s engine-noise canceller is already available in many cars, including models from Cadillac, Buick, Chevrolet, Infiniti and Nissan. 

Using Big Data to Fight Range Anxiety in Electric Vehicles

One of the biggest obstacles preventing more widespread adoption of electric vehicles is “range anxiety,” the fear of losing power and seeing your car shut down in the middle of a long-distance drive. Current technologies that estimate how much longer a battery will last still provide inaccurate measurements, because they use computer models that rely heavily on the driver’s recent behavior and don’t account for other factors.

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Car Thieves Use Handheld Electronics to Steal Keyless Cars

Cars that allow owners to simply press a button on a remote control to start up their vehicles have become increasingly tempting targets for car thieves. The incidence of keyless car thefts has risen as criminals simply buy handheld electronic devices online that can reprogram access to luxury vehicles such as Range Rovers.

The security risk has grown to the point where insurance companies have begun refusing coverage to drivers in London who own keyless vehicles but don’t stash their expensive rides in underground parking lots or other secure locations, says an article in The Guardian. Car thieves have made plying their illicit trade much easier by simply bypassing the security of the keyless ignition systems with devices that are normally used by legitimate auto workshops for vehicle maintenance. The criminals have equipped themselves with these master keys by purchasing them on eBay.

The criminal act of stealing vehicles through the re-programming of remote-entry keys is an ongoing industry-wide problem,” said Jaguar Land Rover in a statement.

Jaguar Land Rover also cited a number of vehicles vulnerable to such theft, including the Ford Fiesta and Focus, Range Rover Evoque, Ford Transit and Mercedes Sprinter.

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), a UK-based motor industry association, has pushed for new laws to address the problem, according to BBC News. SMMT wants to strengthen the regulations surrounding the use of such equipment and increase the punishments relating to equipment misuse.

Car manufacturers currently provide open access to the necessary technical information so that independent auto repair shops can service the after-market for such keyless ignition vehicles. Criminals have been able to exploit that fact by obtaining the usual maintenance equipment for their own purposes.

Vehicle thefts have fallen in the UK over the past decade, which mirrors a similar trend in the U.S. But the spate of luxury vehicle thefts in the UK may partly reflect how easily keyless ignition vehicles can be compromised with readily-available electronic equipment.

It should come as no surprise that modern cars dependent upon electronics could be vulnerable to such security risks. In 2011, Swiss researchers showed how they wirelessly hacked such keyless ignition systems—also called smart keys—for a number of vehicles. More recently, U.S. researchers surveyed the vulnerabilities of a new generation of “smart cars” that cellular and bluetooth communications, car apps, and “cyberphysical features” related to the car being able to perform actions such as autonomous braking.

Ford Makes a Thinking Car for the Average Pocketbook

Ford is doing what its founder, Henry Ford, lived to do: making a rich man's toy into a working man's tool.

Ford says it will offer a pedestrian-sensing system in its Mondeo sedan, beginning in Europe in the coming model year. It uses a camera on the windshield and a radar sensor near the bumper—a minimalist approach but one that works well, at least when the light and the weather are decent.

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Are Self-Driving Cars Really the Solution to Drunk Driving?

If you’re like me, you probably assumed that once cars begin driving themselves, that will signal the end of the “fatal five” causes of vehicle fatalities: excessive speed, drunken and drug-impaired driving, failure to wear a safety belt, drowsy driving, and distracted driving. (The latter is ever more frequently caused by infotainment devices built right into the car.) But according to a traffic safety expert, we’d be wrong.

In a article, Ian J. Faulks, a researcher at the Center for Accident Research and Road Safety at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, writes that autonomous vehicles won’t eliminate drunken driving because, “Even if it is an autonomous vehicle, the alcohol-impaired person is still the driver.”  

That statement seems quite counterintuitive if you think of a self-driving vehicle as a machine designed to do the steering, accelerating, braking, and signaling for you. After all, how could you mess up something over which you’re not even in control? But Faulks, who is also a member of the International Council on Alcohol, Drugs, and Traffic Safety, makes a sobering point:

Actions need to be taken to start the vehicle, enter instructions regarding destination and route, and engage the self-driving function. These actions constitute driving, and if you’re drunk, that’s [drunk] driving. Moreover, there are serious issues concerning the possible situations where a driver in an autonomous vehicle needs to intervene due to an emergency or system malfunction. Any such intervention constitutes driving, and again, if you’re drunk, that’s [drunk] driving.

I, for one, still hold out hope that there will come a day when cars will reach the level of sophistication where a person can warble the equivalent of, “Home, James” and the car will deliver him or her from the ballpark, pub, or afterparty where there was a little bit too much celebration, right to his or her door. My faith is not unwarranted. Google researchers, who are thinking along the same lines, are said to be already testing self-driving cars without any human drivers or even steering wheels.

Still, Faulks thinks that even in a future where robocars exist, limiting the number of traffic fatalities resulting from driving under the influence of alcohol will require the same prescriptions in place today.

…the solutions will remain with interlock devices to deter an alcohol-impaired person from driving, traffic enforcement to catch the drunken driver, and encouragement for the erstwhile [drunk] driver to instead choose to become a passenger…in a cab, bus, or by traveling with a sober driver.

But because we know that cops can’t be everywhere, and despite decades of awareness campaigns, friends do let friends drink and drive, I’m rooting for Google and other automakers to produce vehicles whose design takes into consideration the person who wants to be the life of the party and still make it home alive.

Audi Robotic Racecar Relies on GPS

This weekend Audi will show off its self-driving technology under what would seem to be the most challenging conditions imaginable: a race track.

Yet despite the high speeds involved, the feat is simpler in some ways than navigating city streets, where you have to recognize and avoid pedestrians and squirrels.  A race car merely has to keep its position on the track, moving in and out of it only when passing or dodging another car.

And because the track is a known quantity, the car can keep it all in its little electronic head and rely heavily on GPS—provided it’s corrected to an accuracy of just a few centimeters. Which, in this case, it will be.

The public demonstration will take place on Sunday at the Hockenheim race track, in southwestern Germany. The car, an RS 7, will do a lap or two at race pace, around 250 kilometers per hour (149 miles per hour). It will duel with an identical, but human-piloted car. My money’s on the robot. 

“We’re going into the curves, the cornering, just like a professional race driver,” Peter Bergmiller, a technician for Audi, says in the company’s video promotion.  “So for example, we have lateral accelerations of more than 1 g.”

Watch the promo:

Watch Tesla's Robocar Achieve Warp Speed

Our tech elite grew up with Star Trek, which is why a lot of our tech looks like props from that old TV show: the flip phone is like Capt. Kirk’s communicator, the laser pointer is a phaser, the tricorder is a reality.

Next year, when Tesla Motors releases the dual-motor, four-wheel-drive, semiautonomous version of its Model S, drivers will boldly go where no (electric) car has gone before: into Warp drive.

This video shows a test ride in which the zero-to-60 time comes to 3.6 seconds, 0.4 seconds longer than Tesla is promising for the car next year. Note how it’s framed by lighting reminiscent of the special effects that early Star Trek movies used to suggest faster-than-light travel:

Study Shows Voice-Controlled Devices Distract Drivers

Ever since Knight Rider introduced us to its star car, KITT, in 1982, a car we can talk to has been high on many drivers’ sci-fi wish lists. Some of today’s models do respond to spoken commands from drivers. And while talking to your car can be convenient, a series of tests conducted by University of Utah researchers found that talking to voice activated devices like smartphones and dashboard computers can be a dangerous distraction for drivers.


Researchers looked at two different kinds of voice-control in two different studies, which follow up on previous work that, like these studies, was sponsored by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. In the first study, they observed how interaction with dashboard-based “infotainment” systems in cars from five different auto manufacturers (Chevrolet, Chrysler, Ford, Hyundai, and Mercedes) affected driver response times. They also examined how drivers reacted when listening to and responding to text messages and emails relayed to them by Apple’s voice-controlled digital assistant, Siri. You can read the full reports here.

162 drivers chatted with their smartphone servants and dashboard computers in a series of three experimental setups: a laboratory, a driving simulator, and a car driving around neighborhoods in Salt Lake City. The difficulty of various tasks, including listening to text messages read by a computer and navigating a menu using voice commands, was rated on a scale of one to five points. These numbers represent the mental workload the activity subjected drivers to, with a score of one comparable to driving with no distractions and a score of five comparable to solving complicated math problems while behind the wheel. Levels of driver distraction were determined by measuring factors like heart rate and response time.

For in-dash computer systems that let drivers control car functions with their voices, University of Utah researchers led by psychology professor David Strayer tested how much attention it took for drivers to accomplish common tasks like changing radio stations or dialing phone numbers. 

“The basic root question is can you make these techs so they’re not demanding and safe to be used,” Strayer told IEEE Spectrum. To learn that, the team had to figure out how safe they are right now, and what factors impact that.

Strayer and his colleagues found that the distraction associated with in-dash systems was closely tied to how well those systems understood spoken commands. Generally speaking, results showed that the better the voice recognition in a system, the less distracting it was to drivers. They also found that regardless of the system being used, listening to messages was less distracting for drivers than composing responses.

Among in-dash computer systems tested, Toyota’s Entune distracted drivers the least, with a score of 1.7 points on the workload scale — about the equivalent of listening to an audiobook while driving. With a workload rating of 3.7 points, Chevrolet’s MyLink system, described by Strayer as “almost unusable” had the poorest performance in the tests.

“We had people trying to change the radio station and changing the temperature instead,” Strayer says, noting that the system left some testers hurling four-letter words instead of requests following a string of misunderstood voice commands. 

The results didn’t come as a surprise to AAA officials who sponsored the study. “We already know that drivers can miss stop signs, pedestrians and other cars while using voice technologies because their minds are not fully focused on the road ahead,” said Bob Darbelnet, chief executive officer of AAA. “We now understand that current shortcomings in these products, intended as safety features, may unintentionally cause greater levels of cognitive distraction.”

Apple’s Siri, running on a modified version of iOS 7, scored the worst in testing, with a 4.1 point workload rating. That’s several steps up in mental workload from just talking on a cellphone, and just shy of the top of the scale, which Strayer described as “like trying to balance your checkbook” while driving. In a statement, Apple pointed out that drivers in the study were not taking advantage of available software to optimize Siri for use behind the wheel. 

The study also found that, contrary to previous studies, listening to messages read by natural human voices and synthetic, computer-generated ones occupied drivers to the same degree. Older studies had found synthetic voices to be more distracting to drivers, suggesting to researchers that improvements in computer-generated voice quality in recent years have helped to close that gap. 

“The technology on the text-to-speech part has improved to the point where it’s no longer part of the problem,” Strayer says. But, he adds, even as technology improves,“ ... there’s only so much room for improvement before we reach the limits of what the brain can do.”

 That doesn’t mean we should abandon voice command technology, which is obviously something consumers want, Strayer says, but it should make us think about how we put it to use. “It would be a mistake to throw the technology out. It clearly has promise,” he tells IEEE Spectrum. “But there are a lot of issues with the technology that need to be solved, too.”

Some of those issues, Strayer says, are technological hiccups that can be ironed out. But others are thornier psychological concerns over how much outside input and interaction the human brain can manage while driving. 

Strayer has a couple suggestions for car manufacturers to make these systems safer and less distracting. Designers can cut the physical clutter to make sure people keep their eyes on the road, and place a premium on user interface — menus should be easy to navigate, and reliably respond to commands to mimize user frustration.

In addition, he says, voice interactions with a car should be short and directly related to driving. Being able to change the temperature inside a car without reaching for a knob or button is probably a good feature, he says. But sending a tweet or posting to Facebook should probably wait until you’re no longer operating an automobile. 

Strayer also pointed out that in-car systems are not as easy to upgrade as mobile devices, often requiring a trip to the dealer if they can be upgraded at all. That means someone who buys a car with a poor voice control system could be stuck with it for the life of the vehicle, which tends to be much longer than the life of other devices like smartphones or personal computers. 

“This technology is something that is meant to make your car stand out,” says Strayer. “What I think the automobile industry is about to find out is that if it’s frustrating and you’re swearing at it, it might make your cars stand out for the wrong reasons.

Tesla's Model S Will Offer 360-degree Sonar

Elon Musk's much-anticipated announcement last night turned out to be less about self-driving capability and more about good, old-fashioned oomph. The Tesla Model S will offer four-wheel drive with a second motor for the extra axle. Musk said that this gets the car from zero to 60 miles per hour (that is, to 97 kilometers per hour) in 3.2 seconds. That’s supercar territory.

It’s also Thinking Cars territory, because the all-electronic drive juggles torque between the front and back wheels from one millisecond to the next, improving both the car’s grip on the road and its energy efficiency. The updated model will go 443 km (275 miles) on a charge, up 3.7 percent from the standard model.

On the other hand, the car’s self-driving capability—the feature the auto press expected to be the main news—turns out to be just an echo of what Mercedes-Benz already offers in its S Class. Like the Mercedes flagship, the Tesla will have forward-looking radar, cameras that recognize stop signs, and systems that use sensor data to keep the car in its lane and to avoid headlong crashes.

After a prolonged tease from a showman like Musk, we expect more. Tesla has merely become the next in a line of automakers that say they, too, will eventually catch up with Mercedes. Volvo plans a similar degree of autonomy in two years, Nissan and Audi in roughly four.

But Musk did give us two interesting nuggets.

First, every Tesla car will come with self-driving equipment—something no other manufacturer does. To be fair, it’s fairly easy for a niche player like Tesla. The old General Motors may have had a car for “every purse and purpose,” but Tesla will settle for every prince and potentate. At least for now.

Second, the cars will pack sonar, a.k.a. ultrasound range finding. This one is unusual because Musk appears to be talking about something beyond the cheap, compact devices other auto makers now salt around their cars. Those sensors mostly function as aides to close-in work, like self-parking, and as backups to the front- and rear-looking radars. The Mercedes S Class, for instance, has 12 of them, with ranges under 5 meters.

But Musk says that his ultrasound system is “long-range” and offers 360 degree” coverage. He adds that it establishes a protective cocoon around the car. It can see anything: a small child, a dog. And it can operate at any speed.” 

Every self-driving car needs many senses. Musk ticks off four: radar, cameras, sonar and GPS. Eventually there will be a fifth: information channeled from other cars and from the road itself.


Cars That Think

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