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Sunday, January 9, 2011

The future of cars

Source: CNN

It's conventional wisdom in the auto industry, but the rest of us may be a bit shocked to find out that cars of the future likely will drive themselves.

In some ways, they already are.

A $100,000 car from Mercedes aims to give the human foot a rest in traffic jams. It senses how far away other cars are -- and then speeds up and slows down accordingly. No need to turn off cruise control and hit the brake. You just steer. (Wired Magazine, which tested the car, called this a "magically scary experience.")

And tech companies are pushing car automation even further.

In October, Google announced it had developed a fleet of cars that use various sensors and maps to feel out the roadway. "They've driven down Lombard Street, crossed the Golden Gate bridge, navigated the Pacific Coast Highway, and even made it all the way around Lake Tahoe. All in all, our self-driving cars have logged over 140,000 miles. We think this is a first in robotics research," the company said on its blog.

The latest edition in this trend comes from General Motors, which showed off a self-driving car last week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

The EN-V (pronounced "envy" and short for "Electric Networked Vehicle") combines two ideas about how to teach cars to drive -- using sensors like cameras and sonar to keep the car from hitting pedestrians; and network technology that lets cars talk to each other.

This "car internet" lets the cars link up wirelessly and follow one another in a sort of wirelessly linked train. If one EN-V needed to pull out of the line, it could.

The pod-like cars, which are just prototypes for now (GM says they could be on the market by 2030 at a cost of $10,000), look somewhat like large scuba-diver helmets, or smushed dust busters. They roll on two wheels, which are aligned like the front two wheels of a car, not like a bicycle. GM partnered with Segway, maker of those futuristic-looking transporters, to create technology that allows the car to balance.

"It's basically a dynamically balanced skateboard," said Chris Borroni-Bird, GM's director of advanced technology vehicle concepts.

The EN-V runs on battery power and plugs into a wall -- giving it a max speed of about 30 miles per hour and a range of about 30 miles. That's not far or fast, but it's enough to make the EN-V useful for cutting down congestion in urban settings, particularly high-density cities in China and India, Borroni-Bird said.

The car also aims to improve safety, since human drivers don't have a sterling record on that front. An estimated 1.3 million people die in traffic-related accidents each year, according to the World Health Organization.

The EN-Vs are just as wide as they are tall, measuring 5 feet cubed. Two people fit inside comfortably, but there's not much room for anything else. A bubble of glass sits close in front of the driver's face. "You can probably pack 5 or 6 times as many of these EN-Vs in a parking lot as you could conventional cars," Borroni-Bird said.

Even though the cars can communicate with each other and drive themselves, drivers can take control if they choose. That's important, Borroni-Bird said, both for safety reasons and so drivers can get some sense of enjoyment from the vehicle.

Drivers use a joystick of sorts to steer and throttle the vehicle, which can spin in place and accelerates rather quickly.

Still, Borroni-Bird says, there are a number of obstacles that need to be hurdled before something like the EN-V hits the market.

The wireless signals that let the vehicles communicate are problematic because hackers, in theory, could access them and send cars off track; and because a lost wireless connection could cause the automated system to lose control of the car.

"It's one thing if a computer goes down, but it's another thing if it happens here," he said.

But he sees a bright future for the concept.

"For the last 100 years the car really hasn't changed in a fundamental sense," he said.

Self-driving cars may buck that trend.

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