The problem with self-driving cars

Lately I’ve been pretty optimistic about self-driving cars…the technology seems to be maturing so quickly, I’ve been expecting them to become commonplace in a matter of years, not decades.  A recent photo from Apple has me questioning that – and it’s not a problem unique to Apple, all self-driving automotive technology currently has this limitation.

Take a look at that picture, what do you see?  An incredibly complex array of optical-based sensors.  Some are lasers, some are cameras.  All self-driving cars use something similar, at least based on what’s publicly known right now (GPS is also used, but it just provides approximate location, with no insight into obstacles on the road).

So.  Optical sensors.  What happens when the lenses get dirty?  I used to live in CA so sure, out there they can stay clean for months.  Or, as Apple recently announced, the technology can be improved to deal with some raindrops on the lens.  But drivers in most of the country have an honest four seasons to deal with, and of course the worst is areas with snow.  Not just for the snow that can accumulate on the lenses, but when that snow melts, the dirty airborne mist kicked up by other cars coats your own in a deep layer of muck.

The automotive industry has developed washers for headlights to partially address this problem, but those are imperfect…but maybe good enough for this application?  Ideally, I think a true wiper-based solution is needed for each lens.

How will this be solved?  I really don’t know…maybe improving the technology used to clean some car headlights.  Until then, I do expect self-driving cars to become commonplace, but only in mild-climate urban areas.

Stupid Design of the Week: Toyota Yaris

Rental cars can be fun!  Some say a rental car is the ultimate off road vehicle.  For me though, it’s a great chance to examine different product design philosophies, in some of the most expensive consumer products on the market.  On this trip, my rental car was a bright blue Toyota Yaris…a class of rental car I usually avoid but have been curious about. 

So, the good: drop this car into a low auto gear (3 or 2), and it’s a peppy, fun car that reminds me a lot of a Mini Cooper.  Driving dynamics are downright decent. 

The bad: everything else.  No, really,  the stereo is one of the most counter-intuitive I’ve seen.  A peice of plastic trim came flying off when I removed my laptop bag from behind the driver’s seat.  The brakes work eventually.  The driving position is reminiscent of bad Italian design from decades ago, with arms extended and legs crunched up around either side of the wheel.  The worst design detail though?  The door locks,  I haven’t had a car without remote locks in ages, but that’s not a big deal.  What’s bad is how the locks work.  Unlock the doors by rotating the key clockwise.  Ok. Got it.  Now unlock the rear hatch…by rotating the key *counter* clockwise.  What kind of moron decided they’d actually ship a mass produced vehicle like this?  Redesign the locks so they work the same, it’s just idiotic to do otherwise.

HENDO – a functional hoverboard?

hoverboardA functional hoverboard, due to ship in 2015, has all the makings of a hoax (remember Back to the Future?).  Except…I’ve been digging…and this appears to be genuine.  The exact technical details aren’t clear…but from what I can gather, both from the official page and from comments on Kickstarter, it uses a rapidly changing (rotating?) magnetic field that creates eddy currents in the surface below, which then produce an opposing magnetic field.  You do have to be over a conductive, non-ferromagnetic surface (aluminum or copper sheet, for example), but…it works!

HENDO has a Kickstarter campaign to help raise money for this project, and they’ve already surpassed their funding goal with 53 days to go.  Check out their video to see this in action:

Not surprisingly, this technology is getting a lot of press…you can read more about it in the New York Times, Business Insider, or Forbes.  Note that it only works over special surfaces, and battery life is limited…but these are relatively minor hurdles to overcome when designing products incorporating this technology.  That’s what it comes down to, too…the hoverboard is just a marketing gimmick, the company’s goal is to license the core technology.  Possibilities…

dalek

Self-contained electric bike wheel

daymakdrivesystem-2The DDS from Daymak looks to be an easy way to convert most any bicycle to an electric-assist bike.  The wheel contains its own battery, motor, and even solar panels to charge it (~.6 miles range per hour of sunlight).  It looks like it’ll only work with V-brake bikes (not disc), though will be available in either a 26″ or 28″ rim size…for about $700 next year.  The 250W motor is powered by a 12Ah lithium battery and controlled by a wireless handlebar-mounted controller (with its own solar panels, too).  Interesting idea!  I could see this being useful for commuters perhaps.  The extra mass and rotational inertia will detract serious bicyclists though. Check out the product page here.DDS45

Energica Ego electric motorcyle

energica-egoWith oil consumption facing the dual threats of concern over climate change, and uncertain availability of fossil fuels in the future (BP estimates we’ll exhaust current reserves in 53 years), electric motorcycles like this gorgeous Ego from Energica may become more and more common!  Its 11.7kWh battery provides 60-120 miles of range, and the rider can enjoy a massive 144lb-ft of torque (134hp).  There’s no gear shifting, which will further enhance reliability and ridability.   Regenerative braking is a user-configurable feature (you can even shut that off entirely); a fast charger can give you an 80% charge in 30 minutes.  At $25,000 it won’t be cheap, but I can see this being a perfect commuter vehicle in many large metropolitan areas.  Test rides are being scheduled now; the bike is making stops in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York later this money (see this link for the schedule and how to reserve a test ride).

(via Gizmag)