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.

Running a car…on aluminum?

phinergy-citroenPhinergy has developed a battery that’s, well, a bit difficult to categorize.  It’s powered by aluminum and air, but it’s not readily rechargeable.  Every 200 miles it needs to be refilled with water, and after 1000 miles, the aluminum plates need to be replaced.  So, what’s the point?  Well, it has some potential as a range-extender used in conjunction with a conventional rechargeable battery.  This Al battery could be a ‘reserve’, or for long road trips, actually replaced enroute (the cost of the raw material being replaced would be ~$50, so it might not cost much to do this).  It’s an interesting idea…and ideas like this take creative marketing and some lucky business deals to work out.  We’ll see.

(read more at extremetech)

VW to start selling 261mpg car

001-volkswagen-xl1-geneva-2013628opt-1Volkswagen unveiled the production version of its XL1 two-seater car at the Geneva Motor Show recently.  It’s a diesel-electric plug in hybrid vehicle that gets about 261mpg and an electric-only range of around 30 miles!  While those numbers may end up slightly lower once the car goes through the US tests (the European test cycle turns in higher numbers typically), it’s still incredibly impressive.

Powered by a .9 liter two cylinder diesel engine, it’s not especially fast, even with the electric motor assist….0-62mph takes 12.7 seconds, for example.  There’s no official word on price, though since it’s a low volume, largely hand-built production car, you can expect the price to be pretty high, probably pushing six figures.  Definitely an ‘early adopter toy’, but also a good example of the future of automobiles.

Read more at AutoBlog and NPR.

Video review below:

Next generation hybrid cars

ford-fusion-energi-04-1a.jpeg.492x0_q85_crop-smartThe Prius has been the shining example of hybrid technology for many years, but let’s face it, its design is aging and the technology isn’t keeping up.  Ford has really led a charge lately with fuel efficient hybrids, such as this Fusion Energi that provides 21 miles of electric range (up to 85mph) and a combined MPGe of 100.  All this in a big, traditional family car…not bad!  They have a similar drivetrain in the smaller C-Max and given those choices, I’m not sure why anyone would choose a Prius anymore (except for perhaps wanting a car with a more normal-sounding name…).

I think of these Fords as second-generation hybrids…they offer better styling and usability, as well as electric-only mode.  What’s really cool are the third generation hybrids being worked on, especially the Volkswagon XL1.  The XL1 is really optimizing ALL pieces of the puzzle…slippery aerodynamics combined with a maximum efficiency diesel engine to produce an astounding 235mpg!  Note that this is just a two-seat car, but imagine one of these as your commute vehicle…pretty cool!

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