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Car Talk

Some of today’s most compelling technological developments are happening in the automotive realm, which works for me, given my interest in both technology and cars. I’ve posted about this intersection a number of times, most recently in a July post about how buying a car loaded with chips is a bit like buying a laptop.

And once again, I thought I’d do some car talk here, with a roundup of a few recent articles I’ve read on the Big Three automotive tech categories: autonomous vehicles; connected cars; and EV’s. So here goes.

Autonomous Vehicles

In August, the city of San Francisco okayed the expansion of driverless cabs. A few days later, after one of those driverless taxis got in a collision with a fire truck, the number of cabs from GM’s Cruise (one of the companies deploying the autonomous taxis) on the road was cut in half. But the dustup with the fire truck was just one of the problems that have occurred when there’s no cab driver in the cab. (There have been dozens of other incidents related to autonomous cab interference with emergency vehicles reported since January.)

Earlier in the same week, another Cruise cab somehow got mired in freshly poured concrete.

Then there was this unfortunate situation, which occurred when:

…about 10 Cruise vehicles stopped functioning in the middle of a busy street in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, blocking traffic for 15 minutes. Drew Pusateri, a spokesman for Cruise, said in a statement that the cars had difficulty connecting to the Cruise employees who might have guided them out of the way because of a spike in cellular traffic caused by a music festival in the city’s Golden Gate Park about four miles away. (Source:  NY Times)

Yet again, it seems like autonomous vehicles are not quite ready for prime time.

Nonetheless, San Francisco is now piloting a program with driverless (EV) buses.

The free shuttle will run daily in a fixed route called the Loop around Treasure Island, the site of a former U.S. Navy base in the middle of San Francisco Bay. The Loop makes seven stops, connecting residential neighborhoods with stores and community centers. About 2,000 people live on the island. (Source: CBS News)

This is quite a bit different than driverless taxis, which can go anywhere. There are set stops and a known route. Plus, although the buses don’t have anyone in the driver’s seat – in fact, there is no driver’s seat – they do have an attendant who can step in and operate the bus using a handheld controller. (There’s no steering wheel in the bus.)

Even if they’re not 100% there yet, driverless vehicles sure look like the future to me.

Connected Cars

In my recent post, I wrote about all the technology that’s embedded in cars. And that’s a growing number of cars.

Connected vehicles are, according to the World Economic Forum, forecast to double by 2030, accounting for 96% of all shipped vehicles. (Source: EE Times)

With all these connected – and software-driven – cars, “vehicle tampering will become a real problem,” raising a variety of safety concerns. To meet the security challenge, there’s a new cybersecurity ISO standard specifically designed for vehicles that are on the road.

EETimes says that neural networks will help designers and manufacturers address these standards.

Neural networks aid in various aspects of data privacy and protection by generating and managing cryptographic keys used in encryption algorithms. By training on a dataset of secure keys, neural networks can learn to generate robust and unpredictable keys, enhancing the security of data encryption. In addition to enhancing encryption processes, neural networks also contribute to improving anomaly detection, key management and intrusion prevention.

The EETimes piece goes into some detail on how neural networks work. Well worth the read. And good to know that there’ll be technology to stand up to the security threats that connected vehicles present.

Electric Vehicles

While connected vehicles are growing in number, so are electric vehicles. The problem is finding charging stations. WiTricity, a Massachusetts company which produces wireless charging systems, is hoping to help meet the increased demand for charging systems with an alternative approach to plugging in.

Like Wi-Fi, which delivers internet data without wires, WiTricity uses magnetic fields rather than cables to give batteries a boost. Millions of people already recharge their smartphones this way, by placing them on a charging pad. Now, several Asian carmakers are using the WiTricity system to let drivers recharge their electric vehicles the same way: Just park the car directly above a charging pad at night, and forget about it…

The system uses a charging coil that emits a magnetic field which operates at a precise frequency. A nearby receiver coil is tuned to resonate at the same frequency and convert the incoming energy into electric current. Early versions were quite inefficient, transmitting only about 40 percent of the energy fed into the system. But these days, WiTricity claims it can transmit power to a receiver with over 90 percent efficiency. That’s about the same as you’d get from a plug-in car charger. And because the magnetic field only feeds power to the resonating coil, the charger has no effect on humans or nearby objects. (Source: Boston Globe)

The upside is that this approach is more convenient than having to plug your car in, and can all be operated through a smartphone or dashboard app. The downside is that so far, a wireless charging pad is more expensive than a physical plug-in charging station, and so far most American EV makers haven’t added wireless charging to their feature set. (Early adopters are largely in the Asian market.)

As EV’s are more widely adopted in the US, we should expect to see more developments in the charging (and battery) arena.

And that concludes today’s episode of Car Talk.

A tip of the hat to Car Talk, which ran for years on NPR, and to the car-talking Magliozzi brothers, Tom and Ray.