Power Vampires Possess Smart Cars

By driving smarter, autonomous cars have the potential to move people in and around cities with far greater efficiency. Their projected energy performance, however, has largely ignored their energy inputs, such as the electricity consumed by brawny on-board computers. First-of-a-kind modeling shows that autonomy’s energy pricetag could be high enough to turn some into net energy losers.

Continue reading “Power Vampires Possess Smart Cars”

The Self-Driving Car’s Bicycle Problem

Robotic cars are great at tracking other cars, and they’re getting better at noticing pedestrians, squirrels, and birds. The main challenge, though, is posed by the lightest, quietest, swerviest vehicles on the road. “Bicycles are probably the most difficult detection problem that autonomous vehicle systems face,” says UC Berkeley research engineer Steven Shladover. Nuno Vasconcelos, a visual computing expert at the University of California, San Diego, says bikes pose a complex detection problem because they are relatively small, fast and heterogenous. “A car is basically a big block of stuff. A bicycle has much less mass and also there can be more variation in appearance — there are more shapes and colors and people hang stuff on them.” Bikes are also being left behind by the machine learning techniques that enable detection systems to train themselves by studying thousands of images in which known objects are labeled. Most of the training, to date, has employed images featuring cars, with far fewer bikes. Continue reading “The Self-Driving Car’s Bicycle Problem”

Chinese Bullet Trains’ Worrisome “Black-box” Controls

In August we brought you disquieting news that Hollysys Automation — the supplier of a control system implicated in China’s deadly bullet-train collision this summer — also provides controls for China’s nuclear reactors (which are multiplying just as fast as its high speed rail lines). The Hollysys story now looks darker after informed speculation reported in the Wall Street Journal that the company may not fully comprehend how the control systems work. Continue reading “Chinese Bullet Trains’ Worrisome “Black-box” Controls”

Nuclear Safety Implications in China’s Bullet Train Wreck?

The hand-wringing over China’s high-speed train wreck last month may have just begun if the government’s current explanation for the crash proves out. At present official fingers are pointing to a failure in the trains’ signaling system. The firm that installed them, it now appears, provides similar equipment for the nuclear reactors that China is building just as fast as it is adding rail lines. Continue reading “Nuclear Safety Implications in China’s Bullet Train Wreck?”

Compressed-air Car Proponents Losing Faith

Licensees of the much-hyped AirPOD minicar are pressing for results from Motor Development International, the Luxembourg-registered firm behind the compressed-air-powered vehicle. In recent postings to their websites and coverage by European news sources, some of MDI’s partners are now openly questioning the technology and MDI’s capacity to develop it — questions that Spectrum raised in November 2009 in the investigative feature, “Deflating the Air Car.”

When Spectrum’s feature went to print, MDI was guaranteeing mass-production of AirPODs within a few months at its development base on France’s Cote d’Azur. A year and a half later there is no sign of the promised minicars and their advertised 140-kilometer range, and outspoken licensees are blaming MDI. Continue reading “Compressed-air Car Proponents Losing Faith”

Corporate Fleets: No Magic Sponge for Electric Vehicles

Despite the high levels of excitement surrounding electric vehicles, there is reason to worry about this nascent market’s capacity to fizzle in a big way. Most of the buzz surrounds electric vehicle introductions from major automakers, such as the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt, for which consumer demand remains to be demonstrated. Today I’ve got a piece running at MIT’s TechReview.com site raising doubts about the likelihood that corporate fleets will soak up EVs if consumers leave these pricey machines languishing on showroom floors.

The TechReview story, a ‘news-you-can-use’ piece aimed at managers, concludes that big price reductions and adjustments to fleet management practices will be needed to make a business case for replacing gasoline and diesel fleet vehicles with EVs. In short, lithium battery costs push the purchase price too high for most corporate buyers to recoup their investment through efficiencies — especially if they continue to replace vehicles every three-to-five years. AT&T predicts a return on electric Ford/Azure Dynamics service trucks they are phasing in, but only because the company bucks standard fleet practice and uses its fleet vehicles for 10-12 years. Continue reading “Corporate Fleets: No Magic Sponge for Electric Vehicles”

Paris Puts the Bicyclette First

Paris threw open nearly one thousand one-way streets to two-way traffic this week — that is, for travelers willing to pedal. Whereas other cities such as Boulder and London have created a handful of designated counterflow bike lanes, the new rules taking effect in Paris this week allow bicyclists to cycle upstream against automobile traffic within all of the city’s 30 kilometer-per-hour zones.

Generally speaking these 30-kph zones comprise knots of narrow streets serving primarily neighborhood traffic. But Paris city hall expects a big impact for cyclists. According to Paris planners the move will expand route options for cyclists and may also (seemingly against all odds) improve safety. The mayor’s office notes that on some streets cyclists heading upstream will be further from parked cars, minimizing their risk of ‘winning a door prize’ from innattentive automobile users stepping out onto the roadway. Continue reading “Paris Puts the Bicyclette First”