Road safety slogans like ‘Alert Today; Alive Tomorrow’ might become redundant in the future with the kind of safety, information, communication, entertainment and comfort features that are being built into today’s cars.

We add to that fascination some lesser-known but equally exciting research projects, which are bound to augment the capabilities of tomorrow’s smartcars.

Born-in-Bengaluru tech could help the visually impaired to drive
Since late last year, Tech Mahindra has incubated special goggles designed by its employee Kunal Bhat. Bhat, who accidentally banged his head on a wall in a dimly-lit staircase, decided to set about finding a tool that could help the visually impaired to visualise obstacles in their way much before these are sensed by their canes.

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Working on this idea, he developed smartgoggles, which together with a smartphone, helps users to sense things on their path and form a 3D mental image of their surroundings.

How does it work? The smartphone camera captures the user’s environment, identifies objects of collision and calculates their position and distance using special algorithms. This information is wirelessly transmitted to the goggles. The smartglasses fitted in the goggles convey this information to the wearer through haptic feedback. It uses mild vibrations from relevant directions to help him or her feel the world around, for a radius of 1.5m (5-feet). A fluent flow of vibrations helps the user form a 3D mental image of the surroundings.

The current prototype is being tested by Tech Mahindra at Bengaluru with the help of two social organisations. Future versions are expected to have more capabilities like audio feedback, context-sensitive analysis, location and direction feedback, cloud based analysis, collective intelligence and inter-device communication.

Why this is featuring right at the beginning of a story on smartcars is because Tech Mahindra believes that this technology can be adapted to applications like autonomous cars and plans to upgrade the application to driverless cars in the future.

The mystic appeal of quantum tech to navigate into the future
The Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), which is being relied upon today for almost all forms of navigation, including that of smart and autonomous cars, is not without its share of flaws. For one, it depends on signals sent to and from satellites launched into outer space, which makes it a costly affair to maintain the constellation and improve capacity.

Secondly, there are occasional reports from the US government agencies about GNSS-related security risks and their vulnerability to attack. Limitations of GNSSes under water are also known, making these ineffective for use with submarines.

A man in an autonomous driving test vehicle
A man in an autonomous driving test vehicle

In order to overcome all this, scientists at the UK Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) have developed a quantum compass that can achieve similar functions using the subatomic changes in Earth’s magnetic field.

The technology used is totally unlike anything you have heard of before. Special lasers are used to cool atoms to temperatures much colder than outer space. At such low temperatures, the slow-moving, low-energy atoms become extremely sensitive to changes in Earth’s magnetic and gravitational field. According to the team’s press report, “If trapped on a small device, their tiny fluctuations can then be tracked from great distances away and their locations pinpointed with a huge degree of accuracy.”

What makes this technology appealing to smartphone companies and autonomous carmakers is that, it has a very high degree of security. Unlike a GNSS, no outside interference can disrupt it. Bob Cockshott of National Physics Laboratory, the UK, commented in a media report that, “There is nothing in physics that could be used—given the knowledge we have now—to disrupt one of these devices.”

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It is expected that usable quantum compasses will hit the market by 2019. These will be so small that these could easily be fitted into small chips, making these easy to use, not just in vehicle navigation but also in a variety of devices including smartphones.

Game to print your car
Talking of smartcars, here is a smart way to make your car! At the annual motor show in Detroit this year, Local Motors was seen 3D printing a car. The American motor vehicle company attaches no fixed location or mammoth factory to their brand. They call themselves a free online and physical workspace where creativity, collaboration and design drive vehicle innovations. They claim that the future will be characterised by microfactories, where small work areas will become car factories. Perhaps one day, you could use your garage for more than parking your car; you could be making cars in it!

What makes us think so? Strati, the co-created car that was being printed at the motor show, is a two-seater that can go up to 40km per hour and is meant for local usage. It takes about 44 hours to digitally print the car as of now, but the company expects that by the end of the year, they will be able to do it in 24 hours, gradually taking it down to 10 hours to 12 hours. The frame and panels of the car are printed using carbon-fibre-infused plastic. It comprises 200+ layers and weighs approximately 800kg. And all this is done using a machine that can comfortably sit in your garage.

The company believes that the car would last five to six years if parked outside, exposed to the weather, and much longer if parked safely in a garage. It is fully-recyclable. So, when it is time for a change, you can salvage the recyclable material and sell it to the company. Local Motors has already opened bookings for the car, which is expected to be available this year.

Quick to follow was Chinese company Sanya Si Hai 3D Technology Ltd, that also 3D printed a 500kg car in March this year. Dubbed Shuya and later called Tyrant Gold, this car was printed with a composite material in around five days. Although the car took much longer to print, its electric motor is capable of achieving the 40km per hour speed of Strati.

Robot city to test driverless cars
Our stories this month might seem to be aimed at convincing you of the possibility of seeing driverless cars on our roads a decade down the line, but we can surely not convince you enough to let driverless cars be tested on the roads in the near future. Just recently, an investigation by Associated Press revealed that four of the 48 self-driving cars on California’s roads have been involved in four accidents since September 2014.

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Foreseeing this danger, University of Michigan has set up M City, a US$ 6.5 million, 23-acre, driverless mini metropolis. The city, set to open in July, has 40 building facades, angled intersections, a traffic circle, a bridge, a tunnel, gravel roads, obstructed views and even a four-lane highway with entrance and exit ramps. It tries to emulate real-life chaos as well. It is possible to reroute traffic, change signal durations and alter road layouts and building facades.

Bad weather, traffic jams, people jaywalking, moms pushing strollers and senior citizens crossing the roads are all a common sight at M City. Fortunately, these are just mechatronic pedestrians testing the sensors and automatic brakes of autonomous vehicles. Self-driving cars being tested there can sense each other, the environment and so on, to ease congestion and improve road safety.

Car pooling in driverless cars, inter-car communications to optimise routes and pick-ups, etc can all be tested to help taxi operators improve the efficiency of operations. It is no wonder industry majors from Ford and Toyota to General Motors are eagerly awaiting the facility’s inauguration.

Taking care of every small detail
No road is 100 per cent safe to drive on. There are invariably some blind spots, which sometimes lead to accidents. In a quest to avoid this, Jaguar Land Rover is developing a smartwindscreen that uses two technologies, which they call transparent pillars and follow-me ghost cars.

Based on the understanding that the pillars supporting the roof of the car obstruct the driver’s view, the company is developing transparent pillars. This would be achieved by embedding screens on the insides of the pillars to relay a live video feed from cameras covering various blind spots around the car. Their futuristic heads-up display technology will add to this unobstructed view, by providing information to keep the driver’s full attention on the road. For example, the movement of others on the road could be highlighted with an onscreen halo moving across the car’s virtual windscreen.

Further to these navigation aids, a ghost car could be projected in front of the car for the driver to follow, in case of difficulty in navigating through busy urban roads.

These concepts are part of a suite of connected technologies being developed by Jaguar Land Rover to improve road safety. According to the company’s press reports, the full potential of this windscreen would be delivered by connecting it to the cloud.

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More power to electric vehicles
While smartness is one of the dominant quests in the automotive industry, the other is the quest for efficient electric vehicles that could reduce environmental hazards of the ever-increasing number of vehicles plying on roads today. Understandably, several research initiatives are targeted at this.

Tiny yet powerful nanopores. In a US Department of Energy-funded research at University of Maryland, the team has invented a tiny structure that includes all components of a battery, representing what they claim to be the ultimate miniaturisation of energy-storage components.

Called nanopore, this structure features a tiny hole in a ceramic sheet that holds the electrolyte to carry the electrical charge between the nanotube electrodes at either end. The battery can be fully charged in 12 minutes and can be recharged thousands of times.

Millions of these nanopores can be combined into one larger battery, the size of a postage stamp. Since all nanopores are sized uniformly, it is possible to cram innumerable units into a single battery. Such thin, small and efficient batteries are expected to revolutionise electric vehicles (EVs) as it is possible to store lots of energy within a small footprint and in a very light package, too.

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Pop goes the crystal, catching all the light. Recently, a team of scientists led by Prof. Jagadese J. Vittal at National University of Singapore (NUS) discovered a chemical reaction that can make microscopic crystals leap distances of hundred times their own size when exposed to ultraviolet (UV) light. This distance is comparable to a human jumping several metres.

In simple terms, this is the conversion of light energy into mechanical motion. But, what makes it so exciting is that, it is the first time scientists have found such a photosalient effect driven by a photochemical reaction in solids, which makes it amenable to several applications. For instance, it could result in a fresh new approach for directly converting solar power into mechanical motion, such as the movement of light-driven actuators and mechanical devices.

Another positive note in this research is that, this phenomenon comes into effect even when crystals are irradiated with weak UV light. Perhaps one day, this would lead to EVs driven directly by the sun with not many middle men in between.

Nano gives superpower to supercars. Another nanotech breakthrough in this space comes from Queensland University of Technology (QUS). Here, researchers have developed lightweight supercapacitors that can be combined with regular batteries to give a power boost to electric cars.

An electrolyte is sandwiched between two all-carbon electrodes to make a thin and strong film with high power density. These film-like supercapacitors can be easily embedded into a car’s body panels, roof, doors and so on. Being super-efficient and capable of covering a large area, these can store enough energy to charge a car’s battery in just a few minutes.

According to a press report, “Supercapacitors offer a high power output in a short time, meaning, a faster acceleration rate of the car and a charging time of just a few minutes, compared to several hours for a standard electric car battery.”

While currently supercapacitors are used along with li-ion batteries, in the future, they hope that supercapacitors will be capable of storing more energy than li-ion batteries and releasing this energy up to ten times faster, so that a car can be entirely powered by the supercapacitors in its panels. Expected to become a reality in a decade or so, such a car can run up to 500km on a single full charge.

Indeed, so much is happening in the automotive industry to improve driving comfort, safety and energy-efficiency that, it is mind-baffling.

In an amazing opinion piece in The Guardian, Tom Chatfield writes, “For those of us who do drive, the moment we get behind the wheel, we are embarking upon the most skilled, perilous and logistically fraught act of our daily lives. We are sitting inside the most expensive hunk of consumer technology we own.” No wonder, he believes that smartcars will become much more popular that wearables. Yes, we are at the threshold of the age of the drivables!

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