"You can grip the wheel very loosely," the BMW engineer told me as I settled into the driver's seat of the BMW Track Trainer. "Very loosely, to get a feel for how it is turning. But do not touch the pedals." I detected in his tone an "unless" on the way. "Unless I yell stop! In which case you should grip the wheel tightly and stomp on the brakes." He smiled. "Shall we go?"
With that, I released the brake and sat back as our unassuming 3 Series sedan accelerated of its own volition down a short straightaway, whipped ably into a right-hander, and then moved wide to set itself up for a fast curve to the left. I was, as instructed, holding on ever-so-slightly, but that felt weirder than just watching the wheel turn on its own, as if I were sitting in the lap of a ghost driver—which is pretty much what I was doing.
The BMW Track Trainer is a robot car: a fully autonomous automobile capable of racing the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in California's Monterey County (or any other track it's been programmed to run) at the limit of traction, mere seconds off the time a professional would run in the same model. BMW uses it to train drivers by showing them how the perfect racing line feels from the driver's seat and by providing real-time feedback, with corrections, once they decide to take over the controls themselves. But the car is also a showcase for BMW's Driver Assistance System, a series of radar and GPS sensors that work in concert with computer-operated steering, brake and power systems to achieve what BMW describes as "highly autonomous driving."
BMW chose Laguna Seca because it is a difficult track, which makes barreling into turns at 100 mph all the more impressive, and because it's a short drive from the company's research lab in Silicon Valley, where engineers are busy reinventing the automobile for the information age. Since 1978, when microprocessors were first installed in the trip odometer of a Cadillac Seville, the number of chips in the average automobile has grown such that cars now contain anywhere from 50 to 200 processors and a mile of wiring. The increasing prevalence of hybrid and electric cars is accelerating that trend; the plug-in electric Chevrolet Volt, for example, requires 10 million lines of code, two million more than it takes to run a Boeing 787.
So carmakers are coming to Silicon Valley, where code is king. Mercedes-Benz opened a technology center here in 1995, BMW in 1998, Volkswagen in 1998, Toyota in 2001, General Motors in 2007, and Renault-Nissan in the past year—all in large part to tap the skills of the designers and developers and engineers and who have so ably sustained Google, Apple and Facebook. Include homegrown start-ups Tesla Motors, Mission Motors and the autonomous car division at Google itself, and the result is a sort of Detroit West, where California engineers continue to devise new ways to make powerful, affordable, easy-to-use computers—but now they also devise new ways to make them move very, very fast.
Exactly how I felt about all this is something I was chewing on when the Track Trainer crested the hill that leads into Laguna Seca's infamous "corkscrew." I had to trust that this robot racecar would remember how to negotiate one of the trickiest and most dangerous corners in the world, a hard left followed immediately by a hard right on a stretch of track that drops five and a half stories in 450 feet. Cresting the hill, the car managed not to panic and brake too soon, as humans tend to do. In fact, as we plunged into the turn, I thought for one terrifying moment that the car wasn't going to brake at all—until it did, with perfect timing. As we safely exited, I realized I'd just hitched a brief ride into the future.
Click here to get an inside look at Silicon Valley's automotive innovations.
Silicon Valley is a surprisingly big place. Getting around requires a lot of driving, which on California's well-maintained roads is pleasant enough even without robot assistance. And as I drove my rental car from lab to lab, interesting relationships began to reveal themselves.
The engineers at the Volkswagen Electronics Research Laboratory (ERL), for instance, work in a white midrise office building just across a narrow marshy river from the headquarters of Oracle, the company best known for its database-management program. Managing data seemed to be about a different from what automakers do as any pursuit could be. But when ERL's deputy director, an electrical engineer named Chuhee Lee, met me at the lab, he made it clear that this was not at all the case.
In a second-floor conference room, Lee launched a PowerPoint presentation that he had used many times to justify his lab's existence to managers back in Munich. Combining data, it turned out, is the essence of new car design. Car engineers had long thought of the various data devices they installed—navigation systems, smartphone adapters, lane-detecting cameras—as independent gadgets with narrowly tailored functions. Now they're beginning to link these devices to one another, to connect the data from a car's many sensors and processors. And like the engineers at Oracle, they've found great value in these connections.
About the cover pix. Very cool looking car but I see a major design flaw; unsprung weight! Those massive hub assemblies will result in severe handling problems and a very rough ride.
ProfChuck: Could the car frame function as a torsion spring?
I guess the first picture in the article is an artistic drawing of a car in 2030. The drawing is more for fun at the moment.
Another design flaw is there is no axle turning the wheels!!! How does that car move? Cool concept drawing though.
Maybe it has really small electric engines on the front wheels........... However, front wheel drive FTL.
Thinking of cars of the future and more options: Typically, if I hit the car in front of me, I am considered at fault. I wish they make a camera in front of a car with a dvr. So, when a driver cuts me off and they stop short I have a factual case on my side. Maybe the car should also have a rear camera as well attaché to the dvr?
@Jvg: Profchuck is correct. The ratio of sprung (i.e. held up by the springs)vs. unsprung mass is what's important. The sprung mass provides intertia, while the wheels (unsprung) move up and down with the bumps in the road. The heavier (more massive) the wheels, the more force is required to dampen them. If the wheels were too heavy, the vehicle would behave like a buckboard, on rough roads.
@Army Juggernaut: If you look at the drawing carefully, you'll see fairly large electric motors built into each hub assembly. You can also see the novel ways each wheel is attached to the rest of the car. The attachments for the front wheels are necessairly more complex than the rear, to allow for steering.
tundrasea, and in the center of this car is lots of buttons. The future name of this car is "The POWERFUL MACH 5". As you push buttons you will here, sprong-ying! Followed by lots of wooooo, ooo wooo-aaa's!
This is a futuristic car, so in the future they have really develop powerful springs in the wheels. You park your car in the garage at night and an electric machine rolls the wheels backwards all night long. In the morning, you just hit go! This is why in the picture we do not see a motor or anything. The springs in the wheels power you forward. No, I have no idea how you reverse.
Do you think I make a car? lol. ;)
Traffic light communicating with smart cars are great, until some pedestrian decided to rush across the zebra line at the last second. It happens.
Picture this scenario: 3 lane local street, your car on the right lane. Red light ahead, the right lane is empty, two lanes on the left have SUV or trucks stopped. Your car tell you the light will turn green just as you hit the zebra line if you speed up. Just as you near the zebra line, a pedestrian who is too slow to complete the crossing stepped into the space in front of you. No brake in the world is going to stop your car in time, and you are blocked by the cars and street sign posts.
You can't be all knowing, and the smart communications may give you false sense of safty margin. I once almost hit a child who suddenly step out between a bus and a truck, while I was turning right. If not because I always turn slowly and cautiously, he would surely be struck. All this smart devices could lure you into speeding to beat the traffic lights.
The body of the car had suspension built into the design. The curved metal was designed to flex like a ridged spring that would replace previous designs for shocks and springs.
I am pretty sure the structure holding the wheel has some sort of electromagnet, which would oscillate and attract either the top or bottom of the wheel, while the wheel would have a north magnet and a south magnet on opposite sides.
However, I do think it would not work, because there is no suspension.
Will Popular Science investigate this doomsday threat before 2012? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hCRY8ovQ3k8
I think cars will get smaller. Much, much smaller than Smart cars..kinda like Segways...but lighter...30-50kg, perhaps ?....and then we will be able to stack them into little flying craft with high power electric motors that work off very high density batteries based on carbon nanotube structures. Once we hook them together, the car and the aircraft(including lighter than air blimps)...bye bye airports !
Of course, dust effects, especially during liftoff and touchdown operations will still be a serious problem. Now, that will need some serious architectural problem solving. My proposal is that we include a tower (much like a helipad) in each home, and several large scale structures like these in commercial areas, so we don't have to redesign the city from scratch.
Engineers and whiz kids tend to be overly optimistic about the prospects of the auto-driven car. Like some have commented before, who's responsible when an accident happens. The car company, the company who supplied the hardware, the one who supplied the software, a provider or... you. In the end it is the driver who is, and should be responsible, and will be for a very long time. Can't take away too many tasks then. He (or she) may doze off.
Voyager, quite simply in an accident involving a driverless car and a driver controlled car, the driver is at fault if the hardware can be proven to be working correctly at the time. In multiple driverless car accidents, likely hardware failure would be to blame, but not necessarily the manufacturer. Things deteriorate over time. If your car had a failure due to lack of maintenance, then it's all your own fault.
Fascinating article, though pretty thick with speculation. I have to say, though, some of these ideas seem simply BAD. For instance:
<em>"But if we were to trust the system that much, to let go of the wheel entirely, we might gain a great deal. Cars could travel in self-guided traffic swarms, moving within inches of each other, cruising through stop lights with milliseconds to spare. Traffic would decrease, and fuel efficiency would increase—theoretically, at least."</em>
Ok, I'll grant that's "cool." But at this point you have to start asking: Why are we driving cars <em>at all</em>? The automobile used to be a symbol (and a means) of personal independence. How much independence exists in this futuristic vision? Time was, folks drove cars because they thought driving was fun. The cars being described in the article assume as a first principle that driving is <em>boring</em>, and must therefore be replaced by other (specifically computer-based) forms of entertainment:
<em>"...distraction will be exactly what we seek as we while away the commute in our idiotproof pleasure domes. .... Soon, social-networking applications will allow drivers to communicate with one another as if chatting online."</em>
Um, but why not just roll down the window?
Again I have to ask: why are we driving cars? Wouldn't it be simpler, cheaper, and more environmentally sound to simply increase the rail network of the country and go back to taking the train? (Cf. any major city in Europe.) If you actually have a commute so long you want to be bumming around on FaceBook, why not cut out the driving altogether? In fact, why not walk around, have a three-course meal, and talk with fellow travelers while you're at it? One bullet train and the guy or two driving it may or may not be smarter than a thousand computerized cars, but I dare say they're a lot cheaper.
I guess I'm saying, are we REALLY simplifying and improving our lives by outfitting every one of several billion cars with a Mars Rover's worth of sensors, cameras, gyros, antennae, and microchips? And furthermore, if we're working our tails off to create (or, as consumers, to afford) "idiotproof pleasure domes," don't we have to stop and ask "What exactly does that make <em>us</em>?"
I think some of these engineers and dreamers need to go back and watch <em>Wall-E</em> and consider what societal goals we're really trying to attain.
The whole robot car thing is really cool, but what hapens when the robot malfunctions? Would the driver be able to stop the car, or would he crash and die?
A so many minds stuck in the past. The sprung and unsprung weight of wheel/tire assemblies means nothing in the future! By 2030 we will have confirmed the Higgs Boson particle and will manipulate matter at will to adjust mass. This car will be able to travel at or exceed the speed of light because at a subatomic level the particles it is made up of will have no mass. What you see as wheels the true futurist sees as compact particle accelerators
This vehicle can both travel the speed of light and through time as a result. This is actually a rendering of a future Dolorean. Of course minus the nuclear generator that runs off of biological waste matter. Instead particles with no mass require no energy to accelerate, or at least very little (Im no physicist). Pollution and depleting energy concerns are out the window when we can accelerate objects by removing the fundamental component that makes up their mass.
Oh and roads will be paved in carbon nanotubes.
and it makes a mean cup of coffee....
The very first thought I had looking at that highly futuristic prototype car.......SNOW....ICE....heavy rain.
Dreamers of the future need to always include what can go wrong in their plans to build Utopia. The second thought I had as I read this whole article......ADVERTISING. Surely if we do not have to concentrate on driving, those providing us with this magical technology will want to find other ways to take advantage of our attention. Streaming endless commercial broadcasting at us throughout the entire trip, likely coordinated by our location to advertise what is available in the immediate area.
My perpetual motor would be the perfect power plant for it!