Google's Self-Driving Car Masters City Streets
Improved software detect hundreds of distinct objects simultaneously, including pedestrians, buses, a stop sign held up by a crossing guard, or a cyclist making gestures that indicate a possible turn.
From Frankfurt, with Love
The Frankfurt Motor Show kicked off last week, with automakers unveil their newest models to the world. This year's show saw the introduction of new production models like the 2013 Lexus GS 450h and 2012 Honda Civic hatchback, but the real show-stoppers were the concept cars showcasing new technology, which they use to gauge demand for a new model or to show off a possible new design direction. Following are 10 noteworthy concepts that could soon show up soon in a showroom near you.
Maserati Kubang Concept is a Jeep in Maserati's Clothing
Maserati is preparing to enter into the profitable SUV segment and it's using the recent marriage of its parents, Fiat and Chrysler, to do it. The upcoming Maserati SUV borrows its platform from the Jeep Grand Cherokee although you can't tell from the outside as the concept looks distinctly Maserati. Maserati also claims that the Kubang's engines and eight-speed transmission will be produced by Ferrari. Maserati hopes to bring the uplifting driving pleasure and luxury atmosphere of sports and luxury cars to the SUV segment with the Kubang.
Jaguar C-X16 Concept Tackles the Porsche Cayman
Jaguar is set to release a new coupe that will be smaller than the current XK and will go head to head with models like the Porsche Cayman. The C-X16 two-seater concept is powered by a supercharged 3.0L V6 with 376 horsepower and 332 pounds-per-foot of torque. To give it even more oomph, the C-X16 also features a 92-horsepower electric motor that is integrated into an eight-speed transmission. According to Jaguar, the C-X16 represents the "very essence of future Jaguar performance."
Volvo "Concept You" Hints at a New Flagship
Volvo unveiled the Universe concept earlier this year and the automaker has followed up that sedan concept with the Concept You. The Concept You features a four-door coupe-like design and is a preview of a replacement for the Volvo S80. Volvo's CEO describes the Concept You as the blend of contemporary Scandinavian design, exquisite craftsmanship, and intuitive technology. The interior advances the current interior layouts that we are used to with its touch-screens that have replaced the conventional controls.
Alfa Romeo 4C Is the Affordable 8C
Most of the time we wish that automakers would produce their concept vehicles. Well, the beautiful Alfa Romeo 4C concept is one of those lucky concepts that will see the light of day. The 4C concept borrows many design cues from the larger 8C Competizione, but in a smaller and much more affordable package. The concept is based on a new lightweight platform that should match perfectly with its 1.75-liter, 200 horsepower engine. The 4C concept reaches 62 mph in less than five seconds and has a top speed of 155 mph. When will we see it? It's expected to be released in 2013. Hopefully by then Alfa Romeo will have made an official return to the U.S.
Ford Evos Concept is a Peek at Ford's Future
Ford has given us a preview of what its future models will look like with the Evos concept. The four-door, four passenger concept shows off "Ford's first truly global design language." According to Ford, that automaker's goal is to create vehicles that are "fun to drive, have a strong premium visual appeal, and above all, are stunningly beautiful." Sadly we'll never see the Evos concept with its gullwing doors in a Ford showroom, but at least many of its design elements and technology will be used on future Fords.
Land Rover DC100 and DC100 Sport Are the Modern Day Defender
After 63 years, the Land Rover Defender is as iconic to the Land Rover brand as the Jeep Wrangler is to Jeep. Land Rover is determined to replace the Defender by 2015 and the automaker is showing this intent with the DC100 and DC100 Sport concepts; possible design directions the truck will take. The concepts bring the retro Defender into the modern age with their more fuel efficient four-cylinder and diesel engines. The concepts also feature future technology systems that can scan the road for obstacles when you escape the urban landscape and provide feedback on how deep that river is that you may be trying to cross.
Fisker Surf Is a Sexy, Family-Friendly EV
Fisker is about to start deliveries of its Karma sedan and now its given us a preview of a new model that will appeal to buyers with a more active lifestyle. According to Fisker, the Surf is the world's first electric luxury-sports automobile for an active and eco-friendly lifestyle. It builds upon the Karma by adding more room for your stuff and is Fisker's vision of a crossover between a sport car and a station wagon. This concept is a preview of the production model slated for 2013.
Kia GT Concept Brings a New Level of Performance
Kia and its parent, Hyundai, have completely revamped their lineups, which has moved them further from the bargain basement cars that they were originally known for. Now both automakers have stylish and reliable models that actually compete with their competitors. While Hyundai has moved into new segments with the Genesis and Equus, Kia has yet to. That's about to change with the rear-wheel-drive GT concept. It's been rumored that Kia is going to release a new rear-wheel-drive sedan based on the same platform as the Genesis and this concept provides even more proof. The four-door coupe-styled concept is powered by a 389 horsepower 3.3-liter turbocharged V6 that is mated to an eight-speed transmission.
VW Beetle R Concept Nods to a High-Performance Beetle
VW has released an all new 2012 Beetle that has moved as far as possible from the cute one that's been on sale since the late 1990s. VW's hope is that the more masculine shape will appeal more to a male audience. A high-performance Beetle is also rumored to be in the works. VW's R high-performance line already consists of the Golf R and Scirocco R, but the Beetle R is a possible third model. The Beetle R concept features revised and much sportier front and rear bumpers that are also wider. The concept also rides on 20-inch wheels. VW hasn't released the specs for what lies under the hood, but it's probably between 260 and 270 horsepower.
Mercedes-Benz F 125! Concept Is the Car of 2025
Mercedes-Benz has been building cars for 125 years and as a tribute to its long history the automaker has released its vision of the future with the F 125! research vehicle. The F 125! is what Mercedes sees the world driving around in the year 2025. It's packed full with technology like a fuel cell plug-in hybrid system that has a range of 1,000 kilometers. The concept also uses a lithium-sulfur battery pack and has an electric motor for each wheel. Maybe this is what the S-Class will become...
Google has just posted an update on its self-driving car program, which we've been watching closely for the past several years.
The cars have surpassed 700,000 autonomous accident-free miles (around 1.13 million kilometers), and they're learning how to safely navigate through the complex urban jungle of city streets. Soon enough, they'll be better at it than we are. Much better.
This is why we're so excited about a future full of autonomous cars. Yes, driving sucks, especially in traffic, and we'd all love to just take a nap while our cars autonomously take us wherever we want to go. But the most important fact is that humans are just terrible at driving. We get tired and distracted, but that's just scratching the surface. We're terrible at dealing with unexpected situations, our reaction times are abysmally slow, and we generally have zero experience with active accident avoidance if it involves anything besides stomping on the brakes and swerving wildly, which sometimes only make things worse.
An autonomous car, on the other hand, is capable of ingesting massive amounts of data in a very short amount of time, exploring multiple scenarios, and perhaps even running simulations before it makes a decision designed to be as safe as possible. And that decision might (eventually) be one that only the most skilled human driver would be comfortable with, because the car will know how to safely drive itself up to (but not beyond) its own physical limitations.
This is a concept that Stanford University was exploring before most of that team moved over to Google's car program along with Sebastian Thrun. Video below.
Now, I may be making something out of nothing here, but if we compare the car in the image that Google provided with its latest blog post with an earlier Google car from 2012 (or even the Google car in the video), you'll notice that there's an extra piece of hardware mounted directly underneath the Velodyne LIDAR sensor: a polygonal black box (see close-up, right). I have no idea what's in that box, but were I to wildly speculate, my guess would be some sort of camera system with a 360-degree field of view.
The Velodyne LIDAR is great at detecting obstacles, but what Google is working on now is teaching their cars to understand what's going on in their environment, and for that, you need vision.
The cars always had cameras in the front to look for road signs and traffic lights, but detecting something like a cyclist making a hand signal as they blow past you from behind seems like it would require fairly robust vision hardware along with some fast and powerful image analysis software.
An autonomous car is capable of ingesting massive amounts of data in a very short amount of time.Google via Youtube
Or, it could be radar. Or more lasers. We're not sure, except to say that it's new(ish), and that vision is presumably becoming more important for Google as they ask their cars to deal with more complex situations with more variables.
Another interesting tidbit in the update (posted by Chris Urmson, director of Google's Self-Driving Car Project) is the phrase about "teaching the car to drive more streets in Mountain View before we tackle another town." The Google cars can deal with changing environments and some level of dynamic uncertainty, but it needs a reliable basemap to use as a point of reference for lane width, traffic light formation, crosswalks, lane curvature, and more.
So, it might not be possible to tell them to drive you somewhere that they never been. To continue to speculate (because it's fun!), this might suggest how Google is planning on eventually making money on all of this: rather than making and selling autonomous cars, they'll maintain a continually updated database of road data that either car manufacturers or end users will have to subscribe to in order for their cars to operate autonomously.
Google's cars are still not ready for end users like you and I; they may be able to deal with 90 or 95 percent of situations autonomously, but that last 5 to 10 percent to make it to 100 percent autonomy (which is what's required) is probably as hard as all of the research, programming, experience, and machine learning that's gone into the cars up to this point.
It's impossible to plan ahead for every single scenario that an autonomous car might have to handle, so the key to unleashing the autonomous car is going to be a system that can learn and make decisions on the fly. In fact, it's almost certain that there will be accidents, because autonomous cars are still going to have to deal with all the other human drivers on the road (and also because no software is perfect).
But if we can get past our reluctance to place more trust in an autonomous system than we do in ourselves, autonomous cars have the potential to completely revolutionize our transportation infrastructure.
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