Simplifying the Driverless Truck

Engineers and innovators continue the push towards implementation of driverless vehicles into various sectors of the market. Launching driverless vehicles means, in part, overcoming the obstacles that hinder progress, such as driving in crowded, urban areas or bad weather. One of the sectors hoping to overcome such obstacles quickly is the trucking sector. Developers in this area seek to simplify the role and usage of driverless trucks to avoid as many unforeseen problems as possible while simultaneously implementing the technology into the market more quickly.

For example, TuSimple – a company that develops automated trucking systems –  may first deploy driverless trucks that stay on open roads and highways and avoid crowded cities since driving in crowded areas involves different and more complex technology. Another example is deploying driverless trucks solely in good weather for the same reason: navigating harsh weather requires different and more complex technology. By skimming down the functions and responsibilities of driverless trucks, TuSimple can get them on the road sooner.

Another way to introduce driverless trucks to the market sooner is by using a strategy known as “autonomous convoying.” This is where an actual driver operates one truck while a driverless truck follows. The logic behind this approach is that the driverless truck – while depending on its automated systems – can follow the experienced driver ahead, thereby reducing potential problems and issues for the driverless truck. For example, a human driver can read the construction signs ahead of time and know to slow down in advance. The benefits work the other way around as well: when the driver needs to sleep, he or she can have the driverless truck takeover while they sleep without having to pull over and stop.

The bottom line: driverless truck developers hope to see the technology implemented into the trucking sector sooner rather than later. Simplifying the functions and roles of driverless trucks can help overcome obstacles and jump-start implementation.

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New Powertrain Technology Aims to Improve Engine Efficiency

Engineers and innovators continue to seek out new ways to improve engine efficiency, performance, and to reduce the amount of fuel consumed while driving. Changes to traditional systems in the internal combustion engine have already taken place and continue to advance the cause towards greater efficiency, but now engineers are looking to make changes to other parts of vehicles as well.

One area is the transmission. For example, the Detroit Integrated Powertrain Transmission has various sensors and controllers installed that improve engine performance by having the transmission communicate with the engine. The designers and engineers behind the technology believe these changes to the vehicle’s powertrain can help its engine produce power more efficiently. A variety of different functions exist, including one called eCoast which can sense what sort of terrain the vehicle is traveling on and then change engine rpm based on that data. When more power is needed, the engine rpms go back up to produce that power. Another function known as Skip Shift changes how the vehicle shifts through its gears while accelerating. Brian Daniels, manager of Detroit Powertrain and Components, explains that instead of a vehicle starting in first gear, then climbing from first gear to second, then from second to third, etc., Skip Shift technology can determine which gear the vehicle has the ability to start in. Daniels asserts that this technology can reduce the time and power needed to get up to speed which can ultimately save fuel.

Another change to traditional vehicle design is in the axles; specifically in their ratio design. Engineers and designers are looking to improve axle ratios in the hopes of improving fuel economy and efficiency. They assert that faster axle ratios enable vehicle engines to down-speed.  This means that the vehicle can maintain highway speeds at lower engine rpms and therefore consume less fuel without sacrificing functionality.

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Airfare or Cab Fare? How About Both?

There may soon be a new way to take a cab from point A to point B: through the air. A subsidiary of Boeing – Aurora Flight Sciences – tested its first autonomous personal air vehicle (PAV) in January and during the test, the PAV successfully executed its takeoff, hovering, and landing. The aircraft was not operated by a pilot but had two dummies sitting in the cockpit. The PAV is powered by an electric propulsion system that consists of 8 lift motors and a cruise propeller in the back. When it is launched, it is expected to be able to travel up to 50 miles in one flight. Boeing’s hope is to produce autonomous electric air vehicles that will be cleaner and quieter than aircraft vehicles that are currently available.

An amazing feature of the PAV is its ability to hover, conduct forward motion, and switch off between the two during flight. Ideally, air taxis will be able to lift passengers straight up off the ground, hover when necessary, and fly them to wherever they need to go. The idea of taking an airborne taxi sounds like something reserved for top executives and millionaires but this business concept is modeled on the same ride-sharing services that Uber and Lyft use. In fact, Uber has stated that it hopes to provide air taxi service in Dallas and Los Angeles as soon as 2023.

The concept of autonomous air vehicles is not new to Aurora Flight Sciences. Since its inception in 1989, Aurora has produced more than 30 autonomous air vehicles, including an autonomous cargo system for the United States Marines. This is especially useful to Marines when they find themselves in dangerous environments that make it difficult for traditional aircraft to penetrate.

Other aerospace manufacturers are working alongside Aurora to design and produce autonomous air vehicles, including Bell Helicopter and Airbus. Airbus is currently working to execute the first flight of is CityAirbus which will carry up to 4 passengers.

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New Fighter Pilot Technology Saves Lives

Auto-GCAS stands for Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System and plays an important role in safety for fighter pilots when they enter into combat. According to the Society of Automotive Engineers, a large number of fatal accidents happen on the ground, or what is often referred to as Controlled Flight into Terrain (CFIT). Due to the high-level of collisions both mid-level air and on the ground, the Defense Safety Oversight Council (DSOC) partnered with the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) to design a way to keep fighter pilots safer and less prone to CFIT. The result is the implementation of Auto-GCAS on F-16 Fighting Falcons and the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lighting II aircraft.

A number of different factors can cause CFIT including unconsciousness and distraction and – until Auto-GCAS – pilots had no way to combat or prevent CFIT. The F-16 and the F-35 aircrafts now have Auto-GCAS to fight the dangers of CFIT and to reduce the number of related incidents. It does so through intricate algorithms and what is referred to as a digital terrain database; in other words, the technology can detect an impending crash, take control of the aircraft, and completely avoid contact with the imminent terrain. Specifically, SAE mentions that once the Auto-GCAS system determines that a crash is inevitable, it takes control, rolls to wings level, and executes a 5g pull until the aircraft clears the terrain.

Mark Wilkins and Finley Barfield received the prestigious Robert J. Collier Trophy from the National Aeronautic Association for their contribution to Auto-GCAS systems. SAE notes that since the F-16 was equipped with Auto-GCAS in 2014, seven airplanes and eight pilots have been saved. The hope is that further integration and innovation will take place, including further implementation of automatic air collision avoidance systems, implementation of ground/air collision avoidance systems and ways to implement Auto-GCAS into larger aircraft and unmanned aerial machines.

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Automakers Implement Automatic Emergency Braking

According to the United States Department of Transportation and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 10 vehicle manufacturers equipped more than 50% of their vehicles with automatic emergency braking (AEB) between 2017 and 2018. This is a significant increase from the previous year and proves how seriously the auto industry views vehicle and road safety. AEB systems are a form of crash avoidance technology that the NHTSA believes will significantly enhance vehicle safety on the roads. In fact, according to studies conducted by IIHS, vehicles equipped with AEB systems reduce rear-end accidents resulting in injuries by approximately 50%. Further, their studies showed that rear-end crashes involving third-party injuries were reduced by 59%. The technology works by detecting an object in front of the car using a variety of sensors and cameras. When the system detects an object, it alerts the driver but if the driver does not respond fast enough, the system takes over and applies the brakes instead.

The implementation of AEB systems by automakers is completely voluntary and part of a commitment made by 20 manufacturers to have crash avoidance technology installed in all passenger vehicles by 2022. The manufacturers who committed include Audi, BMW, Fiat Chrysler, Ford, General motors, Honda, Hyundai, Jaguar Land Rover, Kia, Maserati, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi Motors, Nissan, Porsche, Subaru, Tesla Motors, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Volvo. The underlying goal in implementing crash avoidance technology is to increase driver safety, decrease accident-related injuries, and prevent accidents from happening in the first place. In other words, many are hopeful that AEB and similar technology will help make roads and overall driving safer. Based on research, IIHS estimates that this particular effort will prevent nearly 30,000 crashes by 2025.

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NASA Crash Tests Airliner

NASA just crash-tested a full-size commercial airliner in an attempt to learn more about crash-worthiness of large aircraft. The crash test, which drew a large crowd of spectators, happened at the NASA Langley Research Center’s Landing and Impact Research Facility (LandIR) – also known as “the gantry”. The aircraft used for the test was a Fokker F28 jet, which was dropped into the landing target from a height of approximately 150 feet in the air. The Fokker F28 was outfitted with many state of the art sensors designed to capture as much data as possible from the crash. The Fokker F28 was also painted in a special pattern that made the aircraft look a lot like a black and white spotted leopard. The black spots on the fuselage and wings of the plane were painted on the F28 to assist in determining the damage assocated to each component during the impact with the earth. High-tech cameras outfitted around the research facility are designed to capture many frames of data as the aircraft falls, and the spots assist in determining aircraft crush associated with the crash landing forces. Seated inside the Fokker F28 airliner were many crash test dummies, or more specifically Warrior Injury Assessment Manikin (WIAMan) from the US Army. These specialized crash test dummies are equipped with force sensors that model the impact severities present to the airliner passengers during the crash. The purpose of this crash is to begin to learn about crash worthiness of airliners. The Federal Aviation Administration is in the process of establishing standards for aircraft crash worthiness for large aircraft in an attempt to design safer, more resilient commercial aircraft. Previous crash tests simply dropped aircraft from a vertical position, and this particular impact allowed the aircraft to sail from a sideways position into the crash landing site. The test will allow researchers the ability to define shortcomings in aircraft design so that they can be improved upon, resulting in a much safer aircraft of the future.

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Boeing To Fix Their 737 Aircraft

Boeing has been in the news recently amid the issues that have been plaguing their aircraft. Their 737 MAX commercial aircraft in particular has been the victim of a couple of serious crashes, resulting in a lot of bad press for Boeing and a lack of consumer confidence in their aircraft. What caused the 737 MAX aircraft to crash? The United States Government is working on releasing official reports on the two accidents and the preliminary report on the accident that occurred on Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 has been released. Results from the preliminary report show that the airplane’s Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, otherwise known as MCAS, inadvertently activated in response to incorrect signals from the aircraft’s flight angle of attack information. The aircraft’s angle of attack, a key factor in keeping an aircraft afloat in the air, is closely monitored by the 737’s Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System and the MCAS is supposed to activate under certain conditions or if the angle of attack reaches certain thresholds. The preliminary reports show that incorrect activation of the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System caused a situation where the flight’s pilots in command were unable to compensate for, ultimately resulting in the aircraft crashes. Pilots are typically under significant stress during flying as it is, and counteracting an improperly functioning system such as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System can quickly overwhelm the pilot to the point of crashing. In an attempt to counteract the improperly functioning Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, Boeing plans to roll out a software update which will allow the pilots to safely overcome the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System and manually control the airplane should a system failure happen again. It is unclear as to when Boeing will release the software updates, however they are currently testing the software updates in demo flights.

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New Drone Concepts From CES 2019

During the CES 2019 show in Las Vegas earlier this year, there were many different drone manufacturers displaying the newest technologies used in air travel. Drones are taking over many realms that were otherwise thought as unachievable. Amazon has been working with drones for years in order to develop a new method for shipment deliveries. Their work towards this goal has been met with much criticism due to the obvious obstacles that must be overcome, however the progress that Amazon has made has spurred other concepts for new technology. During the CES show, for example, there were manufacturers who were displaying autonomous taxi drones that are capable of carrying human passengers for relatively short distances. These drone taxis, such as the Bell Nexus, use vertical take off and landing technology and a high payload capacity to carry 5 passengers up to 150 miles in distance. While Bell originally planned for the Nexus to be flown by a pilot, new drone technology has made it possible to make the Nexus completely autonomous and capable of flying itself from one point to the next. The idea of aerial autonomous taxi services has caught the attention of ride share companies such as Uber. In fact, Uber has partnered with Bell to help promote the Nexus as a new vehicle for passenger transportation. While Uber has high hopes for the futuristic autonomous taxi drone technology, there are many obvious safety and legal concerns involved with developing this technology. For one, drones in general have become very well regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration because they are becoming so prevalent. Improper drone flights that pose safety hazards to manned aircraft are also becoming more prevalent and the reputation for drones in general is not a positive one. Because of the increase in regulations, new concepts for autonomous drones will require strict testing to ensure that passengers on drone taxis as well as other manned aircraft remain safe during flight. It will likely be quite a while before this technology sees commercial operation. However, regardless of the obstacles, companies like Bell and Uber are very optimistic that the future of passenger transportation will be accomplished by unmanned autonomous vehicles.

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