Home >Opinion >Cars with digital cockpits may soon become a reality
Uber has signed an agreement with Nasa to develop systems for managing low-altitude flying cars to replace taxis. Photo: Reuters
Uber has signed an agreement with Nasa to develop systems for managing low-altitude flying cars to replace taxis. Photo: Reuters

Cars with digital cockpits may soon become a reality

Flying cars, in fact, routinely feature in sci-fi movies. Outside the realm of science fiction, too, quite a few companies are attempting this challenging engineering feat

Have you ever wondered that if planes and helicopters can fly, why can’t cars take to the air? 

Flying cars, in fact, routinely feature in sci-fi movies like Batman, Star Wars, Back to the Future, Fifth Element and Blade Runner 2049. Outside the realm of science fiction, too, quite a few companies are attempting this challenging engineering feat.

The Airbus Group, for instance, is working on a project called Vahana that will use graphics processing unit (GPU)-powered autonomous air taxis that will not need a runway, are self-piloted, and can automatically detect and avoid obstacles and other aircraft. It is designed to carry a single passenger or a load of cargo along short distances. (bit.ly/2quD8ip)

Taxi technology company Uber Technologies Inc., too, has signed an agreement with National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) to develop systems for managing low-altitude flying cars to replace taxis. It hopes to begin tests by 2020 and have the airborne ride industry in rude health in time for the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles, according to a report in The Independent.

Samson Motorworks’s flagship product is the Switchblade—a multi-mode vehicle that both drives and flies. Of course, you will need a pilot’s licence to fly the car in the air.

The company plans to sell the vehicle for $120,000 apiece in the US sometime this year. The cost includes the Switchblade Kit, a 190hp liquid-cooled V4 engine, transmission, VFR avionics package, and interiors. The company also has a Samson Builder Assist programme that allows customers to assemble the Switchblade “in as little as three weeks full time, with pro help at every assembly line station". This programme costs an additional $20,000. 

According to the Samson Motorworks’s website, the Switchblade will be registered as an “experimental homebuilt aircraft" in the air. On the ground, it will be registered as a “custom motorcycle or kit car, depending on where you live". The Switchblade can fly at an altitude of 13,000 feet and at a top speed of 200mph (320km/h) and is fitted with a parachute.

Further, during the Intel Inc., keynote at Consumer Electronics Show 2018 in January in Las Vegas, German Air Taxi company Volocopter took Intel CEO Brian Krzanich as the very first passenger of a Volocopter. The flying vehicle takes advantage of Intel technology, including flight control solutions with redundancy and safety features. It has dozens of microprocessors to monitor the environment for turbulences, winds, etc., sending signals in milliseconds to the rotors.

Of course, most of these flying vehicles resemble planes and helicopters rather than cars. Further, it may be a few years before we see them commercially operating since it would involve the laying down of new policies and guidelines for regulation of these vehicles and traffic management.

Nevertheless, there is a lot of activity on the ground too in the context of automated driving. If research Gartner Inc. gets its forecast right, about one in five vehicles on the road worldwide will have some form of wireless network connection by 2020, amounting to more than 250 million connected vehicles.

Consider the case of the maker of 3D printed cars, Local Motors, which introduced Olli in 2016. It is a self-driving vehicle that taps the power of IBM Watson to sport a “cognitive rider interface".

Japan Times reported on 12 January that Nissan Motor Co., NTT Docomo Inc., Oki Electric Industry Co., Germany’s Continental AG, Sweden’s Ericsson and Qualcomm Inc., will begin a pilot to evaluate “the reliability of communications technologies for networking cars in Japan this year".

In September, Qualcomm introduced its 9150 Cellular Vehicle-to-Everything (C-V2X) chipset that combines long-term evolution (LTE) network connectivity. The trials are aimed at demonstrating the range, reliability and latency benefits of C-V2X when operated in the 5GHz band.

Similarly, Samsung and Harman unveiled a new concept in connected car technology on 10 January at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). The so-called “digital cockpit platform" combines 5G technology and an internet of things (IoT) platform to provide a connected car experience.

Ford Motor Co., which has invested in Palo Alto-based Autonomic, is developing the Ford Transportation Mobility Cloud in a bid to “connect cities and cars together". In India, Maruti Suzuki offers the Apple CarPlay features in cars while Ford has smart in-car systems. 

The Mahindra Group, too, allows users of its sport utility vehicles to connect to their SUVs using a free smartphone called Blue Sense (available for Android and iOS). Users are able to control the air-conditioning and audio functions, and also monitor real-time vehicle information including tyre pressure, fuel economy, and more.

According to Navigant Research, General Motors, Waymo, Daimler-Bosch, Ford and the Volkswagen Group are the top five companies developing automated driving systems. Elon Musk-owned Tesla Inc., though, is ranked 10th.

All Tesla vehicles with Enhanced Autopilot, for instance, include features like an improved Autosteer on highways, a Summon feature (in Beta) that allows you to park and retrieve your vehicle, the ability to change lanes with “Auto lane change", traffic-aware cruise control, automatic emergency braking, automatic high beams, parallel Autopark, blind spot detection and speed assist.

To be sure, security is a major challenge that manufacturers face in the context of connected cars.

According to a 20 February, 2017, note by Kaspersky Lab researchers titled, Connected cars: who controls your car without you knowing, all the applications for the remote control of cars from several famous car manufacturers “contain a number of security issues that can potentially allow criminals to cause significant damage for connected car owners".

To protect their cars and private data from possible cyberattacks, Kaspersky Lab researchers advise users not to root—a technology term for the process that allows users to attain root access to the Android operating system code—their Android devices; to disable the ability to install applications from sources other than official app stores; to keep the OS version of the device up to date; and install a proven security solution.

Respond to this column at leslie.d@livemint.com

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