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Automated cars still ancestor to autonomous

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A tragedy involving an Tesla S car was as much a warning as a sign of things to come, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK, pointing to the Volvo XC90 as the current state of the automated art.

The very latest technology available in cars today is not the culmination of 130 years of vehicle evolution, but the beginning of the next era in that evolution. The most high-tech cars on the road today can be described as the ancestors of the next generation of self-driving vehicles.

It may strange to describe the very latest in terms we usually reserve for the distant past. However, this is the inescapable conclusion from a fatal car accident involving an automated Tesla S in May this year, and the features available in cutting edge cars right now.

Tesla’s own description of the accident tells us much about the current state of automated technology: “What we know is that the vehicle was on a divided highway with Autopilot engaged when a tractor trailer drove across the highway perpendicular to the Model S. Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied.”

The Tesla Model S

The Tesla Model S

The fact is that the Tesla S technology is more about auto-pilot than self-driving, meaning it is still a rudimentary form of self-driving. The motor industry understands this, and there have been few protests about the technology that “caused” the accident from that quarter. The media response, on the other hand, has been close to hysteria, with the normally sober Wall Street Journal declaring: “Scant Oversight of Self-Driving Technology”.

However, the fact that there is one single death from an auto-piloted vehicle can hardly be described as a setback for the evolution of self-driving cars, when autonomous vehicle technology is being researched, developed and evolved continually. The industry acknowledges that it is still at an early stage of its development.

Cockpit view of the Tesla Model S

Cockpit view of the Tesla Model S

None understand this better than Tesla itself, which warned: “When drivers activate Autopilot, the acknowledgment box explains, among other things, that Autopilot ‘is an assist feature that requires you to keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times,’ and that ‘you need to maintain control and responsibility for your vehicle’ while using it.”

One of the key consequences of the incident is that such warnings will become more heavily emphasised. Law enforcement will also probably step in, taking action against drivers who don’t have hands on wheels.

However, this misses a key issue.

We have evidence day after day, hour after hour, that human-driven cars are not safe. More than 35 000 people died in the USA last year as a result of being in accidents caused by human-driven cars. Not a mention of banning humans from driving cars.

We will see autopilot type functions increasingly built into cars. The technology will keep evolving and keep improving.

For example, right now, the Volvo XC90 car being sold in South Africa offers automated functions like Pilot Assist, which maintains a set speed or distance to the car in front, and Queue Assist, which controls acceleration, braking and steering while one is following the vehicle in front in slow-moving queues. One wouldn’t rely on ether of these to take over the driving, merely to assist with a smoother and safer ride.

Volvo XC90

Volvo XC90

Next year, Volvo will begin tests with select XC90 drivers using its IntelliSafe Autopilot technology, which is equivalent to Tesla’s Autopilot . The tests will at first be limited to Sweden, on roads with no pedestrians and clear separation between lanes.

Meanwhile, the current XC90 available in South Africa – the country’s Car of the Year for 2016 – is a showcase of the state of mainstream vehicle automation.

Interior of the Volvo XC90

Interior of the Volvo XC90

The City Safety collision avoidance system scans the road ahead for vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists. During testing by this writer, a momentary distraction that resulted in a suddenly reduced following distance activated an audible alarm that prevented a collision. Had there been no reaction, autobraking would have been applied to avoid or minimise impact.

A Lane Departure Warning System causes the steering wheel to vibrate if the vehicle beings to stray out of its lane without the indicator being activated. A Blind Spot Information System uses radar sensors to alert one to to traffic around the vehicle if one does plan to change lanes.

Driver Alert Control picks up drowsy or inattentive driving through comparing current driving with usual driving and prompts the driver to take a break.

A Road Sign Information system even warns, for example, when one ignores No Overtaking, speed limit reduction and No entry signs. The warnings appear in a heads-up display that is projected unobtrusively onto the windscreen in front of the driver.

All of these are futuristic experiences that will one day be standard in most vehicles, the way safety belts and airbags are today. Volvo’s target is that, by 2020, there will be no serious injuries or fatalities in a Volvo car. That, coincidentally, is also the target date for most manufacturers putting self-driving cars on the road.

Meanwhile, the technology from the future that we are using today comes with one overriding safety instruction: the driver still bears ultimate responsibility for safe driving.

* Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

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When will we stop calling them phones?

If you don’t remember when phones were only used to talk to people, you may wonder why we still use this term for handsets, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK, on the eve of the 10th birthday of the app.

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Do you remember when handsets were called phones because, well, we used them to phone people?

It took 120 years from the invention of the telephone to the use of phones to send text.

Between Alexander Graham Bell coining the term “telephone” in 1876 and Finland’s two main mobile operators allowing SMS messages between consumers in 1995, only science fiction writers and movie-makers imagined instant communication evolving much beyond voice. Even when BlackBerry shook the business world with email on a phone at the end of the last century, most consumers were adamant they would stick to voice.

It’s hard to imagine today that the smartphone as we know it has been with us for less than 10 years. Apple introduced the iPhone, the world’s first mass-market touchscreen phone, in June 2007, but it is arguable that it was the advent of the app store in July the following year that changed our relationship with phones forever.

That was the moment when the revolution in our hands truly began, when it became possible for a “phone” to carry any service that had previously existed on the World Wide Web.

Today, most activity carried out by most people on their mobile devices would probably follow the order of social media in first place – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn all jostling for attention – and  instant messaging in close second, thanks to WhatsApp, Messenger, SnapChat and the like. Phone calls – using voice that is – probably don’t even take third place, but play fourth or fifth fiddle to mapping and navigation, driven by Google Maps and Waze, and transport, thanks to Uber, Taxify, and other support services in South Africa like MyCiti,  Admyt and Kaching.

Despite the high cost of data, free public Wi-Fi is also seeing an explosion in use of streaming video – whether Youtube, Netflix, Showmax, or GETblack – and streaming music, particularly with the arrival of Spotify to compete with Simfy Africa.

Who has time for phone calls?

The changing of the phone guard in South Africa was officially signaled last week with the announcement of Vodacom’s annual results. Voice revenue for the 2018 financial year ending 31 March had fallen by 4.6%, to make up 40.6% of Vodacom’s revenue. Total revenue had grown by 8.1%, which meant voice seriously underperformed the group, and had fallen by 4% as a share of revenue, from 2017’s 44.6%.

The reason? Data had not only outperformed the group, increasing revenue by 12.8%, but it had also risen from 39.7% to 42.8% of group revenue,

This means that data has not only outperformed voice for the first time – as had been predicted by World Wide Worx a year ago – but it has also become Vodacom’s biggest contributor to revenue.

That scenario is being played out across all mobile network operators. In the same way, instant messaging began destroying SMS revenues as far back as five years ago – to the extent that SMS barely gets a mention in annual reports.

Data overtaking voice revenues signals the demise of voice as the main service and key selling point of mobile network operators. It also points to mobile phones – let’s call them handsets – shifting their primary focus. Voice quality will remain important, but now more a subset of audio quality rather than of connectivity. Sound quality will become a major differentiator as these devices become primary platforms for movies and music.

Contact management, privacy and security will become critical features as the handset becomes the storage device for one’s entire personal life.

Integration with accessories like smartwatches and activity monitors, earphones and earbuds, virtual home assistants and virtual car assistants, will become central to the functionality of these devices. Why? Because the handsets will control everything else? Hardly.

More likely, these gadgets will become an extension of who we are, what we do and where we are. As a result, they must be context aware, and also context compatible. This means they must hand over appropriate functions to appropriate devices at the appropriate time. 

I need to communicate only using my earpiece? The handset must make it so. I have to use gesture control, and therefore some kind of sensor placed on my glasses, collar or wrist? The handset must instantly surrender its centrality.

There are numerous other scenarios and technology examples, many out of the pages of science fiction, that point to the changing role of the “phone”. The one thing that’s obvious is that it will be silly to call it a phone for much longer.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube
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MTN 5G test gets 520Mbps

MTN and Huawei have launched Africa’s first 5G field trial with an end-to-end Huawei 5G solution.

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The field trial demonstrated a 5G Fixed-Wireless Access (FWA) use case with Huawei’s 5G 28GHz mmWave Customer Premises Equipment (CPE) in a real-world environment in Hatfield Pretoria, South Africa. Speeds of 520Mbps downlink and 77Mbps uplink were attained throughout respectively.

“These 5G trials provide us with an opportunity to future proof our network and prepare it for the evolution of these new generation networks. We have gleaned invaluable insights about the modifications that we need to do on our core, radio and transmission network from these pilots. It is important to note that the transition to 5G is not just a flick of a switch, but it’s a roadmap that requires technical modifications and network architecture changes to ensure that we meet the standards that this technology requires. We are pleased that we are laying the groundwork that will lead to the full realisation of the boundless opportunities that are inherent in the digital world.” says Babak Fouladi, Group Chief Technology & Information Systems Officer, at MTN Group.

Giovanni Chiarelli, Chief Technology and Information Officer for MTN SA said: “Next generation services such as virtual and augmented reality, ultra-high definition video streaming, and cloud gaming require massive capacity and higher user data rates. The use of millimeter-wave spectrum bands is one of the key 5G enabling technologies to deliver the required capacity and massive data rates required for 5G’s Enhanced Mobile Broadband use cases. MTN and Huawei’s joint field trial of the first 5G mmWave Fixed-Wireless Access solution in Africa will also pave the way for a fixed-wireless access solution that is capable of replacing conventional fixed access technologies, such as fibre.”

“Huawei is continuing to invest heavily in innovative 5G technologies”, said Edward Deng, President of Wireless Network Product Line of Huawei. “5G mmWave technology can achieve unprecedented fiber-like speed for mobile broadband access. This trial has shown the capabilities of 5G technology to deliver exceptional user experience for Enhanced Mobile Broadband applications. With customer-centric innovation in mind, Huawei will continue to partner with MTN to deliver best-in-class advanced wireless solutions.”

“We are excited about the potential the technology will bring as well as the potential advancements we will see in the fields of medicine, entertainment and education. MTN has been investing heavily to further improve our network, with the recent “Best in Test” and MyBroadband best network recognition affirming this. With our focus on providing the South Africans with the best customer experience, speedy allocation of spectrum can help bring more of these technologies to our customers,” says Giovanni.

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