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“Greetings! I’m from the future”

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While most auto makers wrestle with the future of cars, BMW has delivered an experience from the future with the BMW i8, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK, as he explores the technology of the vehicle.

It’s hard to resist the temptation, when stepping out of a BMW i8, to declare to the gaping bystanders: “Greetings! I’m from the future.”

It’s a car that makes the legendary DeLorean DMC-12 from the Back to the Future movies look positively 20th century. The “scissor doors” aren’t quite the gull-wings of the DeLorean, but that also makes it all the more sleek and practical. The latter is not, however, a word that one would typically associate with the i8.

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With a price starting at around R1,8-million, the car is aimed at people for whom money is no object, and for whom the experience is everything. But it is also proof that a production vehicle coming off the assembly lines can deliver the futuristic performance and experience that is usually associated with concept cars displayed only at motor shows.

They call it a “plug-in hybrid”, which means it has a petrol engine as well as an electric motor that can be recharged from a regular wall socket.  The rear-wheel drive petrol engine has a range of up to about 500km, depending on driving mode: Sport, Comfort and ECO PRO modes speak for themselves.

In pure electric mode, it has a range of up to 27km only, but the battery can be topped up while in Sports mode, thanks to “energy recuperation” which sees kinetic energy transferred from the brakes, among other sources, to the generator. The impact of advanced technology reveals itself most dramatically, however, in the vehicle’s startling fuel efficiency: 2,1L per 100km, when using a combination of electric and petrol engine. That’s less than a third of the consumption of some of the most fuel-efficient “normal” cars on the road.

BMW has installed quick-charge facilities around the country, and a built-in mapping option directs the driver to the nearest one when needed. It has an agreement with Nissan to standardise charging technology and collaborate in installing interoperable charge points for the Nissan Leaf, BMW i3 and the i8.

Let’s climb aboard.  But wait! First, download the app onto your smartphone or tablet.

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The BMW i Remote app is available for Android and iOS devices. From the app, the vehicle can be locked or unlocked remotely – via the Internet, rather than infrared, so one can do it from the other side of the world. The air conditioner can also be activated remotely before you reach it, a particularly welcome feature when the car has been standing in the hot sun for a while. Control of doors, windows, trunk, and lighting is all accessible via the app.

The car doors are heavy, but lift and close easily. The only discomfort is having to lower oneself into the car rear-first. It’s not difficult to get used to, but not especially elegant for anyone wearing a dress, for example. And certainly not for those who have back or movement trouble.

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And then the magic begins. It’s not so much the luxurious leather interior or the chrome finishes or even the sheer comfort of the reclining seats with their multiple controls.  The blue-lit lines and futuristic sound-effects when the car is activated – “start” is such an inadequate word to describe it – combine with the information-rich dashboard and 8.8-inch control display to suggest words like “spaceship” and “future” and “desire”.

The one negative is the navigational option on the control display. Not only is it fairly standard, but is even clunky. Destination choice uses a rotary system for choosing an address letter-by-letter. The voice recognition system should get round the painfulness of the system, but it results in the typical kind of voice-wrestling one associates with systems designed for American accents.

That said, BMW has reinvented even this option. Prior to a trip, one can visit the company’s Connected Drive portal and use its mapping system to find an address, and then send the address to the car. This means one simply opens the message from the menu on the control display and approves the destination.

And this is where the future truly arrives. The vehicle uses a subtle heads-up display system to beam both vehicle speed and current speed limit onto the windscreen, just below where one’s eyes would be focused on the road. If navigation has been activated, a streamlined version of map guidance appears on the windscreen, alongside the speed.  In direct contrast to the chunkiness of the control display navigation, the image provides dazzling clarity: distance to turn, action required and an uncluttered diagram of any intersection where the turn has to be made. Think Minority Report without the gesture control.

The heads-up display symbolizes the advanced technology of the car. One might call it a smartphone on wheels, but few smartphones are this smart. While your phone may sport Siri or Google Now or Cortana voice assistance, the i8 provides a real-life Concierge option: activate it, and a human being comes online to answer questions about destinations, attractions or facilities. Typically, the mapping coordinates are then emailed directly to the car, the option is selected, and map guidance begins.

In an emergency, a single Help button on the dashboard instantly dials an emergency call centre. If the car is in an accident and the airbags deploy, a signal is sent to the call centre, which calls back to see if help is needed. If there is no response, an emergency vehicle is immediately despatched.

The driving experience is magnificent. BMW uses the slogan “Magnetism not required to feel the force of attraction”, which sound meaningless until one takes a curve at normal driving speed. It feels as if the vehicle has attached itself to the road surface with Velcro, but without slowing down.

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The i8 is constructed from carbon fibre, plastic and aluminium, meaning it is ultra-lightweight and therefore highly responsive to controls. The material doesn’t make it unsafe either: carbon fibre surrounds the passenger area, creating what is called a “Life module” which, along with airbags, gives passengers maximum protection.

The weight also contributes to the vehicle’s fuel efficiency, and allows for a maximum speed – in petrol mode – of 250km/h. Acceleration is astounding: 0-100km/h in 4.4 seconds.

The aerodynamics of the vehicle are also key to its performance. It resembles nothing less than a Batmobile, with its sleek lines, low structure – what BMW refers to as a “flat silhouette” – and handleless doors. That low centre of gravity also provides the Velcro experience on curves.

Ultimately, the defining feature of the vehicle is the experience of being transported into the future. This is what one imagines the vehicles of tomorrow could deliver to all drivers.

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It is no wonder that the i8 attracts stares of delight, shock and even horror wherever it goes and whenever it stops. It is little wonder that people almost believe you for a moment when you lift open the door, step out and declare: “Greetings! I’m from the future.”

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

Cars

Project Bloodhound saved

The British project to break the world landspeed record at a site in the Northern Cape has been saved by a new backer, after it went into bankruptcy proceedings in October.

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Two weeks ago,  and two months after entering voluntary administration, the Bloodhound Programme Limited announced it was shutting down. This week it announced that its assets, including the Bloodhound Supersonic Car (SSC), had been acquired by an enthusiastic – and wealthy – supporter.

“We are absolutely delighted that on Monday 17th December, the business and assets were bought, allowing the Project to continue,” the team said in a statement.

“The acquisition was made by Yorkshire-based entrepreneur Ian Warhurst. Ian is a mechanical engineer by training, with a strong background in managing a highly successful business in the automotive engineering sector, so he will bring a lot of expertise to the Project.”

Warhurst and his family, says the team, have been enthusiastic Bloodhound supporters for many years, and this inspired his new involvement with the Project.

“I am delighted to have been able to safeguard the business and assets preventing the project breakup,” he said. “I know how important it is to inspire young people about science, technology, engineering and maths, and I want to ensure Bloodhound can continue doing that into the future.

“It’s clear how much this unique British project means to people and I have been overwhelmed by the messages of thanks I have received in the last few days.”

The record attempt was due to be made late next year at Hakskeen Pan in the Kalahari Desert, where retired pilot Andy Green planned to beat the 1228km/h land-speed record he set in the United States in 1997. The target is for Bloodhound to become the first car to reach 1000mph (1610km/h). A track 19km long and 500 metres wide has been prepared, with members of the local community hired to clear 16 000 tons of rock and stone to smooth the surface.

The team said in its announcement this week: “Although it has been a frustrating few months for Bloodhound, we are thrilled that Ian has saved Bloodhound SSC from closure for the country and the many supporters around the world who have been inspired by the Project. We now have a lot of planning to do for 2019 and beyond.”

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Motor Racing meets Machine Learning

The futuristic car technology of tomorrow is being built today in both racing cars and
toys, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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The car of tomorrow, most of us imagine, is being built by the great automobile manufacturers of the world. More and more, however, we are seeing information technology companies joining the race to power the autonomous vehicle future.

Last year, chip-maker Intel paid $15.3-billion to acquire Israeli company Mobileye, a leader in computer vision for autonomous driving technology. Google’s autonomous taxi division, Waymo, has been valued at $45-billion.

Now there’s a new name to add to the roster of technology giants driving the future.

DeepRacer on the inside

Amazon Web Services, the world’s biggest cloud computing service and a subsidiary of Amazon.com,  last month unveiled a scale model autonomous racing car for developers to build new artificial intelligence applications. Almost in the same breath, at its annual re:Invent conference in Las Vegas, it showcased the work being done with machine learning in Formula 1 racing.

AWS DeepRacer is a 1/18th scale fully autonomous race car, designed to incorporate the features and behaviour of a full-sized vehicle. It boasts all-wheel drive, monster truck tires, an HD video camera, and on-board computing power. In short, everything a kid would want of a self-driving toy car.

But then, it also adds everything a developer would need to make the car autonomous in ways that, for now, can only be imagined. It uses a new form of machine learning (ML), the technology that allows computer systems to improve their functions progressively as they receive feedback from their activities. ML is at the heart of artificial intelligence (AI), and will be core to autonomous, self-driving vehicles.

AWS has taken ML a step further, with an approach called reinforcement learning. This allows for quicker development of ML models and applications, and DeepRacer is designed to allow developers to experiment with and hone their skill in this area. It is built on top of another AWS platform, called Amazon SageMaker, which enables developers and data scientists to build, train, and deploy machine learning quickly and easily.

Along with DeepRacer, AWS also announced the DeepRacer League, the world’s first global autonomous racing league, open to anyone who orders the scale model from AWS.

DeepRacer on the outside

As if to prove that DeepRacer is not just a quirky entry into the world of motor racing, AWS also showcased the work it is doing with the Formula One Group. Ross Brawn, Formula 1’s managing director of Motor Sports, joined AWS CEO Andy Jassy during the keynote address at the re:Invent conference, to demonstrate how motor racing meets machine learning.

“More than a million data points a second are transmitted between car and team during a Formula 1 race,” he said. “From this data, we can make predictions about what we expect to happen in a wheel-to-wheel situation, overtaking advantage, and pit stop advantage. ML can help us apply a proper analysis of a situation, and also bring it to fans.

“Formula 1 is a complete team contest. If you look at a video of tyre-changing in a pit stop – it takes 1.6 seconds to change four wheels and tyres – blink and you will miss it. Imagine the training that goes into it? It’s also a contest of innovative minds.”

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Formula 1 racing has more than 500 million global fans and generated $1.8 billion in revenue in 2017. As a result, there are massive demands on performance, analysis and information. 

During a race, up to 120 sensors on each car generate up to 3GB of data and 1 500 data points – every second. It is impossible to analyse this data on the fly without an ML platform like Amazon SageMaker. It has a further advantage: the data scientists are able to incorporate 65 years of historical race data to compare performance, make predictions, and provide insights into the teams’ and drivers’ split-second decisions and strategies.

This means Formula 1 can pinpoint how a driver is performing and whether or not drivers have pushed themselves over the limit.

“By leveraging Amazon SageMaker and AWS’s machine-learning services, we are able to deliver these powerful insights and predictions to fans in real time,” said Pete Samara, director of innovation and digital technology at Formula 1.

  • 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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