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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

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Meet Aston Martin F1’s incredible moving data centre

The Aston Martin Red Bull Racing team faces a great deal more IT challenges than your average enterprise as not many IT teams have to rebuild their data center 21 times each year and get it running it up in a matter of hours. Not many data centers are packed up and transported around the world by air and sea along with 45 tonnes of equipment. Not many IT technicians also have to perform a dual role as pit stop mechanic.

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The trackside garage at an F1 race is a tight working environment and a team of only two IT technicians face pressure from both the factory and trackside staff to get the trackside IT up and running very fast. Yet, despite all these pressures, Aston Martin Red Bull Racing do not have a cloud-led strategy. Instead they have chosen to keep all IT in house.

The reason for this is performance. F1 is arguably the ultimate performance sport. A walk round the team’s factory in Milton Keynes, England, makes it abundantly clear that the whole organization is hell bent on maximizing performance. 700 staff at the factory are all essentially dedicated to the creation of just two cars. The level of detail that is demanded in reaching peak performance is truly mind blowing. For example, one machine with a robotic arm that checks the dimensions of the components built at the factory is able to measure accuracy to a scale 10 times thinner than a human hair.

This quest for maximum performance, however, is hampered at every turn by the stringent rules from the F1 governing body – the FIA. Teams face restrictions on testing and technology usage in order to prevent the sport becoming an arms race. So, for example, pre-season track testing is limited to only 8 days. Furthermore, wind tunnel testing is only allowed with 60% scale models and wind tunnel-usage is balanced with the use of Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) software, essentially a virtual wind tunnel. Teams that overuse one, lose time with the other.

In order to maximize performance within uniquely difficult logistical and regulatory conditions, the Aston Martin Red Bull Racing team has had to deploy a very powerful and agile IT estate.

According to Neil Bailey, Head of IT Infrastructure, Enterprise Architecture and Innovation, their legacy trackside infrastructure was “creaking”. Before choosing hyperconverged infrastructure, their “traditional IT had reached its limits”, says Bailey. “When things reach their limits they break, just like a car,” adds Bailey.

The team’s biggest emphasis for switching to HPE’s hyperconverged infrastructure, SimpliVity, was performance. Now, with “the extra performance of SimpliVity, it means it doesn’t get to its limits,” says Bailey. HPE SimpliVity has helped reduce space, has optimized processing power and brought more agility.

One of the first and most important use cases they switched to hyperconverged infrastructure was post-processing trackside data. During a race weekend each car is typically fitted with over 100 sensors providing key data on things like tyre temperature and downforce multiple times per second. Processing this data and acting on the insights is key to driving performance improvements. With their legacy infrastructure, Bailey says they were “losing valuable track time during free practice waiting for data processing to take place.” Since switching to HPE SimpliVity, data processing has dropped from being more than 15 minutes to less than 5 minutes. Overall, the team has seen a 79% performance boost compared to the legacy architecture. This has allowed for real time race strategy analysis and has improved race strategy decision making.

Data insights helps the team stay one step ahead, as race strategy decisions are data driven. For example, real time tyre temperature data helps the team judge tyre wear and make pit stop decisions. Real time access to tyre data helped the team to victory at the 2018 Chinese Grand Prix as the Aston Martin Red Bull cars pitted ahead of the rest of the field and Daniel Ricciardo swept to a memorable victory.

Hyperconverged infrastructure is also well suited to the “hostile” trackside environment, according to Bailey. With hyperconverged infrastructure, only two racks are needed at each race of which SimpliVity only takes up about 20% of the space, thus freeing up key space in very restricted trackside garages. Furthermore, with the team limited to 60 staff at each race, only two of Bailey’s team can travel. The reduction in equipment and closer integration of HPE SimpliVity means engineers can get the trackside data center up and running quickly and allow trackside staff to start work as soon as they arrive.

Since seeing the notable performance gains from using hyperconverged infrastructure for trackside data processing, the team has also transitioned some of the factory’s IT estate over to HPE SimpliVity. This includes: Aerodynamic metrics, ERP system, SQL server, exchange server and the team’s software house, the Team Foundation Server.

As well as seeing huge performance benefits, HPE SimpliVity has significantly impacted the work patterns of Bailey’s team of just ten. According to Bailey, the biggest operational win from hyperconverged infrastructure is “freeing up engineers’ time from focusing on ‘business as usual’ to innovation.” Traditional IT took up too much of the engineers’ time monitoring systems and just keeping things running. Now with HPE SimpliVity, Bailey’s team can “give the business more and quicker” and “be more creative with how they use technology.”

Hyperconverged infrastructure has given Aston Martin Red Bull Racing the speed, scalability and agility they require without any need to turn to the cloud. It allows them to deliver more and more resources to trackside staff in an increasingly responsive manner. However, even with all these performance gains, Aston Martin Red Bull Racing has been able to reduce IT costs. So, the users are happy, the finance director is happy and the IT team are happy because their jobs are easier. Hyperconvergence is clearly the right choice for the unique challenges of Formula 1 racing.

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Body-tracking tech moves to assembly line

Technology typically used by the world’s top sport stars to raise their game, or ensure their signature skills are accurately replicated in leading video games, is now being used on an auto assembly line.

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Employees at Ford’s Valencia Engine Assembly Plant, in Spain, are using a special suit equipped with advanced body tracking technology. The pilot system, created by Ford and the Instituto Biomecánica de Valencia, has involved 70 employees in 21 work areas. 

Player motion technology usually records how athletes sprint or turn, enabling sport coaches or game developers to unlock the potential of sport stars in the real world or on screen. Ford is using it to design less physically stressful workstations for enhanced manufacturing quality.

“It’s been proven on the sports field that with motion tracking technology, tiny adjustments to the way you move can have a huge benefit,” said Javier Gisbert, production area manager, Ford Valencia Engine Assembly Plant. “For our employees, changes made to work areas using similar technology can ultimately ensure that, even on a long day, they are able to work comfortably.”

Engineers took inspiration from a suit they saw at a trade fair that demonstrated how robots could replicate human movement and then applied it to their workplace, where production of the  new Ford Transit Connect and 2.0-litre EcoBoost Duratec engines began this month.

The skin-tight suit consists of 15 tiny movement tracking light sensors connected to a wireless detection unit. The system tracks how the person moves at work, highlighting head, neck, shoulder and limb movements. Movement is recorded by four specialised motion-tracking cameras – similar to those usually paired with computer game consoles – placed near the worker and captured as a 3D skeletal character animation of the user.

Specially trained ergonomists then use the data to help employees align their posture correctly. Measurements captured by the system, such as an employee’s height or arm length, are used to design workstations, so they better fit employees. 

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