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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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Low-cost wireless sport earphones get a kickstart

Wireless earphone brands are common, but not crowdfunded brands. BRYAN TURNER takes the K Sport Wireless for a run.

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As wireless technology becomes better, Bluetooth earphones have become popular in the consumer market. KuaiFit aspires to make them even more accessible to more people through a cheaper, quality product, by selling the K Sport Wireless Earphones directly from its Kickstarter page

KuaiFit has an app by the same name which offers voice-guided personal training services in almost every type of exercise, from cardio to weight-lifting. A vast range of connectivity to third-party sensors is available, like heart rate sensors and GPS devices, which work well with guided coaching. 

The app starts off with selecting a fitness level: beginner, intermediate and advanced. Thereafter, one has the ability to connect with real personal trainers via a subscription to its paid service. The subscription comes free for 6 months with the earphones, and R30 per month thereafter. 

The box includes a manual, a USB to two USB Type B connectors, different sized soft plastic eartips and the two earphone units. Each earphone is wireless and connects to the other independently of wires. This puts the K Sport Wireless in the realm of the Apple Earpods in terms of connection style. 

The earphones are just over 2cm wide and 2cm high. The set is black with a light blue KuaiFit logo on the earphone’s button. 

The button functions as an on/off switch when long-pressed and a play/pause button when quick-pressed. The dual-button set-up is convenient in everyday use, allowing for playback control depending on which hand is free. Two connectivity modes are available, single earphone mode or dual earphone mode. The dual earphone mode intelligently connects the second earphone and syncs stereo audio a few seconds after powering on. 

In terms of connectivity, the earphones are Bluetooth 4.1 with a massive 10-meter range, provided there are no obstacles between the device and the earphones. While it’s not Bluetooth 5, it still falls into the Bluetooth Low Energy connection category, meaning that the smartphone’s battery won’t be drastically affected by a consistent connection to the earphones. The batteries within the earphones aren’t specifically listed but last anywhere between 3 and 6 hours, depending on the mode. 

Audio quality is surprisingly good for earphones at this price point. The headset style is restricted to in-ear due to its small design and probable usage in movement-intensive activities. As a result, one has to be very careful how one puts these earphones, in because bass has the potential of getting reduced from an incorrect in-ear placement. In-ear earphones are usually notorious for ear discomfort and suction pain after extended usage. These earphones are one of the very few in this price range that are comfortable and don’t cause discomfort. The good quality of the soft plastic ear tip is definitely a factor in the high level of comfort of the in-ear earphone experience.

Overall, the K Sport Wireless earphones are great considering the sound quality and the low price: US$30 on Kickstarter.

Find them on Kickstarter here.

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Taxify enters Google Maps

A recent update to Taxify now uses Google Maps which allows users to identify their drivers, find public transport and search for billing options.

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People planning their travel routes using Google Maps will now see a Taxify icon in the app, in addition to the familiar car, public transport, walking and billing options.

Taxify started operating in South Africa in 2016 and as of October 2018 operates in seven South African cities – Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni, Tshwane, Cape Town, Durban, Port Elizabeth and Polokwane.

Once riders have searched for their destination and asked the app for directions, Google Maps shares the proximity of cars on the Taxify platform, as well as an estimated fare for the trip.

If users see that taking the Taxify option is their best bet, they can simply tap on the ‘Open app’ icon, to complete the process of booking the ride. Customers without the app on their device will be prompted to install Taxify first.

This integration makes it possible for users to evaluate which of the private, public or e-hailing modes of transport are most time-efficient and cost-effective.

“This integration with Google Maps makes it so much easier for users to choose the best way to move around their city,” says Gareth Taylor, Taxify’s country manager for South Africa. “They’ll have quick comparisons between estimated arrival times for the different modes of transport, as well as fares they can expect to pay, which will help save both time and money,” he added.

Taxify rides in Google Maps are rolling out globally today and will be available in more than 15 countries, with South Africa being one of the first countries to benefit from this convenient service.

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