In Search Of Order..

Published Date
01 - Dec - 2006
| Last Updated
01 - Dec - 2006
In Search Of Order..

All of you reading this magazine do a myriad things with technology that just a decade ago you wouldn't have dreamt of. Technology has changed our lives, and we already know this.

Some things, however, just don't seem to change, at least not for the better!

Take driving your car for instance: sure you have a load of acronyms being advertised for cars today, which basically tell you there's technology going under the hood. But how much of it do you see? Anyone living in a big city in India will tell you that driving a car is becoming quite a painful experience. Traffic jams, pollution, rash drivers, state transport buses, truck drivers who have watched too much Formula 1-the list is never-ending. 



The Carma That Ran Over The Dogma
Never before has this funny quote held so much truth in it! Finally, a drastic change seems to be on the horizon, and the concept of the "car" might be overhauled completely sooner than you think!

Cars today are all nice and comfortable. They have computer-controlled fuel-injection, braking, emission and noise reduction, airbags, and a whole range of other features on offer. However, the problem with cars today is, they're not helping us solve the main problem, which is… 



...The Human Problem
Most of us live in overpopulated cities, and traffic jams are an everyday occurrence. We don't need to tell you, of course. Despite the efforts of a few to get us to think about our environment, we drive on, unperturbed. It doesn't matter that the world will run out of oil in less than half a century, or that the ozone layer is getting thinner by the second. We stubbornly refuse to car-pool, and prefer to be stuck in kilometre-long traffic jams of hundreds of cars with just a single driver in each of them… that's just the way we are!

The outcome? Skyrocketing petrol prices, an increase in road transport costs, and, as a result, inflation! We're paying for our callousness with our money and our health! 



Technologies Of Tomorrow
There are hundreds of upcoming technologies aimed at transport vehicles, but not all of them solve the problems we've detailed above. For example, a killer music system that delivers 5.1 Dolby surround sound, a mobile version of a gaming console for the passengers of a car, or satellite television enabled by a dish antenna that always stays locked on to the satellite of your choice are not exactly very helpful in preventing accidents, traffic jams, and the destruction of our environment.

Hybrid cars are being talked about a lot, and are looking promising for the near future, to help us depend less on oil. 



As alternative fuel technology goes, almost everything has been tried. However, recently, BMW released news of its Hydrogen 7 Series. These cars run on a hybrid of hydrogen and regular petroleum-based fuel. The difference is that instead of using the alternative fuel to produce electricity and then power the car, the Hydrogen 7 Series actually uses liquid hydrogen as a fuel in an internal combustion engine-actually burning hydrogen to power the engine directly.

A few lucky folks recently got to test drive one, and gave it very favourable reviews online.

The shortcomings (yes, there will always be these) are the fact that currently, hydrogen refill stations are few and far between, and the fuel economy actually works out more expensive than petrol! BMW, however, blames this on a not-yet-perfected engine, which they promise to work upon, and the fact that no one wants hydrogen just yet! The theory is that once the demand increases, supply will become more prevalent and also cheaper.

The promising fact is that BMW is already working on a "hydrogen-only" combustion engine, which basically means "no petrol required"-which is precisely what we need!

This is just one example of alternative fuel technologies being looked at. Space doesn't permit discussing them all, but the idea is catching on as people realise that in 40 years or so, the average person will not be able to afford petroleum-based fuel, due to lack of supply. What's good about the research in this field is that we only seem to be considering "clean" fuels-the type that will not destroy the environment-not as much as petroleum-based fuels do, at least. Basically, you'll still be stuck in traffic snarls, but you'll be able to breathe for a change!



Adaptive Cruise Control
Currently, this term is used for technologies found in luxury sedans that monitor how close you are to a car in front of you, and use acceleration or braking to maintain a safe distance. Different companies have added various features to this "awareness" that adaptive cruise control seems to bring about in cars. Toyota / Lexus have scrapped the older radar method for optical sensors that will detect and avoid obstacles-such as other cars, pedestrians, a large cat that decides to cross just as you approach… of course, handling is left to the driver, but the brake is activated in order to prevent collision. This is more a collision prevention technology than cruise control, but the idea is the same.

A whole lot of manufacturers, including Mercedes Benz, Lexus, Audi, BMW, and many more, have started providing cutting-edge technologies such as automatic parking, advanced collision prevention, adaptive cruise control, and more, as options on their luxury sedan class of cars. As always, we can expect this technology to filter down to economy-class cars in the near future.

BMW, for instance, offers a "Remote Park Assist" feature: basically, you stop next to an available parking spot, get out, keep a button on the remote pressed, and watch as the car auto-parks! If you feel the AI is being stupid, and your car is about to collide with another car or anything else, you just let go of the button and the car stops immediately!

 A lot of manufacturers are also providing technology that tries and prevents your car from being tailgated. How does technology help prevent some other idiot from rear-ending you? Well it can't stop such accidents from happening, but it tries and prevents them. Sensors on the back of your car inform it of when another car is too close to you, and in such a case, your tail-lights start flashing and a warning light on your dashboard is set off. Different manufacturers have varying implementations: some actually compute the free space in front of you to slowly accelerate and increase the gap from the car behind; some just warn you, and set off a rear horn and flash tail-lights to inform the driver behind that he or she is too close for comfort.

Now before you start trying to imagine what havoc such technology will create in India, you should know that this feature is completely programmable-and it's not stupid! For instance, the acceptable distance between a speed of 0 and 30 kmph is obviously a lot less than what's acceptable at, say, 80 kmph. Plus, you have to imagine a day when every car has these systems: people would not be able to tailgate you even if they tried! Even at traffic signals, you would find nice and orderly, evenly-spaced-out car formations.

There are many different technologies that also help in minimising injuries when a crash is inevitable: headrests are automatically adjusted when an impending crash is detected, to reduce whiplash; airbags are deployed with pressures that vary according to the speed you're going at, so as to prevent being hurt by the bag itself; seatbelts that change tension according to your speed, and many more! 



The Future
Enough of what's already available in expensive cars today, what we really want to know is how close we are to the self-driving cars we've seen in movies and read about in tales of science fiction fantasy!

Surprisingly, we're not very far away.

Even in 2006, a lot of us cringe at the idea of letting a "dumb robotic car" drive us around at high speeds. But honestly, when you really think about it, don't computers already do that in the virtual world? Just pop in a racing simulator, or even an arcade racing game, and you'll find yourself playing against some very tough computer competition. They just seem to have a surreal amount of control on twisting and winding roads, and never seem to crash!

Yes, those are games, and it's different in real life where lives are at stake. Plus, as some will point out, the computer knows those roads very well, and is programmed to take a definite route, at a definite speed, following a pre-programmed racing line; but who said things have to be any different in the real world?

With GPS mapping being done of most cities of the world, and to an accuracy of a foot, what's to stop us from mapping it to, say, millimetre precision? You could conceivably feed all this GPS data to a car so it knows the routes and its position to the accuracy of a millimetre! Is that so unthinkable? It might take another 20 years, but it will eventually happen.

What about the changing nature of roads? Well, what about it? Honestly, cars today already have traction control, and know the difference between an icy surface, sand, tarmac, and rocky off-road adventures. But what if a kid runs across onto the road? Adaptive cruise control and collision prevention systems are already minimising the risk of accidents in such situations. Soon we should be able to improve it to the extent where it's better than human control. Much like braking, which is already computer-assisted in most new cars, humans are actually worse than computers at stopping suddenly. The automatic response of the human is to jam the brakes: a normal car would skid, lose control, and might even flip over on its side. It wouldn't stop in time either: studies have shown that a car takes longer to stop once it starts skidding.

Computer-controlled braking "pumps" the brake several hundred times a second, preventing it from skidding and stopping the car faster and in a safer manner.

As for computer-controlled navigation in traffic, we have thus far only showcased existing technologies that are aiding in this. It's just a matter of refining them to the point where they're better and more reliable than humans. Sounds ridiculous, but driving is one aspect of human ability that is actually quite logical and mechanical, and that's where computers excel.


It's Already Happened
No, you can't go out and buy a self-driving car just yet, but there's already a race event for them!

The US DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Project Agency) has an event called the Grand Challenge for researchers to showcase their self-driving cars and pit them against each other in a race.

The first race took place in 2004. A hundred and six entries were vying for the prize-1 million US dollars. Quite a few crashed and burned, while others just got lost along the way. None of the entries were even able to finish the race, leave alone finish it in the stipulated time in order to win the prize money. Some veered off-course, trying to avoid colliding into their own shadows; some screeched to a halt for tiny bushes, but failed to recognize huge boulders… we may laugh, but the amount of money and time that was invested in this event was serious.

For the 2005 Grand Challenge, DARPA raised the stakes to $2 million, and it worked! Stanford Racing Team's entrant, Stanley, safely completed the 132-mile desert course in just 6 hours and 54 minutes! Visit

for more information on Stanley.

The 2007 Grand Challenge still gives away $2 million, but the difference is that it will be held in more real-world scenarios-in a city, with other cars and traffic lights on the road. We'll keep you posted on how it turns out. The fact is that in the 2005 challenge, five cars were able to finish the race, and this is promising: these cars actually were "thinking" and taking "decisions" on their 132-mile trek, in off-road conditions! If even a single car can finish the 2007 race, we will be very tempted to believe that DARPA's goal of replacing one-third of cars with robotic driven vehicles might actually come true! 

A Vision
If cars can already think well enough to navigate in off-road conditions with no prior mapping of terrain, imagine how good they'd be if the route were actually mapped! Is it that hard to imagine a day, maybe less than a decade from now, when you don't need to learn to whistle just to stop a cabbie in New York, or dodge recklessly-driven buses to cross the street in Mumbai?

Imagine just hopping into a car, stating your destination, then sitting back as the car decides by itself what the fastest route to your destination would be-factoring in information it receives via GPS about traffic conditions, accidents (if any), and also the shortest route… except for the fact that people might not like the idea of giving up control to a robot, it all sounds hunky-dory.

Another aspect of cars that might change-if adaptive guidance systems do become a reality-is design. Right now, cars are designed a certain way because things like driver comfort, visibility, aerodynamics, etc., all come into play. What happens when a driver isn't needed? Will we stick to the designs we have or will we change them radically?

Whatever happens, prepare to see some really cool technologies and designs in cars in the next 10 years. Until then, try not to choke too badly on your way to work… and dream on!  

Team DigitTeam Digit

All of us are better than one of us.