Urban tech: From Masdar to Main Street?

Residents of Masdar City in the Middle East have smart appliances, use electricity from a solar power plant and get around by robotaxi. When will you do the same?

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In a recent research project, Hernandez says, VW developed a feature called Temporary Auto Pilot that uses such sensors and also controls steering. And Cadillac says it's road-testing a similar technology called Super Cruise that allows the driver to take his or her hands off the wheel for short periods of autonomous highway driving.

Cadillac Super Cruise illustration
With Cadillac's Super Cruise technology, the car watches lane markings on the highway to control your speed and position in the lane for hands-free driving. Credit: Cadillac.

These features require advanced LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) sensors, which are sensitive enough to detect curbs and small objects, Hernandez explains. Often found in luxury cars today, LIDAR is still too expensive to be included in many low-end vehicles, Hernandez says. That's changing quickly, though; some lower-cost vehicles, such as the Ford Taurus, are equipped with LIDAR. But until every car uses the technology, it may be hard for autonomous driving to gain traction.

Another issue hindering the adoption of driverless cars in the U.S., Hernandez says, is that the traffic infrastructure is not yet ready. A driverless car could speed down the highway, but today it wouldn't know a simple condition such as whether a traffic light is green or red, or if a parking space is available at the mall. For robotaxis to be viable, a city would need to build a wireless infrastructure that communicates all of this information to the cars.

"The biggest problem is that robotaxis require infrastructure investments and changes to create a reliable foundation," says Thilo Koslowski, an auto industry analyst at Gartner, who says U.S. consumers are in favor of autonomous cars. "Ideally, autonomous vehicles will be connected 24/7 with traffic management networks to optimize routing and congestion levels. These cars can also function as traffic probes to collect speed and congestion information."

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) is taking some initial steps toward building more-connected roadways. It will conduct a yearlong test of vehicle-to-vehicle communications technology in Ann Arbor, Mich., starting this fall. Test cars will connect to each other and to the road to be alerted to imminent crash situations, construction zones and more. The use of such wireless communications systems could lead to an 80% reduction in accidents, according to the NHTSA.

While the benefits of robotic public transit seem obvious, there are also some equally obvious concerns, including liability. Aarjav Trivedi, the COO of RideCell, an Atlanta-based automated fleet-management company, says there are many legal questions about who would be at fault in a collision between a robotaxi and another car, how autonomous vehicles will be insured, and even how a city will deal with the eventual problem of labor disputes for those who are employed by the city's official cab companies.

Hernandez estimates that semi-autonomous cars that do much of their own steering on highways could appear in 10 years, but full autonomous driving is at least 20 years away -- which should give governments time to work on questions of liability and other concerns as they build the infrastructure to support driverless cars.

Solar municipal power

Masdar City is "carbon neutral" in that it does not draw energy from the regional power grid, and instead generates all of its own electricity from solar power, at least for now. (As the city grows, there will be an increased need to use energy that is not generated within the city limits, but officials say the energy will still come from renewable sources.)

In a small municipality, solar-only is a feasible power option, but what if you had to provide electricity for a metropolis the size of Los Angeles?

Today, alternative energy sources typically augment the electricity produced by coal and natural gas power plants, according to Alfonso Velosa, an analyst at Gartner. But he says companies such as Oakland, Calif.-based BrightSource Energy are developing new technologies to make solar power collection more viable.

While most solar power in the United States is currently generated by rooftop panels that provide direct power for appliances and for heating and air conditioning units (called distributed solar), BrightSource uses centralized solar plants to store and then transport energy using electrical transmission lines, says Keely Wachs, a BrightSource spokesman.

The energy company broke ground in the California desert for its Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in October 2010. The massive solar plant will use about 170,000 mirrors to capture the sun's energy. Software tracks the position of the mirrors and makes fine adjustments to each mirror for the best power draw.

Ivanpah solar plant mirrors
The Ivanpah solar plant, which will be the world's biggest when it's completed in 2013, uses adjustable angled mirrors to focus the sun's rays for power collection. Credit: BrightSource Energy.
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