What will steer tomorrow’s car? It could be a driver’s gesture, or robots!

CONTROL SURFACES

This is the second installment of a six-part series of essays in which I try to conceptualise the car of the future based on past developments, current trends and whatever little insider information I might gather from random car manufacturers.

Having discussed propulsion systems, the focus today is on control surfaces, or “the things to poke and prod to make a car respond” in kindergarten-speak.

A hundred and thirty years ago, the first, single-cylinder, three-wheeled wonder used a crude joystick for control. It was fairly simple to use, just twist right to go left, twist left to go right. With a maximum speed of probably less than 10km/h, transmissions were unnecessary and uninvented. This “Car-Magnon” driving instrument evolved into a steering wheel: rotate left to go left, rotate right to go right. Then along came the Ford Model T, also known as the Tin Lizzie, the first truly mass-produced motor vehicle. It sold a record 16.5 million units during its production run from 1908 to 1927  — an impressive feat — and still ranks as one of the top 10 best-sellers of all time.

You’d think that the pioneer of the assembly line and the first car to sell in massive numbers would set a precedent for succeeding motor vehicles, but you’d be wrong.

If the Car of Today were to be driven in the same way the Model T was driven, we’d have a lot fewer drivers on our roads and driving tests would be just like school tests: extremely difficult and nothing to look forward to.

TO CUT THE LONG STORY SHORT

To cut a long story short, the Ford Model T is a far cry from today’s cars. The conventional driving technique is “gas, clutch, shift, repeat” for a manual transmission, and simply “gas” for an automatic. If you want to stop, simply tread on the big, stiff pedal for both transmission types.

Enter the Ford Motor Company, again. They just won’t let things be. In recent times, they have been experimenting with gesture control, which is as far removed from the Model T’s choreographed insanity as the original steam engine is removed from today’s plug-in hybrids.

The gesture control, worked by a system of sensors that “see” whatever the driver’s hands are doing, are so far limited to basic functions like the heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC), but given how similar they are to swiping a touch-screen  mobile phone, will not be too long before being inducted into the primary driving functions such as turning, accelerating or braking.

Gesture control sounds very cool but is probably a little impractical as far as actual driving is concerned. If the constellation of sensors that capture one’s arm movements misread an unintentional signal, what then? Perhaps the driver wanted to scratch his elbow or rub an eye? Perhaps he was waving at a passer-by? What if those semaphoric arm waves resemble pre-programmed instructions, causing the car to either accelerate, brake or turn?

If the involved gestures (after a lot of hard thought) look nothing like regular human interaction body movements, does one go to a choreography class instead of a driving school? Or does one get a dance instructor? The outlook is that gesture control will be limited to centre console operations for now: the infotainment system and HVAC controls.

It might be some time before one drives a car by haughtily waving one’s arm like the lazy royalty humanity is trying very hard to become via advancement in technology (Seriously, how hard is it to turn a power-assisted steering wheel that gesture control has to be resorted to?). The system might find initial use in vehicles for people with disabilities, where it would be a lot more useful.

The Chinese are two steps ahead. Theirs is a difficult-to-believe kind of arrangement: they say —like I outlined some weeks ago — that they have successfully harnessed the power of thought in moving a car and all that is left is for them to fine-tune the setup. Sounds incredible, doesn’t it?

To keep things simple, this is how the system works: the driver’s brain signals from an electroencephalogram (EEG) is read via a set of 16 sensors by a car-control device, which then translates those signals into input, making the car accelerate, brake, turn and other basic functions necessary to keep things moving.

It’s not just hypothetical. The Chinese have successfully demonstrated this technology at its current stage, whereby a driver was able to drive forward, stop, reverse and lock/unlock the doors simply by thinking about it. Some obviously elaborate computer software is responsible for the translation of those EEG signals into control movements. Similar to Ford’s gesture control, a drive-by-thought system also does raise some questions.

What happens in the case of a scatter-brained driver, one whose mind wanders lconstantly? What if socially destructive thoughts are entertained (however briefly)? More than once I have considered angrily ramming my car into the side of a matatu that rudely cut me off in traffic. It is one thing to have second thoughts (which led to my still having an undamaged car), but if thought is translated into response immediately, what now?

This is starting to look like George Orwell’s Thought Police: you can only think nice things; negative mind trips will be instantly costly.

Much as the Chinese have simplified (or complicated, depending on how you look at it) the driving process, there is still one last aspect left that has been making news lately: ceding all control to a robot. You become a passenger in your own car. The advent of the autonomous mobile is not upon us; the self-driving car is actually here.

The exact workings of an “autonomobile” might be too complex and comprise too many different facets to fully exploit in this article, but the summary is that the system is most viable for commercial vehicles, which rely on maximum uptime for profitability, and whose drivers suffer the most from driving-related fatigue, necessitating numerous rest stops and thus affecting uptime. That is why the first, fully successful autonomous journey on a significant scale was done by a convoy of driverless Mercedes-Benz Actros trucks.

The system itself uses a network of maps (satellite or otherwise) to enable the vehicle to find its way and a form of radar-guided cruise control to enable the vehicle to avoid accidents, and it is this accident avoidance aspect that brings us to an interesting little topic: WWRD, (What would a robot do)?

ASIMOV’S LAWS OF ROBOTICS

There are several laws of robotics, some steeped in fiction, others bent in reality to suit the demands of today (Google them, please), but what they boil down to is this: a robot will obey human instruction without exception, except, of course, if the instructions are harmful to humans, in which case these instructions can be disregarded because the primary law is, a robot shall not harm a human under any circumstances.

Sounds legit, until one thinks things a little deeper and comes up with the classic tragedy of the commons: when sh- gets real, it’s me or them. One thing you need to know is robotic mindset is based on the concept of utilitarianism: the greatest good for the greatest number of people. That means if you are ever in a situation where your car has to decide whether to both crash into a crowd of  people killing them all (but you get to survive) or crash into a bus resulting in only one fatality (yours), the outcome is not what you’d expect from your own property.

Your robot car will throw you under the bus, both literally and figuratively. That is what it is programmed to do: preserve life in the best possible permutation. This self-sacrificing aspect is the one major stumbling block that makes me think twice about embracing an electronic chauffeur.

That said, it is not as gloomy as it might sound. The self-driving automobile network is multidimensional, or it will be; manufacturers are designing vehicles that “talk” to each other, which will further minimise incidents of them ramming into each other.

Volvo claims to have made — or is on the cusp of actually making — a crash-proof car and in a later installment of this series, I will be discussing smart roads that will be the cure of most, if not all, motor vehicle accidents as well as making traffic violations well-nigh impossible to commit. Stay tuned.

(As of the time of writing, the first track day for purely autonomous cars had been scheduled for May 28, 2016, at the Thunderhill Raceway. If you are anywhere near Willow in California, US, feel free to go and watch)

DRIVING A FORD MODEL T

First, you have to understand what you see from behind the wheel. There is a hand lever on the floor to your left. When pulled all the way back, it sets the transmission in neutral and applies the parking/emergency brake on the rear wheels. When released halfway forward, it releases the parking brake but still maintains the transmission in neutral. When released fully forward, it sets the transmission in high gear. Not too complicated. Wait. There’s more to come.

There are also two levers beneath the steering wheel mounted on the column. The lever on the left is the timing mechanism for the spark: advance to before TDC or retard to after TDC. I really can’t explain TDC and ignition timing right now, you don’t need that information, but Model T owners were required to have this knowledge. The lever is moved up to retard the spark and down to advance it. Being a hand-cranked 2.9 litre engine, the T had to be started with the spark retarded.

Never start the engine with spark advanced: it will kick back and break your arm off. Only advance when the engine is running (to smooth it out) or when the vehicle is in motion for that extra oomph.

The lever on the right is the throttle; what on today’s car is called the accelerator pedal. Push it up to set the engine at idle, pull it down to “hit the red line”. Top speed in a Model T is like top speed in a savannah predator: with both ears pulled as far back as possible.

Speaking of pedals, there are three of them. The left one is for forward gear selection, of which there are only two: high speed and low speed. Pedal up: high speed. Pedal down: low speed. This is where that floor-mounted lever comes back into the picture: if you fiddle with it a few times, you will notice it holds the left pedal midway through its travel, in the neutral (out of gear) position. Release the hand lever and the left pedal goes all the way up.

The centre pedal is for reverse gear selection, but to be used, either the left pedal or the hand lever must be in the neutral position or else the engine stalls.

To engage reverse, this centre pedal has to be pushed down very hard. The pedal on the right is the brake, and the way it works is even more ridiculous than the dashboard layout I have just described. Does it sound complicated? Driving the thing is even more convoluted.

To drive it, first you have to start it.

STARTING A FORD MODEL T

First check the oil. This is done from the right hand side of the car by opening the lower petcock aft of the engine. If it doesn’t flow, close the lower petcock, open the upper one and top up until oil flows from it. Close the (right half of the) hood. While still outside the car, you will notice there is a choke adjacent to the front right fender.

Pull it while engaging the crank lever under the radiator, slowly turning it 90 degrees clockwise to prime the carburetor. Get in the car and insert the key, setting it to either magneto or battery. Retard the timing (to prevent imminent forearm fracture) by

pushing the timing stalk up and set the idle by pulling the throttle stalk down. Pull back the handbrake (which puts the car in neutral). This is to prevent getting run over by your own car which is a) embarrassing; and b) painful.

Get out and go back to the front of the car. Crank the lever to start the car, taking care not to have your arm torn off. A good, hard half-turn should be enough to crank the engine. For the second time, get in the car again and now drive.

*The actual driving of a Ford Model T will be covered in a later standalone article. It is as complicated as it is hilarious.

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