Monthly Archives: October 2016

An era for Rolls Royce

There are plenty of luxurious cars out there, but there is only one Rolls-Royce Phantom. The current Phantom VII kicked off BMW ownership for Rolls-Royce 13 years ago and, although there’s something timeless about luxury cars like the Phantom, it’s well overdue for a replacement. As the marque prepares to launch a new flagship, the final Phantom VII has rolled off the production line in Goodwood, looking just as imperious as you’d expect.

Although plenty of Phantoms have ended up in the hands of sheiks and rappers, the final flagship Roller has been commissioned by a “renowned” collector, who has turned to the craftsmen in Goodwood for a totally bespoke interior with a nautical theme. The wood trim on the doors features marquetry of a 1930s ocean liner, which is coupled with special stitching designed to evoke rippling water.

Everyone from Bentley to Mercedes has tried to lift the quality of their cabins with a fancy clock in recent years, but few can match the timepieces embedded in the dashboard and rear cabin of the final Phantom. The bezel, which sits clear of the face, can be rotated to reflect 24 different timezones – a feature potentially useful while crossing continents in road-going comfort.

On the outside, the Phantom is finished in “Blue Velvet” paint job with twin coachlines running around its flanks. The tires have also been treated to a set of pinstripes, and the Spirit of Ecstasy on the bonnet is solid silver. We shudder to think what the options cost, but they certainly look fantastic.

Now production of the Phantom VII has wrapped up, the Goodwood factory will switch its focus to getting the Phantom VIII up and running. The new car will be built on an all-new, all-aluminum architecture shared with the Project Cullinan four-wheel drive, and promises to deliver a level of luxury beyond what the current car can manage. We can’t wait to see what that looks like.

Self driving cars are learning fast

Among all the questions about self-driving cars, one of the most serious relates to safety. No one wants to put their lives into the hands of a driverless car with anything less than bulletproof reliability, and a high-profile autonomous accident could set the breed back by years, forcing the likes of Google to subject their cars to millions of miles of testing. Those miles are starting to make a difference, too, with new figures showing the number of self-driving disengagements dropping from 2015 to 2016.

Disengagements, or the driver taking over from self-driving software, are one of the most important metrics when it comes to the testing of self-driving cars. Google (and its Waymo self-driving project) describes them as a “natural part of the testing process,” because they help identify situations where the self-driving software didn’t know what to do, forcing the driver to take control.

Based on the latest disengagement reports submitted to the Californian DMV, the number of situations confusing autonomous systems is dropping at a rapid rate. Last year, Waymo cars covered 635,868 miles (1,023,330 km) and reported just 124 disengages, compared to 341 disengages in just 424,331 mi (682,895 km) during testing in 2015.

That’s a significant improvement, an improvement which Google says has come despite the cars being tested in tricky urban situations, from sharing the road with cyclists to handling multi-lane intersections. When the car does hand off to the driver, the team says it can extrapolate that data to fit hundreds of different scenarios in simulation, adding billions of miles worth of valuable knowledge to the program.

Google isn’t the only company making big strides in its testing program. Ford suffered just three disengagements in 590 miles (950 km), two of which were caused by cars overtaking at high speed during a lane change. BMW only suffered one disengagement on Californian roads in 2016, despite covering a not-insignificant 638 miles (1,027 km).

What does this prove? Well, self-driving cars still aren’t ready for the big time. If there’s no steering wheel in the car, and that’s what Google is planning, there needs to be no chance of confusion or disengagement. Still, the progress being made is impressive, and shows the future of self-driving cars might not be all that far away.

Surgery in surgeons

Minimally invasive surgery often sees robots acting as a surgeon’s hands inside the patient’s body. Such robots are large and cost several million dollars, and although smaller handheld instruments are out there, their straight-stick design means they’re not as dexterous as a skilled surgeon’s own hands. A new “needle driver” from a University of Michigan startup, FlexDex Surgical, is designed to precisely mimic the motions of a surgeon’s wrist and translate it to a tiny flexible claw, with no electronic or computerized components.

Anchored just above the surgeon’s wrist, the FlexDex has a gyroscopic handle that can be rotated, twisted, and angled in three dimensions, while the rest of the device stays still. Those motions are translated through a cable down the length of a metal shaft to the tip, where a two-pronged clamp closely follows those instructions like a tiny robotic replica of the surgeon’s own hand.

The pinchable claw and precise rotation lets the FlexDex specialize in internal suturing. For existing devices, a task that fiddly usually requires big, awkward movements on the surgeon’s side, but the FlexDex’s center of rotation is in the same spot as the human wrist. According to the team, that means its movements aren’t inverted like other instruments.

“If I move my hand up, the device tip goes up,” says Jim Geiger, co-inventor of the Flexdex. “Wherever I move my hand, the tip of this instrument follows.”

The long-used Da Vinci line of surgical robots may be more versatile and provide finer control, but they also come with multi-million-dollar price tags that can keep them out of reach of small or remote hospitals. For a much more reasonable US$500, the FlexDex can help these facilities provide minimally invasive surgery, which is less traumatic and painful than being cut right open, and takes far less recovery time.

“I was amazed by the sophistication of the (Da Vinci) technology,” says Shorya Awtar, co-inventor of the FlexDex device. “At the same time, I had a strong instinct that this functionality can be achieved much more simply and cost-effectively. At its price point, this technology would not reach patients across the globe.”

So far, the device has been tested in a few different procedures for examining abdominal organs and inside the lungs, but in future FlexDex plans to put it to work treating hernias, and in hysterectomies and prostate cancer removal.

Fancier and more frugal

Passengers who travel on Amtrak’s high-speed Acela Express service in the US will soon be able to do so more comfortably and more regularly. The rail operator has unveiled designs for next-generation, high-speed trainsets that will replace its existing rolling stock and offer greater capacity.

The new trains are being introduced as part of a wider scheme to upgrade infrastructure for the Acela Express, which runs between Washington DC and Boston via 14 other stops. Produced by transport company Alstom, they will boast a number of modern passenger conveniences like improved Wi-Fi access, personal power outlets and USB ports, the likes of which are being added to services elsewhere, too.

Amtrak says that, in addition to improved comfort for passengers, there will also be an improved boarding experience and food service, along with a third more seats than the trains being replaced. Passengers will apparently benefit from a smoother ride, in part as a result of an “anticipative tilting system.”

This tilting system is completely train-borne, so it doesn’t require special track installations. It pairs data on the line’s parameters with information gathered by onboard sensors, allowing the system to locate the train’s position on the line and prepare to tilt for upcoming bends. This allows the trains to take curves at higher speeds and with greater comfort for the passengers onboard.

When they first enter operation, the new trains are expected to have a top speed of 160 mph (257 km/h), a decent increase on the 150 mph (241 km/h) that the current models are capable of. Subsequent infrastructure improvements along the Northeast Corridor (NEC) rail line, however, should enable them to eventually travel at speeds of up to 186 mph (299 km/h).

Coming soon to a battery near you

When individual silicon wafers are cut from larger sheets of silicon for use in electronics, a lot of sawdust is produced. Ordinarily, that material is simply discarded. Thanks to research currently being conducted by Japan’s Tohoku University and Osaka University, however, it may soon find its way into high-performing lithium-ion batteries.

The scientists started with regular silicon sawdust, washed it to remove impurities (such as coolant) that were introduced in the sawing process, then pulverized it into porous and wrinkly “nanoflakes” measuring about 15 nanometers thick. Those flakes were subsequently coated in carbon, then incorporated into battery anodes.

When tested, a lithium-ion half-cell using one of those anodes achieved a constant capacity of 1,200 mAh/g (milliamp hours per gram) over 800 cycles. While that might not mean much to the layperson, that capacity is reportedly 3.3 times larger than that of a comparable conventional graphite anode.

According to the researchers, the recycling process should be easy to scale up for mass production, plus costs of the anodes ought to be reasonably low. Additionally, they estimate that the amount of silicon sawdust generated worldwide every year should be enough to meet global demand for anode materials.

Asteroid gives Earth a near miss

As its name implies, space has plenty of room, but that doesn’t mean it’s empty. Quite the contrary, with a fair amount of traffic even in the vicinity of Earth. This year the tally of known near-Earth asteroids and comets passed 15,000 and more are being discovered, like asteroid 2016 VA, which buzzed our planet Wednesday just a day after it was first spotted.

Asteroid 2016 VA was discovered by the Mt. Lemmon Sky Survey in Arizona and determined to be on track to pass by Earth at a distance of just 75,000 km (46,603 miles), or about a quarter of the way to the Moon.

The International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center tracks thousands of objects with at least one close approach happening just about every day, but most of them pass by at distances anywhere from several to a few dozen times the distance to the Moon, which means 2016 VA is making a very close approach compared to most fly-bys.

“Asteroids coming this close (or even closer) are found from time to time by the automated surveys looking for near-Earth objects,” Gianluca Masi, Director of the Virtual Telescope Project, told New Atlas. “So far this year, we had about 50 asteroids come closer than the Moon.”

Close fly-bys of asteroids have snuck up on us before. Just over a year ago one was spotted for the first time as it passed at 1.3 lunar distances and the meteor that blew out windows in Russia in 2013 led to a call for more asteroid surveillance.

Asteroid 2016 VA sailed safely by us, however, just after midnight UTC. Even if it were on a collision course with Earth, it measures only about 12 m (39 ft) and much or all of it would likely burn up in our atmosphere.