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April 2009

April 28, 2009

It’s Almost 2010... Where’s My Flying Car?

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Where's My Flying Car! When I was a young boy, I became a big fan (and still am) of Syd Mead and his vision of the 21st century as viewed from the 1960s.  I remember my mom buying me a book for my birthday on the history of the automobile.  Not only did it include the invention and history, but wonderful depictions of future automobiles that were hydrogen powered and could jack up their wheels and take flight like an aircraft using lift jets - obviously Syd’s work.  There were visions of computerized highways in the sky where your flying car would simply join others in route and travel at speeds over 300 MPH.

Looking back, it’s very sad to me that the wonderful artwork of Mr. Mead was never realized... however, that didn’t stop some people from trying.  There have been many references to the Moller flying car which uses multiple propeller engines to lift the entire vehicle and push it through the air at high speeds.  Moller’s vision was the same as Mead’s - a computerized highway in the sky taking control of the vehicle and getting you to your final destination in the most efficient way.

So what happened to that wonderful future of flying vehicles? The most likely problem was a little thing called gravity and the power needed to overcome it. Another is the need (or lack thereof) to remove traffic from its terrestrial bounds.  However, many other innovations have been made in the automotive sector.  A few of these advances include computerized engine controls, electronic fuel injection, air bags (a personal favorite of mine), GPS navigation, computerized vehicle management, back-up sonar and cameras plus many more.  A great deal of these would be considered science fiction in the 1960s, but are realities today.

With the pressures of our new energy crisis temporarily clipping our wings, attention has been focused on making the entire system more efficient.  Many of you are already driving first and second generation gas-electric hybrids.  There are more of those on the way.  But the next big step will be fully electric cars (see my previous blogs on electric cars).  Technology to quickly charge electric vehicles is coming and solutions to extend battery life or replace batteries altogether are on the horizon. 

Still, there are a great number of improvements that can be made to our current production lineup hitting the roads as well as the roads themselves. Efficiency improvements are not restricted to a single function.  Large gains are often found by re-architecting the way something operates. That is, simply improving the efficiency of a car’s engine may not be the best solution if you are stuck in traffic most of the time.  One solution to traffic is turning the engine off while stopped (a problem if - like me - you live in Florida and the air conditioner runs off the engine).  This is one of many improvements that help the car’s fuel efficiency, but not the infrastructure. Electronics, sensors and computerized traffic management can make roads far more efficient by routing traffic around congestion (like packets on the Internet). People are the other problem - they need to use the information provided by the highway wisely while driving.  Ignoring (or not believing) information interferes with the solution.

Like many things that influence humans, there must be an incentive.  For instance, buying a gas-hybrid at a premium is influenced by a high price for fuel.  A solution that might work to improve road efficiency is toll roads that dynamically change the fee to influence usage.  That is, at peak times (6:00 AM to 9:00 AM and 3:00 PM to 6:00 PM), rates go up sharply.  At low utilization or off-peak times (e.g. 1:00 AM to 4:00 AM), tolls could be free or very inexpensive.  Trucking companies may choose to move freight during these times leaving the cars to use roads during higher peak times.  If your car’s navigation system knew the cost of these tolls as well as real-time traffic conditions, you could either elect to go the cheapest route or the fastest route.  Giving people these choices (and showing them the total cost on the dash board including the fuel they will consume) will have a bigger influence on the efficiency of the system than simply using computerized road-side signs to inform of impending traffic.

This is not unlike what the power companies are proposing to control loading on their power plants and networks.  Smart Grid technology would update meters during peak times to increase the price of a kilowatt-hour.  The consumer’s home systems could monitor the metered rate and adjust usage accordingly.  For instance, a washing machine could "pause" a cycle while waiting for the rates to go down (so you soak your cloths a bit longer...).  This prevents brown-outs or other more serious side effects while keeping loads on the plants constant improving overall efficiency.  See my prior blog, "Will Energy Costs Revive Home Automation".

Until we figure out the relationship between gravity and the forces we can control, we’ll probably be stuck to our terrestrial roots.  But not to worry... I guess I’m somewhat comfortable with the thought that running out of fuel (or stored energy) will not cause me to plunge to my death.  I’m somewhat attached to the thought of simply "pulling over" to the side of the road - for now anyway.  Till next time...

April 02, 2009

The Personal Supercomputer in Your Pocket

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Nokia 'Morph' future PMD OK, imagine its 1984 (for a glimpse into the past, see my previous post, "If Houses Grew Like Hard Drives"). Someone walks up to you on the street (possibly dressed in a black suit) and hands you an iPhone 3G. What would you think? Remember, 1983 was the year Motorola introduced the DynaTAC 8000X "brick" phone  - and it was just a (very large mobile) phone...  Technical issues with using a 3G phone in the 1980s aside, I’m sure you’d think it was of extraterrestrial origin (or some other advanced civilization from the earth’s core).  And that was only around 25 years ago.

As an engineer I’ve watched the evolution and fusion of personal portable devices - I’ve owned many of them as well.  It was predicted in the late 1990s that portable devices (i.e. cell phones, music players, video camcorders, DVD players) would somehow "merge" into a single device that you'd carry in your pocket.  I remember having those discussions around the lunch table with my fellow engineers circa 1998 (only ten years ago).  It went something like this... "Hey guys, I just got a Rio MP3 player (from Diamond Multimedia)... totally cool gadget!  It holds up to twelve songs with no moving parts... it hooks up to my parallel port and I can download any song I want - I just need to compress the CD song with the Rio software and I’m mobile. Someday there’ll be a unit like that with five hundred megabytes of storage and a full color LCD that could hold pictures too!"

It was hard to imagine what would be possible with shrinking semiconductor process geometries, FLASH memory densities, display technology and power management.  We could only see so far into the future and it quickly became cloudy.  The best we could do was to envision evolutionary progress - improving on what we already knew.  But what was happening in the labs at Apple, Nokia, Samsung, LG and others was "revolutionary".  It was made possible by semiconductor manufacturers and other technology suppliers. We never saw the coming of CMOS image sensors with optics so small you could fit an entire video camera into the volume of a sugar cube (or less). We could not imagine an 80 gigabyte rotating media hard drive that was only one inch on a side and no thicker than a match book.  We might have imagined a few hundred megabytes of FLASH memory in a device, but not tens of gigabytes - that was science fiction.

Along with the functionality, we missed the connectivity completely.  In the late 1990s the World Wide Web was just taking off.  It was an era of the "New Economy" where stores were virtual and information was just a click away... that is, if you had a personal computer, a modem (56 kilobits per second) and a phone line.  We never would have imagined the 3G mobile web supported by a "cloud" of millions of computers spread around the globe supplying every imaginable variation of endless content.

All of what I’ve mentioned is now old news... things that have come and gone within a six month design cycle.  Moore’s law continues to march us forward into the future possibly jumping to quantum well transistors and saying goodbye to shrinking CMOS processes and the power they consume.  Display technology will continue to improve providing either projected (i.e. pico-projectors) images or screens that role up.  Battery technology may get a boost from new materials that allow Lithium chemistry batteries to charge in seconds instead of hours.

So what’s next? As Yoda might say, "The future I cannot see... very cloudy it has become".  What I can see is the evolutionary component of our technology. It is quite clear that as a civilization we will continue to push the thresholds of our knowledge and provide continuous improvements in the methods used to facilitate the tools of everyday existence.  OK, that’s a bit poetic, but what does it mean to you? Pull your Personal Mobile Device (PMD) out of your pocket, hold it in your hand and imagine the kids of 2034 laughing at how primitive a device it is! They will all have the equivalent of a modern supercomputer in their pockets that never need charging, are always connected to the "cloud" at gigabit speeds, use gesture, facial and voice recognition, are flexible, self cleaning and can project full 3D images directly onto their retinas... our present devices will be their "brick" phones.  something to think about!  Till next time...

p.s. check out Nokia's "Morph" for a glimps into the future...