Tesla's in-car browser will be upgraded to Chromium


Tesla’s in-car browser is pretty infamous for being wonky, so it didn’t come as a surprise when someone told Elon Musk on Twitter that they wish it worked consistently. The CEO’s response? Tesla is about to upgrade the in-car browser to Chromium, Google’s open-source browser project. That doesn’t mean the vehicles will be getting Chrome: the Chromium project merely generates code for Chrome and other browsers from companies and vendors outside of Google, including Opera. It’s likely that the Chromium code will just power Tesla’s upgraded browser.

Of course, Musk’s tweet doesn’t really reveal anything when it comes to availability. The updated app could come out really, really soon or years from now. Tesla made previous attempts to release a better browser over the past few years, after all, but it kept getting pushed back. A recent software update seemed to fix the current browser for some people, though, and that may be enough to tide some owners over until the Chromium version comes out.

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GM will build a new Chevrolet EV at its Orion plant

GM has confirmed plans to build another electric vehicle at the same Orion Township, MI factory where it currently manufactures the Bolt, as well as test autonomous vehicles for Cruise. We don’t have a name or potential release date for this next EV, but it will use the same BEV3 platform underpinning the recently announced electric Cadillac on the way.

We visited GM’s Orion factory back in 2016 as it ramped up Bolt production, and now the plan is to invest some $300 million and add 400 jobs there. This week Ford also announced an expansion at one of its Michigan plants to build more electric and autonomous vehicles, so now all that’s left is waiting to hear about a battery-powered Mustang or Camaro.

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Elon Musk defends tweets in SEC’s contempt proceedings

Tesla CEO Elon Musk argued Friday that his Twitter use did not violate a settlement agreement with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and that the agency’s request to have him held in contempt is based on a “radical interpretation” of the order, according to court papers filed in Manhattan federal court.

The SEC has asked a judge to hold Musk in contempt for violating a settlement agreement reached last year over Musk’s now infamous “funding secured” tweet. Under that agreement, Musk is supposed to get approval from Tesla’s board before communicating potentially material information to investors.

Musk contends he didn’t violate the agreement and that the problem lies in the SEC’s interpretation, which he describes as “virtually wrong at every level.” The filing also reveals new details about the settlement negotiations, notably that the SEC sent Musk a draft agreement that would have required him to obtain pre-approval for all public statements related to Tesla, in any format.

Musk and Tesla never agreed to those terms. Instead, Musk says the agreement requires him to comply with Tesla own policy, which would require pre-approval for “written communications that contain, or reasonably could contain, information material to the company or its shareholders.”

The barbs traded via court filings are the latest in an escalating fight between the billionaire entrepreneur and SEC that began last August when Musk tweeted that he had “funding secured” for a private takeover of the company at $420 per share.  The SEC filed a complaint in federal district court in September alleging that Musk lied.

Musk and Tesla settled with the SEC last year without admitting wrongdoing. Tesla agreed to pay a $20 million fine; Musk had to agree to step down as Tesla chairman for a period of at least three years; the company had to appoint two independent directors to the board; and Tesla was also told to put in place a way to monitor Musk’s statements to the public about the company, including via Twitter.

But the fight was re-ignited last month after Musk sent a tweet on February 19 that Tesla would produce “around” 500,000 cars this year, correcting himself hours later to clarify that he meant the company would be producing at an annualized rate of 500,000 vehicles by year end.

The SEC argued that the tweet sent by Musk violated their agreement. Musk has said the tweet was “immaterial” and complied with the settlement.

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Gates-backed Lumotive upends lidar conventions using metamaterials

Pretty much every self-driving car on the road, not to mention many a robot and drone, uses lidar to sense its surroundings. But useful as lidar is, it also involves physical compromises that limit its capabilities. Lumotive is a new company with funding from Bill Gates and Intellectual Ventures that uses metamaterials to exceed those limits, perhaps setting a new standard for the industry.

The company is just now coming out of stealth, but it’s been in the works for a long time. I actually met with them back in 2017 when the project was very hush-hush and operating under a different name at IV’s startup incubator. If the terms “metamaterials” and “Intellectual Ventures” tickle something in your brain, it’s because the company has spawned several startups that use intellectual property developed there, building on the work of materials scientist David Smith.

Metamaterials are essentially specially engineered surfaces with microscopic structures — in this case, tunable antennas — embedded in them, working as a single device.

Echodyne is another company that used metamaterials to great effect, shrinking radar arrays to pocket size by engineering a radar transceiver that’s essentially 2D and can have its beam steered electronically rather than mechanically.

The principle works for pretty much any wavelength of electromagnetic radiation — i.e. you could use X-rays instead of radio waves — but until now no one has made it work with visible light. That’s Lumotive’s advance, and the reason it works so well.

Flash, 2D, and 1D lidar

Lidar basically works by bouncing light off the environment and measuring how and when it returns; This can be accomplished in several ways.

Flash lidar basically sends out a pulse that illuminates the whole scene with near-infrared light (905 nanometers, most likely) at once. This provides a quick measurement of the whole scene, but limited distance as the power of the light being emitted is limited.

2D or raster scan lidar takes a NIR laser and plays it over the scene incredibly quickly, left to right, down a bit, then do it again, again, and again… scores or hundreds of times. Focusing the power into a beam gives these systems excellent range, but similar to a CRT TV with an electron beam tracing out the image, it takes rather a long time to complete the whole scene. Turnaround time is naturally of major importance in driving situations.

1D or line scan lidar strikes a balance between the two, using a vertical line of laser light that only has to go from one side to the other to complete the scene. This sacrifices some range and resolution but significantly improves responsiveness.

Lumotive offered the following diagram, which helps visualize the systems, although obviously “suitability” and “too short” and “too slow” are somewhat subjective:

The main problem with the latter two is that they rely on a mechanical platform to actually move the laser emitter or mirror from place to place. It works fine for the most part, but there are inherent limitations. For instance, it’s difficult to stop, slow, or reverse a beam that’s being moved by a high speed mechanism. If your 2D lidar system sweeps over something that could be worth further inspection, it has to go through the rest of its motions before coming back to it… over and over.

This is the primary advantage offered by a metamaterial system over existing ones: electronic beam steering. In Echodyne’s case the radar could quickly sweep over its whole range like normal, and upon detecting an object could immediately switch over and focus 90 percent of its cycles tracking it in higher spatial and temporal resolution. The same thing is now possible with lidar.

Imagine a deer jumping out around a blind curve. Every millisecond counts because the earlier a self-driving system knows the situation, the more options it has to accommodate it. All other things being equal, an electronically-steered lidar system would detect the deer at the same time as the mechanically-steered ones, or perhaps a bit sooner; Upon noticing this movement, could not just make more time for evaluating it on the next “pass,” but a microsecond later be backing up the beam and specifically targeting just the deer with the majority of its resolution.

Just for illustration. The beam isn’t some big red thing that comes out.

Targeted illumination would also improve the estimation of direction and speed, further improving the driving system’s knowledge and options — meanwhile the beam can still dedicate a portion of its cycles to watching the road, requiring no complicated mechanical hijinks to do so. Meanwhile it has an enormous aperture, allowing high sensitivity.

In terms of specs, it depends on many things, but if the beam is just sweeping normally across its 120×25 degree field of view, the standard unit will have about a 20Hz frame rate, with a 1000×256 resolution. That’s comparable to competitors, but keep in mind that the advantage is in the ability to change that field of view and frame rate on the fly. In the example of the deer, it may maintain a 20Hz refresh for the scene at large but concentrate more beam time on a 5×5 degree area, giving it a much faster rate.

Meta doesn’t mean mega-expensive

Naturally one would assume that such a system would be considerably more expensive than existing ones. Pricing is still a ways out — Lumotive just wanted to show that its tech exists for now — but this is far from exotic tech.

CG render of a lidar metamaterial chip.The team told me in an interview that their engineering process was tricky specifically because they designed it for fabrication using existing methods. It’s silicon-based, meaning it can use cheap and ubiquitous 905nm lasers rather than the rarer 1550nm, and its fabrication isn’t much more complex than making an ordinary display panel.

CTO and co-founder Gleb Akselrod explained: “Essentially it’s a reflective semiconductor chip, and on the surface we fabricate these tiny antennas to manipulate the light. It’s made using a standard semiconductor process, then we add liquid crystal, then the coating. It’s a lot like an LCD.”

An additional bonus of the metamaterial basis is that it works the same regardless of the size or shape of the chip. While an inch-wide rectangular chip is best for automotive purposes, Akselrod said, they could just as easily make one a quarter the size for robots that don’t need the wider field of view, or an larger or custom-shape one for a specialty vehicle or aircraft.

The details, as I said, are still being worked out. Lumotive has been working on this for years and decided it was time to just get the basic information out there. “We spend an inordinate amount of time explaining the technology to investors,” noted CEO and co-founder Bill Colleran. He, it should be noted, is a veteran innovator in this field, having headed Impinj most recently, and before that was at Broadcom, but is perhaps he is best known for being CEO of Innovent when it created the first CMOS Bluetooth chip.

Right now the company is seeking investment after running on a 2017 seed round funded by Bill Gates and IV, which (as with other metamaterial-based startups it has spun out) is granting Lumotive an exclusive license to the tech. There are partnerships and other things in the offing but the company wasn’t ready to talk about them; the product is currently in prototype but very showable form for the inevitable meetings with automotive and tech firms.

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Researchers may have found a better way to make hydrogen for cars

jeremyiswild via Getty Images

While EVs have come a long way — even Ford is making electric trucks — they’re still a far cry from perfect. One of the biggest complaints is that the batteries need to be plugged in and recharged, and even when they’re charged, they have a limited range. Fuel cell electric vehicles offer an alternative. Their “battery” — actually a hydrogen/oxygen fuel cell — can be replenished with hydrogen gas. The biggest problem to-date has been that producing hydrogen isn’t an environmentally friendly process. We would also need the infrastructure to refuel with hydrogen. But, new technology from UMass Lowell could remove those barriers.

Researchers there have created a way to produce hydrogen on demand using water, carbon dioxide and cobalt. Theoretically, that would go directly into a fuel cell, where it would mix with oxygen to generate electricity and water. The electricity would then power the EV’s motor, rechargeable battery and headlights.

According to UMass Lowell, the hydrogen produced is 95 percent pure, and vehicles would not need to be refueled at a filling station. Instead, owners would replace canisters of the cobalt metal which would fuel the hydrogen generator. Because the technology can produce hydrogen at low temperatures and pressures and because excess isn’t stored in the vehicle, it minimizes the risk of fire or explosion. While this isn’t a practical application yet, it could help make FCEVs a viable option.

UPDATE, 3/22/2019, 2:30PM ET: This story has been updated to reflect that vehicles would not be refueled at a fueling station. You can read a statement from UMass Lowell’s Chemistry Department Chairman Professor David Ryan below:

The system that we have devised would not require the vehicle to be refueled at a hydrogen filling station. Our technology would use canisters of the cobalt metal as the fuel to operate the hydrogen generator. The canisters would be swapped out when expended. It’s really too early to tell, but the goal is typically to be able to travel up to 350 to 400 miles for most vehicles before “refueling.”

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