Our Net Work columnist observes how Chinese EV makers are queuing up to conquer Europe, AI is becoming ever more humanlike and there’s news of NASA’s ambitions to return soil samples from Mars.
China’s nascent car makers have seized every opportunity to get a toehold in the global car market, having started by grabbing some well-known brand names. The famous British marque Rover became ‘Roewe’ under Chinese ownership and, their range now covers everything from a tiny all-electric car (the Roewe Clever), up to some monstrous-looking SUVs like the RX-9 (https://www.roewe.com.cn/3d-cars/csh/roewerx9/). The website https://www.roewe.com.cn showcases a vast wealth of vehicle design and production that is seemingly limitless.
Despite everything, we can still claim that Britain’s MG saloons contained the first mainstream digital dashboard nearly 40 years ago, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gH8orI8jdCA, preceded only by the dire and best forgotten electronic dash on the 1976 Aston Martin Lagonda, a favourite of oil sheiks at the time.
^^ HiPhi is a high-tech premium EV range from China, heading to the UK
In April, UK Government officials met in Shanghai with the CEO of Chinese luxury car maker HiPhi, who has ambitions to see HiPhi cars on the UK streets soon. The cars are crammed with tech, including LED matrix headlights directed by 2.6 million individually-controlled Texas Instruments digital micromirror devices or DMDs – see https://www.ti.com/dlp-chip/overview.html. From what I can gather, their ‘night-vision imaging’ LED lights project warning signs onto the road surface, with features like ‘intelligent pedestrian tracking’ detecting bystanders waiting to cross.
Whether it complies with UK road regulations is doubtful, but an early taster is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mAkIXVnH7sU. You can sign up for news or see more about the HiPhi-X at https://www.hiphi.com/hiphi-x
^^ BYD has high hopes for its forthcoming ‘Dolphin’ EV…
… while Great Wall Motor (GWM) teases a new model due in 2024.
BYD (Build Your Dreams, see Net Work, May 2023) is huge in Asia and has big plans to conquer Europe with their next cars, called the Dolphin and the Seal. The GWM (Great Wall Motor) Ora ‘Funky Cat’ described 18 months ago (see Net Work, January 2022) has set its sights on expansion too, with a so-far unnamed premium saloon coming in 2024. Some teaser shots are at https://gwmora.co.uk/nextgwmora/.
^^ The proposed Luvly O [Light Utility/ urban Vehicle] would be produced locally from kits.
News arrived of a concept EV from Sweden (where else?): the Luvly O is the brainchild of Luvly AB and is classed as an ‘LUV’ or light utility/ urban vehicle. Designed to be lightweight but tough and safe, the tiny, spartan two-seater would be ideal for nipping around congested towns. The Luvly O aims to be sustainable and fully recyclable and uses just two small batteries giving a range of 60+ miles. Naturally, it would communicate with a Luvly app on the driver’s smartphone. The Luvly O could arrive as flat packs, IKEA style, in kit form delivered to regional microfactories for local assembly instead. The vehicle – if it ever sees production – is a few years away yet and would cost about €10,000 (£8,600). More details are at http://www.luvly.se/ where you can sign up for newsletters.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is never far from the news and there’s no escaping the impact that AI now has on mundane everyday activities. The advent of ChatGPT – an OpenAI chatbot programmed to converse naturally – has caught the public’s imagination and has been covered extensively by others. You can try it at https://chat.openai.com, noting the site openly admits that it may sometimes generate wrong information and harmful or biased content.
^^ Bing Chat is a conversational system integrated with Microsoft’s search engine that allows users to talk to its AI chatbot rather than simply filling out search queries. (Bing Chat’s own definition of itself.)
Microsoft is finally killing off Cortana, its unloved and largely forgotten voice assistant. Having already abandoned mobile applications, Cortana as a standalone app will silently disappear from Windows 10 and 11 towards the end of this year, a measure Microsoft quietly announced in an earlier bulletin (see https://tinyurl.com/mr323r4e). In its place, new AI-powered search technology is being used that gives Bing search results an altogether friendlier, chatty style. I must admit that using Bing Chat in Microsoft Edge to search the web makes a pleasant change from punching in search phrases and trawling mindlessly through pages of hyperlinks and paid-for ads.
Waiting in the wings is Windows Copilot, a centralised AI tool coming to Windows 11 that promises to ‘help people easily take action and get things done’. Bing and ChatGPT plugins will be embedded into the Windows OS, and Windows Copilot promises (at last) to offer plain English AI-generated answers to our everyday questions, acting like a more intelligent Help screen. Copilot is already making its way into Microsoft Office 365.
^^ The Ingenuity helicopter and the Perseverance mobile laboratory that landed on Mars in February 2021 (Images: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Back in Net Work, October 2020, I wrote that NASA had launched a space mission to Mars hoping to fly a small helicopter called Ingenuity in the very thin Martian atmosphere, which has just 1% of the Earth’s density. This feat would be the first such powered flight made on another planet. The plucky helicopter exceeded all expectations, and the fascinating story of some of Ingenuity’s perilous journeys is recounted by NASA engineers at https://mars.nasa.gov/technology/helicopter/status/466/hide-and-seek/.
^^ The Mars Sample Return Mission (MSR) would see samples of Martian rocks and sediment return to Earth for analysis, ten years from now. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Looking to the future, an even greater challenge is that of returning Martian soil samples to Earth, and for this NASA has partnered with the European Space Agency as part of the highly ambitious Mars Sample Return (MSR) project. The scale of the technology needed is astonishing: samples of Martian rocks and sedimentary deposits, contained in small tubes, would be gathered together at a location on Mars and a craft called the Sample Return Lander would eventually land with extreme precision nearby. The lander would contain a small rocket – the two-stage Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) – into which the sample tubes would be loaded by a Perseverance-type rover, helped by two Sample Recovery Helicopters.
In another space programme first, the MAV rocket would then be launched from Mars back into orbit, to rendezvous with an Earth Return Orbiter (ERO) launched separately from Earth by the European Space Agency. It would be the first interplanetary spacecraft to capture an object orbiting around another planet and make a full round trip to Mars and back again. If it goes ahead, a target of the early 2030s has been slated for the MAV launching from the red planet. You can learn more at https://mars.nasa.gov/msr and hopefully a future Net Work writer will be able to report on its success!
^^ Virgin Galactic’s twin-bodied space carrier plane VMS Eve releases the VMS Unity space plane on a successful test flight prior to going commercial. (Image: Virgin Galactic)
There is good news from Virgin Galactic’s space tourism programme (Net Work, July 2021), as the company has successfully completed a spaceflight of its twin-bodied carrier plane ‘mothership’, the VMS Eve, in readiness for the company’s first commercial flight. After being transported into the upper atmosphere by the plane, the re-usable orbital spaceplane reaches an altitude of 80km, carrying its passengers and crew. The craft then folds in two, offering passengers a glimpse of space and the planet below, before gliding back to earth.
^^ Under construction: Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser is the world’s only winged commercial spaceplane, set to supply their privately-owned Orbital Reef space station.
US manufacturer Sierra Space is a commercial space company currently constructing what will be the world’s only winged commercial spaceplane, the ‘Dream Chaser’. The craft is intended to resupply the International Space Station, and would land back on Earth on ‘compatible airport runways’. The first Dream Chaser space plane was successfully powered up for the first time at the end of May. Sierra Space is also building the backronym-titled LIFE habitat (Large Integrated Flexible Environment), described as a ‘modular, three-storey commercial habitation and science platform designed for low-earth orbit’. As they say, remote working will never be the same again, and you can learn more about the proposed Orbital Reef space station at www.sierraspace.com.
^^ Amazon Kuiper’s smallest and lowest-cost satellite Internet terminal will measure just seven inches square.
Finally this month, Amazon’s long-overdue Kuiper program has finally received the green light from the US Federal Trade Commission. The service, first mentioned four years ago in Net Work, will eventually see a constellation of some 3,200 LEO satellites launched in 77 missions, to beam Internet services back down to earth. Amazon expects to start building five satellites a day in its own facility and is compelled to have at least half of the satellite constellation operational by July 2026. There’s more background at https://www.aboutamazon.com/what-we-do/devices-services/project-kuiper
That’s all for this month’s summary – you’ll find lots more in my Net Work column in this month’s Practical Electronics!