Mercedes Imagines the Future, Waymo Hears the World, Apple Backs Off Self-Driving, and More This Week in the Future of Cars

If you were expecting the auto industry to have a bit of a hangover following the parade of excess that surrounded last weekend’s Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, you underestimated the hardiness of the folks shaping the future of driving. After a weekend that focused on a glorious past, this week’s big headlines pivoted back to what’s coming next, especially in the real of autonomous vehicles.

If your own hangover kept you away from the news cycle this week, let’s get you caught up.

Headlines

News you may have missed from WIRED this week.

  • Chances are, you’ve seen a video or image titled something like “How a Driverless Car Sees the World,”, a swirling mix of colorful dots and squiggly lines produced by the vehicle’s array of lidar sensors, radars, and cameras. But seeing isn’t everything, Jack Stewart revealed: self-driving cars need to listen, too. Google spinoff Waymo has developed microphones for its cars that listen for distinct sounds and locate their source, and recently tested the system in Phoenix, with the help of local firetrucks, ambulances, and police cars. The goal is to make sure the car can recognize things like sirens, and react accordingly.
  • Jack also brings us news of the flying car variety. The day you fly about town may be just a few years away, and that means it’s time to figure out the niggling details, like how to land one of these things. That’s why Airbus teamed up with Near Earth Autonomy to give its flying car a laser system that scans potential landing sites, ensures they’re clear, and suggests alternatives if something’s blocking a safe touchdown. Lasers! What can’t they do?
  • We got a good look at the world Mercedes-Benz wants to build this week, in the form of two vehicles. I checked out the uber-luxurious, little-bit-gaudy Vision Mercedes-Maybach 6 Cabriolet, an electric, swooping, 20-foot-long rejection of a future full of tiny pod cars. And contributor Brett Berk broke down the all-important powertrain of the Project One, the upcoming, $2.8-million hypercar Mercedes will power with a surprisingly small engine and a quartet of electric motors. Start saving up those universal basic income checks.
  • The future comes for us all, even cars that left the assembly line two decades ago. If you’ve got a Porsche 993, you’re willing to mess with one of the best cars ever made, and you’ve got $525,000 to spend doing it, check out the Guntherwerks 400R. The custom car shop will take your old air-cooled beauty, deck it out in carbon fiber, a new interior, and a bigger, more modern engine.

Slightly Confusing Concept Car of the Week

The Prototype 9, a concept unveiled at Pebble Beach and meant to evoke the old glory days of grand prix racing in the first half of the 20th century. Confusing, because the automaker reliving that past is Infiniti, the luxury arm Nissan launched in 1989. Still, it looks mighty cool.

INFINITI

Required Reading

From elsewhere on the internet.

  • LG Electronics is coming to America. Green Car Reports has the details on the Korean company’s plan to open a 250,000-square-foot factory outside Detroit, good for roughly 300 jobs. LG is the key supplier for the battery packs inside the Chevy Bolt EV, so a base in Michigan makes sense.
  • Fiat Chrysler is looking in the other direction: overseas. Sergio Marchionne, CEO of the Italian-American automaker, has spent years talking about joining forces with competitors. Now, he’s considering breaking up the company, and selling off some branches—maybe Jeep—to one of a few Chinese companies, The New York Times reports.
  • No one really knows the best way to test a self-driving car, or how to determine when one’s ready for public use. But Waymo is one the case, and Alexis Madrigal at looks into the secretive test track and simulators where engineers sniff out—and solve—the edgiest of edge cases. looks into the secretive test track and simulators where engineers sniff out—and solve—the edgiest of edge cases.
  • The latest report that Apple is backing off its plan to develop its own kind of self-driving car comes from The New York Times. The company will instead focus on developing technology that goes into vehicles built by others, starting with a driverless shuttle carting employees between Apple buildings.
  • In other “building self-driving cars is hard” news, the Wall Street Journal has a report on an engineering exodus from Tesla. The Journal finds workers got spooked by CEO Elon Musk’s promise last year that Tesla’s newest cars would come equipped with all the hardware it needs for full self-driving. Tesla chalks the departures up to the industry’s white hot talent competition.

Please tip your local transportation reporters: @adavies47, @stewart_jack and @AarianMarshall.

social experiment read more

Elon Musk’s Boring Company Will Tunnel Under LA

Elon Musk is more than a bit busy building Model 3s, launching rockets, and saving the world from the AI apocalypse, but that isn’t keeping him from digging in to his holy mole-iest venture yet: a mildly mystifying scheme to find a faster, cheaper way of boring tunnels, and using it to destroy traffic.

As cool as that sounds, Silicon Valley’s version of Tony Stark hasn’t said much about his mysterious Boring Company, which now employs six people and shares office space with SpaceX in Hawthorne, California. Just what are its goals? How does he expect to disrupt tunneling? And when will LA traffic ever improve? Musk still isn’t talking, but documents the Boring Company provided to the city of Hawthorne, and comments employees made to the city council, provide a few tidbits.

Those clues provide a clearer picture of what Musk is up to. Good thing, too, because the Hawthorne city council just gave the Boring Company permission to begin digging a 1.6-mile read more

Zipline Launches Medical Supply Drone Deliveries in Tanzania

Last month in Rwanda, a young woman started bleeding after giving birth by C-section. Try as they might, her doctors couldn’t stop it. They’d already transfused the two units of matching blood that they had on-hand. They could have called the national blood bank in the capital of Kigali to request more, but ordering it, and sending it the 25 miles over mountainous roads to the hospital would take up to four hours. The woman didn’t have that kind of time.

Desperate, the doctors called a distribution center near Kigali, where clinic workers and a flight crew loaded a series of small, unmanned aircraft with the needed supplies and launched them into the sky. Within 45 minutes, they dispatched seven units of red blood cells, four units of plasma, and two units of platelets, more than circulates through the entire human body.

Each drone needed just 15 minutes to reach the hospital, where it dropped its payload on a pre-determined landing zone. Doctors grabbed read more

The Vision Mercedes-Maybach 6 Cabriolet Rejects the Pod-Based Automotive Future

The impending invasion of autonomous vehicles threatens to demote you from the pilot of a machine synonymous with independence to mere cargo in a commodity pod devoid of all spirit. Whatever the truth of this potential nightmare, Mercedes-Benz has pinched itself into waking reality with the Vision Mercedes-Maybach 6 Cabriolet.

The swooping concept car, unveiled last weekend at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, rejects all notions of practicality. It measures nearly 18.7 feet long and 6.9 feet wide, yet offers just two seats. The wheels stand 24 inches tall. Although the 6 Cabriolet runs on battery power (its solitary nod to the future) and therefore lacks an engine, the hood makes up about half the car’s length.

The vestigial radiator grille was inspired by a pinstripe suit—something else Silicon Valley is doing its best to kill. The rear end brings to mind a yacht, a theme apparently chosen to keep anyone from thinking the car draws ideas from something useful, read more

Airbus’ Vahana Flying Car Uses Laser Sensors to Pick out Landing Spots

Before you can zip about in a flying car, engineers must solve more than a few problems. Oddly, figuring out how to make a flying car fly isn’t among them. The basics of flight were sorted out more than 100 years ago. No, the big challenge lies in making these things fly themselves so you don’t have to go through the hassle of earning a pilot’s license. Here, too, taking flight isn’t the big problem. Landing is.

“Takeoff is fairly scripted,” says Sanjiv Signh, the CEO of Near Earth Autonomy. His company makes sensors and robotic controls for aerial vehicles like drones. “But the landing site may not be ready to take a vehicle. Maybe something went wrong, and there’s already a vehicle on deck.”

A human pilot would know what to do. But a computer algorithm? It must be programmed. So Airbus, which really is developing an autonomous flying car, tapped the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, company to provide the hardware needed to get it off the read more

The USS John S. McCain Crash Isn’t Exactly Like the USS Fitzgerald’s

The USS John S. McCain limped into Changi Naval Base in Singapore today after a collision with a merchant vessel near the Straits of Malacca. It’s the second collision involving a naval warship in as many months, and although the two incidents appear similar, a few things set the crash of the McCain apart.

Monday morning’s collision occurred in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes when the guided missile destroyer collided with Alnic MC. Pictures show the McCain with a heavily dented hull, but the vessel reached port under its own power. Still, the ship saw flooding of machinery, communications, and—as was the case in June’s accident involving the USS Fitzgerald—crew sleeping quarters. Ten sailors remain missing, and five others were injured.

“Initial reports indicate John S. McCain sustained damage to her port side aft,” the Navy said in a statement.

The fact the McCain took a blow to its port, or left, read more

Driverless Cars Need Ears as Well as Eyes

You need just two eyes and two ears to drive. Those remarkable sensors provide all the info you need to, say, know that a fire engine is coming up fast behind you, so get out of the way. Autonomous vehicles need a whole lot more than that. They use half a dozen cameras to see everything around them, radars to know how far away it all is, and at least one lidar laser scanner to map the world. Yet even that may not be enough.

To understand why, think about that fire engine. Your ears hear it approaching from behind, and your stereoscopic sound can determine where it is, where it’s headed, and how fast. Hearing plays an essential role in how you navigate the world, and, so far, most autonomous cars can’t hear. Engineers at the outfits developing robocars are trying to figure out how to give them that skill, and any other human traits they’ll need to hit the roads.

“Since the technology is relatively new, we still don’t have all the answers as to what read more

Mercedes-Benz’s $2.8 Million Project One Hypercar Gets Huge Power From a Tiny Engine

We don’t know a whole lot about the Project One. We have no idea how fast it will go, or how quickly it will reach 60 or 125 mph from a standstill. We have only a vague sense of what the thing looks like, formed by adding wishful thinking to annoyingly vague teaser images. We don’t even know when we’ll know more.

Of course, expectations are high for a car that will cost roughly $2.8 million (to start) and represents Mercedes-Benz’s bid to join the elite club of ‘hypercars.’ Developed by Merc’s in-house go-fast division, AMG, and slated to go on sale in 2019, the Project One will rival million-dollar vehicles like the forthcoming Aston Martin ValkyrieMcLaren BP23, and Ferrari LaFerrari Aperta.

  • Supercars

  • Jack Stewart

    Porsche’s Most Powerful 911 Ever Makes 700 Horsepower, Is Insane

  • Brett Berk

    Supercars and Robots Push Honda Toward the Autonomous Future

  • Matthew DeBord

    Inside Ford’s Top-Secret Campaign to Remake the Iconic GT

And this week, we learned how Mercedes read more

Guntherwerks Revamps Porsche 993s for Just $525,000

When the artisans stepped into the Sistine Chapel with brushes in hand in the early 1980s, onlookers fretted that despite a meticulously planned, desperately needed effort to restore the color and verve of Michelangelo’s frescoes, they would ruin one of the world’s great cultural treasures.

So it goes with beloved works of art, something that anyone familiar with the Porsche 993 would agree includes that remarkable sports car. The third generation of Porsche’s venerable 911, built from 1993 until 1998, is perhaps the best loved. It retains the classic shape of the 911, a miraculous engine, and sublime handling. It’s not for nothing that Road & Track once called the 993 “something truly special.” The car also induces wistfulness among Porsche aficionados, as it’s the last 911 with an air-cooled engine. All of which to say: This is not a car you want to ruin, or muck about with lightly.

That didn’t stop Peter Nam, whose custom car read more

Flying Deloreans, the Electric Nikola Zero, and the Rest of This Week’s Car News

The Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, the nation’s premier automotive event, is on the horizon, and cars built before Hawaii was even a state will sell for millions upon millions of dollars. Perhaps that explains why so much of the news this week is about making the long-ish in tooth new again. We’ve got another DeLorean, an off-road vehicle gone new-agey electric, even a stolid state Department of Transportation trying on something new (and autonomous) for size. Let’s get you caught up.

Headlines

News you may have missed from WIRED this week.

  • Paul DeLorean isn’t the DeLorean you know from the time machine in Back to the Future. That was his uncle, John. Paul is the guy behind DeLorean Aerospace, which is betting we’ll all one zip around in flying cars one day. The D-7, which is a concept, and, DeLorean insists, soon to be a prototype, is a two-seat vertical takeoff and landing aircraft. (The cool kids call them VTOLs). Will it ever actually fly? Maybe. And as our own Jack Stewart reports, the company sees itself competing against Uber, Airbus, Darpa, Larry Page, and a ton of startups racing to build the first VTOL you can fly to work.
  • Speaking of Jack, he went a little nuts over the Nikola Zero, an utterly insane UTV from Nikola Powersports. The four seater puts down a jaw-dropping 555 horsepower and 4,900 foot-pounds of torque (if you buy the hyped-up version) and—get this—it’s electric. Now you can go ripping about off-road without the guilt.
  • Sure, autonomous taxis might shuttle you around a dense city soon. But remember the real robo-workhorses out there, the vehicles that labor to make our highways great, because they’re going autonomous, too. Jack takes us to Colorado, where the Department of Transportation is experimenting with an AV that will protect workers in construction zones. “People often talk about the coming job displacement of automated vehicles—well this is actually one job I want to get people out of,” says Shailen Bhatt, the DOT’s executive director.
  • As I said earlier, Pebble Beach is upon us. If you’ve got a truckload of cash, I put together a list of the coolest cars up for sale. Someone please buy me the Ferrari egg—it’s only $5 million, give or take.

Text of the Week

“We’ve got to start calling Elon on his shit. I’m not on social media but let’s start ‘faketesla’ and start giv[ing] physics lessons about stupid shit Elon says like this.” – then-Uber autonomous vehicle head Anthony Levandowski to then-Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, in text messages released as part of the ongoing Uber-Waymo lawsuit. Levandowski appears to have been angry about the way Musk had represented Tesla’s safety record.

Required Reading

read more