Despite my fondness for (and previous career in) computer troubleshooting, I find myself at sea when it comes to dealing with my car. But fortunately pretty much every car has a computer in it these days, and that onboard system can provide a first step to diagnosing a problem—all you need is the right tool.
Picture this: You're on a cross-country road trip with your kids, passing through some dusty corner of Nevada in your self-driving 2030 Chevrolet Lumina. Your car then sends an invisible message across the desert: Three passengers. Two in child seats. Sixth hour without a break. A distant server whirrs, combs through a database of your and your kids' past online behavior, and beams a command back to your car. A grinning clown dances across your windshield and a familiar jingle plays. "McDonalds!" your kids squeal. Suddenly you have lunch plans.
Say you're taking a romantic, winding drive through the mountains. The car in front of you at some point might disappear around a corner. It might also encounter a family of adorable baby quail scurrying across the road just beyond the bend, and decide to slow to a stop to avoid them. You didn't expect them to hit the brakes anytime soon-it's not like their car bore a bumper sticker proclaiming "I Brake For Quail"-so you tear around the bend with wild abandon, and promptly rear-end them.
A couple of years back, Rick Cavallaro and his wind-powered car - Blackbird - silenced an online debate about whether its possible for a wind-powered vehicle to move downwind faster than the speed of the wind itself by going out and outrunning the wind. Now, Cavallaro and company have reconfigured their car to travel upwind and proved that it's possible to travel upwind at more than twice the speed of the headwind, setting what has to be a record for upwind terrestrial sailing.
Google's self-driving fleet of robo-Priuses have been cruising around the San Francisco area for months now, logging over 300,000 km, But until recently, the technology behind the autonomous cars had been kept secret. Last month, Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford professor and head of the project, and Google engineer Chris Urmson, delivered a keynote speech at the IEEE International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in San Francisco, explaining how the car works. Their presentation included a video of the car's tech, which also showed what the car "sees" as it drives, a trippy neon image of the surrounding area, with roughly rendered cars and people moving around it.