Cars are a large part of most people’s lives. According to a survey from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, Americans report driving an average 294 hours and 10,874 miles annually. So it’s no surprise that a significant portion of R&D investment is in the automotive sector.

In January, R&D Magazine took a closer look at automotive research, highlighting everything from innovations in self-driving cars and brain-to-vehicle interfaces to improvements in efficiency and materials.

We also featured perspectives regarding the logistics of implementing these innovations, many of which have the potential to be disruptive.

Autonomous technology

We kicked off our coverage looking at a topic that has made headlines recently—autonomous car technology. Many companies and researchers are investigating how to make safe, reliable vehicles that can drive themselves. One key to autonomous vehicles is LiDAR—Light Detection and Ranging—a remote sensing systems that use light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure distance.

In our story “Next-Gen LiDAR System Helps Autonomous Vehicles Stay on the Road,” we featured AEye, a California-based company that creates advanced vision hardware, software and algorithms for autonomous vehicles. The company recently developed iDAR, an intelligent data collection system that fuses LiDAR, computer vision and artificial intelligence to deliver advancements in perception and motion planning for autonomous vehicles.

VTT Technical Research Center in Finland is also working to improve current LiDAR systems. Our article “New Autonomous Car Can Handle Snow and Ice highlights Martti—a self-driving vehicle with a system that is designed to maneuver rough and icy conditions. The car features a special filtering technology for processing environment perception data and improving performance of LiDAR in snowy conditions.

A team from Mississippi State University’s Center for Advanced Vehicular Systems is also working on creating an improved combination sensing systems for autonomous vehicles. They’ve created a “supercar” known as Halo, which utilizes an on-board NVIDIA supercomputer and a sensor package that includes LiDAR, radar and cameras. We featured the technology in our article “New Supercar Showcases Future of Autonomous Vehicles.”

Logistical challenges

In addition to the technical challenges that come with self-driving cars, there are also significant logistical challenges that will accompany their roll out.

Two industry experts contributed their viewpoints on this topic to R&D Magazine as part of our automotive innovations coverage in January.

Michael Davis from the National Tolls and Technology Service Group discussed the responsibility that transportation agencies will have to create connected infrastructure following an influx of connected, autonomous vehicles (CAVs) in his article “Transportation Agencies Anticipate a Future with Connected, Autonomous Vehicles.”

While American cities have grids in varying degrees of technological sophistication and condition, highways that snake through more rural areas likely aren’t as prepared for CAVs, explained David in the article. To move from pockets of CAVs to widespread adoption, state transportation agencies have a long way to go.

Bern Grush, a systems engineer and autonomous transit strategist, highlighted the challenges with autonomous vehicle implementation in Ontario, Canada in his article “The Rise of Autonomous Vehicles: Planning for Deployment Not Just Development.”

Ontario was the first Canadian jurisdiction to make a significant research investment in what it calls the Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network. However, the city is not prepared for the disruption autonomous vehicles will bring, said Grush in the article. The government must spend on deployment planning and practices to increase the probability of positive outcomes, pilot ways to use new technologies to reduce car ownership, increase rail ridership, decrease parking demand and reduce transit costs on under-used bus routes.

However, it’s not just self-driving cars that could cause logistical challenges if they become mainstream too quickly. In our article “Electric Vehicles Could Impact the Grid” we highlighted research from the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) regarding what would happen if there was a significant increase in electric vehicle use. NREL has developed a new computer simulation to explore the impacts in-home charging could have on the nation’s grid.

Innovations on the horizon

We also explored several other types of up-and-coming innovations in the automotive sector, across technology and material sciences.

In our article “Nissan Developing Brain-to-Vehicle Technology to Enhance Driving Experience” we highlighted cutting-edge technology that could lead to cars that adapt to the driver based on his or her thoughts.

Nissan is working on a device that has two primarily functions—using brain waves to decipher when the driver is about to make a driving action like braking and turning, and using brain waves to enhance the comfort of the driver by adjusting things like temperature control. By catching signals that the user’s brain is about to initiate a movement, including turning the steering wheel, braking or pushing the accelerator, the technologies can begin the action quicker.

We also looked at innovations in the materials that are utilized to build vehicles.

In our story “New Aluminum Alloys Can Take the Heat, Improve Engine Efficiency” we featured a team led by researchers from Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) that created ACMZ (aluminum copper manganese zirconium) Cast Aluminum Alloys in cylinder heads of automotive engines. Current commercially available alloys can handle temperatures between 200 and 250 degrees Celsius and are approaching their useful limits in modern engines. However, the ACMZ aluminum alloys can take temperatures of about 350 degrees Celsius.

We also explored the impact improved materials could make in our story “Understanding the Potential of Carbon Fiber Composites for Automobiles.” One potential path to creating more fuel-efficient vehicles is to reduce their weight by replacing the heavy steel traditionally used, with carbon fiber composites. However, because the properties of composites are complex, utilizing them in the automotive sector comes with a unique set of challenges.

A team of experts from industry and academia is working to solve these issues, developing predictive engineering tools for designing new, economical and lightweight automotive composites.

Next month’s special focus

In February R&D Magazine will tackle another area of research that is making a significant impact on society—nanotechnology. Science, engineering and technology conducted at the nanoscale—which is about 1 to 100 nanometers— can be used across a wide variety of science fields, such as chemistry, biology, physics, materials science, and engineering. Be sure to check back to to learn more about the exciting field throughout February.