E&T news weekly #84 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week


Friday 4 March 2016

Lorna Sharpe  Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
Google admits responsibility for self-driving car crash

Google has acknowledged some responsibility for a low-speed accident involving a bus and one of its self-driving cars. That’s significant, because all the Google Car’s previous prangs have been blamed on mistakes by the human drivers of the other vehicles involved. In this case it seems the car’s software misjudged what the bus driver would do, which just goes to show that computers are still some way off understanding real people.

Stretchable electronics could pave the way for smart clothing

Researchers in Switzerland have demonstrated a new material that’s not only suitable for flexible electronics, which is tricky enough in itself, but can also be stretched up to four times its original length in all directions. Part of the team’s success is down to clever fabrication techniques, but the material itself is an alloy of gallium and gold that can be persuaded to remain liquid at room temperature. Past generations of schoolchildren used to have fun rolling globules of mercury around laboratory benches, but I can’t see our successors being allowed to get their hands on liquid gold – that’s going to be much too expensive to end up between the cracks in the floorboards.

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
More investment in renewables than fossil fuels last year

In spite of the continued, entrenched opposition from Big Oil and the pro-nuclear lobby – routinely swaying government thinking and diverting public money for their own ends – it looks as though we might have reached a turning point when it comes to renewable energy. A record £265bn was invested inrenewables worldwide last year – a greater sum than that invested in new fossil fuel powered plants. Quite why it’s taken mankind at large this long to come around to renewable energy sources remains a matter of debate. Any child will reason that if there’s a limitless supply of free energy from either that massive ball of burning gases in the sky, or those winds that keep blowing, or those tides that keep flowing, why wouldn’t you take advantage of all that free energy around us, available equally to all countries of the world and which doesn’t cause atmospheric pollution nor exacerbate climate change? Only money and greed can complicate such pure and simple thinking, but hopefully for those still grimly clinging to the old avaricious, selfish ways, their time is inevitably drawing to a close.

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Light-absorbing graphene to power ‘smart wallpaper’ and IoT

Any wise tech journalist will don their trusty spectacles of scepticism when faced with an everyday object that’s had the word ‘smart’ stuck in front of it. That’s a shame in this case because ‘smart wallpaper’ – possibly dreamed up by the University of Surrey’s PR and team and not the scientists involved in the breakthrough – does no favours to what’s a genuinely great bit of innovation. In short, it’s agraphene layer grown on a textured metal surface that’s capable of absorbing 90 per cent of light energy falling on it. The idea is that it could harvest ambient light and heat to power Internet of Things devices that don’t require much energy. The people who took inspiration from the structures in moths’ eyes which allow them to see in dark conditions is pretty smart, but the ‘wallpaper’ has about as much intelligence as any that you already have decorating your home.

Jack Loughran  Jack Loughran, news reporter
Google admits responsibility for self-driving car crash

So Google’s driverless car has had its first ‘major’ accident. Big deal. This might be the kind of thing where luddites would say: See! I told you! We can’t trust the computers! They’re out to kill us all! But when you look at the details of the accident, both vehicles were going at about the same speed as a person jogging, no one was hurt, and they sustained minor damage. Google has been testing the technology since 2012, considering this it’s actually an achievement that this is the first time that such an incident has occurred. The technology promises to revolutionise the way we interact with cars and is another step towards a utopian future that is driven by technology. If the odd minor accident has to happen once in a while to achieve that goal, it seems worth it. Besides, if it had been humans who had been driving the cars during the thousands and thousands of hours that the autonomous technology has been tested on Californian roads, a greater number of accidents would probably have occurred. After all, we’re only human.

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