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BMW’s magical gesture control finally makes sense as touchscreens take over cars

By Matt Burns

BMW has been equipping its cars with in-air gesture control for several years and I never paid attention to it. It seemed redundant. Why wave your hand in the air when there are dials, buttons and touchscreens to do the same? Until this week, that is, when took delivery of a BMW 850i loaner equipped with the tech. This is about the future.

I didn’t know the 850i used gesture control, because, frankly, I had forgotten BMW had this technology; I stumbled upon it. Just make a motion in the air to control the volume or tell the navigation to send you home. Now, in 2019, with giant touchscreens set to takeover cars, I find BMW’s gesture control smart and a great solution to a future void of buttons.

It’s limited in use right now. There are only a few commands: volume, nav, recent calls, and turning on and off the center screen. It’s easy to see additional functions added in the future. It’s sorely missing the ability to step back a screen. I want that function the most.

Here’s how it works: to control the volume, take one finger and spin it in the air above the center stack. Anywhere. The range is impressive. A person can do this next to the screen or two feet away. A person’s arm could be resting on the center armrest and lift in the air and twirl their finger. Bam, it controls the volume. Put two fingers up – not spinning, like a flat peace sign – and the screen turns on or off. Make a fist and open it twice to load the navigation or phone (user picks the function).

After using the system for several days, I never had a false positive. The volume control took about 10 minutes to master while the other gestures worked the first time.

In this car, these commands work in conjunction with physical buttons, dials, and a touchscreen. The gestures are optional. A user can turn off the function in the settings, too.

I found the in-air control a lovely addition to the buttons, though. At night, in the rain, they’re great as they do not require the driver to remove their focus from the road. Just twirl your fingers to turn down the volume.

I’m not convinced massive touchscreens are better for the driver. The lack of actual, tactile response along with burying options in menus can lead drivers to take their eyes off the road. For the automaker, using touchscreens is less expensive than developing, manufacturing, and installing physical buttons. Instead of having rows of plastic buttons and dials along with the mechanical bits behind them, automakers can use a touchscreen and program everything to be on screen. Tesla did it first, Ram, Volvo, and now Ford is following.

In-air gesture control could improve the user experience with touchscreens. When using BMW’s system, I didn’t have to take my eyes off the road to find the volume — something that I have to do occasionally, even in my car. Instead, I just made a circle in the air with my right hand. Likewise, BMW’s system lets the user call up the nav and navigate to a preset destination (like work or home) by just making another gesture.

BMW debuted this system in 2015. The automotive world was different. Vehicles were

Battery tech startup Sila Nano lands $45 million and Tesla veteran Kurt Kelty

By Kirsten Korosec

Sila Technologies, the battery materials company that has partnered with BMW and Daimler, landed $45 million in new funding and hired two high-profile executives, including Kurt Kelty, who led the battery cell team at Tesla for more than a decade.

Kelty, who was on Sila Nano’s advisory board, has been appointed vice president of automotive, according to Sina Nanotechnologies. The company also hired Bill Mulligan, the former executive vice president of global operations at SunPower, as its first COO.

Kelty was most recently senior vice president of operations at indoor vertical farming company Plenty . But he was best known for his time at Tesla, where he was a considered a critical link between the automaker and battery cell partner Panasonic.

“As part of Sila Nano’s advisory board, I’ve seen the results of the breakthrough battery chemistry firsthand and I could not pass up the opportunity to take it a step further and lead the company’s automotive partnership efforts,” Kelty said in a statement.

The company said Monday that additional $45 million in investment came from Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, bringing its total funding to $340 million. Earlier this year, Sila Nano secured $170 million in Series E funding led by Daimler AG.

This latest investment and expanded leadership team comes as the company, which is valued at more than $1 billion, aims to bring its first batteries to market.

Sila Nanotechnologies has developed a drop-in silicon-based anode that replaces graphite in lithium-ion batteries without requiring changes to the manufacturing process. The company claims that its materials can improve the energy density of batteries by 20% and has the potential to reach 40% improvement over traditional li-ion.

Here’s what that all means.

A battery contains two electrodes. There’s an anode (negative) on one side and a cathode (positive) on the other. An electrolyte sits in the middle and acts as the courier that moves ions between the electrodes when charging and discharging. Graphite is commonly used as the anode in commercial lithium-ion batteries. However, a silicon anode can store a lot more lithium ions.

The basic premise — and one that others are working on — is this: by replacing graphite in the cell with silicon, there would be more space to add more active material. This would theoretically allow you to increase the energy density—or the amount of energy that can be stored in a battery per its volume—of the cell.

Using silicon also helps reduce costs. In the end, the battery would be cheaper and have more energy packed in the same space.

The company says its innovative approach can be used in consumer electronics like wireless ear buds and smartwatches as well as electric vehicles and even energy storage for the grid.

The company started building the first production lines for its battery materials in 2018. That first line is capable of producing the material to supply the equivalent of 50 megawatts of lithium-ion batteries, Sila Nanotechnologies CEO Gene Berdichevsky, an early employee at Tesla who led the technical development of the automaker’s Roadster battery system, told TechCrunch back in April.

Sila Nanotechnologies said Monday that it will continue to ramp up production volume and plans to supply its first commercial customers in consumer electronics within the next year. The company said it also plans to go to market with battery partner Amperex Technology Limited and automotive partners BMW and Daimler.

Who will own the future of transportation?

By Kirsten Korosec

Autonomous vehicles are often painted as a utopian-like technology that will transform parking lots into parks and eliminate traffic fatalities — a number that reached 1.35 million globally in 2018.

Even if, as many predict, autonomous vehicles are deployed en masse, the road to that future promises to be long, chaotic and complex. The emergence of ride-hailing, car-sharing and micromobility hints at some of the speed bumps between today’s modes of transportation and more futuristic means, like AVs and flying cars. Entire industries face disruption in this new mobility world, perhaps none so thoroughly as automotive.

Autonomous-vehicle ubiquity may be decades away, but automakers, startups and tech companies are already clambering to be king of the ‘future of transportation’ hill.

How does a company, city or country “own” this future of transportation? While there’s no clear winner today, companies as well as local and federal governments can take actions and make investments today to make sure they’re not left behind, according to Zoox CEO Aicha Evans and former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who spoke about the future of cities on stage this month at Disrupt SF. 

Local = opportunity

Evolution in mobility is occurring at a global scale, but transportation is also very local, Evans said. Because every local transit system is tailored to the geography and the needs of its residents, these unique requirements create opportunities at a local level and encourages partnerships between different companies.

This is no longer just a Silicon Valley versus Detroit story; Europe, China, Singapore have all piled in as well. Instead of one mobility company that will rule them all, Evans and Granholm predict more partnerships between companies, governments and even economic and tech strongholds like Silicon Valley.

We’re already seeing examples of this in the world of autonomous vehicles. For instance, Ford invested $1 billion into AV startup Argo AI in 2017. Two years later, VW Group announced a partnership with Ford that covers a number of areas, including autonomy (via a new investment by VW in Argo AI) and collaboration on development of electric vehicles.

BMW and Daimler, which agreed in 2018 to merge their urban mobility services into a single holding company, announced in February plans to unify these services and sink $1.1 billion into the effort. The two companies are also part of a consortium that includes Audi, Intel, Continental and Bosch, that owns mapping and location data service company HERE.

There are numerous other examples of companies collaborating after concluding that going it alone wasn’t as feasible as they once thought.

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