From Israel's Negev Desert: Cool Tech for Cars

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Mar 16, 2018

BEER-SHEVA, ISRAEL—“Our original idea was a car that could be folded into something the size of a suitcase,” said Asaf Formoza, CEO of City Transformer. “Instead, we settled for a car that could be folded into the profile of a motorcycle.” Shai Agassi’s battery-swapping Better Place failed, and only 100 sporty Sabras were built in the 1960s, but that hasn’t stopped these young entrepreneurs from attempting to launch an automotive enterprise with global reach—and an intended U.S. market.

Dr. Asaf Formoza with his City Transformer folding car, shown here folded to the smallest size. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Formoza points out that 30 percent of travel time is wasted looking for a parking space. The company’s car, which folds on the run, can fit between parking spaces. It’s electric, lightweight at 1,000 pounds (thanks to carbon fiber and composites), set up for autonomous driving, and aimed at a $13,000 price point. The range of the little two-seater—with more than a passing resemblance to the $6,800 Elio we’re still waiting for—is 80 miles (with the air conditioning on). The intended use, aside from urban runabout, is pizza delivery, taxi and park maintenance. The Elio foundered on the need to tool up a big, modern factory in Louisiana, but City Transformer is hoping to build the first cars on small, low-tech 12-station assembly lines in small warehouses.

The City Transformer's interior is stark now, but it's going to have an airbag and infotainment. (Jim Motavalli photo)

City Transformer may be dreaming when it talks about a million folding cars soon appearing on the world’s streets, but dreaming is what they do best in the Start-Up Nation that is Israel. I was in the country to visit Ben-Gurion University’s tech campus in the Negev desert, and many of the young businesses got their start in the college’s labs. Now there’s also an advanced technologies business hub—featuring companies like Dell, PayPal, Lockheed Martin, IBM and Deutsche Telecomm—that works closely with BGU on issues like cybersecurity and robotics. Two bridges carry traffic between the tech center and the university, and a new train station takes travelers to Tel Aviv in an hour.

The self-driving technology in this golf cart folds up and can be transferred to another vehicle. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Hugo Guterman heads the laboratory for autonomous robotics at BGU, and he seemed delighted to let us see his self-driving golf cart and submarine. The cart will give way to a car in a few months, and the basic idea is a portable self-driving system that folds into a suitcase and can be transferred from vehicle to vehicle. That way, Guterman said, a few of the billions of cars we already have on the road can be driven autonomously.

Just think of the uses for a self-guided, thinking submarine! Yes, I thought of surveillance, too. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The whole system—which looks like a Cubist Picasso painting of a person, with “legs” that control the pedals—weighs 50 pounds and could be carried from car to car. No system for manual shifters is planned. For the demo, a Ph.D. student named Oded Yechiel used a tablet with the cart’s forward view delivered by onboard camera to control its movements. It hit a curb once, but was otherwise pretty good. There aren’t any car factories in Israel, but there are plenty of auto researchers.

Virtual reality gaming at Ben-Gurion. People reveal what they really think in games, not surveys. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The gangly Dr. Eran Ben-Elia, a senior lecturer in the geography department, uses games to predict driver behavior. People lie on surveys, he says—including about whether they’d be willing to give up their privately owned cars for shared autonomous ones—but their real opinions are revealed through gaming. “In games, we see how people actually behave,” Ben-Elia said. Also, gaming environments are easier to manipulate than the real-world version.

I tried a challenge in which I circled around looking for a parking space—it tested whether I’d be willing to pay extra for a space close to my destination. Evidently, I’m not. Journalists are cheap. Another game looked at how we handle GPS directions—sticking to one route often makes sense. The lab also has an old Cadillac that has never turned a wheel on the road. Instead, it’s the basis for the most realistic driving simulator I’ve ever used. The rear-view mirrors are screens, and the view ahead is a very lifelike city. The “car” made me motion sick going around curves and braking, just as real cars do. The feeling of motion was absolute.

The lab's Cadillac has never driven on a road, but it made me car sick. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The lab is studying what happens when people at the wheel of autonomous cars are asked to take control again. How long does it take before folks who might be watching a video or sending an email are engaged again? It’s one of the toughest problems in autonomy. Ben-Elia thinks it’s important, as I do, that autonomous cars be shared, otherwise we’re just adding more congestion to already crowded roads.

We visited David Zarrouk’s robotics lab and saw robot vehicles with flexible chassis (inspired by cockroaches and the tails of lizards) that could flip over, climb through rubble, and maybe (if scaled up) not get stuck in the sands of Mars. Soon we may be seeing medical robots—useful for precise drug delivery, tumor treatment and endoscopy—that can crawl swiftly through our intestines and blood vessels, Zarrouk said.

Ben-Gurion University students celebrate Purim--by dressing up and playing loud music. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Gabby Sarusi in the department of electro-optics has come up with an inexpensive way to attach a nanoscale infra-red sensor (thinner than a stamp) to an existing visible-light sensor in a cellphone or other device, enabling low-cost night-vision goggles or, on an autonomous car as part of Lidar, better visibility through fog, smoke and night darkness. It also might be part of a heads-up display, projecting a clear view ahead on the windshield. Sarusi said that what is a $300 device now could be sold for $7 or $8 in two years. Hybrid and electric cars may be able to use the technology with photovoltaics to harvest electricity from infra-red light, giving them a boost in the way regenerative braking does now.

That’s about it for cars, but I also saw RoboTiCan’s caged drone that can roll on the ground and could be useful in search-and-rescue, and Guterman’s robot for accurately delivering syringes to veins, including in babies. We also spent spent a pleasant afternoon with Yossi Oren and his colleagues who study malware and cybersecurity (when they’re not inventing automatic sarcasm detectors). We learned that doorbells, baby monitors, webcams and other common devices are incredibly vulnerable to attacks. Also, that the USB port is a common entry point for malware. It was scary but ultimately empowering. Keeping a little piece of tape over your laptop’s camera when it’s not in use is a really good idea.

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