Toyota testing improved solar roof for electric cars that can charge while driving

Toyota is testing a new and improved version of the solar power cells it previously launched on the Japan-exclusive Prius PHV, in a pilot along with partners Sharp and Japanese national research organization NEDO. This demo car’s prototype cells can convert solar energy at 34% and up, which is much better than the existing commercial version’s 22.5%, and unlike its predecessor it can also charge the car’s driving battery while the car is actually moving, recouping significant range while the vehicle is in use.

The new system will provide up to 44.5 km (27.7 miles) of additional range per day while parked and soaking up sun, and can also add up to 56.3 km (35 miles) of power to both the driving system and the auxiliary power battery on board, which runs the AC, navigation and more.

Using a redesigned solar battery cell film that measures only 0.03 mm (that’s 0.001 inches), the vehicles engineers could put the film over a much broader surface area of the vehicle compared to the existing production version, with solar cells that wrap around covered body components, the rear door and the hood with relative ease. And as mentioned, the system can now work while the car is actually driving, thanks to changes in how generated power is fed to the system, which is a huge step up from the last generation which could only push power to that auxiliary battery to run the radio, etc. when in motion.

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This new test vehicle will hit the road in Japan in late July, and perform trials across a range of different regions to test its abilities in different weather and driving conditions. Ultimately, the goal is to use this research to facilitate the commercial deployment of more efficient solar power generation tech that can work in a number of transportation applications.

Solar powered cars to date have been a bit of an outlier proposition: There’s Toyota’s own Prius PHV, but it’s quite limited in terms of what you gain vs. a traditionally plug-in electric. Lightyear One, a startup from The Netherlands, unveiled its own solar electric consumer car last month, but production on that vehicle isn’t set to start until 2021, and it’s a new entrant into the market, at that.

Volkswagen launches WeShare all-electric car sharing service

Making good on plans revealed last year to debut an EV-exclusive car sharing service, Volkswagen is actually launching its fleet for customers – debuting WeShare, a new shared service similar to Car2Go or GM’s Maven, but featuring only all-electric vehicles. Initially, WeShare will be available only in Berlin, where it’s launching today with 1,500 Volkswagen e-Golf cars making up the on-demand rental fleet.

The plan is to add 500 more cars to the available population by early next year, specifically the e-up! electric city company car, and then it’ll also play host to the brand new ID.3 fully electric car when that’s officially launched. VW is still targeting the middle of next year for a street date for that vehicle, which is part of its all-new ID line of vehicles designed from the ground-up based on its next-generation electric vehicle platform. In terms of new geographies, WeShare will look to launch In Prague (in partnership with VW Group sub-brand Skoda) and also in Hamburg, both some time in 2020.

WeShare has a coverage area that includes the Berlin city centre and a little bit beyond the Ringbahn train line that encircles it. The cars are available in a “free-floating” arrangement, meaning they’ll be free to pickup and park wherever public parking is available. This one-way model, which is the one used by competitor Car2go, is distinct from the round-trip style rentals preferred by Zipcar, for instance. It’s more convenient for customers, but more of a headache for operators, who have to worry about ensuring cars remain in the rental zone and are parked appropriately and legally.

WeShare will also take responsibility for recharging the vehicles as needed, and will do so using the public charging network that’s available in Berlin, but later on it will seek to incentive actual users of the system to charge up when vehicles need it.

Car sharing, especially one-way, has had a hit-and-miss track record to date. Car2go shuttered operations in Toronto and Chicago, for instance, due to incompatibility with city operations regarding parking in the case of Toronto, and rampant cases of fraud in Chicago that resulted in cars being used to commit crimes. VW notes in a release that in Berlin, however, the number of car sharing users has grown from 180,000 people in 2010 to 2.46 million in early 2019.

Volkswagen also owns and operates a fully-electric ridesharing service called MOIA, which has built its own fit-for-purpose vehicle and which currently operates in Hamburg and Hanover. Last year, VW said the two mobility service operations, which offer very different service models, will work together in future.

Tesla reportedly working on its own battery cell manufacturing capability

Automaker Tesla is looking into how it might own another key part of its supply chain, through research being done at a secret lab near its Fremont, CA HQ, CNBC reports. The company currently relies on Panasonic to build the battery pack and cells it uses for its vehicles, which is one of, if not the most significant component in terms of its overall bill of materials.

Tesla is no stranger to owning components of its own supply chain rather than farming them out to vendors as is more common among automakers – it builds its own seats at a facility down the road from its Fremont car factory, for instance, and it recently started building its own chip for its autonomous features, taking over those duties from Nvidia.

Eliminating links in the chain where possible is a move emulated from Tesla CEO Elon Musk inspiration Apple, which under Steve Jobs adopted an aggressive strategy of taking control of key parts of its own supply mix and continues to do so where it can eke out improvements to component cost. Musk has repeatedly pointed out that batteries are a primary constraint when it comes to Tesla’s ability to produce not only is cars, but also its home power products like the Powerwall consumer domestic battery for solar energy systems.

Per the CNBC report, Tesla is doing its battery research at an experimental lab near its factory in Fremont, at a property it maintains on Kato road. Tesla would need lots more time and effort to turn its battery ambitions into production at the scale it requires, however, so don’t expect it to replace Panasonic anytime soon. And in fact, it could add LG as a supplier in addition to Panasonic once its Shanghai factory starts producing Model 3s, per the report.

Lightyear One debuts as the first long-range solar-powered electric car

Electric cars are better for the environment than fossil fuel-burning vehicles, but they still rely on the grid, which can be variously dirty or clean depending on what sources it uses for its energy. The new Lightyear One is a prototype vehicle that would improve that by collecting the power it needs to run from the sun.

Lightyear, a startup from the Netherlands born as Stella, has come a long way since it won a Crunchie award in 2015, with a vehicle that now looks ready for the road. The Lightyear One prototype vehicle unveiled today has a sleek, driver-friendly design and also boasts a range of 450 miles on a single charge – definitely a first for a car powered by solar and intended for the actual consumer market.

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The startup says that it has already sold “over a hundred vehicles” even though this isn’t yet ready to hit the road, but Lightyear is aiming to begin production by 2021, with reservations available for 500 additional units for the initial release. You do have to pay €119,000 up front (around $136,000 USD) to secure a reservation, however.

Lightyear One isn’t just a plug-in electric with some solar sells on the roof: Instead it’s designed from the ground up to maximize performance from a smaller-than-typical battery that can directly grab sun from a roof and hood covered with 16 square feet of solar cells, embedded in safety glass designed with passenger wellbeing in mind. The car can also take power directly from regular outlets and existing charging stations for a quick top-up, and again because it’s optimized to be lightweight and power efficient, you can actually get around 250 miles on just one night of charging from a standard (European) 230V outlet.

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The car should supplement existing electric cars for buyers who are more conscious of range anxiety and nervous about having enough charge, the company says. It still have to actually enter production, however, and even when it does it’ll be a fairly expensive and small batch product, at least at first. But it’s an impressive feat nonetheless, and a potential new direction for EVs of the future.

This robot crawls along wind turbine blades looking for invisible flaws

Wind turbines are a great source of clean power, but their apparent simplicity — just a big thing that spins — belie complex systems that wear down like any other, and can fail with disastrous consequences. Sandia National Labs researchers have created a robot that can inspect the enormous blades of turbines autonomously, helping keep our green power infrastructure in good kit.

The enormous towers that collect energy from wind currents are often only in our view for a few minutes as we drive past. But they must stand for years through inclement weather, temperature extremes, and naturally — being the tallest things around — lightning strikes. Combine that with normal wear and tear and it’s clear these things need to be inspected regularly.

But such inspections can be both difficult and superficial. The blades themselves are among the largest single objects manufactured on the planet, and they’re often installed in distant or inaccessible areas, like the many you see offshore.

“A blade is subject to lightning, hail, rain, humidity and other forces while running through a billion load cycles during its lifetime, but you can’t just land it in a hanger for maintenance,” explained Sandia’s Joshua Paquette in a news release. In other words, not only do crews have to go to the turbines to inspect them, but they often have to do those inspections in place — on structures hundreds of feet tall and potentially in dangerous locations.

Using a crane is one option, but the blade can also be orientated downwards so an inspector can rappel along its length. Even then the inspection may be no more than eyeballing the surface.

“In these visual inspections, you only see surface damage. Often though, by the time you can see a crack on the outside of a blade, the damage is already quite severe,” said Paquette.

Obviously better and deeper inspections are needed, and that’s what the team decided to work on, with partners International Climbing Machines and Dophitech. The result is this crawling robot, which can move along a blade slowly but surely, documenting it both visually and using ultrasonic imaging.

A visual inspection will see cracks or scuffs on the surface, but the ultrasonics penetrate deep into the blades, making them capable of detecting damage to interior layers well before it’s visible outside. And it can do it largely autonomously, moving a bit like a lawnmower: side to side, bottom to top.

Of course at this point it does it quite slowly and requires human oversight, but that’s because it’s fresh out of the lab. In the near future teams could carry around a few of these things, attach one to each blade, and come back a few hours or days later to find problem areas marked for closer inspection or scanning. Perhaps a crawler robot could even live onboard the turbine and scurry out to check each blade on a regular basis.

Another approach the researchers took was drones — a natural enough solution, since the versatile fliers have been pressed into service for inspection of many other structures that are dangerous for humans to get around: bridges, monuments, and so on.

These drones would be equipped with high-resolution cameras and infrared sensors that detect the heat signatures in the blade. The idea is that as warmth from sunlight diffuses through the material of the blade, it will do so irregularly in spots where damage below the surface has changed its thermal properties.

As automation of these systems improves, the opportunities open up: A quick pass by a drone could let crews know whether any particular tower needs closer inspection, then trigger the live-aboard crawler to take a closer look. Meanwhile the humans are on their way, arriving to a better picture of what needs to be done, and no need to risk life and limb just to take a look.

Scientists discover a new way to provide plants the nutrients they need to thrive

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have discovered a new method for delivering key nutrients to plant roots – without having to ensure they’re present in the soil where the plants are growing.

The landmark study greatly increases the efficiency of surface delivery of nutrients and pesticides to plants. Currently, when crops are sprayed with stuff that’s supposed to help them grow faster or better, the vast majority of that (up to 95 percent, according to CMU’s engineering blog) will just end up either as concentrated deposits in the surrounding soil, or dissolving into ground water. In both cases, accumulation over time can have negative knock-on effects, in addition to being terribly inefficient at their primary task.

This method, described by researchers in detail in a new academic paper, would manage to improve efficiency to nearly 100% absorption of nutrients and pesticides delivered as nanoparticles (particles smaller than 50 nanometers across – a human hair is about 75,000 nanometers wide, for context) sprayed onto the leaves of plants, which then make their way through the plant’s internal vascular system all the way down into the root system.

Using this method, agricultural professionals could also greatly improve delivery of plant antibiotics, making it easier and more cost-effective to treat plant diseases affecting crop yields. It would be cheaper to delivery all nutrients and pesticides, too, because the big bump in efficiency of uptake by the plants means you can use much less of anything you want to deliver to achieve your desired effect.

This research could have huge impact in terms of addressing growing global food supply needs while making the most existing agricultural land footprint and decreasing the need for potentially damaging expansion of the same.

Nissan’s zero-emission ice cream van uses old EV batteries to keep things cool

File ice cream vans under ‘things I never thought posed a significant risk to the environment but might actually.’ Nissan has developed a new concept vehicle that addresses the problem of all the emissions generated by conventional ice cream vans, and older models in particular, which pump out a lot of greenhouse gases while idling in order to just make sure the ice cream on board stays iced.

For the project, Nissan’s working with ice cream company Mackie’s of Scotland, a purveyor of fine frozen treats that has already taken steps to reduce its footprint using dairy from its own, family-run farm that’s powered by energy from renewable sources including wind and solar. From the sustainably-made product, to the new zero-emission delivery van conceived and built by Nissan, the companies are calling the approach a ‘sky to scoop’ way to reduce their carbon footprint.

To start, Nissan took their e-NV200 light duty commercial van, which itself is fully electric and provides up to 124 miles of range on a charge. For this ice cream concept, the van was modified with Nissan’s new ‘Energy Roam,’ a lithium-ion power pack that uses battery cells recovered from older Nissan EVs built from 2010 on. These repurposed power packs can each store about 0.7kWh with out put of 1kW, and two are used on board to run a built-in soft-serve machine, fridges and freezers. The power packs can be recharged either from a 230v mains power outlet (this is designed for UK use), or from solar tiles installed on the van’s roof, which can fill up the batteries in between two to four hours on their own.

Besides its all-electric power sources, the Nissan concept van includes a number of revisions of the traditional model of mobile ice cram selling, including situating the vendor outside of the van with a hatch that opens to expose the ice cream dispensing goodness. It’s also equipped with contactless payment support so you can just pay with Apple Pay or Google Pay on the go, and through an integration with What3Words, the van broadcasts its location via Twitter instead of with a jaunty jingle.

Bonus for ice cream sellers: Nissan notes that van owners could collect and store power using the on-board batteries and sell it back to the grid even when it’s not ideal weather for selling cold confections – though it’s definitely still a concept, so this is all theoretical.

Climate justice and environmental ethics in tech, with Amazon engineer Rajit Iftikhar

Nearly 8,000 Amazon employees, many in prestigious engineering and design roles, have recently signed a petition calling on Jeff Bezos and the Amazon Board of Directors to dramatically shift the giant company’s approach to climate change.

By deploying a kind of corporate social disobedience such as speaking out dramatically at shareholders meetings, and by engaging in a variety of community organizing tactics, the “Amazon Employees for Climate Justice” group has quickly become a leading example of a growing trend in the tech world: tech employees banding together to take strong ethical stances in defiance of their powerful employers.

The public actions taken by these employees and groups have been covered widely by the news media. For my TechCrunch series on the ethics of technology, however, I wanted to better understand what participating actively in this campaign has been like some of the individuals involved.

How are employees in high-pressure jobs balancing their professional roles and responsibilities with being actively, publicly in defiance of their employers on a high-profile issue? How do leaders in these efforts explain the philosophy underlying their ethical stance? And how likely are their ideas to spread throughout Amazon and beyond – perhaps particularly among younger tech workers?

I recently spoke with a handful of the Amazon employees most actively involved in the Employees for Climate Justice campaign, all of whom inspired me– in similar and different ways. Below is the first of two interviews I’ll publish here. This one is with Rajit Iftikhar, a young software engineer from New York who moved to Seattle to work for Amazon after earning his Bachelor’s of Engineering in Computer Science from Cornell in 2016.

Rajit Iftikhar

Rajit struck me as a humble and precociously wise young man who could be a role model — though he seems to have little interest in singling himself out that way — for thousands of other software engineers and technologists at Amazon and beyond.

Greg Epstein: Your personal story has been key to your organizing with Amazon Employees for Climate Justice. Can you start by saying a bit about why?

Rajit Iftikhar: A lot of why I care about climate justice is informed by me having parents from another country that is going to be very adversely affected by [climate change]. Countries like Bangladesh are going to suffer some of the worst consequences from climate change, because of where the country’s located, and the fact that it doesn’t have the resources to adapt.

Bangladesh is already feeling the effects of climate crisis; it is much harder for people to live in the rural areas, [people are] being forced into the cities. Then you have the cyclones that the climate crisis is going to bring, and rising sea levels and flooding.

So, my background [emphasizes, for me] how unjust our emissions are in causing all these problems for people in other countries. And even for communities of color within our country who are going to be disproportionately impacted by the emissions that largely richer people [cause].

Rivian and ‘Free Solo’ star Alex Honnold team up to build solar microgrid with used EV batteries

Rivian, the once secretive company that made its public debut in November with an electric pickup truck and SUV, plans to give its batteries a second life and put them to work in a solar microgrid project in Puerto Rico.

The automaker is teaming up with The Honnold Foundation, an organization started by Alex Honnold, the professional climber and subject of the documentary Free Solo, on the microgrid project. Honnold and Rivian CEO RJ Scaringe will discuss the project Saturday in Denver. The discussion, which is scheduled for 6 pm MT, will be live-streamed.

The microgrid project will be set up in Adjuntas, a city of about 20,000 people in midwestern Puerto Rico that was severely impacted by Hurricane Maria in 2017. Casa Pueblo, an environmental watchdog based in Adjuntas that has been looking for ways to set up affordable sources of community power, is also a partner in the project.

Rivian is providing 135 kilowatt-hour battery packs from its development vehicles to support the microgrid. Earlier this year, battery engineers from Rivian and The Honnold Foundation visited Casa Pueblo and met with community leaders to design a site-specific system that will power many of the businesses located in the Adjuntas town square.

The downtown solar microgrid project will serve two purposes. It will give residents access to electricity for core business if the primary source of power is gone. The microgrid will also be used daily to offset the high cost of energy in Puerto Rico, which is twice the national average of the U.S.

The system is expected to launch in 2020.

“Second-life batteries are a big enabler to accelerating widespread adoption of renewable energy, and it’s exciting to envision this system contributing importantly to a community. This project allows us to model a customized energy storage solution that takes into account space constraints, disaster resiliency and energy independence,” Scaringe said.

The project marks the beginning of the company’s long-term plans to find a wide variety of applications for second-life batteries.

The company designed its pack, module and battery management system to transition from vehicle energy storage to stationary energy storage at the end of their vehicle life. The module itself is thin, a design that allows for second-life applications that are space-efficient and customizable.

Rivian is an electric automaker focused on adventure vehicles like pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles. The company announced in February that it had raised $700 million in a round led by Amazon.

The company has spent the first part of its life operating out of the public eye. It was originally launched as Mainstream Motors in 2009. By 2011, the name changed to Rivian and moved out of Florida. Today, the company has more than 1,000 employees split between development locations in Plymouth, Mich., San Jose and Irvine, Calif. and Surrey, England. It also has a 2.6 million-square-foot factory in Normal, Ill.

Rivian plans to launch the R1T electric pickup truck and the R1S SUV in the U.S. in late 2020, with introduction to other global geographies starting in 2021.

Tesla says solar roof is on its third iteration, currently installing in 8 states

Tesla is currently installing its solar roof product in eight states, according to Elon Musk speaking at the Tesla Annual Shareholders Meeting on Tuesday. The solar roof tile project has had a relatively long genesis, since being first unveiled three years ago in 2016.

In 2017, the company claimed its first ever installations of the Tesla solar roof, after opening up orders for the product in the second quarter of that year. Musk noted during the company’s Q2 2017 earnings call that both himself and Tesla CTO JB Straubel had the tiles installed and operating on their homes

The company also announced last year that it had entered into a partnership with Home Depot to sell its solar panels along with its PowerWall home battery, but that was about its traditional panels specifically, not the new tile product. The tiles are designed to look like high quality home tiles people use currently, with integrated solar panels that are not easily identified from ground level, in order to provide a more aesthetically pleasing solution.

In addition to having installations run in eight states, Musk also said that the solar roof product is currently on version three, and that this version is very exciting to him because it offers a chance of being at cost parity with an equivalent entry-level cheap traditional tile, when you include the cost of utilities you’d be saving by generating your own power instead.

Timelines for wider roll-out of the solar roof products at the costs he anticipates, his own words probably say it best: “I’m sometimes a little optimistic about timeframes – it’s time you knew” he joked at the meeting.