Security software for autonomous vehicles

Before autonomous vehicles participate in road traffic, they must demonstrate conclusively that they do not pose a danger to others. New software developed at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) prevents accidents by predicting different variants of a traffic situation every millisecond.

A car approaches an intersection. Another vehicle jets out of the cross street, but it is not yet clear whether it will turn right or left. At the same time, a pedestrian steps into the lane directly in front of the car, and there is a cyclist on the other side of the street. People with road traffic experience will in general assess the movements of other traffic participants correctly.

“These kinds of situations present an enormous challenge for autonomous vehicles controlled by computer programs,” explains Matthias Althoff, Professor of Cyber-Physical Systems at TUM. “But autonomous driving will only gain acceptance of the general public if you can ensure that the vehicles will not endanger other road users — no matter how confusing the traffic situation.”

Algorithms that peer into the future

The ultimate goal when developing software for autonomous vehicles is to ensure that they will not cause accidents. Althoff, who is a member of the Munich School of Robotics and Machine Intelligence at TUM, and his team have now developed a software module that permanently analyzes and predicts events while driving. Vehicle sensor data are recorded and evaluated every millisecond. The software can calculate all possible movements for every traffic participant — provided they adhere to the road traffic regulations — allowing the system to look three to six seconds into the future.

Based on these future scenarios, the system determines a variety of movement options for the vehicle. At the same time, the program calculates potential emergency maneuvers in which the vehicle can be moved out of harm’s way by accelerating or braking without endangering others. The autonomous vehicle may only follow routes that are free of foreseeable collisions and for which an emergency maneuver option has been identified.

Streamlined models for swift calculations

This kind of detailed traffic situation forecasting was previously considered too time-consuming and thus impractical. But now, the Munich research team has shown not only the theoretical viability of real-time data analysis with simultaneous simulation of future traffic events: They have also demonstrated that it delivers reliable results.

The quick calculations are made possible by simplified dynamic models. So-called reachability analysis is used to calculate potential future positions a car or a pedestrian might assume. When all characteristics of the road users are taken into account, the calculations become prohibitively time-consuming. That is why Althoff and his team work with simplified models. These are superior to the real ones in terms of their range of motion — yet, mathematically easier to handle. This enhanced freedom of movement allows the models to depict a larger number of possible positions but includes the subset of positions expected for actual road users.

Real traffic data for a virtual test environment

For their evaluation, the computer scientists created a virtual model based on real data they had collected during test drives with an autonomous vehicle in Munich. This allowed them to craft a test environment that closely reflects everyday traffic scenarios. “Using the simulations, we were able to establish that the safety module does not lead to any loss of performance in terms of driving behavior, the predictive calculations are correct, accidents are prevented, and in emergency situations the vehicle is demonstrably brought to a safe stop,” Althoff sums up.

The computer scientist emphasizes that the new security software could simplify the development of autonomous vehicles because it can be combined with all standard motion control programs.

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Materials provided by Technical University of Munich (TUM). Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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Quantum leap for speed limit bounds

Nature’s speed limits aren’t posted on road signs, but Rice University physicists have discovered a new way to deduce them that is better — infinitely better, in some cases — than previous methods.

“The big question is, ‘How fast can anything — information, mass, energy — move in nature?'” said Kaden Hazzard, a theoretical quantum physicist at Rice. “It turns out that if somebody hands you a material, it is incredibly difficult, in general, to answer the question.”

In a study published today in the American Physical Society journal PRX Quantum, Hazzard and Rice graduate student Zhiyuan Wang describe a new method for calculating the upper bound of speed limits in quantum matter.

“At a fundamental level, these bounds are much better than what was previously available,” said Hazzard, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy and member of the Rice Center for Quantum Materials. “This method frequently produces bounds that are 10 times more accurate, and it’s not unusual for them to be 100 times more accurate. In some cases, the improvement is so dramatic that we find finite speed limits where previous approaches predicted infinite ones.”

Nature’s ultimate speed limit is the speed of light, but in nearly all matter around us, the speed of energy and information is much slower. Frequently, it is impossible to describe this speed without accounting for the large role of quantum effects.

In the 1970s, physicists proved that information must move much slower than the speed of light in quantum materials, and though they could not compute an exact solution for the speeds, physicists Elliott Lieb and Derek Robinson pioneered mathematical methods for calculating the upper bounds of those speeds.

“The idea is that even if I can’t tell you the exact top speed, can I tell you that the top speed must be less than a particular value,” Hazzard said. “If I can give a 100% guarantee that the real value is less than that upper bound, that can be extremely useful.”

Hazzard said physicists have long known that some of the bounds produced by the Lieb-Robinson method are “ridiculously imprecise.”

“It might say that information must move less than 100 miles per hour in a material when the real speed was measured at 0.01 miles per hour,” he said. “It’s not wrong, but it’s not very helpful.”

The more accurate bounds described in the PRX Quantum paper were calculated by a method Wang created.

“We invented a new graphical tool that lets us account for the microscopic interactions in the material instead of relying only on cruder properties such as its lattice structure,” Wang said.

Hazzard said Wang, a third-year graduate student, has an incredible talent for synthesizing mathematical relationships and recasting them in new terms.

“When I check his calculations, I can go step by step, churn through the calculations and see that they’re valid,” Hazzard said. “But to actually figure out how to get from point A to point B, what set of steps to take when there’s an infinite variety of things you could try at each step, the creativity is just amazing to me.”

The Wang-Hazzard method can be applied to any material made of particles moving in a discrete lattice. That includes oft-studied quantum materials like high-temperature superconductors, topological materials, heavy fermions and others. In each of these, the behavior of the materials arises from interactions of billions upon billions of particles, whose complexity is beyond direct calculation.

Hazzard said he expects the new method to be used in several ways.

“Besides the fundamental nature of this, it could be useful for understanding the performance of quantum computers, in particular in understanding how long they take to solve important problems in materials and chemistry,” he said.

Hazzard said he is certain the method will also be used to develop numerical algorithms because Wang has shown it can put rigorous bounds on the errors produced by oft-used numerical techniques that approximate the behavior of large systems.

A popular technique physicists have used for more than 60 years is to approximate a large system by a small one that can be simulated by a computer.

“We draw a small box around a finite chunk, simulate that and hope that’s enough to approximate the gigantic system,” Hazzard said. “But there has not been a rigorous way of bounding the errors in these approximations.”

The Wang-Hazzard method of calculating bounds could lead to just that.

“There is an intrinsic relationship between the error of a numerical algorithm and the speed of information propagation,” Wang explained, using the sound of his voice and the walls in his room to illustrate the link.

“The finite chunk has edges, just as my room has walls. When I speak, the sound will get reflected by the wall and echo back to me. In an infinite system, there is no edge, so there is no echo.”

In numerical algorithms, errors are the mathematical equivalent of echoes. They reverberate from the edges of the finite box, and the reflection undermines the algorithms’ ability to simulate the infinite case. The faster information moves through the finite system, the shorter the time the algorithm faithfully represents the infinite. Hazzard said he, Wang and others in his research group are using their method to craft numerical algorithms with guaranteed error bars.

“We don’t even have to change the existing algorithms to put strict, guaranteed error bars on the calculations,” he said. “But you can also flip it around and use this to make better numerical algorithms. We’re exploring that, and other people are interested in using these as well.”

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World record: Plasma accelerator operates right around the clock

A team of researchers at DESY has reached an important milestone on the road to the particle accelerator of the future. For the first time, a so-called laser plasma accelerator has run for more than a day while continuously producing electron beams. The LUX beamline, jointly developed and operated by DESY and the University of Hamburg, achieved a run time of 30 hours. “This brings us a big step closer to the steady operation of this innovative particle accelerator technology,” says DESY’s Andreas R. Maier, the leader of the group. The scientists are reporting on their record in the journal Physical Review X. “The time is ripe to move laser plasma acceleration from the laboratory to practical applications,” adds the director of DESY’s Accelerator Division, Wim Leemans.

Physicists hope that the technique of laser plasma acceleration will lead to a new generation of powerful and compact particle accelerators offering unique properties for a wide range of applications. In this technique, a laser or energetic particle beam creates a plasma wave inside a fine capillary. A plasma is a gas in which the gas molecules have been stripped of their electrons. LUX uses hydrogen as the gas.

“The laser pulses plough their way through the gas in the form of narrow discs, stripping the electrons from the hydrogen molecules and sweeping them aside like a snow plough,” explains Maier, who works at the Centre for Free-Electron Laser Science (CFEL), a joint enterprise between DESY, the University of Hamburg and the Max Planck Society. “Electrons in the wake of the pulse are accelerated by the positively charged plasma wave in front of them — much like a wakeboarder rides the wave behind the stern of a boat.”

This phenomenon allows laser plasma accelerators to achieve acceleration strengths that are up to a thousand times greater than what could be provided by today’s most powerful machines. Plasma accelerators will enable more compact and powerful systems for a wide range of applications, from fundamental research to medicine. A number of technical challenges still need to be overcome before these devices can be put to practical use. “Now that we are able to operate our beamline for extended periods of time, we will be in a better position to tackle these challenges,” explains Maier.

During the record-breaking nonstop operation, the physicists accelerated more than 100,000 electron bunches, one every second. Thanks to this large dataset, the properties of the accelerator, the laser and the bunches can be correlated and analysed much more precisely. “Unwanted variations in the electron beam can be traced back to specific points in the laser, for example, so that we now know exactly where we need to start in order to produce an even better particle beam,” says Maier. “This approach lays the foundations for an active stabilisation of the beams, such as is deployed on every high performance accelerator in the world,” explains Leemans.

According to Maier, the key to success was combining expertise from two different fields: plasma acceleration and know-how in stable accelerator operation.” Both are available at DESY, which is unparalleled in the world in this respect,” Maier emphasises. According to him, numerous factors contributed to the accelerator’s stable long-term operation, from vacuum technology and laser expertise to a comprehensive and sophisticated control system. “In principle, the system could have kept running for even longer, but we stopped it after 30 hours,” reports Maier. “Since then, we have repeated such runs three more times.”

“This work demonstrates that laser plasma accelerators can generate a reproducible and controllable output. This provides a concrete basis for developing this technology further, in order to build future accelerator-based light sources at DESY and elsewhere,” Leemans summarises.

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Materials provided by Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron DESY. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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The Road from the Indo-Pacific Business Forum Speakers Series

Funding Opportunity ID: 325639
Opportunity Number: M-NOFO-20-102
Opportunity Title: The Road from the Indo-Pacific Business Forum Speakers Series
Opportunity Category: Discretionary
Opportunity Category Explanation:
Funding Instrument Type: Grant
Category of Funding Activity: Business and Commerce
Regional Development
Category Explanation:
CFDA Number(s): 19.040
Eligible Applicants: Public and State controlled institutions of higher education
Public housing authorities/Indian housing authorities
Nonprofits having a 501(c)(3) status with the IRS, other than institutions of higher education
Additional Information on Eligibility:
Agency Code: DOS-IND
Agency Name: Department of State
U.S. Mission to India
Posted Date: Mar 20, 2020
Close Date: May 19, 2020
Last Updated Date: Mar 20, 2020
Award Ceiling: $50,000
Award Floor: $10,000
Estimated Total Program Funding: $50,000
Expected Number of Awards: 1
Description: This funding opportunity seeks to influence business leaders and policy makers toward more favorable regulatory policies by leveraging successful U.S. businesspeople, especially notable Indian-Americans, to engage senior business leaders and members of indigenous Chambers of Commerce. By facilitating the speaking engagements of business leaders, the program will offer key local audiences with credible third-party voices on how open market reforms can bring tremendous economic benefits to Indian stakeholders. Project Goal: Government and elected officials begin publicly pushing for and taking action toward economic regulatory reforms favorable to U.S. interests. Project Objectives: Over the course of a year, bi-monthly (one every two months) expert speaker engagements reach 100 or more well-placed, highly-influential trade and industry insiders with compelling anecdotes and data. The target audience then shares these facts across the media landscape and engage in private conversations urging reforms with established policymakers, resulting in: reforms favorable to U.S. industry; publicly expressed openness to further negotiation on specific reforms; and a shift in tenor of media coverage toward the U.S.-India trade relationship, especially those media closely aligned with the ruling party. (For further details, please refer to the full announcement available under “related documents” tab)
Version: 1

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IEEE Spectrum

Panasonic’s Cloud Analytics Will Give Cars a Guardian Angel

graphic link to special report landing page

Vehicle-to-everything (V2X) technology—“everything” meaning other vehicles and road infrastructure—has long promised that a digital seatbelt would make cars safer. This year Panasonic expects to keep that promise by taking data to the cloud.

Car seatbelts, made mandatory in the United States in 1968, dramatically reduced the likelihood of death and serious injury. Airbags, becoming standard equipment some 20 years later, gave added protection. Roadway innovations—like rumble strips, better guardrail designs, and breakaway signposts—have also done their part.

In the past few years, however, the number of fatalities in U.S. car crashes has been creeping up—­possibly (but not provably) because people are increasingly being distracted by their mobile devices. What’s to be done, given how difficult it has been to get people off their cellphones?

Panasonic engineers, working with the departments of transportation in Colorado and Utah, think they can help turn the trend around. They are starting with what some call a digital seatbelt. This technology allows cars to talk to the transportation infrastructure, sending key information like speed and direction, and enables the infrastructure to talk back, alerting drivers about trouble ahead—a construction zone, perhaps, or a traffic jam.

This back-and-forth conversation is already happening on stretches of highway around the world, most notably in Europe. But these efforts use limited information—typically, speed, heading, and sometimes brake status—in limited areas. Panasonic thinks the digital seatbelt could do more for more drivers if it looked at a lot more data and processed it all centrally, no matter where it originates.

So, in the second half of this year, the company is launching Cirrus by Panasonic, a cloud-based system designed to make car travel a lot safer.

The Cirrus system takes the standard set of safety data that today’s cars transmit along the controller-area network (CAN) bus—including antilock brake status, stability control status, wiper status, fog light and headlight status, ambient air temperature, and other details and transmits it to receivers along the roadway. The receivers send the data to a cloud-based platform for analysis, where it can be used to generate personalized safety warnings for drivers.

This data is already being used in a number of ways by auto companies and researchers, but Chris Armstrong, vice president for V2X technology at Panasonic Corp. of North America, says Panasonic is the first company to use so much of it in a commercially available safety system.

“We are building a central nervous system for connected cars,” he says.

Blaine Leonard, transportation technology engineer for the Utah Department of Transportation, says, “Right now, when you are driving down a road, you might see a static road sign that says, ‘Bridge ices before road does,’ or an electronic sign that says ‘Ice ahead, beware.’ ” Drivers generally don’t pay much attention to these very imprecise warnings, he notes. But with Cirrus, Leonard says, “the temperature gauge of a vehicle passing through the area, along with the slippage of its wheels, will give us the exact location of the ice, so we can send that as a message to be displayed on the dashboard of a subsequent vehicle: ‘Ice ahead, 325 feet.’ A driver will be more likely to pay attention to a message that really is just for him. And if he passes through the area and the ice is no longer there, his vehicle will report that back, so the next driver won’t get the alert.”

Or consider an airbag deployment. “With this system,” Leonard says, “we will know within seconds if an airbag deployed, how fast the vehicle was traveling, and how many other cars in that area had airbag deployments. That information can allow us to get an emergency response out minutes faster than if the accident had been reported by a 911 call, and two to three minutes can save a life.”

The Utah Department of Transportation, along with its counterpart in Colorado, is acting as a test bed for the technology. The Utah people expect the data-gathering side of their system to be operational in May. It will start with 30 state-owned vehicles and 40 roadside receivers this year, with each receiver designed to transmit for 300 meters in all directions. (Receivers don’t have to be placed so that their individual ranges always meet; the system will also be able to briefly store data locally and share it with the cloud moments later.)

In the next few years, Utah plans to roll out 220 roadside sensors and equip thousands of vehicles to talk to them; although the department has a five-year plan to work with Panasonic, the exact pace of installation hasn’t been set. Last year, Colorado installed 100 receivers and equipped 94 vehicles; plans to go further are currently on hold pending evaluation by the state’s new administration.

Panasonic will feed data collected from these two implementations into machine-learning programs, which will make the algorithms better at predicting changing or hazardous road and traffic conditions. “For example, if we can build up historical data about weather events—ambient air temperature, status of control systems, windshield wipers—our systems will learn which data elements matter, understand the conditions as they develop, and potentially send out alerts proactively,” Panasonic’s Armstrong says.

Using the system today requires adding a module that collects the data from the CAN bus and sends it to the receivers, receives alerts, and displays the alerts to the driver. Panasonic’s engineers expect that its system will soon have the capability to collect the data and send it out either via dedicated short-range communications (DSRC), a variant of Wi-Fi, or by ­cellular-based ­vehicle-to-everything (C-V2X). One or the other method of wireless communication will eventually be built into all cars. Volkswagen is incorporating DSRC in its latest Golf model, and Cadillac has announced plans to start offering it in its crossover vehicles.

And then Panasonic will be free to focus on running the cloud-based platform and making the system available to app developers. The company expects that those developers will find ways to enhance safety even further.

This article appears in the January 2020 print issue as “A Guardian Angel for Your Car.”


Emissions from electricity generation lead to premature deaths for some racial groups

Air pollution doesn’t just come from cars on the road, generating electricity from fossil fuels also releases fine particulate matter into the air.

In general, fine particulate matter can lead to heart attacks, strokes, lung cancer and other diseases, and is responsible for more than 100,000 deaths each year in the United States.

Now University of Washington researchers have found that air pollution from electricity generation emissions in 2014 led to about 16,000 premature deaths in the continental U.S. In many states, the majority of the health impacts came from emissions originating in other states. The team also found that exposures were higher for black and white non-Latino Americans than for other groups, and that this disparity held even after accounting for differences in income.

The researchers published their results Nov. 20 in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

“Our data show that even if states take measures to change their own electricity production methods, what happens across state lines could dramatically affect their population,” said senior author Julian Marshall, a UW professor of civil and environmental engineering.

The team first examined how emissions from electricity generation plants could move across the continental U.S.

“We looked at emissions from different types of power plants — including coal, natural gas, diesel and oil power plants — and modeled how the pollutants would travel based on things like wind patterns or rain. We also consider how emissions can react in the atmosphere to form fine particle air pollution,” said lead author Maninder Thind, a UW civil and environmental engineering doctoral student. “That gave us a map of pollution concentrations across the country. Then we overlaid that map with data from the census to get an estimate of where people live and how this pollution results in health impacts.”

Then, using mortality data from the National Center for Health Statistics, the team estimated premature deaths due to electricity generation emissions. In 2014, there were about 16,000 premature deaths. The researchers estimate that 91% of premature deaths were the result of emissions from coal-fired power plants. The number of deaths in each state varied, with Pennsylvania having the highest number — about 2,000 — and Montana and Idaho having the lowest number, with fewer than 10 deaths each.

Emissions from electricity generation don’t stop at state lines — many states “imported” or “exported” pollution. In 36 states, more than half of premature deaths were the result of emissions from other states.

Overall, the team found that emissions affected black Americans the most, leading to about seven premature deaths per 100,000 people in that group. White non-Latino Americans were the second most affected group with about six premature deaths per 100,000 people. Other groups averaged about four premature deaths per 100,000 people.

“A lot of people may expect that the disparity we see for race or ethnicity comes from an underlying difference in income. But that’s not what we see,” said co-author Christopher Tessum, a research scientist in the UW’s civil and environmental engineering department. “We find that differences by race or ethnicity tend to be larger than differences by income group.”

While the researchers found that overall, lower-income households experienced more exposure to emissions, the disparities they saw between race groups still held when they accounted for income.

The amount of power plant pollution that people breathe can vary by where they live. These disparities may be influenced by societal trends. For example, where people live often reflects segregation or other conditions from decades earlier.

These trends don’t always hold when looking at individual areas. For example, exposures for Native Americans are lower than other groups overall, but in Kansas and Oklahoma, this group is the most exposed. The state with the largest disparities by race is Kentucky, where black people are the most exposed.

“We’ve seen in our previous research that our society is more segregated by race than by income, and now it’s showing up again with air pollution from electricity generation emissions,” Marshall said. “These results can help local, state or national governments make more informed decisions that will improve everyone’s air quality and quality of life.”

Inês Azevedo, a professor of energy resources engineering at Stanford University, is also a co-author on this paper. This publication was developed as part of the Center for Air, Climate, and Energy Solutions, which was supported under an Assistance Agreement awarded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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Harmful emissions from traffic, trucks, SUVs

Almost one third of Canadians live near a major road — and this means they go about their everyday lives exposed to a complex mixture of vehicle air pollutants.

A new national study led by University of Toronto Engineering researchers reveals that emissions from nearby traffic can greatly increase concentrations of key air pollutants, with highly polluting trucks making a major contribution. Canada’s cold winters can also increase emissions while particle emissions from brakes and tires are on the rise.

The report, released today, is the culmination of a two-year study monitoring traffic emissions in Toronto and Vancouver — the two Canadian cities with the highest percentage of residents living near major roads.

“There’s a whole ‘soup’ of pollutants within traffic emissions,” says Professor Greg Evans, who led the study in collaboration with Environment and Climate Change Canada, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, and Metro Vancouver.

Evans says that this soup of pollutants includes nitrogen oxides, ultrafine particles, black carbon, metals, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. Exposure to these emissions has been associated with a wide range of health issues, including asthma, cancer and cardiovascular mortality.

“The areas of concern we identified raise important questions about the health of Canadians living near major roadways,” says Evans.

The national report’s findings complement a parallel report on air quality in the Vancouver region that will soon be released by Metro Vancouver. Both reports underscore the need to assess and enact new measures to mitigate exposure to air pollutants.

Traffic in cities

Busy roads are detracting from air quality nearby, especially during morning rush hour.

The researchers measured concentrations of ultrafine particles — the smallest airborne particles emitted by vehicles — and found that average levels of ultrafine particles near highways were four times higher than sites far removed from traffic.

“These particles are less than 100 nanometres in size, much smaller than red blood cells. They can travel and trans-locate around the body,” explains Evans. “We don’t know yet what the health impacts of these particles are but we do know that near roads, they are a good indicator of exposure to traffic pollution.”

The concentrations of most traffic pollutants varied by factors of two to five across the cities.

Large trucks

The report highlights the dangers of highly polluting diesel trucks, which represent a minority of the total trucks on roads and highways, but emit diesel exhaust at disproportionately high levels.

“If there’s a high proportion of trucks, people who spend a lot of time near these roadways — drivers, workers, residents — are being more exposed to diesel exhaust, which is a recognized human carcinogen,” says Evans.

Though there’s currently no standard for public exposure to diesel exhaust in Canada, black carbon, more commonly called soot, is used to monitor exposure in workplaces. Based on black carbon, the concentrations of diesel exhaust beside the major roads exceeded the guidelines proposed in the Netherlands for workers, implying that they are too high for the public.

“If these highly polluting diesel trucks were repaired, retrofitted, removed or relocated, it would make a significant difference,” says Evans. “You can’t move your nearby schools or homes, but we can do something about these highly-polluting trucks that are a small proportion of the truck traffic, and yet causing a lot of the trouble.”

Wind and winter

Air quality is not just a concern during summer months: winter weather brings an increase in near-road concentrations of nitrogen oxides and ultrafine particles.

The researchers’ data suggest emission treatment systems on diesel vehicles become less effective under colder temperatures. “The systems appear to not be well designed for cold weather,” says Evans. “It’s concerning when you consider most of Canada faces cold temperatures and long months of winter; Toronto and Vancouver are nowhere near the coldest parts of Canada.”

Wind conditions also affect pollutant levels: the researchers found that concentrations were up to six times higher when monitoring the downwind side of a major road.

Tire and brake wear

As brake pads on cars and trucks are worn down, the materials they’re made of turn to dust — and that dust goes straight into the air.

“These non-tailpipe emissions, from brakes, tires and the road itself, are increasing and we believe that this is because our cars are getting larger and heavier,” says Cheol Jeong, Senior Research Associate in Evans’ lab, whose analysis revealed the growing issue with non-tailpipe emissions.

“People are buying more trucks and SUVs than small cars and that trend has been growing in recent years. The heavier it is, the more energy it takes to stop, and the more brake dust gets emitted,” he adds.

The report concludes with recommendations geared at all levels of government. Evans hopes the report will lead to establishing a nation-wide road-pollution research network that can advise policymakers, engage companies and the public, and lead to standards and laws that will ultimately protect the health of Canadians.

“We’d like to see this report, and future studies, help launch new monitoring stations across Canada so that all Canadians can get a better picture of the implications of our transportation choices and how these influence what we’re breathing in,” he says. “Our transportation will be changing very quickly in the coming decade and we’ll need ongoing monitoring to help us stay on a path towards increased sustainability.”

The findings of this report and its recommendations will be discussed at a national meeting in Toronto on November 4.

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Imperfect diamonds paved road to historic Deep Earth discoveries

Thousands of diamonds, formed hundreds of kilometers deep inside the planet, paved the road to some of the 10-year Deep Carbon Observatory program’s most historic accomplishments and discoveries, being celebrated Oct. 24-26 at the US National Academy of Sciences.

Unsightly black, red, green, and brown specks of minerals, and microscopic pockets of fluid and gas encapsulated by diamonds as they form in Deep Earth, record the elemental surroundings and reactions taking place within Earth at a specific depth and time, divulging some of the planet’s innermost secrets.

Hydrogen and oxygen, for example, trapped inside diamonds from a layer 410 to 660 kilometers below Earth’s surface, reveal the subterranean existence of oceans’ worth of H2O — far more in mass than all the water in every ocean in the surface world.

This massive amount of water may have been brought to Deep Earth from the surface by the movement of the great continental and oceanic plates which, as they separate and move, collide with one another and overlap. This subduction of slabs also buries carbon from the surface back into the depths, a process fundamental to Earth’s natural carbon balance, and therefore to life.

Knowledge of Deep Earth’s water content is critical to understanding the diversity and melting behaviors of materials at the planet’s different depths, the creation and flows of hydrocarbons (e.g. petroleum and natural gas) and other materials, as well as the planet’s deep subterranean electrical conductivity.

By dating the pristine fragments of material trapped inside other super-deep diamond “inclusions,” DCO researchers could put an approximate time stamp on the start of plate tectonics — “one of the planet’s greatest innovations,” in the words of DCO Executive Director Robert Hazen of the Carnegie Institution for Science. It started roughly 3 billion years ago, when the Earth was a mere 1.5 billion years old.

Diamond research accelerated dramatically thanks to the creation of DCO’s global network of researchers and led to some of the program’s most intriguing discoveries and achievements.

Diamonds from the deepest depths, often small with poor clarity, are not generally used as gemstones by Tiffany’s but are amazingly complex, robust and priceless in research. Inclusions offered DCO scientists samples of minerals that exist only at extreme high subterranean pressure, and suggested three ways in which diamonds form.

While as many as 90% of analyzed diamonds were composed of carbon scientists expected in the mantle, some “relatively young” diamonds (up to a few hundred million years old) appear to include carbon from once-living sources; in other words, they are made of carbon returned to Deep Earth from the surface world.

Diamonds also revealed unambiguous evidence that some hydrocarbons form hundreds of miles down, well beyond the realm of living cells: abiotic energy.

Unravelling the mystery of deep abiotic methane and other energy sources helps explain how deep life in the form of microbes and bacteria is nourished, and fuels the proposition that life first originated and evolved far below (rather than migrating down from) the surface world.

Diamonds also enabled DCO scientists to simulate the extreme conditions of Earth’s interior.

DCO’s Extreme Physics and Chemistry community scientists used diamond anvil cells — a tool that can squeeze a sample tremendously between the tips of two diamonds, coupled with lasers that heat the compressed crystals — to simulate deep Earth’s almost unimaginable extreme temperatures and pressures.

Using a variety of advanced techniques, they analyzed the compressed samples, identified 100 new carbon-bearing crystal structures and documented their intriguing properties and behaviors.

The work provided insights into how carbon atoms in Deep Earth “find one another,” aggregate, and assemble to form diamonds and other material.

Development of new materials; potential carbon capture and storage strategies

DCO’s discoveries and research are important and applicable in many ways, including the development of new materials and potential carbon capture and storage strategies.

DCO scientists are studying, for example, how the natural timescale for sequestration of carbon might be shortened.

The weathering of and microbial life inside Oman’s Samail Ophiolite — an unusual, large slab pushed up from Earth’s upper mantle long ago — offers a tutorial in nature’s carbon sequestration techniques, knowledge that might help offset carbon emissions caused by humans.

In Iceland, another DCO natural sequestration project, CarbFix, involves injecting carbon-bearing fluids into basalt and observing their conversion to solids.

A Decade of Discovery

Hundreds of scientists from around the world meet in Washington DC Oct. 24 to 26 to share and celebrate results of the wide-ranging, decade-long Deep Carbon Observatory — one of the largest global research collaborations in Earth sciences ever undertaken.

With its Secretariat at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington DC, and $50 million in core support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, multiplied many times by additional investment worldwide, a multidisciplinary group of 1,200 researchers from 55 nations worked for 10 years in four interconnected scientic “communities” to explore Earth’s fundamental workings, including:

  • How carbon moves between Earth’s interior, surface and atmosphere
  • Where Earth’s deep carbon came from, how much exists and in what forms
  • How life began, and the limits — such as temperature and pressure — to Earth’s deep microbial life

They met the challenge of investigating Earth’s interior in several ways, producing 1,400 peer-reviewed papers while pursuing 268 projects that involved, for example:

  • Studying diamonds, volcanoes, and core samples obtained by drilling on land and at sea
  • Conducting lab experiments to mimic the extreme temperatures and pressures of Earth’s interior, and through theoretical modeling of carbon’s evolution and movements over deep time, and
  • Developing new high tech instruments

DCO scientists conducted field measurements in remote and inhospitable regions of the world: ocean floors, on top of active volcanoes, and in the deserts of the Middle East.

Where instrumentation and models were lacking, DCO scientists developed new tools and models to meet the challenge. Throughout these studies, DCO invested in the next generation of deep carbon researchers, students and early career scientists, who will carry on the tradition of exploration and discovery for decades to come.

Key discoveries during the 10-year Deep Carbon Observatory program

In addition to insights from its diamond research above, the program’s top discoveries include:

The deep biosphere is one of Earth’s largest ecosystems

Life in the deep subsurface totals 15,000 to 23,000 megatonnes (million metric tons) of carbon, about 250 to 400 times greater than the carbon mass of all humans. The immense Deep Earth biosphere occupies a space nearly twice as large as all the world’s oceans.

DCO scientists explored how microbes draw sustenance from “abiotic” methane and other energy sources — fuel that wasn’t derived from biotic life above.

If microbes can eek out a living using chemical energy from rocks in Earth’s deep subsurface, that may hold true on other planetary bodies.

This knowledge about the types of environments that can sustain life, particularly those where energy is limited, can guide the search for life on other planets. In the outer solar system, for example, energy from the sun is scarce, as it is in Earth’s subsurface environment.

DCO researchers also found the deepest, lowest-density, and longest-lived subseafloor microbial ecosystem ever recorded and changed our understanding of the limits of life at extremes of pressure, temperature, and depth.

Rocks and fluids in Earth’s crust provide clues to the origins of life on this planet, and where to look for life on others

DCO scientists found amino acids and complex organic molecules in rocks on the seafloor. These molecules, the building blocks of life, were formed by abiotic synthesis and had never before been observed in the geologic record.

They also found pockets of ancient salty fluids rich in hydrogen, methane, and helium many kilometers deep, providing evidence of early, protected environments capable of harboring life.

Abiotic methane forms in the crust and mantle of Earth

When water meets the ubiquitous mineral olivine under pressure, the rock reacts with oxygen atoms from the H2O and transforms into another mineral, serpentine — characterized by a scaly, green-brown, snake skin-like appearance.

This process of “serpentinization” leads to the formation of “abiotic” methane in many different environments on Earth. DCO scientists developed and used sophisticated analytical equipment to differentiate between biotic (derived from ancient plants and animals) and abiotic formation of methane.

DCO field and laboratory studies of rocks from the upper mantle document a new high-pressure serpentinization process that produces abiotic methane and other forms of hydrocarbons.

The formation of methane and hydrocarbons through these geologic, abiotic processes provides fuel and sustenance for microbial life.

Atmospheric CO2 has been relatively stable over the eons but huge, occasional catastrophic carbon disturbances have taken place

DCO scientists have reconstructed Earth’s deep carbon cycle over eons to the present day. This new, more complete picture of the planetary ingassing and outgassing of carbon shows a remarkably stable system over hundreds of millions of years, with a few notable episodic exceptions.

Continental breakup and associated volcanic activity are the dominant causes of natural planetary outgassing. DCO scientists added to this picture by investigating rare episodes of massive volcanic eruptions and asteroid impacts to learn how Earth and its climate responds to such catastrophic carbon disturbances.

Plate tectonics modeling using DCO’s new GPlates platform made it possible to reconstruct the Earth’s carbon cycle through geologic time.

Much of the carbon outgassed from Deep Earth seeps from fractures and faults unassociated with eruptions

Volcanoes and volcanic regions outgas carbon dioxide (CO2) into the ocean / atmosphere system at a rate of 280-360 megatonnes per year. This includes both emissions during volcanic eruptions and degassing of CO2 out of diffuse fractures and faults in volcanic regions worldwide and the mid-ocean ridge system.

Human activities, such as burning fossil fuels, are responsible for about 100 times more CO2 emissions than all volcanic and tectonic region sources combined.

The changing ratio of CO2 to SO2 emitted by volcanoes may help forecast eruptions

The volume of outgassed CO2 relative to SO2 increases for some volcanoes days to weeks before an eruption, raising the possibility of improved forecasting and mitigating danger to humans.

DCO researchers measured volcanic outputs around the globe. Italy’s Mount Etna, for example, one of Earth’s most active volcanoes, typically spewed 5 to 8 times more CO2 than usual about two weeks before a large eruption.

Fluids move and transform carbon deep within Earth

Experiments and new theoretical work led to a revolutionary new DCO model of water in deep Earth and the discovery that diamonds can easily form through water-rock interactions involving organic and inorganic carbon.

This model predicted the changing chemistry of water found in fluid inclusions in diamonds and yields new insights into the amounts of carbon and nitrogen available for return to Earth’s atmosphere over deep time.

DCO scientists also discovered that the solubility of carbon-bearing minerals, including carbonates, graphite, and diamond, is much higher than previously thought in water-rock systems in the mantle.

31 new carbon-bearing minerals found in four years

After cataloguing known carbon-bearing minerals at Earth’s surface, their composition and where they are found, DCO researchers discovered statistical relationships between mineral localities and the frequency of their occurrence. With that model they predicted 145 yet-to-be-discovered species and in 2015 challenged citizen scientists to help find them.

Of the 31 new-to-science minerals turned up during the Carbon Mineral Challenge, two had been predicted, including triazolite, discovered in Chile and thought to have derived in part from cormorant guano. Photo below.

Meanwhile, scientists led by DCO Executive Director Robert Hazen, established an entirely new mineral classification system.

Through experiment and observation, DCO scientists discovered new forms of carbon deep in Earth’s mantle, shedding new light on the carbon “storage capacity” of the deep mantle, and on the role of subduction in recycling surface carbon back to Earth’s interior.

Studies also cast new light on the record of major changes in our planet’s history such as the rise of oxygen and the waxing and waning of supercontinents.

Two-thirds of Earth’s carbon may be in the iron-rich core

DCO research suggests that two-thirds or more of Earth’s carbon may be sequestered in the core as a form of iron carbide. This “hidden carbon” brings the total carbon content of Earth closer to what is observed in the Sun and helps us to understand the origin of Earth’s carbon from celestial material.

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Seeing is believing: Eye-tracking technology could help make driving safer

“Keep your eyes on the road.” With the recent advances in vehicle-assisted safety technology and in-car displays, this old adage has a new meaning, thanks to two new applications of eye-tracking technology developed by researchers at the University of Missouri.

Designing a better collision avoidance warning

Observing how someone’s eyes change — specifically the pupil — while they respond to an alert given by a vehicle collision avoidance warning could one day help scientists design safer systems.

“Prior to a crash, drivers can be easily distracted by an alert from a collision avoidance warning — a popular feature in new vehicles — and we feel this could be a growing problem in distraction-related vehicle crashes,” said Jung Hyup Kim, an assistant professor of industrial and manufacturing systems engineering in the MU College of Engineering. “Therefore, a two-way communication channel needs to exist between a driver and a vehicle. For instance, if a driver is aware of a possible crash, then the vehicle does not have to warn the driver as much. However, if a vehicle provides an alert that, by itself, creates a distraction, it could also cause a crash.”

Kim and Xiaonan Yang, a graduate student at MU, watched how people’s pupils changed in response to their physical reactions to a collision avoidance warning by a vehicle-assisted safety system. Researchers believe they have enough data to begin the next step of developing a two-way communication model.

Evaluating rear-end accidents from a driver’s perspective

A person’s pupil could also help scientists find a way to decrease distracted driving crashes through a first-hand perspective into a driver’s behavior, according to Kim and Rui Tang, a graduate student at MU. Using a driving simulator at the MU College of Engineering, the researchers evaluated a driver’s physical behavior in real-time by focusing on the driver’s eyes as the crash happened.

“We saw the size of a person’s pupil changed depending on the behavioral response to the severity of the accident,” Kim said. “Now, we want to take that data, find common patterns and build a model to test how we could help decrease distracted-driving crashes.”

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Materials provided by University of Missouri-Columbia. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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