Harald Belker, Creator of Cars for Reality and Fantasy

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DnA: But how applicable is it? Some experts argue that it will never be possible to fully automate a car or program it to anticipate the unexpected like a child running into the street.

HB: I don’t believe that. I think there are so many ways with radar. Look at the higher end cars these days; on your map they show you a satellite image of your car driving with the surrounding traffic in real time. So why can’t a car have that feedback and really scan the environment? I don’t understand why we have accidents today. The technology is there; it’s really just about whether we will pay for it.

DnA: For automated cars to work don’t all cars have to be automated?

HB: Yes, that is the issue. You start at some point and you have to refurbish older cars to be part of that system; and it will be a process and at some point legislation has to kick in — just as with the catalytic converter many years back – and mandate that you have to have the system as part of your on-board system.

DnA: Currently you are head of design at Anki, a consumer robotics company, and Anki is an interactive video game that involves manipulating cars run on artificial intelligence, and this offers a taste of the future for automated cars, is that correct?

HB: Yes, and the beauty is that you can 100 percent run on AI or you can take control of the car. As soon as there are applications for real cars, who says it could not be part of our daily routine and traffic?

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DnA: Explain how this game works and how one moves the cars.

HB: In the beginning the car is learning, or the system is learning, because you log in to your car and you start racing around, and because it’s a game you are shooting at other cars – it’s a game after all and that makes it fun. But the car gets smarter and smarter and faster and is continuously learning how to drive and what to do and how to drive with you as driver and at some point you accumulate so many points you can get upgrades and additional weapons, because it’s a game. It’s a learning process and we have that already in computers. If you have your iPhone, it learns things just by your behavior and its interface with the computer.

DnA: So what kinds of things might it be learning? Can it pick up on a nervous driver or overly confident driver, for example?

HB: Yes, absolutely. I’m very sure that after a certain time the computer can pick up your behavior and then correct it as well, for example, if you do certain things that aren’t really legal. Then the question is, who is in control?

DnA: How far away are we realistically from cars this sophisticated?

HB: If you leave it to car companies then it won’t go the full extent. It won’t be in their interest; they will say it’s in their interest but financially I don’t see how it can be. It has to come with legislation. In California we are already very conscious of exhaust and pollution; why not take a step further and make California a showcase of how it could all work?

Belker eBike

DnA: You’ve also worked on the design of an electric bike. Who did you design it for?

HB: We were really ahead of our time with the eBike, I think it’s been over ten years now.

I designed it for Lee Iococca (former CEO of Chrysler); he was retired and he thought after being involved with cars for so many years he has to do something good for the environment so we did this first all-out eBike that you can control with a thumb throttle so you didn’t have to pedal at all. I still have one in the garage and it’s pretty fantastic.

eBikes were not that accepted back then; but more and more you see people riding an electric bike on the bike trail. In California we like to exercise so one can ask what’s the point of riding an electric bike?

So it has to be your transportation to work or to go get things; it has to replace the car in many ways. That means we need much safer roads – I wouldn’t be caught dead riding my bicycle on Lincoln Boulevard – so again it’s the infrastructure that is at the bottom of any change that we are going to apply.

Hear Harald speak, play his game Anki and see his eBike and books about electric motorbike and racing car designs, all at Helms Bakery on May 18. Click here for information and tickets.

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Images from top: Harald Belker; Precrime Captain John Anderton (Tom Cruise) sits in the automated car in Minority Report; robotic cars for Anki video game; Anki game is played on a rollout “blacktop”; electric bike designed by Harald Belker; Guide to Future Racing, book of racing car designs by Harald Belker.