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Moth-inspired tech, US climate move, self-driving cars: best of the week's news

Image credit: Dreamstime

E&T staff pick the news from the past week that caught their eye and reflect on what these latest developments in engineering and technology mean to them. For the full story, just click on the headline.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Moth eye-inspired anti-reflective coating could mean better digital displays

Yay for moths. Like bats, moths (and butterflies) divide opinion, scaring the beejesus out of some people, while being thoroughly enjoyed by others (personally, I'm a lover, not a hater). Moths are also proving an ongoing source of scientific wonder, with a body of biomimetic-inspired research directly attributed to them. Here we have moths’ eyes pointing the way to better digital displays, while previously we've heard of innovation emerging from the study of deaf moths; flight navigation for automated drones based on study of the movement of moths; and how moths could be used to airdrop tiny sensors into danger zones. These stories are from this year alone. I'm sure we can expect more moth-based breakthroughs in the future, so next time you see a moth, don't swat it away in panic. Instead, pause to consider what a tiny marvel it really is. It has evolved capabilities that you and I will never have.

US finally exits Paris Agreement but election result will determine for how long

Hopefully, by the time you read this, the US 2020 election result will have been decided (Trump's spurious poor-loser lawsuits and utterly false and baseless claims of voting corruption and irregularities notwithstanding) in favour of Joe Biden and the Democrat party, so the rest of the world can look forward to the US reaffirming its commitment to the Paris Agreement, as well as reversing all the anti-environment, money-driven moves made by the Trump administration over the last four years. The outgoing one-term president (the greatest political insult in the US) can then be forgotten as a temporary aberration, while his many creditors close in to recall the millions of dollars in loans and mortgages for which he is personally responsible, which are coming due in quick succession. The next few years could prove to be the worst yet in Donald Trump's recurringly bankrupt life. It couldn't happen to a more deserving person.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Drivers may need behavioural training to cope with autonomous vehicles

I don’t think many motorists would claim that that the quality of their driving has ever been as good as it was the day of their practical test, apart perhaps from short periods when they realise there’s a police car in the vicinity whose occupants might be observing them.

One of the reasons for this is that with experience beyond the limits of hour-long driving lessons we realise how often other road users don’t follow the rules and alter our own behaviour to compensate for that. Sometimes it’s for a good reason, and there’s an unwritten but well understood etiquette around the flashing of lights and waving of hands to give someone right of way that they shouldn’t really have but would otherwise leave them sitting at a busy junction with no hope of ever getting out onto a main road.

What we’re going to have to get used to as autonomous vehicles become a common sight on our roads is that machines are much less likely than humans to do the ‘wrong’ thing because following the rules would have undesirable consequences. The same thing goes for the human that’ll be inside most driverless cars – at the moment they’re expected to instinctively know how features like speed control, lane-alignment and automatic braking are going to work with a quick talk from a dealer and what’s in their new vehicle’s handbook.

Researchers at the University of Nottingham’s Human Factors group found that even a little instruction in how to interact with your self-driving mode of transport can make a big difference to safety. Subjects who had benefitted from behavioural training were more measured in the way they used autonomous features in a simulated car, and significantly more likely to spot potential hazards in situations where they were required to take back control themselves.

Eventually, maybe around the time flying cars eventually appear in showrooms, anyone will be able to belt themselves in, tell a navigation system where they want to go, and lie back to enjoy a nap. During the transition period between now and then, though, everyone on the road – whether they’re in a self-driving vehicle or not – should be getting some additional instruction in how to adapt their behaviour to accommodate machines that always act like they’re aiming for a 100 per cent score in their driving test.

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