Robotic cars are coming – are we ready?

Matti Kutila_Citroen_01072016

Robotic cars and automation in traffic were the great innovation of 2016 – or were they really? Could they perhaps just represent a long-term revolutionary path that has merely attracted special attention in recent media headlines? In any case, automotive engineering is undergoing transition from metal bending towards software development which is extremely fascinating.

Cars travelling 24/7 in a snowfall on icy roads are a future dream and more reliable technology is needed to equal surpass human driving skills. For example, a self-driving car representing the current state of the art cannot enter a multi-lane roundabout in congested Paris traffic – or at least leaving roundabout would be enormous challenge.

Automation in traffic is now top of the famous Gartner hype curve which is a measure of technology interests in industry. Unfortunately, the next few years a steady downward slope is expected before a slow rise again. Meanwhile, the automated functions will take over control of the vehicle step by step and becomes a master of driving instead of being assistants.

Development of robotic cars began more than 35 years ago

Although the media was awakened to the significant investments made in robotic cars by Google five years ago, the seeds of automation had been sown considerably earlier. Mercedes Benz introduced the first self-driving car in 1980, using the technology of the time. However, the loudest starting shot was fired at the DARPA Grand Challenge competitions, arranged by Pentagon in the U.S. between 2004 and 2007. The core of Google’s development teams was also made up of the university teams which had successfully participated in these completions.

Starting from the early 1990s, the European car industry has brought to the market a series of active, electronics-based safety systems. Through EU projects, we have had ringside seats to follow the development. Automated safety features now being released onto the market can be considered as the next generation of active safety features. Thus, the development of automation did not begin five years ago – it was initiated already 35 years ago.

Difficult road weather conditions pose a problem

Despite the product development efforts worth several billions undertaken by the automotive industry, traffic authorities and public funders, the world is not yet ready. As a matter of fact, at the current stage, fully automated vehicles are fairly primitive. Such vehicles are capable of travelling on roads at up to 50 kilometres per hour in areas covered by an accurate mapping data and during sunny weather. Cars travelling 24/7 in a snowfall on icy Finnish roads are still a distant dream, perhaps ten years away.

The current sources of sensory data are not sufficiently reliable in harsh weather conditions, and the processing capacity of vehicles to understand varying traffic incidences is far from the human brain. Not until now has the technology reached a point where sensors for talking and hearing can be installed, thanks to the capability of vehicles systems which enables them to exchange data. An obvious demand for automation in traffic exists, but the technology still needs further development. Anyway, having an opportunity to develop cars of which the public only has a faint conception is a researcher’s dream job.

Mixed traffic poses problems

The widespread adoption of automated cars is often said to improve traffic safety – after all, automation removes one of the factors underlying accidents, the human error. Traffic is also expected to run more smoothly as automated vehicles can travel closer to each other than cars with human drivers. Automated cars also facilitate the travel of such people who cannot or do not want to drive a car for some reason.

As we have had the opportunity to read during the past few weeks, gains in safety can be made, but not even automation is able to deal with every possible situation. One unfortunate collision involving a fatality has already occurred, as the sensory system of a car controlled by an autopilot failed to recognise an obstacle ahead of it. One additional challenge to safety is the fact that robotic vehicles do not travel in traffic composed of their likes, but in mixed traffic involving ordinary cars, pedestrians and cyclists.

Making traffic run smoothly requires not only automated systems but also a capability of vehicles to ‘talk to’ each other. An automated vehicle just following the car in front of it and reacting on its movements is not enough. After all, a good and experienced driver follows the traffic farther ahead, and in this way is capable of anticipating new situations. At present, human drivers are more flexible than automated cars.

What next?

The technical development of automated cars will continue and the price of its components will come down. More and varied experiments will be conducted, providing excellent data for impact assessment. At the present stage, impacts can only be assumed, with scenarios representing the opposite ends of the spectrum being equally likely. Therefore, it is important to be involved in development and research.

Components for smart cars have been developed for 30 years, and will be developed for the next 30 years. The decades to come will present challenges. The price of the components representing the previous generation will decrease, with new features being introduced in the high-end cars. Alternatively, we might be mistaken, and the traditional car industry loses the game and the new car brands will bear names such as Baidu, Google, Apple, and Tesla. The future manufacturers might even deliver a set of components to the customer who could then assemble a car by following instructions, in the same way as the furniture industry delivers its products today. Of course the automotive software is being sold separately for a monthly fee. Let’s wait and see.

The only certain thing is that traffic philosophy will change. We already have mixed traffic involving traditional cars, automated vehicles, more or less automated lightweight vehicles (such as Segway PT electric vehicles), and public transport. This will make the traffic environment highly complex. In order to help researchers to understand the changes in guiding product development in the right direction, various field tests involving motorways, urban environment, networked environment, closed areas, crossroads, winter conditions, articulated platoon of lorries and passenger cars need to be conducted.

Building and maintaining traffic infrastructure and the R&D of vehicles is expensive and requires a great deal of work. Field tests will substantially reduce the risk of wrong or unnecessary investments. Tests not only offer an opportunity to assess impacts and to provide support to companies conducting R&D, they also provide an excellent channel to communicate to the public the true meaning of automated traffic and to prevent people from getting the wrong ideas and attitudes. Automated vehicles are not developed for engineers or authorities, but for ordinary people in order to enable them to travel in a more convenient way in future.

Merja Penttinen

Matti Kutila, Senior Scientist 

Merja Penttinen, Research Team Leader; Twitter: @MerjaPenttinen

Synthetic super fungi promise to revolutionise biotechnological potential

Mushrooms are a superfood, but few are aware of the many other uses of fungi.

Fungi stand to have a major impact on our future, not just because of their ability to break down organic matter in nature and therefore accelerate the carbon cycle, but also more and more because of their role as producers of fuels, chemicals and bioplastics in the industrial sector.

In addition to edible fungi, there is a range of yeasts and moulds with a variety of properties. These microbes have a natural ability to metabolise wood, straw and different types of organic waste, as well as the sugars derived from these materials, into products that have uses for humans, such as antibiotics, alcohols, vitamins and laundry detergent enzymes. Fungi are – or could very easily become – a natural and important part of bioeconomy.

So why does Finland’s bioeconomy discussion boast about ‘selling ceps to the Italians’? And why do bioeconomy plans so rarely talk about biotechnology itself and the possibilities it opens up in this new kind of economy, which is all about finding alternatives for fossil resources and making use of biological plant material?

Most consumers know that traditional biotechnology products, such as wine and beer, are made using yeast. However, few are aware that insulin comes from genetically modified yeast and that jeans are ‘stone-washed’ using enzymes that moulds produce in large, sealed vats – in bioreactors that have a capacity of hundreds of thousands of litres. Any technologist with an interest in bioeconomy as well as decision-makers should have at least a basic understanding of the nature of modern biotechnology and its immense potential in terms of new products.

Industrial biotechnology concerns the use of living organisms in industrial production. The industry is developing at an extremely rapid rate, and it is founded on the latest scientific findings. Yeasts and moulds certainly do not need to bow down to anyone in the world of technology. Yeast research received the Nobel Prize in 2001, and the release of the baker’s yeast genome in 1996 marked the first time that the complete set of genetic material of an organism with a human-like cell structure (eukaryotic) was sequenced. The genomes of hundreds of different moulds have now also been sequenced, and researchers are currently combing through these to find the best candidates for genes that could, for example, produce enzymes for making biofuels from straw or wood waste.

The latest scientific achievements include the first fully synthetic chromosome of baker’s yeast, which scientists managed to produce in 2014. The rapid rate of development in this field of science is epitomised by the fact that scientists plan to replace the entire yeast genome, all 16 chromosomes, with human-designed synthetic DNA by 2018. This will give us the first ever synthetic eukaryotic organism: Saccharomyces cerevisiae 2.0.

Synthetic biology is set to revolutionise biotechnological potential in the near future

Synthetic biology gives us the tools to design and produce biological structures and living cells that do not exist in nature. Researchers can choose which properties they want to have in a production organism,  then design a new genetic code on that basis using a computer, and send the data to a company that can synthesise the genes, or DNA, in a test tube. Numerous strands of this kind of synthetic DNA can be incorporated quickly and accurately into the production microbe’s genetic material. Synthetic genes are activated and passed on to subsequent generations.

It takes just a couple of weeks to find the most suitable candidates from among thousands of different kinds of synthetic cells. The cells can be examined with the help of mathematical models and digitised, and synthetic DNA and organisms can be produced by means of automation and robotics. These tools make the process of building new, increasingly efficient production organisms and those that produce new compounds considerably faster. Businesses and research teams that have access to synthetic biology tools are ahead of the game in terms of developing and patenting new innovations.

Many countries, including EU Member States, see industrial biotechnology as one of the most important future technologies, especially thanks to the boost from synthetic biology. Industrial biotechnology enables the development of sustainable solutions for a wide variety of industrial sectors, such as the energy , chemical, pharmaceutical and forest industry.

Microbes can be made to turn organic waste into the same products that are currently derived from oil, and many petrochemicals can be replaced by compounds produced naturally by microbes. Synthetic biology makes possible fast development  of microbes into super-efficient producers and those that are well suited for industrial processes. Biological properties can be transferred from one species to another in a controlled manner, and completely new kinds of functions can be designed and living cells programmed to manifest them.

Making way for visionary business ideas

Synthetic biology excites mathematicians, chemists and physicists, and inspires students and young entrepreneurs. Amazingly little use has been made of the versatile functionality and specificity of biology in industrial production so far.

The time has now come for a biotechnological revolution, and completely new kinds of business ideas, including some wild ones, are expected within just a few years.  The first and most important area where innovations are needed, however, is bioeconomy: producing chemicals, fuels and materials from renewable resources.

Fungi to diversify Finland’s industrial sector

Finland has been a pioneer in the industrial application of biotechnology and its most important production organisms – yeasts and moulds – as well as in developing modern biotechnological techniques. Finnish researchers are able to make yeast produce biofuel butanol, mould to secrete human antibodies, and yeast to produce lactic acid, which can be polymerised into bioplastics. These kinds of multifaceted research and development projects have been possible largely thanks to interest from foreign companies.

Biotechnology, and fungi developed by means of synthetic biology, could also open up new opportunities in the industrial production of highly sought-after added-value products in Finland, and diversify Finland’s industrial sector.

The Living Factories programme, which is funded by Tekes and coordinated by VTT, strives to lower the threshold of Finnish industry to adopt biotechnological production processes. The project has already shown that synthetic biology (e.g. the genome editing technique CRISPR) can significantly speed up the development of production organisms and lower development costs.

Biotechnology is one of the most rapidly developing technologies at the moment, and it is among the top priorities of most countries’ technology strategies. Modern biotechnology also combines the success factors that are important to Finland: cutting-edge- expertise and the use of renewable raw materials.

Merja Penttilä

Research Professor 


Synteettiset supersienet mullistavat biotekniikan mahdollisuudet

Sienet ovat superruokaa, mutta harva tietää että niistä on moneen muuhunkin.

Sienillä on aivan oleellinen merkitys tulevaisuudellemme; ei ainoastaan luonnossa kasviaineksen hajottajina ja täten hiilen kiertokulun avittajina, mutta yhä enemmän myös teollisuudessa polttoaineiden, kemikaalien ja biomuovien tuottajina.

Syötävien sienten lisäksi on olemassa monenlaisia ominaisuuksia omaavia hiiva- ja homesieniä. Näillä mikrobeilla on luontainen kyky käyttää hyväkseen puuta, olkea, erilaista kasvijätettä sekä näistä saatavia sokereita ja muuttaa ne aineenvaihdunnassaan ihmiselle hyödyllisiksi tuotteiksi kuten antibiooteiksi, alkoholiksi, vitamiineiksi tai pesuaine-entsyymeiksi. Sienet ovat – tai olisivat mitä suurimmassa määrin – luonteva ja tärkeä osa biotaloutta.

Miksi sitten Suomessa biotalouden yhteydessä puhutaan vain ”herkkutattien myynnistä italialaisille”? Ja miksi biotalouden suunnitelmissa harvoin puhutaan itse bioteknologiasta ja sen antamista mahdollisuuksista tässä uudessa, fossiilisia raaka-aineita korvaavassa ja biologiseen kasviraaka-aineeseen perustuvassa taloudessa?

Kuluttaja yleensä tietää, että perinteiset biotekniikan tuotteet viini ja olut on valmistettu hiivaa käyttämällä. Harva kuitenkaan tietää, että insuliini on tuotettu geeniteknisesti muokatulla hiivalla ja että farkut ”kivipestään” entsyymeillä, joita homeet tuottavat suurissa suljetuissa astioissa, satojen tuhansien litrojen bioreaktoreissa. Biotaloudesta kiinnostuneilla teknologian soveltajilla ja päättäjillä tulisi kuitenkin olla käsitys modernin bioteknologian luonteesta ja niistä lukuisista mahdollisuuksista mitä se antaa tuotekirjon monipuolistajana.

Teollinen bioteknologia tarkoittaa elävien organismien käyttämistä hyödyksi teollisessa tuotannossa. Ala kehittyy erittäin nopeasti ja pohjautuu tutkimuksen viimeisimpiin saavutuksiin. Hiivat ja homeet eivät todellakaan ole mitään ”perässähiihtäjiä” teknologian maailmassa. Hiivatutkimus sai Nobel-palkinnon vuonna 2001, ja leivinhiivan genomin julkaiseminen vuonna 1996 oli ensimmäinen ihmisenkaltaisen solurakenteen omaavan (eukaryoottisen) organismin koko perintöaineksen selvitystyö. Myös eri homeiden genomeja on nyt määritetty satoja ja näistä tutkijat etsivät parhaita ehdokkaita geeneiksi, jotka esimerkiksi tuottavat entsyymejä biopolttoaineiden valmistamiseksi oljesta tai puujätteestä.

Tutkimuksen uusimpia saavutuksia on leivinhiivalle tehty ensimmäinen kokonainen synteettinen kromosomi vuonna 2014. Tutkimuksen nopeutta kuvaa se, että hiivan koko perimä, kaikki 16 kromosomia, aiotaan korvata ihmisen suunnittelemalla synteettisellä DNA:lla jo vuoteen 2018 mennessä. Tällöin käsissämme on ensimmäinen synteettinen eukaryoottinen eliö: Saccharomyces cerevisiae 2.0.

Synteettinen biologia mullistaa biotekniikan mahdollisuudet jo lähitulevaisuudessa

Synteettisen biologian työkalujen avulla voimme suunnitella ja valmistaa biologisia rakenteita ja eläviä soluja, joita ei ole luonnossa. Tutkija päättää, minkälaisia ominaisuuksia hän haluaa esimerkiksi tuotanto-organismilla olevan, suunnittelee tietokoneella niitä vastaavan uuden geneettisen koodin ja lähettää tämän yritykselle, joka syntetisoi koeputkessa vastaavat geenit, DNA:n. Lukuisia tällaisia synteettisiä DNA-pätkiä voidaan siirtää nopeasti ja tarkasti tuotantomikrobin perintöaineksen osaksi. Synteettiset geenit aktivoituvat ja periytyvät jälkeläisiin.

Tuhansista erilaisista synteettisistä soluista voidaan parissa viikossa seuloa esille parhaimmat haluttuun tarkoitukseen. Solua voidaan tarkastella matemaattisten mallien avulla, digitalisoida, ja synteettisen DNA:n ja organismien teossa käyttää apuna automaatiota ja robotiikkaa. Uusien entistä tehokkaampien ja uusia yhdisteitä tuottavien tuotanto-organismien rakentaminen nopeutuu suunnattomasti. Yritykset ja tutkimusryhmät, joilla on käytössään synteettisen biologian menetelmät, ovat etulyöntiasemassa uusien innovaatioden kehittämisessä ja patentoinnissa.

Monet maat, mukaan lukien EU, katsovat teollisen biotekniikan olevan erityisesti synteettisen biologian vauhdittamana yksi tärkeimmistä tulevaisuuden tekniikoista. Se mahdollistaa kestävän kehityksen mukaisien ratkaisujen kehittämisen laajasti useille eri teollisuuden aloille kuten energia-, kemian-, lääke- ja metsäteollisuudelle.

Mikrobit voidaan saada tuottamaan samoja tuotteita kasvijätteestä kuin nykyisin valmistetaan öljystä ja monia petrokemian tuotteita voidaan korvata mikrobien luonnostaan tuottamilla. Synteettinen biologia mahdollistaa mikrobien kehittämisen nopeasti supertehokkaiksi ja teolliseen tuotantoon sopiviksi. Biologisia ominaisuuksia voidaan siirtää hallitusti lajista toiseen ja suunnitella jopa aivan uudenlaisia toiminallisuuksia, joita elävät solut voidaan ohjelmoida ilmentämään.

Täysin uudenlaiset bisnesideat tulossa

Synteettinen biologia kiinnostaa matemaatikoita, kemisteja ja fyysikoita ja innostaa opiskelijoita ja nuoria yrittäjiä. Biologian toiminnallisuutta ja spesifisyyttä on käytetty vielä hämmästyttävän vähän hyväksi teollisessa tuotannossa.

Nyt bioteknologia mullistuu, ja jo muutamien vuosien kuluessa tullaan näkemään aivan uusia mielikuvituksellisiakin bisnesideoita.  Tärkein ja ensimmäinen sovelluskohde on kuitenkin bioekonomian ratkaisuissa: kemikaalien, polttoaineiden ja materiaalien valmistuksessa uusiutuvista raaka-aineista.

Sienet laajentamaan suomalaista teollisuuspohjaa!

Suomi on ollut edelläkävijä biotekniikan ja sen tärkeimpien tuotanto-organismien – hiivojen ja homeiden – teollisessa hyödyntämisessä ja modernien bioteknologisten menetelmien kehityksessä. Suomalaiset tutkijat voivat saada hiivan tuottamaan tehokkaasti polttoaineeksi soveltuvaa butanolia, homeen erittämään ihmisen vasta-aineita sekä hiivan valmistamaan maitohappoa, joka polymerisoidaan biomuoviksi. Monipuolinen tutkimus- ja kehitystyö on mahdollistunut pitkälti ulkomaisten yritysten kiinnostuksen vuoksi.

Bioteknologia ja synteettisen biologian menetelmin kehitetyt sienet voisivat luoda uusia mahdollisuuksia myös Suomessa korkea-arvoisten tuotteiden teolliseen tuotantoon ja laajentaa suomalaista teollisuuspohjaa.

Tekesin rahoittama ja VTT:n koordinoima synteettisen biologian projekti Living Factories pyrkii madaltamaan suomalaisen teollisuuden kynnystä ottaa käyttöön bioteknologisia tuotantoprosesseja.  Projekti on jo osoittanut, että synteettisen biologian menetelmillä (mm. genomin editointimenetelmä CRISPR) voidaan nopeuttaa tuotantokantojen rakentamista merkittävästi ja alentaa kustannuksia.

Bioteknologia on tällä hetkellä yksi nopeiten kehittyvistä teknologioista, ja on useimpien maiden teknologiastrategioiden kärjessä. Modernissa bioteknologiassa yhdistyvät myös Suomelle tärkeät menestystekijät: huippuosaaminen ja uusiutuvien biopohjaisten raaka-aineiden käyttö.

Merja Penttilä