China''''s Rare-Earth Monopoly

An attractive material: Neodymium (shown here) is one of the rare-earth elements that are key to making very strong magnets for compact electric motors.  Credit: Hi-Res Images of Chemical Elements

The rest of the world is trying to find alternatives to these crucial materials.

By Adam Aston

For three weeks, China has blocked shipments of rare-earth minerals to Japan, a move that has boosted the urgency of efforts to break Beijing””s control of these minerals. China now produces nearly all of the world””s supply of rare earths, which are crucial for a wide range of technologies, including hard drives, solar panels, and motors for hybrid vehicles.

In response to China””s dominance in rare-earths production, researchers are developing new materials that could either replace rare-earth minerals or decrease the need for them. But materials and technologies will likely take years to develop, and existing alternatives come with trade-offs.

China apparently blocked the Japan shipments in response to a territorial squabble in the South China Sea. Beijing has denied the embargo, yet the lack of supply may soon disrupt manufacturing in Japan, trade and industry minister Akihiro Ohata told reporters Tuesday.

Rare earths are comprised of 17 elements, such as terbium, which is used to make green phosphors for flat-panel TVs, lasers, and high-efficiency fluorescent lamps. Neodymium is key to the permanent magnets used to make high-efficiency electric motors. Although well over 90 percent of the minerals are produced in China, they are found in many places around the world, and, in spite of their name, are actually abundant in the earth””s crust (the name is a hold-over from a 19th-century convention). In recent years, low-cost Chinese production and environmental concerns have caused suppliers outside of China to shut down operations.

Alternatives to rare earths exist for some technologies. One example is the induction motor used by Palo Alto, California-based Tesla Motors in its all-electric Roadster. It uses electromagnets rather than permanent rare-earth magnets. But such motors are larger and heavier than ones that use rare-earth magnets. As a rule of thumb, in small- and mid-sized motors, an electromagnetic coil can be replaced with a rare-earth permanent magnet of just 10 percent the size, which has helped make permanent magnet motors the preferred option for Toyota and other hybrid vehicle makers. In Tesla””s case, the induction motor technology was worth the trade-off, giving the car higher maximum power in more conditions, a top priority for a vehicle that can rocket from zero to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds. “The cost volatility going into the rare-earth permanent magnets was a concern,” says JB Straubel, Tesla””s chief technology officer. “We couldn””t have predicted the geopolitical tensions.”

More manufacturers are following Tesla””s lead to shun the rare-earth materials, although the move means sacrificing space and adding weight to vehicles. A week after the China dust-up began, a research team in Japan announced they had made a hybrid vehicle motor free of rare-earth materials, and Hitachi has announced similar efforts. BMW””s Mini E electric vehicle uses induction motors, and Tesla is supplying its drive trains to Toyota””s upcoming electric RAV 4. Given the volatility of rare-earth supplies, and the advantages induction motors offer in high performance applications, “It makes sense for car companies to give serious thought to using induction motors,” says Wally Rippel, senior scientist at AC Propulsion. Rippel previously worked on induction motor designs at Tesla and GM, where he helped to develop the seminal EV1.

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Autonomous taxi can be hailed with an iPad app

AutoNOMOS labs Spirit of Berlin driverless car

By Noel McKeegan

Not so long ago, the idea that a car could drive itself seemed mildly insane, but thanks to the impetus provided by the DARPA Urban Grand Challenge and ongoing research around the globe, driving might become a hobby rather than a necessity much sooner than you think. One of the pioneers in the field, the Berlin-based AutoNOMOS group unveiled its latest project earlier this year. Known as FU-X “Made in Germany” the tech-laden VW Passat uses GPS, video cameras, on-board laser scanners and radars to navigate autonomously, giving it the potential to be used as a driverless taxi cab. Its latest trick – you can now hail it with an iPad.

AutoNOMOS labs conducts research at the Freie Universität Berlin. Its aim is both to develop an unmanned vehicle navigation system that can co-exist on our roads with conventional cars and to explore potential uses for these systems.

One of the promising applications is for driverless taxis and the iPad demo is an extension of this system which showcases the benefits of the technology. Using the iPad, a “call” is made to the taxi and it immediately knows where you”re at. You can also follow the car”s progress as it makes its way to your location (no more ringing the taxi company to ask where that cab got to!) and use the iPad to tell it where you want to be dropped off.

The video below provides an overview of the iPad controlled “Pick me up!” system.

Follow link for video ->

An Operating System to Run It All

New contender:Meego will start appearing on phones in early 2011. This image shows the “home” screen.  Credit: Intel

Intel”s MeeGo will let apps span tablets, phones, and TVs.

By Tom Simonite

Apple and Google will soon have more than just each other to worry about in the race to provide the software for smart phones and tablets. Later this month, Intel will announce that its MeeGo operating system is ready to run devices including touch screen tablets and phones.

Devices running MeeGo are likely to start appearing in early 2011. Netbooks are expected to appear first, then tablets and phones. MeeGo is different from Apple”s iOS platform for the iPhone, iPod and iPad or Google”s Android operating system, says Intel”s head of open source strategy, Ram Peddibhotla, because it is intended to seamlessly link multiple devices. “MeeGo is ground-up designed and targeted at multiple devices–netbooks, phones, and TV devices,” he says, describing a world in which a consumer could own multiple devices running the new operating system. “This allows these devices to work together more simply,” he says. “For example, with a flick of your finger, transferring a movie or any other content onto another device.”

Intel showed off this kind of functionality on some MeeGo-powered gadgets at its recent developers” event in San Francisco. One demo showed how a movie being streamed to a MeeGo netbook could be transferred to a TV set top box or even a phone; another showed how a netbook or tablet running MeeGo could be used in place of a TV remote to control a MeeGo-powered TV device.

Apple has also shown an interest in having its devices work together, and in making it possible to use an iPhone to control Apple TV or to stream video from an iPad or computer to Apple TV.

But Peddibhotla maintains that only an operating system built for multiple platforms from the start can really blur the lines between them. “We offer the same core programming interfaces across all devices and that creates a lot of opportunity for developers and manufacturers–more than if you try and push a certain operating system in a new direction.”

That last comment may be a dig at Google”s Android operating system for smart phones. Manufacturers have found it difficult to use that system to make tablets capable of taking on the iPad.

Just for Textbooks: An Insanely Large Dual-Screen Tablet

By Barb Dybwad

A company called Kno, Inc. has announced its flagship product, simply dubbed the Kno. The device joins two 14-inch touchscreens joined with a hinge, and it specifically targets the education sector.

Earlier we dinged the Dell Streak for being a bit on the small side, but the Kno tablet seems to suffer from the opposite problem. Announced at D8, the Kno weighs in at 5.5 pounds and more than an inch thick, rendering it comparable to a laptop but with two screens instead of a screen and keyboard.

The company refers to the device as a “digital textbook platform” and has partnered with publishers Cengage Learning, McGraw-Hill, and Pearson and Wiley to produce content for the Kno in a beta program that will kick off at major U.S. colleges and universities this fall.

Based on Linux, the Kno also boasts support for Adobe Flash — a hot topic right now since that’s something the iPad doesn’t include. Developers are encouraged to participate in building out a third-party App Store for the device.

As for pricing, all we know is that it will be “under $1000,” which already sounds suspiciously too high. Check out a demo video of the Kno and a few more screenshots below, then let us know what you think: Will students be interested in picking up a device like this? If so, would it be in place of or in addition to a laptop or desktop?

More pictures and a video ->

AT&T Kills Unlimited Data Plan For iPhones, iPads


NEW YORK — Just in time for the release of a new iPhone, AT&T will stop letting new customers sign up for its unlimited Internet data plan for smart phones and iPads and charge more for users who hog the most bandwidth.

AT&T hopes to ease congestion on its network, which has drawn complaints, particularly in big cities. But the approach could confuse customers unfamiliar with how much data it takes to watch a YouTube video or fire up a favorite app.

Current subscribers will be able to keep their $30-per-month unlimited plans, even if they renew their contracts. But starting Monday, new customers will have to choose one of two new data plans for all smart phones, including iPhones and BlackBerrys.

Subscribers who use little data – like those who may get dozens of e-mails a day but don’t watch much video – will pay slightly less every month than they do now, while heavy users will be dinged with higher bills.

The move takes effect in time for the expected unveiling of Apple’s new iPhone next week. Analysts said they expect other phone companies to follow. With no caps on consumption, data use could swamp wireless networks while revenue for the operators remains flat.

Verizon Wireless, the largest wireless carrier and AT&T’s chief rival, had no immediate comment on AT&T’s move. There has been much speculation about Verizon getting to sell its own version of the iPhone, but that prospect still appears distant.

One of the new AT&T plans will cost $25 per month and offer two gigabytes of data per month, which AT&T says will be enough for 98 percent of its smart phone customers. Additional gigabytes will cost $10 each.

A second plan will cost $15 per month for 200 megabytes of data, which AT&T says is enough for 65 percent of its smart phone customers. If they go over, they’ll pay another $15 for 200 more megabytes.

A gigabyte is enough for hundreds of e-mails and Web pages, but it’s quickly eaten up by Internet video and videoconferencing. The 200 megabytes offered under the $15 plan is enough for more than 1,000 e-mails, hundreds of Web pages and about 20 minutes of streaming video, AT&T says.

With the smaller plan and voice service, a smart phone could cost as little as $55 per month before taxes and add-on fees, down from $70 now. Ralph de la Vega, head of AT&T’s consumer business, said smart phones would become accessible to more people.

“Customers are getting a good deal, and if they can understand their usage, they can save some money,” de la Vega said in an interview.

Figuring out which plan to choose may not be easy, because many people have only a hazy notion of the size of a gigabyte and how many they use now. By contrast, a minute spent talking on the phone is easy to understand, and many people have learned roughly how many minutes they use every month.

The limits will apply only on AT&T’s cellular networks. Data usage over Wi-Fi networks, including AT&T’s public Wi-Fi “hot spots,” will not count toward the limits.

De la Vega noted that AT&T lets customers track their usage online. The iPhone also has a built-in usage tracking tool. And the carrier will also text subscribers to let them know they’re getting close to their limits.

Jason Prance, an iPhone 3G user in Atlanta, said his first reaction to the end of unlimited usage was to be “ticked off.”

“If you’re taking the ability to go unlimited away from people, you immediately get defensive,” he said.

But then he checked his data consumption on his iPhone for the first time and found he had never used more than 200 megabytes in a month. That surprised him, he said, because he sends and receives a lot of e-mail and watches online video now and then.

Now he figures he can save $30 per month by switching himself and his wife to the $15 plan.

For the iPad, the tablet computer Apple released a few months ago, the new $25-per-month plan will replace the $30 unlimited plan. IPad owners can keep the old unlimited plan as long as they keep paying $30 per month, AT&T said.

AT&T, based in Dallas, said the new plans shouldn’t materially affect its profits this year. Its stock rose 34 cents, or 1.3 percent, to $24.67 in Wednesday afternoon trading.

Customers have rebelled against the idea of data usage caps on broadband Internet at home, at least when limits are set low enough to make online video expensive. Time Warner Cable Inc. was forced to back away from trials of data caps last year after protests and threats of legislative action.

On wireless networks, where there’s less data capacity to go around, usage caps have been more common. Most wireless carriers, for instance, limit data cards for laptops to 5 gigabytes per month.

With competition for smart phone users intense, phone companies have been reluctant to impose data caps on those devices, although Sprint Nextel Corp. reserves the right to slow down or disconnect users who exceed 5 gigabytes per month.

Carriers have also started to lift limits on other use, selling plans with unlimited calling and text messaging. That’s not a big gamble because not many people have the time to talk on the phone for eight hours a day or spend every waking minute sending text messages. Smart phones, on the other hand, can draw a lot of data, depending on where and how they’re used.



AT&T’s data calculator, for consumption estimates:

Scosche developing first official iPad dash-mount kit

Scosche’s iKit for in-car iPad installation – Click the image to go to the video

by Jonathon Ramsey

Two years ago at the SEMA Show in Las Vegas we were told by a number of car interior designers that iPhone control of in-car infotainment systems was going to be a huge thing in the near future. In the meantime, it looks like iPad installation will be the huge in-car peripheral of the present – in more ways than one.

Scosche has developed a double-din solution called the iKit for installing the new iPad where your stereo used to go. It’s not the most elegant setup because it’s intended to keep your iPad portable, with a rotating dock at the end of a ball-joint mounted in the dash. But if you just gotta jack your iPad into your car and still have it handy when the ride’s over, the iKit could be for you. Follow the jump for Schosche’s official demonstration vid of the iKit with all the details.

[Source: Scosche]

Israelites celebrate! Ban on iPads lifted

By Mike Luttrell

Claiming that it has competing a security investigation on the ramifications of iPads inside the country, Israel will no longer confiscate the device from citizens who have “smuggled” one in.

Israel’s Minister of Communications, Moshe Kakhlon, has “approved the import of [iPads] to Israel,” said a ministry spokesperson in a statement.

The country decided to put a complete embargo on the device after it was concerned that the iPad’s wireless signals could interfere with other communications in the area. So any packages sent to Israel that contained an iPad were seized by officials.

Now, however, it has concluded that the Apple tablets pose no threat, and the import ban has been lifted. Anyone whose iPad was confiscated will get it back.

The international iPad market has been burgeoning as Apple still hasn’t announced official release dates for the iPad anywhere outside the US.