Brad Templeton is Chairman Emeritus of the EFF, Singularity U founding computing faculty, software architect and internet entrepreneur, robotic car strategist, futurist lecturer, photographer and Burning Man artist.

This is an "ideas" blog rather than a "cool thing I saw today" blog. Many of the items are not topical. If you like what you read, I recommend you also browse back in the archives, starting with the best of blog section. It also has various "topic" and "tag" sections (see menu on right) and some are sub blogs like Robocars, photography and Going Green. Try my home page for more info and contact data.

Computational photography will turn the photo world upside-down

The camera industry is about to come crashing down thanks to the rise of computational photography.

Many have predicted this for some time, and even wondered why it hasn’t happened. While many people take most of their photos with their cell phones, at this point, if you want to do serious photography, in spite of what it says on giant Apple billboards, you carry a dedicated camera, and the more you want from that camera, the bigger the lens on the front of it is.

That’s because of some basic physics. No matter how big your sensor is, the bigger the lens, the more light that will come in for each pixel. That means less noise, more ability to get enough light in dark situations, faster shutter speeds for moving subjects and more.

For serious photographers, it also means making artistic use of what some might consider a defect of larger lenses — only a narrow range of distances is in focus. “Shallow depth of field” lets photographers isolate and highlight their subjects, and give depth and dimensionality to photos that need it.

So why is it all about to change?

Traditional photography has always been about capturing a single frame. A frozen moment in time. The more light you gather, the better you can do that. But that’s not the way the eye works. Our eyes are constantly scanning a dynamic scene in real time, assembling our image of the world in our brains. We combine information captured at different times to get more out of a scene than our eyes as cameras can extract in a single “frame” (if they had frames.)

Computational photography adds smart digital algorithms not just to single frames, but to quickly shot sequences of them, or frames from multiple different lenses. It uses those to learn more about the image than any one frame or lens could pull out.  read more »

New NHTSA Robocar regulations are a major, but positive, reversal

NHTSA released their latest draft robocar regulations just a week after the U.S. House passed a new regulatory regime and the senate started working on its own. The proposed regulations preempt state regulation of vehicle design, and allow companies to apply for high volume exemptions from the standards that exist for human-driven cars.

It’s clear that the new approach will be quite different from the Obama-era one, much more hands-off. There are not a lot of things to like about the Trump administration but this could be one of them. The prior regulations reached 116 pages with much detail, though they were mostly listed as “voluntary.” I wrote a long critique of the regulations in a 4 part series which can be found in my NHTSA tag. They seem to have paid attention to that commentary and the similar commentary of others.

At 26 pages, the new report is much more modest, and actually says very little. Indeed, I could sum it up as follows:

  • Do the stuff you’re already doing
  • Pay attention to where and when your car can drive and document that
  • Document your processes internally and for the public
  • Go to the existing standards bodies (SAE, ISO etc.) for guidance
  • Create a standard data format for your incident logs
  • Don’t forget all the work on crash avoidance, survival and post-crash safety in modern cars that we worked very hard on
  • Plans for how states and the feds will work together on regulating this

Goals vs. Approaches

The document does a better job at understanding the difference between goals — public goods that it is the government’s role to promote — and approaches to those goals, which should be entirely the province of industry.

The new document is much more explicit that the 12 “safety design elements” are voluntary. I continue to believe that there is a risk they may not be truly voluntary, as there will be great pressure to conform with them, and possible increased liability for those who don’t, but the new document tries to avoid that, and its requests are much milder.

The document understands the important realization that developers in this space will be creating new paths to safety and establishing new and different concepts of best practices. Existing standards have value, but they can at best encode conventional wisdom. Robocars will not be created using conventional wisdom. The new document takes the approach of more likely recommending that the existing standards be considered, which is a reasonable plan.

A lightweight regulatory philosophy

My own analysis is guided by a lightweight regulatory approach which has been the norm until now. The government’s role is to determine important public goals and interests, and to use regulations and enforcement when, and only when, it becomes clear that industry can’t be trusted to meet these goals on its own.

In particular, the government should very rarely regulate how something should be done, and focus instead on what needs to happen as the end result, and why. In the past, all automotive safety technologies were developed by vendors and deployed, sometimes for decades, before they were regulated. When they were regulated, it was more along the lines of “All cars should now have anti-lock brakes.” Only with the more mature technologies have the regulations had to go into detail on how to build them.

Worthwhile public goals include safety, of course, and the promotion of innovation. We want to encourage both competition and cooperation in the right places. We want to protect consumer rights and privacy. (The prior regulations proposed a mandatory sharing of incident data which is watered down greatly in these new regulations.)  read more »

NTSB Tesla Crash report (New NHTSA regs to come)

The NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) has released a preliminary report on the fatal Tesla crash with the full report expected later this week. The report is much less favourable to autopilots than their earlier evaluation.

(This is a giant news day for Robocars. Today NHTSA also released their new draft robocar regulations which appear to be much simpler than the earlier 116 page document that I was very critical of last year. It’s a busy day, so I will be posting a more detailed evaluation of the new regulations — and the proposed new robocar laws from the House — later in the week.)

The earlier NTSB report indicated that though the autopilot had its flaws, overall the system was working. This is to say that though drivers were misusing the autopilot, the combined system including drivers not misusing the autopilot combined with those who did, was overall safer than drivers with no autopilot. The new report makes it clear that this does not excuse the autopilot being so easy to abuse. (By abuse, I mean ignore the warnings and treat it like a robocar, letting it drive you without you actively monitoring the road, ready to take control.)

While the report mostly faults the truck driver for turning at the wrong time, it blames Tesla for not doing a good enough job to assure that the driver is not abusing the autopilot. Tesla makes you touch the wheel every so often, but NTSB notes that it is possible to touch the wheel without actually looking at the road. NTSB also is concerned that the autopilot can operate in this fashion even on roads it was not designed for. They note that Tesla has improved some of these things since the accident.

This means that “touch the wheel” systems will probably not be considered acceptable in future, and there will have to be some means of assuring the driver is really paying attention. Some vendors have decided to put in cameras that watch the driver or in particular the driver’s eyes to check for attention. After the Tesla accident, I proposed a system which tested driver attention from time to time and punished them if they were not paying attention which could do the job without adding new hardware.

It also seems that autopilot cars will need to have maps of what roads they work on and which they don’t, and limit features based on the type of road you’re on.

Planning for hurricanes and other disasters with robocars

How will robocars fare in a disaster, like Harvey in Houston, Irma, or the tsunamis in Japan or Indonesia, or a big Earthquake, or a fire, or 9/11, or a war?

These are very complex questions, and certainly most teams developing cars have not spent a lot of time on solutions to them at present. Indeed, I expect that these will not be solved issues until after the first significant pilot projects are deployed, because as long as robocars are a small fraction of the car population, they will not have that much effect on how things go. Some people who have given up car ownership for robocars — not that many in the early days — will possibly find themselves hunting for transportation the way other people who don’t own cars do today.

It’s a different story when, perhaps a decade from now, we get significant numbers of people who don’t own cars and rely on robocar transportation. That means people who don’t have any cars, not the larger number of people who have dropped from 2 cars to 1 thanks to robocar services.

I addressed a few of these questions before regarding Tsunamis and Earthquakes.

A few key questions should be addressed:

  1. How will the car fleets deal with massively increased demand during evacuations and flight during an emergency?
  2. How will the cars deal with shutdown and overload of the mobile data networks, if it happens?
  3. How will cars deal with things like floods, storms, earthquakes and more which block roads or make travel unsafe on certain roads?

Most of these issues revolve around fleets. Privately owned robocars will tend to have steering wheels and be usable as regular cars, and so only improve the situation. If they encounter unsafe roads, they will ask their passengers for guidance, or full driving. (However, in a few decades, their passengers may no longer be very capable at driving but the car will handle the hard parts and leave them just to provide video-game style directions.)

Increased demand

An immediately positive thing is the potential ability for private robocars to, once they have taken their owners to safety, drive back into the evacuation zone as temporary fleet cars, and fetch other people, starting with those selected by the car’s owner, but also members of the public needing assistance. This should dramatically increase the ability of the car fleet to get people moved.

Nonetheless, it is often noted that in a robocar taxi world, there don’t need to be nearly as many cars in a city as we have today. With ideal efficiency, there would be exactly enough seats to handle the annual peak, but few more. We might drop to just 1/4 of the cars, and we might also have many of them be only 1 or 2 seater cars. There will be far fewer SUVs, pickup trucks, minivans and other large cars, because we don’t really need nearly as many as we have today.  read more »

Talk Thursday in Silicon Valley: Everything you know on Robocars is wrong

For those in Silicon Valley, I will be giving a talk at the monthly autonomous vehicle enthusiast meetup. Some time ago I did my general talk, but this one will get into the meat on some of the big myths and issues. With luck we’ll get some good debate going.

You can register on the Meetup site It takes a nominal charge to stop people from grabbing a slot if they don’t really plan to come. The event will probably sell out, but fear not, there are usually no-shows anyway so get on the waitlist if you want to come.

Private Big Brothers are arriving

For many decades I’ve had an ongoing debate with my friend David Brin over the ideas in his book The Transparent Society where he ponders what happens when cameras and surveillance technology become so cheap it’s impossible to stop them from being everywhere.

While I and my colleagues at the EFF have worked to reduce government and corporate surveillance of our lives, at the back of my mind I have had a fear of what happens when groups of private citizens create surveillance systems. While we can debate whether the government can put up cameras on every corner, we can’t stop private homeowners from having cameras on their own land which video the street in front of their house, which is a public space.

I noticed the launch last month of a company called Flock which wants to provide automatic licence plate readers to neighbourhoods. They will track every car going in and out of a neighbourhood. They will know (and forget about) the cars of residents, and will also know about the cars of regular visitors to the neighbourhood. If you’ve paid them their fee, and you get a break-in, you can get a list of all unusual cars that were in the area during the crime, and you can hand it to the police.

Certainly that seems legal, and it’s not hard to see that neighbours would like it. They keep their privacy (presuming the promise of not recording known resident cars is kept) and only “outsiders” are tracked. I can even see wanting this info myself after a theft I had last year from my car. While it might not solve crimes, it would certainly add to the evidence to convict a suspect.

Instead, the question around this is, what if everybody does it, and things like it? We’re not far from adding face recognition to these camera systems, so video is kept of all unknown people. The result is a world where you’re a bit more secure at your own house, but you’re under massive surveillance everywhere else. It is better that the data are provided only when a crime is reported, rather than having the police operate the system, but there are many countries where this technology will be run by police and spies. And it’s hard to say it will be impossible for the police to get access to the data even when no homeowner wants it. But in reality, police will always be able to convince a homeowner to want it.

We then get a surveillance tragedy of the commons. What seems good for every group that does it sneaks Orwell’s world in through the back door.

Vigilant Solutions

I should not mention Flock without pointing out that there is a much more developed threat in licence plate recognition from companies such as Vigilant Solutions. They have put up a large network of cameras and sell the data to police. I write about Flock not because it’s as big a threat to privacy as Vigilant is today, but because the alternate business model of selling to private individuals makes things so different. On the one hand, it’s better that it’s not going directly to the police. On the other hand, it creates the tragedy of the commons I described — it makes sense for any one neighbourhood to deploy something like this, but creates Big Brother if we all do. It’s harder to figure legal challenges to this, while the legal challenges for Vigilant are more obvious, though not necessarily easy.

Photo gallery from 2017 total solar eclipse

I was just outside Weiser Idaho, a small town on the Snake river, for the 2017 Eclipse, which was an excellent, if short, spectacle which reawakened U.S. interests in total eclipses. They are, as I wrote earlier, the most spectacular natural phenomenon you can see on the Earth, but due to their random pattern it’s been a long time since one has covered so much of the world’s richest country.

For me, it was my sixth total eclipse, but the first I could drive to. I began this journey in Mexico in 1991, with the super-eclipse of that year, which also was the last to visit the United States (it was visible on the big island of Hawai`i.) Since then I have flown around the world to the Curacao area, to the Black Sea, to the Marshall Islands (more photos) and French Polynesia to see other total eclipses. And I will continue to do so starting with 2 years from now in Argentina.

See the gallery

I recommend before you read that you enjoy my Gallery of 2017 Eclipse Photos in HD resolution. When going through them I recommend you click the “i” button so you can read the descriptions; they do not show in the slide show.

HDR from main camera

Why it’s impossible (today) to photograph

I did not photograph my first eclipse (nor should anybody) but every photographer, seeing such a spectacle, hopes to capture it. We can’t, because in addition to being the most spectacular natural event, it’s also the one with the greatest dynamic range. In one small field you have brilliant jets of fire coming off the sun, its hot inner atmosphere, its giant glowing outer atmosphere and a dimly lit dark sky in which you can see stars. And then there is the unlit side of the moon which appears to be the blackest thing you have ever seen. While you can capture all these light values with a big bracket, no display device can come close to showing that 24 stop range. Only the human eye and visual system can perceive it.

Some day though, they will make reasonable display devices that can do this, but even then it will be tough. For the eclipse covers just a few degrees of sky, but in reality it’s a full 360 experience, with eerie light in all directions and the temporary light of twilight in every direction. Still, we try.

In the future, when there is a retinal resolution VR headset with 24 bits of HDR light level ability, we might be able to show people an eclipse without going to one. Though you should still go.

Moment of 3rd contact

That’s why these photographs are so different. Every exposure reveals a different aspect of the eclipse. Short exposures show the prominences and the “chromosphere” — the inner atmosphere of the sun visible only at the start and end of the eclipse. Longer exposures reveal more of the giant corona. The fingers of the outer corona involve 2 or 4 second exposures! The most interesting parts happen at 2nd and 3rd contact (the start and end) and also have many aspects. About 1/60th of a second shows the amazing diamond ring by letting the tiny sliver of sun blow out the sensor to make the diamond, as it does to the eye.

Time to rename the partial eclipse

One thing that saddens and frustrates me is that all of this is only visible in a band less than 100 miles wide where the eclipse is total. Outside that, for thousands of miles, one can see (with eye protection) a “partial eclipse.” They both get called an eclipse but the difference is night and day. Yet I think the naming makes people not understand the difference. They think a “90% partial eclipse” is perhaps 90% as interesting as a total eclipse. Nothing could be more wrong. There are really three different things:

  1. The total eclipse, the most amazing thing you will ever see.
  2. The >98% partial eclipse (and annular eclipse) which are definitely an interesting event, but still just a tiny shadow of what a total eclipse is.
  3. The ordinary partial eclipse, which is a fun and educational curiosity.

I constantly meet people who think they saw “the eclipse” when to me and all others who have seen one, only the total eclipse is the eclipse. While the 98% partial is interesting, nobody should ever see that, because if you are that close to the band of totality, you would be nuts not to make the effort to go that extra distance. In a total eclipse, you see all that the partial has to offer, and even a few partial effects not seen except at 99.9%

A wider angle HDR with deep corona

As such, I propose we rename the partial eclipse, calling it something like a “grazing transit of the moon.” An eclipse technically is a transit of the moon over the sun, but my main goal is to use a different term for the partial and total so that people don’t get confused. To tell people in the partial zone “you saw a transit, hope it was interesting” while telling people in the total zone, “You saw a solar eclipse, wasn’t that the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen?”

Automating the photography

This was the first eclipse I have ever driven to, and because of that, I went a bit overboard, able to bring all sorts of gear. I had to stop myself and scale back, but I still brought 2 telescopes, 4 cameras, one long lens, 5 tripods and more.  read more »

Whoops, UA you could sure do a lot better with long delays and cancels

Last night, as they were towing our plane from the gate in Miami there was a very unusual bump — turns out they put the tow bar on wrong and damaged the landing gear. It became clear in time that we would not fly that night (FA timeout loomed.) I’ve seen this a lot, so I was on the phone immediately to book another flight, but I would still need a hotel voucher for the night, as would most other folks on the flight, even if they took the same flight the next day after the repair.

They sent everybody back to the check-in counters to get processed, and they only had a few staff since all other flights had left. As such there was a long line, and the first 3 people in it took 10 minutes each to process because they were trying to change flights as well as get vouchers. Overall, it’s a terrible experience, and it’s been this way for a very long time — a decade ago I saw multi-hour waits for people to get vouchers after weather in Dulles.

There is so much they could have done better, and since this happens all the time, and has for decades, I am not sure why they don’t. Here are some things they could do.

Everything should be doable over the phone or online

I rebooked my flight on the phone. So should everybody. There are a thousand phone agents. Non-status passengers were getting long hold times, so perhaps they should have a special priority code for passengers who have had a major problem like an overnight delay or cancel.

More to the point, the agents should be regularly announcing to people in line, “If you need to rebook, please call this number or use our app.” Several times passengers came up to the counter to say, “would you please announce to the line what’s going on?”

These vouchers are just a piece of paper with a one-time-use credit card number and other relevant info on them. They should be electronic. Everybody should be able to just get their voucher on their phone. Failing that, they should be able to use the check-in kiosks to print a voucher. Go to the kiosk, scan your boarding pass, get your vouchers. How hard can that be? (Update: Apparently Delta does this giving UA no excuse.) Only go to the agents for special requests. Failing that, if you really need to talk to a phone agent to get your voucher confirmed, let them enable you to print it at the kiosk.

Ideally, the customer should not need to do anything. You should get a notification by app or text saying, “Sorry your flight is delayed overnight. Here are your vouchers.” The people who don’t have the app downloaded will have it pretty quickly rather than wait in line.

Electronic vouchers

Sure, some vendors might not be ready for electronic vouchers. But if airlines said, “Take electronic vouchers or don’t get all this business” I think they would change pretty quickly. As long as a few vendors take them, you can tell passengers, “Here is your electronic voucher, good at these vendors. If you wish a different vendor, go to a UA kiosk or counter to exchange for a paper voucher.” I don’t think most passengers would bother.

If you can’t do it online, do it in bulk

The terminals at the gate should simply have spewed out the vouchers in a big stack and the gate agents (not the counter agents) should have handed them out quickly to people by calling names or forming lines based on last name. Then they could deal with the special requests. Doing it at the gate is important because all the people there are passengers — out at check-in you need to re-verify that. At the gate, if need be, they can flash their boarding pass — there are scanners for that of course — and get their vouchers.

Use Lyft or Uber for transport and handle other airports

I rebooked out of Fort Lauderdale. It’s only a 30 minute drive at night. They were quite unprepared for that and took a long time to issue me vouchers for there. This can be improved, or I can be a special case if need be.

They gave me a voucher for supershuttle to get to Fort Lauderdale. I was surprised to see that Supershuttle’s fare for a shared ride was $39, while Lyft was $36 for a private ride. I wanted sleep so I took the Lyft at my own expense, but it would save them money if they allowed Lyft and Uber to be providers for ground transport.

Make it all frictionless

It was the airport that broke the gear, but the airline had to deal with it. One measures the quality of a company by how it handles failures even more than how it works when all is right. Here’s what I think would have been the best result.

  1. As soon as a delay was likely, the computer should have reserved an alternate flight for me, and sent me a message to select my preferred alternates. These seats would be protected against other people in the same boat, though I might lose them to paying external customers. (As a 1K in first class, I expect to be treated better here.)
  2. As soon as the delay or cancel is confirmed, my phone should have beeped to let me confirm whether I want to take the continuation or the alternate flight.
  3. Next the phone app should have generated the vouchers and put them in the phone. Or better still, the information should have been transmitted to the hotel and my booking made and already checked in (if I’m an out of towner.) Instructions on how to get to the hotel and its shuttle schedule should come with that.
  4. While I am in transit, I should be able to browse my food options on meal vouchers, and order online if the restaurant offers that.

Discouraging voucher use

The only reason I can imagine the airline keeps it so painful is they wish to discourage voucher use. For example, if flying from your home city, they surely want you to go stay at home. If they make the process really painful, people who would find it convenient to stay at the airport (due to long trips, traffic, parking or early flights) might give up and go home, saving the airline money.

The airlines could make automatic issuance of vouchers happen only for people who don’t live in the airport town. That leaves the people who were visiting friends or family and have a place to stay for free. The airlines will prefer you use that. One solution would be to offer visitors some flyer miles or flight credit if they are willing to handle their own expenses. Flight credit is cheap for airlines, as many people never get around to redeeming it.

How do other airlines do?

Does United just suck at this? Are there airlines which do what I propose, or otherwise handle this a lot better?

E-mail is more secure than we think, we should use it

E-mail is facing a decline. This is something I lament, and I plan to write more about that general problem, but today I want to point out something that is true, but usually not recognized. Namely that E-mail today is often secure in transit, and we can make better use of that and improve it.

The right way to secure any messaging service is end-to-end. That means that only the endpoints — ie. your mail client — have the keys and encrypt or decrypt the message. It’s impossible, if the crypto works, for anybody along the path, including the operators of the mail servers as well as the pipes, to decode anything but the target address of your message.

We could have built an end-to-end secure E-mail system. I even proposed just how to do it over a decade ago and I still think we should do what I proposed and more. But we didn’t.

Along the way, though, we have mostly secured the individual links an E-mail follows. Most mail servers use encrypted SMTP over TLS when exchanging mail. The major web-mail programs like Gmail use encrypted HTTPS web sessions for reading it. The IMAP and POP servers generally support encrypted connections with clients. My own server supports only IMAPS and never IMAP or POP, and there are others like that.

What this means is that if I send a message to you on Gmail, while my SMTP proxy and Google can read that message, nobody tapping the wire can. Governments and possibly attackers can get into those servers and read that E-mail, but it’s not an easy thing to do. This is not perfect, but it’s actually pretty useful, and could be more useful.  read more »

Don't feed the radical right trolls by counter-protesting them

We’re all shocked at the idea of a growing neo-Nazi movement, at the horrible attack in Virginia and the lack of condemnation by the President. It’s making us forget that the neo-Nazi radical right are trolls with many parallels to online trolls. And the only thing to do is not to feed the trolls, and definitely don’t attack the civil rights that they make use of.

A protest march has 3 main functions:

  1. Get publicity for the cause
  2. Show those of similar mind that they are not alone and foster community
  3. Show the outside world that you have numbers

The first is the primary purpose. They don’t get very far shouting slogans at the people walking their dogs past their march. There are far better ways to get your message out today. The march works because people talk about it, write about it in the press, or even better, if they counter-protest it, vastly multiplying the publicity. Counter-protests are what any small radical group wants, not a quiet and peaceful rally. To do this they will be as outrageous as they can, to goad their opponents. The protest group wants to show they have numbers, but to show it they need publicity. In this case, they don’t have very large numbers.

A perfect example is the Phelps Westboro Baptist “Church.” They protest at funerals with offensive signs saying “God hates fags” and similar. They are not protesting the funerals. They do it only in the hope that people will get riled up and bring them tons of publicity, and it works. (Some even speculate that their goal is to get people to get so upset they assault them, and then they file court actions profitably!)

We have a strong urge not to leave something as pernicious as neo-nazis ignored. We feel we must show “this is not us.” And we want to show our numbers are large while theirs are small. But we know our numbers are large. But the attention given to them grows their numbers. Nobody joins a neo-nazi group imagining the “movement” is not reviled. They join because it is reviled by their ideological opponents. We must resist that urge. We must ignore them, and treat them as the irrelevant last adherents of a philosophy long left in the dustbin of history, which is what they are.

Radical groups have been around forever, and were not always trolls. But today’s online world gives them an alternative and better place to communicate, to promote their ideas, and to find strength in numbers, if they have numbers. As such the “march” is far less important for those things, and much more of its purpose is trolling.

There are those who feel that the approach of not feeding trolls is too simplistic or outdated and that there are other techniques that can work online. In the physical world, which is not a private playground like most online spaces, censorship is not permitted and only non-physical methods can be applied. This has frustated some people…

One alternative

I don’t pretend there can’t be ways to respond to trolls, as long as you’re sure you are not giving them the reaction they goaded you for. One town in Bavaria took pledges so that the more Nazis and the more they marched more money was donated to an anti-Nazi charity. In the USA, rather than a physical counter protest, giving money to Southern Poverty Law Center or others for every neo who shows up could be highly effective.

If you are skilled at it — really this is not for amateurs — mocking them can also work. They want people to be angry, not laughing, and especially not laughing at them. As noted, the comedy must be very good. Mean spirited comedy can get a laugh but is also a reaction of fear or anger.

Don’t attack civil rights

Nazis get people upset, naturally. My grandmother was a Jew out of Vitebsk, where the Einsatzgruppen B set up a base and murdered every Jew in the city, including all her relatives that did not emmigrate as her family fortunately did. I have reason to understand the horror of Nazi thinking. So I get really pissed when people start attacking the civil rights which belong to all, including neo-nazis, forcing me to defend them. I defend the rights, not the assholes, but often to others, and sometimes even to us, it can seem like we have to defend the scum.

If you think you want to call for a reduction in free speech for these scum, think again. It’s what they want. They would like nothing better than to have their marches banned, their web sites shut down. It’s publicity and makes them victims. And yes, they will laugh at those of us who will defend those rights.

Make no mistake. When our rights come under attack, there will be people defending them. It’s just a given, and even if you don’t agree with doing that, it’s the choice of the rights defenders, not your choice. It’s going to happen. Your only choice is whether to force those defenders into action. If you attack the free speech of scum, you are playing into their hands. It also won’t work, and is a bad idea, as I outlined in my article recently on Free Speech Theory.

If there’s a legal case over free speech or other rights of these folks, the ones who attacked those rights are the ones to blame. So don’t say it’s OK to censor or ban them. Don’t say it’s OK to punch them (if they have not been violent.) You might believe it, and in this post I am not arguing with you about that. I’m telling you what your choice will set in motion, and it’s not what you want.

Hard as it may be, as long as they are a small radical fringe, the best course is to ignore them. You won’t fix them by focusing the world on them. If they get to be big enough to be a real threat, you can pay some attention, but don’t help them get there.

Your eclipse guide (with the things not in many eclipse guides)

I will be heading to western Idaho this weekend to watch my sixth total Eclipse. That makes me a mid-grade eclipse chaser, so let me tell you some important things you need to know, which are not in some of the other eclipse guides out there. For good general sites look at places like NASA’s Eclipse Guide which has nice maps or this map.

Totality is everything

The difference between a total solar eclipse and a partial one — even a 98% partial one — is literally night and day. It’s like the difference between sex and holding hands. They are really two different things with a similar sounding name. And a lunar eclipse is again something vastly different. This does not mean a high-partial eclipse is not an interesting thing, but the total eclipse is by far the most spectacular natural phenomenon visible on this planet. Beyond the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Norway, etc. So if you can get to totality, get there. Do not think you are seeing the eclipse if you don’t get into the zone of totality.

People debate about how total it should be

Many people seek to get close to the centerline of the eclipse. This provides the longest eclipse for your area. You will only lose a modest number of seconds if you are within 15 miles of the centerline, so you don’t have to get exactly there, and in fact it may be too crowded there.

On the other hand there are those who deliberately get close to the edge, giving up 30-40% of their eclipse time in order to see more “edge effects.” Near the edge, the edge effects are longer and a bit more spectacular. In particular the diamond ring will be a fair bit longer, and you may see more prominences and chromosphere for longer. If this is your first eclipse, I am not sure you want to get too close to the edge. But try any of the map web sites that will tell you your duration, and get somewhere that has within 30-40 seconds of the centerline time.

You look at the total eclipse with zero eye protection

You’ve been hearing endless talk about eclipse glasses and how well made they are. Eclipse glasses are only for the boring partial phase. They give you a way to track the progress of the moon while waiting for the main event. Once totality is over, everybody packs up and does not even bother to watch the 2nd half of the partial eclipse, that’s how boring the partial part is.

But don’t be one of those people who, told about the danger of eclipses, does not watch totality with your bare eyes. In fact, use binoculars in addition to your naked eyes, and perhaps a short look through a telescope — but not during the diamond rings or any partial phase.

Update: There is a nice large sunspot group that should still be there on Eclipse day, making the partial phase more interesting to those with good eyesight.

In totality you are looking not at the sun, but its amazing atmosphere — the “corona” — full of streamers, and many times the size of the sun or moon. You may also see jets of fire coming off the sun, and at the start and end of totality you will see the hot red inner atmosphere of the sun, known as the chromosphere.

If you are crazy enough to be outside the total zone but close to it, you still can’t look with your bare eyes at any part of the eclipse.

There are some cool things in a 99% partial eclipse (which you see just before and after totality.)

An eclipse is most glorious in the sky but a lot of other things happen around it. As it gets very close to total you will see the nature of the sunlight change and become quite eerie. Shadows of trees will turn into collections of crescents. About 20-60 seconds before and after totality, if you have a white sheet on the ground, you will see ripples of light waving, like on the bottom of a giant swimming pool. And the shadow. You will see it approach. If you are up on a mountain or in a plane this will be more obvious. It is going at 1,000 to 2,000 miles per hour.  read more »

Many different approaches to Robocar Mapping

Almost all robocars use maps to drive. Not the basic maps you find in your phone navigation app, but more detailed maps that help them understand where they are on the road, and where they should go. These maps will include full details of all lane geometries, positions and meaning of all road signs and traffic signals, and also details like the texture of the road or the 3-D shape of objects around it. They may also include potholes, parking spaces and more.

The maps perform two functions. By holding a representation of the road texture or surrounding 3D objects, they let the car figure out exactly where it is on the map without much use of GPS. A car scans the world around it, and looks in the maps to find a location that matches that scan. GPS and other tools help it not have to search the whole world, making this quick and easy.

Google, for example, uses a 2D map of the texture of the road as seen by LIDAR. (The use of LIDAR means the image is the same night and day.) In this map you see the location of things like curbs and lane markers but also all the defects in those lane markers and the road surface itself. Every crack and repair is visible. Just as you, a human being, will know where you are by recognizing things around you, a robocar does the same thing.

Some providers measure things about the 3D world around them. By noting where poles, signs, trees, curbs, buildings and more are, you can also figure out where you are. Road texture is very accurate but fails if the road is covered with fresh snow. (3D objects also change shape in heavy snow.)

Once you find out where you are (the problem called “localization”) you want a map to tell you where the lanes are so you can drive them. That’s a more traditional computer map, though much more detailed than the typical navigation app map.

Some teams hope to get a car to drive without a map. That is possible for simpler tasks like following a road edge or a lane. There you just look for a generic idea of what lane markings or road edges should look like, find them and figure out what the lanes look like and how to stay in the one you want to drive in. This is a way to get a car up and running fast. It is what humans do, most of the time.

Driving without a map means making a map

Most teams try to do more than driving without a map because software good enough to do that is also software good enough to make a map. To drive without a map you must understand the geometry of the road and where you are on it. You must understand even more, like what to do at intersections or off-ramps.

Creating maps is effectively the act of saying, “I will remember what previous cars to drive on this road learned about it, and make use of that the next time a car drives it.”

Put this way it seems crazy not to build and use maps, even with the challenges listed below. Perhaps some day the technology will be so good that it can’t be helped by remembering, but that is not this day.

The big advantages of the map

There are many strong advantages of having the map:

  • Human beings can review the maps built by software, and correct errors. You don’t need software that understands everything. You can drive a tricky road that software can’t figure out. (You want to keep this to a minimum to control costs and delays, but you don’t want to give it up entirely.)
  • Even if software does all the map building, you can do it using arbitrary amounts of data and computer power in cloud servers. To drive without a map you can must process the data in real time with low computing resources.
  • You can take advantage of multiple scans of the road from different lanes and vantage points. You can spot things that moved.
  • You can make use of data from other sources such as the cities and road authorities themselves.
  • You can cooperate with other players — even competitors — to make everybody’s understanding of the road better.

One intermediate goal might be to have cars that can drive with only a navigation map, but use more detailed maps in “problem” areas. This is pretty similar, except in database size, with automatic map generation with human input only on the problem areas. If your non-map driving is trustworthy, such that it knows not to try problem areas, you could follow the lower cost approach of “don’t map it until somebody’s car pulled over because it could not handle an area.”

Levels of maps

There are two or three components of the maps people are building, in order to perform the functions above. At the most basic level is something not too far above the navigation maps found in phones. That’s a vector map, except with lane level detail. Such maps know how many lanes there are, and usually what lanes connect to what lanes. For example, they will indicate that to turn right, you can use either of the right two lanes at some intersections.  read more »

Project Fi gives extra free Data Sims

Ten years ago, I asked Cell companies to let me have more than one phone on the same number. Recently I noticed the ability to almost do that with Google Project FI cell service.

Project FI is a cell service done (mostly) right. Low $20 basic cost, no phone subsidies or lock-in, fairly priced long distance, pay for data as you use it, roam on multiple networks, but most of all, the same $10/G data price in almost the whole world, at 3G and sometimes 4G speeds. It’s not perfect — it tends to roam with smaller carriers, it has problems sometimes overseas, and $10/G is a high price for those who use more than about 3GB/month of data.

I recently noticed a new feature — you can get up to ten extra data-only SIM cards at no extra cost. You pay for the data you use, as always with this plan. You can get a SIM for a tablet, but I think even more useful is the ability to pick up extra SIMs for your old phones. Now you can use these old phones as backup phones. Keep one in your car, to use if you forget your phone in the morning. Keep one at the office. Loan one when you travel.

The trick that makes these work as phones and not just data devices is project FI links your phone number into hangouts. If anybody calls or texts you, it also comes in via hangouts. So if you have decent data, you can take or make calls and SMS on the phone with the data-only SIM.

It’s not perfect. Sometimes calls over data suck. There is a small cost for the data for the voice — probably about 1 cent/minute. That’s actually a big savings over the one remaining roaming charge they have — 20 cents/minute.

Now my old phones can have a purpose. Old phones are old, though, so you want to strip out the apps you don’t need on a backup phone to keep them zippy. You will want to leave them in airplane-mode-wifi-on when not actively roaming with them so they don’t use your data plan sucking down emails and facebook.

BTW, if you are wondering if $10/GB is a reasonable price compared to plans that give 5 or 6GB in their basic $40-$50 price, I have found it to be quite reasonable at home. That’s because when I am home, I am on wifi in my house and most of the buildings I visit regularly. That keeps my data load down. When I travel, I try to go on wifi in the hotels but I also use the phone a lot more, and I will use 3-4GB in those months — but that’s a much better price than you will get from other carriers. T-mobile’s plan gives unlimited roaming but only at 2G speeds which are very low utility.

(BTW, while I really love the fact that incoming FI calls and texts go to hangouts and thus my desktop and laptop in addition to my extra phones, the Hangouts program is an absolutely terrible phone interface, lacking even redial and call-back and other very basic functions.)

Project FI is not a big network, and it’s other main flaw is that it only officially supports the Google phones like the Pixel and Nexus, though you can use other phones unofficially without quite as much roaming. But it’s also a great competitive push on the other cell phone companies to price in a manner that makes more sense. Cheers to them. (Disclaimer: I own some GOOG stock and am friends with Google management, and consulted there in the past.)

Keeping it in the USA

One serious flaw in FI, though, is that they don’t want people who live outside the USA to get it. One presumes they are not making or even losing money on the international roaming, and making it back inside. I spend 3 or more months a year outside the USA, so I may not be a profitable customer for them.

The problem is that to stop foreign users, they will only activate a SIM card if you are on the US networks. So if your phone fails while you are on a trip, and you have to replace it, or your SIM fails, you may be in a pile of trouble — you won’t be able to get and activate a new phone while on your trip. This hurt me when my Nexus 6 got unreliable on a trip. I had to put up with a crashing phone. It’s possible that had I begged they would have let me activate a new phone, but uncertain. Official policy is not. On the other hand, you are not entirely out of luck. You can get your new phone, put a local (ie. non-USA) SIM in it, and still get your calls and texts via hangouts, or via forwarding at some cost.

Car Rental: Rent me a cooler and lots of other gear for road trips

Something I do from time to time is a road trip in a rental car. And while car rental companies much prefer the business customer who rents a big car at a high price, then just drives it to their meeting and back to the airport, they are not averse to the less profitable road trip business.

So here are some things they could do to make it better for that sort of customer.

Cooler

When I road trip, I want a cooler to keep drinks and food cold. I will pack a fold-up cooler (they make good protection for stuff as well) but they can’t quite cut it in a hot car in a hot place all day.

So it would be nice if they would rent a nice solid cooler, maybe with some freezer packs. It’s easy to make your own freezer packs from used drink bottles, but also useful would be a leakproof bag to put gas station ice in. Those bags of ice you buy at stores always leak, so you need to protect against that. Depending on where you stay you can usually re-freeze packs or get ice from an ice machine.

Now a typical small cooler only costs about $30. And if I know car rental companies, they will charge more to rent you one, since they have to stock it and clean it. The big advantage of an overpriced rental car unit is time. You don’t want to spend time hunting these things down.

What would make sense would be a company which does “road trip provisions” which partners with all the rental car companies, and will either provision your car, or be located near the airport to make it easy for you to pick up and drop off.

Those 12v coolers that run off car electricity don’t do anything. You have to have ice. Though it could be a backup.

Another interesting option would be to partner with stores that do online ordering, so that you could get your cooler pre-loaded with ice and groceries. That’s of value in places you know well — in new countries I actually enjoy visiting a grocery store and picking out local products.

(No, I didn’t rent a Lotus Super Seven on my road trip to the hotel where the Prisoner was filmed, but somebody else drove one there and parked it to show off.)

Other travel supplies

Long ago, you could not depend on your hotel to have a hair dryer and an iron. So they sold travel versions of these that people packed. Nobody packs them any more. Now there are other things starting to be found in hotel rooms, but you still have to pack them because you can’t be sure. Some are things almost everybody wants. Some are specialty items. I would love for them to be on the inventory of a hotel, road trip rental company or car rental company:

For the road

  • A good tripod. I have one of course, but these are bulky things to bring. I can bring the tripod head — those vary too much.
  • Swim fins, masks, beach towels, beach mats and sun umbrellas — if going to a swimming/beach location.
  • Folding chairs for the same reason.
  • Camping gear is avilable for rent in some camping stores. Would be nice to get all this in one place, though.
  • Trekking poles. They make hikes better exercise and lower impact. I have collapsing ones but they are still a pain to fit in luggage and don’t go in carry-ons.
  • Coats. No, they won’t fit very well, but I’ve been on trips where you only needed a coat (or a heavier coat) in one location on the trip, and an ill-fitting coat woudl be better than carrying your own on the whole trip. Sometimes you can rent these — for example on Mt. Etna in Sicily, it’s the only place on the island anybody wants a coat in summer.

For the room

Earlier I wrote on what should be in every hotel room. Every room should just have those things, and the things below, but until then, trip gear rental service should have them too.

  • A universal power strip for the local plug style — because so many rooms don’t have enough plugs.
  • Tools for doing repairs. One of the most frustrating things on the road is breaking stuff and not having your complement of basic tools. Yeah, I pack a multi-tool, but I would also like a hot glue gun and other glues, a soldering iron and electrical repair tools with other useful things. Some Duct Tape, of course. And a tiny voltmeter.
  • For people who did not check a bag, a multi-tool, and a pair of scissors.
  • Video cables (HDMI, VGA, dongles) to let me connect my computer to the TVs in hotel rooms. Now 95% of them are flat-screen HD units, though often just 720p, and often fixed to the wall in a way that’s not useful as a computer monitor. But I don’t know what cable I will need or if I will be able to use it so it’s nice not to have to pack it.
  • For trips where you will stay a long time in one place, a nice large monitor is wonderful if you will be working on the computer. As I pretty much always will be. Recently on extended trip I bought one — just $120 — and sold it to the landlord who will provide it to future guests.
  • Alas, USB charging probably is still best for you to bring or rent. Problem is there are now 5 USB charging systems (Qualcomm QC 2 and 3, USB C, general high-current USB, basic USB and probably more) and everybody needs more than basic 2.5w charging, and to not have this is a complete non-starter.

What else would you add to the road trip rental inventory?

Can't we make overbooking more efficient and less painful with our mobile devices?

I’ve written before about overbooking and how it’s good for passengers as well as for the airlines. If we have a service (airline seats, rental cars, hotel rooms) where the seller knows it’s extremely likely that with 100 available slots, 20 will not show up, we can have two results:

  1. As soon as all 100 are taken, they declare it sold out. People reschedule or abandon trips, or at least take 2nd choices. However, the sold out plane takes off with 20 empty seats. If half of all flights sell out, you would find yourself blocked from taking the flight you want in 1 out of 10 of the flights you book on short notice.
  2. Instead of declaring it sold out, they oversell. When they mispredict, they find ways to compensate people to give up their reservation, or eventually, but ideally rarely or never, force some people to do so. A small fraction of people voluntarily yield, and a very tiny fraction do so involuntarily. (About 1 passenger in 10,000 faces involuntary bump, and it never happens to people who buy more expensive tickets or have status with the airline, unless they are late for the flight.)

I know which travel world I want to live in. To me that’s not the question. The question instead is, in the world where every traveler has a smartphone, why isn’t this done a lot better.

So many of our institutions were designed before the arrival of smartphones — it was just 10 years ago that they started taking over — and they are still the same today. In fact, many things are still designed for a world where people don’t even have email when they travel.

One step taken last week is United Airlines’ new Flex-Schedule program.

In this new program, first you must sign up and be a member of their Mileage Plus FF program. If you do, and you have already booked a seat on a flight that looks like it will be over-over-booked — ie. it will need volunteers — they will email you well in advance asking you to volunteer early. They promise an alternate flight with the same day and airport, and will compensate you you one of their travel vouchers. Those vouchers are not very valuable, of course, but this is what they offer.

When a flight is sure to overbook, the airline still sells tickets, but raises the price up high. This assures that the people buying last minute are very keen to get on that flight. They are premium customers, and unlikely to volunteer. The volunteers have to come from more price conscious customers who booked earlier. And so United realizes that most of those customers have e-mail and phones, and can respond quickly to such an offer.

I think they can go much further than this. Every airline, hotel and rental car should be tracking demand and supply at all times — which they already do. They are making models of just how many people are likely to really show for the flight. They track the history of passengers, to see if they are the sort who always shows or if they often change flights. They know the on-time records of all the feeder flights making connections, and on flight day, they know the actual times for those flights.

What they don’t have is information on the moods and locations of the passengers. Truth is, if I’m not going to use a seat, my phone probably knows that in advance, without me telling it. Or if I’m uncertain, my phone has the ability with notifications to get me to quickly confirm my intentions.

Yes, this means some minor loss of privacy — but actually very little. First of all, this is a very specific yielding of data, which is not nearly the sort of problem that allowing general access to data like your location is. Secondly, the airline doesn’t need to see your data at all. Instead, it can tell your phone, “If he’s not within 20 minutes of the airport by 3:30, ask him if he wants to give up his seat.” The airline does not learn where you are, just that you were not close to the airport. They just give the phone (or a server based tool that knows your location) the parameters of where you need to be if you will make the reservation.

In extreme cases, your phone can know where it is in the airport, and figure out if you have a chance of making the flight or not. But if it’s smart, it buzzed you long ago with the worry that you might not make it, perhaps providing an offer, or another flight if you’re an elite status passenger. You might not even waste the trip to the airport. Likewise, flights might be held slightly (or at least not takeoff early) if important passengers are known to be almost there.

Done well, you could very much love this for they might actually offer you a better deal if you tell them sooner you are going to miss the flight. With most tickets, you pay a penalty if you miss a flight or simply don’t take one, and they could make it smaller, in exchange for their ability to resell that seat sooner.

This is even more important with rental cars and hotel rooms. Unlike airline seats, most of these are reserved without penalty. You can no-show at no cost. Which means more no-shows. In airlines, the number of people who no-show and forfeit their ticket are few. Most of the no-shows are actually people who missed connections. The car rental companies get your flight number to know when you will land but also to know if you won’t make it at all. The hotels could also benefit in how they manage things.

I love the ability to make reservations without any penalty for not showing up. At the same time, that has to come with overselling to make sense, and so I’m willing to see slight reductions in my ability to do this. For example, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for me to have to re-confirm these reservations using my online connectivity. (Since phones and batteries and connections die, this can’t be 100% but it could still be pretty good.

No, you don't need to drive a billion miles to test a robocar

Earlier I noted that Nidi Kalra of Rand spoke at the AVS about Rand’s research suggesting that purely road testing robocars is an almost impossible task, because it would take hundreds of millions to a billion miles of driving to prove that a robocar is 10% better than human drivers.

(If the car is 10x better than humans, it doesn’t take that long, but that’s not where the first cars will be.)

This study has often been cited as saying that it’s next to impossible to test robocars. The authors don’t say that — their claim is that road testing will not be enough, and will take too long to really work — but commenters and press have taken it further to the belief that we’ll never be able to test.

The mistake is that while it could take a billion miles to prove a vehicle is 10% safer than human drivers, that is not the goal. Rather, the goal is to decide that it’s unlikely it is much worse than that number. It may seem like “better than X” and “not worse than X” are the same thing, but they are not. The difference is where you give the benefit of the doubt.

Consider how we deal with new drivers. We give them a very basic test and hand them a licence. We presume, because they are human teens, that they will have a safety record similar to other human teens. Such a record is worse than the level for experienced drivers, and in fact one could argue it’s not at all safe enough, but we know of no way to turn people into experienced drivers without going through the risky phase.

If a human driver starts showing evidence of poor skills or judgments — lots of tickets, and in particular multiple accidents, we pull their licence. It actually takes a really bad record for that to happen. By my calculations the average human takes around 20 years to have an accident that gets reported to insurance, and 40-50 years to have one that gets reported to police. (Most people never have an injury accident, and a large fraction never have any reported or claimed accident.)  read more »

Federal regulations past next hurdle

Today’s news is preliminary, but a U.S. house committee panel passed some new federal regulations which suggest sweeping change in the US regulatory approach to robocars.

Today, all cars sold must comply with the Federal Motor Vehicles Safety Standards (FMVSS.) This is a huge set of standards, and it’s full of things written with human driven cars in mind, and making a radically different vehicle, like the Zoox, or the Waymo Firefly, or a delivery robot, is simply not going to happen under those standards. There is a provision where NHTSA can offer exemptions but it’s in small volumes, for prototype and testing vehicles mostly. The new rules would allow a vendor to get an exemption to make 100,000 vehicles per year, which should be enough for the early years of robocar deployment.

Secondly, these and other new regulations would preempt state regulations. Most players (except some states) have pushed for this. Many states don’t want the burden of regulating robocar design, since they don’t have the resources to do so, and most vendors don’t want what they call a “patchwork” of 50 regulations in the USA. My take is different. I agree the cost of a patchwork is not to be ignored, but the benefits of having jurisdictional competition may be much greater. When California proposed to ban vehicles like the Google Firefly, Texas immediately said, “Come to Texas, we won’t get in your way.” That pushed California to rethink. Having one regulation is good — but it has to be the right regulation, and we’re much too early in the game to know what the right regulation is.

This is just a committee in the house, and there is lots more distance to go, including the Senate and all the other usual hurdles. Whatever people thought about how much regulation there should be, everybody has known that the FMVSS needs a difficult and complex revision to work in the world of robocars, and a temporary exemption can be a solution to that.

Uncovered: NHTSA Levels of 1900 (Satire)

I have recently managed to dig up some old documents from the earliest days of car regulation. Here is a report from NHTSA on the state of affairs near the turn of the 20th century.

National Horse Trail Safety Administration (NHTSA)

Regulation of new Horse-Auto-mobile Vehicles (HAV), sometimes known as “Horseless carriages.”

In recent years, we’ve seen much excitement about the idea of carriages and coaches with the addition of “motors” which can propel the carriage without relying entirely on the normal use of horses or other beasts of burden. These “Horseless carriages,” sometimes also known as “auto mobile” are generating major excitement, and prototypes have been generated by men such as Karl Benz and Armand Peugeot, along with the Duryea brothers, Ransom Olds and others in the the USA. The potential for these carriages has resulted in many safety questions and many have asked if and how NHTSA will regulate safety of these carriages when they are common.

Previously, NHTSA released a set of 4, and later 5 levels to classify and lay out the future progression of this technology.

Levels of Motorized Carriages

Level 0

Level zero is just the existing rider on horseback.

Level 1

Level one is the traditional horse drawn carriage or coach, as has been used for many years.

Level 2

A level 2 carriage has a motor to assist the horses. The motor may do the work where the horses trot along side, but at any time the horses may need to take over on short notice.

Level 3

In a level 3 carriage, sometimes the horses will provide the power, but it is allowed to switch over entirely to the “motor,” with the horses stepping onto a platform to avoid working them. If the carriage approaches an area it can’t handle, or the motor has problems, the horses should be ready, with about 10-20 seconds notice, to step back on the ground and start pulling. In some systems the horse(s) can be in a hoist which can raise or lower them from the trail.

Level 4

A Level 4 carriage is one which can be pulled entirely by a motor in certain types of terrain or types of weather — an operating domain — but may need a horse at other times. There is no need for a sudden switch to the horses, which should be pulled in a trailer so they can be hitched up for travel outside the operating domain.

Level 5

The recently added fifth level is much further in the future, and involves a “horseless” carriage that can be auto mobile in all situations, with no need for any horse at all. (It should carry a horse for off-road use or to handle breakdowns, but this is voluntary.)  read more »

News and commentary from AUVSI/TRB Automated Vehicle Symposium 2017

In San Francisco, I’m just back from the annual Automated Vehicle Symposium, co-hosted by the AUVSI (a commercial unmanned vehicle organization) and the Transportation Research Board, a government/academic research organization. It’s an odd mix of business and research, but also the oldest self-driving car conference. I’ve been at every one, from the tiny one with perhaps 100-200 people to this one with 1,400 that fills a large ballroom.

Toyota Research VC Fund

Tuesday morning did not offer too many surprises. The first was an announcement by Toyota Research Institute of a $100M venture fund. Toyota committed $1B to this group a couple of years ago, but surprisingly Gil Pratt (who ran the DARPA Robotics Challenge for humanoid-like robots) has been somewhat a man of mixed views, with less optimistic forecasts.

Different about this VC fund will be the use of DARPA like “calls.” The fund will declare, “Toyota would really like to see startups solving problem X” and then startups will apply, and a couple will be funded. It will be interesting to see how that pans out.

Nissan’s control room is close to live

At CES, Nissan showed off their plan to have a remote control room to help robocars get out of sticky situations they can’t understand like unusual construction zones or police directing traffic. Here, they showed it as further along and suggested it will go into operation soon.

This idea has been around for a while (Nissan based it on some NASA research) and at Starship, it has always been our plan for our delivery robots. Others are building such centers as well. The key question is how often robocars need to use the human assistance, and how you make sure that unmanned vehicles stay in regions where they can get a data connection through which to get help. As long as interventions are rare, the cost is quite reasonable for a larger fleet.

This answers the question that Rod Brooks (of Rethink Robotics and iRobot) recently asked, pondering how robocars will handle his street in Cambridge, where strange things like trucks blocking the road to do deliveries, are frequently found.

It’s a pretty good bet that almost all our urban spaces will have data connectivity in the 2020s. If any street doesn’t have solid data, and has frequent bizarre problems of any type, yet is really important for traversal by unmanned vehicles — an unlikely trifecta — it’s quite reasonable for vehicle operators to install local connectivity (with wifi, for example) on that street if they can’t wait for the mobile data companies to do it. Otherwise, don’t go down such streets in empty cars unless you are doing a pickup/drop-off on the street.

Switching Cities

Karl Iagenemma of nuTonomy told the story of moving their cars from Singapore, where driving is very regulated and done on the left, to Boston where it is chaotic and done on the right.  read more »

Can we test robocars the way we tested regular cars?

I’ve written a few times that perhaps the biggest unsolved problem in robocars is how to know we have made them safe enough. While most people think of that in terms of government certification, the truth is that the teams building the cars are very focused on this, and know more about it than any regulator, but they still don’t know enough. The challenge is going to be convincing your board of directors that the car is safe enough to release, for if it is not, it could ruin the company that releases it, at least if it’s a big company with a reputation.

We don’t even have a good definition of what “safe enough” is though most people are roughly taking that as “a safety record superior to the average human.” Some think it should be much more, few think it should be less. Tesla, now with the backing of the NTSB, has noted that their autopilot system — combined with a mix of mostly attentive but some inattentive humans, may have a record superior to the average human, for example, even though with the inattentive humans it is worse.

Last week I attended a conference in Stuttgart devoted to robocar safety testing, part of a larger auto show including an auto testing show. It was interesting to see the main auto testing show — scores of expensive and specialized machines and tools that subject cars to wear and tear, slamming doors thousands of times, baking the surfaces, rattling and vibrating everything. And testing the electronics, too.

In Europe, the focus of testing is very strongly on making sure you are compliant with standards and regulations. That’s true in the USA but not quite as much. It was in Europe some time ago that I learned the word “homologation” which names this process.

There is a lot to be learned from the previous regimes of testing. They have built a lot of tools and learned techniques. But robocars are different beasts, and will fail in different ways. They will definitely not fail the way human drivers do, where usually small things are always going wrong, and an accident happens when 2 or 3 things go wrong at once. The conference included a lot of people working on simulation, which I have been promoting for many years. The one good thing in the NHTSA regulations — the open public database of all incidents — may vanish in the new rules, and it would have made for a great simulator. The companies making the simulators (and the academic world) would have put every incident into a shared simulator so every new car could test itself in every known problem situation.

Still, we will see lots of simulators full of scenarios, and also ways to parameterize them. That means that instead of just testing how a car behaves if somebody cuts it off, you test what it does if it gets cut off with a gap of 1cm, or 10cm, or 1m, or 2m, and by different types of vehicles, and by two at once etc. etc. etc. The nice thing about computers is you can test just about every variation you can think of, and test it in every road situation and every type of weather, at least if your simulator is good enough,

Yoav Hollander, who I met when he came as a student to the program at Singularity U, wrote a report on the approaches to testing he saw at the conference that contains useful insights, particularly on this question of new and old thinking, and what regulations drive vs. liability and fear of the public. He puts it well — traditional and certification oriented testing has a focus on assuring you don’t have “expected bugs” but is poor at finding unexpected ones. Other testing is about finding unexpected bugs. Expected bugs are of the “we’ve seen this sort of thing before, we want to be sure you don’t suffer from it” kind. Unexpected bugs are “something goes wrong that we didn’t know to look for.”

Avoiding old thinking

I believe that we are far from done on the robocar safety question. I think there are startups who have not yet been founded who, in the future, will come up with new techniques both for promoting safety and testing it that nobody has yet thought of. As such, I strongly advise against thinking that we know very much about how to do it yet.

A classic example of things going wrong is the movement towards “explainable AI.” Here, people are concerned that we don’t really know how “black box” neural network tools make the decisions they do. Car regulations in Europe are moving towards banning software that can’t be explained in cars. In the USA, the draft NHTSA regulations also suggest the same thing, though not as strongly.

We may find ourselves in a situation where we take to systems for robocars, one explainable and the other not. We put them through the best testing we can, both in simulator and most importantly in the real world. We find the explainable system has a “safety incident” every 100,000 miles, and the unexplainable system has an incident every 150,000 miles. To me it seems obvious that it would be insane to make a law that demands the former system which, when deployed, will hurt more people. We’ll know why it hurt them. We might be better at fixing the problems, but we also might not — with the unexplainable system we’ll be able to make sure that particular error does not happen again, but we won’t be sure that others very close it it are eliminated.

Testing in sim is a challenge here. In theory, every car should get no errors in sim, because any error found in sim will be fixed or judged as not really an error or so rare as to be unworthy of fixing. Even trained machine learning systems will be retrained until they get no errors in sim. The only way to do this sort of testing in sim will be to have teams generate brand new scenarios in sim that the cars have never seen, and see how they do. We will do this, but it’s hard. Particularly because as the sims get better, there will be fewer and fewer real world situations they don’t contain. At best, the test suite will offer some new highly unusual situations, which may not be the best way to really judge the quality of the cars. In addition, teams will be willing to pay simulator companies well for new and dangerous scenarios in sim for their testing — more than the government agencies will pay for such scenarios. And of course, once a new scenario displays a problem, every customer will fix it and it will become much less valuable. Eventually, as government regulations become more prevalent, homologation companies will charge to test your compliance rate on their test suites, but again, they will need to generate a new suite every time since everybody will want the data to fix any failure. This is not like emissions testing, where they tell you that you went over the emissions limit, and it’s worth testing the same thing again.

The testing was interesting, but my other main focus was on the connected car and security sessions. More on that to come.

Syndicate content