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Selling empty middle seats by dutch auction

I have written before about letting passengers pay for an empty middle seat next to them and recently about ANZ’s cuddle class and related programs which partially implement this.

While I believe airlines could sell the empty middle for somewhere in the range of 30-40% of a regular ticket, this still has issues. In particular, are they really going to bump a poor standby passenger who had a cancelled flight and make them stay another night so that people can get a more comfortable seat?

One idea is to allow the sale of empty middles by dutch auction. In effect this would say, “If there are going to be empty middles on this plane, those who bid the most will get to sit next to them.” If this can be done, it’s a goldmine of extra revenue for the airline. What they sell costs them nothing — they are just selling the distribution of passengers on the plane. If the plane fills up, however, they sell it all and nobody is charged.

The dutch auction approach would let each passenger make an offer. If there are 5 empty middles, then the 10 people who sit next to them win, but they all pay the 10th highest bid price. If only 9 passengers bid, the 10th highest price is zero, and everybody pays zero — which is what happens today, except it’s semi-random. While this may seem like a loss for the airline, many game theory tests suggest that dutch auctions often bring the best result, as they make both sides happy, and people bid more, knowing they will actually pay the fair price if they win.

(On the other hand, airlines are masters at having two people pay vastly different prices for exactly the same thing and have managed to avoid too much resentment over it.)

There is one huge problem to solve: How do you arrange that matched bidders are sitting together to share the empty middle? Each empty middle benefits two passengers.  read more »

Google Robocars at TED, Shanghai bubble cars, Robot Week, lives saved

Here’s a few Robocar updates.

First of all, the TED talk given by Sebastian Thrun, leader of the Google self-driving car team (disclaimer: they are a consulting client) is up on the TED web site. This is one of the short TED talks, so he does not get to go into a lot of depth, but notable is one of the first public showings of video of the Google car in action on ordinary city streets. (The first was at PodCarCity, but video was not made available on the web.)

At TED the team also set up a demonstration course on the roof of a parking lot, and allowed some attendees to ride and shoot videos, many of which are up on the web. While the car does perform well zooming a slalom course, and people have a lot of fun, the real accomplishment is what you see video during the talk.

Another “City of the future” video has appeared featuring robocars prominently. This Shanghai 2030 video plays out a number of interesting robocar aspects, though their immense elevated road network reminds me more of retro futurism. A few things I think will be different:

  • The people in the car sit side-by-side. I think face-to-face is much more useful. It’s more pleasant for conversation, and it allows for a narrower car which has huge advantages in road footprint and drag. Some people can’t stand facing backwards, and so there will still be side-by-side cars if you have two people like that, but I think a large fraction of cars will move to face-to-face, either narrow (for 2) or wide (for 3 or more.)
  • The video shows cool displays projected onto the windscreen. This “heads up” sort of display makes sense if you have to keep your eyes on the road while using the screen, but in these cars, the people don’t. On the other hand it’s true that some people get motion sick looking down while riding, but you can also put an opaque screen in the middle of the window in a robocar.

It’s National Robotics Week with lots of robot related events. In the Bay Area on Thursday, an all-day robotics demo day for kids and adults will take place at Stanford’s robotic car lab, so people will get a chance to see Junior and other Stanford robocars there.

Fatalities drop

The trend continues — last year U.S. road fatalities dropped again to 32,788. That’s a steady decline since over 43,000 5 years ago. And this is in spite of total vehicle miles going up. As a result, the death rate per 100 million miles is now 1.09, the lowest it has been in 60 years.

That’s very good news, though many forces fight for the credit. The leading contender seems to simply be that cars are getting safer in crashes, with better crumple zones and air bags, and more people wearing seatbelts. Medicine has also gotten better. Some will also be coming from better cars with safety systems like anti-lock brakes, crash-warnings and lane-departure warnings — precursors to robocar technology — but it would be wrong to assume these are a big component. Also worth noting that this happens in spite of the rise of people talking and texting while driving, though the secretary gives some credit to the recent laws banning this. But that doesn’t explain why the drop began in 2005.

It’s also odd that while fatalities drop almost everywhere, they’re actually up in New England by 18% and by 4% around the midwestern Great Lakes, and generally up around the north-east.

Citizen examiners and novelty of problems

Over the years I have made two proposals for patent reform:

  1. Require those who apply for patents to serve as citizen-examiners on other patents in their field
  2. Allow patents on novel solutions to established problems, not the 1st obvious solution to a new problem

I never combined the two together, however. In the citizen examiner approach, when you apply for a patent you are also put into a pool of available experts in your field to assist examiners with other patents in the field. You need to do this several times (and get anonymously graded by your peers as having done a decent job) in order to get the patent you applied for.

While this helps the patent examination in so many ways, by providing an automatically scaling pool of skilled labour, I had not addressed how to deal with the novelty test.

I propose that when filing a patent, first the applicant must file a clearly written statement of the problem being solved by the patent. This would be public, and citizen examiners would be asked to consider it and see if any obvious solutions come to mind to them as those skilled in the art. In addition, they would grade the problem statement for clarity.

When the actual filing is disclosed, a second review would be done both by the examiner, an the citizen examiners as to whether the claimed invention really does solve the problem, and whether it had been a clear statement of the problem and not an attempt to obfuscate. I already plan for the citizen examiners to grade the patent itself on how clearly it teaches the invention. Patents which do not have cohesive problem statements and clear teaching of the invention would be returned in an office action for revision.

The idea behind the problem statement is a test both for obviousness and novelty of the problem. In many cases, experts in the field will come up with proposed solutions to the problem quickly. If they come up with the invention-about-to-be-disclosed, then it’s clear that it was obvious to one skilled in the art. If nobody comes close to the invention, it is evidence that it is not obvious, though there would still be general judgement of that, as well as prior art searching by examiners, citizen examiners and the public.

Today, patent lawyers earn their keep in part by writing patents in non-clear ways, to make them hard to find and understand. That is against the goal of the patent system, which is to reward those who disclose their inventions, teach how to build them and leave them after 17 years as a legacy to the world. While any one examiner may not make a good decision, a panel of experts in a field can provide some solid evidence on whether the problem is hard and the invention is novel.

Getting such proposals into patent reform is hard. Big patent holders want to make it easy to build up their patent portfolios. Many would fight meaningful reform like this. But perhaps there is a way to get it kickstarted. It might be interesting to see a web site where new patents are put forward and examined by ordinary citizens that care. Examiners could of course look at that, but they would not be obligated to. There are so many patents that a lot would pass by without attention. There are sites that report on new patents, but what we perhaps need is a site like “reddit” or “digg” for patents which takes the whole patent inflow and lets people vote up patents of interest for examination and comment by others. The most interesting ones would get more attention and more people searching for prior art and commenting. If a little money was involved they might even get prizes, though that would take a wealthy patron willing to spend money for patent reform.

To sum up the proposed patent process:

  1. Applicant files/publishes “statement of problem.” Also declares the discipline/areas of expertise.
  2. The public, and a set of citizen examiners chosen from the pool in that subject area write comments on the problem and propose solutions over the course of a few weeks.
  3. The patent filing is studied by the examiner. She picks some suitable citizen examiners without apparent conflict of interest, as well as one likely competitor, if available. Chosen examiners agree or beg off, if they beg off, alternates are selected.
  4. Examiner and citizen assistants consider the patent, how well it is written and do searches for prior art. The “adversarial” examiner does only prior art search.
  5. The patent is considered in the light of prior art. Novelty and how well it addresses the pre-stated problem are judged, as well as clarity. Obfuscated patents, as judged by the examiner based on views of the assistants, are rejected in office actions. The patents can be re-filed but the problem statement can’t.
  6. If a patent is found to be clear, novel and well tied to the problem, and non-obvious, including that nobody who examined the problem came up with too similar a solution, the patent can be granted.
  7. The examiner and other citizen examiners (including some who did not work on this particular patent) grade the work of the citizen examiners, to assure they were thorough, diligent and honest. Those who were earn a credit towards their obligation.

Re-examination

Citizen examiners are almost unlimited, in that we can ask each one to do multiple jobs to get their patent, within reason. Small inventors can get less duty than large ones, and anybody (but particularly large companies) can have another qualified expert do the work if the main inventor is too important. But I imagine the job as being about 2-3 days of work, researching, reading and commenting, and 5x of that is pretty tolerable for somebody wanting a patent.

As such we could also, more slowly, put citizen examiners on to re-examining other patents that are challenged. We would not revoke patents that met the rules of their day, but if further examination shows they had prior art or documented obviousness, that should be considered.