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China could be poised to dominate car manufacturing thanks to robocars

The robocar revolution has the potential to assist China in dominating vehicle manufacturing. That’s the bad news — unless you are a Chinese manufacturer. The better news is that manufacturing is only part of the car industry, and it’s getting smaller.

  • China has the largest car manufacturing industry, and is strong in electric cars
  • Brand of the manufacturer is almost irrelevant in taxi service
  • Reliability of the taxi is much less relevant
  • US tech companies need manufacturing partners
  • The money in ground transport is in service, not cars

Today, Chinese brands are not sold in any numbers in the USA, or almost anywhere outside of China, but China is already the largest car manufacturing country in the world. Chinese brands have no cachet (even in China, it seems) and western and Korean/Japanese brands are strong. How might that change?

Car brand is very important for people buying a car to own. In fact, the nameplate is the top source of value in a modern car sale. The difference is that we will be moving from people buying cars to own towards people buying rides.

When you order “Uber Select” (Uber’s nicer-car offering) you don’t care if what shows up is a Lexus, BMW or Mercedes. You don’t even car if its a Hyundai Genesis, their brand-new attempt at making a luxury marquee. You are only going to ride in it for 15 minutes. It has to be comfortable, smooth and look nice, but rarely does the logo on the outside matter.

It’s the Uber brand that matters (though not as much, as most people would find no difference between an UberSelect and a Lyft Premiere as far as the vehicles are concerned. And you might not even care if it’s a Great Wall Wey (a Chinese luxury car you’ve never heard of) that picks you up if it looks nice and gives a reliable ride.

Of course, today the top makers like Mercedes, BMW, Lexus, Audi, Acura, Infiniti and others are known not just for luxury, but for quality. They make well engineered, reliable cars in a way the Chinese are not quite ready to do.

But do they have to? If your expensive BMW breaks down, you have to get it towed, arrange its repair and get a rental car. You’re pretty angry at BMW when it does, and you paid a lot for that car to avoid that experience, and usually you do. If a car in a robotaxi fleet breaks down, you’re very unlikely to even know it happened. Very rarely, a car like that might break down when you are riding in it. It would pull to the side of the road and have already summoned a replacement car. Within 2-3 minutes a new vehicle will pull up and take you on your way while the company sends a tow truck to deal with the broken car.

Of course, if it broke down while on its way to you, might might not even know it. But even the breakdown while driving will be barely worth mentioning to friends, it just didn’t inconvenience you very much at all.

While the BMW will surely break down less than the Great Wall (at least for now) it also costs a great deal more. That might be worth it to avoid that owner’s breakdown scenario, but it’s not for a fleet breakdown. For a fleet manager, it’s just a question of whether vehicle downtime cost is more or less than the extra cost of more robust engineering, with a small factor for customer inconvenience.

The Shanghai motor show is a trip — huge and full of brands westerners have never heard of
To top things off, I predict robocars will have fewer breakdowns. They will always been monitoring themselves, and will come loaded with sensors. They will always get proper maintenance, taking themselves to maintenance depots when it is needed. They will test all systems like brakes, steering, tires, engines and more every day or every hour when running vacant. They will never let anything get too hot or vibrate too much. Both the BMW and the cheap car will do that.  read more »

What every AirBNB needs

I wrote earlier about tips for hotels and AirBNBs naming things like desk space, amenities, good illumination and more, but let me add some things I would like to see in every unit (and listing) for AirBNB hosts, not all of which apply to hotels.

Universal power strips

So many places don’t have enough plugs for the modern electronics-laden technomad. So get some power strips. In particular, get the ones that have universal sockets which take US, Euro, UK and Aus/China plugs. Yes, I bring adapters but it’s always nice to have some extra plugs. Put one of these power strips by the bed (especially if the plugs by the bed are occupied by lamps and other things.) Put one by the desk space — you do have desk space, right?

Select your main photo well

What is the most important feature of your unit? Most of the time it’s the view or the location, though also high on the list are its internal quality (fancy and new vs. older and plain,) the living space or the kitchen. But while everybody wants a place with a nice kitchen, living room and bed, few are shopping primarily on that.

Pick the most important feature and make it your main photo. Possibly combine two photos for that main photo. However, if you choose to show the view, make it a realistic photo or include one after. If you show the location by showing a nearby sight, put text in the photo saying “Near to this” or similar.

When I shop for properties, that main photo should grab me. If I’m looking for a view, that’s probably what you want to show me. On the other hand, while location is important to me, AirBNB is already showing me that. Having a picture of the famous local landmark is pointless, unless you can see it out your window.

Realistic photos

It is important that your photos be realistic. Many are tempted to photograph things to make them look bigger than they are, or to hide something. Don’t do it. People will be disappointed and leave you bad reviews, which is worse than an unflattering photo. Yes, your “competitors” are using misleading photos but in the end they will pay for that.

This is particularly true when photographing the view. Don’t take a small view only visible if you lean out on the terrace and crop it to make it seem like the view from the property. If your view is only from the terrace, use a wide angle to make it clear you’re standing on that. If the view is inside, take some photos inside of the window, showing what you will see walking around the room that has the view. Photos of rooms should not be super wide angle (that makes the room look bigger than it is) but photos of the view often should be.

If you include photos of nearby things, like the town’s main tourist site to show that you are near it, mark these photos as “Not from the home, 200m away” or similar.

You should show your “view” even if you have no view. People should know if the unit looks out on a courtyard or back street, and what it looks like. You may be surprised — even a quiet back street may be exotic to the tourist.

When shooting inside including the windows and view, use a camera with an “HDR” mode (most phones do this now) or get some HDR software so your photo can show the inside and outside at the same time. And seriously, no crappy, blurry photos. I know you’re not a professional photographer but today’s devices make it easy to get a good shot if you hold reasonably still. You’re trying to make serious money — borrow a friend or their camera if you have to.

Throw in photos of the amenities I describe below, if you have them, to let people know they are there.

If you rent your place for longer-term tenants, consider a photo of a floor plan, if you have one, or sketch one if you can. When renting for more than a week, this is very handy.

Talk about the flights of stairs

Many AirBNB users are older and don’t want a unit where they have to walk up 4 flights of stairs, or even 1 in the case of those with a mobility problem. AirBNB lets you say “elevator in building.” which is good, but it should really be “Elevator in Building OR unit is on ground floor” — and I think that people should actually check that box for ground floor units until AirBNB fixes that. Of course be clear in the listing on that, or on how many floors the guest will need to climb, and whether there will be assist for luggage.  read more »

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.