Blogs

A John McCarthy story

They say that famous deaths come in threes. That’s no doubt just an artifact of our strange sense of coincidence, but after Jobs and Ritchie, tonight we learn of the death of John McCarthy, AI pioneer and creator of LISP.

My first personal encounter with John was part of a big story of my life, the banning of rec.humor.funny. In a short summary of what’s told there, RHF had been banned at Waterloo and later, due to a comedy of errors got banned at Stanford. Shortly after the ban John called me up and said he wanted to be a champion against the ban. He had been worried for some time about the growing tide of speech codes at supposed bastions of academic freedom, and the idea of banning publications on the internet was a new level. John used his sway to get some press, organize a protest march and have the matter fixed by the academic senate. Strangely, just a few days ago I was at a dinner for a group called FIRE which fights against crazy academic bans, and I was recounting the story of what John did at Stanford for the first time in many years.

Later, I moved to silicon valley and got to know John in person a bit more. He was an incredible force of character long after the age where most have shrunk away. If the AIs of the future are able to resurrect the figures of the past, you know he’ll be one of the first in line for them.

RIP John. And Dennis (who I praised over on Google+). And Steve Jobs. Let’s really limit it to three for a while.

Google's robocar explained in video

Since getting involved with Google’s self-driving-car team, I’ve had to keep silent about its internals, but for those who are interested in the project, a recent presentation at the intelligent robotics conference in San Francisco is now up on youtube. The talk is by Sebastian Thrun (overall project leader) and Chris Urmson, lead developer. Sebastian led the Stanley and Junior teams in the Darpa Grand Challenge and Chris led CMU teams, including BOSS which won the urban challenge.

The talk begins in part one with the story of the grand challenges. If you read this blog you probably know most of that story.

Part two (above) shows video that’s been seen before in Sebastian’s TED talk and my own talks, and maps of some of the routes the car has driven. Then you get Chris showing some hard technical details about mapping and sensors.

Part three shows the never before revealed story of a different project called “Caddy”: self-driving, self-delivering golf carts for use in campus transportation. The golf carts are an example of what I’ve dubbed a WhistleCar — a car that delivers itself and then you drive it in any complex situations.

If you want to see what’s inside the project, these videos are a must-watch, particularly part 2 (embedded above) and the start of part 3.

There’s lots of other robocar news after the Intelligent Transportation Systems conference, which I attended this week in Orlando FL. The ITS community is paying only minimal attention to robocars, which is an error on their part, but a lot of the technology there will eventually affect how robocars develop — though a surprising amount of it will become obsolete because it focuses on the problems caused by lots of human driving.

Oxford and BAE make "Wildcat" robocar

The list of robocar teams grows again with a new project from Oxford university, led by Paul Newman. Nissan is also involved, though the base vehicle is a Bowler Wildcat off-road vehicle.

The project sports a LIDAR design I have not yet seen, with 4 laser units on a mount spinning at what looks like 1-2hz, but they claim a 40hz sampling rate and do have very nice mapping results. They claim their localizer is very good, and demos show it working on rough off-road terrain. Some videos also see it doing waypoint driving without the LIDAR but they talk about why GPS is not adequate.

The Daily Mail story has the best pictures and details. You can also visit the MRG youtube channel.

The vehicle reportedly uses stereo vision as well as the LIDAR, and has left and right bumper mounted lasers as well as the roof unit.

There are additional videos, made by reporters in this BBC news story and a good interview in this Telegraph story.

The claims about the vehicle have a British understatement. They say it will be 10-15 years before it’s ready for the roads, and talk mostly about simple problems like handling traffic jams — something Audi, BWM and VW have all claimed they will release in the middle of this decade, using simpler sensor systems. He also envisions a future arms-race where a car that can do 10 minutes/day of self-driving competes with one that can do 15.

Congestion is their main message it seems, citing the Dept. for Transport’s figures of a 25 billion pound cost for congestion in 2025 in the UK.

Bigdog becomes Alphadog -- walking robots step closer to the real world

Earlier I wrote about the transportation potential of walking robots-of-burden like BigDog. While these robots are not for the long haul, a whole range of options are opened up by a wheeled vehicle that can get to where the road ends, and then lower legs to walk along rough terrain, up stairs and up hills.

Boston Dynamics has gone even further with their latest model, AlphaDog

The AlphaDog’s legs are hydraulic, and so adding legs like this to a car which has a motor and compressor is not so far fetched. In this design they could easily fold up into the sides of a single person wheeled vehicle. In the video, the robot is shown carrying 400lbs of weights, and a range of 20km is claimed. You might not quite want to ride it yet, but that’s coming.

Let’s look at some of the consequences for transportation and cities:

  • Houses need not be on streets to have full access by small vehicles and cargo delivery robots. They can be on the side of hills and up stairs. Neighbourhoods can be built with just small lightly paved or graded paths so that the robot’s legs don’t disturb the terrain.
  • The robots may well, in a controlled environment, be able to place their feet with good precision. As such the path for a walking robot might look like just a series of stone pads dotting the grass — the way some paths for people look. In reality they would be more sturdy, but that’s what they could look like.
  • In developing countries which do not have infrastructure, they may never have to put in that much infrastructure. Combined with flying robots, delivery of goods can become possible to any location, and at high speed.
  • The world’s tourist destinations may become swamped with people who can ride a walking robot to remote locations where before the daunting hike kept the crowds down. There will be efforts to ban walking chairs, but the elderly and disabled will be able to fight such bans as discriminatory.
  • Indeed, for the disabled and aged, the walking chair robot might well open up lots of the world that is now closed. The main issue would be power and noise. The motors that power BigDog are very noisy. AlphaDog in the video is using external power.
  • Robotic cargo delivery (deliverbots) need no longer be limited to places you can roll up to. That can include places inside buildings, even up stairs.

Browser support for "sessions" to make them longer

I’m actually not a fan of login and sessions on the web, and in fact prefer a more stateless concept I call authenticated actions to the more common systems of login and “identity.”

But I’m not going to win the day soon on that, and I face many web sites that think I should have a login session, and that session should in fact terminate if I don’t click on the browser often enough. This frequently has really annoying results — you can be working on a complex form or other activity, then switch off briefly to other web sites or email to come back and find that “your session has expired” and you have to start from scratch.

There are times when there is an underlying reason for this. For example, when booking things like tickets, the site needs to “hold” your pending reservation until you complete it, but if you’re not going to complete it, they need to return that ticket or seat to the pool for somebody else to buy. But many times sessions expire without that reason. Commonly the idea is that for security, they don’t want to leave you logged on in a way that might allow somebody to come to your computer after you leave it and take over your session to do bad stuff. That is a worthwhile concept, particularly for people who will do sessions at public terminals, but it’s frustrating when it happens on the computer in your house when you’re alone.

Many sites also overdo it. While airlines need to cancel your pending seat requests after a while, there is no reason for them to forget everything and make you start from scratch. That’s just bad web design. Other sites are happy to let you stay “logged on” for a year.

To help, it would be nice if the browser had a way of communicating things it knows about your session with the computer to trusted web sites. The browser knows if you have just switched to other windows, or even to other applications where you are using your mouse and keyboard. Fancier tools have even gone so far as to use your webcam and microphone to figure if you are still at your desk or have left the computer. And you know whether your computer is in a public space, semi-public space or entirely private space. If a browser, or browser plug-in, has a standardized way to let a site query session status, or be informed of session changes and per-machine policy, sites could be smarter about logging you out. That doesn’t mean your bank still should not be paranoid if you are logged in to a session where you can spend your money, but they can be more informed about it.  read more »

Customer service survey after every dealing with the police

Some time ago I ranted how I hate being invited to fill out a customer service survey after every bloody transaction in the online world. Companies don’t seem to clue in that if they ask for surveys too much, they end up getting the opinions only of the angered or overeager.

But there’s one place this might make sense. I think you should get a chance to do a survey after every interaction with the police, as well as others who have some color of authority over you (judges, security guards, border patrol etc.) The data you enter would be anonymous, and the survey conducted by a different party bonded to protect your privacy. There would also be entry in some means (perhaps with different classes of card) about whether the encounter was assistive, or was a stop, or lead to arrest though there are limits on this while keeping the data anonymous. If you are required to identify yourself as part of the encounter, this can be your means to getting a card later, though again the data entered must not be tied to your name.

Police would get small cards which have a cryptographic code which allows the bearer to fill out the survey. They would be required to hand one out in any incident. The number handed out would need to be close to the count in their own incident report, so that they don’t just keep the cards to fill out positive surveys on themselves. If police won’t give you a card that’s a serious matter itself.

Of course, people who have been stopped, rather than assisted by police will have a naturally antagonistic view. What would matter in these surveys would be how each officer compares to the other officers. You would not judge officers on their absolute score, but their score relative to other officers with similar duties. These scores would be admissible in court when an officer testifies. An officer with a seriously bad record would become less trusted by judges and juries. The worst cops would have to leave the force, being unable to testify in court without being doubted. And the absolute numbers would also tell us something. On the forms, people could complain about misuse of authority and corruption, and could also leave positive remarks.

The 3rd party taking in the data would have to have impeccable credentials so people trust that it truly destroys any association between submitter and data. They would also have to be trained at how to protect against re-linking. (For example, if dates can be figured out, officers may well be able to connect people with forms. As such data must be released slowly, and only after a large enough number of forms are in the batch, and forms with unique profiles must be merged with care.) In most cases the 3rd party would have to be in another state, and possibly another country to assure it is not under the sway of those it is collecting data on.

We also would have to assure that people don’t try to sell the survey cards. That’s hard, if they are to be truly anonymous. You might have to use them quickly, to avoid giving you time to find a buyer. The 3rd party could run regular stings trying to buy and sell cards and pierce anonymity on just those. I’m sure that there are other ways officers would try to game the system that would have to be found and dealt with. Over time, the data should become public in amalgamated form, not just available to defence lawyers.

BMW Robocar, Audi and more

Some Robocar updates, since with Burning Man and Singularity U my posting volume has been down:

BMW Highly Automated Driving

BMW has announced a prototype car with a “Highly Automated Driving” feature on the 5 series. The vehicle, which has logged 3,000 miles of minimal driver involvement, uses a vision system from the lane departure camera, maps, the ACC radar and high-accuracy GPS. It is claimed to handle allowing and doing highway merges. The system is not meant to allow the driver to take their eyes off the road, though, and his highway-only. The system was also called “ConnectedDrive Connect (CDC)” which strikes me as a somewhat awkward name.

BMW also recently demonstrated some other self-driving technology on test tracks and has a very active lab. With Volkswagen’s Temporary Auto Pilot, Mercedes and Audi all promoting concept cars with autonomous modes, German companies seem to be the most engaged in the field. BMW has also shown a “traffic jam assistant” similar to the Audi system below.

Audi EV A2 has traffic jam autopilot

Another concept car (An earlier Audi was used in the Pikes Peak challenge) from Audi will feature an autopilot for stop and go traffic. Here they combine lane-keeping and automatic cruise control, except at lower speeds where the risk is low. The driver still has to pay some attention, and when traffic gets moving again they must take full control. Still, it’s aimed at one of the greatest annoyances of commuting.

Made in Germany continues on the roads

The AutoNOMOS team reports success with their vehicle on the streets of Berlin, though so far only 80km of operation. They have 6 laser sensors, and claim that they believe the vehicles will soon be ready to deploy on private roads, but will need a decade of legal work to be used on the public streets.

Autonomous tractor out working the fields

For some time the concept of “precision agriculture” has been the high-tech hotspot in farming. Here, tractors equipped with GPS and other location technologies take detailed maps of the fields and the crops and custom control spray of fertilizers, pesticides and other substances according to data about what’s right for each small square. However, farmers are still at the controls. Some day, tractors may drive themselves and engage in many farm activities. In the fields, there is not usually much to run into and you don’t go very fast. On the other hand, most family farmers today farm as a lifestyle and aren’t looking to automate it, but agribusiness operators are.

Here’s a report on an autonomous tractor project, guided for now just by GPS.

Take it easy, Don Henley

Yesterday, Don Henley (of the Eagles) penned an editorial in USA Today supporting the Protect IP Act (PIPA) which has serious free speech implications and turns web sites into copyright police. Don called out both the EFF (of which I am a Director) and Google (which is a consulting client of mine) so I have this whimsical response for him:

Take it Easy, Don. There’s a New Kid in Town, and it’s called the Internet. Get Over It. I Can’t Tell you Why, but in The Long Run, there isn’t going to be a Heartache Tonight. One of these Nights I hope you’ll understand that for search engines to Take it To the Limit, they can’t be forced to police every search result.

Internet companies only grow when living Life in the Fast Lane, able to operate, innovate and design products without needing to check for permission from the music industry. If every time you wrote a song you had to worry about what every user who plays it and every store that sells it might do with it, you would lose your Peaceful, Easy Feeling quickly. Big companies might run filters, but if the small ones had needed to they would be Already Gone.

The Best of My Love,

Brad Templeton, EFF

PS: Henley really is a great musician, and I do understand his frustration with people who don’t pay him for his work. But click the link above for EFF’s explanation of why this sort of approach isn’t really going to help musicians and will do real damage to the way people use computers and the internet.

How the internet and its pricing really work

Today an op-ed by John Sununu and Harold Ford Jr. of “Broadband For America” (a group of cable companies and other ISPs which says it is really a grass-roots organization) declared that the net needs a better pricing model for what Netflix is doing. For a group of ISPs, they really seem to not understand how the internet works and how pricing works, so I felt it was worthwhile to describe how things work with a remarkably close analogy. (I have no association with Netflix, I am not even a customer, but I do stream video on the net.)

You can liken the internet to a package delivery service that works somewhat differently from traditional ones like the postal service or FedEx. The internet’s pricing model is “I pay for my line to the middle, and you pay for your line to the middle and we don’t account for the costs of individual traffic.”

In the package model, imagine a big shipping depot. Shippers send packages to this depot, and it’s the recipient’s job to get the package from the depot to their house. The shippers pay for their end, you pay for your end, and both share the cost of creating the depot.

Because most people don’t want to go directly to the depot to get their packages, a few “last mile” delivery companies have sprung up. For a monthly fee, they will deliver anything that shows up at the depot addressed to you directly to your house. They advertise in fact, that for the flat fee, they will deliver as many packages as show up, subject to a fairly high maximum rate per unit of time (called bandwidth in the internet world.) They promote and compete on this unlimited service.

To be efficient, the delivery companies don’t run a private truck from the depot to your house all the time. Instead, they load up a truck with all the packages for your neighbourhood, and it does one delivery run. Some days you have a lot of packages and your neighbours have few. Other days you have few and they have a lot. The truck is sized to handle the high end of the total load for all the neighbours. However, it can’t handle it if a large number of the neighbours all want to use a large fraction of their total load on the same day, they just didn’t buy enough trucks for that, even though they advertised they were selling that.

This is not unreasonable. A majority of the businesses in the world that sell flat rate service work this way, not just internet companies. Though there are a few extra twists in this case:

  • The last mile companies have a government granted franchise. Only a couple can get permission to operate. (In reality — only a few companies have got permission to have wires strung on poles or under the street.)
  • Some of the last mile companies also used to be your exclusive source for some goods (in this case phone service and TV) and are concerned that now there are competitors delivering those things to the customers.

The problem arises because new services like Netflix suddenly have created a lot more demand to ship packages. More than the last mile companies counted on. They’re seeing the truck fill up and need to run more trucks. But they proudly advertised unlimited deliveries from the depot to their customers. So now, in the op-ed, they’re asking that companies like Netflix, in addition to paying the cost of shipping to the depot, pay some of the cost for delivery from the depot to the customer. If they did this, companies would pass this cost on to the customer, even though the customer already paid for that last mile delivery.  read more »

Gallery of regular photos from Burning Man 2010

As I prepare for Burning Man 2011, I realized I had not put my gallery of regular sized photos up on the web.

Much earlier I announced my gallery of giant panoramas of 2010 which features my largest photos in a new pan-and-zoom fullscreen viewer, I had neglected to put up the regular sized photos.

So enjoy: Gallery of photos of Burning Man 2010

I still need to select and caption 2007 and 2009 some day.

Opening US immigration

Tuesday we and Aneesh Chopra, CTO of the USA come to Singularity University and among many things, he was asked about immigration. (In part because our class comes from 35 countries and many of them would love to be entrepreneurs in the USA.) Chopra announced some immigration rule clarifications that had come out that day which will help things somewhat. They did rule clarifications because getting congress to do meaningful reform is very hard.

I gave him one suggestion, inspired by something I saw long ago at a high-roller CEO conference for the PC industry. In a room of 400 top executives and founders of PC and internet startups, it was asked that all who were born outside the USA stand up. A considerable majority (including myself) stood. I wished every opponent of broader immigration could see that.

So I proposed that he, or others, go around to conferences of high-tech entrepreneurs and founders, and ask this question, and film the people standing up. Then edit that into a nice rapid-fire video to play for members of congress and immigration opponents. It’s hard to argue with. The hope of US leadership and job creation is severely diminished without immigrants.

It’s often been lamented that some of the brightest from the world, who beg to come to the USA to get degrees, are then kicked out when their education ends, and they go home with their PhD. “Staple a green card to a PhD” is one approach.

A different approach, possibly to be combined, is to create a provisional permanent resident status. The main rule, perhaps the only rule, is that if you are on it you must pay a minimum tax averaging $30,000 per year for six years. You can go below once or twice but must make it up to bring up the average. And once you hit the total of $180,000 you get a real green card. If you don’t hit it, you can leave. If you don’t leave and don’t pay, it’s tax evasion, for which you can be both jailed and deported.

Yes, this is access for the rich. It means the wealthy could buy green cards, but also that entrepreneurs or people will well funded partners could easily get in. More to the point, the people coming in would clearly not be a drain on U.S. society. And with the salary needed to pay $30K in tax being about $130,000 (based on the real tax rate including all deductions) these are largely not people “stealing US jobs by working cheap.” Admittedly an employer could offer to pay an immigrant a low wage and pick up the tax but that could be illegal if difficult to enforce.

This price is below the prices often cited for “buy immigrant status” programs in the US and around the world, and the values in investor visas. I think you want to get young, less well-heeled entrepreneurs so I think million dollar prices are the wrong idea. But it may be that there is some price that even the biggest xenophobes will agree results in a net win. What is that number?

Interesting robocar test in China

A report from China Daily details a successful 286km trip by a vehicle from the National University of Defense Technology.

According to the report the vehicle did fully autonomous highway driving, and did not use GPS, just LIDAR, radar and vision systems. Modern robocars do not rely exclusively on GPS, as it is both inaccurate and goes out in certain regions, but they do like to use it to help them localize, so not using it at all suggests a good localizer. They also report handling fog, thunderstorms and poor lane markers, all good acheivements.

There is what appears to be a machine translated article with some photos. The external photo seems to show an unmodified car, the internal one shows what appear to be two stereo cameras left and right, though the article talks mostly about LIDAR and radar, not vision systems. Dai Bin, spokesman for the team has published papers on both LIDAR based obstacle avoidance and vision systems similar to the one used by Stanley in the Darpa desert challenge for off-road use.

It will be interesting to hear more about the work of this team.

In other news, BMW has announced that its 2014 i3 battery-electric car will also offer a combination of lane-keeping and adaptive cruise control](http://www.greencarreports.com/news/1064191_2014-bmw-i3-moves-us-closer-to-autonomous-driving-in-cities) while under 25mph, effectively being a “stop and go traffic autopilot.” This is an interesting early offering, since it’s easier to put this together at low speeds in the controlled highway environment.

Also included will be a detection system for impeding collisions which can apply the brakes, and a fully automatic parallel parking system (most earlier systems still needed human control of the brake, causing amusing-if-it’s-not-you accidents for people who didn’t think they had to do anything.)

The Allocation problem, assigning students to sessions

This is a challenge to blog readers to come up with (or find examples in practice) of good systems to allocate students to parallel sessions based on their preferences. I’ve just concluded one round of this, and the bidding system I built worked OK, but is not perfect.

The problem: Around 80 students. On 10 days over 4 weeks they will be split into 3-5 different parallel sessions on those days. Many sessions have a cap on the number of students, and more students will have them as a 1st choice than can fit. Some sessions can take many students and won’t fill up. The students can express their preference as ranking, or with numeric values.

This is known in the literature as the Allocation problem, and there are various approaches, though none I found seemed to fit just right, either being easy to code or having existing running code. But I am keen on pointers.

The goals:

  • Maximize student satisfaction/minimize disappointment. Giving a student their 1st choice is good. Giving 3rd or 4th choices is bad.
  • The system must be easy for the students to understand and use.
  • Fairness. This has many meanings, but ideally mismatches that can’t be avoided should be distributed. If somebody gets a 4th choice one day, they perhaps should have a better shot at a 1st choice on another day.
  • It’s nice if there’s a means of applying penalties to students who violate rules, sneak into sessions etc. Academic violations can result in less chance at getting your 1st choice.
  • It should be flexible. Sessions may have to be changed or many not fully finalize until a week before the session.
  • It is nice to handle quirks, like duplicated sessions a student takes only once, but where the student might have preferences for one of the instances over another. There may also be pre-requisites, so only students who take one session can have the sequel.
  • Things change and manual tweaking can be advised.

Rank sessions in order, 1st come, 1st served

This was used in the prior year. Much like a traditional sign-up sheet in some ways, students could indicate their choices in order. If more students had a session as 1st choice than would fit, the ones who filled out their form first got in. This gave priority over all 10 days and so it was changed to rotate each week to distribute who was first in line.  read more »

Robocar legality in Nevada, Germany and more news

A wrapup of robocar news from the past couple of weeks:

Nevada governor Brian Sandoval rides in Google Car

After Nevada’s recent legislation directing their DOT to explore legal operations for robocars in the state, the governor “took the wheel” of a Google car. Very positive impressions from the governor and DMV head.

Video of Virginia Tech “car for the blind”

Here’s a video interview with Dennis Hong of Virginia Tech on his effort to make a car for use by the blind.

Autonomous car team in India

A new student robocar team has sprung up in India. They’re still early but their goal of driving in the crazy Indian traffic is a daunting one. Robocars have many advantages at low speed, where the 360 degree vision of LIDARS makes them see more than a human will. Harder is modeling the behaviour of other vehicles and playing games of chicken.

More mainstream press articles

Mainstream press articles of the robocar future and the intermediate technologies are growing in number. Here’s Smartmoney on near-term technologies and a Slate piece that, like almost all mainstream press pieces, asks whether people are really willing to give up the freedom of driving. Perhaps I’m too immersed, but in my immersed perspective I have simply stopped wondering about this. There will be a few who think like the dodge ad but huge numbers of people keep asking me when they can get one.

IEEE conference at Stanford paints alternating views with optimism vs. long roadmaps

Last Saturday a small IEEE conference at Stanford covered car automation technologies, including a morning on autonomous vehicles with mixed views. Steven Shladover, for example has a decades long history in important projects like cars guided by embedded road magnets, ITS, cooperative cruise control and platooning, but he is highly skeptical of autonomous cars which drive with regular cars, insisting instead that dedicated lanes are the answer. He believes this will start by building dedicated lanes for express buses (BRT) — which is something there is political will to do in many cities — and then automating the buses in those lanes. Once this is done, cars can enter the lanes if they communicate properly with the other vehicles in the lane and the lane itself.

This infrastructure approach is simpler from a technical standpoint, but the building of new infrastructure is such a hard problem and point of slow progress that my bet, as readers know, is on robocars on ordinary streets. Without the BRT component, I view proposals for new robot-only lanes to be dead in the water. Still, it’s worth paying attention when somebody with lots of experience disagrees so fundamentally with your views.

Volkswagen, while having recently promoted their Temporary Auto Pilot, displayed a roadmap that was much slower, suggesting that having a car that could pick you up at the airport or park itself on streets was something we might see in 2028.

Another lesson from the conference was the extreme difficulty of introducing radical innovation through big automakers. Cars are perhaps the most complex product sold, as well as the most expensive consumer product for most. As a result the industry has created huge amounts of “process” to how it plans and innovates, and that process is not ready to accept much in the way of disruptive technology. As I wrote earlier about the radio as the potential place for innovation in cars, car makers are now considering the central console where the radio and other controls are found the “golden stack” and they want to be the provider of it. Especially because the stuff they sell there sells for a huge margin; people often pay $2000 for an in-car GPS that’s worse than what they get free in their phone or for $250 in the aftermarket.

German team gets permission for their robocar tests on city streets

The AutoNOMOS team at Freie Universität Berlin reports they have been approved to test on city streets. This testing will be similar to the testing Google has reported doing in California, with a safety driver and copilot in the car to monitor and take control in any situation that presents a safety risk. According to the New York Times, Google didn’t seek a specific permission but state officials did agree, when asked by the times, with the interpretation that a vehicle with a licenced driver responsible for vehicle operations was legal.

Porsche trying to make a very smart cruise control

While not up to Volswagen’s temporary auto pilot, which combines ACC with lane-following, Porsche is developing a learning automatic cruise control that will come to understand road curves and speed and drive better as it learns.

Lots of exciting news, even in the slow summer season. Disclaimer note: The Google car project is a consulting client of mine.

A solar panel on a robocar

I often see people say they would like to see solar panels on electric cars, inspired by the solar-electric cars in the challenge races, and by the idea that the solar panel will provide some recharging for the car while it is running and without need to plug it in.

It turns out this isn’t a tremendously good idea for a variety of reasons:

  • You’re probably not going to get more than a couple hundred watts of PV peak power on a car with typical cells. Even properly mounted on a roof in a sunny place like California, each peak watt delivers an average of about 5 watt-hours in a day, so 200 watts gives you 1kw-h. That’s good for around 4 to 6 miles on today’s electric cars. Not a huge range boost.
  • While thin film panels don’t weigh a lot the power they provide during actual driving would normally be only a minor boost. My math suggests they weigh more than the battery for the power they will provide while operating.
  • Panels on a car will instead be mounted flat, cutting about 30% of their output. Normally you want to tilt to the angle of the sun.
  • Cars are often in the shade, even parked indoors. Unless you work to pick your parking to have sun all day, you’ll only get a fraction of the power.
  • If you do leave your car in the sun, in many places that means it will get quite hot, you’ll burn up some of the solar energy cooling it down. (Indeed, the solar panels sometimes found on today’s hybrids and EVs don’t charge the battery, they just run a cooling fan.)
  • The worst one: If your battery is not somewhat discharged, it doesn’t have any place to put the solar energy, and so it is just thrown away. But due to range anxiety, people prefer their electric cars be kept full. It takes careful planning to use that energy.
  • A car is a very bumpy place, so you need more rugged panels than what you might put on a roof.

It is possible to get more than 200w on a car — some of the solar challenge cars that exist to be nothing but panels have gotten around a kw by using high price, high-efficiency panels. But it’s still generally much better to just put the panels on a roof where they will realize their full potential, and feed the grid, and charge from the grid.

However, on Friday I was teaching a class on the future of Robocars to my students at Singularity University and in the exercises some students wondered if they might do something for solar powered cars. (I was impressed since the students, having had only a short time to think about the issue, have to work to bring up something new.)

Robocars might solve some of the problems above, and thus possibly make sense as a place to put panels.

  • A robocar parks itself and can move. So one with a solar panel can move around to make sure it’s always in the sun, and that the sun is striking it from the right angle. It can’t move too far or too often without wasting some of the power, but it can do something.
  • When the batteries get so full that they are not making proper use of the solar energy, a robocar can find a charging station, not to charge but rather to sell excess power back to the grid and other cars. (This presumes charging stations are set up this way.)
  • Robocars could dock with other robocars that are more discharged and offer them the extra solar power, no charging stations involved — though fancy robotics are needed on the charging interface, or human beings who can do the connections.
  • If a robocar has an actuator that can tilt the panels, it can do even better. While an ordinary car could have this, an ordinary car would not have the ability to rotate in the plane of the ground to track the sun without another actuator.

It’s still not great, but it might improve things. Generally it still may be better to have the panels on rooftops and get the most from them. However, when we start thinking about super lightweight cars, cars that travel for under 100 watt-hours/mile, as well as higher efficiency panels, we might get some value if the panels are light.

It’s also expensive to install panels on top of existing facilities. Turns out that while panels are dropping below 1$/watt next year thanks to cheap Chinese capital and manufacturing, the cost of install is still over $2/watt. Cost of install on newly manufactured buildings — or cars — can be cheaper because it’s designed in from the start. The car already has the complex electrical system, while houses need to add them if they go solar.

People really are in love with the idea of a solar powered car. It’s not really possible to go green this way right now, but the future might bring something interesting.

Canada has a giant zombie in it

I discovered this year that something I’ve seen a zillion times, the standard map of Canada, features a giant, brain-eating zombie. I’m naming the zombie “Hudson” because that’s the Bay that makes up most of him. He’s a plump undead with stubby legs, a big blank eye (Price Charles Island,) and a slack jaw, and it looks like Newfoundland is in trouble.

The way the human mind likes to find figures and faces in natural patterns is called pareidolia but what surprises me is that in spite of seeing this map so often, I never saw Hudson until recently, and based on web searches, neither has anybody else.

But now I find it difficult to look at the regular map, without highlights, and not see the zombie.

He is so big he may be a cosmological zombie. They eat “branes, branes.”

Car users frustrated with their tech

The latest JD Power survey on car satisfaction has a very new complaint that has now the second most annoying item to new car owners namely problems with the voice recognition system in their hands-free interface. This is not too surprising, since voice recognition, especially in cars, is often dreadful. It also reveals that most new tech has lots of UI problems — not every product is the iPod, lauded from the start for its UI.

But one interesting realization in the study is that users have become frustrated at having too many devices with too many UIs. Their car (which now has a touchpad and lots of computer features) uses a different UI from their phone and computer and tablet and whatever. Even if the car has a superb UI, the problem is that it is different, something new to learn and remember.

One might fix this by having the same platform, be it iOS or Android on several of the devices, but that’s a tall order. Car vendors do not want to make a phone one one platform and tick off people used to the other platform.

The answer lies in something the car makers don’t like: Don’t put much of their own smarts in the car at all, and expect the user to slot their own mobile phone or tablet into the car. This might be done with something like Nokia’s “Terminal Mode” where the car’s screen and buttons can be taken over by the phone, or by not having a screen in the car at all, just a standard mounting place.

Some time ago I wrote that cars should stop coming with included radios as they used to 30 years ago, and let the slot in the dashboard where the radio and electronics go become a center for innovation. In particular innovation at the speed of consumer and mobile devices, not innovation at the speed of car companies. But there are too many pressures to stop this from happening. Car companies get to charge a lot for fancy radio and electronics systems in the cars, and they like this. And they like the control over the whole experience. But as they get more complaints they may realize that it’s not the right thing for them to be building. Especially not when the car (and the in-dash system) last for 10 to 15 years, while most consumer electronic devices are obsolete in 1-2 years.

There aren’t that many makes of cars, nor so many mobile platforms, so making custom apps for the car and the mobile platform isn’t that hard. In fact, I would expect you would see lots of competing aftermarket ones if they opened up the market to it. And open source ones too, built by fans of the particular cars.

Robocar projects, laws and other news

An update on the backlog of robocar related news caused by my recent travel and projects:

Nevada law

Many people have noticed the new law recently passed in Nevada which directs the Dept. of Transportation to create guidelines for the introduction of self-driving cars on Nevada roads. Here is the text of the law. Because Google, whom I consult for on robocars, helped instigate this law, I will refrain from comment, other than to repeat what I’ve said before: I predict that most transportation innovation will take place in robocars because they will be built from the ground up and bought by early adopters. The government need merely get out of the way and do very basic facilitation. This is very different from things like PRT and new transit lines, which require the government’s active participation and funding.

You’ll find lots of commentary on the story in major news media.  read more »

Volkswagen announces simple self-driving car

The efficacy of trusted traveler programs

A new paper on trusted traveler programs from RAND Corp goes into some detailed math analysis of various approaches to a trusted traveler program. In such a program, you pre-screen some people, and those who pass go into a trusted line where they receive a lesser security check. The resources saved in the lesser check are applied to give all other passengers a better security check. This was the eventual goal of the failed CLEAR card — though while it operated it just got you to the front of the line, it didn’t reduce your security check.

The analysis shows that with a “spherical horse” there are situations where the TT program could reduce the number of terrorists making it through security with some weapon, though it concludes the benefit is often minor, and sometimes negative. I say spherical horse because they have to idealize the security checks in their model, just declaring that an approach has an X% chance of catching a weapon, and that this chance increases when you spend more money and decreases when you spend less, though it has diminishing returns since you can’t get better than 100% no matter what you spend.

The authors know this assumption is risky. Turns out there is a form of security check which does match this model, which is random intense checking. There the percentage of weapons caught is pretty closely tied with the frequency of the random check. The TTs would just get a lower probability of random check. However, very few people seem to be proposing this model. The real approaches you see involve things like the TTs not having to take their shoes off, or somehow bypassing or reducing one of the specific elements of the security process compared to the public. I believe these approaches negate the positive results in the Rand study.

This is important because while the paper puts a focus on whether TT programs can get better security for the same dollar, the reality is I think a big motive for the TT approach is not more security, but placation of the wealthy and the frequent flyer. We all hate security and the TSA, and the airlines want to give better service and even the TSA wants to be hated a bit less. When a grandmother or 10 year old girl gets a security pat down, it is politically bad, even though it is the right security procedure. Letting important passengers get a less intrusive search has value to the airlines and the powerful, and not doing intrusive searches that seem stupid to the public has political value to the TSA as well.

We already have such a program, and it’s not just the bypass of the nudatrons (X ray scanners) that has been won by members of congress and airline pilots. It’s called private air travel. People with their own planes can board without security at all for them or their guests. They could fly their planes into buildings if they wished, though most are not as big as the airliners from 9/11. Fortunately, the chance that the captains of industry who fly these planes would do this is tiny, so they fly without the TSA. The bypass for pilots seems to make a lot of sense at first blush — why search a pilot for a weapon she might use to take control of the plane? The reality is that giving a pass to the pilots means the bad guy’s problem changes from getting a weapon through the X-ray to creating fake pilot ID. It seems the latter might actually be easier than the former.  read more »

Back from Botswana, I want better audio for my video

This blog has been silent the last month because I’ve been on an amazing trip to Botswana and a few other places. There will be full reports and lots of pictures later, but today’s idea comes from experiments in shooting HD video using my Canon 5D Mark II. As many people know, while the 5D is an SLR designed for stills, it also shoots better HD video than all but the most expensive pro video cameras, so I did a bit of experimenting

The internal mic in the camera is not very good, and picks up not just wind but every little noise on the camera, including the noises of the image stabilizer found in many longer lenses. I brought a higher quality mic that mounts on the camera, but it wasn’t always mounted because it gets a little in the way of both regular shooting and putting the camera away. When I used it, I got decent audio, but I also got audio of my companion and our guide rustling or shooting stills with their own cameras. To shoot a real video with audio I had to have everybody be silent. This is why much of the sound you see in nature documentaries is actually added later, and very often just created by Foley artists. I also forgot to turn on my external mic, which requires a small amount of power, a few times. That was just me being stupid — as the small battery lasts for 300 hours I could have just left it on the whole trip. (Another fault I had with the mic, the Sennheiser MKE 400, was that the foam wind sleeve kept coming off, and after a few times I finally lost it.)  read more »

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