Transportation

Robocar Talk, Volvo automatic pedestrian avoidance

First: I will be speaking on robocars tomorrow, Tuesday Nov 9, at 6:30 pm for the meeting of the Jewish High Tech Community in Silicon Valley. The talk is at 6:30pm at the conference center of Fenwick and West at Castro & California in Mountain View. The public is welcome to attend, there is a $10 fee for non-members. This will be similar to my talk at Stanford 2 weeks ago, and a bit more extensive than the one in New York early in October, which Forbes said was the audience favorite at the event.

Volvo has built a brand around safe cars, and last year committed that nobody would die in a newer Volvo by 2020. They plan to do much of this with better passenger safety systems, akin to the work they have done on airbags and crumple zones. However, they also intend to use a lot of computerized technologies to make it happen. Other teams are pushing to expand the goal inside Volvo to also stop people from being killed by Volvos. To that end, next year’s Volvo S60 will come with a “Pedestrian Avoidance System” which uses a camera and machine vision to identify pedestrians and calculate if the vehicle is about to hit one. If it sees a potential pedestrian collision it will beep and alert the driver. If the driver does nothing, the car will brake.

Here is a video of the S60 in action:

It’s impressive, though pure machine vision suffers problems as lighting changes, which is one reason most work recently has been on LIDAR. It’s also interesting to see if they will be able to avoid making it too conservative. If the warning goes off all the time, even for a pedestrian who will (to the human eye) clearly slide by the side of the car at places like a crosswalk, drivers may learn to ignore the alarm, or get very annoyed and shut the whole system off it it brakes for them when they know an impact is not imminent. I’m hoping to learn more about Volvo’s efforts in the future. No other company has put as much effort into building a brand around safety, so we can expect Volvo, which has slipped in this status of late, to work very hard to maintain it and adapt robocar technologies to safer human driving and fully autonomous driving as well.

Dense triple parking

I have written of a simple algorithm to allow dense Valet style parking of robocars, such as triple parking on the roadsides. In this algorithm, one gap is left in the outer lanes, and the Robocars are able to move together, as an entire row segment, to “move the gap” as quickly as a single car can move. That way, if a car needs to get out from an inner lane, it can signal, and if the gap is currently ahead of it, for example, all the cars from the one next to it to the gap can move forward one space (at the same time) to put the gap next to the vehicle that needs to leave. This can happen in all the other rows and is easy, quiet and efficient for electric cars. It does not even need radio communication, as robocars will sense a car moving behind them or ahead of them, and immediately move in reaction. This request will move up the chain of cars to the gap. Of course, if one car does not move, the car behind it will only move a very short distance before refusing to go further, which would stop the whole effort (or in the case of an error, cause a very slow impact if the car behind keeps coming) and signal a need for human attention.

It seems like this should be possible even without many gaps, as long as there is enough spare space to allow a vehicle to wiggle out of its space. If there is just one gap, and a bit of wiggle room in the other rows, any car can still get out, just a bit more slowly. This is probably better done with a protocol for communication to assure it works quickly.

In this case, a gap on the outside lane (where there must be at least one) can be temporarily moved to the inside, and then back out. Consider 3 lanes of cars, with a gap in the outer late (lane #3) and a car in lane #1 (the curb lane) wanting out. First the lane #3 cars would adjust to move the gap to the right place, a bit forward of our target car. Next, a car from lane #2 would move into this gap, leaving a gap in lane #2 into which our target car can move. This leaves a gap in lane #3 which can be filled by a car from lane #2 which is willing to move in, ideally right next to our target car. Likewise a car from lane #3 can now move into that gap, and the resulting gap in the outer lane #3 can be moved to allow exit by our target car.

This requires a great deal more car moving, though again with electric cars this may not be too expensive. If the cars can turn all their wheels, they can move horizontally as some concept cars can already do. Even without that, a robotic car can wiggle out without much room, and of course the gap would not be placed exactly in place with the target car, but probably slightly forward to allow transfer with fewer wiggles. The result is a whole valet lot with just one blank space needed to get any car reasonably quickly. Of course, this would only be done when the lot needed to be totally full. For any partially full lot, gaps would be left to minimize the car moves needed to get any car out. However, if space is at a premium — so much so as to justify the extra moving — it can be done.

Software recalls and quick fixes to safety-critical computers in robocars

While giving a talk on robocars to a Stanford class on automative innovation on Wednesday, I outlined the growing problem of software recalls and how they might effect cars. If a company discovers a safety problem in a car’s software, it may be advised by its lawyers to shut down or cripple the cars by remote command until a fix is available. Sebastian Thrun, who had invited me to address this class, felt this could be dealt with through the ability to remotely patch the software.

This brings up an issue I have written about before — the giant dangers of automatic software updates. Automatic software updates are a huge security hole in today’s computer systems. On typical home computers, there are now many packages that do automatic updates. Due to the lack of security in these OSs, a variety of companies have been “given the keys” to full administrative access on the millions of computers which run their auto-updater. Companies which go to all sorts of lengths to secure their computers and networks are routinely granting all these software companies top level access (ie. the ability to run arbitrary code on demand) without thinking about it. Most of these software companies are good and would never abuse this, but this doesn’t mean that they don’t have employees who can’t be bribed or suborned, or security holes in their own networks which would let an attacker in to make a malicious update which is automatically sent out.

I once asked the man who ran the server room where the servers for Pointcast (the first big auto-updating application) were housed, how many fingers somebody would need to break to get into his server room. “They would not have to break any. Any physical threat and they would probably get in,” I heard. This is not unusual, and often there are ways in needing far less than this.

So now let’s consider software systems which control our safety. We are trusting our safety to computers more and more these days. Every elevator or airplane has a computer which could kill us if maliciously programmed. More and more cars have them, and more will over time, long before we ride in robocars. All around the world are electric devices with computer controls which could, if programmed maliciously, probably overload and start many fires, too. Of course, voting machines with malicious programs could even elect the wrong candidates and start baseless wars. (Not that I’m saying this has happened, just that it could.)

However these systems do not have automatic update. The temptation for automatic update will become strong over time, both because it is cheap and it allows the ability to fix safety problems, and we like that for critical systems. While the internal software systems of a robocar would not be connected to the internet in a traditional way, they might be programmed to, every so often, request and accept certified updates to their firmware from the components of the car’s computer systems which are connected to the net.

Imagine a big car company with 20 million robocars on the road, and an automatic software update facility. This would allow a malicious person, if they could suborn that automatic update ability, to load in nasty software which could kill tens of millions. Not just the people riding in the robocars would be affected, because the malicious software could command idle cars to start moving and hit other cars or run down pedestrians. It would be a catastrophe of grand proportions, greater than a major epidemic or multiple nuclear bombs. That’s no small statement.

There are steps that can be taken to limit this. Software updates should be digitally signed, and they should be signed by multiple independent parties. This stops any one of the official parties from being suborned (either by being a mole, or being tortured, or having a child kidnapped, etc.) to send out an update. But it doesn’t stop the fact that the 5 executives who have to sign an update will still be trusting the programming team to have delivered them a safe update. Assuring that requires a major code review of every new update, by a team that carefully examines all source changes and compiles the source themselves. Right now this just isn’t common practice.

However, it gets worse than this. An attacker can also suborn the development tools, such as the C compilers and linkers which build the final binaries. The source might be clean, but few companies keep perfect security on all their tools. Doing so requires that all the tool vendors have a similar attention to security in all their releases. And on all the tools they use.

One has to ask if this is even possible. Can such a level of security be maintained on all the components, enough to stop a terrorist programmer or a foreign government from inserting a trojan into a tool used by a compiler vendor who then sends certified compilers to the developers of safety-critical software such as robocars? Can every machine on every network at every tool vendor be kept safe from this?

We will try but the answer is probably not. As such, one result may be that automatic updates are a bad idea. If updates spread more slowly, with the individual participation of each machine owner, it gives more time to spot malicious code. It doesn’t mean that malicious code can’t be spread, as individual owners who install updates certainly won’t be checking everything they approve. But it can stop the instantaneous spread, and give a chance to find logic bombs set to go off later.

Normally we don’t want to go overboard worrying about “movie plot” threats like these. But when a single person can kill tens of millions because of a software administration practice, it starts to be worthy of notice.

New Robocar center at Stanford, Audi TT to race up Pikes Peak

Saturday saw the dedication of a new autonomous vehicle research center at Stanford, sponsored by Volkswagen. VW provided the hardware for Stanley and Junior, which came 1st and 2nd in the 2nd and 3rd Darpa Grand Challenges, and Junior was on display at the event, driving through the parking lot and along the Stanford streets, then parking itself to a cheering crowd.

Junior continues to be a testing platform with its nice array of sensors and computers, though the driving it did on Saturday was largely done with the Velodyne LIDAR that spins on top of it, and an internal map of the geometry of the streets at Stanford.

New and interesting was a demonstration of the “Valet Parking” mode of a new test vehicle, for now just called Junior 3. What’s interesting about J3 is that it is almost entirely stock. All that is added are two lower-cost LIDAR sensors on the rear fenders. It also has a camera at the rear-view mirror (which is stock in cars with night-assist mode) and a few radar sensors used in the fixed-distance cruise control system. J3 is otherwise a Passat. Well, the trunk is filled with computers, but there is no reason what it does could not be done with a hidden embedded computer.

What it does is valet park itself. This is an earlier than expected implementation of one of the steps I outlined in the roadmap to Robocars as robo-valet parking. J3 relies on the fact the “valet” lot is empty of everything but cars and pillars. Its sensors are not good enough to deal well with random civilians, so this technology would only work in an enclosed lot where only employees enter the lot if needed. To use it, the driver brings the car to an entrance marked by 4 spots on the ground the car can see. Then the driver leaves and the car takes over. In this case, it has a map of the garage in its computer, but it could also download that on arrival in a parking lot. Using the map, and just the odometer, it is able to cruise the lanes of the parking lot, looking for an empty spot, which it sees using the radar. (Big metal cars of course show clearly on the radar.) It then drives into the spot.

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Nissan emulates school of fish, and Singularity Summit Robocar notes

Some time ago I proposed the “School of Fish Test” as a sort of turing test for robocars. In addition to being a test for the cars, it is also intended to be a way to demonstrate to the public when the vehicles have reached a certain level of safety. (In the test, a swarm of robocars moves ona track, and a skeptic in a sportscar is unable to hit one no matter what they do, like a diver trying to touch fish when swimming through a school.)

I was interested to read this month that Nissan has built test cars based on fish-derived algorithms as part of a series of experiments based on observing how animals swarm. (I presume this is coincidental, and the Nissan team did not know of my proposed test.)

The Nissan work (building on earlier work on bees) is based upon a swarm of robots which cooperate. The biggest test involves combining cooperating robots, non-cooperating robots and (mostly non-cooperating) human drivers, cyclists and pedestrians. Since the first robocars on the road will be alone, it is necessary to develop fully safe systems that do not depend on any cooperation with other cars. It can of course be useful to communicate with other cars, determine how much you trust them, and then cooperate with them, but this is something that can only be exploited later rather than sooner. In particular, while many people propose to me that building convoys of cars which draft one another is a good initial application of robotics (and indeed you can already get cars with cruise control that follows at a fixed distance) the problem is not just one of critical mass. A safety failure among cooperating cars runs the risk of causing a multi-car collision, with possible multiple injured parties, and this is a risk that should not be taken in early deployments of the technology.

My talk at the Singularity Summit on robocars was quite well received. Many were glad to see a talk on more near-future modest AI after a number of talks on full human level AI, while others wanted only the latter. A few questions raised some interesting issues:

  • One person asked about the insurance and car repair industries. I got a big laugh by saying, “fuck ‘em.” While I am not actually that mean spirited about it, and I understand why some would react negatively to trends which will obsolete their industries, we can’t really be that backwards-looking.
  • Another wondered if, after children discover that they nice cars will never hit them, they then travel to less safe roads without having learned proper safety instincts. This is a valid point, though I have already worried about what to do about the disruption to passengers who have to swerve around kids who play in the streets when it is not so clearly dangerous. Certain types of jaywalking that interfere with traffic will need to be discouraged or punished, though safe jaywalking, when no car is near, should be allowed and even encouraged.
  • One woman asked if we might become disassociated with our environments if we spend our time in cars reading or chatting, never looking out. This is already true in a taxicab city like New York, though only limos offer face-to-face chat. I think the ability to read or work instead of focus on the road is mostly a feature and not a bug, but she does have a point. Still, we get even more divorced from the environment on things like subways.

As expected, the New York audience, unlike other U.S. audiences, saw no problem with giving up driving. Everywhere else I go, people swear that Americans love their cars and love driving and will never give it up. While some do feel that way, it’s obviously not a permanent condition.

Some other (non-transportation) observations from Singularity Summit are forthcoming.

BTW, I will be giving a Robocar talk next Wednesday, Oct 28 at Stanford University for the ME302 - Future of the Automobile class. (This is open to the general Stanford community, affiliates of their CARS institute, and a small number of the public. You can email btm@templetons.com if you would like to go.)

European intelligent vehicle test

Robocar news:

This press release describes a European research project on various intelligent vehicle technologies which will take place next year. As I outline in the roadmap a number of pre-robocar technologies are making their way into regular cars, so they can be sold as safer and more convenient. This project will actively collect data to learn about and improve the systems.

Today’s systems are fairly simple of course, and will learn a lot from this. This matches my prediction for how a robocar test suite will be developed, by gathering millions and later billions of miles of sample data including all accidents and anomalous events, over time with better and better sensors. Today’s sensors are very simple of course but this will change over time.

Initial reaction to these systems (which will have early flaws) may colour user opinion of them. For example, some adaptive cruise controls reportedly are too eager to decide there is a stopped car and will suddenly stop a vehicle. One of the challenges of automatic vehicle design will be finding ways to keep it safe without it being too conservative because real drivers are not very conservative. (They are also not very safe, but this defines the standards people expect.)

Text me if you lose my luggage

Just back from a weeklong tour including speaking at Singularity Summit, teaching classes at Cushing Academy and a big Thanksgiving dinner (well, Thanksgiving is actually today but we had it earlier) and drive through fabulous fall colour in Muskoka.

This time United Airlines managed to misplace my luggage in both directions. (A reminder of why I don’t like to check luggage.) The first time the had an “excuse” in that we checked it only about 10 minutes before the baggage check deadline and the TSA took extra time on it. The way back it missed a 1 hour, 30 minute connection — no excuse for that.

However, again, my rule for judging companies is how they handle their mistakes as well as how often they make them. And, in JFK, when we went to baggage claim, they actually had somebody call our name and tell us the bag was not on the flight, so we went directly to file the missing luggage report. However, on the return flight, connecting in Denver to San Jose, we got the more “normal” experience — wait a long time at the baggage claim until you realize no more bags are coming and you’re among the last people waiting, and then go file a lost luggage report.

This made me realize — with modern bag tracking systems, the airline knows your bag is not on the plane at the time they close the cargo hold door, well before takeoff. They need to know that as this is part of the passenger-to-bag matching system they tried to build after the Pan Am 103 Lockerbie bombing. So the following things should be done:

  • If they know my mobile number (and they do, because they text me delays and gate changes) they should text me that my luggage did not make the plane.
  • The text should contain a URL where I can fill out my lost luggage report or track where my luggage actually is.
  • Failing this, they should have a screen at the gate when you arrive with messages for passengers, including lost luggage reports. Or just have the gate agent print it and put it on the board if a screen costs too much.
  • Failing this, they should have a screen at the baggage claim with notes for passengers about lost luggage so you don’t sit and wait.
  • Failing this, an employee can go to the baggage claim and page the names of passengers, which is what they did in JFK.
  • Like some airlines do, they should put a box with “Last Bag, Flight nnn” written on it on the luggage conveyor belt when the last bag has gone through, so people know not to wait in vain.

I might very well learn my luggage is not on before the plane closes the door. In that case I might even elect to not take the flight, though I can see that the airline might not want people to do this as they are usually about to close the door, if they have not already closed it.

Letting me fill out the form on the web saves the airline time and saves me time. I can probably do it right on the plane after it lands and cell phone use is allowed. I don’t even have to go to baggage claim. Make it mobile browser friendly of course.

Events: Randall Monroe (xkcd) tonight in SF, Singularity Summit Oct 3-4 in NYC

Two events I will be at…

Tonight, at 111 Minna Gallery in San Francisco, we at EFF will be hosting a reading by Randall Monroe, creator of the popular nerd comic “xkcd.” There is a regular ticket ($30) and a VIP reception ticket ($100) and just a few are still available. Payments are contributions to the EFF.

In two weeks, on Oct 3-4, I will be speaking on the future of robot cars at the Singularity Summit in New York City. Lots of other good speakers on the podium too.

See you there…

Are Frequent Flyer Mile credit cards a good idea?

I just decided to cancel my AAdvantage credit card for a 1% cashback card with no annual fee. Many people have the frequent flyer cards so let’s consider the math on them. They typically come with a high annual fee (around $80) while other cards have no fee and other rewards.

Let’s say you spend $25,000 per year on the card, which is enough for 25,000 miles or one domestic flight on the typical airline. With a typical cashback card you get 1% back though some cards give 2% or even 4% back on certain classes of purchases. I have an Amex from Costco that gives 3% on gasoline and 2% on travel expenses, but Amex is not as accepted as Visa or MC.

  • Your cash cost for the 25K miles is $250 plus the $80 annual fee = $320
  • There are varying taxes and fees on award tickets, as low as $8 but sometimes much higher
  • If you are booking less than 3 weeks in advance, fees of $50 to $100 will apply
  • Finding available award seats can be quite difficult, the supply is far lower than for cash seats in most cases. There are also blackouts.
  • You will not receive miles for your trip. A typical cross-country return is 5,000 miles, of $50 at the 1% rate, $80-$100 at the rate airlines claim
  • Most people use miles long after they earn them, and in fact have a large balance. So a time discount should apply. Miles sitting in accounts earn no interest, cash does.

As such the free trip is harder to get and costs $400 to $500. But that is not far from (and sometimes more than) the cash price of a ticket. But cash is of course a much more flexible thing — you can use it for anything, not just airline tickets. There are a raft of cards out there now which tout “miles on any airline” and what they really give you is a 1% cashback that is only good on airlines. General 1% cashback is much better.

There is an argument that upgrades do much better. Upgrading with miles can be cheaper than upgrading with cash, since the cash price of business class seats is very high. However, as you learn if you are not a top elite flyer, upgrades are quite hard to get. Others are ahead of you in line. AA also instituted a cash co-pay on upgrades making them more expensive than before when done with miles.

If you spend less than $25K per year on the card, the math gets even worse. At $12.5K per year, you gave up at least $460 to $550 for your free ticket, and when the tickets are available on miles, the cash fare is often lower. If you spend much more a year, the cost may make some sense.

A common trick for people who have mileage cards is to pick up group checks at restaurants and have everybody pay you cash. However, the cards that give 3% cashback at restaurants like the Amex are much better for this.

RV daisy chain power grid

After every RV trip (I’m back from Burning Man) I think of more I want RVs to do. This year, as we have for many years, we built a power distribution system with a master generator rather than having each RV run its own noisy, smelly and inefficient generator. However, this is expensive and a lot of work for a small group, it is cheap and a lot of work for a larger group.

There’s been a revolution in small generator design of late thanks to the declining cost of inverters and other power conversion. A modern quality generator feeds the output of its windings to circuits to step up and step down the voltage to produce the required power. The output power is cleaner and more stable, and the generator is spun at different RPMs based on the power load, making it quieter and more efficient. With many models, you can also combine the internal output of two generators to produce a higher power generator.

RVs have come with expensive old-style generators that are quieter than cheap ones, and which produce better power, but today they are moving to inverter generators. With an inverter generator, it’s also possible to draw on the RV batteries for power surges (such as starting an AC or microwave) beyond what the generator can do.

I’m interested in the potential for smarter power, so what I would like to see is a way for a group of RVs with new generation power systems to plug together. In this way, they could all make use of the power in the other vehicles, and in most cases only a fraction of the generators would need to be running to provide power to all. (For example, at night, only one generator could power a whole cluster. In the day, with ACs running, several would need to run, but it would be very unlikely to have to run all, or even 75% of them.)  read more »

RV water tank should have UV disinfector

RVs all have a fresh water tank. When you rent one, they will often tell you not to drink that water. That’s because the tanks are being filled up in all sorts of random places, out of the control of the rental company, and while it’s probably safe, they don’t want to promise it, nor disinfect the tank every rental.

I recently got a small “pen” which you put in a cup of water and it shines a UV light for 30 seconds to kill any nasties in the water. While I have not tried to test it on infected water, I presume that it works.

So it seems it makes sense to me to install this sort of UV tube in the fresh water tank of RVs. Run it from time to time, and particularly after a fill, and be sure the water is clean. Indeed, with an appropriate filter, and a 2nd pump, such an RV could happily fill its water tank from clear lakes and streams, allowing longer dry camping which should have a market. Though of course the gray/black water tanks still will get full, but outside showers and drinking do not fill those tanks. A urination-only toilet could also be done if near a stream or lake.

Two wheeled robocars and the Twill

I have mostly written about 3 and 4 wheeled Robocars, even when the vehicles are narrow and light. Having 3 or 4 wheels of course means stability when stopped or slow, but I have also been concerned that even riding a 2 wheeled vehicle like a motorcycle requires a lot of rider participation. It is necessary to lean into turns. It’s disconcerting being the stoker on a tandem bicycle or the passenger on a motorcycle, compared to being a car passenger. You certainly don’t imagine yourself reading a book in such situations.

On the other hand 3/4 wheeled vehicles have their disadvantages. They must have a wide enough wheelbase to be stable because they can’t easiliy lean. In addition, for full stability you want to keep their center of gravity as low as you can. The extra width means a lot more drag, unless you have a design like the Aptera Motors entrant in the Progressive 100mpg X-prize, which puts the wheels out to the sides.

I recently met Chris Tacklind, who has a design-stage startup called Twill Tech. They have not produced a vehicle yet, but their concepts are quite interesting. Their planned vehicle, the Twill, has two wheels but uses computer control to allow it to stay stable when stopped. It does this by slight motions of the wheels, the same way that pro cyclists will do a track stand. They believe they can make a 2 wheeled electric motorcycle that can use this technique to stay stable when stopped, though it would need to extend extra legs when parked.

This is intended to be an enclosed vehicle, both for rider comfort and lower drag. The seat is very different from a motorcycle seat, in that you do not sit astride the vehicle, but in a chair similar to a spacecraft’s zero-G chair.

In addition, the vehicle is designed to have the rear wheel on a lever arm so that it can stand almost upright when stopped and then slope down low, with the rider reclined, at higher speeds. The reclined position is necessary for decent drag numbers at speed — the upright human creates a lot of the drag in a bicycle or motorcycle. However, the upright position when slow or stopped allows for much easier entry and exit of the vehicle. As everybody knows, really low cars are harder to get in and out of. Twill is not the first company to propose a vehicle which rises and lowers. For example the MIT CityCar plan proposes this so the vehicles can stack for parking. Even without stacking, such designs can park in a much smaller space.  read more »

Secrets of the "Clear" airport security line

Yesterday it was announced that “Clear” (Verified ID Pass) the special “bypass the line at security” card company, has shut its doors and its lines. They ran out of money and could not pay their debts. No surprise there, they were paying $300K/year rent for their space at SJC and only 11,000 members used that line.

As I explained earlier, something was fishy about the program. It required a detailed background check, with fingerprint and iris scan, but all it did was jump you to the front of the line — which you get for flying in first class at many airports without any background check. Their plan, as I outline below, was to also let you use a fancy shoe and coat scanning machine from GE, so you would not have to take them off. However, the TSA was only going to allow those machines once it was verified they were just as secure as existing methods — so again no need for the background check.

To learn more about the company, I attended a briefing they held a year ago for a contest they were holding: $500,000 to anybody who could come up with a system that sped up their lines at a low enough cost. I did have a system, but also wanted to learn more about how it all worked. I feel sorry for those who worked hard on the contest who presumably will not be paid.  read more »

The background check

On ultralight vehicles vs. large mass transit vehicles

One of the questions raised by the numbers which show that U.S. transit does not compete well on energy-efficiency was how transit can fare so poorly. Our intuition, as well as what we are taught, makes us feel that a shared vehicle must be more efficient than a private vehicle. And indeed a well-shared vehicle certainly is better than a solo driver in one of todays oversized cars and light trucks.

But this is a consequence of many factors, and surprisingly, shared transportation is not an inherent winner. Let’s consider why.

We have tended to build our transit on large, heavy vehicles. This is necessary to have large capacities at rush hour, and to use fewer drivers. But a transit system must serve the public at all times if it is to be effectively. If you ride the transit, you need to know you can get back, and at other than rush hour, without a hugely long wait. The right answer would be to use big vehicles at rush hour and small ones in the off-peak hours, but no transit agency is willing to pay for multiple sets of vehicles. The right answer is to use half-size vehicles twice as often, but again, no agency wants to pay for this or to double the number of drivers. It’s not a cost-effective use of capital or the operating budget, they judge.

Weight

The urban vehicle of the future, as I predict it, is a small, one-person vehicle which resembles a modern electric tricycle with fiberglass shell. It will be fancier than that, with nicer seat, better suspension and other amenities, but chances are it only has to weigh very little. Quite possibly it will weigh less than the passenger — 100 to 200lbs.

Transit vehicles weigh a lot. A city bus comes in around 30,000 lbs. At its average load of 9 passengers, that’s over 3,000lbs of bus per passenger. Even full-up with 60 people (standing room) it’s 500lbs per passenger — better than a modern car with its average of 1.5 people, but still much worse than the ultralight.  read more »

Can airports do paging as well as a restaurant?

I have a lot of peeves about airports, like almost everybody. One of them is the constant flow of public address announcements. They make it hard to read, work or concentrate for many people. Certainly it’s hard to sleep. It’s often even hard to have a phone call with the announcements in the background.

One solution to this is the premium airline lounges. These are announcement-free, but you must watch the screens regularly to track any changes. And of course they cost a lot of money, and may be far from your gate.

Some airlines have also improved things by putting up screens at the gates that list the status of standby passengers and people waiting for upgrades. This also saves them a lot of questions at the gate, which is good.

But it’s not enough. Yet, even in a cheap restaurant, they often have a solution. They give you a special pager programmed to summon you when your table or food is ready. It vibrates (never beeps) and they are designed to stack on top of one another for recharging.

Airports could do a lot better. Yes, they could hand you an electronic pager instead of/in addition to a boarding pass. This could be used to signal you anywhere in the airport. It could have an active RFID to allow you to walk though an automatic gate onto the plane with no need for even a gate agent, depositing the pager as you board.

Each pager could also know where it is in the airport. Thus a signal could go out about the start of boarding, and if your pager is not at the gate, it could tell the airline where you are. If you’re in the security line, it might tell you to show the pager to somebody who can get you through faster (though of course if you make this a regular thing that has other downsides.)  read more »

Allow a refund on prepaid cell service for tourists

Years ago I asked that they let me buy a SIM card in the airport arrivals area and now they often do. I also started a forum here on the best company to buy a prepaid SIM from in each country which has a fair bit of traffic.

And indeed, I have been doing that, because often roaming rates remain obscene. I dropped my Canadian SIM when Sprint offered a plan with 20 cent/minute roaming in Canada that I can turn on for $3/month — this was comparable to the prepaid price I was getting, and prepaid had the “overhang balance” problem I will discuss below. But I’ve gotten or been loaned local SIMs in several countries to good use — especially when both I and my travel companion have one so we can use our cell phones as radios.

But a few problems exist with getting a local SIM. First, you have to get one. The cheapest place to do this is usually the local cell phone shops that can be found in most urban shopping areas. If you plan ahead, you can get one mailed to your hotel, though the companies that do this which aim at tourists always overcharge — perhaps enough to wipe out your savings if your call volume is modest or your stay short. The ideal SIM is near-free, and can be found where you enter the country.

Next, you must fill the account. Almost everywhere, you must use prepaid cards bought for cash from the shops, as they will not let you fill, or refill, with an out-of-country credit card, for supposed security reasons. This is annoying because you don’t want to have a large balance remaining (overhang) on your prepaid account when you leave the country, unless you will be back before it expires. (Sometimes you can use it up in other countries with obscene roaming rates, but often not even then.) But you also don’t want to have to risk running out of minutes in the middle of a call.

The answer: Let me put a fat balance on my prepaid account, and let me refund all or most of it when I am done — ideally back to my credit card when I leave.

The cell company loses that wasted balance, sure, but instead, I am prone to use the phone more if I have a large enough balance and a good enough rate that I don’t have to worry. I will use it like a local. This would be a good competitive edge that would make the difference if I were buying a SIM. You could offer this only to people from out of the country but I see no reason not to offer it to local users too.

Yes, processing the refund has a small cost. If you insist, don’t refund the last few bucks to cover your costs. Or alternately, let me do “minutes transfer” to other prepaid users. Then I could meet somebody (or go into a shop) and transfer the minutes and get cash for them.

Of course, it would also be nice if you would let me just buy a monthly plan deal for just one month, with no contract. Cell companies seem loathe to do this, but T-Mobile in the USA has just started doing exactly that with their flex-pay. In that system you pre-pay for one month of any monthly plan, and if you think you will use more than the minutes on that plan, you can put money into an overage account. But you can’t get it back, so that’s one modification to add. But frankly I would probably never go over the monthly plan I bought in a typical trip.

The remaining big headache is data. Getting a prepaid plan with data at a decent price (or any data at all) can be hard. Those from the USA are used to unlimited data, which they resist selling in many countries. Those from the USA who bring their phones overseas and forget to turn off roaming data often find nightmare bills of many thousands of dollars. The world has to figure this out. Still, those who are used to fancy network PDA phones often find themselves literally lost without their Google Maps Mobile or their e-Mail. We need a way to roam data selectively, letting some apps use limited data budgets but preventing others if we can’t get a decent data price plan. E-mail apps can go into low-data move (never download attachments or long messages automatically, just imap headers) and less frequent checking. If one is careful, one can get something decent at the $2/megabyte (or $10/megabyte) crazy prices for mobile data roaming.

Oh yeah, and think about doing 2-SIM offers to tourists, who often arrive in pairs. Especially if they include cheap mobile-to-mobile calling in the pair.

Virgin America Airways and on-demand ordering

Yesterday I took my first flight on Virgin America airways, on the IAD-SFO run. Virgin offered a tremendous price (about $130 one way) but it’s worth examining how they have made use of technology on their planes. Mostly I usually end up on United, which is by far the largest carrier at SFO. Because of this, I fly enough on it to earn status, and that it turn provides a seat in their Economy Plus section which has more legroom, priority boarding and in theory, an empty middle if there are empty middles. This is 90% of the value of the status — the other main value, ability to upgrade, is hard to actually make use of because business class is usually full. The extra legroom is surprisingly pleasant, even for a widebody individual like myself who would much prefer extra width if I had a choice.

Other than Economy Plus (and some very nice business class on some of the long-haul planes,) United is falling behind other airlines. It would be hard to recommend an ordinary coach seat. The one big amenity that more and more other airlines are providing is power in coach, in particular 115v AC power which is more flexible than the older 15vdc “Empower” system United uses in business class. The main downside of the 115v connections is they tend to be mounted under the seats, making them hard to get to. Air Canada has put them in the personal video panels. Virgin placed them under the seats but high and forward enough to be reached (if you knew what you were looking for) but also so close as to make wall-warts bump against your legs. Virgin also offered USB jacks down under the seats, also hard to get to. Even if you don’t want to put 115v up higher, USB charging jacks are better placed in the video console/seatback I think.

American Airlines has a mix of DC and AC power, but still makes it available in coach. Continental has put EmPower on some planes in the front half of coach, but some newer planes have AC power all the way through coach.  read more »

Powered USB Hub in my hotel room, and more

What should be in a good hotel room?

Well, one thing that’s easy to add to the list is a powered USB hub, with as many as 6 ports and a 3 amp power supply. Toss in some mini-USB cables (possibly just built into the hub) as they have become, for better or worse, the present-day universal charging standard. (At only 2.5 watts, USB is a bit anemic as charging standard, but it’s what we have for now.) A mouse would be nice too, but is a security risk.

Alas, we can’t have a keyboard on it, as nice as that would be, since that can’t be trusted. It might have a keylogger put in it (even by the previous occupant of the room) to grab passwords.

Now this is a fairly cheap item (under $20) and like many other hotel items, it could also be available at the front desk, though it’s so cheap I don’t see a reason for that. While you could not be sure it would be there at every hotel, it would still be useful, since it can add to the charging you bring, and most laptops can be a charging station if you are willing to leave them on overnight. It’s also useful as a hub. Indeed, have two, one on the desk, and one by the bed for cell phones.

We’re almost ready to not need the hotel phone unless you are coming from overseas and pay ridiculous roaming charges. But they still need it to call you sometimes, and I don’t want to have to hand over my mobile number at check-in.

Most hotel rooms now are getting a flat-screen HDTV. That’s great, but rarely do they offer up the VGA port that many of these TVs have, or a cable to plug it in. I recommend a 1080p TV for each room, located in such a way that it can be an external monitor for my laptop. As such there should be a VGA cable connected or handy. The TV could also be connected to the USB hub, and use a video over USB protocol for devices that have USB out but not video out. (This usually needs a driver and has some limitations.)  read more »

Digital cameras, embrace your inner eBook

Lots of people are doing it — using their digital camera as a quick way to copy documents, not just for taking home, but to carry around. Rather than carry around a large travel guidebook (where most of the weight is devoted to hotels and restaurants in other towns) we normally just photograph the relevant pages for the area we will be exploring. We also do it even with portable items like guides and travel maps since we don’t really want the paper. We also find ourselves regularly photographing maps of cities, facilities and transit systems found on walls. We will photograph transit timetables: take a ferry out, photograph the schedule of ferries going back. In countries where you can’t write the language, photographing the names of destinations, so you can show it to cab drivers and locals is handy.

Yes, I have also seen copyright violation going on, with people taking a temporary photograph of somebody else’s guidebook, or one in a library or hotel. Not to save money, but for the convenience.

While I still think a dedicated travel device makes sense when doing tourism, cameras should embrace this function. Some travel guides, such as Lonely Planet, will sell you a PDF version of the book or chapters in it. Perhaps being able to read PDFs is more than a camera wants to do, but these could be converted to PNGs or some other clear and compact format. A very simple book browser in the camera is not a tall order, considering the level of processing they now have. Though there seems to be a lot to be said for the simplicity of the camera’s interface, where you turn a wheel to find a page and then zoom in. If there’s a browser it had better be easier to use than that.

However, even simpler would be a way to tag a photo as being text (indeed, many cameras could probably figure out that a photo is dense with text on their own.) Such photos would be put into their own special folder, and the camera’s menu should offer a way to directly go to those photos for browsing.

I realize the risk here. Forced convergence often results in a device that does nothing well. In this case people are already using the camera for this, because it is what they are carrying. There is already pressure to make camera screens bigger and higher resolution, and to give them good interfaces to move around and zoom in.

In time, though, travel guides might deliberately make versions that you store on the flash card of your camera. Of course, you can already do this on your PDA, and I read eBooks on my PDA all the time. And sometimes your cell phone/PDA is your camera.

Airlines should sell an empty middle seat for half price

Coach is cramped, but not everybody can afford business class. In addition, there are airlines that require fat people to purchase a second seat if they can’t fit into one. Fortunately I am not in that department, but it seems there is an interesting alternative that might make sense for all — selling half of a middle seat, for half price (or less) to somebody wanting more room in coach.

The idea, of course, is that two passengers want this extra room. So if sold at half-price, the airline effectively is selling that seat for full price. In fact, since they don’t have to provide any services for that missing passenger — nor carry the weight and luggage or offer miles — they could and should sell the guaranteed empty middle for less than half, perhaps as low as 1/3rd.

On the other hand, half the time there would be an odd number of passengers buying half a middle, which would cost the airline half a fare on half the flights. They might need to bump the cost slightly to account for this.

Of course, ideally these would be rows where the armrest is able to go up fully so it doesn’t stick into you even if you recline, though not all airlines do that.

Now there is a bit of gamesmanship to be played on flights that vary widely in load. After all, if a flight is not that loaded, the middle seats will be vacant anyway, and no revenue would be lost by offering the guaranteed empty seat. I can see two strategies for selling in these conditions:

  • The passenger pays full-bore (say 40% extra) for the seat. However, if the flight is light enough that many middles are empty, they pay nothing. The passenger always gets value for money and never feels they paid for what others got free.
  • The passenger pays a lower fraction, based on how often it’s truly needed. Say it’s needed only half the time. Pay 20% extra, and always get the empty middle, but no refund even on an empty plane. (Perhaps give “whole row” preference on really empty flights.)

Which would you prefer? Of course if you feel comfy in a full coach cabin, you would not desire either.

Passengers of course would be strategic, and look at the seat map to see how loaded the plane is, and buy the premium only if the flight is filling up. The airline may or may not wish to allow upgrading an existing ticket because of this.

This is also something that could be offered for miles instead of cash.

As you may know, many airlines already do this for their elite passengers, only filling the middle between two elites if the flight is completely full. Promotion to premium legroom sections (which United offers for cash) could be combined with this. A seat in United’s Economy Plus with an empty seat next to you gets much closer to Business Class in terms of space, though it still lacks other comforts.

Update: The question came up of full fights with sold empty middle seats. If a passenger has bought this because he can’t fit in a single seat, there are few options, unless the passenger they want to add is very small, like a child. However, if the passenger bought the seat simply for extra comfort, but still can fit, they could sell it back to the airline for whatever can be agreed on. The airline could offer cash, business class upgrades, or free half-seat upgrades on future flights, and many passengers might take it. After all, anybody who purchased such a half-seat is the sort who would find a business class upgrade valuable. This might be arranged in advance. For example, the fare rules might say, “The airline, at its discretion, can fill the empty middle seat with a passenger of below average size in exchange for compensation X.” A ticket where the seat can’t be filled, no way, no how, could cost more, but still a lot less than the option they offer today of purchasing an entire seat.

When I fly with my companion, of course, we usually book aisle and window with empty middle between us. If they seat somebody there, we let them have the window. There are tricks to try to otherwise get that empty middle.

Like premium economy, airlines could make money from selling these guaranteed middle seats to business travelers whose companies have a rule that they won’t pay for business class, but will pay for improved economy seating.

Some other options might include a focus on putting somebody as small as possible in the seat, such as an unaccompanied minor.

Some of this also touches on a different problem I will address in a future blog post. Airlines should, if they can, avoid seating two large people in the same pair or trio of seats. While I am sure I’ll get claims of “the fatties deserve this for not curbing their appetites” it’s a hard problem to solve, since everybody, thin or wide, would want to get tagged as wide to avoid having a crowded row. More on this later.

What is the moment of sin in drunk driving?

Recently, some prosecutors, in efforts to crack down on drunk driving, are pushing for murder convictions. This is happening in the case of really blatant disregard on the part of the drunk drivers — people with multiple DUIs getting smashed, going out, and killing.

In watching coverage of this trend, over and over again I heard it said that the killer’s sin was “getting behind the wheel when drunk.” And that is in fact what we punish with DUI laws. Because so many people have done it (without killing anybody) there is surprising sympathy for the drunk drivers — there but for the grace of god go I.

But is that the right sin? That decision is always made once the person has impaired judgement. Something to me seems wrong about punishing a decision made when one has lost the ability to make good decisions. While I don’t drink, and have no sympathy for the actions of drunks, I think the real transgression comes much earlier.

The real transgression is allowing yourself to get impaired in circumstances where you would then be sufficiently likely to make deadly wrong decisions. A simple example of this would be having enough alcohol to move from sober to drunk when you have your car with you and plan to drive home. Of course, many people in that situation will do the right thing, and still be clear enough to know they should get a cab home, and then come back to pick up their car later. But of course, many don’t. And worse, there is often an incentive not to — such as paying for two taxi fares, and dealing with the car’s location becoming a no-parking zone in the morning.

I believe people should be punished for risky decisions they make while sober, more so than ones they make while drunk. It should be expected that people will make poor decisions and take unacceptable risks when drunk. That is what impairment means. It is the decisions they make when sober, when they know right from wrong, that the law should punish.

Now let me describe how this might work in theory, and then discuss the harder question of making it work in practice.

The simplest way to behave well is to never take your car to go drinking. That car parked outside is too much temptation once you are drunk. And this is what the designated driver concept is about. To get more specific, you must not take the drinks that make you impaired without first, while still not so impaired, making plans to get home so you have no temptation to drive your car. This can include arranging a ride with a sober person, pre-contracting with a taxi company for later pickup, or putting your car keys into escrow.

Car key escrow, for example, would involve giving the keys to a friend or the bartender, who will not return them to you until you are sober. A high-tech version might be a simple lockbox. You can put your keys in the lockbox (provided by a responsible bar) and can only get them out by blowing into the box with alcohol below the limit. The act of escrow, taken while sober, makes you legal. The act of drinking beyond your limit without making alternate plans is the immoral act. Having any recorded plan for getting home — cab, designated driver, transit ticket, keys in escrow — is enough to be acting morally.

Now how to enforce this? Well, we can’t really have police coming into bars, and asking all patrons who are beyond the limit to prove they made alternate plans. Police could check inebriated people leaving bars, but don’t typically have the time for this. If this sort of rule is to be enforced, it would have to be through legal liability on those who serve alcohol (bars, party hosts) to assure none of their guests go beyond the limit without plans, or at least the easy ability to make plans. (Cheap key lockboxes might help in this area.)

And of course, anybody who did drive drunk would be guilty since they obviously didn’t make adequate plans. This approach would simply expand the culpable act to the broader situation of having deliberately (while sober) put yourself in a situation where this has a real chance of taking place.

There are problems of course. Often “guests” come to parties uninvited and get drunk. We’ve all had a fairly drunk person at a party we barely know. Or we may not know the drinking habits of the friends we do invite. Bartenders deal with people arriving who already got sauced at another bar and just have the last few drinks before they drive in the 2nd bar. We want people to act responsibly, not have to go overboard and be paranoid about each guest. Ideally we want the full weight of the law to fall on the sober person who got drunk while his or her car was outside.

One unconnected option might make sense. Parking laws might be changed to let you get out of certain kinds of parking tickets if you can show proof you took an alternate way home because you are drunk. Taxi drivers who take drunks home could issue such a dated receipt. Friends could testify under oath that they drove you home because you were drunk. This might make people more willing to leave cars behind in certain areas. It would have to be clear what those areas were (for example, parking that was free at night but becomes metered or prohibited at 7am) so that the parking does not become a problem. Still the extra parked cars are a better thing to have than cars with drunks behind the wheel.

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