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.


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.

Robocars bringing you flying cars

Here’s a short new robocar essay, on Robocars helping bring about flying cars.

The thesis of the essay is simple. The quest for flying cars has always had to deal with the very difficult compromise between a vehicle that flies and one that drives. It’s just really hard to make one vehicle to do both.

The robocar (or rather robotaxi) solution is to not try to do both in one vehicle, but adapt to the idea you can hire a robotaxi to zip you right to your plane, and another one will be waiting on the taxiway when you land for a quick transition. It’s not the “take off from your house” vision, though. Of course, independently, the planes themselves could become computer-flown, as is almost the case today. If this happened, and the planes were able to do short takeoff and landing, and do it quietly (perhaps hybrid engines which use battery just for takeoff and landing) the world might accomodate airstrips in much more convenient places, even old stretches of road that don’t have overhead wires.

And don’t forget, I’ll be giving a robocar talk at BIL in Long Beach this weekend.

Indoor deliverbots on the rise

Here’s a nice story about the Kiva warehouse delivery robot now being used by major retailers like The Gap. Factory floor robots have been around for some time, and the field even has a name “automated vehicle guidance systems” but these newer deliverbots kick it up a notch, picking up shelves and bringing them to a central area for distribution, finding their way on their own with sensors.

We’re also seeing more hospital deliverbots, which — very slowly — take things around hospitals, roving the same corridors as the people. When a robot goes very slowly, people are willing to allow it to travel with them. The technological question is, how hard it is it to raise that speed and stay safe, and make people believe that they are safe.

Some applications care little about speed, and the slow robots already have a market there. We would not tolerate super slow robots on our streets, getting in the way of our cars, regularly.

One answer may be “extremely deferential” behaviour. Consider a deliverbot trundling down a low-volume street at 10 kph (6mph). It would be constantly checking for a vehicle coming up behind it, using radar, lasers and cameras. With LIDAR it would get about 90 meters of warning, with other sensors perhaps more. Say it detects a car coming behind it at 50 km/h (30mph). It has 8 seconds, during which it will will cover 22 meters. If it’s a small robot — and we might limit the robots to make them small — odds are reasonable that it might find a place in which to duck, such as a driveway. These robots aren’t parking, so they can move into driveway entrances, fire hydrant locations and many small non-parking spaces along the road.

Indeed, it need not find a place to pause on its own side of the road. If there is no immediate oncoming traffic, it could deek to the other side of the road for a hiding spot. Ideally it would be clever and not pick a driveway which has a moving car or even a car sensors reveal has the engine running.

Indeed, it’s not unreasonable for the deliverbot to simply move into the oncoming lane if it is clear, to let the human vehicle pass. This is a bit disconcerting to our usual sense of how things work — slow vehicles don’t move to the left for us to pass them — but there is no reason it could not be true. This is on urban streets where stopped vehicles, turning vehicles and even pedestrians are found in the middle of the street all the time, and drivers have plenty of time to stop for them. Nobody is going to hit such a vehicle, just get annoyed by it.

For the driver, they would see various slow deliverbots on the road ahead. But in all but unusual circumstances, by the time they got close to those robots, they would have pulled out of the lane, to pause in driveway entrances. The main risk is the driver might start to depend on this, and plow right into such a vehicle (at slow speeds) if there was no place for it to pull over. A deliverbot that doesn’t immediately see a place to pull over would probably start blinking a very obvious flashing light on the back, increasing the warnings if the vehicle does not slow down. It might also speed up a little bit, if safe to do so, to reach a spot to pause.

Why is this interesting? I think we’re much closer to building a vehicle that could go 10 kph on slow city streets, using LIDAR. If the vehicle is small and doesn’t weigh a great deal, it simply won’t be capable of doing much damage to people by hitting them. It could even be equipped with airbags on the outside should this ever become unavoidable. The main problems would be people hitting them, or being annoyed by them.

Once accepted, as safety technology improves, the speed can improve — eventually to a level where they don’t get in the way, other than in the sense that any other vehicle is in your way. There will always be those who want to go faster, and so the deference approach will always be useful.

Robotic Snowplow

I’ve added a new concept to the notes section — the Robo Snow Plow. In the article I describe the value of plows that can patrol the roads frequently without need for staff. Since you don’t want to delay for recharging, these might be fuel-tank powered.

However, another interesting concept is offered, namely the repurposing of idle vehicles as temporary plows. The call would go out, and idle vehicles would travel to a depot where a plow or snowblower would be placed on them. Then they would go out and plow and clear light covers of snow. When done, or when needed shortly by their owner, they would return to a depot and drop off the plow unit.

Ordinary cars would be light and not able to plow heavy snow, but there are so many idle cars that you could get to all the streets before things got too heavy. If you didn’t, you would need to assign heavier vehicles and real plows to those areas. And everybody’s driveways would be kept clear by robot snow blowers too. Cars on the roads would give real-time reports of where snow is falling and how thick it’s getting. Cities might be able to clear all their streets, sidewalks and driveways without needing extra vehicles.

Robocar talks at Future Salon, BIL

I’ll be giving a talk on Robocars on Friday, January 16th at the Bay Area Future Salon which is hosted at SAP, 3410 Hillview, Building D, Palo Alto CA. Follow the link for more details and RSVP information. Reception at 6, talks at 7. Eric Boyd will also talk on efficiency of transportation.

While I gave an early version of the Robocar talk at BIL (the unconference that parallels TED) last year, I think I will do an update there as well, along with a talk on the evils of cloud computing.

Notes from Robodevelopers conference

I gave a few visits to the RoboDeveloper’s conference the past few days. It was a modest sized affair, one of the early attempts to make a commercial robot development conference (it’s been more common to be academic in the past.) The show floor was modest, with just 3 short aisles, and the program modest as well, but Robocars were an expanding theme.

Sebastian Thrun (of the Stanford “Stanley” and “Junior” Darpa Grand Challenge teams) gave the keynote. I’ve seen him talk before but his talk is getting better. Of course he knows just about everything in my essays without having to read them. He continues (as I do) to put a focus on the death toll from human driving, and is starting to add an energy plank to the platform.

While he and I believe Robocars are the near-term computer project with the greatest benefit, the next speaker, Maja Mataric of USC made an argument that human-assistance robots will be even bigger. They are the other credible contender, though the focus is different. Robocars will save a million young people from death who would have been killed by human driving. Assist robots will improve and prolong the lives of many millions more of the aged who would die from ordinary decrepitude. (Of course, if we improve anti-aging drugs that might change.) Both are extremely worthy projects not getting enough attention.

Mataric said that while people in Robotics have been declaring “now is the hot time” for almost 50 years, she thinks this time she really means it. Paul Saffo, last weekend at Convergence 08, declared the same thing. He thinks the knee of the Robotics “S Curve” is truly upon us.

On the show floor, and demonstrated in a talk by Bruce Hall (of Velodyne Lidar and of Team DAD in the Darpa Grand Challenges) was Velodyne’s 64 line high resolution LIDAR. This sensor was on almost all the finishers in the Urban Challenge.

While very expensive today ($75,000) Hall believes that if he had an order for 10 million it would cost only hundreds without any great advances. With a bit of Moore’s law tech, it could even be less in short order.

Their LIDAR sees out to 120 meters. Hall says it could be tuned to go almost 300 meters, though of course resolution gets low out there. But even 120 meters gives you the ability to stop (on dry road) at up to 80 mph. Of course you need a bit of time to examine a potential obstacle before you hit the brakes so hard, so the more range the better, but this sensor is able to deliver with today’s technology.

The LIDAR uses a class 1 (eye-safe) infrared laser and Hall says it works in any amount of sunlight, and of course in darkness. He also says having many together on the road does not present a problem and did not at the Urban Challenge when cars came together. It might require something fancier to avoid deliberate jamming or interference. I suspect the military will pay for that technology to be developed.

This LIDAR, at a lower cost, seems good enough for a Whistlecar today, combined, perhaps with tele-valet remote operation. The LIDAR is good enough to drive at modest urban speeds (25mph) and not hit anything that isn’t trying to hit you. A tele-valet could get the whistlecar out of jams as it moves to drivers, filling stations and parking spots.

These forecasts of cheap, long-range LIDAR make me very optimistic about Whistlecars if we can get them approved for use in limited areas, notably parking lots, airports, gated communities and the like. We may be able to deploy this even sooner than some expect.

Some random travel notes

Here are some notes based on my recent trip to Finland, Sweden and Russia. Not about the places — that will come with photos later — but about the travel itself.

Baltic Ferry

The ferries between Helsinki and Stockholm are really cruise ships. It takes about 16 hours and is a very popular method of travel between the cities, especially for families. There is no really practical land route, and the competition keeps the prices of these things down. In addition, they play tricks to allow duty free shopping, and unlike many duty free shops which are just ripoffs, these ones are competitive and do a brisk business. I’m told they are also party boats, but due to jet lag I was asleep not long after the Smörgåsbord. Unlike most cruise ships, these have almost nothing included, not the sauna, not the food and probably not even the mandatory showing of Abba’s “Mamma Mia.”

Because it the boat left at sunset and I planned to be awake and above at sunrise for photography of the Swedish Archipelago, and the moon was new, I decided there would be nothing to see, and I took an inside cabin. I was surprised to learn that, even though I knew it was dark and largely featureless outside, it bothered me to be in the sealed room. I reiterate my call that ship inside cabins come with a TV showing a closed circuit view of the outside in the correct direction. If they are not ready to do that (this ship didn’t even have TVs) I think a light behind the curtains of the fake window which simulates, based on just the clock, what the light should be like outside, would actually still be a positive step.

Or, failing that, if they put internet in the rooms, people could display the closed circuit video on the screen they brought with them…

On a ship like this, the shower takes up a lot of a very small room while being very cramped anyway. While most people want a toilet in their room, some communal locker room showers might make sense for preserving space. Of course, you still need a lot of them as demand comes at the same time, but not quite as many.

I think I’ll go back to a window for my next cruise cabin. But not a balcony. I have found that when I’ve had a balcony I sat on it for an hour of the entire week, and it took a lot of space out of the cabin.

The nice thing about the overnight cruise, of course, is that it made the trip between cities happen at night, offering a near full day in each city on either end. The arrival is a bit late at 10am, but that time is spent on a cruise of the islands, which all Stockholm tourists want anyway. It made me wonder if it was possible to arrange that sort of travel among close coastal cities in the USA or Canada (Boston to DC?) but perhaps the seas are not as reliable. And of course there is the Jones Act.

For the tourist, it also means the cruise is one of your hotel nights, and it costs only a little more for two people than a typical Stockholm hotel.

Taxi in Stockholm

Arriving in Stockholm, I was advised I should take a cab to our hotel and it would cost under $20. I had to eat my own words about cab competition because I got into a predator cab in the line at the ferry terminal which charged 5 times the typical rates. A few blocks away we noticed the meter going up one SEK (13 cents) per second and asked the driver to stop. He got abusive and threatening, and with my luggage implicitly hostage, I paid $25 to be dumped on the street in the rain with 3 suitcases and no SEK. Turned out there was a subway stop not far away, though that’s no fun with lots of bags.

Turns out the cabs do have their prices on them in the window, and no Swede would hire such a cab, but tourists unaware of the system can be easy marks, so no surprise this cab was at the ferry terminal. I had written earlier that I don’t believe in the heavy Taxi regulation most cities have, though I had come so much to expect it I got burned. The main argument for the regulation is that you can’t shop while standing waiting to hail a cab, but I can now see another argument about it on taxis serving people who will not know the local markets.

Stockholm transit was quite good, and we got an unlimited pass so used it a lot, though in many cases a cab would have probably saved valuable time. But we were so burned by our first Stockholm taxi experience that we just never felt the desire to use one again until the trip to the airport, which we had the hotel arrange.

Transit in St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg transit is a very different experience. It’s cheap: Typical fare of 16-18 rubles (around 60 cents) for official transit, 23 rubles for private buses that are more common. It’s very heavily used. Oddly, there did not appear to be transfers. If you wanted to change from trolley to bus, you seemed to pay again, or so our host told us. While at the low price this should not be a problem, it does mean you’re more likely to walk if you only have to go one or two stops on the 2nd leg.

The subway (which is quite grand, a Soviet showpiece) was packed to the gills on Sunday afternoon. We didn’t ride it during rush hour, and I’m glad. The subway isn’t actually terribly useful for the city core where the tourist sites are, though there happened to be a stop near our nice B&B.

Transport to/from the airport is another story, with most services seeming to run 40 to 60 Euros, though our host arranged a private car (by which I mean, just some guy’s Volga) for 30 Euros. We didn’t try it, but there is also an ad-hoc private taxi system. Stick out your arm and a private citizen will come pull over and negotiate a price, if they are going your way.

As noted, our driver had a Volga, but generally the streets are full of foreign cars. The car everybody wants is a Corolla. Ford is making big inroads too, along with Hyundai.

Air Travel

Finnair is charging for soft drinks on board, that trend is growing. ?????? (Rossiya) airlines still uses paper tickets, that was strange and frustrating. United Airlines won’t let a Premier member upgrade on a United Flight if their ticket came from Lufthansa (which I needed to do to make the Finnair connection as UA doesn’t partner with them.)

GPS Headaches

When I got my HTC Mogul phone, it had a GPS inside it, but the firmware didn’t enable it. So while in Germany in January, I used an external bluetooth GPS which worked OK, if being a bit silly. After I got back I got a phone firmware upgrade, which enabled the internal GPS, which has been very handy since then. When I got back to Europe I discovered two annoying things:

  • While the GPS does use assisted GPS from the cell towers to work faster in the USA, it is a full GPS able to work away from them. But not in Europe, where it refused to work, even when it could see 5 or 6 satellites. Some report getting the phone GPS to wake up after 10-20 minutes but it never did for me.
  • Alas, when they enabled the internal GPS, they disabled the ability to use an external bluetooth GPS through the official WINCE GPS API. So I was worse off than before.
  • While a few programs could use the external GPS because you could manually configure them to use a different port, the offline map program I had downloaded could not. This had a real cost, as I ended up taking a few wrong turns and taking a few wrong street cars without knowing which direction I was going.

So brickbats for Sprint/HTC for this bizarre configuration, and I hope they fix it.

Providing what travelling guests need

I’m back from my 3-country tour that started with being guest of honour at Helsinki’s “Alternative Party” which introduced me to the Demoscene, something I will write about in some future blog posts. While I have much to say about this trip, and many gigs of photos, I thought I would start with some travel notes.

How to be nice to your guest

I don’t write this to fault the crew at Alternative Party. They were fine hosts, and great and friendly people. As a small, non-professional conference, they had to act on a budget, so they could not do everything a rich conference might do. And they did several of the things I list here as good ideas.

  • Hire a local travel agent to assist the guest, and to manage payments for travel. You can give the guest the option of using their own favourite agent, but somebody who knows local stuff is always a plus. And you can control spending via your own agent, and don’t have to worry about reimbursement.
  • If the guest pays some of their own expenses, reimburse as quickly as you can to make them feel good. While it’s rare, there are enough stories of guests who found out after the fact that something would not be reimbursed (including in fraudulent cases an entire trip) to provide enough jitters. Speaking fee doesn’t need to be paid as quickly because that’s a two-way street.
  • Write up a local guide web page for all guests with local info and information on at-event process. Include the mobile phone numbers of local organizers so somebody can always be reached.
  • If the guest is coming from another country, particularly another continent, offer them a local cell phone or local (possibly prepaid) SIM card. These are often dirt cheap and you may even have some spare. If the guest is coming with somebody else, offer two or more of such. USA guests may not own a phone that can work overseas, and many European phones won’t work in the USA/Canada. If they do work, calls are usually very expensive, both for you to reach them and them to call you. In many countries, there are providers who offer free or cheap “on-network” calling, so a pair of such cards or phones can be handy as walkie-talkies.
  • If the guest likes, circulate word among conference organizers or even known attendees to see if somebody who is a fan of the guest would be willing to be a local guide or driver before/after the event. Having a local pick you up at the airport and answer questions is very friendly compared to sending a limo or taxi. If the guest wishes, also arrange a dinner at a nice restaurant with interesting people from the conference.
  • Above and beyond any dinner, ask the guest what kinds of restaurants they like and prepare a list for them of some that are known to be good.

Hotels should do some of this

In St. Petersburg, we stayed at a very nice B&B. But I still had a few suggestions of inexpensive things that could improve life.

  • As with the conference, hotels should make local phones and SIMs available to guests with only a modest profit margin. Program the hotel concierge into the SIM’s phonebook, too. My German prepaid SIM could not make calls in Russia (it worked in Finland and Sweden though at roaming prices) and while I could have bought a Russian SIM, shopping for this would have been time-consuming without knowing the language.
  • Of course, providing wireless internet should be de rigeur. It has become essential to our travels as we read news, get weather and look up tourist information on the internet regularly. In addition, have some loaner computers available, both for those who don’t bring a laptop, and for couples who bring only one but who can then both do their E-mail at once.
  • European hotels almost universally serve a couple by putting two single beds together. They then put two sets of single sheets on the bed, or a single duvet. These can’t be tucked in, and at least for me, it means they always come off. And it’s no good for cuddling as a couple. It would not be that expensive to also keep a modest number of full-bed sheets around for those who prefer that. The single duvets could still sit on top. I realize the European system may make housekeeping easier, but I find it highly annoying and I am sure many others do as well.
  • Many hotels offer a laundry service at a very high price. (Often the cost of cleaning socks and underwear will exceed the cost of buying new ones at discount stores like Costco.) But for those that don’t, the hotel should offer the location of a nearby laundry that does “wash and fold” (ordinary laundry charged by the kilogram) and perhaps even have a relationship with them. Once a trip gets over 8 or 9 days, laundry is important but you don’t want to waste time on it.

Solving Selfish Merge, again

I’ve written a few times about the “Selfish Merge” problem. Recently, reading the new book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do by Tom Vanderbilt, I came upon some new research that has changed and refined my thinking.

The selfish merge problem occurs when two lanes reduce to one. Typically, most people try to be “good” and merge early, and that leaves the right lane, which is ending, mostly vacant. So some people zoom ahead of everybody in the right lane, and then merge at the very end. This is selfish in the sense that butting into any line is selfish. Even if overall traffic flow is not reduced (and even if it is increased) the person butting in moves everybody back one slot so they can get ahead by many slots. This angers people and generates more counter-productive behaviour, including road rage, and attempts to straddle the lanes so that the selfish mergers can’t move up to the merge point.

In Traffic, Vanderbilt writes of surprising research that changed his mind, which showed that, in simulations, some merging forms provided up to 15% more traffic throughput than proper attempts at a zipper merge. In particular, a non-selfish merge fully using the vanishing lane worked better than the typical butt-in situation described at the top.

In this merge, which I’ll call the “slow and fair merge,” drivers are told to use both lanes up to the merge-point, and then to fairly “take their turn” at the merge point entering the continuing lane. Nobody is selfish here, in that nobody butts ahead of anybody else, but both lanes are fully utilized up to the merge point.

This problem is complex, I believe, because there is a switch-over point, which I call the “collapse” point. This is the point at which the merge flow becomes high enough that traffic collapses to “stop and go” mode, before and at the merge-point. Before that point, in lighter traffic, there is little doubt (for reasons you will see below) that the “cooperating fast zipper” merge results in the best traffic flow. In particular, there are traffic volumes where you could either have cooperating zipper or “slow and fair” but cooperating zipper would do a fair bit better. There are also traffic volumes where cooperating zipper just isn’t possible any more, and we will either have “slow and fair” (which has the best volume) or “selfish merge” which has a worse volume.

Real world experiments show different results from the theoretical. In particular, many drivers, used to the anarchic selfish-merge approach, don’t understand fair and slow, even when signs are explicit about it, and so they resist using both lanes and try to merge early. They also try to straddle, devolving to selfish merge. An experiment with digital signs which changed from advising drivers to zipper-merge in light traffic to advising “use both lanes” and “merge here, take your turn” in heavier traffic was disobeyed in fair and slow mode by too many drivers. The experiment ended before people could learn the system.  read more »

ARS Technica covers my Robocars articles

This week, as part of a 3-part series on the future of driving, ARS Technica has written a feature article derived from, and covering my series on Robocars. While it covers less than I do here, it does present it from a different perspective that you may find of interest.

Due to their large audience, there is also a stream of comments. Frankly, most indicate that the commenter has not read my underlying articles and my FAQ section, but one commenter did bring up something interesting that I have incorporated into my section on Freedom.

Their point was this: Today, the police use traffic laws as a way to diminish the rule of law. Everybody violates traffic laws regularly, so the police can always find an excuse to pull over a vehicle that they wish to pull over for other reasons. In essence, this ability has seriously eroded our privacy and freedom while we travel on the roads. Generally, robocars would never offer the police an excuse to detain any random driver. They would have to observe something inside the vehicle, perhaps, in order to have the probable cause needed to stop it. It would be more akin to being in your house. Of course, the police can often still find a way if they try hard enough, but this should make that task a great deal harder.

This does not mean that robocars still don’t present lots of privacy and freedom risks. We must work to avoid those. But this is an upside I hadn’t thought of.

There are also a lot of diggs on the Technica article, with their own comments, even more removed from my base articles, which never got too many diggs on their own.

If you didn’t see it, back a few months ago, the series was also featured on slashdot with a lively thread.

Where does the Ford MyKey lead?

Ford is making a new car-limiting system called MyKey standard in future models. This allows the car owner to enable various limits and permissions on the keys they give to their teen-agers. Limits included in the current system include an 80 mph speed limit, a 40% volume limit on the stereo, never-ending seatbelt reminders, earlier low-fuel warnings, audio speed alerts and inability to disable various safety systems.

My reaction is of course mixed. If you own something, it is reasonable for you to be able to constrain its use by people you lend it to. At the same time it is easy to see this literal paternalism turn into social paternalism. While it’s always been possible to build cars that, for example, can’t go over the speed limit, it’s always been seen as a “non-starter” with the public. The more cars that are out there which have governors on them, the more used to the idea people will get. (“Valet” keys that can’t go over 25mph or open the trunk have been common for some time.)

This is going to be one of the big questions on the path to Robocars — will they be able to violate traffic laws at the command of their owners? I have an essay on that coming up for the future, where I will also ask how much sense traffic laws make in a robocar world.

The Ford key limits speed to 80mph to allow the teen to pass on the highway. Of course on some highways here you could not go in the fast lane with that governor on, which probably suits the parents just fine. What they probably want would be more a limit on average speed, allowing the teen to, for short periods, burst to the full power of the car if it’s needed, but not from a standing start, and of course with advanced warning when the car has gone too fast too long to give a chance to safely slow down.

The earlier low-gas warning is just silly. The earlier you make a warning, the more you teach people to ignore it. If you have an early warning (subtle) and then a “this time we really mean it” warning most people will probably just use the second one. Many cars with digital fuel meters refuse to estimate fuel left below a certain amount, because they don’t want to be blamed for making you think you have more gas than you do. So they tell you nothing instead, which is silly.

What might make more sense would be the ability to make full use of speed, but the threat of reporting it to mom & dad if it’s over-used. (Such a product would be easy to add to existing cars, I wonder if anybody has made a product like that?) Ideally the product would warn the teen if they were getting close to the limit, to let them govern themselves, knowing that they would face a lecture and complete loss of car privileges if they go over the limitations.

On one hand, this is less paternalistic, because it does not constrain the vehicle and teaches the child to discipline themselves rather than making technology enforce the discipline. On the other hand, it is somewhat Orwellian, though the system need not report the particulars of the infringement, just the fact of it. Though we can certainly see parents wanting to know all the details.

Of course, we’ll see a lot more of that sort of surveillance asked for. Track-logs from the GPS in fact. Logging GPSs that can be hidden in cars cost only $80, and I am sure parents are buying them. (I have one, they are handy for geotagging photos.) We might also start seeing “smart” logging systems that measure speed infractions based on what road you are on. Ie. 80mph not near any highway is an infraction but on the highway it isn’t.

I doubt we’ll be able to stop this sort of governing or monitoring technology — so how can we bend it to protect freedom and privacy?

Parking in the robocar world

I’ve added a new Robocars article, this time expanding on ideas about how parking works in the world of robocars. The main conclusion is that parking ceases to be an issue, even in fairly parking sparse cities, because robocars can do so many things to increase, and balance capaacity.

One new idea detailed (inspired by some comments in another post) is an approach for both valet parking and multi-row triple-parked street parking. This algorithm takes advantage of the fact that all the robocars in a row can be asked to move in concert, thus moving a “gap” left in any line to the right space in just a few seconds. Thus if there is just one gap per row, any car can leave the dense parking area in seconds, even from deep inside, as the other cars move to create a gap for that car to leave.

But there are many more ideas of how parking just should not be an issue in a robocar world. That is, until people realize that, and we start converting parking lots to other uses because we don’t need them. Eventually the market will find a balance.

Read Parking and Robocars.

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