Topic

I, for one, am OK with the end of April Fool's Day

By now, you’ve probably heard of the proposal from the White House to abolish April Fool’s Day as a national holiday starting in 2015. Some in the comedy community are upset at the end of an old tradition and a day devoted to what we love.

But it’s time to face facts. It’s just not working any more. When I was a kid, April 1st was mostly a day of physical pranks or very short gags. You would replace the sugar with salt or put a white powder in an envelope. But the internet changed it and made every gag global.

The key to a good gag was the person believing in the gag and then suddenly remembering what day it was. If you were lucky they didn’t clue in and you could exclaim “April Fool” for much hilarity.

It was common in days past for people to forget what day it was. One of my best pranks came decades ago, when I posted in Science Fiction forums on April 1 that Fred Saberhagen’s “Berserker” novels were a rip-off of the fine original Battlestar Galactica series. Over 70 different people posted rants about how stupid I was, and a serious fraction of them pointed out that the Saberhagen books long predated Galactica, and said things like “why don’t you check the dates on what you read?”

Now, nobody is surprised. Google has 13 different gags up today, including one on the front page. Every major web site has a gag, many have long traditions. Perhaps somebody is briefly surprised by the first one, but generally everybody knows what day it is and nobody is fooled.

Some have proposed that the national Fool’s day be moved to a random day each year, with not much promotion done about what the date is. People who were funny (or thought they were funny) would make sure they knew the date. I am not sure that’s enough — it would help make the first gag a surprise but soon the tolerance would build up.

A bit better is the proposal from then National Comedy & Gag Association to have a different day in each state, as proclaimed by the Governor, or even every city. This would allow surprise because when you read jokes from other geographic regions, you might see only half a dozen on any given day. You would then have to research the location of the joke and check to see if that location is having its local Fool’s day that day.

Can anything restore the sanctity of this holiday? It may be that this is one thing the internet has destroyed.

Best SF recommendations

I recently updated my book recommendation box to list the very best recent SF to read from the last few years. This is SF that meets my goals for great SF. I see somewhat “hard” SF that speaks about important and real ideas, while being entertaining writing at the same time.

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi (2011)

This astounding first novel rates as best of 2011 for me. Except it came out in 2010, but in limited release in the UK so most people did not see it until 2011. An amazingly constructed post-singularity world that deserves all the superlatives. The next book is eagerly awaited. Particularly remarkable is that as a Finn, I presume his first language was not English. It is disappointing that it did not receive a Hugo nomination.

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart (2010)

This novel was paid surprisingly little attention by the SF community, but in fact it’s the best SF novel of 2010. A wonderful dystopian view of a failing USA where only dollars backed by the Yuan are valuable and the coveted jobs are in retail and media. A dark view of whuffie-like reputation where everybody’s credit score is displayed everywhere they go, and at every gathering everybody is rated on fuckability (and you see where you stand.) The anti-hero works for an anti-aging company that is a marvelous parody but the topics are deep and serious. Not even nominated for the Hugo which is a terrible mistake.

The City and the City by China Miéville (2009)

The best of 2009 (tied for the Hugo award, too.) The City and the City at first may not seem like SF because the cities are so implausible, but it’s really a fun experiment in social or political science to imagine two towns co-existing like this, partly overlaid in space while the residents are trained from birth to pay no notice to the other city. This is probably the weakest on this list, and indeed the co-winner that year (Windup Girl) was almost anti-SF as the science it it was fully bogus. But CatC grew on me as I came to see it as alternate-social worldbuilding.

Anathem by Neal Stephenson (2008)

It came 2nd for the Hugo, but even the winner, Neil Gaiman, declared it should have won. Read my full review.

Rainbow’s End by Vernor Vinge (2006)

The Hugo Winner for 2006 is also my pick for the best of the decade. If you like your SF full of wonderful new ideas, in this case related to the near future rather than the more abstract distant ones seen in earlier Vinge triumphs, this is the book for you. The protagonist has recently been cured of Alzheimer’s but that doesn’t mean many of his memories weren’t destroyed. He tries to fit into a world where everybody wears augmented reality lenses and clothes, education and play are radically different and a conspiracy is trying to develop a drug that makes you more accepting of suggestions. Note that 2006 also included the excellent Blindsight by Peter Watts available free here.

Other great reads

As noted above check out Embassytown (nominated for the Hugo in 2012) and other Miéville works, and Blindsight by Peter Watts. If you like Zombies, read Feed by Mira Grant — or rather read it for its treatment of a future, blogger-centered media world. It and its sequel were/are Hugo nominated. Several by Charlie Stross rate highly, such as Halting State, which is probably the best SF novel of 2007 — though the alternate history and Hugo winner The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a better overall novel. And if you’re from the 80s like me you will want to read the recent Ready Player One, a novel about a world where the now richest man in the world created a globe-spanning MMORPG, and then willed it to whoever could solve a challenge in it. To win, you needed to know all the obscure 70s and 80s culture references that were dear to the deceased programmer.

Going back in the decade 2004 was also a very strong year with River of Gods being worth of a best-of-decade list, and The Algebraist and Iron Sunrise (particularly for its wonderful reMastered cult of the unborn god) are also very strong. 2006 had the very fun Old Man’s War as a fine debut novel, and Accelerando is superb (indeed unmatched until Rainbow’s End) for its ideas but lacking in its characters — Stross gets better at this later.

Google video showing a new level of robocar operations

Today Google released a new 3 minute video highlighting advanced self-driving car use. Here I embed the video, discussion below includes some minor spoilers on surprises in the video. I’m pleased to see this released as I had a minor & peripheral role in the planning of it, but the team has done a great job on this project.

This video includes active operation of the vehicle on not just ordinary streets, by private parking lots for door to door transportation. You can click on it to see it in HD directly on Youtube.  read more »

Time for the post office to let anybody print postage with no minimums

For some time, the US Postal Service has allowed people to generate barcoded postage. You can do that on the expensive forms of mail such as priority mail and express mail, but if you want to do it on ordinary mail, like 1st class mail or parcel post, you need an account with a postage meter style provider, and these accounts typically include a monthly charge of $10/month or more. For an office, that’s no big deal, and cheaper than the postage meters that most offices used to buy — and the pricing model is based on them to some extent, even though now there is no hardware needed. But for an ordinary household, $120/year is far more than they are going to spend on postage.

There is one major exception I know of — if you buy something via PayPal, they allow you to print a regular postage shipping label with electronic postage. This is nice and convenient, but no good for sending ordinary letters and other small items.

I think the USPS is shooting itself in the foot by not letting people just buy postage online with no monthly fee. The old stamp system is OK for regular letters, and indeed they finally changed things so that old first class stamps still work after price raises, but for anything else you have to keep lots of stamps in supply and you often waste postage, or make a trip to a mailing office. This discourages people from using the post office, and will only hasten its demise. Make it trivial to mail things and people will mail more.

It could be a web printed mailing label as you can use for priority mail, but most software vendors would quickly support such a system. If people wanted, they could even buy “stamps” which were collections of electronic postage in various denominations that could be used by programs so there is no need to handle transactions. Address label printers would all quickly also do postage.

Of course the official suppliers like Endica and stamps.com would fight this completely. They love being official suppliers and charging large fees. They have more lobbying power than ordinary mailers. So the post office is going to quietly slip away into that good night, instead of taking advantage of the fact that it’s the one delivery company that comes to my door every day (for both pick up and delivery) and all the effiencies that provides.

Lights that indicate free parking stalls

Sometimes when I travel I see a great idea that hasn’t yet spread everywhere yet. A parking garage I parked at in Tel Aviv had LEDs visible on the roof above every stall. These were red and green if the stall was full or empty. So it was quick to find an empty stall. This probably makes the garage more efficient because people don’t have to circle hunting for a spot, and this justifies the cost. (The main cost of these is probably wiring the power for them.)

I’ve seen studies claiming that in busy areas, up to 30% of the traffic is cars circling looking for parking. Mostly they are looking for free parking or convenient on-street parking, since parking garages, though expensive can usually be found and entered quickly. Indeed, while on-street parking is often much more convenient, in many cases this is an artifact of parking being subsidized (because it’s free, or free to people who live in an area) or cheaper than commercial parking markets. But we don’t seem ready to fix that, though many cities put restrictions on street and metered parking, limiting the number of hours so that it is in theory only for visitors rather than all-day parkers.

There are many companies trying to see if they can improve parking using mobile devices and the internet. There are companies with sensors that manage parking spaces, companies that let you find spaces on a mobile device and even enter a garage with your mobile device. In some cases you can even extend your parking (if you prepaid) over the phone. Cities have been moving away from traditional meters to things like block meters (where you get a ticket and then put it on your dash) or fancy enforcement vehicles with licence plate cameras that spot not only if you are in a spot too long, but if you move within the busy zone to another spot.

As a user of parking, I would like to know I’ve got a good spot lined up before I get to my destination, and just pull right into it. I want a competitive market but I don’t want to waste time and gas hunting. There are companies trying to address this, though mostly in commercial lots. It’s mostly pretty basic right now — it’s considered fancy to even have sites like parkopedia or bestparking with a database of the parking in a city with the prices so you can comparison shop the parking lots.

So now for some rambling on what might be done on street.  read more »

Continental testing lane-following car in Michigan, plans to go to Nevada

You may not know the name of Continental, but they are a major supplier of components to the big automakers. A story in the Detroit Free Press details their latest project in autonomous driving. This is a VW Passat using radar Automatic-Cruise-Control combined with lane-keeping, similar to projects announced by Mercedes and VW/Audi itself. The story has a video showing the screen of the car displaying its lane-keeping. The car also has side radars to track vehicles or barriers to the left and right, according to the story. It’s aimed at stop-and-go traffic and empty highway. If it’s like the other products it requires constant human supervision, as it is not safe to not look at the road in case the lane markers vanish or other unexpected problems occur.

They claim they have done 6500 miles in Michigan, and that soon they will have the 10,000 needed for a testing licence in Nevada. The new Nevada law allows developers of robocars to test on Nevada highways once they have shown 10,000 miles on a test track or in another state, and under special testing rules. (The Google cars have over 200,000 miles in California and Nevada.)

The Nevada regulations specifically exempt vehicles which require full time human supervision, so in theory they don’t need a Nevada testing licence if this is such a vehicle. If it is planned to operate without such supervision it needs the licence and is more advanced that the other systems of this type.

According to a different story from Motor Trend the vehicle has the ability to swerve around obstacles, it is claimed. This might be the Emergency Steer Assist Continental announced last summer. It uses stereo cameras and 5 radars.

An interesting note about the photo, credited to Conti — if this car actually does qualify as an autonomous car in Nevada, then that picture of the car robo-driving in Las Vegas presumably was taken before the regulations came into effect.

Sources claim a car will be able to sell with these systems in about three years. This work appears to be an extension of the system demonstrated in the European HAVEit project.

New panoramas of Israel, and of course a proposal for peace

I’m back from our fun “Singuarlity Week” in Tel Aviv, where we did a 2 day and 1 day Singularity University program. We judged a contest for two scholarships by Israelis for SU, and I spoke to groups like Garage Geeks, Israeli Defcon, GizaVC’s monthly gathering and even went into the west bank to address the Palestinian IT Society and announce a scholarship contest for SU.

Of course I did more photography, though the weather did not cooperate. However, you will see six new panoramas on my Israel Panorama Page and my Additional Israeli panoramas. My favourite is the shot of the western wall during a brief period of sun in a rainstorm.

In Ramallah, the telecom minister for the Palestinian Authority asked us, jokingly, “how can this technology end the occupation?” But I wanted to come up with a serious answer. Everybody who goes to the middle east tries to come up with a solution or at least some sort of understanding. Israelis get a bit sick of it, annoyed that outsiders just don’t understand the incredible depth and nuance of the problem. Outsiders imagine the Israelis and Palestinians are so deep in their conflict that they are like fish who no longer see the water.

In spite of those warnings, here’s my humble proposal for how to use new media technology to help.

Take classrooms of Israelis and classrooms of Palestinians and give them a mandatory school assignment. Their assignment is to be paired with an online buddy from the “other side.” Students would be paired based on a matching algorithm, considering things like their backgrounds, language skills or languages and subjects they want to learn. The other student, with whom they would interact over online media and video-conferencing (like Skype or Google Hangouts,) would become a study partner and the students would collaborate on projects suitable to them. They might also help one another learn a language, like English, Arabic or Hebrew. Students would be encouraged to add their counterpart to their social networking circles.

Both students would also be challenged to write an essay attempting to see the world from the point of view of the other. They will not be asked to agree with it, but simply to be able to write from that point of view. And their counterpart must agree at the end that it mostly does reflect their point of view. Students would be graded on this.

It would be important not to have this be a “forced friendship.” The students would be told it was not demanded they forget their preconceptions; not demanded they agree with everything their counterpart says. In fact, they would be encouraged to avoid conflict, to not immediately contradict statements they think are false. That the goal is not to convince their counterpart of things but to understand and help them understand. And in particular, projects should be set up where the students naturally work together viewing the teachers as the common enemy.

At the end of the year, a meeting would be arranged. For example, west bank students would be thrilled at a chance to visit the beach or some amusement park. A meeting on the west bank border on neutral ground might make sense too, though parents would be paranoid about safety and many would veto trips by their children into the west bank.

Would this bring peace? Hardly on its own. But it would improve things if every student at least knew somebody from outside their world, and had tried to understand their viewpoint even without necessarily agreeing with it. And some of the relationships would last, and the social networks would grow. Soon each student would have at least one person in their network from outside their formerly insular world. This would start with some schools, but ideally it would be something for every student to do. And it could even be expanded to include online pen-pals from other countries. With some students it would fail, particularly older ones whose views are already set. Alas, for younger ones, finding a common language might be difficult. Few Israelis learn Arabic, more Palestinians learn Hebrew and all eventually want to learn English. Somebody has to provide computers and networking to the poorer students, but it seems the cost of this is small compared to the benefit.

Bicycles in the Robocar world

A recent article on bicycles and pedestrians in the robocar world appears at the Greater Washington web site, which has taken an interest in robocar topics. In particular they are concerned about the vision of a reservation-based intersection, which does not use traffic signals. These designs from U of Texas got a lot of press in the last few weeks after a presentation at AAAS, but they’ve been around for years and I have a number of links to them. What’s new is that the coming of robocars makes them seem more practical.

In a reservation based intersection, the computer handling the intersection hands out slots to cross the intersection. The slots are moving boxes that you have reserved, and you cross in them. The computer hands out the boxes so they never hit one another. The simulated result at first would scare people to death but over time they might trust it. However, it requires that every car on the road have automatic operation, since deviation from your reserved box does indeed mean serious risk. Human judgement just would not cut it here. As such, intersections like this are a long, long way away.

Closer, I think, is the concept of reservation based roads. These are road segments which hand out long term slots, such as “You can drive this block between 8:30 and 9am.” The road only hands out as many slots as it can handle, but does not try to schedule the cars down to the square foot-second. In such a system, as you approach that block on your trip, you would refine and correct the initial reservation, so that by the time you are a minute away, your window is just a few minutes. If roads can do this they can assure, well in advance, that they never get more cars on them than they can handle, and this reduces the odds that traffic will collapse due to congestion. The biggest cause of congestion is basic excess of demand over supply — accidents are the #2 cause.

Such a system can also handle human driven cars. Those cars are a bit less predictable and need wider reservation windows. They also will eventually need more space on the road, since robocars will eventually start packing themselves closer together once they are common enough to do that. Half-width robocars will commonly pair up in a lane with other half-width vehicles.

So what about the bicycles? It will be daunting for them. If there is a bike lane, that’s great of course. And at “bike rush hour” we can even make sure “parked” robocars get out of the way to make a bike lane if that’s what we want. (We may want another car lane even more.) Otherwise a virtual bike lane can be made if the bikes have to ride with the traffic.

Bikes do present a safety issue to be sure. In the worst case situation, a cyclist can fall off their bike and stop immediately, lying in the road. A vehicle following a bike has to leave enough space to assure they can stop before that, including reaction time. Reaction time should be better for robocars than for humans. Humans don’t leave enough space right now. We leave even less space behind cars because cars actually can’t stop super fast, and you brake with them. and if you hit them at slow speeds it’s “tolerable” — nobody will be seriously hurt. Hitting a cyclist or pedestrian at slow speeds can mean death.

(Head-on collisions are a different matter and they can cause great mayhem. I believe that moving mostly to one-way streets is the best solution to the problem of head-ons, and with robocars, the inconvenience of one-way streets can be greatly reduced.)

Robocars should end up much better at spotting cyclists than humans are, because robocar vision is 360 degrees and in 3-D. There are no blind spots in a robocar system and it’s always paying attention in all directions. The only negative in spotting them is their small size. A bike that appears out of nowhere from behind an obstruction is always at risk to both robocars and human drivers. Robocars will work very hard to not hit cyclists, and in fact in the future street that’s 100% robocar, a cyclists should feel pretty safe, and could even abuse the system, weaving back and forth and causing jolts for the passengers around the bike.

On the plus side, robocars might enable two things. The first would be the creation of dedicated lanes, paths and even elevated guideways for use by both bicycles and narrow lightweight robocar trikes. I anticipate these lightweight vehicles will become very common, as they are the most efficient vehicle for short urban trips. Because they are light and small, it’s vastly cheaper to build dedicated pathways and elevated guideways for them. These guideways could be made open to bikes if there are passing zones, since the robocars would sustain higher speeds. (We have not yet convinced many US cities to dedicate a lot of space and money to bike-only paths, otherwise that would be obviously better for bikes.) Robocar only lanes offer a cheap way to increase road capacity and offer ultralight robocar users a faster, zero-congestion trip in the busiest areas, and thus make a lot of sense for cities. The bang/buck is as high as it can get in transportation development, and it encourages green transportation, as these trikes use less energy/person than transit systems do.

Another interesting development might be the bike-bot. As I envision it, this is a very small robot that’s able to clamp onto a bicycle and move the bike from place to place, using the bicycle’s wheels as well as its own. This could offer a world of “bikes on demand.” No matter where you are, you could summon up a bicycle in a short time, and drop it anywhere. (At your destination, you would insert the bike into a bike-bot that sent itself there ahead of your arrival, and the bike-bot would take the bike to its next rider.) This could make bicycle use very convenient, and would be good, efficient exercise for all who need it.

I also suspect that we’ll see ultralight robocars that feature pedals. With the pedals, the rider would have the option of exercising and their energy would also go into powering the vehicle. The commute is a good time to exercise and watch videos or read. Not as much fun as recreational cycling, but more pleasant in other ways that cycle-commuting.

In the more distant future, when all cars are robocars, we will begin to see the conflict between the cars and the bikes and pedestrians described in the article cited above. The author is right that putting pedestrians on elevated bridges is not a good answer, and forcing bikes off valuable road is not good either. In an idealized robocar road, which has no parked cars on the side, and just many lanes of one-way traffic, the presence of the cyclist does use up a lot more road capacity per person than the cars do. We’re a long way from that idealized capacity, but should we come to depend on it, we might see pressure to push the bikes away, or charge them or the amount of square-foot-seconds of road they use. That will be a political decision, where we may decide many decades from now that to encourage cycling, it’s worth subsidizing it a bit.

Encouraging anonymous political donations

In our effort to reduce the corruption in politics, one of the main thrusts in campaign finance regulation has been for transparency. Donations to candidates must be declared publicly. We want to see who is funding a candidate. This applies even to $100 donations.

While the value of such transparency seems clear — though how effective it’s been remains less clear — there are some things that have bothered me about it.

  1. It’s quite a violation of privacy. We demand secret ballot, but supporting a candidate gets us in a database and a lot of spam.
  2. Some people are so bothered by this invasion of privacy that they actually refrain from making donations, even small ones, to avoid it.

What if we reversed that thinking. What if we demanded that donations to candidates be anonymous?

  • A special agency would be created. All donations would flow into that agency, along with which candidate they are meant for.
  • Only the agency would know who the money went to. After auditing was done to assure the agency was distributing the money correctly, the info would be destroyed. Before that it would be kept securely.
  • Money would be given to candidates in a smoothed process with a randomized formula every few weeks, to avoid linking donations with dates. This might mean delays in getting some money to candidates.
  • While anybody could say that they donated, to offer, solicit, show or receive proof of donation would be a crime. An official method of hiding donations in corporate P&Ls would need to be established.
  • In general, all donations in any given period (a month or quarter?) must be given as a lump sum, with a list of how much to give each candidate. So even if you’re sure a donor would never give anything but party X, you don’t know which candidates in party X.

Now it would not be impossible to hide things entirely. If the Koch brothers say they gave a big donation, and you believe them, it’s fairly safe to say it wasn’t to Obama. At least for now, this will buy them more access to candidates on their side. But this gets harder over time. And the common corporate strategy of donating to both sides of a race to assure access no matter who wins becomes vastly less valuable. While you might convince somebody you are a regular donor and will pull your donation if you don’t get what you want, it becomes very hard for you to prove.  read more »

Modify E-book reader designs for digital signs

One of the useful attributes of electronic paper (such as E-Ink) is that it doesn’t take any power to retain an image, it only takes power to change the image. This is good for long-lasting E-readers, and digital signs are one of the other key applications of electronic paper, though today they are sold with a focus on the retail market.

Earlier, I wrote about concepts for a fourth screen which is an always-on wall computer that has effectively no user interface — its purpose is to show you stuff that is probably of interest to you based on time of day and who is looking at the screen. That proposal requires that the display be located where there is power, but there are many locations where wiring in permanent power is not a readily available option.

The typical e-book reader has all the hardware needed to act as a very low-power digital wall display. Such a display would have electronic paper and wifi. It would only wake up very rarely to briefly check, over the wifi (or better still bluetooth) if there is new data to display, in which case it would download it and display it. During these updates, it might also check to see if there is a new updating schedule.

You can do better than wifi, which usually requires a process of associating with an access point, getting an IP address, and then making queries. Bluetooth can connect with lower power. Even better would be a chip which is able to listen constantly at very low power for a special radio pulse (“wake on pulse”) from a powered transmitter, and then power on the rest of the system for data transfer. The panel could be put anywhere, and then a pulse generator would be put somewhere nearby that has power and is close enough to wake up the panel. (It might be something that plugs into a wall outlet and even does networking over the power lines.) This would allow the valuable ability to push information to the panel.

The panel’s battery would of course die in time, so there would need to be a battery swap ability or if need be a means to charge with a temporary extension cord, a battery-powered charger or taking the panel off the wall.

An immediate market for these would be the doors of meeting rooms, so that they can show the schedule for the meeting room. Many hotels and convention centers have screens to do this now, but due to the need for power and other integration, these tend to be quite expensive, while ebook readers are now in the $100 range.

But they would also be useful around the home for 4th screen applications, displaying useful info. They could also be put near fridges or stoves to display recipes and family information. Obviously if you can put in a powered LCD display, that’s going to be able to do more, but without the power constraint more people might use it. They do need to be lit by external light, of course, but also are visible in bright sun in a way that lcds are not. And a product like this might well start eating into the retail digital signage market — anybody know what the price points are these days in that market?

Nevada robocar regulations get approved, robocars welcomed in junker car race

The state of Nevada today approved regulations for self-driving cars in the state. Last year, Nevada passed a law outlining the path to these regulations, and their DMV has been working in consultation with Google, car makers and other parties to write them down. Today they were approved, allowing testing, certification and — someday — operation of vehicles in the state. Other laws are in consideration in other states inspired by the Nevada move. This is, frankly, much sooner than I anticipated.

In other news, a junker car race known as “24 hours of LeMons” (completely unrelated to Le Mans) has announced that self-driving cars may enter and are exempt from the normal requirement that cars cost no more than $500. The “X cedingly bad idea prize” of a million nickels (not quite as good as X prize purses of $10 million) probably won’t get too many takers at first. This race has a sense of humour but I’m not sure too many folks would risk their expensive autonomous car on that track or feel it safe enough to drive with crazy amateur racing drivers. I suspect they don’t really mean it and just wanted to issue a press release, but it will be fun when robocar technology is common enough that garage tinkerers on low budgets can enter races like this.

Robocar talk on Mon, Feb 13 at Intel auditorium

A new group has sprung up in the valley around the concept of the open source automobile. I will be speaking at their meetup, which was going to be at Hacker Dojo and has moved to Intel’s auditorium. Looks like a good crowd is signed up. Sorry, no deep Google secrets but there will be a video featuring the car and many visions of the future.

Robocars at Silicon Valley Open Source Automotive

This group is about all aspects of computerization in cars.

Series on robocars in Wired

I’m back from a trip to the Netherlands and Ontario, and there’s more to come on that, but the press awakening about robocars continues to grow:

This week, Wired has expanded it’s “Let the Robot Drive” series with more articles:

In other news the Sartre road-train project reports a successful high-speed test with with a convoy of 4 vehicles behind a truck.

Airline bureacracy reigns at United

Two recent flight booking experiences on United Airlines:

a) I booked a round trip to Toronto with miles. Due to new plans, I ended up getting a different flight to Toronto but wanted to take the same flight back. I had booked return tickets for 2 passengers, but you can book one-way tickets for the same miles price, and you can book passengers together or independently (later joining the reservations to sit together.) It doesn’t cost any more to get 4 single legs, it’s just a lot more work for you and the airline.

When I needed to change it, they said, no, there was no way to just use the return leg. I must cancel or not use the entire trip. To cancel and re-credit the miles is $250 for 2 passengers — so much for free. To re-book the one-way leg another $200 or so. The original booking was $125 in fees. That’s a bunch. Had I booked it as independent trips, I could have used my return leg, and just refunded or re-used the outgoing leg. I decided to re-use the whole trip and buy a paid fare ticket. Perhaps that’s what they wanted, but now if I want flexibility I must jump through hoops booking, and make them jump too.

b) The alternate trip was to Brussels. I booked a flight with one flight number that stops and changes flights in Chicago. It’s really two flights but with one number. Many other alternatives existed that were really two flights with different numbers. On checking in, I found that there were business class seats available. Normally on United, if you have status, that means a complimentary upgrade to busines class on the domestic flights. But because I booked it as one flight, I have no domestic flight. Other people on the same flight to Chicago with me are getting upgraded because they are not flying on to Europe while I’ll sit in coach. It’s not a long flight, but still. Next time, never book a single flight unless that’s what you really want, which you may do if it’s the same plane and that reduces your risk of lost luggage and gets you better seats. In this case, there is no advantage to the single flight number it seems, and a big loss.

Of course, phone staff have no power to make things right. Sigh.

End of rant.

Robocars and battery swap?

Update: When I first wrote this, I was under the mistaken belief that Better Place only swapped one type of battery module. At present they only support one, but their swap stations are designed to support up to six kinds, as long as they can be loaded and unloaded from below.

Recently, electric car battery-swap company Better Place announced delivery of their first cars in Israel. Israel is a country of small size where it makes sense to deploy a technology like this with a chicken and egg problem. They hope to have enough battery swap stations that people feel they can drive an electric car and refuel it as quickly and conveniently as a gasoline buggy.

I remain skeptical about battery swap for electric cars, but think robocars solve many of those problems. Here’s why:

To have a workable battery swap system, you need to standardize the battery module, ideally having just one or two form factors and electrical characteristics. Just one to start, in fact. This has many downsides:

  • A large part of the innovation in electric cars today is in the batteries. A big part of what Tesla did was their new cooling system. Designers all want to be able to play with chemistries, voltage, controllers and more. They might give up playing with size and placement but not those things.
  • It’s still an issue to not be able to vary size and shape of the battery, at least for people wanting to build cars of unusual shape.
  • A large part of the cost of an electric car today is the battery. With the swap system, you can’t buy the battery with the car. You get whatever battery you are swapped. That’s good in some ways, but eliminates open market competition on these systems because there is only one buyer — the swap company.
  • Swap machines are expensive, take land and still take five minutes, arrival to departure. That’s almost as quick as filling up with gas, but a typical gas station has 8 pumps, and some have many more. If there are several cars in line at a single swap station, you’re in for a serious wait.

On the plus side, people actually need swaps more rarely than they imagine. A 70-100 mile range car will hardly ever feel the need for a swap — in many ways the availability of the swap makes you feel more comfortable about the car, even if you rarely use it. It’s better than the level 3 charge which can damage the battery and still takes 15-20 minutes.

I think robocars (cars able to move while empty to the swap station) solve many of these problems. They solve them because while robocars (particularly those operating as taxis) need to run all day and thus want to swap batteries, the cars can move to the swap station on their own, when they are not serving somebody.

  • There is much less need to standardize, though it does help. Your car simply goes to a swap station that has its type of battery available.
  • While it wastes energy and a little time, it doesn’t bother the robot to have to go a few miles to find such a station. You don’t need one on every popular route.
  • The robot can schedule an appointment for a swap if need be. Not that it really minds waiting a lot, unless it has a job to do. But with a scheduled swap it might even do one while carrying a passenger, if it happens to be passing a swap station and can book a no-wait appointment for the time it will be passing, and the passenger doesn’t mind the 3 minute stop.
  • Most typically, this will be used by taxi fleets. Each taxi fleet can have their own swap station, for the type of battery cases they like. They can program their taxis to take jobs that bring them closer to the swap station when they will be running low. You can get buy with just one swap station for the whole fleet, or perhaps just a few. The taxi fleet can have a mixture of cars of different swap types and cars without swap ability. The latter can’t run all day and must spend time in charging stations as planned.
  • With robocars, you can solve range problems not by swaping the battery, but by swapping the car. If you have a car that is running low, it can stop in a convenient lot to have you switch quickly to a taxi with lots of charge. Then the car you were in can head off for charge or swap in no paticular rush.

By allowing lots of types of battery form factors and swap stations, you allow innovation and competition in these areas, which in the long run is a win for the customer. Anything that blocks competition may sound good at first but quickly bogs things down.

Now I still want to credit Better Place for working to solve the range and range anxiety problems of electric cars. There will still be competition because I don’t expect all electric car vendors to want to be compatible with their system. But I think their technology comes into its own best when the cars can worry about the swap rather than the drivers.

Video of BMW's ConnectedDrive Connect car

BMW has spoken in the past of their Highly Automated Driving project. A new video about ConnectedDrive Connect goes into more details. While BMW insists this is just a research project and won’t be in their cars for a long time, they also are expected to soon produce a traffic jam autopilot to compete with the offerings from Mercedes and Audi.

The approach in this car is a bit different. They have a small LIDAR on the side of the vehicle, which presumably is there to find the lane markers, and a forward facing camera behind the rearview mirror. The other systems are mostly using cameras for their lane finding. They also have ultrasonics, which are typically used for automated parking and some blind-spot detection. LIDARs are currently much more expensive than cameras, but this is a concept car for now. (More complete robocars tend to use fairly advanced LIDARs.)

The 5,000km was reported back in September This comes after reports that their track trainer had done about 12,000 miles in a 3-series on the track. There are more details on this system at MIT Tech Review.

Article by Tom Vanderbilt and more

I’ve talked before about Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt. It’s an interesting journey into the world of traffic psychology and engineering, and has one chapter on robocars. That chapter was based on seeing Junior at Stanford, and things have come a long way since then.

Friday, Wired released Let the Robot Drive, a decent length article on the Google car (he came for a test ride) and various other projects, including more about the Mercedes 6-D vision system. For those hungry for Google Car news it’s a good place to go.

There’s also an article by John Markoff about the SCU legal conference I wrote about on Saturday, which finishes off quoting a joke I said there.

At the same time a different long article with a more futurist bent appears at the World Future Society web site by Thomas Frey.

SCU conference on legal issues of robocars

Yesterday I attended the conference on the legal implications of robocars put on by Santa Clara University Law Review. It was a well done conference, with some real content from a varied group of regulators and legal scholars, a sign of how real the robocar world has become.

Liability

After a technology introduction where Sven Bieker of Stanford outlined the challenges he saw which put fully autonomous robocars 2 decades away, the first session was on civil liability. The short message was that based on a number of related cases from the past, it will be hard for manufacturers to avoid liability for any safety problems with their robocars, even when the systems were built to provide the highest statistical safety result if it traded off one type of safety for another.

In general when robocars come up as a subject of discussion in web threads, I frequently see “Who will be liable in a crash” as the first question. I think it’s a largely unimportant question for two reasons. First of all, when the technology is new, there is no question that any lawsuit over any incident involving the cars will include the vendor as the defendant, in many cases with justifiable reasons, but even if there is no easily seen reason why. So potential vendors can’t expect to not plan for liablity.

But most of all, the reality is that in the end, the cost of accidents is borne by car buyers. Normally, they do it by buying insurance. But if the accidents are deemed the fault of the vehicle maker, this cost goes into the price of the car, and is paid for by the vehicle maker’s insurance or self-insurance. It’s just a question of figuring out how the vehicle buyer will pay, and the market should be capable of that (though see below.)

No, the big question in my mind is whether the liabilty assigned in any lawsuit will be significantly greater than it is in ordinary collisions where human error is at fault, because of punitive damages. The cost of collisions is well established and understood, and there is a large industry to manage it, and if robocars are, as planned, safer, then that cost goes down, and that means savings for the car buyer and for society — a big win for all. However, if the cost per collision is much higher even though the number of collisions drops, this can impede the ability of a robocar industry to innovate or even to exist and save those injuries.

Unfortunately, some liability history points to the latter scenario, though it is possible for statutes to modify this.

Insurance

All cars must have insurance today, and it is normally bought by the car owner/driver, and covers almost all accidents. If a safe robocar is delivered, the lower rate of accidents should mean cheaper insurance. Alas, in California, one of the world’s largest insurance markets and home to robocar labs at Google, Stanford/VW and others, it’s not so simple. California’s Proposition 103 demanded that any insurance policy’s price must be based on weighted factors, and the top 3 weighted factors must be, in order, driving record, number of miles driven and number of years of experience. Other factors like the type of car you have — ie. if you have a robocar — must be weighted lower. So this law makes it very hard to give very cheap insurance for a robocar, and makes it close to impossible to do it for somebody who is getting the robocar precisely because they are a bad driver and have found themselves facing expensive insurance if they keep driving.

Because Prop 103 is a ballot proposition, it can’t easily be superseded by the legislature. It takes a 2/3 vote and a court agreeing the change matches the intent of the original ballot proposition. One would hope the courts would agree that cheaper insurance to encourage safer cars would match the voter intent, but this is a challenge.

NHTSA

Kevin Vincent and Steve Wood from NHTSA, which writes the federal motor vehicle safety standards and does the crash tests, among other things, spoke and gave a fairly robocar-positive message. They are working to assure the vehicles operate safely on the roads, but do appear to be fully aware of how they are a new technology under new rules, and they don’t want to impede adoption by overregulating. They are working out plans to test vehicles in simulation, on test tracks and on the road to rate for safety and seem to have a generally forward-thinking plan.

Local and criminal laws

The session on criminal laws centered more on the traffic code (which isn’t really criminal law) and the fact it varies a lot from state to state. Indeed, any robocar that wants to operate in multiple states will have to deal with this, though fortunately there is a federal standard on traffic controls (signs and lights) to rely on. Some global standards are a concern — the Geneva convention on traffic laws requires every car has a driver who is in control of the vehicle. However, I think that governments will be able to quickly see — if they want to — that these are laws in need of updating. Some precedent in drunk driving can create problems — people have been convicted of DUI for being in their car, drunk, with the keys in their pocket, because they had clear intent to drive drunk. However, one would hope the posession of a robocar (of the sort that does not need human manual driving) would express an entirely different intent to the law. While the car might have an emergency manual override, as is likely for other reasons, one would hope it is the drunk’s responsiblity if they use it, not the car’s responsiblity for having it there.

Privacy

The session on privacy left me a little wanting. There was no addressing the issue that cars will have cameras on them, recording the whole world once they get frequent enough. Most of the concern was on the logs of all your movements, which is indeed a concern — and already one with cell phones.

ITS and Spectrum

There were sessions on ITS and DSRC (the spectrum allocated for communications from vehicles to other vehicles and to local infrastructure points.) I’ve written on this topic before, and while I believe that of course robocars will make use of any such signals, they can’t be built to depend on them, and will in fact only encounter them occasionally for the next decade at least. As such, robocar development proceeds without much connection to the connected vehicle world, which I am sure bemuses those in the connected vehicle world.

You can read another press report on the conference and one from John Markoff of the NY Times.

Shocking: 99% of fire payouts go to only 1% of homeowners!

Frequently these days I will see some shocking statistic reported:

  • The top 1% of earners receive over 18% of all the income (or 23% including cap gains)
  • The top 5% sickest Americans account for half of all healthcare costs

These numbers suggest a shocking inequality. And there might even be an unusual inequality but you won’t see it from these numbers. What’s vital when people report things like this is that they outline what the ratio should be given what would be an expected distribution. You should expect the top 1% or top 5% of any unevenly distributed thing to be consuming a much larger share of the pie. That’s what it means to have an uneven distribution. If the top 1% of income earners only earned 1% of income, you would be in a communist utopia, and that’s true even if they earned 5%. That’s what it means to be one of the top earners.

To make this clear, I present the following statistic I suspect to be generally accurate: 99% of the fire insurance payouts in a given year go to the top 1% claiming policyholders. I have not got an actual source, but it is presumably the case because fewer than 1% of people have their house burn down. You would expect that the top 1% would get essentially all the fire insurance money in any given year.

So when you see a claim about distribution involving the top x% getting much more than x%, the right response is, “sounds normal, show me why this is unexpected or unusual.” It may well be, but you need the numbers to back it up.

French Robocar Effort, and CES news

A new robocar project named “Quasper” has emergence in France from the IRSEEM Esigelec lab and IFSTTAR. This vehicle uses a commercial actuator robot to control the wheel and pedals for drive-by-wire, and features a variety of typical sensors, though it only has a couple of smaller SICK LIDARSs rather than a high resolution LIDAR like the Velodyne used by many other projects. Their work is fairly basic for now. Because the DBW system occupies the driver’s seat, manual control is done through a joystick which controls the drive-by-wire robot. As a nice aesthetic touch, they have put much of the electronics in a standard roof box on top of their minivan. (Some of the early robocars did have a certain mad-science look with all their gear covering the roof.)

Here is a video of their vehicle in operation

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, which I attended, most of the car announcements were for information and entertainment systems in cars. The one positive light is that many car vendors now realize they no longer can own and control all the digital systems in a car, and are making tools to connect with the driver’s phone and tablet for various purposes. They are not quite ready to use the phone as their data connection, though so most mean you will be paying for 2 data connections.

Mercedes and Audi had displays relating to ADAS and autonomous driving. While there was no sign of the Mercedes 2013 S class that will feature an autopilot, they did show a rather strange demo of a future self-driving car where the windshield was now a giant augmented reality screen. There, using hand gestures, you could point and objects in the real world and learn more about them. Of course, if your car is self-driving, you could use any interface, not just a gestural one. Today, gestural interfaces are not very well developed and most people prefer touchscreens and keyboards.

Audi showed their lane-keeping system and crash avoidance tools. While they didn’t make a deal about it, reports say they are planning to have a traffic-jam autopilot like the Mercedes one, but up to 60kph instead of just 40kph. This means combining their lane-departure-correction system, which steers you back into the lane using the steering motor, and their automatic cruise control which follows the car in front. It’s now up to Audio and Mercedes to see who comes out first. It will be very interesting, as well, to see how the public responds to it.

Mercedes is downplaying the value of a self-driving car. In a keynote by M-B boss Dr. Dieter Zetsche, he said the following (as reported by Motor Trend):

“We don’t believe that autonomous driving is the ultimate goal. We still want the driver to be in charge, in control, be the pilot. But when you are stuck in a traffic jam, when you are driving five hours straight through Nebraska, it might not be the most fun (to drive). And at that time you can switch and say, ‘Take over, I’ll read a nice book, look at movies, or listen to music.’ So it’s your choice, you’ll always be in control, but you have the choice to hand (the controls) over to an autonomous car.”

High end brands like Mercedes are in an uncomfortable situation. For a long time, they have sold their product based on the excitement of driving. They are torn between that message and the value of the robocar. My own prediction is that initially, people will indeed be keen on cars which do the boring driving, but take them to places where the driving is more fun. While fun driving will not go away, I predict people will start feeling that more and more driving is a chore to leave to the robot, and less and less is a thrill that demands taking the wheel. Look at how readily people who move to New York or other non-driving cities adapt to not driving. But that’s not a message sporty car brands will want to say. At the same time, self-driving will be a desired luxury feature and so luxury cars will have to offer it. The problem is that high end brands tend to offer both sport and luxury, often in the same vehicles.