Showing all posts tagged cars:

New Frontiers In Driver Idiocy

I always get very irritated by people in new high-end cars – ones that certainly have Bluetooth, if not CarPlay or Android Auto – using their phones in their hands. What, you can’t spare thirty seconds to set up the hands-free connection once? After that you can keep your phone in your pocket/handbag/briefcase/whatever, and have both hands free for the actual driving! But no, you have to drive one-handed, or with the phone squeezed between your head and shoulder like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, squinting sideways at the road.

Today, however, I saw something that beats that. This person did have her phone connected to hands-free, and I know because everyone in the street could hear her conversation over the cranked-up stereo. However, for whatever unknowable reason, she was still holding the actual phone in her hand.

I was so flabbergasted I missed my chance to take a photograph of the madness.

Now I have real concerns about how this woman lives the rest of her life. Does she put boots on over her shoes? Or try to use knife, fork, and spoon all at the same time?

The Driver Behind The Curtain

Truly autonomous driving is an incredibly hard problem to solve. It would be hard enough in controlled situations, but in uncontrolled ones, where other road users may or may not be respecting the rules of the road1, it’s pretty close to being impossible to achieve a perfect solution. The best we can hope for is one that is better than the current state of affairs, with distracted human drivers taking an incredible toll on life.

That is the promise of self-driving cars: get the dangerous, unpredictable humans out of the loop. Getting there, however, is tough. It turns out that the tragic death of a woman in Arizona due to a failure of an Uber experiment in autonomous driving may have been caused by the uncanny valley of partial autonomy.

Let’s take it as given that fully-autonomous (Level 5) vehicles are safer than human-driven ones. However, nobody has built one yet. What we do have are vehicles that may on occasion require human occupants to take control, and to do so with very little warning. According to the crash reports, the Uber driver in the Arizona crash had no more than six seconds’ warning of an obstacle ahead, and perhaps as little as 1.3 seconds.

Contrary to some early reports, the driver was not looking at a smartphone (although more time for our phones is one of the benefits to be expected from actual self-driving cars), but at "a touchscreen that was used to monitor the self-driving car software":

"The operator is responsible for monitoring diagnostic messages that appear on an interface in the center stack of the vehicle dash and tagging events of interest for subsequent review," the [NTSB] report said.

The Uncanny Valley

I wrote about this uncanny valley problem of autonomous vehicles before:

as long as human drivers are required as backup to self-driving tech that works most of the time, we are actually worse off than if we did not have this tech at all.

In the first known fatal accident involving self-driving tech, the driver may have ignored up to seven warnings to put his hands back on the wheel. That was an extreme case, with rumours that the driver may even have been watching a film on a laptop, but in the Arizona case, the driver may have had only between four and one seconds of warning. If you’re texting or even carrying on a conversation with other occupants of the car, four seconds to context-switch back to driving and re-acquire situational awareness is not a lot. One second? Forget it.

Uber may have made that already dangerous situation worse by limiting the software’s ability to take action autonomously when it detected an emergency condition:

the automated braking that might have prevented the death of pedestrian Elaine Herzberg had been switched off "to reduce the potential for erratic vehicle behavior." Such functions were delegated to the driver, who was simultaneously responsible for preventing accidents and monitoring the system’s performance.

In other words, to prevent the vehicle suddenly jamming on the brakes in unclear situations like the one in Arizona, where "the self-driving system software classified the pedestrian as an unknown object, as a vehicle, and then as a bicycle with varying expectations of future travel path", Uber simply opted to delegate all braking to the "safety driver" – while also requiring her to "monitor the system’s performance". This situation – distracting the driver who is also expected to take immediate (and correct) action in an emergency – could hardly have been better designed to produce the outcome we saw in Arizona.

This is exactly what I predicted in my previous post on Uber:

Along the way to full Level 5 autonomy, we must pass through an “uncanny valley" of partial autonomy, which is actually more dangerous than no autonomy at all.
Adding the desperate urgency of a company whose very survival depends on the success of this research seems like a very bad idea on the surface of it. It is all too easy to imagine Uber (or any other company, but right now it’s Uber), with only a quarter or two worth of cash in the bank, deciding to rush out self-driving tech that is 1.0 at best.
It’s said that you shouldn’t buy any 1.0 product unless you are willing to tolerate significant imperfections. Would you ride in a car operated by software with significant imperfections?
Would you cross the street in front of one?

What Next?

Uber has now ceased tests of self-driving cars in Arizona, but it is continuing the work in Pittsburgh, having already been kicked out of San Francisco after one of its self-driving cars ran a red light right in front of SFMOMA.

Despite these setbacks, it is however continuing work on its other projects, such as flying taxis.

Thats seems perfectly safe, and hardly at all likely to go horribly wrong in its own turn.

Drone crash during ski race

GIF is of a drone almost crashing into a skier during a race in Madonna di Campiglio.

  1. Such as they are, yes, I am familiar with The Invention Of Jaywalking

When Robots Kill

This is not a breaking-news blog. Instead, what I try to do here is bring together different strands of thinking about an issue – hence the name: Find The Thread.

This is why I’m going to comment on the tragic story of the woman struck and killed by a “self-driving" Uber car in Arizona, even though the collision occurred more than a week ago.

A Question Of Levels

We generally talk about levels of autonomy in driverless cars. Level 0 is the sort of car most of us are used to. Particularly high-tech cars – your Mercedes S-classes, Audi A8s, many Volvos, and so on – may have Level 1 or even 2 systems: radar cruise control that will decelerate to avoid obstacles, lane-keeping technology that will steer between the white lines on a motorway, and so on. Tesla also attempts Level 3 with its Autopilot tech.

In all of these cases, the driver is required to still be present and alert, ready to take over the driving at a moment’s notice. The goal is to get to Level 4 and 5, which is where the driver can actually let go of the wheel entirely. Once Level 5 is commonplace, we will start seeing cars built without manual controls, as they will no longer be required.

The problem, as Benedict Evans points out, is that this will not be a universal roll-out. As I have written myself, autonomous driving technology is likely to be rolled out gradually, with easy use cases such as highway driving coming first.

This is the nut of the issue, though: as long as human drivers are required as backup to self-driving tech that works most of the time, we are actually worse off than if we did not have this tech at all.

In the first known fatal accident involving self-driving tech, the driver may have ignored up to seven warnings to put his hands back on the wheel. That was an extreme case, with rumours that the driver may even have been watching a film on a laptop, but in the Arizona case, the driver may have had only between four and one seconds of warning. If you’re texting or even carrying on a conversation with other occupants of the car, four seconds to context-switch back to driving and re-acquire situational awareness is not a lot. One second? Forget it.

In tech circles, self-driving tech is mostly analysed as a technology problem. Can we do this with cameras and smarter processing, do we need expensive Lidar rigs, who has the smartest approach, and so on. This is all cutting-edge stuff, to be sure, and well worth investigating anyway. You can then start speculating about the consequences if this tech all works out, and I’ve had a go at thinking about what truly self-driving cars may imply myself.

Beyond The Software

There is a whole other level beyond the technological one, which is the real-world frameworks in which these technologies would have to operate. The sorts of driving licenses we issue to humans already focus more on the rules of the road than the techniques of driving. You can learn the mechanics of driving in a few hours, especially with an automatic gearbox. The reason we don’t give people licenses after a day of instruction is that we also require them to understand how to drive on public roads shared with others.

This tragic accident in Arizona has shifted the conversation to whether it is possible to sue an autonomous car. I am working with some major automotive manufacturers, and all are developing self-driving tech – but none are prepared to roll it out, or even discuss it much in public, until these aspects have been sorted out. Car-makers are a fairly conservative bunch, used to strict product liability laws.

In contrast, the software industry by and large accepts the idea that a click-through waiver absolves you of all responsibility for your products. That is not at all how the automobile industry operates. Even strictly software faults are held to a level of scrutiny unknown in the general software industry, outside of specialised applications. In the case of Toyota’s unintended acceleration problems, the car-maker was ultimately held responsible in court for a fatal accident, due to identified bugs in its electronic throttle control system – and to the fact that code metrics indicated the probability that other, as-yet unidentified bugs were still present in the codebase for that system.

Jamie Zawinski has some typically acerbic commentary:

Note that the article's headline referred to the woman killed by the robot as a "pedestrian" instead of a person. "Pedestrian" is a propaganda term invented by the auto industry to re-frame the debate: to get you to preemptively agree that roads, and by extension cities, are for cars, and any non-car-based use is “other", is some kind of special-case interloper. See The Invention of Jaywalking.

Semantics aside, I have one question that I think is pretty important here, and that is, who is getting charged with vehicular homicide? Even if they are ultimately ruled to be not at fault, what name goes on the court docket? Is it:

  • The Uber employee - or "non-employee independent contractor" - in the passenger seat?

  • Their shift lead?

  • Travis Kalanick?

  • The author(s) of the (proprietary, un-auditable) software?

  • The "corporate person" known as Uber?

Good question, and one that so far remains unanswered.

Why The Rush To Autonomous Cars?

Finally, let’s remember that there are two reasons that the industry is storming ahead with self-driving tech. The public reason is the presumption of increased road safety through the removal of distracted human drivers from the road. However, as the complexities involved in moving beyond simple demos in an empty parking lot become clear, people are starting to suggest ridiculous solutions like "bicycle-to-vehicle" communications – in other words, instrumenting cyclists so that they will advertise their position to cars. And if you give sensors to cyclists, why not pedestrians too?

This is a typical technology-first fix: if you can’t solve the problem one way, by detecting cyclists through sensors, you solve it another way, by fitting sensors to the cyclists themselves. Here again, though, we are not in a purely technological domain. This blinkered view is why self-driving cars won’t save cyclists, at least until the thinking shifts around the whole issue of cars in general.

Here is where we come to the second reason behind the urgency in the development of self-driving tech: Uber’s business model depends on it. Right now they are haemorrhaging money – over a billion-with-a-B per quarter in 2017 – in a race to achieve market dominance before they run out of cash (or investors willing to give them more). Much of that cost goes to their human drivers; if those could be replaced with automated systems, the cost would go away at a stroke, and they would also achieve much higher utilisation rates on their fleet of vehicles.

In this view, self-driving cars are both an offensive move against Uber’s competitors, and a defensive one in case the likes of Google get there first and undercut Uber with their little pod-cars.

This sort of thing is catnip for futurists and other professional speculators, existing at the nexus of technology and business model that is Silicon Valley distilled to its purest essence. However, as the real-world problems with this project become more and more visible, people are starting to question whether self-driving cars are actually a distraction for Uber.

The bottom line is that right now we are pushing forwards with self-driving tech in the hope it will make our roads safer. This is a valid and important goal, to be sure – but those claims of increased safety from self-driving tech are still assumptions, very much unproven, as the tragic death in Arizona reminds us.

Along the way to full Level 5 autonomy, we must pass through an “uncanny valley" of partial autonomy, which is actually more dangerous than no autonomy at all.

Adding the desperate urgency of a company whose very survival depends on the success of this research seems like a very bad idea on the surface of it. It is all too easy to imagine Uber (or any other company, but right now it’s Uber), with only a quarter or two worth of cash in the bank, deciding to rush out self-driving tech that is 1.0 at best.

It’s said that you shouldn’t buy any 1.0 product unless you are willing to tolerate significant imperfections. Would you ride in a car operated by software with significant imperfections?

Would you cross the street in front of one?

And shouldn’t you have the choice to make that call? This is why, despite claims that the EU’s strategy on AI is a failure, I like their go-slow approach. Sure, roll out 1.0 animoji or cat-ear filters, but before we rely on computer vision not to run people over, or fine them for jaywalking or whatever, we should maybe stop and think about that for a moment.

Surprise: Uber, Lyft Actually Increase Traffic

A big part of the promise of the "ride-sharing" companies was that they would reduce congestion by increasing utilisation of cars. Of course, this idea of vehicles in near-constant use for a sequence of rides was hardly a great innovation, being previously known as a taxi, but there you are. However, now it turns out that Uber et al might actually be increasing congestion:

One promise of ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft was fewer cars clogging city streets. But studies suggest the opposite: that ride-hailing companies are pulling riders off buses, subways, bicycles and their own feet and putting them in cars instead.

I am glad that at least the description for these services has switched from ride-sharing to ride-hailing. As I have written before, Uber is nothing to do with sharing:

It is of a part with other examples of "sharing economy" (scare quotes very much intended). Very little of Airbnb is people renting out their spare rooms; much of it is people renting out stables of properties, purchased for the explicit purpose of renting them out through Airbnb. There are even companies like Airsorted that will take care of the whole process, letting landlords sit back and take in the proceeds - while conveniently forgetting to pay taxes on their earnings.
This is not "sharing" economy; these are fully professionalised marketplaces. The real sharing economy equivalents are BlaBlaCar or Couchsurfing. These offerings really do enable non-professionals to share something.

The article is fairly reasonable and balanced, if hardly ground-breaking. CityLab has been covering Uber’s unsustainable impact on traffic for a while now.

What I found really disingenuous was the last paragraph of the AP piece:

At least one study did not pin increased congestion on hailing services. Seattle-based firm Inrix scoured data from 2012 to 2015 in London and found the number of passenger vehicles, including Uber cars, remained the same or even dipped slightly. Reasons for increased congestion included a surge in road construction and delivery trucks dropping off online purchases.

This misses the point entirely. The whole premise according to which Uber et al were going to reduce congestion was that, by increasing utilisation (trips per vehicle), they would reduce the number of cars needed for those trips, and therefore the need for parking spaces and so on and so forth. If the number of vehicles remains the same, but utilisation is way up (Uber drivers gotta eat!), congestion will certainly increase!

It’s the same effect as those online purchases being delivered: instead of being chunked into a small number of large deliveries to shops, all those packages are being dropped off one by one at people’s homes, and probably by different delivery companies too. It’s more convenient for shoppers, sure – but it is not more efficient.

Anyway, I have to wrap this up and go get on the Metro, which is still the best way to get around.

See you underground!


Image by Hanny Naibaho via Unsplash

Goddess

Citroën DS 19, at Museo dell’Automobile in Turin.

The Déesse has long been one of my dream cars, but I can’t do it justice in words. Fortunately, Roland Barthes did it for me:

La nouvelle Citroën tombe manifestement du ciel dans la mesure où elle se présente d’abord comme un objet superlatif. […] La «Déesse» a tous les caractères (du moins le public commence-t-il par les lui prêter unanimement) d'un de ces objets descendus d’un autre univers, qui ont alimenté la néomanie du XVIIIe siècle et celle de notre science-fiction: la Déesse est d'abord un nouveau Nautilus.

I don’t know whether Renaud Marion had this maquette in mind when he came up with his Air Drive series, but it seems probable. Unfortunately, "Air Drive" did not include a DS, but Jacob Munkhammar has stepped up to fill that gap.

There’s a dealership I’d love to visit! I wonder whether that’s the one where they got the flying DS taxi for Back To The Future II?

Category Error

In discussing my last post about self-driving car technology, it was pointed out to me that I was being unduly pessimistic about the prospect of really smart people solving the problem of dealing with the dynamics nature of city traffic. Clarke’s First Law comes to mind:

When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

I am neither distinguished, nor (yet) elderly, and nobody’s idea of a scientist, and I certainly do not mean to imply that self-driving car technology is impossible. What I am saying is that adoption of self-driving tech, and indeed of any new technological offering, is not just a technology problem, and perhaps not even primarily a technology problem. For this reason, even more than because of the technical difficulties involved in navigating busy and unpredictable city streets, I expect the initial uptake of self-driving cars to be in more controlled environments, whether dedicated roadways, or inside industrial plants, airports, and the like, where random unexpected foot or bicycle traffic is not a factor. Actual go-anywhere self-driving cars will still not show up on public streets even some time after the technology has been proved out in those environments.

That said, there are signs of movement. The US has chosen ten proving grounds where this technology can be tested in real-world conditions. Also, a possible contradiction to my expectation of initial uptake in controlled environments is unpredictable Indian road traffic - and yet, Tata have announced their intention to test in Bangalore.

Just in case I was overly pessimistic, therefore, I wanted to run a quick thought experiment taking the opposite position: assuming that true, go-anywhere self-driving functionality becomes available - what then?

Everything changes

The main factor to take into account is that everything will change. To think of this future state in terms of "driverless cars" is to miss the point by as much as those who described early automobiles as "horseless carriages". It is natural to think of radical new products in the context of existing categories, but truly significant innovations define their own categories, with wide-ranging consequences.

If personal flying cars will ever be possible, it is a foregone conclusion that the results will not be what was depicted on the cover of 50s pulps, with the nuclear family setting off in Dad's finned and chromed sportster for a day of wholesome fun. The sheer traffic control and public safety requirements of a world where anybody can afford a flying car would act to limit uptake and adoption. In fact, pretty much the only way that personal air vehicles could ever become widespread would be if they were autonomous pods, with no fallible humans in the control loop. Either a central traffic control, or peer-to-peer connections between the vehicles (or a combination of the two) would be required to make that situation even remotely practical. At that point, would anyone bother to own one of these air transit pods, or would we just summon one as needed?

Many of the same factors apply to autonomous road cars. Right now, privately owned cars are idle for most of their lives. They are parked overnight, then driven to work, parked there all day, and driven back home to be parked. If the car becomes autonomous, it does not need to park near its owner; it could drive itself to a distant parking structure, or even right back home, to wait until it is needed again. At that point, why not enable other people to share the use of the car while its owner is otherwise engaged? And the logical consequence of that situation is, why own the car in the first place? Just summon it to where you are, and dismiss it when you’re done.

Right away, there is no longer any need for parking lots near offices and retail centres, just much smaller pick-up and drop-off areas. What does this do to the fabric of cities? Imagine every parking lot replaced by a park - or a reduction in sprawl, as new, much denser residential and commercial development can take the place of redundant parking structures. Even where new greenfield builds are required, they can become more efficient, no longer requiring as much space for all of those parking spaces.

Share - but how?

Some of the analysis also assumes an increase in ride-sharing. In this scenario, each vehicle has multiple occupants, which reduces the overall number of vehicles on the road, in turn reducing the need for road infrastructure. I’m not sure that this is plausible. Rather than this sort of simultaneous ride-sharing, with many people in the car at the same time, I think that the plausible future involves sequential ride-sharing, where the vehicle is in near-constant use (at least at peak times), but only by one person at a time.

The move from a large number of inefficient, single-user assets to a much smaller number of highly efficient assets with high utilisation rates will also have a dramatic impact on the automotive industry. The future of autonomous cars is not a Tesla in every driveway. It looks much more like Paris’ new driverless minibuses - in other words, the use case that we should extrapolate from is public transport, not private cars. The advent of autonomous self-driving technology will not add new capabilities to private cars. Rather, it will lead to an increase in the flexibility and capability of public transport networks.

This change will determine the end of the automotive industry as we know it. Already today, nobody cares especially about the marque of their Uber or Lyft vehicle1. In a scenario where those are the only types of vehicles on the road, the basis of competition between manufacturers would change dramatically to become something much more similar to the commercial vehicle market. The relevant drivers for competition would become the cost of operation and maintenance, without any particular brand cachet or driver experience factoring into selection. The overall size of the market would also shrink dramatically, as increased utilisation rates for individual vehicles lead to a requirement for a much smaller number of vehicles overall. Whatever happens, the sales volume for the industry will crash and most of the current manufacturers will exit the market one way or another.

Another expected advantage of autonomous vehicles is the new traffic control capabilities that they enable. One of the most frustrating types of traffic jam is the one that there is no apparent reason for. Traffic slows and stops, restarts, inches along - and then suddenly it’s flowing again. What happened in that situation is a signalling cascade: one human driver hits their brakes, the one behind them, unable to gauge intentions or speed accurately, hits their brakes a little harder, and pretty soon the whole line of cars has ground to a halt.

Instead, autonomous vehicles could enable swarming behaviours, where a whole line of vehicles can tailgate each other, safe in the knowledge that none of them is going to do anything unexpected. The immediate benefits would include optimal utilisation of road surfaces and reduced fuel consumption (from aerodynamic and other effects).

…but not today

All of this describes the ultimate end state, but for the reasons I discussed, I do not expect all of these consequences to manifest in the short term. What I do expect is that limited application of autonomous driving technology will deliver some initial benefits, and over time the technical, legal, and social hurdles will begin to fall, enabling some of these second-order benefits. However, none of that will happen in three to five years or even ten years, as some of the boosters argue, regardless of the technical progress that is made.

It is still important to think about the impact of technology adoption. Too often, IT people especially focus only on technical feasibility, and assume that just because something is possible, it will then be adopted. In actual fact, history is littered with the bones of products that failed to gain traction because of non-technical factors. Meanwhile, tech industry commentators lament the success of “inferior" products (whether or not they actually are inferior) that focus on user needs.

The canonical example of "not getting it" is of course Slashdot founder Rob Malda’s reaction to the iPod launch:

No wireless. Less space than a Nomad. Lame.

Of course we know how that played out: regardless of the technical specs, the iPod met users’ needs so completely that it defined the entire category - before, of course, it was in its own turn subsumed by the Next Big Thing.

The same will happen with driverless cars. Solving the tech issues is only a part of the problem. To achieve the sort of transformative effects that I described above will require a concerted push into all sorts of areas that I see as being currently ignored: city architecture, transportation policy, legal issues, insurance, and so on and so forth. The technology industry has a tendency to dismiss these types of issues as "soft factors".

When launching a new technology, ignore the soft factors at your peril.


Images by Austin Scherbarth and Peter Hershey via Unsplash


  1. Except that if I pay for Uber Black, I would be very disappointed it an UberX-grade Prius or whatever were to show up, instead of a big German luxury car. 

Thinking Two Steps Behind

In my day job, I spend a lot of my time building business cases to help understand whether our technology is a good fit for a customer. When you are building a startup business, this is the the expected trajectory: in the very early days, you have to make the technology work, translating the original interesting idea into an actual product that people can use in the real world. Once you have a working product, though, it’s all about who can use it, and what they can do with it.

In this phase, you stop pitching the technology. Instead, you ask questions and try to understand what ultimate goals your prospective customer has. Only once you have those down do you start talking about what your technology can do to satisfy those goals. If you do not do this, you find yourself running lots of "kick the tyres" evaluations that never go anywhere. You might have lots of activity, but you won’t have many significant results to show for it.

This discipline of analysing goals and identifying a technology fit is very useful in analysing other fields too, and it helps to identify when others may be missing some important aspect of a story.

Let’s think about driverless cars

Limited forms of self-driving technology already exist, from radar cruise-control to more complete approaches such as Tesla’s Autopilot. None of these are quite ready for prime time, and there are fairly regular stories about their failures, with consequences from the comic to the tragic.

Because of these issues, Tesla and others require that a drivers keep their hands on the wheel even when the car is in Autopilot mode. This brings its own problems, falling into an “uncanny valley" of attention: the driver is neither fully engaged, nor can they fully disengage. Basically it’s the worst of both worlds, as drivers are no longer involved in the driving, but still cannot relax and read a book or watch a film.

These limitations have not stopped much of the commentary from assuming self-driving car technology to be, if not a problem that is already solved, at least one that is solvable. Extrapolations from that point lead to car ownership becoming a thing of the past as people simply summon self-driving pods to their location, which in turn causes massive transformations in both labour force (human drivers, whether truckers or Uber drivers, are no longer required) and the physical make-up of cities (enormous increases in the utilisation rate for cars mean that large permanent parking structures are no longer required) - let alone the consequences for automotive manufacturers, faced with a secular transformation in their market.

Okay, maybe not cars

Self-driving technology is not nearly capable (yet) of navigating busy city streets, full of unpredictable pedestrians, cyclists, and so on, so near-term projections focus on what is perceived as a more easily solvable problem: long-distance trucking.

The idea is that currently existing self-driving tech is already just about capable of navigating the constrained, more predictable environment of the highways between cities. Given some linear improvement, it does not seem that far-fetched to assume that a few more years of development would give us software capable of staying in lane and avoiding obstacles reliably enough to navigate a motorway in formation with other trucks.

Extrapolating this capability to the wholesale replacement of truckers with autonomous robot trucks, however, is a big reach - and not so much for technical reasons, as for less easily tractable external reasons.

Assuming for the sake of argument that Otto (or whoever) successfully develop their technology and build an autonomous truck that can navigate between cities, but not enter the actual city itself. This means that Otto or its customers would need to build warehouses right at the motorway junctions in areas where they wish to operate, to function as local hubs. From these locations, smaller, human-operated vehicles would make the last-mile deliveries to homes and businesses inside the city streets, which are still not accessible to the robot trucks.

This is all starting to sound very familiar. We already have a network optimised for long-distance freight between local distribution hubs. It is very predictable by design, allowing only limited variables in its environment, and it is already highly instrumented and very closely monitored. Even better, it has been in operation at massive scale for more than a century, and has a whole set of industry best practices and commercial relationships already in place.

I am of course talking about railways.

Get on the train

Let’s do something unusual for high-tech, and try to learn something from history for once. What can the example of railways teach us about the potential for self-driving technology on the road?

The reason for the shift from rail freight to road freight was to avoid trans-shipment costs. It’s somewhat inefficient to load your goods onto one vehicle, drive it to a warehouse, unload them, wait for many other shipments to be assembled together, load all of them onto another vehicle, drive that vehicle to another warehouse, unload everything, load your goods onto yet another vehicle, and finally drive that third vehicle to your final destination. It’s only really worthwhile to do this for bulk freight that is not time-sensitive. For anything else, it’s much easier to just back a truck up to your own warehouse, load up the goods, and drive them straight to their final destination.

Containerisation helped somewhat, but railways are still limited to existing routes; a new rail spur is an expensive proposition, and even maintenance of existing rail spurs to factories is now seen as unnecessary overhead, given the convenience of road transport’s flexibility and ability to deliver directly to the final destination.

In light of this, a network of self-driving trucks that are limited to predictable, pre-mapped routes on major highways can be expected to run into many of the same issues.

Don’t forget those pesky humans

Another interesting lesson that we can take from railways is the actual uptake of driverless technology. As noted above, railways are a far more predictable environment than roads: trains don’t have to manoeuvre, they just move forwards along the rails, stopping at locations that are predetermined. Changes of directions are handled by switching points in the rails, not by the operator needing to steer the train around obstacles. Intersections with other forms of transport are rare, as other traffic generally uses bridges and underpasses. Where this separation is not possible, level crossings are still far more controlled than road intersections. Finally, there are sensors everywhere on railways; controllers know exactly where a certain train is, what its destination and speed are, and what is the state of the network around it.

So why don’t we have self-driving trains?

The technology exists, and has done so for years - it’s a much simpler problem than self-driving cars - and it is in use in a few locations around the world (e.g. London and Milan); but still, human-operated trains are the norm. Partly, it’s a labour problem; those human drivers don’t want to be out of a job, and have been known to go on strike against even the possibility of the introduction of driverless trains. Partly, it’s a perception problem: trains are massive, heavy, powerful things, and most people simply feel more comfortable knowing that a human is in charge, rather than potentially buggy software. And partly, of course, it’s the economics; human train drivers are a known quantity, and any technology that wants to replace them is not.

This means that the added convenience of end-to-end transportation limits the uptake of rail transport, and human factors limit the adoption of driverless technology even when it is perfectly feasible - something that has not yet been proven in the case of road transport.

A more familiar example?

In Silicon Valley, people are often moving too fast and too busy breaking things that work to learn from other industries, let alone one that is over a hundred years old1, but there is a relevant example that is closer to home - literally.

When the Internet first opened to the public late last century, the way most people connected was through a dial-up modem over an analogue telephone line. We all become expert in arcane incantations in the Hayes AT command language, and we learned to recognise the weird squeals and hisses emitted by our modems and use them to debug the handshake with our ISP's modem at the far end. Modem speeds did accelerate pretty rapidly, going from the initial 9.6 kbits per second to 14.4, to 28.8, to weird 33.6, to a screamingly fast 56k (if the sun was shining and the wind was in the right quarter) in a matter of years.

However, this was still nowhere near fast enough. These days, if our mobile phones drop to EDGE - roughly equivalent to a 56k modem on a good day - we consider the network as being basically unusable. Therefore, there was a lot of angst about how to achieve higher speeds. Getting faster network speeds in general was not a problem - 10 Mbps Ethernet was widely available at the time. The issue was the last mile from the trunk line to subscribers' homes. Various schemes were mooted to get fast internet to the curb - or kerb, for Americans. Motivated individuals could sign up for ISDN lines, or more exotic connectivity depending on their location, but very few did. When we finally got widespread consumer broadband, it was in the form of ADSL over the existing copper telephone lines.

So where does this leave us?

Driverless vehicles will follow the same development roadmap2: until they can deliver the whole journey end to end, uptake will be limited. Otherwise, they are not delivering what people need.

More generally, to achieve any specific goals, it is usually better to work with existing systems and processes. That status quo came to be over time, and generally for good reason. Looking at something now, without the historical context, and deciding that it is wrong and needs to be disrupted, is the sort of Silicon Valley hubris that ends in tears.

Right now, with my business analyst hat on, driverless vehicles look like a cool idea (albeit one that is still unproven) that is being shoe-horned into a situation that it is not a good match for. If I were looking at a situation like this one in my day job, I would advise everyone to take a step back, re-evaluate what the actual goals are, and see whether a better approach might be possible. Until then, no matter how good the technology gets, it won’t actually deliver on the requirements.

But that doesn’t get as many visionary thinkpieces and TED talks.


Images by Nabeel Syed and Darren Bockman via Unsplash, and by ronnieb via Morguefile


  1. The old saw is that "In Europe, a hundred miles is a long way; in the US, a hundred years is a long time". In Silicon Valley, which was all groves of fruit trees fifty years ago, that time frame is shorter still. 

  2. Sorry - not sorry. 

Updating the Car

As I mentioned in my one-year review of my car, the one aftermarket upgrade I made was to swap the rather dated factory ICE for a CarPlay head unit. That modification is itself now about a year into its service, so it is also about due a review.

The reason for the upgrade is that the factory PCM 2.1 unit was really showing its age, with no USB, Bluetooth, or even Aux-in. In other words, Porsche were way ahead of Apple in removing the headphone jack… Courage!

This meant it was not possible to connect my phone to the car. Instead, I had a second SIM card which lived in the dash itself, and a curly-cord handset in the armrest between the front seats. Very retro, but not the most practical solution.

The worst part, though, was the near decade-old maps. While we do have some roads around here that are a couple of thousand years old, lots of them are quite a bit newer, and even on the Roman roads, it’s important to know about one-way systems and traffic restrictions.

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My solution for these problems was to swap the PCM 2.1 system for a head unit that is basically just a dumb screen driven by an iPhone, with no functionality of its own beyond a FM tuner. The reason is that I change phones much more frequently than I change cars, and upgrade the software on my phone more frequently than that.

The specific device is an Alpine ILX-007, and I am quite satisfied with it. It has a decent screen, which seems to be one of the key complaints people have about other CarPlay systems. There is occasionally a little lag, but I assume that’s software rather than hardware, since it’s not reproducible. It did crash on me once, losing my radio presets, but that’s it.

Upgrades

Adding this system to my car has been a substantial upgrade. I have all my music, podcasts and so on immediately available, I can make phone calls, and there is even a dedicated button to talk to Siri. I use this a lot to add reminders to myself while driving, as well as obvious stuff like calling people.

Siri also reads messages that come in while the phone is in CarPlay mode, which is occasionally hilarious when she tries to read something written in a language other than English. On the other hand Siri handles emoji pretty well, reading their name (e.g. "face blowing kisses"), which is very effective at getting the meaning across - although it’s a bit disconcerting the first time it happens!

Contrary to my early fears about CarPlay, it works perfectly with my steering-wheel controls too, so ergonomics are great.

The main win though is that my in-car entertainment now benefits from iOS upgrades in a big way. In particular, iOS 10 brings a redesigned Music screen and a major update to Maps.

Show me around

The Music screen used to have five tabs, which is way too many to navigate while driving. The new version has three tabs, and is generally much clearer to use. I don’t use Apple Music, and one of the things that I hated about the old version was that it would default to the Apple Music tab. The biggest reason why I don’t use streaming services like Apple Music is that the only time I really get to listen to music is while I’m out and about. That means either in aeroplanes, where connectivity is generally entirely absent, or in the car, where it is unreliable and expensive. Therefore, I only listen to music stored locally on my phone, but I had to switch away each and every time I launched the Music app. iOS 10 fixes that.

The biggest change iOS 10 brings to the CarPlay experience is to Maps. Many people have pointed out that Maps will now add a waypoint when the iPhone is disconnected from the car, so that drivers can easily retrace their steps to their parked car. I have to admit that I have never lost my car, but it’s good to know that it’s, say, ten minutes’ walk away when it’s raining.

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There are also updated graphics, which are much clearer to read in a hurry. These are not just limited to pretty icons, though; there is actual improved functionality. Previously, users had to switch manually between separate Overview and Detail modes. Annoyingly, there was a significant gap between the greatest zoom on Overview and the widest area on Detail. Also, Detail did not include traffic alerts, while Overview by default showed the entire route, not just currently relevant parts, so a typical journey required a fair amount of switching back and forth between modes.

The new Maps zooms gradually over the course of the journey, always showing current position near one edge of the screen and destination near another edge. This is much more useful, allowing the driver to focus on alerts that are coming up rather than being distracted by ones that are already passed. There is also more intelligence about proposing alternate routes around congestion.

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And yes, Maps works perfectly well for me, thank you. I would probably use it anyway given that, as the system-level mapping service, it plugs into everything, so I can quickly get directions to my next appointment from the calendar or go to a contact’s home or office address. The search could still be better, requiring very precise phrasing, but contrary to Maps’ reputation out there, landmarks generally exist and are in the correct place.

I am on record as an Apple Maps fan even in the early days, and it’s improved enormously since then. Don’t believe the hype, give it a go.

The integration is a big deal, as I saw last Wednesday. I was supposed to meet a colleague out and about, so I used Messages to send him my current location. To be extra sure, I chose the actual restaurant I was in, rather than just my GPS location. All my colleague needed to do was to tap on the location in the chat to be routed to my location. Unfortunately, he is one of those who prefer Google Maps, so he eyeballed the pin location and entered that in Google Maps. Unfortunately for him, the location he eyeballed turned out to correspond to a chain, and Google in its eagerness to give a result (any result) gave him the location of the nearest branch of that chain, rather than the specific location I was near.

It all worked out in the end, after a half-hour detour and a second taxi trip…

Trust the system, it works.

The System Works

This is exactly why I got a CarPlay unit in the first place: so I would get updates in the car more frequently than every few years when I get a whole new car. So far, that’s working out just perfectly. The iOS 10 upgrade cleaned up some annoyances and added convenient new features without requiring me to rip out all my dashboard wiring. I won’t consider another car without CarPlay support.

Dream Garage, Hall 2

Following on from my earlier Dream Garage post, there were several conversations along the lines of "you missed out on this, and that, and what about the other thing…" These are all fun, and it’s all fantasy anyway - but I just wanted to share the ones that just barely didn’t make the cut.

Jaguar XK120

Top of the list of cars that almost made it into the top ten is this beauty. In the end, I felt it did not make sense to have both the Morgan and the Jaaaag. With the big cat being a classic, it’s just less practical than the Morgan, which is thoroughly modern - at least underneath.

I was lucky enough to be able to borrow an XK120 that looked almost exactly like this one for my wedding day, though, and it was the second most beautiful sight I saw that day. The engine sounded wonderful, and was still very strong. What let it down was the brakes, or the complete absence thereof. I was absolutely terrified that I was going to wrap an extremely expensive car that did not belong to me around something! In the end all went well, and I have one more amazing memory from a wonderful day.

If I can ever figure out a way to justify it to myself, I would love to own one - but I’d upgrade the brakes before driving it anywhere!

AMG Rote Sau

The whole Lotus, "simplify and add lightness" thing is all very well, but what I really like is a big bruiser that actually has too much power, even if that means it struggles to put it all down. The Rote Sau (Red Pig) was the motorsport evolution of Mercedes-Benz’ already pretty fast 300SEL 6.3, and it is utterly bonkers.

They are getting pretty rare, so the sensible option might be to start with a stock 300SEL and do a "restomod" version. I’d be after a street car anyway, not a racer, so I’d plan on losing all the racing stickers - although I’d keep those outsize front lights. If I went that route, I'd probably also delete the roll cage and give it a more street-friendly interior.

Caterham

Or then again, maybe I do buy into the Lotus-lightweight thing? The way to do that nowadays is to get Caterham’s up-to-date interpretation of the Lotus 7, add a full-faced helmet so you don’t get a mouthful of insects, and then enjoy the amazing handling. The power-to-weight ratio of 520bhp per tonne on the R500 is nothing to sneeze at, either.

Alfaholics GTA-R

Every car lover should own an Alfa Romeo, at least once. I’m okay on that front, as I have owned and loved both a 156 2.5 V6, and a 147 Blackline. How could I not have an Alfa in my dream garage, though?

This may look like a classic, but it’s actually been thoroughly updated, so it’s about as practical as old Alfas get. I might want a bit of a body kit on mine, though - just slightly rolled arches and a front lip spoiler, something like that. Nobody seems to do exactly what I want, though, which is why it didn’t make the cut.

Lancia Stratos

As long as we’re talking about classic Italian marques that have had their history shamelessly destroyed under Fiat ownership (ahem), we can’t forget Lancia. Much as I’d love an S4 or 037 Stradale, if you’re going to go, you have to go big. Lancia Stratos it is, with classic Alitalia livery, and maybe even Sandro Munari’s name (all hail) emblazoned on the side.

This is one case where I would actually want an original car, so that I could take it up the hill at my local historic hill-climb, the Vernasca Silver Flag.

TVR Tuscan1

Just go ahead and file this one under "scary". Depending on which generation it is, you’re looking at anywhere between 350 and 440 bhp, a fibreglass body, and no ABS, traction control, airbags - or much of anything else. On top of that, all the controls were insanely positioned, to the point that nobody could ever get in, and once they had been shown how, could not get out again.

When I was working in the UK, a colleague had a yellow one of these monsters. You could hear him coming from a mile off - but he was always the slowest thing on the road, because it had a nasty habit of spinning up the rear wheels in third and even fourth if provoked. Taught you respect, it did.

Shelby Cobra

Talking of scary cars…

This one didn’t make the cut into the top ten because I felt that I couldn’t have two Shelbys, and between the two of them, I slightly prefer the looks of the Daytona Coupe. It doesn’t help that the Daytona is also that little bit more practical, what with its effete concessions like, I don’t know, a roof.

Still love the look of these, though, and if the dream garage did expand, I would definitely add one.

Lincoln Continental (Mobsteel)

Forget about all that lightness nonsense with the Caterham up there - we’re back to the big stuff! Mobsteel are a Detroit crew, and appropriately, they only work on classic Detroit iron. The idea is big, comfortable rides, done for cruising and the occasional burnout. I might go for slightly less flashy rims than in this picture, and I’m still torn between hard and soft tops, so that indecision is why this one didn’t make it higher up the list.

Lamborghini Espada

This is definitely a Marmite car, and I freely admit it's an odd choice as the first Lambo in the collection - but I love the looks of the big thing, and it's actually far more competent on the road than a more mainstream classic like the Miura. It does share a designer with the Miura, Marcello Gandini, and the V12 is from the same Giotto Bizzarrini lineage too. It's a car that lets you share the Lambo experience with your friends.

I also really think that scene at the beginning of The Italian Job should have featured an Espada rather than a Miura. It just suits the character of Roger Beckermann far better.

And all the rest

I didn’t forget about supercars! It’s just that I cannot decide which one I would want, and it seemed silly just to make a huge list. Here are some of the ones that I was considering, before I realised the problem:

  • Lamborghini Murcielago/Diablo SV (open-gate shifter FTW)
  • any Koenigsegg
  • Pagani Zonda/Huayra
  • Noble M600
  • McLaren F1/P1
  • Ford GT (2005 version)
  • Porsche Carrera GT
  • Ferrari F40/288 GTO
  • I don’t particularly care for the Enzo - but I’d definitely have a Maserati MC12…

Realistically, these all overlap with each other. Sure, they have their differences and blah blah blah, but I don’t see much point in just having a row of supercars in the garage; you’d never drive any one of them enough to get to know it properly, so you’d only be depriving someone else of the chance to own or at least see them.

I already picked the Bugatti EB110 as my ultimate supercar, and I stand by that. If I were fortunate enough to be looking at more supercars, I’d probably just join one of those fractional-ownership clubs to scratch the occasional urge to check out something different.

In the same vein, I would love a Porsche 911 993 GT2, or a 964 Leichtbau, and I even have an unreasonable lust for some sort of RWB 911 - but I already chose my ultimate 911, so it would seem greedy to add more.

Finally I might add something silly like a Citroën Méhari for a beach house, or a ridiculous project like, oh, a Hayabusa-engined classic Fiat 500 - but that sort of thing is more spur-of-the-moment than stuff of dreams, as far as I’m concerned.

I suspect this is an ongoing topic…


  1. Although to be honest pretty much any TVR will do - they’re all wonderfully mad. 

Stupid Car Review, One Year In

Since I just renewed the insurance on the ridiculous thing, I thought it an appropriate time to look back on a year with a very silly car.

A year ago I had just quit my job. The old job was one of the few that still came with a company car, so I had to get myself a new car quickly to be able to drive to the airport for the new gig. Luckily I’m a fool car nut, so I had a short list ready to deploy. (As it happens, I have a short list for every occasion…)

I ran the short list past my wife, AKA the sensible person in my house, and she immediately nixed all but one of the options. So that was easy.

So what did you get?

I got myself a Porsche Cayenne (955) Turbo S. No, the new job was not as a bank robber! I found a lightly used one that was eight years old by the time I got it, and despite the low mileage and generally excellent condition, it cost about the same as my wife’s new mid-spec Golf. Still an extremely silly car, but not entirely idiotic.

Let's review some of the relevant stats (emphasis mine):

It was powered by a twin-turbocharged 4.5-L V8 that produced 521 PS (383 kW) and 720 N·m (530 lb·ft) of torque. Acceleration from 0–60 mph (96 km/h) was 5.0 seconds and the top speed was 171 miles per hour.

Beyond a certain point, I think car manufacturers should just do like Rolls-Royce and simply declare horsepower to be "adequate".

Since I bought it I’ve put 30k on it with zero maintenance issues so far, apart from a single burned-out light bulb (touch wood). Sure, it drinks like a drunken sailor with a drinking problem who’s really thirsty and also isn’t paying for his own drinks, and likes to wash its drink down with the occasional drop of oil too - but every time I put my foot down I forgive it. Basically it’s the cheapest way I could find to drive something fun that could haul the kids and all their clobber. It also very definitely has presence - looming suddenly into someone’s rear view mirror generally causes them to jump out of the way pretty promptly, and if they don’t move over, the xenons are probably bright enough to give them sunburn.

What’s it like to drive?

It’s surprisingly capable in the twisty stuff, unless the going gets really tight. It’s definitely better than it has any right to be, especially with the air suspension dropped a notch and set to Sport mode. I have had the tyres chirping a few times on late night drives - the rear tyres, note. Even though it can feel like it’s reluctant to get its nose into the corner, you can drive around that and find a surprising level of agility. Okay, it’s no Caterham, but compared to other big SUVs I’ve driven, it’s night and day. "Worst Porsche, best SUV", as the saying goes.

Straight-line speed is, predictably, ridiculous, being apparently unrestrained by mere laws of physics, but only by the driver's desire to hang onto their license. Amazingly, I have so far managed to avoid speeding tickets too. Probably jinxed myself on both counts (that and maintenance) now!

I will say that having this much power under my right foot has paradoxically made me a more relaxed driver. Knowing that I can at any moment summon the thunder and disappear into the distance in a cloud of dust means I don't feel the urge to floor it at every possible opportunity, and am more likely to view aggressive drivers' antics with amused condescension than as any sort of challenge.

The Tiptronic S transmission is… fine. In automatic mode it shuffles ratios fairly competently, although it has the usual failing of automatics, where it is always either trying to hang onto a gear too long, or dropping two cogs at once. The former isn’t that big a problem with this much torque, just giving you a moment to enjoy the feeling of the building boooOOOOST, but the latter can leave you with a double-handful of unwanted revs and sudden acceleration. Fortunately there are steering-wheel-mounted buttons to control matters. Even one year in, I still find it odd that there is a + and a - control on each side of the wheel, rather than one side being + and the other being -. To avoid confusing myself, I tend to use each side for only one purpose. I don’t think I’ve ever shifted with the gear lever - not least because you can still use the Tiptronic controls while remaining in automatic mode. This will let you drop a gear or two for an overtake or a tight corner, and then revert to slushmatic mode a few seconds later - very convenient.

Being a Turbo S, the thing comes with front and rear locking diffs and a low-range gear box, so it’s probably more capable off road than I am. The worst terrain I need to deal with is the occasional dirt road, though, so I haven’t actually used those features yet beyond checking that they worked. I did overtake the snow plough driving up an Alpine pass one night, but that was enabled more by good winter tyres than any special drivetrain mode.

Surely it can’t be all good, right?

If you want a real-world picture of the downsides, I’ll just say that I’m now on first-name terms with the staff at my usual petrol station… The Beast (as it is nicknamed for obvious reasons) is picky about its fuel, too, preferring to drink the 98-octane-plus top-shelf stuff, which is only available at two locations that are convenient to me.

Also, even though I bought the thing on the right side of the depreciation curve (seriously, I paid something like one-sixth of the original list price), parts are still Porsche parts, with a price tag to suit. I had to fit new front brake disks, and each one ran over €900! I was actually braced to replace all four, since you don’t want to skimp on brakes, especially on something that big, fast, and heavy. However my local Porsche dealer was scrupulously honest, and after I had already approved replacing both fronts and rears, they called me up and told me the rears were good for another year or so. After that one, they’ve got themselves a customer for life.

Tyre prices are equally terrifying, but when you see the sheer acreage of rubber (245/40/20) next to more normal tyres, you begin to understand why - plus of course you need compounds rated for the speeds and loads the Beast puts on them. Once they’re on, they seem to last well enough; the new winter set that just came off looked nicely healthy and evenly worn, and still had plenty of tread left.

On the plus side of that equation, Porsche ownership gets you invited to Porsche events - so last weekend found me haring around the Circuito Tazio Nuvolari in the new 718 Boxster S, before hitting the handling track in the new 911 C4S (the one with the rear-wheel steering - very nice).

What would you change

I already changed the one thing that really bugged me, which was the in-car entertainment system. The Beast came with PCM 2.1, and that is really quite dated, with no Bluetooth, USB, or even aux-in - basically no way whatsoever of talking to the outside world. The novelty factor of the curly-cord handset in the armrest was cute, and I was able to get a second SIM card for my mobile number to put in the car, so I ran it like that for a while. However, after a few months I had had enough of having to swap out CDs in the six-disc changer in the back, not being able to listen to podcasts, and having nearly decade-old maps in the satnav.

I replaced the original ICE system with an Alpine head unit with CarPlay1, so now I just plug my iPhone into the armrest where that phone handset used to go, and I have all my music, podcasts, and maps on the screen in the dashboard. There’s even a dedicated Siri button, so the Son&Heir can tell her to "play some Ramones" as soon as he gets in the car. I had to get an additional amp to feed the (very nice) Bose system that the car came with, but I am very happy with the results.

The only other thing I am tempted to change is the exhaust. There’s a lovely burble when starting the engine from cold, but unless you’re really hoofing it, it’s pretty subtle on the move. (Tunnels are great fun, though!) I would quite like to hear more of the engine’s voice, but I can’t really justify the four-figure cost, especially for something that would probably make my wife’s eyes roll right back into her head.

There is absolutely no call for chipping it, what with the amount of power it’s throwing about already. I love the looks just as they are, and the 20" Porsche OEM wheels are perfect too, so I think it will stay stock apart from the PCM swap.

Now tell us what you really think

Bottom line, I love the thing to bits, even though it has probably spoiled me for any other car that does not have heated electric everything and all the POWERRRR in the world. Buy with care, and you can have a lot of fun with one of these things.


  1. Yes, the steering wheel buttons work with the new head unit thanks to a little adapter, so between that and Siri, my fears over CarPlay were not justified.