Uncanny Valley Fever

2015-05-08 16.44.00For the past few years we’ve been periodically hearing about autonomous vehicles; both cars and trucks. Most of the stories have been positive, yet vague on when we might actually see them. The nebulous “10 year” catch phrase always seems to make it’s way into these stories.

Most of the stories about the Google self-driving car seem to have been carefully managed. The Google car has driven hundreds of thousands of miles without causing an accident. However, that hasn’t stopped other human driven vehicles from plowing into it.

Automation theory demands closed systems, where all variables are known, without the possibility of new or unknown variables being introduced into the system. For example, it has long been possible to create 100% robotic warehouses. However these storage and retrieval warehouses are completely closed systems, closed in the same way that electronic circuit boards are closed that run smartphones, televisions or computers. There are automated garages in New York City that make it possible for every resident of incredibly expensive apartments to park their cars in marvelously automated and efficient parking garages, maximizing the expensive New York City real estate. These automated car storage systems are totally closed systems, where all variables are known 100% of the time.

Few of the glowing stories about the Google self-driving car seem to mention how Google has managed to achieve such an amazing feat as a self-driving car. The vast majority of these miles have all been in the relatively tiny city of Mountain View, California. Google has had to meticulously scan and map out every square inch of Mountain View, and come up with specific software to deal with each and every quirk that makes Mountain View, California unique. In other words, Google has managed to recreate a high-resolution virtual version of Mountain View, California for the car to follow.

In other words, Google has managed to turn Mountain View into a closed system, with every possible address known, every parking space known, and every variable the car might encounter known and accounted for. Think of it in terms of how a roller coaster makes a closed loop. The only thing that remains open-ended in Mountain View for the Google self-driving car is the presence of other pedestrians and traffic.

Contrast that with the real world, where the number of open-ended variables are frequently vast. I use Google Maps multiple times a day on a daily basis. Even though Google Maps is probably the best mapping database available, it is only accurate about 90% of the time. If I put in an address of a large business complex, Google Maps or any other GPS system can only take me to the main address, which most times can be a block or more away from the location of the drive I actually need to turn in to. A self-driving car in the open system of the real world would likely not know where the front entrance of any given business actually was or where vehicles should even park. Each one of these things would have to be specifically programmed in for each of literally millions and millions of locations, and there would still be unacceptably large database errors. Sometimes Google Maps and other GPS systems will say an address is on the left when it is actually on the right or vice versa. It may say that the address is actually out in a field.

A self-driving car might work if you live in Disney Land, but in the real world probably not so much.

In recent months Daimler has demonstrated both in Germany and Nevada so-called self-driving semi trucks. The systems demonstrated are what are in essence best described as a “super cruise control” where once the truck is being driven down a freeway the driver can press a button and the truck will steer itself with the cruise control engaged. Big trucks have had conventional cruise control systems for quite a few years. In the past few years, radar systems have been integrated into the throttle and braking systems making adaptive cruise control a reality.

Adaptive cruise control systems can be handy for maintaining adaptive speed on a busy road. However, the system quickly breaks down with vehicles that are traveling slower than the rest of the traffic. The truck’s radar-based adaptive cruise control will simply match the speed of the vehicle in front of it, unless the driver overrides it by accelerating or getting into the passing lane.

There is an occasional problem with false positives. Driving trucks with adaptive radar based systems I have had the truck slam on the brakes because of a false positive from an overpass or even from a slowing vehicle in an off ramp. On a rain or snow slickened surface slamming on the brakes could cause a jackknife or even collision from behind from someone following too close.

Another problem with radar-based cruise control and braking systems is that the sensor in the front bumper of the truck can become covered with bugs or ice and snow and the system simply stops working. Sometimes it stops working anyway for no reason, requiring the truck to be stopped and the motor turned off and back on, rebooting the cruise control electronics to try to get it to function properly again.

The Self-Driving Truck

Aside from these mechanical problems, there’s another problem having to do with security. Have you ever wondered why in this day and age of high-resolution cameras and ubiquitous electronic surveillance systems there are still so many human security guards? There’s a very simple reason for this. The physical presence of a human being security guard scares off would-be thieves much more effectively than cameras or other surveillance devices. If something is apparently unattended by a human presence, psychologically it is much easier for would-be crooks than it is if a human being is around watching.

I expect the same thing would happen with would-be highjackers of self-driving trucks. All they would have to do to make the automated truck come to a complete stop would be to completely block its path. Then it would be a simple matter of breaking into it and stealing the cargo. The would-be thieves would likely not be deterred by the presence of cameras or even automated no trespassing warning messages broadcast over integrated speakers. There would be no human witness to injure or kill, making it an easy, even desirable target from the criminal mind’s point of view.

If you have never been a long-haul truck driver, then it is easy to look at the job from the outside and think that it consists of just driving down the freeway. While driving does constitute a considerable amount of the job, there are hidden parts of the job that are not readily apparent to someone passing a truck on a freeway.

To get an idea of what the more hidden, complicating parts of the job entails, it is helpful to think of it in terms of would it be possible for someone confined to a wheelchair to autonomously drive a long-haul truck. The truck itself could easily be modified so that a wheelchair-bound individual could drive it in much the same way that conventional automobiles can be modified. However, there’s more to the job of moving freight around than simply driving.

A fair amount of face-to-face business negotiation has to take place to set up the loading and unloading processes. With every load, the driver has to figure out how how to get to a customer’s facility, where to park the truck out of the way, and figure out where the shipping or receiving entrance is located at to take the load information or paperwork to the shipping or receiving clerk. There are virtually ALWAYS stairs involved, occasionally a lot of them, and most do not have wheelchair ramps. Upon being given a door to back into, the trailer doors must be opened and once loaded or unloaded the same doors have to be closed. The trailer wheels frequently must be adjusted to meet weight law limitations in order to make the overall weight legal. A person in a wheelchair would also have to be able to fuel the truck, check its oil and inspect it each day for potential mechanical and tire problems. They would have to devise a way of getting into the back of the trailer to sweep it out, or even load and unload on occasion. Certainly all of these problems could be overcome with vast effort and great expense, but it’s just not practical.

A self-driving truck would be even more handicapped than a person in a wheelchair. It would not be able to fuel itself, nor could it handle face-to-face negotiations. It would just be a dumb piece of equipment, easy to rob from or just ignore.

The face-to-face business negotiation aspect is far more important than it appears at first blush. This aspect is one reason that 70% of long-distance freight is moved by truck and not by rail.

The Uncanny Valley

As owners of Google Glass know, there is a fundamentally important real-world aspect that Google Glass engineers failed to take into account – the so-called “uncanny valley.” Human beings are creeped-out by a camera placed directly next to human eyes. On paper it must have looked great in the closed world of Google engineers. In the real world, it’s quite creepy and produces extremely negative reactions from all kinds of different people. Why not combine it with a Twilight Zone ventriloquist dummy face for the full effect?

The concept of self-driving vehicles may also look great on paper. I think there’s another so-called “uncanny valley” problem when it comes to the self-driving vehicle. I believe the average person is going to be creeped-out when they look over and see a driver with his or her super cruise control engaged either snoozing in the driver’s seat or playing with their smartphone, or perhaps not in the driver’s seat at all.

Super cruise control is close to being here. Whether it will be accepted or not remains to be seen.

As for 100% autonomous vehicles, I’m not holding my breath.

In the meantime, I want and would be willing to pay good money for a 100% autonomous toilet-cleaning robot!

Secure Your Vehicle With Your Smartphone

British Inventors ProjectRegrettably car theft is a major problem worldwide and while car security has improved significantly over the past years, an increasing number of cars are being stolen using cloned keys or bypassing keyless security systems. Demonstrated at Gadget Show Live, My Smart Remote is an additional layer of security that prevents thieves from stealing a vehicle even if they have the key, whether physical or otherwise.

MySmartRemoteMy Smart Remote consists of a small electronic unit and a smartphone app for both Android and iOS. The electronic unit is installed discreetly in the car and this can lock down the vehicle and stop the car from being started. The electronic unit communicates via Bluetooth with an app on the owner’s smartphone putting in extra security which is largely invisible and crucially unrelated to the vehicle itself. Consequently, even with a cloned key, the car is going nowhere. An enhanced version of My Smart Remote can also control internal features of the vehicle including the horn, air-conditioning and opening the boot (trunk). There’s an anti-carjacking feature too.

My Smart Remote is on pre-order at CrowdShed. £159 gets the standard security version and for additional internal control, the enhanced version costs £299.

Self-Driving Cars May Be Here Sooner than you Think

Tesla logoThe self-driving car. It’s the dream of daily commuters and crosstown drivers alike. What would you do with all of the time you could save by not having to pay attention to the road during your trip to work? Or how about those occasions when you just don’t have time to drive the kids to the mall (again)? Self-driving cars have made a lot of news over the last few years with much of the focus being placed on Google’s autonomous automobile research. But high-end electric car manufacturer Tesla may have lapped Google in the self-driving car race.

Elon Musk, founder and CEO of Tesla just announced that his company will be introducing autonomous vehicle technology as early as this summer. What’s even more remarkable is that these futuristic features won’t come by way of hardware retrofits. But rather, Tesla Model S sedans will gain autonomy thru a software update. The new software will allow these vehicles to operate in a hands-free “autopilot” mode which will initially only be available on major roads such as highways.

Other car manufacturers have already implemented some limited self-driving features in their own cars. But even in automatic mode, those vehicles still require a driver’s hands to be placed on the steering wheels. The Model S is likely to be the first truly self-driving car on American roads.

And while it is a serious accomplishment for Tesla, don’t run out to the nearest Model S dealer just yet. There is still much debate and speculation as to whether or not self-driving cars are even street legal in most parts of the country. Still, there is some good news for Model S owners who don’t want to wait for the government to work out the legalese around self-driving cars. On private property, Model S owners will be able to summon their cars using a smartphone app. Also, these cars will be able to park themselves in a driveway or inside a garage.

And even tho the dream of autonomous driving is now closer than ever, the base model for a Tesla Model S sedan will set you back just shy of $70,000. So if you were really hoping to impress your friends by showing off your car that can park itself in the garage, you may want to start saving up now and/or take out a second mortgage.

Monitor Tyre Pressures with FOBO Tire

Fobo LogoIn-car tyre pressure monitoring is a valuable safety tool, alerting the driver to a potential problem as soon as the pressure drops. Depending on the cost of the car, the alert can be a single red warning light on the dash through to wheel-by-wheel pressure levels. Usually the feature has to be installed by the manufacturer but Fobo Tire is an after-market solution that can be easily fitted to any vehicle, both cars and bikes. Jamie and Nick take to the road with Kevin Tan from Fobo.

Fobo Tire is Bluetooth-based tyre pressure monitoring system, consisting of four sensors that screw onto the tyre’s pressure valve, replacing the dust caps. The sensors transmit data via Bluetooth both to a small monitoring unit that can remain in the vehicle and also to the owner’s smartphone or tablet. The smartphone app works with both iOS and Android, and the app can track up to 19 cars (4 x 19 sensors), so it’s good for multi-car families or small business.

Fobo Tire costs $179 for four sensors and the in-car monitoring unit, and Fobo Bike is $79 for only two sensors. Available now from Fobo’s on-line store.

Interview by Jamie Davis of Health Tech Weekly and Nick DiMeo of F5 Live: Refreshing Technology for the TechPodcast Network.

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The Automotive Future by Valeo

Valeo LogoFew outside of the automotive industry will have heard of Valeo but the company is one of the world’s leading suppliers to car manufacturers, with over 78,000 employees in 29 countries and nearly $14 billion in sales. Customers include Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Nissan, Hyundai and Aston Martin, to name but a few. Jamie chats with Guillaume Devauchelle, VP Valeo, to understand the automotive industry’s direction of travel.

While autonomous cars are stealing the headlines on nearly a daily basis, the reality is that a self-driving car isn’t going to be bought off the dealer forecourt overnight. It’s going to be a gradual introduction of technology over time, each taking a step towards the final goal. Cruise control has been standard for years, and adaptive cruise control with lane departure warning is available on high-end vehicles now. Imagine the next step will be autonomous driving on freeways to prove the technology. Then the self-drive will work with two way traffic, pedestrians and cyclists, and in a final leap, driverless cars will be permitted.

Interview by Jamie Davis of Health Tech Weekly for the TechPodcast Network.

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AAMP of America Auto Upgrades

Aamp of AmericaTechnology moves on quickly and while most people get a new smartphone every other year, buying a new car doesn’t happen nearly as frequently. As a result, in-car technology can get out of date quickly, particularly with respect to entertainment and communication. Fortunately, AAMP of America can help out with this; Todd talks with Jeff Smith to find out what’s hot in auto upgrades.

With over 4,000 dealers, AAMP provide a wide range of after-market upgrades, with rear-view cameras and parking assistance being very popular, including dynamic parking lines. To keep up with manufacturer offerings AAMP does its own design and development to make sure its own products match or exceed the OEM products. Watch the video to learn more about AAMP and their approach to innovation.

Interview by Todd Cochrane of Geek News Central for the TechPodcast Network.

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Powerocks with New Battery Products at CES

Powerocks LogoUSB power packs for charging smartphones and tablets are ubiquitous and companies are striving hard to find their niche in a market that’s full of products from both established names and up-and-coming specialists. Todd talks with Craig Miller from Powerocks about how they’re going to set themselves apart.

Powerocks has adopted a two pronged approach. In its established market for mobile devices, it’s taking USB battery packs and giving them a lifestyle makeover, in this case a leather covering, to make them more appealing to a wider audience and sold in mainstream stores.

Secondly, Powerocks is using its battery expertise to be build products that aren’t only smartphone chargers but still have a battery at the core. The Jump Starter vehicle emergency unit includes a 10,000 mAh battery, USB charging ports, an LED signal light, a torch, a distress alarm, a steel break-glass and a car jump-starter all in one unit. Seriously!

Interview by Todd Cochrane of Geek News Central for the TechPodcast Network.

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Velodyne LiDAR at CES

HDL logo_single

Lidar is a version of radar that uses laser light rather than radio waves to measure distance and although it may seem like a new technology, it’s been around since the 60s. It’s come to greater prominence recently as it’s been used as one of the sensing technologies both for 3D mapping and driverless vehicles. Jamie and Todd find out more about lidar from Wolfgang Juchmann, Director of Sales and Marketing at Velodyne LiDAR.

Velodyne LiDAR has been one of the leading companies developing lidar technology, bringing down both the size and price of the lidar units over the past ten years. What previously was the size of a dustbin, costing $80,000, is now the size of a large food tin and costs $8,000. As sizes and prices fall, the cost and practicality of autonomous vehicles becomes more feasible, with lidar building high resolution 3D maps of the world around the car. The on-board computer can use the 3D information to tell the difference between cyclists and buildings, and drive the car on the road avoiding other road users.

Interview by Jamie Davis of Health Tech Weekly and Todd Cochrane of Geek News Central for the TechPodcast Network.

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Test Driving a Tesla

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Imagine if the government had bailed out the horse-drawn carriage business in 1910. How much longer would it have been before the personal transportation industry advanced to the point that everyone could have an automobile? Perhaps the government shouldn’t have bailed out conventional gasoline-powered cars. Maybe it’s time to let the evolution of the automobile take another step forward. Telsa is leading the way for this new horizon and if you ever get a chance to drive one, you’ll quickly learn that you’ll never want to drive a gas vehicle again.

During a recent trip to San Francisco, I spent a day with some friends who were shopping for a new car. We went to dealer after dealer, studying prices and shapes and colors and of course gas mileage. We saw some pretty nice cars. And of course they wanted something affordable and reasonable, but not hideous or unsafe. At the end of the day they went home and I stopped at ONE more place – the Tesla dealership in Burlingame.  I asked to take a test drive and the friendly staff set me up in the Tesla Model S P85, which is the top of the three-car line-up in the Telsa fleet.

First of all, I’m not really a car guy. But that doesn’t matter. There were so many moments while driving this thing, where I found myself saying, “This is just so cool.”

The company is owned by Elon Musk, who also owns Space X, and this makes perfect sense when you climb aboard this space rocket of a car. As the salesman approached the car, it started automatically, sensing the key in his pocket. The door handles which were flush against the door, popped out and I couldn’t help but feel like they really wanted to make something efficient and powerful but, as I mentioned, really cool too.

The first thing I noticed when I sat down in the cockpit of this future car, was the massive 17” touch screen in the middle console. This is your control panel for music, navigation, internet, backup camera and phone.  No more dinking around with your tiny smart phone for that Pandora app, or Google map, this beast of a monitor makes access to these things extremely simple. One of the most important features the computer brings up, are all the Tesla Supercharger stations across the country and even the world. It shows how many are currently in existence but also how many are scheduled to be in place in the next year – which is considerably a lot more. Charging is free at any Tesla shop, and they’re currently spaced out appropriately across the US, so in theory, you could drive across the country for free. The car can also be charged at other non-Tesla chargers but a fee may be required.

After a quick lesson in where all the knobs and buttons were and a demo of the control panel screen, we were off. This car has power. Lots of power. A little acceleration goes a long way, and when you want to slow down (which ideally, you don’t) just letting up on the pedal slows the car down to a point where you may not even need to use the brake. This regenerative braking system is by design to save power. The amount the car slows down when not accelerating, can be adjusted via the control panel as per the driver’s preference.  The P85 is stocked with an 85 kWh battery giving it a range of 265 miles per charge. The 85 has the same battery while the base model 60 has a 60 kWh battery giving it a range of 208 miles per charge.

One of the next things I noticed was how smooth it was, but also how SILENT it was. Even when I was encouraged to give it a little more acceleration, there was no sound. The P85 can do 0-60mph in 4.2 seconds. I’m not sure I got it to that on the side roads but it made merging into traffic on the freeway, feel just fantastic. I was told the test car is limited to a mere 80 mph cap but if I had my own, I could get it to 130 mph. In Bay Area traffic, good luck getting anywhere at those speeds. But speaking of traffic – which tends to be a lot of stop and go – the Tesla will give your ankle a break from going back and forth on pedals, thanks to the regenerative braking.

During the drive we hit a rather bumpy road. I immediately noticed that this was no problem at all for the car, and this is due to its Smart Air Suspension. The system automatically adjusts and levels itself out as needed. This system can also be accessed through the control panel to raise or lower the rest of the vehicle if needed for an incline, snow driving or loading/unloading.

The tech of the Tesla S is state-of-the art. And the price tag reflects that. You’re looking at somewhere around $70k for this baby, but it IS a luxury vehicle. A very, very cool luxury vehicle. But if you feel like getting one, all you have to do is head over to teslamotors.com and build yourself a custom car. There is currently somewhere around a three-month wait on the S.

I found myself wanting to drive fast but was also conflicted as I didn’t want to be done with it too quickly either. After driving this car, I really felt like I was getting into a horse-drawn carriage when I finally had to return to my boring old gasoline car. Maybe it’s time to let those “analog” cars die and embrace the future of electric vehicles. If the future is Tesla, you’re going to love it.

ViperSmart car security and a lot more

viper logoViperSmart stopped by TPN recently to discuss SmartStart, which can start, lock, unlock and monitor your car from anywhere. Those controls can all be handled from a smartphone app — either Android, iPhone or Blackberry. In fact the company president demonstrated that he could unlock his car, located in California while sitting in Las Vegas.

The app also receives trouble codes from the engine and alerts you to these, essentially monitoring your vehicles health, including if your battery is running low. It will alert you if your doors are unlocked or if your trunk is open, locate your car and monitor the speed of travel (in case your teen borrows it).

The plan is on a per-car basis, not a per driver and it runs about $3 per month, though the charge is actually annual. Some features are separate and can add a bit to the price. The app itself is free. Users will need to install the system in their car and the entry level version is $299.

Interview by Andy McCaskey of SDR News and RV News Net and Daniel J Lewis of  Audacity to Podcast

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