AVs Drive Themselves Straight into a Service Model

Google AV

Google’s driverless, autonomous vehicles portend a radical chance in how we get around. (courtesy Google)

AVs (not audiovisual, but rather autonomous vehicles) are poised to change the developed world. It seems that about everyone who looks at transportation comes to the same conclusion. It takes a bit of explaining as to why, and a recent piece I wrote for Rocky Mountain Institute’s Solutions Journal takes a shot at. RMI is launching an AV-focused research group, led by longtime GM research executive Jerry Weiland. Weiland and colleagues the first to admit they’re not the only ones thinking about the implications of self-driving cars. But RMI’s involvement brings heavyweight intellect and a long track record in working with government and business to the party.

It’s one of those stories that was rewritten pretty heavily but came out just as well (freelance writers learn not to take these things personally). I had originally led with:

Perhaps discussions of lightweighting, electrifying and autonomizing vehicles doesn’t quite get your blood pumping. Maybe, to you, the notion of a deeply networked, multimodal mobility infrastructure optimized to move people with great efficiency, striking economy and minimal environmental footprint smacks too much of transpo-geekery.

Fine. How about the idea of slashing your annual driving costs by about 75 percent sound, then? With combined U.S. savings of a trillion dollars a year?

That’s a serious number, and it’s the bottom line of RMI’s latest transportation initiative, one riding a wave of academic and commercial recognition that our century-old, car-and-truck centric mobility system is about to be disrupted in a big way.

Where do the trillion bucks come from? We in the United States spend $1.2 trillion a year – 20 percent of our incomes, on average – for the privilege of paying 56 cents a mile to drive our personally owned, isolated, gas-powered vehicles, which the RMI team calls PIGs. (That’s not even counting the $2 trillion or so annually that pollution, sitting in traffic, roads and parking lots, and traffic accidents cost us). The idea is to shift to fleets of shared, electrified, automated, lightweight vehicles (SEALs), which would, if deployed broadly over the next 20 to 30 years, provide the same or better mobility benefits as PIGS for just 15 cents a mile, or a total of about $200 billion, the RMI team calculates. It all depends on cars going from being personal property to being fleet-based elements of networked, shared, multimodal mobility services.

When I wrote it, I was pretty sure “transpo-geekery” wouldn’t survive an editorial gauntlet of transpo-geeks. But I figured you, intelligent laypeople, and not transpo-geeks, were the true audience. And why not have a little fun?

The only line I’d like them to have kept is this: AVs drive themselves straight into a service model. To understand what I’m talking about, you’ll have to read the story.

What’s the use of math? – a JWST example

JWST LaGrange point map

The James Webb Space Telescope will orbit something called L2, discovered thanks to math in an era where only sheep (and a duck and a rooster) flew. (Courtesy NASA)

My 12-year-old daughter, as 12-year-old daughters do, asked me what’s the use of math. I wrote a book about space engineers. Their work is the manifestation of math. I have taken to answering with something along the lines of “math gives us the ability to model the universe and everything in it. And it keeps bridges from falling down on us.”

If we’re in a vehicle when she asks what the use of math is, I might add, “It keeps the wheels from falling off this car.” Recently, I did a story, yet unpublished, about a steel research center at the Colorado School of Mines. One of its co-founders mentioend offhand that there are 11 types of structural steel in nose of a car’s frame, all for a specific reason. He showed me this video of a 1959 Chevy Bel Air crashing head-on into a 2009 Chevy Malibu. The difference in the wreckage, to no small degree, was math.

Yesterday, reading a bit about the Hubble Space Telescope’s 25th anniversary, I came upon a great pure-math example. It has to do with the JWST, not to be confused with SxSW.

The James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble’s successor planned for launch in October 2018, will look farther into the universe’s history than Hubble or any other telescope. It will do more to figure out potentially habitable planets orbiting distant suns, too. It will do all sorts of other stuff to clarify the universe’s development and our place in it. It will cost about $9 billion. Ball Aerospace, the company I wrote about, did up the 18 gold-coated super-lightweight beryllium mirrors, which will unfold into a 21-foot primary mirror.

The JWST will rely on an infrared detector, which has to be kept super-cold. They had to find just the right spot for it in space. The mission designers chose the second Lagrange point (a.k.a. L2), about a million miles away – roughly four times the distance from Earth to the moon. They weren’t the first mission designers to have done this.

From the JWST web page about its future orbit (emphasis mine):

The L2 orbit is an elliptical orbit about the semi-stable second Lagrange point. It is one of the five solutions by the mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange in the 18th century to the three-body problem. Lagrange was searching for a stable configuration in which three bodies could orbit each other yet stay in the same position relative to each other. He found five such solutions, and they are called the five Lagrange points in honor of their discoverer.

Lagrange was a contemporary of the Montgolfier brothers. The outer limits of aerospace innovation in those days involved a sheep, a duck and a rooster in a hot air balloon. Lagrange wasn’t looking for applications, couldn’t have conceived of a space telescope. He was just doing math.

From Jars to Stars to… Mars @Slate.com

Courtesy Ball Aerospace.

Courtesy Ball Aerospace.

A closely held secret among journalists is that, once you write a story, the mind tends to shed the details rather hastily. And so, despite seeming authoritative — and actually being rather authoritative — for the duration of a given story and for a day or two afterward, it fades fast. Hence the need for beat reporters, who gain depth and source bases through reps.

I had been wondering to what extent the same would happen with things related to Ball Aerospace, having closed the book on the book about four years ago. Sam Lemonick, a freelance writer, gave me a chance to assess that.

Sam came upon the idea of writing a story about how strange it was that Ball Aerospace, this company making instruments for the Orion mission slated for its first orbital test tomorrow (scrubbed today; winds and a goofy valve), was the same Ball that once made the mason jars. Slate published it today on Future Tense.

Ball Aerospace spokeswoman Roz Brown, who was a huge help when I was reporting the book from 2006-2009ish, mentioned to Sam that he wasn’t the first to wonder about the jars-stars connection. She called me last week when I was walking around a private zoo west of Phoenix, one with just loads of macaws and not a few loitering ducks.

I found that, while I had to cram a bit on the specifics, I remembered the broad strokes reasonably well. I was also reminded how much I love the Ball Aerospace origins story. When I started out, I was thinking about writing about a specific mission, Deep Impact. I hadn’t intended to spend time at the Minnetrista Heritage Collection in Muncie, Ind. and various Washington D.C. archives, or to have Roz recall boxes full of old documents slated for shredding back up to Boulder for my perusal. That all tallied up to months of work and about one-third of the book, and it gave the thing its depth.

Sam and I spoke while I was waiting for my 11 year old to finish up a freestyle session at a rink in Scottsdale, Arizona, and even while talking with him, I was keenly aware of not saying much of anything quotable. But his story has a lot of good stuff from the book and he did a great job with the piece, so check it out.

Courtesy Ball Aerospace.

Courtesy Ball Aerospace.

How to earn your driver’s license in 3.5 hours

LicenseVOID-TBN

My driver’s license expires at the end of December, so I decided today was a good time to get in and get it renewed. I had to go in-person, the ten-year license I was issued in 2004 not allowing online renewal. So I watched my eight year old climb on the big yellow school bus and drove off to an Aurora branch of the Colorado Department of Motor Vehicles, where I stood in a U-shaped line of about 40 people just as the  place opened. I had heard the best approach to the DMV was to avoid Mondays and Fridays and be in line early. Check.

My wait was brief – less than 10 minutes. I handed my license to the young woman behind the counter. She was blonde, her station immediately next to a less-young, permed, more stereotypical DMV lady. The blonde keyed a couple of things and asked the permed lady a question, and they agreed: my license had been voided in 2006, when a new license had been issued. The new license had expired in 2011. Meaning I had no license at all.

I was like, what? I had no recollection at all at first; then only a vague sense of having misplaced a driver’s license at some point in the distant past, during the toddler-raising years. I had been driving illegally for somewhere between three and eight years.

I leaned forward and, elbows on the counter, put my palms to my forehead, trying to remember. Between my hands I said, “Are you sure it’s me? The 2006 one?”

“It’s your picture,” the stereotypical one said.

The tens of thousands of miles. The rented cars. The airport checkpoints. The drinks served and bottles bought. I had been living a lie.

The younger blonder one walked through the where-do-we-go-from-here. She seemed empathetic. I needed my learner’s permit first, which I could get after I had taken the written test. The learner’s permit would allow me to drive – if a licensed driver 21 years of age or older was in the passenger seat.  With the learner’s permit in hand, I could then take a road test, and if I passed that, I could come back in and get an actual driver’s license.

In moments like these, I’ve taken to repeating the mantra: “First-world problem.” Meaning my children do not have bloated bellies or Ebola; schistosomiasis is non-endemic to Colorado’s Front Range; I’m not being beheaded in Syria, those sorts of things.

I realize what probably happened: I misplaced the 10-year license, got the five-year license, found the 10-year license sometime after that and put that back in my wallet. I mumbled something to this effect. The girl nodded and said, “You can take the written test right now, over on terminal three. If you pass, you can get your permit right then.”

“How about the driver’s test?”

“We’re booked out about a month in advance,” she says. “But there’s a driving school right next door. They do driving tests for $45. You can try there, but you’ll need your permit first.”

I walked over to Terminal 3 with some trepidation, as I tend to prefer my study-to-test gaps to be somewhat less than 30 years.

The first question, a practice one, popped up on the screen – this is a digital test now, on a touch-screen terminal.

2 + 2 = ?

Multiple choice.

For the next 25 questions, I touched either A, B or C, then the Yes I’m Sure button. I was asked to properly identify “merge” and “yield” signs. Twice I was forced to guess twice. One was on the distance, at speeds over 40 mph, one should engage one’s turn signal on before changing lanes. The options were 100 feet, 200 feet, and 400 feet. I figured 30 yards was too short and 130 yards too far, so went with the just-right one, which worked out.

With the second one, I got bogged down in the semantics. On a slippery road, if one feels one starting to lose control in a car with ABS, should one a) pump brakes lightly, b) take one’s foot off the accelerator and steer in the direction of the slippage, or c) just hold down the brake pedal. Having driven cars with ABS since the turn of the millennium, my experience is that both not-accelerating and steering and holding down the brake (ABS being all about the pumping) were reasonable, depending on the situation. Ambiguity is not, of course, a defining, feature of things DMV. I guessed c); answer: b).

My learner's permit.

My learner’s permit

I did the eye test (the little light goes on left first, then right, then left, then right; don’t tell them I told you) got my permit and walked straight next door to the American Driving Academy. A sign said to smile, I was on camera, and to have a cookie and some coffee. After a bit, a guy who I assumed was Jim came out and asked if I had an appointment. I assumed he was Jim because Jim was the instructor on duty, according to the whiteboard that told me to smile, I was on camera. I said no.

He explained he was booked for the day, but if his 9 a.m. appointment didn’t show up, he could take me out. It was 8:57. The minutes passed slowly as I nibbled on my windmill cookie and sipped my heavily artificially creamed coffee. Jim said he would give the appointee until five after nine. At 9:03, three women of three generations, starting with probably mid-50s, walked in. The oldest was probably in her nineties, in a wheelchair. The younger one asked if her friend could take a driving test. I was relieved when the middle woman showed him a document. The lady in the wheelchair would  be a real menace out there. They had no appointment. I felt bad. Then, at 9:05, I felt good.

The Hyundai

The Hyundai

Jim gave me the key to the 2009 Hyundai with a sign on it like we were going out to deliver pizzas together. The car was seriously worn, with a big, thick brake pedal at Jim’s feet. Jim was a gentle man, and he had forewarned me to stop fully at stop signs. One of the touch-screen test questions reminded me to not palm the wheel around corners (hand-over-hand, or hand-slip, I had answered, correctly and in direct contrast with my long-practiced one-handed-palm-only approach). Three times I stopped more completely and earlier than I had stopped for uncontested stop signs since 1984, when I took my last road test. I hand-over-handed my turns, an incredibly foreign feeling that manifest in the car’s slight lurching. I left two hands on the wheel longer than I had since Ronald Reagan’s first term. I watched my speed closely.

But I realized: hey, I’m just driving, here. Probably done a million miles or something since the L.A. Olympics. Left-hand drives, right-hand drives, stick shifts, vans, moving vans, the whole bit. So I started to talking to Jim, who I learned lives in Mayfair, not far from me. I noted the gigantic campers in the driveways, wondering how big a rig they need to pull them. I thought: I should pull out my cell phone and thumb up a quick text message just to freak old Jim right out. I asked him if there were drivers he went on road tests with that just scared the hell out of him.

“Yes,” he said.

DrivingTest-TBN

Passed.

During the debrief, Jim said two of my stop-sign stops were right on the ragged edge and one was an outright fail. “I gave  you the benefit of the doubt,” he said. This despite my belief that I had stopped long enough for an acorn to take root. But otherwise, everything was great, he said. Given that I’ve been driving twice as long as most permit-holders have been alive, I took it as I would take someone complimenting my near-native English. I said, “Yeah, I usually roll my stops if it’s totally clear – better for the environment. Hypermiling and all.” Old Jim raised his eyebrows, but signed the Basic Operators Driving Skill Test Completion Statement anyway. It was 9:25 a.m.

I walked back next door to the DMV and took another number, long after early now. This one advertised an estimated wait time of an hour and thirteen minutes, which turned out to be more like two hours, enough to write most of this.

I was asked the same questions as with the permit, though there was no eye test (I would have passed the peripheral vision light one easy, having memorized it). I paid my $21 for the actual license, the $15 I had forked over for the learner’s permit having been one of the most expensive ever, calculated on an per-hour basis. I sat back down until the photo guy called me back up.

Legal again.

Legal again.

“Long time no see,” I said.

“No kidding,” he said. “Birthdate?”

“Twelve-thirty-sixty-eight,” I said.

“Still?” he said.

Another signature, another infrared fingerprint scan, another photo. He considered whatever was on his screen.

“It looks a lot like the last one,” he said, and he handed me back my voided license and temporary license and said to have a good day. I wished him the same, walked out, and drove home legally for the first time in years.

A fishy Kickstarter campaign from my philosopher-fishmonger friend

Dylan Hitchcock-Lopez of Seashaken, here demonstrably in fishmonger (as opposed to philosopher) mode.

Dylan Hitchcock-Lopez of Seashaken, here demonstrably in fishmonger (as opposed to philosopher) mode.

My favorite philospher-fishmonger of all time, Dylan Hitchkock-Lopez, has launched  Kickstarter campaign for his startup business, Seashaken. Be sure to click on the video – well worth the 2:40.

The Grist story linked above (and again right there. Sorry to be redundant. Did I mention the Grist story?) does a good job with Dylan’s bio.

How do I know someone young enough to be my son who is launching a business dedicated to bringing sustainable, line-caught (not bycatch-laden net-scooped) salmon from our great petroleum and fish-rich northerly state to the Rocky Mountains? His mom Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock and I were Ted Scripps Fellows in Environmental Journalism together a few years back. He once took me cross-country skiing up at Eldora. Kicked my ass.

I won’t belabor this, but if you’re in Denver/Boulder/Santa Fe, check it out the campaign. I’ve bought Seashaken fish before and it’s a treat. The pricing is less than what you’ll pay retail for non-farmed salmon anyway. Plus it comes frozen in its original fishy form, which is always a conversation starter. As I told Dylan, I’d like to see him in grad school, but this is an interesting interlude, and I hope you can help him out before the Dec. 15 deadline and enjoy some excellent salmon, too.