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Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Insurance Companies Are Now Offering Discounts if You Let Your Tesla Drive Itself

As reported by Futurism: While accidents have happened, one of the most appealing things about autonomous vehicles is their capacity to make our roads a safer place. Now, insurance companies are starting to offer financial incentives to promote adoption.

Britain’s largest automobile insurance company, Direct Line, has announced a 5 percent discount for customers who activate Autopilot functionality in their Tesla. It follows in the footsteps of Root, a startup that offers a similar promotion across nine states in the US.

It should be noted that Direct Line’s discount shouldn’t be taken as an endorsement of the technology, at least for the time being. The company is encouraging customers to utilize Autopilot so that it can collect data on whether or not it contributes to safer driving, so that insurance premiums can be adjusted as a result.

“At present the driver is firmly in charge so it’s just like insuring other cars, but it does offer Direct Line a great opportunity to learn and prepare for the future,” the company’s head of motor development, Dan Freedman, told Reuters.

Tesla Crash Test
In May 2016, the driver of a Tesla Model S using Autopilot mode was killed when his vehicle collided with an 18-wheeler truck at a highway intersection. However, a subsequent report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) largely exonerated the automaker.

The NHTSA found that the crash rate of Tesla vehicles dropped by nearly 40 percent when Autosteer was activated. Elon Musk has since pledged that future improvements to the Autopilot system will contribute to a 90 percent reduction in accidents.

Data published by the Association for Safe International Road Travel asserts that over 37,000 people die as a result of car accidents every year in the US, with some 2.35 million suffering injuries. Furthermore, there are some 1.3 million deaths related to car accidents worldwide every year. The NHTSA has previously released data that states that almost 95 percent of crashes are caused by drivers.

These figures could be reduced significantly if autonomous driving systems were more widely used. Self-driving cars will be safest when there are no human drivers on the road, because their ability to communicate with one another won’t be subject to the same misunderstandings.

It’s easy to see reduced insurance premiums being used to convince drivers to cede control to their cars on a broader scale. At some point, we might even see the need for individual insurance disappear completely.

When companies are sufficiently confident in their self-driving vehicles, they might take on the responsibility, agreeing to pay any damages in case of an accident. This would likely push the automotive industry toward a model where cars are predominantly leased, rather than owned. Looking further forward, traveling by car might resemble the Tesla-centric autonomous taxi service that’s currently being implemented in Dubai.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

SpaceX will use the first Falcon Heavy to send a Tesla Roadster to Mars, Elon Musk says

As reported by The Verge: Always willing to up the stakes of an already difficult situation, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has said the first flight of his company’s Falcon Heavy rocket will be used to send a Tesla Roadster into space. Musk first tweeted out the idea on Friday evening, but has since separately confirmed his plans with The Verge.

The first Falcon Heavy’s “payload will be my midnight cherry Tesla Roadster playing Space Oddity,” Musk wrote on Twitter, referencing the famous David Bowie song. “Destination is Mars orbit. Will be in deep space for a billion years or so if it doesn’t blow up on ascent.”

Musk has spoken openly about the non-zero chance that the Falcon Heavy will explode during its first flight, and because of that he once said he wanted stick the “silliest thing we can imagine” on top of the rocket. Now we know what he meant. It’s unclear at the time of publish whether SpaceX has received any necessary approvals for this plan.

Falcon Heavy is the followup to SpaceX’s Falcon 9. It’s a more powerful rocket that the company hopes to use for missions to the Moon and Mars. It was originally supposed to take flight back in 2013 or 2014, but its maiden flight is now pegged for January 2018, according to Musk. (The company has been testing parts of the Falcon Heavy architecture over the last year, and has been busy readying the same launchpad that the Apollo 11 mission blasted off from for this flight.)

Falcon Heavy is, in overly simple terms, three of the company’s Falcon 9 rockets strapped together. It therefore will be capable of creating around three times the thrust of a single Falcon 9 rocket, allowing SpaceX to perform missions beyond low Earth orbit.

SpaceX also ultimately plans to be able to recover all three rocket cores that power the Falcon Heavy, just like it’s done over the last year with main rocket booster stage of its Falcon 9s. It’s unclear if the company will attempt to recover the boosters of this maiden rocket.

Of course, Musk also said earlier this fall at the International Astronautical Congress that he plans to pour all of SpaceX’s resources into an even bigger rocket architecture, known as the Interplanetary Transport System (or Big F**king Rocket, for short).

That new mega-rocket, when built, would essentially obsolesce the Falcon Heavy and the Falcon 9. It will be capable of taking on the same duties that those rockets perform, while adding new capabilities that range from planting a colony on Mars to making 30-minute transcontinental travel possible on Earth.

In that light, maybe shooting a Tesla into orbit around the Red Planet doesn’t seem so outlandish.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

US Supreme Court Considers if Your Privacy Rights Include Location Data

As reported by Engadget: With all the attention focused on the FCC's upcoming vote to dismantle net neutrality protections, it's easy to have missed an upcoming hearing that has the potential to reshape electronic-privacy protection. Today, the Supreme Court is hearing arguments in Carpenter v. United States — and at issue is cellphone-tower location data that law enforcement obtained without a warrant.

Defendant Timothy Carpenter, who was convicted as the mastermind behind two years of armed robberies in Michigan and Ohio, has argued that his location data, as gathered by his cellphone service provider, is covered under the Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens against "unreasonable searches and seizures." Thus far, appeals courts have upheld the initial decision that law enforcement didn't need a warrant to acquire this data, so the Supreme Court is now tasked with determining whether this data is deserving of more-rigorous privacy protection.

This case has been going on for years, so let's get some background details out of the way. Amy Howe, formerly a reporter and editor for SCOTUSblogdescribes how law enforcement asked cellphone service providers for details on 16 phone numbers tied to the crimes, including Carpenter's number and that of a co-defendant. That data included months of cell-site-location information (CSLI) that shows precise GPS coordinates of cellphone towers plus the date and time that a phone tried to connect to the tower in question. The FBI used this to create a map of where the phone and its owner were at any given time. The FBI received multiple months of data, not just data for the days, and was never asked to produce a warrant.

The FBI's explanation, which the courts have thus far backed up, relies on a legal principle known as the third-party doctrine. Jennifer Lynch from the Electronic Frontier Foundation explains that the third-party doctrine states that information you voluntarily share with "someone else" isn't protected by the Fourth Amendment, because third parties aren't legally bound to keep the info you shared with them private. And the definition of "someone else" is quite broad -- in this case, the courts view the data that cellphone providers collect as something customers are voluntarily sharing, simply by using their services.

Carpenter has argued that the third-party doctrine was not intended to be applied to things like cellphones. That's largely because the legal backing of the third-party doctrine is based on two Supreme Court cases from the 1970s, years before the first cellphone even went on sale to the public. Simply put, the way courts are ruling on third-party doctrine doesn't make sense in an age when so much sensitive information is bound up in our cellphones.

There's also a 2012 Supreme Court case that could back up Carpenter's argument. In United States v. Jones, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that it was a Fourth Amendment violation to attach a GPS unit to a car without a search warrant. The FBI had planted the GPS onto a car parked on private property and used it to track its position every 10 seconds for a full month. That's more granular than the location info you get from a cellphone, but the cases do have some similarities.

After the court's decision, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the third-party doctrine was "ill suited to the digital age" and expressed her opinion that privacy case law was failing to keep up with the rapid changes that smartphones and other technology are making to how we as a society view privacy. "People disclose the phone numbers that they dial or text to their cellular providers, the URLS that they visit and the e-mail addresses with which they correspond to their Internet service providers, and the books, groceries and medications they purchase to online retailers," she wrote. "I would not assume that all information voluntarily disclosed to some member of the public for a limited purpose is, for that reason alone, disentitled to Fourth Amendment protection."

Some of the world's biggest tech companies, including Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Google, Twitter and even Verizon agree with Sotomayor. In August, a total of 15 companies filed an amici curiae brief related to the Carpenter case in which they argue that "fourth amendment doctrine must adapt to the changing realities of the digital era" and that "rigid analog-era rules should yield to consideration of reasonable expectations of privacy in the digital age." Of course, this argument may not win over the Supreme Court, but its ruling in the 2012 GPS case shows that the justices could be in favor of stronger privacy protection.

Unfortunately for those who believe in expanded privacy rights, lower courts have so far sided with the third-party doctrine when it comes to CSLI. Lynch writes that "five federal appellate courts, in deeply divided opinions, have held that historical CSLI isn't protected by the Fourth Amendment -- in large part because the information is collected and stored by third-party service providers." We'll find out soon whether the Supreme Court is ready to break with those past rulings, a move that could lead both to freedom for Timothy Carpenter and a new precedent for privacy in the age of the smartphone.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Velodyne’s Latest LIDAR lets Driverless Cars Handle High-Speed Situations

Discerning a butterfly from a broken tire at 70 MPH.
As reported by The Verge: Self-driving cars from Alphabet’s Waymo are currently cruising the streets of suburban Arizona, navigating around with no human at the ready to take the wheel should something go wrong. It’s some of the most advanced testing we’ve seen so far, reaching what’s know as Level 4 autonomy. These cars can operate without any human input, but only under certain conditions and on certain roads.

Velodyne, one of the leading manufacturers of laser sensor for self driving cars, made an announcement this morning that it hopes will push things to the next level. The company released details of its latest product, the VLS-128. It’s the most powerful LIDAR the company has ever created, with twice the range and three times the resolution of its predecessor. “This product was designed and built for the level 5, fully autonomous, mobility as a service market,” says Anand Gopalan, the company’s CTO, meaning it can perform as well or better than a human under any circumstances.
On the bottom, the view from Velodyne's HDL-64.  On top, the more detailed view of the VLS-128.
The most important sensor in most self-driving cars these days is LIDAR, a laser scanner that can provide a 360-degree view of what’s happening around the vehicle. To illustrate the capabilities of the 128, Gopalan gives an example of a particularly challenging situation. “There is a small black object far out in front of you. Is it a piece of paper, a butterfly, or some tire debris? The autonomous vehicle needs to be able to see this object and make a decision about whether it should change lanes or break, and then take action. Traveling at 70 miles per hour, you have precious little time to do this.”

Gopalan says that the 128 can handle this sort of edge case. It’s 300 meter range and incredible detail are one part of the equation. But it also works for tricky scenarios like tire debris because it allows an autonomous driving system to take fewer steps between seeing the world and deciding what to do. “With lower-resolution LIDAR you would need to somehow fuse the data with cameras and do some processing to create something that can be understood by the computer,” he tells The Verge. “You now have such a high-resolution image, you can take the data and put it directly into an image classification algorithm. It reduces complexity and time.”
Just last month Nvidia claimed its computer vision systems are ready for Level 5 autonomy. Intel has made similar noises. And Waymo, in demonstrating its latest system to our reporter, touted its ability to see and identify debris on the road.

Of course, Velodyne doesn’t compete directly with either of these companies. Its LIDAR system is a complement to the chips sold by companies like Nvidia. And while some automakers are working on building their own LIDAR in house, most are turning to suppliers like Velodyne as they look to build driverless car services that would compete with the likes of Waymo and Uber.

Velodyne says that it managed to add more range and resolution to its latest unit, while simultaneously reducing the size, weight, and power consumption. For now, however, it’s staying mum on the price. In fact, says founder and CEO David Hall, price isn’t really the point. “We took a cost is no issue approach with this thing,” says Hall. “The mobility-as-a-service customer would just as soon have a higher end LIDAR. The costs aren’t that high, when compared to the value of not having a driver.”

Monday, November 20, 2017

Elon Musk Reveals New Details About Tesla Roadster

As reported by Futurism: In a surprise move at the official launch of the Tesla electric semi on Nov. 17, Elon Musk unveiled the new Tesla Roadster. This move was done without warning or lead-up, and it left audiences a bit shocked and wanting more information.

Thankfully, Musk didn’t make his announcement without any further details on the vehicle. He revealed that the Roadster can jump from 0-100 km/h (0-60 mph) in as little as 1.9 seconds. With a top speed of 400 km/h (250 mph), this little vehicle boasts an impressive range of 1,000 km (600 miles). Musk asserted, at the event, that this immense range was made possible by the Roadster’s 200 kWh battery pack.

Following this unexpected news, Musk took to Twitter to further reveal that purchasers will have the option to make their Roadster’s even more powerful.

Should clarify that this is the base model performance. There will be a special option package that takes it to the next level.

Rocket Powered?
What exactly this “optional package” refers to remains a mystery. So far, the only supplementary information that has been provided by Musk is this cryptic tweet:
Should clarify that this is the base model performance. There will be a special option package that takes it to the next level.
Not saying the next gen Roadster special upgrade package *will* definitely enable it to fly short hops, but maybe …

Certainly possible. Just a question of safety. Rocket tech applied to a car opens up revolutionary possibilities.

So what could this “next level” be? Laying aside for the moment the possibility that it will allow the car to fly short distances, the main features announced about the Roadster were its speed, power, and — most notably — its range. It seems unlikely that these three capabilities could be improved upon in more souped-up models, but it is not outside of the realm of possibility.
The Roadster’s upgrade could also potentially be an option to have more advanced autonomous features in the vehicle. But all of these hypotheticals are based off of previous launches from Tesla. With such a surprise release, Musk could shock his audience again by revealing features of the Tesla Roadster that we haven’t yet seen in any other electric vehicles — like rocket boosters.

Whatever new level the Roadster will take us to — be it on land or in the air — we’ll be sure to know for certain in 2020 when the vehicle is scheduled for release.

Editor’s Note: To be clear, Musk was joking about the rocket booster comment.

Friday, November 17, 2017

What Does Tesla's Automated Truck Mean for Truckers?

As reported by Wired: On Thursday night, Elon Musk rolled out Tesla's biggest gizmo yet: a fully electric semitruck. The Semi can go a whopping 500 miles between charges, hauling 80,000 pounds along the way. And it can sorta, kinda drive itself—on highways, anyway. The truck comes with Enhanced Autopilot, the second generation of Tesla's semiautonomous technology, equipped with automatic braking, lane keeping, and lane departure warnings.

"Every truck we sell has Autopilot as standard," Musk said of the Semi, which goes into production in 2019. "This is a massive increase in safety."

That may be true—about 4,000 Americans die in truck-related collisions every year, and human error is responsible for many of them. Self-driving trucks will certainly change lives. That goes double for the nearly 3.2 million people currently employed as delivery and heavy truck drivers. But we don't know how: A dearth of research means that no one really knows what effect automation will have on the sector. It's clear that truck driving will change, though, and companies testing autonomous trucking today in Florida and California and elsewhere show what that new future might look like.

Driving Today
Trucking jobs are, as a recent report from the Washington, DC, think tank Global Policy Solutions points out, solid, middle class jobs. The median annual wage for delivery and heavy truck drivers is $34,768, 11 percent higher than the country's median wage. Trucking has also been an opportunity for black, Hispanic, and Native American workers, who have faced serious, race-based barriers to entry in other blue collar jobs and are now over-represented in the industry. Many trucking jobs are unionized, and the gig doesn’t require an advanced education. You probably won't get rich doing it, but driving a truck is an option for those—men, in many cases—who might otherwise have done the kind of factory work that's left the country in the last three decades or so. Losing these jobs outright could devastate them.

Truck driving is, at the same time, a not-so-great job. Driving is solitary, physically inert, and psychologically exhausting. And long-haul truckers can be on the road—and away from family and friends—for months at a time. So people leave. In fact, there aren't enough truck drivers to go around. The American Trucking Associations reports the annual driver turnover for large truckload carriers reached a whopping 90 percent this year, and it projects 50,000-driver shortage by the end of 2017.
The driver's seat of the Tesla Semi is positions in the center of the cab - which also provides standing room
the company says.  - Tesla