Google may release self-driving taxis in 2017

Google may be about to release a self-driving taxi service in months, not years.

Real driverless cars could come to the Phoenix area this year, according to a Monday report from The Information’s Amir Efrati. Two anonymous sources have told Efrati that Google’s self-driving car unit, Waymo, is preparing to launch “a commercial ride-sharing service powered by self-driving vehicles with no human ‘safety’ drivers as soon as this fall.”

Obviously, there’s no guarantee that Waymo will hit this ambitious target. But it’s a sign that Waymo believes its technology is very close to being ready for commercial use. And it suggests that Waymo is likely to introduce a fully driverless car network in 2018 if it doesn’t do so in the remaining months of 2017…

According to Efrati, Waymo’s service is likely to launch first in Chandler, a Phoenix suburb where Waymo has done extensive testing. Waymo chose the Phoenix area for its favorable weather, its wide, well-maintained streets, and the relative lack of pedestrians. Another important factor was the legal climate. Arizona has some of the nation’s most permissive laws regarding self-driving vehicles.

Jeffrey Sachs on (gun) violence

I have just two things to say about the U.S. and guns, both of which I find obvious and evidence-based. First, the U.S. has a violence problem and guns are not the root cause of it. Eliminating guns would not eliminate the problem. Second, guns make our violence problem much more deadly.

I pointed out a really interesting data analysis that was posted on R-bloggers in 2015. What the numbers show very clearly is that the U.S. really does have a violence problem, with rates of violent death much higher than countries with similar economies, including our close cultural cousins like Canada and Australia, and, almost uniquely among richer countries, similar in levels of violence to many developing countries. These are hard numbers, so have a look and draw your own conclusions. My conclusions are backed up by my own personal experiences living in ultra-low-crime developed Asian countries (like Singapore) and significant time spent in developing Asian countries (like Thailand). In the latter, I generally felt equally or more safe on the street than I do in my home city of Philadelphia. Developing countries have problems with gang violence and organized crime to be sure, but it is random street crime that affects ordinary people, business travelers and tourists, and that just isn’t very common in most countries. The two countries I mentioned are actually pretty interesting because in Singapore, there are absolutely no weapons of any kind allowed in the hands of the public, while in Thailand, my impression is there are quite a few guns around.

So that said, here is Jeffrey Sachs talking about violence in the U.S. The rest of the article goes on to make a “states’ rights” pitch for gun control which I don’t feel strongly about one way or another. One thing I would favor though is to let individual cities pass and enforce stricter gun laws than the states they are in, if they want to.

Mass violence is deeply rooted in American culture. America’s European settlers committed a two-century-long genocide against the native inhabitants, and established a slave economy so deeply entrenched that only a devastating civil war ended it. In almost all other countries, even Czarist Russia, slavery and serfdom were ended by decree or legislation, without a four-year bloodletting. When it was over, America established and enforced a century-long system of apartheid.

To this day, America’s homicide and imprisonment rates are several times higher than Europe’s. Several large mass shootings occur each year – in a country that is also waging several seemingly endless wars overseas. America is, in short, a country with a past history and current stark reality of racism, ethnic chauvinism, and resort to mass violence.

Ouch, I certainly think he is on to something. But I also think the modern obsession with guns is fueled by an industry lobby funding political campaigns and saturating all forms of entertainment with guns. I would have to do research to prove it, but I bet the industry provides free guns to the entertainment industry just as the cigarette companies did decades ago. The military certainly does this openly, I believe with the idea of desensitizing the public to the carnage of foreign wars and desensitizing our children so they can one day be recruited to fight in those wars. Guns, fights and car chases are also sort of a lazy, easy and cheap substitute for actual storytelling. So one idea would be for a few movie and TV studios and game companies to make a pledge to go a few months and see if they can tell interesting stories that don’t have any guns in them. Another quick idea would be to adjust movie, TV, and game ratings to make it crystal clear that stories with guns in them are for adults only. If necessary to prop up earnings, sprinkle in some tasteful soft porn to compensate, which I believe would be much healthier for children.

evaporation energy

There is a lot of energy in evaporation, and there are technologies that theoretically could harvest it for human use.

About 50% of the solar energy absorbed at the Earth’s surface drives evaporation, fueling the water cycle that affects various renewable energy resources, such as wind and hydropower. Recent advances demonstrate our nascent ability to convert evaporation energy into work, yet there is little understanding about the potential of this resource. Here we study the energy available from natural evaporation to predict the potential of this ubiquitous resource. We find that natural evaporation from open water surfaces could provide power densities comparable to current wind and solar technologies while cutting evaporative water losses by nearly half. We estimate up to 325 GW of power is potentially available in the United States. Strikingly, water’s large heat capacity is sufficient to control power output by storing excess energy when demand is low, thus reducing intermittency and improving reliability. Our findings motivate the improvement of materials and devices that convert energy from evaporation.

This is interesting. Cutting evaporation losses in half could be a good thing in some situations, like reservoirs and swimming pools in arid regions. Cut too much evaporation elsewhere, and you could imagine a science fiction scenario where you have a full reservoir but nearby ecosystems or farmland turn into deserts. Or you end up pumping that reservoir and using it for irrigation using the energy you have harvested, in the end using technology to efficiently recreate the hydrologic cycle and ecosystem services nature used to provide for free.

autonomous vehicles and safety

This article from the University of Illinois says that not only are autonomous vehicles safer than human drivers, but having just a few of them mixed in with the humans is actually safer for everyone.

The presence of just a few autonomous vehicles can eliminate the stop-and-go driving of the human drivers in traffic, along with the accident risk and fuel inefficiency it causes, according to new research. The finding indicates that self-driving cars and related technology may be even closer to revolutionizing traffic control than previously thought.

“Our experiments show that with as few as 5 percent of vehicles being automated and carefully controlled, we can eliminate stop-and-go waves caused by human driving behavior,” said Daniel B. Work, assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a lead researcher in the study…

The team conducted field experiments in Tucson, Arizona, in which a single autonomous vehicle circled a track continuously with at least 20 other human-driven cars. Under normal circumstances, human drivers naturally create stop-and-go traffic, even in the absence of bottlenecks, lane changes, merges or other disruptions, Work said. This phenomenon is called the “phantom traffic jam.” Researchers found that by controlling the pace of the autonomous car in the study, they were able to smooth out the traffic flow for all the cars. For the first time, researchers demonstrated experimentally that even a small percentage of such vehicles can have a significant impact on the road, eliminating waves and reducing the total fuel consumption by up to 40 percent.

transitioning a highway to driverless cars

This white paper proposes some ideas for transitioning a highway to driverless cars in several steps.

The first step would be allowing autonomous vehicles into HOV lanes, the next step would be dedicating a lane to autonomous vehicles, and the final step would be expanding until all lanes are autonomous only. Regulators may want to phase these steps in with vehicles reaching various levels of the NHTSA/SAE autonomous driving framework (e.g., Level 3 automatic braking and lane control or 4 automatic control of all aspects of driving without the need for human intervention). We believe the first step of allowing autonomous vehicles in the HOV lanes could begin immediately with Level 3 and higher vehicles. A dedicated lane (each way) for autonomous vehicles could occur as soon as we have a significant number of such vehicles on our roads which could be 2025 or earlier if a tipping point has occurred. We can imagine that limiting non-autonomous vehicles to one lane on I-5 could occur beginning in 2030, which would mean at least three exclusive lanes for autonomous vehicles from Seattle to Everett, two exclusive lanes from Everett to Marysville and one north of Marysville to Vancouver’s downtown area.

becoming a new U.S. state

Just following up on what the U.S. Constitution has to say about my idea of a metro area seeking to become a state:

New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new States shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.

Hmm, so if the Philadelphia metro area (which includes parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware) wanted to become its own State, it would need to sell all three existing states and the U.S. Congress on the idea. It sounds far-fetched. Then again, rural voters are often under the mistaken impression that they are subsidizing urban areas, even though the evidence proves that the exact opposite is the case. So if Philadelphia wanted to leave Pennsylvania for New Jersey, and it were put to a referendum, people might go for it. Electoral votes would be a potential sticking point, so getting rid of the Electoral College could help make something like this slightly more plausible. It still sounds implausible under our current (241 years and counting) Constitution. Still, there could be enormous advantages to a metro area controlling its own tax policy, housing policy, infrastructure policy, environmental policy, etc.

European separatist movements

This Project Syndicate post suggests a way European countries and the EU could deal with separatist movements legally.

If there was still demand for statehood and separation from the internationally recognized state to which they belong, the EU could invoke a code of conduct for secession. For example, the EU could stipulate that it will sanction an independence referendum if the regional government requesting it has already won an election on such a platform with an absolute majority of the voters. Moreover, the referendum should be held at least one year after the election, to allow for a proper, sober debate.

As for the new state, it should be obligated to maintain at least the same level of fiscal transfers as before. Rich Veneto could secede from Italy, for example, as long as it maintained its fiscal transfers to the South. Moreover, the new state should be prohibited from erecting new borders and be compelled to guarantee its residents the right to triple citizenship (new state, old state, and European).

The Catalonia crisis is a strong hint from history that Europe needs to develop a new type of sovereignty, one that strengthens cities and regions, dissolves national particularism, and upholds democratic norms. The immediate beneficiaries would be Catalans, the people of Northern Ireland, and maybe the Scots (who would in this manner snatch an opportunity out of the jaws of Brexit). But the longer-term beneficiary of this new type of sovereignty would be Europe as a whole. Imagining a pan-European democracy is the prerequisite for imagining a Europe worth saving.

I could almost imagine something like this in the U.S. No, there aren’t too many regions that would like to leave entirely, even if Texas makes noises about it. But my opinion is that the states are getting less and less relevant in an economic and practical sense relative to the metropolitan areas where the people live and the economic production happens, but they remain politically powerful relative to those metro areas. So I could see metro areas choosing to leave one state for another or seeking a legal and political status equivalent to a state. This would require a radical constitutional rewrite, of course.

anti-monopoly politics

This Intercept article talks about an anti-monopoly message some Democrats are trying out. I like the idea in principle. Productivity growth has been stuck in second gear for close to 50 years now, and yet we hear about record corporate profits and stock market returns. These things happen at the same time only if big business is able to make unfair profits by rigging the system unfairly in its favor. That way their profits can grow while wages and innovation both stagnate. This is not a recipe for long-term growth for the economy as a whole.

Big business has been able to hijack the “free market” message for a long time now. Of course, a truly free market is about a truly level playing field for businesses of all sizes, and one where innovators can compete with established big businesses. I would argue that it is also about an economy where entrepreneurs and small business owners can take chances and innovate against a backdrop of health care, childcare and retirement security. But maybe that should not be the focus – one appeal of an anti-monopoly message could be to give the devisive social issues a rest for awhile and focus on inclusive economic growth.

The author gives several examples of monopoly power hurting both rural and urban interests:

FRERICK TALKS ABOUT running a Teddy Roosevelt-style campaign. In rural towns in southwest Iowa, he has challenged the merger between Monsanto and Bayer, which would give two companies (the other is Dow/DuPont) control of 75 percent of the U.S. corn seed supply. Add the company created by the merger of ChemChina and Syngenta, and three companies would sell 80 percent of all seeds. Farmers have no ability to bargain for corn seed, which has doubled in price over the last decade, even while crop prices have dropped…

But Frerick has a broader case to make on monopolies. In urban areas of Des Moines with less connection to farm life, he’s talked about cable companies who take hours to answer customer service calls, or shrinking local newspapers due to Facebook and Google’s capturing of prized eyeballs for advertisers. In older communities, he’s condemned pharmaceutical companies that funnel patients to expensive drugs with little or no competition. A separate 2016 paper Frerick wrote while at Treasury explained how drug companies use corporate charity as a profit center, by paying discounts for individuals so insurers and government plans have to pay exorbitant rates for medications…

Most hospitals buy supplies in bulk through group purchasing organizations (GPOs) which carry a “90/10” requirement. Hospitals must continue to purchase at least 90 percent of their supplies from inside the GPO to qualify for discounts and avoid millions of dollars in penalties. This contractual obligation fortified BD’s monopoly, despite selling a more dangerous, more expensive product.