kottke.org posts about cars
Collaborating with a number of different people from all over the place, filmmaker Oscar Boyson went out into the world and came back with this excellent 18-minute video on the future of cities. Among the cities profiles are Shenzhen, Detroit, Singapore, NYC, Copenhagen, Seoul, Lagos, and Mumbai.
What does “the future of cities” mean? To much of the developing world, it might be as simple as aspiring to having your own toilet, rather than sharing one with over 100 people. To a family in Detroit, it could mean having non-toxic drinking water. For planners and mayors, it’s about a lot of things — sustainability, economy, inclusivity, and resilience. Most of us can hope we can spend a little less time on our commutes to work and a little more time with our families. For a rich white dude up in a 50th floor penthouse, “the future of cities” might mean zipping around in a flying car while a robot jerks you off and a drone delivers your pizza. For many companies, the future of cities is simply about business and money, presented to us as buzzwords like “smart city” and “the city of tomorrow.”
A few tidbits from the video to whet your appetite:
- An estimated 70% of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050. (It’s currently 54%.)
- Buying a Toyota Corolla in Singapore costs $140,000.
- In 2012, 52% of the cost of US highways and roads was paid by general tax revenue rather than by drivers (through gas tax and tolls). In 1972, it was only 30%, which means car usage is much more heavily subsidized than it used to be.
- When you buy a car in Denmark, you pay a 150% tax, even if it’s electric.
- And a relevant quote from Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities: “Lowly, unpurposeful, and random as they may appear, sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow.”
And boy, listening to Janette Sadik-Khan talk about cities being for people and the importance of public transportation and then, directly after, having to listen to some dipshit from Uber was tough. (via @mathowie)
In the US, cars went from curvy in the 30s & 40s to boxy in the 60s and then back to curvy in the 90s. The price of oil, design imported from Europe, and fuel economy regulations all played a factor in the changes.
Update: A strong rebuttal from Jalopnik:
This Vox Video About The Evolution Of Cars Is A Complete Mess. (via @nick__vance)
In their solution to the trolley problem, Mercedes self-driving cars will be programmed to save the people riding in the cars at the potential expense of pedestrians, cyclists, or passengers in other cars.
“If you know you can save at least one person, at least save that one. Save the one in the car,” von Hugo told Car and Driver in an interview. “If all you know for sure is that one death can be prevented, then that’s your first priority.”
In other words, their driverless cars will act very much like the stereotypical entitled European luxury car driver. (via @essl)
Daniel Jovanov does fantastic impressions of cars. In the video above, he imitates them so well that a trio of actual race car drivers are able to pick out exactly which ones he’s doing. I think he’s gotten better since his appearance on Australia’s Got Talent several years ago:
What causes traffic? Mostly the poor reaction times of humans driving cars. Even a simple lane change can cause traffic to back up for hours. What’s the solution? (Hint: it rhymes with “health diving stars”.)
See also intersections in the age of driverless cars.
Amazon just launched Amazon Vehicles. I immediately went to see if their one-click ordering worked with $58,000 cars, but Vehicles is not a store but a shopping guide. (Amazon calls it a “car research destination and automotive community”.) You can sort by make, model, year, body style, MPG, etc. Here are all the electric vehicles, including the 2016 Tesla X. They have older cars too, like this 1965 Mustang Shelby GT-350 convertible, this 1961 Corvette and this 1972 El Camino. You can’t sort by price, but this Mercedes-Benz S65 was one of the most expensive cars I found ($234,050).
Having purchased a car in the last six months, I can see the appeal of being able to browse through all the different brands and makes of cars in a familiar interface. This will be a full-fledged store before too long, yes?
The advertising that Volkswagen ran in American magazines and newspapers in the 1960s was legendary, perhaps the greatest ad campaign ever. This is a great little documentary about how the ads came about — pitching “a Nazi car in a Jewish town”.
I had only ever seen a few of these ads…what an amazing campaign. For this one, they didn’t even bother showing you the car, an assurance to the buyer that you knew what you were getting.
Tonight, Elon Musk shared part two of Tesla’s “Master Plan” (here’s part one, from 2006). The company is going all-in on sustainable energy, building out their fleet of available vehicle types (including semi trucks and buses), and pushing towards fully self-driving cars that can be leased out to people in need of a ride.
When true self-driving is approved by regulators, it will mean that you will be able to summon your Tesla from pretty much anywhere. Once it picks you up, you will be able to sleep, read or do anything else enroute to your destination.
You will also be able to add your car to the Tesla shared fleet just by tapping a button on the Tesla phone app and have it generate income for you while you’re at work or on vacation, significantly offsetting and at times potentially exceeding the monthly loan or lease cost. This dramatically lowers the true cost of ownership to the point where almost anyone could own a Tesla. Since most cars are only in use by their owner for 5% to 10% of the day, the fundamental economic utility of a true self-driving car is likely to be several times that of a car which is not.
In cities where demand exceeds the supply of customer-owned cars, Tesla will operate its own fleet, ensuring you can always hail a ride from us no matter where you are.
Summing up: Telsa, Uber, and probably Apple all want to replace human drivers with robot chauffeurs. It’s a race between the Jetson’s future and the Terminator’s future. Fun!
Creative agency The Mill has built a car called the Blackbird that, after visual effects are applied in post-production, can impersonate any sort of car in a commercial, TV show, or movie.
The Mill BLACKBIRD® is able to quickly transform its chassis to match the exact length and width of almost any car. Powered by an electric motor, it can be programmed to imitate acceleration curves and gearing shifts and the adjustable suspension alters ride height, rigidity and dampening to replicate typical driving characteristics.
Tesla has two cars, the S60 and the S75, that are physically more or less identical, but one costs $8500 more than the other. The cheaper car ($66K base price) has a software block on its battery which limits its range to 208 miles on a full charge. Pay $8500 up front, or $9000 for an over-the-air update later, and you get an extra 40 miles.
Same car, same battery. About 20 percent more efficient, for $9000. Better software license.
Cars are big computers, and have been for a while, but we’re slowly starting to treat them like it. Different expectations, different pricing, different ownership structures, different usage; different everything.
Here’s another story on managing expectations for cars, about steering wheels. Steering wheels have a basic function; they control the car. But if a car is capable of driving itself, and is also an interface for a wide range of general computing tools, what does that mean?
Volvo’s Concept 26 vehicle, which debuted in November at the Los Angeles Auto Show, features a retractable steering wheel. Robin Page, Volvo chief of interior design, says Volvo chose to keep the familiar shape of the steering wheel.
“We wanted to keep that recognition of a round steering wheel,” he said. “People need to get used to autonomous drive, so being able to get back to that steering wheel and grab hold of it, that’s comforting. We decided to have it there as a recognizable icon.”
The steering wheel becomes a skeuomorph. It becomes a surveillance device, registering pressure to tell whether you have both hands firmly on the wheel, or if you’ve fallen asleep or are in distress. It becomes an entertainment console. It transforms and retracts into the dash to signal when you’ve shifted between user-controlled and autonomous modes. Its familiar presence soothes you through the transition. Eventually, you forget it was ever there at all.
If you skip to around 3:15 in this video, you’ll see a race between the Tesla Model X, the company’s electric SUV, and an Alfa Romeo 4C Spider sports car. The Model X easily beats the Alfa Romeo to 60 mph while towing another Alfa Romeo 4C Spider behind it. Here’s Keanu with a comment: “Whoa.” How can you not love a car outfitted with something called Ludicrous Mode? (via a proud @elonmusk)
As part of the Interstate Highway System project, expressways were run right through the heart of many American cities, disrupting neighborhoods and displacing hundreds of thousands of people.
The 48,000 miles of interstate highway that would be paved across the country during the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s were a godsend for many rural communities. But those highways also gutted many cities, with whole neighborhoods torn down or isolated by huge interchanges and wide ribbons of asphalt. Wealthier residents fled to the suburbs, using the highways to commute back in by car. That drained the cities’ tax bases and hastened their decline.
So why did cities help build the expressways that would so profoundly decimate them? The answer involves a mix of self-interested industry groups, design choices made by people far away, a lack of municipal foresight, and outright institutional racism.
Here’s some homework: think about Uber/Lyft and the coming self-driving cars (Tesla, Apple, Google, Ford, etc.) in the context of the highways’ effect on the American city. Who benefits most from these services? (The wealthy? Huge companies?) How will they affect the funding and use of public transportation? What will happen to cities? To urban sprawl? To the economically disadvantaged?
This video about how not to get screwed buying a used car crams an astounding amount of good information into three minutes.
Update: Bold claim by Robin Sloan on Twitter:
The calm density of this video is way more “future of visual communication” than 99% of claimants to that title
I agree. That video contained more information than a 44-minute episode of Mythbusters but the pace and energy were more relaxed.
Hot Wheels released a die-cast version of The Homer, the “everyman” car designed by Homer Simpson in season two episode of The Simpsons. Designed for his half-brother’s car company, the car was so bad and expensive that it drove (ha!) the company out of business. And now it can be yours!
As we saw in the crash test comparison of the 2009 Chevy Malibu and 1959 Chevy Bel Air, today’s cars are built with safety features like airbags and crumple zones to protect passengers from impacts. But as this crash test of a Ford Focus hatchback travelling at 120 mph shows, there’s not much you can do for passengers at that speed.
This Smart Car does pretty well at 70 mph though. (via @daveg)
This Russian truck is mostly tires, which gives it a short turning radius, cuteness,1 and the ability to swim. Yep, you can drive it right into a lake. Jalopnik has more details, including the truck’s surprisingly pint-sized engine:
It weighs just 2,866 pounds dry, so while it might only have a 44.3 horsepower 1.5 liter Kubota V1505 four-cylinder diesel linked to a five-speed manual, it will still do 28 mph on land, or 3.7 mph in water, depending on the wind. It will also crawl at up to 9.3 mph in first gear.
Watch these inspiring film pioneers in this behind the scenes look at the first movie shot entirely with a Prius backup camera. (via @kevin2kelly)
In 2009, The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety conducted a crash test between a 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air and a 2009 Chevy Malibu. The video plainly shows how much progress has been made in passenger safety in those 50 years. Even though the Malibu is much lighter, its crumple zone absorbs much of the impact while the Bel Air lets the newer car’s front end slam right into the driver.1
Even though I’ve seen crash test footage before, I was shocked at how quickly the airbag deployed in the newer car…it’s fully inflated before the rest of the car and its occupants even realize that inertia is about to do some bad things.
When people drive cars, collisions often happen so quickly that they are entirely accidental. When self-driving cars eliminate driver error in these cases, decisions on how to crash can become pre-meditated. The car can think quickly, “Shall I crash to the right? To the left? Straight ahead?” and do a cost/benefit analysis for each option before acting. This is the trolley problem.
How will we program our driverless cars to react in situations where there is no choice to avoid harming someone? Would we want the car to run over a small child instead of a group of five adults? How about choosing between a woman pushing a stroller and three elderly men? Do you want your car to kill you (by hitting a tree at 65mph) instead of hitting and killing someone else? No? How many people would it take before you’d want your car to sacrifice you instead? Two? Six? Twenty?
The video above introduces a wrinkle I had never considered before: what if the consumer could choose the sort of safety they want? If you had to choose between buying a car that would save as many lives as possible and a car that would save you above all other concerns, which would you select? You can imagine that answer would be different for different people and that car companies would build & market cars to appeal to each of them. Perhaps Apple would make a car that places the security of the owner above all else, Google would be a car that would prioritize saving the most lives, and Uber would build a car that keeps the largest Uber spenders alive.1
Ethical concerns like the trolley problem will seem quaint when the full power of manufacturing, marketing, and advertising is applied to self-driving cars. Imagine trying to choose one of the 20 different types of ketchup at the supermarket except that if you choose the wrong one, you and your family die and, surprise, it’s not actually your choice, it’s the potential Trump voter down the street who buys into Car Company X’s advertising urging him to “protect himself” because he feels marginalized in a society that increasingly values diversity over “traditional American values”. I mean, we already see this with huge, unsafe gas-guzzlers driving on the same roads as small, safer, energy-efficient cars, but the addition of software will turbo-charge this process. But overall cars will be much safer so it’ll all be ok?
Volvo took a real dump truck, hooked it up to a remote control, handed it to a 4-year-old girl, and she proceeds to DEMOLISH a closed course with it. Man, I really needed this video today. Wonderful. (via @joeljohnson)
Casper Christensen cut together footage from dozens of movie car chases into one big coherent chase. Well, as coherent as you can get when you’re dealing with car chases.
There’s some fun and clever editing in here…I particularly enjoyed the stitching together of Indiana Jones and Axel Foley. And I loved the brief clip of C’était un rendez-vous, which if you haven’t seen it, is a quick and thrilling watch.
Chris Umson is the Director of Self-Driving Cars at Google[x] and in March, he gave a talk at TED about the company’s self-driving cars. The second half of the presentation is fascinating; Umson shows more than a dozen different traffic scenarios and how the car sees and reacts to each one.
It will be interesting to see how roads, cars, and our behavior will change when self-driving cars hit the streets. Right now, street markings, signage, and automobiles are designed for how human drivers see the world. Computers see the road quite differently, and if Google’s take on the self-driving car becomes popular, it would be wise to adopt different standards to help them navigate more smoothly. Maintaining painted lines might be more important, along with eliminating superfluous signage close to the roadway. Maybe human-driven cars would be required to display a special marking alerting self-driving cars to potential hazards.1 Positioning of headlights and taillights might become more standard.
Human drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians will necessarily adapt to self-driving cars as well. Some will take advantage of the cars’ politeness. But mostly I suspect that learning to interact with self-driving cars will require a different approach, just as people talk to computers differently than they do to other humans — think of how you formulate a successful search query, speak to Siri, or, more to the point, manipulate a Wii remote so the sensor dingus on top of your TV can interpret what you’re doing.
Observations from a Mountain View resident about driving with self-driving cars.
Google cars drive like your grandma — they’re never the first off the line at a stop light, they don’t accelerate quickly, they don’t speed, and they never take any chances with lane changes (cut people off, etc.).
And we know how easy it is to take advantage of old people:
It’s safe to cut off a Google car. I ride a motorcycle to work and in California motorcycles are allowed to split lanes (i.e., drive in the gap between lanes of cars at a stoplight, slow traffic, etc.). Obviously I do this at every opportunity because it cuts my commute time in 1/3.
Once, I got a little caught out as the traffic transitioned from slow moving back to normal speed. I was in a lane between a Google car and some random truck and, partially out of experiment and partially out of impatience, I gunned it and cut off the Google car sort of harder than maybe I needed too… The car handled it perfectly (maybe too perfectly). It slowed down and let me in. However, it left a fairly significant gap between me and it. If I had been behind it, I probably would have found this gap excessive and the lengthy slowdown annoying. Honestly, I don’t think it will take long for other drivers to realize that self-driving cars are “easy targets” in traffic.
But the overall opinion is that self-driving cars are excellent at driving.
I think that, inevitably, non-self driving cars will eventually be banned from the roads to let SD cars operate at their full potential (which personally I’m not thrilled about as I’m a car-nut and I love to drive).
Driving may not have Second Amendment protection, but I predict a hell of a fight against banning non-self-driving cars from the roads, akin to how some people feel about guns. “You can pry the steering wheel from my cold dead hands”, that sort of thing. As future drivers feel threatened and membership dwindles and radicalizes, perhaps AAA will become more like the present-day NRA. (via mr)
Update: Several people pointed out that those in the pro-driving camp may not have much of a choice whether to keep driving or not. As more self-driving cars are put into use, insurance rates for human drivers will rise because the pool of insured will shrink and self-driving cars will prove to be safer by an order of magnitude or more. And then driving will return to being a hobby for the wealthy, like car racing is now.
Update: Paul Barnsley is an economist specializing in risk, and he wrote in about the implications of self-driving cars on insurance rates:
I don’t buy the theory that self-driving cars will do much to current insurance premiums. The pool of drivers will shrink, sure, but the average quality of its members will stay pretty constant, maybe even improve (if better-than-average drivers want to stay behind the wheel) and they’ll be driving in a lower risk environment (because of all the other self-driving cars).
So less risk will be shared over a smaller, but still plenty large, group. Since you can run a viable insurance market over a much smaller group of people than “all car owners in the US” I’d expect the lowered risk effected to dominate and premiums to drop relative to their current levels, though they will be high in comparison to self-driving, which may be your correspondents’ argument.
Interesting. Thanks, Paul!
Jan Chipchase writes about Twelve Concepts in Autonomous Mobility, aka behavioral and design considerations of self-driving vehicles. You may not have thought of some of these.
Nanny mode: vehicles that are assigned to pick up young children from school, but end up trailing them at a discreet distance because the kids prefer to walk home alone.
Car surprise: when you come across your car somewhere where you didn’t expect it to be and witness your vehicle engaging in unexpected activities e.g. pickup up flowers at the mall: the equivalent of catching your parent or kid smoking or shoplifting.
And why is Google, an advertising company, interested in self-driving cars? Perhaps this:
Trailer trashing: where dodgy looking vehicles are assigned to trail an otherwise apparent owner either as a joke or to send a message e.g. a hearse sent by a debt collection agency to scare-up payment. You’ll also see this happen with more aggressive companies who send a vehicle around to their competitors to send a message, recruit their staff or to gather intelligence. Task Rabbit or San Da ha + autonomous mobility + intent. The most obvious market for this will be straight-up advertising.
In 2015, you can follow brands on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. In 2023, the brands follow you! Around town!
From NASA, the operations manual for the lunar rover. Rovers were used on the final three Apollo missions: 15, 16, and 17. (thx, daniel)
Raul Oaida built a full-sized car out of half-a-million Lego pieces that actually drives. The 256-cylinder engine is powered by compressed air. Top speed is 20 mph.
This is a stunning and insanely clever achievement. My favorite part, aside from that 256-cylinder engine, is the windshield built out of two dozen tiny Lego windshields. (via devour)
This is a donk.
It can be yours for $65,000.
Writing for the New Yorker in 1936, E.B. White pens a farewell to the Model T, a gadget that defined the first quarter of the 20th century.
During my association with Model T’s, self-starters were not a prevalent accessory. They were expensive and under suspicion. Your car came equipped with a serviceable crank, and the first thing you learned was how to Get Results. It was a special trick, and until you learned it (usually from another Ford owner, but sometimes by a period of appalling experimentation) you might as well have been winding up an awning. The trick was to leave the ignition switch off, proceed to the animal’s head, pull the choke (which was a little wire protruding through the radiator), and give the crank two or three nonchalant upward lifts. Then, whistling as though thinking about something else, you would saunter back to the driver’s cabin, turn the ignition on, return to the crank, and this time, catching it on the down stroke, give it a quick spin with plenty of That. If this procedure was followed, the engine almost always responded — first with a few scattered explosions, then with a tumultuous gunfire, which you checked by racing around to the driver’s seat and retarding the throttle. Often, if the emergency brake hadn’t been pulled all the way back, the car advanced on you the instant the first explosion occurred and you would hold it back by leaning your weight against it. I can still feel my old Ford nuzzling me at the curb, as though looking for an apple in my pocket.
Aside from the obvious advantage of price, White details three compelling factors of the Model T, all of which still move car owners to purchase today: quickness, height, and customizability. The Model T was gloriously quick off the line, reaching its top speed of 45 mph, according to White, more quickly than other cars of the age. The driver sat high up in the car, on top of the gas tank, which must have given you the same mighty feeling as driving a huge-ass SUV or pickup truck. And as delivered, the Model T was just functional, leaving ample opportunity for people to add their own touches. For instance, the car didn’t come with a gas pedal (the throttle was hand-operated), speedometer, rear view mirror, or windshield wipers. (via @ftrain, who notes what a great tech blogger White was)
These sculptures by Gerry Judah for the Goodwood Festival of Speed are amazing. Here’s how they made the Mercedes arch for this year’s festival. (via ministry of type)
Dang, Tesla just announced they’re letting anyone use their patented technology. CEO Elon Musk:
Yesterday, there was a wall of Tesla patents in the lobby of our Palo Alto headquarters. That is no longer the case. They have been removed, in the spirit of the open source movement, for the advancement of electric vehicle technology.
Tesla Motors was created to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport. If we clear a path to the creation of compelling electric vehicles, but then lay intellectual property landmines behind us to inhibit others, we are acting in a manner contrary to that goal. Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.
Damn good move for a damn good reason. It’s impressive to watch this company in action.
Update: I read that last line quoted above again and perhaps “abandoned” is too strong a word. Glenn Fleishman notes on Twitter:
They did not abandon their patents. They aren’t apparently even licensing them. They are stating they won’t sue except defensively. The devil is in the details. Twitter released a complete framework of their policy when they announced the same thing.
Hopefully Musk and co. will clarify what they mean by “in good faith”.