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UBER’S SELF-DRIVING CARS RETURN TO PUBLIC ROADS FOR THE FIRST TIME SINCE FATAL CRASH

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Uber officially resumed testing its self-driving cars on public roads Thursday, nine months after one of its vehicles struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona. The company received a letter from Pennsylvania’s Department of Transportation authorizing it to restart its program, albeit in a highly scaled back fashion.

For the time being, Uber’s self-driving Volvo SUVs will be confined to a one-mile loop around Pittsburgh’s Strip District, where the company’s Advanced Technologies Group (ATG) is headquartered. Only two vehicles are being tested for now, though more will be added. The cars won’t exceed the posted speed limit of 25 mph, and will have two safety drivers in them at all times — Uber calls them “mission specialists.” For now, the cars aren’t picking up any passengers.

This downsized version of Uber’s self-driving program reflects the extent to which the company’s had to reassess its grand plan to conquer urban transportation with robot taxis after the crash in Tempe. The self-driving Uber car was traveling north with one safety driver inside when it struck and killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg while she was pushing her bicycle across the street. The driver was streaming a television show on her phone at the time of the crash, and didn’t hit the brakes until after impact, according to the National Traffic Safety Board and local police.

The governor of Arizona barred the company from further testing in his state, and Uber subsequently laid off hundreds of safety drivers in Arizona and Pittsburgh. In the wake of the crash, reports emerged that Uber’s self-driving program was potentially fraught with risk. Uber had reduced the number of “safety drivers” in its test cars from two to one, according to a New York Times report. This explained why the driver who was in the car that killed Herzberg was alone.

The company’s CEO Dara Khosrowshahi considered pulling the plug on the program all together. But in an April interview with the Today show Khosrowshahi said the company is “absolutely committed to self-driving cars.” And in May, Khosrowshahi was promoting the company’s inevitable return to public road testing. Uber’s ATG had conducted a “top-to-bottom” safety review. In July, Uber returned its cars to the roads in Pittsburgh, but in manual mode only. And in November, it released its voluntary safety report to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

TWO EMPLOYEES IN EACH AUTONOMOUS VEHICLE
“We implemented recommendations from our review processes, spanning technical, operational and organizational improvements,” Eric Meyhofer, head of Uber ATG, wrote in a blog post. “This required a lot of introspection and took some time. Now we are ready to move forward.”

Uber said it will resume testing with two employees in each autonomous vehicle, enabling Volvo’s factory setting for automatic braking, and strictly monitoring safety drivers. The company said it now has real-time third-party monitoring of backup safety drivers, it sets limits on the amount of time drivers can work per day, and it has improved training.

But it wasn’t easy going. The company’s vehicles were continuing to fail some of their track tests as recently as September, according to documents reviewed by the Times. Uber uses track testing to not only test against common road scenarios, but also edge cases with the goal of training the vehicle to become a generally good defensive driver. But the cars needed to drive 20 percent slower to match the reaction time of a human driver at 25 mph. A spokesperson said some of the test failures were minor and non-safety related, like a hard brake or a too-wide turn.

In a break with the past, Uber is working closer with regulators and third-party experts to build trust. A spokesperson for Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said since Uber has “accepted established state guidelines, demonstrated transparency, and conformed to our expectations in addressing the unique conditions of a complex urban environment, the city is satisfied that self-driving testing operations by Uber will not introduce an increased level of safety risk in Pittsburgh,” the spokesperson said.

PITTSBURGH’S MAYOR IS “SATISFIED THAT … UBER WILL NOT INTRODUCE AN INCREASED LEVEL OF SAFETY RISK IN PITTSBURGH”

Sam Abuelsamid, a senior analyst at Navigant, had a briefing with Uber in November. “They said all the right things as far as revamping all of their processes for training of staff, reviewing and validating changes and general procedures,” Abuelsamid said. “Personally, I’d still like to see every system being tested on public roads reviewed and evaluated by an independent third party, but since that is unlikely any time soon, this will probably have to do.”

Abuelsamid noted that Uber doesn’t appear to be trying to rush this market as the company was under the management of the previous CEO, Travis Kalanick. And he pointed to Toyota’s partnership with Uber, in which the Japanese automaker is investing $500 million in developing self-driving cars with Uber, “as a big vote of confidence that the changes taking place at Uber are in the right direction.”

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Reports

China has become the new global leader in smart speaker shipments (BABA, GOOGL, AMZN)

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Global smart speaker shipments experienced upheaval in Q1 2019, with the US and China swapping spots as the largest market by shipments, according to Canalys. The US accounted for just 24% of smart speaker shipments in Q1 2019, down from 44% in Q4 2018, while China grew almost 500% from the previous quarter to account for 51% of the market.

US Smart Speakers' Meteroric Growth to Slow as Devices Move Mainstream

Business Insider IntelligenceUS Smart Speakers’ Meteroric Growth to Slow as Devices Move Mainstream

Here’s what it means: The Chinese smart speaker market is gaining traction, as its share of shipments reached an all-time high.

  • Chinese smart speaker makers Alibaba, Baidu, and Xiaomi all experienced meteoric growth in Q1.Alibaba’s smart speaker shipments grew over 200% YoY to 3.2 million, Xiaomi’s grew over 400% YoY to 3.2 million, and Baidu was able to ship the most smart speakers of the three (3.3 million) despite only entering the market in Q2 2018.
  • The Chinese smart speaker market, led by the above-mentioned companies, shipped more units than the US market, led by Google and Amazon.Google and Amazon shipped 8.1 million smart speakers in Q1 2019, while the trio of major Chinese vendors shipped a collective 9.7 million smart speakers. None of the Chinese players have individually surpassed Amazon or Google in shipments yet, though.
  • Chinese companies enjoy native advantages in their home market compared with US competitors.US companies like Amazon and Google are at a disadvantage in China because they lack the same working relationships that likely exist between Chinese device makers and Chinese tech companies that make ubiquitous platforms like WeChat. Moreover, US companies likely lack access to an established local developer community for their products. These weaker relationships can leave their devices with poor integrations with popular local apps and services, or without access completely, making their devices less attractive to consumers.

The bigger picture: As the US smart speaker market begins to leave its growth stage and enter a maturity stage, Amazon and Google will likely find it difficult to maintain their spots as the top global smart speaker providers, and will turn to services to drive higher revenue as growth slows.

In 2018, 35% of US smart speaker households owned more than one smart speaker, up from 18% a year earlier. To capitalize on the existing base of US smart speakers, market leaders Amazon and Google can turn to services such as voice app stores and subscription services to drive higher revenue.

Amazon already has a wide offering of almost 60,000 voice apps for its Alexa-enabled smart speakers, while Google has just over 4,000. The companies can monetize these apps by taking a cut of the apps’ revenue and in-app purchases, like Apple does from its App Store, for example.

Source: https://www.pulse.ng/bi/tech/china-has-become-the-new-global-leader-in-smart-speaker-shipments-baba-googl-amzn/214lh08

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Would life be happier without Google? I spent a week finding out

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People had to get by without the search engine giant before it was launched in 1998. But is it possible to live your life – and do your job – without it these days?

‘There are still plenty of “now what”? moments.’
 ‘There are still plenty of “now what”? moments.’ Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Halfway through my week without Google, my wife mentions that she would like to go out to see a film that evening, and I agree to deal with the logistics. In what I initially think is an inspired move, I drop by the local cinema on the way home and scribble down all the film times in my notebook. Then my wife insists on going to a different cinema.

“Can I do this by phone?” I ask her. “Is 118 still a thing?”

Turns out it is, and an expensive one: £2.50 a call, plus 75p a minute, plus a 55p access charge from my mobile provider. But more than a million people a year still use the service, and it even offers a text facility that answers questions – although you’re essentially just asking someone to Google something for you and text you back, for £3.50 a go.Advertisement

Before I started this experiment, when I tried to imagine what it would be like to take a break from Google, what I was really trying to remember was how my life worked all those years before it started.

Google was founded in 1998. Thinking back to the mid-90s, I dimly recall visiting libraries in the course of my work as a journalist, and having fat envelopes of press cuttings delivered to my door. I remember tracking down Meat Loaf’s out-of-print autobiography in a secondhand bookshop the day before interviewing him. But often, I never found the answers I was looking for. Instead, I adjusted the questions.

I remember factual disputes in pubs and at dinner parties that simply never got settled. I remember finding my own way around town. I remember learning straightforward repairs from books instead of videos. I remember doing all of these things, but I don’t really remember how it felt.

To get Google out of your life is a big undertaking. Google Maps doesn’t just get you to places; it drives many of the other apps you use, including Uber. Google owns YouTube. Google controls my thermostat.

For the purposes of this experiment, I am simply avoiding the maps, the search engine, the browser and YouTube. I am going to keep using email. There are, of course, other browsers, search engines and map apps out there, but I am not trying to find substitutes. I am trying to do without.

My reasons have little to do with Google’s monopoly on searching, or its free and easy way with my data. I am worried it is doing something to my brain. Actually, I am worried that Google is my brain.Advertisement

In his book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr describes familiar symptoms while trying to absorb text of any length: “My concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread and begin to look for something else to do.” The book’s main contention is that our highly plastic brains are being rewired by the demands of online existence: an increased knack for mental multitasking comes at the price of our ability to think deeply. Google, he says, is a huge part of this: “Google is, quite literally, in the business of distraction.”

The Shallows was published in 2010, and it is unlikely anything has improved since then. Carr maintains that the rise of the smartphone, along with social media, has magnified the problem considerably. “A decade ago, you could still make a distinction between ‘online’ and ‘offline’,” he tells me in an email. “We spent a lot of time on the internet, but we didn’t live there. Now, we do. Today, essentially, people are always online.”

Google receives 63,000 searches every second, about 2tn a year, accounting for more than 90% of the global search engine market. It is said that the average person performs three to four searches a day, but a glance through my browser history before shutting Google down shows I regularly exceed 20. Many of these are purposeful; many more are not. Two weeks ago, I found and ordered the precise replacement part I needed for my broken coffee machine. But I also searched for the name of someone I’d met the night before; a definition of China’s One Belt One Road development strategy; a catflap door; a list of Balkan cities (cheating at a crossword); the local recycling timetable; what toothwort is; and “Yul Brynner as robot with face plate removed”.

For my own sanity, I need a break.

Monday

When I moved house two years ago, I started to rely on Google for navigation. Now, I am utterly dependent. I don’t just want to know the way – I want to know the best way, as of this minute. I can’t remember the last time I gave a thought to where anything was.

“How do I buy an A-Z?” I ask my wife.

“I don’t even know that you can,” she says. I think: Google would know.

A-Zs are still widely available, as I discover after I take the bus to the closest bookshop on my severely depleted mental map. While I am there, I run across a book called Offline – which promises to help me “avoid the potentially disastrous side-effects of digital pollution”. I am reminded how big a role serendipitous discovery used to play in pre-Google research.

On the way home, I drop by my nearest library for the first time. It is a tiny branch, and the computing section is mostly dedicated to programming manuals, a fair number with the words “for Dummies” in the title. Everybody else in the room is looking at Google. I am sure this borough has a bigger central branch, but I have no idea where it is. An A-Z only works with an address. You can’t just look up “library”.

Later, I find my son in the kitchen, making tea. He was born in 1999, so he has never known a world without Google.

“So, it’s the first day of my week without Google,” I tell him.

“You’re switching search engines?” he asks.

“No, that’s not the point,” I say.

“What is the point?”

“The point is to remember what it was like before,” I say. “You have no idea how people used to find out stuff.”

“You just had to hope someone else knew,” he says.

“There were systems in place,” I say, “of which you know nothing.”

“Without Google, the issue was how to get the answer,” he says. “With Google, the issue is the answer.”

“Let’s say you wanted to know about brain surgery,” I say. “First, you would …” I stop there. I can’t remember.

‘I still have a basic printed reference library.’
 ‘I still have a basic printed reference library.’ Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Tuesday

I spend the morning in my home office, unsure about how to proceed with, well, anything. Once again, I ask myself: how did this work in 1997?

I remember that, back then, I bought three or more newspapers every day, and kept all the copies until the end of the week. I still have a basic printed reference library – dictionaries of biography, film, literature, etymology, quotations, etc – but nothing has been updated for 20 years. I once owned a handy encyclopedia on CD-Rom, but that went the way of the CD-Rom drive.

For reassurance, I return to the book I bought – Offline, by Imran Rashid and Soren Kenner – which explains that while Google may be great for finding facts and coffee machine parts, its primary purpose is to deliver me to advertisers, as part of a system designed to make sure I am never not shopping: “Think of it as a complete set of rails laid out in front of you and designed to keep you engaged by exposing you to a number of different approaches.”

I think about a jacket I searched for last week, which I decided was too expensive, and which haunted every webpage I visited afterwards, floating above the text I was reading as if to say: look what you forgot to buy.

As the authors point out, there is a reason I had this miraculous, free, search facility – and all the knowledge it could locate – at my fingertips. “The equation is actually very simple if you look at it as a reversal of the traditional vendor-consumer relationship,” they write. “Your attention is the commodity.” Competition for my attention is fierce, and the result is that I am inattentive to almost everything else. As the book reminds me, before the advent of smartphones “most of us could hold 20 or even 50 phone numbers in our head”. Today, I know precisely four: my parents’ home phone – unchanged for 55 years; my dad’s office number – not in use for 15; my wife’s mobile; and mine.

‘I ring the cinema … it refers me to the website.’
 ‘I ring the cinema … it refers me to the website.’ Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Wednesday

A Guardian photographer follows me while I navigate through London with my A-Z, but I can tell he is frustrated and wants to use his phone. I keep dropping things into the conversation such as: “I wonder how you go about getting a British Library card?”, hoping he might be able to tell me. I think about what my son said – “You just had to hope someone else knew” – and I realise my primary research tool was, and still is, the stupid question. When you ask Google, nobody has to hear.

It’s the day of my wife’s proposed cinema visit, and 118 connects me to the cinema chain’s recorded phone menu, which refers me to the website for film times and hangs up on me. I ring back and select the booking option. After a 10-minute wait, I am connected to a charming woman who seems to have nothing but time. She runs me through the whole film schedule twice, and describes the interior of the cinema in some detail so I can choose my seats. I have a little trouble making up my mind. “No worries at all,” she says. “Is there a card in your name we’ll be popping this on to?” I can’t figure out why she’s being so patient, until I realise she’s assuming I am very old. Otherwise, I would be doing this online.

That evening, following her precise instructions, I show my credit card to the man at the popcorn till. He looks up my name and prints out my tickets. “It’s like shopping by candlelight,” I say.

Thursday

At a small library I run across by accident, I make a random discovery: in a thick binder labelled “local info” is a book that contains the addresses of every library in the country. I take a picture of the listing for my local main branch – Ealing central library – and head off.

Navigating by A-Z again is an eye-opener. You need to keep your head up to read street signs and posted bus routes, and there are still plenty of “now what?” moments, not least when I get off the bus where the library is supposed to be, and there is nothing remotely library-shaped on the horizon.

It transpires Ealing central library is located inside the Ealing Broadway shopping centre. After a speculative wander, I find a sign, then another, directing me to the first floor. The library, it turns out, is closed – not for the afternoon, or the day, but since August, for renovations.

Friday

I don’t know what to do with myself. What is the point of having a computer if you can’t look things up on Google? Yes, I do have some work to do, but the days of deprivation have done nothing to restore my attention span. In the afternoon, a slim package arrives: my long-awaited coffee machine part, essentially a knob. Thanks to Google, it is the precise knob for my model, but it’s missing the small plastic insert that was the actual broken bit. Without it, the knob is useless.

At this point I feel very close to quitting the experiment because I really want that plastic sleeve. With a heavy heart, I pull the invoice from the bin, ring the number on it and listen to eight minutes of hold music. Eventually, a woman, Vivienne, picks up. I describe my problem.

“It’s a little plastic piece, like a sleeve,” I say.

“No idea what that would be,” she says. “Can you find a picture of it and give me the model number?”

“I can’t get online,” I say.

“That’s fine,” she says. “What about an email address?”

“Yes,” I say. “I’m allowed email.”

She sends me an exploded illustration of my coffee machine with all the parts numbered.

“I don’t see it there, Vivienne,” I say. “Unless it’s embedded in the knob.”

“I’m afraid you’ll have to call the manufacturer,” she says. “Do you want the number?”

The manufacturer answers with a recording telling me that the service department is closed on Friday afternoons.

Saturday

It’s probably fair to say that Google is inescapable, unless you resign yourself to getting nowhere without it. I spent so much of my week being either lost or bewildered, when the basic solution to my immediate problem might have been at my fingertips.

But it wasn’t a waste. I got almost nothing done, but, while I was out there, I did a lot of looking and I bought a lot of stuff. I even found a version of that jacket I liked in a shop, for a third of the price. Now when it hovers over the webpage I am on, saying: “Buy me!”, I’ll be wearing it. I briefly reclaimed the ability to walk through the world with maximum inefficiency, relying on random discoveries, luck, the kindness of strangers and the patience of phone operators.

I return to the email Carr sent me. “Constant connectivity has become so habitual (and so expected by society) that brief breaks just aren’t going to be sufficient to retrain the brain to relax, resist distraction and concentrate,” he writes. “At this point, the craving for the screen’s stimulations is pretty deeply engrained in most people’s psyches.”

‘It’s probably fair to say Google is inescapable.’
 ‘It’s probably fair to say Google is inescapable.’ Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

This may be the main problem: Google and the other major platforms have got very good at keeping our attention. The price we pay is endless inattention to the world around us. And that’s not all Google’s fault. “Thanks to some combination of laziness, gullibility and vanity, we have proven ourselves all too eager to embrace a culture of distraction and dependency,” said Carr. “We could have said no.”

One of the great impositions of modern life is the obligation to go everywhere forewarned and forearmed, to access timetables, reviews and instructions ahead of even the simplest tasks, for the sake of a frictionless existence. Once, it was creepy to Google someone just before you knew you were going to meet them. Now it’s sort of required.

I am not nostalgic for an era of bank queues, closed shops and being lost. I am glad to be relieved of the obligation of social interaction just to access a bit of information, because people are not always helpful, patient or fun to talk to. But for all that Google has given us, we have paid a price: we’re well on our way to eliminating the element of surprise from our lives and, with it, joy.

I don’t think it is too late to reclaim some of our attention back. My brain responded pretty well to the time off. Even Carr is not wholly pessimistic about the future. “I wouldn’t rule out the emergence of a counterculture that rejects digital media entirely – a kind of echo of the ‘back to nature’ movement of the 60s,” he wrote. “That may be wishful thinking on my part, but you never know.”

Source: The Guardian

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Innovations

Google Stadia Gaming Service ‘Will Not Have Any Adults-Only’ Content, Executive Says

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A Google executive offered new details on Wednesday about the company’s upcoming video game streaming service, telling Reuters that game makers may use competing cloud providers and must avoid some inappropriate content.

Google, owned by Alphabet Inc, unveiled Stadia on Tuesday, saying the service launching this year would make playing high-quality video games in an internet browser as easy as watching a movie on its YouTube service.

The game would operate on Google’s servers, receiving commands from a user’s controller and sending video streams to their screen. Player settings, leaderboards, matchmaking tools and other data related to the game would “not necessarily” have to reside on Google’s servers, Phil Harrison, a Google vice president, said in an interview.

Hosting the data elsewhere, however, could lead to slower loading times or less crisp streaming quality, he said.

“Obviously, we would want and incentivize the publisher to bring as much of their backend as possible” to Google servers, he said. “But Stadia can reach out to other public and private cloud services.”

The approach could limit Google’s revenue from Stadia. It has declined to comment on the business model for the new service, but attracting new customers to Google’s paid cloud computing program is one of Stadia’s aims.

If a game publisher was using Amazon for some tools, “the first thing I would do is introduce you to the Google Cloud team,” Harrison said.

In addition, Stadia will require games to follow content guidelines that build upon the system of Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), a self-regulatory body, he said.

“We absolutely will not have A-O content,” Harrison said, referring to the ESRB’s moniker for the rare designation of a game as adult-only because of intense violence, pornography or real-money gambling.

He said Stadia’s guidelines would not be public.

Asked about growing public concerns about game addiction, Harrison said Stadia would empower parents with controls on “what you play, when you play and who you play with.”

Google views Stadia as connecting its various efforts in gaming, including selling them on its mobile app store, Harrison said. But game streaming, he said, is an opportunity to tackle among the most complex technical challenges around and potentially apply breakthroughs to other industries.

“We think we can grow a very significant games market vertical,” he said. “And by getting this right we can advance the state of the art of computing.”

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