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December 9, 2018 · Uncategorized · Comments Off on Waymo’s Self-Driving Launch, and More This Week in Cars

Baby steps.

This week, the WIRED Transportation team highlighted (as we often do) a few exciting developments in self-driving cars. The Senate is finally considering self-driving car legislation, and might finalize it before the end of the year. An autonomous vehicle shuttle company bagged some new government contracts, and will open its six-seaters to members of the general public this month. Waymo, the putative leader in the space, finally launched its self-driving car service in metro Phoenix, Arizona.

And then there were some asterisks. That Waymo launch? There will still mostly be safety drivers in the front seats of its cars, monitoring the tech for boo-boos. And Tesla’s Autopilot was under the microscope again this week, with the news that police stopped a Model S on a California highway—while its driver snoozed behind the wheel. The autonomy thing is going slowly, it turns out, and there have been some brakes applied along the way. We are not there yet.

Also this week: Scooters are the best! Maps are too! It’s been a week: Let’s get you caught up.


Stories you might have missed from WIRED this week

  • We still don’t know whether the Tesla Model S stopped last month by some quick-thinking cops as its driver snoozed in the front seat was on Autopilot, the electric carmaker’s semi-autonomous highway driving feature. But as editor Alex Davies points out, the incident highlights an issue with the feature: that it can fooled into “believing” that its human driver is paying attention, even when they really aren’t.

  • Waymo officially launched its self-driving robotaxi service this week, with some serious caveats. The cars will still mostly have safety drivers in their front seat, which means they’re not totally driving themselves. And the Waymo One program is only open to people who have already taken part in the company’s secretive Early Rider program. Which means: If you’re not one of a handful of Arizonans, your self-driving car is not arriving now.

  • Still, the site of Waymo’s launch is an interesting place. Welcome to Chandler, Arizona, the unlikely birthplace of the self-driving car service.

  • Here’s another company that’s seeing some self-driving success: the small, Michigan-based startup May Mobility, which announced two impending autonomous shuttle launches this week. Right now, the company is tackling the easier parts of self-driving—shorter, repetitive routes—but it’s tackling them in big, busy cities. And actually signing contracts.

  • Here we go again. This week, Senators suddenly began circulating new language for a self-driving car bill that has been in congressional limbo for more than a year. The draft is supposed to be a compromise, setting loose guidelines for AV developers. But will the bill pass before the end of the year?

  • The hot new gig for bike messengers in Seattle right now? Riding a tricycle for a 111-year-old delivery service. UPS is now testing electric delivery trikes in the city, just as a major infrastructure promises to snarl city traffic. Nice timing!

  • Porsche hooks up with the mapmakers at Mapbox, who make slick cartographic interfaces for all sorts of industries. The Germans are hoping a new approach to mapping will add a bit of pizzazz to their in-car infographics, and maybe even convince drivers to go to exploratory pleasure drives. (Yeah, that’s gotta be a challenge for Porsche owners.)

Fun Efficiency Graphic of the Week

We get it—we’re visual learners, too. If you don’t have time to read Levi Tillemann and Lassor Feasley’s fun piece about scooters, make some time for the chart below, which shows how much less it pollutes and costs to power an e-scooter than your other car-based mobility options.


Stat of the Week


The share of older Americans who say they can’t do the activities or chores they’d like because they do not drive, according to a survey by the National Aging and Disability Transportation Center. The group advocates for more transit options for those who can’t drive because of age or disability.

Required Reading

News from elsewhere on the internet

In the Rearview

Essential stories from WIRED’s canon

Bad news for world records, great news for you, deep-pocketed car lover: The supersonic Bloodhound, powered by a jet engine bolted to a rocket, is now for sale after the team that was trying to set the land speed record ran out of money. WIRED reported on the supersonic car back in 2015.

December 9, 2018 · Uncategorized · Comments Off on 50 Years Later, We Still Don't Grasp the Mother of All Demos

Fifty years ago today, Doug Engelbart showed 2,000 people a preview of the future.

Engelbart gave a demonstration of the “oN-Line System” at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco on Dec. 9, 1968. The oN-Line System was the first hypertext system, preceding the web by more than 20 years. But it was so much more than that. When Engelbart typed a word, it appeared simultaneously on his screen in San Francisco and on a terminal screen at the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park. When Engelbart moved his mouse, the cursor moved in both locations.

The demonstration was impressive not just because Engelbart showed off Google Docs-style collaboration decades before Google was founded. It was impressive because he and his team at SRI’s Augmentation Research Center had to conceive of and create nearly every piece of technology they displayed, from the window-based graphical interface to the computer mouse.

“It made the interaction with the machine almost compelling, it was intimate,” says Don Nielson, a retired SRI engineer and executive who wrote a history of SRI called Heritage of Innovation. “Up til then, unless you were a programmer you didn’t spend much time in front of a terminal or a teletype or whatever the medium.”

You can draw a line from the technologies introduced at the “Mother of All Demos,” as WIRED writer Steven Levy dubbed the event in his book Insanely Great, to the internet, the web, Wikipedia, the Macintosh, Microsoft Windows, Google Docs, and a host of other technologies that dominated daily life by the time Engelbart died in 2013. To Engelbart, his work was never about the technology itself, but about helping people work together to solve the world’s biggest problems.

“I don’t believe that as he looked around that he thought ‘Oh I had a hand in that,'” says Nielson. “He would say ‘They still don’t understand me.'”

It’s not hard to see why people didn’t understand. Engelbart concluded the 1968 presentation by explaining what he believed he had demonstrated. “It’s an augmentation system that’s provided to augment computer system development,” he says. “And beyond that, we’re also hoping that we’re developing quite a few design principles for developing our augmentation systems. And these, I hope are transferable things.”

In other words, he wasn’t presenting a collection of hardware and software, but a system for developing hardware and software—a system that ideally could be useful in other endeavors. He was demonstrating a way of working.

Bootstrapping Tools

Engelbart founded the Augmentation Research Center in the early 1960s with an eye towards helping humanity tackle its biggest problems, such as poverty, disease, and the effects of war, his daughter Christina Engelbart says.

To solve those problems, Engelbart believed humanity needed new ways of working. “Man’s population and gross product are increasing at considerable rate but the complexity of his problems grows still faster and the urgency with which solutions must be found becomes steadily greater,” he wrote in his 1959 paper “Augmenting Human Intellect.”

He believed that computers would be an important part of enhancing human abilities, but he also believed technology needed to be part of a systematic approach to problem solving and collaboration. Engelbart believed people should focus on creating feedback loops to improve their own effectiveness explains Jeff Rulifson, the computer scientist who developed much of the software on display at the Mother of All Demos. “The idea was to create tools and then use those tools to improve the tools,” Rulifson says. Instead of making the tool once, it would be continually improved, based on the experiences of its users. As the tools improve, they make it possible to make new, more useful tools. Engelbart called the approach “bootstrapping,” named for the bootstrap circuit in radar systems.

The Augmentation Research Center team put the bootstrapping idea into practice. They used the oN-Line System to build the oN-Line System, learning what did and didn’t work as they went. That was the group’s real purpose.

At the event in 1968, Engelbart didn’t just show off the mouse and hypertext documents as cool. He, Rulifson, and fellow Augmented Research Center engineer Bill Paxton demonstrated how the team used the hypertext system to collaborate.

“What we’re saying, we need a research subject group to give them these tools, put them to work with them, study them and improve them,” Engelbart said during the demo. “We’ll do that by making ourselves be the subject group and studying ourselves, and making the tools so that they improve our ability to develop and study these kinds of systems, and to produce in the end, this kind of system discipline.”

From the GUI to Lean Manufacturing

Engelbart’s ideas no longer seem so out there, thanks to management philosophies like lean manufacturing and agile software development that encourage companies to make continuous improvements to their products and processes.

Open source software is perhaps one of the purest embodiments of the Engelbart philosophy. Open source developers from around the world, often from competing companies, collaborate to build the tools they use to build more tools that they use to solve complex problems, such as building artificial intelligence systems. But the struggles of the open source community also expose some of the limitations to Engelbart’s thinking.

Making tools to solve complex problems can create new problems, and tools can be used in ways the creators might not have intended. Facebook used open source software to build a web application capable of serving more than 2 billion people. Now it stands accused of enabling bad actors to foment hate, divide societies, and manipulate elections. Meanwhile, the National Security Agency is using some of those same open source tools as part of its surveillance efforts.

In other words, bad actors can continuously improve too. Just as environmental activists can get better at trying to raise awareness of global warming or creating sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels, the fossil fuel industry can get better at convincing the public that global warming doesn’t exist or find better ways to extract oil and gas.

Christina Engelbart, now the executive director of the Douglas Engelbart Institute, says her father was well aware of this issue, and believed it was important for good people to get better as quickly as possible. “He used to call it a race,” she says.

She says her father was pleased with the development of the lean manufacturing methodology and the earlier “total quality management .” But he wanted to see those ideas applied everywhere, not just manufacturing and product development. To that end, the institute will host a series of events beginning Sunday that aim to help people finally understand Engelbart.

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