Archives for February 8, 2019

Elon Musk's Dumb Lie About Smart Cars

I have too much respect for Elon Musk to think that he really believes that, because there’s not the slightest sign that we are anywhere close to that level of automated driving. Therefore I must very reluctantly conclude that he’s intentionally misleading the public.

I’ll speculate on his reasons for surfacing this whopper at the end of this column. Meanwhile, Musk isn’t the only one who’s overplaying his hand on full automation. It’s endemic to the automobile industry, most of which has adopted this “sliding scale” model of how automation will come about:

0. No automation. Driver does everything.

1. Driver assistance. Standard cruise control.

2. Partial automation. Cruise control with lane changing, ability to parallel park and other easily defined, predictable driving behaviors.

3. Conditional automation. Self-driving; system hands control to human when needed.

4. High automation. Self-driving; system hands control to human when needed but overrides dumb human decisions.

5. Full automation. You can bunk out in the back seat when you leave, and wake up when you arrive.

Described in this way, full automation seems like merely an extension of technologies that are already working. We’re now at stage 2 and moving to stage 3, it follows that eventually we’ll make the human driver redundant.

However, when you get outside the bubble of AI hucksters and talk to experts in automation and transportation, a different story emerges. A recent ThinkProgress article provides some excellent examples:

  • “Taking me from Cambridge to Logan Airport with no driver in any Boston weather or traffic condition — that might not be in my lifetime.” — John Leonard, VP for automated driving research at the Toyota Research Institute.

  • “Recent Uber and Tesla autonomous vehicle deaths show general use of real self-driving is a decade away. The tech still needs orders of magnitude improvement.” — Michael Liebreich, the former chair of Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF)

And most damning of all:

  • “Despite several decades of automation in aviation, airliners will have human pilots for the foreseeable future. Streets and highways are much more variable and unpredictable than airways, and predictions that the streets will be filled with large numbers of autonomous vehicles within a few years are ignoring not only the lessons of automation history, but also the numerous additional challenges that will be faced on the ground.” — Christopher Hart, former chair of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)

That last quote is the big buzz-kill because proponents of self-driving cars frequently and loudly cite the example of auto-piloted airplanes as evidence that driverless cars are  practical.

In fact, as Hart points out, the current state of avionics automation argues the opposite–that a human pilot is still necessary even when traveling mostly involves traversing a vast empty space.

Rather than a sliding scale of incremental improvement, car automation is better represented by a chasm that’s yet to bridged, like so:

0. No automation. Driver does everything.

1. Driver assistance. Standard cruise control.

2. Partial automation. Cruise control with lane changing, ability to parallel park and other easily defined, predictable driving behaviors.

3. Automation. Self-driving; system hands control to human when needed.

4. High automation. Self-driving; system hands control to human when needed but overrides a dumb human decision.

5. Full automation. You can bunk out in the back seat when you leave and wake up when you arrive.

The myth that driverless cars are just around the corner would just be annoying hype were it not for the fact that the hype is influencing public policy and infrastructure investment. 

Similarly, truck drivers and teamsters are now being told that they’ll soon be replaced by driverless vehicles. Believing this, they’re likely to focus on simply keeping their own jobs rather than working to change the real danger, which is the erosion and elimination of compensation and benefits by an unregulated, non-union gig economy.

Which lead me to why I think Elon Musk is making a prediction that he probably knows to be untrue. Simply put, he’s trying to convince people to buy more Teslas so that they can be on the cutting edge of a driving revolution that will never take place.

And that’s dumb because eventually people will notice that driverless cars aren’t happening. Even worse, this driverless car nonsense is distracting consumers from the real reason to buy an electronic car, which is that the internal combustion engine is helping make the planet uninhabitable.

As I see it, Musk’s vision for the future has a lot going for it. A car that runs on stored solar power would be a huge boon to humankind. Musk doesn’t need to spout fictions about full automation that’s just not going to happen.

Thailand launches Huawei 5G test bed, even as U.S. urges allies to bar Chinese gear

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thailand on Friday launched a Huawei Technologies 5G test bed, even as the United States urges its allies to bar the Chinese telecoms giant from building next-generation mobile networks.

FILE PHOTO: A Huawei 5G device is pictured outside an exhibition in Bangkok, Thailand, January 30, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Huawei, the world’s top producer of telecoms equipment and second-biggest maker of smartphones, has been facing mounting international scrutiny amid fears China could use its equipment for espionage, a concern the company says is unfounded.

The 5G test bed in Thailand, the United States’ oldest ally in Asia, will be Huawei’s first in Southeast Asia.

Thailand’s cooperation with Huawei on the test bed does not mean it is not concerned about security issues, Minister of Digital Economy Pichet Durongkaveroj told Reuters at the launch.

“We keep a close watch on the allegations worldwide. However, this 5G test bed project is a testing period for the country,” Pichet added. “We can make observations which will be useful to either confirm or disconfirm the allegations.”

Pichet was speaking at the test site in Chonburi, the heart of the Thai military government’s $45 billion economic project – the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC)- about 90 km southeast of Bangkok. Vendors like Nokia, Ericsson and Thai telecoms operators have also set up 5G labs at the site.

Huawei, which gets nearly half of its revenue from outside China, says it has secured more than 30 commercial 5G contracts globally. But it has not yet signed a 5G contract in Thailand.

Huawei is in talks with telecoms operators, such as Advanced Info Service Pcl and TRUE, to secure local partnerships ahead of a national rollout scheduled for December 2020, industry sources with knowledge of the matter said.

Asked if the United States had reached out to Thailand about barring Huawei, Pichet said: “I have no knowledge of that”.

U.S. embassy spokesperson in Bangkok said the United States “advocates for secure telecoms networks and supply chains that are free from suppliers subject to foreign government control or undue influence that poses risks of unauthorized access and malicious cyber activity”.

“We routinely urge allies and partners to consider such risks and exercise similar vigilance in ensuring the security of their own telecoms networks and supply chains, including when awarding contracts,” the spokesperson added.

Huawei representatives at the test bed site declined to comment as they were not authorized to speak to media.

Ties between the United States and Thailand have cooled since the Thai military took power in a 2014 coup. Relations between Bangkok and Beijing, on the other hand have, warmed in recent years as evident from a pick up in defense trade and Chinese investment in the Southeast Asia nation.

BUSINESS AS USUAL

Huawei has previously set up a cloud data center worth $22.5 million in Thailand’s EEC, a centerpiece of the government’s policy to boost growth in the country that has struggled to attract foreign investors besides the Chinese.

Alibaba, Tencent, Kingsoft and JD.com have also pledged to invest in the EEC.

This stands in stark contrast to the intense scrutiny being faced by Chinese investment in other parts of the world amid a crippling Sino-U.S. trade war.

Reuters reported exclusively on Jan. 30 that the European Commission was considering proposals that would ban Huawei from 5G networks, but that work was at an early stage.

Slideshow (2 Images)

For Thailand, security concerns over Huawei’s equipment come second to its competitive pricing versus that by U.S. firms, said Pranontha Titavunno, Chairman of the Information Technology Industry Club of the Federation of Thai Industries.

“We don’t think about it because their products are decent and affordable,” Pranontha told Reuters.

“There are always surveillance concerns when it comes to China … But Thailand doesn’t really have anything exciting that might be of interest to Beijing.”

Reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Himani Sarkar