The current state of commercial vehicle autonomy, from the perspective of a casual driver

Selfishly, I would like to live as long as possible. The top causes of death among adults in the United States are heart disease, cancer, and automobile accidents. So I attempt to maintain a reasonably healthy diet, exercise regularly, and avoid smoking harmful substances. And I try to both limit my driving and drive in the safest available vehicles.

Living in LA for the last six months, daily long-distance driving has become unavoidable. Consequently, I have continued my studies of the latest in car safety, which, these days, primarily revolves around vehicle autonomy systems. Everything commercially available to consumers today is at SAE autonomy classification level 2 or lower, which means that the human driver must always remain in control and autonomy can only supplement or enhance human driving. Anything above SAE II (essentially anything where the driver is not in control at all times) is subject to high levels of government scrutiny and a very murky regulatory environment.

Within the SAE II and below offerings, there are a variety of systems available, each of which typically operates independently, utilizes one or two types of sensors, and focus on preventing or mitigating one specific type of collision. Examples include lane departure warnings (using the front-facing camera), blind spot vehicle detection (using ultrasonic short-range sensors), and adaptive cruise control (using a combination of front-facing radar and front-facing camera) to maintain a set distance behind the vehicle ahead.

Other fun recent additions include 360 parking assistance (stitching together views from multiple vehicle-mounted cameras with fisheye lenses to show a full view of the car’s surroundings), rear cross-traffic alerting (using ultrasonic sensors to indicate a car approaching in a parking lot), and automatic emergency braking (using camera and radar to detect and attempt to mitigate a low-speed front collision).

Finally we are starting to see more of these systems work in concert, which is beginning to look like the kind of autonomy we have been promised for years. Recent examples combine adaptive cruise control with automatic lane keeping to allow for a reasonable facsimile of autonomous driveway at high speeds on well-marked highways. Tesla’s Autopilot refers to a variety of features, but this particular combination is what most people equate it with.

I recently had a chance to spend several hundred miles testing the ACC and lanekeeping functionality of a 2017 model year Honda Ridgeline. The system was very unpleasant. Lane keeping was inconsistent and could not be relied upon. The adaptive cruise control acceleration and braking was abrupt and uncomfortable. I was using the system in Massachusetts, which means many poorly maintained roads with faded or non-existing lane markings, as well as frequent inclement weather including rain and snow. This resulted in a system that would simply not work much of the time, and was frequently unreliable when it did.

In California, I have tested a 2017 model year Toyota Prius with ACC engaged for several thousand miles. This vehicle does not have lane keeping, and does have the advantage of being used almost exclusively in good weather on wall-marked highways. The system works far better than the Ridgeline — acceleration and breaking is generally smooth and gradual, vehicle spacing is well-maintained, with the car automatically reducing distance in slower stop-and-go traffic and increasing following distance at higher speeds. However, the system is extremely poor at dealing with other vehicles changing lanes.

If a car merges ahead of me, the Prius is slow to see it and often must abruptly brake to maintain distance. On multiple occasions I avoided rear-ending a merging vehicle only by manually intervening. In other cases, the front-facing radar loses its lock on the vehicle ahead, which can cause the system to disengage and requires me to quickly retake control. A few times it has randomly lost its vehicle lock and begun rapidly accelerating, thinking the roadway is clear. Again, I have had to quickly disengage the system by braking in order to avoid a collision.

The recognized leader in vehicle autonomy at present is Tesla, but I don’t have access to test the Autopilot system. Many claim that Volvo’s Pilot Assist is next in line, so I recently test-drove a 2018 model year Volvo XC60 with the full suite of driver assistance and safety systems.

The automated parking was an interesting experience, as was the 360 camera, although I’m not sure they would be useful to me very often. I luckily and unsurprisingly did not have a chance to test features such as collision mitigation braking and pedestrian detection. But I did get a quick look at the ACC + lane keeping systems, which are state-of-the art. With the salesman at the wheel, we cruised down a city road at 35 mph. The vehicle took care of acceleration and braking as well as keeping us in our lane. It also automatically detected speed limit signs and queued up speed changes for the driver to approve, in line with SAE II requirements. To demonstrate the sophistication, the salesman took his hands off the wheel and his feet of the pedals, noting that the system would not stop at red lights automatically unless there was a car ahead — an important caveat.

Everything was going great in the brief demo until the car ahead of us switched lanes and the radar (I assume) failed to achieve a lock on the vehicle proceeding it. Just as in my Prius experience, the car began to rapidly accelerate, even as the vehicle ahead was coming to a stop at a red light. The salesman, confident in the autonomy systems, let the car do its thing for a few beats longer than he should have. At the last second, he slammed the brakes and we avoided an unfortunate accident.

I’m very impressed with the Volvo, but under the hood it is no doubt using some of the same systems, processors, and sensors as every other major vehicle manufacturer. Between the Ridgeline’s inability to work in snow, rain, and on unmarked roads, the Prius’s unfortunate tendency to want to rear-end merging vehicles, and the XC60’s dangerous hiccup during a demo, my conclusion is that we still have a long way to go before we can truly rely upon our cars to keep us safe.

The pace of innovation in this space is pretty speedy given how slowly the industry has traditionally developed. Each of the autonomy systems presents very limited and specific claims. No vehicle maker is shipping a system in which all of the various sensors and systems work together in concert, and there are no commercially available vehicles today that meet SAE autonomy level 3 or greater.

When these safety features work, they are great: a family member’s recent near fender-bender became a fender-scratcher due to automatic braking. And certainly anything that will prevent me from running into a moose in the Vermont woods, or a bicyclist in Pasadena, is a welcome improvement. But at the end of the day, the driver is still fully responsible.

It makes sense that each system has a very narrow operating range, and the default is to not trigger unless the confidence level is extremely high. After all, even a false-positive rate of 1 in 100 is enough to cause people to disable the systems as annoyances or, worse, dangerous. Still, I am disappointed at how far we still need to go, and how far off the dream of truly reliable autonomous “robocars” still seems to be.

The Elon Musk Endgame

What are the minimum necessary components for a viable and sustainable long-term colony on Mars?

First we have to get there, so we will need inexpensive and reliable rockets.  They should be reusable both to keep costs down and to allow for return journeys.

Once we are there, we will need to be able to produce and store energy.  This will require extremely durable solar panels hooked to efficient battery packs.  We can use this energy to power our transportation — the small battery-powered vehicles (let’s call them “cars”) to transport people and supplies, and the larger heavy-duty construction equipment (“trucks”).

Mars is extremely cold and has minimal atmosphere, so it will make sense to build a a substantial portion of our colony underground.  For this we will need advanced tunnel boring equipment.

With thousands of people across multiple settlements along with hundreds of vehicles and other bits of autonomous equipment, it will be critical to have an advanced communication and geolocation grid.

And we will need highly optimized mining and manufacturing techniques.

I’m surely not the first person to notice this, but Elon Musk is pursuing every single one of those goals.  SpaceX has made remarkable advances in reducing the cost of spaceflight and the reusability of rocket components.  Tesla (along with its SolarCity acquisition) have produced efficient electric vehicles, stationary battery packs, and have just unveiled their extremely durable solar roof tiles made of glass.  The Boring Company, Musk’s latest endeavor, is aiming to improve the efficiency of tunnel boring machines by 10x or more.  And as for communications, SpaceX recently announced plans to build a low Earth orbit communications satellite swarm consisting of twice as many nodes as all currently existing satellites combined.

If Musk’s master plan is to build every component necessary for successful Mars colonization, his logical next step would be to invest in breakthroughs around food production, packaging, and storage.  We are also going to need environment suits, so maybe he will start looking into new types of fabrics, breathing apparatus, and the like.  And of course he will eventually need to pivot from factory automation to include advanced automated manufacturing of stationary buildings.

The Musk portfolio of companies has cranked out in a little over a decade a substantial portion of the breakthrough technologies necessary to make us an interplanetary species.  He is fighting a desperate battle against time as the effects of climate change compound and produce more disruption.  We need to get some people off this rock before other people, driven by greed or desperation or hatred, do their utmost to destroy it.

More Tales of American Health Care

I periodically post here, on Facebook, or elsewhere about confounding health care experiences. I’m relatively young, relatively healthy, and have very simple care needs. The failures I experience worry me because they imply that people with more complex or urgent needs are likely being even more poorly served. All of my experiences are with managed care providers. The most recent is with Kaiser Permanente.

I had symptoms that presented as a simple stomach ailment. I won’t go into the details because, as you might expect, they are not fun. After 96 hours of being barely able to eat, and having lost over 6 pounds of body weight, I decided it might be worthwhile to call the Kaiser consultation line and get an expert opinion as to whether I should take any further action or simply let it run its course. I was specifically concerned because I was going to need to travel for work, so I thought talking to a nurse would help me decide if the trip should be cancelled.

The phone tree was mystifying, as always. I kept being transferred to the wrong place, but after talking to three people I landed on a pre-screener who asked a few simple questions and, based on the answers, determined that I had no use for a phone nurse but instead needed an in-person appointment. He transferred me to appointments. They told me that none were available, and I should go to urgent care instead. And so off I went.

After the expected hour or so of waiting around and repeating my symptoms to three different people, the doctor gave me a cursory exam and confirmed that it was, indeed, a simple stomach virus which would run its course. He offered to do additional blood work, which I declined, and prescribed some medication to help with symptoms.

This is all fine, I suppose. If someone could make a cheap home combination blood pressure cuff, pulse/ox, and stethoscope that plugs into an iPhone, that would probably eliminate 20% of routine office visits. It’s the 21st century, where’s my telemedicine?

Anyway, the interesting bit is the prescription. You see, modern pharmacies have complex software to check for possible drug interactions. That’s in addition to the job of the doctor and the pharmacist, of course. I’m no expert, but reading the printout that came with the prescription immediately raised alarm bells. Dr. Internet suggests that taking this stuff could be a Very Bad Idea as in some cases it interacts with something I’m already taking to cause fun symptoms like coma. Now, I’m no expert, and I may be wrong about whether this is really dangerous. But yikes!

So I called Kaiser. The pharmacist I spoke to suggested tapering off the other medication while taking this one. I suggested that seemed ridiculous given the other med’s long biological half-life. He stumbled around a bit, and said he would have my doctor follow up. Right. In the meantime? Unclear.

Maybe it’s fine. But I’m sufficiently freaked out/miffed that I’m not touching the new stuff, and am just going to have to suffer the old-fashioned way. And I’m concerned about Kaiser’s capacity to effectively treat me while keeping me safe from iatrogenic effects.

Update (2017-05-04): I never received the promised follow-up call.

The internet is weird. While trolling through YouTube I stumbled upon a “related” video by a channel called SourceFedNERD. The hosts were hilarious and the content enjoyable, so I clicked over to subscribe. The very next video of theirs I watched turned out to be an announcement that the channel was shutting down. It was posted last week. I could have found this channel at any point since early 2012, subscribed, participated and enjoyed their content. But instead I found it today.

How Subtle Class Cues Can Backfire on Your Resume

This study of hiring practices by top-tier law firms comes to unsurprising conclusions. But the methodology and specifics are interesting. For example, “even though all educational and work-related histories were the same, employers overwhelmingly favored the higher-class man. He had a callback rate more than four times of other applicants and received more invitations to interview than all other applicants in our study combined. But most strikingly, he did significantly better than the higher-class woman, whose resume was identical to his, other than the first name.”

Spit and polish

My grandfather, Ralph Silverman, trained as a chemist at Indiana University on the GI Bill after serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II. In 1960 he uprooted his family and moved to California to form his own business manufacturing cleaning chemicals. Through grit, hard work, determination, and a little luck, he built a successful enterprise and gave his family a better life. It is a classic American Dream story, and fifty-seven years later, Maintex is a thriving facilities solutions company.

As a child I would go into work with my dad and help grandpa open the mail: checks in one pile, bills in another. As a teenager I worked part of my summers on the company’s catalog and web site. My first major programming accomplishment was designing a content management system for Maintex at age 14. While in college I helped maintain the servers that ran the web site, email, and FileMaker database.

While some employees assumed I would move into the family business, my parents and grandparents encouraged me to pursue my own dreams. I had the privilege of graduating from university with no debt thanks to my grandparents’ generosity, and I was able to successfully pursue a career in information technology.

The rest is well documented on this blog. I built a life in Boston, forming friendships, getting married, buying a house, and working in tech. I moved between several jobs, advancing my career but never quite satisfied with my role and level of responsibility.

All along, Maintex kept gnawing at the back of my mind — the amazing opportunity and awesome responsibility of potentially stewarding a multi-generational company. A company with a mission and purpose. A company that provides for the livelihoods of hundreds of employees.

It was a massively difficult decision. Meghan and I eventually came to the conclusion that I needed to give it a serious try. I plan to spend the next six months learning the ins and outs of the business, and contributing as much as I can. As I do so, I am very cognizant of the risks and potential pitfalls of coming into a family business in the third generation. To that end, my aim is to observe as much as possible and ask a million questions, especially in the areas where I know the least. I think I’m in a good position to do this — I have never been afraid to expose my ignorance!

Once this insight is offered, it must be said, everything else begins to fall in order. The recent Super Bowl, for instance. […I]t is exactly what you expect to happen when a teen-ager and his middle-aged father exchange controllers in the EA Sports video-game version: the father stabs and pushes the buttons desperately while the kid makes one play after another, and twenty-five-point leads are erased in minutes, and in just that way — with ridiculous ease on the one side and chicken-with-its-head-cut-off panic infecting the other.

— Adam Gopnick, "Did the Oscars Just Prove That We Are Living in a Computer Simulation?", The New Yorker.

Another Final Day

Friday was my last day as an employee of Brightcove. It has been a whirlwind 2 years and 8 months. After so much time in higher ed, a stint at a product-driven technology company was a breath of fresh air. I got to work with some incredibly talented people, and was given the opportunity to expand my knowledge and experience in exciting new ways.

In terms of buzzword compliance, Brightcove does pretty well. The majority of the company’s product suite is run on top of cloud computing providers like Amazon and Google. The technology stack utilizes a distributed, service-oriented architecture, with the microservices exposed via public APIs.

As a complex online video platform, Brightcove’s stack includes workflows for ingesting and transcoding video and other assets, centralized content management, pipelines for packaging assets and generating video players, global distribution using content delivery networks, and complex analytics using tracking beacons. In total over 100 distinct deployable services contribute to a seamless end-user experience that can reliably accommodate hundreds of millions of daily video views around the world.

Brightcove occupies the third and fourth floors of the Atlantic Wharf complex on the Boston waterfront

I joined the Systems Engineering team, and worked as a Senior and then Principal engineer, focusing on both operational execution and, increasingly, designing and building complex core infrastructure projects. I was pushed to create elegant and reliable solutions, but also to evangelize technologies and approaches across development teams.

Brightcove’s engineering organization is composed of many independent teams, each of which makes its own decisions about how software is built, deployed, and managed. The advantage of this approach is in agility and speed. The trade-off is that it can lead to a plethora of different languages, tools, solutions, and techniques — in short, an accumulation of technical debt.

Much of my challenge was in convincing disparate teams of the advantages of adopting common tools and techniques and standardizing deployment and service management. This task was at times enjoyable, but often frustrating. The incentives for teams are to deliver on product commitments, and this often leaves little time for work that is not customer-visible.

This challenge is common in my realm; some companies solve it by creating a Site Reliability Engineering team, although this typically bifurcates operational responsibility for services from engineering responsibility. On the whole, I like Brightcove’s approach of keeping engineering teams responsible for running their own services. I hope that the pendulum moves a bit, and the Systems Engineering team’s unique role become more valued and supported over time.

The thing I will miss the most about Brightcove is the community of people, both in person and on chat, who made every day a chance to learn, grow, and have fun. I’m not sure I’ve ever laughed so much at work before, or had so many interesting in-depth technical discussions. Culture is a hard thing to cultivate. Brightcove’s senior management and the supporting cast, like our amazing office services team and our HR business partners, work really hard on this, to their credit.

I’m leaving Brightcove for a unique opportunity outside of technology that involves a management component. I never thought I wanted to be on a management path, but now I’m giving it a try, in part due to my experiences at Brightcove. More on the new gig in a future post.

A month with the Touch Bar, and that’s enough

I purchased a new Apple laptop because I needed one, not because of any particular advertised feature. The Touch Bar models were better specced, so I grudgingly ended up with one. Today I finally turned off the Touch Bar’s “App Controls”, returning it to the standard function layout.

I don’t know how other people use computers, but I expect I’m in the majority as someone who keeps my eyes and attention focused on the display while typing. The term “touch typing” refers to the skill of being able to type by touch without needing to look at the keyboard. Thus, creating a “Touch Bar” — a flat capacitance screen with constantly shifting tap targets and no physical cues as to button location — is the exact opposite of a touch typing innovation.

The Touch Bar is very clever in the way that it dynamically updates with buttons relevant to each app. But we already have a mechanism for that functionality — a massive backlit screen that updates 60 times per second. I’m not sure that a touch screen laptop is useful, but being able to touch a target where I’m looking makes a lot more sense to me than having to change my focus away from the massive display screen I spend all my time working on in order to glance down at a tiny set of touch targets in a location where I have trained myself to never look.

Is the Touch Bar an innovation? Reviews are mixed, mostly taking a wait-and-see attitude. But I’m willing to call it now — the Touch Bar is a step backwards. Before, I had trained myself to know by touch how to change volume, brightness, and music. Now those buttons have no tactility. Just because something is new does not make it innovative. Just because you can create a whiz-bang bit of gadgetry does not mean you should.

Update on 2016 tools and productivity enhancements

Last year this time I wrote about changes to the tools and processes I use for personal productivity. This is just a brief update on where things ended up.

Document storage

Switching from Neat to Doxie was a failure, the multi-step scanning process and poor software integration made it a non-starter. I am still stuck with a Neat scanner that works less and less reliably with each Mac OS update, and a software suite that is now officially unsupported and unmaintained. I still have not found a better solution for scanning and keeping track of the small quantity of critical paper documents that I receive.

Note taking

I have abandoned Evernote as bloated and unworkable, as planned, but found Ulysses too be overly focused on writing long-form documents, whereas I need a general note-taking application. I have been using Quiver, a notebook focused on programmers who want to store code snippets, and found it to work reasonably well for all types of notes. I frequently get into trouble due to the lack of a full-featured iOS app.

I have been playing with Bear, a late entrant that is also a plain text/Markdown note taking app, and I’m generally pleased with it. But the import from Evernote is poor, and there are a few important features that are still missing.

Bookmarks and reading

Instapaper is still my favorite app for offline reading. Using Pinboard for shared/social bookmarking, however, was a bust — if the bookmark is not in my browser, I am not going to find it or see it. Instead I have switched to using Chrome on iOS so that my bookmarks and browsing history stay in sync between platforms.

Task management

Abandoning Things for 2Do was an overwhelming success. The features of 2Do work much better for me. But the lack of integration with other tools and/or a cloud component continue to hold it back from true excellence.

For more complex project management I have taken a look at a variety of tools including the venerable Basecamp (too opinionated, too wordy) as well as Asana (poor iOS app) and Flow, but I’ve fallen back to the trusty and flexible Trello.

Conclusion

Well, it’s good to try new things. With the plethora of tools and apps available, there should be something that fits everyone, but I still haven’t found the perfect set of apps for me. In particular, the Neat hardware/software is an (expensive) disaster, and there doesn’t seem to be a better tool for simply scanning, OCRing, and searching receipts and documents. But I will keep looking in 2017!

I have been moving more of my writing to Markdown format, and that makes it much easier to switch between apps. It would be easier still if every app supported the same set of Markdown formatting options.

John Green on dreams, careers, and creating

Sort of a different take on a similar theme to Wallace’s commencement address. Green talks about conscious choices, including knowing the value and limitations of dreams. One of his key takeaways is that we should not be beholden to the dreams and desires of our past selves.

Accidentally watched four episodes of The OA before I forced myself to stop. Wow. Compelling, captivating, original. Netflix is the only network I need.

For the last week I have dreaded loading Facebook for what I might see. Today my feed is full of hope and cheer and possibility. Let’s savor this, for at least a few more hours.