What's the long German word for shame?

The scrubbing chemistry is also what gave away Volkswagen’s alleged cover-up. In 2013, a small non-profit group decided to compare diesel emissions from European cars, which are notoriously high, with the US versions of the same vehicles. A team led by Drew Kodjak, executive director of the International Council on Clean Transportation, worked with emissions researchers at West Virginia University to test three four-cylinder 2.0-liter diesel cars in the Los Angeles area: a Jetta, a Passat, and a BMW. Only the BMW passed.
“We felt that it would be possible to get low emissions for diesels,” Kodjak said. “You can imagine our surprise when we found two of the three vehicles had significant emissions.”
The ICCT reported its findings to the EPA and the California Air Resources Board. Regulators met with VW officials in 2014 and the automaker agreed to fix the problem with a voluntary recall. But in July 2015, CARB did some follow up testing and again the cars failed—the scrubber technology was present, but off most of the time.
How this happened is pretty neat. Michigan’s Stefanopolou says computer sensors monitored the steering column. Under normal driving conditions, the column oscillates as the driver negotiates turns. But during emissions testing, the wheels of the car move, but the steering wheel doesn’t. That seems to have have been the signal for the “defeat device” to turn the catalytic scrubber up to full power, allowing the car to pass the test.

Clever detective work catching Volkswagen in this nefarious scheme. The Guardian does the math on the potential damage:

The rigging of emissions tests may have added nearly a million tonnes of air pollution by VW cars annually – roughly the same as the UK’s combined emissions for all power stations, vehicles, industry and agriculture. According to a Guardian analysis, the 482,000 non-compliant US vehicles would have released between 10,392 and 41,571 tonnes of NOx annually at an average US mileage, rather than the 1,039 tonnes the EPA standards would imply. Scaled to the 11m global vehicles, that would mean up to 948,691 tonnes of NOx emissions annually. Western Europe’s biggest power station, Drax in the UK, emits 39,000 tonnes of NOx each year.

Now some expert should translate that into a rough number of deaths or years of human life expunged. It's tantamount to indirect murder, and it's laughable that CEO Martin Winterkorn refuses to resign. It will be fascinating to see who concocted the scheme and how it was agreed upon.

At the very least, Winterkorn and others responsible should be forced to walk naked through the streets while people shout, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” and throw fruit at them.

UPDATE: Just a few hours after I posted this Winterkorn resigned. He maintains he had no idea of this scheme, and it's quite possible that's true. It will still be interesting to see just how the scheme was concocted and how it was approved and carried out without Winterkorn's knowledge. Breakdowns are often more revealing than successes.


A few days ago Tesla Motors announced a new Ludicrous Mode for the Model S.

While working on our goal of making the power train last a million miles, we came up with the idea for an advanced smart fuse for the battery. Instead of a standard fuse that just melts past a certain amperage, requiring a big gap between the normal operating current and max current, we developed a fuse with its own electronics and a tiny lithium-ion battery. It constantly monitors current at the millisecond level and is pyro-actuated to cut power with extreme precision and certainty.
That was combined with upgrading the main pack contactor to use inconel (a high temperature space-grade superalloy) instead of steel, so that it remains springy under the heat of heavy current. The net result is that we can safely increase the max pack output from 1300 to 1500 Amps.
What this results in is a 10% improvement in the 0 to 60 mph time to 2.8 secs and a quarter mile time of 10.9 secs. Time to 155 mph is improved even more, resulting in a 20% reduction.
This option will cost $10k for new buyers. In appreciation of our existing P85D owners, the pack electronics upgrade needed for Ludicrous Mode will be offered for the next six months at only $5k plus installation labor.

You might wonder why Tesla would even bother releasing a $10,000 upgrade that buys you 0.3 seconds in your 0-60 time. Ludicrous indeed, right? I supposed it could be justified as just a publicity stunt, and it did garner more press than the other announcements they made, but I believe it just emphasizes just how critical it is to Tesla's success to show that going electric does not mean any sacrifice in performance. In many cases they now tout electric cars as a superior experience to ICE cars.

I don't think Tesla would have succeeded any other way except by starting with a high end performance car and then moving down market. At the time their first model the Roadster was released, electric cars were almost all hybrids, and the pure electric cars that were on the market had really low range, in the neighborhood of 80 miles on a full charge, so they were of necessity second or third cars for people with short commutes. The cars were very underpowered; it wasn't a stretch to say electric cars were like glorified go-carts.

There were very few public chargers, if any, and installing a charger at home was a costly upgrade from the electric company, if it was even available in your area. Electric cars were toys for a sliver of the wealthy.

The Roadster, but more the Model S, was the first electric car to credibly stand in as both a practical and sexy alternative to ICE cars. When it was first announced, there were still very few public chargers, and even today the public charging situation is meager when compared to the number of gas stations. Going electric would still be a sacrifice for many drivers today.

That is why the performance of the Model S in other respects was so critical. The battery life for high end models, around 260 miles on a full charge, was finally enough for more than just a short daily commute (it's not surprising to me at all that most of the sales of the Model S have been for the largest battery, to the point where they dropped the low end model). Battery life was critical to the first iPhone's appeal, and it's even more critical to electric cars because of the limited charging infrastructure.

The styling of the car was a fine balance between conservative and overly aggressive. No matter what you think of it, though, it didn't scream economy car like most compact electric cars before it. The designer came from a background designing European luxury cars, and the lines of the car evoked those more than boxy economy cars.

The 0-60 performance was a thrill then, and it's absurd now. Ludicrous, you might say. I test drove a P85D with insane mode turned on and the acceleration from a standing stop to 60 miles per hour was so extreme I felt dizzy and had to pull over for a few seconds to regain my equilibrium. It's like nothing you've ever felt before unless you're the circus clown they shoot out of a cannon. That so many YouTube videos showed the Model S dusting BMW's, Audi's, Porsches, Ferraris, and Lamborghinis on race tracks underlined the fact that you were sacrificing no performance whatsoever in going electric. In fact, you could now be the fastest kid on the block.

Add all of that up to other talking points like the giant touchscreen and ample storage space and what the Model S did was unlock the ability for relatively wealthy people to signal their concern for the environment without sacrificing anything in driving performance or personal style. It's an expensive signal, but as any knowledgeable sociologist or economist might tell you, the more extreme the signal, the clearer the signal. Driving a Ferrari down the street is a clearer signal than a BMW. The giant tail feathers of a peacock? Ludicrous, perhaps, but a very efficient signal.

Before the Tesla, owning an electric car marked you as an eccentric, a hippie even. Tesla singlehandedly changed the signaling potential of the entire electric car category.

Given the unfriendly car charging context into which Tesla had to launch its electric cars, this is not a market where low end disruption would have worked. The cost of batteries just didn't put that type of price/performance strategy in play. Tesla shook up the market by attacking the high end, luxury car market, just as they had to, and to compete in that segment, sometimes you have to pull up along side the ICE sports car at the stoplight and blow it off the line. Sometimes, the way to achieve escape velocity is by achieving a lot of velocity.

Robots taking all the jobs, cont.

By studying the brains of drivers when they were negotiating a race-track, the scientists were intrigued to find that during the most complex tasks, the experts used less brain power. They appeared to be acting on instinct and muscle memory rather than using judgement as a computer programme would. 

“It looks as if the skilled race car drivers are able to control their cars with very little cognitive load,” said Prof Gerdes. 

Mr Vodden agreed saying in difficult manouvres experience kicked in. "If you're thinking you're going too slow."

You'd think from that excerpt that the human driver remains superior, but it turns out the driverless car beat the track champion by 0.4 seconds on a track in Northern California.

One race track, the worlds' greatest driver (whoever is the Michael Schumacher of the moment) versus the best computer driver. I don't enjoy watching auto racing on TV, but I'd watch one that pits man and machine against machine and machine.

One more wrinkle for AI to learn: how and when to cheat.

In the race between Shelley and Mr Vodden, the racing driver left the track at a sharp corner, rejoining the race ahead of the robot car. 

“What we’re doing as humans we’re weighting a number of different things,” added Prof Gerdes. 

“We’re not driving within the lines, we’re balancing our desire to follow the law with other things such as our desire for mobility and safety. 

“If we really want to get to the point where we can have a car that will drive as well as the very best drivers with the car control skills and also the judgment it seems to me that we really need to have a societal discussion about what are the different priorities we place on mobility and safety on judgement and following the law.”

Adventures in teaching self-driving cars

For complicated moves like that, Thrun’s team often started with machine learning, then reinforced it with rule-based programming—a superego to control the id. They had the car teach itself to read street signs, for instance, but they underscored that knowledge with specific instructions: “stop” means stop. If the car still had trouble, they’d download the sensor data, replay it on the computer, and fine-tune the response. Other times, they’d run simulations based on accidents documented by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. A mattress falls from the back of a truck. Should the car swerve to avoid it or plow ahead? How much advance warning does it need? What if a cat runs into the road? A deer? A child? These were moral questions as well as mechanical ones, and engineers had never had to answer them before. The darpa cars didn’t even bother to distinguish between road signs and pedestrians—or “organics,” as engineers sometimes call them. They still thought like machines.

Four-way stops were a good example. Most drivers don’t just sit and wait their turn. They nose into the intersection, nudging ahead while the previous car is still passing through. The Google car didn’t do that. Being a law-abiding robot, it waited until the crossing was completely clear—and promptly lost its place in line. “The nudging is a kind of communication,” Thrun told me. “It tells people that it’s your turn. The same thing with lane changes: if you start to pull into a gap and the driver in that lane moves forward, he’s giving you a clear no. If he pulls back, it’s a yes. The car has to learn that language.”

From Burkhard Bilger's New Yorker piece on Google's self-driving car. The engineering issues they've had to deal with are fascinating.

As many have noted, legal or regulatory risk may be the largest obstacle to seeing self-driving cars on our roads in volume. To counter that, I hypothesize that all self-driving will ship with a black box, like airplanes, and that all the cameras will record a continuous feed of video, that keeps overwriting itself, maybe a loop of the most recent 30 minutes of driving at all times, along with key sensor readings. That way if someone sees the self-driving sensor on a car they can't just back into the self-driving car or hurtle themselves across a windshield just to get a big settlement from Google.

In fact, as sensors and video recording devices come down in cost, it may become law that all cars come with such accessories, self-driving or not, making it much easier to determine fault in car accidents. The same cost/weight improvements in video tech may make it so Amazon drones are also equipped with a continuously recording video camera, the better for determining who may have brought it down with a rock to steal its payload.

Perhaps Google will take the continuous video feeds as a crowd-sourced way to update its street maps. That leads, of course, to the obvious drawback to such a scenario, the privacy concerns over how Google would use the data and video from the cars. That's a cultural issue and seems more tenable than the legal one, however.

The cost of commuting

There is a clear connection between social deficit and the shape of cities. A Swedish study found that people who endure more than a 45-minute commute were 40% more likely to divorce. People who live in monofunctional, car‑dependent neighbourhoods outside urban centres are much less trusting of other people than people who live in walkable neighbourhoods where housing is mixed with shops, services and places to work.

A couple of University of Zurich economists, Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer, compared German commuters' estimation of the time it took them to get to work with their answers to the standard wellbeing question, "How satisfied are you with your life, all things considered?"

Their finding was seemingly straightforward: the longer the drive, the less happy people were. Before you dismiss this as numbingly obvious, keep in mind that they were testing not for drive satisfaction, but for life satisfaction. People were choosing commutes that made their entire lives worse. Stutzer and Frey found that a person with a one-hour commute has to earn 40% more money to be as satisfied with life as someone who walks to the office. On the other hand, for a single person, exchanging a long commute for a short walk to work has the same effect on happiness as finding a new love.

Daniel Gilbert, Harvard psychologist and author of Stumbling On Happiness, explained the commuting paradox this way: "Most good and bad things become less good and bad over time as we adapt to them. However, it is much easier to adapt to things that stay constant than to things that change. So we adapt quickly to the joy of a larger house, because the house is exactly the same size every time. But we find it difficult to adapt to commuting by car, because every day is a slightly new form of misery."

Much more here. The irony of my move from Los Angeles to San Francisco has been an enormous lengthening of my commute, it's the longest of my life, and I feel that pain acutely. LA is legendary for its bad traffic, yet the overall lower cost of living in that region makes it far easier to live closer to where you work which is ultimately what matters the most. The quest to get from the West Side to downtown during rush hour in Los Angeles is actually much less painful and long than having to drive up the 101 to San Francisco from the Peninsula during rush hour.

Most days I take the Caltrain, but again, it's the variability of the service that drives me crazy, to Daniel Gilbert's point. At least once or twice a month, something catastrophic causes train service to just dry up for several hours, leaving you stranded. Often it's because of a suicide, at other times it's a car that gets hit, or a power line that falls, or something else you would think would be a rare black swan event. And then your evening is shot, your dinner date left to make alternative plans, unless you pony up for a $90 to $100 taxi or Uber up to the city, but oh wait, the traffic on the 101 means you won't make it on time anyway.

It's difficult to judge what it's like to live in a city just by visiting as a tourist. It wasn't until I'd lived in NYC for a year that I realized it's a far better city to live in than to visit, contrary to popular wisdom. The same is true of Los Angeles, where most natives know when to avoid certain highways at certain times, spending more time in their neighborhood.

For all the good that cities have brought to the U.S., they fail miserably, with the exception of New York, on the quality of public transportation. At least 30% of my pleasure in visiting cities in Europe is being in an environment that makes me, as a pedestrian, first among citizens. American cities were built up in the age of the automobile, and that metallic beast has taken control of our cities in a way that may not be overturned in our lifetime.

It may be that China is where we see some of the greatest innovation on this urban planning dilemma. For one thing, their hand may be forced by the shockingly high levels of pollution in their largest cities. They also face a huge migration of people from rural to urban areas, probably the largest in human history. Combine that with a form of government that has much more freedom to impose its will in matters great and small and you have the potential for a new type of city to be erected, one that is built around direct human mobility rather than transportation by automobile.

Baby steps towards self-driving cars

My brother has a new Mercedes GL that I rode in over the holiday break. One feature I thought was very clever was a triangular light on either side mirror that would light up if another car was in the blind spot. If you don't look over your shoulders and only glance at your side mirrors when changing lanes, it's a useful, if not life-saving feature.

That's among several innovative safety features available for the GL like auto braking and lane integrity maintenance, though many come only as paid add-ons. None of these will approach Google's self-driving cars in terms of impact on the world, but it's good to see car manufacturers innovating on safety by assisting humans with active disaster avoidance technology.

Incidentally, I saw my first Google self-driving car today as I came out of lunch. It was parked at the curb just outside Marlowe in SOMA. I have no idea if it drove itself there. It had a camera mounted on its roof that was spinning rapidly, perhaps serving as one of its eyes. Some are intrigued by Google Glasses, but I find self-driving cars to be Google's most compelling project. The global impact of self-driving cars will be many times greater.


Certainly, moving the emissions from the vehicle’s exhaust pipe to the power station makes it easier to control the pollution. So, the question becomes whether there is a more efficient way of packaging electricity for use in vehicles, other than charging batteries or making hydrogen by electrolysis of water?

A growing body of opinion seems to think liquid air is the answer (or, more specifically, the nitrogen component that makes up 78% of air).

Overview of a potentially viable alternative to batteries or hydrogen to power emission-free vehicles. As a bonus, liquid nitrogen can be used to make some crazy modern dishes in the kitchen.