Think of the world’s fastest cars and a few names come to mind. Ferrari. Lamborghini. Porsche. Glickenhaus.
That would be Jim Glickenhaus. He made an ungodly amount of money in films and finance and has a thing for cars. The kind of thing that leads you to build a bazillion-dollar custom Ferrari because, you know, a Ferrari isn’t extreme enough. So now he’s building cars. Crazy fast supercars. He’s the Glickenhaus in Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus, an American boutique automaker rolling into the Geneva auto show with the SCG 003S. Yeah, there’s nothing at all graceful about the name, but who cares. Just look at the damn thing.
Now, the supercar game is all about superlatives — most horsepower, highest top speed, that sort of thing. And the Glick aims for the highest honor in this arena: fastest lap at the Nurburgring. The ‘ring is the stuff of legend, a 12.9-mile track so nasty that F1 champion Jackie Stewart dubbed it the Green Hell. It is not for the weak or the stupid, and Glickenhaus wants to lap it in 6 minutes and 30 seconds. That would set a record for a production car.
For those of you who are shrugging, maybe this will get your attention: Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus claims the 003S will hit 60 from a standstill in less than 3 seconds and top out at 217 mph.
The car certainly looks the business, with all manner of wings and scoops to keep the car planted, the seven-speed sequential gearbox cool, and the twin-turbo V8 engine breathing properly. The engine, by the way, cranks out 800 horsepower and a locomotive-like 630 foot-pounds of torque. In other words, stomp on it and this sucker will bury you in the seat. The suspension is active, the brakes are carbon, and … well, suffice to say Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus basically built a race car with turn signals and a cellphone interface.
Price? Pfft. As if you could afford it. And even if you could, you lack the skills to see, let alone explore, the edge of this car’s performance envelope. But then, so do I.
Bringing Bridj to Kansas City seemed like a no-brainer to transit officials. For just $1.50, anyone could use an app to summon a ride downtown in van that would follow a route calculated on the fly by an algorithm. No one within the service area was ever more than a 10 minute walk from a stop, and as an added incentive, your first 10 rides were free.
It flopped. Just 1,480 people rode on a Bridj van, a laughably small figure in a city of 2 million people. The city launched the program with the Boston mobility startup in March 2016, and in the past six months just one-third of riders took more than 10 rides. The one-year, $1.3 million project ended Friday. You might call it a failure.
Government officials and transit researchers call it a success.
“I’ll be honest: The ridership was not the top priority,” says Jameson Auten, who leads the innovation division of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority. “The top priority for us was learning who uses on demand. Really, the big goal for us was learning itself.”
Transit agencies nationwide hope to learn from it, too. Many of them think on-demand, app-driven transportation services could make public transit cheaper, more accessible, and more convenient. The typical rider can reach just 30 percent of local jobs on mass transit, and rides can last 90 minutes. So Uber drivers are getting folks in Summit, New Jersey, to the train station. Lyft provides residents of Centennial, Colorado, with lifts to light rail. Both companies work with the city of Boston to serve those with disabilities.
The Bridj project was a bit different, in that it used unionized transit employees driving American Disabilities Act-compliant vehicles. “I think this was a bridge to inspiring a lot of transit agencies to start looking at public-private partnership,” says Susan Shaheen, a UC-Berkeley civil engineer who studies mobility innovation. The results, however, prove the model needs revising, and a lot more data.
Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City
Research suggests Bridj faced two problems in Missouri: Marketing and geography. A survey conducted six months into the experiment found that 40 percent of the people being serviced by Bridj didn’t know about it. And among those who signed up, most didn’t use the service regularly because it didn’t go where they wanted or operate when they most needed it, like late at night.
The data also revealed that Bridj reached an unusual audience. “The demographics of the riders for Bridj are different from the riders for our other services,” says Auten. He means younger and richer: 55 percent of riders were between 19 and 35, and more than 80 percent earned more than the local median income of $46,000.
Transit officials see three takeaways here. First, marketing matters. Second, any public transportation service should probably know ahead of time where people need to go, when they want to go, and how quickly they want to get there. And third, you can pull off a quick public-private partnership working totally by the book. “We tried to prove that the public sector and private sector can work together in a utility relationship,” says Bridj CEO Matt George. “You’re fighting a headwind in a place like Kansas City, where the entire system has been built around requiring someone to have a car.”
This summer, the transit agency will use what’s its learned to launch an app that lets riders with disabilities summon subsidized on-demand rides. Anyone else can ride too, but they’ll pay full fare, and a phone booking system will serve those without a smartphone. Bridj, meanwhile, will continue its private service in Boston and Washington, DC, while seeking more transit partners.
The federal government dug the pilot’s approach. “Research is all about learning, and we see value in experimenting with new ways of providing mobility,” says a Federal Transit Administration spokesperson. “Every pilot project provides lessons from which future entrepreneurs can learn.” The agency so loves the idea that it launched an $8 million funding program last fall that awarded grants to projects that will, among other things, help San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit integrate carpool and the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority provide on-demand service through Lyft.
The future of public transit is a question mark, and it’s hard to say right now whether spending money on tech companies’ services or on luddite-friendly infrastructure (like sidewalks and cycling lanes) will move more people around more efficiently. Probably both. But today, more city governments are getting comfortable with turning their roads into laboratories, and more might be willing to fail. In the end, that failure might be good for them—if they learn from their mistakes.
The Golden Gate Bridge is a pretty thing to gaze at, a pain in the butt to paint, and an excellent place to Instagram. But unbeknownst to most of the 40 million annual vehicles often forced to inch across the span, it also sits above a wet and whirring hive of activity, the churning economic engine that helped build the cities that surround it.
Like industrious, capitalist trolls, ships bring about 35 million tons of goods through the Golden Gate every year, on their way to the eight ports of the San Francisco Bay. Wood pulp, nuts, plastic, glass, rubber, electrical machinery: All make their way through these foggy, choppy waters.
Heady and overwhelming stuff for anyone who bothers to really take a look. Fortunately, designer Sam Kronick, who works for the mapping platform Mapbox, has decided to help you visualize how it all goes down. Kronick unearthed a few strange and interesting datasets: One, from the United States Coast Guard, shows the off-shore locations of most (but not all) ships, updated by the minute. A second: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration publishes information of the country’s underwater terrain, the peaks and valleys most don’t see. From there, he reconstructed a day in the life of the San Francisco Bay. Specifically, September 1, 2014. Then he built it all into an animated map.
In the visualization, the lighter purple indicates shallower depths (less than three feet), and the darker, deeper (more than 50 feet). Kronick has extrapolated ships’ sizes based on their behavior, with the wide, sandworm-like ones indicating ships longer than 330 feet, the triangles between 330 and 100 feet, and the blippy dots the smallest vessels, at less than 100 feet. Each light green line indicates the path a ship took on the day in question—a more vibrant, Ghostbusters’ slime green means a well-worn shipping lane. (Kronick picked the color scheme because it evokes radar, which many ships still use.)
“There’s ton of a little stories in this dataset,” says Kronick. “That’s why I love seeing it play out.”
Watch gigantic vessels retrace identical shipping lanes. See harbor pilots in zippy tugs guide larger ships through the treacherous sand bars at the mouth of the bay. Observe as fishing boats ‘round Half Moon Bay take off in near-union in the morning.
Gaze upon the ghostly tracks of all the ships that fly past Alcatraz Island, or dock at San Francisco’s famous piers.
The project took Kronick a good two weeks, but it was probably worth in the end: The project snagged him a full-time job at Mapbox, where he now hunts for weird datasets full time. And you, incurious landlubber—you keep a better eye on the sea.
If you believe there’s no such thing as bad press, invest in Uber. The ridesharing giant has spent its young life honing a bad-boy reputation without going so far that it drives away investors, drivers, or riders. Despite scandal after scandal, the company’s valuation sits north of $60 billion.
But recent weeks seem to have cranked up the dial, snapped it off, and thrown it away to melt in a furnace—and Uber feels the heat from all directions. Employees leaking damaging information. Investors openly criticizing the company. Unhappy riders #deletingUber. All while well-paid lawyers representing an arch-rival assemble a case that could cripple Uber’s future.
“When you’re on thin ice, you don’t know how quite far you can walk,” says Ben Edelman, an economist at Harvard Business School.
In other words, Uber has always skated past trouble with a grin and a twirl, seemingly untouchable. But now, an unprecedented blast of bad news on all fronts seems to have at long last put Kalanick and Ko. on the defensive—a posture with which it has little practice.
OK, no problem—shake it off, nothing Uber hasn’t fielded before. Except the problems didn’t stop there. The afternoon the Kapors published their admonishing letter, Google’s self-driving car outfit, Waymo, filed a lawsuit accusing Uber of using stolen technical know-how to fuel its own autonomous research. Five days after that, a video surfaced showing Kalanick yelling at one of his own drivers. After a weekend break, Kalanick demanded the resignation of newly hired executive Amit Singhal, who had failed to disclose he was accused of sexual harassment while working for Google. And today, product chief Ed Baker left the company, amid suggestions of questionable sexual conduct.
And that was just a few hours after The New York Times revealed “Greyball,” a tool Uber has used for years to identify various undesirables and keep them out of its cars—including public and law enforcement officials trying to prove the company was running cars in areas that didn’t allow the service. It’s unclear whether the program is legal, if anyone will mount a case against Uber, or what consequences the company might face.
A Gargantuan Pile
If you didn’t catch all that, don’t worry. Because the direct repercussions of this latest scandal—or any other one on the list—may not matter as much as what they add up to: a gargantuan pile of problems. And the question is, has that pile developed its own gravitational force, pulling more and more problems into the light?
“Is this set of challenges different than the previous ones? Absolutely yes, it’s much more risky,” says Robert Siegel, who studies strategy and innovation at Stanford Business School. “Nobody likes a sexist organization that abuses its employees.”
The Times reports four former and current Uber employees detailed how the program works. (An Uber spokesperson confirmed the program wards off “opponents who collude with officials on secret ‘stings’ means to entrap drivers.”)
In recent weeks, Silicon Valley engineers—the prized talent that makes these companies work—have shown they have the clout to impose their politics on their employers. The fact that people working for the company—ostensibly invested in its success–are publicly airing dirty laundry indicates at least some Uber workers are so unhappy with Uber, they’re willing to actively work against it.
Riders—the folks paying the fares—aren’t thrilled, either. The #DeleteUber campaign quieted when Kalanick fled Trump’s council, but data from polling firm Morning Consult shows Uber’s favorability numbers dropped below 50 percent in early February, rose at the end of the month, and have since dropped again.
Here, ease of use—just a few clicks and you’re off—works against Uber. “Things can unravel extremely quickly because of the nature of the market and the lack of stickiness,” says Martin Kenney, who edited the 2000 book Understanding Silicon Valley: The Anatomy of an Entrepreneurial Region. Riders angered by Uber’s politics, or its corporate culture, or its legal attitude, or its CEO’s belittling of drivers, or anything else, don’t even have to #DeleteUber. They can just tap the Lyft icon instead.
“Uber is very close to the edge,” Kenney says. “I think they may be destroying the brand.”
Say Uber weathers this storm. Its riders come back (or never leave), Kalanick manages to behave (at least in public), employees get back to grumbling among themselves instead of to reporters. There’s another terror looming: Google. Waymo’s lawsuit could cost Uber billions of dollars. It could put executives in prison.
More frightening, it could devastate Uber’s self-driving car program, a potentially existential threat. If someone else—Waymo, Ford, GM, or any other player—wins the race to deploy fully autonomous cars, they could offer a robot-fueled service that undercuts Uber’s future. And battening the hatches to get through a storm doesn’t do much good if somebody has scuttled your ship.
Waze on your 5-inch smartphone screen is so last year. The hot new thing is Waze on the 8-inch screen in your dashboard.
The crowdsourced traffic and navigation app owned by Google is joining the SmartDeviceLink Consortium and working with automakers and developers on open source protocols for connecting smart phones to cars. That means that everything you do in Waze, you’ll soon do from the driver’s seat with a few taps and swipes on the infotainment screen.
Kinda cool, sure. Granted, Waze is working on integration with other infotainment systems like Android Auto, but this lets iPhone users play along (Apple CarPlay has thus far blocked non-Maps navigation apps).1 The real story, however, is that this gives Waze—and therefore Google–a lot more data about you, your habits, and your car.
“This is completely new in this partnership, that we get to get equal data from the car,” says Jens Baron, who manages in-car applications for Waze. The app will access a trove of info typically confined to the automobile: the temperature outside, whether the windshield wipers or headlights are on, how much gas you’ve got, that sort of thing. Waze also says it will be able to, say, determine that several cars are braking suddenly up ahead and warn others that something gnarly just happened.
You may find this helpful. Fuel running low? Waze could direct you to closest gas station, or closest and cheapest gas station. If Waze realizes everyone ahead of you is turning on their wipers, it could tell you there’s a storm up the road and please keep your gosh darn eyes on the gosh darn road. Until now, Waze has only offered directions from from point A to point B, and told you when a traffic jam might make it smarter to get to point B via point C. Being in your dashboard—and hooked into your car—lets Waze give you a whole lot more helpful info.
It also gives Google a whole lot more helpful info, which Google can use to—you guessed it—sell you stuff. The company’s bread and butter is collecting staggering amounts of information, organizing it, and making it useful to advertisers. Tapping into the computer in your car could let Google hone its Google Ad algorithms, and turn them loose in the real world.
This is how that might work: If Waze knows you’re running on fumes, it could sell an ad on your screen in real-time auction. Advertisers would know what you drive and how much gas you need, and perhaps even adjust the rate they pay Google and the price they’re willing to offer you. If that seems sci-fi, it isn’t—it’s the same technology ad tech companies use to automatically place ads on the web today.
But the company doesn’t even need to know what it’s going to do with this data yet. “This move is a very Google-y thing,” says Erik Gordon, who studies entrepreneurship and strategy at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. “This is a move that says, ‘Wow, data first. Just let us at the data.’”
And while this kind of info collection can sound freaky on its face, Gordon believes the public is pretty comfortable with giving up their personal information in exchange for a deal. “Every time I thought, ‘This is where consumers are going to put their foot down to protect their privacy,’ they don’t put their foot down,” Gordon says. “They open their arms: ‘Let me give you more information if you give me a $0.50 coupon.’”
Surveys says this is true, too. A 2013 study out of the USC Annenberg School for Communication finds 51 percent of Millennials and 41 percent of those 35 and older are willing to trade personal data for “something in return.” It’s why car data could be a $750 billion market by 2030, per the consulting company McKinsey. If you love Waze, chances are Waze loves you, too.
1Post updated February 27 at 15:10 EST to clarify the integration between Waze and Android Auto.
Until today, the race to build a self-driving car seemed to hinge on who had the best technology. Now it’s become a case of full-blown corporate intrigue. Alphabet’s self-driving startup, Waymo, is suing Uber, accusing the ridesharing giant of stealing critical autonomous driving technology. If the suit goes to trial, Apple’s legal battle with Samsung could wind up looking tame by comparison.
Waymo alleges that Anthony Levandowski, a former Google employee now at Uber, secretly downloaded 14,000 files from its hardware systems, resigned a month later, and then used the information to launch a self-driving truck startup called Otto. Uber acquired Otto last August and put Levandowski in charge of all its self-driving efforts.
The federal civil suit, filed today in California’s Northern District, accuses Uber of violating the Defense of Trade Secrets Act and the California Uniform Trade Secret Act, as well as patent infringement. But the case might only be the beginning of Uber’s struggles.
“I would be very surprised if there wasn’t a full criminal investigation behind this,” says Chris Swecker, a former assistant FBI director and now an attorney specializing in corporate espionage and cybercrime.
In a statement, Uber said it takes the allegations seriously and will review the matter carefully.
The complaint, much of which Waymo also posted on Medium, is deeply specific in its accusations, especially against Levandowski. It alleges he downloaded the files, attached an external hard drive to his laptop, then wiped the computer and hardly used it again:
Waymo has uncovered evidence that Anthony Levandowski, a former manager in Waymo’s self-driving car project—now leading the same effort for Uber—downloaded more than 14,000 highly confidential and proprietary files shortly before his resignation. The 14,000 files included a wide range of highly confidential files, including Waymo’s LiDAR circuit board designs. Mr. Levandowski took extraordinary efforts to raid Waymo’s design server and then conceal his activities.
In December 2015, Mr. Levandowski specifically searched for and then installed specialized software onto his company-issued laptop in order to access the server that stores these particular files. Once Mr. Levandowski accessed this server, he downloaded the 14,000 files, representing approximately 9.7 GB of highly confidential data. Then he attached an external drive to the laptop for a period of eight hours. He installed a new operating system that would have the effect of reformatting his laptop, attempting to erase any forensic fingerprints that would show what he did with Waymo’s valuable LiDAR designs once they had been downloaded to his computer. After Mr. Levandowski wiped this laptop, he only used it for a few minutes, and then inexplicably never used it again.
According to Waymo, the centerpiece of the technology in question is Lidar, which fires off millions of lasers a second to build a detailed map of the world around the car (that’s the “KFC bucket” on top of its self-driving vehicles). Waymo says it invested millions in its own Lidar hardware to make its self-driving technology affordable at scale, and that Levandowski brought all that work to Uber. (Waymo says it figured this out thanks to an email from a supplier that perhaps inadvertently included an attachment detailing Uber’s Lidar setup—and that it looked just like Waymo’s.)
Levandowski has built a reputation for a cavalier approach to rules in general. In December, he insisted Uber’s autonomous cars didn’t need to apply for a special permit under California law and set them loose in San Francisco. The California DMV disagreed and revoked the vehicles’ registrations. (So Uber put them on an Otto truck and hauled them to Arizona.) Now, Waymo’s accusing him of being positively Snowdenesque.
Waymo and Uber are among the biggest players in the race to develop autonomous driving technology. Waymo, originally known as Google’s Self-Driving Car Project, has been working on the tech for nearly a decade and has logged more than 2 million miles of testing on public roads. In December, Waymo launched as a standalone company with the goal of bringing the tech to market in the near future.
Uber’s self-driving effort is younger but moving quickly. In 2015, it established a tech center in Pittsburgh after poaching dozens of researchers from nearby Carnegie Mellon University. In September, it launched a pilot program in the city, inviting members of the public into its vehicles (with engineers at the wheel, ready to take over). It did the same in Arizona just this week.
For Uber, failure to produce its own autonomous technology could prove deadly: If competitors can offer ridesharing without passing most of the fare onto human driver, they could drive Uber out of business if the company doesn’t develop similar technology. And Waymo is hardly the only competition: Ford, General Motors, Nissan, and a hoard of startups are charging into the autonomous ridesharing arena.
“What has happened here is not fair competition,” Waymo says in its complaint.
Chances are, you ignore the federal budgetary process. If the esoteric language and shifting deadlines don’t drive you away, the decades-long timelines and internecine politics will. So it’s understandable you didn’t dig up the details when, last week, the Federal Transit Administration delayed a $637 million grant for Caltrain, the San Francisco Bay Area’s commuter rail system.
You should have, even if you’re not one of Caltrain’s 60,200 daily riders, or don’t live in the region, or even the state. By delaying this particular grant—which would electrify Caltrain’s rails, so trains can ditch diesel—the Trump Administration didn’t just deal a temporary blow to the health and economy of the Bay Area. It may have launched the opening salvo in what could be a war against public transit, with national consequences.
Whoever you are, here’s why you should follow this money.
You Ride the Caltrain
This one’s easy. “Electrification is a really basic upgrade to the railroad, which hasn’t been upgraded in 150 years,” says Ratna Amin, transportation policy director at SPUR, a Bay Area urban policy research and advocacy organization. For an already jam-packed rail system in a jam-packed region set to add 802,000 jobs by 2040, the benefit goes beyond curbing pollution from diesel locomotives.
Electric trains accelerate faster than diesel ones, cutting travel times between stops. Their rail cars each carry their own propulsion system, so hitching up a few more of them doesn’t slow the whole train down. In exchange for electricity, Caltrain promises more frequent service, shorter rides, and space for up to 25 percent more passengers.
For one, the zappy stuff will make these trains quieter and less stinky, and reduce pollution in a region where transportation produces 40 percent of emissions. And while electrification certainly will not solve San Francisco’s horrifying traffic, it should mitigate the damage. Three out of five Caltrain riders own a car—meaning they’re choosing a train commute over a stop-start one. Better train service could mean more people riding instead of driving, and fewer vehicles for your cushy tech bus to crush on its way to campus.
Your company should care, too. “Our most important asset, our employees, are stalled in traffic, with longer and longer commutes that take longer and longer periods of time,” says Carl Guardino, who heads up the 400-member Silicon Valley Leadership Group and serves on the California Transportation Commission. “They’re increasingly frustrated about trying to live and work in Silicon Valley.” If the region doesn’t get this mobility mess sorted out quick, it might lose flashy (and wealthy) companies.
Oh, and this project might even save the region some $$. Adding trains means more fare revenue, especially since Caltrain is the rare system that serves major demand in both directions (city slickers who work in the valley, and suburbanites who toil in San Francisco).
You Live 400 Miles Away
Ah, the eternal NorCal-SoCal rivalry, in which San Franciscans wave their sanctimonious, carpal tunnel-ridden fists at Los Angeles, and Angelenos … forget San Francisco exists. But pay attention, rest of California—this electrification’s for you, too. It’s a necessary step to completing that long-awaited high-speed rail system from the top of the state to the bottom. “The future of California is cities, and cities connected by rail,” says Amin. “There’s no other way we can grow.”
Choo-choo: Here come the politics. The Feds say they’ll take a closer look at the project as part of Trump’s 2018 budget. On the one hand, that’s NBD. “It’s a routine thing for new administration to call a halt to signing new major grant agreements that are going to bind them financially for the next four or five years until they can get their budget together,” says Jeff Davis, a senior fellow at the Eno Center for Transportation who studies federal transportation funding.
On the other (and more sinister) hand, some advocates worry the DOT’s decision signals it will be be none too generous with big public transit projects. Especially since California had already lined up the bulk of what the $2 billion electrification project will cost and completed all the legal requirements.
“Having a separate funding program stop giving money to projects that have made it through statutory requirements should make people across the country very nervous,” says Amin. “This is a very worrisome precedent for public transit.”
If your image of the future of drone deliveries involves swarms of quadcopters pouring out of Amazon warehouses like flying monkeys leaving the Wicked Witch’s castle, you’ll be disappointed. They’re far more likely to be dispatched from trucks parked not too far from your house.
Anything else is simply too big a hassle. Companies like UPS and Amazon prize efficiency above all, and deploying a fleet of drones from a warehouse in the middle of nowhere wastes time. Making them fly all the way back wastes energy. And you still need trucks, because drones can’t schlep more than a few pounds. But if you put the drones in the truck and fling them at houses to cover the last mile or so, well, then you’re on to something. You’re saving the driver the trouble of parking the truck, getting out, finding the package, and hoofing it to the door. Think of it as a paperboy riding his bike down the street, tossing the newspaper onto each porch.
UPS made a test run Monday in Tampa, Florida. Sid Perrin trundled through a rural neighborhood in a UPS van with an odd lump on the roof. Instead of taking a long driveway to a remote blueberry farm, she put the truck in park, climbed into the back, and placed a package in the belly of a drone. Back in the driver’s seat, she tapped a command on a touch screen. The roof of the truck retracted, the drone took flight, and Perrin continued up the road to her next destination.
The drone, meanwhile, flew a short distance to the house, deposited the package, and found the truck—where it plugged itself into a charger to await its next flight. And damned if it didn’t work.
“A trial like this is important, because it’s not just a drone itself doing something, but all the support processes, and the people,” says Timothy Carone, a physicist and expert on automation at the University of Notre Dame. “As a test, it’s more realistic, because it’s looking at how it all integrates into the business.”
UPS deployed a super-sized version of the consumer drones you already know. It weighs 9.5 pounds, sports eight rotors, and can stay aloft for 30 minutes. The van is a diesel-electric hybrid, and although the driver must come to a stop to dispatch drones, everything else about it works just like any other UPS delivery truck. The setup comes from Workhorse Group, an Ohio company that builds hybrid electric trucks, and the University of Cincinnati. They first showed it off in 2014.
If this sounds like an overly complex solution to a fairly minor problem, you know squat about the logistics of delivering a gazillion packages each day. UPS calculates that cutting just one mile from the route each of its 66,000 drivers follows each day would save the company $50 million a year. If a truck can make drones cover that last mile, they’ll easily pay for themselves. “Our drivers are still key, and our drones aren’t going to be replacing our service providers, but they can assist and improve efficiency,” says Mark Wallace, senior vp of global engineering and sustainability at UPS.
Amazon, UPS, 7-Eleven, Google, and others, are eager to deploy drones, because how fast you can get orders to customers is crucial in the competitive online shopping world. Amazon Prime Air is providing super rapid deliveries by drone, but only to two customers in the south of England, from a fixed fulfillment center. 7-Eleven is slinging everything from slurpees to flu medicine, to 12 customers in a fixed drone testing area in Nevada.Others are piggybacking on the moving vehicle idea. Mercedes-Benz joined drone developer Matternet on a networked delivery van concept with two drones docked on the roof. German engineers are teaching drones to land in nets on the roofs of cars, and Darpa has figured out how to pluck a speeding drone from midair.
It’ll be a while before UPS drones are buzzing up to your door, but UPS is working with the FAA to make it happen… at some point. That will require drafting a new rules to allow commercial drone deliveries and amending a current rule requiring drone operators keep their machines within sight. Until then, Perrin and her fellow drivers will continue schlepping your orders to your door. So remember to say thank you next time.
Congratulations, Los Angeles! You’ve got the worst traffic in the world. In exchange for the sunshine, gorgeous beaches, and A-plus tacos, you’re forced to whine incessantly about all those damned cars clogging the 405. You don’t live in LA and you’re sick of hearing about how bad they’ve got it? Well, have some sympathy. You’d whine too if you spent 104 hours a year slogging through traffic.
That’s more than two weeks spent in a steel box, giving the City of Angels traffic that makes the insanity of Moscow look almost reasonable. So say the data crunchers at traffic analytics form Inrix. They compiled info from 300 million sources, most of them GPS-equipped commercial trucks and other vehicles that racked up 5 million miles around the world. The data revealed what LA drivers long suspected: They live in traffic hell, creeping along at less than 65 percent of the free-flow speed—that is, the speed they’d enjoy if they and a few friends had the road to themselves. Although that’s faster than bumper-to-bumper gridlock, it’s still slow enough to drive you to tears.
Before you start gloating, there’s a good chance you have it only marginally better. Ten of the 20 pokiest cities are in the US. That much of American infrastructure was built around the car—meaning motoring commuters don’t have a choice—does not help.
But if you want to see the worst overall traffic, then neener, neener, the Colombian capital of Bogotá is the pits. Inrix calculates “average congestion rate” by averaging traffic during commuting times and during the day, late at night, and on weekends. Bogotá is stopped up 32 percent of the time. The Russian cities of Moscow and Krasnodar deal with frustrating congestion for 25 and 24 percent of their days, respectively. Angelenos, meanwhile, only have it bad 12.7 percent of the time. So stop your mewling. Kind of.
You’re a private pilot, out on a Sunday jaunt in your single engine prop plane. Lovely day for a flight—calm skies, good weather. Then you hear, feel, and then see the fast approach of two, grey, angular military jets, flying terrifyingly close to you, most definitely armed and dangerous.
For the big game, the no-fly zone banishes planes (and drones, the FAA is keen to stress) straying within 34.5 miles of NRG stadium, in downtown Houston. If pilots feel they must enter the outer edge of the perimeter, they need permission from controllers, and are asked to maintain constant contact. The 10-mile core is strictly no entry.
OK, back to those menacing fighter jets, one of which is now level with you, where you can see each other. Hopefully, as a pilot, you’ve read and memorized your in-flight intercept procedures (even if you didn’t bother to check the FAA website for no-fly zones in your area), because they’re your best bet for keeping a lot of airspace between you and a missile.
Step one, rock your wings to acknowledge the intercept, the way a driver hits his turn signal when he sees a cop pulling him over. The jet pilot will be trying to communicate, so answer your radio if you can, and explain how sorry you are. The lead jet will likely turn, guiding you out of the banned area—follow it. If it abruptly turns across your nose and fires its flares, it’s meant as a warning—so follow it, like immediately.
If you can’t comply for whatever reason, switch all your lights on and off at regular intervals. If you’re in distress, maybe due to mechanical failure, do the same, but at irregular intervals (just something else to remember in an emergency).
Turns out that small planes stray into restricted airspace all the time. “Most of the time, before they even get near the restricted area, officials contact them on the radio,” says Stephen Bucci, visiting fellow for Homeland Security and Special Operations at the Heritage Foundation. “They turn them right or left, and that’s the end of it.” But after September 11, 2001, enforcement got more serious. Pilots have intercepted more than 1,800 non-military aircraft since the attacks, according to the North American Aerospace Command (Norad).
So, while a studious pilot should go a lifetime without being bothered by an F-16, fighter jet jockeys spend a lot of time training for this specialized dance.
This week, the Civil Air Patrol, the civilian auxiliary of the Air Force, whose 56,000 members are mostly retired and civilian pilots, has been deliberately flying into mock restricted areas around Houston, running through exactly the scenario above, to help military crews practice for any possible encounters this weekend. Volunteers spent two days flying two Cessna 182 planes low and slow, for the Texas Air National Guard to intercept.
“What we’re training for is the pilot who wanders in some place, where they’re not supposed to be, and is going to cooperate,” says the CAP’s Colonel Brooks Cima. After all, that’s the most likely scenario. Pilots are supposed to check daily notices for up-to-date air closure information, but mistakes happen, especially when those closures take effect with little notice, like when POTUS sweeps into town.
To keep everyone sharp, CAP flies 1,450 training missions a year, focussing on simulating everything from presidential inaugurations to meetings of world leaders. It’s all part of Operation Noble Eagle, which the US and Canada jointly launched after 9/11. The military uses a few different aircraft, but F-15 and F-16 jets are popular choices, along with Black Hawk helicopters, since the rotary craft have an easier time flying slowly alongside small, slow planes.
For anyone who buzzes into closed off territory, the fighter jets and persistent radio calls are usually enough to intimidate them into behaving. If not, things step up a notch.
“If it becomes clear that the aircraft has hostile intent, they will get permission to engage it with weaponry,” says Bucci. He worked in the Pentagon after 9/11, when Norad was developing the new rules for how and when to take a plane out. Initially, responsibility for making that call rested with the Secretary of Defense, but is now routinely delegated down to the two-star officer on duty at Norad’s Colorado Springs base.
For special events like the Super Bowl or last month’s Inauguration, the Secret Service runs the show, and its senior agent on the ground will be the one to authorize action. “It will only happen when everything else has been tried,” says Bucci, and everything else usually works. To date, a civilian plane has never been shot down in the US, not even the gyrocopter a publicity seeker landed on the lawn of the US Capitol in 2015—in some of the most restricted airspace in the country.
Although the risk is low, exercises to keep skill levels high have a secondary benefit: They are a ton of fun for the retired military and civilian pilots who make up CAP. For them, these drills provide the thrill of seeing military aircraft in action, up close and personal. For the rest of us, it’s just one more level of protection.