Cruelty-free real beef burgers may be coming soon to a table near you.
A couple of years ago, scientists at Maastricht University in the Netherlands created what they called “cultured beef”, by using stem cells taken from a biopsy of a cow, without killing it, to grow muscle tissue, which is the main component of steak. The tissue grew in long strands and was not at all steak–like in shape or appearance, so it was formed into a hamburger patty. Since the lab-grown meat was made of primarily muscle protein and does not include the other proteins or fat that give beef its flavour, the burger’s taste was not expected to rival your local takeout. It was dry and a bit bland, but got favourable reviews from the testing judges as a good first try.
In February 2016, a team from Memphis Meats used cultured cow cells to create a meatball. This time, they added fat cells and the meatball tastes “like a meatball”. This is a huge step forward in creating a marketable cruelty-free “clean meat”. Memphis Meats says it hopes to be price competitive with regular meat in five years.
After reading numerous articles and comments, it was obvious to me that there is a great deal of misinformation and ignorance surrounding this meat. Many comments referred to lab grown meat as “unnatural” or “disgusting”, and there was much ridicule and fear-mongering, including one media site’s referral to a “Frankenburger”. It is unfortunate that such responses are so common, given the magnitude of the accomplishment.
It is often referred to as “artificial” meat, which is incorrect. It is real meat. It is not made from synthetic compounds or genetically modified in any way. It is just a collection of cow cells growing outside of a cow. Once the process is improved to include blood vessels and fats, it can be tailored to meet requirements, and may eventually be better than cow grown beef.
The possibilities for variations of new meat products will be virtually endless, and the process will not be limited to cow cells. It can be extended to pigs and chickens and to any other animal that is desired without harming any of them; birds, fish, reptiles, even endangered species. Somewhere, someone is sure to want a koala steak.
Eventually we may be able to grow steaks that are bigger than the original animals themselves. Perhaps all that running makes mouse meat quite tender. We can grow mouse roast and find out.
By controlling the amount and types of cells and ingredients we can make designer meat. We will be able to combine cells from different animals to make truly unique taste experiences, and add spices and flavourings to the meat as it is growing.
We can eliminate the unhealthiest cuts of meat from our diets since we will no longer need to grow an entire cow just to get a filet mignon. Every burger, sausage and meatball can be made from the most tender types of meat. The biggest losers may be pet dogs who will miss out when there are no more leftover bones from the dinner table. Then again, their dog food can also be made from choice beef and not the unmentionable cow parts that are used today.
We can make the meat itself healthier as well. We can substitute healthier fats for the ones found in regular meat, and possibly even lace the meat with vitamins, other nutrients, or even pharmaceuticals. How about having a burger that actually lowers your cholesterol?
Some are criticizing this exercise as a waste of money. The world doesn’t need more food, they argue, we have enough already. It’s just not being equitably distributed. Cultured beef is not, however, about making more food. It is about making food while causing less damage to the planet, to the animals, and to ourselves.
The environmental destruction caused by our current agricultural practices is mind-boggling. Almost 70% of all of the agricultural land on the planet is used to raise animals for meat. Rain forests are being cut down to create fields for grazing. Cattle in feedlots require seven kilograms of food to create one kilogram of beef. Over 30% of all arable land on earth is used to grow feed for livestock.
In the next few decades, some of the world’s prime agricultural land will be heavily damaged by climate change, reducing crop yields. The sites of current factory farms may be required for cultured beef labs, but by reducing or eliminating factory meat farming, we will free up land that is used to grow feedstock. Some of this can be converted to grow food crops for humans.
18% of all greenhouse gases are produced in the digestive systems of cows. Eliminating this source is the equivalent of taking all of the vehicles on the planet off the roads.
For many who support this technology, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the main goal is to eliminate the cruel and barbaric practices inherent in factory farming. Anyone who calls lab grown meat “disgusting” obviously has no clue about where their current burger comes from.
The public tasting of a boring burger could very well signify the most important development in human food production since our hunter gatherer ancestors first developed agriculture. If lab grown meat is successful, it would represent a shift in the means of production from highly inefficient and destructive farms to a controlled, cruelty free environment.
In a decade or two, the takeout containers from your favourite fast food joint may read:
“No cows were harmed in the making of this burger.”
Imagine if, twenty years ago, someone had shown you a fancy new pocket sized gadget with a touchscreen that would let you take pictures, surf websites and send text messages to all your friends, but in return, companies could track your every move, see your most intimate photos, read your text messages and listen to your conversations, even ones you have while your phone is not in use.
Most of us would have recoiled in horror, referring to a spinning George Orwell and our right to privacy. Yet, this is exactly what we have embraced.
With the advent of the World Wide Web, software companies soon learned that we users cannot be bothered to read the fine print in any agreement. They could ask for our first born and we would gleefully hit the install button. The convenience of Tweeting and cat videos has outweighed any sense of the need for privacy.
The other day I had a hankering for some unhealthy food so I checked the website of my favourite take-out to see if they were still open. To my surprise, Google maps showed me a graph of the traffic for the restaurant; how busy they were at each hour of the day. For a split second my mind thought “How do they…?” and then it quickly realized that they do it by tracking the physical movement of Android phones, the same way that Google maps can display such accurate traffic.
It seemed a bit creepy to me that Google would track individuals as they enter a specific restaurant, but of course, we let them. It is as if Google has a private detective following our every move. And movement is indicative of behaviour. By tracking the activity on our phones, Google can tell when we sleep, wake, and have dinner (e.g. a phone that goes dormant every weekday evening at 6pm for 35 minutes). The restaurant example tells us that they even know what kinds of food we eat. They track where we shop, watch movies, take the subway, and on and on. Google has more information about your life than you ever will, and unlike you, Google can recall the details long after.
Imagine this scenario: two phones that have never communicated and have no contacts in common arrive at the same singles bar from different parts of town. After a couple of hours of being in close proximity, during which they accessed Facebook and Instagram, one of the phones uses the Uber app and few minutes later both phones leave in the same car, traveling to the apartment of the Uber caller. Upon arrival, both phones go dormant for a couple of hours, then the guest phone sends a few text messages and goes dormant again until the next morning when it Tweets, sends some texts, and calls Uber to go home.
What do you think happened when the phones went dormant?
This is not to suggest that Google is actually tracking everyone’s sex life, just that they have the data if they wanted to. And not just for strangers in bars; the dormant phone(s) could have belonged to a married couple or a person alone after (or while) surfing some adult websites.
And of course, it’s not just Google. Apple or Blackberry or Microsoft can do the same, as can the phone companies themselves.
As if we weren’t giving enough away, the advent of the smart phone has also brought on a tsunami of apps; some of them useful, some entertaining, and many simply redundant. Why should I need a banking app when I can simply put a shortcut to the bank’s webpage on my home screen? Why would a bank, or retailer, or any other organization go through the effort and expense of providing me a free app when I can just as easily get to their mobile website with a simple bookmark? The answer is in that user agreement. In return for the app, they get to track our behaviour. Many apps have access to our contact lists, photos, and messages. Some can even listen in on calls and send messages on our behalf. Because we let them.
And why do they want all of this info? Because they aggregate and sell it to marketers, who can then tailor ads to our preferences. You’ve probably had the experience of looking something up only to have an ad for it show up in a different app. And if you haven’t, you will. This is how free apps can make millions for their creators. There have even been anecdotal reports of advertising appearing for a product that had just been discussed verbally – while the phone was not being used. Some apps can access the phone’s microphone without alerting the user.
As voice recognition and language processing are reaching maturity, developers are scrambling to create more intelligent “chatbot” apps that can understand plain language and perform tasks on behalf of users, such as ordering pizza or booking plane tickets. The goal is to make it easier for us to buy their products, but it also enables them to track our behaviour on a new level.
The creators of Apple’s virtual assistant Siri have created a new platform called Viv, upon which other developers will be able to build bot apps to perform countless mundane tasks. The goal of its creators is to have Viv serve as the universal platform for the plethora of bots that will soon descend on cyberspace. The more we use it, the better it gets to know us and it will learn our habits and preferences. As the “internet of things” develops and all of our appliances and gadgets become interconnected, Viv or its competitors (and there will be many) will be able to compile a rich picture of the details of our lives, creating the holy grail of consumer profiles. The question is, how much of our personal lives are we willing to disclose to marketers for convenience?
I’m sure that if we could attach a generator to poor George, we could power the continent.
In the next few years, healthcare will undergo rapid changes. Technological advances in genomic sequencing will transform the way we interact with doctors and the medical industry. The opportunities for improving our health are incalculable, but as with any technologies there are risks of abuse and misuse. The news media is full of stories about DNA, genes and genomics, but for those who have never studied these topics it can get a bit confusing. In order to make informed decisions, consumers should understand the underlying concepts and why they are so important.
Every form of life on the planet is made of units called cells. You have about 10 trillion of them. In each of your cells there are structures called chromosomes that are made from millions of molecules joined together to form a macromolecule called deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. DNA is structured as a double helix; think of a rubber ladder that has been twisted, with the rungs made up of pairs of molecules called bases. There are only four bases, each known by its initial A, C, G, or T. We inherit 23 chromosomes from each parent. The largest chromosome has about 249 million rungs, and all 46 chromosomes together have about 6 billion rungs.
The function of chromosomal DNA is to provide the patterns required for our cells to produce the building blocks of life; very complex macromolecules called proteins. Proteins are made of thousands of smaller molecules called amino acids. When triggered by specific chemicals, sections of the chromosomes unwind and complex cellular machinery reads each strand like a ticker tape. The distinct pattern of As, Cs, Gs and Ts will tell the machinery in what order to assemble the amino acids into proteins.
A section of DNA that codes for a specific protein is called a gene, and you have about 25,000 genes. With a few exceptions, every cell in your body has the same genes, but only a subset of them are expressed in each type of cell. This is what makes a brain cell different from a bone cell or skin cell. Imagine a cookbook with 25,000 recipes. Every cell in the body has the same cookbook, but for each type of cell, a certain subset of recipes is produced.
The proteins that make us determine who we are. The essential differences between a jellyfish, a palm tree, and your high school English teacher are the types and arrangements of proteins from which they are made. Each species has a different cookbook, but closely related species have many of the same recipes. Differences within and between species can arise because of different proteins, or the same proteins arranged in different ways.
Since we inherit our genes from our parents, we are made of combinations of their proteins, which in turn will give us combinations of their characteristics, such as physical appearance and susceptibility to certain diseases. Except for identical siblings, a person’s DNA is unique to them and it can be extracted from blood, hair or even saliva, which is why it can be used as crime scene evidence. However, we must remember that over 99.9% of DNA is common to all human beings. The slight variations mean the difference between Scarlett Johansson and Usain Bolt.
Sometimes the DNA is not copied perfectly and we get genes that are mutated, meaning that they do not produce the normal protein. This can result in something as benign as a slight change in height, or a life-threatening disease such as Cystic Fibrosis. We currently know which traits are determined by just a few thousand of our genes, but are working to determine what the rest of our genes do.
Your full collection of genes is called your genome. Genomics is the study of genes and their functions, and genomic sequencing refers to the reading of a genome to determine the pattern of genes. The Human Genome Project began in 1990 with the task of mapping the first complete human genome. It was completed in 2003 at a cost of about $2.7 billion. Since then, the cost has dropped dramatically and now a full genome can be sequenced in less than a day for a thousand dollars. It is expected that within the next decade this could drop to as little as a penny.
There are many types of information we can learn from our genomes. Since genes are passed down from parents, we can use genetic information to verify parentage and to trace our ancestry, often to specific parts of the world. Ancestry.com has created a business of performing genetic testing and generating reports that tell you your ancestral roots, and maybe even that you are related to a famous historic figure.
Perhaps the most valuable use of genomic information is the identification of genes that cause disease or increased susceptibility to disease. By comparing genomes from people whose characteristics are known, researchers can find common genes that may be responsible for specific traits. 23andMe.com is a company that will analyze your DNA and identify a subset of known genetic markers for various conditions and susceptibilities to diseases. Many hospitals now have their own genome sequencing machines that can be used to study patients’ genomes.
Our genomes can also tell us which drugs may be most effective or cause the fewest side effects. Researchers are compiling databases of the relationships between genes and drugs, and one major Canadian pharmacy chain is already in negotiations with a company with plans to provide this service to patients.
Genomics will be most effective when large numbers of patients’ genomes are pooled and analyzed. There is a rush among many diverse research groups, both public and private, to gather genomic data for analysis which will doubtless lead to new drugs and potentially billions of dollars in profit.
If patients are having their genomes sequenced under the supervision of their doctors and made part of their medical records, then the genomic data fall under the same jurisdiction and protection as regular medical data. However, in cases where patients are sending their DNA to commercial enterprises, the same rules do not apply.
For example, in July 2015, Ancestry.com announced an agreement to share its customers’ data with Calico, a company owned by Alphabet (which also owns Google), for the purposes of research into the genetic causes of human longevity. While customers of Ancestry were given the option to opt out of the research, some found the process confusing, and have accused Ancestry of misleading them. I tried to navigate the web of privacy policies and statements on the Ancestry website but admittedly gave up after about 20 minutes, having found no specific mention of the Calico agreement or medical research, only vague references to data being shared with “third parties”.
Similarly, 23andMe is selling customers’ data to multiple companies for research, which may not have been the customers’ original intent. Other than the reports that were part of their original purchase agreements, customers are in no way compensated for the use of their data for research. This means that customers are literally paying companies to take their DNA and profit from its use.
In the next few years as genome sequencing becomes cheaper and cheaper, it will also become increasingly common. Sequencing a newborn’s genome at birth will become as routine as checking for blood type. We may have multiple versions of our genomes analyzed by different parties for different reasons. We may be tested for a specific gene, and when later research leads to the discoveries of the functions of more genes, those who possess our DNA may learn more about us than we know about ourselves, with no obligation, and perhaps no method, to inform us.
Although many jurisdictions have laws forbidding genetic discrimination by insurance companies and employers, it is easy to imagine scenarios where DNA is given voluntarily in return for some reward. For example, a health insurance company can offer to reduce rates if you voluntarily submit your DNA. Suppose a couple decides that they will each submit their DNA for reduced insurance rates. Since the insurance company now has the DNA of both parents, it can also know many traits of the children, even though the children have not submitted any DNA nor agreed to any testing.
Even medical testing has the potential to cause conflicts between family members. With diseases such as Alzheimer’s, for which there are genetic markers but no cure, many people do not want to know whether they have the gene that makes them more susceptible. However, in some cases, knowing that a child, parent or sibling has a gene will be an indicator that you may have it as well. Siblings may disagree on whether parents should be tested for susceptibility to diseases of old age, and parents may disagree on whether to have a child tested, or how much information to disclose and at what times.
We leave traces of our DNA everywhere. Most of the dust in your home is dead skin cells from your family and guests, which includes their DNA. We leave DNA on cutlery in restaurants, on coffee mugs at work, and on the floor of the hair salon. Genome sequencing will soon be so cheap and ubiquitous that it may become very easy for someone to get a DNA sample and have a copy of your genome without your knowledge.
We have decisions to make, collectively and individually, about the management of our genetic information. The more research that is done, the more diseases we can cure, and the better it will be for all of us. However, we must balance this with our needs for privacy and the right to control the use of our DNA. Make sure you know your rights, and take the time to understand the implications before sharing your DNA.
Tesla just changed the way you will drive, and put a huge nail in the coffin of the oil industry.
The future of transportation reached a turning point on March 31, when Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk unveiled the much-anticipated Model 3. With a base price of US$35,000 and a range of 320 km, the all electric Model 3 has hit a sweet spot in the minds and wallets of electric car enthusiasts, thousands of whom lined up for hours at Tesla dealerships all over the world for the privilege of paying a $1000 deposit to reserve a Model 3, which is not yet in production and will not be delivered until late 2017 at the earliest. The majority of these enthusiasts even made the deposit before the car was unveiled. Within the following 24 hours a total of 198,000 cars had been reserved, and the last reported total was 325,000.
We don’t know how these reservations are distributed globally, but to put the figure in perspective, the total number of electric vehicles sold worldwide in 2015 was 565,000, including 115,000 in the US, so it is quite possible that Tesla has surpassed last year’s US sales in one day, with one car, that isn’t in production yet.
Such enthusiasm and hype is unprecedented in the automotive industry and is a strong signal that something has changed. The fact that thousands of people were willing to put a deposit on a car that they had never even seen, let alone driven, is indeed a testament to Tesla’s master branding and marketing strategy, but would not have occurred without a change in mind frame among the general public regarding the viability and future of electric cars.
This is all part of Musk’s master plan. When he founded the company, his strategy was to first produce a high-end status symbol (the Tesla Roadster, sold from 2008-12), and sell enough to start production of a full-size luxury sedan (the Model S, introduced in 2012), then repeat the process to raise enough money to produce an affordable midsize vehicle for the mainstream market, which is the Model 3. In the middle of that, he added the Model X SUV. His original plan was to have the models named S, E, and X, but Ford Motor Company owns the rights to the Model E name, so Musk changed the E to 3. That way he could use the same logo; three horizontal bars.
Musk’s goal is to make electric vehicles mainstream, and gas powered vehicles obsolete. This includes forcing the current major automotive manufacturers into the electric vehicle market, which appears to be succeeding. In response to Tesla’s success with its model S, companies like General Motors, Ford and BMW are responding with their own versions of high and midrange electric vehicles. Currently, the most popular electric vehicle is the Nissan Leaf, with over 200,000 sales globally, including about 91,000 in the US. With only an 80 km range, the Leaf is not a direct competitor to the Model 3, but has played the role of entry vehicle for electric car enthusiasts worldwide.
A more direct competitor will be the Chevy Bolt, which will be introduced in 2017, before the Model 3 hits the streets. The Bolt is not to be confused with the Chevy Volt, which has been available since 2011 (Why the marketers decided on such a confusing name is anyone’s guess). The Volt offers an 80 km range in full electric mode but also has a gas motor which extends the range to that of a regular vehicle. The issue with the Volt, as with all hybrid vehicles is that they are really two vehicles in one. While they provide superior fuel mileage, the sophisticated technology of two complementary power sources makes the vehicles expensive and maintenance and repairs more complex.
The Bolt eliminates the gas engine and like the Model 3, is completely electric. A crossover design with seating for five, it has the same 320 km range as the Tesla but will sell for US $5000 less. GM also has an advantage in its extensive network of dealerships for service and repair while Tesla’s network is miniscule in comparison.
Many jurisdictions have strong incentive programs for purchasing hybrid and electric vehicles. For example, Ontario, Canada, (where I live) has a rebate program based on the vehicle’s battery size and suggested retail price. Currently, both the Tesla and Bolt can be eligible for rebates up to cdn $13,000 or maximum 30% of the manufacturers suggested retail price (MSRP).
Both the Model 3 and the Bolt have 60 kWh batteries. That means that a person in Ontario who charges their car during off-peak hours at the current rate of 8.3 cents per kilowatt hour would pay less than five dollars for about 300 km of driving, or roughly $1.70 per hundred kilometres. A comparable size gas car would likely burn at least 6 litres per hundred kilometres. With gas in Ontario now about a dollar per litre, that’s six dollars, so the savings is $4.30 per 100km, making the electric vehicle 70% cheaper to operate. The average annual driving distance in Canada is about 15,000 kilometres, so the savings would be $645 per year. (I have a friend who commutes 100 km each way to work. That’s not unheard of in the Toronto area. Accounting for taxes and rebates, it would take just over 13 years for the fuel savings to be more than the net cost and he would have a “free” car!)
This assumes that electricity and gas prices rise and fall in unison, which is unlikely. As the world sells off the cheap oil, gas prices may be subject to a significant increase in the next few years (Saudi Arabia is going bankrupt by keeping global oil prices low to protect its market share). Meanwhile, solar power prices are plummeting worldwide, thanks mostly to China and India, and will soon be the cheapest form of electricity in most places, including much of Canada. In the next few years, we could very well see electricity prices drop while gas prices increase.
In addition to fuel savings, electric vehicles are cheaper in other ways. They have a small fraction of the number of moving parts of a conventional gas vehicle. They don’t require oil changes, tune-ups, or fuel and air filters. There are no fan belts to break or radiator hoses to leak. Over the life of the vehicle the maintenance and repair costs are likely to be many thousands of dollars less.
All of this means that in many cases the total cost of ownership of an electric car is already lower than a comparable gas car, but the low range of most current electric vehicles still creates “range anxiety”. The Model 3 and Bolt will change that. It is much easier to find an electrical outlet than a gas station, and electric charging stations are proliferating throughout the world, including Canada. The first one I saw was in 2013 and already there are almost 400 public chargers in Ontario, and over 1800 across Canada.
Unfortunately, not all cars can use the same charging stations. Manufacturers including Tesla have come up with three distinct and largely incompatible designs. Tesla has its own proprietary design which it claims is superior to the other two. The other two being the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) standard used by North American and European brands, and the CHAdeMO standard used by Asian manufacturers. Some chargers will accommodate all three types, but some may only have one, so you can’t always charge your Nissan leaf and your Chevy Bolt with the same charger. You can charge either one with a regular household outlet if you can afford to wait the eight or so hours it takes for a full charge, but if you’re going to the shopping mall and want to charge the car while you’re inside, the chargers will have to be specific to the type your car has. As electric cars become more popular, commercial and rental properties will be pressured to install charging stations as their customers and tenants increasingly demand charging ability.
Wireless charging is also available for the most popular models. There are third-party companies that sell “induction” chargers that use magnetism to charge batteries wirelessly. An adapter is installed on the car’s battery that enables you to charge by parking over a pad on the floor in your garage and you never have to worry about plugging in your car. The logical extension of this concept is to have wireless charging in public places and even in the streets. Nissan has a promo video that shows future self-driving electric cars being charged on the street and then rearranging themselves so they can take turns while their owners sleep. There is already a pilot project in New York City to place induction chargers under manholes in some street parking spots.
Streetcar maker Bombardier and others are also experimenting with putting induction charging under the road surface. It is currently being tested just for streetcar use but it is logical that this would extend to public use on major roadways. Sections of major roads and highways could be fitted with induction chargers so that as you drive down the road your car is being recharged. The chargers in the road would recognize your vehicle and apply fees to your account for the electricity you use, similar to an automated toll road. The only time you would run down your battery would be on side roads, so in most situations your range would be virtually unlimited.
Imagine never having to find a gas station, never having to plug in your car, and never having to get an oil change, or a tune-up, all at much less than the cost of current vehicles. It is difficult to imagine why anyone would still use a gasoline vehicle for daily driving in that scenario. Hopefully the press that Tesla is getting will encourage dialogue and cause people to take a closer look at the mathematics of owning an electric vehicle.
I love my current car, but I sincerely hope it is the last internal combustion engine I will ever own.
The gradual transition to autonomous vehicles is in full swing. Tesla recently upgraded the software on existing Model S sedans to activate “autopilot” mode, which enables the vehicle to drive itself on the highway. They had the foresight to install the required hardware on cars before the software was ready, and are likely the only manufacturer (so far) that has the ability to remotely upgrade vehicles that have already been sold.
The hype about the effects of autonomous vehicles continues. Websites and discussion groups are loaded with exaggerated predictions about everything from unemployed delivery drivers to the demise of vehicle ownership.
Let’s take a realistic look at a few of these issues and dispel some myths.
Myth #1: People will no longer need to own vehicles
I must admit that this idea baffles me. I’m assuming it is made by someone who has never owned a car for any length of time, and definitely not by anyone who has kids.
The fact that people own vehicles today tells us that they will also want to own them in the future. There are many advantages to owning a vehicle over hiring one as required. My friends can recognize my car when I pick them up, and kids will recognize their parents’ cars after school.
Vehicles are reflections of our personal tastes. I like the design of my car. I like the colour and the interior. The seat is adjusted to my preferences, as are the other options on the car. Some of my preferences can be transmitted to an autonomous vehicle through my mobile phone, but there are many option configurations that are specific to each car model and cannot be easily translated from one car to the next.
Most people keep personal belongings in their cars; medicine, makeup, sunglasses, or a child’s favourite toy. It would be annoying to always have to drag larger items back and forth between your home and your car du jour, especially for those living in apartments. In the summertime the car’s trunk may hold golf clubs or beach chairs, and in the wintertime it may be ice skates, or scarves and hats for the kids. Many people have custom attachments to their cars such as bike racks, dog crates and child seats. It will be very impractical to have to install and remove them every time you call a car.
And I haven’t even mentioned rural areas of low population density or cottage goers and their SUVs.
Conclusion: Personal vehicle ownership is not going away anytime soon, regardless of who’s driving.
Myth #2: Parking lots will be empty because people will call cars as they need them
If I own my autonomous vehicle, I will definitely still want to park it, whether I’m at work or the mall. In order to reduce the number of times they have to hire a car, those who don’t own vehicles are more likely to spend the day running errands that require driving. This means that it they will likely be driving to a number of places to pick up things and will be storing them in the car as they move from place to place. They will want to park the car when they go from the mall to the grocery store and not have to carry the entire day’s purchases everywhere they go. If autonomous vehicles enable people without driver’s licenses to travel in their own cars, this may even increase the traffic in some parking lots.
Conclusion: Parking lot traffic will not likely change drastically, especially in any place that involves shopping.
Myth #3: Traffic congestion will be a thing of the past
While it is true that autonomous vehicles will eventually be able to communicate with each other and coordinate their movements, this does not mean that congestion will simply go away. There is at least one crazy video floating around the Internet that shows a simulation of autonomous vehicles whizzing through an intersection in all directions at once, narrowly missing each other. The creator is apparently attempting to show that autonomous vehicles will not require traffic lights and therefore would not have to stop at intersections. This would only work if we outlaw pedestrians and never let them cross the street. It also assumes that every vehicle is autonomous, so we would also have to outlaw bicycles and motorcycles (An autonomous motorcycle wouldn’t be practical because the motion of a motorcycle is largely controlled by the shifting of the rider’s weight. A motorcycle deciding to turn on its own would likely throw the rider off balance and onto the road).
If autonomous vehicles give mobility to those who cannot drive there will be an increase in the number vehicles on the road. And at any time, in addition to the vehicles that are currently carrying people, the road will have to accommodate all of the empty vehicles that are on their way to pick someone up.
Conclusion: While traffic congestion will likely be reduced on highways, there will always be a requirement on most roads to accommodate pedestrians and vehicles that are not autonomous, as well as an increase in the number of people traveling at any one time. This means traffic lights and congestion will not go away.
Myth #4: Taxi drivers will be eliminated
While autonomous vehicles will be able to transport most people without the need of a human driver, there are many situations in which a knowledgeable and able bodied human will be required. Many taxis are used by people who are not physically able to drive and quite often these people need help getting into or out of the vehicle or with carrying heavy items. Regardless of who’s driving the car, someone will still need to put the walker or the wheelchair in the trunk, or unload the groceries.
There’s also the question of whether autonomous taxis will be programmed to break the law. In most large cities, taxis will stop in “no stopping” or “no parking” zones to pick up passengers. Having to find a legal spot for a taxi to stop during rush hour may not be practical in many places.
For passengers unfamiliar with their surroundings, a conversation with a knowledgeable taxi driver can be infinitely more convenient than trying to find information online. Recommendations on everything from restaurants to tourist attractions to which parts of town to avoid at night can mean the difference between a great experience and an unpleasant one.
Conclusion: It is likely that the number of taxi drivers will be greatly reduced but hopefully not eliminated.
Myth#4: Delivery drivers will be obsolete
Anyone making this suggestion (and there are many) really hasn’t thought this through, and certainly has never worked in the delivery business. The typical fantasy is that a delivery vehicle will pull up and the recipient will enter a code on her phone to release the package. This would require extreme modifications to delivery vehicles to make them something akin to mobile community mailboxes, with each package being secured in its own compartment. Of course this would only work if packages were of predictable sizes.
The act of driving is a small part in the life of the delivery person. In order to maximize efficiency, delivery companies load as many packages as possible into each vehicle. Due to varying characteristics such as weight, size, and fragility, the packages are not always placed in the order that they will be delivered. A driver often has to rearrange packages numerous times during a trip, each time ensuring that the cargo is secure enough to avoid being damaged.
The second part of that fantasy is that everyone who receives a package would be willing to walk to the delivery vehicle to pick it up. Many deliveries are to offices and other locations where the recipient is working. It would be crazy to expect people to walk out to the street to meet delivery vehicles.
In the real world, once the vehicle reaches its destination, the driver must sort through the packages to find the ones for that specific address. Then deliver them to the proper person.
Food deliveries have the same issues. Until a pizza learns to walk itself to the door, the delivery driver’s job is secure.
In the case of long-distance trucking, there likely will be a severe impact on the number of drivers required, though it seems unlikely that unaccompanied trucks would be roaming the highways. These trucks will be programmed for safety, so all it would take for someone to rob the truck would be to step in front of it on a deserted highway, then help themselves to any cargo. Of course there would be security cameras and other equipment on the truck, but it is not hard to imagine professional thieves disguising themselves and making a quick getaway.
A more likely scenario is that a truck driver will always be in the vehicle, but not always driving. Currently many jurisdictions have rules about how many hours per day a trucker can drive before taking a rest break. This may change so that the driver can sleep while the truck is driving itself, thus enabling longer hours, fewer stops, and faster deliveries. The trucking profession will not be eliminated, but the number of drivers required may be greatly reduced.
Conclusion: Autonomous vehicles alone are not enough to replace the functions of food and parcel delivery drivers, though there will be a significant impact to drivers in the large freight business.
There are daily reports in the mainstream media of the rapid progress of autonomous vehicles, and while our transportation habits will be significantly changed, we must take a realistic approach to identifying the real issues in a sea of hype.
The popular media are filled with stories of the imminent rise of the self-driving car, making life infinitely easier and putting everyone from taxi drivers to traffic cops to insurance lawyers out of work. For better or worse, the facts don’t match the hype. Yet.
The latest big news in autonomous vehicles (AVs) is that a car drove itself across the United States. Well, almost.
The automotive component manufacturer Delphi had a modified Audi Q5 crossover driven from San Francisco to New York in 9 days, and they report that “Nearly 3,400 miles were covered with 99 percent of the drive in fully automated mode.”
This is an amazing feat of engineering, and far exceeds what most would have thought possible just a few years ago. But that doesn’t mean we will be napping in traffic anytime soon.
Since the car drove itself 99 percent of the time, it means that there were nearly 340 miles of road that the car could not handle by itself. Delphi didn’t give details on what that last 1% consisted of. We don’t know if it was rain, construction, potholes or ducks crossing the road.
The most famous autonomous vehicle is the Google car, versions of which have collectively travelled hundreds of thousands of miles without causing an accident. What the hyped articles don’t mention is that the vast majority of these miles were on test courses where the car had a fully defined map of the route. In the real world, maps are not so accurate. A few years ago while I was on a newly built stretch of the Trans-Canada highway, my GPS showed that I was driving through the forest. Detours due to construction, traffic and weather can change in an instant, so pre loaded maps are not sufficient; the car has to be able to navigate unknown terrain by using a complex system of cameras and sensors to read the surface of the road, the flow of traffic, and any relevant obstacles, signals and signage.
It is no coincidence that the demonstrations so far have been in dry, sunny climates with clearly marked roads. Some stories report that AVs do not yet have the capacity to deal with heavy rain, let alone snow or the commonly misnamed “black ice” (the ice is clear; the road is black). It has been pointed out that the AVs do not have to drive perfectly, just better than humans, and in most conditions, they are already there, but before the public will trust AVs, we have to be confident that the engineers and software developers have tackled that last one percent of conditions, and it is impossible to tell how long that will take.
Apart from road conditions, AVs will have to be able to judge people’s behaviour and intentions. At some point you’ve probably stopped at an intersection, waiting for an elderly person to cross the street, only to have them wave you on so they don’t hold up traffic. Will an AV be able to understand their intent, or will it have to sit and wait until the pedestrian crosses? Similar situations are even harder to judge. A vehicle in front of you is blocking the lane while waiting for a parking spot. The driver signals to you to go around. Apart from the difficulty of an AV camera seeing through a driver’s window well enough to recognize gestures, will it be able to “look around” the blocking car to judge when it is safe to go into the oncoming lane?
Will AVs be programmed to intentionally break traffic laws? In the above example, driving into an oncoming lane may be technically illegal. A more common example is a car attempting to enter a busy road from a side street. No one will stop and let them in if they stay behind the stop sign and wait. In many cases the only way to get onto the main road is to slowly ease your car out until some kind person sees you and leaves a gap. Again, this is technically illegal in most cases.
In addition to navigating, there are situations where an AV would have to make life or death decisions. Many conversations about AVs contain questions like “What if a child runs in front of the car and it has to choose between driving on to the sidewalk where there is another child or into oncoming traffic?” Manufacturers are in serious discussions about how to solve these problems, but appear to be far from a solution. Perhaps this is another reason that most testing has been done far from pedestrians.
Even if the cars could safely handle all driving conditions, the laws are not yet ready. I haven’t found an explanation for how it was legal for Delphi to have the driver give up control of the car. It seems to me that that would violate safe driving laws in most jurisdictions. California, Nevada and Florida have specific laws that allow AVs as long as there is a driver who can take control when necessary, but those are the only three states so far. I am not aware of any such laws in Canada.
Totally autonomous vehicles will not suddenly appear like a new model. Instead of waiting until the vehicles are capable of complete autonomy, manufacturers are taking a piecemeal approach, and adding features to cars that enable them to perform a limited subset of self-driving tasks. Ford advertises vehicles that can park themselves, many makes offer features such as adaptive cruise control (which changes the car’s speed to match the vehicle ahead), lane change warnings, and automatic braking to avoid collisions. Cadillac has announced that in 2018, some of its cars will be able to drive themselves on the highway. Similarly, Tesla has announced a software upgrade to their existing Model S vehicles that will allow an “autopilot” mode for highway driving only. BMW has advertised a preview of an upcoming vehicle that can be “summoned” by your smartphone to drive itself from the parking lot to pick you up.
Over the next few years, we will see these types of features expanded until the vehicles can handle everyday driving. The question remains as to when or whether we will change laws to allow a vehicle to be completely driverless.
We have seen why AVs will take longer than the hype suggests. In my next post, I will address the overhyped consequences of their use (Hint: delivery drivers have nothing to fear).
You’ve probably seen articles in the mainstream media about how we will soon be transported anywhere we want to go by autonomous vehicles, have 3-D printers in our homes that will make anything we want, or that robots and automation will soon steal our jobs. What do all of these things have in common? Hype.
When companies and researchers are developing new technologies, their main requirements are for talented individuals, and money to pay them. Attracting talent and investors requires creating excitement about the technology, and this is often done through press releases and news stories about the technology’s amazing capabilities that will transform our lives.
Companies promoting their products show concepts and demo models that make our imaginations run wild and we envision how these great new inventions can solve our problems and make our lives much better. We see the new technology through our own personal filters and imagine it in the form that we would most desire. In our anticipation, we underestimate the difficulties in refining new products and the level of detail required for them to function as we imagine. We oversimplify and assume that it will immediately perform as we would want it to. Unfortunately, that is rarely the case.
The result is that these stories create a high level of enthusiasm and anticipation. Companies are in a hurry to release products to the market so they do so with simplified versions that do not have all of the features and performance that the enthusiasts had imagined. This leads to disappointment, disillusionment, and criticism. The media stories turn to negative reports about unfulfilled expectations, often resulting in ridicule or dismissal of the technology as a fraud or false hope. Attention to the technology fades as media switch their focus to the next big thing. Meanwhile, the technology developers gather feedback and continue to improve their products, fine tuning features and performance. As a technology becomes more and more refined, it becomes more widely accepted and gains momentum in the marketplace before finally reaching a critical point of price versus performance that enables it to gain considerable market share and deliver, and sometimes exceed, the previously envisioned potential.
The IT consulting firm Gartner has developed a tool called the Gartner Hype Cycle that illustrates which stage of development a specific technology is at a given time. Gartner divides the cycle into five steps:
• the technology trigger
• the peak of inflated expectations
• the trough of disillusionment
• the slope of enlightenment
• the plateau of productivity
These titles are somewhat self-explanatory but for more information you can visit the Wikipedia article here.
Given the coverage that abounds in current media, and the current state of development of autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, and job-stealing robots, I would place them all at or near the peak of inflated expectations. This means that over the next few months and perhaps years we can expect to see the media coverage turn to disillusionment, but we must be careful not to interpret this as evidence that these technologies will not be disruptive. They will doubtless change your life, just not yet. I will examine each of these in more detail in future posts.
Our future is largely determined by a relatively small group of people. Think of Karl Benz, the inventor of the automobile, Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, or Jonas Salk, creator of the polio vaccine. Without their contributions, our lives would be very different. Of course it is likely that someone else would have invented the car and the phone, and maybe the vaccine, but the point is that the work of a few individuals can have huge implications for our future.
Elon Musk is such an individual. In the 1990s he created an online business directory company which he sold to Compaq $300 million. Then he founded PayPal, which enabled strangers to transact online with their credit cards without either party having to know the other’s card number. He sold PayPal to eBay and formed Tesla, the electric car company, which is changing transportation by bringing the electric car to the mainstream, and with it, a shift in the way we produce and manage energy. After having trouble finding enough batteries for their electric cars, Tesla just announced that it is building the world’s largest lithium-ion battery factory, with a goal to double the global production of Li-Ion batteries. In other words, this factory will make as many batteries as all of the world’s battery factories do today.
Mr. Musk is also the chairman of Solar City, whose website claims that they are “the leading residential solar provider in the U.S”. Solar City sells battery packs made by Tesla for residential energy storage, protecting homeowners in case of a blackout. When solar panel efficiency increases enough to enable typical households to meet all of their energy needs, this storage will enable them to go “off the grid”. This will play a major role in the adoption of sustainable household energy, and the decentralization of the energy industry.
In addition to Tesla, Musk founded Space X, the first private space company to be hired by NASA to transport payloads to the International Space Station. Space X will also provide transport to the first private space station, being built by Bigelow Aerospace, which was founded by hotel magnate Robert Bigelow. Bigelow’s original goal appeared to be a space hotel, but they now appear to be focusing on a commercial space station. Tickets to the station will start at about $25 million, but I would expect this business to lead to a more affordable space tourism in a decade or two.
Elon Musk has also been promoting an idea for a high speed transport system between Los Angeles and San Francisco called the Hyperloop. It consists of a tube containing sealed capsules that carry groups of 28 reclined passengers at a top speed of over 1200 kilometers per hour. At only 1.35m wide and 1.1m tall, I can’t see these capsules ever being accepted by the general public, but then the same would have been said about a jet a century ago. Musk is not developing the technology, but reportedly created the concept with engineers from Space X and Tesla. Other groups are investigating the feasibility of building the system. Many similar concepts have been proposed for decades, but with Musk attaching his name to the idea, it is suddenly generating much debate, which will likely spark more ideas and influence future transportation solutions.
In some cases, the future is easy to see when you monitor those who are creating it.