November 20, 2012
Most Americans have already kicked into Thanksgiving mode, looking ahead to Thursday when they’ll sit down with family and friends, pile an unfathomable amount of food on their plates and then sleep it off to the soothing sound of supersized men smacking helmets on TV.
But between now and then madness lies. There will be traffic jams and long security lines and countless other aggravations that will make you wish that this year you had stayed home and opened a can of tuna.
Don’t despair. Believe it or not, traveling is getting easier. Here are 10 innovations that can help you now or give you hope about the future.
1) You’re the one who likes his cranapple juice shaken, not stirred: British Airways is breaking ground in showing passengers how much it knows about them. As part of its “Know Me” program launched last summer, the airlines is using data it has accumulated about its customers to allow flight crews to give them particularly personal service.
For instance, say a person is flying business class for the first time. That would be flagged 0n the crew’s iPads and a flight attendant could offer a special welcome and make sure he or she knew how to use the seat. Or someone who usually flies business class might instead be in coach taking a vacation trip with his family. A crew member might offer a free drink and make a fuss in front of the whole gang. That’ll score some points.
The big question, though, is when does knowing so much a customer slide from solicitous to creepy?
2) People you meet at airports can be so shallow: When they started showing up at a dozen or so airports around the world this summer, greeter avatars were by no means a sure hit. There was some concern that arriving passengers would be creeped out by holograms that go into a 90-second rap on airport info–location of baggage claim, bathrooms, etc.–as soon as anyone comes within 30 feet of them.
But generally the response has been positive, with plenty of passengers reaching for their cell phones to snap shots of these virtual women for the folks back home. And why not? They’re happy to be on a first-name basis. (Hi, I’m Eva…or Paige or Emily or Heather or Carla.) And they no doubt they bring back memories of Princess Leia, only they’re taller, have much better hair and are way too cheery to bring up anything having to do with Death Stars.
3) Because the real adventure starts after you leave the airport: Last year the Australian start-up Rome2rio launched its search engine designed to provide you with all the travel details for any trip–not just airport-to-airport, but door-to-door. So it includes train schedules and prices, driving routes, even ferry times, if that’s part of the journey. And just last month, it came out with an iPhone app that digs up the same info for you.
4) But can it make the cheapest be the fastest?: Madrid-based Amadeus has been in the airfare search business for several years now, but next year it hopes to take a big leap forward in simplifying the process for travelers.
Using a technology it calls Featured Results, it will be able to do a high-speed search of all possible fares between two locations and, in a matter of seconds, provide the top option in three different categories–the cheapest, the fastest, and the most popular.
5) The next best thing to not having a layover: Another tech product that’s been around for a few years is the mobile app GateGuru. It gives travelers the lowdown on the mysterious world beyond the gate–where you can find the best food, the best airport bar, the fastest security lines, a place to get a massage, the ATMs.
Now it’s entered into a partnership with JCDecaux, a company that handles advertising at airports. Which means the GateGuru content will soon be showing up in digital displays in airports. The first will be at Baltimore-Washington Airport.
6) And then you shoot on down to LA: You have to admit that Elon Musk has earned some cred when it comes to transportation. He’s co-founder of Tesla Motors–its Model S was just chosen Motor Trends’ “Car of the Year”–and founder of SpaceX–which last month flew the first commercial resupply mission to the International Space Station.
So when he talks about a transit system that he says could move people from San Francisco to Los Angeles in a half hour, you can’t dismiss him as someone who’s been munching on a bowl of crazy. Musk’s idea is something he calls “Hyperloop,” which he described as a cross between the Concorde and a railgun. Based on the few details he’s provided, it would be some kind of tube vehicle that would be able to leave as soon as you arrive and then get you to SF or LA in half the time a plane would take.
7) While you’re in the neighborhood: Airbnb started out as an online service that hooked up people looking for a place to sleep in another city or country with people willing to have strangers stay over. And it’s grown quickly–it has listings of 250,000 properties in 30,000 different cities around the world.
Now it’s taken a leap toward becoming more of a full-blown travel service by launching guides to the lesser-known neighborhoods where Airbnb clients are more likely to be staying. So far neighborhood guides have been rolled out in New York, Paris, London, San Francisco, Washington D.C., Berlin, and Rio de Janeiro.
8) What did you expect in Vegas, a milk store?: Given the location, this seems long overdue, but now an operation called the Liquor Library is open for business in Las Vegas’ McCarran Airport. It’s just as it sounds, a place where travelers can pick up beer, wine or booze–and not in some duty-free shop, but in a real live liquor convenience store that calls itself a library.
9) Surprise! There’s a Cracker Barrel in your future: Yes, we’d all like to be able to predict the future, but sometimes we’d settle for being able to know what’s off the next exit. That’s where mobile apps, such as Road Ninja, can make your life easier. It not only lets you know what’s up ahead, but you can also call ahead or read a restaurant review, although there’s only so much you can say about Denny’s Grand Slam.
10) What, no free cocktails for the parents?: Early next year, Air Asia will start setting aside a kid-free zone on its flights. And now a California consulting firm, RKS Design, has gone even further by dreaming up how an all-family airline might work.
They’ve named it cAir and it would feature express check-in services, stroller rentals and play lounges to keep the kids amused. The seats would be arranged so parents would face their kids, bathrooms would be large enough for diaper changes, and sound curtains could be pulled around a noisy little tyke. A kid would even be able to pick out a toy to play with during the flight–which parents would have the opportunity to buy if they can’t wrench it from his hands.
For now, it’s only a concept–no one’s sure if you could actually make a business out of the idea.
Video bonus: The Hobbit opens soon and fittingly Air New Zealand has started airing safety videos featuring a few flight attendants who look like they took a detour from Middle Earth. Sit back and relax, my precious.
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September 20, 2012
Usually I walk to work, but earlier this week, after another apocalyptic forecast of torrential rains and head-twisting winds, I fell prey to weather dread and drove in.
In no time, I was reminded of why Washington D.C. has the worst drivers in the U.S.–Allstate verified it–and also why it’s among the Top 10 congested cities in the country. The latest estimate is that drivers here waste an average of 45 hours a year in traffic jams. I don’t know if anyone’s come up with a comparable analysis of how much time the stress of sitting in gridlock takes off your life, but I’m guessing I said goodbye to 15 minutes or so that morning.
The experience revived my interest in the science of traffic flow and how GPS, sensors, and algorithms have made it possible to imagine a day when the commuting madness will end.
Here are some of the ways we just may get there:
1) Follow the wisdom of E. coli: That’s the thinking of two Chinese engineers wrestling with the hideous traffic of Guangzhou, a city of 13 million in southern China. They are advocates of applying “swarm intelligence” to traffic lights in the city, or more specifically, something known as Bacterial Foraging Optimization. This is an algorithm based on the behavior of E. coli, which, while very basic, ultimately results in the optimal solution to problems. In this case, the algorithm would be applied to stop lights, adapting them to traffic flow instead of keeping them on a fixed loop.
2) Failing that, you can still learn a few things from humans: Scientists at the University of Southampton in the U.K. found that real humans are better traffic controllers than computerized systems. So now they’re focusing on developing artificial intelligence for traffic control systems so they can learn from experience as humans do.
3) Or feel the pulse of social chatter: IBM studied traffic jams in three Indian cities over the past year through the social network comments of people stuck in them. The company’s evaluation of tweets, Facebook updates and other social network discussions of people in Mumbai, Bangalore and New Delhi is designed to show how social data can be used to read public attitudes on big urban issues, such as traffic. Among its findings: Drivers in New Delhi talked more about public transportation, weather and the stress of commuting, while those in Bangalore vented about the overall driving experience, construction and parking. And in Mumbai, they tended to rant about accidents and pollution.
4) Twitter intelligence is not an oxymoron: And Twitter is also being used in real time to stay on top of traffic accidents and backups on British highways. A mobile app called Twitraffic analyzes what people are saying on Twitter about traffic and warns you about problems that have popped up. The company behind the app claims it lets people know about accidents an average of seven minutes before the government’s Highways Agency does. It hopes to launch a U.S. version next month.
5) Meanwhile, back in the U.S.: There’s already a pretty impressive mobile app available here for helping you avoid commuting nightmares. It’s called Waze and it not only gives you directions, but it also monitors what other drivers are saying about what’s happening on the streets around you. It’s a traffic report through crowdsourcing, and one that constantly updates with new directions if there’s bad news coming in about the road ahead.
6) Just let the cars work it out: Since last month, about 3,000 vehicles around Ann Arbor, Michigan have been able to talk to one another. As part of a joint project of the U.S.Department of Transportation and the University of Michigan, the cars and trucks have been adapted to be able to communicate wirelessly and warn each other of potential accidents or backups. For instance, one vehicle could tell another when it’s approaching an intersection or if it’s stopping on the road ahead. The Michigan researchers think these wireless systems, if they become a standard feature, could cut accidents by 80 percent.
7) Car Talk was taken: MIT scientists are heading down the same road, developing something they calls CarSpeak. It’s a communication system for driverless cars that lets them “see” through the data provided by other cars on the road. And that would allow a car to cruise right through an intersection because it would know no other cars were coming.
Down the road
Here are a few other developments designed to help us get around:
- Not so mellow yellow: A researcher at Virginia Tech concludes that one of our big problems is yellow lights because they create what he calls a “dilemma zone” for drivers. He’s developing a system for giving drivers a few seconds notice when a light is about to turn yellow.
- We don’t need no stinking stretch limo: The largest buses in the world, 98-foot-long vehicles capable of carrying more than 250 people, will be rolled out in Dresden, Germany next month.
- Nothing makes an old man feel young like driving at night: According to a study at MIT, the most important car feature for drivers over 50 are smart headlights, which adjust the range and intensity of light based on the location of other cars. The idea is to reduce glare and improve visibility at night.
- I’m sleepin’ here: A new study of traffic noise levels in and around Atlanta found that almost 10 percent of the area’s population is exposed to traffic noise at a level described as “annoying.” And more than 2 percent live where traffic noise was described as “highly disturbing to sleep.”
Video bonus: How maddening are phantom traffic jams, you know, when everything slows to a crawl for no apparent reason? Here are two explanations, one from scientists, the other more like what we imagine.
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September 10, 2012
This Wednesday, Apple, with great fanfare, will present the iPhone 5 to the world. Much will be written about its 4G speed, taller screen, longer battery life, thinner shape and two-tone look.
And much will be said about whether or not it is Steve Jobs’ final legacy. Was he actually weighing in on the new model until his dying day? Or is that story being floated to ensure the iPhone 5 cult classic status in the devout Apple community?
No doubt this will be the big tech innovation story of the month–although, as MIT’s Technology Review pointed out last week, we’ve reached the point with smartphones that improvements are more incremental than revolutionary. Now all the talk is about how big the screen is, not that you can control your phone simply by touching it.
Now that’s a good idea
But instead of joining the iPhone chorus, how about a little counter-programming. What follows are 10 recent inventions, none of which is likely to get much attention this week. But that doesn’t make them any less inspired.
1) All we are saying, is give bats a chance: One of the raps on wind turbines is that they kill thousands of birds and bats every year. But an 89-year-old retired engineer in California named Raymond Green has taken it upon himself to create a device that may lead to a solution. His invention, which he calls “Catching Wind Power,” is basically a large drum in which all the movable parts, including the killer blades, are contained. That would make them considerably less dangerous for flying creatures, and also, Green claims, quieter than what’s out there now.
2) Forgetting something?: As I noted in a recent post, hospitals are a bacterial war zone where one of the key weapons of the good guys is frequent hand-washing. But research suggests that health care workers wash their hands half as often as they should. Now an Israeli company named Hyginex is producing wristbands that wirelessly remind those wearing them that to scrub down. Sensors in soap dispensers track the movements of doctors and nurses, and if they approach a patient without washing their hands, their wristbands light up and vibrate.
3) The roads less traveled: Yes, there are apps out there that alert you to backups and accidents, but a group of German students has ratcheted traffic apps up a notch. Their Greenway app, now being tested by drivers in Munich, uses algorithms to predict where and how traffic will flow and gives its users directions to “traffic-optimized” routes. It also closely monitors the alternate routes and scales back its recommendations if they’re getting crowded. Greenway’s creators claim their directions, on average, get drivers to their destinations twice as fast as on their usual routes.
4) Say good-bye to helmet hair: It’s still Fashion Week in New York, so allow me to introduce the Hovding bike helmet. It’s the brainstorm of two Swedish women who have managed to do the seemingly impossible–merge fashion and bike safety. Their helmet actually looks like a collar, but if it senses impact, it inflates like an airbag around the rider’s head.
5) Go ahead, walk all over me: Scientists at the University of Manchester in the UK have developed a smart carpet. That’s right, a smart carpet. The rug’s backing contains optical fibers that distort when they’re stepped on and send a signal to a computer. That’s impressive, but to what end? First, it can, in the case of elderly person, determine if someone has fallen. It can also serve as an intruder alert if it detects unfamiliar footsteps near a window. Its inventors think it even has potential as a physical therapy aid able to predict mobility problems if it notices changes in a person’s walk.
6) Got juice?: If you drive a lot and need to keep your iPad charged, do I have a gadget for you. It’s a device that turns your standard car cup holder into a charging station, allowing you to juice up your tablet and your smartphone at the same time.
7) You’ve been drinking. I can see it in your nose: Two Greek computer scientists say that by using algorithms and thermal imaging, they’ve devised a way to spot inebriated people in public. Their method, in which they combine an infrared image with algorithms related to what happens to blood vessels in a person’s nose when they have too much to drink, would allow police to identify a drunk on more info than that they’re acting like one.
8) Flashlights are so over: You can have the biggest, shiniest belt buckle ever and it won’t help you much on a walk in the dark. But the Walker’s Path Illuminating Belt is custom-made for such occasions. It’s a hands-free LED safety light that wraps around your waist and can be adjusted to serve as either a wide-angle floodlight or a narrowly-focused spotlight.
9) Why shouldn’t bikes have growth spurts?: It’s one thing for your kids to grow out of their clothes and shoes, but you move into a whole other price range when they keep getting too big for their bikes. The Spanish bicycle designer Orbea has taken on the challenge, creating a bike that grows with a kid, appropriately called the Grow bike. The crossbar, stem and seats all can be lengthened, and since other components also are designed to last longer, Grow bikes, says Orbea, need to be replaced every five to seven years instead of every two to three.
10) Video bonus: Sugar kills: As much practice as we get, most of us just aren’t very good at knocking flies out of the air. But soon BugASalt could change all that–when flies comes buzzin’, it’s just the weapon for the job. It’s a toy gun that acts like a shotgun firing just enough salt to bring down a fly. Seeing is believing.
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August 6, 2012
If you’re over 50 and bought a new car recently, you’ve no doubt had the same reaction to the dashboard that I did, which was: “What is all this?”
I realize that these days data is to be revered and that a moment without infotainment or, perish the thought, a Web connection, is viewed as life not worth living. Yet I can’t shake the notion that the point of getting in a car is to drive it somewhere and that this has generally not required that I be so well-informed or emotionally fulfilled.
The above statement, of course, lowers me deep into the pit of fogeyishness and I know that frankly, no companies, save those that sell medications, see me and my ilk as a valued demographic. For carmakers, certainly, the target is the generations for which any screen, including a dashboard, should be a gateway to friends and music and info gratification. And it’s become critical for them to start delivering on that expectation since research suggests that the younger slice of that market isn’t as enanmored of the whole driving thing as their predecessors were–the percentage of young licensed drivers in the U.S. keeps dropping.
A new digital divide
So we’re moving quickly into the era of the connected car, with vehicles seen as rolling smartphones with easy access to Facebook and Twitter and to mobile apps, such as Pandora and Yelp. Any question about when this is going mainstream was answered a few weeks ago when Honda announced that starting this fall, a system called HondaLink will be offered in new Honda Accords. It will allow drivers to stream Internet radio, download audiobooks, see ratings for nearby restaurants and have Facebook feeds read to them.
With HondaLink, as with similar systems on other models, your smartphone will feed info from the Web into the dashboard display. But when is all the stuff on the screen too much? Well, it depends on your age. While three out of four car owners in a new Harris Poll said in-car connectivity could be too distracting, when people were asked about the appeal of connected cars, the results broke down along a generational digital divide.
Less than 40 percent of those surveyed between the ages of 50 and 66 think it’s important to have a connected car; drop down into the 18-to-35 age group and the approval rating jumps to almost 60 percent. And two out of three people in the younger group said a car’s technology would likely influence their next car-buying decision; in the older group, the number was under 50 percent. One other notable difference: Younger drivers were more concerned about privacy, specifically what connectivity would reveal about their driving habits and how that could affect their insurance rates.
Siri, tell that guy’s car that he’s a jerk
Automakers say all the in-dash technology will make drivers less likely to use their phones while they’re at the wheel. The big question, of course, is whether one distraction is simply being traded for another. Given that within the next five years, at least an estimated 80 percent of the new cars in North America and Europe will have Internet access, this is no small matter. The U.S. Department of Transportation already has weighed in with voluntary guidelines, which basically tell carmakers to keep it simple. It’s true that distracted driving will become less of an issue when driverless cars hit the market, but that’s still years away.
The focus now is on finding the most efficient ways to get our cars to do our bidding. Ford, whose MyFordTouch system has made it a leader in what’s known as in-car telematics, gives you three options: you can use a new and improved touch screen in the middle of the instrument panel, you can use secondary controls on the steering wheel or you can just speak your mind with the hope that the machine will catch your drift.
Actually, you have a much better chance these days that your voice commands will be understood. There’s little question that Siri, the iPhone’s digital assistant, has racheted up the capabilities of voice recognition. So it’s not surprising that most of the major automakers, will the exception of Ford, are seriously considering integrating Siri’s Eyes Free into their new vehicles. It’s a feature on the steering wheel, which like the button on the iPhone, would allow you to strike up a conversation with the ever-servile Siri.
Or you can just talk with your hands. And your face. Harman, the car infotainment systems supplier, has developed a concept car in which you can control the dashboard techonology with gestures. A wink turns the radio on, a tilt of your head to the left or right turns the volume up or down and a tap on the steering wheel skips to the next song. And if you want to make a call? Right, thumb up, pinkie out.
Here are more of the latest advances using car sensors and other fresh tech:
- When cars talk: A year-long research project involving 3,000 drivers in Ann Arbor, Michigan will analyze how enabling cars to talk to one other reduces collisions. The study will also try to determine whether warning sounds or visual signals are better at helping drivers avoid crashes.
- You’ll feel a sneeze coming: Ford has just come out with an Allergy Alert app. It aggregates info from Pollen.com to let drivers whose cars have Ford’s Sync system know about the pollen levels where they are. Also the asthma risk and the level of ultraviolet rays.
- Straighten up and drive right: More cutting-edge stuff from Ford. It has developed a technology called Traffic Jam Assist that uses cameras and sensors to ensure that your car stays in its lane and keeps pace with other vehicles in traffic.
- I brake for crashes: As of 2014, the European Commission will not give its five-star safety rating to any car without autonomous emergency braking. It’s a system using sensors and cameras to track the distance to a car in front of you. If it sees the threat of a crash, the brakes apply on their own.
- Bad moods: Toyota is developing technology that will use a camera to analyze drivers’ facial expressions. If you look sad or angry, the vehicle will sound warning alerts sooner since research shows that people in those emotional states are less alert to road hazards.
Video bonus: Here’s a Smart Planet video that explains how cars talking to one another could dramatically reduce the number of crashes, particularly in intersections.
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July 23, 2012
Nothing like a hot, sticky July day to make you think that driving would have been one of the circles of Hell had Dante had a bad commute. These are the days when the grind can seen eternal, when it feels that life has become an endless trail of brake lights leading to the horizon, and that it shall always be so.
But take heart, my friends. To keep hope alive, I’ve compiled a sampling of some of the freshest thinking about changing the experience of getting around, and not just in cars. Some are imminent, others may never reach fruition. Yet most are focused on making this slice of our lives a little more bearable.
1) The flowing rate: If the highways near you are jammed every day, meet what may be your future. Xerox is working with the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority on a pilot program based on the idea that drivers pay a higher toll if traffic is heavier. Starting this November on notoriously crammed I-110, solo drivers will be able to pay to enter what used to be HOV lanes. The toll will start at 25 cents a mile, but can rise to as high as $1.40 a mile. The plan is to guarantee a consistent speed of at least 45 miles an hour. And they hope to do that by using algorithms Xerox is developing to control traffic flow by raising and lowering the toll as needed.
2) Rain, rain, go away: Know how headlights can sometimes seem pointless in a bad rainstorm? Well, scientists at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh noticed that too, and now have invented a model that can see through rain and snow. It works like this: A digital projector illuminates raindrops for several milliseconds while a camera mounted on the side of the projector captures each raindrop’s location; software predicts where those drops will come down within the driver’s field of view. Then light rays that would normally hit the raindrops are automatically switched off. That reduces glare and leaves only beams of lights that travel between the drops showing what’s up ahead. This is so much cooler than pulling over.
3) That’ll teach ya: Talk about getting tough on texting drivers. Researchers at India’s Anna University of Technology have developed a device that not only jams the phone signal of the person in the driver’s seat, but also sounds a tone to let people in nearby vehicles and passengers in his or her own car know that the driver’s distracted. But it wouldn’t stop there. The Cellphone Accident Preventer also has the capability to send your license number to the local police. That’s harsh.
4) Parting is such sweet sorrow: Or you could take the approach devised by Florida inventor Ronald Pothul. He calls it a “Dock-n-Lock” and it requires the driver to place his or her phone in a locker compartment. Otherwise the car won’t start, due to a non-removable ID chip on the phone. Only after the ignition is shut off will the locker open.
5) The road to power: Some day it will seem silly that we had to plug in electric vehicles to juice them up. A team of Japanese engineering students has taken the first steps in what could be our EV future by designing a way for the road itself to provide the power. They call it EVER–Electric Vehicle on Electrified Roadway–and it involves transmitting an electrical current through concrete and up through the vehicle’s tires.The group at Toyohashi University was able to transmit between 50 to 60 watts of power through a 4-inch block of concrete and produce enough of a current to light a bulb. Right, that’s a long way from juicing up cars on the interstate, plus the cost of building electrified highways would be enormous. But maybe, just maybe it will gain traction. (Forgive me.)
6) Bring on the peanuts: Later this year Qantas Airlines will start putting free digital tablets in the pockets of all seats on its 767 flights–and not just those in first class. Everyone will get access to 200 hours of free video and audio. And the airline ultimately saves money by no longer needing the in-flight entertainment systems that add weight to each plane.
7) But will there be iPads?: No one less than NASA is taking a run at reinventing the helicopter. Its Large Civil Tilt Rotor (LCTR) looks like a plane, but with two huge rotors at the end of each wing instead of small propellers. At take-off and landing those rotors spin parallel to the ground just as in a helicopter. For flight they swivel into position to act like propellers. The LCTR would be able to carry up to 90 passengers and make trips as long as 1,000 miles.
8) Don’t you hate being so predictable?: Here’s an innovation that’s not so much about how you get somewhere, but about where you’re going to be. Scientists at the University of Birmingham in the U.K. have developed an algorithm that uses, in part, the movements of your social group to predict where you’ll be 24 hours from now. The predictions proved to be far less precise if the “mobility patterns” of friends–defined as contacts on a person’s cellphone–weren’t factored in.
9) Park it anywhere: The idea’s been around since 2010, but now SoBi Social Bicycles programs are about to roll out in Buffalo and two still unnamed West Coast cities. Bike-sharing is starting to take off in some American cities, but SoBi takes the idea to the next level by combining it with GPS. Each bike has its own on-board computer which can be accessed through a SoBi mobile app. It tells you where a SoBi bike is nearby and then you have 15 minutes to get there and unlock it, using its keyboard and a confirmation code you’ve been given. When you’re done, you can leave the bike anywhere, instead of needing to return it to a share station. A combination of pedal power and a small solar panel helps charge the system.
10) Video bonus: Park it anywhere II: Check out this video of the Hiriko, the electric urban share car designed at the MIT Media Lab. It’s tiny to begin with, then folds up so you can fit three of them in the parking space one ordinary car would need.
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