Monthly Archives: October 2010

State of the art of self-driving cars on road today (Google, Ford, and Toyota)

I’ve been a fan of autonomous cars so when Google announced today that they had actually built and tested a self-driving car, that was quite cool news. Read the New York Times article about the self-driving Google car done by John Markoff. That is pretty cool. Google, itself, talked about the technology in a blog post.

Turns out I actually caught one of these cars driving on Freeway 280 in January, reports Techcrunch and, back in 2007, I interviewed one of the guys, Mike Montemerlo, who now works on the Google Car (it’s a fascinating interview, great look into an innovative mind and where he was going with this technology). I wondered why the Google guys braked suddenly to avoid my video camera. I had a feeling they were testing something secret, but couldn’t figure out what from just looking at the car from the outside.

But, did you know there are cars on the road today that get close to driving themselves? I own one of those, a 2010 Toyota Prius. In my car there’s radar that senses the road ahead and a camera that looks at lane markings. I filmed a video to show how it works. It even works on curvy roads. Now Google’s car goes a lot further because it has digital images and 3D maps of the road ahead and even more sensors and algorithms that let it even drive through intersections.

Check this video out:

Toyota isn’t the only one using assisted driving technlogies, either. Back in January I interviewed the head of safety at Ford, who showed me what its system does and how it can sense cars ahead on the road and help drivers avoid accidents.

A lot of people are afraid of these technologies, but already they have helped me avoid accidents. They can see cars ahead of you at night even if they don’t have their lights on. I’ve encountered that several times, very dangerous if they are driving slowly and you’re going faster. Also, if my car senses that it is about to get in an accident, it tugs on the seatbelts and pre-fires the brakes, which makes them ultra sensitive so that I can get more braking in before an accident (you really must watch the Ford interviews to understand how important that is).

To me, these technologies will save lives and let you do other things while driving. Maybe someday it’ll be legal to text and drive — but only if you have a self-driving car.

I’d pay a lot of money for an even better system. This would greatly improve my life — in just the 15 months since getting the Toyota I’ve put 26,000 miles on it. At 55 miles per hour that’s 472 hours of driving. I use my car’s computer more than my TV or nearly any other computer in my life. I’d be willing to spend $1,000 to $3,000 per year to make that experience better (the assisted driving technologies in my Toyota came as part of a $6,000 package, which includes better headlights, better audio system, self-parking tech, and the assisted cruise control, among other things).

That’s the business model behind these things. The trick is, can Google find a way to make them cheap enough?

I won’t buy a car without them now (our new Sienna minivan has the radar-assisted cruise control as well).

One thing. I don’t think we’ll see truly autonomous cars, like the Google ones, for quite some while. Why? Legal questions of responsibility. Plus, the Google car can’t drive on my street (it hasn’t been captured with a Google Mapping car yet) and just imagine that there’s a bug in the map, or something, that causes a driver to get killed.

I believe this is why my car will only gently nudge me back into the lane if I drift out of the lane. It requires the driver to stay fully engaged in the process of driving, even though it is assisting the driver. The legal questions of letting a driver go to sleep while a car is moving down the road are just too great for 2010. I bet these legal questions will take a decade to answer. But they will be answered. I’m fully certain that my sons will be driving fully automated cars and that makes me quite happy. The computers inside are safer than most adults.

Oh, and as for the Google self-driving car? I actually caught it twice. Once with my iPhone:

And once with my Canon 5D MKII. Notice this time they noticed me shooting and stepped sharply on the brakes so I couldn’t take good video of the inside. (You can switch to 1080p high def video on this one, to get a good look).

Update: I interviewed the guy, Mike Montemerlo, who works on the team that built the Google car. That was back in 2007 when he was doing his research at Stanford. That interview is very fascinating because it gives you a real look into one of the the innovative minds behind this technology.

Facebook does better than Twitter lists (they don’t enforce a power law)

I’ve already built a half-dozen groups on my Facebook profile (groups is a new feature that Facebook announced this morning). In my experience they are Twitter lists done right.

Twitter lists always had a lot of promise. Look at my lists. I have lists of venture capitalists. Lists of entrepreneurs. Lists of executives. Lists of journalists. Lists of pundits. Lists of companies. And more.

But over the last year since Twitter shipped its lists feature I’ve noticed a few problems.

1. Subscribing to, er, following, a list doesn’t do anything to your main feed.
2. A list can only have 500 members. One problem, I know about 800 executives already, and I’m discovering new ones every day. So, if, say, Steve Ballmer were to join Twitter and I wanted him on the list I’d have to remove someone already on the list.
3. I can have no more than 20 lists. I already have 20 lists, so if I were to keep a “executive A-F” list and another one for “G-Z” I’d have to put that on a new Twitter account. That doesn’t work.
4. No one can send a message to other people who are on the list. In fact, you might be on lots of lists and people could be talking to you but you’ll have no clue about that.
5. No way to DM or chat with other people on the list.

Now compare to Facebook’s new Groups.

First, listen to Mark Zuckerberg talk to me about the new features (Groups is one of three new features Facebook announced this morning — in the interview Zuck goes into depth about the groups feature after he talks about the other two features).

But then consider just how much better Facebook’s groups are than Twitter’s lists.

They don’t have any of the above issues. That’s all great, but on Twitter there’s a power law that’s enforced.

Let’s say you are a hot new tech blogger, for instance. How can you get on my list? You can’t. I’ve filled up my list. So, until you convince me to kick someone else off, you won’t get on. That’s a power law that’s being enforced. Needlessly, too.

But even better, all my Facebook groups are now open to members to invite other people onto (the group founder has to change the settings to allow that). For instance, I have a Tech news and bloggers group. I didn’t invite half the people who are already on the list onto it. Zuckerberg explains how that’s controllable in our interview.

Everyone invited on can talk with each other. That’s very cool. Something that Twitter groups can’t do. That is an anti power law feature. Yeah, I, as administrator, can remove people, but generally I’m learning about some new people who friends of mine like. That is massively cool. I wish that could happen on Twitter. Or, at least, that I had a choice to make that happen on Twitter because there’s no way I can know every tech journalist/blogger in the world. Not to mention every VC, every executive, every pundit, every event manager, etc etc.

Now, take this into a smaller group setting. What about a family group? Well, I don’t know all of Maryam’s cousins who live in Tehran. So, if I had a Twitter list, it would be woefully incomplete. But on Facebook she can start a group and I can add to it. So can every member of it. That is massively cool, even for a family group. For an industry group, or a company group, that’s even more important.

Anyway, Facebook gets this social stuff at a level that most don’t. Listen to how Zuckerberg talks about the experience of me adding him to a group. It’s a nuanced view and one that goes way beyond what I hear from Twitter and Google. Apple? They have no clue. Nokia and Microsoft? No clue either.

Why is Zuck king of the social world? Well, start a group and we’ll talk about it!

Can you become a better innovator? Olivia Fox says yes (and a video innovation)

You might not know Olivia Fox. But she works with quite a few of the world’s top executives and organizations (like Google and Stanford University) to help them get to their peak performance. To underscore that, former Ning CEO is in the background of this video, after the interview she said “I learned a lot” by listening to it.

She helps them tune up their brains and become even more innovative.

I’ve been talking with her for a while, and she says that one big thing holding back people are those nagging thoughts that you don’t deserve to be where you are. She says that’s the impostor syndrome and she says most of the students and most of the employees at Silicon Valley’s biggest tech companies have it. The problem is, she says, that it’s hard to innovate if you keep beating yourself up. In the video she explains why and gives us some other hints as to how to tune up our brains and get us ready to innovate more.

Talking about innovation, today we’re playing around with our own innovation: short and long videos. If you read this article over on Building43, you’ll see that we put up a short, two-minute video of this interview, along with a longer, 21-minute version.

I ascribe to Eric Reis’ lean startup methods, where he says to try something, test it out and measure the results.

So, which video do you like better? The short one?

Or the long one?


Silicon Valley places that Paul Graham didn’t cover

Paul Graham, founder of YCombinator, covered a bunch of places to “see Silicon Valley.” Good start, but he missed a bunch of places. Here’s my list:

1. IBM’s New Almaden research lab. This is where the hard drive was invented. They have a cool research team that moves single atoms around. You can see a qik video I filmed there.

2. The interlocking machine at Santa Clara rail yard. It’s inside this shed. It’s one of the first computers that was installed in Silicon Valley. It’s a mechanical computer, you pull out a slide which contains an “if, then, else” statement. “If this slide is out, open this track, else train crashes.” You can visit it, if you get a member of the South Bay Historical Railroad society to open it up for you.

3. The HP Garage. Come on, you gotta take a picture in front of the birthplace of Silicon Valley. Here’s a video when I got an inside peek.

4. Bucks, Woodside. Here, meet Jamis McNiven, who owns it. It’s where Netscape was incorporated, among other famous things.

5. Apple’s company store and headquarters. Come on, you gotta buy a shirt that says “I visited the mother ship.” If you get lucky enough to sneak by the front guard you’ll see a wall of the top 3,000 iPhone apps which shows which ones are being downloaded at that moment.

6. The Intel museum. Very few people visit here, but you’ll learn all about microprocessors and how our computing devices work.

7. The most interesting headquarters is actually SmugMug’s. Why? Well, for one, you’ll probably get in, unlike at Apple or Google. For two, they are nice. For three, they have the best food (better than Google or Facebook, which are awesome places to get fed). For four, they have awesome gigapixel photos on nearly every available wall space. For five, you probably will be able to get a neato camera strap. For six, they might race you around the office in their gokarts. Here’s a walk around their offices.

8. The last spike. You might not know, but Silicon Valley is really a railroad town. If it weren’t for Leland Stanford’s money, that he got by being Vice President of the Central Pacific Railroad, back when it was the only way to ship things from California back east, Silicon Valley might never have happened. What was the key event in Stanford’s life? The driving of the final spike of the transcontinental railroad. Where do you find it? It’s at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford. Free museum. From there you can walk to the Bill Gates building, which is where Google really started, among other companies.

9. Nasa Ames. Especially the wind tunnels, which are so big you can see them from nearly every vantage point. I recently got a tour, but you can’t usually get in. It took me 45 years to get my first tour.

10. Orchard Supply headquarters. Huh? Well, you have to remember that Silicon Valley used to be orchards. This hardware store supplied the farmers in the early days, now it supplies geeks with stuff to make their homes better. Other places to see the early days of Silicon Valley are all over the place, including at the Fry’s superstore in Sunnyvale (another must-visit place for geeks, this store was important in the 80s to help entrepreneurs build hardware companies). Also, you know FMC? The folks who build tanks? What does FMC stand for? Food Machinery Corporation. They used to build plows until it became more profitable to build weapons of war.

11. Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center). They have the nicest view of the valley from their back deck, but I was there today and the first ethernet cable is still embedded in the wall. What else was invented here? Oh, just the basis for the Macintosh, plus laser printers and the Postscript language that built Adobe, object-oriented programming, and more. Unfortunately you can’t get in there, either.

12. The Winchester Mystery House. No geek ever will admit to visiting there, but it’s the kind of weird thing that makes for a fun afternoon. Even better if you get a tour around Halloween after dark. Scary!

13. Mount Umanhum. This is a long drive from the valley floor, but you won’t find a better view. Say hi to David Leeson, who lives near the top and was founder of California Microwave.

14. New Almaden Quicksilver County Park. One of my favorite places to go for a walk. This used to be a mercury mine, back during the gold rush period of California history. What’s the name of Silicon Valley’s newspaper? San Jose MERCURY News. Now you know where it got its name.

15. Peralta Adobe. This is the oldest surviving building in San Jose. I’m a sucker for history, which you wouldn’t know by my love of everything new and shiny, but to understand where the tech industry came from you’ve gotta study the roots of the area and it started here.

Anyway, thanks to Paul for getting me to list a few of my favorite places to take out-of-town friends who visit the area. I tried to come up with places that Paul hasn’t listed yet.

What about you, do you have a favorite place to show off to new visitors?

“Fact engine” Wolfram Alpha to ship Android version and new APIs/widgets

Yesterday Wolfram Alpha’s CEO, Barak Berkowitz, visited me and gave me an update on the latest behind this really great “fact engine.”

What do we need it for? Well, let’s say you want to know a fact like “what is the mean temperature in San Francisco in July?” Yeah, you can try to use Google for that, but it’s a lot nicer in Wolfram Alpha.

Or, let’s say you want to compare the stock prices of Rackspace, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and Google. Yeah, you can play around with Google Finance, or some other search engine, but look at what Wolfram Alpha does. Awesome!

In fact, you can even build a little widget using Wolfram Alpha. Here’s my widget, try it out!

These widgets are now improved but better yet within 45 days Wolfram Alpha will announce a new API pricing scheme which will let developers use Wolfram Alpha in their own apps for far less money than they can today. That’s awesome, because you can think of a world where data is shoved over to Wolfram Alpha and it will return facts about that data. Try it out, or watch the video to get a taste of some of the things it is good at.