Note to carmakers: let geeks design connectivity not your interior designers

Historically, cars and smartphones developed in parallel on wildly different timescales. In the smartphone revolution’s formative years, Apple and Samsung reinvented their devices every twelve months like clockwork; the automotive industry, meanwhile, spent half a decade or more designing a new model, having it certified by regulatory bodies around the world, scaling up production and releasing it.

This mismatch in pacing put these industries on a collision course: As automakers rushed to put navigation systems and concierge services in their cars that were outdated by the time they rolled off the assembly line, smartphone and mobile data use exploded, often covering the same ground (Google Maps, Yelp, the list goes on). While iOS and Android — and the apps they offered — improved immeasurably over the span of half a decade, the systems in our cars barely moved. Even the most forward-thinking in-car systems like Ford’s SYNC were panned for being slow, finicky and complex. And unlike a phone, it’s much more difficult to swap out your car every year or two.

The introduction of Apple’s CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto were designed to solve this conflict. By supporting these systems and ceding control of entertainment and navigation systems to Google and Apple, automakers could bring the world of mobile apps and familiar and beloved user experiences to consumers. Automakers also could stop plowing resources into unfamiliar areas and focus on what they do best — making cars — while iOS and Android would finally have a way to integrate cleanly without a suction-cup mount on the windshield…

The glacial pacing of the auto industry relative to the consumer electronics industry is at least partly to blame, but it’s not the only culprit; after all, GM now offers CarPlay on a majority of the vehicles that it sells. A deeper issue, I believe, is pride — a sense that automakers are at risk of losing their identities by ceding control of the dashboard to Silicon Valley. The companies that have not committed to offering CarPlay or Android Auto are often quick to mention that they’re only acting in the best interest of their customers and trying to deliver the best experience possible.

But here’s the thing: They have proven time and again that they are not able to deliver the best experience possible. It’s not their fault, really — the cards stacked against them are manifold: The slower development cycle, the learning curve of a UI entirely different from that of our smartphones, the inability to achieve scale with a proprietary in-car app platform. But while this plays out, customers — everyday car buyers – are the pawns in a global tug-of-war. No one wins…

The generation of vehicles that’s rolling off assembly lines today is likely the last one where buyers won’t consider excellent smartphone integration a basic, must-have feature. Over the next several years, automakers will come to understand this, one negative customer interaction at a time. Eventually, CarPlay support will be a universally standard feature, no different from air conditioning or power windows.

Often, carmakers need a boot in the butt to adopt technology they weren’t instrumental in developing. The world of hotrodders – in every nation that has folks who want to go a little faster, whether it’s in a straight line or around a bunch of corners – have given us everything from extractive exhaust systems to aerodynamics. And it hasn’t always been speed as the target. Technical efficiency works as well for economy as power. Turbocharging has proven that.

Time to let the geeks loose, folks.

Air travel seating you can look, um, forward to

Forget complaining about not enough legroom on an airliner and be thankful that there’s still headroom. A new patent filed by European aviation giant Airbus takes advantage of that little-used space above where people sit to offer a flying experience that’s somewhat akin to summer camp bunk beds, only at hundreds of miles per hour and surrounded by grown-up strangers.

Named, very technically, “Passenger Seat Arrangement For A Vehicle” the patent features not just rows but layers of seats. While primarily designed for airplanes, the patent helpfully notes that it is suitable for other means of passenger transport, like buses or trains.

While most airplanes are already densely packed, the patent observes that wide-body airplanes (think Boeing Jumbo Jets or the Airbus 330 family) aren’t utilized to their full economic potential. From the patent:

In order to still more efficiently use the space in a passenger cabin of an aircraft, [this patent] proposes to position an elevated deck structure on a main deck floor in the passenger cabin of a wide-body aircraft for providing a mezzanine seating area in a substantially unused upper lobe of the aircraft fuselage.

Thus:

With the advent of Homeland Insecurity and the TSA, my decisions about travel were made simple. I will only travel to destinations I can reach driving my old Dodge pickup.

No harm, no foul, eh?

Chinese company breaks ground on rail car factory in Massachusetts

Chinese-owned CRRC USA Rail Corp., a subsidiary of the world’s largest manufacturer of railroad cars and locomotives, broke ground Thursday on a $95 million subway car factory here officials say will put people in Springfield to work and help people in Boston get to work…

Last year CRRC, then known as CNR Changchun Railway Vehicles, received a $566 million contract from the state and MBTA to build new subway cars. The state went without federal funding on the project in order to require that the cars be at least assembled in the state. The idea was to develop a transit-car industry in Massachusetts, a business that thrived here in Springfield with the Wason Manufacturing Co. from 1845 to the Great Depression.

Chanhe Zhou said the plant is not just for the fulfillment of the MBTA contract, but to give CRRC a foothold in the North American market for transit cars and railroad passenger coaches. He said he’d like to build subway cars for other MBTA lines, for high-speed service from Springfield to Boston and other projects across North America.

The plant will have a permanent staff of 150 people, with a minimum salary of $66,000 a year, starting in 2017…

The cars will replace an outdated fleet in service since the 1970s, state transportation secretary Stephanie Pollack said.

Pollack said the new cars will be more comfortable with modern air conditioning and LED lighting.

“They will be more reliable and cheaper to operate…”

Richard Sullivan, CEO of the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts, said he’s already introduced CRRC to potential suppliers and subcontractors in the region from Greenfield to Springfield. They include machine shops, fabricators and others.

Glad they managed to keep Congress and the White House out of the way. I can see the headlines in the Washington Post, NY Times. Chinese hackers will use railroad wifi to steal American secrets about how to build crappy railroads.

CRRC, by the way, was just formed in a merger of China’s two largest rail companies. Both were capable of providing turnkey rail lines from right-of-way to track to trains. The merger made all the sense in the world for the many occasions when they ended up bidding against each other on the same jobs – in China and around the world.

My favorite owls won’t give you plague

Even though they have fleas.


Click to enlargehawksaloft.org

Plague! The word conjures images of horrors past, piles of festering medieval dead overrun by rats. It’s not a disease of the past though; the bacteria that causes plague can be found in the United States, and a few cases of human bubonic plague happen every year.

The animals that carry plague in the US are mostly rodents—rats, ground squirrels, and prairie dogs—and their fleas can pass plague bacteria to humans if they decide to bite us. Good news, though: The adorable little owls that live in burrows alongside those plaguey rodents seem to be immune. Although the owls have fleas capable of carrying plague, they are not infected—and their immunity could provide some interesting information to scientists studying the disease.

Western burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia) nest underground, often re-using rodent burrows. Working with these predatory birds is not for the faint of heart; even small owls have powerful beaks and claws. Burrowing owls live in areas where you are just as likely to stick your hand in a burrow and and pull out a rattlesnake as an extremely irate little raptor.

Dr. Jim Belthoff of Boise State University has spent years sticking his arm into nest tunnels in search of owls—often past piles of excrement. In addition to being very cute and fluffy, these owls have an endearing habit of decorating their nests with turds. Not their turds, mind you; they collect and bring mammal dung back to their front doorstep. It’s thought the poo attracts insects that the owls snack on.

Adding to the grossness, Belthoff noticed burrowing owls seemed to have lots of fleas. “We considered the fleas a nuisance, as they would jump on us as we captured and banded the owls, and they would infest our field vehicles.” This made him wonder: Do the fleas affect the owls? And what kind of fleas were they?…

His team collected thousands of fleas from burrowing owl nests during banding and health checks…Good news, though! They found no evidence of the plague bacteria in owl fleas they collected, or in the blood of the owls. They also did not find antibodies to plague in owl blood, which would be expected if owls were regularly exposed. “There are no public health concerns related to burrowing owls,” says Belthoff. “All our test results were negative to plague—in antibodies, in the fleas and in the blood of the owls.”

One possibility was that fleas were just hitching a ride on the owls, and not feeding on them. Additional tests determined the fleas did contain burrowing owl DNA in their guts, so they were drinking owl blood. The owls just weren’t getting infected with plague.

No answers, yet; but, since these delightful raptors are seriously endangered and a diminishing species, hopefully, more effort will be made to protect them – and find out why they aren’t passing along plague.