Friday, November 17, 2017

Driverless Cars – More Progress and Positioning – V

In this series I’ve been writing about how Ford’s autonomous vehicle progress has been better than General Motors’s.  Now that “GM Enhances Self-Driving Car Effort With Deal for Strobe” (Mike Colias, The Wall Street Journal, October 9th), is that still true?  Strobe made lidar, a critical driverless technology that allows such vehicles to see what is around them, but was small enough to have only 11 employees.  Will this corporate behemoth effectively manage this entrepreneurial startup without crushing it?  Or does it just want the know-how Strobe has already accumulated?  In any event, even if Ford and GM end up having a seesaw battle, this acquisition isn’t enough to turn the latter company around. 

In partnerships of another sort, “Waymo teams with MADD, the NSC and more on self-driving education” (Darrell Etherington, TechCrunch, October 9th), the forerunning driverless nameplate has not only joined the National Safety Council, but has found common cause with three social organizations, the Foundation for Blind Children and the Foundation for Senior Living as well as Mothers Against Drunk Driving.  All three are natural supporters of autonomous vehicles, and can help Waymo in getting political support, something they may end up needing a great deal.  Another winner for them, as was its release three days later of its “Safety Report” (same author and source); the 42-page piece for public consumption explains how autonomous vehicles work, their current cybersecurity defenses, and “what happens after a crash should there be one.” 

Speaking of winners and good progress, the online ink was barely dry on The Motley Fool’s recommendation of this company’s stock, when “NVIDIA introduces a computer for level 5 autonomous cars” (Roberto Baldwin, Engadget, October 10th).  The device, “the size of a license plate,” “delivers 320 trillion operations per second, 10 times more than its predecessor,” but even NVIDIA admitted that it won’t be put into service soon, and then maybe only for “robotaxis,” on which “over 25 of its partners are already working.”  When it powers an NVIDIA “pilot fleet” next year, we will know more.   

Yes, it is a certainty that “Now is the time to plan for the autonomous vehicle future” (Tom Alberg and Craig Mundle, TechCrunch, October 11th).  We learn herein that Audi, from whom we have heard little, now plans on “selling, in 2018, a production car with Level 3 authority (meaning it requires no human attention to the road at speeds under 37 miles per hour).”  That just might be the first one available for general purchase.  Alberg and Mundle also stated that a proposal has been made to the Seattle government to convert Interstate 5, which runs to the Canadian border on the way to Vancouver, to driverless-car-only use, with an intermediate stage of changing high-density vehicle lanes into autonomous-vehicle ones.  Although many of the authors’ talking points are weak – it’s not clear that driverless cars will lead to “less congestion, reduced emissions, ...fewer new roads, reclaimed parking space,” or “lower transportation costs for all” – we must agree with the article’s ending, that “it is time to get going.”  

Also, “California will allow self-driving cars with no human driver on public roads next year” (Sean Szymkowski, MotorAuthority, October 12th).  The door is now open for more space in that state than Silicon Valley.  Three years out, “Baidu plans to mass-produce Level 4 self-driving cars with BAIC by 2021” (Darrell Etherington in TechCrunch again, October 13th).  Baidu, a huge Chinese company expanding from their Internet-providing core business to driverless technology, will find its most formidable adversary to be its country’s government, which has hampered other companies by impeding map updates, so we’re not sure if they will stay on schedule at all.

With all the positive news above, we were probably due to see a cold-water-splashing major-newspaper editorial, and we got one on October 14thThe New York Times Editorial Board spent its main Sunday space on “Would You Buy a Self-Driving Future From These Guys?”.  It has present/future confusion, with “87 percent favored requiring that a person always be behind the wheel, ready to take control if something goes wrong” (fine for 2017, but that number will be way down by 2020 and we’ll laugh about that viewpoint in 2050), yet more mention of the May 2016 fatal Florida accident (since then, over 45,000 Americans have died in driver-caused crashes, which the Florida one was determined to be also), attempted talking points of “mass unemployment for taxi drivers” and “greatly reduce(d) car sales” (veterinarians and blacksmiths lost jobs also, in the course of the last major round of ground-transportation progress and almost immeasurable prosperity enhancement).  True, auto safety standards should remain, but those connected with driverless vehicles are not, as the headline implies, generally malevolent, and assuming they are would in this case be wicked and destructive in itself.

By the time these cars are in general use they will be safer than they are now.  But for the time being, there is, as with everything else in this area, a lot of work needed.  One good thing about “Low-speed accidents frequent among driverless cars” (Ryan Beene, Bloomberg News, October 15th), is the hyphen-connected words starting its headline.  The root cause of most of these crashes is that, per Gartner analyst Mike Ramsey in the article, autonomous vehicles “don’t drive like people.  They drive like robots.”  We, though, will be prepared for that, through everything from new driver’s-education teaching through almost certain changes in our own driving behavior, and will adjust.  Also, as above, the cars do indeed need more development time, and are getting it.

Eventually, this series will end.  But in the meantime, expect yet more next week.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Driverless Cars – More Progress and Positioning – IV

One area of autonomous vehicle research much noted over the past two months is their proving facilities.  The country’s second-largest automaker returned to the self-driving headlines therein with “Ford invests in Michigan’s autonomous car testing grounds” (Timothy J. Seppala, Engadget, September 15), showing that it will likely not be behind General Motors in this next huge phase, and that the state of Michigan, for similar reasons, will also make a comeback.   

Another thread in this area has been consumer reactions.  In Salon’s September 16th “Lots of love for driverless cars, just not from drivers,” Paul Feldman recapped survey results showing “that most motorists don’t want to drive, ride in or be on the road anywhere near” autonomous vehicles.  With their current technology that is appropriate, and indeed it is not even possible yet for ordinary people to use them outside of a few free-ride programs.  With reporters seeing firsthand and later publicizing how well such cars fared with impediments last month, that confidence level has since improved and will continue to rise.

One more driverless domain has been the completed and expected 
implementation of their ever-improving features in meatmobiles.  As Lee Vinsel put it in the September 23rd “The best parts about autonomous vehicles are already here,” also in Salon, “elements of self-driving car systems, such as adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warnings and head-on collision-avoidance systems, could reduce road deaths by up to one-third.”  That would be over 11,000 in the United States alone, without any benefit from the vehicles for which these technologies are eventually intended.  This article also included the historical insight that the federal National Research Council “became interested in a self-driving car” in 1953, and that Vladimir Zworykin, often credited as the inventor of television, was doing much of the research. 

“Could You Form an Emotional Bond With a Self-Driving Car?”  My response to Doug Newcomb’s September 23rd PC Magazine article is, well, maybe, but nowhere near as much as when such connections, probably in the 1950s or 1960s, reached their peaks.  Personal intensity about vehicles has been falling ever since then, is either a cause or an effect of the drop of young people getting driver’s licenses over the past decade or two, and, as interesting as these ideas are, won’t be reversed by synchronizing music with driving speed or installing “a “hunger undulator” that uses vibrating motors to mimic stomach contractions so passengers feel hungry as the car starts to get low on fuel.”  True, people can get attached to machines, from Star Wars droids to copiers, but it’s hard to see how that will reach its former strength.

Back to the business side, with “Ford and Lyft Sign Driverless-Car Agreement” (Greg Bensinger, The Wall Street Journal, September 27th).  Here’s where Lyft, now more respected, could become larger than Uber, as it has also been working with General Motors.  The latter company may or may not be getting anywhere in the area itself, per “GM making ‘rapid progress’ toward self-driving car development: executive” (Reuters, October 3), a piece which, based on GM press releases, offered no real specifics. 

Some retirement-oriented places, in particular Sun City West in Arizona, have allowed golf courts on streets for decades now.  Daisuke Wakabayashi, in The New York Times’s October 4th “Where Driverless Cars Brake for Golf Carts” describes how the Villages Golf and Country Club in San Jose has made its vehicle mix even more diverse, with 15 miles of roads, a 25 MPH speed limit, and a private-property status making it “an ideal proving ground.”  Community management sought a lower-cost way of providing shuttle services, found that residents actively wanted driverless cars, and connected with Udacity, which is now there testing automated vehicles of some sort.  This Villages implementation may go down as the first time driverless technology was sought out, and succeeded, to save money.

On the regulatory side, the Associated Press reported in Fox Business on October 4th that “Senators weigh bill to remove obstacles to self-driving cars.”  We’ve seen the controversy behind regulatory issues before, and it’s the same here, with one side citing a potential end to 94% of car accidents and the other, expressed by a onetime leader of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, saying that “the public will be the crash dummies in this experiment.”  Both sides need to be heard, but I am confident that, as technology and familiarity both improve, the anti-autonomous faction will become smaller and more of a fringe.

One odd characteristic of driverless vehicles of all kinds is that, opposite to those human-operated, they are less dangerous when more of them are on the road.  In Engadget’s October 4th “Networked self-driving cars are smarter and safer,” Daniel Cooper explained why.  “Two cars in convoy” perforce occupy different spaces with different fields of vision, so if they can combine what they see it will be more than from only one.  That’s progress, as is the subject of the same date’s “General Motors Just Made a Lot More Self-Driving Cars” (Reuters).  Though “a lot” is only 100, and though as before we get few hard facts about GM’s work, it’s still movement in the right direction.

Clearly, the headline of Srikanth Saripalli’s October 8th Salon piece “Are self-driving cars the future of mobility for disabled people?” deserves a three-letter answer.  And the same is true for drinkers.  The article correctly points out that there will be logistical issues to resolve, such as “identifying curb cuts that let wheelchairs and walkers pass easily as well as noting potential obstacles, like trash cans out for collection,” but, indeed, driverless vehicles “have the potential to change neighborhoods and individuals’ lives – including people who are disabled and often both literally and figuratively left behind.”  That should serve as an offset to those pessimistic about safety. 

We wrap up this week with a heady philosophical issue, in “The Breakthrough We Need for Self-Driving Cars to Become a Reality” (Lily Elefteriadou, Popular Mechanics, also October 8th).  We need not care about the main point of the article, which is publicizing the University of Florida’s good but elsewhere-duplicated research, but is it true that “no consumer wants to buy a self-driving car that’s programmed, even in the most remote of circumstances, to kill its (occupant)”?  Either fortunately or unfortunately, when algorithms are developed to make life-or-death decisions when only destructive actions are possible, it may be the law for automated vehicles to crash instead of hitting a crowd of pedestrians.  That would be an intriguing premise for a science-fiction story, with, as so many have, real-life application, involving illicit reprogramming counterhacked by federal forces.  Yet it is nonfiction that the cars themselves are on the way.

More to follow next week.

Friday, November 3, 2017

October’s Mixed Jobs Report: American Job Shortage Number (AJSN) Drops 500,000 to 16.2 Million

I was surprised by this morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics employment figures.  Were you?

I wrote last month that September’s data was mangled by the storms, giving us strange results such as the loss of 33,000 net new jobs.  Accordingly, we would need to combine it with October’s to get a fairer view of how our working economy is really doing.  So, what happened?

In October, we gained 261,000 net new nonfarm payroll positions.  That would normally be outstanding, but when we combine it with the last set and divide it by two we get 114,000 per month.  With population increase consuming over 130,000, that’s a slowdown.  Also on the down side, the two measures of how common it is for Americans to be working, the employment-population ratio and the labor force participation rate, erased and more than erased respectively their September improvements, going off 0.2% and a steep 0.4% to reach 60.2% and 62.7%.  Average private nonfarm payroll hourly earnings gave up a little of its large September improvement, down 2 cents per hour to $26.53. 

Many of the other numbers were unexpectedly good.  The adjusted unemployment rate fell 0.1% to reach another post-Great-Recession low of 4.1%.  The unadjusted variety, lower since October is typically an above-average working month, achieved the same, shedding 0.2% to get to 3.9%.  These two numbers were also down, 0.2% and 0.4%, in September.  Those officially jobless and out for 27 weeks or longer cut another 100,000 to reach 1.6 million, and the count of people working part-time for economic reasons, or seeking full-time work while holding on to shorter-hours employment, plunged over 300,000 to 4.8 million.  In September the former number stayed the same, but the latter one, which usually changes half that amount or not at all, improved 200,000. 

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, which shows in one figure how many more positions could quickly be filled, dropped an unexpected half-million to reach another post-recession low, as follows:

The AJSN’s drop was only partially caused by lower unemployment, which accounted for 282,000 of the difference.  More significant was a cut of almost 400,000 in those wanting to work but not looking for it in the previous year.  Both were offset slightly by increases in those calling themselves discouraged and a surprising 1.2 million gain, precipitating a 60,000 AJSN difference, in the count of those claiming no interest in employment. 

Compared with a year before, important since the AJSN is not seasonally adjusted, it has dropped over 1.1 million, with almost that amount from lower official unemployment, and over 300,000 from the did-not-search-in-previous-year category partially neutralized by 1.2 million growth in those in the armed forces, in institutions, or off the grid, and by a 700,000 gain in the number of American-citizen expatriates now overseas.  The share of the AJSN coming from those officially jobless, now under 35%, reached another post-recession low, and means that almost two-thirds of those taking new positions would not be expected to be counted as unemployed.

Overall, how good was the data for the past two months?  Lukewarm.  Fewer people are unemployed, unemployed for six months or longer, or struggling with part-time positions instead of the full-time ones they want.  Wages are ahead of inflation.  Yet jobs growth and labor force participation are on the wane.  We’re only one number, specifically “did not search for work in previous year,” away from saying we’re going nowhere, and that work in America is continuing to depart, however slowly, from being the norm – and with that metric’s tendency to fluctuate without a long-term trend, that isn’t enough.  The turtle stayed put.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Driverless Cars – More Progress and Positioning – III

On August 22nd, we got a reminder of the need for not only consortia in the autonomous vehicle realm, but for a more comprehensive cooperative mentality.  As Daisuke Wakabayashi documented in The New York Times’s “Apple Scales Back Its Ambitions for a Self-Driving Car,” this gigantic company found out that, for once, it couldn’t go it alone, and that, contrary to what it often has found, there was serious competition out there.  Accordingly, it has “put off any notion of an Apple-branded autonomous vehicle,” most likely since “it was a do-it-all approach typical of Apple, which prefers to control every aspect of a product” that failed here.  Horses for courses.

That same day, one of the myriad areas under investigation got Salon journalistic attention in “Making driverless cars safe for people on foot.”  Author Michael Clamann named some concerns, such as the need for pedestrians and cars to communicate and the value of a “standard nontext symbol” to indicate an autonomous vehicle.  Everything in this category, though, rates to be resolved along the way.

Along with the grocery service mentioned two weeks ago, “There’s a Pizza Delivery in Ford’s Future, By Driverless Car.”  This August 29th Neal E. Boudette New York Times piece addressed Domino’s’ efforts, to start testing that week in automated-vehicle hub Ann Arbor.  Boudette properly asked “will people mind coming out of their house?”, which they well might in nearby Detroit, and noted that these vehicles will of course start with “safety drivers” behind the wheel but not operating them continuously.  This one should succeed, especially since the compartments from which customers will take their orders will be heated.

Perhaps “self-driving Smart wants to set you up” (Gary Gastely, Fox News, August 30), but it can’t quite do that now.  Befitting the size of their meatmobiles, that company’s Fortwo “electric autonomous urban people moving pod” concept car looks like a bulge with wheels.  It’s ahead of its time, even more than others; if they would be as cheap to make and run as they look, there could be tens of millions on our 2040 roads. 

On September 10th, The Motley Fool in Fox Business issued “3 Top Driverless Car Stocks to Buy Now,” and came up with three excellent choices.  It called for Tesla, which is reaching farther than the immediate future by making vehicles capable of full automation, integrating them with their front-line electric-power innovations, and planning on a way for “owners to rent out their autonomous vehicles when they’re not using them.”  It also recommended Ford, which is continuing its rivalry with GM to even more success in this area, and NVIDIA, as strong a component maker as exists.  There may be a Duesenberg or a Cord in these companies, but more likely they will last much longer, and could make their shareholders quite wealthy.    

We got a look at internal autonomous-vehicle software in “Waymo simulation is teaching self-driving cars invaluable skills” (Saqib Shah, Yahoo Finance, September 11).  The product contains “a replica of every real-world mile the autonomous cars have driven,” which must take up a staggering amount of memory, and allows practicing dealing with conditions that weren’t actually present, determination of strategies, and propagation of them to other vehicles.  A fine, unobtrusive, and ultimately quick and less expensive way of gaining capabilities.

As for the other huge American automaker, Daily Sabah told us, on that same day, “GM ready to mass produce self-driving cars once regulations allow.”  There’s more to it than that, and it seems too early for anyone to build more than about 1,000 copies of any model – so we’ll believe that when we see it.

To autonomous vehicles, a year has been an eternity.  So how much does it mean that “Tesla Self-Driving System Faulted by Safety Agency in Crash” (Neal E. Boudette and Bill Vlasic, The New York Times, September 12th)?  Not much, especially when we see that the National Transportation Safety Board’s judgment was not a technical finding.  That Florida accident, caused by driver inattention more than anything inherent to the car, since which there have been over 50,000 dead due to less publicized operator errors, should now be put to rest. 

On that day, the federal “Department of Transportation releases new self-driving vehicle guidelines” (Darrell Etherington, TechCrunch).  This classic “living document” runs 36 pages and is more a set of recommendations than a group of new laws.  It, generally, continues our government’s appropriately loose control here.  You can read it at  That has more to recommend it than “Teamsters chief fears U.S. self-driving trucks may be unsafe, hit jobs” (David Shepardson, Reuters), which is as self-serving and devoid of credibility as we might think.  Union chief James P. Hoffa “said the union was not trying to hold back technological advancements,” but, according to this report, that’s exactly what he wants to do.  I sympathize with anyone heading an organization within a decade or two of vast shrinkage, but see no real merit to his complaints.

We finish this installation with documentation of two more business moves, “Intel just added another automaker to its self-driving project” (Harsh Chauhan, The Motley Fool in Business Insider, September 12), and “Samsung steps up push into autonomous driving technology (Associated Press in Fox Business, September 14th).  The car manufacturer is Fiat Chrysler, which joins BMW, Mobileye, and Delphi Automotive under the chipmaker’s umbrella, which will begin testing Level 4-capable vehicles later this year.  The Korean juggernaut seems to be starting a consortium of its own, since it acquired navigation and other technology company Harman earlier this year, and looks perfectly suited for heading up driverless efforts on the southern half of its peninsula. 

Another three weeks down.  We take a break from autonomous vehicles next week, in favor of the October jobs report, but you can expect more November 10th.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Driverless Cars – More Progress and Positioning – II

Here’s the next chunk.

When my parents bought a Volvo in 1969, that company had a well-established reputation for safety.  It’s been a long time since I’ve seen them in the news for anything other than being acquired by Ford, but here they are again.  Carol Glines’s July 21st Fox News “Safety first!  Volvo’s intelligent drive and sensing technologies work to mitigate accidents” showed how that company is still there, adding cameras, radar sensors, and systems emitting sound warnings and dashboard red lights when they see objects ahead with crash-causing potential.  These schemes, suitable for meatmobiles as well as autonomous vehicles, will not stop cars but will only warn drivers, which, at this early point in their development, is best.  In the meantime, here in the Catskills I’d be glad to have Volvo’s new capability, mentioned in the article, to detect deer.

Legality of driverless cars on public roads has understandably been a patchwork.  That may change.  As described in “House advances bill to clear road for self-driving cars” (Keith Laing, Detroit News, July 27), this Washington legislative body showed foresight, and excellent restraint, by clearing a bill which would allow both the public use of 100,000 self-driving vehicles and prevention of overriding that with state laws.  Per Laing, “lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said the compromise legislation represented a rare bipartisan consensus,” and while it did not please everyone, the House seems to have seen the wisdom of taking risks to reduce our 35,000 annual highway dead.  Kudos to all involved.

Given creeping consumer concern, it was a nice surprise to see “Study:  Majority Of Drivers Say Next Vehicle Will Be Autonomous” (Denisse Moreno, International Business Times, July 28).  Some of the valuable research Moreno cited showed that women, as well as younger people, were more positive about that technology, but were still concerned about driverless safety, and another study found that 72% had no interest in self-driving public transportation.  She also gave us an early glimpse of perceived brand perceptions, with a slim plurality of 19% of respondents saying Tesla seemed the best, and “nearly half” of respondents unable to name a single company doing driverless manufacturing.  General Motors, Ford, and the others have some public relations work to do. 

Popular Mechanics magazine was embarrassed about predicting, on one of its 1957 covers, an “aerial sedan” for 1967, and now we have heard from them again, in July 29th’s “Who’s Afraid of the Self-Driving Car?”.   Author Johanna Zmud, a Texas A&M Transportation Institute senior research scientist, made good statements and raised good questions, such as “the number of highly automated cars as a share of everything on the road will grow over time, but only relatively slowly,” and “how will they handle changing conditions on unpaved roads, which make up nearly half of the country’s 4 million miles of road?”.  She also said that “any argument that self-driving cars will be an antidote for congestion may be, at best, uninformed and specious” (I’d go for ‘overly speculative’), “what is certain is that we’re experiencing the most pivotal time in transportation history since we started building interstate highways,” and, perfectly articulated, “they’re not quite ready yet – and we’re not either – but it won’t be long.”  A fine, fresh voice.

Electronic hacking is a huge potential driverless issue, but that’s not the only kind.  In the August 4th “Researchers Find a Malicious Way to Meddle with Autonomous Cars” (Car and Driver), Mark Harris described “an attack algorithm” which, ostensibly knowing the internal workings of sign-interpretation software, involved stickers or apparent graffiti put on road signs to fool the systems into construing, say, stop signs as saying Speed Limit 45.  The University of Michigan scholars who developed and tested this destructive technology have done well to pinpoint it as a true possible problem, which, I hope, can be solved through protection of proprietary code and stronger penalties for road sign defacement.

Going back to the business side, we have “Driverless-Car Outlook Shifts as Intel Takes Over Mobileye” (Neal E. Boudette, The New York Times, August 8).  The chip manufacturer, as Boudette said, has jumped into the middle of the self-driving world by spending $15.3 billion on one of the largest and most successful driverless component makers, which is now producing “cameras, sensors and software that enable cars to detect what is ahead.”  Intel now plans to build 100 self-driving cars and will test them in, among other places, Jerusalem, with its extreme pedestrian chaos; per Mobileye co-founder Amnon Shashua, “if you can successfully drive autonomously in Jerusalem, you can drive almost anywhere in the world.”  Intel is now established as a competitor for Nvidia, which, per Boudette, “offers chips with more raw processing power.”  But we will see.

I end with the combined technical and philosophical big-picture August 11th Salon “Self-driving cars are coming – but are we ready?”.  Johanna Zmud and her co-worker Paul Carlson combined on more clear observations and queries.  On one, “how might our nation’s roads and highways, and the driving done by we humans ourselves, need to change as autonomous vehicles become more ubiquitous?”, I have maintained that the burden must fall on the cars and trucks themselves.  Indeed we “won’t likely find many in a dealer showroom for at least 10 years,” cities will see many more of them before they appear in any numbers on highways and in rural areas, and probably if not certainly “self-driving cars will be ready for the open road long before the open road is ready for them.”  Although we can and should expect that use of driverless vehicles will decimate American and world highway casualties, there will be problems during the long transition period, during which there will be a mixture of meatmobiles and what will, by the end of this century, just be called “cars.”  And, as correct as anything cited here, “we can expect it to be an eventful ride, no matter who’s in the driver’s seat.” 

Three more weeks down.  We’ll get closer to up-to-date next week.    

Friday, October 13, 2017

Driverless Cars – More Progress and Positioning – I

Once again, I could probably write a weekly blog on this topic alone.  It’s worthy of it too, as we will see this week and beyond.  So, let’s start to get caught up.
We start with Fox News’s June 30th “Driverless ‘CargoPods’ are delivering groceries to Londoners in new trial.”  That’s a valid autonomous-vehicle proposition, and will move from the manned trucks now in use to unoccupied ones texting or phoning customers when they’re outside, but how much will they charge?  As name recognition and brand establishment would seem less important for a venture both seriously price-competitive and startable on short notice, it seems wrong for any firm to accept losses for years to position themselves for eventual possible profitability, so online grocer Ocado should be expecting positive cash flow soon.

Less substantive is Brent Snavely’s July 2nd Detroit Free Press report that “Ford exec points to ‘great progress’ in driverless cars.”  That company has done better than moving toward “deploying its first fully self-driving car by 2021” which others have achieved already, such as by assembling a consortium including software maker Argo AI.  Ford’s vice president of research and advanced engineering may have said “we don’t worry too much about where the competitors are,” but we don’t need to take this sort of announcement, clearly for public consumption, seriously.

One area of autonomous vehicles which could go in many ways is the nature of their interiors.  With no need for them to be focused on the needs of drivers, car interiors will be blank canvases.  One of an infinite number of possibilities, described in “Autonomous cars will bring a moveable feast of products and services” (Cyrus Radfar, Yahoo Finance, July 2), is “the mobile mall,” using displays to simulate the interiors of a variety of stores.  Such would coordinate well with the inexorable-seeming trend toward online shopping, post-credit-card point of sale technology, and the preferences of those in the Millennial and Generation Z generations.  For car interiors we can use all the imaginative ideas we can find, and this one is certainly reasonable.  

We’re in the early stages of intercity rivalries in this industry, and one of the most prominent so far is “Michigan’s New Motor City:  Ann Arbor as a Driverless-Car Hub” (Neal E. Boudette, The New York Times, July 9).  To the well-established MCity proving grounds, that college town will soon add autonomous buses, as of early July was up to 1,500 vehicles which “radio their speed and direction to each other and to equipment like traffic lights and crosswalk signals,” and soon expects to make good use of all those personally-carried cellphones by having them broadcast pedestrians’ locations to traffic signals and on to cars.  Elsewhere in that state, additional and much larger proving grounds are being built in Ypsilanti and Flint, where, among other things, consortia can aggressively address the problematic issue of autonomous snow driving.

We saw more progress in such business conglomerations in “Waymo and Apple Pick Their Dance Partners for Self-Driving Cars” (The Motley Fool in Fox Business, July 10th.)  We now have Waymo, Google’s driverless vehicle concern, pairing with Avis and Chrysler, and Apple simultaneously announcing its Hertz partnership involving Lexus cars.  It’s well worthwhile for consortia to work with companies knowing about physically managing millions of vehicles, and also benefiting Hertz and Avis is easier entrĂ©e into the future of car rental, which, as the article points out, “will likely become more, not less, relevant in an autonomous world.”  The consortia themselves may include “non-exclusive partnerships,” which, as we will see in this series, are happening already.  These are good positive trends.

It is well worthwhile to keep an eye on how investors, as well as other analysts, see driverless-technology companies.  These same sources published “3 Top Stocks in Self-Driving Cars” on July 12th, a piece, which after suggesting that to some people such vehicles still seem “like a bit of cheesy ‘50s-era science fiction” and citing a well-obsolete Business Insider study suggesting “that there will be 10 million autonomous cars on the roads by 2020” (not that many only three years from now) and overly conservative HIS Automotive forecasts of 600,000 by 2025 (let’s try 10-20 million) and 21 million by 2035 (could be 200 million), then moved on to the merits of Waymo, onboard computer maker NVIDIA, and China’s driverless consortium leader Baidu.  All are potentially great buys, especially for investors with the stomach for risk, as any could also turn out like Stutz or Hupmobile.  

A problem with that huge Asian market is the subject of “China’s Grip on Maps Hinders Self-Driving Car Makers” (Liza Lin and Tim Higgins, The Wall Street Journal, July 13).  China, which we sometimes forget is not a free country, “is limiting the amount of mapping that can be done by foreign companies.”  A bad idea, and one reason why I do not think it will be anywhere near the forefront of self-driving progress.

Moving on to the regulatory side, we found out on July 21st from Kevin Roose in The New York Times that “As Self-Driving Cars Near, Washington Plays Catch-Up.”  Although there is no such thing as “a bill that would speed up the development of self-driving cars,” federal regulatory efforts, thus far mercifully mild, are still small in the proposed Highly Automated Vehicle Testing and Deployment Act of 2017.  That bill may do more to remove obsolete regulations than to create new ones, and, as Roose pointed out, state governments, wanting economic benefits from driverless business activity, have generally been lenient as well.

That’s three weeks’ worth – much more will follow. 


Friday, October 6, 2017

September a Strange Employment Data Month: We Lost Jobs, But Most Numbers Were Better, Including Latent Demand with the AJSN Showing We’re “Only” 16.7 Million Jobs Short

The story going into this morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics September report was about our two major mainland-affecting hurricanes, Irma and Harvey, and what their consequence would be.  The numbers turned out worse, in some ways, than expected – instead of the consensus prediction of 90,000 net new nonfarm positions, we had a loss of 33,000 – but otherwise, headed by the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate which instead of breaking even as projected improved from 4.4% to 4.2%, they got better.  September seemed to be a good month, with unadjusted joblessness off from 4.5% to 4.1%, average private nonfarm wages up 12 cents per hour to $26.55, the count of those working part-time for economic reasons or keeping shorter-hours positions while unsuccessfully looking for full-time ones down 200,000 to 5.1 million, and the two measures of how common it is for Americans to actually be working, the labor force participation rate and the employment-population ratio, up 0.2% and 0.3% to 63.1% and 60.4% respectively.  The number of long-term jobless, however, did not improve, holding at 1.7 million. 

The categories of marginal attachment mostly bettered as well.  The number of those wanting work but neither officially unemployed nor looking over the previous year dropped over 300,000 to reach 3.3 million, while that of those claiming to be discouraged and those wishing for employment but momentarily not available for it fell as well.  The counts of those purporting no interest in employment and people wanting work but currently in school or training were exceptions.  Overall, the American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the monthly measure of latent demand for jobs across 11 different employment categories, fell 940,000 to reach its lowest outcome since April, as follows:

Since the AJSN is not seasonally adjusted, we expected some decrease between relatively jobs-poor August and jobs-rich September, but the drop was more than that.  That was also shown in the difference between last month and a year before, also over 900,000 and almost all due to the almost exactly one million cut in the number of officially unemployed.  Note that according to the BLS, “persons with a job are counted as employed even if they miss work for the entire survey reference week… regardless of whether or not they are paid.”  Although that 7-day-period started the day Irma reached the Florida coast, this BLS rule, unless people knew their jobs were gone with the storm, canceled out most of its September statistical effect. 

It is peculiar indeed that employment data for a month with so few work opportunities added should look so good, not only in spots but otherwise across the board.  Overall, it is now best to judge September’s data as showing potential but not yet solid improvements.  If its gains hold, and October’s new positions reach at least 300,000, we can take credit for an unexpectedly fine month.  If not, we will need to average these two together to see just how well we are doing.  So, although I couldn’t clearly see the turtle through the wind and rain, I think I saw another step forward.