Friday, April 27, 2018

Driverless Cars – A Wider Windshield – II

Autonomous vehicle progress, which was cruising along at highway speeds, hit a bump on March 18th, when a self-driving Uber hit and killed a Tempe, Arizona pedestrian.  Although media and public reactions were swift and severe, the mishap was not routine – per “Arizona Tragedy Will Not Slow Autonomous Vehicles” (Jon Markman, Forbes, April 24th), a police investigation “showed no fault by Uber,” and that the victim “emerged abruptly from shadows behind a dimly lit center median” and then “pushed a bicycle laden with plastic bags into oncoming traffic.”  It was, though, as Daisuke Wakabayashi fairly put it in “Self-Driving Uber Car Kills Pedestrian in Arizona, Where Robots Roam” in the March 19th New York Times, “the first pedestrian death associated with self-driving technology” and “was a reminder that self-driving technology is still in the experimental stage.” 

Along with overreactions, stories such as “Uber’s Self-Driving Cars Were Struggling Before Arizona Crash” (also Wakabayashi in the Times, March 23rd) implied that the tragedy was not a general driverless problem but more likely inherent to that company, which over the past two years has shown irresponsibility in a variety of other areas and in the autonomous realm was having its drivers “being asked to do more” such as, unlike those working for others, “going on solo runs.”  Uber was also averaging 13 miles “before the driver had to take control from the computer to steer it out of trouble,” compared with Waymo’s “nearly 5,600.”  As well, according to “Uber Clarifies Autonomous Vehicles’ Biggest Problem” (The Motley Fool in Fox Business, March 23rd), “consumer advocacy group Consumer Watchdog” stated that “Uber simply cannot be trusted to use public roads as private laboratories without meaningful safety standards and regulations.” The headline of Alan Ohnsman’s March 24th Forbes “Waymo CEO On Uber Crash:  Our Self-Driving Car Would Have Avoided Pedestrian” gave one intra-industry reaction, which I am inclined to believe.  We may never know all the circumstances, but the company in charge seems uncoincidental. 

Even without the Uber connection, the state of the field was well summarized by Andrew Krok in CNET’s Road Show, as described by the story’s headline, “Fatal Uber crash in Arizona is autonomy’s Apollo 1 moment,” and its ending of “how the developers of autonomous vehicles act from here on out will make or break the idea of this happening anytime remotely soon.  Let’s make sure we still get to the moon.”  Kevin Roose, in “The Self-Driving Car Industry’s Biggest Turning Point Yet” in the March 30th New York Times, said that his driverless rides had varied from “calm and boring” to “terrifying white-knuckle,” that they are now heterogeneous in safety, and that “as Uber’s autonomous driving program stalls out,” Waymo’s “is shifting into overdrive.”

I end with another Motley Fool effort, Chris Neiger’s April 13th “How to Make Money in Self-Driving Cars.”  That now seems easier to assess in this industry headed for, per an Intel estimate, “a new “passenger economy” that will be worth $7 trillion by 2050,” but, in what became a gigantic market the last time around, the likes of Stutz and Hupmobile once looked strong.  Neiger echoed Roose by saying “at this point there’s likely no stopping driverless cars from becoming a major part of our transportation industry in the coming decades,” and recommended Waymo parent company Alphabet and car-computer-maker NVIDIA, with consideration also for General Motors, Ford, and Tesla and overall guidance that “investors who are looking to benefit from the autonomous vehicle market may want to consider hitching a ride now.”  The technology is marching on, and, as has been the case for since at least the beginning of last year, whether we like it or not we must join it, work with it, and make sure our financial assets reflect this reality.  Those choices will serve us best.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Driverless Cars – A Wider Windshield – I

It’s now been a hair under four months since I concluded months of reporting on autonomous vehicles with ten central ideas.  Those points are still valid, but since then there has been plenty of progress and news both good and bad.  Unless you want to grant that to artificial intelligence in general, this field remains at the forefront of technological growth, and will have a massive and progressive effect on employment in America and the world.

There continues to be an outpouring of news – technical progress here and there, regulatory changes, companies appearing and then either staying in the public eye or vanishing from it, lawsuits, sincere or other publicizing of future milestones, and a wide range of speculations and projections.  I could easily fill a post every week with those.  I will, instead, focus instead on the largest events, ideas I haven’t documented before or those worthy of more emphasis, and a broader look at how this transformation will affect us.  Here, then, is what since December 22nd fits.

We have already got used to free online services paid for by advertisers, so how about rides the same way?  The Atlantic explored that possibility, in December’s “Driverless Cars Could Make Transportation Free for Everyone – With a Catch.”  The unbilled authors suggest that people could routinely take self-driving vehicles that also stopped at “thoughtfully targeted” sponsoring places, using information gathered from virtual assistants and other electronic sources, as well as the likes of Starbucks and McDonalds, and might “drive slowly past featured properties for sale.”  Some would be disturbed by the use of personal data, but many others would like the lack of fares more, so such services would get plenty of customers, who would eventually dictate the proper level of privacy invasion through accepting or refusing such rides.  This service seems highly likely to be offered.

January had good driverless news in the form of a successful Consumer Electronics Show.  Although few ideas presented there had not been leaked or publicized, the Las Vegas convention gave attendees a chance to see them in person.  Some highlights, per Will Nicol’s “At CES 2018, autonomous cars took the wheel and drove into the future” (Yahoo News, January 11th), were Toyota’s e-Palette “big and largely empty” concept vehicle usable for anything from deliveries to mini-stores, Nvidia’s dedicated Drive Xavier processor, and, provided by Lyft and Aptiv, actual rides in self-driving vehicles, which the participants called, reassuringly enough, “remarkably ordinary.”  If the CES were open to the public, it would have hundreds of thousands of attendees. 

Finally, for this week, The Economist dedicated much of its March 3rd issue to autonomous technology.  Its front article, “Who is beyond the wheel?,” touched on several things.  For one, “AVs are on the threshold of being able to drive, without human supervision, within limited and carefully mapped areas.”  The piece correctly noted that car ownership would drop mainly in urban areas, and that its effects would probably include reduced traffic, cities changed by greater acceptance of long commutes, retailing when “shops can come to you,” easy entrée to “dynamic road-tolling and congestion charging,” and subsidized travel to chosen destinations.  Most importantly, the article discussed ways in which driverless vehicles documenting their passengers and trips “could also become a powerful means of social control,” in doing and acting on the likes of Uber’s identification of one-night stands and restriction of movement through refusing to go to certain places either in general or with specific riders. 

The remaining Economist stories were in a twelve-page Special Report, “Reinventing wheels.”  The section started with a recap of now-standard observations, such as changes in car ownership, the connection between driverless and electric vehicles, the need to deal with local as well as general driving rules and customs, their accessibility to children and the substance-impaired as well as those in wheelchairs, their broad-based and unexpected effects, and a brief technological wrap-up.  Author Tom Standage projected that they would not be available for private purchase until about 2028, but would be in fleets far before then, and would cause the number of urban vehicles, worldwide, to drop from one billion in 2015 to half that by 2035.  He pointed out that they could be integrated with public transportation by waiting at railway stations to take people home, and could facilitate a 50% reduction in, also, “the area of paved surface.”  In another piece, Standage quoted a Mobileye spokesman as suggesting that American road deaths could be cut from 40,000 per year to 40, and considered some extra consequences, such as fewer organ donations, and, as half of cigarettes are sold at gas stations, a further drop in smoking.  He said, about a situation already in progress, that “if cars are no longer symbols of independence and self-definition for the young,” something yet unidentified will need to replace them.  As our modern meatmobiles did with horse carriages, he noted, the move to driverless will greatly increase prosperity but at the cost of some freedoms.  That is the way modern history has been headed, and will continue to move. 

Next week, another look at the Arizona pedestrian death, along with what has happened in the driverless world since then. 

Friday, April 13, 2018

Scattered Views, Reactions, Observations, and Discontents

Here is my file of odds and ends, for your consideration, agreement, disagreement, or just plain thought provocation.

One problem with reading too much into the extremely broad statistic that women earn, on overall average, less than what men do is that those who are fully willing to sacrifice their comfort, child-raising and family time, and general work-life balance are unaware of how many of their sex are not.  Simple arithmetic will tell you that if 40% of women are choosing careers which pay half as much as comparably educated mens’, the others averaging the full 100% gets us to our current 80%, with no room at all needed for the effects of real or imagined discrimination.

Economic protectionism is idiocy.  It benefits a few at the expense of everyone else.

Businesses should stop carping about not finding enough good workers and pay more, train more, and remove some of their disqualifying factors, such as off-hours recreational drug use and certain criminal records.  Then, with over 16 million Americans wanting to work but not doing that, they’ll find them.

Drug testing for welfare and food stamp recipients is not only a mean-spirited idea but a stupid one.  The cost of such tests could more than offset any so-called savings, and would we really want to stop our countrypeople from eating or surviving?  Not to mention that marijuana is 10 years, 20 tops, from full national legalization.

Both conservatives and liberals use straw-man arguments, in which they tell us about the most extreme proposals from the other side and imply that all of their political opponents think that way.  The advantage, though, is that we now have good sources for learning about such ideas:  for liberal ones, on Fox News; for conservative ones, on The New York Times and The Washington Post.

There is gun control, there has always been gun control, and some gun control has never had opposition.  If you doubt that, try installing a howitzer on your front yard.  After that, where do you draw the line and why?

True conservatives now have no political party.  Donald Trump is not truly conservative, and Republican encouragement of deficit spending means their legislators aren’t either.  Do they need one?  Will they create one?

The problem with paying teachers more is not the work they do or the value they have – it is simple supply and demand.  Most states have far more certified teachers than jobs for them, and our country has millions more who would be effective without that credential.  Doubling their pay would, at least, quadruple the number of applicants, a disproportionate share of whom would be men – so much for helping women in that way.

There is nothing wrong with Fox News’s material.  There is everything wrong with what they select to report.  Broadcast news, which caters to the tastes of viewers and listeners, remains entertainment first.

I still don’t understand why the great bulk of Americans have slates of opinions, instead of choosing them individually.  For example, I see no objective reason why most people wanting gun rights, which perforce include accepting more violence, are against abortion rights, which do the same.  Is it that people don’t want to make the hard choices of what to stand for, or have they thought little about what they think?

Symbolism is a powerful force in politics today, which may not be anything new.  Say “Jane Fonda” to conservatives, or the erroneous phrase “mass incarceration” to liberals, and you get quick unstudied reactions.  As with slates of opinions, it’s just too easy not to think.

Over the past two years, political hypocrisy has become so common I just ignore it.  I hope I, and we, don’t soon do the same thing with politicians’ lying. 

One reason I left the United States, nine years ago, was that people here too rarely want to learn.  I think that’s still true.  Maybe there’s something about having access to more information on our desktops than the Library of Congress had two generations ago that stops us from wanting to understand.  For that reason, it’s long been a cliché that people don’t want to be confused by the facts, and that’s looking like a permanent situation.

There’s one thing to be grateful about, though.  Our president does not seem competent enough to be an effective dictator.  Otherwise, we as a nation have plenty of problems, so, in all, let’s hope that our decade doesn’t turn out like the last 10’s, about which Bill James said “Lord, it was an awful time, and then the war started.” 

There you go.  I feel better now.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Another Decent Employment Month, and AJSN Reports Half-Million Drop in Latent Work Demand to 16.3 Million

This time, we didn’t make the projections.  Observers closer than I predicted over 180,000 net new nonfarm American positions for March, and it turned out to be 103,000, below the 135,000 we need to cover population increase.  So how good a month, overall, did it end up?

The seasonally adjusted number of unemployed Americans fell 100,000 to 6.6 million, with the actual count just more than that, at 6,671,000, befitting the move from generally poor-employment February to averageish March.  Adjusted joblessness stayed yet again at 4.1%, with the unadjusted rate falling from 4.4% to that same figure.  The number of long-term unemployed, out for 27 weeks or longer and still officially jobless, fell 100,000 to 1.3 million, and the tally of those working part-time for economic reasons, or seeking a full-time opportunity unsuccessfully thus far, dropped 200,000 to reach 5.0 million.  The two best measures of how common it is for Americans to have jobs, the employment-population ratio and the labor force participation rate, held and almost held last time’s 0.3% improvements, ending at the same 60.4% and down 0.1% to 62.9% respectively.  Average nonfarm payroll earnings were up 7 cents per hour, a tad more than inflation, to $26.82.

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, which tells in one number how many more positions could be easily filled if it were common knowledge that they were available, improved substantially but mostly seasonally to 16.3 million, as follows:

Noteworthy AJSN component changes were unemployment, unadjusted as are all the metric’s inputs, down over 400,000 for a 378,000 net effect, an almost 200,000 fall in the count of those who did not look for 12 months or longer which cut the AJSN by 156,000, and a 77,000 rise in those reporting as discouraged adding a net total of 69,000.  The number claiming no interest in working gained almost 500,000, but, at only 5% of them presumed to work if opportunities were truly plentiful, nudged the AJSN up less than 24,000.

Compared with a year before, the statistic showed that we are still improving beyond simple low unemployment.  It is now 933,000 lower than March 2017, with only 551,000 from reduced official joblessness but almost 400,000 from the half-million improvement in those wanting work but not looking for it over the past year.  That is impressive. 

So how, overall, did we do?  The net new jobs number, though the 90th consecutive nominal gain, was disappointing, but the other figures were generally good.  There easily could have been more fallback after February’s stellar performance.  As a result, it wasn’t large, but I did see the turtle step forward once again.