Category Archives: Robotics

Delivery robots are poised to invade our cities, but are we ready for them?


Photo credit: FedEx

John R. Quain

John R. Quain, Contributor to Digital Trends @jqontech Posted on 04.14.19 – 1:00AM PST

 

Gaggles of delivery R2D2’s scurrying down suburban streets? It sounds like a technological nightmare worse than an e-scooter infestation. But the concept of robot messengers got a major boost recently when FedEx announced plans to start testing such a service this summer, and for smart cities, it may not be such a crazy idea after all.

There are already several pilot robo-delivery projects running in the U.S.

Nuro, for example, recently announced it’s moving on from Arizona and expanding its delivery partnership with grocery giant Kroger to four Houston zip codes. Nuro’s vehicle is more of autonomous compact car than a rolling robot, but so far people seem happy to pay the roughly $6 for the self-driving silver surfer (probably because they don’t have to tip the car).

Nuro Delivery Robot
Nuro

The 7,000-pound gorilla in retail, Amazon, is reportedly testing a sidewalk-crawling delivery bot in Seattle. The project looks like a more practical service for suburbs — especially compared to drones, which are restricted or outright banned in many urban areas.

Most recently, FedEx has announced that it plans to begin testing its own autonomous delivery robot in Memphis, Tennessee. And while there are other delivery bot tests underway in addition to the ones mentioned, the entrance by the preeminent delivery service in the U.S. into the self-driving space represents something of a milestone.

Hitting the streets sidewalks

FedEx isn’t talking about autonomous vans and trucks — at least not yet. And the challenges facing even mainly on-the-sidewalk robots are legion. Weather, uneven terrain, traffic, poor cellular network coverage, and humans behaving badly are just a few of the headaches facing programmers. However, FedEx’s partners and its own delivery infrastructure imply that it may be uniquely positioned to overcome those obstacles.


The delivery bots, for example, are designed in partnership with Dean Kamen’s DEKA Development & Research Corp. Kamen is best known for developing the Segway and the iBot Personal Mobility Device, a wheelchair that can climb stairs. The latter demonstrates that DEKA’s engineering skills will probably be able to help FedEx surmount some of the navigation issues for door-to-door delivery. Indeed, the fully electric FedEx SameDay Bot is based on the iBot, with some additional technology that makes it autonomous, including lidar, radar, and video cameras to assist in navigation.

According to Kamen, the SameDay bot can run at about 10 miles per hour, “which won’t disturb pedestrians.” Kamen made the remarks during a presentation to announce the new partnership. The inventor said the SameDay Bot’s speed limiter means it won’t cause the kinds of problems associated with cyclists and messengers who hop onto sidewalks — but it will still be able to handle round trips of up to eight miles relatively quickly.

The road ahead

FedEx plans to work with retailers including AutoZone, Lowe’s, Pizza Hut, Target, Walgreens, and Walmart to perform, as its robot’s name implies, same-day door-to-door deliveries. Customers can open the bot using a smartphone app, or have it opened by a remote operator. Those operators will also control the bots should the machines encounter situations they don’t recognize.

robot delivery dog ces 2019 continental pp cube robodogs
Continental’s delivery robot concept

“It’s a way they could take on Amazon,” Gary Goralnick, a shopping center developer, told Digital Trends regarding self-driving technology. Goralnick said integrating online ordering and same-day delivery, for example, has helped brick and mortar retailers turn the corner and compete against Internet-only outlets.

Still, others note that such self-driving solutions beg for an infrastructure solution.

“You have to redesign the city before you layer in the technology,” Duncan Davidson, a technology investor with Bullpen Capital, told Digital Trends. Davidson pointed to examples such as e-scooters causing problems in Los Angeles and Uber cars causing additional congestion in New York City as ways in which technology can wreak havoc in cities — unless it’s supported by the right infrastructure changes.

None of these robo-delivery services will work unless consumers embrace the concept

Autonomous cars and delivery vehicles, for example, may need their own dedicated lanes. Making such changes could improve safety and help reduce traffic. And there are many ways in which same-day delivery in underserved areas could help home-bound individuals who suffer from chronic illnesses or other restrictions that prevent them from getting outside.

Indeed, Hyundai has a program called Elevate to develop an autonomous vehicle that can navigate rough terrain and even climb stairs to reach customers. And Dean Kamen’s iBot was originally designed to help people such as disabled veterans get around on their own. (The partnership with FedEx should help make the iBots more affordable for those who need them, according to Kamen.)

Ultimately, none of these robo-delivery services will work unless consumers embrace the concept. As long as they steer clear of scary robots, like Boston Dynamics’ headless Spot Mini, and focus on friendly delivery devices that look like R2D2, it may just work out.

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How we’ll invent the future, by Bill Gates – 10 Breakthrough Technologies 2019 (Part 2, The List)

By Bill Gates for MIT Technology Review – February 27, 2019

As well as his introductory essay, read Bill Gates’ conversation with Editor-In-Chief Gideon Lichfield. Below are his picks for the 10 Breakthrough Technologies:

Robot dexterity

Nicolas Ortega
Robot dexterity
  • Why it matters If robots could learn to deal with the messiness of the real world, they could do many more tasks.
  • Key Players OpenAI
    Carnegie Mellon University
    University of Michigan
    UC Berkeley
  • Availability 3-5 years

Robots are teaching themselves to handle the physical world.

For all the talk about machines taking jobs, industrial robots are still clumsy and inflexible. A robot can repeatedly pick up a component on an assembly line with amazing precision and without ever getting bored—but move the object half an inch, or replace it with something slightly different, and the machine will fumble ineptly or paw at thin air.

But while a robot can’t yet be programmed to figure out how to grasp any object just by looking at it, as people do, it can now learn to manipulate the object on its own through virtual trial and error.

One such project is Dactyl, a robot that taught itself to flip a toy building block in its fingers. Dactyl, which comes from the San Francisco nonprofit OpenAI, consists of an off-the-shelf robot hand surrounded by an array of lights and cameras. Using what’s known as reinforcement learning, neural-network software learns how to grasp and turn the block within a simulated environment before the hand tries it out for real. The software experiments, randomly at first, strengthening connections within the network over time as it gets closer to its goal.

It usually isn’t possible to transfer that type of virtual practice to the real world, because things like friction or the varied properties of different materials are so difficult to simulate. The OpenAI team got around this by adding randomness to the virtual training, giving the robot a proxy for the messiness of reality.

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We’ll need further breakthroughs for robots to master the advanced dexterity needed in a real warehouse or factory. But if researchers can reliably employ this kind of learning, robots might eventually assemble our gadgets, load our dishwashers, and even help Grandma out of bed. —Will Knight

New-wave nuclear power

Bob Mumgaard/Plasma Science and Fusion Center/MIT

Advanced fusion and fission reactors are edging closer to reality.

New nuclear designs that have gained momentum in the past year are promising to make this power source safer and cheaper. Among them are generation IV fission reactors, an evolution of traditional designs; small modular reactors; and fusion reactors, a technology that has seemed eternally just out of reach. Developers of generation IV fission designs, such as Canada’s Terrestrial Energy and Washington-based TerraPower, have entered into R&D partnerships with utilities, aiming for grid supply (somewhat optimistically, maybe) by the 2020s.

Small modular reactors typically produce in the tens of megawatts of power (for comparison, a traditional nuclear reactor produces around 1,000 MW). Companies like Oregon’s NuScale say the miniaturized reactors can save money and reduce environmental and financial risks.

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There has even been progress on fusion. Though no one expects delivery before 2030, companies like General Fusion and Commonwealth Fusion Systems, an MIT spinout, are making some headway. Many consider fusion a pipe dream, but because the reactors can’t melt down and don’t create long-lived, high-level waste, it should face much less public resistance than conventional nuclear. (Bill Gates is an investor in TerraPower and Commonwealth Fusion Systems.) —Leigh Phillips

Predicting preemies

Nenov | Getty
Predicting preemies
  • Why it matters 15 million babies are born prematurely every year; it’s the leading cause of death for children under age five
  • Key player Akna Dx
  • Availability A test could be offered in doctor’s offices within five years

A simple blood test can predict if a pregnant woman is at risk of giving birth prematurely.

Our genetic material lives mostly inside our cells. But small amounts of “cell-free” DNA and RNA also float in our blood, often released by dying cells. In pregnant women, that cell-free material is an alphabet soup of nucleic acids from the fetus, the placenta, and the mother.

Stephen Quake, a bioengineer at Stanford, has found a way to use that to tackle one of medicine’s most intractable problems: the roughly one in 10 babies born prematurely.

Free-floating DNA and RNA can yield information that previously required invasive ways of grabbing cells, such as taking a biopsy of a tumor or puncturing a pregnant woman’s belly to perform an amniocentesis. What’s changed is that it’s now easier to detect and sequence the small amounts of cell-free genetic material in the blood. In the last few years researchers have begun developing blood tests for cancer (by spotting the telltale DNA from tumor cells) and for prenatal screening of conditions like Down syndrome.

The tests for these conditions rely on looking for genetic mutations in the DNA. RNA, on the other hand, is the molecule that regulates gene expression—how much of a protein is produced from a gene. By sequencing the free-floating RNA in the mother’s blood, Quake can spot fluctuations in the expression of seven genes that he singles out as associated with preterm birth. That lets him identify women likely to deliver too early. Once alerted, doctors can take measures to stave off an early birth and give the child a better chance of survival.

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The technology behind the blood test, Quake says, is quick, easy, and less than $10 a measurement. He and his collaborators have launched a startup, Akna Dx, to commercialize it. —Bonnie Rochman

Gut probe in a pill

Bruce Peterson
Gut probe in a pill
  • Why it matters The device makes it easier to screen for and study gut diseases, including one that keeps millions of children in poor countries from growing properly
  • Key player Massachusetts General Hospital
  • Availability Now used in adults; testing in infants begins in 2019

A small, swallowable device captures detailed images of the gut without anesthesia, even in infants and children.

Environmental enteric dysfunction (EED) may be one of the costliest diseases you’ve never heard of. Marked by inflamed intestines that are leaky and absorb nutrients poorly, it’s widespread in poor countries and is one reason why many people there are malnourished, have developmental delays, and never reach a normal height. No one knows exactly what causes EED and how it could be prevented or treated.

Practical screening to detect it would help medical workers know when to intervene and how. Therapies are already available for infants, but diagnosing and studying illnesses in the guts of such young children often requires anesthetizing them and inserting a tube called an endoscope down the throat. It’s expensive, uncomfortable, and not practical in areas of the world where EED is prevalent.

So Guillermo Tearney, a pathologist and engineer at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston, is developing small devices that can be used to inspect the gut for signs of EED and even obtain tissue biopsies. Unlike endoscopes, they are simple to use at a primary care visit.

Tearney’s swallowable capsules contain miniature microscopes. They’re attached to a flexible string-like tether that provides power and light while sending images to a briefcase-like console with a monitor. This lets the health-care worker pause the capsule at points of interest and pull it out when finished, allowing it to be sterilized and reused. (Though it sounds gag-­inducing, Tearney’s team has developed a technique that they say doesn’t cause discomfort.) It can also carry technologies that image the entire surface of the digestive tract at the resolution of a single cell or capture three-dimensional cross sections a couple of millimeters deep.

The technology has several applications; at MGH it’s being used to screen for Barrett’s esophagus, a precursor of esophageal cancer. For EED, Tearney’s team has developed an even smaller version for use in infants who can’t swallow a pill. It’s been tested on adolescents in Pakistan, where EED is prevalent, and infant testing is planned for 2019.

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The little probe will help researchers answer questions about EED’s development—such as which cells it affects and whether bacteria are involved—and evaluate interventions and potential treatments. —Courtney Humphries

Custom cancer vaccines

Paper Boat Creative | Getty
Custom Cancer Vaccines
  • Why it matters Conventional chemotherapies take a heavy toll on healthy cells and aren’t always effective against tumors
  • Key players BioNTech
    Genentech
  • Availability In human testing

The treatment incites the body’s natural defenses to destroy only cancer cells by identifying mutations unique to each tumor

Scientists are on the cusp of commercializing the first personalized cancer vaccine. If it works as hoped, the vaccine, which triggers a person’s immune system to identify a tumor by its unique mutations, could effectively shut down many types of cancers.

By using the body’s natural defenses to selectively destroy only tumor cells, the vaccine, unlike conventional chemotherapies, limits damage to healthy cells. The attacking immune cells could also be vigilant in spotting any stray cancer cells after the initial treatment.

The possibility of such vaccines began to take shape in 2008, five years after the Human Genome Project was completed, when geneticists published the first sequence of a cancerous tumor cell.

Soon after, investigators began to compare the DNA of tumor cells with that of healthy cells—and other tumor cells. These studies confirmed that all cancer cells contain hundreds if not thousands of specific mutations, most of which are unique to each tumor.

A few years later, a German startup called BioNTech provided compelling evidence that a vaccine containing copies of these mutations could catalyze the body’s immune system to produce T cells primed to seek out, attack, and destroy all cancer cells harboring them.

In December 2017, BioNTech began a large test of the vaccine in cancer patients, in collaboration with the biotech giant Genentech. The ongoing trial is targeting at least 10 solid cancers and aims to enroll upwards of 560 patients at sites around the globe.

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The two companies are designing new manufacturing techniques to produce thousands of personally customized vaccines cheaply and quickly. That will be tricky because creating the vaccine involves performing a biopsy on the patient’s tumor, sequencing and analyzing its DNA, and rushing that information to the production site. Once produced, the vaccine needs to be promptly delivered to the hospital; delays could be deadly. —Adam Piore

The cow-free burger

Bruce Peterson/Styling: Monica Mariano
The cow-free burger
  • Why it matters Livestock production causes catastrophic deforestation, water pollution, and greenhouse-gas emissions
  • Key players Beyond Meat
    Impossible Foods
  • Availability Plant-based now; lab-grown around 2020

Both lab-grown and plant-based alternatives approximate the taste and nutritional value of real meat without the environmental devastation.

The UN expects the world to have 9.8 billion people by 2050. And those people are getting richer. Neither trend bodes well for climate change—especially because as people escape poverty, they tend to eat more meat.

By that date, according to the predictions, humans will consume 70% more meat than they did in 2005. And it turns out that raising animals for human consumption is among the worst things we do to the environment.

Depending on the animal, producing a pound of meat protein with Western industrialized methods requires 4 to 25 times more water, 6 to 17 times more land, and 6 to 20 times more fossil fuels than producing a pound of plant protein.

The problem is that people aren’t likely to stop eating meat anytime soon. Which means lab-grown and plant-based alternatives might be the best way to limit the destruction.

Making lab-grown meat involves extracting muscle tissue from animals and growing it in bioreactors. The end product looks much like what you’d get from an animal, although researchers are still working on the taste. Researchers at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, who are working to produce lab-grown meat at scale, believe they’ll have a lab-grown burger available by next year. One drawback of lab-grown meat is that the environmental benefits are still sketchy at best—a recent World Economic Forum report says the emissions from lab-grown meat would be only around 7% less than emissions from beef production.

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The better environmental case can be made for plant-based meats from companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods (Bill Gates is an investor in both companies), which use pea proteins, soy, wheat, potatoes, and plant oils to mimic the texture and taste of animal meat.

Beyond Meat has a new 26,000-square-foot (2,400-square-meter) plant in California and has already sold upwards of 25 million burgers from 30,000 stores and restaurants. According to an analysis by the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan, a Beyond Meat patty would probably generate 90% less in greenhouse-gas emissions than a conventional burger made from a cow. —Markkus Rovito

Carbon dioxide catcher

Nico Ortega
Carbon dioxide catcher
  • Why it matters Removing CO2 from the atmosphere might be one of the last viable ways to stop catastrophic climate change
  • Key players Carbon Engineering
    Climeworks
    Global Thermostat
  • Availability 5-10 years

Practical and affordable ways to capture carbon dioxide from the air can soak up excess greenhouse-gas emissions.

Even if we slow carbon dioxide emissions, the warming effect of the greenhouse gas can persist for thousands of years. To prevent a dangerous rise in temperatures, the UN’s climate panel now concludes, the world will need to remove as much as 1 trillion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere this century.

In a surprise finding last summer, Harvard climate scientist David Keith calculated that machines could, in theory, pull this off for less than $100 a ton, through an approach known as direct air capture. That’s an order of magnitude cheaper than earlier estimates that led many scientists to dismiss the technology as far too expensive—though it will still take years for costs to fall to anywhere near that level.

But once you capture the carbon, you still need to figure out what to do with it.

Carbon Engineering, the Canadian startup Keith cofounded in 2009, plans to expand its pilot plant to ramp up production of its synthetic fuels, using the captured carbon dioxide as a key ingredient. (Bill Gates is an investor in Carbon Engineering.)

Zurich-based Climeworks’s direct air capture plant in Italy will produce methane from captured carbon dioxide and hydrogen, while a second plant in Switzerland will sell carbon dioxide to the soft-drinks industry. So will Global Thermostat of New York, which finished constructing its first commercial plant in Alabama last year.

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Still, if it’s used in synthetic fuels or sodas, the carbon dioxide will mostly end up back in the atmosphere. The ultimate goal is to lock greenhouse gases away forever. Some could be nested within products like carbon fiber, polymers, or concrete, but far more will simply need to be buried underground, a costly job that no business model seems likely to support.

In fact, pulling CO2 out of the air is, from an engineering perspective, one of the most difficult and expensive ways of dealing with climate change. But given how slowly we’re reducing emissions, there are no good options left. —James Temple

An ECG on your wrist

Bruce Peterson

Regulatory approval and technological advances are making it easier for people to continuously monitor their hearts with wearable devices.

Fitness trackers aren’t serious medical devices. An intense workout or loose band can mess with the sensors that read your pulse. But an electrocardiogram—the kind doctors use to diagnose abnormalities before they cause a stroke or heart attack— requires a visit to a clinic, and people often fail to take the test in time.

ECG-enabled smart watches, made possible by new regulations and innovations in hardware and software, offer the convenience of a wearable device with something closer to the precision of a medical one.

An Apple Watch–compatible band from Silicon Valley startup AliveCor that can detect atrial fibrillation, a frequent cause of blood clots and stroke, received clearance from the FDA in 2017. Last year, Apple released its own FDA-cleared ECG feature, embedded in the watch itself.

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The health-device company Withings also announced plans for an ECG-equipped watch shortly after.
Current wearables still employ only a single sensor, whereas a real ECG has 12. And no wearable can yet detect a heart attack as it’s happening.

But this might change soon. Last fall, AliveCor presented preliminary results to the American Heart Association on an app and two-­sensor system that can detect a certain type of heart attack. —Karen Hao

Sanitation without sewers

TheDman | Getty
Sanitation without sewers
  • Why it matters 2.3 billion people lack safe sanitation, and many die as a result
  • Key players Duke University
    University of South Florida
    Biomass Controls
    California Institute of Technology
  • Availability 1-2 years

Energy-efficient toilets can operate without a sewer system and treat waste on the spot.

About 2.3 billion people don’t have good sanitation. The lack of proper toilets encourages people to dump fecal matter into nearby ponds and streams, spreading bacteria, viruses, and parasites that can cause diarrhea and cholera. Diarrhea causes one in nine child deaths worldwide.

Now researchers are working to build a new kind of toilet that’s cheap enough for the developing world and can not only dispose of waste but treat it as well.

In 2011 Bill Gates created what was essentially the X Prize in this area—the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge. Since the contest’s launch, several teams have put prototypes in the field. All process the waste locally, so there’s no need for large amounts of water to carry it to a distant treatment plant.

Most of the prototypes are self-contained and don’t need sewers, but they look like traditional toilets housed in small buildings or storage containers. The NEWgenerator toilet, designed at the University of South Florida, filters out pollutants with an anaerobic membrane, which has pores smaller than bacteria and viruses. Another project, from Connecticut-based Biomass Controls, is a refinery the size of a shipping container; it heats the waste to produce a carbon-rich material that can, among other things, fertilize soil.

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One drawback is that the toilets don’t work at every scale. The Biomass Controls product, for example, is designed primarily for tens of thousands of users per day, which makes it less well suited for smaller villages. Another system, developed at Duke University, is meant to be used only by a few nearby homes.

So the challenge now is to make these toilets cheaper and more adaptable to communities of different sizes. “It’s great to build one or two units,” says Daniel Yeh, an associate professor at the University of South Florida, who led the NEWgenerator team. “But to really have the technology impact the world, the only way to do that is mass-produce the units.” —Erin Winick

Smooth-talking AI assistants

Bruce Peterson
Smooth-talking AI assistants
  • Why it matters AI assistants can now perform conversation-based tasks like booking a restaurant reservation or coordinating a package drop-off rather than just obey simple commands
  • Key players Google
    Alibaba
    Amazon
  • Availability 1-2 years

New techniques that capture semantic relationships between words are making machines better at understanding natural language.

We’re used to AI assistants—Alexa playing music in the living room, Siri setting alarms on your phone—but they haven’t really lived up to their alleged smarts. They were supposed to have simplified our lives, but they’ve barely made a dent. They recognize only a narrow range of directives and are easily tripped up by deviations.

But some recent advances are about to expand your digital assistant’s repertoire. In June 2018, researchers at OpenAI developed a technique that trains an AI on unlabeled text to avoid the expense and time of categorizing and tagging all the data manually. A few months later, a team at Google unveiled a system called BERT that learned how to predict missing words by studying millions of sentences. In a multiple-choice test, it did as well as humans at filling in gaps.

These improvements, coupled with better speech synthesis, are letting us move from giving AI assistants simple commands to having conversations with them. They’ll be able to deal with daily minutiae like taking meeting notes, finding information, or shopping online.

Some are already here. Google Duplex, the eerily human-like upgrade of Google Assistant, can pick up your calls to screen for spammers and telemarketers. It can also make calls for you to schedule restaurant reservations or salon appointments.

In China, consumers are getting used to Alibaba’s AliMe, which coordinates package deliveries over the phone and haggles about the price of goods over chat.

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But while AI programs have gotten better at figuring out what you want, they still can’t understand a sentence. Lines are scripted or generated statistically, reflecting how hard it is to imbue machines with true language understanding. Once we cross that hurdle, we’ll see yet another evolution, perhaps from logistics coordinator to babysitter, teacher—or even friend? —Karen Hao

Behold the IoT Invasion: Eight Reasons to Plug In (Slideshow)


John McDonald, CEO, ClearObject | Mar 12, 2019 for IndustryWeek

An IoT integrator shares what big trends to capitalize on in the next few years

 

By 2021 consumer spending on digital products and services is predicted to double, and the Internet of Things (IoT) space grew just as fast in 2018. Every industry is looking for new, advanced ways to meet production and consumer demands in a world of instant gratification. These trends are some of the things we see as an IoT systems integrator that will continue in the forefront of 2019 and beyond.

IoT and data are critical for today’s operations in any industry. It’s no longer feasible to ignore the benefits for efficiency, productivity and customer satisfaction that are results of using advancements in IoT and data. Each and every industry must adopt new and inventive methods like IoT and machine learning to analyze transactions and data in any form whether it’s a car that can detect driver fatigue, preventive maintenance sensors, or nanotechnology to monitor food sources.

Click on Start Slideshow for eight areas that should see serious growth in the next few years:

Start Slideshow

John McDonald is the CEO of Fishers-based ClearObject and chair of the Indiana Technology and Innovation Policy Committee.

The power of “and”

Former GM executive Larry Burns discusses how Detroit and Silicon Valley both look to have critical roles in the future of mobility

By Dennis Pankratz, Research Manager, Center for Integrated Research, Deloitte Services LP for Deloitte Insights

Auto executive and adviser Larry Burns sees the future of mobility filled with driverless cars, with a wide range of customers, uses, and market segments—and plenty of room for innovation in both Detroit and Silicon Valley.

Few people are as deeply familiar with both the automotive industry and the technology community as Larry Burns, who spent more than three decades at General Motors, ultimately serving as corporate vice president for research, development, and planning. He is also an academic and a longtime adviser to Waymo, Alphabet’s self-driving car program. Burns’ recent book, Autonomy, offers an inside account of the efforts to develop self-driving vehicles.1 In a wide-ranging discussion, he shared his views about the future of mobility.

Derek Pankratz: You’ve been thinking about changes in transportation for a long time. Looking back at what you believed or expected 10 or 15 years ago, what has surprised you?

Larry Burns: There were a couple of really big surprises. When we finished the [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA] Urban Challenge in 2007,2 we asked the head of DARPA, “What’s next?” And he said, “Well, you’ve proven this is viable. It’s really up to the commercial sector to run with it.” So all of us expected that everyone would be knocking on the doors of these young engineers to go make driverless cars happen—and quite honestly, except for Google launching its self-driving car program in 2009, very little happened. I was really surprised that the commercial sector didn’t jump at it. So I’d say my biggest surprise was how long it took for a lot of people to accept that this was real and was possible, especially the auto industry, which is so significantly impacted by what’s going on. And now there’s this stampede. Suddenly everybody’s an expert.

One other thing in terms of my own journey. When I left GM, I went to Columbia University and led a program for sustainable mobility. We looked at what you could do with a driverless, electric, shared vehicle model, and the results were pretty remarkable in terms of the number of vehicles required and the cost per mile.3 But the reality is there are almost 200 million cars and trucks in the United States,4 and a lot of people who want to have their own. So I’ve given thought to the idea of an autonomous vehicle that can be personal-use as well as shared-use, because I think the future is going to be both of those.

DP: It’s an interesting challenge. I know Deloitte’s surveys suggest that the biggest reservation people have about shared mobility is exactly that: It’s the issue of personal space and not wanting to share a confined area with somebody else.5

LB: I don’t think people will be owning their car like we do today—I expect it will be more like a lease or subscription. If you have an autonomous vehicle for your own personal use, you’ll likely want to be picked up at your door and dropped off at your door. And you won’t want to be hassled with parking your vehicle—you’ll want that vehicle to be smart enough to go somewhere and refuel or recharge and wait for you. I think that vehicle would get a lot more usage than my personal car now: When I arrive at work, it drops me off at the door, and then I could dispatch it in the middle of the day to go pick up my dry cleaning, and I could dispatch it again to go get takeout dinner and then go pick up my kids and then pick me up at work and take me back home. This whole world of a robotic personal valet is very intriguing to me; I think it’s going to eliminate the need for owning a second and third car initially and, ultimately, owning a car altogether.

Some worry that additional road miles from both shared and personal usage will cause more congestion, but for those people who are taking trips they couldn’t before—due to their age or a disability, for example—and are now able to participate more in society and the economy, that’s a good thing. We should be celebrating those miles. It’s also worth keeping in mind that if vehicles are operated as a fleet, you’re going to be optimizing the use of that fleet. Ride-hailing providers don’t operate like a fleet—they are a bunch of individual agents trying to get matched up with a ride. Our work at Columbia showed that you want to simultaneously have very high fleet utilization and very low empty miles—miles with no passengers in the car. The business reality of fleet management will help us on the congestion front.

DP: I think about that personal-valet model a lot. I live in a fairly rural area in Colorado where a shared fleet model doesn’t seem to make sense. There are all of these small and medium towns where it’s hard to see how you get the utilization to make it worthwhile, so the dedicated-use approach seems natural.

LB: Fifty-three percent of Americans say they live in suburbs, and 21 percent in those rural towns that you’re talking about, which is a nontrivial slice of the population. And that’s what’s so exciting about the future autonomous electric vehicle market. There are going to be a lot of market segments, and that provides great opportunities for innovative companies to define their brands, find their niches, and deliver real value tailored to those opportunities.

DP: You briefly mentioned electric vehicles. When you were working on the AUTOnomy concept car at GM in the early 2000s, you built around hydrogen fuel cells.6 My impression today is that there is a lot more activity around battery electric vehicles. Any thoughts on the pros and cons of those two different types of power sources and their future prospects?

LB: If I could change one thing in my public rhetoric in my role at GM, I probably would never have uttered the words fuel cell. I would have called it a hydrogen battery instead, because to be honest, they’re very similar. And progress on hydrogen storage, production, and distribution and fuel cells has been very impressive. Germany just announced that it’s going to have trains operating on hydrogen fuel cells,7 and there are over-the-road trucks being developed that use hydrogen fuel cells.8 So I think this is not battery or fuel cell. I think it’s an and. You’re going to have a lot of synergy in the propulsion system around that and; depending on which market you’re dealing with, hydrogen and fuel cells are going to find their role.

DP: That and point is really interesting, because it’s always presented as one versus the other.

LB: One of my biggest lessons is the power of and. A lot of business leaders get trapped thinking they have to select between A or B. And they forget to ask the question, “What about A and B?” What I have found over the years is that “A and B” often beats A or B by themselves. I think it’s hugely important to find the power of and.

DP: Another topic that’s often posed as a dichotomy: the role of vehicle-to-vehicle [V2V], vehicle-to-infrastructure [V2I], and vehicle-to-everything [V2X] communication. Some people say it’s critical and we’ve got to have it in some form. Others say it’s actually superfluous, or that it would be nice to have but is too expensive and takes too long to build out, so we’re going to keep everything onboard the vehicle.

LB: It’s another beautiful example of the power of and. For two cars to talk to each other, both need to have enabling hardware and communications technology. For V2I, the infrastructure is pretty expensive to deploy. But in time, as we get to Gen-2, Gen-3 autonomous systems, I think you’re going to see V2V and V2I become a way to reduce cost and perhaps even improve performance. I’ve learned to never rule out any technology. I dedicated my book Autonomy to engineers. Engineers make what’s possible real; that’s what we do.

DP: Let’s talk about yet another apparent binary choice between developing advanced driver assist features like automatic emergency braking or lane departure correction, and aiming for “fully” autonomous systems that don’t anticipate a human taking control. How do you see Level 2 and 3 automation playing into this whole picture?9

LB: I’ve been an adviser to Waymo, Google’s self-driving car project, since January 2011, and they made a really important decision that they were going to develop autonomous systems for only where there’s no human involved at all. If our goal is to eliminate over 90 percent of crashes, we really need to go for Level 4 and Level 5, full autonomous. I believe the right thing to do is to get the driver out of the loop altogether: The situational-awareness challenge of asking someone to reengage in the driving task when they’ve been sitting there not driving for 20 or 30 minutes is a tougher problem to solve than getting the system to autonomously handle 99.99 … percent of the stuff that happens in the world. With that said, I think it’s useful to be developing emergency braking systems, full-speed adaptive cruise control, lane keeping, stability control. That’s been good for safety purposes. But at the end of the day, I believe the objective should be to get to Level 4, starting in a geo-fenced area that’s big enough to have commercial value.10

DP: It seems safe to say that you’re a believer in the opportunities around autonomous vehicles. What do you see as the biggest hurdles to widespread adoption? Is it technological, social, regulatory, or something else?

LB: My biggest fear is that people will make premature judgments about what we’re doing, whether out of fear or just not knowing. Have you had a chance to ride in a driverless car?

DP: I have.

LB: So you have a different experience than someone who hasn’t. My first ride on public roads was in late 2010. I engaged the system. My hands were shaking over the steering wheel. My feet were nervous over the pedals. But within five minutes, I was relaxed; I realized this car was doing everything I would do as a driver and even better. And I suddenly realized I had no desire to change lanes and try to get ahead of somebody in front of me because I had my time to myself. I think this is all about people understanding what’s possible in their lives and what’s possible with the technology. I worry about people coming to a premature judgment and therefore resisting. And I very much worry about players who have a strong vested interest in the existing roadway transportation system.

I’m not worrying about the technology—I have not seen anything come up yet that says we’ve hit the wall and that we can’t keep finding solutions to those driving challenges that are the most difficult that we face today as humans.

DP: It’s another and moment, although maybe one that could slow progress. You can imagine hesitance or uncertainty by the public combined with a variety of vested interests that are able to capitalize on a moment where there’s no broad popular support.

LB: It’s going to play out with a tipping point. There’s this tendency to want to look into the future to know how big it’s going to be and when, to predict market shares and penetrations. That’s impossible. I focus more on that magical moment when market value exceeds price and price exceeds cost. The technology is proven, the customer value is proven, the business opportunity is proven, the regulatory barriers are not there, and it becomes clear this is now just a question of scaling through a series of generational deployments. That magical moment is within a three-to-five-year window, unless these vested interests push back so hard that they slow things down.

DP: Related to the hurdles, I’m personally very interested in the psychology or sociology of car ownership, particularly in the United States. Car culture is deeply embedded in a lot of places. The car is more than just a way to get around—it’s a longstanding symbol of who we are and who we want to be.11 Is that a significant barrier?

LB: Another very good question. I think about it through the lens of my two daughters, who are 30 and 27. My coming of age was when I got my driver’s license and my first car. Their coming of age was their first cellphone, not their first car. Over the last 10 or 15 years, I’ve asked them what would you give up first—your cellphone or your car? And they say they’d give up the car before they’d give up their handheld device. Younger generations are expressing themselves in a much different way than just through car ownership.12

DP: What about some of the nightmare scenarios or unintended consequences of these new mobility innovations? Many cities are already dealing with an influx of ride-hailing vehicles, and you mentioned sending your self-driving car to pick up your dry cleaning. You’ve done detailed modeling on a number of cities looking at what shared autonomous vehicle adoption could look like. Any insights?

LB: At Columbia, we asked the question: “To make all the one- or two-person trips that automobiles currently make, how many tailored-design driverless electric vehicles would you need?” In city after city that we studied, you could replace all of the cars with a fleet that’s 15 percent the size and still make all the trips that are being made. In simulations, those vehicles were picking people up in two to three minutes. We had empty miles on the order of 5 percent of loaded miles. How? It has to do with population density. In cities like Ann Arbor, the probability that somebody is requesting a trip nearby just as I am being dropped off is pretty high. So a properly managed, optimized fleet would take a lot of cars out of the system.

Now, not everybody’s going to want to share a car. I accept that. Let’s say I’m at home cooking dinner for friends, and I realize I forgot to buy wine. I dispatch my personal robotic valet to the wine store to pick up the wine and come back. Would you call that an empty mile? I still would have made that trip driving my own vehicle. Today we have a system that is not optimized for fleet utilization. It just isn’t. But if you’re in the fleet business providing transportation services, a penny per mile really matters.

DP: We’ve largely been focused on the movement of people, but there are big changes happening with the movement of goods as well.

LB: There are really two big opportunities with goods movement, and we may see commercially viable businesses at meaningful scale sooner with goods movement than people movement. The first opportunity is in long-haul trucking. The most recent numbers from the American Trucking Association indicate that an average driver makes about 73 cents a mile, wages and benefits.13 That’s 47 percent of the cost per mile for over-the-road trucking. But not only would self-driving trucks save the 73 cents a mile—you have the opportunity to expand your daily service area because you don’t have driver work rules; an autonomous tractor could conceivably go 24/7 or 23.5/7 based on maintenance. That’s really important for e-commerce. And when you think about all of the parts on a tractor that are there because there’s a driver—the windshield, doors, side windows, seats, air-conditioning, heating, driving controls—it’s easy to convince yourself that the pile of parts you no longer need will cost more than the parts you’re going to add to make the tractor autonomous.

On the other side is package delivery, and it becomes even more interesting when the vehicles doing local package delivery can be the same vehicles you’re using for moving people around, and they can have different temporal patterns throughout the day. Maybe more of the packages are getting delivered at night. That might improve fleet utilization and congestion in urban areas.

DP: Speaking of urban mobility, we talked about autonomous vehicles and changes to the car. We’re also seeing other kinds of micro-mobility popping up: bikesharing, e-scooters, micro-transit vans. How do you see those fitting into a world of shared autonomous fleets?

LB: Well I think it’s that key word again: and. This isn’t about picking one winner to replace the more than one billion cars in the world. I’m very excited by all of those modes that are cropping up, and I think they’re going to be enhanced by the ability to seamlessly interface with them via apps. My long-term vision is for one totally integrated transportation system where you’re able to coordinate the movement of people and goods using these different modes in a seamless way. Deloitte is doing some important work on that, and I think that’s where this is headed.

DP: We’re pretty bullish on the idea of digital mobility platforms for cities.

LB: I think you should be.

DP: We’ve talked here about some pretty momentous changes unfolding. What does all of this mean for players in various industries? You’re in a somewhat unique position in that you’re a longtime veteran of the automotive industry and also been closely involved with one of Silicon Valley’s most prominent projects in this area.

LB: The original subtitle for the book Autonomy was “The race to build the driverless car and how it will reshape our world.” Our editor suggested we change the word race to quest. It seems like a simple change, but we kicked off the book with a sense of Silicon Valley versus Detroit, and by the end of the book it’s Silicon Valley and Detroit. The tech community has brought enormous insight and value; they have been the catalysts to bring this change about. But in those early days, those tech players were not fully appreciating how hard it is to design, engineer, validate, and manufacture a car at the scale at which the auto industry operates. What’s reassuring to me now is that the auto industry is working with Silicon Valley on their autonomous R&D. And Silicon Valley has turned to the auto industry for the kinds of vehicles they need to keep learning. So I think you’re seeing it as an and.

People ask me a lot, “Who’s going to win?” I think you’re going to see an ecosystem emerge not unlike the one that emerged with the internet. I’m not at all convinced that there’s going to be a single vertically integrated player that emerges from this that can do the driving system, the vehicle, the transportation system operations, the brand building, and all of that. I think you’re going to see quite a bit of codependency emerge. But those who become dominant in certain parts of that ecosystem could do really well.

DP: And does seem to be the theme of a lot of things happening in mobility. Let’s focus in on the automotive industry. If you were in an automaker’s shoes today, what do you think they should be doing to be ready for the future to best position themselves?

LB: They’re in a tough position because they have to continue to keep their legacy business viable while trying to pivot to these new businesses where they don’t have the core competencies and they don’t have infinitely deep pockets. That’s a really, really tough puzzle to solve.

With all of that said, autonomous vehicles won’t work without the vehicle, and the vehicles are hard to do. I think the big concern for the industry is that those vehicles are going to become more commodity-like. The engineering of the vehicle becomes much simpler down the road when it’s electrically driven, doesn’t require a human driver, and you get most of the crashes out of the system. And I don’t think the differentiator in the market is going to be chrome and fenders and fascia and the shape and the color. It’s going to be very much the overall experience that customers have, and that experience is going to be determined more by software and data and analytics than the traditional basis of competition in the auto industry. There are going to be some really tough portfolio decisions. Which parts of the traditional business do I want to hang with? Where is the profit? How do I pivot to this future of mobility that we’re talking about today? Can we attract the best talent to play in that race? Bottom line: The traditional players in the century-old roadway transportation system, including auto, energy, insurance, and finance companies, must get in front of the inevitable and make hard choices on “where to play” and “how to win” in the future.

DP: You’ve neatly framed the challenges of balancing today’s business with tomorrow’s needs. When you think about the future of mobility, what’s your greatest hope?

LB: My greatest hope is that we realize what I call the age of automobility—a convergence of autonomous electric vehicles deployed in transportation services—as fast and as soon as we possibly can with appropriate risk management. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that this is a once-in-a-century opportunity to simultaneously deal with 1.3 million fatalities worldwide per year on roadways, to deal with congestion, to deal with dependence on oil in transportation, to deal with the land use that comes with three parking spots per car in the United States, and to deal with equality of access. The deaths and injuries from crashes alone—it’s epidemic in scale. If I just created a cure for cancer and it held promise to save a lot of people with cancer but some could still die from the treatment, I think we’d get on with it; we’d find a way to manage that. We ought to look at autonomous vehicles as a cure for the roadway transportation epidemic and think about their deployment the way we test and deploy vaccines.

So I have this fixation: I want to get to the anticipated benefits. This convergence of technology and business models really can have a significant, meaningful impact and bring more transportation services at lower cost to more people. There’s an opportunity to have radically better services at radically lower consumer and societal costs.

Endnotes
  1. Lawrence D. Burns with Christopher Shulgan, Autonomy: The Quest to Build the Driverless Car—and How It Will Reshape Our World (HarperCollins, 2018). View in article
  2. The Urban Challenge was a 2007 competition sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in which teams had to construct an autonomous vehicle able to navigate an urban environment, including merging, passing, parking, and crossing intersections. DARPA, “Urban challenge,” accessed October 15, 2018.  View in article
  3. For instance, see Benjamin Zhang, “This study revealed the staggering potential of self-driving cars,” Business Insider, June 2, 2014. View in article
  4. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, “Number of U.S. aircraft, vehicles, vessels, and other conveyances,” accessed December 10, 2018. Number cited is for light-duty vehicles, short wheel-base, 2016. View in article
  5. Deloitte Global Automotive Consumer Study 2019, forthcoming. View in article
  6. “AUTOnomy” was a GM 2002 concept vehicle built around hydrogen fuel cell motors, drive-by-wire technology, and a skateboard-like chassis. See Burns and Shulgan, Autonomy. View in article
  7. AFP, “Germany rolls out world’s first hydrogen train,” France 24, September 17, 2018. View in article
  8. Kristin Lee, “Toyota’s new hydrogen fuel cell truck has a 300-mile range,” Jalopnik, August 1, 2018. View in article
  9. The Society of Automotive Engineers has identified five levels of vehicle automation, which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) subsequently adopted. See the NHTSA, “Automated vehicles for safety,” accessed December 12, 2018. View in article
  10. David Roberts, “Here’s how self-driving cars could catch on,” Vox, May 9, 2018. View in article
  11. Robert Moor, “What happens to American myth when you take the driver out of it?,” New York Magazine, October 17, 2016; Brandon Tensley, “How will pop music adapt to autonomous cars?,” Slate, March 15, 2018. View in article
  12. Millennials may be only delaying car purchases rather than eschewing them, but their attitudes toward driving do seem distinct from those of previous generations. See Henry Miller, “How traveling by car is changing under millennials,” Matador Network, January 22, 2018; Mary Wisniewski, “Why Americans, particularly millennials, have fallen out of love with cars,” Chicago Tribune, November 12, 2018; and Kevin Drum, “Raw data: Kids and their cars,” Mother Jones, May 12, 2018. View in article
  13. American Transportation Research Institute, “An analysis of the operational costs of trucking: 2018 update,” October 2018. View in article

Microfactories Move to Full Production

Four ways manufacturers, big or small, can benefit from technology breakthroughs.

By Ben Schrauwen, CTO and Co-Founder, Oqton for IndustryWeek | Feb 20, 2019

Manufacturing technology is ready to embrace the agile microfactory. This concept of a small, highly automated manufacturing space requires a smaller labor force and uses far less energy and materials. Microfactories also are a prime example of the ethos by which the manufacturing industry was born: innovation.

Convincing industries to move from the time-tested Henry Ford methods to smaller production facilities, however, has proven difficult at best. Legacy brands may see “micro” as a job shop — fine for prototypes or one-offs, but incapable of full production in an industry that traditionally sees bigger as better.

But many of the connotations tied to microfactories are out of date. The new contract manufacturer can operate an agile microfactory that’s capable of high-mix, low-volume business with low cost and high ROI. Manufacturers should look at this strategy through the “team of teams” lens — smaller, decentralized groups coming together around a common goal. It’s a mindset that’s proven effective from military operations to corporate boardrooms.

Here are four ways manufacturers can benefit from microfactories.

1. Microfactories offer greater opportunity for rapid innovation

“Microfactory” doesn’t necessarily mean “small manufacturer.” General Electric proved this when it challenged two teams of engineers to design a new helicopter engine; since it’s a small segment of GE’s business, experimentation could be tolerated. The first group used existing methods, and the second was smaller and employed a microfactory strategy. While the first team came back with just one model, the second developed multiple innovative ideas due to the new thinking. Innovations discovered, tested and proven in the microfactory environment can then be integrated into the larger company.

2. Microfactories run on small, agile teams of skilled workers

Labor costs are a concern for any business, but labor availability is an increasing problem for many manufacturers. Nearly 27% of the American manufacturing workforce is poised to retire in the next 10 years, and millennials aren’t necessarily lining up to replace them. It will be important for companies to overcome the public’s perception of these roles as undesirable for the industry to continue to be truly successful. This is a place where microfactories have a huge competitive advantage, offering engineers the opportunity to join an elite, highly skilled team where their expertise and insight will be valued.

Microfactories are able to go small and agile partially thanks to the support of artificial intelligence and robotics. AI analyzes volumes of internal data and provides recommendations, which manufacturing and industrial engineers use to adapt and pivot, programming Industry 4.0 hardware technologies to meet the microfactory’s optimal functionalities, features and workflows. It’s a strong, three-part team—one that can’t exist without talented individuals.

3. Microfactories are ideal for a digital-first world

The evolution of the internet and the cloud has allowed for reorganization and flow of information across multiple locations and time zones instantaneously. When digital communication is built into manufacturing platforms, companies can review data and analytics in real time and pivot based on new information anytime, anywhere. This flow of information makes it even easier and cost effective to adopt microfactories at multiple locations and build the right product for the right customer in the right place at the right time.

4. Microfactories support the market’s demands for mass customization

The nature of demand is changing rapidly. The ability to individually tailor experiences to a specific need or preference quickly at low cost started in the digital world, became commonplace, and now this consumer expectation is transferring over to the physical world. As manufacturing shifts from mass commoditization to dynamic mass customization, factories must demonstrate the ability to adapt production on a moment-by-moment basis in order to compete. This level of customization is also heavily dependent on data and AI at each step, from demand anticipation, to helping customers shape the product via a consumer website, to the real-time manufacturing process.

Highly digitized and automated, with a small footprint allowing them to be located close to the customer, microfactories are right-sized to support mass customization and these “markets of one.” The use of technologies such as additive manufacturing provides the opportunity to quickly adapt products at the digital level and output batch sizes of one without the cost and lead time of previous manual customization methods.

Microfactories are set to emerge as a new form of contract manager: A high-mix environment that still can produce cost-effective manufacturing. With the room to be independent and experiment, microfactories can produce surprising results for manufacturers of all sizes.

Ben Schrauwen is chief technology officer and co-founder of Oqton, a manufacturing AI firm.

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