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You First, Please — I Insist


Two stories in early September in the Washington Post noted that Uber started offering self-driving taxis in Pittsburgh that week. In doing so, Uber is taking advantage of the old adage that, “It’s better to ask forgiveness than permission.”

That’s because legislators are still debating all sorts of rules concerning whether Uber cars have to display visible signs, if they have to report accidents or when people have to take over, and if they can be prohibited near schools.

Since none of the proposed legislation has passed, it’s legally O.K. for Uber to proceed. I asked my son if he would take a self-driving taxi. His reaction (which I’m betting 90% of people will mimic) was, “Maybe after six months, if they’re safe.”

One big reason for considering Pittsburgh as the proposed center for a vehicle hub is the presence of Carnegie Mellon University, which has been working on autonomous driving technology for several decades. The mayor also has been wooed by the idea of a new high-tech center opening in the struggling rust-belt city that’s been losing business.

If it works, the university and the city could become a center of advanced manufacturing. At least initially, Uber will be using Ford Fusions and Volvos fitted with the appropriate controls and devices (like radar and GPSs). Of course, some of that technology is built into the Fusions already, such as backup cameras.

Uber has also worked with state regulators on what restrictions can/should be added — but that hasn’t stopped it from deliberately starting ahead of rules being enacted. That’s the forgiveness/permission thing.

The self-driving taxis will be limited to certain Uber patrons initially, and they will have to opt-in to joining; so, no empty cars will suddenly be showing up to pick up passengers. There will probably be less freaking out that way.

At least in the beginning, there will be two Uber employees in each car, one to take over if needed, one to monitor the software. This is far from cost-efficient, so we can count on this being reduced if no left turns are made off bridges and no bicyclists are run over. Probably, the software guy will be replaced by remote monitoring, much like a drone. This would also reduce the anxiety level of fellow motorists who will see a “driver” ignoring the small tip-off of the equipment strapped to the roof of the car.

I’ve been saying for some time now that when self-driving cars appeared, Uber would be jumping on them big time; no more problems with unionizing drivers or figuring out if they’re employees, which would lead to lawsuits. It’s started, long before we thought it would.

E.T., Dig Out

Back in the early ’80s, video games from Atari, among other manufacturers, came on plug-in cartridges for your console. These were expensive to produce compared to later disks and downloads, because they required the use of dedicated chips and casings, printed labels and boxes, etc.

So when Atari made five million copies of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial game in 1983 and sold less than half, it was a major blow and helped fuel the great video game crash that lasted for years. There arose an urban legend that Atari had buried 14 truckloads of cartridges and equipment in a New Mexico landfill in 1983. In 2014, the Xbox Entertainment studios traced the rumors and found them to be true, digging up 30-year-old games (probably unusable) and selling them on eBay. At least one of them went to the Smithsonian.

Of course. Failure is timeless.

Month Old Cheese?

Recently, there was an ad in The Economist for a refrigerator with a built-in door camera, which takes a picture every time you open it and posts it on the Internet, so “you can check from anywhere” to see what you have. Of course, the example shows neat, barely populated shelves with everything visible.

How does this correspond with reality, where the bottom back shelf is where containers of old pasta go to change color and half-bottles of spaghetti sauce grow decorative mold patterns? This is just another example of the Internet of Things searching for a solution to an infinitesimally small problem. Or maybe it’s the “too much money syndrome.”

Don’t Phone Home

Don’t expect pithy comments in this column on the iPhone 7 this month. As I wrote it, pre-orders are starting, but nothing has shipped. There’s much fuss over the elimination of the headphone jack, supposedly to make it thinner.

This has two ramifications: plug-ins other than headphones, such as the Square credit-card reader (will they work with the adapter, or is this Apple’s way of forcing you to ApplePay?) and the inability to listen to music and charge at the same time, since both go through the same port.

Bluetooth headphones are notoriously unreliable, so that’s not really a solution. However, Apple will be glad to sell you a set of their wireless ear buds, another way to effectively jack up the price.

As for myself, I’m waiting for the sales on the 6 or 6S that will start soon at the phone stores. And, for Heaven’s sake, if you still have a Samsung Note 7 phone, take it to the store and exchange it. This is not a drill; they do catch fire and explode.

Part of the problem with the Samsung is that the battery is not replaceable — you have to swap out the whole phone. Apple started this long ago — one of my frustrations with my first iPhone was having to replace it when the battery no longer held a charge. Now there are (unauthorized) repair places to do that, but it’s still a form of planned obsolescence that is frustrating.

Cliff Feldwick is owner of Riverside Computing, and offers PC troubleshooting, data retrieval and network setup, when not standing 30 feet away from Samsung users. He can be reached at 410-880-0171 or at cliff@feldwick.com. Older columns are online at http://feldwick.com.