Monday, 30 June 2014

Macro Level Trends – “Macro-Technologies” - The Google Car: True Auto-Mobile or Intelligent Parish Pod ?

The previous web-log highlighted the manner in which a new era of 'neo-capitalism' appears to be heavily orientated toward the ongoing deployment of 'macro-technologies', enabled by the web.  

This achieved by a coterie of typically Californian IT industrialists running mega-cap corporations, with immense personal fortunes and close Wall Street connections; who may today be viewed as the eco-socio-economic arbiters of the global, inter-connected 21st century.

Technocratic Influence -

Just as Russian oligarchs weigh control over global raw material flows at the low-value end of the industrial supply value chain, so today American technocrats seemingly orchestrate the high- value end of the chain: with demand creation and satiation through web related hardware and software which subtly but powerfully alters the perceptional and behavioural dynamic of people and generations.

Thus it appears that the modern world, specifically the professional and leisure activities of its inhabitants, leads directly back to Palo Alto and the broader Silicon Valley; through the increasingly immersive screens of smart-phones, tablets and laptops. The entrenched “enabling” cyber-brands of Microsoft, Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook et al, could be regarded as contemporary religions given associated faith and tribalism, with web links to the 'cloud' which itself resembles the on-highness of the god-head within ancient religion.

A Much Altered World -

The past 30-40 years has obviously seen massive socio-economic transformation via IT and the web, and as its cause and effect snowballed ever onward, so the pace of change appears to grow exponentially; the observations of Moore's Law seemingly spreading from the domain of the micro-chip into everyday life.

The outcome an increasing absorption of the individual, crowd and mass, as today the once far-flung reaches of academically prosed 'hyper-reality' morphs into 'augmented-reality' and so eventually simply experienced as the world's innate reality.

[NB This suggests that increased global urbanisation even nature itself (an ever more 'protected' entity) will ultimately become a designed experience for the masses].

Previous web-logs have illustrated the manner by which post-modern philosophy has sought to re-interpret the modern world given the influence of man's constant remaking of his world, with the topic of “hyper-reality” upper-most.

Technological Hyper-Reality -

This pertains to mankind's ever deeper creation of wholly manufactured perceptional experiences, especially prevalent from the very early 20th century onward with the invention of basic cinematic film, thereafter the sound aligned 'talkies', the arrival of film-studio derived theme-parks, 3-D film, the spread of home-video and the arrival of the internet and mobile communication 'streamed' increasingly faster (2G/3G/4G) so as to provide personal on-demand consumption satisfaction downloaded from the virtual world and increasingly providing 'augmented reality'; whether a person be in work, personal task or leisure modes.

Resulting from the identification of such increased “hyper-reality” by the late 1960s post-modern theorists arrived at the notion that perceived reality had itself become so complex that the natural world had been subsumed by a man-made realm. A realm so detailed and convincing that it could be viewed as analogous to an (unfoldable) 'map' which had expanded so much in breadth and detail it meta-physically overlaid the natural world beneath.

Stated half a century ago, at a time when the dream of the internet was only embryonic, this man-manufactured 'overlaid map' has emerged from analogy to fact, on physical and behavioural levels, satellite, drone and vehicle technology has allowed Google to compile the physical via Google Earth / Google Maps, whilst correlated personal, crowd and mass movement (dynamic maps) has been captured via the self-provision of personal locational data.

Data Driven Commercial 'Bed-Rock' -

Early coastal located civilisations saw mankind seek to build dwellings upon local bedrock, recognising that temporary shifting sands / soils were not practicable, long-lasting solutions.

Now that the web is engrained into much of global society - as well recognised by (an arguably 'Big Brother'-esque) Google - the data gleaned from its web inhabitants could be said to have formed a new bedrock upon which a new era of e-commercialisation may be founded.

Hence, a prime topic over the past decade or so pertains to the opportunities and challenges of those new and extended business models, imagined and created far beyond the current conventions of: online communications (personal, select audience and mass), socialising (personal and mass), personal ordering/shopping, personal dating, personal banking etc.

The willingness by virtually everyone to wholly participate in the web created world has (at the cost of oft over-looked privacy) been utterly stupendous as individuals, groups, SME's and large corporations, all seek to either positively promote themselves or at worst not become left-behind.

This unrivalled level of participation in the cyber-world, means that the world can be materially and philosophically re-invented, or at least cyber-evolved, so as to possibly extend the realm of a necessarily commerce-centric hyper-reality.

Deploying Corporate Cash Hoards -

Unquestionably since the mid 1980s, even with the 1999 bubble, the general 'tech sector' has been commercially prolific as both society's enabler and for specific firms recognised as the stars (recipients and benefactors) of modern capitalism.

The accrued massive cash reserves sat within tech firms' balance sheets has attracted increasing activist pressure so as to ideally return said cash to shareholders, or at least direct cash into rational new growth opportunities.

As of Q1 2014 these cash reserves verses debt (so net cash) stood at:

Microsoft: $87.67bn cash vs $23.48bn debt ($64.19bn net cash)
Apple: $41.4bn vs $16.96bn ($24.44bn net cash)
Google: $57.28bn vs $8.4bn ($48.88bn net cash)
Amazon: $8.67bn vs $3.15 ($5.52bn net cash)
Facebook: $12.63bn vs $0.39bn ($12.24bn net cash)

As is obvious, these five info-tech companies alone have an immense spending power of $155.27bn, with as seen Microsoft leader in absolute terms and Facebook leader in relative terms. With also as seen these two firms latterly expanding into newer operational arenas: Microsoft's ongoing technical integration with Ford Motor Co (as with the Sync system) and Facebook's acquisitions of Oculus (for virtual reality interactivity).

Shaping the Future -

In recognition of the quarter upon quarter cash-accruel trend, and the eventuality of massive cash hoards, many tech firm founders, shareholders and CEOs have since well before 2008 been exploring ways in which these mountainous funds may instead be invested into new products and service projects.

Projects which promise to fundamentally change the face of urban life through the subtle and not so subtle 'soaking-in' of new technologies into the innate socio-economic fabric of everyday life; now called 'the internet of things'. Most obvious that of public and private infrastructure under the broad remit of (sustainable and intelligent) living and correlated urban planning, with the ultimate ideal of the 'Smart City' moniker.

[NB This ambition influenced by the United Nation's Habitation section, with the UCLG attempting to create international standards].

External Exploration and Learning -

Given the risk potential of such an ambition to privately held and publicly listed enterprise, such technology leaders seek to absorb captured learning from similar attempts elsewhere. Such attempts typically by cash rich 'far-horizon' governmental policy-makers, such environments viewed as alternative new 21st century icons instead of building ever taller sky-scrapers, a 20th century icon.

Experiments of 'smart cities' have been ongoing for decades, perhaps the first proper that of Tsukuba Science City in Japan during the 1960s. However post the Kyoto Protocol effort of 1997 and partial ratification in 2005, various governments have sought to create such “future towns”. Ecologically conscious with at their heart - beyond building pollution constraints - intelligent transport networks. In many cases, and as an ideal, the town/city itself dedicated to a high-value, research-led, hi-tech manifesto. (So akin to Tsukuba and indeed the various remote specific research towns under the old Soviet Union regime)

In recent years it has perhaps been Abu Dhabi's Masdar City complex in the United Arab Emirates, which has offered the best learning. Though its development and expansion was slowed by the regional fall-out from the 2008 crisis, it has progressed apace, though still under—capacity, and continues to be utilised for the feasibility assessment, both of its system parts and its meshed whole.

Masdar was created as ''clean-sheet' planned city under the general direction of Foster and Partners, who like most blue-chip architectural firms, have long recognised the policy importance of urban planning across both EM and AM regions; with aspects of idealised 'clean-sheet' “e-enabled” new town planning to be retro-fitted as practicable into established and inevitably slowly decaying old infrastructures.

Masdar's eco-city credentials demanded that a new 'intelligent' mode of transportation be adopted. So its piloted a tailored version of a generic PRT system ideal; utilising automated vehicle 'pods' which are electronically, self-guided along specific pathways. (The term PRT has a broad definition in application but its ideology tends to use a primary non-stop route with secondary sidings for stop-off points).

However, the cost of the PRT system's extension was deemed uneconomical with instead supplementary travel within the city's walls provided by electric-powered small cars and buses.

Given the self-guided PRT and conventionally driven electric car programmes, it thus appears probable that the merged result – indeed ambition - at some future point is that of a self-guided electric car.

The Driverless Vehicle Ambition -

The concept of a 'driverless vehicle' is hardly new, long part of science fiction and presented as a research ideal by GM in its 1950s Futurama exhibition. The 1970s saw initial Japanese effort, but it was not until the 1980s that Mercedes-Benz's robot-car created from the pan-European EUREKA Prometheus project (1987-95) achieved major performance milestones in 1994/95

As a new century successor ambition to Europe's Prometheus effort, in 1994 the US government through DARPA offered $1m “Grand Challenge” prize-money for new entrants test efforts in Mojave Desert. This was part of its own robot vehicle focus. No course completions prompted a $2m prize for 2005 with various entrants and vehicle types successfully finishing. Re-run in 2007, but with an altered course to reflect the title “Urban Challenge”, requiring far more computational intelligence given the need to obey traffic laws; six teams completed the course. In 2012 and 2014 DARPA chose to focus on more specific technology challenges aside from the driverless ambition.

Thus since 2007, with the apparent proven ability to create urban-safe driverless vehicle control systems, research has continued with transition from the 'pure' to the 'applied', across academia, in-house within technology companies and as joint effort ventures.

The EV as Driverless Enabler -

Research projects to date using standard vehicles point to the fact that the complexity and cost of transforming the base engineering of ICE powered cars into driverless cars is high if not prohibitive.
Moreover, given the heavy computing power required, the electrical energy for which in mobile mode (laptop, smart-phone, tablet) is drawn from a lithium-ion (L-ion) battery, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have long sought to create the ideal mobile battery-pack by way of the EV.

So, since 2003 we have seen a strategic push by Silicon Valley to reach this ideal 'mobile battery' product destination by way of the apparently eco-positive electric vehicle (EV).

Tesla Motors operates as an unabashed technology disruptor to the conventional internal combustion engine's undoubted primacy in automotive transport. Its business model has been planned as multi-faceted and growth orientated, as with manufacturing the firm using a typical progressive funding model from initial high price/low volume to eventual low price/high volume, the expansion of a battering 'super-charging' network, whilst also selling its zero-carbon credits to external VM corporations, and also seeking to sell or gain royalties from its e-tech IPR from external parties.

Beginning with the deployment electric motors within a Lotus sportscar chassis in its 'Roadster', the to the provision of L-ion battery-packs for volume manufactures' own limited series E production runs, to the creation and sale of the Model S, the showcasing of Model X and 2017 scheduling of the “Bluestar” higher planned volume model. More recently stating its intent to offer its electric power-train technology knowledge to new partners. Thus seeking to operate as both vehicle manufacturer and presumably licensee of what it sees as very specific (ie legitimately protectable) e-tech intellectual property rights. Furthermore, the promise that Tesla owners will be allowed to use the Tesla super-charging for free forever, appears empty given commercial realities or eventual possibility of the network's sale to an external enterprise.

[NB exactly what Tesla purports as its own IPR is unclear, especially given the long history of electric cars and the relative simplicity of the power-train and control systems, which conventional manufacturers have well understood for decades and deployed in their own hybrid drive systems].

Lastly, Tesla Motors has stated that it too has ambitions toward driverless models, which together with mention of an electric truck type vehicle provides obvious prompts toward fleets of self-guided delivery trucks in urban areas.

It is then a fundamental fact that Google and Tesla have a heavily vested shared interest – even if not formally stated - in targeting the mass adoption of small urban “infrastructure intelligent” electric vehicles.

Internal Exploration and Learning -

Thus the question set and topic explored is that of the time-frame and cost required to achieving true practicability for a self-guided (driverless) EV.

Such new-age travel ambitions have obviously been ongoing for some years, the epicentre being the Californian web of firms that wish to continue the e-based innovation path that has essentially constructed the 21st century.

As seen, a raft of innovations from Google Inc demonstrates its intent to inter-connect ethereal web and physical worlds, indeed at every level of the physical, across: the Nexus smart-phone, Chrome laptop, Google TV interface, Nexus Q entertainment module, cyborg-type 'GoogleGlass' (augmented reality spectacles which prompt privacy concerns), the healthcare directed Google Contact Lens (as part of the [somewhat propogandist sounding] “quantifiable self” movement).

With of course the driverless concept 'GoogleCar' recently promoted as the apparently realistic future of urban mass mobility, from its 'sci-fi' roots.

This apparent watershed in automotive mobility was showcased in prototype form on May 18th 2014 with the Driver-less 'Google Car'; the result of years of internal exploration and learning.

This vehicle stems from Google's original sponsorship of the research undertaken for the DARPA Challenge in 2005. That team was formed of Stanford University's own post-graduate academics (led by Sebastian Thrun, now at Google) together with Volkswagen of America's own Electronics Research Laboratory; both located in Northern California.

DARPA 2005 was the second running of the driverless car 'grand prix' from its origination the year before, with no successful completion. The Stanford-VW alliance chose to utilise a VW Toureg given its drive by wire control features and large internal and external dimensions and payload, for the carrying and fitment of a heavy five-fold sensing and analysing system: Gyroscopic / GPS / 'LiDAR' (combined laser and radar), Wheel Sensors and Video-Camera, plus the much smaller masses of the physical actuators required for robotic steering and gear shift. The team took first place.

Having learned much, the 2007 DARPA (Urban) Challenge was undertaken using a smaller but still spacious Passat Estate/Wagon. Compared to 2005 the very different “sophisticated interaction” requirements of a cityscape environment meant far greater sensing capabilities, with the need for regulatory 'road-craft' compliance necessitated heightened real-time analysis in data processing, thus adding greatly to previous learning. The Stanford-VW team took second place.

Thereafter Sebastian Thrun moved to Google so as to lead the next phases of development toward an eventual goal of commercialisation. The more advanced and yet technically simpler system of a LiDAR and Range Finder operated by software named 'Google Chauffeur' has been installed into various other models of test car (Toyota Prius, Lexus RX450h and Audi TT) which have had two then one passengers to physically intercede if the system fails. By April 2014 Google claims that such tests have covered 1.1 million kilometres without problems, stating that one 'at fault' incident was the result of human driver error, not the system itself.

But as of May 2014 a wholly new concept vehicle arrived: the urban friendly small driverless EV,
the 'Google Car', cosmetically unlike a standard small car, using a bubble shaped body, seemingly a colour-in-mould skin finish (like a personal e-device) and a friendly pet-like 'face' to provide personification and so immediate emotional attachment.

Vehicular Stepping Stones -

The Californian technology leaders seek to create what they see as the natural evolutionary step to the current use and thinking around urban personal transport.

That urban journey starts with the modern Micro-Car seen by French offerings by Aixam (long since a popular form of urban and suburban travel, especially amongst older drivers). Then onto 1998 and Daimler's launch of the modern micro-car, the Smart ForTwo (its platform used for various off-shoot models such as the Cross-Blade (ltd edition) and sporting Roadster, aswell as various concept models). The first modern clique of rudimentary, limited range but functional electric micro-cars arrived, the most famous/infamous being the G-Wiz, superceded by Renaults' Twizy.

[NB Polaris Industries of the USA acquired Aixam in 2013 as part of its own strategic intent for its own expanded electric vehicle range].

From the late 1990s on, western society witnessed the large demand and increased supply for mobility scooters, catering to the better independent mobility care for the disabled of all ages and (pre-2008) buoyant government social funding for the ever larger numbers of elderly and obese people.

With such historical demographic change (already experienced in Japan) plus the rise of single occupant households, vehicle manufacturers such as Toyota, Honda, Nissan, GM and Chrysler created motorshow concept 'pods', either wholly in-house of with parters such as Segway, so as to provide apparent glimpses of the shape of things to come.

This seeming convergent trend then towards eco and specifically electric mobility, tied to the ideal of greater in-travel productiveness - is what underpins the ideology of the Driverless 'Google Car'.

New Build Process Opportunities -

For the most part, the history of the automobile sector was to satisfy the previously ever growing western 20th century demand for vehicles of all various types. Accordingly, the associative manufacturing model, and so general business model was around the generation of high volume and so low cost encompassed by the 'Budd' pressed steel method; a system still very much the case for what is now a highly global market, and wholly effective for the demand expansions across China, India, Brazil, Russia and EM elsewhere. Capital spend intensive, but very effective during long phases of GDP development, and indeed central to such prosperity.

However, for the west macro-conditions have undoubtedly profoundly altered since the 1960s heyday, with the dual effects of far greater eco-consciousness – influenced by California, but technically led by Japan and Germany –, what is seen as reduced car-demand by incoming generations (a function of their own disposable income levels) with reaction to changed transportation perspectives and methods – most obviously cycling and maintained public transport use within cities; albeit relative to the general decline of public-purse infrastructure spend in favour of private-sector spend.

As seen by the success and impact of Toyota's hybrid powered Prius and now near full hybrid model range, conventional cars have altered accordingly within the restrictive envelope that is the reality of the long new product development timespan. Other corporations include Jaguar Land Rover's now entrenched use of lighter aluminium structures, whilst Ford has adopted the same technology for the 2014 F-series large pick-up truck (a truck ostensibly using sports-car materials). Most manufacturers now well used to undertaking various non-core, but macro-associative, research and development projects in hybrids parallel and series), battery development, electric-drive motors, body structures, chassis systems and holistic alternative vehicle packaging; with of course progress determined by technical and funding restrictions. So the conventional car has itself leaped forward

However, with the unprecedented macro effects of the Kyoto Protocol and post-2008 western labour surplus, the auto-industry and its investors have also recognised the very real need to progress what historically has been called 'niche' engineering and manufacturing. So as to effectively locally develop, build and supply more targeted types of vehicle, typically urban specific.

Instead of centrally locating a huge pressed-steel manufacturing base to serve a single country, its neighbours and foreign exports, the system itself has been reverse engineered to 'go back to basics' in serving distinct geographical locations and user types.

As described in previous weblogs, this micro-orientated approach became obviously known as “micro-factory supply”, with the complementary adjunct of internal sales channels, elongated to “micro-factory-retailing”.

Various companies have been formed to explore this perspective. At one end of the product spectrum is Pheonix, Arizona based 'Local Motors', combing the artisan aspects of the US eulogised local workshop and the trend of web-enabled open-source design, with apparent philosophical edict of “global design, local materials and local energy” with strategically aligned local municipalities; presently located upon aboriginal land and offering the tubular framed on/off-road Rallye Fighter (a Baja buggy type car). At the opposite end of the product spectrum the outcome of the UK's Gordon Murray Design in Surrey, with creation of the T25 and sibling variants (later called 'Motiv'); a truly compact city car with a 3-seat, rear engine layout. Critical was the creation of the 'iStream' build process. The rights to the project reportedly sold to Japan's Yamaha in late 2013, with expected launch in 2017. Like the Arizona car, it uses as steel space-frame with composite outer panels.

The fact is that for all the communications hyperbole and trendiness, the basis of 'micro-factory-retailing' is simply that of yesteryear niche (limited edition) vehicle building, specifically that championed by pre-war Grand Prix cars (Auto Unions etc) and adopted for wider use by Italy's Carozzeria Touring in its client specials.

The system of largely hand-built vehicle frames and powertrain, chassis, electrical and trim installations, provides for the lowest vehicle company start-up costs possible, especially with (unlike Touring's use of specialist high-end components of the time) the use of off-the-shelf generic OEM parts from tier 1 and 2 suppliers.

[NB This same approach has been deployed for the establishment of local vehicle companies in 'pioneer investment regions', such as that seen in Mombasa, Kenya].

The fact is that the apparent “reverse engineering” of the modern auto-industry is little more than fall back onto well established and proven simpler lower cost and critically “CapEx lite” design and construction methods.

Nevertheless, it is this same system which investment-auto-motives believes that as a notional 'sector disruptor' is being investigated by Google, so that it can itself fund the home-grown creation of an unconventionally simple, 'function-first', driver-less town buggy.

Reformatting for a 3rd Urban Travel-Space -

As regards personal travel (ie non public transport), historically towns and cities had effectively two speeds, either by motor vehicle (fast) or walking (slow), with the intermediate functionality of the bicycle (per speed and comfort) typically heavily marginalised in most places besides The Netherlands and pockets of similar elsewhere.

However, climate control concerns regards vehicle pollution plus the promoted popularisation of the bicycle as short-hop, healthier, (necessarily so) low-cost travel solution, has increased provision for cycling routes in major cities over recent years.

This essentially created a new, and still growing, dedicated 3rd travel space. A lane separated either physically or by (blue) colour demarcations from potentially very dangerous motor vehicles on standard roads and the risk of danger to pedestrians on pavements/sidewalks.

Though the lanes have been to date dedicated as “cycle lanes”, they would prove useful to other mid-speed apparatus which provide “intermediate speed” travel (say 10 – 30 km/h). In fact it is often the case that recognising their danger to pedestrians, where practical, mobility scooter users seek to use traffic-separated cycle lanes as the best suited pathway.

Given the impact of rising cyclist numbers and the now society entrenched use of mobility scooters, it seems advantageous that cycle lanes be fully utilised as more broadly defined 'intermediate lanes'.
As has been the case with inner-city planning policy, this largely achieved by re-apportioning space from that of roads and paths to cycle lanes.

This 3rd space then offers a new travel zone for what could be a new mode of intermediate speed transport, typically named the “mobility pod”.

Small in foot-print and stature, enclosed, weather-proof and moderate comfort, such concepts effectively update the era of post WW2 affordable, low powered bubble-cars which faltered as they were not wholly suited to conventional road systems. Had a 3rd space been made available their evolutionary rise and not fall may have been the case, but the fact was that automobiles and oil production were two of the pillars of the post-war economic boom, comfort and speed the two driving factors.

However, today whether as part of the economic decline of the west, or as part of its eco-leadership actions, the “intermediate lane” looks to become an increasingly important aspect of personal, urban, data-intelligent, transport networks.

This it seems is the unstated big picture thinking behind the Driverless 'Google Car'.

Conclusion -

It is suggested that Google's ultimate aim is to create a business model which is able to sell to today's automotive manufacturers a packaged system of data-rich, real-time information to enable the apparent dream of the safer, productivity enhancing driverless car.

This may indeed be the case.

However, it seems to investment-auto-motives that the natural path for Google is not to sell, lease or franchise its eventual driverless car capability, but instead seek to gain most value from users by operation the system itself.

To this end it is expected that Google and others will seek to create the conditions by which ecologically focused urban planners will naturally lean toward the advantages provided directly by Google.

To do so Google will be seen to continue to lobby international governments (presently 5th biggest lobbyist) with soft-power assistance from, to invariably demonstrate how its commercial offering is the most direct and efficient plan to allay overtly high carbon footprint fears and the likelihood of not reaching 2050 climate change goals.

Thus it seems almost inevitable that Google will argue the point for its more or less full control of a new intra-urban / intra-suburban driverless vehicle system (at first spanning taxis and short-term rentals) so as to “ensure the climate change targets are achieved”.

Though the publicised driverless 'Google Car' was explained as only a rudimentary buggy – suggesting an evolution toward the package of the conventional car – the fact is that such a simply manufactured, lightweight and inexpensive buggy type car (cross-breeding the city-car, mobility scooter and motorshow 'concept pods') is the perfect vehicle type for flexible urban passenger movement.

To this end, given the convincing business case of low cost ((low capex, mid labour) local manufacture, and the highly profitable potential of leased private and public “e-cars” (running probably over e-upgraded, retro-fitted urban roads with per mile or per kilometre tolls), it would appear a commercial imperative that Google would infact seek to 'own the urban road' into the future. Possibly doing so through an array of sub-divisional and joint-venture companies, each providing a specific part of the value chain across the overall whole: from plug-in charge to travel charge.

From a simplistic strategic perspective then, for very good commercial reasons, Google Inc appears to be happily transferring from the information super highway to 'e-enabled' urban byway.

To this end, the driverless car will very probably be more network-intelligent, local parish buggy than conventional car, especially so if Google effectively re-configures the actual streets of a global-wide yet also intrinsically local real world 'Monopoly Board' given the hyper-real, overlaid world-map it has already created.