Driverless Dreams

Google is back at it: driverless cars. In the age of Uber and ZipCar providing (nearly) pushbutton access to transportation for a fairly reasonable fee depending on your need, the driverless car sits atop the pyramid of transportation evolution.

One device combines the evolution of technology that began with the invention of the wheel. The driverless car is also the most impressive computer technology using sensors, maps, internet-connected computing – and that’s just to drive the car, not including creature comforts.

Like the idea of the horseless carriage that preceded the automobile, the driverless car has been much hyped and anticipated despite the early stage in the development process.

A who’s who of car companies is working on the technology as well, but the search engine giant has grabbed most of the press while boasting about the progress the technology has made over the years, the miles the cars have driven, and more.

But this is the first time we have seen a Google Car. While the press release indicates the parts are off-the-shelf and the company is working with partners, seeing a stand-alone vehicle, rather than a modified Toyota feels like an exciting step forward. Eventually Google, and the automakers, will need a car built to be driverless in order to really take the technology to the next level. Sensor placement and designs that work for a traditional vehicle, which places the main sensor package in the driver’s seat, do not need to be hard and fast rules for car design.

I’ve thought and written about driverless cars and their potential impact on society before, and as the technology gets closer the more I think about what it would be like to just summon a car – either my own or a taxi-type service – whenever I need a ride.

One issue with ZipCar, and rental services in general, is that the vehicles need to be returned to certain places to make them available once more and prevent the accumulation of cars in places they are unlikely to be checked out. Of course from time to time you can make an arrangement to pick up at the airport and drop off at another location, but normally the car is docked at a single location and you need to return it from whence it came. This problem goes away when the car can drive itself.

One crazy possibility with driverless cars could actually help bring the Amazon drones to reality: a drone carrier van. The idea that drones will be flying many miles carrying the types of products that are often ordered online, which can be large and/or heavy, has a few holes. But imagine if Amazon had a system of driverless vans roaming across cities and towns, carrying the items most of the way by truck, and then launching the drones for the “last mile” delivery. This could let larger packages be delivered by drone without needing to carry a fifty pound box thirty miles through the sky. Once the package is dropped off, the drone just returns to the van.

The number of tasks that can be managed by a driverless car, which can in turn reduce traffic, limit the need to large parking lots, can be a big step towards the sci-fi vision of the future that so many of us have in our heads.

Mr. Bezos or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Kindle Fire

There has been a series of “iPad killers” and alternatives since the Apple announced it in January 2010. Windows tablets, the HP TouchPad, Blackberry PlayBook and, of course, a number of Android-powered  tablets from a large pool of manufacturers. Some of these devices were launched with great hopes and hype but failed to catch on with consumers for one reason or another. When faced with an array of products similar in price to the iPad but without the platform Apple has built around iOS the other tablets have been a tough sell to the general public.

Consumers specifically looking for an Android tablet or who snagged a TouchPad in August can be perfectly happy with those devices as touch-based netbooks with a bit more customization than Apple will likely ever offer. But in many cases this is a niche market: the big bucks (not to mention market share) will be won by the company that targets the masses. The Kindle Fire wants to be that marquee non-iPad product.

For those who just cannot stand Apple products, the Kindle Fire is not an iPad killer. For those who want a tablet to replace most of what a laptop or netbook can do, the Kindle Fire will be a disappointment. While the hardware in the Kindle Fire is quite similar to the BlackBerry PlayBook and it runs Android as the underlying OS, the Kindle Fire is not a full-featured tablet and it’s implementation of Android is a heavily skinned Gingerbread, not Honeycomb or Ice Cream Sandwich. It is however very interesting for what it is: a portal into the Amazon marketplace.

The Kindle Fire is first and foremost a Kindle. Amazon has expanded the Kindle brand from e-ink reading devices to include a color LCD content consumption device that can run audio, video, apps, and the web in addition to text.

As an iPad user for more than a year I have begun to rely on the tablet as an indispensable tool. It has become my primary means of using Twitter, a gaming device, a bottomless notebook powered by Evernote, a recipe book, Netflix viewer, and more. Using a bluetooth keyboard it can function adequately for typing, though primarily as an input device. Editing is still easier with a traditional computer, but is not impossible with the touch interface. After reading some early reviews of the Kindle Fire, I was afraid the iPad use had colored my expectations in a way that would make Amazon’s toe-in-the-water entry into the tablet market.

Instead, I find myself enjoying the Kindle Fire immensely. It’s the first Kindle I have owned, given my reservations concerning e-books, and has created a dilemma for me regarding what device to travel with.

The Kindle Fire provides a pleasant enough reading experience. Although it uses an LCD screen instead of e-ink I have not found myself wishing for the latter outside of battery concerns (the Kindle Fire is good for “all day” use, but it needs to be charged every day or two even if just used for a little light reading). I have read Kindle and blog content extensively on my phone and on the iPad, so the LCD is not a change from my normal reading habits when I’m paperless. With its seven-inch display, the Kindle Fire fits easily in my hand and the user experience is similar to holding a heavy paperback book. If it were a little lighter and had a bit more battery life I would probably never wonder if I could be happier with an e-ink reader instead.

Watching video from the Prime Instant Video library is painless, although like Netflix (whose app supports the Kindle Fire) the free streaming selection is limited. Of course, Amazon matches the iTunes store here with their additional selection of movies and TV shows available to rent or purchase. The screen isn’t as large as the one on the iPad, but it’s good enough for a device that can fit in a large pocket and is either used on the go or while sitting somewhere without a larger screen. The music capability is similarly functional: tight integration with the Amazon MP3 store and the ability to upload your own tracks to Amazon’s cloud and either stream them over WiFi or sync a number of tracks to the Kindle Fire for offline playback.

Audio, video, and e-books are and should be the Kindle Fire’s strengths: they are strengths of Amazon’s cloud and digital offerings. What sets the Kindle Fire apart from Amazon’s other devices is the Appstore. Given how the store has expanded over time in terms of Android phone apps, the relatively limited selection of apps for the Kindle Fire at launch is not necessarily a sign failure. As the first Android tablet aiming to catch on with a mass market, the Kindle Fire could spark developers to build tablet apps for Android in the first place. Because the Kindle Fire can be perfectly usable just with the Amazon content available, apps can be an afterthought, but are very nice to have for anyone wanting the tablet functionality in addition to the pure content consumption.

By downloading a few apps: Evernote, Seesmic, and Wolfram Alpha, in addition to the pre-loaded Pulse, the Kindle Fire feels enough like a tablet to leave home with it and still have some computing power at your fingertips. With a few productivity apps, including several office suites, a few games, and music and video content, the Kindle Fire is sitting between a traditional e-reader and a full-fledged tablet. As a WiFi-only device priced at $199 it is almost targeting iPod Touch owners more than those who have taken, or want to take, the tablet plunge with the iPad.

The Kindle Fire is smaller than an iPad, less powerful, and not really better than Apple’s device for anything outside of the e-book experience because of its size. It might be clunky browsing the web, the keyboard is good-not-great, and the document syncing and magazine experiences don’t feel as fully baked as the areas where the goal is simply “purchase from Amazon” but the Kindle Fire is primarily a device to drive sales to Amazon after all. 

When it comes down to it, when leaving the house without a bag, I can stick the Kindle Fire in a coat pocket or carry it as I would carry a single book on the train or outside the house. The iPad is a file folder of infinite capacity that can contain all your information and transform itself into a number of devices through apps. The Kindle Fire by contrast is a limitless Moleskin notebook that can do a few other things as well.