Flying Cars, the Real E-Scooter Riders, and More in the Future of Cars

Even the wonderful stuff has its unforeseen consequences, its dark consequences. Today’s workout leads to tomorrow’s soreness. Someone’s wedded bliss is someone else’s broken heart. Even a delectable In-n-Out double-double generates gastrointestinal discomfort.

The same is true, of course, for transportation systems. Wait—the comparison holds, I promise! A flying car sounds like a cool way to get to work, right? But someone needs to hire the flying traffic cops. That baby Airstream trailer is so adorable and compact and groovy. And comes with a hefty $40,000 price tag.

This week, we brought you stories of transpo downsides. And upsides! Plus, tales of rainbow-inspired self-driving car sensors, and a new approach to safely testing AVs in the wild. It’s been a week. Let’s get you caught up.

Headlines

Stories you might have missed from WIRED this week

  • You’ve heard the complaints: E-scooters are just toys for phone-plinking, Patagonia-toting overpaid tech bros, not a viable transportation option. Or, perhaps not, according to a survey studying public perception toward scooters. The research suggests that women and those making between $25,000 and $50,000 a year are among the new options’ biggest fans.
  • Uber’s self-driving cars returned to Arizona’s public streets this week, their first outing since March, when a vehicle struck and killed a woman. Right now, the cars are only in “manual” mode, meaning there are people actually driving the cars as they collect sensor data. But the company says it has rethought its public autonomous vehicle testing—and the role of the humans hired to keep it safe.
  • An unusually buoyant collection of legislators gathered in a Washington, DC, hearing room this week to hear testimony from Uber, Bell, and Terrafugia about the state of the “flying car” business. But as WIRED contributor Eric Niiler points out, all the excitement in the world won’t help the budding industry contend with the important safety questions around the tech—and the Federal Aviation Administration.
  • For almost a decade, the telltale sign of an autonomous car has been the weird, spinning sensors mounted on the vehicle’s roof. These mechanical protuberance house the lidar technology that helps the car “see” with lasers that gather information to create a “picture” of the world that the cars can understand. But spinning is so passé. Transportation editor Alex Davies writes about a new kind of lidar from the Australian startup Baraja, which uses a prism technology to collect data on street signs, and guide vehicles on their way.
  • Increasing the energy efficiency of products and homes? Excellent idea! Increasing the expensive power plant operating costs? Less so. WIRED contributor Nick Stockton shows how these trends are on a collision course, and how the folks in charge of this country’s utility systems are thinking about how to fix a complicated energy grid.
  • All adventures cannot be big. For the mini-quests, consider Airstream’s new 16-foot Basecamp, a $40,000 trailer large enough to play host to your night’s sleep, but small enough to slide into a New York City parking spot.

Panda Skytrain of the Week

The city of Chengdu, in China’s Sichuan province, debuted its $320 million, 7-mile, autonomous, panda-themed skytrain this week. Pandas are known for lazy chomping, but this speedy guy can hit 50 miles per hour. The Verge is right: The only way to make American great again is to build more animal-themed public transit.

Required Reading

News from elsewhere on the internet

In the Rearview

Essential stories from WIRED’s read more

Airstream’s $40,000 Basecamp Gets an Off-Road Upgrade

If you’re considering adding some #vanlife to your Instagram feed but lack either (a) a van, or (b) a place outside your Bushwick walk-up to stash the 28-foot Airstream Land Yacht, consider the Airstream Basecamp. At 16 feet long and 2,635 pounds, the silver bullet’s baby brother is svelte enough to be towed with most midsize SUVs and short enough to slide into a New York City parking spot.

If that wasn’t convenient enough, this week Airstream released an optional upgrade to make the Basecamp even better suited for your off-road adventures. The X-Package comes with a 3-inch lift kit that increases ground clearance and all-terrain tires from Goodyear, a stainless steel front stone guard to keep the rolling home looking shiny and new, and a solar protector for the big front windows to keep things cool and private. (The package brings the Basecamp’s base price up from $34,900 to $39,600.)

I spent a few days in the Basecamp last summer, during my annual pilgrimage to read more

Happy Weekend, Here’s DJ Khaled on a Lyft E-Scooter

If your interests include hardware scuttlebutt, smooth rides, DJ Khaled’s truly adorable son Asahd, the future of urban mobility, Instagram, and DJ Khaled himself, have we got a story for you.

Yesterday, the “No Brainer” producer posted a two-minute promo clip, hyping his participation in Beyonce and Jay-Z’s ongoing “On the Run II” tour, his upcoming album, “Father of Asahd”, and the one-year-old son himself, who is really very, very cute (and frequently collaborates on projects with his proud pa). And, lo: About a minute and ten seconds into the video, a Lyft-branded electric-scooter—signature pink present—appears. Khaled mounts and putters away, leaving a stream of fire (??) in his wake.

The musician has done promotional work for the company before, so this is far from an accident. (Indeed, he posted a labeled ad for the Lyft scooters later this afternoon.) read more

Much of the US Electric Grid Could Go the Way of the Landline Phone

If you’re old enough to remember landlines, maybe you remember the feedback loop that turned them from must-haves to luxury items. As customers started switching to mobile, the phone companies had to raise rates on the cord keepers to cover the cost of their telephone lines. That only pushed more people to defect, exacerbating the problem—and increasing the cost.

It’s this sort of feedback loop that worries Sonny Garg. He’s the head of energy research for Uptake Technologies and spearheaded the data analytics firm’s new report showing that over the past two decades, the investor-owned utilities that represent nearly half the US grid’s electrical load saw the effective cost of generating one megawatt of electricity rise 74 percent.

Making electricity, in other words, is becoming a less profitable business. And Garg worries that these costs will eventually reach consumers and send ripples throughout the economy. “You don’t need a huge amount of people to leave read more

Not Just Tech Bros: E-Scooter Fans Are Surprisingly Diverse

You’ve seen the viral photos, heard the viral stories. E-scooters with clipped brakes; e-scooters drowned in lakes. E-scooter in a tree; e-scooter with graffiti. E-scooters caked with poop; e-scooters flown the coop. The backlash against the goofy, electric-powered, but also sort of trendy (?) first mile, last mile option has, by now, reached city halls. There, senior and accessibility groups, plus a strain of anti-elitist, anti-tech politics have worked to characterize scooterers as young, well-heeled wheelers, and out-of-touch and on-the-sidewalk bros.

But city overlords have another, perhaps quieter, constituency to satisfy: scooter lovers. According to a new, multi-city study of residents’ perceptions of electric scooters, this group is actually quite larger and less tech bro-y than its critics might assume.

“You see a lot in the news about electric scooters and cities’ concerns around visual clutter,” says Regina Clewlow, a longtime transportation planner read more

After the Fatal Crash, Uber Revamps Its Robo-Car Testing

In the four months since an Uber self-driving car struck and killed a woman in Arizona, the ride-hail company’s autonomous vehicle tech has stayed off public roads. The governor of that state banned Uber from testing there; the company let its autonomous vehicle testing permit lapse in California; it pulled its vehicles off the streets of Pittsburgh, home to its self-driving R&D center.

Until today, when self-driving chief Eric Meyhofer announced in a blog post that Uber would return its self-driving cars to the roads in Pittsburgh. With a catch. For now, the vehicles will stay in manual (human-driven) mode, simply collecting data for training and mapping purposes. To prep for the tech’s return to the public space, Uber has undertaken a wholesale “safety review”, with the help of former National Transportation Safety Board chair and aviation expert Christopher Hart.

The broader impact of that review—whether it can put this tech back on the road while preventing read more

Zoox vs. San Francisco, Good News for Tesla, and More Car News This Week

Boston-based self-driving car outfit Nutonomy is among the partners working with Inrix on a platform that lets cities share the rules of the road in an easy to understand format.

Nutonomy

When tasks feel insurmountable, I have always retreated to a tried and true hack, the sort any self-help book worth the price of the Kindle it’s living in will dispense: Break the big, scary thing into smaller tasks. The nice news is that, sometimes, the little task ends up being more interesting, more enlightening, more fun, and more doable than the scary, big thing.

This week, WIRED Transportation spent some time with the people sweating the small stuff, the tinkerers making adjustments at the peripherals. The German carmakers running a curious mobility experiment in Seattle; the coders making it easier for cities to share the rules of the road with self-driving cars; the engineers coming up with a very special hook that should someday help autonomous drones deliver their wares. Turns out that read more

Loon’s Internet-Slinging Balloons Are Headed to Kenya

It’s been a big week for Loon. Just eight days ago, it was one of Alphabet’s moonshot projects, launching antennas attached to giant balloons into the stratosphere to beam internet down to Earth. Now it has announced its first commercial agreement: working with Telkom Kenya to provide internet service to parts of central Kenya, starting next year, and helping connect the citizens of a country where coverage hardly extends beyond major population centers.

Loon began life in 2011 as a Project Loon, inside Google X, the search company’s arm dedicated to incubating ambitious ideas. (In 2015, when Google restructured and formed parent company Alphabet, Google X became X.) After seven years in the incubator, Loon “graduated” this month and became an Alphabet company in its own right. That means it’s time to start making money, and this Kenya deal (whose financial particulars have not been revealed) is a solid first step forward.

Instead of building networks of ground-based read more

The Challenge of Teaching Helicopters to Fly Themselves

In the early hours of January 11, 2000, US Coast Guard helicopter pilot Mark Ward responded to a distress call from a ship taking on water, caught in a Nor’easter off the North Carolina coast. Battling 70-mph winds and 30-foot seas, Ward struggled to keep the chopper steady as he and his crew pulled all five fishermen to safety.

Ward recalls the mission as one of the most harrowing is the 22 years he spent as a search-and-rescue pilot. And now, he’s got a gig ensuring his successors won’t face the same dangers: He’s the chief test pilot in Sikorsky’s autonomous helicopter program. “Even a modest degree of autonomy, your workload goes way down and your stress and apprehension disappears,” he says. “The system sees things you can’t, and it processes information and reacts in a way you may not be able to.”

Even in a world where planes spend most of their time on autopilot and robo-cars are roaming cities all over the world, teaching a helicopter to fly read more

Loon’s Internet-Slinging Balloons Are Headed to Work Over Kenya

It’s been a big week for Loon. Just eight days ago, it was one of Alphabet’s moonshot projects, launching antennas attached to giant balloons into the stratosphere to beam internet down to Earth. Now it has announced its first commercial agreement: working with Telkom Kenya to provide internet service to parts of central Kenya, starting next year, and helping connect the citizens of a country where coverage hardly extends beyond major population centers.

Loon began life in 2011 as a Project Loon, inside Google X, the search company’s arm dedicated to incubating moonshot ideas. (In 2015, when Google restructured and formed parent company Alphabet, Google X became X.) After seven years in the incubator, Loon “graduated” this month and became an Alphabet company in its own right. That means it’s time to start making money, and this first deal (whose financial particulars have not been revealed) is a good early step.

Instead of building networks of ground-based read more