Airport Controllers Trade the Tower for a Screen-Filled Room

The next time you fly into Florida’s Fort Lauderdale airport, look out the window and see if you can spot what’s missing. The answer? A 160 feet high tower.

That’s what airport officials at the airport say would have been necessary for them to be able to safely control the movement of planes on the ground, taxiing to and from gates and runways at the recently expanded airport. That would be doing things the old fashioned way, by line-of-sight—aka looking at the planes. Instead of an elevated perch, ground controllers at FLL have an even better view from inside a nearby squat, building.

“They have no windows in their building,” says Mike Nonnemacher, the chief operating officer for Broward Country Aviation Department, which controls FLL airport. “It’s all done by radar, and augmented by a system of CCTV and infrared cameras.” A new computer system takes the data from those cameras, and other sensors, and stitches it together into one giant virtual vista.

Controllers read more

Tesla Troubles, Flying Cars, and More Car News This Week

Ah, life in a capitalist democracy. We vote with our ballots and send people to Washington, entrusting them to make the sort of decisions of which we would approve. And we vote with our wallets, hoping the executives in charge of our favorite products keep innovating and, you know, getting our stuff to us on time.

This week, those powerful people piped up. The autonomous vehicle titans Waymo and Uber reached a dramatic mid-trial settlement and ended a chapter in self-driving history, as transportation editor Alex Davies and I noted. Jack Stewart brought word of the coming clash between flying car makers and government bureaucracy. President Donald Trump released his long-awaited $200 billion infrastructure plan, to more than a few “boos”. And Elon Musk tried to explain why about 400,000 customers who’ve plunked down $1,000 for a Tesla Model 3 will have to wait just a bit longer.

Let’s get you caught up.

Headlines

Stories you might have missed from WIRED this week

  • Early last Friday morning, Waymo surprised everyone and announced a mid-trial settlement with Uber in its blockbuster self-driving car trade secrets lawsuit. Waymo will receive $245 million in Uber equity and the promise that Uber engineers will never use its self-driving tech in its autonomous vehicles. And with that, a chapter of self-driving history closes. The next challenge? Actually building these cars and finding the business models that will make these people money.
  • On Monday, President Trump unveiled his long-awaited $1 trillion infrastructure plan. Except it’s only $200 billion, it’s not great for small towns and cities, and might not address the country’s real infrastructure problem: fixing up our busted roads, bridges, and transit networks.
  • As the country debates that infrastructure plan, contributor Nick Stockton floats a whole new framework, one that fits into our fuel-efficient and electric age. Instead of using the a middling gas tax to fix our roads, why not charge drivers by the mile?
  • Electric cars may get all the headlines, but Jack takes some time to check back in with gas engines—and finds they’re getting much better. “The internal combustion engine might not even be middle-aged,” one scientist says, thanks to innovations that keep squeezing more power out of less fuel.
  • After launching a Roadster into space, Elon Musk took to Tesla’s quarterly earnings call to explain Model 3 production delays. Jack’s takeaway: Car production isn’t rocket science. It’s much harder.
  • Alex checks in with General Motors’ Maven car-sharing service, which expanded to Toronto this week. The operation is still small, but its real mission is teaching GM important lessons about surviving in the future, where owning a personal car could be downright uncool.
  • Flying cars—aka vertical takeoff and landing aircraft—may the hot investor item right now, with even Airbus getting in on the act. But the Federal Aircraft Administration is still skeptical, and will need to update its rules if the things ever want to get in the air. Jack reports on the state of what will surely be a lengthy negotiation.

Rescued Corvette of the Week

Four years read more

Airbus’ Vahana Makes Its First Flight—And Now Must Defeat Bureaucracy

At 8:52 on the morning of January 31, eight buzzing rotors lifted a black bubble of an aircraft off the ground for the first time. About 20 feet from nose to tail and the same from wingtip to wingtip, Vahana spent 53 seconds aloft, under its own power and autonomous control. It reached a height of 16 feet, looming over the runway at Oregon’s Pendleton UAS Test Range like a gigantisized quadcopter drone.

The flight may not sound like much, but the team from Airbus’ Silicon Valley outpost, A^3, and aerospace experts say such flights of experimental aircraft mark the start of a fundamental change in the way we get around.

“The revolution of aviation we see today is comparable to the jet age,” says Jim Gregory, director of the Aerospace Research Center at The Ohio State University.

Alpha One, as this prototype is dubbed, is a full-scale demonstrator of a single-person, vertical take-off and landing aircraft. The idea behind this thing and its read more

Trump’s Infrastructure Plan Threatens to Leave Little Cities Behind

If you live in rural America, the White House infrastructure proposal released this week might be nice to you. It allocates $50 billion in no-strings-attached spending for communities smaller than 50,000, distributed by their state governments for whatever stuff they need most: better bridges, roads, transit systems, broadband.

If you live in a really big city, it might be OK, too. President Trump’s proposed funding plan flips the status quo to make local governments pay for the majority of infrastructure projects, with the feds kicking in 20 percent instead of its standard 80 (for road projects) or 50 (for mass transit). Still, places with large, rich tax bases—New York, LA, Chicago—could, perhaps, raise the funds necessary to keep the concrete flowing. (A White House official reportedly complimented the liberal den of Los Angeles read more

Maven, GM’s Car-Sharing Company, Launches in Toronto

General Motors’ bid to rule whatever comes after the self-driving apocalypse—and the end of private car ownership as we know it—has gone international. Today, the automaker’s in-house car-sharing company, Maven, announced it is expanding to Toronto.

Maven already operates in most major US cities, and now Torontonians will have access to a fleet of 40 cars, including the Chevy Malibu and Volt, GMC Acadia and Yukon, and Cadillac ATS sedan and XT5 crossover, which they can rent by the hour.

The incremental nature of this announcement—and of each minor expansion before it—belies the importance of Maven to GM. Since Maven launched in Ann Arbor in January 2016, the company has been more than a Zipcar competitor. GM sells $150 billion worth of cars every year, and this sort of effort—renting a few dozen cars for $8 an hour—will neither spook nor inspire read more

To Fund US Infrastructure, Charge by the Mile, Not the Gallon

Few things exemplify the United States’ disconnect between personal freedom and collective responsibility like our automobile habit. Drivers travel at will, as long as they have money for gas and road snacks. But what they pay for that privilege, in the form of gas and other taxes, doesn’t come close to covering the costs of maintaining the roads on which they travel—let alone recoup all the productivity lost in congestion and the damage that tailpipe emissions do to our health. Compared to what society pays, driving is practically a free ride.

Transportation economists have long sought to make drivers pay their fair share without raising the federal gas tax—a political nonstarter. In recent decades, a broad swath of experts has settled on an idea with the potential to fix the three big problems that come with cars: road damage, congestion, and pollution. The answer? Charge ‘em by the mile.

It’s not too crazy to think some version of this might happen. The Highway read more

Waymo v. Uber, Tesla Struggles, and More Car News This Week

After nearly a year of hearings, discovery, motions, and legal maneuverings, Waymo v. Uber, a bitter battle over autonomous tech trade secrets, finally kicked off this week. And in its opening days, the case has lived up to its billing as the first great trial of this self-driving century.

Good thing our own Aarian Marshall has volunteered to slog through days that start at 7:30 am and involve unyielding wooden benches to bring us all the haps: Uber ex-CEO Travis Kalanick’s well hydrated testimony, deleted and embarrassing texts, the peskily hard-to-nail-down definition of “trade secret,” and more. If you care at all about what’s going on here, follow her on Twitter.

Elsewhere in the car world, more fights: Tesla reported a record loss while Elon Musk races to ramp up Model 3 production; Ram Trucks read more

The *Waymo v. Uber* Settlement Marks a New Era for Self-Driving Cars: Reality

The sun had only just come up Friday, but the young self-driving car industry had already moved into a new era. From the bench, federal Judge William Alsup, recovering from a sore throat, called it: “This case is now ancient history.”

Waymo v. Uber, the first great legal fight over autonomous vehicles, ended in a peace treaty Friday morning: Uber gave Google’s sister company a 0.34 percent stake in its business (worth $245 million or $163 million, depending on how you count Uber’s worth), and pledged not to use any of Waymo’s software or hardware in its vehicles. “I want to express regret for the actions that have caused me to write this letter,” Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi wrote in a statement posted on the ride-hailing company’s website.

Waymo had alleged that when longtime Google engineer Anthony Levandowski resigned to start his own company, he took thousands of vital technical documents with him, including blueprints for the lidar read more

Uber and Waymo Settle Autonomous Driving Tech Lawsuit for $245 Million

In a year-long litigation process that featured alleged theft, mysterious deleted text messages, and the odd reference to Burning Man, Friday’s twist was perhaps the most unexpected of all: On the fifth day in court, Waymo accepted a settlement in its self-driving tech trade secret lawsuit against Uber.

In the trial’s fifth day, witnesses were set to testify as to how Waymo’s trade secrets had appeared in Uber lidar designs, the specialized sensor that helps self-driving cars see. Instead, lawyers hugged in the San Francisco’s courtroom well, as the federal judge assigned to the case, William Alsup, declared the whole suit “ancient history.”

The case had threatened to reshape the race for autonomous vehicle tech. Waymo, by some measures, leads in developing self-driving car technology, with over four million miles of public road testing behind it. Uber is the upstart, launching its own autonomous vehicle program in 2015 after poaching read more