Monday, August 29, 2022

Tesla Service Is In a Fix


A recent article from reports that about a fifth of Tesla owners who took their vehicles in for servicing were unhappy with how long the process took.  And investigative reporters at Vox have perused over a thousand complaints about Tesla to the Federal Trade Commission, revealing a variety of problems with a type of vehicle that was supposed to all but do away with automotive repair shops.


The Better Business Bureau has received over 9,000 reports on Tesla, many having to do with faulty or delayed service, inadequate supplies of spare parts, poor communication with the customer, and poor manufacturing quality in the first place. 


One mitigating factor in making bad service less bad overall is that electric vehicles (EVs) supposedly need a lot less service than internal-combustion (IC) cars do.  And while that may be the case eventually, Vox quotes a representative of the consumer-research firm J. D. Power as saying Tesla owners need service about as frequently as owners of conventional cars do.  So it looks like even Tesla owners need to go to the shop about as often as the rest of us do, which doesn't help if the experience with Tesla service is a bad one.


In Tesla's defense, their service-center count may not include their mobile units that schedule appointments at the customer's home or business.  And because so much of the Tesla functionality is computerized, remote software upgrades, diagnosis, and repairs are often done without any need to bring the physical car into a shop.  Even so, there are enough purely mechanical or electrical problems that necessitate a trip to the service center to warrant many times the number of locations that Tesla presently operates.


Some independent garages are starting to work on Teslas, but this can cause problems with the car's warranty, and Elon Musk has gone on record as opposing the right-to-repair movement that seeks to break up manufacturers' monopolies on service.


As every general knows, maintenance and repair are a vital part of any mechanized military effort.  A lack of spare parts can defeat an army as effectively as enemy fire.  Tesla is in a unique and transient situation, as they have exploited a cultural trend against fossil fuels that is especially popular among the upper classes who can afford electric cars, and done an end run around the established automakers by reinventing carmaking from scratch and dominating the U. S. EV market. 


But people who wear Rolexes and drive Teslas are not happy when they have to wait a month for a service appointment and then find it's canceled at the last minute.  At the present time and for some time in the future, most people will look at the prospect of an all-electric car and decide the questionable advantages are not worth the extra cost and the other problems:  limited range, scarcity of charging stations, and now, unreliable service.  So while Tesla has done a good job exploiting the low-hanging market fruit of relatively wealthy and environmentally-conscious customers, that market may be close to saturation.


To people who simply want a reliable and economical means of transportation, service is at least as important as features.  And no matter how well-built a machine is initially, sooner or later something will go wrong and a qualified person will have to get their hands on the car to fix it. 


I will confess to some feeling of nostalgia as I take my seventeen-year-old Element in to the independent shop that is used to seeing me every few months as yet another piece of it reaches the end of its service life, and thinking, "Gee, with the coming of EVs, all these garages will go the way of the village blacksmith before the Model T."  Now I'm not so sure. 


For one thing, electric vehicles are really hard on tires.  The sudden torque strains and the added battery weight will destroy ordinary car tires in short order, so EV tires have to be specially designed to take the added punishment.  And most Teslas don't have spare tires—don't ask me why, but they don't.  Maybe the car's too heavy to safely change a tire on the road. 


While the electronics industry has gotten us used to the concept—for good or ill—of using it and throwing it away when it breaks or a software upgrade renders it useless, a $45,000 investment can't be treated like that.  Lots of people out there keep their cars for five, ten, or fifteen years, and a century's worth of progress in auto manufacturing has made that kind of longevity possible. 


Even if everything else on a Tesla worked perfectly forever, the battery has a known and limited lifetime.  So far, the relative scarcity and prestige of Teslas make it economical to replace worn-out batteries, but this may not always be the case.  Life-cycle engineering takes a holistic view of a product from inception to end-of-life disposal or preferably recycling.  With Tesla's current focus on getting cars out the door, it looks like the company has neglected the maintenance part of the cycle.  This may well be a temporary condition, though.


If I were a young gearhead wanting to open my own automotive service center, I might well choose to specialize in Teslas and take my chances that Tesla wouldn't shut me down.  Because the demand is certainly there, and it doesn't sound like Tesla is anywhere close to meeting it with their own service centers.


Sources:  The Vox article "Missing parts, long waits, and a dead mouse:  the perils of getting a Tesla fixed" by Rebecca Heilweil appeared on Aug. 24, 2022 at  

Monday, August 22, 2022

Averse to the Metaverse


The company Meta, formerly known as Facebook, sparked some criticism after it opened its keynote "Horizon Worlds" virtual-reality (VR) platform to France and Spain last week.  According to an article in Slate, new European users were disappointed in the graphics, to say the least.  And judging by the screen shots provided in the article, they have a point.  Adjectives like "bland," "cartoonish," and "slightly weird" come to mind.  In common with many VR systems, only the upper bodies of human avatars appear.  I've never understood the reason for this myself, but one user speculated that it was so that nobody online can have sex. 


At any rate, it doesn't sound like the French are going to start holding meetings of the Académie Française in Horizon Worlds any time soon.  But Mark Zuckerberg can live without the Academy's forty members if he can get several million mere mortals to join.


Meta has put a huge chunk of its colossal resources into its metaverse venture, some $13 billion, and you can be sure the firm is not doing that for fun.  Its vision is that as Internet bandwidth and access increase, you will be able to don a VR headset and basically live life online:  working, playing, even exercising (I suppose, but this might present problems unless you're doing it on some physical treadmill tied to your VR system).  As for sex, there's plenty of that on the Internet already, so maybe Meta is staying out of that area purely for business reasons. 


There is a theory in the history-of-technology field called "technological determinism."  It basically says that technology has its own built-in direction, and once a technology develops into a feasible, marketable form, there's no stopping it.  Its development path and growth are intrinsic to the nature of the technology, and human factors and influences count for nothing.  The term was invented mainly by people who didn't believe in it to criticize those who appeared to support it, but I've never encountered a pure card-carrying technological determinist. 


Nevertheless, a lot of stories of how technologies developed tend to make it seem inevitable in retrospect.  I think this betrays a lack of imagination on the part of the storyteller, and some of the best histories of technology I have encountered look at failed technologies that might have succeeded if certain almost random factors had gone the other way. 


With "Horizon Worlds" we are witnessing the first baby steps of a new technology which Meta, at least, hopes will inevitably dominate the Internet and become as much a part of our lives as mobile phones—and all they can do—have become today.  And, as any good public corporation will try to do, Meta intends to turn this into cash—lots of cash.


The Slate article quotes a University of Virginia professor's dark prophecy that Meta hopes to "monitor, monetize, and manage everything about our lives."  While this is no doubt an exaggeration, it's hard to deny that the picture conjured up by proponents of VR, especially the Meta-style of VR, seems to aspire toward a kind of totalizing, all-inclusive situation in which people would take off their VR headsets only to attend to physical needs, like eating, going to the bathroom, and (maybe) sex.  And sleep, unless we manage to genetic-engineer our way out of that little necessity.


In promulgating his Meta vision, Zuckerberg and his colleagues suffer from a problem that they has in common with many tech-savvy leaders who combine awesome technical and business skills with the philosophical understanding of ten-year-old boys.  There are various answers to the question, "What are humans for?"  Different cultures and religions come up with different answers, but the worst response of all to that question is to ignore it altogether. 


Any entity whose business operations affect millions or even billions of people, as Facebook/Meta's does, should consider seriously what its model for human flourishing is.  And the bigger the firm is, the more seriously it should consider that question. 


Unfortunately, this rarely happens.  Instead, a business like Meta is in practice avoiding two guardrails on opposite sides of a wide road.  One guardrail is profits:  if the firm ceases to make money going forward, something has to be done to avoid the guardrail of losses that kill the firm.  The other guardrail is a combination of law and public criticism.  Even a profitable business can go out of existence if its leaders end up in jail or become social pariahs, as the Weinstein Company did when its head Harvey Weinstein was accused (and eventually convicted) of sexual misdeeds.  As long as a firm avoids hitting these two guardrails, its leaders will consider it a success, and will keep doing whatever they feel is necessary to keep going, regardless of the firm's effects on the souls of its millions of customers.


Aesthetics are more than just a thing that has to meet minimum standards in order for people to use a platform like "Horizon Worlds."  Aesthetics is another word for beauty.  In the past, advances in technology have led to the creation of beautiful things that make the world a better place.  Advances in building technology led to artistic creations such as Chartres in France and Burgos in Spain.  Cathedrals were designed for the ordinary human, just like "Horizon Worlds" is.  But those who built the cathedrals of the Middle Ages were guided by a very specific vision of human purpose:  to encounter, and eventually to love, the Divine.  Their creations gained thereby a timelessness that motivates even a secular culture such as that of France's today to reconstruct Notre Dame after its disastrous fire, at a cost of millions of dollars.


The metaverse can be a place of truth, beauty, and goodness.  But those values can be achieved only if those designing it make these values intentional goals.  On the other hand, if their guides are only the two guardrails of profit and avoiding jail or pariah status, they are likely to forge an erratic path that may lead millions of people to places they wish they hadn't gone to.


Sources:  The article "Why the Metaverse Has to Look So Stupid" by Nitish Pahwa appeared on Slate's website on Aug. 19, 2022 at 

Sunday, August 14, 2022

AI Illustrator Still Looking for Work: The Shortcomings of DALL-E 2


The field of artificial intelligence has made great strides in the last couple of decades, and any time a new AI breakthrough is announced, critics voice concerns that yet another field of human endeavor has fallen victim to automation and will disappear from the earth when machines replace the people who do it now. 


Until recently, the occupation of art illustrator seemed reasonably safe from assault by AI innovations.  Only a human, it seemed, can start with a set of verbal ordinary-language instructions and come up with a finished work of art that fulfills those instructions.  And that was mostly true until AI folks began tackling that problem.


The AI research lab OpenAI has publicized its work in this area using a "transformer" type of program that has gone through two versions so far, DALL-E and now DALL-E 2.  I'm sure the late surrealist artist Salvador Dali would be pleased at the honor of having a robot artist named after him, but the connection between his works and the productions of DALL-E 2 are perhaps closer than the researchers would like.  In an article in IEEE Spectrum, journalist Eliza Strickland highlights the shortcomings of DALL-E 2's productions and speculates on whether such systems will ever be generally useful.


As is the case with most such human-task-imitating systems, the first step the researchers took was to compile a large number of examples (650 million in the case of DALL-E 2) to train the software about what illustrations look like.  The images and their accompanying descriptive texts were all from the Internet, which has its own biases, of course.  The researchers have learned some lessons from previous fiascos with AI software that allowed random users to request sketchy or offensive products, so they have been very careful about pre-screening the training images and (in some cases) manually censoring what DALL-E 2 comes up with.  They have also not released the program for general use yet, but have carefully selected users under controlled conditions.  If you just let your imagination roam with the scenario of letting some randy teenage boys loose with a program that will make a picture of whatever they describe to it, you can see the potential for abuse.


For certain purposes, DALL-E 2 does fine.  If you want a generic type of picture that would look good as a filler for a brochure about a meeting, and you just want to show some people in a corporate setting, DALL-E 2 can do that.  But so can tons of free clip-art websites.  If you want an image that conveys specific information, however—a diagram, say, or even text—DALL-E 2 tends to fall flat on its digital face.  The Spectrum journalist was privileged to make a few text requests to DALL-E 2 for specific images.  She asked for an image of "a technology journalist writing an article about a new AI system that can create remarkable and strange images."  She got back three photo-like pictures, but they were all of guys, and only one seemed to have anything to do with AI.  Then she asked for "an illustration of the solar system, drawn to scale."  All three results had a sun-like thing somewhere, and planet-like things, and white circular lines on a black background showing the orbits, but the number of planets and what they looked like was pretty random.  So technical illustrators (those who are left after software like Adobe Illustrator has made every man or woman his own illustrator) need not file for unemployment insurance right away.  DALL-E 2 has a way to go yet.


There is a fundamental question lurking in the background of AI exploits like this.  It can be phrased a number of ways, but it basically amounts to this:  will AI software ever show something that amounts to human-like general intelligence?  And believe it or not, your humble scribe, along with Gyula Klima, a philosopher then at Fordham University, recently published a paper addressing just that question, and we concluded that the answer was "No."


As you might guess when a philosopher gets involved, the details are somewhat complicated.  But we began with the notion that the intellect, which is a specific power of the human mind, relies on the use of concepts.  In the limited space I have, I can best illustrate concepts with examples.  The specific house I live in is a particular thing.  There is only one house exactly like mine.  I can remember it, I can form a mental image of it, and I can even imagine it with a different color of trim than it actually has.  And software programs can do what amounts to these sorts of mental operations as well.  In my mind, my house is a perception of a real, individual thing.


By contrast, take the concept of "house."  Not my house or your house, just "house."  Any mental image you have that is inspired by "house" is not identical to "house"—it's only an example of it.  The idea or concept denoted by the word "house" is not reducible to anything specific.  The same goes for ideas such as freedom or conservatism.  You can't draw a picture of conservatism, but you can draw a picture of a particular conservative. 


In our paper, we gave strong evidence in favor of the notion that because concepts cannot be reduced to representations of individual things, AI programs will never be able to use them.  In the article, we used examples from an art-generating AI program that in some ways resembles DALL-E 2, in that it was trained on thousands of artworks and then made to generate artwork-like images.  The results showed the same kind of fidelity to superficial details and total absence of underlying coherence that DALL-E 2's productions showed.  As one of the OpenAI researchers quoted in the Spectrum article noted, "DALL-E doesn't know what science is . . . . [S]o it tries to make up something that's visually similar without understanding the meaning."  That is, without having any concept of what it's doing.


The big question is whether further research in AI will produce programs that truly understand concepts, and use that understanding to guide their production of art, text, or what have you.  Klima and I think not, and you can look up our article to understand why.  But we may be wrong, and only time and more AI research will tell.


Sources:  Eliza Strickland's article "DALL-E 2's Failures Reveal the Limits of AI" appeared on pp. 5-7 of the August 2022 print issue of IEEE Spectrum.  "'Artificial intelligence and its natural limits" by Karl D. Stephan and Gyula Klima appeared in vol. 36, no. 1, pp. 9-18, of AI & Society in 2021.

Monday, August 08, 2022

Electric Cars and the Sound of Silence


Electric vehicles (EV's for short) are not so common where I live that they are even an every-day encounter, although being within 30 miles of the Austin Tesla plant, we do see Teslas fairly often on the highways.  But a problem that had never occurred to me about electric cars is currently being intensively studied by most car makers, and the result will affect how cityscapes sound in the future.


If an electric car moves faster than 20 MPH or so, its tires make enough road noise so that it's not that much quieter than most modern internal-combustion-engine (ICE) vehicles.  But at speeds lower than that, but fast enough to cause injuries in collisions with pedestrians, you simply can't hear them.  The electric motors are nearly silent.  And for visually-impaired and blind people who rely on the sounds of ICE vehicles to navigate, this can be a real problem.


As reported by John Seabrook in a recent New Yorker article, way back in 2003 a friend came by National Federation of the Blind activist Deborah Kerr Stein's house driving a new Toyota Prius, which in its battery mode was so quiet that Stein couldn't hear it at all even as it passed within a few feet of her.  She thought at the time "We've got a real problem."


After numbers of experiments with different electric vehicles and investigations into pedestrian accidents involving electric vehicles, it turned out that not only blind people, but sighted pedestrians also had problems noticing electric cars because they were so much quieter at low speeds than ICE vehicles.  Statistics reported in 2011 showed that hybrids and EVs showed a 35% greater chance of being involved in collisions with pedestrians and a 50% greater chance of collisions with bicyclists. 


This evidence was used to persuade Congress to pass and President Obama to sign the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act in 2012, which called for a "sound or set of sounds for all vehicles of the same make and model."  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) took six years after that to devise technical specifications saying how loud and in what frequency ranges these sounds must be, and now the various car manufacturers who either sell or think about selling EVs must comply.


Seabrook interviewed numerous sound designers and engineers at GM, Renault, Ford, and other makers, and many of those interviewed were looking forward to contributing to an entirely new aspect of automotive history:  artificial characteristic sounds. 


For most of the time that people have lived with ICE vehicles, we have unconsciously learned to associate certain kinds of sounds with certain vehicles.  Seabrook even unearthed an acoustic engineer who could tell the make and model of a car just by the sound of its engine idling.  To me, most cars with their engines running just sound like cars, but the one exception that comes to mind is the exhaust noise made by the old-style VW Beetle produced from the 1950s to the 1990s or so.  It had a characteristic high note that made the sound unmistakeable for anything else.  But for the most part, automakers regarded sounds made by the car as something to be minimized, and many smaller vehicles going above 30 MPH or so don't make much more sound than an electric vehicle does.


But now we're going to have to get used to the different sounds devised by car makers to characterize their individual EVs.  Presumably, the EVs on the road now meet these requirements, but Tesla, the current leader in numbers on the road, has had run-ins with the Feds regarding some acoustic options that were installed for a time.  After a 2020 software update, Tesla drivers could play goat bleats, ice-cream truck music, and various less presentable noises through the external speakers installed in every Tesla.  The NHTSA clamped down on it and thereby earned the title "fun police" from Elon Musk, but Teslas are presumably still compliant with the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act.


This set of developments presents a relatively rare case in which a potential engineering problem was noticed and headed off before the number of potential problem vehicles got too large to deal with conveniently. This benign outcome was enabled by an alert "mediating institution"—the National Federation of the Blind—which was accustomed to dealing with governments and helping to draft legislation.  And it has the side benefit of making EVs safer for everybody else too, as many accommodations for the disabled tend to do. 


The mediating institution in this case is a privately owned and operated organization, and the profession of engineering has many such entities dealing with largely technical matters:  setting standards, organizing new protocols for new technologies, and so on.  Those who would want all such operations conducted by government agencies need to consider the fact that one of the strengths of American society is its proliferation of vigorous, competent, and useful mediating institutions.  Government power was involved in this case, and many times that is an appropriate outcome, but it was not government by itself that dealt with the problem, but government prompted by the private mediating institution that got the job done. 


Fortunately, the issue at hand was not subject to much political pulling and hauling, as neither Republicans nor Democrats wanted to look like they were opposed to helping blind people.  So while a new technology presented a new potential problem to a certain group of people, they noticed it soon enough to deal with it in a way that is not overly burdensome on car makers, and has actually led to a considerable amount of creativity on the part of sound designers.


I have not had the opportunity to listen to an EV at low speed to find out if I can hear it coming if I 'm looking the other way, but if I can, I'll have the National Federation for the Blind, the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act, and the sound designers working for whatever car company made the car to thank.  And so will you.


Sources:  John Seabrook's article "On Alert" appeared on pp. 24-29 of the Aug. 8, 2022 issue of The New Yorker.

Monday, August 01, 2022

Get Real with Vaclav Smil


The headline doesn't really rhyme, because Professor Smil's last name is pronounced "smill" to rhyme with "will."  But getting real is what Vaclav Smil does in his latest book, How the World Really Works.  And the reality that he presents, with incontrovertible evidence in the form of wide-ranging statistics and little-known but vital processes and connections among global economic flows, show that the highly-touted future of a fossil-fuel-less economy in ten or even thirty years is a pipe dream.  Not that it shouldn't happen—Smil tries to avoid the familiar political grandstanding beloved by both sides of the climate-change issue, with fairly good success.  What he excels in is showing in great but fascinating detail how essential but little-known industries such as ammonia synthesis play critical roles in sustaining the eight billion or so people on the planet, and that realizing a global zero-carbon economy any time soon would cause mass starvation.


Who is Vaclav Smil?  In reading his columns in the professional journal IEEE Spectrum, I wondered that myself while admiring his unorthodox but always fact-based take on various technical issues of the day.  He recently retired from a distinguished professorship in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Manitoba.  He is the only academic I have come across recently who can lay some claim to being a Renaissance man, having published in areas as disparate as population demographics and energy policy.  In whatever field he chooses to write about, however, he likes to start from the facts.


For example, if you were asked what are the four material pillars of modern civilization, what would you say?  Silicon, because it's used in virtually all computers and information technology?  Glass, because it forms the material backbone of the Internet?  Smil would disagree.


His choices for the four pillars are steel, concrete, plastics, and—the oddest member—ammonia.  Why ammonia?  Because ammonia synthesized from nitrogen in the air and natural gas is the source of the vast majority of chemical fertilizers used throughout the world.  German chemist Fritz Haber figured out how to do that by 1911, and the Haber process still provides most of the world's supply of nitrogen fertilizer, without which you get things like the recent collapse of Sri Lanka, which was caused largely by an out-of-touch government ordering all the nation's farms to switch immediately to non-chemical-fertilizer farming.  But the Haber process needs hydrogen, which comes from natural gas.


Plastics, the second pillar of modern society, are made mostly from petrochemicals or sometimes what used to be called "coal-tar derivatives."  Either way, they come from fossil fuels.


Concrete, without which we couldn't build most of the large-scale built infrastructure we have, is made with Portland cement, which in turn has to be manufactured with large amounts of coal, or sometimes natural gas.  Anyway, you need fossil fuels to make cement.


And steel is made in blast furnaces fired with coke, which is derived from coal.


Besides these four pillars, which have to remain in place if the six billion or so people who live less-than-average-income lives hope to improve their lot, all airplanes and nearly all ships burn fossil fuels.  Battery-powered planes or ships to carry even a small fraction of the vital international trade on which modern society depends will not be available for many decades, if ever.  So for the foreseeable future, we are stuck with using fossil fuels for a wide variety of essential processes and products without which most of us would have to crawl away somewhere and die of starvation. 


So what do we do, just give up on fighting climate change and get used to wearing bathing suits in the winter?  No, Smil says there are some practical things we can do.  Conservation is a big one.  A surprisingly large fraction, on the order of 40%, of food worldwide is simply wasted—spoiled somewhere along the transportation chain, or simply not used before it goes bad.  And there are tons of opportunities to conserve energy around the world, starting with displacing coal-fired plants (which China is still building like there's no tomorrow) with natural-gas-fired ones, going to smaller cars rather than SUVs and electrics where possible, and building more solar and wind-generation facilities.  But here is Smil reacting to claims that we could decarbonize at least 80 percent of the global energy supply by 2030:  "Alas, a close reading reveals that these magic prescriptions give no explanation for how the four material pillars of modern civilization . . . will be produced solely with renewable electricity, nor do they convincingly explain how flying, shipping, and trucking (to which we owe our modern economic globalization) could become 80 percent carbon-free by 2030; they merely assert that it could be so."


Smil's book is full of cold-shower moments like that, but he is also refreshingly free of the tendentious us-versus-them tone that dominates most public pronouncements on these matters by politicians and other leaders.


He does not deny that global warming, or climate change, is happening.  In fact, he shows how the essentials of the connection between carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere and global temperature were worked out over a century ago, long before it became a contentious political issue.  When he sees global leaders convening an endless series of summits and proclaiming unrealistic and unreachable goals while letting things just go on as usual, he gets irritated that no one is working toward a more systematic and engineering-driven approach to the problem. 


What is needed, and what is so often lacking, is the wisdom to choose the right path, or combination of paths, and the courage to put the decisions into action.  That is the real problem Smil portrays in his book:  the fact that a truly global issue—climate change—will have to have a truly global solution.  And we haven't figured out how to do that yet.


Sources:  Vaclav Smil's How the World Really Works was published in 2022 by Viking.