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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Water Splitters to Store Hydrogen as Renewable Energy


Gas power: A Hydrogenics electrolysis system in Flkenhagen Germany, can absorb two megawatts of excess renewable energy and store it in the form of hydrogen.
As reported by MIT Technology Review: Germany, which has come to rely heavily on wind and solar power in recent years, is launching more than 20 demonstration projects that involve storing energy by splitting water into hydrogen gas and oxygen. The projects could help establish whether electrolysis, as the technology is known, could address one of the biggest looming challenges for renewable energy—its intermittency.

The electrolyzer projects under construction in Germany typically consist of a few buildings, each the size of a shipping container, that consume excess renewable energy on sunny and windy days by turning it into an electric current that powers the water-splitting reaction. The resulting hydrogen can then be pumped into the storage and distribution infrastructure already used for natural gas and eventually turned back into electricity via combustion or fuel cells. It can also be used for a variety of other purposes, such as powering natural-gas vehicles, heating homes, and making fertilizer.  The hydrogen generated can also be used to power hydrogen fuel cell vehicles; a technology rapidly gaining acceptance in the global marketplace.  

Germany isn't the only country investing in hydrogen energy storage. Canada is getting in on the action, too, with a major demonstration facility planned for Ontario.

Electrolysis has advantages over some other energy storage options. It can be deployed almost anywhere, it can store vast amounts of energy, and the hydrogen can be used to replace fossil fuels not only in electricity production but also in industry and transportation, which account for far more carbon emissions.

Even so, it has long been considered a relatively lousy way to store energy because of its low efficiency—about 65 percent of the energy in the original electricity is lost. But improvements to the technology are reducing costs, and the large-scale use of renewable energy is creating new needs for storage, making electrolysis a practical option in a growing number of places.

Earlier this year, Siemens broke ground in Mainz, Germany, on what it says will be the world’s largest proton exchange membrane (PEM) electrolyzer. Whereas other electrolyzers are designed to operate with steady power levels, the PEM system performs well even with quickly changing amounts of power from wind and solar. When it opens next year, it will have the capacity to produce 650,000 kilograms of hydrogen a year, the energy equivalent of 650,000 gallons of gasoline. (As a demonstration plant, however, it probably won’t run continuously.)

Power down: This new mini-fridge-size electrolyzer
from Hydrogenics can produce as much hydrogen as
12 conventional ones.
Hydrogenics, which has supplied electrolyzers for many of the biggest projects in Germany, is designing a 40-megawatt system that will produce the equivalent of 4.3 million gallons of gasoline a year. The company recently developed a PEM electrolyzer that’s less than a tenth the size of its conventional alkaline ones. The small size, in addition to making it easy to site the electrolyzers, can help lower costs.

Costs are also decreasing because excess wind and solar power creates a glut of power on the grid. Because power needs to be used as soon as it’s generated to keep the grid stable, prices are sometimes dropped to zero so buyers can be found. Cheap electricity makes electrolysis far more competitive.

Electrolysis remains more expensive than producing hydrogen from natural gas—at least in the United States, where natural gas is cheap. But it can compete with storage options such as batteries, says Kevin Harrison, a senior engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado. It’s also more versatile than the cheapest way to store energy: pumping water up a hill and then letting it back down to drive a turbine. That approach is severely limited by geography—but, he says, “you can put an electrolyzer almost anywhere.”

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Hidden Obstacles for Google’s Self-Driving Cars

As reported by MIT Technology Review: Would you buy a self-driving car that couldn't drive itself in 99 percent of the country? Or that knew nearly nothing about parking, couldn't be taken out in snow or heavy rain, and would drive straight over a gaping pothole?

If your answer is yes, then check out the Google Self-Driving Car, model year 2014.
Of course, Google isn't yet selling its now-famous robotic vehicle and has said that its technology will be thoroughly tested before it ever does. But the car clearly isn't ready yet, as evidenced by the list of things it can’t currently do—volunteered by Chris Urmson, director of the Google car team.

Google’s cars have safely driven more than 700,000 miles. As a result, “the public seems to think that all of the technology issues are solved,” says Steven Shladover, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley’s Institute of Transportation Studies. “But that is simply not the case.”

No one knows that better than Urmson. But he says he is optimistic about tackling outstanding challenges and that it’s “going to happen more quickly than many people think.”

Google often leaves the impression that, as a Google executive once wrote, the cars can “drive anywhere a car can legally drive.” However, that’s true only if intricate preparations have been made beforehand, with the car’s exact route, including driveways, extensively mapped. Data from multiple passes by a special sensor vehicle must later be pored over, meter by meter, by both computers and humans. It’s vastly more effort than what’s needed for Google Maps.

Mistakes on maps could be dangerous, because there are some objects, like traffic signals and intersection stop signs, that the car needs the maps to handle, even though it also has several on-board sensors. If it encountered an unmapped traffic light, and there were no cars or pedestrians around, the car could run a red light simply because it wouldn't know the light is there.

Alberto Broggi, a professor studying autonomous driving at Italy’s Universit√† di Parma, says he worries about how a map-dependent system like Google’s will respond if a route has seen changes like the addition of a new stop sign at an intersection.

Urmson says the company had a strategy to handle the updating issue, but he declines to describe it in any detail.

Some experts are bothered by Google’s refusal to provide that sort of safety-related information. Michael Wagner, a Carnegie Mellon robotics researcher studying the transition to autonomous driving, says the public “has a right to be concerned” about Google’s reticence: “This is a very early-stage technology, which makes asking these kinds of questions all the more justified.”

Certain aspects of the car’s design do not seem to be widely appreciated. For example, Bernard Soriano, the California DMV official responsible for autonomous vehicles in the state, was unaware that the car couldn't handle unmapped intersection stop signs, despite numerous briefings from Google. When told about the limitation by MIT Technology Review, he said he would be seeking a “clarification” about the issue from Google.

Maps have so far been prepared for only a few thousand miles of roadway, but achieving Google’s vision will require maintaining a constantly updating map of the nation’s millions of miles of roads and driveways. Urmson says Google’s researchers “don’t see any particular roadblocks” to accomplishing that, but again he declined to provide any details.

In May, Google announced that all its future cars would be totally driver-free, without even a steering wheel. It cited the difficulties in assuring that a standby human driver would always be ready to take over. The company says it will initially test the new cars with the added controls now required by states that allow testing. But winning approval to test, much less market, a totally robotic car “would be a tremendous leap,” says David Fierro, spokesman for the DMV in Nevada, where Google now runs tests.



Among other unsolved problems, Google has yet to drive in snow, and Urmson says safety concerns preclude testing during heavy rains. Nor has it tackled big, open parking lots or multilevel garages. The car’s video cameras detect the color of a traffic light; Urmson said his team is still working to prevent them from being blinded when the sun is directly behind a light. Despite progress handling road crews, “I could construct a construction zone that could befuddle the car,” Urmson says.

Pedestrians are detected simply as moving, column-shaped blurs of pixels—meaning, Urmson agrees, that the car wouldn't be able to spot a police officer at the side of the road frantically waving for traffic to stop.

The car’s sensors can’t tell if a road obstacle is a rock or a crumpled piece of paper, so the car will try to drive around either. Urmson also says the car can’t detect potholes or spot an uncovered manhole if it isn't coned off.

Urmson says these sorts of questions might be unresolved simply because engineers haven’t yet gotten to them.

But researchers say the unsolved problems will become increasingly difficult. For example, John Leonard, an MIT expert on autonomous driving, says he wonders about scenarios that may be beyond the capabilities of current sensors, such as making a left turn into a high-speed stream of oncoming traffic.


Challenges notwithstanding, Urmson wants his cars to be ready by the time his 11-year-old son is 16, the legal driving age in California. “It’s my personal deadline,” he says.

Google Tests Drone Deliveries in Project Wing Trials

As reported by BBC News: Google has built and tested autonomous aerial vehicles, which it believes could be used for goods deliveries.

The project is being developed at Google X, the company's clandestine tech research arm, which is also responsible for its self-driving car.

Project Wing has been running for two years, but was a secret until now.

Google said that its long-term goal was to develop drones that could be used for disaster relief by delivering aid to isolated areas.

They could be used after earthquakes, floods, or extreme weather events, the company suggested, to take small items such as medicines or batteries to people in areas that conventional vehicles cannot reach.

"Even just a few of these, being able to shuttle nearly continuously could service a very large number of people in an emergency situation," explained Astro Teller, Captain of Moonshots - Google X's name for big-thinking projects.

Australia tests 
Google's self-flying vehicle project was first conceived of as a way to deliver defibrillator kits to people suspected of having heart attacks. The idea was that the drones would transport the equipment faster than an ambulance could. "When you have a tool like this you can really allow the operators of those emergency services to add an entirely new dimension to the set of tools and solutions that they can think of," said Dave Voss, incoming leader of Project Wing.
The Project Wing trials have been held in Australia's north-eastern state Queensland
The prototype vehicles that the company has built have successfully been tested by delivering packages to remote farms in Queensland, Australia from neighboring properties.

Australia was selected as a test site due to what Google calls "progressive" rules about the use of drones, which are more tightly controlled in other parts of the word.

Dual mode
Project Wing's aircraft have a wingspan of approximately 1.5m (4.9ft) and have four electrically-driven propellers.

The total weight, including the package to be delivered, is approximately 10kg (22lb). The aircraft itself accounts for the bulk of that at 8.5kg (18.7lb).

The vehicle is known as a "tail sitter" - since it rests on the ground with its propellers pointed straight up, but then transitions into a horizontal flight pattern.

This dual mode operation gives the self-flying vehicle some of the benefits of both planes and helicopters.

It can take off or land without a runway, and can hold its position hovering in one spot. It can also fly quickly and efficiently, allowing it to cover larger distances than the more traditional quadcopter vehicles available commercially.

The vehicles are pre-programmed with a destination, but then left to fly themselves there automatically.

This differs from many military drone aircraft, which are often remotely controlled by a pilot on the ground, sometimes on the other side of the world.

Eventually Google said it could use unmanned flying vehicles to deliver shopping items to consumers at home. That's a use that retail giant Amazon has already stated an interest in, with its proposed Prime Air service - the announcement of which generated headlines at the end of last year:

Amazon has asked the US Federal Aviation Administration for permission to conduct outdoor tests.
Google would not be permitted to carry out the Project Wing tests in the US
"The things we would do there are not unlike what is traditionally done in aerospace," said Mr Voss.

"It will be clear for us what level of redundancy we need in the controls and sensors, the computers that are on-board, and the motors, and how they are able to fail gracefully such that you don't have catastrophic problems occurring."

Other unusual vehicles have been investigated for humanitarian aid, including flying cars and hoverbikes, with the same aims of reaching cut-off areas quickly.

"We will have to see what kind of specific technology works best within the aid landscape, and if the new technology can integrate positively in the local context," said Lou Del Bello from news site SciDev.net, speaking about the category in general.

"It will need to demonstrate it can be cost effective, and respond to actual needs of local people."

Friday, August 29, 2014

Mystery of Death Valley's Sailing Stones Solved with GPS and Time-lapse

As reported by Engadget: After decades of theories and attempts to solve the mystery of Death Valley's sailing stones, a trio of scientists have finally caught the process on tape. Their study started years ago, when two of them (a biologist and an engineer) hauled 15 GPS-equipped rocks onto Racetrack Playa, the dry lake where the famous stones are found. It wasn't until 2013, when a planetary scientist made their two-man band a trio, that they hit the jackpot, though. Apparently, it takes a precise combination of water, ice and wind for the rocks to move

First, the water that floods the lake (which happens rarely) should be around 3 inches deep, so when it freezes, it forms thin, windowpane-like ice sheets beneath the rocks. Then, it should be sunny the day after that in order for the ice to crack, be blown by 10mph winds and propel the rocks forward.  

The stones the group caught on cam moved only a few inches per second, but some remained in motion for as long as 16 minutes and most sailed on the wet ground several times, so they traveled as far as 200 feet. Death Valley's sailing stones almost always make it to various lists of nature's mysteries, and we wouldn't even be surprised if there are people who truly believe they're moved by ghosts or aliens. If you need to see it happen to believe those findings, make sure to the watch time-lapse video and read the team's paper published in PLOS One.
 

NHTSA Moving Forward With Vehicle-To-Vehicle Communication

As reported by Motor Authority: Continuing research into autonomous vehicles won't just benefit the autonomous vehicles themselves, but all manner of other vehicles too. One particular area of research concerns vehicle-to-vehicle technology (V2V), and it's an area the Department of Transport's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is now giving serious consideration.

NHTSA has released an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking into the technology, alongside a report detailing comprehensive research into the subject. It includes analysis of the agency's research findings in areas including technical feasibility, privacy and security, as well as preliminary estimates on costs and safety benefits. Privacy and security issues will be of concern to many—particularly unease over how far vehicle data might be shared—but the agency's main concern is safety.


"Safety is our top priority," explains U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, "and V2V technology represents the next great advance in saving lives." The technology isn't about helping people survive accidents, an area which automakers continually strive to improve, but helping them avoid crashes altogether. Cars using vehicle-to-vehicle communication technology can be in constant communication with those nearby, sharing data on vehicle position and speed, proximity and whether any other obstacles in the nearby area pose a threat.

Two particular safety applications, Left Turn Assist (LTA) and Intersection Movement Assist (IMA), could prevent up to 592,000 crashes and save 1,083 lives per year, NHTSA data shows. The two technologies are designed to prevent those typical four-way intersection collisions before they even happen, with drivers warned about others running red lights or preventing unsighted cars turning left across high-speed opposing traffic. Various other applications, from those preventing forward collision and blind spot accidents to stop light warnings, would give drivers all the data they need to make safer decisions.

"By warning drivers of imminent danger, V2V technology has the potential to dramatically improve highway safety," said NHTSA Deputy Administrator David Friedman. He says the technology is "ready to move toward implementation" and that the report highlights the benefits and the work the DoT and NHTSA are doing to bring it to market. The advanced notice of proposed rulemaking will seek public input on the findings. From there, the technology could progress as quickly as manufacturers and local authorities are able to implement it.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Most Powerful Commercial Imaging Satellite Ever Launched is Sending Back Pics

As reported by GigaOM: WorldView-3, the super-powerful commercial satellite that launched two weeks ago, is now sending images back to Earth. The satellite is remarkable for its ability to collect sharp images down to a scale of 11.8 inches, which is enough for it to tell a tomato plant from a shrub and a sedan from an SUV.

“You can actually definitely see (car) windshields,” DigitalGlobe director of next generation products Kumar Navulur said before the launch. “We can actually tell you whether it’s a truck or an SUV or a regular car. We can identify pictures of a baseball diamond.”

The first images released by the satellite’s operator DigitalGlobe (headquartered in Longmont Colorado) depict an airport and neighborhoods in Madrid. In the airport images, airplanes, luggage trailers and activity like refueling or opening a hatch are visible.
An airport in Madrid. Photo courtesy of DigitalGlobe.
An airport in Madrid. Photo courtesy of DigitalGlobe.

An airport in Madrid. Photo courtesy of DigitalGlobe.
An airport in Madrid. Photo courtesy of DigitalGlobe.

The neighborhood images show how easy it is to count items like pools, cars and even individual trees.
A view of Madrid. Photo courtesy of DigitalGlobe.
A view of Madrid. Photo courtesy of DigitalGlobe.

A view of Madrid. Photo courtesy of DigitalGlobe.
A view of Madrid. Photo courtesy of DigitalGlobe.

DigitalGlobe actually had to edit the images to be less sharp than it is capable of producing. In June it became legal for the company to release images accurate at the 15.75 inch scale or above. Images at WorldView-3’s full 11.8 inch capability won’t be allowed until next year, when images down to 9.84 inches will be accepted.

WorldView-3 is capable of imaging areas nearly the size of Texas each day. It won’t be long before it passes over your town, so be sure to get your tomato plants photo-ready.

Satellite Launch Miscues Shakes Russia's Space Rocket Industry

As reported by The Moscow TimesRussia's space agency, Roscosmos, has launched an independent investigation into the cause of last Friday's botched launch of two brand-new European navigation satellites aboard a Soyuz rocket amid fears that the accident will destroy already weak consumer confidence in the country's space industry.  

Four years behind schedule, Friday's launch in Kourou, French Guiana, of the first two fully operational Galileo satellites — the EU's answer to the U.S. GPS and Russian Glonass satellite navigation systems — was supposed to be a momentous occasion for the European space community. But after initially hailing the launch as a success, flight engineers on the ground noticed that the rocket had delivered the satellites into the wrong orbit.

Officials from the European Space Agency, or ESA, which manages the Galileo project, have yet to declare the satellites officially "lost." But given their position relative to their intended orbits they are likely now useless.
With European investigations into the cause of the botched launch already under way, Russia's space community has launched its own internal investigation. Though the Soyuz rockets launched from Kourou are operated not by the Russian space agency but by French firm Arianespace, they are bought and made in Russia.
Two possibilities have been floated: a hardware failure in the Fregat booster, which forms the upper-stage of the Soyuz rocket — the part that actually flies in space — and was responsible for the final placing of the satellites; or a confused guidance system, Interfax reported Monday, citing an unidentified official from Roscosmos.

Partnership Undermined

The Galileo navigation system is a flagship high-tech project for the EU-backed ESA. Its realization would curtail Europe's reliance on the U.S. GPS, which could be shut off by the U.S. military during times of war. It has also been billed as a European job creator, with the market for satellite navigation-based services expected to reach a value of $320 billion by 2020.
ESA has budgeted 5 billion euros ($6.6 billion) for the project, which plans to have 30 satellites in orbit by 2017. The satellites that were lost on Friday were the first to be launched. They were uninsured.
Though the space business is notoriously difficult, the cost of losing such a high-value and symbolic payload could be serious for Russia's commercial launch industry, which is already struggling to find and retain new customers amid tensions sparked by the crisis in Ukraine and concerns over quality control after a series of high-profile launch failures began plaguing the industry in 2011.
Russian rockets have enjoyed a prominent position on the global launch market since the fall of the Soviet Union. Last year, Proton rockets alone, sold via International Launch Services, accounted for 30 percent of commercial launches worldwide.
International Launch Services and Sea Launch, which were responsible for selling commercial launches of Russia's heavy-lift Proton and light Zenit rockets, recently announced that they were cutting staff and reducing their launch expectations amid a slowdown in customer demand. Both rockets have experienced launch failures in the past three years.
One of the more noteworthy crashes to undermine trust in Russia's space competence involved a Proton rocket in June 2013. The rocket's guidance system was installed upside down, and when it tried to correct its trajectory after lifting off, it drove itself immediately into the ground.  Another Proton-M rocket failure occurred in May of this year.
The future of the Soyuz rocket had looked bright thanks to the partnership with Arianespace. The French rocket firm began buying Soyuz rockets from Russia in 2005 to meet demand for medium-weight payloads and spent $800 million to develop a Soyuz launch pad at the ESA spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.
Ariane 5 heavy launch vehicle
Arianespace does not have its own medium booster, only the lightweight Vega rocket and the heavyweight Ariane 5, making Soyuz — with its general reputation for success — a good option to include in its launch services.
The rockets started flying from Kourou in October 2011. After purchasing an initial 10 Soyuz rockets, Arianespace in April signed a new $400 million contract with Roscosmos for the delivery of an additional 16 Soyuz boosters to cover demand for medium-sized payloads — including the Galileo satellites — through 2019.
Now it is not clear what will become of those agreements. Confidence in the abilities of the Russian space industry have been degrading over the past several years, and Friday's bungle only adds to the disquiet.

The EU satellite navigation program signed a €500 million agreement for three Ariane-5 launchers Aug. 20 with Arianespace.
"Of course, this will influence Russia's competitive abilities in the launch market," Pavel Luzin, a space policy expert at the Institute of World Economics and International Relations, told The Moscow Times on Monday.
"Launch vehicle crashes can happen. But due to current political tensions between Russia and the West, the accident with the two Galileo satellites may lead to a revision of launch contracts," he said.

Erosion of Trust

In a statement released on Saturday, Arianespace said it would not fly the Soyuz rocket until the cause of Friday's botched launch is clearer.
The next two Galileo satellites are scheduled to launch in December aboard the same Soyuz-FG-type rocket that was used on Friday. In total, ESA plans to launch eight more Galileo satellites on the Soyuz rocket over the next three years. These satellites will be buttressed by 12 more that will be launched aboard French Ariane-5 heavy-lift rockets by 2017.
Soyuz rockets have been flown in various forms since the late 1960s — the current model is based on the same design that flew Yury Gagarin and Sputnik into space — and today are used to send cosmonauts and supplies to the International Space Station. In this role, they are the only means of reaching the space station.
Friday's failure is unlikely to effect this role, as investigators are so far blaming Soyuz's upper-stage rocket, Fregat. Fregat upper-stage boosters are used to deploy unmanned spacecraft upon reaching orbit and are not used in ISS runs.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

AirBnB, Bitcoin, Uber, and the Rise of Computational Trust

As reported by TechCrunch: How do you feel about letting strangers into your home? Our homes act as a kind of sanctuary from the outside world, a highly personal and exclusive refuge. They should be safe. While it is a commonplace in cultures throughout the world to be gracious hosts to guests, such warmth rarely extends to complete strangers at the door.

The notion that we would provide a room to those outside our kin seems remarkably alien, and yet, Airbnb would seem to have successfully changed this social norm. Today, as the company’s valuation can attest, it has found a way to facilitate these sorts of transactions on a global scale, across social classes and cultures.

A closer examination of this dynamic though, shows that there is more complexity here than meets the eye. Airbnb didn't approach this situation by resolving to make people more trusting, but instead, by making guests more familiar to their hosts, and vice versa. It developed reputation systems with symmetric feedback mechanisms so that guests and hosts can get to know each other before ever meeting, and it offers an insurance policy to limit any failures of its credibility model. Rather than creating a new culture of trust, it simply evaded the issue of trust entirely.

The story of Airbnb is a great parable about the changes happening to trust in our society. 
Driven by technology change, formerly untrusted transactions are easier to conduct than ever. A Bitcoin transaction doesn't require any information about the payer at all, unlike credit card transactions, and an Uber driver can be sure that a passenger is going to pay a fare with limited bad behavior. More than almost any other social change driven by startups, the invention of a “non-trusting” infrastructure is one of the most notable in the history of the internet.

Unfortunately, our heady delight at this increasing power for abstract commerce belies a challenge to the very culture that holds together human societies. In using products like Airbnb’s reputation systems and Bitcoin’s blockchain, we are increasingly relying on technology to facilitate trust between humans, rather than developing our own individual capabilities for fidelity. That may have limited short-term influence on the way our economy is structured, but in the medium to long-term, this transition risks undermining not just traditional commerce, but also areas like decision-making, politics, leadership, and normal social interactions.  

Trust is about expected behaviors, an assumption that another party is going to take actions as we would expect. The very concept of agriculture that allowed civilization to flourish was built around trust – trust that food was going to be produced, trust that it would be distributed and not hoarded, and trust that there was some way of procuring that food in a consistent manner.  

The history of economics, and really, the history of civilization, is the creation of institutions that allow us to increasingly abstract away that trust and minimize risk. Perhaps the most prominent example is currencies. When someone hands me dollars to pay for something, I only have to trust that this system of payments is going to work, irrespective of the payer’s credit or trustworthiness. Court systems and regulations work similarly to reduce risks of conducting business by (theoretically) making outcomes more predictable.

We have only talked about physical exchanges, but services have even more risk. When a taxi driver takes on a passenger at the curb, that driver is literally taking on a financial risk – will the person who just entered the cab be able to pay at the destination? When a software consultant finishes up a phase of a programming project, will they receive their income? 

Through social trust, laws, and regulations, our system has adequately worked to make these services possible. The passenger believes the driver will take him or her to their destination in the shortest way possible, while the driver expects that the passenger will pay and behave. 

Similarly, the software developer expects to get paid as the terms of their contract dictate.
Unfortunately, our society’s stock of trust has been declining. For Americans, our trust in institutions, measured through long-running polls like those at Gallup, show that we are hitting a nadir in our levels of trust. Such faith in institutions is decreasing elsewhere in the world as well. Perhaps even more ominously, levels of social trust also seem to be decreasing throughout the world, particularly among young adults, who also happen to be the heaviest users of technology.

Startups, often without directly saying so, are entering this fray with their own solutions. Startups like Airbnb and Uber are not just about facilitating a transaction, but rather about facilitating trust to allow for a transaction. They have two-sided reputation systems to remove bad actors, and to provide information to both parties to make a transaction easier to make.


Even more broadly, Bitcoin and the recently launched Stellar are attempting to entirely do away with trust in our existing commerce. By trusting a simple protocol and the blockchain, we no longer need to have faith in a consumer’s ability to pay, or even in the stability of a single fiat currency. If the currency is located in a Bitcoin account, it can be transacted without any knowledge of the account holder, no human trust required.

As I mentioned before, much of the development and flourishing of human civilization has involved the abstraction of elements of our economy. If we think along this line, these new technology systems are not nearly as disruptive as they first appear, but rather merely the next logical phase of abstraction in the economy. If it is possible to take human-based trust out of these transactions and replace it with a computer — which presumably we trust more — isn’t this progress?


Indeed, there are truly incredible advantages to the creation of anonymous trust. Commercial transactions that may never have occurred under our previous economic infrastructure may now have a framework for trade, which is almost certainly a positive for economic growth. Those same improvements also apply to services, where computational trust systems can facilitate more work and a greater volume of wages.

The challenge is that trust isn't just the bedrock of our economic system, but also the core architecture of our political and social systems. When a country raises tax revenues to pay for institutions like schools, we are trusting that the government is using such funds judiciously and in a way that fosters the development of the country. This compact is based on trust, and it isn't simple to replace with a computer.

Given the option of having more information about a transaction, most rational agents in an economy would prefer to receive it. We would rather know if the person we are offering our services has the ability to pay or has had serious issues with other professionals. Since computers can increasingly provide us with robust reputation systems, it seems inevitable that such systems will enter into more of our daily transactions.

But if a greater number of our daily transactions are mediated by computational trust systems, we may be withering out ability to handle trusting transactions. When a non-profit asks for donation, are we going to Venmo it so we know that it wasn't stolen by the solicitor? Will we continue to give our kids allowances in cash, or instead replace it with online currencies that are strictly regulated by parental controls? The more computers provide us with the capability to avoid issues of trust, the less practice we will have in basic human-to-human interactions.

Perhaps this is too cynical a view. Even if Airbnb mediated the transaction, it is still the case that I allowed someone into my home who I have never met. Nonetheless, I think it behooves us to be watchful for how our technology influences our culture. Trust is too important to merely leave to machines to do. We need to make sure that our ability to trust others doesn't atrophy like our ability to write using a pen.

Uber's Playbook for Sabotaging Lyft

As reported by The Verge: Uber is arming teams of independent contractors with burner phones and credit cards as part of its sophisticated effort to undermine Lyft and other competitors. Interviews with current and former contractors, along with internal documents obtained by The Verge, outline the company’s evolving methods. Using contractors it calls "brand ambassadors," Uber requests rides from Lyft and other competitors, recruits their drivers, and takes multiple precautions to avoid detection. The effort, which Uber appears to be rolling out nationally, has already resulted in thousands of canceled Lyft rides and made it more difficult for its rival to gain a foothold in new markets. Uber calls the program "SLOG," and it’s a previously unreported aspect of the company’s ruthless efforts to undermine its competitors.

Together, the interviews and documents show the lengths to which Uber will go to halt its rivals’ momentum. The San Francisco startup has raised $1.5 billion in venture capital, giving it an enormous war chest with which to battle Lyft and others. While the company’s cutthroat nature is well documented, emails from Uber managers offer new insight into the shifting tactics it uses to siphon drivers away from competitors without getting caught. It also demonstrates the strong interest Uber has taken in crushing Lyft, its biggest rival in ridesharing, which is in the midst of a national expansion.

After The Verge asked Uber for comment on its report, the company stalled for time until they could write this blog post introducing Operation SLOG to the world. "We never use marketing tactics that prevent a driver from making their living — and that includes never intentionally canceling rides," the company said.

‘A special ongoing project’

Earlier this month, CNN reported that Uber employees around the country ordered and then canceled 5,560 Lyft rides, according to an analysis by Lyft. (Lyft arrived at this figure by cross-referencing the phone numbers of users who tried to recruit Lyft drivers to Uber with users who had previously canceled rides.) Uber flatly denied trying to sabotage its competitor: "Lyft’s claims against Uber are baseless and simply untrue," the company said.

But one Uber contractor The Verge spoke with said Lyft’s complaint had merit. "What’s simply untrue is that not only does Uber know about this, they’re actively encouraging these actions day-to-day and, in doing so, are flat-out lying both to their customers, the media, and their investors," the contractor said. Until now, the canceled Lyft rides have been understood as a kind of prank call designed to keep competitors’ drivers off the road. But interviews and internal documents suggest another reason: Uber’s recruitment program has vastly increased in size and sophistication, and recruiters cancel rides in part to avoid detection by Lyft.

The ground troops in Uber’s sabotage campaign are the company’s ambassadors, some of whom it hires through TargetCW, a San Diego-based employment agency. For the most part, ambassadors work at events or on college campuses, promoting Uber as a cheap and easy way of getting around town. The primary goal is to recruit riders, not drivers, and Uber calls the activity "slanging." But since at least mid-summer, some brand ambassadors in New York have been turning their talents against Lyft. Using Uber-provided iPhones and credit cards, the contractors hail rides, strike up conversations with their drivers, and attempt to sign them up before they arrive at their destination. (In other cities recruiters travel with "driver kits" that include iPhones and everything else a driver needs to get started on Uber; ambassadors were told New York State does not allow this.) Compensation varies, but contractors can earn a $750 commission for successfully recruiting a single new driver to Uber, according to a contractor.

Organizing a street team
As Lyft has gotten better at sniffing out recruiters and banning them from the service, Uber has been forced to alter its tactics. In the run-up to Lyft’s high-profile launch last month in New York City, Uber organized a "street team" to analyze Lyft’s expansion strategy. On July 9th, a marketing manager emailed a subset of the company’s contractors in New York city with a new opportunity. "We have a special ongoing project that we’re going to be rolling out next week and I wanted to get about 8–10 of you to help out," he wrote. "This is going to be completely based on your own personal hustle, as it’s not a typical onsite event. We are going to have you working on your own time helping us sign up Uber drivers, and there is HUGE commission opportunity for everyone you signup."

Operation SLOG

The special ongoing project had a different codename: SLOG. Contractors in New York who responded to the "special ongoing project" message were invited to individual hour-long meetings with Uber marketing managers, who had traveled from Los Angeles and Washington, DC, to New York to oversee the team’s creation.

It was there that the company laid out its plan, according to a contractor. With Lyft’s arrival in New York imminent, Uber said it was creating a "street team" charged with gathering intelligence about Lyft’s launch plans and recruiting their drivers to Uber. Contractors were then handed two Uber-branded iPhones and a series of valid credit card numbers to be used for creating dummy Lyft accounts. Uber assumed every contractor would be caught by Lyft eventually; the second phone, according to a contractor interviewed by The Verge, was issued so "you would have a backup phone if and when that happened so you wouldn't have to go back."

Backup phones for days
A follow-up email outlined the process for recruiting Lyft drivers in detail. It emphasizes the importance of requesting rides from different physical locations so as not to arouse Lyft’s suspicions, suggests methods of recruiting, and outlines the process for signing up drivers on Uber’s platform.

operationslog

The message linked to an online form, which was still active as this story went to press, where Uber could collect information about the Lyft drivers.

uber signup

As their plans evolved, Uber realized the likelihood that Lyft drivers would be recruited multiple times by its team members and alert Lyft about the street team’s existence. The solution: a private group on the messaging app GroupMe where members of the street team could post Lyft driver profiles. That way, Uber contractors could make sure their Lyft driver had not already been pitched. "You guys will run into drivers you have already got in cars with," a Los Angeles-based marketing manager emailed the team. "Post the driver profiles in groupme when you request so people are aware."

In messages to the contractors, Uber’s marketing managers are full of good cheer. "Hello my lovely Sloggers!" begins one note, which gives instructions for filling out some paperwork. Once that’s out of the way, she writes, "then it’s all the little Lyfts your hearts desire." She ends her sentence with the hashtag #shavethestache, a reference to the big pink mustaches Lyft drivers affix to their vehicles’ grilles.

operationslog

Uber appears to be replicating its program across the country. One email obtained by The Verge links to an online form for requesting burner phones, credit cards, and driver kits — everything an Uber driver needs to get started, which recruiters often carry with them. The form lists 10 cities, including LA, Seattle, Boston, Miami, and Washington, DC. "We are growing and growing so with that said this will put some organization to your madness," says the form, which was still live at the time of publication. "I need BA phones to make a lyft account," reads one line, referring to brand ambassadors; "Great how many do you need," reads the line below.
"This will put some organization to your madness!"

operationslog

Uber’s aggressive tactics reflect the fact that ridesharing is largely a zero-sum game: a driver picking up an Uber customer can’t simultaneously pick up a Lyft customer. (Drivers are allowed to drive for both services, though the companies discourage the practice.) Having more active drivers on the road creates a virtuous circle that improves geographical coverage, increases demand, and allows services to lower prices by taking a smaller cut from a growing number of rides. Uber and Lyft are competing to become the first app you think of when you need a taxi, and the service with the most drivers likely stands the best chance of winning.

That helps to explain why competition between the two has become so vicious, with Uber and Lyft both offering hefty bonuses and other perks to drivers who switch services. For a time, Uber lost money on every ride to help spur demand. And Lyft has itself aggressively recruited Uber drivers, offering cash bonuses for joining, and hosting free taco lunches at its driver center. The Spy-vs.-Spy nature of their competition was revealed again earlier this month, when Uber caught wind of Lyft’s multi-passenger ridesharing offering and preemptively announced a nearly identical offering the night before Lyft made its announcement.

Lyft declined to comment for this story. After Uber became aware that The Verge was asking questions, Target CW sent out multiple emails warning contractors that talking to the press violated a non-disclosure agreement they signed when they joined.