Gadgets – TechCrunch Devin Coldewey

A self-driving vehicle made by Uber has struck and killed a pedestrian. It’s the first such incident and will certainly be scrutinized like no other autonomous vehicle interaction in the past. But on the face of it it’s hard to understand how, short of a total system failure, this could happen when the entire car has essentially been designed around preventing exactly this situation from occurring.

Something unexpectedly entering the vehicle’s path is pretty much the first emergency event that autonomous car engineers look at. The situation could be many things — a stopped car, a deer, a pedestrian — and the systems are one and all designed to detect them as early as possible, identify them, and take appropriate action. That could be slowing, stopping, swerving, anything.

Uber’s vehicles are equipped with several different imaging systems which work both ordinary duty (monitoring nearby cars, signs, and lane markings) and extraordinary duty like that just described. No less than four different ones should have picked up the victim in this case.

Top-mounted lidar. The bucket-shaped item on top of these cars is a lidar, or light detection and ranging, system that produces a 3D image of the car’s surroundings multiple times per second. Using infrared laser pulses that bounce off objects and return to the sensor, lidar can detect static and moving objects in considerable detail, day or night.

This is an example of a lidar-created imagery, though not specifically what the Uber vehicle would have seen.

Heavy snow and fog can obscure a lidar’s lasers, and its accuracy decreases with range, but for anything from a few feet to a few hundred feet, it’s an invaluable imaging tool and one that is found on practically every self-driving car.

The lidar unit, if operating correctly, should have been able to make out the person in question, if they were not totally obscured, while they were still more than a hundred feet away, and passed on their presence to the “brain” that collates the imagery.

Front-mounted radar. Radar, like lidar, sends out a signal and waits for it to bounce back, but it uses radio waves instead of light. This makes it more resistant to interference, since radio can pass through snow and fog, but also lowers its resolution and changes its range profile.

Tesla’s Autopilot relies mostly on radar.

Depending on the radar unit Uber employed — likely multiple in both front and back to provide 360 degrees of coverage — the range could differ considerably. If it’s meant to complement the lidar, chances are it overlaps considerably, but is built more to identify other cars and larger obstacles.

The radar signature of a person is not nearly so recognizable, but it’s very likely they would have at least shown up, confirming what the lidar detected.

Short and long-range optical cameras. Lidar and radar are great for locating shapes, but they’re no good for reading signs, figuring out what color something is, and so on. That’s a job for visible-light cameras with sophisticated computer vision algorithms running in real time on their imagery.

The cameras on the Uber vehicle watch for telltale patterns that indicate braking vehicles (sudden red lights), traffic lights, crossing pedestrians, and so on. Especially on the front end of the car, multiple angles and types of camera would be used, so as to get a complete picture of the scene into which the car is driving.

Detecting people is one of the most commonly attempted computer vision problems, and the algorithms that do it have gotten quite good. “Segmenting” an image, as it’s often called, generally also involves identifying things like signs, trees, sidewalks and more.

That said, it can be hard at night. But that’s an obvious problem, the answer to which is the previous two systems, which work night and day. Even in pitch darkness, a person wearing all black would show up on lidar and radar, warning the car that it should perhaps slow and be ready to see that person in the headlights. That’s probably why a night-vision system isn’t commonly found in self-driving vehicles (I can’t be sure there isn’t one on the Uber car, but it seems unlikely).

Safety driver. It may sound cynical to refer to a person as a system, but the safety drivers in these cars are very much acting in the capacity of an all-purpose failsafe. People are very good at detecting things, even though we don’t have lasers coming out of our eyes. And our reaction times aren’t the best, but if it’s clear that the car isn’t going to respond, or has responded wrongly, a trained safety driver will react correctly.

Worth mentioning is that there is also a central computing unit that takes the input from these sources and creates its own more complete representation of the world around the car. A person may disappear behind a car in front of the system’s sensors, for instance, and no longer be visible for a second or two, but that doesn’t mean they ceased existing. This goes beyond simple object recognition and begins to bring in broader concepts of intelligence such as object permanence, predicting actions, and the like.

It’s also arguably the most advance and closely guarded part of any self-driving car system and so is kept well under wraps.

It isn’t clear what the circumstances were under which this tragedy played out, but the car was certainly equipped with technology that was intended to, and should have, detected the person and caused the car to react appropriately. Furthermore, if one system didn’t work, another should have sufficed — multiple failbacks are only practical in high stakes matters like driving on public roads.

We’ll know more as Uber, local law enforcement, federal authorities, and others investigate the accident.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Megan Rose Dickey

When you get a new car, and you’re feeling like a star, the first thing you’re probably going to do is ghost ride it. This is where the Owl camera can come in.

I’ve been testing Owl, an always-on, two-way camera that records everything that’s happening inside and outside of your car all day, every day for the last couple of weeks.

The Owl camera is designed to monitor your car for break-ins, collisions and police stops. Owl can also be used to capture fun moments (see above) on the road or beautiful scenery, simply by saying, ‘Ok, presto.’

If Owl senses a car accident, it automatically saves the video to your phone, including the 10 seconds before and after the accident. Also, if someone is attracted to your car because of the camera and its blinking green light, and proceeds to steal it, Owl will give you another one.

For 24 hours, you can view your driving and any other incidents that happened during the day. You can also, of course, save footage to your phone so you can watch it after 24 hours.

Setting it up

The two-way camera plugs into your car’s on-board diagnostics port (Every car built after 1996 has one), and takes just a few minutes to set up. The camera tucks right in between the dashboard and windshield. Once it’s hooked up, you can access your car’s camera anytime via the Owl mobile app.

I was a bit skeptical about the ease with which I’d be able to install the camera, but it was actually pretty easy. From opening the box to getting the camera up and running, it took fewer than ten minutes.

Accessing the footage

This is where it can get a little tricky. If you want to save footage after the fact, Owl requires that you be physically near the camera. That meant I had to put on real clothes and walk outside to my car to access the footage from the past 24 hours in order to connect to the Owl’s Wi-Fi. Eventually, however, Owl says it will be possible to access that footage over LTE.

But that wasn’t my only qualm with footage access. Once I tried to download the footage, the app would often crash or only download a portion of the footage I requested. This, however, should be easily fixable, given Owl is set up for over-the-air updates. In fact, Owl told me the company is aware of that issue and is releasing a fix this week. If I want to see the live footage, though, that’s easy to access.


Owl is set up to let you know if and when something happens to your car while you’re not there. My Owl’s out-of-the-box settings were set to high sensitivity, which meant I received notifications if a car simply drove by. Changing the settings to a lower sensitivity fixed the annoyance of too many notifications.

Since installing the Owl camera, there hasn’t been a situation in which I was notified of any nefarious behavior happening in or around my car. But I do rest assured knowing that if something does happen, I’ll be notified right away and will be able to see live footage of whatever it is that’s happening.

My understanding is that most of the dash cams on the market aren’t set up to give you 24/7 video access, nor are they designed to be updatable over the air. The best-selling dash cam on Amazon, for example, is a one-way facing camera with collision detection, but it’s not always on. That one retails for about $100 while Amazon’s Choice is one that costs just $47.99, and comes with Wi-Fi to enable real-time viewing and video playback.

Owl is much more expensive than its competition, retailing at $299, with LTE service offered at $10 per month. Currently, Owl is only available as a bundle for $349, which includes one year of the LTE service.

Unlike Owl’s competition, however, the device is always on, due to the fact it plugs into your car’s OMD port. That’s the main, most attractive differentiator for me. To be clear, while the Owl does suck energy from your car’s battery, it’s smart enough to know when it needs to shutdown. Last weekend, I didn’t drive my car for over 24 hours, so Owl shut itself down to ensure my battery wasn’t dead once I came back.

Owl, which launched last month, has $18 million in funding from Defy Ventures, Khosla Ventures, Menlo Ventures, Sherpa Capital and others. The company was founded by Andy Hodge, a former product lead at Apple and executive at Dropcam, and Nathan Ackerman, who formerly led development for Microsoft’s HoloLens.

P.S. I was listening to “Finesse” by Bruno Mars and Cardi B in the GIF above.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Devin Coldewey

 Just a PSA: If you charge your car regularly at a public charge station, you might want to keep an eye out for fraudulent charges on whatever card you use to pay for it. Researchers have found that some charge stations, specifically those that require a dedicated card, “have not implemented basic security mechanisms” like encryption. Read More

Gadgets – TechCrunch Darrell Etherington

 Elon Musk’s flamethrower, branded and sold via The Boring Company, his new tunnel digging venture, is now all sold out. That means 20,000 buyers have secured pre-orders, and at $500 per, that adds up to $10 million in committed funds heading to The Boring Co’s coffers. Musk started selling these via The Boring Company’s website just a few short days ago, on Saturday, January 27. Read More

Gadgets – TechCrunch Darrell Etherington

 The Boring Company is getting decently well-capitalized on the back of sales of its flamethrower (yes, flamethrower). The no-doubt overpriced piece of knack, which can be make yourself at home using likely around $30 in parts, is selling for $500 and has already netted Elon Musk’s digging venture $7.5 million. That’s after just over a day of being on sale, and not counting the… Read More

Gadgets – TechCrunch Darrell Etherington

 So that flamethrower that Elon Musk teased The Boring Company would start selling after it ran out of its 50,000 hats? Yeah, it’s real – and you can pre-order one now if you want need a ridiculous way to spend $500. Musk revealed the flamethrower on Saturday, after some digging tipped its existence late last week. The Boring Company Flamethrower is functional, too, as you can see… Read More

Gadgets – TechCrunch Darrell Etherington

 It’s rare that I pay much attention to automaker infotainment and multimedia system updates at CES – usually there’s too much going on with autonomy, electrification and mobility services to give it much thought. This year, however, Mercedes-Benz had one of the most interesting announcements at the show with its new MBUX smart multimedia system and in-car voice activated… Read More

Gadgets – TechCrunch Devin Coldewey

 It’s one thing for an autonomous car to strut its stuff on smooth, warm California tarmac, and quite another to do so on the frozen winter mix of northern Finland. Martti, a self-driving vehicle system homegrown in Finland, demonstrated just this in a record-setting drive along a treacherous (to normal drivers) Laplandish road. Martti is one of two cars designed by VTT Technical… Read More