• Newsletter Issue #831

    November 2nd, 2015


    Did Apple goof when they designed the Apple TV? How could they not know that 4K is everywhere at consumer electronics outlets, yet the fourth generation Apple TV has no support for the enhanced resolution, also known as Ultra HD. Did they not realize that competitors, such as Amazon and Roku, would offer 4K support in their new set-top boxes?

    Unfortunately, it’s not as if Apple has been forthcoming about why such a key feature is missing in action. I can see the logic of it all, of course, that some enhancements to 4K, such as a HDR color, are of critical importance to maximizing the customer experience, and such features may need work. As it is, you need a pretty large TV set, viewed at an acceptable distance, to see any resolution enhancement at all. If you’re standing right in front of a TV at a consumer electronics store, even the smaller sets will seem just amazingly sharp. But not when you get home and watch the set at a normal viewing distance.

    There’s also not a lot of 4K fare to be head, so what you are seeing, mostly, is upscaled 1080p content. When done well, though, it does improve the picture. But if you are too far away from the set, none of this matters. In addition, most lower-cost 4K sets don’t offer enhanced color, and TV makers haven’t even settled on a single standard.

    Apple could explain all this. Perhaps the Apple TV is upgradable to 4K — and possibly even to the current HDMI standard — via a firmware update. Perhaps, but why should we have to guess? It’s not that Apple isn’t capable of engineering such capabilities, and I don’t think they expect that you’ll have to buy a fifth generation Apple TV to get 4K support a year or two after buying the current model. This is the sort of product that most of you will probably not care to upgrade very often. Indeed, I am perfectly happy with my third generation Apple TV. Other than AirPlay streaming, iTunes content and Netflix, I don’t use it for much else. I am not a gamer, so I’d be a hard sell to persuade me to consider buying a new one.

    In any case, on this weekend’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we presented outspoken commentator John Martellaro, Senior Editor, Analysis & Reviews for The Mac Observer. His bill of fare included a discussion of how Apple quietly established a $25 billion enterprise business with support from IBM and Cisco, and what if a forthcoming Apple Car, with autonomous driving capability, made a “very bad” decision when faced with the possibility of a potential accident? He also talked about the efforts by Apple and Microsoft to rethink the tablet, and why Apple may have turned its back on 4K (Ultra HD) support on the new Apple TV while the industry moves forward to support the new high-resolution technology.

    You also heard a first look at the fourth generation Apple TV from columnist Kirk McElhearn, Macworld’s “iTunes Guy.” Does the revised set-top box meet expectations, and what about the impact — or lack thereof — of the missing support for 4K? Did Apple make a bad move, or are they waiting for the new 4K color standards to stabilize? Kirk discussed the mixed reaction to OS X El Capitan. Should we take all the complaints seriously?

    On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: We focus to serious investigations of UFO without prejudging or snap judgments with Clas Svahn, international director for UFO Sweden. The Paracast has covered the 1946-1949 “ghost rocket” mystery with Nick Redfern, Micah Hanks and “The Rosetta Deception” author James Carrion, but this week we’ll expand on the subject with a noted Swedish researcher who has spent years investigating this little-known wave of hundreds of anomalous aerial objects seen over Scandinavia in the years surrounding the end of World War II. Contrary to what some believe, this mystery is ongoing, and there have been reports of this phenomenon almost to the present day. An introduction to UFO Sweden’s documentary on “ghost rockets”  can be found at: http://www.ghostrockets.se.


    More and more auto makers are taking the drudgery — and some would argue the fun — out of motoring in your car, SUV or truck.

    For me, it started simply enough. For my first nine years as a driver, I stuck with a manual transmission. That’s how I learned to drive, and I was quick and smooth about moving from gear to gear, assuming the vehicle was cooperative. For such an old technology, it’s surprising that some auto makers manage to build vehicles that are difficult to shift unless you really force the issue. I prefer butter smooth.

    My approach, at the time, was to not just save money, but get the maximum performance and fuel economy from the cheap compact vehicles I chose to buy. Luxury cars were way off my radar, and not just because I couldn’t afford one.

    In the mid-1970s, while trying to recover financially after making a bad business deal, I got approved, with difficulty, for a new car from a nearby Buick dealer. I ended up with a blue compact car, a Skylark hatchback with automatic transmission, air conditioning, and a white vinyl roof that attracted lots of dirt and was difficult to keep clean. When it came to giving up shifting, I was mostly hooked. The “slush box” had its charms, one being simplicity and comfort during long sessions of stop and go driving. And I believed that the small sacrifice in fuel economy wasn’t such a big deal.

    I bought just one more vehicle with a stick shift, and returned to automatic when my wife protested that she had trouble driving manual. Nowadays, automatic transmissions are efficient enough to have 99-100% of the performance of the manual, and often equal or superior fuel economy. But that’s not the only area where car makers are taking the work out of driving.

    Consider adaptive cruise controls, which not only keeps your vehicle in its lane, but a fixed distance from vehicles ahead of it. So if you get too close, the car will slow down. It will activate the brakes if need be, and that’s supposed to keep you safe, particularly during long stretches of high-speed motoring across a freeway. The downside, I suspect, is that your concentration is dulled, and you have to depend more on the car’s onboard computers to be smart enough to get you out of a jam, or help prevent an accident.

    Parallel parking is one of the more difficult driving procedures. I learned it early on, but I’m not perfect and it’s a struggle to keep from curbing the wheels, which means they scrap against the curb, often doing damage to expensive wheels. But many cars, and not just the luxury models, can do it with an elaborate setup of sensors and computers, with or without your help. So if you must parallel park, and your skills aren’t perfect, there is a solution.

    Now when it comes to lane change warnings, I’ve had exactly one car that offered this feature. It would beep as soon as I drifted out of a lane, and that’s just a basic warning scheme. It doesn’t force you back into the lane, and it’s not perfect. If the markers on the road aren’t well defined, or fading and in need of repainting, it may not work so well or at all. Other than being annoying, I decided that I was a good enough driver not to need a computer to remind me when I was a little careless, so I turned the feature off. Again, I worry about possible driver inattention with those automated systems running, which is a bad thing.

    By 2018, all new vehicles sold in the U.S. will have to be equipped with backup cameras. So when you go into reverse, you see a display of what’s happening behind you. It may appear on the rear view mirror, or in the infotainment system’s display. Some have clear markers to give you a sense of how close an object might be behind you. To me, this is an important safety feature, particularly in vehicles where the view of what’s happening behind you is partly obstructed by low roofs and high belt lines, which make a car look fancy, but aren’t terribly practical. My last car, a Kia Optima, had a futuristic if impractical design that required the rear view camera. That shortcoming is being partly remedied in the 2016 model that’s due in dealers showrooms later this year.

    While side view mirrors help, the rearview camera is an absolute essential for safety. I fully expect that, when the stats are in, we’ll see there were fewer accidents in which children and pets were injured by vehicles backing up. It will save lives.

    A related feature is the blindspot warning system, that helps you better detect vehicles at each side of your vehicle and generate a warning. Even if you religiously stay in lane, if another car drifts into your lane, it could cause a nasty accident. So when this feature is well designed, I can see its value, if you have time to get out of trouble of course.

    All of these and other safety systems that are debuting even on lower cost vehicles are helping to pave the way towards autonomous driving. The end game is to allow you to have your car do it all without your intervention, with the level of safety that few — or any — human drivers can approach.

    A feature pointing in that direction has already appeared, Tesla’s Autopilot, which is being made available to vehicle owners as a software update. It appears to be essentially a sophisticated cruise control and lane locking system, but that’s just a first step. It’s supposed to be self-learning, meaning it gets better with experience.

    By 2020 or thereabouts, it may be possible to buy a car that can be programmed to take you to your preferred destination without any further intervention on your part. I suppose advanced navigation systems will allow it to choose the safest and fastest route. It would be a boon to those who regard driving as little more than a way to get from one place to another. Those who are physically challenged will have a new level of freedom.

    Indeed, I think of Barbara’s current situation. Her vision is failing in her left eye, and she may soon need a cornea transplant, replacing the one she got six years ago. Today, if she needs to go somewhere, I’m the family limo driver. I don’t complain, because I love driving, but what if I were forced to give up my driver’s license? I’m at an age where it has to be renewed every five years, and I have to take a vision test each time.

    There are downsides to self-driving. An autonomous vehicle is apt to be expensive when it first appears, although the current safety enhancements are usually available in packages costing no more than a couple of thousand dollars, more or less. So there may be a time when even a compact car will have the technology to do the driving for you.

    But what about safety considerations and liability? Will there have to be laws governing autonomous driving for an entire country or a state or province? If the laws in one locale prohibit such schemes, you may be in a situation where you cross a border and you are thus driving illegally. There will have to be consistent standards, both for certifying that vehicles are safe to how insurance claims are handled in the event of an accident, particularly if injuries are involved.

    If it were proven, for example, that a fatal accident might be the result of a defect in the self-driving system, that would not just deter potential customers, but create situations where costly class-action lawsuits might be the rule of the day. Indeed, what would persuade governments and insurance companies that such systems are safer than human drivers, and not apt to have complications of their own?

    What about the potential ethical issues?

    There’s a fascinating article on the subject from tech industry consultant Tim Bajarin over at Re/code that attempts to sort out “Autonomous Cars and Their Ethical Conundrum.”

    Now consider, for example, if the self-driving system was confronted with a troubling ethical dilemma when the vehicle was facing an inevitable accident? There would have to be a crash, but with what or whom? How would the system decide what obstacle or individual to hit and how it would impact the people in the autonomous vehicle? If it was a choice of a household pet or an obstruction of some sort, would the system decide that the pet had to go for the greater good, because the obstruction could result in serious injuries to those inside the vehicle? What if it involved a choice between different pedestrian traffic that included adults, children, or pets? There are seconds to make a decision! How would it cope with such a dilemma?

    And what about the consequences? Would the lawyers representing the victims — or their families — go after the car company, and the person who had the temerity to buy that vehicle, if a wrong decision was made and someone was seriously injured or killed? It wouldn’t matter if that choice was made because computers deemed it to be the one that caused the least amount of harm.

    These are some of the dilemmas the car companies, insurance companies, governments and other affected parties will have to hash out before self-driving moves beyond the testing stage.

    If the rumored Apple Car is meant to be self-driving, what could Apple contribute to this burgeoning technology? I’ll have to think about it seriously when the time comes — and it inevitably must — for me to give up my driver’s license.


    The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.

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