Dynamic Stationary Headlights

Innovation keeps rolling forward full steam ahead when it comes to auto design and manufacturing.  I don’t say that lightly, being a safety driver testing some of the most advanced cars on the planet. Yet I feel like auto companies have focused all their attention on bluetooth, autonomy or other sexy technological advances and have overlooked one crucial point:  headlights.

I mean, cars have them and all, but I feel like we’re working with the same basic design as when headlights were first attached to cars.  There’s two, on the nose of the vehicle, pointing forward.  With the addition of LED bulbs they’ve made the light brighter and more efficient, but didn’t otherwise challenge the overall design.  The problem being, when they were designed a hundred years ago they only seemed to be thinking about the driver, who really is only 50% of the user base they should be concerned about.

Headlights are designed to show the driver what they’re missing at night when our vision no longer becomes adequate for moving around at high speeds.  I’ve observed that the newer or fancier the car, the more powerful the LED or higher angle used.  Which I’m sure is GREAT for the driver.  Just think of all the cars and cyclist and pedestrians they’ll blind while driving around at night.  Why doesn’t the design and function of headlights take into consideration those who are caught in them?

Working as a safety driver for the Google Self Driving Car project and before that as an Uber driver, one downside of the job is that you spend more time than you would like sitting in uncomfortable positions in order to avoid being blinded by very bright headlights in your rear and side view mirrors.  And that isn’t even considering the pair you can’t avoid coming straight at you.  It’s getting to a point where I flash my high beams at cars dead certain that they are driving with their high beams on, only to get flashed back at very close range as they pass me.

We have to share the road; and if your normal headlights are so bright that I think you’re driving around with your high beams on, then that’s a problem.  I understand you need to see the road, but so do I.  And I can’t do that if it takes my eyes three seconds to adjust to the night environment after being momentarily blinded.

There should be new design standard that requires all normal beams to be at such and such an angle.  You might come back to me with “Well, Emma, there already is that standard,” but unless you show me in whatever book where that standard exists, and then the clause that exempts all Prii from it, then I will believe you.  I’m starting to think there’s an unspoken equation auto companies use that goes something like for every ‘n’ (being smugness factor of vehicle) increase headlight angle by 2 degrees.  I’ll leave it to your imagination how they factor ‘n’.

Auto companies should be able to design a stationary headlight.  Stationary not in that it’s locked into place in the car, but that the pitch of the beam does not vary if the car drives over a speed bump or into a driveway.  The bulb could be on a rocker so that the upward or downward movement of the car would not affect the angle of the beam.

I was almost stumped by a coworker I was sharing this idea with.  He asked what if the car was going uphill?  Which is a very good concern to have.  After all, the car can’t be going uphill but have the lights pointed straight down at the ground, right?  I’m not entirely sure what the solution is, but I feel like the rear of the vehicle would have to be taken into consideration when angling the rocker.  For instance, with a speed bump, the front and back of the vehicle will move vertically independently of each other depending how far away the tires are from each other and how fast the car is going.  Unlike going uphill, where the whole car will be pitched at the same angle.

I’m not asking for anything (too) complicated; certainly nothing that hasn’t already been invented.  Maybe that’s the issue.  It’s too simple.  Or maybe just not sexy enough.  I wish someone would do a study on how much staring down really bright headlights damages your eyes.  Yes, I will get a group of optometrists to run a study in order to make my idea sexier….

Sun Tracking Transition Windows

First I’ll start with an update about how the Stemsational fared on Quirky: it didn’t.  I’m not even entirely sure they looked at it as they claim to do.  I got a form fill letter stating “Sorry _______, but Quirky decided not to go with the _________.  But you should keep trying!” I guess the key to getting stuff developed is to get people who have already bought stuff on the site to vote for you.  That’s the only thing that carries any significance; which I’m not too stunned to hear, they are after all, a business.

So, the Stemsational has been pushed back onto my plate, where I will push it to the side like so many over cooked peas, only to have one roll back into the middle of my dinner every once and a while, forcing me to reconsider before eventually deciding to corral it back with it’s unfortunate brothers.  So goes the life of an inventor.  Or at least, that’s what I’ll tell myself since I neither know any other inventors nor have actually invented anything myself.  But if there was ever a notion to spur oneself on, it’s romance.

The other big development that has happened since I last wrote is that I’m now working on Google’s Self-Driving Car project!  Which, I might have to kill myself when my contract is up, because I don’t know if I can go back to the mundanity of everyday life after having worked such a sexy job.  It certainly is going to be hard to top.  Maybe underwater welding?  I don’t know.

Anyhow, I get to fly future cars all over Mountain View all week long.  And when you’re in a car for eight hours a day, you start to realize there are some serious design flaws.  My biggest pet peeve is currently right around when the evening commute starts to pick up speed, (if you’ll permit me), is the same time when I need to start using the visor to block out the sun.  When you’re winding your way around a place you find yourself furiously flipping the visor this way and that to make sure you’re blocking out the sun.  It especially becomes fun when the sun sinks below the level the visor is able to help out with, but has not yet set below the horizon.  Sometimes it’s a good thing the car drives itself….

What would be a huge help is if the window worked the way transition lenses in glasses do, and become darker exactly where the sun was.  It would have to be smart of course, because the whole window going dark if the sun was shining head on would not really be an improvement.  The car would somehow need to track the position of the sun and correspond that position with where the driver’s head was, and then create a circle big enough to only obscure the sun and then follow it around has the car pivoted.

A tall order, I know, but Sergei was throwing billions of dollars at a glass project no one wanted.  What if he could pivot it to a product everyone can appreciate?  Plus, I think the general populous will be relieved to know that one of Google[x] core products will no longer be attempting to turn people into cyborgs.  When the robot revolution comes, it will be on four wheels.  Let’s just hope they’ll be considerate enough not to blind us.

Modal Priority Streets

My last post was about how self-driving busses would be the saving grace of public transportation.  However when I brought this idea up in person, most people were a little concerned about unmanned busses barreling down the same streets as cars, motorcycles, bikes and pedestrians.  Which I guess is a good point.  So how does it all work together?

This is a problem civil engineers and designers have been struggling with for decades.  How do different sized modes of transportation that go differents speeds play well together?  My solution: they don’t.

You might have read about “complete streets”–a concept I support–which means a street should be designed so that the most vulnerable of society feels safe no matter what mode of transportation they use.  That’s all well and good, but in a city like San Francisco where space is at a premium, there’s only so much room you can take away from the road itself for wider sidewalks and bike lanes before there’s no room for cars or busses.  Trying to cram everything in is not a working solution either.

I say stop sharing the streets and divide priority.  For instance, take a neighborhood like the Mission.  It’s longer than it is wide, most major streets run north/south and it’s laid out in grid-like fashion.  Right now, both Mission street and Valencia street are impossible for anyone to get anywhere at a pace faster than a shuffle; because everyone else is trying to do the same across all types of travel.

My vision would be to give each street a different modal priority.  Mission street would be public transportation since they already have at least two bus lines and bart, Valencia would be bikes (because, duh) and Guerrero would be cars/private vehicles.  It’s more or less already worked out that way if you are familiar with the area.  Cars would still be allowed to drive down Mission or Valencia, just not encouraged; say for the instance that you need to drop someone off at a store on a bike priority street.  The ends of blocks could have divots where taxis or private cars could pull in and out of traffic to drop off or pick up passengers without gumming things up, or mowing over cyclists in the process.

If three blocks is a lot to ask for, then maybe only every other block could trade off and cars can be lumped in with transit.  (Since now, SF transit is the eighth wonder of the world remember?  And the demand for private cars has plummeted.)  As a cyclist myself, I don’t really want to share the street with transit whether manned or no, so human powered vehicles will still get a street unto themselves.

This makes most sense for parts of San Francisco that aren’t grid like, or for connecting different neighborhoods by bike thoroughfares.  For example, the wiggle, which is the most well known neighborhood traversing bike way.  It winds it’s way off of Market through the lower haight and out to the panhandle, finding the least steep route from downtown to the panhandle and beyond.  There are many other passes like this through the hills of San Francisco, but not nearly as well known–maybe yet undiscovered!–and if anything not nearly as well marked as the wiggle is.

The point being, if you’re trying to get anywhere fast in a car, you do not want to be driving through the wiggle.  Not only is it residential, but there is now hundreds of cycles that use it everyday.  (Yay!)  You want to use Fell/Oak or Turk/Golden Gate, because they are wide one way streets that will zip you downtown faster than you can roll down your window to yell someone.

The only time this becomes a problem is with streets like Divisadero.  Which, is the flattest route to take between Haight street and California street.  Which by my system would make it a bike priority street, and in real life it’s a car priority street.  No bike lane, no sharrows, nothing.  Just two lanes of traffic with barely a shoulder to squeeze into.  AND a bus line!  To make matters worse, it’s not even a fast street for cars to travel.  Everybody loses.

In order to fix this mess I would double the size of the sidewalk on Divis, (which is pitiful small, once again, everybody losing…), and would make the street one lane on each side, with priority for cyclists.  I would even keep street parking–you’re welcome.  The streets to the left and right of Divis would become one way streets to compensate for the bike thoroughfare.  (For the sake of brevity, we’ll just glance over how much construction that would be…)  Voilá.

Oneway Scott/Broderick
Scott and Broderick as oneway streets

My idea really isn’t all that original, since it seems to be the direction the city is kind of headed in.  Or was headed in at one point before complete streets became in vogue and they decided to  kind of head in another direction.  I suppose I’m just sick of city planners not having strong convictions.

Self-driving Busses

Google has been all over the news this past week when they revealed the design for their self-driving cars.  This week, Muni is broke.  Which begs the question, why is Google working on self-driving cars?!  What we really need is self-driving busses!

I understand the problem that Google is trying to solve.  People are terrible drivers, and yet we still insist on driving everywhere.  It’s bad for our minds, bad for our bodies, and yet there is no alternative.  The problem is, Google just solves that one problem with driving by giving us an alternative driver.  They do not take into account the BIG problem with single person driven vehicles; they don’t scale.

Everyone who commutes knows they should carpool or take mass transit, but for some excuse or another, do not.  Tens of thousands of people driving cars meant to carry anywhere from four to seven people, only carry one 80% of the time.  While Google’s design is smaller, it’s still bigger than what it needs to be for only one person.  Which means Google will give you the freedom to work from your car–while you’re still stuck in traffic.

This week Muni once again reminded us that the biggest cost of running a public transportation system is paying it’s employees.  Which is as it should be, this post is not about fair or unfair wages.  Lets pretend that all Muni employees are happily compensated.  The facts still remain that: one, being a bus driver is more often that not a terrible job; and two, Muni does a horrible job of running a municipal transit system.

When was the last time you heard someone proclaim with glee “I’ll just hop on the N and be there fifteen minutes!”  (Trick question, never, because that has never happened in the history of Muni… ever.)  Trains are late, busses are unreliable, everything is covered in a fine layer of filth like only San Francisco can accumulate.  Creating a reliable public transportation system–which should be one of a big city’s top responsibilities, right behind keeping us safe and making sure everything doesn’t burn to the ground–is the worse experience you’ll have at any point in your day in SF.

The worse thing is, I feel like Muni is relegated to the city’s most vulnerable: the poor, the elderly and the homeless.  The rental market is already doing a decent job of dispatching the first two, so really Muni will just become a means of ferrying around the homeless while every else flees to ride-sharing private cars.  Maybe they’ll take over the busses and finally have a place to live…  They’ll become roaming RV’s carrying bands of homeless people!  Maybe there will even be rival busses, and they’ll have gang wars and fight like pirates when enemy busses cross paths!!

I digress…

While I think it should be a top priority for cities to have well managed pub-trans for the sake of the most vulnerable populations, that does not mean it should be the third class form of transportation.  Not only is that unfair, but because we ALL pay for it.  Everyone should feel like they want to use Muni.

Which isn’t cheap.  Up until now, the only way to bridge the gap between how much Muni costs, and how much Muni makes, is by raising the fare.  Which only works for so long before people get fed up and decide that their homeless camper commute is not worth five bucks.  Kudos on the valiant effort the SFMTA made by introducing Sunday meters; which was wildly successful, so of course, they stopped it.  (If you actually do read that article, you’ll learn that continuing Sunday meters was voted down because a “charitable donation” from Google will fill the expected gap instead, paving the road for corporations to directly supplement city income.  Red flags should be going off in your brain now.)

I say to you Google, instead of buying influence, develop the technology for Muni to cut it’s costs in half or more, by making driverless busses!  I realize this cuts jobs, which is a cardinal sin of politics, but who actually wants to be a bus driver?  I mean other than two-year-olds.  Even they snap out of that phase pretty quick.  Plus, if you wanted to be all ethical, you can always give people who would loose their job as a bus driver another city job–for which they will thank you–then wait until they retire and then never have to worry about hiring another bus driver ever again.

Step into my transportation utopia: With the money saved from no longer funding driver salaries and pensions, Muni is able to buy hundreds of shiny new vehicles!  They have a support staff (of ex-drivers?) that will actually keep them clean.  ALL lines run every five minutes, because the only thing stopping that would be the size of the fleet–which I just fixed in afore mentioned sentence.  Rides cost one buck, unless you’re really old, really young, really poor or really don’t have a place to live.  MUNI RUNS ALL NIGHT LONG.  All lines, all night.  Let’s just take a moment to let that sink in.  I really want you to appreciate that last bit.  Finally, Elon Musk is so impressed with new Muni, (Newmi? Nuni… never-mind) he makes sleek new Tesla busses that don’t need wires to run!

But no.  Sadly, we do not live in the make-believe future world in my head.  All I’m asking for is to have a little vision when inventing your awesome new technology, Google.  Yes, I’m calling you short-sighted.

For now I’ll just suck it up and ride this wave while I’m on it.  I am, after all, an Uber/Sidecar driver.  I currently profit from both a poorly run public transit system and lack of other options to get around.  That being said, I do not want to be what amounts to a glorified cab driver for the rest of my life.  (Please, click on all the ads…)  I believe taxis provide a premium service and should be treated as such.  I couldn’t be more happy if one day I was put out of business.  But not before being able to support myself otherwise, of course.  Now get clicking!