Notes #13: Moonshots

Some fascinating links from the last couple weeks:

  • SpaceX is on a race with NASA to send two people around the moon next year, opening up the door for space tourism.
  • So long, steering wheels. California is proposing rules that would allow for the manufacture, sale, and operation of autonomous vehicles in the very near future.
  • Tesla pledges 100 MWh of battery storage in 100 days to help fix South Australia’s energy supply shortage.
  • Solar now provides twice as many jobs as the coal industry.
  • The Raspberry Pi Zero W is is a $10 computer with WiFi and Bluetooth. Not the first, but we need more cheap, connected computers.
  • Ben Thompson has put out a great read on Intel’s acquisition of Mobileye, an autonomous vehicle and collision avoidance software and hardware company. His analysis of the potential winners (software and components companies, ride sharing networks) and losers (some existing automotive companies) is worth paying attention to.

And check out my most recent blog post: 2017: The Year Electric Cars Go Mainstream.

2017: The Year Electric Cars Go Mainstream

Until now, EVs were either limited in practicality or priced in luxury car territory. Both of those issues will go away this year. The Chevrolet Bolt EV and Tesla Model 3 are the first all-electric vehicles for the masses.

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV
2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV

200+ Miles on a Charge

Most of the major auto players have put out compact EVs hovering around 100 miles per charge. The average daily commute is about 37.5 miles, so technically these EVs would work for a lot of people. However, longer trips could get complex,  and I imagine this fact puts off a lot of potential EV buyers.


With the Model 3 and Bolt, drivers can expect 215 and 238 miles per charge, respectively. This means a day trip is now within reach. Tesla boasts a growing Supercharger network that enables cross-country trips. Chevrolet offers a charging station locator in several apps.

Competitively Priced

The total cost of ownership of these new cars is close to hybrids and not much more than internal combustion engine cars in the compact class. Because electricity is cheaper per mile than gas, the cars have a remarkably similar TCO after 3 years.





These prices reflect the vehicle MSRP, options prices, delivery charges, cost of gasoline ($2.30 per gallon), cost of electricity ($0.12 per kWh), charging conversion efficiency (90%), tax credits ($7,500 for EVs and the Chevy Volt, $4,500 for the Prius Prime), and any incentive programs available around the time of writing. Insurance, maintenance, and taxes are not considered. My analysis is in this spreadsheet.

Side note: The Toyota Prius Prime, a plug-in hybrid with 25 miles of all-electric range, has a lower TCO than the standard Prius. The non-Prime Prius does not have an EV-only mode. The reason for the lower price on the Prius Prime is a tax credit not available for the standard Prius. Of the cars compared, this is my top pick for those really needing the extra range of a hybrid.

More Where That Came From

Maybe you’re not in the market for a compact. While this top-selling segment is getting a lot of attention right now, we’re sure to see EVs with many more shapes and capabilities in the next few years.

Tesla Model 3

The Chevy Bolt is already out in limited quantities. I saw a handful on the road during a recent trip to California. The Tesla Model 3 is ramping up for production now, with deliveries slated for midyear.

BOOK by Cadillac: An Early Sign of Car Non-Ownership?

GM, of all companies, announced an innovative car subscription service for its Cadillac brand this week. For $1,500 a month, you can get any car in the lineup delivered to you, and you can switch cars up to 18 times a year. Insurance, registration, and maintenance are all included, and there is no long-term commitment.

Fancy a drive in a CTS-V, but also need an Escalade to haul the kids around? If you live in the NYC metropolitan area, you’ll be able to take advantage of BOOK soon.

Gizmodo quickly criticized the offering as a toy for the rich, but hang on a second. There are a number of situations where such a service could make sense. Let’s ignore the cost for now, but we’ll get back into that.

Car subscriptions could fill an important niche for city dwellers

In the U.S. as of 2012, 92% of households own a car. But the dynamic is different in cities. Take the borough of Manhattan: only 23% of residents own a car [1]. That’s an extreme example, but in New York City overall, 54% of households do not own a car [2]. Other cities aren’t too far off from that.

There are a number of reasons for this. Many city residents commute by walking, biking, taxi/Uber, or public transportation. Parking can be difficult and expensive. Driving in the city sucks. Insurance rates are higher. Owning a car could be an unnecessary expense if not used regularly.

A lot of people want to be able to take a road trip to the beach, the mountain, or wherever else. Maybe they need a car for an occasional business meeting outside the city. Perhaps they visit their parents in the suburbs every so often. I’m willing to bet a significant portion of city residents hold on to a car just for these purposes, despite the disadvantages, because of the kind of access car ownership enables.

The thing about owning a car is you’re stuck with what you’ve got. Which is more fun to drive: a giant SUV or a sports car? Which one is easier to park? Which one hauls more stuff or passengers? Which one is better in inclement weather? The type of car you choose to own defines the type of use and enjoyment you can get out of it.

And what if you’re not going to use the car for a while? You still have to pay for insurance and parking. If you’re on a lease or financing the car, you’re married to it. There’s no cheap or easy way out.

For the somewhat-frequent business traveler, renting a car can add up, especially if the car is needed for a number of days. A BOOK subscriber could land in a new city, have the car delivered, and drive as much as needed without worrying about mileage limitations.

I’m not saying BOOK solves every problem for every person. It doesn’t. You still have to pay for parking while you have the car. But when you know you don’t need the car, there’s a savings. Owning or leasing might be cheaper in the long run, but BOOK gives you the freedom to not even pay in the months you don’t need the car. It’s probably cheaper to rent a car if you only need it sparingly, but some people would need to rent often, which is currently a pain.

The service is for a specific audience, but that niche is probably bigger than you think.

Yeah but fifteen-hundred dollars!

BOOK in this iteration is clearly geared toward wealthy city residents. But it’s highly likely GM is using Lean Startup techniques in validating a larger concept. A small market limits the number of cars Cadillac has to supply to the experiment. Wealth is correlated with education. Both of those attributes are correlated with a lot fewer problems, like accidents, failure to pay, and abuse of the vehicles [3]. With those risks out of the way, GM can study use patterns and demand before scaling up.

Think about Tesla, which started out selling a Ferrari-competitive sports car, then made a cheaper-but-still-expensive luxury car, and is now about to come out with a commodity-priced car. If GM can prove demand and work out the kinks with BOOK, you might see a similar Chevy On Demand offering in the future at a lower price. And surely, countless entrepreneurs are watching BOOK to see what happens.

Let’s not stop there though.

Car subscriptions in the autonomous age

It’s inevitable: cars are going to drive themselves completely in a matter of years. We can argue about the pros (safety, convenience, freed-up time, speed) and cons (short-term job loss, driving can be fun), but the long-term effect is a net positive for society. The transition has already begun with partial autonomy.

There are a few different scenarios for car usage in the future:

In the first scenario, a self-driving version of Uber will be the best option for intra-city trips. UberPOOL, the service that lets riders pay for a single seat in a shared Uber trip, will probably continue to be the lowest-priced option. Those in need of a quicker ride, or those desiring something bigger or more luxurious, will pay more for the various options. In this scenario, the user is paying for the time occupied between points A and B.

A second scenario: longer-distance Uber-style trips are likely to become more common. The rider pays for a seat, or perhaps a whole vehicle, to travel between two cities. He pays for the time in the car. When he gets out, the car disappears to pick up someone else. Or if the user travels to a remote destination, where it is unlikely someone else will request a ride before the return trip, she pays extra.

These first two pay-as-you-go scenarios address multiple inefficiencies, but there are two I want to highlight: the vehicle has a much higher rate of use, and parking is not a concern for the rider. Because of these, savings can be passed on to the end user, and it only makes sense that car ownership will be disincentivized for those who only take short trips and the occasional longer trip.

But what about those who need a car every day to travel long distances, like commuting from the suburbs? No doubt, they are going to be the last group to own cars en masse. But car ownership will be disincentivized for these people too. Constant upgrades that are required by law to enhance overall safety will be coupled with diminished demand for out-of-date used cars. Cars of the future are transportation appliances.

The frequent car user who takes longer trips is ripe for an autonomous car subscription service. This will be a lot like leasing a private car today, albeit with more control by the fleet owner than the lessee. Whenever an upgrade or maintenance is required, the subscriber just gets a new car. And the user will be able to change the vehicle type at will.

The target market for BOOK by Cadillac today (wealthy city dwellers) is not the same as a future subscription market (people needing consistent long-distance car service). But it is GM’s chance to get its foot in the door in a world in transition from products to services. This move only helps prove that GM is committed to staying relevant in the long term.


[1] New Yorkers and Cars

[2] The Cities Where No One Wants to Drive

[3] The Hidden Inequality of Who Dies in Car Crashes

Alexa, Repeat This

I wrote a simple Skill for Amazon Alexa. You can use it on devices like the Echo Dot.

When you ask Alexa to repeat a phrase, she will read it back to you in her own voice.

User: “Alexa, ask Repeat This to say ‘you get nothing, you lose, good day sir'”
Alexa: “you get nothing, you lose, good day sir”

Because of the way the Skill is written, you cannot publish or access it on the Skills Store. You need to run your own instance on AWS Lambda. I have provided code on GitHub.

Perhaps you can fork this code to develop something more useful. I know I am.

Fall in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia

I was lucky enough to receive a DJI Mavic Pro drone soon after the release. The timing was perfect because my friends and I were able to capture fiery fall colors against the Philadelphia skyline.

DJI only shipped one battery even though I ordered three (the other two came later), so the flight time was capped at 20 minutes. Dan Leung, Max Goldberg (both of Five Five Collective), and I got a few minutes each at the controls. Thanks to Max for the editing.

35mm in Hong Kong

I recently visited Hong Kong and two cities in China. Certainly inspired by DigitalRev TV, I knew going into it that Hong Kong in particular is a street photographer’s dream. This trip was going to be a great chance to hone my photography skills.


I only brought one messenger bag for the whole two weeks. Weight and size were major considerations for all items.

My weapon of choice was a Fujifilm X100. A used eBay purchase from a few months prior, I hadn’t gotten super comfortable with it. Scratches and all, it was an elegant but slightly intimidating machine.

Fujifilm X100. Image: heipei
Fujifilm X100. Image: heipei

The most notable feature of this compact camera is its fixed 23mm f/2 prime lens. Because the camera has a slightly smaller sensor than film, the lens is the equivalent of the 35mm focal length on a full-frame camera.

The X100 was the first X-Series camera Fuji released, and it started a revolution in the photography world. Direct, manual controls on the top of the camera harken back to an earlier age of photography. The fixed lens does not zoom and cannot be removed, but the upside is a wider maximum aperture. The camera is extremely quiet and relatively discrete.

The viewfinder on the X100 and successors is unique in the digital camera world. It works almost exactly like a rangefinder camera, with a frame drawn around the composition inside a wider window to the world. At any time, one can switch from the optical viewfinder to an electronic one, which only shows the composition. The electronic viewfinder pops up after every exposure, no matter the mode, to review the shot.


Reviews of this camera, which was released in 2011, laud the concept but point out the camera’s numerous flaws. Users found the accuracy of autofocus especially infuriating. Manual focusing aides on the camera are lacking. Later X-series models would improve on image quality, speed, and focusing (both manual and autofocus). Let’s put it this way: the tool has personality.

I was used to the 35mm (roughly 50mm full-frame equivalent) prime lens on my Nikon D7000, a much larger DSLR from the same era. The 50mm focal length is a little tighter and less personal than 35mm. You can stand farther away from your subject, ideal for the timid photographer. Conversely, it is harder to get wider shots on the street with the 50mm focal length.

So, why in the world would a slow camera with no zoom be a great travel choice? Constraints, as well as the opportunity to become intimate with a flawed, yet very powerful tool in an unfamiliar focal length.


On the first day in Hong Kong, I learned that autofocus works well only about half the time with the optical viewfinder. Despite the focus point changing from red to green soon after a half-press of the shutter, half of the shots I reviewed that night were not in focus. The preview shown in the electronic viewfinder is not large, bright, or high-resolution enough to scrutinize focus, and I did not think to review the shots on the larger display on the camera back.

After realizing the focusing issue, I started using the electronic viewfinder exclusively. Although this move doesn’t take advantage of one of this camera’s most unique features, the hope was I that I would not have to reject so many shots. The move paid off, as about 90% of the shots were now in focus.


Initially, I found the 35mm focal length uncomfortable. It was great for capturing the immensely varied and colorful backgrounds of Hong Kong, but I was just too far away from many subjects. I desired images with those colorful backdrops but my subjects taking center stage in the foreground. These are the shots that tell a good story, and I would have to get much closer to achieve them.

As I got used to the wider lens, I found the experience liberating. A 50 might make it a little easier to capture people without getting too close, but a 35 allows you to take a wider variety of photos: buildings, cars, urban landscapes, and of course, people. I’m still working with the 35, and I know it’s going to be a long time before I’m truly proficient and comfortable getting that close to people. But I’ll keep practicing.

Anyway, enjoy a selection of photos from the trip on this page, and the full gallery over here. Some portraits taken with the X100 are here.