20 years in space

20 years ago yesterday, 3 people went into space. Since then, there have always been humans in space. Beginning on November 1st, 2000, 20 years ago today, every second of every day, there has always been a person in space.

60 years ago, no person had ever been to space.

64 years ago, we hadn’t sent anything to space.

It’s neat that we can do something amazing, get better at it, and make it routine.


Disclosure: I work for Google, which is developing self-driving cars.

I got invited to be beta tester of chffr, an app used by comma.ai to collect training data for self-driving cars.

It was easy to set up. I just had to set up an account, install the app and sign in the first time. Here’s a screenshot from the first run:

Overview of how to use the app and data usage warnings

After setting it up, there’s really no interaction with the app. It’s very easy. To record a drive, you just launch the app. After a splash screen of the comma logo, the app automatically goes into logging mode. If you mount it on a dashboard and start driving, it starts logging. If you stop driving, it stops logging. The only instructions from George are to “capture such that you would feel comfortable driving the car from the footage.” I didn’t even see a menu for settings, though it’s possible to enable cellular video uploads via a setting on the comma.ai forum, as accounts are managed by phpBB. I suppose the way to log out is to clear app data.

Here’s the logging interface:

Camera on. Logging.

As you can see, there are points, offering a gamification aspect. The forum has a leaderboard where users can see who has earned the most comma points. After a couple of hours of driving, I earned 1012 points, though there are a lot of bonus points at the beginning.

You can view your own data via the driving explorer feature of the website, which shows what the camera captured, your location, your speed, and the time. You can’t play back the drive in realtime, but you can scrub through it by dragging the slider.

driving explorer screenshot

It was pretty rough on my battery, and I prefer to have a navigation app in the foreground when driving, so I’ll pause testing for now. It’s a neat idea for data collection, and I’m happy to see ongoing efforts by multiple organizations and individuals to develop self-driving cars.

My collection of self-driving cars…

…articles. 🙂 I don’t have a self-driving car yet. I like to learn about self-driving cars, and I share relevant articles, photos, and videos in my self-driving cars Google+ collection. If you come across something that I might have missed, please send it to me! I’m more likely to share actual announcements and less likely to share speculation, but I like to read almost anything about the subject.

Getting my name out there

New Horizons is currently checking out Pluto and my name is on board. Today, I read that in 2005, you could give NASA your name and they’d burn it on a CD and attach it to the New Horizons probe. It sounded like something I would do. It turns out, it’s something that I did.

certificate with my name

By the way, I’m currently reading The Martian. I hadn’t read science fiction in a while, and I’m really enjoying the book. I’m looking forward to seeing the movie in October.


Today while walking after picking up lunch, I spotted a Tesla Model S in a parking lot. This is not an unusual sight in Mountain View. What did grab my attention, however, was I saw something, a yellow box if I remember correctly, sticking out of the dashboard as I walked by. Curious, I walked up to the driver’s side window and looked in. It was a big red industrial-looking button that’s universally recognized as “emergency stop.” It was labeled “DRIVE UNIT STOP.” I assume that what I saw was an Autopilot test car, as the button reminded me of what’s in Google’s self-driving cars. I was surprised that Google’s installation of the button had a more integrated aesthetic. 🙂 Other than the button, the rest of the car looked normal to me as I continued along my way. I get to see some pretty neat stuff in the Bay Area.

Customer support matters

People love to complain about customer service. It seems like a (dated) cliché to do it on a blog and I dislike spending my time and energy on something negative (even if it’s constructive), but I’m going to do it anyway so here we go.

Customer support can save a relationship even after something has gone wrong. I notice when it’s done really well. Last December, Amazon gave me a full refund on a $200+ item (that they let me keep, even though I didn’t ask them for this) because it arrived late, even though I’m pretty sure it was the carrier’s fault. I don’t hesitate to trust Amazon when I buy something online (when trust is very important considering the lack of a physical interaction) because I know that if something goes wrong, Amazon will make it right. One aspect of doing business today that I love is that customers are generally well-informed, so businesses have to compete on merit, whether it’s based on price, availability, ethics, quality, or something else. I think that over time, this should lead to companies striving to offer the best possible customer service.

I’ve been a longtime fan of Uber. Whether it’s provided by Uber or someone else (even a traditional taxi company), I want an Uber-like product (or, preferably, multiple Uber-like products) to exist. That means high reliability, high availability, comfortable, cash-free and tip-free, on-demand smartphone-powered transportation where low-quality drivers and passengers are called out and removed when necessary.

I had a poor experience with Uber recently. I took a long uberX ride (about an hour) from a metropolitan area into the suburbs. In the last couple minutes of the trip, the driver, who was friendly for the majority of the trip, started driving hesitantly. He tried to pull into a nearby driveway, and I told him to continue down the road. He seemed unsure, even though my instructions were the same as the GPS instructions that he had happily been following for the past hour. We got to the last turn. I told him where to turn, and he did, but then stopped. I didn’t know what to do. He said something like “I’m sorry, this is scary” or “I’m sorry, I’m freaked out.” A minute earlier he had made a comment like “There are houses out here?” so I tried to figure out what was going on and thought that maybe he thought I wasn’t serious about the house really being on the road that I was taking him on. I told him that if he just continued to the crest of the hill, about 200-300 feet from where we were stopped, he would see a house. He refused. Not knowing what else to do, I told him to end the trip and I got out of the car. I was about a half mile away from my destination, and I walked the rest of the way, at 1 AM, in 27° F.

That same morning, I replied to my Uber receipt and let them know about what happened. I tried to make light of the situation as much as possible and be as understanding as I could of the driver, and signed the message as an “Unintentionally scary passenger.” I’d used Uber over 40 times before this, and rarely had problems. When I have encountered small issues, such as a duplicate airport fee on my receipt, they have been resolved quickly.

This time, I was not satisfied with the support. Since I wasn’t taken to my destination and was left in a field—that as far as my driver was concerned was unsafe and miles from civilization—I expected an apology and a refund. I was given $5 in credit towards my next trip and a promise that Uber would follow up and check with the driver.

12 hours later, after not hearing from Uber, I sent a quick followup asking them to let me to know when the situation was resolved.

After a couple of days, I got a reply from a different person. This one made me upset, but maybe I’m just misinterpreting the tone. To be fair to Uber, here’s the message with the employee’s name redacted:

Hi Michael,

Thanks so much for reaching out about the trouble with your ride. It appears that both you and the driver were stuck in a very uncomfortable situation. Because the driver accepted to take you to a destination that was out of the way I don’t think a full refund is in order. I am sure had you tried to hail a regular taxi to take you to your remote home, they would not have been as gracious as the Uber.

I cannot answer to the fear the driver experienced. Obviously something in your neighborhood did not seem safe for him. The driver’s safety is also important.

What I can do since it was not your fault the driver was scared, is to offer you a 25% courtesy discount off the trip cost. This lowers it down to $82.45. The difference should post to your account within the next couple of business days.

Thanks and hope your next Uber ride is a much more pleasant experience.

[Name redacted]
Uber Support

I had a few issues with this response, but I’d be interested to hear in the comments if you think that I’m overreacting. I do appreciate that the responses came quickly and were not templated. I’ve seen a wide range of expectations when it comes to customer support, and maybe I’m feeling too entitled in this situation.

The employee said that I shouldn’t get a refund because “the driver accepted to take [me] to a destination that was out of the way” and later referred to the house I was going to as “remote.” The note implied that the discount was a favor, offered as a “courtesy” after Uber was so “gracious” to charge me for an incomplete trip.

That’s the point of my complaint: The driver agreed to take me to a destination, but he didn’t actually take me there. I was left on the side of the road in a field. Discounts are appropriate if there was a delay or a mixup, but when a promised service isn’t delivered, there aren’t generally points for trying. To remove any doubt that Uber and the driver had agreed to take me to my specified “out of the way” and “remote” destination, consider:

  1. I never saw any Uber policy indicating that going outside of the service area would be a problem. My destination was closer than 10 road miles to the edge of the coverage area on Uber’s website. Many tweets from verified Uber accounts indicate that Uber drivers will take passengers anywhere.

  2. Days before the trip, I had requested a fare quote from Uber’s website to determine if Uber would be an option for that night. I entered the same address that I requested the driver to take me to, and received a quote without any messages indicating that there would be an issue with the destination.
  3. When I requested a ride using the Uber app, I entered the destination in the app before the driver arrived, and he used it to request directions with his phone. I didn’t verbally give the address or ask him to go anywhere other than what the app said. The app gave me no error messages or warnings regarding the destination.
  4. When I got in the car, I asked the driver if he was okay with a long ride. He said that he was, and added something along the lines of “That’s what I want,” I assume referring to a long fare. Before we started moving, he asked how long, and I told him it would be about an hour. He agreed to that. According to my receipt, the trip time was 55 minutes.
  5. While we were moving, I believe while we were on the highway, he even said something like “I don’t want to drive in the city,” again I assume because highway driving means more distance (and more money) in a shorter amount of time.

The response implied that with a regular taxi, I would not have been so lucky to be taken partway to my destination. I’m not sure if that’s true. Being used to Bay Area taxi rates, having a much lower success rate of good experiences in taxis, and assuming that if I were to ride with Uber it would be pleasant, I hadn’t even considered a taxi as an option. I had plenty of other options, including a train which would have been much less expensive, but would have required me to bother someone for a ride in the middle of the night at the end. However, now that I look at an online fare estimator, a taxi would only have been about 10% more including the tip, and they would have been required by the PUC to take me to any destination, regardless of distance.

That’s why I’m upset. The initial incident was actually somewhat entertaining (though I hope that the driver soon realized that he was in no danger as I walked off into the night), but the lack of concern on Uber’s part disappointed me.

Most of my experiences with Uber have been great. I’ve also had fine rides with standard taxis, but they have more often annoyed me in some way. I’m happy to see that they’re starting to embrace technology in some areas such as Philadelphia (competition is great!), though it sounds like their solutions still need some work as well. I like other on-demand services such as Lyft and Sidecar, but they have lower availability and I like the standard and tip-free rates with Uber. For prearranged rides, I’ve liked using GroundLink and local services like PlanetTran. Since I really want Uber to improve, here comes the constructive part of my criticism. This is what I believe would have been an appropriate response to my report:

  1. After my first email, send a note saying “Sorry you had a bad experience. We’re going to investigate what happened and get back to you.”
  2. Investigate. Get the driver’s side of the story and make sure that I didn’t do anything threatening or dangerous. Look at my three-year customer history where I’ve happily paid over $1500 in fares. Note that the driver has only been with the service for a week. See that I have never asked for or received a refund before, and that I usually leave high ratings. Run a background check on me if you want. Realize based on the GPS data and my entered destination that I was in fact on my way to a house, and not taking the driver to the middle of the woods or an abandoned warehouse. Look at online imagery and see if anything looks unsafe. Consider that the driver was completely comfortable letting me out of the car in this area, and that I walked out into the field with nothing but my coat and my phone. Ask yourself why would I have gotten out of the car if I was somewhere unsafe.
  3. Follow up with the driver. Giving him the benefit of the doubt and in a show of goodwill, let him keep the fare, but assure him that as far as you could tell, he wasn’t in danger. Make it clear that it is almost never okay to leave a passenger stranded, including in a situation where he wasn’t in enough danger to bother calling the police. Remind him that safety is important, and that if he’s ever in a similar situation, he could do any or all of the following:
    • Let the passenger out, drive to “safety,” and call 911.
    • Contact Driver Operations.
    • Take the passenger to a well-lit and populated area (including a police station) and ask the passenger to exit the car.
  4. Follow up with me when the investigation is complete. Let me know if there’s anything I should clarify with the driver on future pickups, and provide a full refund because the service that I requested and that the driver agreed to was not provided. Maybe even provide me with some additional credit so I am willing to try Uber again.

Going forward, I have a feature request. Many companies use dash cams. Some of them can be pretty advanced—showing both an interior view of the vehicle as well as looking through the windshield, and tracking things like speed, force, and location. Uber could add similar functionality directly to the driver app and utilize the iPhone’s built-in camera(s) and microphone.

Having these recordings might be useful for he said/she said reports of things like unsafe driving, passengers leaving a mess in the car, or for insurance claims in the case of a collision. A rating system is useful in aggregate, but this would help Uber to know what really happened in individual situations. In my particular case, Uber could have evaluated what the driver saw and determined if he had a reasonable cause for concern. Uber could also have heard our conversation and determined if we had mutually agreed on the destination prior to beginning the journey. If both parties consented to the recording (perhaps there could be an off-the-record option with the understanding that a refund may not be possible in the event of a dispute), it could make both drivers and passengers feel safer.

Technology fail

Sometimes a bunch of technology fails at the same time. This usually happens whenever I try to give a demo. Sometimes, it sends me on an adventure.

A few nights ago, I went out to dinner with some friends. At dinner, I looked at my phone and noticed that the battery level was a lot lower than it should have been at that point of the night. I’m not sure how that happened. Maybe it was on in my pocket, or maybe it was something else. Knowing that I’d need my phone to get home, I turned it off.

After I left the group, I turned my phone back on. To get home quickly, I opened Uber. Before I could request a ride, my phone determined that it didn’t have enough juice and turned itself off. No problem—the train station was nearby and the last train hadn’t left yet.

I found a payphone in the station. I of course didn’t have any change, and, not having enough recent experience using payphones to think about using a credit card, I had a flashback to my trip to summer camp when I used a payphone to make a collect call to my parents. So, I followed the instructions on the phone to call collect. As I started going through the process, there was a terrible buzz on the line to the point where I couldn’t understand the prompts. I gave up and headed farther into the station.

I found my platform and spotted another phone. This time, there was no buzz. I followed the instructions, but instead of hearing my parents, I heard an error message followed by a note that I had to wait 15 minutes before calling the same number again. I wondered if my parents thought I was calling from jail. During this attempt, I tried turning my phone back on again, and this time it stayed on. I quickly texted my mom to let her know which train I was getting on and let her know about the battery situation. She told me that she had also heard an error message from the collect call and let me know that my dad would pick me up at the destination station.

Since my phone seemed to be doing well and I had time before the train, I quickly popped outside to give Uber another shot. This time, it worked and an uberX car was soon on its way. I let my parents know and sent them a link to my ride so they would know my ETA. I was relieved, and was happy to be on my way home. The driver was friendly, and we talked on and off most of the way. When we got close to the last road, he started driving very slowly, and said something along the lines of “There are houses out here?”, obviously not used to being so far from the city. I thought he was joking. When we got to the final turn, he stopped the car, and wouldn’t continue. He indicated that he didn’t believe we were heading for a house that couldn’t be seen from the road. Something about the area (or me?) had obviously spooked him, and I guess he thought I was trying to prank him or worse. I tried for about 20 seconds to explain to him that he would see a house if he only continued to the crest of the hill, but he wouldn’t move. Not wanting to spend any more time arguing, and sensitive to the feeling that he really was afraid, I got out of the car and was left in a field in the middle of a night because a driver was scared of my driveway. Achievement unlocked? At least I got my 10,000 steps.