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‘A long road’: the Australian city aiming to give self-driving cars the green light | Self-driving cars

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As the traffic lights turn from amber to red, Miranda Blogg accelerates towards them.

“Here we go,” she says.

A dash-mounted screen in her Renault ZOE flashes a warning featuring a traffic light symbol.

Blogg continues. “Oh no, I’m not slowing!”

The screen erupts with a more aggressive visual display (“Stop!”) accompanied by three loud, grating, beeps.

“Whoops,” she says, as she brakes, still well ahead of the lights.

A dash-mounted screen in a Renault Zoe helps test self-driving systems in Ipswich.
A dash-mounted screen in a Renault Zoe helps test self-driving systems in Ipswich. Photograph: Supplied

Blogg is the director of the Connected and Automated Vehicle Initiative (Cavi) at Queensland’s transport department. Since September it has retrofitted 350 vehicles with cloud-connected antennae, under-the-seat control boxes and dash-mounted screens to test systems in the streets of Ipswich that might one day allow fully self-driving cars to operate.

This technology installed as part of the Ipswich connected vehicle pilot – Australia’s largest to date – allows cars to communicate with other cars, sharing information about their position, speed and other data, and to receive real-time warnings from roadside infrastructure about road hazards or red lights.

Early results show that drivers do pay attention when “talking cars” warn them about approaching red lights, reduced speed limits and pedestrians.

Blogg says that emerging data is promising, but further research will be needed to explore whether the system could work on a broader scale.

As we crawl through Brisbane’s peak-hour traffic, heading west towards Ipswich with Blogg behind the wheel, the dash-mounted screen displays nothing more than a static white circle.

But as we hit the Centenary Highway, just past the Moggill Road turnoff, we enter the 300 sq km radius of roads that are part of the trial, and the screen blinks to life, showing the current speed limit.

A few kilometres further on, Blogg points out a roadside sign flashing a variable speed limit, signalling that the usual 90km/h limit has been reduced to 80.

The screen display immediately follows suit, thanks to the feed coming from TMR’s real-time traffic management platform.

Being able to “read” variable speed limit signs is crucial to the connected driving vision, which demands accurate real-time feeds from a multitude of sources. There are 90 jurisdictions in Queensland that manage speed limits, including 77 local councils, 12 TMR districts and the toll-road operator Transurban.

“It seems simple but it’s actually quite a lot of effort,” Blogg says.

Cloud-connected antennae
Cloud-connected antennae retrofitted to cars can ‘talk’ to information-gathering antennae on traffic lights in Ipswich. Photograph: Supplied

As we reach the central business district of Ipswich, Blogg circles the block to demonstrate the car’s ability to recognise the red light – one of the 30 sets in Ipswich fitted with information-gathering antenna.

Similar warnings are activated when drivers head towards hazards such as water on the road, road closures or a crash, or when there are pedestrians or bicycles crossing at an intersection.

No vehicles have yet been automated as part of this trial, says Prof Andry Rakotonirainy, the director of QUT’s centre for accident research and road safety, one of the partners in the trial.

However, the technology represents an important link in the transition to self-driving cars. In the meantime, it will “help people to drive safely, and potentially reduce road trauma”, he says.

Participants are now being recruited for a different trial, which will include elements of automation.

Ipswich was chosen for the trial partly thanks to its proximity to smart motorways, which already embed information, communications and control systems in and alongside the road.

Unlike Brisbane, it uses the same standard traffic signals as rest of the state. Unlike the Gold Coast, it has no expanding light rail network to complicate matters. And unlike the Sunshine Coast, the CBD has a grid structure, facilitating ample interactions between cars, bikes and pedestrians.

There was one more reason – when the trial was set up, the ebullient “Mr Ipswich”, Paul Pisasale, was mayor.

Pisasale threw his support behind the iGO plan for a sustainable transport future and the Smart City program, which promised innovations such as robotic street cleaners, wheelie bins that alert garbage trucks when they need to be emptied and park benches with solar-powered charging stations.

These initiatives survived the downfall of Pisasale, who resigned in June 2017, and was later jailed in relation to a raft of charges including extortion, fraud and sexual assault, and the later sacking of the entire Ipswich City Council in 2018, followed by a 16-month period of administration.

It was a tumultuous time, which heightened concerns over the continuity of the project.

“We moved pretty quickly to gain the support of the new councillors,” Blogg says. “Sometimes it can be a very complicated project to explain [but] they were great, they were on it, which made my life much easier.”

Other challenges lay ahead, including equipment malfunctions due to summer temperatures in Ipswich which are, on average, 5C higher than Brisbane’s.

Then followed a year of more or less empty roads due to Covid-19, which the team filled with up to 30,000 kilometres of on-road testing to keep participants motivated and to prepare for the current on-road phase.

“Some may refer to it as the Cavi curse,” Blogg says. “It was a long road.”



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Building a start-up? You need to think about your platform foundations

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Scaling tech companies may be limiting themselves if they don’t focus on their underlying cloud platform, writes Terry Brown, associate director of engineering at Healx.

You’ve built your prototype, you’ve proven product market fit, the beta is out and there’s some buzz. What next?

Many start-ups will continue to add more and more features to attract new customers, but they are often building on a foundation that was put together rapidly to achieve their early purpose and may not be a fit for long-term scale, efficiency and operability.

Heed the lessons learned by others. CB Insights recently conducted post-mortems into more than 110 failed start-ups and landed on the top 12 reasons why they folded. They run the gamut, from running out of capital (38pc of victims) to burnout and failing to pivot. And while all 12 reasons are different, I can’t help but see a common thread running through them: rushing.

How could you not? You’ve got an amazing, original idea, and you need to bring it to market quickly. Rushing is ingrained in start-up culture.

But there is an alternative – one that even in 2022 too few start-ups consider: investing early in the underlying cloud platform.

More speed, more security, less haste

Many software start-ups today are operating in the cloud, and without early focus on the foundational and enabling aspects, they can easily be afflicted with security holes and IP breaches.

Innovation can also start to stifle because of early compromises made to achieve time-to-market over quality. It is at this stage that start-ups should take a solid focus on their cloud platform as an enabling device to solve some of these common pitfalls.

Shifting the mindset at this critical stage and focusing on platforms as a product enables start-ups to get the underlying building blocks of a cloud platform in place. This can generate huge economies of scale, as well as commoditising and automating core concerns such as security and compliance, delivery pipeline and improving developer experience.

‘Without this approach, you are leading your business down a path where mounting technical and architectural debt are likely to cause you pain when you least need it’

If you take one thing away from reading this article, please make it this: all software companies from the day they are founded need to be thinking about the platform, the underlying cloud services and architecture they are building on, how they operate at pace, with automation, with guard rails, and with effective delivery pipelines.

They also need to invest in developer experience – there is no good reason why a developer shouldn’t be able to go from idea to safely productionised pipeline in under 60 minutes. If your underlying platform doesn’t allow for that, you are hampering innovation.

Yes, often your chief priority will be delivering a working prototype to investors, even if put together with masking tape, egg cartons and all-night code sprints. But that should never be your only focus, no matter how close you are to that Series A pitch meeting.

If you invest appropriately in your platform and treat it as any other product, there is no reason why any of the above shouldn’t be possible while still chasing that market share and hockey stick slope that will see you funded.

The terrible irony is that without this approach, you are leading your business down a path where mounting technical and architectural debt are likely to cause you pain when you least need it. It says a lot that most of the more disruptive and common problems in software development arise from underinvestment in your platform.

Shift Left your thinking – and hiring

So many start-ups focus on product market fit, and in that compromise neglect to ask themselves crucial questions. What processes can be automated to save time for the precious staff we haven’t hired yet but soon will? What is painful in getting value to your customers? What are our go-to-market software risks that we are delaying addressing?

If you answer these ASAP, you are moving quality earlier into product thinking. This is the essence of Shift Left, a practice in the development world that pushes many of the aspects of quality such as testing, security and compliance earlier into the pipeline, where cost of identification and remediation are lower than if issues made it out to customers.

Shifting your thinking left to bring elements like security and testing into your pipelines automatically also requires a rethink in your hiring strategy, however. As you grow, a dedicated platform team will prove invaluable, and empower your software engineers to operate safely at scale and pace.

Another key benefit of focusing on your platform with a dedicated team is repeatability – and the efficiency that comes with it. You’re gaining a single, consolidated approach of how to scale up the whole operation, rather than individual teams solving the same challenges multiple times across the company.

The platform team’s role is pivotal in any tech start-up scaling quickly, and it becomes even more important in larger organisations with more people and more siloed teams.

This need will only grow alongside your business

Let’s take an example of how this works.

At Healx, we use artificial intelligence to discover new treatments for rare diseases. As we expand, our key ambition is to find more treatments for more conditions. But how do you go from looking at one condition at a time to 200? You can’t just scale up staff exponentially, because that’s incredibly expensive.

What if one of those human-intensive steps doesn’t require human intervention but can be automated? What if there is a wait time between steps because there is no effective pathway to sequence workflows so it requires someone to trigger a next step? What if validation of a step takes many hours, but ultimately follows the same process each time and could be automated?

This is where an effective platform team can work with key people to optimise and improve these elements to reduce human toil, increase automation and improve flow.

Time and again, we see excellent ideas and talented people fail because what should be critical inception and development stages are compromised by delivery date pressures and quality compromises that often dismiss the future and that are often self-imposed.

Investing in your platform as early as possible may feel like a premature optimisation, but you’ll be grateful when you find yourself able to keep scaling and operating effectively.

We have the tools and the know-how to make that commonplace in 2022. Let’s do so.

By Terry Brown

Terry Brown is associate director of engineering a Healx, a UK start-up working on AI-powered treatments for rare diseases.

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NFT sales hit 12-month low after cryptocurrency crash | Non-fungible tokens (NFTs)

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Non-fungible tokens have been swept up in the cryptocurrency crash as sales reached a 12-month low in June.

NFTs confer ownership of a unique digital item – often a piece of virtual art – upon someone, even if that item can be easily copied. Ownership is recorded on a digital, decentralised ledger known as a blockchain.

Sales of NFTs totalled just over $1bn (£830m) in June, according to the crypto research firm Chainalysis, their worst performance since the same month last year when sales were $648m. Sales reached a peak of $12.6bn in January.

“This decline is definitely linked to the broader slowdown in crypto markets,” said Ethan McMahon, a Chainalysis economist.

“Times like this inevitably lead to consolidation within the affected markets, and for NFTs we will likely see a pullback in terms of the collections and types of NFTs that reach prominence.”

The cryptocurrency market, worth about $3tn last November, is now worth less than $1tn.

NFTs rely on a blockchain – the decentralised ledger first used by bitcoin to track ownership of the cryptocurrency – to record who owns them and allow them to be traded. Most are based on the Ethereum blockchain, which is maintained through a carbon-intensive system called proof of work.

NFT chart

At its peak, the NFT market was attracting vaulting sums including $2.9m for a token of the first tweet by Twitter’s cofounder Jack Dorsey. A digital collage by the visual artist Beeple sold for $69m; the main token for the “play to earn” video game Axie Infinity hit a total value of $9.75bn; and Coca-Cola raised more than $575,000 from selling digital items such as a customised jacket to be worn in the metaverse.

According to the Chainalysis data, NFT sales peaked in January. In April an attempt to sell on the Dorsey NFT was abandoned when bids topped out at $14,000.

However, demand for so-called blue chip NFT collections has held up, according to DappRadar, a firm that tracks NFTs and blockchain-based video games.

The price of the cheapest NFT in the Bored Ape Yacht Club has declined by only 1%, to $90,00o, over the last month, according to DappRadar’s head of research, Pedro Herrera. “Blue chip collections are performing vastly better than the vast majority of NFTs,” he said.

NFT sales reached $40bn last year and the 2022 total has already exceeded that, at more than $42bn, according to Chainalysis. Sales in January and February accounted for more than half of the 2022 total so far.

The cryptocurrency market has come under pressure amid volatility in the wider stock markets, amid fears over rising inflation and higher interest rates, which have dampened appetite for riskier assets including tech stocks and digital assets.

Faith in crypto assets has also been shaken by the collapse of Terra, a so-called stablecoin whose value was supposed to be pegged to the US dollar, and troubles at crypto-related financial institutions such as the Celsius Network, a lender that has paused withdrawals.

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We speak to Purism’ CEO about the Librem 5 USA smartphone • The Register

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Interview In June, Purism began shipping a privacy-focused smartphone called Librem 5 USA that runs on a version of Linux called PureOS rather than Android or iOS. As the name suggests, it’s made in America – all the electronics are assembled in its Carlsbad, California facility, using as many US-fabricated parts as possible.

While past privacy-focused phones, such as Silent Circle‘s Android-based Blackphone failed to win much market share, the political situation is different now than it was seven years ago.

Supply-chain provenance has become more important in recent years, thanks to concerns about the national security implications of foreign-made tech gear. The Librem 5 USA comes at a cost, starting at $1,999, though there are now US government agencies willing to pay that price for homegrown hardware they can trust – and evidently tech enthusiasts, too.

We first wrote about the Librem 5 smartphone in 2017, considering it a privacy-centric device with a Linux OS. The Librem 5 USA, as noted, tries to use American companies with US fabrication “whenever possible.” It has a 5.7-inch 720×1440 screen with 3GB of RAM, 32GB of storage, and a user-replaceable 4,500mAh battery.

The goal is to produce a phone that can be trusted from the hardware to the OS and apps, something that Apple and Google have become vocal about, too.

The Register spoke with Todd Weaver, founder and CEO of Purism, about how things are going.

Weaver said Purism is about two weeks away from actually holding stock and selling phones, which isn’t something the company, which began with crowdfunding, has previously had to do. In the past, people have pledged funds with orders, and it has later fulfilled them; now it’s building inventory in anticipation of sales.

“We’re actually transitioning to holding stock and pushing sales,” he explained. “We’ve never had to do that before. We’ve never had to do outbound sales.”

The phone, to start at the hardware level on up, all the way to the operating system, is our manufactured hardware

Previously, said Weaver, the company’s growth has been a result of inbound requests for its products based on the material it has published about its projects.

“The phone, to kind of start at the hardware level on up, all the way to the operating system, is our manufactured hardware,” said Weaver. “It runs on a CPU that is not normally in phones.”

That would be a quad-core Arm Cortex-A53 i.MX8M running at 1.5GHz. Weaver said Purism isolated the device’s baseband modem from Wi-Fi and Bluetooth “so that you can actually turn it off with a hardware kill switch. That basically becomes the ultimate in security.”

A key thing to realize here is that baseband modems are effectively small computers running in handsets and handle the cellular communications; if a modem is compromised or made to run rogue firmware, it can potentially take over the rest of the device, hence Purism’s desire to isolate it, if the user so wishes. In fact, it has three hardware kill switches: one to cut off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, one for cellular, and one for the microphone and cameras. All three will cut off GPS, too.

The main printed circuit board assembly (PCBA) is made by Purism in the US, and its microprocessor, from Dutch semiconductor maker NXP, is also made stateside.

The chip, Weaver explained, “is normally in airplanes, in commercial-grade devices, and in cars. It’s a quad-core CPU. But the reason we had to do that was we wanted to properly isolate. So in every other phone that’s made, the baseband modem – the cellular modem – is attached to memory and CPU. Fundamentally the carriers have firmware access that’s lower than the operating system.”

To make the phone secure, Weaver said, to protect privacy and individual freedoms, Purism had to consider security at the hardware level and move up the stack.

“There are all sorts of ways that has to be solved,” he said. “We solve it from the hardware, software, applications, data, and even services.”

The point, said Weaver, is to be able to just take the device and have peace of mind and control over your own digital life.

“We started in 2014, initially just crowdfunding laptops,” said Weaver. “My goal was to produce phones. But I knew that I had to increment through because we had to show that we can manufacture devices. We can do hardware, software, and services. Our model is very similar to Apple in that regard – we produce hardware and we have an operating system that’s married to it, so that it works.

“And then we also include services that fully respect you. If you had an iPhone or an Android phone and a Purism phone like Librem 5 sitting all next to each other, the iPhone will leak probably about three gigabytes of data without doing anything. Android devices are worse. Ours will leak exactly zero bits – nothing is sent without your explicit interaction, to make a request for weather information or browsing the web.”

Research last year suggested Android and iOS beam back telemetry to base even when users opt out of these transmissions, and a complaint was raised in 2020 over what appeared to be Android’s mysterious wireless data transfers.

While working toward phone manufacturing with the release of the Librem laptop, mini PC, and servers, Weaver explained his company was refining PureOS, its Linux distribution. “It’s our operating system that doesn’t have any mystery code in it,” said Weaver. “It’s all the source code, from the bootloader on up.”

Librem 14

Purism’s quest against Intel’s Management Engine black box CPU now comes in 14 inches

READ MORE

Purism, said Weaver, has been working on modifying the PureOS Linux kernel to conserve energy when idle.

“A lot of the things Android initially did to Linux, we are doing to mainline Linux, so that we can actually have these things idle down better,” he said. “Basically, it’s a better way to do nothing.”

He also said the processor tends toward the toasty side. “We pushed really hard with NXP, modified a bunch of Linux kernel development, so that we could get that cooler. It’s just that CPU runs hot. The next iteration, we’ll be using probably I.MX9 … that’s still probably two years away.”

Weaver also said some thought is being given to the possibility of soldering the currently modular modem in place, which would allow for thinner devices and would please government agencies that see a removable component as a security issue.

Asked what sorts of things are possible with a Librem phone that Android and iOS devices don’t offer, Weaver cited the way tethering works. Mobile providers often charge extras for tethering, but with a Librem 5 phone data is just data. He also pointed to disk encryption with user-controlled keys and chat applications that can handle multiple protocols, such as SMS, MMS, XMPP, and Matrix.

For people who want an alternative to Android or iOS, Weaver said it’s an easy sale. “I almost have to back them off to say that, you know, not all your apps are going to run there,” he said. “It’s got calls, text messaging, browsing the web, a calculator, but not Snapchat.”

It’s got calls, text messaging, browsing the web, a calculator, but not Snapchat

Given the benefit Apple and Google get from their respective app stores, it’s not surprising that Purism is trying to deal with what Weaver calls “the App Gap” – the vast number of mobile apps not available on PureOS at the moment.

“Initially, we developed a lot of the core applications,” said Weaver. “We also wrote a library that allows for all the existing GNU/Linux-based applications to shrink down and run on our mobile phone. So by doing that, you don’t have to write a new application, it’s just include our library, and it will now work on the phone.”

That takes some effort, Weaver conceded, and Purism has produced documentation and helped Linux developers adapt their existing apps.

Purism is also enhancing its PureOS Store by partnering with a group that’s funding Interledger, an open payment network federation system.

“We’re actually going to be adding to PureOS Store, which is equivalent to Apple’s App Store or Google’s Play Store, where we allow for people to charge a subscription or charge for an app,” said Weaver. “And then we also have the ability to pay bounties even, for apps that are really needed that aren’t yet developed. So basically, the solution to fill the App Gap is cash.”

“You have to incentivize developers by ‘Hey, you can get paid,'” he elaborated. “The ecosystem grows and also actually puts money towards that effort. Our business model – by selling hardware with high enough margin, having services that are attached – allows us to basically reinvest to fill the App Gap.”

Privacy has always been a tough sell in the tech industry, at least in a mass market context. But over the past decade, the Snowden revelations about the extent of government information gathering, constant privacy scandals, the online ad industry’s unrepentant intrusiveness, pushback against Big Tech and surveillance capitalism, and the always sorry state of data security have buoyed interest in privacy. Add to that trade tensions with China and the supply chain nationalism that has followed, not to mention competition and privacy regulations emerging in the US, UK, and EU, and it looks like an opportunity.

“We’re not make-or-break off any one of those issues,” said Weaver, “but by fundamentally targeting civil liberties, individual freedoms, and privacy rights, then all of those things come out, and as they do, we see an influx of sales.”

“We have devices in every letter-agency in the US and some governments from outside the US,” said Weaver. “And those devices can vary from air gap laptops, to phones and even phone service.”

Weaver declined to discuss Purism’s financial situation in detail, but said the Librem 5 crowdfunding campaign raised $2 million.

“Since then, we’ve grown by triple digits year over year and even during COVID-19, we had a growth year,” he explained. “So overall, our sales have continued to increase. And we’ve grown mostly from revenue, but we’ve also taken on north of $12 million in investment.”

Weaver said the total available market is huge – billions of people have cell phones.

‘When you’re looking at somebody who cares about privacy rights, or they care about ‘I don’t like Big Tech,’ or ‘I don’t like the duopoly a mobile phone the space,’ or ‘I don’t like the intrusion,’ or I would like to advance civil liberties,’ every one of those areas is a potential customer,” said Weaver. “And those areas are immense. So we have not had a demand problem. We have had a supply problem, from parts to actual availability.

“We lost probably about two years on specific parts to actually manufacture this device in the US. China still has a shortage. We’ve never had that lack of interest. Once we get to the point of actually holding stock, then we’re going to be able to resume promoting.”

Soon, then. ®

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