All posts by joshuamking

The End of Cars?

I’ve been thinking about cars lately. Not because I drive much, but because I wonder what the city would be like without them.

And I don’t think that day is too far off.

Consider: the technology for driverless cars is already here. Google has unveiled a “real build” of a fully-automated car; Nissan, Audi and others have all announced they will be commercially releasing “driver assist” technology in two or three model years.  And Uber has apparently hired some 50 robotics scientists to work on automating its fleet.

Google Self-Driving Car
(Google’s adorable robo-car; photo courtesy of Google)

The gating factors for this technology are more regulatory, cultural and – most importantly – the perceived need to have cars do everything they do today, without a driver.

A thought experiment: what if a city were able get rid of private cars overnight, and replace them with a system for getting citizens around town flexibly, quickly and cost efficiently?

I know, ignore my bias against government regulation for a minute and go with me on this.

So, no more cars. You want to get around town, you need to walk, ride a bike to take public transit.

Ugh, right? Sometimes you need the flexibility and (hopefully) speed of a car.

But urban public transit could revolutionized by self-driving cars. In our hypothetical city, light rail and buses are rejected as being yesterday’s technology: too inflexible, too expensive, and dependent on an antiquated system of schedules and stops that don’t take advantage of the massive advances in communications and positioning technology that have occurred in the last decade.

Instead, the city deploys a fleet of self-driving vehicles. They come in different sizes and configurations, are dispatched by smartphone, and don’t go beyond the city’s otherwise-car-free streets. If you need to get somewhere in town (and don’t want to walk or ride your bike) you call for one of these vehicles. Think of it as a combined Uber and Car2Go – but fully automated.

Safety

Hand-wringing over robot driving aside, it’s pretty clear that any self-driving car would be massively less likely to get into an accident than the easily-distracted, sometimes-impaired wetware currently necessary to drive a car.

But our automated city system would offer safety benefits beyond even those the come along with an always-vigilant, computerized driver. Because these are the only vehicles on the road (there could be designated routes for commercial deliveries), and because they only operate within the city, they could be built very differently than today’s autos, which must be safe at highway speeds. With a fully automated traffic system, the vehicles would rarely need to stop; they could “flow” around town. This would enable relatively slow speeds; max speeds of 25 mph would still get riders most anywhere in town in 20 minutes or less due to the elimination of stopping and congestion. A 25 MPH-max car could be built lightweight and simple, able to stop on a dime. These cars would pose far less of a threat to pedestrians and cyclists (and not just because there no longer is a human behind the wheel).

Complexity

Another big objection to driverless cars stems from the assumption that such vehicles would need to operate in all of the same circumstances cars currently do. City streets, freeways, remote desert highways, all in any manner of weather conditions, and at speeds between 0 – 90 MPH. If you assume you need to solve for all THAT, you’re requiring a massive amount of complexity in the navigational, safety and decision-making capabilities of the vehicles. You’ve got to address fog, and snow, and construction reroutes, in all possible areas, and at sorts of speeds.  You’ve also got to build in safety systems capable of protecting vehicle occupants in high-speed crashes.

But limit the system to the small, tight and well-monitored ecosystem of a city’s streets (or even just most city streets), and these problems become orders of magnitude more manageable. At the far smaller scale involved, navigational markers can be programmed and updated at a very granular level; the streets would become a virtual track for the cars to operate on.  And it’s easier still, if, like our model city here, you can do so without having to deal with traditional cars at the same time.

Infrastructure

Our city would need far, far less space for parking. Most space currently used for street parking could be given over to drop-off zones, bikeways, and promenades. Some parking structures would be necessary for storage and maintenance of system vehicles, but far fewer spaces than a city with private cars would need. In fact, with the fleet of vehicles continuously in use going from call to call, our city might well have 10x fewer vehicles than a city with traditional cars.

How? Consider how little private vehicles – particularly vehicles owned by in-city residents – are used. The average commute time for Seattle residents is 25 minutes. That means that the typical driver is using their car 50 minutes a day. Even if you increase that number by 80% to account for errands, etc. you’re still left with this: our cars are sitting idle 93.75% of the time.  With smart fleet management and dispatch software smoothly sending cars from call to call, our city’s vehicles could be in use over 50% of the time (including times of low demand).

There are obviously some big environmental benefits coming from this – not just the lower cost per mile to operate simple, light vehicles at low speeds, but also the massive impact of eliminating the manufacture of so many cars.

This piece of the puzzle, believe it or not, is already being worked by Uber with “Uber Pool.” Check out Bill Gurley’s in-depth look at the math behind Uber Pool, and why it’s potentially such a huge deal.

Cost

The cost of a system such as this – whether to the city or a private operator – would be much lower than traditional public transit. There’s little infrastructure to build, and the vehicles themselves – freed of the operational complexities of traditional cars – should also be cheap, and can be scaled up as demand dictates.

For users, the cost would be far lower than owning a car. Lower-cost vehicles being utilized at 10X the frequency of traditional private vehicles compels that result. In fact, the cost could easily end up being cheaper even than current public transit options.

Take a look at some current monthly costs for transportation in Seattle:

Monthly Metro Pass – $81.00

50 15-minute Car2Go rides – $307.50

50 5-mile UberX rides – $600.00

The Uber option is already cheaper than owning a car and parking downtown.  Imagine how low that could go with a liquid, automated system utilizing much cheaper vehicles.

Access

What of the disabled, and those unable to operate or afford the mobile phone, or rides on the system itself? These are issues that today’s transit systems have to contend with, and while I can’t predict exactly what the solutions would be for a robo-car system, there would be more – and more flexible – options than exist for transit operators today. The sheer number of vehicles involved in the system offers the potential for solutions that are far cheaper and easier than the brute force approach of equipping every bus with an expensive, disruptive and prone-to-fail wheelchair ramp.

Outside the City

While this system would solve the problem of in-city transportation – essentially replacing private vehicles and traditional public transit like light rail and buses- it would take longer for driverless cars to take over outside of cities. As soon as you try to do that, you’ve got to solve for higher speeds, lower density and more complex navigation.

But let’s call that a second-order problem. To get started, our urban robo-car system could simply interlink with the outside ecosystem of traditional cars. Those coming in from out of town would park in lots – like today’s park-and-ride lots – where they would grab a driverless vehicle for the trip to their in-city destination.

Obviously, a system like this would require sophisticated algorithms for traffic balancing and flow. Minimizing wait time and cost would be critical to adoption. But the technology and math know-how to do this? We’ve already got it. Putting it in place is really just a matter of overcoming a century’s worth of how we think about cars – and the jarring shift to get there.

Washington’s Vulnerable User Law Is a Joke

A man walking his dog is hit and killed in a Kirkland crosswalk. The driver who hit him isn’t charged with violating Washington’s Vulnerable User Law, RCW 46.61.525, which punishes – merely as a misdemeanor – drivers who fuck up while driving in a way that endangers life or property.

The prosecutors’ excuse? The driver didn’t see the man in the crosswalk.

Listen, morons – if you thought she saw him, you’d be charging her with murder. This is about people driving a deadly implement around without taking proper care.

Here are a few more salient facts, courtesy of The View From the Crosswalk:

  • The driver hit the pedestrian – who was in the crosswalk – while making a left turn at a three-way T-stop.
  • Despite starting from a dead stop at the intersection, she hit him hard enough to kill him – while driving a fucking Prius.
  • OK, not a fact, but something we all know from driving: if you make a turn, from a standing start, and are going fast enough to hit someone and kill them before you’ve traveled 100 feet, you’re fucking flooring it. Especially in a Prius.

That’s about as egregious a set of circumstances as you can get for hitting someone in a crosswalk. This isn’t a tragic situation where one car is stopped for a pedestrian at a mid-block crosswalk with two lanes, or a left-turning truck on a one-way street with a bike lane on the left. It’s an impatient driver gunning it through an intersection, not paying enough attention, and taking someone’s life.

And yet it’s still not enough for the Vulnerable User Law to come into play.

I’m not a big fan of having too many laws of any kind. But if we’re going to try to have safer roads by punishing drivers with strict liability for having too high of a blood alcohol content, we sure as hell can have laws that punish drivers for running over pedestrians in the fucking crosswalk.

 

The Context of Offensiveness

Back in college, a good friend of mine was editor of the school newspaper (the Oregon Daily Emerald).  On his return from a journalism conference in Florida, we had a lengthy discussion about the appropriateness of including certain images in news stories. Much of the discussion turned on an image my friend called “Spike Boy” – a close-up photo of a teenage boy who had fallen from a roof and impaled himself on the spike of a wrought-iron fence (and lived to tell about it). While hotly debated, we all generally agreed that the newsworthiness of the image – starkly illustrating the severity of the injury, and the miraculous fact that it wasn’t fatal – outweighed the shock it would cause in some readers.

In the 25+ years since, the media has widely embraced this sort of view; I’m writing this from an airport where CNN is breathlessly dissecting security camera images from inside the Paris grocery store where a group of religious fanatics killed four hostages.

Yet CNN won’t show the Charlie Hebdo magazine covers. Not in the wake of the shootings that left 12 dead at the magazine’s Paris office, and not to display the incredible resilience the magazine showed in publishing a brilliant response to the violent attempt to silence it.  Nor will the New York Times, NBC, and a host of other media outlets.

As Ken White of Popehat notes, the NYT’s explanation for this omission, of wanting to avoid offending the sensibilities of some of its readers, raises many questions. Scott Greenfield leans in hard on the rationalizations chosen by the media to avoid showing these images. And thinking back to my long-ago discussion of “Spike Boy,” the primacy given to wanting to avoid offense – and in this case, religious offense, of a type with the offense that drove the Charlie Hebdo killers – seems far more an act of cowardice than of principle.

Yes, “offensiveness” needs to part of the equation when the media decides whether to publish an image. But “newsworthiness” is on the other side of the balance from that equation. It’s hard to imagine something more newsworthy than allowing readers to see the actual images that drove a group of people to kill those who created them. And is NBC really doing its readers a service by writing this:

“All is forgiven,” says the front-page headline over a cartoon depicting a tearful Muhammad holding a “Je Suis Charlie” banner.

Rather than showing this?

Charlie Hebdo Cover

 

I’m not suggesting that the news media has an obligation to look for opportunities to offend the sensibilities, religious or otherwise, of its readers. But the media IS supposed to inform – and even challenge, at least a little – its readers. It needs to risk offense in service of informing.

For all the potential power and eloquence in words, they are often inadequate to the task – particularly when images, and the offense they invoke, is at the heart of the story.

Reasons I Didn’t Ride – 2014

2014 was my seventh year of bike commuting, and despite a lot of business travel (I hit MVP status on Alaska before mid-year) I had my third-highest number of bike commuting days, with 187 on the year.

So what accounted for the days I didn’t ride?

  •  Business: As usual, the top category. Traveling for business means no bike commute to work, and it took out a whopping 36 days (which, weirdly, was actually exactly the same number of days as last year).
  • Vacation: Despite taking an awesome hiking trip to Scotland with my son, brother and Dad, I only took 16 days of vacation on the year. The only number on this list I’m looking to increase . . .
  • Family: Now that my kids are fully ensconced in high school, family-related business only preempted riding 7 times.
  • Illness: Being too sick to ride sucks, and it cost me a record-high 5 days in 2014 (after missing zero days for illness in 2013).
  • Other: Social stuff kept me off the bike for another 4 days. However, unlike years past, neither weather nor mechanical issues cost me a single day of riding in 2014.

With my travel schedule, it’s hard to see hitting 200 rides in a year again. Nonetheless, as 2015 begins, that number is once again my goal.

The “Manly” Lawyer Loses?

The ABA Journal has the news: social science researchers have parsed the data and concluded that oral advocates exhibiting more “manly” speaking styles are likelier to lose, while those displaying more confidence in tone are likelier to lose. A few random observations:

  • The data is based on 200 researchers (sourced via Mechanical Turk) listening to recordings of 60 lawyers making the 8-word intro (“Mister Chief Justice, may it please the court”) at the beginning of oral argument before the Supreme Court. Hold your jokes about analytical rigor and the social sciences.
  • There’s a big correlation/causation issue here. More confident-sounding speakers may well sound that way because they’ve got the better case and they know it.  Even lawyers (who aren’t even social scientists) can build an algorithm that can predict Supreme Court decisions with over 70% accuracy. And you can be damn sure the lawyers working in the trenches on these cases know whether they are on the inside track or slogging messily uphill.
  • I suspect that oral argument at the Supreme Court is more a matter of kabuki theater and ego-burnishing than it is likely to make difference in the case one way or the other. I mean, I’d do it in a heartbeat if I had the opportunity, but I wouldn’t harbor any illusions that my oral advocacy would matter nearly as much as the briefing (to say nothing of the existing predispositions of the justices).
  • Finally, the “manliness” point: I suspect that “manliness” in this context is roughly synonymous with “aggressiveness.” Aggressiveness is a quality many attorneys pride themselves on – and even advertise on the basis of – but in my experience extremes of aggressiveness in representation are usually counter-productive. Other people don’t find such displays attractive, so they only work if they succeed in intimidating the other side. For good advocates, overt aggression is a tactic of last resort.

And so we’re back to correlation and causation – the “manly” advocates may show up on the losing side more often simply because these attorneys knew they were facing an uphill fight and employed, consciously or not, their worst-case approach.

Unfortunately, while aggression is a low-percentage tactic even when negotiating or arguing in general, it got to be singularly unhelpful when arguing before the Supreme Court.

h/t Lawyerist

A Holiday Wish for Better Bike-Car Interaction

Riding on the tiny bits of bike-centric infrastructure in Seattle – the bikeways on Broadway and 2nd Avenue – offers a glimpse of what urban cycling could look like if we had meaningful planning and building around it. It would be easier, less stressful, slower and safer.

But until that day, those of us who ride daily in the city must contend with infrastructure and traffic rules that are designed primarily for cars. As a result, it’s safest for cyclists to “ride like cars” and truly share the road (rather than just a tiny slice of it).

But what if, in the embryonic period between vehicular cycling and fully-separated bike infrastructure, cyclists and drivers alike developed rules – not so much laws as guidelines – for sharing the road?

I know, it’s a pipe dream, as most drivers can’t relate to the issues cyclists are dealing with when navigating the city’s car-focused streets. But in the spirit of holiday optimism, here are my thoughts on what these rules might look like:

  • Stoplights and stop signs are optional for bikes.
    • Bikes: You can ride through a stop signal when it’s safe to do so – meaning no cross-traffic or other dangerous condition. Otherwise, wait along with the cars.
    • Cars: You won’t get butthurt because some cyclist ran through a red light when there wasn’t any cross-traffic. Their doing so impacts you not at all, except for some vague sense of unfairness in your lizard brain. Let it go.
  • Bikes will “take the lane” whenever it’s safest to do so.
    • Cars: Most of you don’t realize that bikes who give you enough room to pass often have to put themselves into the low-visibility “door zone” to do so. This substantially raises the risk of being “doored” or colliding with a pedestrian darting out between parked cars. It also make it much harder for cars crossing or turning onto the street to see the cyclist before pulling out. And no, the fact that the city of Seattle has stupidly placed bike lanes right in the door zone on many streets doesn’t magically make it safe for cyclists to ride in those lanes.
    • Related bonus for cars: Look before opening the damn door.
    • Bikes: Take the lane more often. You’re not doing anyone any favors by wobbling along in the door zone. But you should also be making an effort to move along as quickly as you safely can, and give cars the opportunity to pass when it is safe to do so.
  • Passing.
    • Cars: Don’t pass a bike, particularly one that is taking the lane,  unless you plan on driving straight and at speed for at least a few more blocks.  If you’ve got a notion to turn right, cruise for a parking space, or drive slowly while looking up an address on your iPhone, just stay behind the bike.
    • Bikes: Don’t pass cars on the right (or the left, on one-way streets) when you are both about to enter an intersection. Even if – hell, especially if – you’re in a bike lane.
  • Safe Driving/Riding.
    • Cars: Drive predictably. Don’t tailgate or crowd bikes.
    • Bikes: Ride predictably and visibly. Don’t do dumb stuff. Have working brakes on your bike.

It seems so common-sensical, but of course, that’s too much to expect in a world where people still think bicycles need to be licensedbikeways get torn out in favor of parking, and everything on the road is built in deference to King Car.

But just you wait – if I don’t get my Christmas miracle of drivers and cars getting along (which, in fairness, they do better on Capitol Hill than in most places), I can still look forward to end of urban cars. That’s on its way, and soon (my musings on that subject to come).

Happy holidays.

Ultimatums and Bluffs

Ultimatums can have their place in any negotiation, but they are best used sparingly and with care. And while I’ve gotten the best results by being quite direct in negotiations, being too direct – throwing down an ultimatum – raises a significant risk that your discussions will come to an abrupt end.

Which means, of course, that you should be OK with that outcome if you make an ultimatum.  “My way or the highway,” as they say – and if the other side opts for “highway,” that’s fine.

The corollary to this principle is that it is a mistake to bluff when making ultimatums. The reason is simple: if you make an ultimatum, and then walk it back when the other side resists, you’ve cost yourself a massive amount of negotiating credibility.  It makes the other side wonder why they should believe anything you say, making it doubly hard to get what you need in the deal. 1

Unfortunately, I regularly experience firsthand attorneys violating this principle with their own particular brand of ultimatum: the lawsuit threat.

It’s kind of depressing that attorneys reach for this little trick so reflexively. But I suppose to some, if you’ve got that hammer, everything starts looking like a nail. And it must work at least some of the time, at least when dealing with power imbalances or inexperienced negotiators.

But the problem with the lawsuit threat is the same problem of any ultimatum: if you don’t intend to follow through with it, and the other side isn’t impressed with your threat, you’ve got nothing left to do but slink away.

Maybe that’s OK for some attorneys, but in a profession where reputation is so important, it feels awfully cheap to me to just throw one’s credibility around. And there’s a related problem as well, as lawyer (and Harvard business school professor) Ben Edelman just found out: that your threats will reveal, via the magic of social media, what an insufferable tool you really are.

All of this is why most savvy attorneys rarely make lawsuit threats – they just file.  Or they only make a threat when their client is ready to pull the trigger on a lawsuit.  2

So back to the question: why would an attorney threaten a lawsuit he or she had no intention of bringing? Maybe because they feel like they have leverage over a small business, which has heard the tale of the lawyer suing for $10 million over a dry cleaning mistake.  Or because they feel they can browbeat or intimidate a low-level employee pr small business owner into getting their way (Harvard prof Edelman is obviously big on this tactic).

Not that any of that is right, but at least I can understand the logic.

But why would a lawyer make a threat like this to me?  It takes less than minute to look my background up, see that I may know a few things about media law and negotiating, and realize that the ol’ lawsuit threat bluff isn’t going to work.

Why would they make it to a restaurant owner with a large social media following, who can effectively embarrass them on a national stage?

It should occur to them that their target may turn the tables on them, and make their demands look like the churlish “standing on rights” that they typically are.

Yet lawyers continue to do this, over and over again. 3 It’s just appalling how little work goes into thinking through the efficacy of rolling out the lawsuit threat.  Believe it or not, many businesses don’t quake in fear at the thought of being sued. Many of us will just tell you to get lost – or if you really piss us off, we will make you pay, both reputationally and in actual dollars.

So lawyers, trust me – the “tool” of clearly explaining your position and asking politely for something reasonable? That’s a hell of a lot more effective than threatening to sue.

And it’s certainly a lot less likely to end up with you at the center of an epic media shitstorm.

Notes:

  1. This is also why bluffs work when playing poker. You actually want your bluffs to be called occasionally precisely because you don’t want credibility – predictability – at the poker table.
  2. On exactly one occasion in my legal career did I threaten a lawsuit I didn’t intend to follow through with. I still cringe thinking of it. And no, of course my bluff didn’t work.
  3. OK, and non-lawyers, too – witness the buffoonery of clown-troll Charles Johnson’s many lawsuit threats.

Ethics in Negotiation

When I first started blogging, I was exclusively doing mergers and acquisitions work, and a frequent topic for my posts was the ins and outs of negotiations.

A recent kerfuffle in the legal marketing world has raised an issue I haven’t addressed before – what are the acceptable limits of veracity in negotiation?  Or to put a sharper point on it, to what extent is it acceptable to lie to counterparties when negotiating?

Mirriam-Webster defines a lie as to “make an untrue statement with intent to deceive” or “to create a false or misleading impression.” This covers both affirmative lies and lies of omission.

And here’s the thing: anyone with the least experience negotiating knows that there are plenty of lies that are acceptable in the negotiating process.  It’s routine for parties to attempt to create a false impression of their level of interest in a deal, their bottom-line terms, or their feelings about their counterparties.   Many are the occasions when I’ve overstated my leverage, feigned indifference, and laughed at jokes that fall flat.

But I’ve always drawn the line at making shit up.

The reason it’s acceptable to  misrepresent one’s underlying motivation or feelings is that, fundamentally, motivations and feelings aren’t facts. They are fluid conditions, subject to change. They can shift based on any number of internal or external factors – including the persuasive powers of the person on the other side of the negotiation.

For example: if you ask “how much EBITDA did your company earn last year?”  your question seeks data that is fixed, and you expect a straightforward answer.   But asking “what’s the lowest price you’d sell your company for?”  The answer to that question isn’t fixed – even if your counterparty gives you the most transparent answer they can at the time, the “real” answer can – and probably will – change.  But because it’s not fixed – and it may not even be properly definable, given the fluidity involved – negotiators know that it is neither helpful nor required that they try at every turn to be completely transparent about their motivations.

So this is where people get hung up: they conflate this acceptable obfuscation of feelings, motivations and positions with the unacceptable invention of things that aren’t true.

There is a big difference between feigning a lack of interest in an offer and materially misrepresenting your operating results or professional background. Letting these lines get blurry – letting the facts get blurry – can make for a quick trip to a negotiator’s reputational ruin.

Ebola Bike Ride!!

Ebola craziness has come to this: completely asymptomatic nurse Kaci Hickox – whose only crime was to treat unfortunates in West Africa for Ebola – is trailed by police when she defies a state-ordered home detention to go for a bike ride.

Go, Kaci – ride your bike!

Here’s my take from yesterday on the nuttiness of letting our reactionary “laboratories of democracy” create quarantine policies based on fear rather than science.