The Shameful Open Secret Behind Southwest’s Failure? Software Shortcomings

Computer programmer Zeynep Tufekci now writes about the impact of technology on society. In an opinion piece for the New York Times, Tufekci writes on “the shameful open secret” that earlier this week led Southwest airlines to suddenly cancel 5,400 flights in less than 48 hours. “The recent meltdown was avoidable, but it would have cost them.”

Long-time Slashdot reader theodp writes that the piece “takes a crack at explaining ‘technical debt’ to the masses.” Tufekci writes:

Computers become increasingly capable and powerful by the year and new hardware is often the most visible cue for technological progress. However, even with the shiniest hardware, the software that plays a critical role inside many systems is too often antiquated, and in some cases decades old. This failing appears to be a key factor in why Southwest Airlines couldn’t return to business as usual the way other airlines did after last week’s major winter storm. More than 15,000 of its flights were canceled starting on Dec. 22, including more than 2,300 canceled this past Thursday — almost a week after the storm had passed.

It’s been an open secret within Southwest for some time, and a shameful one, that the company desperately needed to modernize its scheduling systems. Software shortcomings had contributed to previous, smaller-scale meltdowns, and Southwest unions had repeatedly warned about it. Without more government regulation and oversight, and greater accountability, we may see more fiascos like this one, which most likely stranded hundreds of thousands of Southwest passengers — perhaps more than a million — over Christmas week.

And not just for a single company, as the problem is widespread across many industries.

“The reason we made it through Y2K intact is that we didn’t ignore the problem,” the piece argues. But in comparison, it points out, Southwest had already experienced another cancellation crisis in October of 2021 (while the president of the pilots’ union “pointed out that the antiquated crew-scheduling technology was leading to cascading disruptions.”) “In March, in its open letter to the company, the union even placed updating the creaking scheduling technology above its demands for increased pay.”

Speaking about this week’s outage, a Southwest spokesman concedes that “We had available crews and aircraft, but our technology struggled to align our resources due to the magnitude and scale of the disruptions.”

But Tufekci concludes that “Ultimately, the problem is that we haven’t built a regulatory environment where companies have incentives to address technical debt, rather than passing the burden on to customers, employees or the next management…. For airlines, it might mean holding them responsible for the problems their miserly approach causes to the flying public.”

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Tesla Launches Steam In Its Cars With Thousands of Games

Tesla has launched Steam integration inside its Model S and Model X electric cars with thousands of games now playable. Electrek reports: Today, Tesla launched Steam Beta for Model S and Model X as part of its “holiday update.” We reported all the details of Tesla’s holiday update earlier today for most Tesla vehicles, but the Steam integration is only for the refreshed Model S and Model X produced over the last two years. That’s because Tesla’s two flagship vehicles are equipped with a more powerful entertainment computer designed for video games.

With the unveiling of the new Model S and Model X, Tesla announced the new gaming computer: “Up to 10 teraflops of processing power enables in-car gaming on-par with today’s newest consoles via Tesla Arcade. Wireless controller compatibility allows gaming from any seat.” A known chip leaker, Patrick Schur, posted a diagram of Tesla’s new gaming computer powered by the AMD Navi 23 GPU. The system is integrated and connects directly to two touchscreens inside the Model S and Model X to play games, watch entertainment, and perform other functions. Musk also revealed that the new computer has more storage space to be able to handle more games on the platform at the same time, which is going to be useful to handle your Steam library. The holiday update also brings support for Apple Music, an update to Dog Mode, improvements to Tesla’s “Light Show” feature, and a bunch of smaller features/updates.

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Can a ‘Virtual’ Manual Transmission Bring the Stick Shift to Electric Cars?

Lexus is apparently working on a “virtual” manual transmission, reports the Verge, “to find out if the stick shift can survive the electric revolution…”
British car enthusiast publication Evo reported this week that Lexus, which now leads Toyota’s high-performance EV efforts, is developing a kind of shifting system that mimics the feel of a clutch and a stick shift in an electric car. Of course, it comes without the traditional mechanical connections for such a transmission because an EV doesn’t need those things, but it mimics the motions involved with three-pedal driving. The company has even been showing it off on a special version of the Lexus UX 300e, an electric crossover not sold in the U.S.

Evo reports the “transmission” has an unconnected gear stick and clutch coupled to the electric powertrain, with fake internal combustion sounds and software that augments the electric torque output. In other words, it’s a full-on pretend manual in an EV, complete with the “vroom vroom” sounds…. If this electric transformation really happens, being an enthusiast in the future could mean paying big bucks to simulate the things that got lost along the way.
Their headline puts it less charitably. (“Lexus could save the stick shift for EVs, if drivers are willing to pretend.”)

But Evo writes that Toyota’s ultimate goal is “making EVs more engaging to drive,” noting it’s also equipped with haptic drivers “to generate ‘feel.'”
Clumsy shifts will be accurately translated; you’ll even be able to stall it. Toyota says it’ll be able to theoretically recreate any engine and transmission combination through both sound and torque deliveries from the powertrain…. Takashi Watanabe, Lexus Electrified Chief Engineer, explained: “It is a software-based system, so it can be programmed to reproduce the driving experience of different vehicle types, letting the driver choose their preferred mapping….”

The sound being created from this sort of system is bound to only get better too, as other factors like vibrations through the cabin could be recreated by motors in the seats. This is a system used in BMW’s latest high-end Bowers & Wilkins sound systems, which use vibrating motors in the seats to create more depth to the bass coming from its speakers…. It might not be the real thing, but in a future where we don’t have a choice on the matter and have to drive an EV, it might be the next best thing…

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Senator Urges Automakers to Keep Making Cars with AM Radio

The Boston Globe reports that U.S. Senator Ed. Markey just sent a letter to more than 20 car manufacturers asking them to continue including AM radios in future car models — including electric vehicles:
Some EV manufacturers have raised concerns even as far back as 2016 about how the battery power of an EV can interfere with AM radio signals. However, Markey addressed these concerns saying, “car manufacturers appear to have developed innovative solutions to this problem.”

“The last time I listened to AM radio was in the late 1970s,” writes long-time Slashdot reader non-e-moose. “And then it was mostly because there were either no FM stations in reception range, or I was riding my bicycle and only had a transistor radio.”

But the Senator sees it differently:
AM radio has long been an important source of information for consumers. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 90 percent of Americans ages 12 and older — totaling hundreds of millions of people — listened to AM or FM radio each week, higher than the percentage that watch television (56 percent) or own a computer (77 percent)…. Moreover, 33 percent of new car buyers say that AM radio is a very important feature in a vehicle — higher than dedicated Wi-Fi (31 percent), SiriusXM satellite radio (27 percent), and personal assistants such as Google Assistant (12 percent) and Amazon Alexa (9 percent). In other words, broadcast AM and FM radio remain an essential vehicle feature for consumers.

Moreover, broadcast AM radio, in particular, is a critical mechanism for government authorities to communicate with the public during natural disasters, extreme weather events, and other emergencies. AM radio operates at lower frequencies and has longer wavelengths than FM radio, so AM radio waves more easily pass through solid objects. As a result, AM radio signals can travel long distances, making them well-suited for broadcasting emergency alerts….

Despite innovations such as the smartphone and social media, AM/FM broadcast radio remains the most dependable, cost-free, and accessible communication mechanism for public officials to communicate with the public during times of emergency. As a result, any phase-out of broadcast AM radio could pose a significant communication problem during emergencies…. Given AM radio’s importance for emergency communications and continued consumer demand, I urge your company to maintain the feature in its new vehicles…

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Tesla Delivers Its First Electric Semi Trucks

Electrek recaps yesterday’s Tesla’s Semi Delivery Event in Nevada: As expected, Tesla delivered the first electric trucks to PepsiCo, a long-time reservation holder, and held a presentation to reveal more details about the production version of the Tesla Semi. There wasn’t any big surprise during the presentation. Tesla basically delivered on its original promises made in 2017 when it first unveiled the prototypes of the Tesla Semi. Despite the lack of major changes, it’s still a big moment since the electric truck has the potential to change the trucking industry for good by eliminating emissions and significantly reducing costs.

In terms of the technology powering the truck, things have changed since the original prototypes, but not in any major ways. Tesla is now using a tri-motor drivetrain that is basically the same as in the Model S and Model X Plaid. Dan Priestley, Tesla Semi Program manager, explained that Tesla is using one of the motors for cruising speed geared toward peak efficiency at highway speeds and the two other motors are used for torque when accelerating in order to create a smooth driving experience never seen in a class 8 truck before. To prove the capacity, Tesla shared a very impressive video of a Tesla Semi loaded at 82,000 lb. passing a diesel truck at 6% incline on the Donner Pass as if it’s nothing:

Tesla promised a range of 500 miles with a full load five years ago, and it delivered on the promise. Tesla shared data on a 500-mile trip with a full load of just under 82,000 lb. total with the tractor. It started out in the Bay Area with a 97% state of charge and ended up in San Diego with still 4% charge. Tesla reiterated that it can achieve a less-than-2 kWh-per-mile efficiency, which means that trucking companies can achieve up to $70,000 in fuel savings per year depending on their cost of electricity. Once the battery pack is depleted after 500 miles or so, you can expect blazing-fast charging thanks to the new 1-megawatt charging technology developed by Tesla. The automaker also said it will make it to the Cybertruck. In an updated article, Electrek’s Fred Lambert says Musk confirmed Tesla Semi’s efficiency at 1.7 kWh per mile, “which means it has a roughly 900 kWh battery pack.”

Tesla didn’t reveal the weight of the actual truck or the price. “In 2017, Tesla said the trucks would be $150,000, $180,000, and $200,000, depending on the model, but those prices are expected to have changed over the last five years,” reports Lambert.

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US Safety Watchdog Warns Against Onewheel Boards After Reported Ejection Injuries

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) warned Americans against buying or using any Onewheel self-balance skateboardings, ranging from the original through to newer models like the GT and Pint X. Engadget reports: The vehicles can forcefully eject riders, the CPSC said. The Commission added that here have been reports of “at least” four deaths and multiple serious injuries between 2019 and 2021 after the boards either stopped balancing properly or came to an abrupt stop.

Onewheel creator Future Motion has refused a recall and rejected the CPSC’s stance. The company believes the Commission’s warning is “unjustified and alarmist,” and that its boards are safe if they’re used responsibly with appropriate safety equipment. Board owners are “adults” who know that there’s always a risk to any board sport or even riding a bike, Future Motion argued. To that end, it noted that the CPSC itself prized safety education over warnings when snowboarding took off in the 1990s.

The firm said it had studied boards affected by sudden stops, and hadn’t found any inherent technical problems. Onewheels have lower serious injury rates than bikes, ATVs and motorcycles, Future Motion claimed. It also accused the CPSC of preferring a “sensational” alert over cooperating on safety improvements.

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Electric Scooter Ban Increased Congestion In Atlanta By 10%, Study Finds

A study published last week in the scientific journal Nature Energy studied the effects of traffic and travel time in a city when micromobility options like electric scooters and e-bikes are banned. The results documented exactly how much traffic increased as a result of people switching back to personal cars instead of smaller, more urban-appropriate vehicles. Electrek reports: The study, titled “Impacts of micromobility on car displacement with evidence from a natural experiment and geofencing policy,” was performed using data collected in Atlanta. The study was made possible due to the city’s sudden ban on shared micromobility devices at night. That ban provided a unique opportunity to compare traffic levels and travel times before and after the policy change. The ban occurred on August 9, 2019, and restricted use of shared e-bikes and e-scooters in the city between the hours of 9 p.m. and 4 a.m. The study’s authors used high-resolution data from June 25, 2019, to September 22, 2019, from Uber Movement to measure changes in evening travel times before and after the policy implementation. That created a window of analysis of 45 days with and without shared e-bike and e-scooter use at night.

The study found that on average, travel times for car trips in Atlanta during evening hours increased between 9.9-10.7% immediately following the ban on shared micromobility. For an average commuter in Atlanta, that translated to an extra 2-5 minutes per evening trip. The authors also concluded that the impact on commute times would likely be higher in other cities across the country. According the study, “based on the estimated US average commute time of 27.6 minutes in 2019, the results from our natural experiment imply a 17.4% increase in travel time nationally.”

The study went on to consider the economic impact of that added congestion and increased travel time. […] The economic impact on the city of Atlanta was calculated at US $4.9 million. The study estimated this impact on the national level could be in the range of US $408M to $573 million. Interestingly, the entirety of the study’s data comes from before the COVID-19 pandemic, which played a major role in promoting the use of shared micromobility. A similar study performed today could find an even greater impact on congestion, travel times, and economic impact on cities.

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Teleport Creators Raise $9 Million To Build Decentralized Uber Rival On Solana

The Decentralized Engineering Corporation (DEC) has raised $9 million in seed funding to create a decentralized ridesharing service on Solana — a concept that’s been theorized by Ethereum co-creator Vitalik Buterin and attempted by various startups over the years. Decrypt reports: DEC announced today that it has raised $9 million in seed funding to build out The Rideshare Protocol, or TRIP, which is designed to power ridesharing apps from a variety of future companies. They’ll all share the same core technology to connect drivers with riders, and DEC is building Teleport as the first application to prove out the framework. The seed round was co-led by Foundation Capital and Road Capital, with participation from Thursday Ventures, 6th Man Ventures, 305 Ventures, and Common Metal. Individual strategic investors include Uber’s third-ever employee, engineer Ryan McKillen, as well as social media influencer Jake Paul, Flexport founder Ryan Petersen, and Farcaster co-founder Dan Romero.

Paul Bohm, CEO of DEC and founder of Teleport, told Decrypt that ridesharing giant Uber “essentially runs a monopoly — it’s very centralized.” Uber provides the platform that connects drivers to riders and takes a significant cut of the fee, commanding an estimated 72% of the U.S. ride-sharing market as of June, per data from Bloomberg. TRIP is designed as a decentralized protocol that various app makers can plug into as a marketplace that connects drivers and passengers, all without a centralized force at the heart. Bohm believes this will spur both cooperation and competition, encouraging participants to buck the model of giants like Uber and Lyft while also pushing companies to innovate to create the best app around a shared marketplace. A token will be used for decentralized governance of the protocol too, Bohm said.

Teleport is designed to look and act much like an Uber or Lyft app for seamless onboarding of riders and drivers alike with no crypto required. Riders can pay with either a credit card or the USDC stablecoin, while drivers are paid via USDC or a direct payment to a standard bank account. “We keep it very, very close,” Bohm said of the app experience. “We don’t want any extra steps on either the driver or rider side. But the difference is, you’re no longer part of a monopoly.” DEC will use the seed funding to fuel its rollout in the months ahead, with Teleport and TRIP holding demonstrations during Solana’s Breakpoint conference in Lisbon in November and Art Basel Miami in December.

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