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Cruise postpones plan to launch driverless taxi service in 2019

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Cruise will miss its goal of launching a large-scale self-driving taxi service in 2019, the GM subsidiary’s CEO Dan Ammann said in an interview Tuesday. The company plans to dramatically increase the number of its autonomous test vehicles on the road in San Francisco, but will not be offering rides to regular people this year.

Previously, GM executives told investors that its autonomous ride-hailing service would be open to the public by the end of this year. Now it seems as if Cruise is moving away from deadlines and launch dates altogether. Ammann, GM’s former president who now leads its autonomous vehicle unit in San Francisco, wouldn’t even commit to launching the service next year, in 2020.
“Our goal is to get there as soon as possible,” Ammann said. “We want that moment to come as quickly as we can. But everything that we do right now is going to be gated by safety. And that’s why we’re increasing our testing and validation mileage just to get to that point as rapidly as possible.”

Mirroring the self-driving industry as a whole, Cruise’s hurdles have been both technological and regulatory. Recent reports characterize the company’s vehicles as slow with erratic maneuvers. According to a recent story in The Information, there have been “near collisions with other vehicles, strange steering, or unexpected braking.” A report by Reuters from last year said Cruise’s vehicles have experienced difficulty identifying whether objects in the road are in motion. Ammann called both reports “out-of-date, out-of-context, incomplete, and in some cases, flat-out wrong.”
“Everything we’ve done over the last few years has been to position us to do this safely, and to be in position to take it to very large scale,” Ammann said, “when we’re ready to go.”

Cruise is still waiting for the federal government to accept or reject its request to deploy a fleet of fully driverless Chevy Bolt vehicles without steering wheels or pedals. The request was in limbo until this past March, when the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said it would solicit public comments and conduct a review. That process concluded in May, and now Cruise is waiting for a final verdict. “We’re in dialogue with them,” Ammann said of NHTSA. “And nothing further to comment on at this point.”
This isn’t the first setback for Cruise, the autonomous vehicle company purchased by GM for $1 billion in 2016. Two years ago, the company claimed that it would be the first AV company to test its vehicles in New York City, but those plans fizzled out after the company failed to gain regulatory approval from the state government.

When it predicted that it would launch in 2019, GM was under enormous pressure to keep up with its rivals, including Ford and Alphabet’s Waymo. Just weeks before GM executives told investors on an earnings call that it was aiming for a 2019 launch, Waymo demonstrated its fully driverless vehicles on a closed course in Central California to a number of media outlets (including The Verge). And Ford was outlining plans to ramp up its own testing through its startup, Argo AI.

But a lot has happened since then. In March 2018, a self-driving Uber vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona. Waymo is still testing its fully driverless vehicles without safety drivers on public roads, but not as part of its commercial ride-hailing service. The Alphabet subsidiary launched a commercial ride-hailing service last year, but it’s limited to about 1,000 riders. Predictions about a wave of driverless cars in cities around the world have mostly failed to materialize.

It’s not all bad news, though: Ammann confirmed that San Francisco, where the majority of the company’s vehicles are being tested, will be where the ride-hailing service eventually debuts. (Cruise is also testing in Arizona and Michigan.) In order to rack up the miles needed to gain the confidence to launch, Cruise plans to increase the size of its test fleet that’s operating on the city’s hilly streets over the next few months. It will also host community events to answer questions from residents of San Francisco who, in some respects, are the company’s unwitting test subjects in its public self-driving experiments.

“You’re going to see a lot more Cruise cars on the road,” Ammann said. “I think we’re already sort of fairly prevalent, but you’re going to see a significant increase of cars on the road.”

Cruise has grown in size over the last three years, from 40 employees in 2016 to 1,500 today. Those workers are currently beta-testing the company’s ride-hailing service, complete with its own Uber-like app. The service is available seven days a week, allowing Cruise to evaluate how people use autonomous vehicles as a primary mode of transportation.

After a decade of huge investments and breathless coverage in the media, driverless cars — the car that can go anywhere, without human involvement — remain delayed indefinitely. Despite Elon Musk’s boast that he will put over a million robot taxis on the road by the end of next year, most operators are dialing back expectations. Even Waymo CEO John Krafcik, the guy in charge of the company seen has having the most advanced technology, said last year, “Autonomy always will have some constraints.”

Cruise is just the latest company to rein in its own predictions. But delaying the launch won’t hurt the company’s bottom line. Cruise has plenty of runway after raising $7.25 billion over the last year from SoftBank Vision Fund, T. Rowe Price, Honda, and others. Much of that money will be needed for the company’s ambitious vehicle development plans. In October, GM said it would team up with Honda to design a self-driving car without traditional controls. That will be in addition to the steering wheel-less Chevy Bolt that Cruise is working on with GM.

Ammann said the partnership with Honda will allow Cruise to “completely redefine what a vehicle looks like, because we’re released from the constraints of the typical layout.”

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Disney Plus streaming package debuts Tuesday with Marvel, Star Wars and more

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The new service is $7 a month, commercial free

NEW YORK — Disney will sprinkle its pixie dust on the streaming arena Tuesday, as its Disney Plus service debuts with an arsenal of marquee franchises including Marvel and Star Wars, original series with a built-in fan base and a cheap price to boot.

The $7-a-month commercial-free service is poised to set the standard for other services like WarnerMedia’s HBO Max and NBCUniversal’s Peacock to follow, as major media companies behind hit TV shows and movies seek to siphon the subscription revenue now going to Netflix and other streaming giants.

Disney’s properties speak to its strengths. Besides classic characters such as Snow White and Pinocchio, Disney has Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars and National Geographic — big names that most people would recognize. Disney Plus will also have all 30 past seasons of “The Simpsons.” Original shows include “The Mandalorian,” set in the Star Wars universe, and one on the Marvel character Loki.

“I really love both the Star Wars and Marvel franchises and I grew up watching classic Disney shows and movies so I do think there will be enough content for me,” she said.

Marlina Yates, who works in marketing in Kansas City, said she signed up because of her husband’s enthusiasm about the Star Wars series “The Mandalorian” and her daughter’s “love affair with princesses and everything Disney.”

Disney Plus’s $7 a month price is about half of the $13 Netflix charges for its most popular plan, and there are discounts for paying for a full year up front. Disney is also offering a $13 package bundling Disney Plus with two other services it owns, Hulu and ESPN Plus. That’s $5 cheaper than signing up for each one individually.

Everything won’t be available to stream right away, though, as Disney needs to wait for existing deals with rival services to expire. Recent movies missing at launch include the animated Pixar movie “Coco” and the live-action “Beauty and the Beast.” Others like “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” haven’t been released for streaming yet. Disney expects 620 movies and 10,000 TV episodes by 2024, up from 500 movies and 7,500 episodes on Tuesday.

Disney has said that it is losing about $150 million in licensing revenue in the most recent fiscal year from terminating deals with Netflix and other services. But Disney is betting that what it makes through subscriptions will more than make up for that — at least eventually.

Disney is boosting its subscription base initially with heavy promos, much as Apple TV Plus has done and HBO Max and Peacock plan to do. Members of Disney’s free D23 fan club were eligible to buy three years of Disney Plus service up front for the price of two years. Customers of some Verizon wireless and home-internet plans can get a year free.

The hope is that subscribers will stick around once they see what the service offers.

Long-term success is by no means guaranteed. With a slew of services launching, subscription fees can add up quickly. Consumers might be reluctant to drop an existing service such as Netflix or Amazon Prime to pay for something untested.

“I can’t keep up with so many services. It gets expensive,” said William Pearson, a Drexel University student who describes himself as a “massive” Marvel fan but already pays for Netflix, HBO and the DC Comics streaming service.

But compared with other newcomers, experts believe Disney will have no problem gaining — and keeping — the 60 million to 90 million worldwide subscribers it is targeting for 2024. It took Netflix twice as long to get to 90 million.

“Disney Plus has a gigantic array of content and a library that’s unmatched, so it feels like an easy addition for consumers to get a gigantic library at that low price,” said Tim Hanlon, CEO of Vertere Group.

Bernie McTernan, internet and media analyst at Rosenblatt Securities, said Apple’s venture into streaming, Apple TV Plus, has to build brand recognition for its new shows, while viewers may have difficulties seeing what HBO Max offers beyond the standard HBO subscription.

Source Denver Post

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Firefox is taking steps to stop browser notification spam from next year

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Mozilla is changing how Firefox handles notification requests to try and cut down on annoying pop-ups, the organization has announced. Starting with Firefox version 72, due for release in January, requests to display desktop notifications will come in the form of a small icon in Firefox’s URL bar, and users will need to click this to actually see the notification request. Currently, just visiting many sites is enough to cause them to show a relatively large notification prompt.

In its blog post, Mozilla said that it took the decision after its research showed just how unpopular notifications are with users. Despite ostensibly being a convenient way for sites to share updates with users after they’ve closed the tab, around 99 percent of notification prompts aren’t accepted by users, and 48 percent are actively denied. It also found that repeatedly asking users to show notifications rarely gets them to change their mind.

Browser notifications aren’t just annoying, in many cases they can be used by malicious sites to trick users into downloading malware, or serve dodgy web ads, according to ZDNet. One malware analyst said that notification spam has “largely replaced” adware as a major source of user complaints.

Although Firefox’s biggest changes aren’t due to arrive until January, the browser has already made a small change to how it handles notification in version 70. Now, when you visit a new site that wants to show notifications, Firefox has replaced the “Not Now” option with a “Never Allow” option, so you won’t repeatedly be asked to display notifications by the same site.

Mozilla is the first browser to officially announce plans to block notification requests by default, but Google is experimenting with a similar feature for the Chrome browser, which makes notification prompts less invasive.

Source theverge.com

By Jon Porter

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Apple announces AirPods Pro with noise cancellation, coming October 30th

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Apple has just launched the rumored noise-canceling AirPods Pro — not with an October product event, but via a press release. The premium earbuds are set for release on October 30th for $249. They’re up for preorder starting today. And yes, they still only come in white.

Apple has built microphones into the AirPods Pro that detect external sound, and the earbuds then cancel it out. The system used here sounds very similar to the noise cancellation in the new Beats Solo Pro headphones, just miniaturized to a much smaller form factor. Apple says noise cancellation is adjusted up to 200 times per second.

The AirPods Pro feature a transparency mode that will let you hear your surroundings while wearing them. The earbuds have a “force sensor” that you can use to control music playback and activate transparency mode.

The company is promising fantastic audio quality from the AirPods Pro for that $249 price. They have a feature called “Adaptive EQ” that “automatically tunes music to the shape of your ear.”

Unlike the current AirPods, these will come with flexible ear tips for a more secure, sealed in-ear fit. Three sizes of silicone tips are included in the box. Apple even says there’s a software audio test that can tell you if you’ve chosen the right-sized tip by “measuring the sound level in the ear and comparing it to what is coming from the speaker driver.” This should reduce any guesswork or confusion for customers.

Like the second-gen AirPods, the AirPods Pro support wireless charging and hands-free “Hey Siri” voice commands. Apple says they get around 4.5 hours of continuous listening battery life. (You can see that the active noise cancellation takes a bit of a toll there.) But as usual with AirPods, the case has enough extra battery for around 24 hours of total listening time, including those recharges.

The AirPods Pro are sweat and water resistant — get ready to start seeing these in gyms everywhere — and they include “an expanded mesh microphone port that improves call clarity in windy situations.”

They still charge via the Lightning connector, but they now come with a Lightning to USB-C cable in the box.

Apple’s new AirPods come just as noise cancellation — long a convenience offered by over-ear headphones from Bose, Sony, and others — has begun making its way to truly wireless earbuds. Sony’s noise-canceling 1000X M3 earbuds cost $229. And Amazon’s Echo Buds, with Bose noise reduction (not full-on cancellation) technology, are about to hit shelves for $129.99. AirPods have seen a meteoric rise in popularity since they were first released, so it’s safe to assume that Apple is about to have another smash hit on its hands.

 

Source theverge.com

By Chris Welch

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