Friday, May 24, 2013

Dynamic real-time maps

I-5 bridge over Skagit river collapsed last night.  I read about it today morning.

Since lot of people will be driving over to Vancouver from Seattle for the long weekend, I wanted to check out the damage and how it is going to affect the travel.  I go to Google maps and voila, Google has already done the work for us.  Check out the image below to see how Google has already updated the map so that the break in the freeway is shown.  It would have been cooler if they indicated the breakage of the bridge, rather than a missing segment on the map.   

Now, look at Bing maps and see what it says.  As per Bing, you can still drive over the (broken) bridge, and nothing is wrong!

Now, I went back to Google maps and asked for directions from Seattle, Wa to Vancouver, BC, expecting to see something cool.  Here is what it returned:

Hah.  Google messed up.  So, now I am wondering if the I-5 breakage (shown in Google maps) is a bug in Google maps or whether it was updated based on today's news.  If the map WAS updated based on the news, kudos to Google.  But, they need to take it one step further and feed this information to the routing engine too.  Why stop half way?

Wouldn't it be interesting to create dynamic maps that are hooked into the news and update based on the current conditions, like breakage, bridge/road closures, etc?  There are lots of avenues to get this information and feed it into the maps.

I am looking forward to such innovation.  We do live in interesting times.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Design Innovation (or not)

I wanted to talk about design innovation, thinking out of the box, and pushing the envelope.  This is what every company (at least, consumer goods companies) is striving to become good at.  You can innovate like crazy, but still not solve the problem if you lose sight of your primary goals.  I think that is what is happening to the Tesla Model X.

As you can see in the Model X Reveal video, Elon Musk talks about the problems addressed by the new design:
  • More stylish than a minivan
  • More spacious than a SUV
  • Ease of getting a child car seat into the car
  • Ability to stand inside the car
  • Ability to easily get into the third row without folding the second row
The design is super sexy because we don't see it often on the streets.  We have only seen gull wing doors on sports cars and super cars.  Now, you can have it on an SUV that most people can afford!  BTW, Tesla calls this design 'Falcon Wing' since it flexes in the middle in order to minimize overhang.  A cool bit of engineering and innovation. 

Really cool design. 

What is not that cool is the fact that the design only solves a few problems and creates a lot more issues.  It does solve the virtues that Elon mentions.  But, it does create other issues:
  • Letting rain water into the cabin.  Remember, rain rarely comes perfectly down.  It is always blown by wind and comes down at an angle
  • Letting snow fall into the cabin.  If you ever lived in snow country, you know what I am talking about
  • Forget snow falling into the cabin.  Anyone who has shoveled snow knows how heavy snow is.  A few inches of snow on the roof would mean that the hydraulic/pneumatic mechanism on the door would fail to even raise the door.  In fact, it could even break the mechanism
  • Inability to mount a roof rack.  An SUV without a roof rack.  C'mon.  I know Tesla packs a ton of cargo space (including the 'frunk'), but I can't carry 3 bikes or a canoe inside the cargo space
  • What about older homes with low ceiling garages?  You cannot even open the doors while inside the garage
  • How safe is this feature?  Most car roofs are designed to support the weight of the car body (when it is upside down) with the doors shut (Now you know why it is important to remember to lock the doors).  With the buckling Falcon Wing doors, are they strong enough to hold the weight of the base?  Maybe, they are, considering the fact that the Model X is pretty light compared to its gas counterparts
  • Opening area when the door is open is huge.  Of course, it allows one to stand inside the car, but who would want to do that?  With this large opening, your hard working A/C will have to work extra hard to cool/heat the cabin every time you open and shut the door
One of the main reasons minivans have sliding doors is to solve a lot of these issues.  If the main purpose was to solve the issue of loading car seats, and loading passengers into the rear seats, Tesla could have come up with a better and cooler sliding door.  Falcon Wing doesn't seem to cut it.  It is a cool fashion statement, but not practical in a lot of geographies.  Fashion statements work in niche products (like super cars).  But, if Tesla is aiming this at the mass market, Falcon Wings are not the answer. 

If the main problem to solve was the passenger loading, there are a ton of other ways to do it.  By innovating on the seating.  Maybe, by swiveling the middle row seats so that the seat faces you when the door opens.  This will aid in easily attaching a car seat.  It will also get the backrest out of the way and provide more space to get into the third row.  There are a lot of other ways to solve the problem at hand, AND not create additional problems.

Talking about out of the box thinking, here is a company that has created one of the lightest EVs around.  Check them out:

Image courtesy: Tesla Motor Co.