By Meghan Rosen

Zika may harm grown-up brains.

The virus, which can cause brain damage in infants infected in the womb, kills stem cells and stunts their numbers in the brains of adult mice, researchers report August 18 in Cell Stem Cell. Though scientists have considered Zika primarily a threat to unborn babies, the new findings suggest that the virus may cause unknown — and potentially long-term — damage to adults as well.

In adults, Zika has been linked to Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare neurological disorder (SN: 4/2/16, p. 29). But for most people, infection is typically mild: a headache, fever and rash lasting up to a week, or no symptoms at all. In pregnant women, though, the virus can lodge in the brain of a fetus and kill off newly developing cells (SN: 4/13/16).

If Zika targets newborn brain cells, adults may be at risk, too, reasoned neuroscientist Joseph Gleeson of Rockefeller University in New York City and colleagues. Parts of the forebrain and the hippocampus, which plays a crucial role in learning and memory, continue to generate nerve cells in adult brains.

In mice infected with Zika, the virus hit these brain regions hard. Nerve cells died and the regions generated one-fifth to one-half as many new cells compared with those of uninfected mice. The results might not translate to humans; the mice were genetically engineered to have weak immune systems, making them susceptible to Zika.

But Zika could potentially harm immunocompromised people and perhaps even healthy people in a similar way, the authors write.

By Kate Springer

A tiny scrap of land might not catch your eye.

But to Japanese architect Yasuhiro Yamashita of Atelier Tekuto, there’s nothing more beautiful.

A veteran designer of kyosho jutaku — or micro homes — Yamashita has built more than 300 houses, each uniquely shaped and packed full of personality.

All starkly different, the only thing these homes have in common is their size — Yamashita’s projects start at just 182 square feet.

Demand for small homes in Japan results partly from land scarcity, property prices and taxes, as well as the impending danger posed by the country’s regular earthquakes and typhoons.

But some residents simply prefer a smaller home, seeking a minimalist lifestyle.

“In Japan, there’s a saying (‘tatte hanjo nete ichijo’) that you don’t need more than half a tatami mat to stand and a full mat to sleep,” says Yamashita. “The idea comes from Zen — and a belief that we don’t need more than the fundamentals.”

Of course, the beauty of a well-designed micro home is that it doesn’t appear ‘fundamental’ at all.

Below, Yamashita divulges 10 strategies to make petite properties feel more spacious.

1. Embrace the awkward

“Asymmetrical pieces of land can often be obtained cheaper than others. And it is an architect’s job to work with the land and fulfill the client’s request,” says Yamashita.

“‘Lucky Drops’ — a house in downtown Tokyo — is a good example. It was a leftover scrap of land that was less expensive because of its irregular trapezoid shape. We had to be creative, but the result is beautiful. There’s a saying in Japanese, that the last drop of wine is considered to be lucky. That’s the inspiration.”

2. Build towards the sky

“When you look at an area in 2D, it might seem very small — perhaps the plot is just a few meters wide. But thinking in terms of volume, you can build the home higher and create more space. I try to make the house feel like it’s extending upwards into the sky, so it’s almost like the sky is part of the house. I also build high ceilings, so you don’t feel cramped.”

This Tokyo home, designed by Atelier Tekuto, takes the shape of a polyhedron in order to provide an enormous skylight above the living room.

Aptly named “Framing the Sky,” this Atelier Tekuto home was built on a polygon-shaped site. The architects focused on the relationship between nature and people, by incorporating a large skylight to make the home feel like it was extending upwards into the sky.

3. Incorporate nature

“In Japan, about 70% is mountains and forest and 30% of the land is rather flat, making it more suitable for residences and rice farms. Even so, we are not trying to fight against nature — we’re trying to live along with it. You can see this in the homes we design. Most of our homes incorporate natural materials and large windows to let in lots of natural light.”

A combination of a shop and private home, Wakka incorporates lots of natural touches, such as a small stone garden and a series of sliding doors that offer more alfresco space.

4. Think outside the box

“Instead of traditional square corners, I often cut the edges of the house into triangular shapes. This creates more surface area and more room for windows. There’s always a corner open to the sky. That way, as the sun moves, the home is always filled with natural light.”

Designed by Atelier Tekuto for a family of five, Iron Mask is steel-based house with a unique curving facade that made the most of the site’s shape.

5. Go monochrome

“What you see informs 60% of your perception of a space. Imagine that you’re inside an eggshell, with the same color and texture all over. There’s no real start or finish, no real corners.

It is a visual effect that will make the space expand. I think that the color white makes spaces look larger, but I prefer to use the natural colors of materials rather than painting.”

Designed by Atelier Tekuto for a family of five, Iron Mask is steel-based house with a unique curving facade that made the most of the site’s shape.

The color white can make spaces look larger, but any consistent palette can create a similar effect. Atelier Tekuto often incorporates natural materials and textures rather than painting.

6. Use reflective materials

“To trick the eye, I use polished stainless steel features. They reflect light and make an area seem larger. In ‘Reflection of Mineral,’ for example, I used stainless steel in the kitchen and in the bathroom to make the space feel more expansive.”

An industrial-style home designed by Atelier Tekuto, Wafers makes use of reinforced concrete, steel and highly reflective windows.

7. Hide Storage

“People tend to accumulate a lot of things over time. I want it all to be hidden away, out of sight, so I build a lot of invisible storage inside the house. If you keep the area wide open and uncluttered, then it’s hard for people to really comprehend the size of the space.”

The uncluttered space feels spacious and large, an effect that’s accentuated by floor-to-ceiling windows.

The owner of Cell Bricks, also a designer, requested an “out of the norm” home and Atelier Tekuto delivered. The house has lots of natural storage thanks to the stacked steel-box design, making it functional as well as visually engaging.

8. Stay close to home

“In the 20th century, architecture was meant for the masses, for the general public. Designs and buildings were constructed quickly and economically — all with the same materials and same appearance. We were in an era of globalization and everyone wanted the same thing.

But now, people are looking to their own regions, their own local traditions for inspiration. That’s where design is moving — closer to home.”

Using natural materials such as cedar wood and terrazzo floors, Atelier Tekuto created a nature-inspired abode for a Japanese family.

9. Invent new solutions

“I spend a lot of time developing new materials from what other people consider to be ‘waste.’ I’m like a garbage man. If I find materials that are not commonly used or have been discarded, then I get really excited.

If I can’t find the materials that go along with the structure, then I invent a new one. For example, I was unhappy with the cement used for homes in Japan, so I worked with Tokyo University to develop a new type. Our recyclable Shirasu Cement is made from volcanic ash deposits.”

Two chemists own R Torso C and they specifically requested a concrete design with an eco-friendly approach. Atelier Tekuto set out out to develop a new type of environmentally friendly cement, called Shirashu.

10. Personalize your home

“A few factors affect my designs — the specificities of the land, the way the light hits the property, the neighborhood, and the client’s personal requests. A home is very personal. In ‘Reflection of Mineral,’ the clients wanted a strong, sharp-looking design. From there, I choose materials based on the design, depending on what would be best for the space.”

Atelier Tekuto approached Reflection of Mineral with an open mind. The clients requested a strong design that would be a memorable piece of architecture while providing the maximum amount of livable space.

home 16

Also an architect, the owner of Layers requested a home that could accommodate multiple generations, as well as feature outdoor courtyards and connecting staircases. By using a mix of materials, Atelier Tekuto achieved a unique yet functional design.

“Autonomous vehicles could have just as much significant impact on society as Ford’s moving assembly line did 100 years ago,” said Mark Fields, chief executive of Ford.


In the race to develop driverless cars, several automakers and technology companies are already testing vehicles that pilot themselves on public roads. And others have outlined plans to expand their development fleets over the next few years.

But few have gone so far as to give a definitive date for the commercial debut of these cars of the future.

Now Ford Motor has done just that.

At a news conference on Tuesday at the company’s research center in Palo Alto, Calif., Mark Fields, Ford’s chief executive, said the company planned to mass produce driverless cars and have them in commercial operation in a ride-hailing service by 2021.

Beyond that, Mr. Fields’s announcement was short on specifics. But he said that the vehicles Ford envisioned would be radically different from those that populate American roads now.

“That means there’s going to be no steering wheel. There’s going to be no gas pedal. There’s going to be no brake pedal,’’ he said. “If someone had told you 10 years ago, or even five years ago, that the C.E.O. of a major automaker American car company is going to be announcing the mass production of fully autonomous vehicles, they would have been called crazy or nuts or both.”

The company also said on Tuesday that as part of the effort, it planned to expand its Palo Alto center, doubling the number of employees who work there over the next year, from the current 130.

Ford also said it had acquired an Israeli start-up, Saips, that specializes in computer vision, a crucial technology for self-driving cars. And the automaker announced investments in three other companies involved in major technologies for driverless vehicles.

For several years, automakers have understood that their industry is being reshaped by the use of advanced computer chips, software and sensors to develop cars designed to drive themselves. The tech companies Google and Apple have emerged as potential future competitors to automakers, while Tesla Motors has already proved a competitive threat to luxury brands like BMW and Mercedes-Benz with driver-assistance and collision-avoidance technologies.

More recently, ride-sharing service providers like Uber have raised the competitive concerns of the conventional auto industry. The ride-hailing services aim to operate fleets of driverless cars that, in the future, might provide ready transportation to anyone, making it easier for people to get around without owning a car or even having a driver’s license

A Barclays analyst, Brian Johnson, recently predicted that once autonomous vehicles are in widespread use, auto sales could fall as much as 40 percent as people rely on such services for transportation and choose not to own cars.

Mr. Fields said on Tuesday that the combination of driverless cars and ride-sharing services represented a “seismic shift” for the auto industry that would be greater than the advent of the moving production line was roughly a century ago.

“The world is changing, and it’s changing rapidly,” he said, adding that Ford now sees itself as not just a carmaker but a “mobility company.”

BMW and Mercedes-Benz are among the carmakers that have seized upon the concept of “transportation as a service,” as it is called, by starting ride-sharing services of their own. General Motors has teamed up with, and bought a stake in, Lyft, the main rival of Uber.

GM and Lyft plan to have driverless vehicles operating in tests within a year. Initially, at least, those tests will be conducted with a driver in the car to take control from the self-driving technology, if necessary.

Even some auto suppliers are focusing on ride-hailing services and driverless cars. This month, the components maker Delphi announced that it was working with the government of Singapore to develop a ride service to shuttle people to and from mass transit stations in the country’s business district.

Even though Ford has committed itself to a date for a commercial introduction of its driverless cars, several questions remain about how it will move forward, said Michelle Krebs, an analyst with AutoTrader.

For example, Ford does not have a ride-sharing partner as G.M. does in Lyft, Ms. Krebs said.

In a research note on Tuesday, Mr. Johnson noted that it remained unclear how auto companies would make money from ride-sharing services.

“These are a lot of promises, but we don’t yet know how they are going to evolve,” Ms. Krebs said. “There are still missing pieces.”

One of the investments Ford announced on Tuesday was a $75 million stake in Velodyne, which makes sensors that use lidar, a kind of radar based on laser beams. The Chinese internet company Baidu said it was making a comparable investment in Velodyne.

Ford also said it had made investments in Nirenberg Neuroscience, which is also developing machine vision technology, and Civil Maps, a start-up that is developing 3D digital maps for use by automated vehicles. Ford did not disclose the amount it invested in Nirenberg or Civil Maps.

by David Goldman

As part of a scathing takedown of the debt-purchasing industry, late night comedian John Oliver forgave nearly $15 million of medical debt with a tap of a giant red button on Sunday night.

Oliver called the giveaway the “largest one-time giveaway in television history.” He just about doubled the value of Oprah Winfrey’s famous “You get a car! You get a car! Everybody gets a car!” giveaway to her entire studio audience in 2004.

The stunt followed a long look at debt collectors on his HBO show “Last Week Tonight,” in which Oliver sharply rebuked debt purchasers for unscrupulous behavior that is limited by hardly any regulatory oversight. (HBO is owned by CNNMoney’s parent company, Time Warner.)

The segment included a hidden camera brought into a Debt Buyers Association conference by “Last Week Tonight” staffers, which showed panelists appearing to scoff at how Americans don’t understand their legal rights about paying their debts.

To further illustrate the lack of regulation and ease at which debt collectors can harass people over money they owe, Oliver said “Last Week Tonight” spent $50 to create its own debt collection agency, based in Mississippi.

“Any idiot can get into it, and I can prove that to you, because I’m an idiot and I started a debt buying company and it was disturbingly easy,” Oliver said.

Oliver named the company “Central Asset Recovery Professionals,” or CARP, “after a bottom-feeding fish.” He appointed himself chairman of the board.

After setting up a bare-bones website, Oliver said CARP was offered a portfolio of nearly $15 million in medical debt for just $60,000. “Last Week Tonight” was able to pay less than half a cent on the dollar for all that debt.

Oliver said CARP could have received a file that included the names, personal addresses and Social Security numbers of nearly 9,000 people who owed the debt it had purchased. He called that fact “absolutely terrifying, because I could legally have CARP take possession of that debt and have employees start calling people turning their lives upside down over medical debt.”

“There would be absolutely nothing wrong with except for the fact that absolutely everything is wrong with that,” Oliver continued. “We need much clearer rules and oversight.”

In the end, Oliver said “Last Week Tonight,” decided to forgive all that debt — not just because “it’s the right thing to do,” but also because it would trump Oprah’s $8 million giveaway.

With the tap of a giant red button, streams of confetti, dramatic music and strobe lights, Oliver transferred the file with the 9,000 debtors’ personal information to RIP Medical Debt, a nonprofit that forgives medical debt with no tax consequences for the debtor.

“It seems to me the least we can do for debt I cannot f—ing believe we’re allowed to own is to give it away,” Oliver said to close his show. “F— you, Oprah. I am the new queen of daytime talk!”

Thanks to Kebmodee for bringing this to the It’s Interesting community.

Sam and Rob Fatzinger, second and third from right, of Bowie, Md., have 13 children, including, from left, Barbara, Robert, Kolbe, Alex, Mary, Cecelia and Dominic. (April Greer/For The Washington Post)

Sam Fatzinger prowls the aisles of an Aldi grocery store with an engineer’s precision. Workers greet her, mostly by name.

She puts several trays of chicken into a huge cart. Then it’s on to fresh blueberries for $1.79 a pint, in February. And she recalls the time the no-frills store had a sale on potatoes: 10 pounds for 99 cents. She bought 60 pounds. Her husband loves them.

To get these best buys, “it’s just watching and waiting and knowing,” Sam says.“Every cent counts.”

At the cashier, her groceries fill every inch of the conveyor belt. My silent guess: $250 in all. The bill: $127, half of my estimate.

Very impressive. But not as impressive as this:

Rob and Sam Fatzinger, lifelong residents of Bowie, Md., lead a single-income family in one of the country’s most expensive regions. Rob’s income never topped $50,000 until he was 40; he’s now 51 and earns just north of $100,000 as a software tester.

They have 13 children. Which means they require things like a seven-bedroom house and a 15-passenger van. Four children have graduated from college, three are undergrads and six are on the runway.

Yet they paid off their mortgage early four years ago. They have no debt — never have, besides mortgages. And Rob is on track to retire by 62.

This family gets the gold medal for being frugal. This family is the Einstein of economical.

These days, frugality is not about clipping coupons. It’s about rethinking your finances, and maybe your life.

Rob’s philosophy: “Spend money on what makes you truly happy and on what you enjoy. … The thing that people need to understand is that we don’t feel deprived or poor. … We pick and choose carefully.”

The Fatzingers are getting it done.

Could you?

A Fatzinger family portrait with, from left, Caleb, Kolbe, Alex, Mary, Joey, Cecilia, Barbara, Dominic, Lizzie, Robert, Rob, Eric, Sam and Ray. Not pictured: Joshua. (April Greer/For The Washington Post)

Frugality is hardly new. In 1789, George Washington wrote to Marquis de Lafayette, the French military officer who fought for the American Revolution: “Nothing but harmony, honesty, industry and frugality are necessary to make us a great and happy people.” And we were a frugal people well into the 20th century. Then came the era of instant credit, rampant consumerism and record personal bankruptcies.

Recently, frugality has gotten a boost thanks to hundreds of personal-finance bloggers, and no thanks at all to the Great Recession of 2007-2009. Many focus on FIRE, an acronym for financial independence/retire early.

Aspirants often strive to save at least 25 percent of their take-home pay over the years, or even twice that — or more — to feel financially secure or to pursue a new career. Others yearn to quit their jobs for the long haul, even in their 30s.

One leading blogger grew up on food stamps. Others learned about money from their parents, for good or ill. The best are innovative, funny and surprisingly philosophical as they chart a course for change and places unknown.

They’re about ideas and possibilities, not suffering. And millions are listening. Until a couple of years ago, Rob Fatzinger had a blog called Sardonic Catholic Dad, focusing on family, faith and frugality. Two of his hits: “College on the Cheap — How the Sardonic Family Does It” and “How to Retire Early With 13 Kids,” which he wrote as a guest post on the FIRE site Mad Fientist.

Frugalism is often about math, determinationand thinking a bit differently. A few key principles: How much you save, as a percentage of your paycheck, will foretell when you’ll be able to build your own business or retire. Small financial changes can make a big impact. And it’s not really about your income; it’s about your savings, says Pete Adeney, a lapsed engineer from outside Boulder, Colo., who created the popular Mr. Money Mustache blog.

And then there’s the “miracle” of compounding interest, the gift that keeps giving as your investment’s interest spawns its own interest, time and again.

The Fatzingers would never claim to be financial magicians. But to outsiders, it might look that way.

After marrying 27 years ago, Sam and Rob started a small Christian bookstore in Crofton, Md., and soon had a daughter. Rob said the couple never earned more than $36,000 a year in the business. Still, they saved 10 to 15 percent of their earnings. By the time they shuttered the store in 2000, they had seven kids.

About 10 years ago, Rob got the job testing software. Earnings of $40,000 gave way to $60,000 and are now about $110,000, counting a few thousand from mowing neighbors’ lawns and other tasks.

Back in 2000, they bought a five-bedroom house out of foreclosure and later added three bedrooms. Nine children, including the youngest, who is 4, live there now.

The good news: The home cost $150,000. The Fatzingers paid down $50,000, saving interest on the 15-year mortgage.

The bad news: Sam said their priest, visiting to bless the new home, “walked in and said: ‘Should I do an exorcism on this house?’ ” The place was in serious disrepair.

“Relatives gutted it and made it livable,” Sam said. “Youth groups were over here, ripping up carpet, taking down walls.” Someone gave them a wood stove. A relative gifted them a used couch. Later, another couch was left on a curb for anyone to take. Score.

Years later, they enlarged the kitchen, using two zero-percent finance offers good for 12 months. Eleven months later, they paid off the loan, without paying any interest. The project cost $28,000, with family members doing much of the demolition, painting and decorating.

Now they have two refrigerators, two stoves, two dishwashers and a welcoming, comfortable home. (Even the clothes washer is a champ. Sam estimates that the family cleans 42 loads a week, but never on Sundays. The only children who don’t do the wash are the 4- and 6-year-olds.)

Since the mortgage was paid off in 2012, Rob and Sam have turbo-charged their savings rate, now investing about $3,000 a month. Even so, they don’t go without. Sam has a $10 monthly gym membership, and Rob and Sam go out for lunch on the 20th of each month, maybe at Red Robin Gourmet Burgers and Brews in Bowie, marking the day of the month they got married.

Occasionally, Sam and Rob are annoyed by strangers at the grocery store. “People still say, “Oh my God, you have so many kids!” said Sam, a devout Catholic, as is Rob. “I have this ‘Don’t mess with me’ reaction. I’m not your typical, quiet, passive woman.”

Rob, 51, is soft-spoken, a work-from-home dad and a former “American Idol” fan. A few years back, he finished a 50-mile trail run — and kept going to 54.

Sam, who is 48, home-schools the children through high school and is certified to do so. The kids also get outside tutoring. Her nonacademic lessons extend to the rules and responsibility of money.

“My kids all get jobs as soon as they’re old enough,” she says, and they “learn to discern between needs and wants. They pay for their cellphones, they pay for college, they pay for their own gas.” Allowances? Nope.

Daughter Barbara, 20, a rising senior at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, started babysitting at 11. She got her first “real job” at Rita’s Italian Ice. Babysitting, she noted, “paid way more than Rita’s.”

When she was 15, Barbara bought a 1994 Ford Escort with 30,000 miles for $2,600 from her savings. “It sat in the driveway until I got my driver’s permit,” she said. Five years later, “I still drive it.”

The family shops at sales or secondhand stores and checks out the Freecycle Network, a site for giving away belongings.

Friends and strangers also chip in. “We always have someone dropping off a bike,” Sam said. “We would get things and not even know where they came from.”

Someone stuck an anonymous $500 gift card on the Fatzingers’ front door. And a pair of size 3 white shoes for church wound up on the doorstep for a young daughter who could use them.

“Bowie just does that,” Sam said. A friend from church gave them a used car, and Sam’s sister gave her a used red Chevrolet Suburban. And later, an older white Suburban.

Fine. Except this is America. Surely the kids are seething cauldrons of Nike-deprived resentment.

Or maybe not. “I always had a ton of clothes,” Barbara said. “I would go with Grandma and buy any cute clothes I wanted.”

Older brother Caleb: “I can see how some people would think … we might have been deprived. It was never like that.” He played soccer at a small Christian school, was a counselor at a summer camp and swam at a community pool. The kids had cable TV and high-speed Internet. In community college, Caleb said, he “knew I didn’t have what some other kids had, but it was never out of control.”

As for the givers: Sam’s sister, Joan Salvagno, who is 11 years older than Sam in a family of nine, said her sister’s family “needed the car more than we did. … You don’t really think of them as gifts. … We’ve gotten more than we’ve given.”

These days, even the childless can be terrified of college costs, so just imagine having 13 kids. But the Fatzingers have a strategy, and it’s working. The plan: Start in community college, don’t expect a handout from Mom and Dad, and graduate debt-free.

So far, Alexandria, the oldest at 26, graduated at 21 with a master’s degree in social work. Joshua, 25, graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in kinesiology and became a missionary.

Caleb, 23, is in the last year of a doctoral program in physical therapy at the University of Maryland at Baltimore. And Lizzie, 21, graduated in May from the University of Maryland with a math major, while also cleaning houses and tutoring. All four graduated from college debt-free.

All five oldest Fatzingers have gone first to Anne Arundel Community College.

In Barbara’s first semester, her tuition, textbooks and gas money were covered by scholarships and other aid. In her second semester, she spent “probably $500” in tuition. The next year, she paid $700 to $1,000 per semester. After two years, she had paid about $2,500 at most. It came from savings and her job in a child-care center at a gym.

In September, Barbara started at UMBC, a public university with higher expenses. Her first year there cost about $15,000, after receiving a $5,800 scholarship based on grades and financial need. Money was tight. Again, she paid with her savings, which included money from a grandparent, who gives each child a one-time gift of $5,000 for college. Barbara used some of the gift money to stay in school, but she’s saving most of it.

She will soon begin her senior year at UMBC. She has a $7,500 stipend for tuition and five small scholarships “that will fill the holes.” In return for the stipend, she’ll work for a state child-welfare program.

Barbara has decided to live at home this year, which means she’ll be commuting and “won’t be spending at all,” she said in a text message. “And I WILL graduate debt-free.”

Next year, she’ll follow in oldest sister Alex’s footsteps, pursuing her master’s degree in social work at another school, which could take one or two years. A Maryland program will pay most of her tuition, and in exchange, she’ll work for a child-welfare agency for two or three years after she graduates.

In total, roughly speaking, Barbara has paid about $17,500 out of pocket for tuition, books, supplies and fees for four years of college.

I asked if she had paid for all her expenses in her first year at UMBC. The $15,000, she said, “was all of my money that I’ve been saving since I was 8 years old!”

But even the Fatzingers can’t outrun the college-cost steamroller.

Caleb was fine in community college, where he paid “essentially nothing,” in part because of his good grades and aid. And he graduated debt-free at Towson University, a public state school, where he worked in the admissions office.

But when he began the doctoral program in physical therapy two years ago, he had to take out a loan. With aid more scarce in grad school, he said he’ll end up owing almost $90,000.

“I think about it a good amount,” said Caleb, who started working as a physical therapy technician at 18. “I try not to worry too much.” He hopes to pay off the loan in 10 years.

He has one more year to go. He works at the school gym some days at 5:30 a.m. and slips into class at 9:30. “I think I’ve done the best I can,” he says.

The Fatzingers’ recent challenge: Joshua, the oldest son, is getting married in November — in Arizona. Could they all get there?

There was considerable concern. With 13 kids, the need to be frugal never takes a vacation.

At the end, they got three plane tickets for free, using air miles. Then they bit the bullet and bought 10. They’ll all be at the wedding.

by Max Chafkin

Near the end of 2014, Uber co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Travis Kalanick flew to Pittsburgh on a mission: to hire dozens of the world’s experts in autonomous vehicles. The city is home to Carnegie Mellon University’s robotics department, which has produced many of the biggest names in the newly hot field. Sebastian Thrun, the creator of Google’s self-driving car project, spent seven years researching autonomous robots at CMU, and the project’s former director, Chris Urmson, was a CMU grad student.

“Travis had an idea that he wanted to do self-driving,” says John Bares, who had run CMU’s National Robotics Engineering Center for 13 years before founding Carnegie Robotics, a Pittsburgh-based company that makes components for self-driving industrial robots used in mining, farming, and the military. “I turned him down three times. But the case was pretty compelling.” Bares joined Uber in January 2015 and by early 2016 had recruited hundreds of engineers, robotics experts, and even a few car mechanics to join the venture. The goal: to replace Uber’s more than 1 million human drivers with robot drivers—as quickly as possible.

The plan seemed audacious, even reckless. And according to most analysts, true self-driving cars are years or decades away. Kalanick begs to differ. “We are going commercial,” he says in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek. “This can’t just be about science.”

Starting later this month, Uber will allow customers in downtown Pittsburgh to summon self-driving cars from their phones, crossing an important milestone that no automotive or technology company has yet achieved. Google, widely regarded as the leader in the field, has been testing its fleet for several years, and Tesla Motors offers Autopilot, essentially a souped-up cruise control that drives the car on the highway. Earlier this week, Ford announced plans for an autonomous ride-sharing service. But none of these companies has yet brought a self-driving car-sharing service to market.

Uber’s Pittsburgh fleet, which will be supervised by humans in the driver’s seat for the time being, consists of specially modified Volvo XC90 sport-utility vehicles outfitted with dozens of sensors that use cameras, lasers, radar, and GPS receivers. Volvo Cars has so far delivered a handful of vehicles out of a total of 100 due by the end of the year. The two companies signed a pact earlier this year to spend $300 million to develop a fully autonomous car that will be ready for the road by 2021.

The Volvo deal isn’t exclusive; Uber plans to partner with other automakers as it races to recruit more engineers. In July the company reached an agreement to buy Otto, a 91-employee driverless truck startup that was founded earlier this year and includes engineers from a number of high-profile tech companies attempting to bring driverless cars to market, including Google, Apple, and Tesla. Uber declined to disclose the terms of the arrangement, but a person familiar with the deal says that if targets are met, it would be worth 1 percent of Uber’s most recent valuation. That would imply a price of about $680 million. Otto’s current employees will also collectively receive 20 percent of any profits Uber earns from building an autonomous trucking business.

Otto has developed a kit that allows big-rig trucks to steer themselves on highways, in theory freeing up the driver to nap in the back of the cabin. The system is being tested on highways around San Francisco. Aspects of the technology will be incorporated into Uber’s robot livery cabs and will be used to start an Uber-like service for long-haul trucking in the U.S., building on the intracity delivery services, like Uber Eats, that the company already offers.

The Otto deal is a coup for Uber in its simmering battle with Google, which has been plotting its own ride-sharing service using self-driving cars. Otto’s founders were key members of Google’s operation who decamped in January, because, according to Otto co-founder Anthony Levandowski, “We were really excited about building something that could be launched early.”

Levandowski, one of the original engineers on the self-driving team at Google, started Otto with Lior Ron, who served as the head of product for Google Maps for five years; Claire Delaunay, a Google robotics lead; and Don Burnette, another veteran Google engineer. Google suffered another departure earlier this month when Urmson announced that he, too, was leaving.

“The minute it was clear to us that our friends in Mountain View were going to be getting in the ride-sharing space, we needed to make sure there is an alternative [self-driving car],” says Kalanick. “Because if there is not, we’re not going to have any business.” Developing an autonomous vehicle, he adds, “is basically existential for us.” (Google also invests in Uber through Alphabet’s venture capital division, GV.)

Unlike Google and Tesla, Uber has no intention of manufacturing its own cars, Kalanick says. Instead, the company will strike deals with auto manufacturers, starting with Volvo Cars, and will develop kits for other models. The Otto deal will help; the company makes its own laser detection, or lidar, system, used in many self-driving cars. Kalanick believes that Uber can use the data collected from its app, where human drivers and riders are logging roughly 100 million miles per day, to quickly improve its self-driving mapping and navigation systems. “Nobody has set up software that can reliably drive a car safely without a human,” Kalanick says. “We are focusing on that.”

In Pittsburgh, customers will request cars the normal way, via Uber’s app, and will be paired with a driverless car at random. Trips will be free for the time being, rather than the standard local rate of $1.05 per mile. In the long run, Kalanick says, prices will fall so low that the per-mile cost of travel, even for long trips in rural areas, will be cheaper in a driverless Uber than in a private car. “That could be seen as a threat,” says Volvo Cars CEO Hakan Samuelsson. “We see it as an opportunity.”

Although Kalanick and other self-driving car advocates say the vehicles will ultimately save lives, they face harsh scrutiny for now. In July a driver using Tesla’s Autopilot service died after colliding with a tractor-trailer, apparently because both the driver and the car’s computers didn’t see it. (The crash is currently being investigated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.) Google has seen a handful of accidents, but they’ve been less severe, in part because it limits its prototype cars to 25 miles per hour. Uber’s cars haven’t had any fender benders since they began road-testing in Pittsburgh in May, but at some point something will go wrong, according to Raffi Krikorian, the company’s engineering director. “We’re interacting with reality every day,” he says. “It’s coming.”

For now, Uber’s test cars travel with safety drivers, as common sense and the law dictate. These professionally trained engineers sit with their fingertips on the wheel, ready to take control if the car encounters an unexpected obstacle. A co-pilot, in the front passenger seat, takes notes on a laptop, and everything that happens is recorded by cameras inside and outside the car so that any glitches can be ironed out. Each car is also equipped with a tablet computer in the back seat, designed to tell riders that they’re in an autonomous car and to explain what’s happening. “The goal is to wean us off of having drivers in the car, so we don’t want the public talking to our safety drivers,” Krikorian says.

On a recent weekday test drive, the safety drivers were still an essential part of the experience, as Uber’s autonomous car briefly turned un-autonomous, while crossing the Allegheny River. A chime sounded, a signal to the driver to take the wheel. A second ding a few seconds later indicated that the car was back under computer control. “Bridges are really hard,” Krikorian says. “And there are like 500 bridges in Pittsburgh.”

By Aviva Rutkin

Nicknamed Earth’s evil twin, Venus seems like everything our planet is not: scorching hot, dried out and covered in toxic clouds.

But a mere one or two billion years ago, these two wayward siblings might have been more alike. New computer simulations suggest that early Venus might have looked a lot like our home planet – and it might even have been habitable.

“It’s one of the big mysteries about Venus. How did it get so different from Earth when it seems likely to have started so similarly?” says David Grinspoon at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona. “The question becomes richer when you consider astrobiology, the possibility that Venus and Earth were very similar during the time of the origin of life on Earth.”

Grinspoon and his colleagues aren’t the first to imagine that Venus was once hospitable. It’s similar to Earth in size and density, and the fact that the two planets formed so close together suggests that they’re made of the same bulk materials. Venus also has an unusually high ratio of deuterium to hydrogen atoms, a sign that it once housed a substantial amount of water, mysteriously lost over time.

Venus, but snowy
To simulate early Venus, the researchers turned to a model of environmental conditions often used to study climate change here on Earth. They created four versions for Venus, each varying slightly in details such as the amount of energy the planet received from the sun, or the length of a Venusian day. Where information was scant about Venus’s climate, the team filled in educated guesses. They also added a shallow ocean, 10 per cent the volume of Earth’s ocean, covering about 60 per cent of the planet’s surface.

Looking at how each version might have evolved over time, the researchers say they were encouraged to believe that the planet might have looked much like an early Earth, and remained habitable for a substantial portion of its lifetime. The most promising of the four Venuses enjoyed moderate temperatures, thick cloud cover and even the occasional light snowfall.

Could life have emerged on this early Venus? If it did, it’s certainly no more, thanks to the oceans later boiling away and volcanoes drastically reshaping the landscape around 715 million years ago. But the team is not ruling it out.

“There’s great uncertainties in understanding Earth, not only its climate history but the history of how life began,” says Michael Way at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City. If it began in oceans on Earth – a theory we’ve yet to confirm – the same could be true on a waterlogged Venus. “There’s no reason that life on this world would not have existed in these oceans. But that’s about all you can say.”

Alternative histories
“Both planets probably enjoyed warm liquid water oceans in contact with rock and with organic molecules undergoing chemical evolution in those oceans,” says Grinspoon. “As far as we understand at present, those are the requirements for the origin of life.”

To bolster their findings, the team suggests a future mission to Venus should look out for signs of water-related erosion near the equator, which would provide evidence for the oceans detailed in their simulation. Such signs have already been detected by missions at Mars. NASA is currently weighing up two potential Venus projects, although neither has been confirmed. One mission would drop a probe through the clouds down to the surface, while another would orbit around the planet and image its surface.

The researchers would also like to run simulations of further alternative pasts for Venus – perhaps one where it was a desert world, or submerged in as much water as Earth, to find out which scenario is most likely to lead to the Venus we see today.

The study could also aid astronomers in their search for exoplanets, says James Kasting at Pennsylvania State University. If Venus might have once been habitable, then it suggests that other planets close to their stars might be, too. “If you make the habitable zone really wide, that raises the probability of finding an Earth.”