Driverless Cars To Hit UK Roads Next January

Cars of the future to be tested on public roads in the UK beginning January 2015.

Topics: Technology Our Future Skill Point: Yet  Already or Still

It seems like something out of the future: cars that can drive themselves with no help from human drivers. These machines are in testing or development stages by Google, Nissan, General Motors, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and other manufacturers in an effort to keep up with the rapidly advancing technologies. Even the Chinese search engine Baidu claims its researchers are in the early stages of development of a driverless car. The United Kingdom is opening up its roads to these driverless cars, and has invited cities to compete to host the first driverless cars on public roads.

You might be surprised to learn that three states in the U.S. already allow driverless cars on the roads, California, Nevada, and Florida. In fact, Google’s self-driving cars have already covered over 300,000 miles. They may even be the first to manufacture cars for the public in 2015, though their prototypes aren’t the most attractive vehicles on the road.

While we already have automated features in current car models, such as cruise control, automatic braking, and even self-parking functions, turning over control of the steering wheel and gas pedal is another matter entirely. Autopilot for airplanes has been in existence for quite some time, but there aren’t as many obstacles in the air as on land, so government entities and engineers must work together to form and test safety precautions, rules, and regulations.

For the time being, these driverless car models will still have fully functioning steering wheels, brakes, and acceleration, with the ability to turn the autopilot system on or off as desired. We haven’t reached full automation just yet.

Futuristic technologies that are being used and tested for driverless cars include:

  • Lidar – light detection and ranging
  • GPS – global-positioning system
  • Computer vision – cameras attached to cars

Lidar is similar to radar, but instead of using radio waves, it uses light. This system measures how lasers bounce off reflective surfaces, and in doing so it captures information about millions of tiny points surrounding the vehicle every second.

GPS functions just as the system works in your car. The maps are uploaded to the driverless cars and the computer navigates the roads using the precise GPS locations, as well as a computer system linked to things like red, yellow, and green traffic lights.

Computer vision systems might be the most practical but least plausible option on their own, but will likely complement other technologies. Cameras attached to vehicles link in to a software program that reads the images and warns the car of things like pedestrians, construction, potholes, and cyclists.

There’s no doubt that many sensors will be involved with driverless cars out on the open roads, and hiding these sensors will be one of the manufacturers’ major challenges. While safety is the number one priority, it’s safe to say that today’s consumer economy still values a sleek appearance and decent horsepower, which is one reason why it took so long for hybrids and electric cars to make it in the automobile industry.

At this point, driverless cars are still in prototype stages but with so many big companies working on driverless car technology, we may see them on the streets sooner than later.

Reading Comprehension

Driverless Cars Quiz

Writing

INTERMEDIATE: Would you feel comfortable owning a driverless car? In 200 words, give your opinion on the pros and cons of driverless cars, and make predictions about the future of automobile transportation.

ADVANCED: As driverless cars become more popular, responsibility for accidents and traffic violations will become more complicated. Discuss potential hurdles (parking laws, insurance, registration) in 200 words, and who might be responsible for them (manufacturers, owners, governments).

The “Uber” Revolution: a New Future for Taxis?

Uber and Lyft’s popular smartphone apps threaten to disrupt the heavily-regulated Taxi industry.

Topics: Business Technology Skill Point: Adjective Clauses

If you live in or around a major city, you may have heard about Uber and Lyft, the popular app-based services that allow users to call a private cars with just a few taps on a smartphone. In most cases, the car arrives within a few minutes to take you to your destination. When you arrive, the ride gets charged to your account and no cash ever exchanges hands. Many find it more convenient than calling a cab, and if you opt for the standard version, (UberX or Lyft), it can be cheaper as well. But recently these and similar companies have become targets for demonstrations, litigation, and push-back from taxi organizations and municipal governments.

Uber has had controversial elements since its inception, for example its “surge pricing” strategy in which prices can reach many multiples of a normal fare during busy hours. In some jurisdictions the overall legality of the service has come into question. Why aren’t the drivers going through background checks? Why don’t they need permits and get taxed like other taxicab companies? Some, including most recently the city of Berlin, wonder if taking Uber is actually safer than calling a regular cab.

One of the differences with Uber is that you’re not dealing with a local cab company, whose company name is probably unknown. You’re dealing with individual, private drivers, and blasting the company on social media and Yelp when you have poor service. The driver knows your name, the cars are much nicer, and you can get a ride even if you’re out of cash, or quite far from home. This adds up to quite an enjoyable experience overall, and a pleasant one compared to many rough and rude taxi drivers that we’ve all had experiences with in the past.

You’re also dealing with market-priced fares. Instead of relying on a standard meter rate, the surge pricing strategy means the cost of a cab during rush hour goes up. During the middle of the day when there are more available drivers on the road, the cost goes down. You always know how much you’ll pay before you book the driver, tipping is easy (if you’re so inclined), and you simply pay through the app on your device, rather than dealing with credit cards or cash.

Beyond the issues listed above, Uber is fighting a battle with traditional cab drivers, who can’t seem to make ends meet with so many non-permit “cabs” on the road. The legality of Uber is definitely in a gray area in some cities around the world, but since the company calls itself a service that helps your find drivers, rather than a driver service, they’re free from responsibility. Without rules and regulations in place, individual municipalities have to decide how to handle these non-permitted drivers, and they often do so by issuing tickets to cars seen dropping off passengers.

In June of this year, taxi drivers throughout major European cities, including Paris, Madrid, London, Milan, and Berlin, blocked roads and caused massive traffic jams for a 24-hour protest against Uber and other unlicensed mobile car-hailing services. The London black taxis are often called the best cab drivers in the world, known for their rigorous testing of the area’s streets and traffic, and some drivers and passengers find it offensive that an app could possibly replace them. Despite this massive protest, the regulating agency, Transport for London, seems to favor the convenience of Uber, and is allowing Uber drivers to continue their service until the case is heard in court. Here in the U.S., NYC’s popular Yellow Cabs are likely to follow suit with their own protest if Uber isn’t regulated.

The “Uber” revolution is going strong for now, but there are challenges to be overcome in cities around the world.

Reading Comprehension

Uber Revolution Quiz

Writing

INTERMEDIATE: What are the taxi and cab situations like in your country? Do you have services like Uber? Answer these questions and explain whether you’d like a service like Uber in your city.

ADVANCED: Throughout Europe, taxicab drivers when on strike as a form of protest. Are there often protests in your country that are organized by industries or unions? Explain the types of protests that are common in your city or country, and give your opinion on whether or not they are meaningful or useful in enacting change.

The Future of Video and Advertising

Marketing and advertising is headed in one direction: online video.

Topics: Technology Business Skill Point: Forms of Used To

Many marketers and advertisers remember the day when it cost an arm and a leg to get just a few words or images in front of potential customers, but now those days are behind us. It used to be expensive, but now just about any business or even freelancer can afford to use text, image, audio, and video ads on the Internet.

More and more news networks are trying to become like online television. And we’re not referring to just Netflix and Hulu, who stream videos produced by other companies. AOL, Condé Nast, and Google all presented various news shows and elements to potential broadcasters in the last few months. Even Disney is looking to expand online; the Walt Disney Company recently bought Maker Studios, famous for producing the YouTube video series “Epic Rap Battles of History. Despite the content being a little risqué for their standard clientele, Disney wants an effective distribution platform in the changing media market.

The World Wide Web was a completely fascinating and confusing alternative universe when it was born; believe it or not, that was 25 years ago. The Internet has grown exponentially each year since 1989, and continues to evolve. From email and search engines to #hashtags and smart phones, the Internet is a hub for tech geeks, soccer moms, and teenagers alike as well as a tool with unequaled reach and influence. We’re used to the hyper connectivity of the modern world, and that’s not going away anytime soon.

Marketing is certainly finding a new home online, with videos at the helm. Cisco forecasts online video will make up almost 70% of consumer Internet traffic by 2017. Most companies are increasing their yearly video budgets, and hiring Directors of Video Strategy to manage those creative funds.

Michael Litt over at Vidyard gives a list of predictions for what all this means. Internet is replacing television, but it’s doing so with TV shows, series, and TV-like commercials. We’ve selected three of his predictions to discuss in more detail:

  1. The future of Internet is television
  2. Every company will become a media company
  3. The press release will become a video

The Future of Internet is Television

The first one is pretty obvious – the Internet is already pulling viewers away from cable companies, and with Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Go streaming everyone’s favorite shows, it’s easy to see the Internet moving in that direction. If you want to stay in the game as an online advertiser, you’re going to need to branch out into commercials for online television series and YouTube videos.

Every Company will become a Media Company

Litt doesn’t mean that other kinds of companies will be going out of business, but that creative media is the future – and if you want to survive, you’d better embrace it. Regardless of a company’s area of expertise, all companies will have to get used to media as a way to attract and engage new and existing customers.

The Press Release will become a Video

This one is a little more interesting, and probably a little further on the horizon. Press releases began as a way for newspapers to share information about companies with the general public. Nowadays when things go “over the wire,” it usually refers to the Internet. PR Web, Marketwired, and other online press release services have quickly taken over the distribution market, and the next big step will be in the form of video press releases. This is a different ballgame for SEO marketing, but only time will tell how accurate this prediction is.

In marketing and advertising, all things lead to video.

Reading Comprehension

Writing

INTERMEDIATE: Do you work for a company that takes advantage of clever online video advertising techniques? Do your competitors? Discuss the reasons to follow or ignore the statements and advice from this article in 2-3 paragraphs.

ADVANCED: In 200 words, explain one or more commercials or advertisements that you remember. Describe what made it memorable, and whether or not it encouraged you to buy a product or support a cause.

Will Robots Take All the Jobs?

The future of the workforce is upon us, and jobs left for humans might be scarce.

Topics:  Our Future  Technology  Skill Point: Fewer or Less

According to The Future of Employment by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, nearly half of jobs could be automated in the next 10-20 years. If you think the job market is bad now, imagine it with even more employable individuals and 50% fewer jobs.

Clearly not all jobs are easily replaced – we still haven’t found a way to replace health care workers, upper management, and decision-makers – but many jobs, including more dangerous ones, are better off handled by machines without risk of “human error.” Others are handled by machines simply because automation is more efficient. The tedious and repetitive tasks are first to go. Robotic arms can easily replace assembly line workers, automation can take over for telemarketers, and many of us have already replaced our tax preparers with online software programs. Until now, robots have stuck to more factory-related fields, but the newest innovations in computer technology will allow for more advanced artificial intelligence.

With an exponential rise of processing power, computers are getting smarter. They can quickly “learn” a set of human actions, and are increasingly more effective at recognizing fraud, identifying faces, and diagnosing illnesses. The Oxford University study thinks that 47% of all jobs will be capable of automation within the next two decades. It sounds like a disaster for the economy, but there are pros and cons to every type of innovation.

One thing we know is that history repeats itself, and no matter how resistant to change we may be, embracing innovation is the heart of technological evolution. The Industrial Revolution made a wide array of jobs completely obsolete, but launched dozens of new industries with even more jobs over several decades. Innovation breeds innovation, creates newer and better jobs, and supports safer and more efficient operations. More robots means fewer accidents and injuries, and more affordable goods and services for the general public.

We also know that the short-term effects are likely to be harsh. Income gaps will widen, several industries will shrink or disappear almost overnight, and it may take businesses years to rebound. Yet still, these problems are seen as temporary. Long-term benefits outweigh these issues. Each stage of advanced technology unleashes a new level of comfort and prosperity, and the highest skilled workers will be compensated the most.

Innovation in general is the perfect motivation for entrepreneurs. Huge companies in the tech industry such as Google and Facebook started as tiny entrepreneurs dreaming up new products that humanity never knew it needed.  These new and more advanced robots are likely to have a similar effect. The creative power of innovation is like a tsunami wave – you almost don’t realize what’s going on until you’ve ridden the wave a thousand feet and the landscape around you has changed.

Most of us agree that technological progress makes the world a better place. (For example, fewer than fifty years ago, dozens of diseases were certainly fatal, and those same diseases are now curable with a simple shot.) We know that streamlining work for the sake of efficiency is good, unless it sacrifices the quality or integrity of the product. And we never know if it will until we try.

Reading Comprehension

Writing

INTERMEDIATE: If you heard that a computer program was much more likely to diagnose illnesses more effectively than your general doctor, would you switch from standard care to automated care? In 200 words or less, answer this question, and discuss the potential pros and cons of automated health care.

ADVANCED: Come up with as many examples you can for when innovative technology replaced individual jobs. In 200 words, explain a few of them, and describe the pros and cons of these technological advancements. Feel free to include any type of pros and cons, such as social, financial, political, and environmental.

How Music Alters Our Perception of Time

Science explains why, “A watched pot never seems to boil,” is a more accurate adage.

Topics:  Business  Technology  Skill Point: Indefinite and Definite Articles

The old saying, “A watched pot never boils,” indicates that spending time watching or waiting for something to happen makes the time drag on and on. According to the study of time perception, this old phrase it is completely accurate. The adage has less to do with superstition or reality, and more to do with our actual perception of time. The more we learn about perceiving time through our five senses, the more we realize that occupying ourselves, even with something as simple as a musical melody, can drastically alter our perception of the passage of time.

If you think of situations in which time passes incredibly slowly – watching an uninteresting movie with your spouse, or listening to a long and monotonous sermon in church – it is often associated with boredom. Your enjoyment of a situation can greatly alter your perception of time, which is why the workweek tends to drag, but a 4-day weekend passes in the blink of an eye.

Jonathan Berger, a Professor of Music at Stanford University, and a composer, published an article detailing the effects of music on our perception of time: How Music Hijacks Our Perception of Time Through his research, we can learn a great deal regarding the importance of this phenomenon and use it to affect your personal productivity, your marketing tactics, and the emotions of consumers in a store or restaurant. Four simple takeaways from his article detail the affects of different musical influences on our behavior:

1) Fast Music – Fast music is more dangerous for driving and other speed-related activities. According to the Royal Automobile Club Foundation for Motoring, Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries is the most dangerous music to listen to while driving. This fast-tempo composition is often used in films and television to score battles, and high-energy scenes.

According to the Royal Automobile Club, the frenetic tempo alters the driver’s sense of speed, they feel that they are going much slower than they actually are, and as a result, they speed. Perhaps there is something to be said about the dangers of loud and fast music blaring from teenagers’ cars!

2) Slow Music – According to market research, slower music seems to make people linger and as a result, spend more money. The 1982 Journal of Marketing found that consumers spend 38% more time in the grocery store when the music is slow, and the University thesis by S.J. Down discovered that more drinks are sold in bars when slow-tempo music is played, because customers tend to linger.

3) Familiar Music – Additionally, familiar music can lead us to believe that time is passing more slowly than it really is, particularly if you do not like the music being played.

4) Novel Music – New and more novel music is found to be more pleasurable, allowing time to pass more quickly.

Our perceived flow of time can also be expanded. If you are listening to music while performing tasks that require a great deal of concentration, looking back upon those hours of work will make you feel that the hours were very long. This is one of the reasons we often feel exhausted after just a few hours of concentrating on work. Some of it is true mental exhaustion, while some of it is perceived exhaustion.

There are certainly many other factors that alter our perception of time, and this perception is inherently subjective. If you enjoy a 5-minute song, it might feel as if it is only 30-seconds in length, while someone who dislikes it might feel it is 10 minutes long. This is part of the challenge marketers face when trying to select a slow but novel tune for callers on hold, or to set the right tone for a bar or restaurant.

Reading Questions

Writing Prompt

INTERMEDIATE: Part one: Recall a vivid memory from childhood or adolescence and write it in detail. Part two: Recall where you were and what you were doing during a famous event in history in the last decade. Write 200 words total about these memories.

ADVANCED: If you were the marketing manager of your company, how would you use the information found in this article to your advantage? Explain your marketing tactic in 200 words.

Evolution Beats Genetically Modified Corn

Worm Evolves to Eat GM Corn Designed To Kill It

Topics:   Technology  Skill Point: Modal Verbs

Agriculturists’ worst nightmare is coming to fruition; genetically modified corn was engineered to kill pests without using pesticides, but in just a few decades, one worm has already evolved to safely consume the corn developed to kill it.

Genetic modification sounds like something out of a science fiction novel, but in reality, it is all around us. About 80% of the corn and soy grown in the United States is genetically modified, and with great success. Crop yields soared in the wake of genetic modification, but some say this great success story is quickly turning into a cautionary tale. A species of corn created with the Bt protein designed to kill pests has created a new “super worm,” already developing resistance to the toxin.

The modified corn produces Bt, which is toxic to typical agriculture pests (and humans).  After Syngenta released the new corn in 1996, farmers everywhere bought into the very convincing benefits for the new high-yield crop, and most stopped growing their all-natural varieties of corn altogether.

According to Aaron Gassmann, an Iowa State University entomologist, “Unless management practices change, it [rootworm resistance] is only going to get worse. There needs to be a fundamental change in how the technology is used.” (Source)

Scientists and agriculturists have long advised against using genetically modified seeds for more than 50% of total crops, but many farmers grow between 80%-100% GM corn. Much of this is no longer resistant to many bugs it was developed to destroy. Farmers will most likely continue to use these GM crops since they’re still effective against other pests, but now they will have to spray insecticides again, which eliminates one of the original ecological benefits of genetically modified crops.

This raises many questions in regards to genetically modified organisms. For years we’ve seen debates regarding the health benefits vs. risks of genetically modified crops, and if the crops aren’t doing their job, are the health risks worth it?

Many staunch anti-GMO advocates have found evidence that these toxic Bt proteins have a similar effect on humans’ stomach linings, causing a condition called “leaky gut syndrome.” This can lead to allergies and stomach-related problems. While creating a superbug isn’t a good thing, does this mean that humans will quickly evolve to withstand the genetically modified foods without experiencing leaky guts and increases in allergies? Are we putting the human body under unnecessary stress or simply adding another environmental component only the strongest can withstand? Many countries around the world, like Mexico, have yet to approve genetically engineered crops, while others, including Peru, have banned them for now, and are awaiting further research before allowing their citizens and their land to become products of biotechnology.

Reading Questions

Writing Prompt

INTERMEDIATE: Using information from the article as your guide, write 200 words or more on what the farmers must, could, will, or should do now that some bugs are developing resistance to these genetically engineered crops. You may choose to write in the past, present, or future tense.

ADVANCED: In 200 words or less, answer the following question: who do you think stands to gain, and who do you think stands to lose when it comes to genetically engineered crops?

Cord Cutters and the Death of TV

Video killed the radio star, but now it looks like videos are leaving cable behind for a new home – is the Internet killing TV?

Topics:  Lifestyle  Technology  Skill Point: Comparative and Superlative Adjectives

According to Business Insider, 2013 was the “worst year ever for TV.” Over a four-year period from the beginning of 2010 to the end of 2013, 5 million people ended their cable and broadband subscription plans, and today, fewer people than ever regularly watch TV. What used to be one of America’s favorite pastimes is quickly fading into the background. What could be the reason?

Poor Customer Service

It is no secret that American consumers are fed up with poor customer service. With social media platforms, consumers now have easier access to the companies that wrong them. Rather than marketing their company on social media, many businesses are forced to handle customer service complaints and negative tweets via Twitter’s very public platform. Unfortunately, no company seems to have better service than another.

People Watch Less Television

Poor customer service just isn’t enough to cause so many cancelations; those consumers would simply switch to another provider, much like users hopping around cell phone companies. People are simply watching less and less television, and if their satellite or cable company doesn’t provide good service, they’ll simply sign off the service. This doesn’t mean they’ve stopped watching their favorite television shows. No, not at all, people are still watching television shows, just not on televisions.

The Internet is More Convenient

Facebook and Google have an audience whose reach is expected to overtake all of television’s reach within the year, leading advertisers to develop more Internet-based tactics. Facebook currently has 1.19 billion monthly users, while Google’s YouTube is the third most-visited website in the world. Over 4 billion videos are watched on YouTube each day, and tens of thousands of full-length movies are available.

Free WiFi is Abundant

With numbers like that, it’s no surprise that television has some serious competition, but the Internet alone couldn’t cause this change. Most people have Internet and cable from the same provider. Business Insider also reports that the shift from television to Internet is encouraged by an increase in free WiFi hotspots around the world. Many offices, coffee shops, libraries, restaurants, and bars have free Internet access, and even convenience markets, retail stores, airports, and small business offices are offering free WiFi to their clients. For many people throughout the United States, there’s no need for wires and cables to bring them news, sports, television, or movies; it’s all available online.

Most of the world would say that Americans watch far too much television anyway, so perhaps this fall in viewership is a good thing. However, if the time spent in front of a television with family is being replaced by time spent alone watching shows on other devices – phones, computers, and tablets – are we pushing ourselves further into social isolation with nothing but technology as our friend?

It’s not just computers and laptops; mobile phone usage is quickly catching up with PC usage, and tablets and smartphones nearly doubled in 2013. Of the total hours spent watching online videos globally, 15% are now viewed on tablets and smartphones, with great thanks to services such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Video, and YouTube. Is it time for us to start mourning the death of our nearly 100-year-old friend television?

Reading Questions

Writing Prompt

INTERMEDIATE: Write 200 words about your favorite television shows and movies. Compare and contrast two different shows or movies and discuss what you like best about each. Include where, when, and with whom you watch these videos.

ADVANCED: In 200 words, answer the following questions: How much time do you spend watching television shows and movies, and with whom do you watch them? Include where, when, and on what devices.