Co-written with Julio Friedmann.

It’s exciting to see CEOs of major corporations publicly commit to achieving net-zero emissions. Just in September, we saw AT&T, Walmart, Facebook and Morgan Stanley make commitments, with over 70 companies declaring their intention to achieve carbon neutrality at some date. They join over 60 countries who have made net-zero commitments, some by sector (e.g., electricity generation) and some economy-wide. The most dramatic examples come from the world’s first and fifth largest emitters, China and Japan, with economy-wide net-zero commitments by 2060 and 2050, respectively.

These leaders show ambition, a recognition of science, and dedication to…

Limericks may be the only way to understand this mess.

Three years ago, I thought I had gotten Brexit limericks out of my system. Now the UK is at it again, thanks to the ineffable antics of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. So I could hardly resist taking another crack at capturing the ongoing political mayhem in short, rhyming jingles.

Boris has flummoxed the nation
with his call for a long prorogation.
"Appalling!" you say
But look at it this way:
MPs get some extra vacation!
MP Lee has changed his complexion
to amber, in bold insurrection.[1] …

Thoughts on the Udacity Self-Driving Car Engineer Nanodegree

A simulated autonomous vehicle using my path planning algorithm to navigate in traffic. Path planning includes strategic-level decisions about when to change lanes/pass, and tactical-level planning of the exact trajectory.

After two years, thirteen projects, and countless hours, I’ve finished the Udacity Self-Driving Car Engineer Nanodegree! It’s been a lot of fun, and I’ve learned an enormous amount about the underlying software systems that enable autonomous vehicles to navigate the world. Here are some of my biggest take-aways from the program as a whole (aside from the fact that it’s hard to complete this degree quickly while having a child, buying a house, and working full time).

First, autonomous vehicles are a major systems-engineering challenge. They combine advanced hardware, complex software, and real-world motion (often at high speed) and need…

Sooner or later, the powerful regulatory committee will face a decision on a significant foreign investment in the US autonomous vehicles sector. They could veto it.

Originally published on Back\Line in March 2018. With the site’s demise in late 2018, I’m republishing it here, because it’s still relevant.

Image credit: WikiMedia Commons.

Earlier this month, technology markets witnessed the rare spectacle of the US government directly vetoing a major technology acquisition. The $117 billion hostile takeover of US-based semiconductor manufacturer Qualcomm by Singapore-based Broadcom was ordered stopped on the basis that the deal “threatens to impair the national security of the United States”.

While many headlines focused on the fact that the veto came from the pen of President Donald Trump — possibly reflecting his general antipathy to global trade…

Insights from completing Udacity’s Path Planning project

Simulated self-driving car implementing my path planning algorithm to change lanes and pass a slower car.

I just completed the Path Planning project for Udacity’s Self-Driving Car Engineer nano-degree program. Path planning is a key piece of the self-driving car software stack, and it’s been fun to see it in action. My code is available here.

Self-driving cars run many different algorithms simultaneously to operate safely on the road. These algorithms are modular and pass data among themselves in a hierarchical fashion. Modules at the bottom of the hierarchy operate at fast timescales, while ones at the top operate at slower timescales.

The diagram below illustrates this. The modules at the bottom of the stack are…

The Uber-Toyota deal is a marriage of opposites — fortunately.

Credit: Kārlis Dambrāns (via WikiMedia Commons).

It’s been a busy few weeks for those following Uber’s evolving corporate strategy. The $70-billion ridesharing company made two major announcements recently: a strategic pivot to e-bikes and scooters focused on mobility in the urban core (possibly at the expense of Uber’s traditional car-oriented business), and a $500 million investment by Toyota to help support Uber’s development of autonomous vehicles.

Although e-bikes and driverless cars don’t seem to have much to do with each other, the two strategic moves are closely linked. Understanding their connection reveals a lot about the way that Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi is thinking about the…

Four lessons about what to (not) do with first-time programming students.

Sample code from STIA 315 at Georgetown University (Spring 2018).

This spring I taught a class on low-cost air quality sensors at Georgetown University. As I’ve described elsewhere, the class was a fun way for students in a policy school to get their hands dirty by actually building and testing working devices. Most of my students were majoring in Science, Technology and International Affairs (STIA) in the Walsh School of Foreign Service — and had almost no background in engineering or programming.

This experience taught me several lessons about teaching programming to foreign policy majors. Make no mistake, the students were very smart, and wrote extremely good papers on policy…

What autonomous vehicles can teach us about our social media feed

Using an unscented Kalman filter (UKF), a simulated autonomous vehicle (in black) can track and intercept a simulated “run-away” robot car (in blue). The red an blue dots are the simulated lidar and radar measurements, which are inherently noisy.

I just finished an autonomous vehicle programming project called “Catch the Run-away Car” (part of the Udacity Self-Driving Car Nano-degree). The goal of the project is to use (simulated) data from radar and lidar sensors to (a) figure out where a run-away car is, and (b) use that to steer an autonomous “pursuit” car to catch it.

The core of the project is an algorithm known as a “Kalman filter”. It’s complicated and involves a lot of math that I’ll skip here. But the basis of it is a really important idea about data, measurements and uncertainty. The sensors on…

Students in the School of Foreign Service discover the promise and pitfalls of DIY air quality sensing.

Air pollution is one of the largest public health challenges the world faces today. In 2015, polluted air was responsible for over 4 million deaths worldwide, the 5th-highest risk factor for death globally. Its economic impact is also enormous: as much as 0.3% of global GDP is lost due to outdoor air pollution. Sadly, both mortality and economic impacts from air pollution have been steadily rising and will probably continue to get worse.

While some governments are taking action to address the problem, many are not. There are lots of reasons for this, but one of the most important is…

A spoiler-filled book review of Robin Sloan’s latest novel

Spoiler alert — many major plot points revealed below!

“The next wave of economic dislocations won’t come from overseas. It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good, middle-class jobs obsolete.” — Barack Obama, Farewell Address

The Bay Area of California is simultaneously the most wonderful and most infuriating place on earth. Having lived there for many years, I saw the strong mixture of creativity and pretentiousness that seems to pervade everything. It’s hard to find anywhere else with so much disruptive energy focused on profoundly changing the world, and so much smug arrogance…

Colin McCormick

Technologist, physicist, energy policy expert. Carbon Direct, Georgetown University, Valence Strategic, Conservation X Labs.

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