The US Postal Service Is Working on Self-Driving Mail Trucks

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds—and if the United States Postal Service has its way, the robots won’t stop them, either.

Yes, the agency you know best for bringing you junk mail addressed to whomever lived in your apartment before you has caught robofever. It plans to put semiautonomous mail trucks into service in just seven years, and it seems to think it can pull off a shift away from human driving without shedding mail carrier jobs.

That’s all according to the postal service’s Office of the Inspector General, which oversees the agency and last week released a report on its plans to work autonomy into its 228,000-vehicle fleet. Those plans are already in motion: The post office has partnered with the University of Michigan to build what it’s calling an Autonomous Rural Delivery Vehicle, which it wants to launch on 28,000 rural routes nationwide as early as 2025.

In this vision, the postal worker sits behind the wheel but lets the truck do the driving, sorting mail and stuffing letters and packages into mail boxes while rolling down the street. Eliminating the need to constantly park the vehicle, get out, then get back in and get back to driving would yield, the report says, “small but cumulatively significant time savings.”

This being a semiautonomous mail truck, the driver would have to be ready to take over control at all times. In the beginning, researchers say, this will be especially important while navigating from the post office to the beginning of the postal route, and while navigating intersections.

The postal service reasons the experimentation is less risky on rural routes, which have less traffic and fewer pedestrians and cyclists, “and are therefore more forgiving of an imperfect AV model.” It’s exactly the reason vehicle tech developers like Tesla and Cadillac have released semiautonomous features for highway-only driving. With wide, open, well-marked roads, it’s a much less complicated environment for a robot to navigate.

According to the report, Michigan researchers will deliver their first semiautonomous delivery truck prototype in December of this year. If all goes according to plan, the USPS will pilot 10 prototypes on rural routes in 2019, leading up to that full-scale, countrywide rural deployment between 2022 and 2025. The mail people also say they plan to look into city deliveries and building fully driverless vehicles, the kind that don’t need steering wheels or pedals.

You’ve Got Self-Driving Mail

One reason the postal service wants robocars? They could help solve its money problems. The agency lost $ 5.6 billion last year, mostly because Congress demands it shell out prefunded retiree health care benefits. (The idea here is that all employees’ health care will be completely paid for by the time they retire. No other agency operates this way.)

The report’s authors insist they’re not looking to dump human workers, and that AVs can help by trimming other costs. The agency paid about $ 67 million in repair and tort costs associated with vehicle crashes last year. It also shelled out $ 570 million for diesel fuel. If the robots perform as promised, making driving much safer and more efficient, those costs could plummet.

If the USPS sticks with this plan, the jobs of the nation’s 310,000 mail carriers could change, for better or worse. Once the vehicles do all the driving, the humans will be left with the sorting and the intricacies of the delivery process. Unless, of course, a robot can figure out how to do those too. And whatever the report says about protecting jobs, it’s clear that the best way to cut down on employee health care costs is to cut down on employees. The Postal Service says it plans to sit down with unions to discuss the implications of this tech after the University of Michigan delivers its prototype in December. (Those unions, the National Association of Letter Carriers and the National Rural Letter Carriers Association did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

But maybe the best reason for USPS to experiment with autonomous vehicles is to keep up with the Joneses. FedEx is investing in small autonomous vehicles that could make deliveries without the aid of human drivers. Amazon has an entire team dedicated to researching how autonomous vehicles (and drones) could transport its goods directly to customers. Google holds patents on unmanned truck delivery. DHL has posited driverless vehicles could be endlessly useful in warehousing operations, last-mile deliveries, and logistics operations. UPS has a test truck that shoots drones.

Which gets us back to one final idea floated by the USPS Office of the Inspector General in the report. Mail carriers drive the same exact routes almost every day. If the service kits out its vans with the right sorts of sensors, those vans could build and constantly update the incredibly detailed 3-D maps that help self-driving cars navigate—for a price, of course. Yeah, other startups and companies have been built expressly to collect and mine mapping data—but don’t count out the letter carriers. If rain and hail can’t stop them, why should the future?

Tech

Alphabet’s Project to Restore Wireless Service in Puerto Rico With Balloons Gets FCC Approval

Project Loon has already proven its real-world usefulness once this year.

The FCC has approved an experimental license for Alphabet, Inc’s Project Loon to attempt to restore wireless service to storm-ravaged Puerto Rico using its high-altitude balloons, according to FCC Chief of Staff Matthew Berry.

Though the Loon technology is not entirely proven, it could help speed the restoration of vital communications as the U.S. territory works to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Maria.

It could also help prove the business case for Loon, one of the experimental “moonshots” debuted as part of Google, and now housed under Alphabet subsidiary X.

More than 80% of Puerto Rico’s cellular towers are still out of service more than two weeks after the arrival there of Hurricane Maria, and nearly one-third of the island’s counties have no service, according to the FCC. Rebuilding conventional cell towers will be “a long road,” T-Mobile told CNN, thanks to challenges including not just the cost of construction, but, according to some wireless companies, theft and crime against their operations.

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Loon balloons, which carry communications equipment as high as 20 kilometers into the atmosphere, would circumvent those earthbound hurdles — at least temporarily. Loon recently rolled out internet and LTE service in Peru after flooding there, reportedly providing coverage for an area roughly the size of Switzerland. The balloons that were deployed in Peru, in fact, were launched from Puerto Rico.

However, restoring communications to Puerto Rico may be more challenging. Loon requires local partners to work, and in the case of the Peru project, relationships with wireless providers and other players were already in place. But in earlier statements to Mashable, a Loon spokesman said the Puerto Rico effort would be “a little more complicated because we’re starting from scratch.”

Contracting with governments for deployment in disaster zones could eventually become a revenue stream for Loon, which debuted in 2013. Alphabet has begun ramping up pressure for moonshots to generate revenue, partly in hopes of diversifying beyond the search-driven advertising business that still makes up the overwhelming majority of its profits.

Tech

Krebs’ site under attack after alleged owners of DDoS-for-hire service were arrested

After security journalist Brian Krebs exposed the DDoS-for-hire service, vDOS, and the alleged owners of the service were arrested, a massive attack was launched against the Krebs on Security site.

Last Thursday, Krebs wrote about vDOS and the two 18-year-old Israeli hackers running the DDoS attack service. In the past two years, the duo launched over 150,000 attacks and made at least $ 618,000. vDOS had been hacked and Krebs had obtained a copy of the vDOS database.

vDOS had paying subscribers with the cost depending upon how many seconds the DDoS attack lasted. Krebs reported, “In just four months between April and July 2016, vDOS was responsible for launching more than 277 million seconds of attack time, or approximately 8.81 years’ worth of attack traffic.”

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Former Vodafone boss backs India’s music-streaming service Saavn as it hits 18M users

Saavn-Logo

Mumbai-based music-streaming service Saavn announced Thursday that former Vodafone chief executive Arun Sarin has joined as an investor and strategic advisor.

The news comes less than three months after the company announced $ 100 million in fresh funding. At the time, it said it was adding one million new users per month, with 14 million in total.

As of today, that number has grown to 18 million monthly active users, which it says represents a tenfold increase in daily active users in India since last year.

Beyond that, it’s claiming more than 20 million songs (over 250 million streams per month) and a global team of 145 people across five offices.

“Music streaming is a core app on today’s smartphones, and Saavn is superbly positioned to grow rapidly in the fast expanding smartphone market in India,” Sarin said in a statement.

“As an innovative and nimble music-streaming company, at the heart of one of the world’s most valuable markets, Saavn hits all the right notes,” he added.

Meanwhile, the company’s cofounder and chief executive, Rishi Malhotra, said that over 90 percent of the service’s usage is driven by smartphones, and that it plans to “work more deeply with carriers in India and additional territories” in the coming months.

Sarin’s investment amount was not disclosed.

The company’s most recent series C round in July was led by New York-based hedge fund Tiger Global Management, and at the time it said that it expects to hit 20 million users by the end of the year.

But while the service may be the market leader on its home turf in India, it certainly has its work cut out if it hopes to expand globally — an area in which Sarin’s expertise will no doubt help. That said, the company did not make any mention of expansion plans today.

In general, the music-streaming space has been busy.

Earlier this week, we reported that Deezer is planning an IPO later this year as the battle with rivals Spotify and Apple Music heats up. And Google Play Music continues to expand with its official entry into Japan a few weeks ago.

Microsoft’s Groove Music just announced support on Sonos speakers, and Spotify hasn’t managed to keep out of headlines either: On Wednesday it launched its new “Mix Mates” playlist generator to help friends find music they share in common. (We also heard rumors that Spotify will be supported on Google’s upcoming second-generation Chromecast.)

The announcements from Saavn today are encouraging, but it’s only just the beginning of the global music-streaming wars — and versus many of the other big players, its user numbers are still relatively low.

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