At CES in Las Vegas earlier this year, Google boasted about new ways to use its digital assistant everywhere you go: in the Google Maps app, infotainment systems, and car accessories. Now Google Assistant is available for hardcore users whose cars aren’t so “smart” and can’t work with Android Auto. It’s the first after-market device to bring Google Assistant to the car.
In a partnership with Anker’s Roav brand, the Bolt device brings Google Assistant to your car through your smartphone (be sure to download the Google Assistant app if you don’t have a Pixel phone) via car charging socket and stereo. It’s optimized for Android devices, so iPhone users will have to wait.
You can ask the assistant for directions (it’ll pull up Google Maps on your phone), text your mom, look up nearby restaurants or businesses, play music or podcasts, call someone, have the Assistant read your texts to you, and any other assistant duties like adding items to your to-do list or calendar.
Last week, Tomer Amarilio, a Google product manager, showed me how the accessory works plugged into the cigarette lighter port and with an auxiliary cord so you hear everything through your car speakers. Last week he explained that it’s a way to “make the Assistant part of the car” instead of using your phone on a dashboard dock with harder-to-hear speakers than those in your car.
It’s a bit redundant if you already have the Google Assistant app on your phone and straight-up unnecessary if you have a connected car with Android Auto or Apple’s CarPlay. But the accessory is made for a car experience — meaning it can handle loud background noises with its dual microphones and noise reduction built into the small device. So it can pick up your “OK, Google,” wake word even with the radio blaring.
The device is helpful for users who’ve gotten used to voice control in other spaces like their kitchen or living room. Without plugging in a Google Home smart speaker into your car, you can be like one of the 20 million vehicles expected within the next four years to include Google Assistant, Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa in the car — even if you’re driving in an older, “low-tech” vehicle.
Amarilio said the accessory is supposed to bring the helpfulness of the Assistant into the car while driving. “The whole point is to have distraction-free driving,” he said.
iPhone users should stick with the Assistant app since the device doesn’t pair well yet with iOS. But the accessory does have two USB charging ports that can charge your iPhone (or any device), so it’s not a total waste if you get one.
Starting Wednesday, the Roav Boalt is at Best Buy stores and online at bestbuy.com and walmart.com. It’ll be in Walmart and Target stores in the next few weeks. It’s $49.99, so not cheap but half of a Google Home smart speaker. Amazon’s slow-to-arrive Echo Auto is going for a special $25 price, but you need an invite to purchase Alexa for your car. Eventually its non-promo price also will be $50.
WATCH: How Google Assistant is planning a huge swing with amazing new features and devices — MashTalk
How smart can a bike get?
The Greyp G6, a battery-powered bicycle launched Friday, March 15, provides a new answer to that question. It raises the bar for every other e-bike manufacturer with a ton of original features that turn the bike into a powerful, high-tech gadget.
Over the weekend, I got the chance to try out the G6 on the beautiful trails of Croatia’s island Brač. Turns out, it’s also incredibly fun to ride.
Greyp is a sister company of Croatian hypercar maker Rimac Automobili, and the two share a lot of the same DNA. Neither company is interested in doing something that’s been done before, and both build high-end products that may not be for everyone, but will surely make every tech geek’s eyes light up.
Greyp’s first bike, the G12, was launched in 2013, and it was an entirely different animal. Half electric motorcycle and half e-bike, it was speedy and powerful — so much, in fact, that it wasn’t exactly street-legal in the same way a regular bicycle is.
The G6 comes in three flavors — G6.1, G6.2, and G6.3. It’s definitely an electric bicycle, of the mountain bike (eMTB) variety. But it, too, has a duality that makes it hard to categorize, simply because there aren’t many (or any) similar bikes around.
On one hand, the G6 is a high-end mountain e-bike with a 250W MPF motor and a 700mAh battery that provides additional power as you hit the pedals, but it never just drives itself like a motorcycle does. It has some of the best components imaginable, including a carbon fiber-reinforced frame, an enduro-oriented dual suspension with 150mm of travel and top RockShox parts, and SRAM EX1 shifters, cassette, and chain, to name a few. If you don’t recognize these components, suffice to say that you’ll find them on the best enduro and all-mountain bikes. See full specs for the three Greyp models here.
Everything and the kitchen sink
You may have seen similar electric bikes from companies such as Giant, Cannondale, and Specialized, but this is where the similarities end. First, Greyp drew from Rimac’s battery expertise to build its own custom battery, providing some 100 kilometers (62 miles) of range. Based on the short time I’ve spent with the bike, it’s hard to judge how much of an advantage over other brands this is. But having seen Rimac’s battery assembly plant, and given the fact that the company provides battery expertise and parts for some of the world’s fastest supercars, I’d say these folks know their battery tech. One other detail makes the G6 different from many competitors: The battery is visible (as opposed to being built into the frame) and easily detachable; you charge it at home with Greyp’s own custom charger.
But the biggest difference between Greyp G6 and most other e-bikes is that instead of relying on added sensors and smartphone smarts to provide extra functionality, the G6 has all of that built in. The bike has a GPS chip, a 3-axis gyroscope and accelerometer, and even a barometric pressure sensor. It has two wide-angle, 1080p cameras (front and rear). It has a 3-inch TFT screen, designed to be readable in sunlight, with a 240×400 pixel resolution for showing basic info such as battery life and speed. Connectivity-wise, the bike’s equipped with Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and a USB-C port. Most importantly, it’s constantly connected to the internet via a built-in e-SIM, with Greyp covering the data costs until at least 2022.
If you think that sounds like a specs list for a smartphone instead of a bike, well, you’re right, it kinda does. I’ve checked numerous competitors, and I haven’t found an e-bike that has all these features, even on pricier models (though the G6 itself isn’t cheap; more on that later).
While the bike is fully functional as is — basic functions are accessible via rugged, waterproof buttons on the left handle — the real fun starts when you connect a smartphone and place it in a special cradle on top of the built-in screen. Then, you start Greyp’s companion app (Android-only, for now; iOS support is coming this year) and get features such as navigation, a live video feed from front or rear camera (seeing what’s behind you can be really handy sometimes), or detailed info about your ride. You can even put a built-in heart rate sensor on your wrist (it comes with the bike) and set the bike to provide more power when your heart rate goes up and less when it goes down, keeping you in that fat-burning sweet spot all the time.
Yeah, this thing is clever.
It doesn’t end there. When it’s not plugged into the bike (the bike’s battery charges the phone, so no need to worry about your phone dying), the G6’s smartphone app turns into a sort of remote control for the bike. If someone’s touching your bike, for example, you’ll be notified. You will then be able to remotely warn them via a text message on the bike’s screen, take a photo through the bike’s cameras, or disable it completely and track its location through the G6.
Between the bike itself and the companion app, the list of features is too long to name them all. Still more are coming, as the bike’s software can be updated with over-the-air (OTA) updates. But enough lists.
Turning a beginner into a pro
Unlike some prototypes we’ve seen, the Greyp G6 is a finished product that can be pre-ordered now and will start shipping to customers in a month or two. I had the rare opportunity to actually test it out right after launch, on a variety of terrain and in two different configurations — the G6.2 and the most powerful variant, the G6.3.
As a pure mountain e-bike, the G6 is just loads of fun. If you’ve never ridden a pedelec e-bike — one that assists you while pedaling instead of just driving you like a motorbike — you should know that it has two important traits. First, yes, it makes the ride easier by helping you out during those nasty uphill climbs. If you’re not very experienced or just can’t handle a climb on a regular bike, the G6’s motor will make you feel like a pro by providing just as much power as you need.
But if you are experienced and are looking for a challenge, the e-bike won’t turn you soft and lazy. You can ride as hard as you like and break a serious sweat, but the difference will be that, compared to a regular bike, the G6 will help you cover more distance. On a normal bike, 20 miles on rough terrain with a solid amount of elevation would be a long, painful ride for me. On the G6, I was blasting through the finish line. In fact, a couple months with this bike, and I bet I’d be testing the G6’s nominal 62-mile range, which would take me years to achieve on a regular bike. Note that once the battery’s depleted, the G6 becomes a perfectly capable regular mountain bike, so no problems there.
The G6 excels on rough roads. It’s got wide, off-roady tires and a sturdy frame that make the bike feel incredibly stable. With the help of the electric motor, I was easily conquering terrain that’d be a real challenge on a regular bike. Often I felt more confident at high speeds than I usually am; that could mean I’ve suddenly become a better rider, but it’s far more probable that the bike is just fine-tuned well. On an asphalt road, I didn’t mind those rugged tires; again, with the electric motor I was easily achieving good speeds, perhaps not comparable to a road bike, but still fast enough for my liking. I’ve tested both the mid-range G6.2 and the most powerful G6.3 variant, and honestly, both had plenty of power. I’ve also tried turning the power assistance off completely during a steep climb — and I very quickly realized that I’m not in the shape this bike made me feel I’m in.
The brakes, shifters, and suspension all performed admirably on both bikes I’ve tested. The G6.3 has slightly better parts than the G6.2, but it’s all high-end stuff that’s far better than anything I usually ride. One cool feature was the ability to change the seat height with a switch, mid-ride. The control buttons for the bike’s smart features seemed sturdy enough to me, though using them while riding over rough terrain wasn’t always easy.
Tech platform for the future
With the G6, the ride itself is just half the fun. I also enjoyed fidgeting with the extra features provided by the smartphone app. Some, like navigation, were most useful during a break. While riding, I mostly had the camera on, because it’s just so cool to have an HD stream of your ride in front of you. And you can record it to your phone at any time.
There were a few bugs. Sometimes, the video stream would lag considerably, and sometimes, the app crashed — but those issues were only present on an older, Galaxy S8+ Android model, which happened to be installed on the bike I was testing. This is made worse by the somewhat odd decision to place the phone cradle so that the phone covers the bike’s built-in screen. If the phone app dies, you lose access to all the info about the bike and the ride (plus, as a tech geek, I just like the idea of being able to see two screens at the same time).
The next day, the Greyp crew outfitted me with a different bike that sported a newer Android phone, and I had no issues during a 45-minute ride. Some parts of the trails had a poor 3G signal, which was also an issue for the always-connected G6. I’ve spoken to the folks at Greyp; they’re aware of these issues and are working to fix them before the product reaches end users.
The most interesting aspect of the bike, however, are the features yet to come. Some, like the possibility of getting a one-minute video replay (useful in case of crash) are nearly there, but aren’t fully implemented. And some, like gamification and racing against other riders, I didn’t get to test. But the possibilities of this platform are truly endless. Notifications if you stray off path and fall out of your group? Bad weather warnings? Music streaming? With the tech this bike has, it’s all possible.
Why hasn’t anyone done this before?
You could take a regular bike, add some third-party gizmos, and create some sort of makeshift version of the G6. Use a phone for the info screen, a helmet cam for video recording, a sports watch for the measurements, and stick a bunch of sensors on the bike. But it will never work as well as it does when the cameras, the sensors, and the connectivity are all built into the bike itself.
The truth is, once you get used to it — and you do get used to it fast — you start to wonder why other e-bikes don’t have these features. Mate Rimac, the CEO and founder of both Greyp and Rimac Automobili, tells me the secret is simple. “We’re an engineering company first. Innovation comes before everything else. We aren’t looking to build another bike, we’re looking to see where can we take the idea of the bike.”
I really do believe we’ll see these sorts of smart features on e-bikes more and more. After all, when you have that big, juicy battery, why not have it power a bunch things instead of just helping the bike move forward?
There’s another reason why all e-bikes aren’t as advanced as this, though, and it’s the price. Starting at 6,499 euros ($7,359), the G6.1 is not cheap. The G6.2 costs 6,999 euros ($7,925), and the G6.3 costs 7,499 euros ($8,491).
While the prices may be eye-watering for someone used to regular bikes in the sub-$1,000 price range, when you compare apples to apples, Greyp’s pricing makes sense. Comparably equipped e-bikes from big bike brands like Specialized and Cannondale are priced similarly, and they don’t have all the features that Greyp has.
The Greyp G6 can be ordered now from Greyp’s website, and should be hitting dealers in Europe over the next months.Read More
Dhananjay Motwani is thinking of an animal, and his 20 Questions opponent is, question by question, trying to figure out what it is.
“Is it larger than a microwave oven?”
“Can it do tricks?”
“Is it a predator?”
“Is it soft?”
“Is it a vegetarian?”
What’s impressive here isn’t that the questioner is a computer; that’s old hat. It’s that the machine and Motwani are chatting in his blue Hyundai Sonata, trundling along one of Silicon Valley’s many freeways. The traffic, as it tends to be in this part of the country, is bad. The game is a good way not just to pass the time, but to show off what the Echo Auto can do as we creep toward the Sunnyvale lab where Amazon taught it to understand the human voice in the acoustic crucible that is the car.
Amazon introduced the road-going, Alexa-equipped device in September of last year, and started shipping to some customers in January. Amazon is working with some automakers to build Alexa into new cars, but the $50 Auto works with tens of millions of older vehicles already on the road: All you need is a power source (either a USB port or cigarette lighter) and a way to tap into the car’s speakers (Bluetooth or an aux cable).
About the size and shape of a cassette, the Echo Auto sits on your dashboard and brings 70,000 Alexa skills into your car. Its eight built-in microphones let you make phone calls, set reminders, compile shopping lists, find nearby restaurants and coffee shops, and hear Jake Gyllenhaal narrate The Great Gatsby.
Adding the Auto to a growing collection of Echo products makes sense. “There’s no better place for voice than in the car,” says Miriam Daniel, Amazon’s head of Echo products. Your hands are supposed to be on the wheel, your eyes on the road. But when she and her team started developing the thing about 18 months ago, they discovered that there’s no worse place than the car for making voice recognition actually work. “We thought the kitchen was the most challenging acoustic environment,” Daniel says. But family chatter and humming refrigerators proved easy to overcome compared to wind, air conditioning, rain, the radio, and road noise. “The car was like a war zone.”
To safely cross the aural minefield, Daniel’s team started by adapting the Echo’s hardware, software, and user interface to the car. That meant adjusting the device so it can handle being turned on and off frequently, and boot up in a few seconds instead of the minute and a half it took when they first tried it. The team adjusted its responses to be shorter. They added geolocation, so the device can point users to the nearest caffeine injection site. They disabled incoming “Drop Ins,” where approved friends and such can automatically connect to one’s Echo device for a chat.
Daniel’s team created new audio cues and streamlined the potentially distracting activity of the Auto’s LED bar. They gave it one tiny speaker to play the occasional error message, but chose to rely on the car’s audio system to do the heavy lifting, to reduce the Auto’s bulk and cost. They tested a variety of microphone arrays and settled on the dashboard as the best placement after eliminating the cupholder (far from the driver’s mouth and prone to rattling about), clipped onto an air vent (too noisy), and ceiling (would leave wires dangling all over the place).
At Amazon’s reliability lab, the Echo Auto endured climatic chambers, heat and UV exposure, drop tests—just what they sound like—and yank tests, in which a specialized device yanks cords out of the thing with different levels of force. Standard stuff for all Echo devices.
But making sure the Echo can hear you properly in a moving car took a new kind of test. That’s why Motwani, an Alexa product manager, is pondering large, not-soft herbivores while driving me to Amazon’s testing complex in Sunnyvale. The complex contains mocked up kitchens and living rooms, but I’m not allowed to see those. Instead Motwani leads me into a gray room the size of a one-car garage, most of it taken up by a black Honda Accord.
In the driver’s seat is what looks a bit like the upper bit of a crash test dummy, a head and shoulders mounted on a gray plastic box. The head features a black cross where a human has eyes and a nose, a pill-shaped opening for a mouth, and unsettlingly accurate, molded ears. Its maker, Head Acoustics, calls it an Artificial Head Measurement System with “the acoustically relevant structures of the human anatomy,” and it’s a common tool in audio testing. Also in the Honda are six large speakers, placed throughout the cabin.
Standing by the computers on a table against one wall, Motwani and two of his fellow Amazon engineers decide to start their demonstration at 40 mph, in the rain. A few keystrokes later, the speakers come to life, and the inside of the unmoving, sheltered car becomes an auditory facsimile of what it sounds like to drive through a storm: the pelting rain, the swiping windshield wipers, the engine running, the tires humming against the wet asphalt. They’ve collected these sounds by sending drivers into the wild in cars loaded up with microphones, then playing the sound recorded by each at the speaker in the same location.
From the computer, the engineers show off the other conditions the car can mimic: different speeds, changing weather conditions, windows up or down, talk radio or music blaring. This is where the dummy goes to work, and when I learn why its sole facial feature is a mouth, which is really a speaker. For up to 18 hours on end, it will talk to the Echo Auto sitting on the dash, calling out the same commands and queries over and over again. The team records Alexa’s responses, looking for weak points and misunderstandings. This is how machine learning happens: You feed your system as much data as you can find. And the process works best when that data is carefully selected (or created) to simulate what Alexa will be listening for.
Now that the Echo Auto has shipped to some customers, the garage-lab is focused on improving its performance in extreme conditions like convertibles and rain (though probably not the combination of the two). Like other Alexa products, it will keep getting better, and keep adding skills. But today, at least, it hasn’t bested the human mind: my ride with Motwani ended before it could figure out what animal he was thinking of. It was an elephant.
Another “wake word” has entered the lexicon. Instead of “OK, Google” or “Hey, Alexa,” this time it’s “Hey, BMW.”
With BMW’s new virtual assistant, coming to the German car maker in 2019, voice commands are front and center in the car. It’s a new way to interact with your vehicle.
The assistant was revealed Thursday at a TechCrunch Disrupt main stage event. BMW senior vice president of digital products, Dieter May, showed it off, extolling its skills beyond “just voice commands.” He said the assistant would “live side by side with you” — which is either super helpful or super creepy.
It’s compatible with other voice assistants, so don’t worry, you can still shout at Alexa to put more laundry detergent on your Amazon shopping list.
May was very clear in a conversation after the launch event that this assistant is not something to ask informative queries like “What year was Barack Obama born?” Instead it’s more of a coach about driving and getting places, think: “Where’s the nearest charging station that’s still open?” As May sees it, “It’s more of a co-driver.”
What really distinguishes the BMW assistant is its auto skills. “It’s a real expert who knows everything about your car,” May said. So when something makes a weird noise or a light starts blinking, you can quickly get answers.
You can rename the assistant, and BMW encourages conversation and casual chatting. The assistant is supposed to be able to pick up on patterns and habits. “It’s a much more natural and easier way to interact,” May said. With its predicative abilities, you shouldn’t have to tell it to take you to the gym; it’s already got the GPS loaded up once you sit down. Since we spend so much time in our cars, the AI can quickly learn what we want.
The car isn’t a new space for voice. Far from it, with Apple’s CarPlay and Android Auto and third-party services built into infotainment systems, like Nuance with its Dragon Drive interface. Talking to Waze (“OK, Waze“) brings a voice-based navigation system into your car through the app or infotainment system. Then there are devices that act like an Amazon Echo, but for your car, like the Muse.
Just this week Uber added voice commands for drivers picking up passengers. Mercedes unveiled its newest electric vehicle, which will of course include its proprietary voice-controlled user experience, MBUX. On Thursday, Nuance announced an in-car partnership with Affectiva Automotive AI, the MIT startup that measures your emotional reactions and facial expressions. The system will recognize if you’re angry, happy, sleepy, distracted or angry while driving. Emotion-based control is like next-level voice control, where your sad voice could trigger some uplifting tunes.
Amazon’s announcement last month about an Alexa integration coming directly into cars seemed to reinvigorate the potential of in-car voice assistants in a way that CarPlay and Android Auto haven’t, even though plenty of cars work with those operating systems.
Voice has become the go-to tool for the modern household, such as in the “smart” kitchen or living room, and even more so in the car.
A survey from digital consulting firm Capgemini found 85 percent of voice users prefer to use the tool while on the go, meaning in their cars, on their commutes, on a bike ride.
Alex Stock, a partner at Capgemini, said in a call that “car companies are trying to use voice to create more exciting experiences for consumers.” So while the wow factor is still high that cars can turn on the air conditioning or one day interpret your frustration into a pitstop for ice cream (sounds plausible), the next step is commoditizing the experience.
As we’ve seen again and again, cars have figured out how to offer a seamless experience with directions and music choices coming up on command. Now that we’re hooked on voice, it’s time for the cars to turn the “cockpit experience” into an e-commerce shopping hotspot.
Anything to keep us talking to our cars.Read More
If any one thing launched Tesla’s meteoric rise from a small Silicon Valley startup to one of the world's most famous and exciting companies, it's Elon Musk. Every scrap of news about the company now makes headlines, as its outspoken, tweeting CEO struggles to turn a profit. But, whew, even by his standards, this week was a biggie for Musk … again. After a questionable announcement via Twitter that he's considering taking Tesla private, the Securities and Exchange Commission is reportedly investigating him. Investors have filed four lawsuits, so far. Rapper Azealia Banks is somehow involved, and furious.
None of that, though, stopped Musk's Boring Company from announcing plans to build a tunnel to LA’s Dodger Stadium. And amid the noise, Google sister company Sidewalk Labs revealed more details about its scheme for building the city of the future, starting with Toronto. It was a doozy of a week, and not just for Elon. Let's get you caught up.
Stories you might have missed from WIRED this week
The fate of Tesla seems inextricably tied to that of Musk, who has admitted that he's starting to fray around the edges. But if Musk is broken, did we play a role? Alex ponders what’s up with Elon.
Musk's mood can’t be helped by the news that the SEC has subpoenaed Tesla over his August tweet, when he sent market traders scrambling by saying he wanted to take Tesla private. Aarian looks at how much trouble he, and the company, could be in.
Musk says the funding for taking his automaker private would come from a Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund. An electric car company might seem an unlikely investment for an oil-dependent economy, but as I discovered, Saudi Arabia is looking to diversify.
Away from the Tesla craziness, the Boring Company announced its working to dig from East Los Angeles to Dodger Stadium, and transport people who are presumably fans of baseball, and Musk.
Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs is inching ahead with its plans to reinvent a section of Toronto. Aarian breaks down its latest proposal: shapeshifting streets.
Ummmm, What's Azealia Got to Do With This? Of the Week
Not a whole lot, but more than anybody expected at the start of this week. Until the rapper began recounting a very strange weekend in Elon Musk's mansion, waiting to record a song with Musk's girlfriend, the musician Grimes. The Times breaks down a very strange saga.
News from elsewhere on the internet
Remember when Uber dominated the headlines? It may have lost its place as media favorite to Tesla, but it’s still working to refresh its image with new hires, as Reuters reports, and actually make a profit ahead of a public offering, due next year.
Residents and tourists in Santa Monica had a taste of life in the olden “pre-scooter” days on Tuesday, when Bird and Lime deactivated their services in protest at city plans to prefer Jump for an official pilot program. (Jump is owned by Uber.) “Don't let a #LifeWithoutScooters be the future.” Lime tweeted.
Los Angeles became the first US city to install body scanners on its subway this week. The portable devices are designed to catch weapons and explosives.
Is Elon Musk crazy? No, according to Kara Swisher's latest in The New York Times. He is just an “impulsive and driven boss who runs a very hot and messy kitchen and does not spend a lot of time apologizing for it.”
At 6:40 in the morning, a klaxon horn sounds three times. “Gas!” a man in a hard hat and fluorescent vest yells out. There’s a hissing noise, and the helium starts flowing. From the tanks stacked like cordwood on a nearby truck, the gas moves through a series of hoses until it’s 55 feet up, then through a copper pipe and into the top of a plastic tube that hangs down to the ground, like a shed snake skin held up for inspection.
It’s a Wednesday in late June in Winnemucca, a solitary mining town in northern Nevada that has avoided oblivion by straddling the I-80 freeway. Along with two Basque restaurants, the Buckaroo Hall of Fame, and a giant W carved into the side of a hill, Winnemucca is the test site for Project Loon, a grandiose scheme launched in 2011 to bring the internet to huge swaths of the planet where sparse population and challenging geography make the usual networks of cell towers a nonstarter. Instead of building and maintaining earthbound structures with a range of a just few miles, Loon plans to fly packs of antenna-outfitted balloons 60,000 feet above the ground, each one spreading the gospel of connectivity over nearly 2,000 square miles.
Loon is testing in Winnemucca because the skies are mostly empty and there’s an airport for when the higher-ups want to come in by private plane straight from Palo Alto, just a short flight away. Today, the team is testing a new iteration of its communications system, which could support 10 times as many users as its current setup.
Half an hour later, the balloon is ready to go, held in place by a red horizontal bar and protected from the wind by walls on three sides. At the command of an engineer wielding a blocky yellow remote control, this structure, known as Big Bird, rotates 90 degrees to the left. Like Rafiki holding up newborn Simba in the opening scene of The Lion King, the various arms of the crane complex push the balloon up and out. As it takes on the weight of its payload—a triangular assortment of solar panels, antennas, and varied electronics—it freezes for just a moment. Then it’s up and away with the wind, climbing 1,000 feet a minute.
As far as routines go, it’s spectacular. “Never gets old,” Nick Kohli says. “Ne-ver gets old.”
When Kohli joined the nascent effort that was Project Loon in 2012, his job was to run around the world finding and collecting downed balloons from the Mojave Desert, rural Brazil, the coast of New Zealand. Loon was part of Google X, the arm of the search company that fostered audacious projects applying emerging technologies to stubborn problems in novel ways. One such project was self-driving cars. (In 2015, when Google restructured, creating its parent company Alphabet, Google X was renamed X.)
Kohli—not your usual Googler—is oddly qualified to survive the apocalypse. He didn’t get the grades for med school, so he trained as an emergency room technician—a background which, combined with his pilot’s license and eight years of search-and-rescue operations in the Sierra Nevada, made him just what Loon was looking for. This practical skill set and eye for operations makes him one of the many new kinds of people X needs to fulfill its mission: expanding Alphabet’s reach beyond the computer in your lap and the phone in your pocket.
With Alphabet’s help and resources, Kohli (who now runs flight operations) has seen Loon evolve past watching balloons fly hundreds of miles off course, to the point where a launch like today’s is nothing special. It’s just another step toward delivering the complex system Loon envisions in the future.
Today, X is marking a major step forward in that mission by announcing that Loon is “graduating”—becoming a stand-alone company under the Alphabet umbrella. Along with Wing, another X effort that delivers goods with autonomous drones, Loon will start building out staff and putting together its own HR and public relations teams. Its leaders will get CEO titles, and its employees will get an unspecified stake in their company’s success. Generating revenue and profit will matter just as much as changing the world.
Loon and Wing are not the first projects to get their diplomas from X (and, yes, employees get actual diplomas). Verily, a life sciences outfit with plans to monitor glucose levels with contact lenses, made the leap in 2015. And lo, the self-driving effort made the leap in December 2016, taking on the name Waymo. Cybersecurity project Chronicle ascended to autonomy in January.
The dual graduation of Loon and Wing—both big, ambitious, projects—marks a watershed for X and perhaps the moment when the secretive research and design division starts to make good on its mission. For the technological giant that has made its billions in advertising, X isn’t a junk drawer for unusual projects that don’t fit elsewhere in the corporate structure. It’s a focused attempt to find a formula for turning out revolutionary products that don’t just sit on a screen but interact with the physical world. By launching Loon and Wing into the world, X will soon discover whether it can effectively hatch new Googles—and put Alphabet at the head of industries that don’t yet exist.
But Alphabet’s attempt to birth the next generation of moonshot companies raises two questions. Can this behemoth grow exponentially? And do we want it to?
The Loon lab in X’s Mountain View headquarters is piled with the results of generations of falls and spills. Loon is based on a simple idea—replace ground-based cell towers with high-flying balloons—which concealed a beguiling series of technical problems. In 2013, after a year of work, the balloons still had a nasty habit of popping or falling to earth after a few days. (They carried parachutes to soften the blow to their electronics payloads, and the team would warn air traffic control of their descent). Before setups like the one dubbed Big Bird, when the launch process resembled a gang of kids trying to will a kite to take off, a puff of wind could derail the whole thing.
Now, a custom-designed “mother of all crates” keeps the system safe during shipping. Key components ride in a silver box made of metalized styrofoam that reflects sunshine and holds in warmth. An 80-foot-long flatbed scanner examines swaths of polyethylene for the microscopic defects that can reduce a balloon’s survival at 60,000 feet from months to days. Mapping software tracks the floaters across continents and oceans, using machine learning to identify the wind currents they can ride to wherever they need to be. With all these tools, the Loon team is learning: The company can launch a balloon every half hour and keep them in the air for six months or more.
This is the sort of development X allows for. For six years, Loon’s engineers and designers and balloon recovery operatives haven’t had to worry about funding or revenue streams or hiring HR people or who’s running their PR strategy. They’ve had access to Google’s machine learning expertise and to X’s “design kitchen,” a 20,000-square-foot workshop for prototyping any mechanical device they could think of. They haven’t needed a detailed business plan, let alone revenue or profits. They’ve been allowed to fail over and over, each time learning a little bit more.
X chief Astro Teller pitches X as a place for making the world better, but he doesn’t hide the benefits for Alphabet, including new revenue streams, strategic advantages, and recruiting value. And while he won’t reveal the moonshot factory’s employee count or operating budget, he makes clear that no matter how much money you might think X spends, it’s piddling compared to the value of what it creates.
All across X, teams pursuing an extravagant array of moonshots are finding their own ways to fail, with similar protected status. Ideas are welcome as long as they involve new ways to solve thorny problems. They come from all over. Some surge from the brains of employees. Others come from Teller or Google cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. X employees plow through academic papers and stack up frequent-flier miles attending conferences, looking for the seeds of projects they could grow into something real. One unnamed project came from a researcher’s NPR interview: Someone at X was listening and asked her to come in for a chat.
Wherever they come from, most ideas stop first at the Rapid Evaluation Team. This small group meets a couple of times a week, not to advocate ideas but to shoot them down. “The first thing we’re asking is: Is this idea achievable with technology that will be available in the near term, and is it addressing the right part of a real problem?” says Phil Watson, who leads the team. Breaking the laws of physics means no dice. “You’d be amazed at how many kinds of perpetual motion machines have been proposed,” he says.
These meetings combine the unfettered thinking of a smoke-filled dorm room with the brutalizing rigor of a dissertation defense. The team has considered generating energy from avalanches (unfeasible), putting a copper ring around the North Pole to make electricity from Earth’s magnetic field (too expensive), and building offshore ports to simplify shipping logistics (a regulatory nightmare). They once debated working on an invisibility device. The tech seemed doable. “We kept saying, we should do it because it’s awesome—no, we can’t do it, because it’s going to cause more trouble, and it doesn’t solve any real problems,” Watson says. “It certainly would make criminals much more effective.”
The ideas that make it through this first evaluation are whisked to the Foundry, where whoever’s leading the fledgling project works through questions about the operations of the business they might create, something engineers aren’t always eager to do. This stage is led by Obi Felten, who came to X in 2012 after years of launching Google products in Europe.
In her first meeting with Teller, Felten learned about all the secret stuff X was cooking up, including internet balloons and delivery drones. And she started asking the kinds of questions you get from someone who launches products. What’s the legality of flying balloons into a different nation's airspace? Are there privacy concerns? Will you work with the phone companies or compete with them? “Astro looked at me and said, ‘Oh, no one’s really thinking about any of these problems. It’s all engineers and scientists, and we’re just thinking about how to make the balloons fly.’”
The Foundry uses this intense interrogation to root out the things that could kill a project down the line, before X has poured in piles of money and time. Take Foghorn, X’s effort to create a carbon-neutral fuel from seawater. The tech was amazing and the problem was huge, but two years in, the team realized they had no viable way to compete with gasoline on cost—and were reliant on technology that was closer to research than development. X killed Foghorn, gave everyone on the team a bonus, and let them find new projects to push. Ideally, the Foundry makes sure that the right projects get killed, as quickly as possible.
This is based on a simple premise: The sooner you can kill one idea, the faster you can devote time and money to the next one. Trying to change the world and make enormous new companies means shunning the traditional signs of progress. Uncovering the things mostly likely to doom whatever you’re doing is the only way to achieve success. Because once it’s good and dead, you can go back to the well for the next thing—the thing that might be the moonshot that lands.
Any project hoping to qualify as X-worthy must fall in the middle of a three-circle Venn diagram. It must involve solving a huge problem. It must present a radical solution. And it must deploy breakthrough technology.
That definition, which X uses to separate the delivery drones from the invisibility cloaks, didn’t exist in 2010, when X first took shape. The effort started with an experiment: Larry Page asked a Stanford computer science professor, Sebastian Thrun, to build him a self-driving car. At the time, Thrun knew as much about the technology as anyone: He had led Stanford’s winning bid in the 2005 Darpa Grand Challenge, a 132-mile race for fully autonomous vehicles across the Mojave Desert outside Primm, Nevada. When Darpa held another race in 2007, the Urban Challenge, the agency thickened the plot by making the vehicles navigate a mock city, where they had to follow traffic laws, navigate intersections, and park. Stanford came in second (Carnegie Mellon won), and Thrun, who was already doing work with Google, came to the company full-time, helping develop Street View.
The Darpa Challenges had proven that cars could drive themselves, but the feds weren’t holding any more races. American automakers were focused on surviving an economic collapse, not developing tech that could devastate their businesses. Google was a software company, but it had mountains of cash, and it was clear that bringing this idea to market had the potential to save lives, generate fresh revenue streams, and extend Google’s reach into one of the few places where looking at your phone is not cool.
So Thrun quietly hired a team, passing over the established academics who led the field in favor of a younger crew, many of them Darpa Challenge veterans, with less ingrained ideas about what was impossible. (They included Anthony Levandowski, who eventually found himself at the center of a bruising lawsuit with Uber, which the companies settled in February.) Page set his own challenge for the team, selecting 1,000 miles of California roads he wanted the cars to navigate on their own. Thrun’s squad called it the Larry 1,000, and they pulled it off in a conventional-wisdom-busting 18 months.
This move into the physical world was fresh ground for Google, whose taste for projects outside its core business had yielded Gmail, Google Maps, and Google Books—cool stuff, but still software. And the sight of Toyota Priuses chauffeuring themselves around the streets of Mountain View inspired possibilities, including more projects that didn’t consist solely of 0s and 1s.
But self-driving cars had fallen in Google’s lap. Finding other similarly hard, complex, worthwhile problems would require some infrastructure. Page made Thrun the company’s first “director of other,” in charge of doing all the stuff that didn’t line up with what investors expected from Google. Because Thrun was focused on the self-driving team (and after 2012, on his online education startup, Udacity), his codirector, Astro Teller, took the helm of a ship whose purpose and direction remained nebulous.
In an early conversation with Page, Teller tried to hash it out. “I was asking, ‘Are we an incubator?’” Teller says, sitting back in a chair with his trademark rollerskate-clad feet kicked out in front of him. Not exactly. They weren’t a research center, either. They were creating new businesses, but that didn’t convey the right scope.
Finally, Teller reached for an unexpected word. “Are we taking moonshots?” he asked Page. “That’s what you’re doing,” Page replied.
Creating a research division to build groundbreaking products is a mainstay of companies whose worth is tied to their ability to innovate. The tradition goes back at least to Bell Labs, founded in 1925 by AT&T and Western Electric. Made up of many of the smartest scientists in the country, Bell Labs is known for creating the transistor, the building block of modern electronics. It also helped develop the first lasers and, courtesy of mathematician Claude Shannon, launched the field of information theory, which created a mathematical framework for understanding how information is transmitted and processed. Along with eight Nobel prizes and three Turing Awards, the lab produced the Unix operating system and the coding language C++.
This breadth was key to Bell Labs’ success. There was no way to know what the next breakthrough would look like, so there was no point in demanding a detailed plan of action. Its leaders were fine with “an indistinctness about goals,” Jon Gertner writes in The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation. “The Bell Labs employees would be investigating anything remotely related to human communications, whether it be conducted through wires or radio or recorded sound or visual images.”
Yet Bell labs functioned within some parameters. Its most valuable tool was basic research: Bell’s scientists spent years probing the fundamentals of chemistry, physics, metallurgy, magnetism, and more in their search for discoveries that could be monetized. And while “human communications” is a broad mandate, their work didn’t venture far outside what could conceivably improve AT&T’s business, which was telephones.
Silicon Valley got its first great innovation lab with Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, whose researchers stood out not for their scientific breakthroughs but their ability to take existing technology and adapt it for new aims that had never been considered. PARC created the laser printer and Ethernet in the 1970s and early ’80s and laid the foundation for modern computing by leading the transition from time-shared monsters that fed on punch cards to distributed, interactive machines—aka personal computers.
But in Silicon Valley, it’s best remembered for Xerox’s failure to capitalize on that work. The lab pioneered graphical user interfaces—think icons on a screen manipulated by a mouse—but it took Steve Jobs to bring them to the masses. Xerox’s bosses didn’t pooh-pooh the tech, they just didn’t see how it concerned them, says Henry Chesbrough, who studies corporate innovation at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley: “Xerox was looking for things that fit the copier and printer business model.”
By giving its denizens a near-limitless mandate and maybe not quite so limitless funding, X thinks it can create products and services that previous labs might never have discovered—or might have cast aside. It doesn’t do basic research, relying instead on other institutions (mostly governmental and academic) to create tools whose uses it can imagine. It doesn’t rely on having the smartest people in the world within its walls and is happy to scout for promising ideas and lure them inside. And, most important, it’s charged with expanding the scope of Alphabet’s business, not improving what’s already there. For all those Nobel prizes, Bell Labs was valuable to its owners because it made phone calls better and cheaper. Xerox’s shareholders appreciated PARC because it earned them billions of dollars with the laser printer.
X isn’t making these mistakes, because its job isn’t to make search better. It’s to ensure that the mother ship, Alphabet, never has to stop expanding.
In that way, X’s project hasn’t been to pioneer self-driving cars or launch internet-slinging balloons or envision autonomous drones; the real purpose has been to build a division capable of engineering such businesses. Its fetishization of failure and its love for ideas that make everyone look up, even if only to shoot them down, are all in service of this single goal: If you’re not failing constantly and even foolishly, you’re not pushing hard enough.
That’s great for Alphabet and for people who like the idea of self-driving cars (especially those who can’t drive) or tracking their health with non-invasive wearables or basking in the light of the internet in the dark corners of the world or getting their cheeseburgers and toothpaste without contributing to traffic and planet-choking emissions.
But Alphabet, through Google, already has tremendous influence over our lives: how we talk to each other, where we get our news, when we leave the house to beat traffic. For most people, it’s a worthy tradeoff for free email, detailed maps, and free access to nearly unlimited information. X seeks to multiply that influence by moving it beyond the virtual realm. Critics already call Google a monopoly. Now imagine its dominion extending into our cars, into the food we eat and the goods we order, into our physical well-being—into how we connect to the internet at all. Google today wields heavy influence over the parts of our lives embedded in our phones. Are we ready to let it in everywhere else?
André Prager walks into the room pushing a cart piled with what looks like garbage. It’s mostly cut-up pieces of cardboard, with a few bags of plastic odds and ends mixed in. Wearing a T-shirt that reads “I Void Warranties,” Prager used to work on engines for Porsche. In his spare time, he has made a jet-powered chain saw and a turbocharged Vespa. Now he’s a mechanical engineer on Wing, X’s drone delivery project. This is his cart of failures.
Not long after Wing started up in 2012, the team realized that landing drones on the ground meant wasting energy on power-hungry vertical flight. Instead, they decided the aircraft would hover and lower its package to the ground—somehow.
The team’s first attempt was a bobbin-based system, where the package would be attached to a cord that would unspool from the drone. “It sounded like a great idea, because it was so simple,” Prager says. It quickly proved a complicated mess: Winding the things properly was a pain. Every package needed its own system, since the cord came off with the package, hardly an elegant customer experience.
They tried less complex mechanical systems modeled on clicky pens and cabinet doors. (Prager shows me one prototype off his cart, a square of cardboard with a broken pen, a thumbtack, and a straw taped to it.) Nothing quite worked—packages wouldn’t always unhook, or the hook would release then reattach, or something would break. “Then we said, What if we could do it without any moving parts?” says Trevor Shannon, another mechanical engineer, video-conferencing in from Australia, where Wing tests.
That thought led them to their current design, which is about the size and shape of a fingerling potato with an indentation that hooks onto the package. It’s easy to attach by hand, and when the payload hits the ground, the weight of the hook naturally pulls it off. An “underbite” stops it reattaching itself. Prager doesn’t mind its humble style. “We measure our success by how unimpressed people are when they see it,” he says.
The goal of Wing is to make it easier for people to get stuff, without all the wasted time and carbon emissions that come with moving things around in cars and vans. Since 2014, Wing has been running pilot programs around Australia, first in Queensland, then in Canberra, the capital. It started offering drone deliveries to ranchers in remote areas (lots of those Down Under) and is now preparing to start flights in the suburbs closer to the city. It’s delivering small packages that customers can order from Chemist Warehouse (Australia’s Walgreens) and Guzman Y Gomez (Australia’s Chipotle).
The real hurdle to doing that at scale, though, isn’t the delivery system, nor is it the technology: Batteries and aeronautic controls have made enough progress in recent years to float an armada of drone delivery companies. The problem is how to do this safely, especially in crowded, tightly controlled airspace over the US and Europe.
So in 2015, the team started building an unmanned air traffic management system that would connect all its aircraft and give each drone its own defined corridor to take it from origin to destination. “We’re trying to build the delivery trucks and the roads to drive on,” says Adam Woodworth, who will take on the title of CTO when Wing moves out of X. The hard part of this isn’t just developing a system that tracks aircraft, it’s getting everyone in the sky to run the same sort of system. Wing is working with the FAA and has made parts of its system open source, so others can make interoperable systems.
The funny thing about this problem is that it’s not the sort of thing X is built to solve. It doesn’t take engineering or prototyping or off-the-wall brainstorming. It takes careful relationship building and close conversations with regulators and competitors—entities for which success means getting something right the first time. And if Wing can’t make that work, its long-term survival is in doubt.
That marks a change the new company will have to embrace, as will Loon: Graduation from X means a different relationship with failure. These are becoming companies that are supposed to succeed in the conventional sense, by offering real services and bringing in real customers for real money.
Loon has flown more than 18 million miles. It has provided internet to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria and Peru after devastating floods. Now it has to do something harder. “It’s time to leave the nest,” says Alastair Westgarth, a telecom industry veteran who came to X a year and a half ago and who will become Loon’s CEO. It’ll be his job to nail down agreements with service providers around the world, working his balloons into their networks and keeping their customers connected. It’s important to stay audacious, Westgarth says, to keep pushing on innovation. “But by the same token, you don’t want to take existential risks.”
Out in the real world, failure is just failure. And slowly, the balance shifts from a death wish to a survival instinct.
X will keep an eye on the fledgling Loon and Wing as they try to make it for real, but it will soon turn its attention to finding new moonshots to take their place. It will be years before internet balloons and delivery drones either dominate the skies or crash to earth. Years the Rapid Evaluation Team and the Foundry may well spend spitting out untold numbers of failures and biting into a potential success or two. It will be far longer before we have answers about what X’s failing and tinkering and refining and launching means for the rest of us.
But back in Winnemucca, the launched balloon is climbing steadily. It’s headed into the desert and will spend a night in the area before moving on toward Denver, then Nebraska. Nick Kohli tells me that three balloons that launched from its site in Puerto Rico a few months ago are in the area.1 My eyes flit back and forth in vain until Kohli directs my gaze and I spot the tiniest and whitest of tiny white dots bobbing silently along, 62,500 feet above my head. That’s about .005 percent of the way to the Moon, which, all things considered, isn’t that far at all.
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1Story updated at 11:50 ET on Wednesday July 11 to correctly note when the overhead balloons were launched from Puerto Rico.