Toyota software glitch recall poses questions about self-driving car future

12 Feb 2014


Today, Toyota recalled 30,790 of its Prius hybrid cars in the UK because of a software glitch. While no accidents or injuries have been caused by the fault, we couldn't help but wonder what the implications for the I, Robot-style future of self-driving cars might be.

Toyota's issue is in the software that controls the car's hybrid system, specifically the boost converter, which is used when the car is accelerating hard from a standstill. In order to prevent overheating caused by the software pushing the car components too hard, drivers would see their cars operating at reduced power or may even find themselves grinding to a halt.

In order to fix the problem, owners will have to take their vehicle to a local Toyota dealership for a 40-minute software upgrade.

This is fairly upsetting for us at V3. While we don't own any Priuses ourselves, it does put our fantasy future of self-driving cars in jeopardy. Let's face it, Toyota's boost converter is probably a darn sight simpler than software that chooses whether you crash into your neighbour's garden fence or not.

A minor prang – or one serious accident – caused by software problems will surely spell the end of self-driving cars before they've properly begun. No doubt lawmakers and car manufacturers will insist the actual driver should be paying attention at all times, but humans are – for the most part – lazy. And yes, while passenger aircraft fly on autopilot for most of their journeys, their human pilots are (hopefully) awake, alert and ready to respond to any technical failures. The bleary-eyed car driver sipping their coffee on the way to work might not be quite so attentive.

A software update can't undo you writing off your car, or worse. It'll be fascinating to see how this is handled by car makers in the future.

By V3's Michael Passingham, who doesn't even trust auto-correct

Government coding scheme boss doesn't know how to code

07 Feb 2014

The director of the government's Year of Code Lottie Dexter, who will be taking charge of the latest computing education scheme, does not know how to code.

In a performance best described as uncomfortable, longtime Newsnight interrogator Jeremy Paxman set about attempting to understand exactly why children should be taught to code.

"I'm going to put my cards on the table, Jeremy, I can't code," she said with a smile. Perhaps this is fair; maybe the Year of Code scheme's ambassador should go through the experience of learning to code along with the rest of the nation.

"Perhaps I could be the next Zuckerberg," she quipped.

Sadly, however, there is also a worrying lack of awareness about the new curriculum. "How long does it take to learn to teach to code?" Paxman asked, sitting back in his chair.

"I think you can pick it up in a day," she responded. Now, even for experienced secondary school teachers, we can safely say this isn't true. Simply understanding the broad wording of the new curriculum will be challenging enough, let alone understanding how to best turn a fairly dry topic into something exciting.

For primary school teachers, who likely have little to no experience in the field of computing whatsoever, the challenge will be even steeper.

It continues a long-running trend of the government overlooking the huge effort teachers are going to have to make this year. A little bit of humility is all that's required to show us that the government truly understands the difficult months ahead.

"I started a campaign last year," said Dexter. "And if I had learned code at school I could have done a website, I could have done an app and I would have saved a hell of a lot of time and a hell of a lot of money and could have done it a lot better." To be fair, though, if she had, she probably wouldn't have had time to actually run the campaign.

By V3's Michael Passingham, who believes neither Rome nor Facebook was built in a day

Microsoft's new CEO Satya Nadella: A guide to incoming tech chief

04 Feb 2014

Satya Nadella the new CEO of Microsoft

It’s official: Microsoft’s new CEO is former cloud chief Satya Nadella. The news had been expected since last week and was confirmed on Tuesday afternoon. The appointment marks a new era at Microsoft as it prepares for life under the third CEO in its history.

But who is Nadella? It’s fair to say he’s not the most well-known name in the business, even if he clearly was a high flyer at the company.

But Microsoft has done its best to bring his personality to the fore in their announcement, and included some nice touchy-feely details in the release that could prove useful for sounding like you know who he is in any board meetings or pub chats.

1. He’s a poetry lover, of both American and Indian writers, claiming it’s like code. “You’re trying to take something that can be described in many, many sentences and pages of prose, but you can convert it into a couple lines of poetry and you still get the essence, so it’s that compression,” he said.

2. He loves test cricket, which is almost certainly a first among big US tech CEOs. “[It] is the longest form of any sport in the world,” he said. “I love it. There’s so many subplots in it, it’s like reading a Russian novel.”

3. He was born in Hyderabad, India, is 46 and has three children. He has a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Mangalore University and a master's degree in computer science from the University of Wisconsin.

4. His first job in the industry was at Sun Microsystems before he joined Microsoft in 1992. While working at Sun he was also studying for a master's degree in business when the role at Microsoft became available. He wanted to continue studying, though, so would fly from Seattle to Chicago for the weekend to complete his studies, underlining his determination.

5. Nadella already knows many of Microsoft's key product areas well, and before taking the CEO role he led the Cloud OS platform team. Cloud OS is used to power all of Microsoft’s internet cloud services such as Office 365, Bing, SkyDrive – now renamed OneDrive – Xbox Live, Skype and Dynamics.

For more from the man himself, Microsoft has put together a little video chat. It's probably not the toughest grilling he'll face as the new CEO but it gives some nice insight into his style – it's fair to say it is very different to Steve Ballmer's.

Twitter dabbles in e-commerce

03 Feb 2014

Twitter IPO

Twitter appears to be looking at some new revenue streams that could see users buying products using buttons embedded in Tweets.

The potential new product, reported by Recode, appears in the form of designs pitched by online retailer Fancy. It shows a button embedded in a Tweet that advertises a product. While nobody from Twitter or Fancy has acknowledged the images, it suggests a sensible exploration of other revenue streams from Twitter, which makes a large part of its cash from advertising.

By introducing the sale of physical goods into tweets themselves, Twitter is looking at an area of social media-based retail that has been explored before. Facebook tried, tested and eventually mothballed its own attempts to sell products on its site, instead concentrating on cashing in on smileys and virtual coins.

But Twitter is fundamentally different from Facebook. Its advertising model allows businesses to buy into certain keywords and trends, making adverts that are hyper relevant but only last for a few seconds. With this new model, a business could conceivably use the #CoronationStreet hashtag to promote an item currently being featured in the advert break, for example.

One potential problem for Twitter, however, will be savvy consumers. While this system may be great for unique, hand-crafted items that can only be bought from a particular niche site, if firms attempt to advertise products that are more widely available, consumers will probably do a quick search to find the best price available and bypass Twitter entirely.

Nonetheless, investors will undoubtedly welcome speculation that Twitter is looking to create a new revenue stream as it tries to work its way out of the red.

By V3's Michael Passingham, who would sell his soul for a few more followers

Honda invites you to 3D print its cars

31 Jan 2014

Honda has released the blueprints for a number of its concept cars from its past, present and potential future for 3D printing. While you won't be able to print off a new fleet of company cars, it's still worth a look.

Honda's generosity has enabled the 3D printer-owning public to download, edit and print scale models of its cars, free. This includes the Honda Puyo from 2007 (below): the Puyo is particularly notable because it was designed to have a "soft, gel-like body" to protect its occupants and pedestrians from injury in the event of a collision. "Safe, fun and easy to drive, it represents an ideal fusion of people-friendly design technologies". And now it can be on your desk for the price of some 3D printer "ink".

A 3D model of the Honda Puyo concept

If you're looking for something more contemporary, the 2013 Honda NSX concept is also available.

3D printers are still an expensive purchase, but the ethos companies such as Honda have applied to them is great: turning revolutionary designs into an open-source project has great potential in terms of crowdsourcing ideas and inspiring people to improve on their designs. The potential for use in schools and colleges is also high, with high-detail designs free for students to study.

Head to to take a look and download some of the models for yourself, although you may wish to turn your speakers down first.

By V3's Michael Passingham, whose collection of Matchbox vehicles is extensive

Apple Mac turns 30 as device’s allure remains strong as ever

24 Jan 2014


Thirty years ago the world watched with wonder as an athletic woman ran into a dusty room of dull and suited men before hurling a hammer through the screen they were all dutifully watching. It marked the arrival of the first Apple Macintosh computer and things were never the same again.

Since then Apple's personal computer line has been one of the most successful and desirable product lines to have existed in the computer era. Even now with sleek ultrabooks and all manner of tablets, not least Apple's own iPad range, on the market, the devices command respect and bank account-draining prices to boot.

While Microsoft may have built its dominance on the Windows platform by letting any manufacturer use its operating system, Apple, under the vision of Steve Jobs, put everything together itself to keep the harmony of hardware and software in one place.

Ever since 1984 this has remained Apple's hallmark of success as users knew they were getting high-quality performance and beautiful design in one package.

The Macintosh – later the Mac, which is a lot snappier – was not just a thing of beauty, it was a trendsetter. It's easy to take the modern user interface we use for granted, but it was Apple that brought such a control method to the masses.

While user interface controls may not have changed much, the design of the Apple Mac has gone through several variations. From its original boxy, basic design, to colourful side panels, and the swivelling 'sunflower', Apple's design teams have never shied away from trying to do something different with Macs.

This has recently been taken to extremes with the latest Mac Pro about as far removed from the original concept of the Macintosh as possible.

Apple itself has put together a little historical retrospective on the Macintosh, with a few musicians, teachers and other arty types giving glowing endorsements to the devices. While those less fond of Apple may find it all a bit self-indulgent, few would deny the impact the device has had on the world.

By V3's Dan Worth, who owns three macs, all raincoats

BETT 2014 photo blog: 3D printers and robotics head for the classroom

24 Jan 2014

The BETT (British Educational Training and Technology) show rolled into London for the 30th time this week, and V3 was on hand to pick through a variety of brightly coloured stands to locate some of the more notable technological developments coming to education.

A mural at BETT 2014We rather like this mural of questions about the future of teaching. While the computing curriculum itself will make big changes to the way our children are taught about technology, developments in classroom tech are equally impacting on the methods teachers use. Massive, open, online courses (MOOCs) are becoming increasingly prevalent and a "digitally enabled" populus on some occasions outsmart their teachers.

On the other hand, most of the equipment you'll see here costs rather a lot, so schools have to be fairly sure they want to adopt a piece of tech before they splash their limited cash.

3D printers

A 3D printer and objects at BETT 2014

Politicians use 3D printing as key example of the crossover between technology and education, and there was no lack of it at BETT in 2014. Several representatives from an industry were at BETT printing off colourful – albeit fairly useless – objects. The cheapest device we saw costs in excess of £1,000, but in comparison with where they were not a year or two ago this is pretty bargain basement stuff.

A set of 3D printed characters A 3D printer at BETT 2014











3D printers are a great way of teaching children about CAD software while keeping them motivated, because in the end they're going to see a finished product.

Little Bridge

Little Bridge software running on a Samsung tablet

Little Bridge is an interesting software package for desktops and tablets, in essence allowing children from all over the world to communicate with each other in whatever language they are learning. We would describe it as a 21st-century pen pal platform. The software currently supports conversations in French and English, but the company is looking to expand to languages such as Mandarin. Everything is highly moderated and monitored, and the whole thing is quite charming.

Build-your-own robots

An Engino creation at BETT 2014

There was no shortage of robotics technology present at BETT this year. It's an especially important year for these firms as many primary and secondary schools will be considering robotics platforms in order to allow their students to demonstrate their programming prowess in the real world.

Pictured above is hardware from Engino, which has an end-to-end software and hardware solution for schools. It's tailored to different skill levels, too. At its most basic, you can program your creation using the buttons mounted to its "brain". Users can head into the software and take advantage of its library of functions, or make their own.

The devices are powered by 32-bit ARM Cortex-M2 micro-controllers and have 256KB of flash memory and 64KB RAM. They also have a USB connector and seven other in/out ports to control various physical components.

Rugged Racers

Rugged Racers and a Hover Ring at BETT

Not exactly ground-breaking technology, but these little remote-control buggies are capable of recreating Top Gear's famous car football stunts with air hockey-like technology. The "hover ring" costs £120, as do the cars, but what price do you put on joyous, car-based tomfoolery?

By V3's Michael Passingham, who don't need no education

PRISM: Obama won't calm European firms' suspicions with NSA promises

21 Jan 2014

As noted by myself and numerous big-name figures in the public and private sector, the damage the PRISM spying scandal could inflict on the global economy and key industries, such as the cloud, is catastrophic. By being caught snooping not only on foreign firms, but also a number of political figures in countries that are supposedly allied with the US, the NSA seriously damaged international trust.

This was showcased to great effect in 2013 when Deutsche Telekom said it was considering re-routing all user information through German data centres and servers, in a bid to protect its customers from NSA snooping.

For this reason, I was overjoyed last week when president Barack Obama promised he was going to explain what new measures and safeguards he planned to put in place to ensure a scandal like PRISM does not reoccur.

However, come the big day when he took the stage and began outlining the new measures, my feelings towards his proposed reforms were at best mixed.

On the one hand Obama got a lot right. The US president said he would work to change the way PRISM requests could be handed to companies and increase the amount of information that the businesses involved can disclose to the public.

Specifically Obama pledged to put in place a series of fresh measures created by the attorney general, on how requests using the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and National Security Letters can be made.

FISA and National Security Letters were used by the NSA to force numerous companies, including Google, Yahoo, Apple and Microsoft, to hand over vast amounts of customer data. The nature of the requests means the companies are not allowed to disclose what information was handed over without risk of arrests. The secret nature of the requests is one of the key reasons many people and businesses are still concerned about the safety and sovereignty of their data.

Even better, Obama also promised to make sure the public sector and general public would be represented in the approval process of data-gathering campaigns. He pledged to create a new independent, non-governmental panel of advocates to appear at the secret courts, which will approve or deny operations such as PRISM. Candidates for the new panel of advocates will be approved by congress.

All this sounds great, right? Well on one level it was...until Obama went on the offensive against PRISM critics, boldly saying the US would not apologise to groups or countries affected by PRISM.

"Many countries, including those that feigned surprise following the Snowden revelations, are trying to penetrate our networks. Our agencies will continue to gather intelligence on foreign governments' intentions. We will not apologise for doing it better," he said.

Worse still, in a move all too familiar to those that lived through the Bush era, Obama resorted to constantly mentioning 9/11 as a justification for operations such as PRISM. For me, this is serious cause for concern.

After all, Obama failed to disclose key details, such as what information, or how soon after receiving FISA requests companies will be able to reveal to their customers that they handed information to the NSA. Additionally, by vetting candidates for the new independent, non-governmental panel of advocates through congress – a body full of individuals that serve the US – it's unlikely that European businesses' concerns will be high a high priority.

As a consequence, while the new reforms have the potential to help ensure scandals such as PRISM don't reoccur, they also have the potential to be completely ineffectual; the outcome will be determined by how the US government choses to implement them. As a result, for now at least I can't see Obama's reforms winning back the trust of any concerned European business or governments.

By V3's Alastair Stevenson

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