I’d just returned from the wildfires the night before, and was a little groggy, but managed to make it through my appearance as the lead story on HuffPostLive.
For my January 2014 story, The Trials and Torments of Space School, I entered a massive centrifuge at the NASTAR facility outside Philadelphia and underwent a simulation of the G-forces that will accompany a private trip to space. Well, actually, I experienced only half those G forces. Because I washed out. Because it made me horribly sick. As I explain here.
When you first meet him, Carl Bass comes off like any other weekend carpenter. Dressed in a worn T-shirt and jeans, he shakes hands with a wooden grip and has a big, brassy laugh. His workshop is a warren of lumber and hammers and idle projects. A half-built chair sits here. A sculpted Styrofoam head there.
But Carl Bass is no ordinary carpenter. He’s the CEO of Autodesk, a $10-billion company that makes AutoCAD, the standard software used by engineers to digitally design such products as cars, airplanes, and skyscrapers. And his maker space is no ordinary garage. First, it’s huge. His wood shop alone occupies 20,000 square feet—and he’s got a comparably sized metal shop down the street. Second, it’s sophisticated. 3-D printers sit among the band saws and planers. And then there’s his CNC router.
“This is my coolest thing,” Bass says, stepping to the monitor that controls it. He’s a big guy, tall and thick, but he looks small next to this machine. The Thermwood 90’s five-axis head can move anywhere within a 5’ x 10’ x 4’ space and can carve pretty much anything—a perfect orb, a model of the space shuttle or Michelangelo’s David—out of materials like plastic and plywood. The machine is incredibly complicated. It usually comes with its own instructor. “I don’t think anyone else has one for themselves,” Bass says.
Bass isn’t boasting. He has poured at least as much money into his workshop as other CEOs pour into vintage wine collections or boats, but his hobby isn’t about impressing anybody else. It’s just for him. He still spends every Saturday morning from 6 to 11 beavering away on various projects in pleasant isolation. And yet, his weekend work is having a profound effect on the maker movement.
A few years ago, Bass recognized that two powerful forces were poised to intersect: the rise of online sharing and the return to analog building in maker spaces. Up until that point, Autodesk stuck primarily to the virtual realm by developing increasingly refined CAD software. Bass saw that Autodesk could fill a crucial niche by helping everyday people bridge the gulf between digital design and physical manufacture.
The company’s first consumer product was an experiment. A team in Toronto developed a dramatically simplified modeling program, formatted it for use on mobile devices, and put it online as a free app, called Sketchbook. Within 50 days, Sketchbook had a million downloads. So the company created more products, and then a whole consumer group focused on design, personal manufacture, and home decoration. In three years, Autodesk had more than 100 million registered users across its various consumer products. Compare that with the company’s 12 million professional users, which it took more than three decades to accrue.
The range of applications people found for the new products was tremendous. Louise Leakey, the famed Kenyan paleontologist, recently used 123D Catch, a web-based app that stitches snapshots into a 3-D image, to model her skull collection so others could view it online. With 123D Make, a product that allows people to modify 3-D models, fans then carved the CAD skulls into pieces that could be printed and reassembled as a puzzle. In Florida, the owners of a female duckling named Buttercup used Autodesk software to get the animal back on its feet after an amputation to correct a birth defect. They made a model of Buttercup’s good foot and printed it. After the surgery, they attached the prosthetic, so she could waddle and paddle like any of her companions.
Autodesk’s new role as a company that enables makers suits Bass just fine. Before he started his own software firm, which was acquired by Autodesk in 1993, he put himself through college by working as a carpenter, building houses on a Sioux reservation and boats in Maine and Seattle. He’s found it easy to infuse Autodesk with that same hands-on enthusiasm. “The company is filled with engineers and people who like to make stuff, so it wasn’t like I was pushing a rock up a hill,” he says. Bass recently provided his employees with their own version of his personal workshops: a 27,000-square-foot maker space at the edge of Pier 9 in downtown San Francisco. The facility includes a wood shop, a metal shop, an electronics shop, a 3-D–printing lab, a tailor shop, replete with mannequins, and a test kitchen (on the premise that cooking is a gateway drug for makers). When the facility opened with a ribbon cutting last September, Bass, true to form, took a reciprocating saw to a steel bow instead of scissors. Shortly afterward, a group of Autodesk engineers designed, printed, and assembled a 13-foot-tall blinking Trojan horse that they pulled up to Market Street in San Francisco—just because they could.
Futurists have long predicted a day when people can manufacture most of what they need in the comfort of their own homes. It would be easy to see the Autodesk shop and Bass’s personal maker spaces as a step in that direction—larger and more expensive, but a step nonetheless. But Bass doesn’t give in to such optimism so easily. Because he’s going first into the age of personal manufacture, he is intimately acquainted with the barriers that stand in the way.
“We’re so close to real personal manufacturing, and yet we’re so far,” he says. It’s not as if something designed in Google Sketchup can just be handed to the router, he explains. “Right now, you have to convert all these file formats from one to the next, and you lose fidelity with every step. If I can’t do it with my resources, connections, and equipment, who can?”
The only solution, he says, is persistence and personal experience. “At Autodesk, anytime we find issues with a product we’re using, we go about problem solving, trying to make them better. In the end, we’re just making things easier for people, so more of them can access the maker movement.”
In that way, Bass’s workshop serves a dual purpose. It’s a sanctuary, sure, a place where he can build anything from swooping chairs that appear cut from a single piece of wood to intricate 3-D–printed mesh sculptures. But it’s also a test bed. And every one of his creations carries a backstory—a series of challenges and lessons that lead to a final success. “I might not be able to understand what an Autodesk customer is up against, but I sure can sympathize,” he says. Bass makes stuff because that’s what he loves, but in doing so, he’s also creating a better experience for his customers and, in a way, for everyone.
He shows me around a bit more. A row of bats he made with his kids, lathed perfectly and sanded to a high gloss, hangs from a rack on the wall. An antique sander sits nearby. Finally, he flicks off the lights, and darkness advances across the space the way it does in factories and airplane hangars. Then he turns to me.
“One thing I wish I had,” he says. “I wish I had more space.”
You can also read this story in the February 2014 issue of Popular Science, or at PopSci.com
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Society must make two big leaps in order to enable truly self-driving cars. The first is technological. Engineers need to improve today’s cars (which can warn a driver that he’s drifting out of his lane) beyond current Google and Darpa prototypes (which maintain the lane on their own) to the point where automobiles can edge forward through a construction zone while their owners sleep inside.
The technological leap will be good for everyone. Machines are incredibly reliable. Humans are not. Most car crashes are caused by human error (a 2004 World Health Organization report put the figure at 90 percent). As safety technologies like antilock brakes and traction-control systems have taken hold, the number of fatal accidents has dropped 35 percent between 1970 and 2009, even though cars drive more than a trillion miles farther annually. “Robots have faster reaction times and will have better sensors than humans,” says Seth Teller, a professor of computer science and engineering at MIT. “The number of accidents will never reach zero, but it will decrease substantially.” Don’t think of self-driving cars as a convenience—they’re a safety system.
The other leap that society has to make is from driver liability to manufacturer liability. When a company sells a car that truly drives itself, the responsibility will fall on its maker. “It’s accepted in our world that there will be a shift,” says Bryant Walker Smith, a legal fellow at Stanford University’s law school and engineering school who studies autonomous-vehicle law. “If there’s not a driver, there can’t be driver negligence. The result is a greater share of liability moving to manufacturers.”
The liability issues will make the adoption of the technology difficult, perhaps even impossible. In the 1970s, auto manufacturers hesitated over implementing airbags because of the threat of lawsuits in cases where someone might be injured in spite of the new technology. Over the years, airbags have been endlessly refined. They now account for a variety of passenger sizes and weights and come with detailed warnings about their dangers and limitations. Taking responsibility for every aspect of a moving vehicle, however—from what it sees to what it does—is far more complicated. It could be too much liability for any company to take on.
The government could step in, though. In a few instances, federal law has overridden state law to protect the public. Under the 1986 National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act, for example, vaccine makers have special protection. Consumers can file injury claims through a dedicated office of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, and vaccine makers pay out without admitting fault. The act seeks to protect the small number of people hurt by vaccines while encouraging vaccine makers to keep producing the drugs, because to prevent disease an unvaccinated person must be surrounded by thousands of vaccinated ones. Autonomous technology is similar: It won’t make us safer until it’s in most vehicles. Maybe it deserves special treatment to get it on the road.
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