I was driving up through Pennsylvania last summer, somewhere along US Route 15 between Harrisburg and Williamsport, when I saw a familiar face: a goofy cartoon duck wearing a green bowtie. It was the logo for DuckDuckGo, the privacy-focused search engine, along with a message: “Tired of Being Tracked Online? We Can Help.”
The sight of a tech company on a billboard in rural Pennsylvania was surprising enough to lodge in my memory. Highways in and out of Silicon Valley may be lined with billboards advertising startups, where they can be easily spied by VCs and other industry influencers, but the post-industrial communities hugging the Susquehanna River will never be confused with Palo Alto. Far more typical are road signs advertising a fireworks store, a sex shop, or Donald Trump. I found it hard to imagine that the other drivers on the road were really the audience for an internet company that occupies a very specific niche.
It turns out DuckDuckGo—itself based in Valley Forge, PA, about 90 miles east of Route 15—knew something I didn’t. According to the company’s market research, just about every demographic wants more data privacy: young, old, male, female, urban, rural. Public polling backs that up, though the results vary based on how the question is asked. One recent survey found that “93 percent of Americans would switch to a company that prioritizes data privacy if given the option.” Another reported that 57 percent of Americans would give up personalization in exchange for privacy. Perhaps most telling are the early returns on Apple’s new App Tracking Transparency system, which prompts iOS users to opt in to being tracked by third-party apps rather than handing over their data by default, as has long been standard. According to some estimates, only a tiny minority of users are choosing to allow tracking.
The problem for a company like DuckDuckGo, then, isn’t making people care about privacy; it’s convincing them that privacy is possible. Many consumers, the company has found, have basically thrown up their hands in resignation, concluding that there’s no way out of the modern surveillance economy. It’s easy to see why. Each new story about data privacy, whether it’s about the pervasiveness of tracking, or a huge data breach, or Facebook or Google’s latest violation of user trust, not only underscores the extent of corporate surveillance but also makes it feel increasingly inescapable.
DuckDuckGo is on a mission to prove that giving up one’s privacy online is not, in fact, inevitable. Over the past several years, it has expanded far beyond its original search engine to provide a suite of free privacy-centric tools, including a popular browser extension, that plug up the various holes through which ad tech companies and data brokers spy on us as we browse the internet and use our phones. This year it will roll out some major new products and features, including a desktop browser and email privacy protection. And it will spend more money than it ever has on advertising to get the word out. The long-term goal is to turn DuckDuckGo into an all-in-one online privacy shield—what Gabriel Weinberg, the company’s founder and CEO, calls “the ‘easy button’ for privacy.”
“People want privacy, but they feel like it’s impossible to get,” Weinberg says. “So our main challenge is to make the idea that you can get simple privacy protection credible.”
Whether that mission succeeds could have consequences far beyond DuckDuckGo’s bottom line. DuckDuckGo is operating to some extent in the shadow of Apple, which has already made privacy a core part of its pitch to customers. But DuckDuckGo’s ambition is to provide a suite of protections that are even more extensive and intuitive than Apple’s. And it is offering them to the millions of people who don’t want or can’t afford to use Apple products: Google’s Android operating system accounts for about 50 percent of the mobile market in the US and more than 70 percent worldwide. Perhaps most important, if DuckDuckGo succeeds at bringing simple privacy to the masses, it will mean that the future of privacy might not depend on the relative benevolence of just two corporate overlords.
Founded in 2008, DuckDuckGo is best known for its search engine. Which means that it has always been defined as a challenger to Google. It has not shied away from the comparison. In 2011, Weinberg, then the company’s sole employee, took out an ad on a billboard in San Francisco that declared, “Google tracks you. We don’t.” That branding—Google, but private—has served the company well in the years since.
“The only way to compete with Google is not to try to compete on search results,” says Brad Burnham, a partner at Union Square Ventures, which gave DuckDuckGo its first and only Series A funding in 2011. When the upstart launched, Google already controlled 90 percent of the market and was spending billions of dollars, and collecting data on billions of users, to make its product even better. DuckDuckGo, however, “offered something that Google couldn’t offer,” Burnham says: “They offered not to track you. And Google’s entire business model is, obviously, built on the ability to do that, so Google couldn’t respond by saying, ‘OK, we won’t track you either.’”
Neither DuckDuckGo nor anyone else came close to stopping Google from dominating search. Today, Google’s market share still hovers around the 90 percent range. But the pie is so enormous—advertisers spent $60 billion on search advertising in the US alone last year, according to eMarketer—that there’s quite a bit of money in even a tiny slice. DuckDuckGo has been profitable since 2014.
Like Google Search, DuckDuckGo makes money by selling ads on top of people’s search results. The difference is that while the ads you see when searching on Google are generally targeted to you in part based on your past searches, plus what Google knows about your behavior more broadly, DuckDuckGo’s are purely “contextual”—that is, they are based only on the search term. That’s because DuckDuckGo doesn’t know anything about you. It doesn’t assign you an identifier or keep track of your search history in order to personalize your results.
This non-creepy approach only protects you, however, while you’re on DuckDuckGo. “You’re anonymous on the search engine, but once you click off, now you’re going to other websites where you’re less anonymous,” Weinberg says. “How can we protect you there?”
DuckDuckGo’s first answer to that question rolled out in 2018, with the launch of a desktop browser extension and mobile browser that block third-party trackers by default wherever a user goes on the internet. It was good timing: 2018 was a banner year for raising privacy awareness. Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal broke that spring. The GDPR took effect in Europe, throwing into relief how little the US regulates data collection. That summer, the Associated Press revealed that many Google services were storing your location data even if you explicitly opted out. Data collection and privacy were firmly in the national conversation. Since then, congressionalinquiries, antitrustlawsuits, Netflix documentaries, and a growing feud between Apple and Facebook have kept it there.
“One of the funny things about DuckDuckGo is that the single best marketing we’ve ever had has been the gaffes that Google and Facebook have made over the years,” says Burnham. “Cambridge Analytica, for instance, was a huge driver of adoption for DuckDuckGo. There is an increasing awareness of how this business model works and what it means—not just in terms of the loss of privacy and agency over our own data, but also what it means for the vibrance and success of an open marketplace.”
Awareness is one thing, action another. DuckDuckGo was in position to capitalize on the rising tide of scandal because it has a reputation for building products that work. In 2019, for instance, it added a feature to its extension and browser that directs users to encrypted versions of websites whenever possible, preventing would-be hackers or ISPs from, say, looking over your shoulder as you type a password into a web page. While other encryption tools work by manually creating lists of tens of thousands of websites in need of an upgrade, DuckDuckGo crawled the internet to automatically populate a list of more than 12 million sites. The Electronic Frontier Foundation recently announced that it would incorporate DuckDuckGo’s dataset for its own HTTPS Everywhere extension. Similarly, Apple uses DuckDuckGo’s Tracker Radar dataset—a continuously updated, publicly available list of trackers assembled using open-source code—for Safari’s tracking prevention.
Weinberg is particularly proud of DuckDuckGo’s tracker prevention. Surveillance is so built into the infrastructure of the web that many sites will stop functioning if you block all cookies. Take Google Analytics, which is found on the vast majority of websites. “If you just straight-up block Google Analytics, you’ll break sites,” Weinberg says. As a result, mainstream browsers with tracking prevention, like Safari and Firefox, allow trackers to load, then try to restrict the data they can gather.
“They’re more inclined to err on the side of not breaking websites,” explains Bennett Cyphers, a technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “They will try and do this middle ground thing where they’ll load resources but restrict what Google can do once it’s in your browser.”
The problem is that even allowing a tracker to load in the first place can allow it to gather highly specific data about the user, including their IP address. So DuckDuckGo, like some other privacy extensions, works differently. It simply prevents the cookie from loading at all. To avoid the broken-site problem, it replaces some trackers with a dummy that essentially tricks the site into thinking the cookie has loaded, a technique called “surrogates” pioneered by the ad blocker uBlock Origin.
Ultimately, DuckDuckGo probably owes its success less to the technical aspects of its tracker prevention, which very few people are in any position to understand, than to the fact that the company does a pretty good job honoring its slogan: “Privacy, simplified.” Its products don’t require a user to toggle any elaborate settings. They simply include encryption, tracker blocking, and private search automatically.
Since their launch, the extension and mobile browser have experienced rapid user growth. According to DuckDuckGo, the extension and browser have together been downloaded more than 100 million times since 2018, and more than half of those downloads took place over the past twelve months. That growth has in turn helped juice the use of the original search engine, which is built into mobile app. The company estimates that its search user count doubled over the past year to between 70 and 100 million. (It’s an estimate because they don’t track users.) According to StatCounter, DuckDuckGo now has the second highest share of the US mobile search market, edging out Bing and Yahoo. (A distant second, that is: 2 percent to Google’s 94 percent.) DuckDuckGo says its annual revenue is over $100 million.
This year, the company plans to significantly expand its privacy offerings. It is introducing a desktop browser, incorporating the same features as the existing mobile app. Currently, even someone with the DuckDuckGo privacy extension can’t stop Google from gathering some data on them if they’re using Chrome, for example.
DuckDuckGo is also adding two new features to its existing extension and mobile app. The first is email privacy protection. Weinberg says that his company’s researchers found that some 70 percent of emails have some sort of tracker embedded in them. That includes not just corporate promotional emails, but just about any newsletter or fundraising email that’s sent using an automated service. In nearly a third of those cases, Weinberg says, the trackers are sending users’ plaintext email addresses over the internet, potentially exposing them to any number of marketers, data brokers, and shadier actors. The email tool is designed to thwart that by forwarding messages through a DuckDuckGo email address, which will remove the trackers before sending them along to inboxes. It also will allow people to generate random email addresses whenever they have to use email to sign up for something. (Apple recently announced a similar feature for the Mail app on iOS.) In theory, DuckDuckGo could have created its own email client, but Weinberg recognizes getting users to switch their email providers is prohibitively difficult.
“Our goal is simplicity, right?” he says. “We want to make privacy simple and seamless without sacrifice for users.”
The final new tech DuckDuckGo is unveiling this year operates on a similar principle. A new feature within its Android app will operate in the background, even when the app itself is not in use, to block third parties from tracking you through any other app on your phone. It does that by using the phone’s VPN permission to route all traffic through DuckDuckGo, so that, as with the email trackers, it can block requests from anyone on its tracker list before they have an opportunity to gather any user data. (Again, this is somewhat analogous to Apple’s App Tracking Transparency on iOS. It will not stop first-party data collection, meaning the app you’re using can still collect your data. But it won’t be able to pass that data through to other companies, including Facebook, which currently tracks users through a vast number of unrelated apps.)
Taken together, the new features, which the company says will be available in beta this summer, represent DuckDuckGo’s evolving mission to create what Weinberg calls “the privacy layer of the internet.”
“The ideal case for that from a user perspective is, you download DuckDuckGo and you’re just protected wherever you go online,” he says. “We’re obviously not there yet, but that’s the product vision.”
So, about those billboards.
The company’s reliance on old-school advertising mediums—in addition to billboards, DuckDuckGo is partial to radio ads—is partly of necessity: As a privacy-focused business, it refuses to do any microtargeted online advertising. (Even when it advertises on a social media site like Twitter, Weinberg says it doesn’t set any demographic targeting parameters.) But the strategy also stems from the company’s market research, which has found that precise targeting would be a waste of money anyway.
“People who care about privacy, who act on privacy, who would adopt a DuckDuckGo product—they’re actually not a very niche audience,” says Zac Pappis, head of the company’s user insight team. “People who act and care about privacy don’t fall into a particular age group or demographic or have a particular psychographic background, so that makes them easier to reach.”
To put it in advertising parlance, this means DuckDuckGo spends its marketing budget on brand awareness. Ordinary people around the country don’t need to be convinced to care about privacy, the theory goes—they just need to learn that a solution exists. “Our current top business priority is to be the household name for simple online privacy protection,” Weinberg says. “So when you think about privacy online, we want you to turn to DuckDuckGo.”
To that end, the company is investing in its biggest marketing blitz to date this year, devoting tens of millions to an advertising push—so expect more billboards and more radio ads during those summer road trips. Weinberg believes the time is ripe. He points out the fact that tech giants like Apple, Facebook, and Google have all been raising the salience of privacy through very public battles over their policies and products. Plus, the ongoing antitrust lawsuits against the tech giants will draw more attention to those companies’ business practices, including around user privacy. One of the cases, brought by the Department of Justice, could even give DuckDuckGo a direct boost by preventing Google from being set as the default search engine on phones.
DuckDuckGo has competition. Companies like Ghostery offer tracking protection. Brave has a well-regarded privacy browser. The Netherlands-based Startpage offers search without tracking. But in the US, at least, DuckDuckGo has a strong position in the privacy market. In a sector where users have to trust that your product works the way you say it does, a decade-long track record without any privacy scandals establishes important credibility. “They’re probably the biggest name right now, probably because of the popularity of their search engine,” says Jon Callas, director of technology products at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
But being the biggest name among people with a special interest in online privacy still amounts to being a big fish in a small pond. Weinberg believes DuckDuckGo can change that. He is convinced that the pond is actually huge. It just doesn’t know it yet.
I will never forget the first time I drove a Tesla Model X. My producer rented one when we met up with a movie star to record narration for a film I was directing. “This better not be tacked onto the film budget,” I griped.
He grinned and tossed me the Tesla-shaped key. “It’s your birthday present.”
I dropped the body to its most ground-hugging setting, set the acceleration to Ludicrous Mode, and roared out of the airport. It was one of the most exhilarating rides of my entire life — almost as fun as the time I drove 150MPH with no plates and no insurance on a toll road as an idiot teenager.
Driving a Tesla X is a pure pleasure, but it doesn’t mean Tesla Inc. will survive.
In fact, forces are aligning that could easily wipe Tesla off the map. Here are seven reasons why Tesla probably won’t exist fifty years from now:
1. It doesn’t make money from selling cars
As professor Scott Galloway recently pointed out, if you subtract Tesla’s Bitcoin ponzi profits and emissions credits, Tesla actually loses money:
“Tesla posts an accounting profit, but in its most recent quarter, it was emissions credits (a regulatory program that rewards auto companies for making electric rather than gas vehicles) and — wait for it — $101 million in bitcoin trading profits that morphed earnings from a miss to a beat. What Tesla did not do last quarter was produce a single one of its two premium cars, the Model S or the Model X.”
Losing money doesn’t seem to worry speculators during peaks of irrational exuberance, but when the rubber meets the road and the stock bubble pops and corporate credit constricts, real investors will want no part in money-burning businesses.
And it won’t take a full market meltdown for Tesla to become a money-losing entity: If the global crypto ponzi bubble pops due to more countries banning or regulating it, or regulators do away with emissions credits, Tesla once again becomes a money-bleeding company.
2. Elon Musk is too distracted to remain CEO
One thing you’ve got to appreciate about Elon Musk is that he’s voraciously curious and wants to solve some of humanity’s biggest challenges.
But that’s not who you want as CEO of a publicly-traded company.
If he keeps up these sorts of shenanigans — and he needs to in order to keep the stock price pumped — it’s only a matter of time before government regulators and progressive politicians renew their efforts to rein him in.
Speaking of lawsuits: There are already rumblings that his SNL Asperger’s announcement should have been disclosed to investors — when the stock tanks, expect to see this admission somewhere in the shareholder lawsuit, whether it’s fair grounds or not.
5. The stock price is wildly overvalued
Cue the angry comments from hodlers. (But please note that I automatically delete comments if the poster doesn’t disclose their TSLA holdings.)
As a sound investment, $TSLA stock is one of the worst picks in the world. As a fun gamble/speculation, it’s one of the best. But, just like Bitcoin, small investors are going to lose hundreds of billions of dollars when the price bubble pops.
Because let’s face it: Tesla is a story stock.
Don’t believe me? Just look at who’s been buying shares:
Tesla stock is clearly being pumped by unsophisticated investors who haven’t done their due diligence regarding the company’s actual long-term worth.
The end result: When thousands of Tesla speculators lose their life savings, many will turn their backs on the company, if not become actively hostile.
What is $TSLA actually worth?
First, we need some context. The price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio is considered the benchmark number for comparing one company’s stock price to another. The ratio is based on the current stock price divided by the trailing 12-month earnings per share. If a stock price is $10/share, and the P/E ratio is 10, it means that company is earning $1 per share. If you buy a $10 share with a P/E of 20, it’ll roughly take you 20 years to break even.
Warren Buffett likes to buy stocks with a P/E of around 12.
The S&P 500’s long-term median P/E ratio is around 15.
The S&P 500’s current P/E ratio is around 44 — nearly triple its century-long average — despite the pandemic and a looming joblessness crisis. (#Bubble)
Cue the irrational exuberancers: “But Tesla’s future potential is huge!”
No, it’s not, not compared to its current price. To fall in line with the S&P’s historical averages and provide a reasonable rate of real return, Tesla would need to 40X its earnings. To provide a 10% annual return, it would need to 63X its earnings. Well over $2 trillion in annual revenue… 4+X more revenue than the largest revenue-earning company on earth. Not gonna happen.
Objectively, Tesla is wildly overpriced even compared to the overall market bubble. It’s a double bubble — the overall market bubble + the Musk fanboy story stock bubble. Tesla may very well be 13Xs better than the average S&P company right now, but that just means Tesla’s price bubble is that much more inflated once you scrub out all the irrational exuberance.
Tesla’s market cap is currently over $600 billion. If it traded at the same P/E as Amazon — arguably one of the strongest companies on earth — Tesla’s market cap drops to $60 billion. If you compare Tesla to Apple, which is a fair comparison and a far more rational P/E, it means that in reality, Tesla is probably only worth a measly $20 billion.
6. Volkswagen+ will come roaring back
To put things in perspective, Tesla’s market cap is currently higher than Mercedes, BMW, GM, Ferrari, and Ford, plus all the major airlines… combined.
But does Tesla have more customers, wider distribution, better engineers, deeper pockets, and more political connections than the rest of the auto and airline industries?
All his major competitors have deeper capital pools, wider distribution networks, and far more customers. Musk has nowhere near the political power. And the innovation gap is closing rapidly. That’s why Elon is constantly seeking new capital and pulling out all the stops to keep pumping the stock, even going so far as to manipulate people’s psychology through stock splits.
Elon Musk has unquestionably (and rightly) created a Thucydides Trap in the automotive industry, but is Tesla really the Athens that can best Sparta?
The question is almost irrelevant because another company is about to out-Athens Tesla and stuff Elon in his own Thucydides trap:
When Apple makes a car play, it could easily pop Tesla’s 600 P/E bubble…
If Tesla deflates to an Apple-level P/E of 30, Tesla is suddenly only worth $20 billion…
Which makes it instantly ripe for acquisition by one of the majors, be it Apple, Amazon, BMW, Mercedes, or even an old-school company like GM. (Never forget: Ford once bought Jaguar and Fiat once owned Maserati.)
To be clear, Tesla is an amazing company at a $20 billion valuation, and if Elon can’t keep the $TLSA stock price inflated indefinitely, an acquisition is inevitable. Never mind the bite in Apple’s logo… someone could chomp Tesla whole.
I adore Tesla. Like Russia and HBO, it punches way above its weight.
I also like Elon, minus his market manipulation. He’s an extremely important person in the carmaking space. I’ll say it loudly: Elon Musk is the best thing to happen to the auto industry since Henry Ford. As a maverick agitator, he awoke the slumbering giants who’d happily relied on fossil fuel combustion for more than a century. We’re better for having him.
But, in the same way that Paypal will continue to lose ground to companies like Wise and Stripe, expect Tesla to lose ground to Volkswagen and Apple and whatever innovators come next. If things play out the way I predict regarding an eventual acquisition, fifty years from now Tesla probably won’t even exist.
In the meantime, don’t buy into the stock hype and endanger your family’s future.
Just rent a Model X for a weekend and enjoy the ride.
OneOne of our themes on Decoder is that basically everything is a computer now, and farming equipment like tractors and combines are no different. My guest this week is Jahmy Hindman, chief technology officer at John Deere, the world’s biggest manufacturer of farming machinery. And I think our conversation will surprise you.
Jahmy told me that John Deere employs more software engineers than mechanical engineers now, which completely surprised me. But the entire business of farming is moving toward something called precision agriculture, which means farmers are closely tracking where seeds are planted, how well they’re growing, what those plants need, and how much they yield.
The idea, Jahmy says, is to have each plant on a massive commercial farm tended with individual care — a process which requires collecting and analyzing a massive amount of data. If you get it right, precision agriculture means farmers can be way more efficient — they can get better crop yields with less work and lower costs.
The idea, Jahmy says, is to have each plant on a massive commercial farm tended with individual care — a process which requires collecting and analyzing a massive amount of data. If you get it right, precision agriculture means farmers can be way more efficient — they can get better crop yields with less work and lower costs.
But as Decoder listeners know by now, turning everything into computers means everything has computer problems now. Like all that farming data: who owns it? Where is it processed? How do you get it off the tractors without reliable broadband networks? What format is it in? If you want to use your John Deere tractor with another farming analysis vendor, how easy is that? Is it easy enough?
And then there are the tractors themselves — unlike phones, or laptops, or even cars, tractors get used for decades. How should they get upgraded? How can they be kept secure? And most importantly, who gets to fix them when they break?
John Deere is one of the companies at the center of a nationwide reckoning over the right to repair. Right now, tech companies like Samsung and Apple and John Deere all get to determine who can repair their products and what official parts are available.
And because these things are all computers, these manufacturers can also control the software to lock out parts from other suppliers. But it’s a huge deal in the context of farming equipment, which is still extremely mechanical, often located far away from service providers and not so easy to move, and which farmers have been repairing themselves for decades. In fact, right now the prices of older, pre-computerized tractors are skyrocketing because they’re easier to repair.
Half of the states in the country are now considering right to repair laws that would require manufacturers to disable software locks and provide parts to repair shops, and a lot of it is being driven — in a bipartisan way — by the needs of farmers.
John Deere is famously a tractor company. You make a lot of equipment for farmers, for construction sites, that sort of thing. Give me the short version of what the chief technology officer at John Deere does.
[As] chief technology officer, my role is really to try to set the strategic direction from a technology perspective for the company, across both our agricultural products as well as our construction, forestry, and road-building products. It’s a cool job. I get to look out five, 10, 15, 20 years into the future and try to make sure that we’re putting into place the pieces that we need in order to have the technology solutions that are going to be important for our customers in the future.
One of the reasons I am very excited to have you on Decoder is there are a lot of computer solutions in your products. There’s hardware, software, services that I think of as sort of traditional computer company problems. Do you also oversee the portfolio of technologies that [also] make combines more efficient and tractor wheels move faster?
We’ve got a centrally-organized technology stack organization. We call it the intelligent solutions group, and its job is really to do exactly that. It’s to make sure that we’re developing technologies that can scale across the complete organization, across those combines you referenced, and the tractors and the sprayers, and the construction products, and deploy that technology as quickly as possible.
One of the things The Verge wrestles with almost every day is the question of, “What is a computer?” We wrestle with it in very small and obvious ways — we argue about whether the iPad or an Xbox is a computer. Then you can zoom all the way out: we had Jim Farley, who’s the CEO of Ford, on Decoder a couple of weeks ago, and he and I talked about how Ford’s cars are effectively rolling computers now.
Is that how you see a tractor or a combine or construction equipment — that these are gigantic computers that have big mechanical functions as well?
They absolutely are. That’s what they’ve become over time. I would call them mobile sensor suites that have computational capability, not only on-board, but to your point, off-board as well. They are continuously streaming data from whatever it is — let’s say the tractor and the planter — to the cloud. We’re doing computational work on that data in the cloud, and then serving that information, those insights, up to farmers, either on their desktop computer or on a mobile handheld device or something like that.
As much as they are doing productive work in the field, planting as an example, they are also data acquisition and computational devices.
How much of that is in-house at John Deere? How big is the team that is building your mobile apps? Is that something you outsource? Is that something you develop internally? How have you structured the company to enable this kind of work?
We do a significant amount of that work internally. It might surprise you, we have more software development engineers today within Deere than we have mechanical design engineers. That’s kind of mind-blowing for a company that’s 184 years old and has been steeped in mechanical product development, but that’s the case. We do nearly all of our own internal app development inside the four walls of Deere.
That said, our data application for customers in the ag space, for example, is the Operations Center. We do utilize third parties. There’s roughly 184 companies that have been connected to Operations Center through encrypted APIs, that are writing applications against that data for the benefit of the customers, the farmers that want to use those applications within their business.
One of the reasons we’re always debating what a computer is and isn’t is that once you describe something as a computer, you inherit a bunch of expectations about how computers work. You inherit a bunch of problems about how computers work and don’t work. You inherit a bunch of control; API access is a way of exercising control over an ecosystem or an economy.
Have you shifted the way that John Deere thinks about its products? As new abilities are created because you have computerized so much of a tractor, you also increase your responsibility, because you have a bunch more control.
There’s no doubt. We’re having to think about things like security of data, as an example, that previously, 30 years ago, was not necessarily a topic of conversation. We didn’t have competency in it. We’ve had to become competent in areas like that because of exactly the point you’re making, that the product has become more computer-like than conventional tractor-like over time.
That leads to huge questions. You mentioned security. Looking at some of your recent numbers, you have a very big business in China. Thirty years ago, you would export a tractor to China and that’s the end of that conversation. Now, there’s a huge conversation about cybersecurity, data sharing with companies in China, down the line, a set of very complicated issues for a tractor company that 30 years ago wouldn’t have any of those problems. How do you balance all those out?
It’s a different set of problems for sure, and more complicated for geopolitical reasons in the case of China, as you mentioned. Let’s take security as an example. We have gone through the change that many technology companies have had to go through in the space of security, where it’s no longer bolted on at the end, it’s built in from the ground up. So it’s the security-by-design approach. We’ve got folks embedded in development organizations across the company that do nothing every day, other than get up and think about how to make the product more secure, make the datasets more secure, make sure that the data is being used for its intended purposes and only those.
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That’s a new skill. That’s a skill that we didn’t have in the organization 20 years ago that we’ve had to create and hire the necessary talent in order to develop that skill set within the company at the scale that we need to develop it at.
Go through a very basic farming season with a John Deere combine and tractor. The farmer wakes up, they say, “Okay, I’ve got a field. I’ve got to plant some seeds. We’ve got to tend to them. Eventually, we’ve got to harvest some plants.” What are the points at which data is collected, what are the points at which it’s useful, and where does the feedback loop come in?
I’m going to spin it a little bit and not start with planting.
I’m going to tell you that the next season for a farmer actually starts at harvest of the previous season, and that’s where the data thread for the next season actually starts. It starts when that combine is in the field harvesting whatever it is, corn, soybeans, cotton, whatever. And the farmer is creating, while they’re running the combine through the field, a dataset that we call a yield map. It is geospatially referenced. These combines are running through the field on satellite guidance. We know where they’re at at any point in time, latitude, longitude, and we know how much they’re harvesting at that point in time.
So we create this three-dimensional map that is the yield across whatever field they happen to be in. That data is the inception for a winter’s worth of work, in the Northern hemisphere, that a farmer goes through to assess their yield and understand what changes they should make in the next season that might optimize that yield even further.
They might have areas within the field that they go into and know they need to change seeding density, or they need to change crop type, or they need to change how much nutrients they provide in the next season. And all of those decisions are going through their head because they [have] to seed in December, they have to order their nutrients in late winter. They’re making those plans based upon that initial dataset of harvest information.
And then they get into the field in the spring, to your point, with a tractor and a planter, and that tractor and planter are taking the prescription that the farmer developed with the yield data that they took from the previous harvest. They’re using that prescription to apply changes to that field in real time as they’re going through the field, with the existing data from the yield map and the data in real time that they’re collecting with the tractor to modify things like seeding rate, and fertilizer rate and all of those things in order to make sure that they’re minimizing the inputs to the operation while at the same time working to maximize the output.
That data is then going into the cloud, and they’re referencing it. For example, that track the tractor and the planter took through the field is being used to inform the sprayer. When the sprayer goes into the field after emergence, when the crops come out of the ground, it’s being used to inform that sprayer what the optimal path is to drive through the field in order to spray only what needs to be sprayed and no more, to damage the crop the least amount possible, all in an effort to optimize that productivity at the end of the year, to make that yield map that is [a] report card at the end of the year for the farmer, to make that turn out to have a better grade.
That’s a lot of data. Who collects it? Is John Deere collecting it? Can I hire a third-party SaaS software company to manage that data for me? How does that part work?
A significant amount of that data is collected on the fly while the machines are in the field, and it’s collected, in the case of Deere machines, by Deere equipment running through the field. There are other companies that create the data, and they can be imported into things like the Deere Operations Center so that you have the data from whatever source that you wanted to collect it from. I think the important thing there is historically, it’s been more difficult to get the data off the machine, because of connectivity limitations, into a database that you can actually do something with it.
Today, the disproportionate number of machines in large agriculture are connected. They’re connected through terrestrial cell networks. They’re streaming data bi-directionally to the cloud and back from the cloud. So that data connectivity infrastructure that’s been built out over the last decade has really enabled two-way communication, and it’s taken the friction out of getting the data off of a mobile piece of equipment. So it’s happening seamlessly for that operator. And that’s a benefit, because they can act on it then in more near real time, as opposed to having to wait for somebody to upload data at some point in the future.
Whose data is this? Is it the farmer’s data? Is it John Deere’s data? Is there a terms of service agreement for a combine? How does that work?
Certainly [there is] a terms of service agreement. Our position is pretty simple. It’s the farmer’s data. They control it. So if they want to share it through an API with somebody that is a trusted adviser from their perspective, they have the right to do that. If they don’t want to share it, they don’t have to do that. It is their data to control.
Is it portable? When I say there are “computer problems” here, can my tractor deliver me, for example, an Excel file?
They certainly can export the data in form factors that are convenient for them, and they do. Spreadsheet math is still routinely done on the farm, and then [they can] utilize the spreadsheet to do some basic data analytics if they want. I would tell you, though, that what’s happening is that the amount of data that is being collected and curated and made available to them to draw insights from is so massive that while you can still use spreadsheets to manipulate some of it, it’s just not tractable in all cases. So that’s why we’re building functionality into things like the Operations Center to help do data analytics and serve up insights to growers.
It’s their data. They can choose to look at the insights or not, but we can serve those insights up to them, because the data analysis part of this problem is becoming significantly larger because the datasets are so complex and large, not to mention the fact that you’ve got more data coming in all the time. Different sensors are being applied. We can measure different things. There [are] unique pieces of information that are coming in and routinely building to overall ecosystems of data that they have at their disposal.
We’ve talked a lot about the feedback loop of data with the machinery in particular. There’s one really important component to this, which is the seeds. There are a lot of seed manufacturers out in the world. They want this data. They have GMO seeds, they can adjust the seeds to different locations. Where do they come into the mix?
The data, from our perspective, is the farmer’s data. They’re the ones who are controlling the access to it. So if they want to share their data with someone, they have that ability to do it. And they do today. They’ll share their yield map with whoever their local seed salesman is and try to optimize the seed variety for the next planting season in the spring.
So that data exists. It’s not ours, so we’re not at liberty to share it with seed companies, and we don’t. It has to come through the grower because it’s their productivity data. They’re the ones that have the opportunity to share it. We don’t.
You do have a lot of data. Maybe you can’t share it widely, but you can aggregate it. You must have a very unique view of climate change. You must see where the foodways are moving, where different kinds of crops are succeeding and failing. What is your view of climate change, given the amount of data that you’re taking in?
The reality is for us that we’re hindered in answering that question by the recency of the data. So, broad-scale data acquisition from production agriculture is really only a five- to 10-year-old phenomenon. So the datasets are getting richer. They’re getting better.
We have the opportunity to see trends in that data across the datasets that exist today, but I think it’s too early. I don’t think the data is mature enough yet for us to be able to draw any conclusions from a climate change perspective with respect to the data that we have.
The other thing that I’ll add is that the data intensity is not universal across the globe. So if you think of climate change on a global perspective, we’ve got a lot of data for North America, a fair amount of data that gets taken by growers in Europe, a little bit in South America, but it’s not rich enough across the global agricultural footprint for us to be able to make any sort of statements about how climate change is impacting it right now.
Is that something you’re interested in doing?
Yes. I couldn’t predict when, but I think that the data will eventually be rich enough for insights to be drawn from it. It’s just not there yet.
Do you think about doing a fully electric tractor? Is that in your technology roadmap, that you’ve got to get rid of these diesel engines?
You’ve got to be interested in EVs right now. And the answer is yes. Whether it’s a tractor or whether it’s some other product in our product line, alternative forms of propulsion, alternative forms of power are definitely something that we’re thinking about. We’ve done it in the past with, I would say, hybrid solutions like a diesel engine driving an electric generator, and then the rest of the machine being electrified from a propulsion perspective.
But we’re just getting to the point now where battery technology, lithium-ion technology, is power-dense enough for us to see it starting to creep into our portfolio. Probably from the bottom up. Lower power density applications first, before it gets into some of the very large production ag equipment that we’ve talked about today.
What’s the timeline to a fully EV combine, do you think?
I think it’ll be a long time for a combine.
I picked the biggest thing I could, basically.
It has got to run 14, 15, 16 hours per day. It’s got a very short window to run in. You can’t take all day to charge it. Those sorts of problems, they’re not insurmountable. They’re just not solved by anything that’s on the roadmap today, from a lithium-ion perspective, anyway.
You and I are talking two days after Apple had its developers’ conference. Apple famously sells hardware, software, services, as an integrated solution. Do you think of John Deere’s equipment as integrated suites of hardware, software, and services, or is it a piece of hardware that spits off data, and then maybe you can buy our services, or maybe buy somebody else’s services?
I think it’s most efficient when we think of it collectively as a system. It doesn’t have to be that way, and one of the differences I would say to an Apple comparison would be the life of the product, the iron product in our case, the tractor or the combine, is measured in decades. It may be in service for a very long time, and so we have to take that into account as we think about the technology [and] apps that we put on top of it, which have a much shorter shelf life. They’re two, three, four, five years, and then they’re obsolete, and the next best thing has come along.
We have to think about the discontinuity that occurs between product buy cycles as a consequence of that. I do think it’s most efficient to think of it all together. It isn’t always necessarily that way. There are lots of farmers that run multi-colored fleets. It’s not Deere only. So we have to be able to provide an opportunity for them to get data off of whatever their product is into the environment that best enables them to make good decisions from it.
Is that how you characterize the competition, multi-colored fleets?
Absolutely, for sure. I would love the world to be completely [John Deere] green, but it’s not quite that way.
On my way to school every day in Wisconsin growing up, I drove by a Case plant. They’re red. John Deere is famously green, Case is red, International Harvester is yellow.
Yep. Case is red, Deere is green, and then there’s a rainbow of colors outside of those two for sure.
Who are your biggest competitors? And are they adopting the same business model as you? Is this an iOS versus Android situation, or is it widely different?
Our traditional competitors in the ag space, no surprise, you mentioned one of them. Case New Holland is a great example. AGCO would be another. I think everybody’s headed down the path of precision agriculture. [It’s] the term that is ubiquitous for where the industry’s headed.
I’m going to paint a picture for you: It’s this idea of enabling each individual plant in production agriculture to be tended to by a master gardener. The master gardener is in this case probably some AI that is enabling a farmer to know exactly what that particular plant needs, when it needs it, and then our equipment provides them the capability of executing on that plan that master gardener has created for that plant on an extremely large scale.
You’re talking about, in the case of corn, for example, 50,000 plants per acre, so a master gardener taking care of 50,000 plants for every acre of corn. That’s where this is headed, and you can picture the data intensity of that. Two hundred million acres of corn ground, times 50,000 plants per acre; each one of those plants is creating data, and that’s the enormity of the scale of production agriculture when you start to get to this plant-by-plant management basis.
Let’s talk about the enormity of the data and the amount of computation — that’s in tension with how long the equipment lasts. Are you upgrading the computers and the tractors every year, or are you just trying to pull the data into your cloud where you can do the intense computation you want to do?
It’s a combination of both, I would tell you. There are components within the vehicles that do get upgraded from time to time. The displays and the servers that operate in the vehicles do go through upgrade cycles within the existing fleet.
There’s enough appetite, Nilay, for technology in agriculture that we’re also seeing older equipment get updated with new technology. So it’s not uncommon today for a customer who’s purchased a John Deere planter that might be 10 years old to want the latest technology on that planter. And instead of buying a new planter, they might buy the upgrade kit for that planter that allows them to have the latest technology on the existing planter that they own. That sort of stuff is happening all the time across the industry.
I would tell you, though, that what is maybe different now versus 10 years ago is the amount of computation that happens in the cloud, to serve up this enormity of data in bite-sized forms and in digestible pieces that actually can be acted upon for the grower. Very little of that is done on-board machines today. Most of that is done off-board.
We cover rural broadband very heavily. There’s some real-time data collection happening here, but what you’re really talking about is that at the end of a session you’ve got a big asynchronous dataset. You want to send it off somewhere, have some computation done to it, and brought back to you so you can react to it.
What is your relationship to the connectivity providers, or to the Biden administration, that is trying to roll out a broadband plan? Are you pushing to get better networks for the next generation of your products, or are you kind of happy with where things are now?
We’re pro-rural broadband, and in particular newer technologies, 5G as an example. And it’s not just for agricultural purposes, let’s just be frank. There’s a ton of benefits that accrue to a society that’s connected with a sufficient network to do things like online schooling, in particular, coming through the pandemic that we’re in the midst of, and hopefully on the tail end of here. I think that’s just highlighted the use cases for connectivity in rural locations.
Agriculture is but one of those, but there’s some really cool feature unlocks that better connectivity, both in terms of coverage and in terms of bandwidth and latency, provide in agriculture. I’ll give you an example. You think of 5G and the ability to get to incredibly low latency numbers. It allows us to do some things from a computational perspective on the edge of the network that today we don’t have the capability to do. We either do it on-board the machine, or we don’t do it at all. So things like serving up the real-time location of where a farmer’s combine is, instead of having to route that data all the way to the cloud and then back to a handheld device that the farmer might have, wouldn’t it be great if we could do that math on the edge and just ping tower to tower and serve it back down and do it really, really quickly. Those are the sorts of use cases that open up when you get to talking about not just connectivity rurally, but 5G specifically, that are pretty exciting.
Are the networks in place to do all the things you want to do?
Globally, the answer is no. Within the US and Canadian markets, coverage improves every day. There are towers that are going up every day and we are working with our terrestrial cell coverage partners across the globe to expand coverage, and they’re responding. They see, generally, the need, in particular with respect to agriculture, for rural connectivity. They understand the power that it can provide [and] the efficiency that it can derive into food production globally. So they are incentivized to do that. And they’ve been good partners in this space. That said, they recognize that there are still gaps and there’s still a lot of ground to cover, literally in some cases, with connectivity solutions in rural locations.
You mentioned your partners. The parallels to a smartphone here are strong. Do you have different chipsets for AT&T and Verizon? Can you activate your AT&T plan right from the screen in the tractor? How does that work?
AT&T is our dominant partner in North America. That is our go-to, primarily from a coverage perspective. They’re the partner that we’ve chosen that I think serves our customers the best in the most locations.
Do you get free HBO Max if you sign up?
[laughs] Unfortunately, no.
They’re putting it everywhere. You have no idea.
I look at the broadband gap everywhere. You mentioned schooling. We cover these very deep consumer needs. On the flip side, you need to run a lot of fiber to make 5G work, especially with the low latency that you’re talking about. You can’t have too many nodes in the way. Do you support millimeter wave 5G on a farm?
Yeah, it is something we’ve looked at. It’s intriguing. How you scale it is the question. I think if we could crack that nut, it would be really interesting.
Just for listeners, an example of millimeter wave if you’re unfamiliar — you’re standing on just the right street corner in New York City, you could get gigabit speeds to a phone. You cross the street, and it goes away. That does not seem tenable on a farm.
That’s right. Not all data needs to be transmitted at the same rate. Not to cover the broad acreage, but you can envision a case where potentially, when you come into range of millimeter wave, you dump a bunch of data all at once. And then when you’re out of range, you’re still collecting data and transmitting it slower perhaps. But having the ability to have millimeter wave type of bandwidth is pretty intriguing for being able to take opportunistic advantage of it when it’s available.
What’s something you want to do that the network isn’t there for you to do yet?
I think that the biggest piece is just a coverage answer from my perspective. We intentionally buffer data on the vehicle in places where we don’t have great coverage in order to wait until that machine has coverage, in order to send the data. But the reality is that means that a grower is waiting in some cases 30 minutes or an hour until the data is synced up in the cloud and something actionable has been done with it and it’s back down to them. And by that point in time, the decision has already been made. It’s not useful because it’s time sensitive. I think that’s probably the biggest gap that we have today. It’s not universal. It happens in pockets and in geographies, but where it happens, the need is real. And those growers don’t benefit as much as growers that do have areas of good coverage.
Is that improvement going as fast as you’d like? Is that a place where you’re saying to the Biden administration, whoever it might be, “Hey, we’re missing out on opportunities because there aren’t the networks we need to go faster.”
It is not going as fast as we would like, full stop. We should be moving faster in that space. Just to tease the thought out a little bit, maybe it’s not just terrestrial cell. Maybe it’s Starlink, maybe it’s a satellite-based type of infrastructure that provides that coverage for us in the future. But it’s certainly not moving at a pace that’s rapid enough for us, given the appetite for data that growers have and what they’ve seen as an ability for that data to significantly optimize their operations.
Have you talked to the Starlink folks?
We have.It’s super interesting. It’s an intriguing idea. The question for us is a mobile one. All of our devices are mobile. Tractors are driving around a field, combines are driving around a field. You get into questions around, what does the receiver need to look like in order to make that work? It’s an interesting idea at this point. I’m ever the optimist, glass-half-full sort of person. I think it’s conceivable that in the not too distant future, that could be a very viable option for some of these locations that are underserved with terrestrial connectivity today.
Walk me through the pricing model of a tractor. These things are very expensive. They’re hundreds of thousands of dollars. What is the recurring cost for an AT&T plan necessary to run that tractor? What is the recurring cost for your data services that you provide? How does that all break down?
Our data services are free today, interestingly enough. Free in the sense [of] the hosting of the data in the cloud and the serving up of that data through Operations Center. If you buy a piece of connected Deere equipment, that service is part of your purchase. I’ll just put it that way.
The recurring expense on the consumer side of things for the connectivity is not unlike what you would experience for a cell phone plan. It’s pretty similar. The difference is for large growers, it’s not just a single cell phone.
They might have 10, 15, 20 devices that are all connected. So we do what we can to make sure that the overhead associated with all of those different connected devices is minimized, but it’s not unlike what you’d experience with an iPhone or an Android device.
Do you have large growers in pockets where the connectivity is just so bad, they’ve had to resort to other means?
We have a multitude of ways of getting data off of mobile equipment. Cell is but one. We’re also able to take it off with Wi-Fi, if you can find a hotspot that you can connect to. Growers also routinely use a USB stick, when all else fails, that works regardless. So we make it possible no matter what their connectivity situation is to get the data off.
But to the point we already talked about, the less friction you’ve got in that system to get the data off, the more data you end up pushing. The more data you push, the more insights you can generate. The more insights you generate, the more optimal your operation is. So to the extent that you don’t have cell connectivity, we do see the intensity of the data usage, it tracks with connectivity.
So if your cloud services are free with the purchase of a connected tractor, is that built into the price or the lease agreement of the tractor for you on your P&L? You’re just saying, “We’re giving this away for free, but baking it into the price.”
Can you buy a tractor without that stuff for cheaper?
You can buy products that aren’t connected that do not have a telematics gateway or the cell connection, absolutely. It is uncommon, especially in large ag. I would hesitate to throw a number at you at what the take rate is, but it’s standard equipment in all of our large agricultural products. That said, you can still get it without that if you need to.
How long until these products just don’t have steering wheels and seats and Sirius radios in them? How long until you have a fully autonomous farm?
I love that question. [With] a fully autonomous farm, you’ve got to draw some boundaries around it in order to make it digestible. I think we could have fully autonomous tractors in low single digit years. I’ll leave it a little bit gray just to let the mind wander a little bit.
Taking the cab completely off the tractor, I think, is a ways away, only because the tractor gets used for lots of things that it may not be programmed for, from an autonomous perspective, to do. It’s sort of a Swiss Army knife in a farm environment. But that operatorless operation in, say, fall tillage or spring planting, we’re right on the doorstep of that. We’re knocking on the door of being able to do it.
It’s due to some really interesting technology that’s come together all in one place at one time. It’s the confluence of high capability-compute onboard machines. So we’re putting GPUs on machines today to do vision processing that would blow your mind. Nvidia GPUs are not just for the gaming community or the autonomous car community. They’re happening on tractors and sprayers and things too. So that’s one stream of technology that’s coming together with advanced algorithms. Machine learning, reinforcement learning, convolutional neural networks, all of that going into being able to mimic the human sight capability from a mechanical and computational perspective. That’s come together to give us the ability to start seriously considering taking an operator out of the cab of the tractor.
One of the things that is different, though, for agriculture versus maybe the on-highway autonomous cars, is that tractors don’t just go from point A to point B. Their mission in life is not just to transport. It’s to do productive work. They’re pulling a tillage tool behind them or pulling a planter behind them planting seed. So we not only have to be able to automate the driving of the tractor, but we have to automate the function that it’s doing as well, and make sure that it’s doing a great job of doing the tillage operation that normally the farmer would be observing in the cab of the tractor. Now we have to do that and be able to ascertain whether or not that job quality that’s happening as a consequence of the tractor going through the field is meeting the requirements or not.
What’s the challenge there?
I think it’s the variety of jobs. In this case, let’s take the tractor example again — it’s not only is it doing the tillage right with this particular tillage tool, but a farmer might use three or four different tillage tools in their operation. They all have different use cases. They all require different artificial intelligence models to be trained and to be validated. So scaling out across all of those different conceivable operations, I think is the biggest challenge.
You mentioned GPUs. GPUs are hard to get right now.
It’s impacting us. Weekly, I’m in conversations with semiconductor manufacturers trying to get the parts that we need. It is an ongoing battle. We had thought probably six or seven months ago, like everybody else, that it would be relatively short-term. But I think we’re into this for the next 12 to 18 months. I think we’ll come out of it as capacity comes online, but it’s going to take a little while before that happens.
I’ve talked to a few people about the chip shortage now. The best consensus I’ve gotten is that the problem isn’t at the state of the art. The problem is with older process nodes — five or 10-year-old technology. Is that where the problem is for you as well or are you thinking about moving beyond that?
It’s most acute with older tech. So we’ve got 16-bit chipsets that we’re still working with on legacy controllers that are a pain point. But that said, we’ve also got some really recent, modern stuff that is also a pain point. I was where your head is at three months ago. And then in the three months since, we’ve felt the pain everywhere.
When you say 18 months from now, is that you think there’s going to be more supply or you think the demand is going to tail off?
Supply is certainly coming online. [The] semiconductor industry is doing the right thing. They’re trying to bring capacity online to meet the demand. I would argue it’s just a classic bullwhip effect that’s happened in the marketplace. So I think that will happen. I think there’s certainly some behavior in the industry at the moment around what the demand side is. That’s made it hard for semiconductor manufacturers to understand what real demand is because there’s a panic situation in some respects in the marketplace at the moment.
That said, I think it’s clear there’s only one direction that semiconductor volume is going, and it’s going up. Everything is going to demand it moving forward and demand more of it. So I think once we work through the next 12 to 18 months and work through this sort of immediate and near-term issue, the semiconductor industry is going to have a better handle on things, but capacity has to go up in order to meet the demand. There’s no doubt about it. A lot of that demand is real.
Are you thinking, “Man, I have these 16-bit systems. We should rearchitect things to be more modular, to be more modern, and faster,” or are you saying, “Supply will catch up”?
No, very much the former. I would say two things. One, more prevalent in supply for sure. And then the second one is, easier to change when we need to change. There’s some tech debt that we’re continuing to battle against and pay off over time. And it’s times like these when it rises to the surface and you wish you’d made decisions a little bit differently 10 years ago or five years ago.
My father-in-law, my wife’s cousins, are all farmers up and down. A lot of John Deere hats in my family. I texted them all and asked what they wanted to know. All of them came back and said “right to repair” down the line. Every single one of them. That’s what they asked me to ask you about.
I set up this whole conversation to talk about these things as computers. We understand the problems of computers. It is notable to me that John Deere and Apple had the same effective position on right to repair, which is, we would prefer if you didn’t do it and you let us do it. But there’s a lot of pushback. There are right-to-repair bills in an ever-growing number of states. How do you see that playing out right now? People want to repair their tractors. It is getting harder and harder to do it because they’re computers and you control the parts.
It’s a complex topic, first and foremost. I think the first thing I would tell you is that we have and remain committed to enabling customers to repair the products that they buy. The reality is that 98 percent of the repairs that customers want to do on John Deere products today, they can do. There’s nothing that prohibits them from doing them. Their wrenches are the same size as our wrenches. That all works. If somebody wants to go repair a diesel engine in a tractor, they can tear it down and fix it. We make the service manuals available. We make the parts available, we make the how-to available for them to tear it down to the ground and build it back up again.
That is not really what I’ve heard. I hear that a sensor goes off, the tractor goes into what people call “limp mode.” They have to bring it into a service center. They need a John Deere-certified laptop to pull the codes and actually do that work.
The diagnostic trouble codes are pushed out onto the display. The customer can see what those diagnostic trouble codes are. They may not understand or be able to connect what that sensor issue is with a root cause. There may be an underlying root cause that’s not immediately obvious to the customer based upon the fault code, but the fault code information is there. There is expertise that exists within the John Deere dealer environment, because they’ve seen those issues over time that allows them to understand what the probable cause is for that particular issue. That said, anybody can go buy the sensor. Anybody can go replace it. That’s just a reality.
There is, though, this 2 percent-ish of the repairs that occur on equipment today [that] involve software. And to your point, they’re computer environments that are driving around on wheels. So there is a software component to them. Where we differ with the right-to-repair folks is that software, in many cases, it’s regulated. So let’s take the diesel engine example. We are required, because it’s a regulated emissions environment, to make sure that diesel engine performs at a certain emission output, nitrous oxide, particulate matter, etc., and so on. Modifying software changes that. It changes the output characteristics of the emissions of the engine and that’s a regulated device. So we’re pretty sensitive to changes that would impact that. And disproportionately, those are software changes. Like going in and changing governor gain scheduling, for example, on a diesel engine would have a negative consequence on the emissions that [an] engine produces.
The same argument would apply in brake-by-wire and steer-by-wire. Do you really want a tractor going down the road with software on it that has been modified for steering or modified for braking in some way that might have a consequence that nobody thought of? We know the rigorous nature of testing that we go through in order to push software out into a production landscape. We want to make sure that that product is as safe and reliable and performs to the intended expectations of the regulatory environment that we operate in.
But people are doing it anyway. That’s the real issue here. Again, these are computer problems. This is what I hear from Apple about repairing your own iPhone. Here’s the device with all your data on it that’s on the network. Do you really want to run unsupported software on it? The valence of the debate feels the same to me.
At the same time though, is it their tractor or is it your tractor? Shouldn’t I be allowed to run whatever software I want on my computer?
I think the difference with the Apple argument is that the iPhone isn’t driving down the road at 20 miles an hour with oncoming traffic coming at it. There’s a seriousness of the change that you could make to a product. These things are large. They cost a lot of money. It’s a 40,000-pound tractor going down the road at 20 miles an hour. Do you really want to expose untested, unplanned, unknown introductions of software into a product like that that’s out in the public landscape?
But they were doing it mechanically before. Making it computerized allows you to control that behavior in a way that you cannot on a purely mechanical tractor. I know there are a lot of farmers who did dumb stuff with their mechanical tractors and that was just part of the ecosystem.
Sure. I grew up on one of those. I think the difference there is that the system is so much more complicated today, in part because of software, that it’s not always evident immediately if I make a change here, what it’s going to produce over there. When it was all mechanical, I knew, if I changed the size of the tires or the steering linkage geometry, what was going to happen. I could physically see it and the system was self-contained because it was a mechanical-only system.
I think when we’re talking about a modern piece of equipment and the complexity of the system, it’s a ripple effect. You don’t know what a change that you make over here is going to impact over there any longer. It’s not intuitively obvious to somebody who would make a change in isolation to software, for example, over here. It is a tremendously complex problem. It’s one that we’ve got a tremendously large organization that’s responsible for understanding that complete system and making sure that when the product is produced, that it is reliable and it is safe and it does meet emissions and all of those things.
I look at some of the coverage and there are farmers who are downloading software of unknown provenance that can hack around some of the restrictions. Some of that software appears to be coming from groups in the Ukraine. They’re now using other software to get around the restrictions that, in some cases, could make it even worse, and lead to other unintended consequences, whereas providing the opportunities or making that more official might actually solve some of those problems in a more straightforward way.
I think we’ve taken steps to try to help. One of those is customer service. Service Advisor is the John Deere software that a dealership would use in order to diagnose and troubleshoot equipment. We’ve made available the customer version of Service Advisor as well in order to provide some of the ability for them to have insights — to your point about fault codes before — insights into what are those issues, and what can I learn about them as a customer? How might I go about fixing them? There have been efforts underway in order to try to bridge some of that gap to the extent possible.
We are, though, not in a position where we would ever condone or support a third-party software being put on products of ours, because we just don’t know what the consequences of that are going to be. It’s not something that we’ve tested. We don’t know what it might make the equipment do or not do. And we don’t know what the long-term impacts of that are.
I feel like a lot of people listening to the show own a car. I’ve got a pickup truck. I can go buy a device that will upload a new tune for my Ford pickup truck’s engine. Is that something you can do to a John Deere tractor?
There are third-party outfits that will do exactly that to a John Deere engine. Yep.
But can you do that yourself?
I suspect if you had the right technical knowledge, you could probably figure out a way to do it yourself. If a third-party company figured it out, there is a way for a consumer to do it too.
Where’s the line? Where do you think your control of the system ends and the consumer’s begins? I ask that because I think that might be the most important question in computing right now, just broadly across every kind of computer in our lives. At some point, the manufacturer is like, “I’m still right here with you and I’m putting a line in front of you.” Where’s your line?
We talked about the corner cases, the use cases I think that for us are the lines. They’re around the regulated environment from an emissions perspective. We’ve got a responsibility when we sell a piece of equipment to make sure that it’s meeting the regulatory environment that we sold it into. And then I think the other one is in and around safety, critical systems, things that they can impact others in the environment that, again, in a regulated fashion, we have a responsibility to produce a product that meets the requirements that the regulatory environment requires.
Not only that, but I think there’s a societal responsibility, frankly, that we make sure that the product is as safe as it can be for as long as it can be in operation. And those are where I think we spend a lot of time talking about what amounts to a very small part of the repair of a product. The statistics are real: 98 percent of the repairs that happen on a product can be done by a customer today. So we’re talking about a very small number of them, but they tend to be around those sort of sensitive use cases, regulatory and safety.
Right to Repair legislation is very bipartisan. You’re talking about big commercial operations in a lot of states. It’s America. It’s apple pie and corn farmers. They have a lot of political weight and they’re able to make a very bipartisan push, which is pretty rare in this country right now. Is that a signal you see as, “Oh man, if we don’t get this right, the government is coming for our products?”
I think the government’s certainly one voice in this, and it’s stemming from feedback from some customers. Obviously you’ve done your own bit of work across the farmers in your family. So it is a topic that is being discussed for sure. And we’re all in favor of that discussion, by the way. I think that what we want to make sure of is that it’s an objective discussion. There are ramifications across all dimensions of this. We want to make sure that those are well understood, because it’s such an important topic and has significant enough consequences, so we want to make sure we get it right. The unintended consequences of this are not small. They will impact the industry, some of them in a negative way. And so we just want to make sure that the discussion is objective.
The other signal I’d ask you about is that prices of pre-computer tractors are skyrocketing. Maybe you see that a different way, but I’m looking at some coverage that says old tractors, pre-1990 tractors, are selling for double what they were a year or two ago. There are incredible price hikes on these old tractors. And that the demand is there because people don’t want computers in their tractors. Is that a market signal to you, that you should change the way your products work? Or are you saying, “Well, eventually those tractors will die and you won’t have a choice except to buy one of the new products”?
I think the benefits that accrue from technology are significant enough for consumers. We see this happening with the consumer vote by dollar, by what they purchase. Consumers are continuing to purchase higher levels of technology as we go on. So while yes, the demand for older tractors has gone up, in part it’s because the demand for tractors has gone up completely. Our own technology solutions, we’ve seen upticks in take rates year over year over year over year. So if people were averse to technology, I don’t think you’d see that. At some point we have to recognize that the benefits that technology brings outweigh the downsides of the technology. I think that’s just this part of the technology adoption curve that we’re all on.
That’s the same conversation around smartphones. I get it with smartphones. Everyone has them in their pocket. They collect all this personal data. You may want a gatekeeper there because you don’t have a sophisticated user base.
Your customers are very self-interested, commercial customers.
Do you think you have a different kind of responsibility than, I don’t know, the Xbox Live team has to the Xbox Live community? In terms of data, in terms of control, in terms of relinquishing control of the product once it’s sold.
It certainly is a different market. It’s a different customer base. It’s a different clientele. To your point, they are dependent upon the product for their livelihood. So we do everything we can to make sure that product is reliable. It produces when it needs to produce in order to make sure that their businesses are productive and sustainable. I do think the biggest difference from the consumer market that you referenced to our market is the technology life cycle that we’re on.
You brought up tractors that are 20 years old that don’t have a ton of computers on-board versus what we have today. But what we have today is significantly more efficient than what we had 20 years ago. The tractors that you referenced are still in the market. People are still using them. They’re still putting them to work, productive work. In fact, on my family farm, they’re still being used for productive work. And I think that’s what’s different between the consumer market and the ag market. We don’t have a disposable product. You don’t just pick it up and throw it away. We have to be able to plan for that technology use across decades as opposed to maybe single-digit years.
In terms of the benefits of technology and selling that through, one of the other questions I got from the folks in my family was about the next thing that technology can enable. It seems like the equipment can’t physically get much bigger. The next thing to tackle is speed — making things faster for increased productivity.
Is that how you think about selling the benefits of technology — now the combine is as big as it can be, and it’s efficient at this massive scale. Is the next step to make it more efficient in terms of speed?
You’ve seen the industry trend that way. You look at planting as a great example. Ten years ago, we planted at three miles an hour. Today, we plant at 10 miles an hour. And what enabled that was technology. It was electric motors on row units that can react really, really quickly, that are highly controllable and can place seed really, really accurately, right? I think that’s the trend. Wisconsin’s a great place to talk about it. Whether it’s a row crop farm, there’s a small window in the spring, a couple of weeks, where it’s optimal to get those crops in the ground. And so it’s an insurance policy to be able to go faster because the weather may not be great for both of those weeks that you’ve got that are optimal planning weeks. And so you may only have three days or four days in that 10-day window in order to plant all your crops.
And speed is one way to make sure that that happens. Size and the width of the machine is the other. I would agree that we’ve gotten to the point where there’s very little opportunity left in going bigger, and so going faster and, I would argue, going more intelligently, is the way that you improve productivity in the future.
So we’ve talked about a huge set of responsibilities, everything from the physical mechanical design of the machinery to building cloud services, to geopolitics. What is your decision-making process? What’s your framework for how you make decisions?
I think at the root of it, we try to drive everything back to a customer and what we can do to make that customer more productive and more sustainable. And that helps us triage. Of all the great ideas that are out there, all the things that we could work on, what are the things that can move the needle for a customer in their operation as much as possible? And I think that grounding in the customer and the customer’s business is important because, fundamentally, our business is dependent upon the farmer’s business. If the farmer does well, we do well. If the farmer doesn’t do well, we don’t do well. We’re intertwined. There’s a connection there that you can’t and shouldn’t separate.
So driving our decision-making process towards having an intimate knowledge of the customer’s business and what we can do to make their business better frames everything we do.
What’s next for John Deere? What is the short term future for precision farming? Give me a five-year prediction.
I’m super excited about what we’re calling “sense and act.” “See and spray” is the first down payment on that. It’s the ability to create, in software and through electronic and mechanical devices, the human sense of sight, and then act on it. So we’re separating, in this case, weeds from useful crop, and we’re only spraying the weeds. That reduces herbicide use within a field. It reduces the cost for the farmer, input cost into their operation. It’s a win-win-win. And it is step one in the sense-and-act trajectory or sense-and-act runway that we’re on.
There’s a lot more opportunity for us in agriculture to do more sensing and acting, and doing that in an optimal way so that we’re not painting the same picture across a complete field, but doing it more prescriptively and acting more prescriptively in areas of a field that demand different things. I think that sense-and-act type of vision is the roadmap that we’re on. There’s a ton of opportunity in there. It is technology-intensive because you’re talking sensors, you’re talking computers, and you’re talking acting with precision. All of those things require fundamental shifts in technology from where we’re at today.
As well as collecting your data, Chrome also gives Google a huge amount of control over how the web works
Despite a poor reputation for privacy, Google’s Chrome browser continues to dominate. The web browser has around 65 per cent market share and two billion people are regularly using it. Its closest competitor, Apple’s Safari, lags far behind with under 20 per cent market share. That’s a lot of power, even before you consider Chrome’s data collection practices.
Is Google too big and powerful, and do you need to ditch Chrome for good? Privacy experts say yes. Chrome is tightly integrated with Google’s data gathering infrastructure, including services such as Google search and Gmail – and its market dominance gives it the power to help set new standards across the web. Chrome is one of Google’s most powerful data-gathering tools.
Google is currently under fire from privacy campaigners including rival browser makers and regulators for changes in Chrome that will spell the end of third-party cookies, the trackers that follow you as you browse. Although there are no solid plans for Europe yet, Google is planning to replace cookies with its own ‘privacy preserving’ tracking tech called FLoC, which critics say will give the firm even more power at the expense of its competitors due to the sheer scale of Chrome’s user base.
Chrome’s hefty data collection practices are another reason to ditch the browser. According to Apple’s iOS privacy labels, Google’s Chrome app can collect data including your location, search and browsing history, user identifiers and product interaction data for “personalisation” purposes. Google says this gives you the ability to enable features such as the option to save your bookmarks and passwords to your Google Account. But unlike rivals Safari, Microsoft’s Edge and Firefox, Chrome links this data to devices and individuals.
Although Chrome legitimately needs to handle browsing data, it can siphon off a large amount of information about your activities and transmit it to Google, says Rowenna Fielding, founder and director of privacy consultancy Miss IG Geek. “If you’re using Chrome to browse the internet, even in private mode, Google is watching everything you do online, all the time. This allows Google to build up a detailed and sophisticated picture about your personality, interests, vulnerabilities and triggers.”
When you sync your Google accounts to Chrome, the data slurping doesn’t stop there. Information from other Google-owned products including its email service Gmail and Google search can be combined to form a scarily accurate picture. Chrome data can be added to your geolocation history from Google Maps, the metadata from your Gmail usage, your social graph – who you interact with, both on and offline – the apps you use on your Android phone, and the products you buy with Google Pay. “That creates a very clear picture of who you are and how you live your life,” Fielding says.
As well as gathering information about your online and offline purchases, data from Google Pay can be used “in the same way as data from other Google services,” says Fielding. “This is not just what you buy, but also your location, device contacts and information, and the links those details provide so you can be identified and profiled across multiple datasets.”
Google’s power goes even further than its own browser market share. Competitor browsers such as Microsoft’s Edge are based on the same engine, Chromium. “So under the hood they are still a form of Chrome”, says Sean Wright, an independent security researcher.
Google’s massive market share has allowed the internet giant to develop web standards such as AMP in Google mobile search, which publishers must use in order to appear at the top of search results. And more recently, Chrome’s FLoC effectively gives Google control over the ad tracking tech that will replace third-party cookies – although this is being developed in the open and with feedback from other developers.
Google’s power allows it to set the direction of the industry, says Wright. “Some of those changes are good, including the move to make HTTPS encryption a default, but others are more self-serving, such as the FLoC proposal.”
Google says its Ads products do not access synced Chrome browsing history, other than for preventing spam and fraud. The firm outlines that the iOS privacy labels represent the maximum categories of data that can be gathered, and what is actually collected depends on the features you use in the app, and how you configure your settings. It also claims its open-source FLoC API is privacy-focused and will not give Google Ads products special privileges or access.
Google says privacy and security “have always been core benefits of the Chrome browser”. A Google spokesperson highlighted the Safe Browsing features that protect against threats such as phishing and malware, as well as additional controls to help you manage your information in Chrome. In recent years the company has introduced more ways you can control your data. “Chrome offers helpful options to keep your data in sync across devices, and you control what activity gets saved to your Google Account if you choose to sign in,” the spokesperson says.
But that doesn’t change the level of data collection possible, or the fact that Google has so much sway, simply through its market dominance and joined up ad-driven ecosystem. “When you are a company that has the majority share of browsers and internet search, you suddenly have a huge amount of power,” says Matthew Gribben, a former GCHQ cybersecurity consultant. “When every web developer and SEO expert in the world needs to pander to these whims, the focus becomes on making sites work well for Google at the expense of everything else.”
And as long as people use Chrome and other services – many of which are, admittedly, more user friendly than those of rivals – then Google’s power shows no signs of diminishing. Chrome provides Google with “enormous amounts of behavioural and demographic data, control over people’s browsing experience, a platform for shaping the web to Google’s own advantage, and brand ‘capture’”, Fielding says. “When people’s favourite tools, games and sites only work with Chrome, they are reluctant to switch to an alternative.”
In theory, competition and data protection laws should provide the tools to keep Google from getting out of control, says Fielding. But in practice, “that doesn’t seem to be working for various reasons – including disparities of wealth and power between Google and national regulators”. Fielding adds that Google is also useful to many governments and economies and it is tricky to enforce national laws against a global corporation.
There are steps you can take to lock down your account, such as preventing your browsing data being collected by not syncing Chrome, and turning off third-party cookie tracking. But note that the more features you use in Chrome, the more data Google needs to ensure they can function properly. And as Google’s power and dominance continues to surge, the other option is to ditch Chrome altogether.
If you do decide to ditch Chrome, there are plenty of other feature-rich privacy browser options to consider, including Firefox, Brave and DuckDuckGo, which don’t involve giving Google any of your data.
Apple employees push back against returning to the office in internal letter
“Over the last year we often felt not just unheard, but at times actively ignored”
Apple employees are pushing back against a new policy that would require them to return to the office three days a week starting in early September. Staff members say they want a flexible approach where those who want to work remote can do so, according to an internal letter obtained by The Verge.
“We would like to take the opportunity to communicate a growing concern among our colleagues,” the letter says. “That Apple’s remote/location-flexible work policy, and the communication around it, have already forced some of our colleagues to quit. Without the inclusivity that flexibility brings, many of us feel we have to choose between either a combination of our families, our well-being, and being empowered to do our best work, or being a part of Apple.”
It’s an easing of restrictions compared to Apple’s previous company culture, which famously discouraged employees from working from home prior to the pandemic. Yet it’s still more conservative compared to other tech giants. Both Twitter and Facebook have told employees they can work from home forever, even after the pandemic ends.
For some Apple workers, the current policy doesn’t go far enough, and shows a clear divide between how Apple executives and employees view remote work.
“Over the last year we often felt not just unheard, but at times actively ignored,” the letter says. “Messages like, ‘we know many of you are eager to reconnect in person with your colleagues back in the office,’ with no messaging acknowledging that there are directly contradictory feelings amongst us feels dismissive and invalidating…It feels like there is a disconnect between how the executive team thinks about remote / location-flexible work and the lived experiences of many of Apple’s employees.”
The letter, addressed to Tim Cook, started in a Slack channel for “remote work advocates” which has roughly 2,800 members. About 80 people were involved in writing and editing the note.
Apple employees say that embracing remote work is paramount for the company’s diversity and inclusion efforts. “For inclusion and diversity to work, we have to recognize how different we all are, and with those differences, come different needs and different ways to thrive,” they say.
Here are the specific asks outlined by employees in the note:
We are formally requesting that Apple considers remote and location-flexible work decisions to be as autonomous for a team to decide as are hiring decisions.
We are formally requesting a company-wide recurring short survey with a clearly structured and transparent communication / feedback process at the company-wide level, organization-wide level, and team-wide level, covering topics listed below.
We are formally requesting a question about employee churn due to remote work be added to exit interviews.
We are formally requesting a transparent, clear plan of action to accommodate disabilities via onsite, offsite, remote, hybrid, or otherwise location-flexible work.
We are formally requesting insight into the environmental impact of returning to onsite in-person work, and how permanent remote-and-location-flexibility could offset that impact.
The letter was sent out for Apple employees to sign late Friday afternoon.
Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Verge.
Read the full letter below:
Dear Tim and Executive Leadership,
Thank you for your thoughtful considerations on a hybrid approach to returning to office work, and for sharing it with all of us early this week. We appreciate your efforts in navigating what has been undeniably an incredibly difficult time for everyone around the world, and doing so for over one hundred thousand people. We are certain you have more plans than were shared on Wednesday, but are following Apple’s time-honored tradition of only announcing things when they are ready. However, we feel like the current policy is not sufficient in addressing many of our needs, so we want to take some time to explain ourselves.
This past year has been an unprecedented challenge for our company; we had to learn how to deliver the same quality of products and services that Apple is known for, all while working almost completely remotely. We did so, achieving another record-setting year. We found a way for everyone to support each other and succeed in a completely new way of working together — from locations we were able to choose at our own discretion (often at home).
However, we would like to take the opportunity to communicate a growing concern among our colleagues. That Apple’s remote/location-flexible work policy, and the communication around it, have already forced some of our colleagues to quit. Without the inclusivity that flexibility brings, many of us feel we have to choose between either a combination of our families, our well-being, and being empowered to do our best work, or being a part of Apple. This is a decision none of us take lightly, and a decision many would prefer not to have to make. These concerns are largely what prompted us to advocate for changes to these policies, and data collected will reflect those concerns.
Over the last year we often felt not just unheard, but at times actively ignored. Messages like, ‘we know many of you are eager to reconnect in person with your colleagues back in the office,’ with no messaging acknowledging that there are directly contradictory feelings amongst us feels dismissive and invalidating. Not only do many of us already feel well-connected with our colleagues worldwide, but better-connected now than ever. We’ve come to look forward to working as we are now, without the daily need to return to the office. It feels like there is a disconnect between how the executive team thinks about remote / location-flexible work and the lived experiences of many of Apple’s employees.
For many of us at Apple, we have succeeded not despite working from home, but in large part because of being able to work outside the office. The last year has felt like we have truly been able to do the best work of our lives for the first time, unconstrained by the challenges that daily commutes to offices and in-person co-located offices themselves inevitably impose; all while still being able to take better care of ourselves and the people around us.
Looking around the corner, we believe the future of work will be significantly more location and timezone flexible. In fact, we are already a distributed company with offices all over the world and across many different timezones. Apple’s organizational hierarchy lends itself towards offices that often follow the same structure, wherein people in the same organization are more likely to be co-located in an office. At the same time, we strongly encourage cross-functional, cross-organization collaboration, and our organization’s many horizontal teams reflect this. Such collaboration is widely celebrated across our organization, and arguably leads us to our best results — it’s one of the things that makes Apple, Apple. However, orgs are rarely co-located within walking distance, let alone in the same building, meaning our best collaboration has always required remote communication with teams in other offices and across timezones, since long before the pandemic. We encourage distributed work from our business partners, and we’ve been a remote-communication necessary company for some time, a vision of the future that Steve Jobs himself predicated in an interview from 1990. This may explain how mandatory out-of-office work enabled tearing down cross-functional communication barriers to deliver even better results.
Almost all of us have worked fully remote for over a year now, though the experience arguably would have been better less one pandemic. We have developed two major versions of all our operating systems, organized two full WWDCs, introduced numerous new products, transitioned to our own chipsets, and supported our customers with the same level of care as before. We have already piloted location-flexible work the last 15 months under much more extreme conditions and we were very successful in doing so, finding the following benefits of remote and location-flexible work for a large number of our colleagues:
Diversity and Inclusion in Retention and Hiring
Tearing Down Previously Existing Communication Barriers
Better Work Life Balance
Better Integration of Existing Remote / Location-Flexible Workers
Reduced Spread of Pathogens
We ask for your support in enabling those who want to work remotely / in location-flexible ways to continue to do so, letting everyone figure out which work setup works best for them, their team, and their role — be it in one of our offices, from home, or a hybrid solution. We are living proof that there is no one-size-fits-all policy for people. For Inclusion and Diversity to work, we have to recognize how different we all are, and with those differences, come different needs and different ways to thrive. We feel that Apple has both the responsibility to recognize these differences, as well as the capability to fully embrace them. Officially enabling individual management chains and individual teams to make decisions that work best for their teams roles, individuals, and needs — and having that be the official stated policy rather than the rare individual exceptions — would alleviate the concerns and reservations many of us currently have.
We understand that inertia is real and that change is difficult to achieve. The pandemic forcing us to work from home has given us a unique opportunity. Most of the change has already happened, remote/location-flexible work is currently the “new normal,” we just need to make sure we make the best of it now. We believe that Apple has the ability to be a leader in this realm, not by declaring ‘everyone just work from home for forever,’ as some other companies have done, but by declaring an official broad paradigm policy, that allows individual leaders to make decisions that will enable their teams to do the best work of their lives. We strongly believe this is the ideal moment to “burn the boats” — to boldly declare ‘yes this can be done, and done successfully, because there is no other choice for the future.’
We have gathered some of our requests and action items to help continue the conversation and make sure everyone is heard.
We are formally requesting that Apple considers remote and location-flexible work decisions to be as autonomous for a team to decide as are hiring decisions.
We are formally requesting a company-wide recurring short survey with a clearly structured and transparent communication / feedback process at the company-wide level, organization-wide level, and team-wide level, covering topics listed below.
We are formally requesting a question about employee churn due to remote work be added to exit interviews.
We are formally requesting a transparent, clear plan of action to accommodate disabilities via onsite, offsite, remote, hybrid, or otherwise location-flexible work.
We are formally requesting insight into the environmental impact of returning to onsite in-person work, and how permanent remote-and-location-flexibility could offset that impact.
We have great respect for Apple and its leadership; we strongly believe in the Innovation and Thinking Differently (from “the way things have always been done” and “industry standards”) that are part of Apple’s DNA. We all wish to continue to “bleed six colors” at Apple itself and not elsewhere. At Apple, our most important resource, our soul, is our people, and we believe that ensuring we are all heard, represented, and validated is how we continue to defend and protect that precious sentiment.
This is not a petition, though it may resemble one. This is a plea: let’s work together to truly welcome everyone forward.
The New iOS Update Lets You Stop Ads From Tracking You—So Do It
Facebook and other advertisers fought the move, but App Tracking Transparency is finally here.
If you’re sick of opaque ad tracking and don’t feel like you have a handle on it, a new iOS feature promises to give you back some control. With the release of Apple’s iOS 14.5 on Monday, all of your apps will have to ask in a pop-up: Do you want to allow this app to track your activity across other companies‘ apps and websites? For once, your answer can be no.
A lot of the biggest data privacy crises of the past few years have come not from breaches but from all the opaque policies around how companies share user data and track those users across services for targeted advertising. Marketers assign your device an ID and then monitor your web and in-app behavior across different platforms to generate composite profiles of demographic information, purchasing habits, and life events. Apple has already taken a strong stand to disrupt ad tracking in its Safari browser; this iOS update brings the showdown to mobile. But while the step may seem like a no-brainer to iOS users, it’s been deeply controversial with companies built on ad revenue, including and especially Facebook.“This is a significant and impactful move,” says Jason Kint, CEO of the digital publishing trade organization Digital Content Next. (WIRED parent company Condé Nast is a member.) “The digital advertising business has been mostly built off of micro-targeting audiences. Facebook, as an example, has code embedded in millions of apps to collect data to target audiences wherever it wants as promptly as possible—and this cuts that off.”iOS already gave its users the option to turn off ad ID sharing completely, essentially zeroing out the unique identifier on your phone, known as IDFA, that iOS gives developers for in-app and cross-service tracking. iOS 14.5’s new requirements, though, compel each app to put the question to users individually through Apple’s AppTrackingTransparency framework, so you have more granular control. This allows you to grant the privilege to certain apps if, for example, you would rather see tailored ads on a particular service. But it also will simply expose how many apps participate in cross-service ad tracking, including some you may not have suspected.“We believe tracking should always be transparent and under your control,” Katie Skinner, an Apple user privacy software manager, said at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference last June. „So moving forward, App Store policy will require apps to ask before tracking you across apps and websites owned by other companies.“
The new iOS pop-ups can include a short message about why a developer wants users to enable tracking, essentially a pitch of what the benefits might be. And the popups won’t appear if a developer tracks you across its own services, like Facebook following you from its main platform across Messenger and Instagram. You probably assume that platforms owned by the same parent company would (or at least could) share data; the larger issue Apple wants to address is tracking across services that you wouldn’t intuitively think have any type of relationship.
If you notice Facebook popping up frequently in examples about the impact of Apple’s tracking transparency initiative, it’s because the company has been vocal, and aggressive, in its objections. Facebook chief financial officer Dave Wehner has mentioned privacy initiatives around IDFA as a concern in many company earnings calls since late 2019. And in December, Facebook ran a series of full-page newspaper ads with the line, “We’re standing up to Apple for small businesses everywhere.” A companion website for Facebook’s campaign says, “Apple’s latest update threatens the personalized ads that millions of small businesses rely on to find and reach customers.”
Facebook also disputes Apple’s characterization that this type of data sharing should really be called “tracking” at all. Facebook refers to it as “what Apple defines as ‘tracking’” in its support documents for developers and businesses.Apple CEO Tim Cook responded to the claims in December, tweeting, “We believe users should have the choice over the data that is being collected about them and how it’s used. Facebook can continue to track users across apps and websites as before. App Tracking Transparency in iOS 14 will just require that they ask for your permission first.”Announced in June 2020, Apple originally planned to start requiring developers to support ATT for the iOS 14 launch in September 2020. The company went ahead with rolling out another iOS 14 addition, its app “privacy labels,” in December 2020. But amid industry backlash, the company delayed the ATT requirement “to give developers time to make necessary changes.““This has been much needed. I wish it didn’t get delayed,” says Will Strafach, a longtime iOS security researcher and creator of the Guardian Firewall app. “Nonetheless it’s a fantastic step toward adding some level of plain-English user awareness about what apps are doing.”
Though the tracking changes in iOS 14.5 are significant, they don’t extend beyond the walled garden that is iOS. Kint likens the immediate impact to squeezing one part of a water balloon: The liquid just expands to the other side. Platforms like Android and the web on most browsers will still allow tracking, and marketers may focus even more strongly there. But Apple’s step with ATT could ultimately spark broader change.
For now, though, just download iOS 14.5 if you have an iPhone, and get ready to start tapping “Ask App not to Track” whenever you see it. Especially in places you never saw coming.
WhatsApp soon issued a clarification, explaining that the new policy only affects the way users’ accounts interact with businesses (ie not with their friends) and does not mandate any new data collection. The messaging app also delayed the introduction of the policy by three months. Crucially, WhatsApp said, the new policy doesn’t affect the content of your chats, which remain protected by end-to-end encryption – the “gold standard” of security that means no one can view the content of messages, even WhatsApp, Facebook, or the authorities.
But the damage had already been done. The bungled communication attempts have raised awareness that WhatsApp does collect a lot of data, and some of this could be shared with Facebook. The BBC reported that Signal was downloaded 246,000 times worldwide in the week before WhatsApp announced the change on 4 January, and 8.8m times the week after.
WhatsApp does share some data with Facebook, including phone numbers and profile name, but this has been happening for years. WhatsApp has stated that in the UK and EU the update does not share further data with Facebook – because of strict privacy regulation, known as the general update to data protection regulation (GDPR). The messaging app doesn’t gather the content of your chats, but it does collect the metadata attached to them – such as the sender, the time a message was sent and who it was sent to. This can be shared with “Facebook companies”.
And the social network isn’t known for keeping promises. When Facebook bought WhatsApp in 2014, it pledged to keep the two services separate. Yet only a few years later, Facebook announced aims to integrate the messaging systems of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. This appears to have stalled owing to technical and regulatory difficulties around encryption, but it’s still the long-term plan.
Why are people choosing Signal over Telegram?
Signal, a secure messaging app recommended by authorities such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Edward Snowden, has been the main beneficiary of the WhatsApp exodus. Another messaging app, Telegram, has also experienced an uptick in downloads, but Signal has been topping the charts on the Apple and Android app stores.
Signal benefits from being the most similar to WhatsApp in terms of features, while Telegram has had problems as a secure and private messaging app, with its live location feature recently coming under fire for privacy infringements. Crucially, Telegram is not end-to-end encrypted by default, instead storing your data in the cloud. Signal is end-to-end encrypted, collects less data than Telegram and stores messages on your device rather than in the cloud.
Does Signal have all the features I am used to and why is it more private?
Yes, Signal has most of the features you are used to on WhatsApp, such as stickers and emojis. You can set up and name groups, and it’s easy to send a message: just bring up the pen sign in the right-hand corner.
Signal has a desktop app, and you can voice and video chat with up to eight people. Like WhatsApp, Signal uses your phone number as your identity, something that has concerned some privacy and security advocates. However, the company has introduced pin codes in the hope of moving to a more secure and private way of identifying users in the future.
As well as being end-to-end encrypted, both WhatsApp and Signal have a “disappearing messages” feature for additional privacy. The major difference is how each app is funded. WhatsApp is owned by Facebook, whose business model is based on advertising. Signal is privacy focused and has no desire to analyse, share or profit from users’ private information, says Jake Moore, cybersecurity specialist at ESET.
Signal is supported by the non-profit Signal Foundation, set up in 2018 by WhatsApp founder Brian Acton and security researcher (and Signal Messenger CEO) Moxie Marlinspike, who created an encryption protocol that is used by several messaging services, including WhatsApp and Skype as well as Signal itself. Acton, who left Facebook in 2017 after expressing concerns over how the company operated, donated an initial $50m to Signal, and the open-source app is now funded by the community. Essentially that means developers across the world will continually work on it and fix security issues as part of a collaborative effort, making the app arguably more secure.
But there are concerns over whether Signal can maintain this free model as its user base increases to the tens, or potentially in the future, hundreds of millions. Signal is adamant it can continue to offer its service for free. “As a non-profit, we simply need to break even,” says Aruna Harder, the app’s COO.
Signal is exclusively supported by grants and donations, says Acton. “We believe that millions of people value privacy enough to sustain it, and we’re here to demonstrate that there is an alternative to the ad-based business models that exploit user privacy.”
I want to move to Signal. How do you persuade WhatsApp groups to switch?
The momentum away from WhatsApp does appear to be building, and you may find more of your friends have switched to Signal already. But persuading a larger contact group can be more challenging.
Overton has been using Signal for several years and says all her regular contacts use the app. “Even when dating online, I ask the person I want to go on a date with to download Signal, or they don’t get my number.”
Some Signal advocates have already begun to migrate their groups over from WhatsApp. Jim Creese, a security expert, is moving a neighbourhood text group of 100 people to Signal. He is starting with a smaller sub-group of 20, some of whom struggle with technology. Creese says most are ambivalent about switching “as long as the new method isn’t more difficult”.
He advises anyone who’s moving groups across apps to focus on the “why” first. “Explain the reasons for the change, how it is likely to affect them, and the benefits. Don’t rush the process. While WhatsApp might not be where you want to be today, there’s no emergency requiring an immediate move.”
Moore thinks the shift away from WhatsApp will continue to gain momentum, but he says it will take time to move everyone across. Until then, it’s likely you will need to keep both WhatsApp and Signal on your phone.
Moore is in the process of moving a family chat to Signal, for the second time. “When I originally tried, one family member didn’t understand my concerns and thought I was being overcautious.
“However, the recent news has helped him understand the potential issues and why moving isn’t such a bad idea. The next hurdle will be getting my mother to download a new app and use it for the first time without me physically assisting her.”
Signal Is Finally Bringing Its Secure Messaging to the Masses
The encryption app is putting a $50 million infusion from WhatsApp cofounder Brian Acton to good use, building out features to help it go mainstream.
Last month, the cryptographer and coder known as Moxie Marlinspike was getting settled on an airplane when his seatmate, a Midwestern-looking man in his sixties, asked for help. He couldn’t figure out how to enable airplane mode on his aging Android phone. But when Marlinspike saw the screen, he wondered for a moment if he was being trolled: Among just a handful of apps installed on the phone was Signal.
Marlinspike launched Signal, widely considered the world’s most secure end-to-end encrypted messaging app, nearly five years ago, and today heads the nonprofit Signal Foundation that maintains it. But the man on the plane didn’t know any of that. He was not, in fact, trolling Marlinspike, who politely showed him how to enable airplane mode and handed the phone back.
„I try to remember moments like that in building Signal,“ Marlinspike told WIRED in an interview over a Signal-enabled phone call the day after that flight. „The choices we’re making, the app we’re trying to create, it needs to be for people who don’t know how to enable airplane mode on their phone,“ Marlinspike says.
Marlinspike has always talked about making encrypted communications easy enough for anyone to use. The difference, today, is that Signal is finally reaching that mass audience it was always been intended for—not just the privacy diehards, activists, and cybersecurity nerds that formed its core user base for years—thanks in part to a concerted effort to make the app more accessible and appealing to the mainstream.
Since then, Marlinspike’s nonprofit has put Acton’s millions—and his experience building an app with billions of users—to work. After years of scraping by with just three overworked full-time staffers, the Signal Foundation now has 20 employees. For years a bare-bones texting and calling app, Signal has increasingly become a fully featured, mainstream communications platform. With its new coding muscle, it has rolled out features at a breakneck speed: In just the last three months, Signal has added support for iPad, ephemeral images and video designed to disappear after a single viewing, downloadable customizable „stickers,“ and emoji reactions. More significantly, it announced plans to roll out a new system for group messaging, and an experimental method for storing encrypted contacts in the cloud.
„The major transition Signal has undergone is from a three-person small effort to something that is now a serious project with the capacity to do what is required to build software in the world today,“ Marlinspike says.
Many of those features might sound trivial. They certainly aren’t the sort that appealed to Signal’s earliest core users. Instead, they’re what Acton calls „enrichment features.“ They’re designed to attract normal people who want a messaging app as multifunctional as WhatsApp, iMessage, or Facebook Messenger but still value Signal’s widely trusted security and the fact that it collects virtually no user data. „This is not just for hyperparanoid security researchers, but for the masses,“ says Acton. „This is something for everyone in the world.“
Even before those crowdpleaser features, Signal was growing at a rate most startups would envy. When WIRED profiled Marlinspike in 2016, he would confirm only that Signal had at least two million users. Today, he remains tightlipped about Signal’s total user base, but it’s had more than 10 million downloads on Android alone according to the Google Play Store’s count. Acton adds that another 40 percent of the app’s users are on iOS.
Identifying the features mass audiences want isn’t so hard. But building even simple-sounding enhancements within Signal’s privacy constraints—including a lack of metadata that even WhatsApp doesn’t promise–can require significant feats of security engineering, and in some cases actual new research in cryptography.
Take stickers, one of the simpler recent Signal upgrades. On a less secure platform, that sort of integration is fairly straightforward. For Signal, it required designing a system where every sticker „pack“ is encrypted with a „pack key.“ That key is itself encrypted and shared from one user to another when someone wants to install new stickers on their phone, so that Signal’s server can never see decrypted stickers or even identify the Signal user who created or sent them.
Signal’s new group messaging, which will allow administrators to add and remove people from groups without a Signal server ever being aware of that group’s members, required going further still. Signal partnered with Microsoft Research to invent a novel form of „anonymous credentials“ that let a server gatekeep who belongs in a group, but without ever learning the members‘ identities. „It required coming up with some innovations in the world of cryptography,“ Marlinspike says. „And in the end, it’s just invisible. It’s just groups, and it works like we expect groups to work.“
Signal is rethinking how it keeps track of its users‘ social graphs, too. Another new feature it’s testing, called „secure value recovery,“ would let you create an address book of your Signal contacts and store them on a Signal server, rather than simply depend on the contact list from your phone. That server-stored contact list would be preserved even when you switch to a new phone. To prevent Signal’s servers from seeing those contacts, it would encrypt them with a key stored in the SGX secure enclave that’s meant to hide certain data even from the rest of the server’s operating system.
That feature might someday even allow Signal to ditch its current system of identifying users based on their phone numbers—a feature that many privacy advocates have criticized, since it forces anyone who wants to be contacted via Signal to hand out a cell phone number, often to strangers. Instead, it could store persistent identities for users securely on its servers. „I’ll just say, this is something we’re thinking about,“ says Marlinspike. Secure value recovery, he says, „would be the first step in resolving that.“
With new features comes additional complexity, which may add more chances for security vulnerabilities to slip into Signal’s engineering, warns Matthew Green, a cryptographer at Johns Hopkins University. Depending on Intel’s SGX feature, for instance, could let hackers steal secrets the next time security researchers expose a vulnerability in Intel hardware. For that reason, he says that some of Signal’s new features should ideally come with an opt-out switch. „I hope this isn’t all or nothing, that Moxie gives me the option to not use this,“ Green says.
„Signal is thinking hard about how to give people the functionality they want without compromising privacy too much, and that’s really important,“ Green adds. „If you see Signal as important for secure communication in the future—and possibly you don’t see Facebook or WhatsApp as being reliable—then you definitely need Signal to be usable by a larger group of people. That means having these features.“
Brian Acton doesn’t hide his ambition that Signal could, in fact, grow into a WhatsApp-sized service. After all, Acton not only founded WhatsApp and helped it grow to billions of users, but before that joined Yahoo in its early, explosive growth days of the mid-1990s. He thinks he can do it again. „I’d like for Signal to reach billions of users. I know what it takes to do that. I did that,“ says Acton. „I’d love to have it happen in the next five years or less.“
That wild ambition, to get Signal installed onto a significant fraction of all the phones on the planet, represents a shift—if not for Acton, then for Marlinspike. Just three years ago, Signal’s creator mused in an interview with WIRED that he hoped Signal could someday „fade away,“ ideally after its encryption had been widely implemented in other billion-user networks like WhatsApp. Now, it seems, Signal hopes to not merely influence tech’s behemoths, but to become one.
But Marlinspike argues that Signal’s fundamental aims haven’t changed, only its strategy—and its resources. „This has always been the goal: to create something that people can use for everything,“ Marlinspike says. „I said we wanted to make private communication simple, and end-to-end encryption ubiquitous, and push the envelope of privacy-preserving technology. This is what I meant.“
The word grunge, which means grime or dirt, came to describe a music genre, fashion style and lifestyle exclusively attached to the Pacific Northwest and, specifically, Seattle. With the effects of this movement still relevant some 30 years later, it’s worth exploring how it all began – and how grunge entered the mainstream.
It all started with the Melvins. Formed in 1983 in Washington State, the band were part of a generation of musicians influenced by the likes of KISS, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and AC/DC. Taking inspiration from the bands they loved, the Melvins were one of the first rock groups to mix elements of metal and punk in their sound.The city of Seattle at that time was just shedding its hippie image but still holding on to the hippie values of counterculture and nonconformity. In 1984, Seattle-based bands Green River and Soundgarden formed, followed by the Screaming Trees in 1985. The following year brought the founding of Sub Pop Records and saw Seattle-based record label C/Z Records’ first release, Deep Six. This compilation, credited as the first distribution of grunge, included the Melvins, Green River, Soundgarden, Malfunkshun, Skin Yard and The U-Men. Metal band Alice in Chains joined this faction of Seattle bands when they formed in 1987.
Editorial use only. Consent for book publication must be agreed with Rex by Shutterstock before use. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Andre Csillag/REX/Shutterstock (499068go) THE SCREAMING TREES PERFORMING ON THE ‚LATER WITH JOOLS‘ SHOW, BBC TV, LONDON, BRITAIN – NOV 1996 VARIOUS | Photo by Andre Csillag/REX/Shutterstock
Mandatory Credit: Photo by Malluk/Mediapunch/REX/Shutterstock (8627708a) Alice in Chains with Layne Staley Special Fees May 1991 Chains_em8 | Photo by Malluk/Mediapunch/REX/Shutterstock
Between 1988 and 1990, the tight-knit group of Seattle bands went through many transformations. Green River split into two groups: the members who wanted to stay “underground” formed Mudhoney, while those who wanted to become famous rock stars formed Mother Love Bone (picking up the lead singer from Malfunkshun, Andrew Wood). Representing another shift in those values of nonconformity, Soundgarden signed in 1988 with a mainstream label, A&M Records, to the dismay of many of their fans.
Mandatory Credit: Photo by Mediapunch/REX/Shutterstock (8824657d) Soundgarden – Chris Cornell Soundgarden In Concert at Hollywood Live, Los Angeles, USA – 23 Sep 1989 | Photo by Mediapunch/REX/Shutterstock
At the start of the new decade, Mother Love Bone was set to become the rock stars they intended to be when Wood unexpectedly died of a heroin overdose. Wood’s roommate, Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, wrote a tribute to his late friend. A few songs played with the surviving Mother Love Bone members turned into an entire album, Temple of the Dog. When Cornell decided that one of the songs would be better as a duet, he invited a backup vocalist, Eddie Vedder, to join him for the singing of ‘Hunger Strike.’ The same year, Vedder joined the remaining Mother Love Bone members in creating a new band, first named Mookie Blaylock and eventually renamed Pearl Jam.
In 1990, Nirvana consisted only of singer-guitarist Kurt Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic, and were yet to find a full-time drummer. They were eventually introduced to Dave Grohl through their friends the Melvins, becoming another staple grunge band of the ’90s made possible through collaboration.
Mandatory Credit: Photo by Stephen Sweet/REX/Shutterstock (261411g) Nirvana – Dave Grohl, Kurt Cobain and Chris Novoselic Nirvana – 1993 | Photo by Stephen Sweet/REX/Shutterstock
The bands became regulars at music venues across the city, performing at locations still open today such as The Crocodile and The Showbox. Before any of the bands really left Seattle, they described themselves in self-deprecating ways, referring to themselves and their music style as dirt, scum and – you guessed it – grunge. In 1991, when Nirvana reached number one on Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart, with Pearl Jam following closely behind, “grunge” turned from a joke into an actual descriptor of the rock music subgenre characterized by guitar distortion, feedback and heartfelt, anguished lyrics. That same year, Mudhoney and the Screaming Trees achieved indie success. Soundgarden didn’t catch up with the commercial success of Nirvana and Pearl Jam until 1994.
Mandatory Credit: Photo by Andre Csillag/REX/Shutterstock (497745ka) Pearl Jam – Eddie Vedder performing at Brixton Academy, London, Britain – Jul 1993 Various | Photo by Andre Csillag/REX/Shutterstock
As these bands developed a need for marketing, “grunge” changed from descriptor to ultimate promoter, especially in fashion. That industry, from Macy’s to Marc Jacobs, started creating items that mimicked the style of these bands and their Seattle audiences, namely flannel shirts, combat boots and wool ski hats, often worn with unwashed hair.
Mandatory Credit: Photo by Bei/REX/Shutterstock (5137575b) Eddie Vedder Singles Premiere 09/10/92 – Los Angeles, CA. Eddie Vedder (cast) of Pearl Jam wearing helmet Warner Bros.‘ premiere of ‚Singles‘ in Los Angeles, CA. Photo®Berliner Studio/BEImages.net September 10, 1992 | Photo by Bei/REX/Shutterstock
While the muses for these fashion statements may have started out too poor and cold to buy anything else, and didn’t care to look after or style their hair, the popularity of grunge inspired the style of the rich. The combat boots that were practical for traction in Seattle’s rain began hitting the catwalks. For the first time, instead of going from boutiques to last season’s department to Goodwill, clothes purchased from Goodwill were inspiring what got brought into the shops. Punks were anti-fashion: their outfits made a statement against it. Grunge rockers were fashion-indifferent: they made no statement at all. And yet grunge became a fashion statement in and of itself.
Mandatory Credit: Photo by Photofusion/REX/Shutterstock (2253864a) Teenage boys wearing grunge gear, UK Youth | Photofusion/REX/Shutterstock
As the concept of grunge was increasingly used in the mainstream, it became increasingly rejected in anti-conformist Seattle. Grunge became a blanket term for Northwest bands of the ’80s and ’90s, even if they had completely different styles and sounds.Today, though, the term has been reclaimed. Seattleites still hold the same values that began the grunge movement and have learned to embrace the subgenre that, in a lot of ways, put their city on the map.
There’s a renaissance underway in structural battery research, which aims to build energy storage into the very devices and vehicles they power.
ELON MUSK MADE a lot of promises during Tesla’s Battery Day last September. Soon, he said, the company would have a car that runs on batteries with pure silicon anodes to boost their performance and reduced cobalt in the cathodes to lower their price. Its battery pack will be integrated into the chassis so that it provides mechanical support in addition to energy, a design that Musk claimed will reduce the car’s weight by 10 percent and improve its mileage by even more. He hailed Tesla’s structural battery as a “revolution” in engineering—but for some battery researchers, Musk’s future looked a lot like the past.
“He’s essentially doing something that we did 10 years ago,” says Emile Greenhalgh, a materials scientist at Imperial College London and the engineering chair in emerging technologies at the Royal Academy. He’s one of the world’s leading experts on structural batteries, an approach to energy storage that erases the boundary between the battery and the object it powers. “What we’re doing is going beyond what Elon Musk has been talking about,” Greenhalgh says. “There are no embedded batteries. The material itself is the energy storage device.”
Today, batteries account for a substantial portion of the size and weight of most electronics. A smartphone is mostly a lithium-ion cell with some processors stuffed around it. Drones are limited in size by the batteries they can carry. And about a third of the weight of an electric vehicle is its battery pack. One way to address this issue is by building conventional batteries into the structure of the car itself, as Tesla plans to do. Rather than using the floor of the car to support the battery pack, the battery pack becomes the floor.
But for Greenhalgh and his collaborators, the more promising approach is to scrap the battery pack and use the vehicle’s body for energy storage instead. Unlike a conventional battery pack embedded in the chassis, these structural batteries are invisible. The electrical storage happens in the thin layers of composite materials that make up the car’s frame. In a sense, they’re weightless because the car is the battery. “It’s making the material do two things simultaneously,” says Greenhalgh. This new way of thinking about EV design can provide huge performance gains and improve safety because there won’t be thousands of energy-dense, flammable cells packed into the car.
A lithium-ion battery inside a phone or EV battery pack has four main components: the cathode, anode, electrolyte, and the separator. When a battery is discharged, lithium-ions flow through the electrolyte from the negative anode to the positive cathode, which are partitioned by a permeable separator to prevent a short circuit. In a conventional battery, these elements are either stacked like a wedding cake or wound around each other like a jelly roll to pack as much energy as possible into a small volume. But in a structural battery, they have to be reconfigured so the cell can be molded into irregular shapes and withstand physical stress. A structural battery doesn’t look like a cube or a cylinder; it looks like an airplane wing, car body, or phone case.
The first structural batteries developed by the US military in the mid-2000s used carbon fiber for the cell’s electrodes. Carbon fiber is a lightweight, ultrastrong material that is frequently used to form the bodies of aircraft and high-performance cars. It’s also great at storing lithium ions, which makes it a good substitute for other carbon-based materials like graphite that are used as anodes in typical Li-ion batteries. But in a structural battery, carbon fiber infused with reactive materials like iron phosphate is also used for the cathode because it needs to provide support. A thin sheet of woven glass separates the two electrodes, and these layers are suspended in an electrolyte like fruit in an electrochemical jello. The entire ensemble is only a few millionths of a meter thick and can be cut into any desired shape.
Leif Asp, a materials scientist at the Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, has been at the forefront of structural battery research for the past decade. In 2010, Asp, Greenhalgh, and a team of European scientists collaborated on Storage, a project that aimed to build structural batteries and integrate them into a prototype hybrid Volvo. “At that time, I didn’t think it would have much impact on society, but as we moved along it struck me that this could be a very useful idea,” says Asp, who characterizes the conventional battery as a “structural parasite.” He says the main benefit of structural batteries is that they reduce the amount of energy an EV needs to drive the same distance—or it can increase its range. “We need to focus on energy efficiency,” says Asp. In a world where most electricity is still produced with fossil fuels, every electron counts in the fight against climate change.
During the three-year project, the Storage team successfully integrated commercial lithium-ion batteries into a plenum cover, a passive component that regulates air intake into the engine. It wasn’t the car’s main battery, but a smaller secondary pack that supplied electricity to the air-conditioning, stereo, and lights when the engine temporarily turned off at a stop light. This was the first proof of concept for a structural battery that was integrated into the body of a working car and was essentially a small-scale version of what Tesla is trying to achieve.
But sandwiching a bunch of conventional Li-ion cells into the body of a car isn’t as efficient as making the car’s body serve as its own battery. During the Storage collaboration, Asp and Greenhalgh also developed a structural supercapacitor that was used as a trunk lid. A supercapacitor is similar to a battery but stores energy as electrostatic charge, rather than a chemical reaction. The one made for the Volvo trunk consisted of two layers of carbon fiber infused with iron oxide and magnesium oxide, separated by an insulating layer. The whole stack was wrapped in laminate and molded into the shape of the trunk.
Supercapacitors don’t hold nearly as much energy as a battery, but they’re great at rapidly delivering small amounts of electric charge. Greenhalgh says that they’re also easier to work with and were a necessary stepping stone toward accomplishing the same thing with a battery. The Volvo was a proof of concept that structural energy storage was viable in an EV, and the success of the Storage project generated a lot of hype about structural batteries. But despite that enthusiasm, it took a few years to procure more funding from the European Commission to push the technology to the next level. “This is a very challenging technology and something that’s not going to be solved with a few million pounds thrown at it,” says Greenhalgh of the financing difficulties. “We got a lot more funding, and now it’s really starting to snowball.”
This summer, Asp, Greenhalgh, and a team of European researchers wrapped up a three-year research project called Sorcerer that had the goal of developing structural lithium-ion batteries for use in commercial aircraft. Aviation is arguably the killer app for structural energy storage. Commercial aircraft produce a lot of emissions, but electrifying passenger jets is a major challenge because they require so much energy. Jet fuel is terrible for the environment, but it’s about 30 times more energy-dense than state-of-the-art commercial lithium-ion cells. In a typical 150-passenger aircraft, that means you’d need about 1 ton of batteries per person. If you tried to electrify this jet with existing cells, the plane would never get off the ground.
Established aerospace companies like Airbus and startups like Zunum have been working on electrifying passenger aircraft for years. But even if they’re successful, packing a plane full of conventional cells has some major safety risks. A short circuit in a large battery pack could cause a disastrous fire or explosion. “The aerospace sector is very conservative, and they’re nervous about packing aircraft with these really high-powered batteries,” says Greenhalgh. Emerging battery chemistries, including solid electrolytes, could lower the risk, but meeting the massive energy requirements of a passenger jet is still a major challenge that could be solved with structural batteries.
As part of the Sorcerer project, Asp and his colleagues created structural batteries made from thin layers of carbon fiber that could conceivably be used to build parts of an airplane’s cabin or wings. The experimental batteries the Sorcerer team developed have significantly improved mechanical properties and energy densities compared to the batteries they produced during the Storage initiative a decade earlier. “Now we can make materials that have at least 20 to 30 percent of both energy storage capacity and the mechanical capacity of the systems we want to replace,” says Asp. “It’s a huge progression.”
But technical challenges are only half the battle when it comes to getting structural batteries out of the lab and into the real world. Both the automotive and aviation industries are heavily regulated, and manufacturers often run on thin margins. That means introducing new materials into cars and planes requires demonstrating their safety to regulators and their superior performance to manufacturers.
As a structural battery is charged and discharged, lithium ions are shuttling in and out of the carbon-fiber cathodes, which changes their shape and mechanical properties. It’s important for manufacturers and regulators to be able to predict precisely how these structural batteries will react when they’re being used and how that affects the performance of the vehicles they power. To that end, Greenhalgh and Asp are building mathematical models that will show exactly how the structure of vehicles built from these batteries changes during use. Asp says it will probably be more than a decade before structural batteries are deployed in vehicles because of their significant power demands and regulatory challenges. Before that happens, he predicts, they will become commonplace in consumer electronics.
Jie Xiao, the chief scientist and manager of the Batteries & Materials System group at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, agrees. She thinks a particularly promising and often overlooked area of application is in microelectronics. These are devices that could comfortably fit on your fingertip and are particularly useful for medical implants. But first, there needs to be a way to power them.
“Structural batteries are extremely helpful for microelectronics, because the volume is very restricted,” says Xiao. While it is possible to scale down conventional batteries to the size of a grain of rice, these cells still take up valuable space in microelectronics. But structural batteries don’t take up more space than the device itself. At PNNL, Xiao and her colleagues have studied some of the fundamental issues with the design of microbatteries, like how to maintain alignment between electrodes when a structural battery is bent or twisted. “From a design point of view, it’s very important that your positive and negative electrodes face each other,” says Xiao. “So even if we can take advantage of void spaces, if those electrodes are unaligned they are not participating in the chemical reaction. So this limits the designs of irregular-shaped structural batteries.”
Xiao and her team have worked on several niche scientific applications for micro structural batteries, like injectable tracking tags for salmon and bats. But she says it’s still going to be a while before they find mainstream application with emerging technologies like electronic skin for prosthetics. In the meantime, however, structural batteries could be a boon for energy-hungry robots. In a laboratory on the Ann Arbor campus at the University of Michigan, chemist and chemical engineer Nicholas Kotov oversees a menagerie of small biomimetic robots he developed with his graduate students. “Organisms distribute energy storage throughout the body so that they serve double or triple functions,” says Kotov. “Fat is a great example. It has lots of energy storage. The question is: How do we replicate it?”
The team’s goal is to create machines that mimic animals, and so they require a power source that can integrate with their robotic skeletons, much like fat and muscle hem to ours. Some of their latest creations include robotic scorpions, spiders, ants and caterpillars that skitter around the floor. All of them are powered by a unique structural battery integrated with their moving parts. The battery sits on the back of the robot like a silver shell, and it both energizes and protects the robot’s mechanical guts. It’s taking a cue from nature to improve the unnatural.
Unlike the carbon-fiber and lithium-ion sheets being developed by Asp and Greenhalgh, Kotov and his students created a zinc-air structural battery for their automatons. This cell chemistry is able to store much more energy than conventional Li-ion cells. It consists of a zinc anode, a carbon cloth cathode, and a semi-rigid electrolyte made from polymer-based nanofibers that is nanoengineered to mimic cartilage. The energy carriers in this type of battery are hydroxide ions that are produced when oxygen from the air interacts with the zinc.
While structural batteries for vehicles are highly rigid, the cell developed by Kotov’s team is meant to be pliable to cope with the movements of the robots. They’re also incredibly energy-dense. As Kotov and his team detailed in a paper published earlier this year, their structural batteries have 72 times the energy capacity of a conventional lithium-ion cell of the same volume. For now, their batteries are being used to power robotic toys and small drones as a proof of concept. But Kotov says he expects they’ll be used in midsize robots as well as larger hobby drones in the not-so-distant future. “Drones and medium-size robots need to have new solutions for energy storage,” Kotov says. “I can guarantee you that structural batteries will be a part of that.”
The battery has always been an addendum, a limiting factor, and a parasite. Today it’s vanishing before our eyes, melting into the fabric of our electrified world. In the future, everything will be a battery, and stand-alone energy storage will seem as quaint as landline telephones and portable CD players. It’s a disappearing act worthy of a great magician: Now you see it—and soon you won’t.