Tag Archives: Tech

The only way to control tech giants like Facebook may be for governments to gang up

It used to be that the most influential media companies in Canada had to keep at least one eye on the Canadian public interest whether they wanted to or not.

Broadcasters are regulated through the Broadcasting Act, and while newspapers face less oversight, a restriction on foreign ownership means there is always the potential that a determined Canadian government could do something, like change tax rules, that could nudge them into line.

But now, as internet mega companies including Facebook and Google have taken over much of the ad revenue and eyeballs that mainstream media used to enjoy, there have been only nascent efforts to make them answer to the public interest. 

This week, as Australia considered laws to make them pay for news, the new communications giants have demonstrated they can thumb their noses at mere national governments.

But with a growing sense around the world, including Canada, that Facebook, Google and the like have grown too big and powerful, there are those who say an international effort is necessary to take on the titans of tech.

Facebook’s warning shot to Australia

So far, Australia’s tactic doesn’t seem to be working as planned — although Canada is now vowing to follow their lead and make Facebook pay for news content.

Following a proposal by Australia to force the technology giants to pay for Australian news stories, stories that the tech companies distribute and use to earn their own profits, Facebook has fired a warning shot across the bow of the country’s Parliament.

“They’ve created chaos, and it’s quite deliberate,” Daniel Angus, a professor in digital communication at Queensland University of Technology told Bloomberg news.

Facebook not only offered a flat no, but effectively ejected Australian news stories from its site both down under and worldwide, preventing users from viewing them.

The company even removed access to things like government health notices and weather information, something they later said was a mistake.

Google, however, has entered negotiations with News Corp in a way that signalled a possible accommodation with the new rules. News Corp’s Rupert Murdoch, a conservative, has been one of the titans’ biggest critics, in 2019 joining an unlikely pact with U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, a progressive Democrat, to weaken Google’s power.

Thursday, Canada’s Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault said Canada may adopt the Australian model, or follow the lead of other countries trying to get tech giants to pay for content.

After his start in Australia, Rupert Murdoch has become a global media mogul and a strong critic of the power of the internet giants that profit from the news his companies produce. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Calls for regulation

Besides the complaint that the companies like Facebook and Google are earning their profits at the expense of the struggling news industry that is so crucial to the democratic system, there have been many other reasons for demanding greater regulation.

In the U.S., the calls grew louder after Russian interference in the 2016 election of Donald Trump, along with data mining and privacy scandals. 

Many object to the uncontrolled misinformation campaigns tech giants seem unable to manage, increasingly harmful conspiracy theories — including the false narratives about the 2020 U.S. election.

Others complain they are simply too big, able to avoid taxes and acting as monopolies in areas such as search and personal communication.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, speaking at a company conference in 2015. Facebook has increasingly come under scrutiny from regulators who consider it too powerful, but efforts to regulate haven’t done much. (Robert Galbraith/Reuters)

So far, attempts by large international organizations to convince the tech giants to play nice have been weak or ineffective.

There are international bodies, including the United Nations Global Compact, to set standards and to encourage “business as a force for good” but participation is voluntary and Christina Koulias Senior Manager, Global Governance said in an email that Facebook is not a participant.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has a policy on Corporate Social Responsibility. But an ambitious plan by the OECD to coordinate global tax policy that I wrote about back in 2014 has yet to bear fruit for a series of reasons, most recently, say those in the know, due to a brush-off from the Trump administration.

In fact, according to Canada’s own Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), based in Waterloo, Ont., the faceoff between Facebook and Australia illustrates a gap that needs to be filled. And they have a proposal for how to do it.

Tech giants make the rules and the profits

In the case of Facebook, the company claims the Australian rules don’t fit its business model, since it would be forced to pay up when third parties post newspaper articles.

“The proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content,” Facebook regional managing director William Easton told the Associated Press.

But CIGI’s managing director of digital economy, Bob Fay, said the problem is that corporations know they can set rules to maximize profits without thinking about the interests of other players, including governments.

“We have these very large, very powerful, global companies that set their own rules, based on what’s best for their own business model,” said Fay.

“We’ve seen very recent examples of where these companies, based on their business models have created substantive harm.”

As well as the new Australian conflict that interfered with people’s health and well-being, Fay specifically cites the use of social media to incite violent and anti-government action in the U.S. — culminating in the invasion of Congress.

There is currently no global forum to regulate cross-border digital giants but Canada’s CIGI wants to create one, says Bob Fay, managing director of digital economy. (Submitted by Bob Fay)

The digital giants are influential in individual countries like Canada and Australia, but in many places they have virtually no physical presence. That makes them hard to influence back.

And while international treaties on standardization or international trade agreements exist, the phenomenon of internet tech giants that cross national boundaries is so new and changing so rapidly, that national governments simply were not prepared.

“There really is no global forum [where] countries come together on these types of issues,” said Fay.

That’s why CIGI has proposed something it calls the Digital Stability Board an international body, with decision making powers, to constantly monitor and regulate global digital platforms in real time as they transform.

The name and model come from the Financial Stability Board, which has a mandate from the G20 to “promote the reform of international financial regulation and supervision,” Fay writes.

The CIGI proposal is not an instant solution for the current problem in Australia. Constituting the body and getting everyone to participate will take time.

But now that Trump, who disliked international co-operation, has been replaced by President Joe Biden, and now that the world has seen how willing Facebook has been to use its power, Fay hopes governments will be spurred into action.

“There are enormous benefits that come from these platforms, but the harms have become increasingly obvious, and they touch every aspect of our lives,” said Fay. “Governments need to take action.”

Follow Don Pittis on Twitter @don_pittis

CBC / Radio-Canada has business partnerships with Facebook for content distribution, and with Google for services that encompass mobile distribution, data storage and communication tools.i

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Google Shuts Down Stadia Games Studio, Plans to License Tech

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Google announced its Stadia cloud gaming service almost two years ago, but the company is already planning to shake things up. In a new blog post, Google says it will shut down its game studio and will instead rely entirely on third-party developers. Google adds that this is just part of a larger strategy to strengthen its Stadia partnerships, but this feels like the beginning of the end for Google’s fledgling game streaming platform. 

Stadia is in the same general category as GeForce Now and Microsoft xCloud: Instead of using local hardware like a PC or game console to render images, Stadia has powerful servers that do the hard work and then stream video of the gameplay down to your devices. Stadia works on phones, tablets, Chromecasts, and almost any computer that can run Chrome. The service launched with a handful of third-party games and a few temporary exclusives, but Google promised first-party content that would take full advantage of the platform’s capabilities. That’s no longer in the cards without its Stadia Games and Entertainment (SG&E) division, which has offices in Los Angeles and Montreal. The move will affect about 150 developers, most of whom will be moved to other jobs at Google. However, gaming veteran Jade Raymond will be leaving Google after joining the company in 2019 to run SG&E. 

Google says it will continue to bring third-party games to the platform, but the cost of creating AAA games is very high. Although, it’s hard to believe Google didn’t see that coming. Regardless, Google says it wants to continue developing the underlying technology of Stadia and license it to other companies. It’s unclear how this is going to jive with the existing Stadia storefront. Letting other firms run cloud gaming services with Stadia tech would only create more competition for Stadia, which won’t have any exclusive Google-developed games after this move. 

The end of SG&E also means we may never see the “new generation” of gaming Google promised. At launch, Google envisioned online worlds with thousands of people interacting in real-time, along with integrated live streaming and Google Assistant features. It’s unlikely any third-parties are going to build things like that for Stadia when Google can’t even be bothered to support its own platform. If Google does give up on Stadia in a few years, we’ll probably point to this as the first nail in Stadia’s coffin. 

Stadia isn’t dead, and Google could still sort this out if it can just choose a lane. You can play select Stadia games for free on almost any device by going to the website on your computer or downloading the Stadia app. If you want the Stadia controller with its lower-latency connection, those are still available for $ 69 (and it is a very good controller). Although, spending money in the Stadia ecosystem might not be the best call when Google itself is shying away from the investment.

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Lab tech who found B.C.’s 1st case of COVID-19 recalls ‘sheer terror’ of discovery

In the early days of the pandemic, Rebecca Hickman would carefully watch each sample being tested for the novel coronavirus in her lab at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.

“I was so afraid of getting a positive,” the public health laboratory technologist told CBC this week.

That meant she was paying close attention as the first test came back positive at about 3:30 p.m. on Jan. 27, 2020.

“I actually started to see it get positive within a few seconds,” Hickman recalled. “My first feeling was sheer terror, from a personal point of view.”

The co-designer of B.C.’s test, medical laboratory technologist Tracy Lee, was in a meeting as the results were coming in. She remembers getting a call from Hickman and rushing to the lab to watch the test complete.

Lee felt “both fear and relief” as the test came back positive — fear for what this meant for the people of B.C., but relief that the test was working as planned.

Hickman shared those mixed emotions.

“To design, validate and implement a molecular laboratory test usually takes months if not years, and so to do that in the span of days is a huge achievement,” Hickman said.

There was also some excitement. She said she “felt like I was a part of something huge.”

Hickman spent the rest of that first afternoon sequencing a portion of the genome from the positive sample, and by midnight the lab had confirmed it was SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19.

B.C. CDC laboratory technologists Tracy Lee and Rebecca Hickman worked together to design the initial COVID-19 test to detect the virus in B.C. It is still being used today. (Michael Donoghue/BCCDC)

It had been a 16-hour workday.

“I went home and slept for five hours, then came back,” she recalls.

The next day, British Columbians watched as Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry confirmed the inevitable. The virus was here in B.C.

“This is the first time in my life I’ve ever found things out before I read it in the news,” Hickman said.

‘Instability and craziness’

A year later, B.C. has confirmed 66,779 cases of the novel coronavirus and 1,189 people have died.

Hickman has gone from anxiously checking the totals after the daily afternoon update from health officials to barely noticing as B.C. records hundreds of cases each day. She says COVID fatigue is real.

There have been difficult times, like in the spring when lab supplies and personal protective equipment began to run out.

“The instability and craziness of it all has been the hardest part,” Hickman said.

Watch: Rebecca Hickman recalls finding B.C.’s first case of COVID-19

Rebecca Hickman was just nine months into her new job at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control when she confirmed B.C.’s first case of the novel coronavirus. 1:11

Today, much of her time is spent doing whole genome sequencing for about 15 to 20 per cent of COVID-19 cases.

That work helps health officials track the new, more infectious variants that have popped up in different parts of the world. It’s also used for outbreak response — scientists can determine how the virus is spreading through a community or health-care facility and whether cases are being introduced from new sources.

Hickman was just nine months into her job at the B.C. CDC when she discovered the first case.

She said she’s proud to have played a part in such a major moment in history.

“It has been easily the most difficult year of my life but also the most fulfilling. What we have achieved here over the last year is huge,” Hickman said.

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Epic Confirms High-End Gaming PCs Can Run PS5’s Unreal Tech Demo

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When Epic released footage from its upcoming Unreal 5 tech demo last week, one major question was whether PC gamers would be able to enjoy equivalent performance or capabilities. As we discussed last week, any major boost to console performance that relies explicitly on storage hardware could require relatively fast hardware on the PC side of things.

Epic has now chimed in and confirmed our expectations. According to Epic Games China (via DSOGaming), the PS5 version of the game ran at 1440p at 30fps. A PC equipped with an RTX 2080 notebook and a Samsung 970 EVO is capable of running the demo at ~40fps.

This is a fairly good performance data point. The Samsung 970 EVO isn’t a top-end NVMe SSD, but it’s not a bad performer, either. A 2018 midrange M.2 drive is significantly faster than the top-end SATA drives you could get a few years earlier, for example, simply thanks to higher transfer speeds.

The major piece of the puzzle we’d still like to know is whether the SSD or the GPU is more important to the general performance of the game. If a 970 EVO and an RTX 2080 notebook GPU are sufficient to hit 40fps, what happens if you switch to Intel’s highest-end Optane drive with the same GPU? Conversely, what happens if I drop the SSD down to a SATA model or an early M.2 drive with less absolute performance?

To be clear, I do not expect SSDs to suddenly become more important than GPUs or CPUs for gaming performance. At most, I suspect we’re going to see the emergence of a new impactor on gaming performance. GPU will remain the most important factor, followed by CPU, likely followed by SSDs.

It’s not that SSDs can’t impact gaming already — they absolutely do — but for the most part, the impacts are limited to save game loads and level transitions. Games that show sustained in-play performance benefits from SSDs tend to be those that rely the most heavily on streaming assets during play (Diablo III was one early title to benefit directly from an SSD in this fashion, as it reduced lag while exploring the world).

If you’re a gamer on an old magnetic hard drive, I wouldn’t panic and rush out to buy an SSD, but it’s probably time to start seriously eyeing an upgrade. It looks as though new games may demand more performance from your storage solution. As for what kind of solution, I’m not going to make specific predictions there, but any reasonable M.2 SSD from the past few years will undoubtedly be fine, and I’d be stunned if every type of SSD wasn’t ultimately supported.

Up until now, games have treated HDDs and SSDs as largely synonymous, though plenty of titles recommend solid state storage as part of their ideal system requirements. Question is, will we now see HDDs fall off the “Minimum” end of the spec sheet, or will it just be a case of SSDs giving a profoundly better experience?

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Microsoft’s New Xbox Series X Compression Tech Might Solve Next-Gen Storage Woes

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With a new console generation on the horizon, Microsoft, Sony, and gamers are all collectively bracing for the impact on next-generation console storage capacities. While it’s true that game sizes have grown for decades, what we’re seeing for the first time with this upcoming generation is that hard drive / SSD sizes really aren’t increasing all that much to keep pace. The Xbox Series X will offer a 1TB SSD, which is the same capacity as the Xbox One X (though vastly faster) and only 2x larger than the Xbox One in its launch configuration back in 2013.

The problem is, of course, game sizes haven’t merely doubled since then. We’ve now got titles like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare at an eye-popping 185GB. Remember back when Titanfall, at 50GB, was raising eyebrows and breaking records? We’ve exceeded that by 3x in the past seven years.

According to Microsoft, it has a compression technology, BCPack, intended for this generation that should substantially improve the situation. First, the company has built hardware-level decompression directly into the console, reducing the overhead from handling the workload at top speed from ~3 CPU cores to nothing. There’s a dedicated controller handling this task now.

That’s beneficial for performance, but it doesn’t do much to help your hard drive’s aching bits. According to reports online, however, Microsoft’s new texture-packing methods have hit unparalleled heights of compression, reducing size by as much as 50 percent compared with current methods. Sony’s Kraken, in contrast, will supposedly improve texture compression by about 30 percent.

This is potentially huge. Most of the data held in VRAM or transferred across the PCIe bus is fundamentally texture data. With a single uncompressed 4K texture now as large as 8MB, most of what gets stored on an HDD for a game is texture data. Improving compression algorithms and implementing hardware-based decompression is how Microsoft is hoping to keep costs down without giving up on next-gen fidelity.

At the same time, though, we’ve seen the impact of changes like this before, as when Microsoft introduced a 30 percent compression ratio improvement during the lifetime of the Xbox 360.

There’s a really great presentation over at VentureBeat on the cost of making games and how it’s changed over the past few decades. While it dates to 2017, I only recently discovered it, and there’s some useful information I haven’t seen before, measuring concepts like the cost-per-byte to develop a AAA game. One of the more interesting findings of the report is that bytes don’t increase in a stepwise fashion with each console generation.


This is a log scale, so each marker on the y-axis is 10x the size of the previous. Game sizes have grown at a remarkably steady rate. An interesting point the author, Raph Koster, makes is that the cost per byte has plateaued in recent years (this was 2017, I couldn’t find an updated slide):

Net change in cost per byte hasn’t really come down since 2005, which is one profound reason why games are so much more expensive now than then. We create more bytes, and we create better bytes, but we aren’t really building cheaper bytes. While the discussion of how games have become more expensive over time may seem to have nothing to do with the question of total storage capacity on the Xbox Series X, both questions relate to how much storage the system needs in the first place, which impacts its overall price. The reason we’ve seen Microsoft sinking so much effort into optimizing every aspect of its content delivery network, I suspect, is partly to avoid the pinch pain of offering less storage capacity relative to game size than we’ve seen at launch in previous consoles.

Both the Xbox Series X and PS5 support add-on drives to increase their base capacities, which is good — I suspect both will need it.

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2020 Subaru Legacy Tech Dive: EyeSight, DriverFocus, Starlink Shine

The 2020 Subaru Legacy is a near-perfect car if you’re looking for solid transportation and extensive safety technology across all trim lines. Every Legacy has all-wheel-drive, and enough driver-assist technology to be virtually self-driving on highways while protecting pedestrians in town (called Subaru EyeSight), track and alert inattentive drivers (DriverFocus), and call for help in an accident (Subaru Starlink).

The new, 2020 seventh-generation Legacy also has front cupholders deep enough to not spill a 32-ounce Big Gulp, were the car capable of a 4-second 0-60 run (it’s more like 7 to 9 seconds, depending on the engine). The engine’s “boxer” technology, similar to what Porsche uses, lowers the car’s center of gravity. The front and back rows are spacious and the trunk is enormous. Highway mileage is in the upper thirties.

So what’s not to like? Not much. This Subie won’t move the excitement needle quite like Mazda or Honda does among midsize sedans. It’s not as dazzling as the 2020 Hyundai Sonata. There’s less ground clearance than the similar Subaru Outback crossover. The new infotainment system and navigation had a few quirks, the kind a firmware upgrade typically cures, and stop-start twisted the steering wheel and my thumb a couple of times (more below).

The Nappa leather cockpit of the 2020 Subaru legacy.

The Car for Inattentive Drivers?

You say you’re a good driver; I say I’m a good driver. Yet surveys find the majority of Americans self-describe themselves as above-average drivers, which is statistically impossible. And yet, we also know people close to us whose driving skills or cognition worry us: teenagers and others in their first few years of driving, aging parents, a spouse or partner who’s had a couple of fender-benders that were the fault of “the other guy,” and people who text or create on-the-fly playlists even when they know it’s unsafe.

Subaru is a leader among automakers in making virtually all its safety technology standard across every one of the six trim lines, or model variants, of this new 2020 car. Buy any Legacy Base, Premium, Sport, Limited, Limited XT, or Touring XT and you get:

  • A dual front-facing camera system, Subaru EyeSight, to keep you in your driving lane, warn of / brake for possible forward collisions, detect and brake for pedestrians at speeds up to 20 mph.
  • Full-range adaptive cruise control as part of EyeSight.
  • An active driving assistance system that controls speed and lane centering, pacing any car in front of you, also part of EyeSight.
  • LED low and high-beam headlamps with automatic high-beam control.
  • All-wheel-drive for extra grip in snow or rain, or on gravel roads.

Any Legacy other than the base model has safety telematics (called Subaru Starlink) standard. Blind-spot warning is available, optional on two trim lines and standard on three; it also includes rear cross-traffic alert and automatic braking while backing up. An excellent eye-tracking driver distraction system, DriverFocus, is standard on the top two trim lines and optional on a third.

One feature not offered is a surround-view camera array that primarily improves tight-spaces parking, but it also protects you (if you watch the screen) from running into kids’ tricycles or kids on tricycles. Rear auto-braking provides that protection.

With the 260-hp turbo engine (top two trim lines only), you’ll hit 60 in 6-7 seconds. Add 2 seconds for the 182 hp engine on other Legacies.

Legacy on the Road: Mostly Smooth Sailing

I drove the top-of-the-line 2020 Subaru Legacy Touring XT, about $ 37,000 including shipping, with warm brown Nappa leather, moonroof, an 11-inch portrait-orientation center stack LCD, vented front seats, heated fronts and rears, onboard navigation, and immense amounts of back-seat legroom and trunk room.

Subaru lie-flat boxer engine: two cylinders go left, two cylinders go right.

With the new, 2.4-liter turbo engine of 260 hp and continuously variable transmission on the Limited and Touring XTs, it was quick, hitting 60 mph in 6-7 seconds. Highway miles went by quickly. Under foot-down acceleration, there wasn’t much noise from the CVT transmission; some testers have noted it on the non-turbo Legacy that has to be pushed harder to get up to highway speeds.

Most four-cylinder-engine cars have an inline design. Most Subarus including the Legacy have horizontally opposed, flat or boxer engines. They are effectively V engines where the angle is 180 degrees, not the 60 or 90 degrees of V6 or V8 engines. The engine is more compact, has less inherent vibration, gives the car a lower center of gravity, and allows for a lower hood and better driver sightlines. Against that, the engine requires two cylinder heads. Porsche also uses flat-six engines in the 911, Cayman, Spyder, and Boxster. The term boxer alludes not to the small crate it fits in, but rather the in-out motion of the two adjacent pistons that looks like a boxer’s fists.

Where most automakers use a combination of radar and a camera for driver assists, Subaru’s Eyesight system uses stereoscopic cameras. It’s standard on the 2020 Legacy, Forester, Outback, and Ascent; and available on the Impreza, Crosstrek, and WRX.

Pedestrian Detection Saves Another Jaywalker

Highway driving was enjoyable with the driver assists, a nicely sound-insulated cabin, very good Harman Kardon premium audio, Wi-Fi on Starlink telematics cars, and USB jacks for four people. In town, the driver assists work well; a jaywalker who popped out mid-block was picked up and the car came to a quick (sudden) stop. But spirited back-roads driving was not as much fun as some other cars in its class, notably the Mazda6 and Honda Accord. The 2020 Subaru Legacy is based on the same new platform as the 2020 Subaru Outback crossover-almost-wagon. But the Legacy’s ground clearance is 5.9 inches to 8.7 inches for the Outback. So the Legacy is fine in the rain, snow, and on gravel roads, but not the first choice in Subarus if the road to your country cabin is deeply rutted.

Subaru has rudimentary self-driving capabilities utilizing EyeSight, although Subaru doesn’t consider it to be formal self-drive tech and has no Eye-something shorthand name such as, say, EyeDrive. (BMW might not be amused.) Once activated, it centers you on a highway and proceeds at a pre-set speed, slowing for cars in front of you. It combines Subaru’s Advanced Adaptive Cruise Control feature with Lane Centering. As with other vehicles, activation is a multi-step process.

DriverFocus, on upper trim lines, combines a camera and infrared illuminator. It watches to see if the driver’s eyes are on the road ahead.

DriverFocus: Big Brother Is on Your Side

Take your eyes off the road, and the DriverFocus eye-tracker tells you to pay attention.

Subaru DriverFocus, an eyebrow module at the top of the center stack, contains a camera and IR illuminator to track where the driver is looking, and rats you out after 10-15 seconds of not looking ahead. GM’s highly regarded Super Cruise self-driving technology uses eye-tracking also.

Some driver-attention monitors count the micro-movements a driver continually makes as he or she drives.

I had two concerns with my test car: I was startled a couple of times by the gas-saving stop-start system. Occasionally as the engine came to a stop at a traffic light, the steering wheel on my test car abruptly turned a couple of inches and twice caught my thumb that was loosely holding the wheel next to the spoke. After the second time, I decided to keep my thumbs off the thumb grips once this car stopped at a light.

The infotainment system had trouble parsing some spoken commands, wanted to drive me to the intersecting street with the same name plus “Extension” at the end, and occasionally would not connect an iPhone using two different Apple cables or with Bluetooth. On sunny days, the LCD was sometimes hard to read and the brushed chrome-look trim strip around the center display reflected the sun’s glare.

The Subaru Legacy instrument panel. The center multi-information looks busy. (It is.) But it also gives the driver lots of information at a glance. If this feels like TMI, you can flip to simpler views.

EyeSight Is Improved, Still Unique

Subaru says EyeSight has been improved and I sensed that both in the ability to pick up a car ahead from a greater distance and to be less affected in the rain. In some ways, EyeSight in snowy conditions may be better than radar in that windshield wipers clear the paths in front of the two cameras. If snow blocks the radar sensor, you have to get out and scrape it off with a brush or your gloved hand, assuming the driver knows where the sensor is located in the grille. Also, snow and rain reduce the effectiveness of radar to some degree.

Subaru Legacy Touring XT, the top trim line.

Safety Features Abound

Even if you are a statistically good driver, a car such as the Legacy improves your odds of staying safe. It also improves pedestrians’ odds: A 2019 Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study found Eyesight-equipped Subarus reduce pedestrian-injury claims by 35 percent. IIHS also found Subarus with second-generation Eyesight did better than first-generation systems dating to 2010. IIHS said it found no significant self-selection bias, meaning the idea that safety-conscious good drivers might seek out safe-seeming Subarus and Volvos. Separately, IIHS found Subarus with EyeSight had up fewer rear-end collisions and passenger injuries.

How solid is Subaru on driver assists and safety technology? Here’s a rundown:

2020 Subaru Legacy Key Safety Technology, Driver Assists

Trim lines: Entry Middle Top
Lane departure warning Std Std Std
Lane-keeping assist Std Std Std
Lane centering assist Std Std Std
Blind-spot warning $ / Std Std
Adaptive cruise control Std Std Std
Forward collision warning Std Std Std
Auto emergency braking Std Std Std
Pedestrian detection/braking Std Std Std
Safety telematics (Starlink) Std Std
Driver-assist package (EyeSight) Std Std Std
Driver monitoring (DriverFocus) — / $ / Std Std
Active driving assistance Std Std Std
The table shows features as standard (Std), optional ($ ) or not available (–) on entry (Legacy base), middle (Premium, Sport, Limited, Limited XT) and top (Touring XT) trim lines.

Should You Buy?

The 2020 Subaru Legacy is a solid midsize car for people who don’t need a status symbol. The Legacy wins a lot of awards but not all of them. Consumer Reports has it as the best midsize sedan and one of only 10 CR Top Picks among 300 models for 2020. In contrast, Car and Driver put the Legacy eighth behind the Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, and the Mazda Mazda6, among others. Guess which publication favors safety features and comfortable ride versus spirited handling? The Legacy is also a 2020 IIHS Top Safety Pick+, which means good ratings in crash tests, advanced or superior ratings in available front crash prevention, and (the plus part) acceptable or good headlamps standard.

We like the Legacy a lot, even if within Subaru this is an outlier, a sedan in a company known for outdoorsy crossovers and SUVs: Crosstrek, Forester, Outback, Ascent. The Ascent had arguably been the best midsize SUV until the Kia Telluride / Hyundai Palisade came along last year. The Legacy had been unique in offering all-wheel-drive, but the Nissan Altima and Toyota Camry added it for 2020.

The steering wheel has big buttons and rockers, all legibly labeled. If only all cars were this clear with switchgear.

Subaru is a relatively reliable brand. The car is eminently practical. From the side, though, it’s hard to distinguish from a half-dozen other brands. Fuel economy is good, an EPA combined rating of 23 mpg for the turbo models, 29 mpg for the non-turbo. Real-world mileage should be several mpg higher, and with judicious driving, the non-turbo could approach 40 on the highway.

If you’re shopping Subaru for max safety, we’d suggest: Move past the Legacy base ($ 23,645 with freight) because you can’t get blind-spot warning / rear-cross-traffic alert or safety telematics, and past the Legacy Premium ($ 25,895) because you can get BSW / RCTA, but not reverse automatic braking (RAB). Blind-spot warning matters: Not all young drivers know to check side mirrors and look over their shoulders; older drivers may know, but may not have the dexterity to turn their heads sideways.

Every Legacy has dual front USB jacks (above) and, except for the base model (below), two more jacks in the back. Note how every jack and switch is nicely and legibly lettered.

The Legacy Sport ($ 27,845) lets you get BSW-RCTA-RAB in a $ 2,245 options package, along with a power moonroof and onboard navigation, for $ 30,090 total. Or for $ 30,645, you can get the Legacy Limited that includes BSW-RCTA-RAB, and the one options package, $ 2,045, gives you the moonroof again, a heated steering wheel, and DriverFocus. The top two trim lines, the Limited XT ($ 35,095) and Touring XT ($ 36,795), give you nice and nicer leather, DriverFocus, and the moonroof. So the sweet spot may be the Legacy Sport plus the options package, or the Legacy Limited, at about $ 30K each. Cross-brand shoppers comparing front-drive-only midsize competitors should attribute about $ 1,500 of Subaru’s price to AWD.

The Subaru Legacy should be at the top of your consideration set along with the Hyundai Sonata, the ExtremeTech 2020 Car of the Year. If you want a sporty car, look to the Mazda6, the Honda Accord, or – this is not a joke – the segment best-seller Toyota Camry with the TRD Sport, as in Toyota Racing Division.

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Tesla Tech Leak: This Autopilot Car Stops for Red Lights

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Tesla’s Autopilot self-driving feature is about to stop for red lights, a most useful feature if you’re going to be full-self-driving in urban areas. It also will sense green lights but only proceed through them if the driver keeps pressure on the gas pedal – sorry, throttle pedal – after being sure there’s no other hazard such as an oncoming car turning left.

News of this apparent new feature, cited in a future Tesla owner’s manual, is leaking out. The feature combines GPS that tells the car when it’s near a traffic signal; the car’s camera; and onboard software that determines the signal phase, traffic-engineer-speak for if it’s green, yellow or red.

Tesla’s new “Stopping at Traffic Lights and Stop Signs (US Only)” feature. Doesn’t roll off the tongue like “Supercharger” or “Ludicrous Mode.”

Portions of the manual were posted on Twitter by green (@greentheonly). The pages say it’s for “Model 3Model Y” as if the included-model phrase got a search-and-replace without a separating space.

Here’s how it works: You must be using Autosteer or Traffic-Aware Cruise Control, and have enabled the “Stopping at Traffic Lights and Stop Signs” (nine-syllable!) feature. When approaching a traffic light, no matter if it’s green, the car slows down and displays a red line on the display to show where the vehicle would come to a stop. Want to continue going through on green? Press down on the gear selector or tap the throttle. The red stop line turns gray, the car proceeds through the intersection, and then resumes the cruising speed.

Some responders to @greentheonly took exception to the description of Stopping at Traffic Lights and Stop Signs as merely GPS based “with just some vision assist.”

If you enter or get close to the intersection on a phase change, green to yellow or yellow to red, the car may decide to stop. You can force the car through the intersection if you’re the type who presses the gas pedal harder on yellow.

Tesla includes a couple of additional warnings. If you’re in a turning lane, the car stops at the red stop line created on the display. If there’s no red stopping line, it means the car didn’t detect a traffic “and you must take over all driving maneuvers.” The manual also warns that if you’re cruising up to a signalized intersection and the display doesn’t show the red possible-stopping line, it means the car will keep on going through the intersection.

A video was posted on Twitter by Out of Spec Motoring (@out_of_spec) showing the Stopping at Traffic Lights and Stop Signs feature in action. It appears to be a video obtained from Tesla. Tesla PR people didn’t confirm or deny the video being real (if not real, it’s one hell of a stunt created by people with downtime on the event of coronavirus), except then Elon Musk retweeted a screengrab tweeted by Third Row Tesla Podcast (@thirdrowtesla) and said, in effect, this is the kind of stuff Tesla is doing.

Our take: This is quite likely a feature that will roll into Tesla’s $ 7,000 Full-Self Driving option, as well as into Tesla’s early access program that lets regular drivers (not Tesla test drivers) beta-test features.

It also shows how advanced Tesla has become and why it’s stock nearly tripled between last summer and Feb. 14 (the day before the stock market did its recreation of 2008 and 1929). Tesla stock went stratospheric because investors who want place bets on EVs and autonomy find Tesla may be the purest play.

Not that Autopilot is perfected. Researchers found that the old trick of taping a 35 mph sign to look (even partly) like 85 mph persuades Autopilot to assume you-know-what speed.

At the same time, Tesla isn’t alone. Lots of automakers know how to recognize stop signs and traffic lights. (They don’t self-drive through, though.) Audi especially has been busy combining GPS and V2I technology, starting with Las Vegas, the metro area with the smartest, interconnected traffic signals, to alert drivers to lights about to go red, and once you’re stopped at the light, get a countdown until the light goes green.

One thing Audi learned quickly about the American-driver ethic is this: Stop the countdown at 3 (seconds before green) because otherwise some drivers will hammer the throttle at 0 and be at risk of T-boning a driver coming through on a late yellow. Darwinism is alive in America.

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At Stanford’s AI Conference, Harnessing Tech to Fight COVID-19

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As another sign of the times, Stanford repurposed its planned Human-Centered AI (HAI) Conference into a digital-only, publicly accessible symposium on how technology has been and can be employed in fighting the spread and assisting in the treatment of COVID-19. We heard from researchers, doctors, statisticians, AI developers, and policymakers about a wide variety of strategies and solutions. Some of them have been working on this problem for a long time, some have quickly re-purposed their flu research, and others have shifted entirely from what they were doing before because of the urgency of this crisis.

Forecasting Tools for Policy Makers

For public officials trying to assess how various interventions will affect the spread of COVID-19, and the impact it will have on health infrastructure, or just for curious individuals who want to get more information than is provided in often confusing national briefings, Stanford’s SURF (Systems Utilization Research for Stanford Medicine) gives you a way to experiment with various values for the spread of the disease and predicted effectiveness of possible interventions and look at how that will affect how many will become ill, and how severely. The tool is pre-loaded with current case numbers by county throughout the US.

Mapping the Travel of the Novel Coronavirus Using Its Genome

From this graphic you can see the chronology of how the virus spread around the world

From this graphic, you can see the chronology of how the virus spread around the world.

One of the most impressive aspects of the HAI event was the amazing number of non-profit research efforts made possible by scientists dedicated to improving public health. One of those is Nextstrain.org. The group provides an open-source toolkit for bioinformatics and collects data created with it to provide visualizations of various aspects of a variety of pathogens, now including the novel coronavirus. The featured image for this story is a genetic “family tree” of 2499 samples from around the world. You can visit the site and even see an animation of how the virus must have spread based on how its genome mutated.

Learnings From Singapore and Taiwan

While mainland China stumbled badly in its initial response to COVID-19, and we in the US clearly acted much too slowly to nip it in the proverbial bud, a few countries, including Singapore and Taiwan, have done a particularly effective job of preventing the pandemic from ravaging their population. A number of their strategies have been widely reported, but there are also several very interesting applications of technology used in those countries that were covered at the HAI conference.

Stanford & Woods Institute’s Michele Barry told us about a clever mobile app, TraceTogether, that has been widely deployed in Singapore. It uses a combination of location history and current Bluetooth proximity to not only let you know whether you are near someone who has tested positive for the virus, but alert you in the event that someone you have been near in the last couple weeks is now testing positive. Obviously this involves sharing a lot of information, which would face plenty of legal and social challenges in the US or most other countries. But it has proven very effective in slowing the spread of the disease. The same is true of the mandatory location tracking implemented for those coming into the country with any symptoms.

Chinese State media and US mainstream media show different perspectives in their coverage

Chinese State media and US mainstream media show different perspectives in their coverage. — Courtesy of Stanford Cyber Policy Center.

Similarly, Taiwan implemented an extensive testing and mandatory quarantine of symptomatic individuals. Incoming flights were boarded and temperatures were taken, for example. Those with fevers found on planes or when entering public buildings were placed in quarantine, brought food, and paid a salary. Passenger travel databases were also connected to the national health database, so it was possible to alert those who had been near an infected individual so that they could get tested. It also meant that anytime anyone visited a doctor, the physician would know in advance if they were at high risk of being exposed and should therefore take precautions. Real-time mask availability maps were made available online in Taiwan, which worked because after their 2003 experience the country acted early to ramp up mask production so that there were enough for everyone to use one all the time.

One striking number from mainland China is that they sent 15,000 epidemiologists to Hubei Province once they decided to deal with the outbreak head-on — that’s twice as many as we have total in the United States.

Data Literacy and Critical Thinking are Key Skills for the General Public

Several of the speakers addressed the manifold issues with a large amount of often contradictory information, along with misinformation and disinformation, that is bombarding people worldwide. The specifics of the problem vary greatly by country and by demographic. In some countries like China, information tends to come “top-down” and be heavily filtered, so the problem becomes finding additional sources of information. In countries like the US, the problem can be the opposite, where there are far too many sources of information, many of which aren’t reliable or are deliberately spreading false information. But even here, politicization and factionalization have meant that reliable sources of information can be hard to come by.

HealthMap has added COVID-19 tracking to its existing crowd-sourced flu tracking capability

HealthMap has added COVID-19 tracking to its existing crowdsourced flu-tracking capability.

One place where all the speakers were in agreement is that increased data literacy and critical thinking are key skills for individuals wanting to understand what is happening and have an informed perspective on how they should act, and how they should encourage others to act. In terms of data literacy, two concepts that are now front and center are dealing with the implications of exponential growth, and of interpreting margins of error in forecasts. Anyone trained in science, engineering, or math may be familiar with them, but it is clear many individuals — including many of our policy-making public officials — aren’t. As far as critical thinking, checking sources and putting data in context is more important than ever given the large amount of rapidly evolving data being produced on this topic. Even within the research community, the urgency to get research published is causing a lot of early printing of papers and rushed studies with limited datasets.

We’ve only covered a few of the highlights of Stanford’s HAI event in this article. There was also an entire technical session on tactics for developing drugs, and several excellent talks on telemedicine and using AI for eldercare. For those of you who are involved with machine learning, Kaggle’s Anthony Goldbloom gave a great description of how the platform is being deployed to assist, and how individuals can get involved. Harvard’s John Brownstein also showed off some of their impressive crowdsource data that populates healthmap.org. A few of the full talks are already online on the event web site, and more are being added as they are made available.

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GM Unveils New Lithium-Ion Battery Tech, Vows 400-Mile Cars

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General Motors is going electric in a big way. This week the company announced plans for a new battery technology called Ultium that will have more range than Tesla and be used in a broad array of future EVs including an upcoming Cadillac luxury SUV and flagship sedan. GM says the technology uses less hard-to-get, hard-on-miners cobalt, and cell costs should fall below the $ 100-per-kilowatt-hour level that starts to make EVs more competitive than gasoline-engine cars.

The batteries will be built as rectangular pouches rather than cylindrical cells – more space-efficient – that can be stacked horizontally and vertically. GM promises 19 battery and drive unit configurations initially for affordable cars, luxury cars, SUVs and pickups. GM and partner LG Chem are scheduled to break ground in the next three months on a $ 2 billion plant in Lordstown, Ohio, that could create more than 1,100 jobs. Sorry, make that “good-paying jobs,” since this is an election year.

General Motors chairman / CEO Mary Barra at the Ultium rollout Wednesday in Michigan at GM’s Design Dome.

GM is spending this week briefing analysts, media, employees, and partners at its Warren, Michigan, Design Dome on its Empire Strikes Back strategy. Since fall, relative-newcomer Tesla tripled in value and is worth more than GM and Ford combined as analysts see Tesla being the best pure-play for people who want to get in on EVs as an investment. “GM is building toward an all-electric future because we believe climate change is real,” said chairman and CEO Marry Barra Wednesday. She pegged GM’s EV investment at $ 3 billion annually.

One attention-grabber is GM’s claim that its new battery technology will provide a range of 400 miles or more per charge, slightly topping the 390 miles Tesla claims for the Tesla Model S Long Range sedan. (Tesla, for its part, plans to lay out its future EV and battery plans within the next month or so.) GM didn’t go into detail on what size battery pack would accomplish the feat, although you’d obviously need larger packs for larger cars.

Working with LG Chem, GM’s new battery technology uses rectangular pouch cells rather than cylindrical cells. Battery modules will be built in Lordstown, Ohio.

The new battery technology will have configurations from 50 kWh to 200 kWh for cars and SUVs. Performance vehicles will achieve 0-60 mph acceleration of as little as 3 seconds. GM says most will have 400-volt battery packs, and support for Level 2 charging (possible at home with 220 volts) and DC fast charging at up to 200 kW. The truck platform would have 800-volt battery packs and 350 kW fast-charge capability. This would include commercial vehicles.

For both cars and trucks, the pouch cells will allow for even higher energy density and lower centers of gravity. The ability to stacks cells horizontally or vertically is unique in the industry. GM also says battery management is built-in and – compared with the current Chevrolet Bolt – reduces battery pack wiring 80 percent.

GM says the new cells will have “the highest nickel and lowest cobalt content in a large format pouch cell.” It also says its researchers are working to eliminate cobalt as one of the battery components. Currently, cobalt is tough to mine, comes from countries that are not always friendly to the US, and working conditions are said to be unsafe, although there’s considerable discussion about whether that’s because of inherent dangers or because the mining companies don’t treat workers well.

GM’s new battery technology will be called Ultium.

GM plans an extensive rollout of new electric vehicles starting this year. According to GM:

Chevrolet, Cadillac, GMC and Buick will all be launching new EVs starting this year. The next new Chevrolet EV will be a new version of the Bolt EV, launching in late 2020, followed by the 2022 Bolt EUV, launching Summer 2021. The Bolt EUV will be the first vehicle outside of the Cadillac brand to feature Super Cruise, the industry’s first true hands-free driving technology for the highway, which GM will expand to 22 vehicles by 2023, including 10 by next year.

The self-driving, shared EV called the Cruise Origin was shown in concept form in January in San Francisco. Next up to be announced is the Cadillac Lyriq in April. The GMC Hummer EV will be introduced May 20 with production due to begin in fall 2020 at GM’s Detroit-Hamtramck plant, the company’s first plant just for EVs.

GM is staking its massive investment on a big uptick in demand for EVs – whether voluntary, helped by tax incentives, or mandated because of concerns about climate change. GM says:

Third-party forecasters expect U.S. EV volumes to more than double from 2025 to 2030 to about 3 million units on average. GM believes volumes could be materially higher as more EVs are launched in popular segments, charging networks grow and the total cost of ownership to consumers continues to fall.

GM revealed an all-new modular architecture and Ultium batteries at the GM Design Dome in Michigan.

GM is right to be optimistic since there’s pretty much nowhere to go but up for the EV industry. The market last year for electric vehicles was 330,000 in the US out of 17.0 million light vehicles sold, 1.9 percent, and those 48 vehicles include both pure EVs and plug-in hybrids that go 15 to 50 miles on battery before the combustion engine kicks in (but not hybrids like the Toyota Prius).

Pure EVs, 18 models total, accounted for 245,000 sales, or 1.4 percent of the US market. But when Tesla Model 3, Model X, and Model S got done feasting on the market – with no tax credits to offer anymore – what’s left amounted to barely 50,000 sales. Just six pure-EV models managed more than 5,000 sales last year:

  1. Tesla Model 3, 158,925
  2. Tesla Model X, 19,225
  3. Chevrolet Bolt EV, 16,148
  4. Tesla Model S, 14,100
  5. Nissan Leaf, 12,365
  6. Audi e-tron, 5,369

GM had two other electrified vehicles on sale in 2019, the end-of-life Chevrolet Volt PHEV with 4,910 sales and the Cadillac CT6 PHEV with 24 sales. The year before Chevy killed the Volt PHEV, it actually had slightly more sales than the Bolt EV, but demand for plug-ins continues to be soft. Last year the Toyota Prius Prime was the second-best-selling electrified vehicle with 23,630 sales, but the only PHEV with more than 10,000 sales was the Honda Clarity, at 10,728. BMW has the most electrified vehicles, six, with five of them PHEVs.

History has shown that first-to-market status doesn’t always guarantee long-term dominance. Facebook was not the first social media platform. Remember Myspace? In other words, Tesla absolutely dominates the market for EVs today, but this is a long race, not a sprint.

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Why the Best Super Bowl Commercials Were All Cars and Tech

Super Bowls used to mean Tom Brady hoisting another trophy along with ads of polar bears drinking Coke on not-yet-melting polar ice caps, that and the Budweiser Clydesdales. Now the most memorable – sorry, memorably good – commercials are cars and tech. Car ads have always been part of the 54 Super Bowls, but in the dotcom boom years “tech ad” meant money frittered away. Remember Pets.com? Agillon? Epidemic.com? All goners. Maybe automakers did a better job because there really are differences among cars. And the tech guys have learned from the money-wasting days at the turn of the century.

Here are the best car and tech ads of Super Bowl 54 (that’s LIV for traditionalists) along with some that didn’t click quite as well, and the best non-tech ad. We’re linking to ads from places (mostly, automaker sites on YouTube) that don’t have ads in front of them because why should you pay (with your time) to see an advertisement in order to see an ad?

The Best Ads: Hyundai Sonata, Jeep Gladiator

Hyundai Sonata Smaht Pahk. Two car ads stood out. The Hyundai Sonata spot for Smaht Pahk was the winner because it was funny, it made fun of a socio-economic group you can always make fun (people from Boston, especially since New England departed the playoffs early), and most of all because it is going to sell Hyundai Sonatas. The Sonata is the most important new car of 2020 (see our review), it is the Extreme Tech Car of the Year, and it’s loaded with standard safety features, virtually all of which are on the base, $ 26,000 Sonata SE. The top-line  Sonata Limited, $ 34,000, includes Remote Smart Parking Assist, now being called Smart Park. Hop out, press the keyfob, and the Sonata pahks itself at Hahvahd Yahd, and backs out when you return. If you have a narrow garage in Back Bay or Chahlston, you don’t have to squeeze in and out inside the garage.

Too many Super Bowl commercials are ad agency spitting matches using client money to prove who’s more clever, with less thought given to whether the ad sells the product. The “Smaht Pahk” ad will do just that: Get customers to consider Sonata, and realize a mainstream car includes important new technology.

Jeep / Groundhog Day. This is the other spot that rose above the rest. Bill Murray reprised the 1993 movie Groundhog Day, this time in a Jeep Gladiator, the truck of the year in several autowriter / magazine competitions. It’s funny, it’s nostalgic, and if you don’t know Jeep makes a pickup truck in Punk’n Metallic orange paint and the doors and top come off (you do it yourself), now you do.

The concept of Groundhog Day the movie is weatherman Bill Murray is caught in an endless time loop that restarts each day when he wakes at 6 am to Sonny and Cher’s I Got You Babe, and has to again cover Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. It’s faithfully recreated in the ad, except no Andie McDowell this time. And to Jeep’s good fortune, the 2020 Super Bowl was played on Feb. 2, Groundhog Day. Appreciating this spot probably helped if you’re old enough to remember the movie from when it was in theaters. But if not, you should, since it’s in the National Film Registry for being deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Amazon Before Alexa. Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi ponder what life was like before Amazon Alexa. The spot borders on slapstick: An 1800s upper-class woman in the parlor tells the maid, “Alexxa, turn the temperature down, two degrees,” the maid takes a log off the fire, tosses it through the window to the sound of shattering glass and a man’s muffled scream. A man in an 1800s city asks the newsboy, “Alex, what’s today’s news?” and he responds, “It doesn’t matter. It’s all fake.” Then in a 1970s Oval Office scene, a Nixon-esque voice commands, “Alicia, remind me to delete those tapes.” In the next room, an admin says loudly, “Yes, Mister President,” then softly, “I ain’t deletin’ …”

Conservatives are probably fuming if they conclude the “fake news” line makes fun of rather than echoes the current administration (hmm, who runs Amazon?), and liberals find it fair recompense for sitting through a patriotism-heavy, pre-game show that did conclude with a touching moment when four 100-year-old World War II veterans took part in the pre-game coin toss, led by Charles McGee, a pilot with the Tuskegee Airman that battled both the Germans and racism.

Google / Loretta. An old man reminisces about his life with Loretta through old pictures Google calls up, along with a clip from their favorite movie, Casablanca. If there’s a “when they cry, they buy” ad, this is it. It’s going to make everybody wish their parents scanned or at least saved and ID’d their favorite photos for you to scan. Not in the commercial but important to know is that face recognition is getting so good – too good, in China – that the thing that used to hard to do, figuring out who that is in a 50-year-old photo, can now be done automagically.

Old Luxury (Going Away Party) / Genesis. Hyundai’s Genesis division rolled out its first SUV, the GV80, using young and hip Chrissy Teigen and John Legend as they make their escape from old people, oddly shaped dogs, and an old-world mansion into the GV80. From the staircase, she looks down and says, “To old luxury: You had a good run but now it’s time to choose you up a little bit … I give you young luxury.” Teigen then gestures to the open courtyard doors and points to the GV80 that – oops – hasn’t yet pulled up (“Where were you?” she asks driver Legend. “It was supposed to be a thing and you made it not a thing.”)

Never mind that Audi did essentially the same ad – “Old Luxury” (even the same name) – in a 2011 Super Bowl commercial. In this case, yuppie inmates inhabit a faux luxury prison (a mansion in LA) filled with affluent Boomers / Millennials. They unlock the cell bars and make their way toward a waiting car. A guard releases the dogs (showy hounds). When that doesn’t work, he’s ordered, “Hit ’em with the Kenny G,” and as Songbird plays, some refuse to leave while others do. Two escapees make it the courtyard, a Mercedes pulls up (you see the tri-star hood emblem) and one says, “Lancaster, no, it’s a trap,” and Lancaster replies, “Nonsense, my father owned one.”

But the theme works, and has for ages, going back at least to 1988 and “Not your father’s Oldsmobile.” Actually, it doesn’t always work. America’s oldest car brand, the brainchild of Barney Olds, was killed off in 2004.

The Other Car / Tech Ads

Porsche did a creditable job with “The Heist”: The Porsche Taycan EV sports car is spirited out of the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart. Once the heist is discovered, the guards argue / squabble over who drives which museum Porsche to track down the Taycan. That gives the viewer a chance to appreciate Porsche’s storied history and possibly begin to realize the Taycan is a continuation of Porsche history, not a bunch of greenies gone mad. The voices were a bit muffled, especially if you were watching the game with noisy friends, and works much better played on a PC with closed captions running.

A Toyota Highlander ad showed the car does indeed have a lot of room as the driver – 20 years ago this would have been a soccer mom commercial – picks up various people in comic distress from various scenes, ending with her son.

A third Hyundai group (Hyundai, Genesis, Kia) ad was for the upcoming Kia Seltos but more about the inspirational story of Oakland Raiders rookie Josh Jacobs and hard times growing up. It left some people wonder what Seltos is. Answer: The same platform as the subcompact and well-established Hyundai Kona, a bit roomier inside, and shipping this quarter.

T-Mobile and Verizon touted 5G service, which is still a ways off. T-Mobile used Anthony Anderson’s real-life, sassy, talky mom. Verizon essentially said that without 5G, emergency responders won’t get their job done as well.

Microsoft, whose Surface tablets are universally used (mandated) by the NFL, told the story of Katie Sowers, an assistant coach of the San Francisco 49ers. It’s a true story of perseverance and success, but the story was already being told in the two-week run-up to the Big Game.

Audi had an eTron Sportback spot run late in the evening after the kids were in bed, so they missed Maisie Williams singing “Let It Go” from Frozen.

GMC touted the rebirth of the Hummer as an EV in an ad with LeBron James. The Hummer is a ways off, so maybe it was okay to be low-key and laid back. This was not a call to action for hand-raisers.

Scout, the golden retriever owned by Weathertech founder David MacNeil, had his cancer cured at the University of Wisconsin vet school. MacNeil took a 30-second spot lauding the Badger vets and encouraging donations.  Wisconsin hasn’t gotten this much PR since this mentions by Wisconsin alum / Wall Street Journal sportswriter Jason Gay in his column. Nice touch – who doesn’t like retreivers? – and if MacNeil wants to spend six mil in hopes of getting at least that much in donations to Wisconsin, more power to him. Pets cure a lot of human ailments by being there for you.

Tom Brady made it to the Super Bowl (as one of the game’s 100 best players of the NFL’s 100 years) and also was a spokesmodel for a Hulu spot. Amazon promoted its drama Hunters. Quibi pushed its short video service that launches this spring (nothing more challenging than 10 minutes) and hopes you’ll start saying “I’ll be there in a Quibi.”

Best in Show (Non-Tech): Lil Nas X

The hands-down winner among non-tech or car ads was the Wild West dance moves showdown between Lil Nas X and Sam Elliott with Old Town Road playing in the background. (The guy strumming the guitar at the end was Billy Ray Cyrus.) Doritos footed the bill and reaped the rewards, as long as remembers remember it was Doritos and not Bud Light or Axe body wash. And yes, when Lil Nas rides off on a horse with cascading speakers, it pays homage to Sheriff Cleavon Little and the Gucci saddlebags in Blazing Saddles.

Fast and Furious 9: Everybody’s still trying to match Bullitt.

There also were ads that continued through the show, especially Tide Pods, the claim being that if you get a stain on your shirt before the game starts, you can much later wash – remember, wash, not eat detergent pods – and the stain comes out, at which point in the last ad, the guy gets his now-clean shirt stained again. There were plenty of ads for upcoming movies – Fast & Furious 9 (photo), Minions, Black Widow, No Time to Die – and the trailers’ special effects made people glad, or annoyed, they have surround sound speakers.

Fox ran a lot of promos for future programming, including one for the Daytona 500 where stock cars appeared to come onto and arc across the field. Conspiracy theorists will see hidden hands at work when a Super Bowl broadcast on Fox News (actually, Fox Sports, but don’t let facts get in the way) runs the Donald Trump commercial midway through the first period when everyone is watching and the Michael Bloomberg spot didn’t get airplay until late in the extended halftime. Fortunately, Kansas City and San Francisco made it close until the final minutes; three late Kansas City scores made for a 31-20 win. So most viewers stuck around all three hours of the game and J Lo / Shakira halftime.

A few ads got remade at the last minute to downplay or factor out death or helicopters (RIP, Kobe). So the death-and-resurrection of Mr. Peanut spot was pretty bland.

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