Apple reportedly planning thinner and lighter MacBook Air with MagSafe charging

Apple is said to be working on a new version of the MacBook Air with a brand new physical case design that’s both thinner and lighter than its current offering, which was updated with Apple’s M1 chip late last year, per a new Bloomberg report. The plan is to release it as early as late 2021 or 2022, according to the report’s sources, and it will also include MagSafe charging (which is also said to be returning on Apple’s next MacBook Pro models sometime in 2021).

MagSafe would offer power delivery and charging, while two USB 4 ports would provide data connectivity on the new MacBook Air. The display size will remain at its current 13-inch diagonal measurement, but Apple will reportedly realize smaller overall sizes by reducing the bevel that surrounds the screen’s edge, among other sizing changes.

Apple has a plan to revamp its entire Mac lineup with its own Apple Silicon processors over the course of the next two years. It debuted its first Apple Silicon Macs, powered by its M1 chip, late last year, and the resulting performance benefits versus their Intel-powered predecessors have been substantial. The physical designs remained essentially the same, however, prompting speculation as to when Apple would introduce new case designs to further distinguish its new Macs from their older models.

The company is also reportedly working on new MacBook Pros with MagSafe charging, which could also ditch the company’s controversial TouchBar interface — and, again according to Bloomberg, bring back a dedicated SD card slot. All these changes would actually be reversions of design changes Apple made when it introduced the current physical notebook Mac designs, beginning with the first Retina display MacBook Pro in 2012, but they address usability complaints by some of the company’s enthusiast and professional customers.

Raspberry Pi Foundation launches $4 microcontroller with custom chip

Meet the Raspberry Pi Pico, a tiny little microcontroller that lets you build hardware projects with some code running on the microcontroller. Even more interesting, the Raspberry Pi Foundation is using its own RP2040 chip, which means that the foundation is now making its own silicon.

If you’re not familiar with microcontrollers, those devices let you control other parts or other devices. You might think that you can already do this kind of stuff with a regular Raspberry Pi. But microcontrollers are specifically designed to interact with other things.

They’re cheap, they’re small and they draw very little power. You can start developing your project with a breadboard to avoid soldering. You can pair it with a small battery and it can run for weeks or even months. Unlike computers, microcontrollers don’t run traditional operating systems. Your code runs directly on the chip.

Like other microcontrollers, the Raspberry Pi Pico has dozens of input and output pins on the sides of the device. Those pins are important as they act as the interface with other components. For instance, you can make your microcontroller interact with an LED light, get data from various sensors, show some information on a display, etc.

The Raspberry Pi Pico uses the RP2040 chip. It has a dual-core Arm processor (running at 133MHz), 264KB of RAM, 26 GPIO pins including 3 analog inputs, a micro-USB port and a temperature sensor. It doesn’t come with Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. And it costs $4.

If you want to run something on the Raspberry Pi Pico, it’s quite easy. You plug your device to your computer using the micro-USB port. You boot up the Raspberry Pi Pico while pressing the button. The device will appear on your computer as an external drive.

In addition to C, you can use MicroPython as your development language. It’s a Python-inspired language for microcontrollers. The Raspberry Pi Foundation has written a ton of documentation and a datasheet for the Pico.

Interestingly, the Raspberry Pi Foundation wants to let others benefit from its own chip design. It has reached out to Adafruit, Arduino, Pimoroni and Sparkfun so that they can build their own boards using the RP2040 chip. There will be an entire ecosystem of RP2040-powered devices.

This is an interesting move for the Raspberry Pi Foundation as it can go down this path and iterate on its own chip design with more powerful variants. It provides two main advantages — the ability to control exactly what to put on board, and price.

Image Credits: Raspberry Pi Foundation

Elon Musk said it was ‘Not a Flamethrower’

After two days locked up in an Italian prison, American Max Craddock was finally able to make his case to a judge.

“It’s not a weapon of war,” his lawyer told the investigating magistrate. “It’s a toy they sell to children.”

Craddock had been arrested in the Sardinian port city of Olbia in June 2018 after trying to board a private party bus with a collectible flamethrower from Elon Musk’s latest startup, The Boring Company. Craddock had painted his flamethrower black, and written on it the name of a floating music festival in the Bahamas he had attended the previous year while starring in reality TV show Unanchored.

Alarmed by the sight of what he thought was a gun, the bus driver refused to drive off, and then called the police.

“They were very chill at first,” Craddock told TechCrunch in a recent phone interview. “But as the night went on, it kept getting worse. I spent the first night in jail in Olbia and then they took me to prison.”

When Craddock managed to get a lawyer, she told him the judge would probably just let him go with a warning. Instead, the magistrate ordered him back to his cell. That was when Craddock, pictured below, learned possession of a flamethrower in Italy can carry a 10-year prison sentence.

A few months later, author John Richardson was sitting down to work at his home in London, when there was a loud knock at the door. He opened it and five police officers barged in wearing tasers and tactical gear.

“I think a couple of them also had handguns,” Richardson told TechCrunch. “But I’m slightly hazy on that because my legs went wobbly.”

The police officers sat Richardson down on his sofa and informed him that they had a warrant to search the premises. “I was, like, what’s going on here?” Richardson recalled. “Then something clicked and I said, ‘Is this about the flamethrower?’ ”

The raid was indeed about his flamethrower.

Craddock and Richardson are not the only Boring Company customers to have fallen foul of law enforcement.

More than 1,000 flamethrower purchasers abroad have had their devices confiscated by customs officers or local police, with many facing fines and weapons charges. In the U.S., the flamethrowers have been implicated in at least one local and one federal criminal investigation. There have also been at least three occasions in which the Boring Company devices have been featured in weapons hauls seized from suspected drug dealers.

The upshot: What Musk and his army of fans thought was just another of his money-spinning larks is having real-world consequences for people and countries not in on the joke.

The Boring Company did not respond to detailed questions from TechCrunch for this story.

The spark of an idea

Inspired by Los Angeles traffic, Musk launched The Boring Company in December 2016. The startup’s mission was to solve urban traffic jams by moving cars through tiny tunnels. But re-engineering sewer tunneling technology to build a revolutionary subterranean transportation network doesn’t come cheap. In an effort to drum up awareness and funds, Musk announced in December 2017 a limited run of novelty flamethrowers designed and branded by The Boring Company.

It was a scheme that had produced results earlier that year. Musk raised $1 million just weeks after launching sales of a $20 Boring Company hat.

“I’m a big fan of Spaceballs, the movie,” Musk told Joe Rogan during an infamous podcast in 2018. “They have a flamethrower in the merchandising section of Spaceballs, and, like, the kids love that one.”

The device uses a standard propane gas canister and is functionally similar to propane torches for melting ice, killing weeds or applying roofing materials. But with its rifle-style stock, pistol grip and sci-fi styling, the Boring Company’s flamethrower had a very different aesthetic — more post-apocalyptic party accessory than everyday yard maintenance.

Musk did his best to hype sales, tweeting to his Twitter followers, which numbered about 22 million at the time: “Flamethrower obv best way to light your fireplace/BBQ. No more need to use a dainty ‘match’ to ignite!”

He also threw a launch party in Los Angeles, where Craddock was one of the first 1,000 customers to collect a flamethrower, just before his European trip. “I removed the gas canister, put the flamethrower in my carry-on, and had no trouble on the flights,” he said.

Musk’s influence and the appeal of the product provided a winning combination.

“I had no intention of going around setting fire to stuff,” said Richardson. “I just thought it looked pretty cool, and was something I could potentially flip for a lot more money down the line.”

The Boring Company would make 20,000 flamethrowers and sell them at $500 each, netting the young company $10 million.

‘Not’ a Flamethrower

The 20,000 flamethrowers quickly sold out, with orders flooding in from around the world. As the shipping date neared, however, The Boring Company realized its scorching new product could also be a legal hot potato.

“We are told that various countries would ban shipping of it, that they would ban flamethrowers,” Musk told Rogan in 2018. “So, to solve this problem for all of the customs agencies, we labelled it, ‘Not a Flamethrower.’ “

“Did it work? Was it effective?” asked Rogan. “I don’t know. I think so. Yes,” Musk replied.

The correct answer was no.

In London, the flamethrower came to the attention of Operation Viper, a rapid response team dedicated to tackling gun crime. Working with customs officials, Viper tracked Musk’s flamethrowers en route to the nation’s capital. “There has been a debate as to whether these are firearms,” one of the Viper officers wrote in an email to Richardson. “Similar flamethrowers have been seized right across London.” One Londoner had his laptop and several cellphones confiscated along with the flamethrower.

Flamethrower raids were also happening around the UK and across Europe. A YouTube vlogger in Manchester was targeted by police after featuring the Boring Company’s gadget in one of his videos, while up to 1,000 purchasers in Switzerland had devices confiscated and were issued fines. One took his case to court, saying the flamethrower was little different from a school Bunsen burner. He lost.

Not just a European problem

Without the immediacy of a Customs check, the backlash to Musk’s flamethrowers in the United States took longer to arrive. But in June 2019, a Democratic lawmaker in the New York State Senate introduced a bill that would criminalize owning and using Musk’s flamethrower.

“Elon Musk’s Boring Company released a new flamethrower… without any concern to the training of the purchasers or their reasons for buying,” reads S1637. “This bill establishes that owning and using a flamethrower is a criminal act, unless it is used for agricultural, construction or historical collection purposes. These dangerous devices should not be sold to civilians, and use needs to be restricted to trained professionals.”

Not every police force believes that new laws are necessary — finding that existing ones are enough. In June 2020, police in Springfield, Mass., stopped a car for a missing inspection sticker. One of the officers noticed what he thought was a rifle hidden beneath a seat — actually a Boring Company flamethrower. Its owner, passenger Brandon McGee, was charged with carrying a dangerous weapon and an “infernal machine” (a device for endangering life or property using fire).

The same month, FBI agents executing a search warrant against a Pennsylvania man, Brandon Althof Long, stumbled across his Boring Company flamethrower propped against a wall. Long had been indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of conspiracy to riot and cause civil disorder, and conspiracy to use fire to commit a felony, during riots in Ohio protesting police brutality.

The agents seized the flamethrower out of concern for their safety, which a U.S. district judge later ruled lawful. “Other individuals could be located inside the house and the flamethrower could have been used to endanger officers as they retreated from Long’s home,” she wrote.

Novel items like flamethrowers are rarely specified in law, says Ryan Calo, a law professor and co-founder of the Tech Policy Lab at the University of Washington. “Some items – like guns or spring knives – are weapons ‘per se,’ meaning that they are always weapons. But most statutes have an ‘or other deadly weapon’ clause as well, meaning that anything that is capable of causing serious bodily harm, even a rock, can be a weapon in the right circumstances,” he said.

The problem is, what circumstances? A flame-spouting weed-killer might not attract the interest of police, whereas a similar device styled like an assault rifle is more likely to be considered threatening. “And if you use the item during the commission of another crime, this can lead to a distinct offense of using a deadly weapon to commit a felony,” said Calo.

For all Musk’s portrayal of the Not a Flamethrower as just an entertaining toy, police forces — and criminals — in North America are increasingly treating them as dangerous weapons. In rural Wisconsin, a two-year narcotics investigation led police to arrest two men in July 2020 with a hoard of drugs, cash and weapons. Among the cocaine, pistols and assault rifles prominently displayed in the traditional seizure photo was a Boring Company flamethrower. Similar seizures were displayed by police in Canada in December and again this month.

guelph guns-seized- boring company flamethrower

Guelph Police Service lays out items seized including Not a Flamethrower, the novelty item sold by The Boring Company. Image credit: Guelph Police

No company has complete control over what customers do with its products. However, this isn’t the first time a product connected to Musk has been misused.

Tesla, the electric automaker led by Musk, has been criticized for naming its advanced driver assistant system Autopilot and for calling the $10,000 add-on option Full Self-Driving (FSD) even though the driver must remain engaged at all times and is legally liable. A German court has banned the company from using the terms “Autopilot” or “full potential for autonomous driving” on its website or in other marketing materials.

Safety advocates have argued that using terms like Autopilot and FSD misrepresents the capabilities of the system. The name, along with the lack of an in-cabin camera that monitors the driver, has led owners to push well beyond the bounds of the system.

Videos showing Tesla owners misusing Autopilot and FSD abound on YouTube. Some have had run-ins with law enforcement. One Canadian man was charged for sleeping in his Tesla as it drove down the highway.

Eternal flame

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

John Richardson eventually got his Not a Flamethrower back from the Metropolitan police. He now intends to keep it out of the public eye, at least until it’s worth selling. “I’m happy to sit on it for however long,” he said. “And if there is a zombie apocalypse, at least I’ve got one.”

For now, Craddock remains the only person that TechCrunch can identify as having been incarcerated solely for possessing a Not A Flamethrower. “It was a hair-raising experience,” he said. “I’m in the middle of nowhere in Sardinia, on 24-hour lockdown with an older guy giving off Mafia vibes.”

After nearly a week in prison, Craddock was abruptly handed his belongings (flamethrower aside) and set free. “My lawyer asked the judge, ‘Do you really want to be the guy on international news keeping an American in jail over this toy?’,” he said. “I think that was the key to getting me out.”

Craddock took the first plane home. He says he now regrets taking the flamethrower abroad, and carrying it in public: “I would have preferred not to have spent that week in an Italian prison but now I’ve got a hell of a story.”

He also has another flamethrower.

“As soon as I got back, I built myself a new one,” said Craddock. “You can follow YouTube videos with links to all the things you need. It’s pretty simple.”

Startups look beyond lidar for autonomous vehicle perception

Last CES was a time of reckoning for lidar companies, many of which were cratering due to a lack of demand from a (still) non-existent autonomous vehicle industry. The few that excelled did so by specializing, and this year the trend has pushed beyond lidar, with new sensing and imaging methods pushing to both compete with and complement the laser-based tech.

Lidar pushed ahead of traditional cameras because it could do things they couldn’t — and now some companies are pushing to do the same with tech that’s a little less exotic.

A good example of addressing the problem or perception by different means is Eye Net’s vehicle-to-x tracking platform. This is one of those techs that’s been talked about in the context of 5G (admittedly still somewhat exotic), which for all the hype really does enable short-distance, low-latency applications that could be life-savers.

Eye Net provides collision warnings between vehicles equipped with its tech, whether they have cameras or other sensing tech equipped or not. The example they provide is a car driving through a parking lot, unaware that a person on one of those horribly unsafe electric scooters is moving perpendicular to it ahead, about to zoom into its path but totally obscured by parked cars. Eye Net’s sensors detect the position of the devices on both vehicles and send warnings in time for either or both to brake.

CG illustration of a bicyclist and car being warned of an imminent collision.

Image Credits: Eye Net

They’re not the only ones attempting something like this, but they hope that by providing a sort of white-label solution, a good size network can be built relatively easily, instead of having none, and then all VWs equipped, and then some Fords and some e-bikes, and so on.

But vision is still going to be a major part of how vehicles navigate, and advances are being made on multiple fronts.

Brightway Vision, for instance, addresses the issue of normal RGB cameras having limited visibility in many real-world conditions by going multispectral. In addition to ordinary visible-light imagery, the company’s camera is mated to a near-infrared beamer that scans the road ahead at set distance intervals many times a second.

CG illustration of a camera using infrared to see further ahead at night.

Image Credits: Brightway Vision

The idea is that if the main camera can’t see 100 feet out because of fog, the NIR imagery will still catch any obstacles or road features when it scans that “slice” in its regular sweep of the incoming area. It combines the benefits of traditional cameras with those of IR ones, but manages to avoid the shortcomings of both. The pitch is that there’s no reason to use a normal camera when you can use one of these, which does the same job better and may even allow another sensor to be cut out.

Foresight Automotive also uses multispectral imagery in its cameras (chances are hardly any vehicle camera will be limited to visible spectrum in a few years), dipping into thermal via a partnership with FLIR, but what it’s really selling is something else.

To provide 360-degree (or close) coverage, generally multiple cameras are required. But where those cameras go differs on a compact sedan versus an SUV from the same manufacturer — let alone on an autonomous freight vehicle. Because those cameras have to work together, they need to be perfectly calibrated, aware of the exact position of the others, so they know, for example, that they’re both looking at the same tree or bicyclist and not two identical ones.

Image showing Foresight cameras being attached magnetically to a car's body.

Image Credits: Foresight Automotive

Foresight’s advance is to simplify the calibration stage, so a manufacturer or designer or test platform doesn’t need to be laboriously re-tested and certified every time the cameras need to be moved half an inch in one direction or the other. The Foresight demo shows them sticking the cameras on the roof of the car seconds before driving it.

It has parallels to another startup called Nodar that also relies on stereoscopic cameras, but takes a different approach. The technique of deriving depth from binocular triangulation, as the company points out, goes back decades, or millions of years if you count our own vision system, which works in a similar ways. The limitation that has held this approach back isn’t that optical cameras fundamentally can’t provide the depth information needed by an autonomous vehicle, but that they can’t be trusted to remain calibrated.

Nodar shows that its paired stereo cameras don’t even need to be mounted to the main mass of the car, which would reduce jitter and fractional mismatches between the cameras’ views. Attached to the rear view mirrors, their “Hammerhead” camera setup has a wide stance (like the shark’s), which provides improved accuracy because of the larger disparity between the cameras. Since distance is determined by the differences between the two images, there’s no need for object recognition or complex machine learning to say “this is a shape, probably a car, probably about this big, which means it’s probably about this far away” as you might with a single camera solution.

Image Credits: Nodar

The industry has already shown that camera arrays do well in harsh weather conditions, just as human eyes do,” said Nodar COO and co-founder Brad Rosen. “For example, engineers at Daimler have published results showing that current stereoscopic approaches provide significantly more stable depth estimates than monocular methods and LiDAR completion in adverse weather. The beauty of our approach is that the hardware we use is available today, in automotive-grade, and with many choices for manufacturers and distributors.”

Indeed, a major strike against lidar has been the cost of the unit — even “inexpensive” ones tend to be orders of magnitude more expensive than ordinary cameras, something that adds up very quickly. But team lidar hasn’t been standing still either.

Sense Photonics came onto the scene with a new approach that seemed to combine the best of both worlds: a relatively cheap and simple flash lidar (as opposed to spinning or scanning, which tend to add complexity) mated to a traditional camera so that the two see versions of the same image, allowing them to work together in identifying objects and establishing distances.

Since its debut in 2019 Sense has refined its tech for production and beyond. The latest advance is custom hardware that has enabled it to image objects out to 200 meters — generally considered on the far end both for lidar and traditional cameras.

“In the past, we have sourced an off-the-shelf detector to pair with our laser source (Sense Illuminator). However, our 2 years of in-house detector development has now completed and is a huge success, which allows us to build short-range and long-range automotive products,” said CEO Shauna McIntyre.

“Sense has created ‘building blocks’ for a camera-like LiDAR design that can be paired with different sets of optics to achieve different FOV, range, resolution, etc,” she continued. “And we’ve done so in a very simple design that can actually be manufactured in large volumes. You can think of our architecture like a DSLR camera where you have the ‘base camera’ and can pair it with a macro lens, zoom lens, fisheye lens, etc. to achieve different functions.”

One thing all the companies seemed to agree on is that no single sensing modality will dominate the industry from top to bottom. Leaving aside that the needs of a fully autonomous (i.e. level 4-5) vehicle has very different needs from a driver assist system, the field moves too quickly for any one approach to remain on top for long.

“AV companies cannot succeed if the public is not convinced that their platform is safe and the safety margins only increase with redundant sensor modalities operating at different wavelengths,” said McIntyre.

Whether that means visible light, near-infrared, thermal imaging, radar, lidar, or as we’ve seen here, some combination of two or three of these, it’s clear the market will continue to favor differentiation — though as with the boom-bust cycle seen in the lidar industry a few years back, it’s also a warning that consolidation won’t be far behind.

Apple said to be planning new 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pros with MagSafe and Apple processors

Apple has planned new upgraded MacBook Pros for launch “later this year” according to a new report from Bloomberg. These new models would come in both 14-inch and 16-inch sizes, with new and improved Apple Silicon processors like those that Apple debuted on the new MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro model late last year. They would also see the return of Apple’s MagSafe charger, a magnetic dedicated charging port that would replace USB-C for power, and they could potentially do away with the Touch Bar, the small strip of OLED display built in to the keyboard on modern MacBook Pros.

Bloomberg’s report suggests that these MacBook Pro models will have processors with more cores and better graphics capabilities than the existing M1 chips that power Apple’s current notebooks with in-house silicon, and that they’ll also have displays with brighter panels that offer higher contrast. Physically, they’ll resemble existing notebooks, according to the report’s sources, but they’ll see the return of MagSafe, the dedicated magnetic charging interface that Apple used prior to switching power delivery over to USB-C on its laptops.

MagSafe had the advantage of easily disconnecting in case of anyone accidentally tripping across the power cord while plugged in, without yanking the computer with it. It also meant that it kept all data ports free for accessories. Bloomberg says that the revitalized MagSafe for new notebooks will also offer faster charging versus USB-C, in addition to those other benefits.

As for the Touch Bar, it has been a topic of debate since its introduction. Pro users in particular seem to dislike the interface option, especially because it replaces a row of dedicated physical keys that could be useful in professional workflows. The report claims that Apple has “tested versions that remove the Touch Bar,” so it seems less clear that Apple will finally unring that particular bell, but I personally know a lot of people who would be excited if that does come to pass.

Finally, Bloomberg says Apple is also planning a new redesigned MacBook Air. That was updated most recently just a couple of months ago, and the report says it’ll only follow “long after” these new MacBook Pros, so it seems unlikely to arrive in 2021.