Google-Funded Pundit: Forget Transit, the Future Belongs to Robocars

Last week Salon ran a pretty horrendous piece on the future of transportation called “Oops — Wrong Future.”

Members of the Google robocar team. Photo: ##http://inhabitat.com/google-succeeds-in-making-driverless-cars-legal-in-nevada/##Inhabitat##

Writer Michael Lind argued that the “case for infrastructure investment has suffered from the lack of a plausible vision of the next American infrastructure.” Things that are not “plausible,” according to Lind, include “renewable energy and mass transit.” He wrote:

The idea that the U.S. could transition quickly from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources like wind power and solar power inspired many liberals to support artificially rigging markets in favor of renewable energy by methods like cap-and-trade and renewable energy standards that force working-class consumers, via utility, to buy expensive power from uneconomical wind, solar or biofuel sources. And for a brief moment in time, the center-left in the United States was entranced by the mirage of a continental high-speed rail system.

Okay, we’ll give you a second to consider that this was printed in one of the country’s leading, left-leaning online magazines.

“Rigging markets” is some pretty debatable rhetoric to describe renewable energy standards and cap-and-trade — a policy that is supported by the overwhelming majority of economists. (Billions of dollars in tax breaks for gas companies and subsidies for road building — some people might describe that as “rigging markets” in the opposite direction, but we digress.)

Unlike “uncritical,” “unrealistic” and “entranced” proponents of rail, Lind has a vision for the future that is very much like the present, or even the past. Brace yourselves, readers: In the future, the U.S. will have an endless supply of fossil fuel thanks to “environmentally responsible” shale gas exploration. Plus, in the future, rail and bus transit of all kinds will never be able to complete with Google’s self-driving cars.

Yes, Lind is a big fan of Google robocars. He goes on about their many benefits:

Robocars may be fatal for fixed-rail transportation, at least for passengers rather than freight. Google has been test driving self-driving cars in California and Nevada has become the first state to legalize driverless vehicles. No doubt it will take several decades for safety issues and legal arrangements to be worked out. But high-speed trains might find competition in high-speed convoys of robot cars on smart highways, allowed higher speeds once human error has been eliminated. And the price advantage of subway tickets over taxi fares in cities may vanish, when the taxis drive themselves. Point-to-point travel, within cities or between them, is inherently more convenient than train or subway journeys which require changing modes of transit in the course of a journey. Thanks to robocars, much cheaper point-to-point travel everywhere may eventually be cheap enough to relegate light rail and inter-city rail to the museum, along with the horse-drawn omnibus and the trans-atlantic blimp.

What Lind — and Salon — fail to mention is that his professional interests are very much entangled with the producer of those cars.

Lind works for the New America Foundation — a nonprofit think tank whose board chairman is Google executive chair and former CEO Eric Schmidt. Schmidt holds company stock worth billions, and both Schmidt and Google Inc. are among the think tank’s largest financial supporters. According to the New America Foundation, Schmidt and his wife, Wendy, gave between $250,000 and $1 million to the organization in 2010. (Its annual budget was about $15 million in 2010, according to IRS data.) Google itself funded the organization at between $100,000 and $249,999.

In a 2010 article for the New Yorker, reporter Jane Mayer — writing about fossil fuel industry titans the Koch brothers — warned of think tanks with close links to the economic sectors affected by their policy recommendations:

You take corporate money and give it to a neutral-sounding think tank which hires people with pedigrees and academic degrees who put out credible-seeming studies. But they all coincide perfectly with the economic interests of their funders.

Google has surely made a significant investment its self-driven car technology. Now that this economic behemoth has a stake in robocars and robocar infrastructure, let’s hope we won’t see a rash of Koch-esque intellectual posturing in favor of auto-oriented transportation policies.

The New America Foundation does some good work, which we’ve occasionally highlighted on Streetsblog, with funding from a diverse array of sources. The organization is a far cry from transparently self-interested groups like the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity. It would be a shame if it started drifting in that direction.

  • What a shill.

  • Anonymous

    What a limited vision for the future! The truth is that in a few decades every man, woman and child will have their own fusion-powered, supersonic flying robocar. Oh, and it will cook your breakfast too. How’s that for convenience?

  • Bolwerk

    Google is doing its best to keep our lives depressing and mundane. 

  • Larry Littlefield

    So who is going to pay for the public infrastructure to support Robocars?  Is there a suggestion that transit be de-funded to pay for it?

    Their vision doesn’t seem to place a value on the land motor vehicles require, nor does it consider the public investment required subsidies.  Thus, their view of what the “market” will do is based on a public push.

    Robocars might work on limited access highways.  That’s about it.

  • fj

    It seems that best immediate use for this smart computing technology would be for the visually and mobility impaired not in the one-ton wheelchairs called cars but net zero hybrid human-electric vehicles weighing less than 100 pounds traveling on completely safe routes at completely safe speeds; providing virtually complete accessibility for all.

    . . . And in compliance better than all other transportation modes with The Americans With Disabilities Act.

  • J

    Ignoring the ridiculous economic and environmental arguments, and omitting safety concerns, robocars still won’t make much practical sense in dense urban areas, given existing parking and other space constraints that this technology does not solve. Robocars may make some practical sense in suburban areas, but they won’t really make these areas attractive places to be. Instead, you’ll merely have a more pleasant ride to the strip mall parking lot, and perhaps a slightly faster trip due to the ability to synchronize vehicle movements to more efficiently use road space. However, this will almost certainly just lead to more induced demand, quickly filling up the newly improved capacity with more vehicle trips and longer vehicle trips.

  • TBaylor

    In a way, this may be a better fit for America. Except for some of the Northeast, we developed our towns and cities largely after cars were common, so our built environment is profoundly unsuited for any kind of mass transit (especially rail). We also have a car-culture here that most of the rest of the world doesn’t. Americans just aren’t going to ditch their cars to ride buses and bikes to work. We’re not going to give up the comfort, convenience, and safety of our private autos.Our government is not going to build high-speed rail, and we’re not going to be building any more heavy-rail or light-rail systems for our cities like Atlanta or DC (let alone NYC or Chicago). Even enlarging ones that already exist is generally a losing proposition! BRT is usually the the most we’ll invest in, mainly because it often requires little new infrastructure as buses can use re-purposed portions of existing roads and highways (this is one of its strengths—BRT doesn’t require specialized infrastructure like rail does). Look at how governors Kasich, Scott, and Christie put the kibosh on rail plans in the states—the people don’t want them. Not at the cost they come at, anyway. Face it, the American built environment is not conducive to public transportation. Unless you completely level most of “suburbia” and rebuild it to urbanist principles, you’ll never make it work here. So, that brings us back to self-driving cars. These cars could use the existing road infrastructure we’ve created over the past 100 years and have already paid for. No need to lay thousands of miles of track and buy trains or try to coerce people to living in transit-oriented development and take trains or buses to work or wherever. An easy transition, from manual cars to autonomous cars and then from gasoline powered engines to diesel, electric, or natural gas-powered engines. Ultimately, this would be far less disruptive to the fabric of American society than expecting people to relocate to shoebox apartments near light rail or BRT lines or to imagine that people in Arizona, Texas, and Tennessee will start biking 50 miles to work each day.I don’t necessarily see this as incompatible with a “complete streets” program (though it may spell the doom of transit-oriented development and the “densification brigade”). These cars would be safe, much safer than those driven by human beings. For those who to walk or bike in lieu of using a car, that can only be an improvement. So, they may spell the end of public transportation, but would be a boon to pedestrian and cyclist safety.

  • Thbaylor6

    In a way, this may be a better fit for America. Except for some of the Northeast, we developed our towns and cities largely after cars were common, so our built environment is profoundly unsuited for any kind of mass transit (especially rail). We also have a car-culture here that most of the rest of the world doesn’t. Americans just aren’t going to ditch their cars to ride buses and bikes to work. We’re not going to give up the comfort, convenience, and safety of our private autos.

    Our government is not going to build high-speed rail, and we’re not going to be building any more heavy-rail or light-rail systems for our cities like Atlanta or DC (let alone NYC or Chicago). Even enlarging ones that already exist is generally a losing proposition! BRT is usually the the most we’ll invest in, mainly because it often requires little new infrastructure as buses can use re-purposed portions of existing roads and highways (this is one of its strengths—BRT doesn’t require specialized infrastructure like rail does). Look at how governors Kasich, Scott, and Christie put the kibosh on rail plans in the states—the people don’t want them. Not at the cost they come at, anyway. Face it, the American built environment is not conducive to public transportation. Unless you completely level most of “suburbia” and rebuild it to urbanist principles, you’ll never make it work here.

    So, that brings us back to self-driving cars. These cars could use the existing road infrastructure we’ve created over the past 100 years and have already paid for. No need to lay thousands of miles of track and buy trains or try to coerce people to living in transit-oriented development and take trains or buses to work or wherever. An easy transition, from manual cars to autonomous cars and then from gasoline powered engines to diesel, electric, or natural gas-powered engines. Ultimately, this would be far less disruptive to the fabric of American society than expecting people to relocate to shoebox apartments near light rail or BRT lines or to imagine that people in Arizona, Texas, and Tennessee will start biking 50 miles to work each day.

    I don’t necessarily see this as incompatible with a “complete streets” program (though it may spell the doom of transit-oriented development and the “densification brigade”). These cars would be safe, much safer than those driven by human beings. For those who to walk or bike in lieu of using a car, that can only be an improvement. So, they may spell the end of public transportation, but would be a boon to pedestrian and cyclist safety.

  • Bc

    What are the objectives of any transportation system? To move people and materials? Safely, efficiently, and at low environmental / economic costs? Right? So, rather than jumping on the “anti-car” bandwagon, why not take a moment to see if this robo-car system does a better job at achieving those goals than any other future system. Just because you love transit today doesn’t make it the ideal system in the future. Is it really inconceivable that transit or fixed rail might be an obsolete mode in the future? Especially for passenger trips?

  • Observer

    There is the incoming tide of (domestic) crude on the horizon.  Horizontal drilling, hydrofracturing, and other technologies (ie butane gel gas phase change rock fracturing, drill string mounted diamond wire cutter) will transform old oil wells and tight gas/oil reservoirs into high volume producers.  Natural gas is pretty cheap so drill rigs are heading to oil fields as we speak.  Withing a decade, or even 5 yrs, oil prices could drop to $50 bbl or less.  This could be a repeat of the 80’s, with another decade of low prices to follow.  Eventually, demand will rise with low prices and we’ll be back to where we are at now ~2030.

  • The problem with Lind’s argument is that the largest chunk of operating expenses for transit is paying the drivers. If you can have a robocar, you can have a robobus, and POOF! You have slashed the price of transit, making it a much better investment. You can have smaller busses that have more convenient service. And why own a car at all? with robocars, taxi’s turn into on demand vehicle use without having to pay a driver. And unlike today’s taxis, robotaxis could park and shut down while not in use in strategic locations that anticipate demand. In the future you will be able to call up a taxi with any kind of vehicle with a push of a button on your wrist-pc app. Why bog yourself down buying a car that can do all you need when you will have access to any car you want whenever you want? And when car ownership disappears, the incentive to drive (created by having huge sunk costs) declines substantially. In the future, when gas prices spike, people will be able to choose the bus in order to save money on gas instantly, with no car-payment burden to overwhelm the savings.

  • Keith Laughlin

    Lind is one of those public intellectual poseurs who relishes taking contrary positions — even if they defy common sense — because it polishes his brand as a independent thinker. It’s quite tiresome and is best ignored.

  • Station44025

    All discussions about what energy and transportation “markets” want is intellectually dishonest without taking a full accounting of oil/car/road subsidies. As long as those subsidies and externalities are left off the balance sheet, it is impossible for “markets” to be connected to reality.  I’m certain that robo-vehicles will be an important factor in the future, but the specifics of any technology or system are secondary to their economic viability.  Will there be a handful of robo-vehicles navigating around potholes on the few remaining highways while most people speed around in high speed trains and bikes? Or will we continue to slash away at every other part of public spending and go over the CO2 falls while protecting the sanctity of the publicly funded private vehicle?

    What’s more disturbing than the fallacious argument is Slate’s sloppy lack of disclosure.

  • Just because he has a conflict of interest doesn’t mean he’s wrong. I’d rather see Streetsblog tearing his (tenuous) claims apart piece by piece, rather than simply pointing out he’s got a financial interest in the process.

    Robocars, like any other cars, and like PRT, have the problem of being terribly inefficient for moving passengers– especially when you consider that most of these robocars will have one or two people in them. Now robobuses on the other hand… that just might work.

  • Bolwerk

    Hey, maybe MADD will let us drink again…. 

  • Anonymous

    Streetsblog: why isn’t there a “Reply” feature on some articles (like this)? Really frustrating ….

  • Anonymous

    It is amazing how people like Lind are unable to distil the essence of what is happening here. The idea is to move people and their stuff, and the most inefficient way yet created is the car (4000 lbs to move 250 lbs on average!) regardless of who is driving and how it is powered. Any vehicle that moves large numbers of people as a group (bus, train, etc.) will *always* be more efficient (at least for the bulk of the trip …. bikes and walking are ideal for the “last mile” problem). Then there are the issues of having to store all those personal vehicles as well as the dehumanizing effect cars have on people and cities. The point is that the most efficient way to design a city is at the human scale, that is, around walking and biking. Anything else is inefficient. And then for moving people between communities, public transit is best. Sure, cars will always have a use (going to remote places, carrying a lot of stuff), but the vast majority of what people use cars for today would be better served with a combination of walking/bicycling and public transit.

  • Erik

    Robot cars… The wave of the future… for 1958

     http://metroprimaryresources.info/vault-disney-how-the-magic-kingdom-showcased-the-magnificent-future-of-transportation-in-1958/3634/

  • Erik

    Robot cars… The wave of the future… for 1958

     http://metroprimaryresources.info/vault-disney-how-the-magic-kingdom-showcased-the-magnificent-future-of-transportation-in-1958/3634/

  • Anonymous

    first of all, give up google for dogpile to do searches.
    second: this high tech claptrap has the same credibility as the agreeable Chevron geophysicist with the swaying beard on TV.
    third: on top of all the inneficiencies of fueling cars (waste heat, extra tonnage, electric conversion loses) the main drag is aerodynamic.  The limiting factor with cars is that most of your kcals of power are moving air aside.  At lower speeds a bike or other very small vehicle can suffice.  These long distance trips are all based on the artificial desire to live in places where you have a few feet between houses filled with ornamental chemical fed grass.
    fourth: ah that’s enough for one lousy comment

    if these fuckers are so brilliant why are they concentrating on perpetuating cars and suburbia? 

  • @jd_x:disqus We used to have the “reply” feature on all the Streetsblogs but after some threads went completely off-topic most of the editors decided to scrap it. SF decided to keep it. You can still use the Disqus feature that lets you direct your comment to previous commenters, which I think is a good substitute. Apologies for the inconsistency.

  • Anonymous

    @BenFried:disqus Thanks for the explanation. Been wondering what was going on. I do like the reply feature since it helps with visual organization. But I see your point (though it seems like people still can get off-topic, but now the posts are just all over the place rather than organized together).

    @Emmily_Litella:disqus  I agree. Each year, Google seems more and more like the “evil” company it originally set out to be the opposite of. They are just a bunch of people (mostly men) obsessed with technology and with little deeper understanding of the social and behavioral issues that need to come with each new piece of technology. They just want to do something because it’s cool, or difficult, or both and don’t really care about the implications. But that’s why we need the rest of the society to put their little high-tech, male-driven fantasies in place. It’s frustrating to watch them waste all this talent on ridiculous things like robocars given all the other problems (mostly societal/behavioral) that are facing us and our planet ….

  • I agree with Justin Nelson, and I think that Bc has the right attitude, though is perhaps not right in this case.  This sort of “connect-the-dots” always makes me a little skeptical.  It can help illustrate things if there’s a trend of related articles that look like they might be shills, but when it’s just one it’s just as reasonable to assume that an internet pundit has decided that being a “contrarian” on the side of business-as-usual might be a useful way to gain traffic.

    And Bc – you’re right that we should consider the potential benefits of driverless cars, rather than just instinctively dismissing them as cars.  For instance, parking is suddenly quite different when the car can drive itself – or (as Matt Logan points out) can become a taxi whenever you’re not using it.  And driverless public transportation technology will be a huge boon for running really high frequencies at peak times.

    Of course, the biggest reason why driverless cars won’t displace public transportation is that buses (and especially trains) have much higher passenger capacities for the busiest transportation links.  Driverless cars also turn every single train station into a park-and-ride, allowing even greater demand on these central routes.

    There’s lots to think about here, even though this particular Lind piece wasn’t thinking about most of it!

  • While it’s not guaranteed, robocars can offer personal transportation in dense cities using less roadway than we have today, and more importantly, MUCH less energy per passenger-mile than any US transit system.      I mean like 1/8th the energy of the average US transit system and about 1/4 of the best ones like NYC and DC Subways.   That’s on top of saving tens of thousands of lives, freeing up parking lots for other uses and providing real, useful door to door mobility for the disabled and the aged.

    Now of course not everybody is aware of this potential, and some may not even agree with it, as the future may go other ways.   But at the same time it is unwise to do transportation planning today like it was done 50 years ago.  Big change is coming.

    (And yes, for disclosure, Google is a consulting client of mine though I am hardly a spokesperson.   However, I was saying all this long before taking them as a client.  I’m working for them because they are building what I have always said is great, I am not saying it’s great because I’m working for them.)

    More at http://robocars.com

  • @facebook-1201453:disqus @openid-14156:disqus I’d be a lot more sympathetic to the argument that his views are coincidentally aligned with his employer’s if he had been above the board about the relationship. If he would have said, hey I support Google robocars (and by the way, my organization is supported by Google but that’s not the reason) we would have no reason to criticize or be suspicious. 

  • Jim

    Great post Angie – what’s really weird about Google’s focus on the car is how many of their employees I’ve met who like Euro-style (ie walkable, bike-able) cities. If only they would invest in getting more infill housing, better in-city schools (I do know they give some to Mtn View, CA schools — my bro teaches there — so kudos there), it could have an even bigger and more relevant impact than the robo car.

  • fj

    It’s important to note that Google’s core business is information, communications and smart computer technologies and not cars.  Smart computer technologies are anticipated drive the next technology boom for more than 10 years.  Cars may be seen as a major market but so can extremely small light net zero vehicles like folding hybrid human-electric recumbent trikes as well as much higher performance vehicles that can adapt to systems that can provide performance and types of services unavailable to free-running cars.

    Google gave the first net zero human-powered transit system called Shweeb $1 million which is irrelevant for serious product design and development of this scope where the standard normal cost for introducing a new car into the market is on the scale of about $1 billion.

    Think plugging your tablet or cell phone into your vehicle and away you go.  And, the more agile your vehicle is; the more distributed and on demand; the greatest range and efficiency, automation, functionality, safety, etc., etc., the better it is and the better off we are also.

    And, using one-ton extremely dangerous vehicles wasting huge amounts of material and energy; requiring extremely expensive infrastructure; well these things will be seen as really bad designs and become museum pieces.
     

  • fj

    And, GM and others have been looking at personal urban mobility and accessibility (PUMA) vehicles several years now; especially for the developing world.
    “http://www.segway.com/puma/

    Unfortunately, human power is not considered key to these vehicles that carry two people and weigh about 500 pounds; still much too heavy to be easily moved by human power.

    Human power really scales the size and weight and provides the ultimate in resilience for the most agile distributed on-demand human mobility where self-steering provides maximum accessibility, comfort, safety, and practicality.

    And, systems designed to accommodate these types of vehicles will even provide much more.

  • Brad, if you convert the New York City Subway’s well-to-wheels carbon emissions to a gasoline-equivalent figure, you get 116 passenger-mpg. So what you’ve just said is that those robocars get 460 mpg. Color me skeptical.

    Not that Lind cares. He also think that global warming is an overrated problem and only hippies care about it; he really is a throwback to 1950s and early-60s politics, and even said as much in an article about the golden “post-consensus” age of American politics (i.e. when the main pundits were people like Bill Buckley, a more ideologically strident version of 1950s elite consensus politics).

  • Joe R.

    Robocars might make sense-in the places which aren’t dense enough for any other mode of transport except the automobile. Here they would be a boon in that they would eliminate delays, increase road capacity, allow higher speeds, and more or less eliminate traffic fatalities. The thing is for various reasons the kinds of places where automobiles reign supreme are on the way out. They’re just not sustainable because of both the energy requirements, and the amount of resources per capita needed for infrastructure. Robocars can’t significantly alter that equation.

    Robocars are a terrible idea to replace transit in dense cities like New York. For starters, even running bumper to bumper, they just can’t move the number of people which heavy rail can. Second, road vehicles are inherently less efficient and less pleasant to ride in than rail vehicles. Third, there is some camaraderie riding together in large groups on public transit which simply can’t exist in small vehicles. Fourth, unless robocars are electrically-powered, they will make the already bad air quality in large cities even worse.

    This isn’t to say robocars in cities don’t have a place. They do-namely to drive the vehicles which are necessary for the city to function. This includes delivery vehicles, buses, emergency vehicles, and utility vehicles. Really, these should be the only types of heavy motor vehicles allowed on streets in transit rich areas. You don’t need personal cars or taxis, whether robodriven or not. Personal transit needs not directly met by existing public transit could be supplemented by bikes, either pedal or electric, pedicabs, or even walking.

    Finally, the idea that “point-to-point” travel is inherently better is nonsense. Actually, this idea is the very cause of our obesity epidemic. It would do everyone good if it was necessary to walk a few blocks on either end of your journey. Better yet, we should be encouraging “active” transportation whenever possible. This could even include trips of several tens of miles with the proper infrastructure (HPV highways and highly aerodynamic velomobiles). The idea that personal mobility is defined by a multiton vehicle with hundreds of horsepower is best left in the 1950s.

  • Joe R.

    By the way, since it was mentioned that labor is a large component of the cost of transit systems, why not apply this technology to rail or buses instead? If you can develop a self-driving car, then a self-driving train is trivial by comparison. For that matter, so are many of the other functions associated with running a transit system, such as fare collection, cleaning, and policing. If the MTA could cut its labor costs by 75%, it would be turning a serious profit (or conversely, fares could be much lower). Of course, the labor unions won’t be on board for any of this, but the fact is one way or another these types of jobs just aren’t sustainable. Whether they’re replaced by automation, or eliminated because the transit system totally collapses from inadequate funding, they just won’t exist in a few generations. At least with “rorobtransit” you don’t have mass transit disappearing when the workers do.

  • Actually, the DoE’s figure for the NYC subway is around 2200 BTUs/passenger mile.    That’s more like 55 passenger miles/gallon.   To be fair, the DoE takes their calculation by taking the total electricity usage of the transit system in kwh, and multiplying by 10,300 which is the DoE’s USA grid average for BTUs per kwh.   The NY grid may be better or worse than that, and a better analysis would do each transit system based on its own local grid rather than the national average.     The New York State power grid is 29% nuke, 17% hydro, the rest fossil — so it’s better than the USA average which is 70% fossil, mostly coal.   CT and NJ are much more heavily nuke.    Nuke plants have no atmospheric emissions, one hopes, but people have their own reasons to love/hate them

    And yes, a single-person electric vehicle (so we are apples to apples on the kwh and you can forget everything I wrote up there) can be built that is under 600 btu/mile (58 wh/mile) in urban driving.  As a robotic taxi taking up half a lane it’s all that is needed for the majority of trips people take which are short, single passenger and urban.   The untested conjecture is if you had a fleet of such single-person robotaxis, which where cheap and super convenient, taking you door-to-door timed with the lights, no need for you to worry about parking etc. would it replace a lot of car trips?  I think it would, and it would replace almost all transit trips.   And who needs transit buses, which are 3800 btus/passenger-mile on average in the USA — worse than the average car, believe it or not.   Who is going to take a bus where you have to get to and from stops, wait a long time for the bus, wait a while for transfers, and have an overall trip time 2x to 3x while using 8x the energy, when you could push a button on your cell phone, walk to the curb and be whisked away in a light electric single person vehicle with a comfy chair and video screen for less money?

    Who?

  • vnm

    I predict the transport unions would push back against robobuses.

  • AndyG

    Brad and TBaylor are right. Robocars are coming and are going to crush transit. I see this happening in the next ten years or so. Cars are just better in pretty much every way. No one is going to take buses or trains in 30 years.

  • I prefer using the term “Driverless car” instead of “Robo-car”.
    In any case, this emerging technology has the potential to redefine transit as
    we know it and shatter many of the assumptions we have made about cars. I
    encourage folks that care about bicycling, walking and transit to engage with
    Google to ensure this new technology meets our needs, as well as the needs of
    society in general. I’m following this with interest and have written a little
    more at: http://ow.ly/aZk0Z
     

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