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Road Tripping With Cabin, the ‘Moving Hotel’

People take 48,000+ daily trips between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Most drive, others fly, and the rest go via bus or train. One such bus option is Cabin, which takes the regular road trip up a notch. Co-founders Tom Currier and Gaetano Crupi see it as a "moving hotel" and part of a bigger vision to connect walkable cities. It's the new slo-mo coastal commute, and PCMag tested it out.

10 p.m.
I'm at Palisades Park, overlooking Santa Monica Pier, and my ride just pulled up. It's a Van Hool-made luxury coach, highly modified with blacked-out windows and 24 Japanese-style sleep pods, including one that's ADA-accessible. It will drive through the night, reaching San Francisco by sunrise.

10:30 p.m.
Connected TravelerThe other passengers are arriving and checking in with onboard "dream attendant" Amber. Like most of the other Cabin attendants (aka concierges), Amber is moonlighting from her regular gig as an air flight attendant. She's very friendly but gently directs everyone upstairs to pick a sleep cabin and start to wind down. It's clear this isn't a party bus (the pre-board email said no alcohol or other mind-altering substances allowed), but a slumber service—as evidenced by the low lighting and sleep aids on each pillow: ear plugs and melatonin-infused water. I'm wary of such things so don't take either, but I notice many do, and are quickly snoozing.

Cabin interior

10:45 p.m.
Everyone else appears to be mid-to-late 20s, and whispering in other languages (Chinese, Japanese, Tagalog, and Swedish) as they get ready for bed. The two supernaturally attractive humans in the adjacent pods to mine are filming each other with a high-end digital movie camera. I assume they are vloggers doing a Cabin story. I find out the next morning, when we share Instagram handles, that they are Megan Young, Miss World 2013, and Mikael Daez, a well-known actor from the Philippines; both have huge online followings.

11 p.m.
We're about to depart, and I'm having a mini-claustrophobia meltdown inside the pod. It's (much) smaller than it looks online. There's plenty of stretch-out room (I'm 5 foot 5 inches, and it's designed to accommodate 6'3") but a very constricted vertical elevation. I can't sit up and, with the privacy curtain closed, it's rather tight and dark, save for the USB-attached reading light. However, the pillow, linens and comforter are dreamy—they're apparently the same as the ones used by the Ritz Carlton—so I bundle myself into a cocoon and attempt to sleep.

Cabin interior

2 a.m.
I wake up after the bus hits a very bumpy lane on the freeway; the coach is rattling unnervingly. I pretzel myself out of the bottom pod and make my way downstairs. Amber, the attendant, stays up all night, making sure everyone, including the driver, is alright. I sit with her at one of two lounge tables. I really want soothing herbal tea, but it seems the battery pack for the hot water beverage machine is out of power. There's fast Wi-Fi, though, so I catch up on some work.

As I head back up the twisty staircase to try and sleep again, Amber says: "I've never seen anyone bring a robe to Cabin; what a great idea!" I smile ruefully, look down at my blue Brooks Brothers dressing gown and boarding school rugby socks, and realize I'm not exactly the target demographic. Everyone upstairs stripped down to low maintenance t-shirts, shorts, or a yoga/lounge outfit before crashing.

5 a.m.
We arrive in San Francisco and park at Bayside Lot, under the Bay Bridge, a (handy) block from the Embarcadero offices of Google and Mozilla. Everyone else is still asleep. Amber arranges breakfast snack bars in the lounge. I pop outside, still in my robe, and take some pictures, to the surprise of Silicon Valley cube-dwellers cycling past to work before sunrise.

Cabin interior

5:30 a.m.
I'm struggling to find a place to get ready for the day. There's no privacy onboard, apart from the sleep cabin itself, and only a circus acrobat could get changed in that tight space. The bathroom is tiny and there's no shower. I do my best but am a bit grumpy. This is not a service for people who like to have freshly blown out locks or unwrinkled clothes on a hanger before a full day's work in a new city.

6:30 a.m.
All the 20-somethings are awake. No one else complains about the shower facilities. In fact, most appear to be staying in whatever they slept in, adding a shirt and jeans on top, and smoothing unruly hair down with water. I remember my far-off EuroRail student days, dossing down in Parisian hostels, with wry wistfulness.

6:45 a.m.
I chat with my fellow passengers in the lounge before we all disembark. Perhaps because it's August, but they're mostly tourists rather than tech types shuttling up and down the coast for work. Ryuta, from Japan, was just in Las Vegas, then L.A. He read about Cabin in a Japanese magazine, and wondered if it was like the "midnight buses from Osaka to Tokyo, or capsule hotels." He's clearly impressed at the upscale look and feel of Cabin and said he'd come back if he ever finds himself in this part of the world again. An industrial design student from Taiwan, meanwhile, said he got a good night's sleep, and would use Cabin again, too. Megan and Mikael are talking to their camera, plotting the day ahead with enthusiasm.

Cabin interior

7 a.m.
The other passengers ask me what I'm doing on Cabin. I say I'm in San Francisco to interview Henry Hu, founder of robot barista Cafe X, and to do a story on doc.ai, a new natural language A.I. bio-genomics health mobile platform. Everyone is silent, and I feel hopelessly grownup. I grab my battered brown leather overnight bag and head outside. I wanted to talk to the artfully tattooed pair from Sweden but they're outside, smoking Camel cigarettes, and clearly in dire need of espresso.

10 a.m. Interview with Cabin CEO and Co-Founder Tom Currier
I meet Currier, Cabin's co-founder CEO, at nearby breakfast-joint Crossroads, a cool San Francisco training cafe run by the Delancey Street Foundation aimed at getting people who have hit hard times back on the road again. Currier, 26, is a serial entrepreneur and dropped out of Stanford to become a Thiel Fellow. He founded his first startups while in middle school (baking bread, fly-fishing ties, and digital photo-scanning) then started a solar energy company. But he is best known for Campus Co-Living, a shared housing venture, which was a great idea, but sadly closed in 2015.

Cabin Co-founders Tom Currier and Gaetano Crupi

Currier met his Cabin co-founder Gaetano Crupi at Stanford. Crupi has quite a back story, too. He's a former Goldman Sachs banker turned gaming entrepreneur turned video producer (Beyonce's "Move Your Body" video and Michelle Obama's "Let's Move!" project).

The two co-founders initially tested Cabin as SleepBus, but later upgraded the idea and raised $3.3 million in seed funding in June from investors including Founders Fund, SV Angel, Brainchild Holdings and 1517 Fund. Cabin formally launched in July.

Here are excerpts from our conversation:

Firstly, why LA to San Francisco?
LA to San Francisco is one of the busiest corridors that is not well-served and is the perfect time/distance for an overnight experience. We launched just over a month ago, and 300 people have traveled with us to date. We're looking at other journeys, but it needs to be long enough for the sleep-through-the-night concept.

In its earlier incarnation, SleepBus, tickets sold out in three days and you had a 20,000-person waitlist. But press reports said it was more of a "rolling communal slumber party." Is that why you upgraded the service?
Yes. Well, Cabin is a "moving hotel" and SleepBus was more of a "moving hostel." We tested the concept under that brand, and it gave us a year to develop a more premium experience of traveling while sleeping.

Was your sleeping compartment inspiration Cary Grant in Hitchcock's North by Northwest, Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot, Japanese pod hotels, or something else?
We were inspired by The Pod capsule hotel in Singapore, and the coaches that rock bands use, but actually, it's more because one of my favorite movies growing up was Disney's Howl's Moving Castle. This magical wizard has a castle that can move while he sleeps, he can set it to go wherever he wants, and he's teleported there.

Cute. So, how much does the service cost? On the site it says starting at $115 each way. Are you planning seasonal lull discounts?
We might experiment with other pricing, just like hotels which are more expensive on weekends, due to higher demand. We did pricing perception studies and, under $100, guests assume it won't be a good experience. We're trialing $115 each way for now.

Are you considering upgrading still further to attract professionals who are older than your current demographic?
Yes, our ambition is to create a true end-to-end hotel experience so that people feel zero friction traveling regionally. We look forward to what's to come.

Looking at your other startups, particularly Campus Co-Living, is Cabin part of a larger shared experiences movement?
Yes, I'm really interested in building and connecting walkable cities and changing the paradigm of where we choose to live, work, and travel. Cabin is the first step towards that, solving the transportation issue.

Finally, are you concerned about competition from Elon Musk's proposed 760mph Hyperloop?
I think infrastructure in the US is pretty difficult to change. We should have a functioning, flexible, train system— like Europe—where you can just hop on and off between cities, but we don't. So we felt the most practical solution is to use the US highways, particularly for the future, when we have high-speed autonomous vehicles, in dedicated lanes.

Thanks for meeting up. I'm off to enjoy a day's work in San Francisco before heading back to Cabin tonight.

9:30 p.m.
After a very long day of doing tech interviews, I head back to the parking lot near the Bay Bridge. Cabin has been there all day. Tonight's Concierge, Katelyn, has just arrived, and is setting everything up for the journey down south. A Japanese camera crew is here from national broadcaster NHK. I talk briefly to their bureau chief off camera, letting her know how to maneuver into the pod and providing a caveat on the bathroom door lock, which is now apparently broken.

10 p.m.
Back in the sleep pod, about to crash. Lights out are scheduled at 11:20 p.m. after Cabin has safely departed. Until then, each pod has a line of LED lights that reflect in the mirror at the end, so I burrow under the soft duvet and block them out. I must have passed out instantly, as I never heard my fellow passengers head upstairs or Cabin hit the freeway.

5 a.m.
Early Friday morning traffic is bad. We're refueling somewhere off the I-5 freeway but still approximately 1.5 hours from L.A. I know what this means; we're going to be caught in morning commute hell. However the view of the Southern California hills as the sun comes up is a glorious reminder of road trip pleasures.

Cabin

7:14 a.m.
Gridlock on the freeway. Katelyn, the concierge, is already in contact with CEO Tom Currier, who is "re-calculating routes to optimize in real time," which is pretty cool. She grabs the remote, which switches the night-time green lights to day-bright white and heads upstairs to wake everyone up.

8 a.m.
Finally! Palm trees and ocean breezes. We're back at Palisades Park in Santa Monica. My co-sleep companions on this leg of the journey are still all twenty-somethings, but now mostly US nationals. Some are heading to UCLA/USC dorms early, others a weekend wedding. They all enjoyed the experience, and would take Cabin again.

Would I? Personally, probably not. I need a few more five-star comforts: shower, hair dryers, clothes on a hanger, dressing area. My youthful back-packing days are now firmly, but fondly, in the rear-view mirror. But if you're a twenty-something who loves an adventure, a road trip encounter with like-minded types passing through livable cities, Cabin looks like the perfect way to travel.

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Does Google’s Duplex violate two-party consent laws?

Google’s Duplex, which calls businesses on your behalf and imitates a real human, ums and ahs included, has sparked a bit of controversy among privacy advocates. Doesn’t Google recording a person’s voice and sending it to a data center for analysis violate two-party consent law, which requires everyone in a conversation to agree to being recorded? The answer isn’t immediately clear, and Google’s silence isn’t helping. Let’s take California’s law as the example, since that’s the state where Google is based and where it used the system. Penal Code section 632 forbids recording any “confidential communication” (defined more or less as any non-public conversation) without the consent of all parties. (The Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press has a good state-by-state guide to these laws.) Google has provided very little in the way of details about how Duplex actually works, so attempting to answer this question involves a certain amount of informed speculation. To begin with I’m going to consider all phone calls as “confidential” for the purposes of the law. What constitutes a reasonable expectation of privacy is far from settled, and some will have it that you there isn’t such an expectation when making an appointment with a salon. But what about a doctor’s office, or if you need to give personal details over the phone? Though some edge cases may qualify as public, it’s simpler and safer (for us and for Google) to treat all phone conversations as confidential. What we know about Google’s Duplex demo so far As a second assumption, it seems clear that, like most Google services, Duplex’s work takes place in a data center somewhere, not locally on your device. So fundamentally there is a requirement in the system that the other party’s audio will be recorded and sent in some form to that data center for processing, at which point a response is formulated and spoken. On its face it sounds bad for Google. There’s no way the system is getting consent from whomever picks up the phone. That would spoil the whole interaction — “This call is being conducted by a Google system using speech recognition and synthesis; your voice will be analyzed at Google data centers. Press 1 or say ‘I consent’ to consent.” I would have hung up after about two words. The whole idea is to mask the fact that it’s an AI system at all, so getting consent that way won’t work. But there’s wiggle room as far as the consent requirement in how the audio is recorded, transmitted and stored. After all, there are systems out there that may have to temporarily store a recording of a person’s voice without their consent — think of a VoIP call that caches audio for a fraction of a second in case of packet loss. There’s even a specific cutout in the law for hearing aids, which if you think about it do in fact do “record” private conversations. Temporary copies produced as part of a legal, beneficial service aren’t the target of this law. This is partly because the law is about preventing eavesdropping and wiretapping, not preventing any recorded representation of conversation whatsoever that isn’t explicitly authorized. Legislative intent is important. “There’s a little legal uncertainty there, in the sense of what degree of permanence is required to constitute eavesdropping,” said Mason Kortz, of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. “The big question is what is being sent to the data center and how is it being retained. If it’s retained in the condition that the original conversation is understandable, that’s a violation.” For instance, Google could conceivably keep a recording of the call, perhaps for AI training purposes, perhaps for quality assurance, perhaps for users’ own records (in case of time slot dispute at the salon, for example). They do retain other data along these lines. But it would be foolish. Google has an army of lawyers and consent would have been one of the first things they tackled in the deployment of Duplex. For the onstage demos it would be simple enough to collect proactive consent from the businesses they were going to contact. But for actual use by consumers the system needs to engineered with the law in mind. What would a functioning but legal Duplex look like? The conversation would likely have to be deconstructed and permanently discarded immediately after intake, the way audio is cached in a device like a hearing aid or a service like digital voice transmission. A closer example of this is Amazon, which might have found itself in violation of COPPA, a law protecting children’s data, whenever a kid asked an Echo to play a Raffi song or do long division. The FTC decided that as long as Amazon and companies in that position immediately turn the data into text and then delete it afterwards, no harm and, therefore, no violation. That’s not an exact analogue to Google’s system, but it is nonetheless instructive. “It may be possible with careful design to extract the features you need without keeping the original, in a way where it’s mathematically impossible to recreate the recording,” Kortz said. If that process is verifiable and there’s no possibility of eavesdropping — no chance any Google employee, law enforcement officer or hacker could get into the system and intercept or collect that data — then potentially Duplex could be deemed benign, transitory recording in the eye of the law. That assumes a lot, though. Frustratingly, Google could clear this up with a sentence or two. It’s suspicious that the company didn’t address this obvious question with even a single phrase, like Sundar Pichai adding during the presentation that “yes, we are compliant with recording consent laws.” Instead of people wondering if, they’d be wondering how. And of course we’d all still be wondering why. We’ve reached out to Google multiple times on various aspects of this story, but for a company with such talkative products, they sure clammed up fast.

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