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The robocar and the bicycle

I’ve written about the issues relating to robocars and walking before. On one hand, some people may find themselves hardly ever walking with convenient door-to-door robocar transportation. Others may find the robocars may enable walking by allowing one-way waking trips, or enabling trips that that allow drive-walk-drive (eliminating short driving trips done just to save the trouble of walking back to get the car.)

Some similar factors apply to cycling. In a lot of the world, people bike because it’s much cheaper and they can’t afford a car. In the richer countries, most people can afford cars, but people bike because they enjoy it, or seek the exercise. They may also wish to avoid traffic, take routes only bikes can take, or avoid burning gasoline.

Let’s consider something possible with robocars: on-demand bicycle delivery. This could either be small delivery robots which can hold bicycles, or the “bikebot” — a small robot that clamps onto a bicycle and uses the bike’s wheels in concert with the robot’s. The bikebot could be a very efficient way to delivery a bicycle — certainly using less energy per mile than a human being does, or that producing the human’s food does. (A future bike could be designed so that a bikebot module can be clamped to it easily.)

Bicycles on demand offer the chance to cycle just when you want to. This could increase by quite a bit the times when you actually would cycle.

This gets combined with the robocar’s one-way taxi ability for humans. The robocar can bring the humans, and/or the bicycles to the places they want to bike. (More efficiently, too, since bikes on bike racks are not very aerodynamic.)

Just like it does for walking, the multi-mode, multi-leg trip becomes enabled. For example, I often find I drive to Google, and then to Nasa which is 2.5 miles away, and then back home. The 2.5 mile leg is ideal for cycling — there’s even a bike trail for much of it — but I can’t do this. First I would have to always bring my bike. (While Google does provide bikes, they are tiny single-gear bikes not meant to leave campus.) I could do the round-trip to come back and get my car, but that’s less convenient and can hit some nasty traffic patterns — traffic in and out of Google at rush hour is very bad. This is a personal example, but I am sure you can all think of examples from your own life where you take an intermediary trip today (in your car) of a few miles that might be very nice for biking.

Weather is another impediment to biking. When I used to bike commute, I would drive instead if the forecast called for rain in the afternoon, even if it was nice in the morning. With robocars I could bike in, and ride back.

Bike delivery means choice of bike. Recumbents are hard to carry in cars, but no challenge for a custom bike delivery robot. They are more comfortable to ride and faster on flats and downhill. You could even climb a hill in a diamond bike and descend in a recumbent. Or, let’s face it, you could also have the cheater’s option of climbing the hard hills in a car, or with power assist, and riding alone when going down or traversing flatter terrain. That might be a cheater’s option, but it would get more people cycling. Your gear could shadow you in a small cargo robot.

The robocar also offers easy transportation for you, and your bikes, to the places where it’s fun to bike. Get driven to the coast, then bike it, then get driven back from your endpoint. Or bike the “interesting parts” and drive the boring (or difficult) ones.

The main issue? At least at first, a human will need to be there to put a bike into a bike-delivery robot or clamp a bikebot on the bike. That means you must declare your destination in advance, with enough time to get that robot to that spot so you can hand over the bike. Perhaps in the future, there will be robots that can pick up a waiting bike without a human to help. Quick one-way trips will probably not be with your personal bike, but rather a rental. While there are those who insist on their personally chosen bike for long rides, most people can tolerate a quality rental bike for a quick urban leg. Trikes, which are super easy to ride, can also be offered, and even bikes and trikes with motor assist when you want the non-exercise advantages of a bicycle could be provided.

Cycling could also be great for commute times. Many commuters might be happy to get a ride (perhaps even in groups) to the outskirts of the CBD, but as they enter the congested zone, have their car drop them off next to a bike for a quick ride to work. Long enough to get some exercise but not long enough to need a shower. This does present a problem when it rains and everybody wants to ride all the way in, though.

In the less developed world, where the bicycle is the transportation of choice due to cost, the robocar will take away some riders as it offers lower-cost transportation, protected from the weather, without up-front investment. However, eventually the above factors from the developed world will bring people back to the bicycle even though they can afford the car.

Will EV recharging soar to very high costs?

I recently read a complaint by an EV driver that the charging station at De Anza College cost 55 cents/kwh. The national average price for electricity is around 10 cents, and at that price a typical electric car costs under 3 cents/mile for electricity. Gasoline costs about 8 cents/mile in a Prius, about 13 cents in a decent non-hybrid and 18 cents/mile in the average car which gets 22mpg. (At least here in California.) But the college’s charger’s electricity is almost 15 cents/mile in most electric sedans today, which is more than the gasoline in any gasoline car an eco-conscious person is likely to buy. (California Tier III electricity is 30 cents/kwh and thus almost as much.)

The price of charging stations varies wildly. A lot of them are free still, financed by other motivations. Tesla’s superchargers are free — effectively part of the cost of the car. It’s not uncommon for parking lots to offer free charging if you pay for parking, since parking tends to cost a fair bit more. After all, you won’t put more than 20kwh in a Leaf (and probably a lot less) and that costs just $2 at the average grid price.

This got me thinking of how the economics of charging will work in the future when electric cars and charging stations are modestly plentiful. While the national grid average is 10 cents, in many places heavy users can pay a lot more, though there are currently special deals to promote electric cars. Often the daytime cost for commercial customers is quite a bit higher, while the night is much lower. Charging stations at offices and shops will do mostly day charging; ones in homes and hotels will do night charging.

Unlike gasoline pumping, which takes 5 minutes, charging also involves parking. This is not just because charging takes several hours, but because that is enough time that customers won’t want to come and move their car once full, and so they will take the space for their full parking duration, which may be 8 or more hours.

Charging stations are all very different in utility. While every gasoline station near your route is pretty much equivalent to you, your charging station is your parking spot, and as such only the ones very close to your destination are suitable. While a cheap gas station 2 miles off your route would have a line around the block, a free charging stations 2 miles away from your destination is not that attractive! More to the point, the charging point close to your destination is able to command a serious premium. That have a sort of monopoly (until charging stations become super common) on charging at the only location of value to you.

Put another way, when buying gasoline, I can choose from all the stations in town. When picking an EV charge, I can only choose from stations with an available spot a short walk from my destination. Such a monopoly will lead to high prices in a market where the stations are charging (in dollars :-) what the market will bear.

The market will bear a lot. While the electricity may be available cheap, EV owners might be easily talked into paying as much for electricity as gasoline buyers do, on a per-mile basis. The EV owners will be forgetting the economics of the electric car — you pay the vast bulk of your costs up front for the battery, and the electrical costs are intended to be minor. If the electricity cost rivals that of gasoline, the battery cost is now completely extra.

Naturally, EV owners will do at least half their charging at home, where they negotiate the best rate. But this could be worse, as they might well be talked into looking at the average. They could pay 80 cents/kwh in the parking lot and 10 cents/kwh at home, and figure they are getting away with 45 cents and “still beating gasoline.” They would be fooling themselves, but the more people willing to fool themselves, the higher prices will go.

There is another lack of choice here. For many EV drivers, charging is not optional. Unless they have easy range to get back home or to another charging place they will spend lots of time, you must charge if you are low and the time opportunity presents itself. To not do so is either impossible (you won’t get home) or very foolish (you constrain what your EV can do.) When you face a situation where you must charge, and you must charge in a particular place, the potential for price gouging becomes serious.  read more »

A Tesla self-driving car?

It began with reports on a job ad at Tesla for an ADAS engineer to work on self-driving systems, and now there is a declaration from Elon Musk of a desire for a semi-automated car in three years. Musk says he expect the car to be “90% automated” which I will interpret as meaning it does highway driving. It is not said if this is the same sort of highway driving found in products like Cadillac’s “super cruise” or similar offerings from BMW, Mercedes, Volvo and others — which requires the driver be alert and watching, or a much harder full cruise ability that allows the driver to do other things, like read. I’m pretty sure it’s not a car that can run unmanned — Musk correctly feels that is a whole lot extra.

My reaction to this is mixed, in that there are things that make sense and don’t make sense.

On the plus side:

  • Tesla is a great car company, and as a brand new one, perhaps the one most capable of not thinking like a car company. This is a big advantage. There is already a great culture of car innovation there.
  • Tesla has a focus on great and novel car experiences, regardless of price, and this fits in well with that. Their customers will not be bothered by the initial high cost of the hardware.
  • Their cars are already pretty much drive-by-wire and easy to adapt.
  • If Tesla does decide to work with Google (the articles say they will not) there is already a strong friendship between the two CEOs
  • Even in the best car, there are certainly lots of roads where you would rather not do the driving.
  • With inductive charging (or some fancy plugging-in robot) it’s possible the car could do some self-parking and more importantly, self-recharging.

On the negative:

  • Tesla’s cars are hugely fun to drive. While I believe for every car there value in having it drive itself on many roads, I would have to say the Teslas are the cars for which this is the least true! So it’s not that one would not appreciate self-driving in one’s Tesla, but it’s just that you would appreciate it even more in almost all other cars.
  • Electric cars are not currently suitable as taxis that drive all-day, though Tesla has talked about battery swap, which would solve that issue. I doubt they mean to sell them for that market, as they would not be self-delivering in any event.
  • Teslas are unjustifiably expensive. Well, unjustifiable to other than early adopters or those who just want the best at almost any price. That may change as batteries drop in price, though.
  • If this is just super-cruise where you must pay attention, it’s nice, but not a revolution. Not yet, anyway.

The RV of the future

Over the years, particularly after Burning Man, I’ve written posts about how RVs can be improved. This year I did not use an regular RV but rather a pop-up camping trailer. However, I thought it was a good time to summarize a variety of the features I think should be in every RV of the future.

Smart Power

We keep talking about smart power and smart grids but power is expensive and complex when camping, and RVs are a great place for new technologies to develop.

To begin with, an RV power system should integrate the deep cycle house batteries, a special generator/inverter system, smart appliances and even the main truck engine where possible.

Today the best small generators are inverter based. Rather than generating AC directly from an 1800rpm motor and alternator, they have a variable speed engine and produce the AC via an inverter. These are smaller, more efficient, lighter and quieter than older generators, and produce cleaner power. Today they are more expensive, but not more expensive than most RV generators. RV generators are usually sized at 3,600 to 4,000 watts in ordinary RVs — that size dictated by the spike of starting up the air conditioner compressor when something else, like the microwave is running.

An inverter based generator combined with the RV’s battery bank doesn’t have to be that large. It can draw power for the surge of starting a motor from the battery. The ability to sustain 2,000 watts is probably enough, with a few other tricks. Indeed, it can provide a lot of power even with the generator off, though the generator should auto-start if the AC is to be used, or the microwave will be used for a long time.

By adding a data network, one can be much more efficient with power. For example, the microwave could just turn off briefly when the thermostat wants to start the AC’s compressor, or even the fans. The microwave could also know if it’s been told to cook for 30 seconds (no need to run generator) or 10 minutes (might want to start it.) It could also start the generator in advance of cooling need.

If the master computer has access to weather data, it could even decide what future power needs for heating fans and air conditioning will be, and run the generator appropriately. With a GPS database, it could even know the quiet times of the campsite it’s in and respect them.

A modern RV should have all-LED lighting. Power use is so low on those that the lights become a blip in power planning. Only the microwave, AC and furnace fan would make a difference. Likewise today’s TVs, laptops and media players which all draw very few watts.

A smart power system could even help plugging into shore power, particularly a standard 15a circuit. Such circuits are not enough to start many ACs, or to run the AC with anything else. With surge backup from the battery, an RV could plug into an ordinary plug and act almost like it had a high power connection.

To go further, for group camping, RVs should have the ability to form an ad-hoc power grid. This same ability is already desired in the off-grid world, so it need not be developed just for RVs. RVs able to take all sorts of input power could also eventually get smart power from RV campsites. After negotiation, a campsite might offer 500v DC at 12 amps instead of 115v AC, allowing the largest dual-AC RVs to plug into small wires.  read more »

Mercedes and Vislab release videos of their real-road tests

Videos have been released on some real-world tests of robocars. The most notable is from Mercedes.

As a nice reflection on the past, Mercedes drove the 100km route done by Bertha Benz in the first automotive road trip 125 years ago. You will also find that this alternate video is much better at talking about the technical details of the vehicle.

The Vislab team from Parma also released video of their drive around town. As the name suggests, Vislab’s research has a focus on computer vision, though this test vehicle also has 3 small LIDARs.

The Mercedes video has a lot of statements from MB engineer Ralf Herrtwich about their goals in doing this using existing sensors (cameras and radar primarily) and not (though he does not name it) LIDAR which he says is years or decades away. While I don’t want to criticise the accomplishments of his team, nor in any way deny that everybody would love to be able to make a safe driving system using the most cost-effective sensors, his philosophy seems backwards to me.

First, those of us used to Moore’s law think that planning to use hardware that is expensive today but which will come down greatly in price by the time things are commercialized is the obviously right strategy. It seems backwards to limit yourself to the technologies of today in planning a product for the future just because they are cheaper today. To use the metaphor of a great Canadian athlete, you skate to where the puck is going to be.

This is magnified by the fact that the problems of robocars are safety problems, not problems of cost or ones of appearance. With safety as the dominant goal, it seems very odd to me to imagine that one would, in the first vehicles to be made, avoid using a sensor that could improve safety and performance markedly just because of cost or appearance. If the cost difference were forecast to be ridiculous, one could consider it, but it makes no sense if the cost is within the noise to early adopters. That’s why Tesla is able to succeed with such an expensive car — the early adopters are more interested in a cool, high-performance electric car than they are in the cost. The other argument that is made — that the established sensors are more tested and robust — has some merit but is surely a short term optimization.

It could be argued that attempting to build a vehicle without LIDAR is skating to where the puck is going to be in the next game. After all, there is optimism that vision and radar will be enough for safe driving some day. As we all know, humans can drive with simple vision — even with one eye closed — and no radar or other sensors aside from hearing. So some day, cameras and a lot of processing probably can safely drive a car, and do it with low cost hardware. But the first production robocar? Deliberately not having lasers when it’s such a challenge to meet the safety goals? It seems very unlikely.

The notes on appearance are also odd to me. (It is commonly noted that research sensors like the Velodyne are big and make the car look unusual and not like a car.) We even see the IEEE Spectrum keen on how the new CMU car does not look like a robot) unlike BOSS from the urban challenge. While the research vehicles like BOSS were over-the-top on top, I think the reaction of early adopters is going to be quite the opposite. They will want their shiny new robocar to look distinctive and clearly different from regular cars. Prius owners reacted the same way, and there was not even much need for the Prius to have such a distinctive shape, though being more like a raindrop never hurts.

I suspect this approach is in part inspired by a marketing goal. The auto companies, not wanting to appear to be trailing Google on robocar research, are making extra effort to appear to be on a different course, and in fact ahead of Google and the rest on that path. “We’re doing what the competition is doing, but we’re not as far along” is not a very good press release. That’s OK if it were just for appearances — and I’m in favour of there being many competing approaches because any paradigm, including mine, can turn out to be wrong — but I hope that these teams really expect their approach is the best and fastest path to a safe and capable vehicle.

Here, by the way, are more details of the 33 mile trip by the GM/CMU collaboration. This vehicle has an “automotive grade” LIDAR — meaning one of the smaller ones that is one to four planes, not the giant 64 plane Velodyne used by CMU’s BOSS, Google and many others.

Daimler, Nissan both predict they will sell robocars in 2020

Recent news has been big. First, Nissan announced it would sell robocars by 2020 and now today Daimler has announced the same. (Note that the 2014 S-class is the first car with a self-driving feature, a “you must still pay attention” traffic jam autopilot.)

In addition, sources have claimed that Google is either about to announce a collaboration with Conti on Sept 12 or is making plans to produce its own car and taxi service. (I was quoted, though not about Google, in one of the artciles in the series.

While I don’t comment on Google’s plans, I do believe it has one big advantage in this race. It doesn’t know what the rules of the car industry are, and has no desire to follow them. The car companies have huge resources, and better expertise on cars, but their internal rules and practices, honed over a century, are sure to hobble them. They won’t take the risks that non-car companies will take, won’t want to damage existing business lines, and will face attacks within the companies from the “company immune system” which seeks to attack disruptive ideas within big companies.

Google’s main impediment is that it is also a big company, though an unusual one. But this business is so hard to enter that we have yet to see a start-up make a play.

The statements from all these parties will do lots of good, lighting fires under the other players, including the unannounced ones. I believe that in the 2020s, the software and sensor system which drives the car will be the most important part of the car, more important than even the engine. While the world will be better off if there are multiple competing suppliers of this part, whoever dominates this will dominate the car industry.

Going beyond the vacation program with dynamic status

I’m back from Burning Man, and this year, for the first time in a while, we didn’t get internet up in our camp, so I only did occasional email checks while wandering other places. And thus, of course, there are many hundred messages backed up in my box to get to. I will look at the most important but some will just be ignored or discarded.

We all know it’s getting harder and harder to deal with email backlog after travel, even connected travel. If you don’t check in it gets even worse. Vacation autoreplies can help a little, but I think they are no longer enough.

Some years ago a friend tried something radical. He had is autoreply say that he was away for 2 months, and could not possibly handle the email upon his return. He said that thus the email you had sent had been discarded. You were told that if it was still important when he returned that you should send it again then. His correspondents were completely furious at the temerity of this action, though it has a lot of attractions. They had taken the time to write an email, and to have it discarded and left in their hands to resend seemed rude. (I believe the reply included a copy of the email at least.)

Worse, because we are always connected, vacation replies sometimes lie. People are scanning their email, responding to the most important ones if they can, even though a vacation autoreply was sent. And so we always hope for that.

I think the time has come for an extra internet protocol as a companion to mail. When you type an E-mail address into your mail client, it should be able to query a server that handles information for that domain — something like an MX record — and query it about the email that is about to be written, including the sender address and recipient address, and possibly a priority. If the recipient is in a vacation mode or other do not disturb mode, the sender would be told immediately, before writing the e-mail. They would have the option of not writing it, writing it for delivery at the designated date in the future, or writing it with various tags about its urgency in case the recipient is doing some checking of mail.

This could be an LDAP derived protocol or something else. Indeed it could be combined, when trusted, with directory lookup and autocomplete directory services. It’s not easy because often (with things like MX) the server that handles mail for a user may not have a strong link to the user in order to serve this data. In the old e-mail regime of store and forward, live connections were not expected. Still, I think it can be done, and it would not be a mandatory thing.

There are some security and privacy implications here that are challenging:

  • Spammers will try to use this information to confirm addresses or hunt for them
  • This lets the recipient know if somebody just typed in their name to send mail, and when they did so, and thus how long they took to write a mail, or if they aborted one. To avoid this, the directory servers could be trusted 3rd parties.
  • This provides a reliable IP address for the sender’s client, or at least a proxy acting for the sender.
  • It could be misused to build a general database of many people’s vacation status, invading their privacy, unless there are tools to prevent broad spidering of this sort.

Mail servers would remember who queried, and in fact it might be encouraged to include a header in the email that came from the query, to officially tie them together. This would allow clients to know who queried and who did not, giving priority to messages which came from people who queried and acted upon the result (for example waiting to send) over those who just sent mail without checking. Users could get codes that would allow them to declare the message higher (or lower) priority that would not be available to those who just did plain SMTP.

Mailing lists might also make use of this data, and the response could tell mailing lists what the user wants to do, including temporarily unsubscribing until a given date, or asking for a digest of threads to be sent upon return, or other useful stuff. Responsible corporate bulk mailers could also accept that you don’t want customer satisfaction surveys or useful coupon offers during your vacation and just not send them. Ok, I’m dreaming on that one, perhaps.

For security, it could be that only past correspondents could do this query, or only users with some amount of authentication. Anonymous email and mail from strangers would still be possible, but not with a pre-query. The response could also be sent back via a special email that servers know to intercept, so it can’t be used to gain information that would not be gained by mailing a person today. (You could get a report of people who queried you and never mailed you when not on vacation.)

We might see some features in mailers, like a pop-up in your mailers that says, “Brad just started writing you a message” the way instant messaging programs do. I am not sure this is a good idea, but it would happen. Readers: what other consequences do you see happening?