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Many different approaches to Robocar Mapping

Almost all robocars use maps to drive. Not the basic maps you find in your phone navigation app, but more detailed maps that help them understand where they are on the road, and where they should go. These maps will include full details of all lane geometries, positions and meaning of all road signs and traffic signals, and also details like the texture of the road or the 3-D shape of objects around it. They may also include potholes, parking spaces and more.

The maps perform two functions. By holding a representation of the road texture or surrounding 3D objects, they let the car figure out exactly where it is on the map without much use of GPS. A car scans the world around it, and looks in the maps to find a location that matches that scan. GPS and other tools help it not have to search the whole world, making this quick and easy.

Google, for example, uses a 2D map of the texture of the road as seen by LIDAR. (The use of LIDAR means the image is the same night and day.) In this map you see the location of things like curbs and lane markers but also all the defects in those lane markers and the road surface itself. Every crack and repair is visible. Just as you, a human being, will know where you are by recognizing things around you, a robocar does the same thing.

Some providers measure things about the 3D world around them. By noting where poles, signs, trees, curbs, buildings and more are, you can also figure out where you are. Road texture is very accurate but fails if the road is covered with fresh snow. (3D objects also change shape in heavy snow.)

Once you find out where you are (the problem called “localization”) you want a map to tell you where the lanes are so you can drive them. That’s a more traditional computer map, though much more detailed than the typical navigation app map.

Some teams hope to get a car to drive without a map. That is possible for simpler tasks like following a road edge or a lane. There you just look for a generic idea of what lane markings or road edges should look like, find them and figure out what the lanes look like and how to stay in the one you want to drive in. This is a way to get a car up and running fast. It is what humans do, most of the time.

Driving without a map means making a map

Most teams try to do more than driving without a map because software good enough to do that is also software good enough to make a map. To drive without a map you must understand the geometry of the road and where you are on it. You must understand even more, like what to do at intersections or off-ramps.

Creating maps is effectively the act of saying, “I will remember what previous cars to drive on this road learned about it, and make use of that the next time a car drives it.”

Put this way it seems crazy not to build and use maps, even with the challenges listed below. Perhaps some day the technology will be so good that it can’t be helped by remembering, but that is not this day.

The big advantages of the map

There are many strong advantages of having the map:

  • Human beings can review the maps built by software, and correct errors. You don’t need software that understands everything. You can drive a tricky road that software can’t figure out. (You want to keep this to a minimum to control costs and delays, but you don’t want to give it up entirely.)
  • Even if software does all the map building, you can do it using arbitrary amounts of data and computer power in cloud servers. To drive without a map you can must process the data in real time with low computing resources.
  • You can take advantage of multiple scans of the road from different lanes and vantage points. You can spot things that moved.
  • You can make use of data from other sources such as the cities and road authorities themselves.
  • You can cooperate with other players — even competitors — to make everybody’s understanding of the road better.

One intermediate goal might be to have cars that can drive with only a navigation map, but use more detailed maps in “problem” areas. This is pretty similar, except in database size, with automatic map generation with human input only on the problem areas. If your non-map driving is trustworthy, such that it knows not to try problem areas, you could follow the lower cost approach of “don’t map it until somebody’s car pulled over because it could not handle an area.”

Levels of maps

There are two or three components of the maps people are building, in order to perform the functions above. At the most basic level is something not too far above the navigation maps found in phones. That’s a vector map, except with lane level detail. Such maps know how many lanes there are, and usually what lanes connect to what lanes. For example, they will indicate that to turn right, you can use either of the right two lanes at some intersections.  read more »

Project Fi gives extra free Data Sims

Ten years ago, I asked Cell companies to let me have more than one phone on the same number. Recently I noticed the ability to almost do that with Google Project FI cell service.

Project FI is a cell service done (mostly) right. Low $20 basic cost, no phone subsidies or lock-in, fairly priced long distance, pay for data as you use it, roam on multiple networks, but most of all, the same $10/G data price in almost the whole world, at 3G and sometimes 4G speeds. It’s not perfect — it tends to roam with smaller carriers, it has problems sometimes overseas, and $10/G is a high price for those who use more than about 3GB/month of data.

I recently noticed a new feature — you can get up to ten extra data-only SIM cards at no extra cost. You pay for the data you use, as always with this plan. You can get a SIM for a tablet, but I think even more useful is the ability to pick up extra SIMs for your old phones. Now you can use these old phones as backup phones. Keep one in your car, to use if you forget your phone in the morning. Keep one at the office. Loan one when you travel.

The trick that makes these work as phones and not just data devices is project FI links your phone number into hangouts. If anybody calls or texts you, it also comes in via hangouts. So if you have decent data, you can take or make calls and SMS on the phone with the data-only SIM.

It’s not perfect. Sometimes calls over data suck. There is a small cost for the data for the voice — probably about 1 cent/minute. That’s actually a big savings over the one remaining roaming charge they have — 20 cents/minute.

Now my old phones can have a purpose. Old phones are old, though, so you want to strip out the apps you don’t need on a backup phone to keep them zippy. You will want to leave them in airplane-mode-wifi-on when not actively roaming with them so they don’t use your data plan sucking down emails and facebook.

BTW, if you are wondering if $10/GB is a reasonable price compared to plans that give 5 or 6GB in their basic $40-$50 price, I have found it to be quite reasonable at home. That’s because when I am home, I am on wifi in my house and most of the buildings I visit regularly. That keeps my data load down. When I travel, I try to go on wifi in the hotels but I also use the phone a lot more, and I will use 3-4GB in those months — but that’s a much better price than you will get from other carriers. T-mobile’s plan gives unlimited roaming but only at 2G speeds which are very low utility.

(BTW, while I really love the fact that incoming FI calls and texts go to hangouts and thus my desktop and laptop in addition to my extra phones, the Hangouts program is an absolutely terrible phone interface, lacking even redial and call-back and other very basic functions.)

Project FI is not a big network, and it’s other main flaw is that it only officially supports the Google phones like the Pixel and Nexus, though you can use other phones unofficially without quite as much roaming. But it’s also a great competitive push on the other cell phone companies to price in a manner that makes more sense. Cheers to them. (Disclaimer: I own some GOOG stock and am friends with Google management, and consulted there in the past.)

Keeping it in the USA

One serious flaw in FI, though, is that they don’t want people who live outside the USA to get it. One presumes they are not making or even losing money on the international roaming, and making it back inside. I spend 3 or more months a year outside the USA, so I may not be a profitable customer for them.

The problem is that to stop foreign users, they will only activate a SIM card if you are on the US networks. So if your phone fails while you are on a trip, and you have to replace it, or your SIM fails, you may be in a pile of trouble — you won’t be able to get and activate a new phone while on your trip. This hurt me when my Nexus 6 got unreliable on a trip. I had to put up with a crashing phone. It’s possible that had I begged they would have let me activate a new phone, but uncertain. Official policy is not. On the other hand, you are not entirely out of luck. You can get your new phone, put a local (ie. non-USA) SIM in it, and still get your calls and texts via hangouts, or via forwarding at some cost.

Car Rental: Rent me a cooler and lots of other gear for road trips

Something I do from time to time is a road trip in a rental car. And while car rental companies much prefer the business customer who rents a big car at a high price, then just drives it to their meeting and back to the airport, they are not averse to the less profitable road trip business.

So here are some things they could do to make it better for that sort of customer.

Cooler

When I road trip, I want a cooler to keep drinks and food cold. I will pack a fold-up cooler (they make good protection for stuff as well) but they can’t quite cut it in a hot car in a hot place all day.

So it would be nice if they would rent a nice solid cooler, maybe with some freezer packs. It’s easy to make your own freezer packs from used drink bottles, but also useful would be a leakproof bag to put gas station ice in. Those bags of ice you buy at stores always leak, so you need to protect against that. Depending on where you stay you can usually re-freeze packs or get ice from an ice machine.

Now a typical small cooler only costs about $30. And if I know car rental companies, they will charge more to rent you one, since they have to stock it and clean it. The big advantage of an overpriced rental car unit is time. You don’t want to spend time hunting these things down.

What would make sense would be a company which does “road trip provisions” which partners with all the rental car companies, and will either provision your car, or be located near the airport to make it easy for you to pick up and drop off.

Those 12v coolers that run off car electricity don’t do anything. You have to have ice. Though it could be a backup.

Another interesting option would be to partner with stores that do online ordering, so that you could get your cooler pre-loaded with ice and groceries. That’s of value in places you know well — in new countries I actually enjoy visiting a grocery store and picking out local products.

(No, I didn’t rent a Lotus Super Seven on my road trip to the hotel where the Prisoner was filmed, but somebody else drove one there and parked it to show off.)

Other travel supplies

Long ago, you could not depend on your hotel to have a hair dryer and an iron. So they sold travel versions of these that people packed. Nobody packs them any more. Now there are other things starting to be found in hotel rooms, but you still have to pack them because you can’t be sure. Some are things almost everybody wants. Some are specialty items. I would love for them to be on the inventory of a hotel, road trip rental company or car rental company:

For the road

  • A good tripod. I have one of course, but these are bulky things to bring. I can bring the tripod head — those vary too much.
  • Swim fins, masks, beach towels, beach mats and sun umbrellas — if going to a swimming/beach location.
  • Folding chairs for the same reason.
  • Camping gear is avilable for rent in some camping stores. Would be nice to get all this in one place, though.
  • Trekking poles. They make hikes better exercise and lower impact. I have collapsing ones but they are still a pain to fit in luggage and don’t go in carry-ons.
  • Coats. No, they won’t fit very well, but I’ve been on trips where you only needed a coat (or a heavier coat) in one location on the trip, and an ill-fitting coat woudl be better than carrying your own on the whole trip. Sometimes you can rent these — for example on Mt. Etna in Sicily, it’s the only place on the island anybody wants a coat in summer.

For the room

Earlier I wrote on what should be in every hotel room. Every room should just have those things, and the things below, but until then, trip gear rental service should have them too.

  • A universal power strip for the local plug style — because so many rooms don’t have enough plugs.
  • Tools for doing repairs. One of the most frustrating things on the road is breaking stuff and not having your complement of basic tools. Yeah, I pack a multi-tool, but I would also like a hot glue gun and other glues, a soldering iron and electrical repair tools with other useful things. Some Duct Tape, of course. And a tiny voltmeter.
  • For people who did not check a bag, a multi-tool, and a pair of scissors.
  • Video cables (HDMI, VGA, dongles) to let me connect my computer to the TVs in hotel rooms. Now 95% of them are flat-screen HD units, though often just 720p, and often fixed to the wall in a way that’s not useful as a computer monitor. But I don’t know what cable I will need or if I will be able to use it so it’s nice not to have to pack it.
  • For trips where you will stay a long time in one place, a nice large monitor is wonderful if you will be working on the computer. As I pretty much always will be. Recently on extended trip I bought one — just $120 — and sold it to the landlord who will provide it to future guests.
  • Alas, USB charging probably is still best for you to bring or rent. Problem is there are now 5 USB charging systems (Qualcomm QC 2 and 3, USB C, general high-current USB, basic USB and probably more) and everybody needs more than basic 2.5w charging, and to not have this is a complete non-starter.

What else would you add to the road trip rental inventory?

Can't we make overbooking more efficient and less painful with our mobile devices?

I’ve written before about overbooking and how it’s good for passengers as well as for the airlines. If we have a service (airline seats, rental cars, hotel rooms) where the seller knows it’s extremely likely that with 100 available slots, 20 will not show up, we can have two results:

  1. As soon as all 100 are taken, they declare it sold out. People reschedule or abandon trips, or at least take 2nd choices. However, the sold out plane takes off with 20 empty seats. If half of all flights sell out, you would find yourself blocked from taking the flight you want in 1 out of 10 of the flights you book on short notice.
  2. Instead of declaring it sold out, they oversell. When they mispredict, they find ways to compensate people to give up their reservation, or eventually, but ideally rarely or never, force some people to do so. A small fraction of people voluntarily yield, and a very tiny fraction do so involuntarily. (About 1 passenger in 10,000 faces involuntary bump, and it never happens to people who buy more expensive tickets or have status with the airline, unless they are late for the flight.)

I know which travel world I want to live in. To me that’s not the question. The question instead is, in the world where every traveler has a smartphone, why isn’t this done a lot better.

So many of our institutions were designed before the arrival of smartphones — it was just 10 years ago that they started taking over — and they are still the same today. In fact, many things are still designed for a world where people don’t even have email when they travel.

One step taken last week is United Airlines’ new Flex-Schedule program.

In this new program, first you must sign up and be a member of their Mileage Plus FF program. If you do, and you have already booked a seat on a flight that looks like it will be over-over-booked — ie. it will need volunteers — they will email you well in advance asking you to volunteer early. They promise an alternate flight with the same day and airport, and will compensate you you one of their travel vouchers. Those vouchers are not very valuable, of course, but this is what they offer.

When a flight is sure to overbook, the airline still sells tickets, but raises the price up high. This assures that the people buying last minute are very keen to get on that flight. They are premium customers, and unlikely to volunteer. The volunteers have to come from more price conscious customers who booked earlier. And so United realizes that most of those customers have e-mail and phones, and can respond quickly to such an offer.

I think they can go much further than this. Every airline, hotel and rental car should be tracking demand and supply at all times — which they already do. They are making models of just how many people are likely to really show for the flight. They track the history of passengers, to see if they are the sort who always shows or if they often change flights. They know the on-time records of all the feeder flights making connections, and on flight day, they know the actual times for those flights.

What they don’t have is information on the moods and locations of the passengers. Truth is, if I’m not going to use a seat, my phone probably knows that in advance, without me telling it. Or if I’m uncertain, my phone has the ability with notifications to get me to quickly confirm my intentions.

Yes, this means some minor loss of privacy — but actually very little. First of all, this is a very specific yielding of data, which is not nearly the sort of problem that allowing general access to data like your location is. Secondly, the airline doesn’t need to see your data at all. Instead, it can tell your phone, “If he’s not within 20 minutes of the airport by 3:30, ask him if he wants to give up his seat.” The airline does not learn where you are, just that you were not close to the airport. They just give the phone (or a server based tool that knows your location) the parameters of where you need to be if you will make the reservation.

In extreme cases, your phone can know where it is in the airport, and figure out if you have a chance of making the flight or not. But if it’s smart, it buzzed you long ago with the worry that you might not make it, perhaps providing an offer, or another flight if you’re an elite status passenger. You might not even waste the trip to the airport. Likewise, flights might be held slightly (or at least not takeoff early) if important passengers are known to be almost there.

Done well, you could very much love this for they might actually offer you a better deal if you tell them sooner you are going to miss the flight. With most tickets, you pay a penalty if you miss a flight or simply don’t take one, and they could make it smaller, in exchange for their ability to resell that seat sooner.

This is even more important with rental cars and hotel rooms. Unlike airline seats, most of these are reserved without penalty. You can no-show at no cost. Which means more no-shows. In airlines, the number of people who no-show and forfeit their ticket are few. Most of the no-shows are actually people who missed connections. The car rental companies get your flight number to know when you will land but also to know if you won’t make it at all. The hotels could also benefit in how they manage things.

I love the ability to make reservations without any penalty for not showing up. At the same time, that has to come with overselling to make sense, and so I’m willing to see slight reductions in my ability to do this. For example, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for me to have to re-confirm these reservations using my online connectivity. (Since phones and batteries and connections die, this can’t be 100% but it could still be pretty good.

No, you don't need to drive a billion miles to test a robocar

Earlier I noted that Nidi Kalra of Rand spoke at the AVS about Rand’s research suggesting that purely road testing robocars is an almost impossible task, because it would take hundreds of millions to a billion miles of driving to prove that a robocar is 10% better than human drivers.

(If the car is 10x better than humans, it doesn’t take that long, but that’s not where the first cars will be.)

This study has often been cited as saying that it’s next to impossible to test robocars. The authors don’t say that — their claim is that road testing will not be enough, and will take too long to really work — but commenters and press have taken it further to the belief that we’ll never be able to test.

The mistake is that while it could take a billion miles to prove a vehicle is 10% safer than human drivers, that is not the goal. Rather, the goal is to decide that it’s unlikely it is much worse than that number. It may seem like “better than X” and “not worse than X” are the same thing, but they are not. The difference is where you give the benefit of the doubt.

Consider how we deal with new drivers. We give them a very basic test and hand them a licence. We presume, because they are human teens, that they will have a safety record similar to other human teens. Such a record is worse than the level for experienced drivers, and in fact one could argue it’s not at all safe enough, but we know of no way to turn people into experienced drivers without going through the risky phase.

If a human driver starts showing evidence of poor skills or judgments — lots of tickets, and in particular multiple accidents, we pull their licence. It actually takes a really bad record for that to happen. By my calculations the average human takes around 20 years to have an accident that gets reported to insurance, and 40-50 years to have one that gets reported to police. (Most people never have an injury accident, and a large fraction never have any reported or claimed accident.)  read more »

Federal regulations past next hurdle

Today’s news is preliminary, but a U.S. house committee panel passed some new federal regulations which suggest sweeping change in the US regulatory approach to robocars.

Today, all cars sold must comply with the Federal Motor Vehicles Safety Standards (FMVSS.) This is a huge set of standards, and it’s full of things written with human driven cars in mind, and making a radically different vehicle, like the Zoox, or the Waymo Firefly, or a delivery robot, is simply not going to happen under those standards. There is a provision where NHTSA can offer exemptions but it’s in small volumes, for prototype and testing vehicles mostly. The new rules would allow a vendor to get an exemption to make 100,000 vehicles per year, which should be enough for the early years of robocar deployment.

Secondly, these and other new regulations would preempt state regulations. Most players (except some states) have pushed for this. Many states don’t want the burden of regulating robocar design, since they don’t have the resources to do so, and most vendors don’t want what they call a “patchwork” of 50 regulations in the USA. My take is different. I agree the cost of a patchwork is not to be ignored, but the benefits of having jurisdictional competition may be much greater. When California proposed to ban vehicles like the Google Firefly, Texas immediately said, “Come to Texas, we won’t get in your way.” That pushed California to rethink. Having one regulation is good — but it has to be the right regulation, and we’re much too early in the game to know what the right regulation is.

This is just a committee in the house, and there is lots more distance to go, including the Senate and all the other usual hurdles. Whatever people thought about how much regulation there should be, everybody has known that the FMVSS needs a difficult and complex revision to work in the world of robocars, and a temporary exemption can be a solution to that.

Uncovered: NHTSA Levels of 1900 (Satire)

I have recently managed to dig up some old documents from the earliest days of car regulation. Here is a report from NHTSA on the state of affairs near the turn of the 20th century.

National Horse Trail Safety Administration (NHTSA)

Regulation of new Horse-Auto-mobile Vehicles (HAV), sometimes known as “Horseless carriages.”

In recent years, we’ve seen much excitement about the idea of carriages and coaches with the addition of “motors” which can propel the carriage without relying entirely on the normal use of horses or other beasts of burden. These “Horseless carriages,” sometimes also known as “auto mobile” are generating major excitement, and prototypes have been generated by men such as Karl Benz and Armand Peugeot, along with the Duryea brothers, Ransom Olds and others in the the USA. The potential for these carriages has resulted in many safety questions and many have asked if and how NHTSA will regulate safety of these carriages when they are common.

Previously, NHTSA released a set of 4, and later 5 levels to classify and lay out the future progression of this technology.

Levels of Motorized Carriages

Level 0

Level zero is just the existing rider on horseback.

Level 1

Level one is the traditional horse drawn carriage or coach, as has been used for many years.

Level 2

A level 2 carriage has a motor to assist the horses. The motor may do the work where the horses trot along side, but at any time the horses may need to take over on short notice.

Level 3

In a level 3 carriage, sometimes the horses will provide the power, but it is allowed to switch over entirely to the “motor,” with the horses stepping onto a platform to avoid working them. If the carriage approaches an area it can’t handle, or the motor has problems, the horses should be ready, with about 10-20 seconds notice, to step back on the ground and start pulling. In some systems the horse(s) can be in a hoist which can raise or lower them from the trail.

Level 4

A Level 4 carriage is one which can be pulled entirely by a motor in certain types of terrain or types of weather — an operating domain — but may need a horse at other times. There is no need for a sudden switch to the horses, which should be pulled in a trailer so they can be hitched up for travel outside the operating domain.

Level 5

The recently added fifth level is much further in the future, and involves a “horseless” carriage that can be auto mobile in all situations, with no need for any horse at all. (It should carry a horse for off-road use or to handle breakdowns, but this is voluntary.)  read more »

News and commentary from AUVSI/TRB Automated Vehicle Symposium 2017

In San Francisco, I’m just back from the annual Automated Vehicle Symposium, co-hosted by the AUVSI (a commercial unmanned vehicle organization) and the Transportation Research Board, a government/academic research organization. It’s an odd mix of business and research, but also the oldest self-driving car conference. I’ve been at every one, from the tiny one with perhaps 100-200 people to this one with 1,400 that fills a large ballroom.

Toyota Research VC Fund

Tuesday morning did not offer too many surprises. The first was an announcement by Toyota Research Institute of a $100M venture fund. Toyota committed $1B to this group a couple of years ago, but surprisingly Gil Pratt (who ran the DARPA Robotics Challenge for humanoid-like robots) has been somewhat a man of mixed views, with less optimistic forecasts.

Different about this VC fund will be the use of DARPA like “calls.” The fund will declare, “Toyota would really like to see startups solving problem X” and then startups will apply, and a couple will be funded. It will be interesting to see how that pans out.

Nissan’s control room is close to live

At CES, Nissan showed off their plan to have a remote control room to help robocars get out of sticky situations they can’t understand like unusual construction zones or police directing traffic. Here, they showed it as further along and suggested it will go into operation soon.

This idea has been around for a while (Nissan based it on some NASA research) and at Starship, it has always been our plan for our delivery robots. Others are building such centers as well. The key question is how often robocars need to use the human assistance, and how you make sure that unmanned vehicles stay in regions where they can get a data connection through which to get help. As long as interventions are rare, the cost is quite reasonable for a larger fleet.

This answers the question that Rod Brooks (of Rethink Robotics and iRobot) recently asked, pondering how robocars will handle his street in Cambridge, where strange things like trucks blocking the road to do deliveries, are frequently found.

It’s a pretty good bet that almost all our urban spaces will have data connectivity in the 2020s. If any street doesn’t have solid data, and has frequent bizarre problems of any type, yet is really important for traversal by unmanned vehicles — an unlikely trifecta — it’s quite reasonable for vehicle operators to install local connectivity (with wifi, for example) on that street if they can’t wait for the mobile data companies to do it. Otherwise, don’t go down such streets in empty cars unless you are doing a pickup/drop-off on the street.

Switching Cities

Karl Iagenemma of nuTonomy told the story of moving their cars from Singapore, where driving is very regulated and done on the left, to Boston where it is chaotic and done on the right.  read more »