BMW designer feels robocars over a decade away and the never-driving baby

In contrast to the optimism I usually present here, and last week’s article about a self-driving Mercedes just a year away it’s worth noting this interview with various BMW folks where they provide a much more cautious timeline of at least a decade. Part of their concern comes from the use of computer vision systems. These are much cheaper than laser scanners but do not provide the reliability needed; it’s no accident that all the successful teams in the Darpa urban challenge relied very heavily on laser scanning.

I’m enough of an optimist that I am ready to bring forward the question “When will a child be born that never drives because of robocars?” Of course there are many people in the developed world who never get a licence for a variety of reasons, particularly people who live their lives in Manhattan and other transit-heavy cities. But for most of us, getting a licence and getting on the road is a rite of passage. Yet studies are showing that teens are now waiting longer to get a licence with various reasons speculated.

Nonetheless eventually we will see somebody who would normally have been jumping at the chance to get a licence and get out on the road who never gets one because they have a robocar. It won’t be easy of course, since even those who have robocars will still need to travel to places that don’t have them and rent cars, but many people who don’t have licences today just make use of taxis and transit in those situations.

I will put forward the proposal that this child may already have been born. When I see a baby today, I wonder, “will this child ever learn to drive?” While 16 years is aggressive for the ubiquitous fully autonomous operation needed for this, I do think we’re on the cusp, and if that child has not yet been born, it’s not too far away.

One reason for this is all the forces that are already reducing teen driving. A teen debating whether to take the effort to learn to drive might easily be swayed not to because mom has bought him a robocar. Once a successful safety record for robocars is demonstrated, parents will buy them for teens — instead of buying them driving lessons — and pressure the teens to not take the risk of driving themselves.

In other news, here’s a pointer to work by designer Charles Rattray on the look of future robocars. His designs match with my position that many robocars should be half the width of today’s cars, carrying only 1-2 people, since the vast majority of cars today only carry 1-2 people. Today’s car buyers insist on 5 passenger sedans (or larger) but when you have mobility-on-demand you can use the right vehicle for the trip on every trip, and that’s going to mostly be one person vehicles. This in turn, is the real key to efficient transportation, because while you can do great things with more efficient or electric power trains and more aerodynamic cars, nothing compares to making the car smaller, lighter and narrower in a major way. He has many design sketches and a video of how he sees the cars in action.

Bet

See my bet with Ryan Avent of the Economist.

Winning and losing your bet

You’re almost certain to lose the bet from a technological standpoint because as you note, the announced capabilities of Google’s car approach being up to the challenge, and while I can’t say more, and it’s a research project and not a product, its unannounced capabilities are generally likely to be even better.

There is an odd way you might win from a legal standpoint, not so related to all the legal barriers you point out. As you may know, Nevada passed a law enabling robocars and is drafting regulations for them. But the framework laid out in the law is done in terms of the driver’s licence. It talks about an endorsement going on your driver’s licence for a self-driving car.

If this pattern becomes the rule, it may be the case that your 16 year old daughter is able to legally take the trip, but she will need to have a “licence.” It won’t be like today’s licence, where she had to do a driving test. Perhaps just a written test or simulator test, done online.

Once the car is capable of going fully-auto, so that it can deliver itself empty or move cargo, there would be no need for such a licence, but you might win your bet because laws, once done, are harder to undo, and so the licence requirement might still be on the books, even if it is just a short quiz to make sure she knows what to do if the car breaks down by the side of the road or how to exchange insurance if somebody hits her.

I think if this is the case, you might win the bet on a technicality, and might want to modify it to be more fair.

That's a great point. I will

That's a great point. I will see what Ryan thinks about it.

I made a bet with a friend

I made a bet with a friend that robocars will be in majority use by 2031. That's 20 years. We shall see :)

Never under estimate Moore's Law

I think that the industry is under estimating the effect Moore's law will be having on almost all of the relevant processes and components required.

Compare the current level of technology in your PC, Smartphone, wristwatch etc... to 10 years ago. And remember it gets better, cheaper, faster, redundant and more reliable on roughly an 18 month timeline...

Ultimately we'll reach a tipping point WRT to the technology and then really its just a matter of how fast it can get rolled out.

I think this is a scenario,

I think this is a scenario, where the legal issues trump the technical issues. The first child may have been born that will never have to learn how to drive, but she is probably growing up in Singapore or China. Just think of China. The cost of training 1 billion people how to drive might make robo cars seem fairly cost-effective.

why not try in unregulated countries

Why don't the robocar companies first try out in third world countries, you can pay off people there, and let robocar acccident stats build up there. Soon enough, the developed countries see the benefits and catch up.

3rd world first

This does happen with drug testing, but in general I don’t expect this because the car companies (and even the search engine companies :-) are located in the developed world, and the early adopters with the money to buy new technology are in the developed world too. In much of the poorer world, all the middle class hire drivers already. In fact, it’s considered poor form not to do so because it creates a needed job. Infrastructure is also in better shape in the developed world though there is a case to be made that solving harder problems is good for you.

trucking in dangerous areas

How about trucking in dangerous areas like iraq, afghanistan, central africa, or even in lax regulation rich countries like saudi arabia, uae. There's also the ice roads in canada.

The ice roads

Delivery of stuff in war zones was actually one of the main original goals of the DARPA grand challenges and the military still has a strong demand for autonomous vehicles, even though their goal to have 1/3 of all their vehicles be autonomous by 2015 may not be met.

And yes, I recently heard from a major Canadian construction company that they would find the tech useful on mining roads since it’s hard to get drivers to live in remote mining areas.

I don’t actually think we want to focus on places with “lax” regulation as every autonomous vehicle developer I have seen is interested in making vehicles even safer than human drivers. The “laxness” that may be needed is a legal regime that does not punish a robotic vehicle’s owner or manufacturer significantly more than it would punish a drunk or other negligent human for causing an accident. The humans responsible for a robotic vehicle should of course be responsible for damage it causes, and how to assign liability in car crashes today is generally well understood. It’s a regime that wants to go beyond that to the point of making it impossible to deploy robocars that are safer than humans that would be an item of concern.

Oh sure, i see your point. I

Oh sure, i see your point. I had assumed google's self-driving car, and maybe other companies, had already shown safer than human andriving,i maybe was just a little overoptimistic. I've been following your robocar ideas for a few years and really want to this to come soon for it's societal benefits. I really appreciate your essays, real enjoyable read. There's also Marshall Brain's essays on the robotic society if haven't already seen them yet.

So BMW is concerned about

So BMW is concerned about the cost of lidar scanners. Have the seen Kinect for the Xbox it is an incredibly accurate lidar scanner with no moving parts. It retails for less than $200 five of those should be able to cove all 360 degrees of aproaches to the car for under $1000 which is reasonably small fraction of the cars cost.

Kinect is not a lidar

The Kinect is not a lidar scanner at all. It uses structured light patterns, and this both does not work in bright sunlight and also doesn’t go for a range much beyond 10 meters. This approach is thus useless in cars. There are PMD cameras which use a different light approach and can work in brighter sunlight (though they have problems) and have similar range. They are cheap, but with the low range they are only being considered for blindspot detectors.

Only LIDAR and radar have the range and ability to work in all lighting conditions today. With some Moore’s law and some volume, LIDARs are going to get cheaper though.

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