I’m back from CES, and there was certainly a lot of press over two pre-robocar announcements there:
The first was the Toyota/Lexus booth, which was dominated by a research car reminiscent of the sensor-stacked vehicles of the DARPA grand challenges. It featured a Velodyne on top (like almost all the high capability vehicles today) and a very large array of radars, including six looking to the sides. Toyota was quite understated about the vehicle, saying they had low interest in full self-driving, but were doing this in order to research better driver assist and safety systems.
The Lexus booth also featured a car that used ultrasonic sensors to help you when backing out of a blind parking space. These sensors let you know if there is somebody coming down the lane of the parking lot.
Audi did two demos for the press which I went to see. Audi also emphasized that this is long-term concept stuff, and meant as research work to enhance their “driver in the loop systems.” They are branding these projects “Piloted Parking” and “Piloted Driving” to suggest the idea of an autopilot with a human overseer. However, the parking system is unmanned, and was demonstrated in the lot of the Mandarin Oriental. The demo area was closed off to pedestrians, however.
The parking demo was quite similar to the Junior 3 demo I saw 3 years ago, and no surprise, because Junior 3 was built at the lab which is a collaboration between Stanford and VW/Audi. Junior 3 had a small laser sensor built into it. Instead, the Piloted Parking car had only ultransonic sensors and cameras, and relied on a laser mounted in the parking lot. In this appraoch, the car has a wifi link which it uses to download a parking lot map, as well as commands from its owner, and it also gets data from the laser. Audi produced a mobile app which could command the car to move, on its own, into the lot to find a space, and then back to pick up the owner. The car also had a slick internal display with pop-up screen.
The question of where to put the laser is an interesting one. In this approach, you only park in lots that are pre-approved and prepared for self-parking. Scanning lasers are currently expensive, and if parking is your only application, then there are a lot more cars then there are parking lots and it might make sense to put the expensive sensor in the lots. However, if the cars want to have the laser anyway for driving it’s better to have the sensor in the car. In addition, it’s more likely that car buyers will early adopt than parking lot owners.
In the photo you see the Audi highway demo car sporting the Nevada Autonomous Vehicle testing licence #007. Audi announced they just got this licence, the first car maker to do so. This car offers “Piloted Driving” — the driver must stay alert, while a lane-keeping system steers the car between the lane markers and an automatic cruise control maintains distance from other cars. This is similar to systems announced by Mercedes, Cadillac, VW, Volvo and others. Audi already has announced such a system for traffic jams — the demo car also handled faster traffic.
Audi also announced their use of a new smaller LIDAR sensor. The Velodyne found on the Toyota car and Google cars is a large, roof-mounted device. However, they did not show a car using this sensor.
Audi also had a simulator in their booth showing a future car that can drive in traffic jams, and lets you take a video phone call while it is driving. If you take control of the car, it cuts off the video, but keeps the audio.
Robocars and road charging
There is an extensive article on the effect of robocars on plans for road use charging in the industry magazine Toll Trans.
Today, road use charging comes, quite sensibly from the gasoline tax. However, the current taxes are not paying the bill, and politically it’s impossible to raise gas taxes. This has driven road agencies to all sorts of other proposals including orwellian GPS loggers to tax people based on road use. (They don’t just read the odometer as that would tax you for your out of state driving which they are not supposed to do.) In addition, while there are hardly any electric cars on the road today, the road agencies use them as another reason — the electric cars are unfairly using the road without paying any road use tax since they don’t buy gasoline.
The authors in this article see robocars as a potential salvation, since they are already tracking what road they are driving on, and it’s a small modification to have them make a report and charge road use taxes. And in fact, a draft version of the DC law for allowing robocars wanted to attempt this — exempt them from gas taxes and require a road use tax collection.
Naturally, I want as few barriers to robocar adoption as possible during the early years. It’s going to be hard enough to see a new technology do well without additional regulations. The authors of the article fear that if they don’t set this precedent soon, they will never get it later.
From a social standpoint, though, this seems like a non-optimal plan. Electric cars probably need encouragement; that they don’t burn gasoline and are cheaper to run is the reason people buy them. Robocars have many other advantages in addition to the potential for lower cost, but you don’t want to discourage them. Any regulation plan of this sort should make sure its a clear win for the user to switch to the safer and more efficient robocar, not an extra cost. That means the road use charge should be less than the gas tax would have been. That’s a problem for two reasons — the road agencies want more revenue, not less, and if they exempt the robocar from gas tax because it pays another way (as the DC law suggested) this encourages major arbitrage games in border areas.
In a rational system, the right approach would be to raise the gas tax and tolerate giving the non-gas-burning cars a break until they become large in number. Failing that, a federal odometer tax does the job (other than for those who do road trips in Canada and Mexico a lot) without any tracking of where people go.
There have been hundreds of articles in the press lately due to CES. You can see videos of the Audi cars and Toyota car. Also notable is an independent article from the NYT on the current efforts from automakers, a fun prank on drive-through employees.
Check out the videos of the Induct Cybergo also known as the Navia. It uses maps to navigate, which is the typical strategy in many research vehicles but has been less common in commercial systems. This vehicle is a campus shuttle offering, which goes only 12mph, allowing it to more easily be safe among pedestrians.