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Self driving cars, and sooner than we think, but what about in Boston?


If you've been following things, you know that after the great success of the first Darpa Grand Challenge, a new Grand Challenge has been proposed, this time for urban driving. The cars will have to navigate a city with other cars on the road. (I'm going to presume demolition derby style vehicles and speeds.) This time DARPA is providing some funding, though it was impressive how last time the modest (by military standards) $2M prize attained what would have been science fiction just years ago.

So I'm refirming my view that self-driving cars will come to us moderately soon. The technology is very near, and the case is so compelling. In spite of interesting speculations about personal rapid transit, or virtual right-of-way or other items in my transportation category, this is the likely winner because it requires no new infrastructure, and if we let it, it can grow from the ground up.

I'm talking cars that can drive today's roads, and are better at avoiding people and other cars than we are. They do it on their own, though they cooperate where it makes sense to do so but don't have cooperate to work.

The most compelling case is that over 1 million people are killed every year in or by cars, about 42,000 in the USA. In fact, there are over 6 million car crashes reported to police in the USA every year, costing an average of $2,900 per vehicle per year (clearly not all borne by insurance companies.) But if that's not enough, we'll see:

  • Self valet parking -- car drives you to front door, then parks itself somewhere cheap.
  • Ability to read, work or web surf while in transit
  • Dedicated lanes and coordination with timed lights for faster trips.
  • Possible eventual ability to reliably go through stop-signs and red lights safely.
  • Higher fuel efficiency
  • Presumably save hundreds per year on insurace with lower accident rates
  • Presumably save even thousands on parking (for CBD commuters.) Parking also possible in cheaper, super-dense remote lots when you do need to park close.
  • Car will go to airport to pick up friends.
  • Car will run errands to pick up prescriptions and other urgent things. Or people will own or rent small efficient mini-cars to do delivery errands.
  • Can't afford a car? Put in a lockbox for your stuff and rent it out as a Taxi when you aren't using it. Or use the cars people are renting out as Taxis.

I would pay double for a car like this, but in fact it's likely to save money, not cost money.

All the other alternatives seem worse. Mass transit is slow at grade and super expensive in tunnels or elevated ROW, and has slow and cumbersome transfers, no personalization and no privacy. PRT requires expensive new ROW. Private driving is of course congested and expensive.

Cost of crashes and traffic update

Let's look at all the costs of crashes and other traffic problems:

  • With fatal crashes, of course, the cost of human lives, and suffering for loved ones.
  • With injury crashes, the cost of the injury, possibly a lifetime of problems, but also lost work.
  • With all crashes, the cost of repairing the cars
  • The cost of all the other safety equipment in the cars (though we would probably want to keep most of it unless crashes truly went to an insignificant number.) Still making a car safe in a crash is a large portion of its cost. And we still don't have air bags for the people in the back seat.
  • The cost of police, fire and ambulences and other crash-management infrastructure.
  • The cost of police to enforce traffic regulations (or the cost of tickets to drivers) and parking regulations.
  • For accidents during high traffic times, the cost of traffic delays -- 20 minutes for 3,000 people amounts to 1,000 person hours.
  • The need for wider roads to handle human driven traffic, and shoulders for accidents.

Boston Driver

In a recent discussion, the subject of the selfish driver came up. In Boston, driving in traffic is a constant game of chicken. Self-driving cars would of course be programmed to always lose a game of chicken. Done properly, a rogue driver could barrel at full speed into a crowd of self-driving cars and they would, if possible to do safely, part like water around the rogue car. You would actually have to work hard to try and hit one, especially if they are communicating to do this even better. Which brings up the problem, how to deal with the rogue driver, because it now seems the smart thing for that driver to do.

I wrote earlier about the problem of the selfish merge -- a problem we have been unable to solve, where people zoom up to the end in a vanishing lane, causing a traffic jam, because somebody always lets them in, making the zoom-up the fastest strategy. I wondered if a reputation system could help. I don't want to build a system where we track all cars and the rogue driver gets an automatic ticket. Though it would be nice if they did it constantly that perhaps vacant cars would glom around the rogue driver -- reversing the strategy so that they always win a game of chicken instead of always lose -- and pen him in and escort him to the cops.


42 thousand traffic-accident deaths per year in the U.S.
That's a lot, considering a) the width of the streets (or the
number of lanes) and b) the relatively low speed limit.

Germany, with a population of 80 million in an area about the
size of Texas, with NO SPEED LIMIT on the highways, had a record
low last year---about 5 thousand deaths. (Only a few hundred
were on the highways.)

Consider how much pain 11 September 2001 caused. Now think more
deaths than that per month, every month. But who complains about
it? Where is the "war on driving danger"? But wait, we can't have
that, because a) that would decrease people's freedom to drive
if it is difficult to get a license, if penalties for drunk driving
are stiff etc and b) less driving would hurt the oil industry, and
of course Bush wouldn't do that.

US has 5x the population, and the lower 48 states are 20x the area of Germany, so an 8x road fatalities rate isn't that extreme.

Americans might even travel more than twice the number of passenger miles per year that Germans do... which would make the fatality rate per passenger mile lower than Germany. So, why so many deaths in Germany even in a record-low year?

would someone please help me with statistical info? (please respond directly to my email).

In the last seven years I have had three minor accidents. First, a 90 year old man who was deaf and blind (I'm serious) ran a stop sign. Second, I struck a newly created unpainted unmarked curb extension at 20 mph that was in the heavy shade of a large tree. It had just been completed the day before. I only hit an inch into the curb, but it totaled my car, an 87 Saab. Then last week, a woman talking on a cell phone with three other women and a baby in the car ran a stop sign, and I was going 25 mph or less, or it would have been more than a minor fender bender.

My bitchy wife says that I have more accidents than anyone she knows, and assumes that I am a bad driver. (These are the only three accidents I've had. I am 51).

Are there stats on the number of minor accidents that the average american driver might encounter? Any help would be greatly appreciated as my idiot soon to be ex-spouse has a master's in statistics, and believes in them. By the way, who knows how many wrecks she has left in her wake, but she's 47 (oops, 45) and has never had a wreck. Riding with her would scare the living hell out of you.

Isn't there a simple solution to the selfish merge problem? Maybe I'm naive, but... howabout instead of having lanes across which cars can merge like we do now, every transportation artery for self-driving vehicles could be a single lane (or a close approximation to a single lane). This is essentially getting rid of the "merge" part of the problem.

For example, if we had self-driving car tubes, then there would be no way to get out of the way of a car attempting to game the selfish merge. The car in front would sense that it is getting too close to the car in front of it and would have to slow down despite the high-probability of getting rear-ended by the selfish car.

At first, it would seem that this would require a whole new infrastructure for transportation. But you could achieve the "tube" effect by having barriers between all lanes with occasional splits or ramps to allow cars to get on and off the road. Further, this would be interesting in the transitional period between when no cars drive themselves and when all drive themselves: you could start with a dedicated lane for self-driving cars and then barrier-off successive lanes as the relative percentages of self-driving to driving cars increases.

Well, one of the big points in favour of developing automatic vehicles is you don't have to build extra infrastructure, or you build minimal infrastucture (like a network connection to traffic signals and information). You need a gradual transition to get there, you can't bar the cars until you have dedicated lanes for them. No reason to get one if you can't use it, no reason to build the dedicated lanes if nobody has them.

Probably the first generation will be semi-automatic. For example, highway only, driver has to get the car to and from the highway. Then perhaps doing major streets, etc. Possibly doing highway and "adapted" urban streets with data networking, more accurate positioning etc.

So there are no "arteries for self-driving vehicles" until quite a way into the program. But you don't want to wall off lanes, you have to deal with the ablity to swerve or move to avoid broken down cars, human drivers, pedestrians, debris, potholes etc. All of which the grand challenge cars can do now.

You are working on fixing a system that is the wrong paradigm: one car per adult in the US, driven an average of 15k miles per year, double what we drove in 1982, and triple what we drove in 1970. More VMTs (vehicle miles travelled) per person puts each of us more at risk.

It also doesn't make sense to have each person surrounded 90 sq feet of space, or lugging a couple of tons of metal around in order to move our own 150+/- lbs. And then we have to store these blasted things, and for each one of them have an average of 3 parking spaces waiting. The young and the old are trapped, and today the average American spents 19% of their income on their car, and this is going to move to 25% over the next 5-10 years if we remain car dependent.

I haven't even mentioned carbon emissions, or the 10 years is is going to take before any alternative fuel source can make a dent on fulfilling our demand.

Brad, help us solve those problems. That'll reduce congestion and VMTs (and therefore risk) in a flash.

Your pal.

The system I describe fixes a lot of those problems. Many people would not bother to own a car with a system like that, instead just owning a small locker of personal items they like to keep with them that moves easily in and out of the self-drive cars they borrow.

Many of the cars might indeed be small, and the city cars would commonly be electric, in particular because the range problem goes away. Your car drives itself to a charging station when you get out of it, and it quickly takes you to a longer range car for rent when you need that, or one comes to your door (and your city car is rented out to others while you use the long range car.)

The young and the old are not trapped at all, in fact this is just what they want -- I can't understand why you wrote that at all.

And not only do we spend less on cars, we eliminate the largest single cost involved in cars -- accidents. They cost more per mile than gasoline, more than depreciation, more than insurance.

This is the solution to all the problems you list, and many others. It's literally worth a trillion dollars to the planet, PER YEAR, to get safe, self-driving cars. Odd we only spend a few millions researching it. There is no single thing on the planet we could research that would save more lives and money so quickly, I suspect.

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