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Robocars

The future of computer-driven cars and deliverbots

San Francisco bans delivery robots

San Francisco just passed legislation largely banning delivery robots on the city's sidewalks. The rule allows each company testing such robots to get a permit which would allow only a trivial number of robots, and limit them to industrial streets at low speeds for testing only.

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How can robocar transit affect the personal safety of transportation, especially regarding sexual assault?

One "story of the year" for Time was the #metoo campaign, where (mostly) women shared stories of how they had been sexually harassed or molested, to make it clear just how widespread the problem is. Almost all women have a story, or many stories, sad to say.

I have frequently heard reports from women of being groped on crowded public transit. People are packed in, and villains use the plausible deniability and anonymity of the packed crowd to grope.

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Warner Brothers and Intel experiment with in-robocar entertainment. Is that a good idea?

Intel and Warner made a splash at the LA Auto Show announcing how Warner will develop entertainment for viewing while riding in robotaxis. It's not just movies to watch, their hope is to produce something more like an amusement park ride to keep you engaged on your journey.

Like most partnership announcements around robocars, this one is mainly there for PR since they haven't built anything yet. The idea is both interesting and hype.

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Has Uber already beaten private ownership on cost?

Today, various experts, like CR and the AAA rate the cost of private car ownership anywhere from 40 to 60 cents per mile, plus parking. That depends on your usage patterns, what car you buy and its age, plus a few other factors. Many people, though, pretend that using their car only costs the 8-12 cents/mile for gasoline. (A better estimate of the truly incremental cost without factoring in those things that don't vary with the miles is around 25 cents/mile.)

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DARPA challenge mystery solved and how to handle Robocar failures

A small mystery from Robocar history was resolved recently, and revealed at the DARPA grand challenge reunion at CMU.

The story is detailed here at IEEE spectrum and I won't repeat it all, but a brief summary goes like this.

In the 2nd grand challenge, CMU's Highlander was a favourite and doing very well. Mid-race it started losing engine power and it stalled for long enough that Stanford's Stanley beat it by 11 minutes.

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Uber buys 24,000 Volvos, Trolley Problems get scarier, and liability

Uber and Volvo announced an agreement where Uber will buy, in time, up to 24,000 specially built Volvo XC90s which will run Uber's self-driving software and, presumably, offer rides to Uber customers. While the rides are some time away, people have made note of this for several reasons.

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Robocar/LIDAR news and video of the Apple car

Robocar news is fast and furious these days. I certainly don't cover it all, but will point to stories that have some significance. Plus, to tease you, here's a clip from my 4K video of the new Apple car that you'll find at the end of this post.

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Waymo deploys with no human safety driver oversight

In a major milestone for robocars, Waymo has announced they will deploy in Phoenix with no human safety drivers behind the wheel. Until now, almost all robocars out there have only gone out on public streets with a trained human driver behind the wheel, ready to take over at any sign of trouble.

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The "disconnected car" is the right security plan for robocars

Once robocars got public attention, a certain faction promoted the view that we should be giving much more attention to the idea of the "connected car." The connected car was coming sooner, would have a big effect, and some said that it was silly to talk about robocars at all without first thinking of them as connected cars. Many even pushed for the vocabulary around robocars to always include connectivity, pushing names like "connected autonomous vehicle" as a primary term for the technology.

Robocars will be connected, but not nearly as much as people in the "connected car" world imagine. And the connection won't be essential. Some cars will work with only a connection when they are parked, or with intermittent connectivity during the day. But most of all, they won't connect out to the world. The robocar probably will connect only to servers at its HQ -- the company that made it or which runs the fleet it's in. It won't talk directly to infrastructure and other cars, it may not even talk two-way with the rider's phone.

Fortunately, the efforts to require vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure connectivity in cars are rumoured to have suffered a setback in the USA.

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V2V/V2I mandate may be dropped, the good and the bad

Rumours are swirling that the US Federal government will drop the proposed mandate that all new cars include a DSRC radio to do vehicle to vehicle communications. Regular readers will know that I have been quite critical of this mandate and submitted commentary on it. Whether they listened to my commentary, or this is just a Trump administration deregulation, it's the right step.

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Will robotic stores, billboards and RVs roam the streets?

A few years ago, Eran Shir (who was one of my students at Singularity University and who today has an interesting startup using mobile phones to solve ADAS and self driving problems) suggested that rather than delivery robots, the future might see roving stores. These would be self-driving trucks filled with the most popular items for their region which come to you. You would open them, shop, and automatically be charged for items. From time to time they would travel to a depot for restocking.

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Robocars will make traffic worse before it gets better

This blog, and many other sites, paint a very positive picture of the robocar future. And it is positive, but far from perfect. One problem I worry about in the short term is the way robocars are going to make traffic worse before they get a chance to make it better.

The goal of all robocars is to make car travel more pleasant and convenient, and eventually cheaper. You can't make something better and cheaper without increasing demand for it, and that means more traffic.

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Robocar-only highways are not quite so nice an idea as expected

Recently Madrona Ventures, in partnership with Craig Mundie (former Microsoft CTO) released a white paper proposing an autonomous vehicle corridor between Seattle and Vancouver on I-5 and BC Highway 99. While there are some useful ideas in it, the basic concept contains some misconceptions about both traffic management, infrastructure planning, and robocars.

Carpool lanes are hard

The proposal starts with a call for allowing robocars in the carpool lanes, and then moving to having a robocar only lane. Eventually it moves to more lanes being robocar only, and finally the whole highway. Generally I have (mostly) avoided too much talk of the all-robocar road because there are so many barriers to this that it remains very far in the future. This proposal wants to make it happen sooner, which is not necessarily bad, but it sure is difficult.

Carpool lanes are poorly understood, even by some transportation planners. For optimum traffic flow, you want to keep every lane at near capacity, but not over it. If you have a carpool lane at half-capacity, you have a serious waste of resources, because the vast majority (around 90%) of the carpools are "natural carpools" that would exist regardless of the lane perk. They are things like couples or parents with children. A half-empty carpool lane makes traffic worse for everybody but the carpoolers, for whom the trip does improve.

That's why carpool lanes will often let in electric cars, and why "high occupancy toll" lanes let in solo drivers willing to pay a price. In particular with the HOT lane, you can set the price so you get just enough cars in the carpool lane to make it efficient, but no more.

(It is not, of course, this simple, as sometimes carpool lanes jam up because people are scared of driving next to slow moving regular lanes, and merging is problematic. Putting a barrier in helps sometimes but can also hurt. An all-robocar lane would avoid these problems, and that is a big plus.)

Letting robocars into the carpool lane can be a good idea, if you have room. If you have to push electric cars out, that may not be the best public goal, but it is a decision a highway authority could make. (If the robocars are electric, which many will be, it's OK.)

The transition, however, from "robocars allowed" to "robocars only" for the lane is very difficult. Because you do indeed have a decent number of carpools (even if only 10% are induced) you have to kick them out at some point to grow robocar capacity. You can't have a switch day without causing more traffic congestion for some time after it. If you are willing to build a whole new lane (as is normal for carpool creation) you can do it, but only by wasting a lot of the new lane at first.

Robocar packing

Many are attracted to the idea that robocars can follow more closely behind another vehicle if they have faster reaction times. They also have the dream that the cars will be talking to one another, so they can form platoons that follow even more closely.) The inter car communication (V2V) creates too much computer security risk to be likely, though some still dream of a magic solution which will make it safe to have 1500kg robots exchanging complex messages with every car they randomly encounter on the road. Slightly closer following is still possible without it.

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GM accepts all liability in robocars, and other news

General Motors announced this week that they would "take full responsibility" if a crash takes place during an autonomous driving trip. This follows a pledge to do the same made some time ago by Daimler, Google and Volvo and possibly others.

What's interesting is that they don't add the caveat "if the system is at fault." Of course, if the system is not at fault, they can get payment from the other driver, and so it's still OK to tell the passenger or owner that GM takes responsibility.

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China could be poised to dominate car manufacturing thanks to robocars

The robocar revolution has the potential to assist China in dominating vehicle manufacturing. That's the bad news -- unless you are a Chinese manufacturer. The better news is that manufacturing is only part of the car industry, and it's getting smaller.

  • China has the largest car manufacturing industry, and is strong in electric cars
  • Brand of the manufacturer is almost irrelevant in taxi service
  • Reliability of the taxi is much less relevant
  • US tech companies need manufacturing partners
  • The money in ground transport is in service, not cars

Today, Chinese brands are not sold in any numbers in the USA, or almost anywhere outside of China, but China is already the largest car manufacturing country in the world. Chinese brands have no cachet (even in China, it seems) and western and Korean/Japanese brands are strong. How might that change?

Car brand is very important for people buying a car to own. In fact, the nameplate is the top source of value in a modern car sale. The difference is that we will be moving from people buying cars to own towards people buying rides.

When you order "Uber Select" (Uber's nicer-car offering) you don't care if what shows up is a Lexus, BMW or Mercedes. You don't even car if its a Hyundai Genesis, their brand-new attempt at making a luxury marquee. You are only going to ride in it for 15 minutes. It has to be comfortable, smooth and look nice, but rarely does the logo on the outside matter.

It's the Uber brand that matters (though not as much, as most people would find no difference between an UberSelect and a Lyft Premiere as far as the vehicles are concerned. And you might not even care if it's a Great Wall Wey (a Chinese luxury car you've never heard of) that picks you up if it looks nice and gives a reliable ride.

Of course, today the top makers like Mercedes, BMW, Lexus, Audi, Acura, Infiniti and others are known not just for luxury, but for quality. They make well engineered, reliable cars in a way the Chinese are not quite ready to do.

But do they have to? If your expensive BMW breaks down, you have to get it towed, arrange its repair and get a rental car. You're pretty angry at BMW when it does, and you paid a lot for that car to avoid that experience, and usually you do. If a car in a robotaxi fleet breaks down, you're very unlikely to even know it happened. Very rarely, a car like that might break down when you are riding in it. It would pull to the side of the road and have already summoned a replacement car. Within 2-3 minutes a new vehicle will pull up and take you on your way while the company sends a tow truck to deal with the broken car.

Of course, if it broke down while on its way to you, might might not even know it. But even the breakdown while driving will be barely worth mentioning to friends, it just didn't inconvenience you very much at all.

While the BMW will surely break down less than the Great Wall (at least for now) it also costs a great deal more. That might be worth it to avoid that owner's breakdown scenario, but it's not for a fleet breakdown. For a fleet manager, it's just a question of whether vehicle downtime cost is more or less than the extra cost of more robust engineering, with a small factor for customer inconvenience.

The Shanghai motor show is a trip -- huge and full of brands westerners have never heard of

To top things off, I predict robocars will have fewer breakdowns. They will always been monitoring themselves, and will come loaded with sensors. They will always get proper maintenance, taking themselves to maintenance depots when it is needed. They will test all systems like brakes, steering, tires, engines and more every day or every hour when running vacant. They will never let anything get too hot or vibrate too much. Both the BMW and the cheap car will do that.

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New NHTSA Robocar regulations are a major, but positive, reversal

NHTSA released their latest draft robocar regulations just a week after the U.S. House passed a new regulatory regime and the senate started working on its own. The proposed regulations preempt state regulation of vehicle design, and allow companies to apply for high volume exemptions from the standards that exist for human-driven cars.

It's clear that the new approach will be quite different from the Obama-era one, much more hands-off. There are not a lot of things to like about the Trump administration but this could be one of them. The prior regulations reached 116 pages with much detail, though they were mostly listed as "voluntary." I wrote a long critique of the regulations in a 4 part series which can be found in my NHTSA tag. They seem to have paid attention to that commentary and the similar commentary of others.

At 26 pages, the new report is much more modest, and actually says very little. Indeed, I could sum it up as follows:

  • Do the stuff you're already doing
  • Pay attention to where and when your car can drive and document that
  • Document your processes internally and for the public
  • Go to the existing standards bodies (SAE, ISO etc.) for guidance
  • Create a standard data format for your incident logs
  • Don't forget all the work on crash avoidance, survival and post-crash safety in modern cars that we worked very hard on
  • Plans for how states and the feds will work together on regulating this

Goals vs. Approaches

The document does a better job at understanding the difference between goals -- public goods that it is the government's role to promote -- and approaches to those goals, which should be entirely the province of industry.

The new document is much more explicit that the 12 "safety design elements" are voluntary. I continue to believe that there is a risk they may not be truly voluntary, as there will be great pressure to conform with them, and possible increased liability for those who don't, but the new document tries to avoid that, and its requests are much milder.

The document understands the important realization that developers in this space will be creating new paths to safety and establishing new and different concepts of best practices. Existing standards have value, but they can at best encode conventional wisdom. Robocars will not be created using conventional wisdom. The new document takes the approach of more likely recommending that the existing standards be considered, which is a reasonable plan.

A lightweight regulatory philosophy

My own analysis is guided by a lightweight regulatory approach which has been the norm until now. The government's role is to determine important public goals and interests, and to use regulations and enforcement when, and only when, it becomes clear that industry can't be trusted to meet these goals on its own.

In particular, the government should very rarely regulate how something should be done, and focus instead on what needs to happen as the end result, and why. In the past, all automotive safety technologies were developed by vendors and deployed, sometimes for decades, before they were regulated. When they were regulated, it was more along the lines of "All cars should now have anti-lock brakes." Only with the more mature technologies have the regulations had to go into detail on how to build them.

Worthwhile public goals include safety, of course, and the promotion of innovation. We want to encourage both competition and cooperation in the right places. We want to protect consumer rights and privacy. (The prior regulations proposed a mandatory sharing of incident data which is watered down greatly in these new regulations.)

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NTSB Tesla Crash report (New NHTSA regs to come)

The NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) has released a preliminary report on the fatal Tesla crash with the full report expected later this week. The report is much less favourable to autopilots than their earlier evaluation.

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Planning for hurricanes and other disasters with robocars

How will robocars fare in a disaster, like Harvey in Houston, Irma, or the tsunamis in Japan or Indonesia, or a big Earthquake, or a fire, or 9/11, or a war?

These are very complex questions, and certainly most teams developing cars have not spent a lot of time on solutions to them at present. Indeed, I expect that these will not be solved issues until after the first significant pilot projects are deployed, because as long as robocars are a small fraction of the car population, they will not have that much effect on how things go. Some people who have given up car ownership for robocars -- not that many in the early days -- will possibly find themselves hunting for transportation the way other people who don't own cars do today.

It's a different story when, perhaps a decade from now, we get significant numbers of people who don't own cars and rely on robocar transportation. That means people who don't have any cars, not the larger number of people who have dropped from 2 cars to 1 thanks to robocar services.

I addressed a few of these questions before regarding Tsunamis and Earthquakes.

A few key questions should be addressed:

  1. How will the car fleets deal with massively increased demand during evacuations and flight during an emergency?
  2. How will the cars deal with shutdown and overload of the mobile data networks, if it happens?
  3. How will cars deal with things like floods, storms, earthquakes and more which block roads or make travel unsafe on certain roads?

Most of these issues revolve around fleets. Privately owned robocars will tend to have steering wheels and be usable as regular cars, and so only improve the situation. If they encounter unsafe roads, they will ask their passengers for guidance, or full driving. (However, in a few decades, their passengers may no longer be very capable at driving but the car will handle the hard parts and leave them just to provide video-game style directions.)

Increased demand

An immediately positive thing is the potential ability for private robocars to, once they have taken their owners to safety, drive back into the evacuation zone as temporary fleet cars, and fetch other people, starting with those selected by the car's owner, but also members of the public needing assistance. This should dramatically increase the ability of the car fleet to get people moved.

Nonetheless, it is often noted that in a robocar taxi world, there don't need to be nearly as many cars in a city as we have today. With ideal efficiency, there would be exactly enough seats to handle the annual peak, but few more. We might drop to just 1/4 of the cars, and we might also have many of them be only 1 or 2 seater cars. There will be far fewer SUVs, pickup trucks, minivans and other large cars, because we don't really need nearly as many as we have today.

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Talk Thursday in Silicon Valley: Everything you know on Robocars is wrong

For those in Silicon Valley, I will be giving a talk at the monthly autonomous vehicle enthusiast meetup. Some time ago I did my general talk, but this one will get into the meat on some of the big myths and issues. With luck we'll get some good debate going.

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