Transportation

Meeting on a narrow road

Jean-Louis Gassée, while a respected computer entrepreneur, wrote a critical post on robocars recently which matches a very common pattern of critical articles:

The pattern is as follows:

  • The author has been hearing about robocars for a while, and is interested
  • While out driving, or sometimes just while thinking, they encounter a situation which seems challenging
  • They can’t figure out what a robocar would do in that situation
  • They conclude that thus the technology is very far in the future.

His scenario is the very narrow road, so narrow that it really should be one-way but it isn’t. In most of the road, two cars can’t pass one another. Humans resolve this through various human dynamics, discussion and experience.

In most of these examples, the situation is not one that is new to robocar developers. They’ve been thinking about all the problems they might encounter in driving for over a decade in many cases. It’s extremely rare for a newcomer to come up with a scenario they have not thought of. In addition, developers are putting cars on the road, with over a million miles in Google’s case, to find the situations that they didn’t think of just by thinking and driving themselves. It is not impossible for novices to come up with something new — in fact a fresh eye can often be very valuable — but the fresh eyes should check to see what prior thinking may exist.

Some of the problems are indeed hard, and developers have put them later on the roadmap. They will not release their cars to operate on roads where the unsolved situations may occur. If snow is hard, the first cars will be released in places where it does not snow, or they will not drive on their own if it’s snowing. In the meantime, the problems will be solved, in a priority order based on how often they happen and how important they are.

The “two cars meet” situation involves very rare roads in the USA, so it’s not a high priority problem there, but it would not be a surprise problem. That’s because current plans have cars only drive with a map of the road they are driving. No map, they don’t drive the road.

That means they know the road well, and exactly how wide it is at every spot, and what its rules are (one-way vs. two-way and so on.) They will know their own width and the width of oncoming vehicles accurately. If they can’t safely drive a road, they won’t drive it. If it’s a rare road, the cost of that will be accepted. Driving every road everywhere is a nice dream, but not necessary to have a highly useful product. While Google’s ideal prototype is planned to be released for urban situations without a wheel, cars that need to go places where they can’t drive will continue to offer wheels or other interfaces (joysticks, tablet apps) that let a human guide them to get through problems.

The two-cars meeting problem is interesting because it’s actually one where the cars can far outperform humans. It’s also one of the rare times that communication between cars turns out to be useful. (Typically car to server to server to car, not direct v2v, but that’s another matter.)

The reason is that super narrow roads, including country roads and urban back-alleys have occasional wide-spots and turn outs where people can pass. They have to, to be two-way. And these will all be on the map. Cars on such a road would desire traffic data about other cars on the road. They will be able to make predictions about when they might encounter another car coming the other way. Most interestingly, one or both of the cars can adjust their speed so that they will encounter one another precisely at one of the wider spots where passing can take place.

In fact, if they do this well, they might drive a one-lane road at a nice fast speed, barely slowing down in these wider passing zones, in part because by knowing the width of the vehicles they will be able to confidently pass quite closely. If a robocar is meeting a human driven car, it would leave some slop, picking the right passing zone, arriving early in case the other car is faster than expected, waiting if it is slower.

This remarkable ability would allow us to build low-traffic roads and alleys which are mostly only one lane wide, but which could carry traffic fairly quickly and safely in both directions. Gassée’s problem is far from a problem — it’s actually a great opportunity to vastly decrease the cost and land requirements of road construction. I wrote about this a couple of years ago, in fact.

Even without communication, a robocar would do pretty well here. Its map would tell it, should it encounter another vehicle on the road it can’t pass, just where the closest passing spot is. It could back up if need be, or if the other car should back up, it could nudge in that direction, or even display instructions to a human driver on a screen. It would be able to do this far better than humans could because of its accurate measurements and driving ability. Generally, any human car should defer to the robocar’s superior knowledge and superior ability to manage a close pass-by. The car would figure it out the moment it sensed the other car, and immediately adjust speed to meet at a passing point, or possibly to back up. Unlike humans, they will be able to drive in reverse at high speed if they have 360 degree sensors.

Human drivers could actually play a role in this. Those running a mobile app like WAZE could know about other cars running the app, or robocars. The app could give them advice to speed up or slow down to encounter the other car at a wide spot. Of course, if there are cars not using the app, they would just fall back to the old fashioned human approach. One could imagine a sign at the entry to a narrow road saying, “We recommend running the XYZ app for a smoother trip down this road.”

Not all these problems that people put forward were as easily resolved as this one, so I am not calling for people to “shut up and let the experts get to work.” There are many problems yet to be solved. Most of them can be be solved by punting because you don’t need to drive everywhere. Though Google has shown that having a steering wheel that can be grabbed while moving is a bad idea, I do expect most cars to have some form of control that can be activated when a car is stopped. If a road needs the human touch, it will be available.

Google Alphabet: Is it good for robocars?

Everybody has heard about Google’s restructuring. In the restructuring, Google [x], which includes the self-driving car division, will be a subsidiary of the new Alphabet holding company, and no longer part of Google.

Having been a consultant on that team, I have some perspective to offer on how the restructuring might affect the companies that become Alphabet subsidiaries and leave the Google umbrella.

The biggest positive is that Google has become a large corporation, and as a large corporation, it suffers from many of the problems that large companies have. Google is perhaps one of the most unusual large companies, so it suffers most of them less, but it is not immune. As small subsidiaries of Alphabet, the various companies will be able to escape this and act a bit more like startups. They won’t get to be entirely like startups — they will have a rich sugar daddy and not have to raise money in the venture funding world, and it’s yet to be seen if they will get any resources from their cousin at Google. Even so, this change can’t be understated. There are just ways of thinking at big companies that seem entirely rational when looked at up close, but which doom so many projects inside big companies.

Here let me list some of the factors that will be positives:

  • While Alphabet has said nothing about the structure of the Google [X] companies, it seems likely that they will be able to give options and equity to their employees; options that might have a big upside. Google stock options have lost the big upside. Due to the structure, however, the equity packages will probably be smaller, with nobody getting the large chunks founders get — and nobody taking the risks founders do.
  • It will be easier, of course, for Alphabet to sell off these subsidiaries, or even take them public or do other unusual things normally not done with corporate divisions. (It’s not impossible with corporate divisions, but it’s rare and it rarely is a bonanza for the staff.)
  • The subsidiaries will be freed from the matrix management of large companies. They will get their own legal departments, be able to set their own benefit structures and culture to some extent. Don’t underestimate the value of not having to work within a corporate legal or HR department when you’re trying to be a startup.
  • The companies can take risks that Google can’t take. For example, consider Uber, which simply violated local laws in some area to kickstart ride service. It’s much harder for a division of a large company to even try a stunt like that. For Uber, it worked — but it doesn’t always work.
  • The companies can also do things that would otherwise tarnish the Google brand. Huge as it is, the public has a natural distrust of Google, particularly on issues like privacy. While I think all robocar companies should work hard to protect privacy, being inside Google creates a whole new amount of scrutiny and established principles. In the case of making robocars, they might one day injure somebody, and that is a scary thing for the big brands. If you live in fear of that all the time, you won’t win the race, either.
  • The CEOs of the new companies should have a lot more autonomy than they had before.
  • They still will have access to vast financial resources. If the new car company needs ten billion dollars to build a fleet of 400,000 taxis, or even needs to buy an existing car company, it’s not out of the question.
  • Being inside Google conveys a certain arrogance to people because it’s one of the world’s leading companies in many different ways. But sometimes it’s good not to be so cocky.
  • Out of fear, there are companies that won’t do business with Google. I once asked the folks at WAZE if we might get their data on accidents. I was told, “The one company we would be afraid to sell our data to is Google.” Of course, Google got WAZE’s data, but at a much higher price!
  • People will finally stop wondering if they are building a car just to show advertising to you while you ride.

Of course there are some negatives:

  • Google brings with it vast, vast resources, not just in money. Google is also the world’s #1 mapping company, and in fact many of the early members of the Chauffeur team were people who worked on maps and streetview. Google’s world-leading computing resources also are useful for the big data projects and simulation a robocar team has to do.
  • There is also a giant talent pool at Google, though of course in all big companies, poaching top employees from within the company comes with risks of internal strife. The ability to even borrow top-notch people and resources is immensely valuable.
  • Google has fantastic benefits that are hard to duplicate in a small company. One suspects Alphabet’s subsidiaries will probably mirror a lot of Google’s policies, but there is a limit to what they can do. A google badge does not just get you dozens of restaurants and a large commuter bus system, it gets you things like a great series of internal talks from technical and world leaders and many other events. Google spends a lot on keeping its people happy. A lot.
  • Google has a fun company culture, with lots of cool people. People make a lot of friendships with very smart friends there, even outside their groups.
  • Inside Google there is always the opportunity to switch to different projects, many of which are grand and sure to affect a lot of people, without getting a new job.
  • The projects at Google [x] have the personal interest of Larry Page and Sergey Brin. That’s been very useful to them within Google, but it also threatens the necessary independence of the CEOs of the new subsidiaries, who will still report to Alphabet. It remains to be seen if the founders can be sufficiently hands off.
  • Google is perhaps the world’s top brand. It is able to get things done. When you call companies and say, “I’m calling from the Google car team” they return your calls right away and jump at the chance to talk with you. Doors are opened that are closed to most startups. (Admittedly, the project at Google is now so famous that it might overcome this.)
  • Google’s power has allowed it to also do things like get laws made and changed around robocars; in fact this kickstarted the legal changes around the world. A small company will have a harder time.
  • Google’s power gives it a strange upper hand in negotiations with other players like big car companies. Big car companies are very used to being in charge of any talks they have with partners and suppliers.

I have no inside information on this deal — this is all based on lots of observation of public information about Google and non-confidential impressions from having been there. Some of this could be wrong. Alphabet might have Google re-sell some of its perks like the bus system to the other companies. It will certainly lend a hand where it makes a lot of sense. There is a fine line, though — the more “help” you give, the more “perfectly reasonable” conditions the help comes with and soon you’re like a division again.

There have been no specific announcements about Chauffeur either. Will Google [x] be a subsidiary with Astro Teller as CEO, including the car? Will the car have its own company? Will Chris Urmson be CEO if so? Or will [x] continue as the research lab of Alphabet, while other “graduated” portions of it go off into their own companies? Specific mention was made of “Wing” which is doing drones, but not of other [x] projects. More news will surely come.

Overall, I think this is a strong decision. If Google was to fail in the race to robocars, I always felt that that failure would come from one of two fronts — either the mistakes that big companies make because they are big, or from the special hubris of Google and its #1 position. Now these two dangers are dimmed.

Automated Vehicles Symposium Days 1 and 2

From small beginnings, over 800 people are here at the Ann Arbor AUVSI/TRB Automated Vehicles symposium. Let’s summarize some of the news.

Test Track

Lots of PR about the new test track opening at University of Michigan. I have not been out to see it, but it certainly is a good idea to share one of these rather than have everybody build their own, as long as you don’t want to test in secret.

NHTSA

Mark Rosekind, the NHTSA administrator gave a pretty good talk for an official, though he continued the DoT’s bizarre promotion of V2V/DSRC. He said that they were even open to sharing the DSRC spectrum with other users (the other users have been chomping at the bit to get more unlicenced spectrum opened up, and this band, which remains unused, is a prime target, and the DoT realizes it probably can’t protect it.) Questions however, clarified that he wants to demand evidence that the spectrum can be shared without interfering with the ability of cars to get a clear signal for safety purposes. Leaving aside the fact that the safety applications are not significant, this may bode a different approach — they may plan to demand this evidence, and when they don’t get it — because of course there will be interference — they will then use that as a grounds to fight to retain the spectrum.

I say there will be interference because the genius of the unlicenced bands (like the 2.4ghz where your 802.11b and bluetooth work) was the idea that if you faced interference, it was your problem to fix, not the transmitter’s, as long as the transmitter stayed low power. A regime where you don’t interfere would be a very different band, one that could only be used a long distance from any road — ie. nowhere that anybody lives.

Manufacturers

The most disappointing session for everybody was the vendor’s session, particularly the report from GM. In the past GM has shown real stuff based on their work. Instead we got a recap of ancient stuff. The other reports were better, but only a little. Perhaps it is a sign that the field is getting big, and people are no longer treating it like a research discipline where you share with your colleagues.

Ethics

Chris Gerdes’ report on a Stanford ethics conference was good in that it went well past the ridiculous trolley problem question (what if the machine has to choose between harming two different humans) which has become the bane of anybody who talks about robocars. You can see my answer if you haven’t by now.

Their focus was on more real problems, like when you illegally cross the double yellow line to get around a stalled car, or what you do if a child runs into the street chasing a ball. I am not sure I liked Gerdes’ proposal — that the systems compute a moral calculus, putting weights on various outcomes and following a formula. I don’t think that’s a good thing to ask the programmers to do.

If we really do have a lot of this to worry about, I think this is a place where policymakers could actually do something useful. They could set up a board of some sort. A vendor/programmer who has an ethical problem to program would put it to the board, and get a ruling, and program in that ruling with the safe knowledge they would not be blamed, legally, for following it.

The programmers would know how to properly frame the questions, but they could also refine them. They would frame them differently that lay people would imagine, because they would know things. For example:

My vehicle encounters a child (99% confidence) who darts out from behind a parked van, and it is not possible to stop in time before hitting the child. I have an X% confidence (say 95%) that the oncoming lane is clear and a y% confidence (90%) that the sidewalk is clear though driving there would mean climbing a curb, which may injure my passenger. While on the sidewalk, I am operating outside my programming so my risk of danger increases 100 fold while doing so. What should I do?

Let the board figure it out, and let them understand the percentages, and even come back with a formula on what to do based on X, Y and other numbers. Then the programmer can implement it and refine it.

Investment

For the first time, there was a panel about investment in the technology, with one car company, two VCs and a car oriented family fund (Porsche.) Lots more interest in the space, but still a reluctance to get involved in hardware, because it costs a lot, is uncertain, and takes a long time to generate a return.

Afternoon breakouts

I largely missed these. Many were just filled with more talks. I have suggested to conference organizers a rule that the breakout sessions be no more than 40% prepared talks, and the rest interactive discussion.

Wednesday starts with Chris Urmson of Google

Chris’ talk was perhaps the most anticipated one. (Disclaimer — I used to work for Chris on the Google team.) It has similarities to a number of his other recent talks at TeD and ITS America, with lots of good video examples of the car’s perception system in operation. Chris also addressed this week’s hot topic in the press, namely the large number of times Google’s car fleet is being hit by other drivers in accidents that are clearly the fault of the other driver.

While some (including me) have speculated this might be because the car is unusual and distracting, Google’s analysis of the accidents strongly suggests that our impression of how common small bumper-bender accidents are was seriously underestimated. There are 6 million reported accidents in the US every year, and common suggestions from insurers and researchers suggested the real number might include another 6 million unreported ones. It’s now clear, based on Google’s experience, that the number of small accidents that go unreported is much higher.

Google thinks that is good news in several ways. First, it tells us just how distracted human drivers are, and how bad they are, and it shows that their car is doing even better than was first thought. The task of outperforming humans on safety may be easier than expected.

The anti-Urmson

Adriano Allessandrini has always been an evocative and controversial character at these events. His report on Citymobil2 (a self-driving shuttle bus that has run in several cities with real passengers) was deliberately done as contrast to Google’s approach. Google is building a car meant to drive existing roads, a very complex task. Allesandrini believes the right approach is to make the vehicle much simpler, and only run it on certified safe infrastructure (not mixed with cars) and at very low speeds. As much as I disagree with almost everything he says, he does have a point when it comes to the value of simplicity. His vehicles are serving real passengers, something few else can claim.

Public perception

We got to see a number of study results. Frankly, I have always been skeptical of the studies that report what the public thinks of future self-driving cars and how much they want them. In reality, only a tiny fraction of the 800 people at the conference, supposed experts in the field, probably have a really solid concept of what these future vehicles will look like. None of us truly know the final form. So I am not sure how you can ask the general public what they think of them.

Of greater interest are reports on what people think of today’s advanced features. For example, blindspot warning is much more popular than I realized, and is changing the value of cars and what cars people will buy.

Security

For Tuesday afternoon I attended a very interesting security session. I will write more about this later, particularly about a great paper on spoofing robocar sensors (I will await first publication of the paper by its author) but in general I feel there is a lot of work to be done here.

In another post I will sum up a new expression of my thoughts here, which I will describe as “Connected and Automated: Pick only one.” While most of the field seems to be raving about the values of connectivity, and that debate has some merit, I feel that if the value of connectivity (other than to the car’s HQ) is not particularly high, it does not justify the security risk that comes from it. As such, if you have a vehicle that can drive itself, that system should not be “on the internet” as it were, connecting to other cars or to various infrastructure services. It should only talk to its maker (probably over a verified and encrypted tunnel on top of the cellular data network) and it should frankly be a little scared even of talking to its maker.

I proposed this to the NHTSA administrator, and as huge backers of V2V he could not give me an answer — he mostly want to talk about the perception of security rather than the security itself — but I think it’s an important question to be discussed.

Since many people don’t accept this there are efforts to increase security. First of all people are working to put in the security that always should have been in cars (they have almost none at present.) Secondly there are efforts at more serious security, with the lessons of the internet’s failures fresh in our minds. Efforts at provably correct algorithms are improving, and while nobody thinks you could build a provably correct self-driving system, there is some hope that the systems which parse inputs from outside could be made provably secure, and they could be compartmentalized from other systems in a way that compromise of one system would have a hard time getting to the driving system where real danger could be done.

There were calls for standards, which I oppose — we are way too early in this game to know how to write the standards. Standards at best encode the conventional wisdom of 3 years ago, and make it hard to go beyond it. Not what we need now.

Nonetheless there is research going to make this more secure, if it is to be done.

Automated Vehicles Symposium Day 0: When do robocars become cheaper than standard cars?

I’m in the Detroit area for the annual TRB/AUVSI Automated Vehicle Symposium, which starts tomorrow. Today, those in Ann Arbor attended the opening of the new test track at the University of Michigan. Instead, I was at a small event with a lot of good folks in downtown Detroit, sponsored by SAFE which is looking to wean the USA off oil.

Much was discussed, but a particularly interesting idea was just how close we are getting to something I had put further in the future — robocars that are cheaper than ordinary cars.

Most public discussion of robocars has depicted them as costing much more than regular cars. That’s because the cars built to date have been standard cars modified by placing expensive computers and sensors on them. Many cars use the $75,000 Velodyne Lidar and the similarly priced Applanix IMU/GPS, and most forecasts and polls have imagined the first self-driving cars as essentially a Mercedes with $10,000 added to the price tag to make it self driving. After all, that’s how things like Adaptive Cruise Control and the like are sold.

Google is showing us an interesting vision with their 3rd generation buggy-style car. That car has no steering wheel, brakes or gas pedal, and it is electric and small. It’s a car aimed at “Mobility on Demand.”

When people have asked me “how much extra will these cars cost,” my usual answer has been that while the cars might cost more, they will be available for use by the mile, where they can cost less per mile than owning a car does today — ie. that overall it will be cheaper. That’s in part because of the savings from sharing, and having vehicles go more miles in their lifetime. More miles in the life of a car at the same cost means a lower cost per mile, even if the car costs a little more.

The sensors cost money, but that cost is already in serious decline. We’re just a few years away from $250 Lidars and even cheaper radar. Cameras are already cheap, and there are super cheap IMUs and GPSs already getting near the quality we need. Computers of course get cheaper every year.

This means we are not too far when the cost of the sensors is less than the money saved by what you take out of the car. After all, having a steering wheel, gas and brakes costs money. Side mirrors cost money (ever had to replace them?) That fancy dashboard with all its displays and controls costs a lot of money, but almost everything it does in a robocar can be done by your tablet.

That said, you need a few extra things in your robocar. You need two steering motors and two braking systems. You need some more short range sensors and a cell phone radio. But there’s even more you can save, especially with time.

Because mobility on demand means you can make cars that are never used for anything but short urban trips (the majority of trips, as it turns out) you can save a lot more money on those cars. These cars need not be large or fast. They don’t need acceleration. They won’t ever go on the highway so they don’t need to be safe at 60mph. Electric drive, as we discussed earlier, is great for these cars, and electric cars have far fewer parts than gasoline ones. Today, their batteries are too expensive, but everything else in the car is cheaper, so if you solve the battery cost using the methods I outlined Saturday we’re saving serious money. And small one or two person cars are inherently cheaper to boot.

Of course, you need to make highway cars, and long-range 4WD SUVs to take people skiing. But these only need be a fraction of the cars, and people who use a mix of cars will see a big saving.

For a long time, we’ve talked about some day also removing many of the expensive safety systems from cars. When the roads become filled with robocars, you can start talking about having so few accidents you don’t need all the safety systems, or the 1/3 of vehicle weight that is attributable to passive safety. That day is still far away, though cars like the Edison2 Very-Light-Car have done amazing things even while meeting today’s crash tests. Companies like Zoox and other startups have pushed visions of completely redesigned cars, some of them at lower cost for a while. But this seems like it might become true sooner rather than later.

Evacuation in a hurricane

One participant asked how, if we only had 1/9th as many cars (as some people forecast, I suspect it’s closer to 1/4) we would evacuate sections of Florida or similar places when a hurricane is coming. I think the answer is a very positive one — simply enforce car pooling / ride sharing in the evacuation. While there is not a lot I think policymakers should do at this time, some simple mandates could help a lot in this arena. While people would not be able to haul as much personal property, it is very likely there would be more than enough seats available in robocars to evacuate a large population quickly if you fill all the seats in cars going out. Further, those cars can go back in to get more people if need be.

Filling those seats would actually get everybody out faster, because there would be far less traffic congestion and the roads would carry far more people per hour. In fact, that’s such a good idea it could even be implemented today. When there’s an evacuation, require all to use an app to register when they are almost ready to leave. If you have spare seats, you could not leave (within reason) until you picked up neighbours and filled the seats. With super-carpooling, everybody would get out very fast on much less congested roads. Those crossing the checkpoint on the way out with empty seats would be photographed and ticketed unless the app allowed them to leave like that, or the app records that it tried to reach the server and failed, or other mitigating circumstances. (This is all hours before the storm, of course, before there is panic, when people will do whatever they can.) Some storms might be so bad the cars are at risk. In that case, if the road capacity is enough, people could move out all the cars too, to protect them. But in most cases, it’s the people that are the priority.

More tomorrow as the conference gets underway.

Will Robocars vastly increase battery life?

We know electric cars are getting better and likely to get popular even when driven by humans. Tesla, at its core, is a battery technology company as much as it’s a car company, and it is sometimes joked that the $85,000 Telsa with a $40,000 battery is like buying a battery with a car wrapped around it. (It’s also said that it’s a computer with a car wrapped around it, but that’s a better description of a robocar.)

Tesla did a lot of work on building cooling systems for standard cylinder Lithium-Ion cells and was able to make a high performance vehicle. The Model S also by default charges to only 80% of capacity because battery life is hurt by charging all the way to full. In fact, charging to 3.92 volts (about 60%) capacity is the sweet spot. Some of the other things that reduce battery life include:

  • Discharging too close to empty
  • Getting too warm while discharging
  • Getting too warm while charging, and in particular causing thermal expansion which creates physical damage
  • Even ordinary warmth, where the vehicle is stored for long periods, particularly at high charge, is dangerous. The closer to freezing the better, and even above 25 degrees centigrade causes some loss.

The important, but little reported statistic for a battery is the total watt-hours you will be able to get out of it during its usable lifetime. This tells you the lifetime of the battery in miles, and the cost tells you the cost per mile. How important is this? If the Tesla $40,000 battery lasts you 150,000 miles and sells for $10,000 when done, the straight-line cost per mile is 20 cents/mile — more than the cost of gasoline in most cars, and much more than the 3 cent/mile or less cost of electricity.

Humans will drive as humans want to drive, and it’s hard to change that. They will accelerate for both fun and to get ahead of other cars. They will take mixes of short trips and long trips. They don’t know how long their trips are and demand a flexible vehicle always ready for anything.

Electric robotaxis change that game. They will drive predictably, rarely ever demanding quick acceleration. A driver likes zippy fun, a passenger wants a gentle ride. They can go even further, and set their driving pattern based on the temperature of their batteries. Are we making the batteries too warm? Then “cool off,” literally. This applies both to fast starts and also slowing down. Regenerative braking conserves energy and increases range, but doing it too hard heats the batteries. Start slowing down sooner — especially if you have data on what traffic lights and traffic are doing and it can make a big difference.

Robotaxis can always use the sweet spot of the battery charge duty cycle.

  • You will rarely be sent a robotaxi that, in order to get you, needs to dig deep into its maximum range.
  • Often demand is predictable, so if need be, vehicles can be charged above 60% only when such demand is expected or is arising.
  • While robotaxis will prefer to charge at night when power is cheapest, they can charge any time to get back up to the optimal level
  • As I’ve noted before, battery swap doesn’t work well for humans, but robots don’t mind making an appointment or driving out of their way for a swap. This makes it easy to use batteries only in the sweet spot, and to charge them only at night on cheap power.
  • If battery swap is not an option, there are many options to supplement range during peak demand. Vehicles can go to depots to pick up trunk batteries, battery trailers, or even slot-in units with small motorcycle engines and liquid fuel tanks. If this is cheaper than the alternatives, it’s an option.
  • When it gets hot, robotaxis can seek out the shade, or even places with cooling, to keep the batteries from being too warm.

Robotaxis don’t mind the loss of range all that much

As a battery ages, its capacity drops. Humans hate that — having bought a car with a 100 mile range they won’t accept it can now only do 60. For a human, that means time to replace the battery. For a robotaxi, that just means you have a shorter range, and you don’t get sent on long range trips. Or you may decide that while before, you only charged to 60% to get maximum battery life, now you charge more, knowing it will eat the remaining life, but getting the most out of the battery.

Of course, as the range drops, now you run into another problem. You’re carrying around the extra weight of battery for half the range, and it’s costing you energy to do that, especially in an ultralight car where the battery is the biggest component of the weight. (This also enters into the math of whether it makes sense to charge only to 60%.) Eventually the time comes that the battery is not practical. This is the time to sell it. Tesla and others are working to produce a home and grid storage market for used car batteries. In those applications, the weight doesn’t matter, just the cost for the remaining lifetime watt-hours. You care about the capacity, but you pay a market price for it.

Eventually, even this is not practical and you scrap to recycle the materials.

Typical predictions for Lithium-Ion run from 500 to 1,000 cycles. Tesla’s techniques seem to be beating that. With robotaxis, who knows just how many lifetime kwh we’ll be able to get out of these batteries, or perhaps even other chemistries. Turns out that human drivers like a chemistry that keeps its life as long as possible then falls off a cliff. Slow decline is harder to sell — but slow decline chemistries, like Lithium Iron Phosphate and others could make more sense for the robots that don’t care.

Grid storage?

It’s often suggested that electric cars could be used as grid storage. Problem is, with car batteries today, it costs around 15 cents to put a kwh into a battery and get it out. That means to be grid storage, you need to have the spot price on the grid be the price you bought at, plus 15 cents, plus a margin to make it worth this. Night power can get as low as 6 cents, so this does happen, but not as much as one might hope. The problem is that the grid’s peak demand is around 4 to 7pm, which is also a peak time for driving. That’s the last time most car owners will want to drain off their batteries to make a bit of money on the power. You will only do that if you know you won’t be using the car. For a robotaxi fleet, that might be the case. Of course, selling power to the grid you will do it only at a rate that does not harm your battery or warm it up too much.

When the grid gets to a super peak, the price can really spike to attractive numbers. That’s because building extra power plant capacity just for those rare days is expensive, and so almost any price is better. Here we could talk about cars as storage, when we know their batteries are not going to be used. That’s even more true of batteries sitting in a battery swap facility.

Some Q&A on Robocars via Singularity U

At Singularity U, we’re releasing a new video series answering questions about our future technology topics that come from Twitter. My segment is one of the first, and while regular readers of my blog will probably have seen me talk about most of these, here is the video:

You can follow the series link or subscribe to see the other videos as they come.

Google not hitting Delphi, going to Austin -- Vislab sold

The press were all a-twitter about a report from Reuters that there had been a near miss between Delphi’s test car and one of Google’s though it was quickly denied that anything happened

The situation described, one car cutting off another, was a very unlikely one for several reasons:

  • All these cars are operated by trained safety drivers who are expected to be vigilant and take control at any sign of trouble.
  • In particular, special moves like a lane change would get extra vigilance. If something unusual happened (such as 2 cars going for the same spot) the safety drivers would be watching in advance, tracking what the car was doing, and pull back if the car’s own displays were not telling them it was going to do the right thing.

The safety drivers are not perfect of course, but an autonomous lane change is a rare event and one that most people are still just testing, so they would be very unlikely to miss that the car was going to cut somebody else off.

Of course, situations will arise when two cars try to change into the same spot at the same time, and robocars will probably be fairly timid in these situations. The most likely situation if two robocars tried to take the same spot would be that both would back off and return to their original lane, and it will probably be that way until being so timid is not a workable strategy.

Robocars won’t be the lane-changing demons that some people (including myself sometimes are.) Many human drivers are constantly trying to find the fastest lane and we weave, often finding the lane we move into seems to become the slowest. Part of that is our psychology.

Robocars won’t do this as much because their passengers will be occupied doing other things, and in most cases will not be in a super hurry. Those passengers will prefer a stable ride where they can get work done to a weaving ride with extra starts and stops. If we’re in a big hurry, we might ask the car to try to work extra hard to make the fastest trip but this will be the exception.

When we do want that, the robocar will actually have a very nice model of just how fast each lane is moving. It won’t be fooled the way we are by seeing some lanes that seem to be faster when in fact neither lane is winning by that much. If they read licence plates to identify cars, they will get excellent appraisals of what’s going on. If one lane is truly faster they will find it. On the other hand, they will be worse at the standard game of chicken needed to change lanes in heavy traffic, where you depend on the car you are moving in front of to slow down. They will know the physics though, and if a lane change is needed, they will warn the passengers of high acceleration and perfectly make a smaller spot than you might be able to make.

In other news, Google has sent two cars to Austin, Texas to expand their testing ground. I don’t have a particular insight on why they selected Austin — I know that many towns and states regularly contact Google in the hope they might bring some cars to their area, though Texas has no modified laws yet.

Vislab

I’ve written a few times about the work of Vislab in Parma, Italy. They have a focus on doing self-driving with machine vision, and did a famous cross-continent trek from Italy to Shanghai a few years ago, using a lead car to map the way and a following car self-driving, mostly with vision.

This lab was spun out of its university but now has been [acquired by Ambarella], a company that specializes in video compression chips. One can see why Ambarella would want a computer vision lab — but it seems this might spell the end of their self-driving efforts, unless they are spun out.

Emissions

A new paper is out in Nature Climate Change on the potential for robocars to reduce emissions, inspired by some of my research in this area. Sadly, it’s behind a paywall, but the author will give a talk at Nissan’s lab in Silicon Valley on July 15th at our local self-driving car meetup.

Robocars and Ultracapacitors (and other energy sources)

A reader recently asked about the synergies between robocars and ultracapacitors/supercapacitors. It turns out they are not what you would expect, and it teaches some of the surprising lessons of robocars.

Ultracaps are electrical storage devices, like batteries, which can be charged and discharged very, very quickly. That makes them interesting for electric cars, because slow charging is the bane of electric cars. They also tend to support a very large number of charge and discharge cycles — they don’t wear out the way batteries do. Where you might get 1,000 or so cycles from a good battery, you could see several tens of thousands from an ultracap.

Today, ultracaps cost a lot more than batteries. LIon batteries (like in the Tesla and almost everything else) are at $500/kwh of capacity and falling fast — some forecast it will be $200 in just a few years, and it’s already cheaper in the Tesla. Ultracaps are $2,500 to $5,000 per kwh, though people are working to shrink that.

They are also bigger and heavier. They are cited as just 10 wh/kg and on their way to 20 wh/kg. That’s really heavy — LIon are an order of magnitude better at 120 wh/kg and also improving.

So with the Ultracap, you are paying a lot of money and a lot of weight to get a super-fast recharge. It’s so much money that you could never justify it if not for the huge number of cycles. That’s because there are two big money numbers on a battery — the $/kwh of capacity — which means range — and the lifetime $/kwh, which affects your economics. Lifetime $/kwh is actually quite important but mostly ignored because people are so focused on range. An ultracap, at 5x the cost but 10x or 20x the cycles actually wins out on lifetime $/kwh. That means that while it will be short range, if you have a vehicle which is doing tons of short trips between places it can quickly recharge, the ultracap can win on lifetime cost, and on wasted recharging time, since it can recharge in seconds, not hours. That’s why one potential application is the shuttle bus, which goes a mile between stops and recharges in a short time at every stop.

How do robocars change the equation? In some ways it’s positive, but mostly it’s not.

  • Robocars don’t mind going out of their way to charge, at least not too far out of their way. Humans hate this. So you don’t need to place charging stations conveniently, and you can have a smaller number of them.
  • Robocars don’t care how long it takes to charge. The only issue is they are not available for service while charging. Humans on the other hand won’t tolerate much wait at all.
  • Robocars will eventually often be small single-person vehicles with very low weight compared to today’s cars. In fact, most of their weight might be battery if they are electric.
  • Users don’t care about the power train of a taxi or its energy source. Only the fleet manager cares, and the fleet manager is all about cost and efficiency and almost nothing else.

Now we see the bad news for the ultracap. It’s main advantage is the fast recharge time. Robots don’t care about that much at all. Instead, the fleet manager does care about the downtime, but the cost of the downtime is not that high. You need more vehicles the more downtime you have during peak loads, but as vehicles are wearing out by the km, not the year, the only costs for having more vehicles are the interest rate and the storage (parking) cost.

The interest cost is very low today. Consider a $20,000 vehicle. At 3%, you’re paying $1.60 per day in interest. So 4 hours of recharge downtime (only at peak times when you need every vehicle) doesn’t cost very much, certainly not as much as the extra cost of an ultracap. The cost of parking is actually much more, but will be quite low in the beginning because these vehicles can park wherever they can get the best rate and the best rate is usually zero somewhere not too far away. That may change in time, to around $2/day for surface parking of mini-vehicles, but free for now in most places.

In addition to the high cost, the ultracap comes with two other big downsides. The first is the weight and bulk. Especially when a vehicle is small and is mostly battery, adding 200kg of battery actually backfires, and you get diminishing returns on adding more in such vehicles. The other big downside is the short range. Even with the fast recharge time, you would have to limit these vehicles to doing only short cab hops in urban spaces of just a few miles, sending them off after just a few rides to get a recharge.

A third disadvantage is you need a special charging station to quick charge an ultracap. While level 2 electric car charging stations are in the 7-10kw range, and rapid chargers are in the 50kw-100kw range, ultracap chargers want to be in the megawatt or more range, and that’s a much more serious proposition, and a lot more work to build them.

Finally, while ultracaps don’t wear out very fast, they might still depreciate quickly the same way your computer does — because the technology keeps improving. So while your ultracap might last 20 years, you won’t want it any more compared to the cheaper, lighter, higher capacity one you can buy in the future. It can still work somewhere, like grid storage, but probably not in your car.

The fact that robocars don’t need fast refueling in convenient locations opens up all sorts of energy options. Natural gas, hydrogen, special biofuels and electricity all become practical even with gasoline’s 100 year headstart when it comes to deployment and infrastructure, and even sometimes in competition with gasoline’s incredible convenience and energy density. But what the robocar brings is not always a boon to every different form of energy storage.

One technique that makes sense for robocars (and taxis) is battery swap. Battery swap was a big failure for human driven cars, for reasons I have outlined in other posts. But robocars and taxis don’t mind coming back to a central station, or even making an appointment for a very specific time to do their swap. They don’t even mind waiting for other cars to get their swaps, and can put themselves into the swap station when told to — very precisely if needed. Here it’s a question of whether it’s cheaper to swap or just pay the interest and parking on more cars.

Ultracaps are also used to help with regenerative braking, since they can soak up power from hard regenerative braking faster than batteries. That’s mostly not a robocar issue, though in general robocars will brake less hard and accelerate less quickly — trying to give a smooth ride to their passengers rather than an exciting one — so this has less importance there too.

Still, for convenience, the first robocars will probably be gasoline and electric.

Google Accidents, Baidu Cars, Startups and more news roundup

2 months mostly on the road, so here’s a roundup of the “real” news stories in the field.

Google begins PR campaign and talks about accidents

As the world’s most famous company, Google doesn’t need to seek press and the Chauffeur project has kept fairly quiet, but it just opened a new web site which will feature monthly reports on the status of the project. The first report gives details of all the accidents in the project’s history, which we discussed earlier. A new one just took place in the last month, but like the others, it did not involve the self-driving software. Google’s cars continue to not cause any accidents, though they have been at the receiving end of a modestly high number of impacts, perhaps because they are a bit unusual.

The zero at-fault accident number is both impressive, and possibly involves a bit of luck. Perhaps it even raises unrealistic expectations of perfection, because I believe there will be at-fault accidents in the future for both Google and other teams. Most teams, when they were first building their vehicles, had minor accidents where cars hit curbs or obstacles on test tracks, but the track records of almost all teams since then are surprisingly good. One way that’s not luck, of course, is the presence of safety drivers ready to take the controls if something goes wrong. They are trained and experienced, though some day, being human, some of them will make mistakes.

Baidu to build a prototype

In November I gave a “Big Talk” for Baidu in Beijing on cars. Perhaps there is something about search engines because they have made announcements about their own project. Like Google, Baidu has expertise in mapping and various AI techniques, including the advice of Andrew Ng, whose career holds many parallels to that of Sebastian Thrun who started Google’s project. (Though based on my brief conversations with Andrew I don’t think he’s directly involved.)

Virginia opens test roads

The state of Virginia has designated 70 miles of roads for robocar testing. That’s a good start for testing by those working in that state, but it skirts what to me is a dangerous idea — the thought that there would be “special” roads for robocars designated by states or road authorities. The fantastic lesson of the Darpa grand challenges was the idea that the infrastructure remains stupid and the car becomes smart, so that the car can go anywhere once its builders are satisfied it can handle that road. So it’s OK to test on a limited set of roads but it’s also vital to test in as many situations as you can, so you need to get off that set of roads as soon as you can.

Zoox startup un-stealthed

Zoox is probably the first funded startup working on a real, fully automated robocar. They were recently funded by DFJ ventures and set up shop in rented space at the SLAC linear accelerator lab. Zoox was begun by Tim Kentley-Klay, a designer and entrepreneur from Australia, and he later joined forces with Jesse Levinson, a top researcher from Stanford’s self-driving car projects.

I’ve known about Zoox since it begain and had many discussions. They first got some attention a while back with Tim’s designs, which are quite different from typical car designs, and presume a fully functional robocar — the designs feature no controls for the humans, and don’t even have a windshield to see forward in some cases. (Indeed, they don’t have a “forward” since an essential part of the design is to be symmetrical and move equally well in both directions, avoiding the need for some twists and turns.) I like many elements of the Zoox vision, though in fact I think it is even more ambitious than Google’s, at least from a car design standpoint, which is quite audacious in a world where most of the players think Google is going too far.

You can see details in this report on Zoox from IEEE. I haven’t reported on Zoox under FrieNDA courtesy — in fact the early consultations with “Singularity University” described in the article are actually discussions with me.

Zoox is not the first small startup. Kyle Haight’s “Cruise” has been at it a while aiming at a much less ambitious supervised product, and truck platooning company Peleton has even simpler goals, but expect to see more startups enter the fray and fight with the big boys in the year to come.

Mercedes E Class

Speaking of supervised cruising, the report is that the 2016 Mercedes E Class will offer highway speed cruising in the USA. This has been on offer in Europe in the past. As I wrote earlier, I am less enthused about supervised cruising products and think they will not do tremendously well. Tesla’s update to offer the same in their cars will probably get the most attention.

Non-Stories

The press continue to get super excited about things that aren’t real. In spite of many reports, Uber does not yet have a car cruising the streets of Pittsburgh, though there is reality to the report that Uber has “poached” a large fraction of the robotics research crew from CMU.

In addition, many stories reported that Tesla had “solved” the liability problem of robocars through the design of their lane change system. In their system (and in several other discussed designs — they did not come up with this) the car won’t change lanes until the human signals it is OK to do so, usually by something like hitting the turn signal indicator. The Tesla plan is for a supervised car, and in a supervised car all liability is already supposed to go to the human supervisor.

Changing lanes safely is surprisingly challenging, because there is always the chance somebody is zooming up behind you at a rather rapid rate of speed. That’s common merging into a carpool lane, or on German autobahn trips. Most supervised cars have only forward sensing, but to change lanes safely you need to notice a car coming up fast from behind you, and you need to see it quite a distance away. This requires special sensors, such as rear radars, which most cars don’t have. So the solution of having the human check the mirrors works well for now.

More and more stories keep getting excited by “connected car” technology, in particular V2V communications using DSRC. They even write that these technologies are essential for robocars, and it gets scary when people like the transportation secretary say this. I wish the press covering this would take the simple step of asking the top teams who are working on robocars whether they plan to depend on, or even make early use of vehicle to vehicle communications. They will find out the answers will range form “no, not really” to a few vague instances of “yes, someday” from car companies who made corporate support commitments to V2V. The engineers don’t actually think they will find the technology crucial. The fact that the people actually building robocars have only a mild interest, if any, in V2V, while the people who staked their careers on V2V insist it’s essential should maybe suggest to the press that the truth is not quite what they are told.

Don't be fooled by robots falling down at Darpa Robotics Challenge

This weekend I went to Pomona, CA for the 2015 DARPA Robotics Challenge which had robots (mostly humanoid) compete at a variety of disaster response and assistance tasks. This contest, a successor of sorts to the original DARPA Grand Challenge which changed the world by giving us robocars, got a fair bit of press, but a lot of it was around this video showing various robots falling down when doing the course:

What you don’t hear in this video are the cries of sympathy from the crowd of thousands watching — akin to when a figure skater might fall down — or the cheers as each robot would complete a simple task to get a point. These cheers and sympathies were not just for the human team members, but in an anthropomorphic way for the robots themselves. Most of the public reaction to this video included declarations that one need not be too afraid of our future robot overlords just yet. It’s probably better to watch the DARPA official video which has a little audience reaction.

Don’t be fooled as well by the lesser-known fact that there was a lot of remote human tele-operation involved in the running of the course.

Check out my Gallery of Photos from the DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals.

What you also don’t see in this video is just how very far the robots have come since the first round of trials in December 2013. During those trials the amount of remote human operation was very high, and there weren’t a lot of great fall videos because the robots had tethers that would catch them if they fell. (These robots are heavy and many took serious damage when falling, so almost all testing is done with a crane, hoist or tether able to catch the robot during the many falls which do occur.)

We aren’t yet anywhere close to having robots that could do tasks like these autonomously, so for now the research is in making robots that can do tasks with more and more autonomy with higher level decisions made by remote humans. The tasks in the contest were:

  • Starting in a car, drive it down a simple course with a few turns and park it by a door.
  • Get out of the car — one of the harder tasks as it turns out, and one that demanded a more humanoid form
  • Go to a door and open it
  • Walk through the door into a room
  • In the room, go up to a valve with circular handle and turn it 360 degrees
  • Pick up a power drill, and use it to cut a large enough hole in a sheet of drywall
  • Perform a surprise task — in this case throwing a lever on day one, and on day 2 unplugging a power cord and plugging it into another socket
  • Either walk over a field of cinder blocks, or roll through a field of light debris
  • Climb a set of stairs

The robots have an hour to do this, so they are often extremely slow, and yet to the surprise of most, the audience — a crowd of thousands and thousands more online — watched with fascination and cheering. Even when robots would take a step once a minute, or pause at a task for several minutes, or would get into a problem and spend 10 minutes getting fixed by humans as a penalty.  read more »

Google Accidents and Deployment, Mercedes Trucks and more

Some headlines (I’ve been on the road and will have more to say soon.)

Google announces it will put new generation buggies on city streets

Google has done over 2.7 million km of testing with their existing fleet, they announced. Now, they will be putting their small “buggy” vehicle onto real streets in Mountain View. The cars will stick to slower streets and are NEVs that only go 25mph.

While this vehicle is designed for fully automatic operation, during the testing phase, as required, it will have a temporary set of controls for the safety driver to use in case of any problem. Google’s buggy, which still has no official name, has been built in a small fleet and has been operating on test tracks up to this point. Now it will need to operate among other road users and pedestrians.

Accidents with, but not caused by self-driving cars cause press tizzy.

The press were terribly excited when reports filed with the State of California indicated that there had been 4 accidents reported — 3 for Google and 1 for Delphi. Google reported a total of 11 accidents in 6 years of testing and over 1.5 million miles.

Headlines spoke loudly about the cars being in accidents, but buried in the copy was the fact that none of the accidents by any company were the fault of the software. Several took place during human driving, and the rest were accidents that were clearly the fault of the other party, such as being rear ended or hit while stopped.

Still, some of the smarter press noticed, this is a higher rate of being in an accident than normal, in fact almost double — human drivers are in an accident about every 250,000 miles and so should have had only 6.

The answer may be that these vehicles are unusual and have “self driving car” written on them. They may be distracting other drivers, making it more likely those drivers will make a mistake. In addition, many people have told me of their thoughts when they encountered a Google car on the road. “I thought about going in front of it and braking to see what it would do,” I’ve been told by many. Aside from the fact that this is risky and dickish, and would just cause the safety drivers to immediately disengage and take over, in reality they all also said they didn’t do it, and experience in the cars shows that it’s very rare for other drivers to actually try to “test” the car.

But perhaps some people who think about it do distract themselves and end up in an accident. That’s not good, but it’s also something that should go away as the novelty of the cars decreases.

Mercedes and Freightliner test in Nevada

There was also lots of press about a combined project of Mercedes/Daimler and Freightliner to test a self-driving truck in Nevada. There is no reason that we won’t eventually have self-driving trucks, of course, and there are direct economic benefits for trucking fleets to not require drivers.

Self-driving trucks are not new off the road. In fact the first commercial self-driving vehicles were mining trucks at the Rio Tinto mine in Australia. Small startup Peleton is producing a system to let truckers convoy, with the rear driver able to go hands-free. Putting them on regular roads is a big step, but it opens some difficult questions.

First, it is not wise to do this early on. Systems will not be perfect, and there will be accidents. You want your first accidents to be with something like Google’s buggy or a Prius, not with an 18-wheel semi-truck. “Your first is your worst” with software and so your first should be small and light.

Secondly, this truck opens up the jobs question much more than other vehicles, where the main goal is to replace amateur drivers, not professionals. Yes, cab drivers will slowly fade out of existence as the decades pass, but nobody grows up wanting to be a cab driver — it’s a job you fall into for a short time because it’s quick and easy work that doesn’t need much training. While other people build robots to replace workers, the developers of self-driving cars are mostly working on saving lives and increasing convenience.

Many jobs have been changed by automation, of course, and this will keep happening, and it will happen faster. Truck drivers are just one group that will face this, and they are not the first. On the other hand, the reality of robot job replacement is that while it has happened at a grand scale, there are more people working today than ever. People move to other jobs, and they will continue to do so. This may not be much satisfaction for those who will need to go through this task, but the other benefits of robocars are so large that it’s hard to imagine delaying them because of this. Jobs are important, but lives are even more important.

It’s also worth noting that today there is a large shortage of truck drivers, and as such the early robotic trucks will not be taking any jobs.

I’m more interested in tiny delivery “trucks” which I call “deliverbots.” For long haul, having large shared cargo vehicles makes sense, but for delivery, it can be better to have a small robot do the job and make it direct and personal.

New Sensors

The world of sensors continues to grow. This wideband software based radar from a student team won a prize. It claims to produce a 3D image. Today’s automotive radars have long range but very low resolution. High resolution radar could replace lidar if it gets enough resolution. Radar sees further, and sees through fog, and gives you a speed value, and LIDAR falls short in those areas.

Also noteworthy is this article on getting centimeter GPS accuracy with COTS GPS equipment. They claim to be able to eliminate a lot of multipath through random movements of the antennas. If true, it could be a huge localization breakthrough. GPS just isn’t good enough for robocar positioning. Aside from the fact it goes away in some locations like tunnels, and even though modern techniques can get sub-cm accuracy, it you want to position your robocar with it, and it alone, you need it to essentially never fail. But it does.

That said, most other localization systems, including map and image based localization, benefit from getting good GPS data to keep them reliable. The two systems together work very well, and making either one better helps.

Transportation Secretary Fox advances DoT plan

Secretary Fox has been out writing articles and Speaking in Silicon Valley about their Beyond Traffic effort. They promise big promotion of robocars which is good. Sadly, they also keep promoting the false idea that vehicle to vehicle communications are valuable and will play a significant role in the development of robocars. In my view, many inside the DoT staked their careers on V2V, and so feel required to promote it, even though it has minimal compelling applications and may actually be rejected entirely by the robocar community because of security issues.

This debate is going to continue for a while, it seems.

Maps, maps, maps

Nokia has put its “Here” map division up for sale, and a large part of the attention seems to related to their HD Maps project, aimed at making maps for self-driving. (HERE published a short interview with me on the value of these maps.

It will be interesting to see how much money that commands. At the same time, TomTom, the 3rd mapping company, has announced it will begin making maps for self-driving cars — a decision they made in part because of encouragement from yours truly.

Uber dwarfs taxis

Many who thought Uber’s valuation is crazy came to that conclusion because they looked at the size of the Taxi industry. To the surprise of nobody who has followed Uber, they recently revealed that in San Francisco, their birthplace, they are now 3 times the size of the old taxi industry, and growing. It was entirely the wrong comparison to make. The same is true of robocars. They won’t just match what Uber does, they will change the world.

There’s more news to come, during a brief visit to home, but I’m off to play in Peoria, and then Africa next week!

People get carsick as passengers? Shocking!

Earlier this week I was sent some advance research from the U of Michigan about car sickness rates for car passengers. I found the research of interest, but wish it had covered some questions I think are more important, such as how carsickness is changed by potentially new types of car seating, such as face to face or along the side.

To my surprise, there was a huge rush of press coverage of the study, which concluded that 6 to 12% of car passengers get a bit queasy, especially when looking down in order to read or work. While it was worthwhile to work up those numbers, the overall revelation was in the “Duh” category for me, I guess because it happens to me on some roads and I presumed it was fairly common.

Oddly, most of the press was of the “this is going to be a barrier to self-driving cars” sort, while my reaction was, “wow, that happens to fewer people than I thought!”

Having always known this, I am interested in the statistics, but to me the much more interesting question is, “what can be done about it?”

For those who don’t like to face backwards, the fact that so many are not bothered is a good sign — just switch seats.

Some activities are clearly better than others. While staring down at your phone or computer in your lap is bad during turns and bumps, it may be that staring up at a screen watching a video, with your peripheral vision very connected to the environment, is a choice that reduces the stress.

I also am interested in studying if there can be clues to help people reduce sickness. For example, the car will know of upcoming turns, and probably even upcoming bumps. It could issue tones to give you subtle clues as to what’s coming, and when it might be time to pause and look up. It might even be the case that audio clues could substitute for visual clues in our plastic brains.

The car, of course, should drive as gently as it can, and because the software does not need a tight suspension to feel the road, the ride can be smoother as well.

Another interesting thing to test would be having your tablet or phone deliberately tilt its display to give you the illusion you are looking at the fixed world when you look at it, or to have a little “window” that shows you a real world level so your eyes and inner ears can find something to agree on.

More advanced would be a passenger pod on hydraulic struts able to tilt with several degrees of freedom to counter the turns and bumps, and make them always be such that the forces go up and down, never side to side. With proper banking and tilting, you could go through a roundabout (often quite disconcerting when staring down) but only feel yourself get lighter and heavier.

Delphi completes trans-continental drive, and Hyundai goes big

Most of the robocar press this week has been about the Delphi drive from San Francisco to New York, which completed yesterday. Congratulations to the team. Few teams have tried to do such a long course and so many different roads. (While Google has over a million miles logged in their testing by now, it’s not been reported that they have done 3,500 distinct roads; most testing is done around Google HQ.)

The team reported the vehicle drove 99% of the time. This is both an impressive and unimpressive number, and understanding that is key to understanding the difficulty of the robocar problem.

One of the earliest pioneers, Ernst Dickmanns did a long highway drive 20 years ago, in 1995. He reported the system drove 95% of the time, kicking out every 10km or so. This was a system simply finding the edge of the road, and keeping in the lane by tracking that. Delphi’s car is much more sophisticated, with a very impressive array of sensors — 10 radars, 6 lidars and more, and it has much more sophisticated software.

99% is not 4% better than 95%, it’s 5 times better, because the real number is the fraction of road it could not drive. And from 99%, we need to get something like 10,000 times better — to 99.9999% of the time, to even start talking about a real full-auto robocar. Because in the USA we drive 3 trillion miles per year, taking about 60 billion hours, a little over half of it on the highway. 99.9999% for all cars would mean still too many accidents if 1 time in a million you encountered something and could not handle it.

However, this depends on what we mean by “being unable to handle it.”

  • If not handling means “has a fatal accident” that could map to 3,600,000 of those, which would be 100x the human rate and not acceptable.
  • If not handling it means “has any sort of accident” then we’re pretty good, about 1/4th of the rate of human accidents
  • If not handling it means that the vehicle knows certain roads are a problem, and diverts around them or requests human assistance, it’s no big problem at all.
  • Likewise if not handling it means identifying a trouble situation, and slowing down and pulling off the road, or even just plain stopping in the middle of the road — which is not perfectly safe but not ultra-dangerous either — it’s also not a problem.

At the same time, our technology is an exponential one, so it’s wrong to think that the statement that it needs to be 10,000 times better means the system is only 1/10,000th of the way there. In fact, getting to the goal may not be that far away, and Google is much further along. They reported a distance of over 80,000 miles between necessary interventions. Humans have accidents about ever 250,000 miles.

(Delphi has not reported the most interesting number, which is necessary unexpected interventions per million miles. To figure out if an intervention is necessary, you must replay the event in simulator to see what the vehicle would have done had the safety driver not intervened. The truly interesting number is the combination of interventions/mm and the fraction of roads you can drive. It’s easier, but boring, to get a low interventions/mm number on one plain piece of straight highway, for example.)

It should also be noted that Delphi’s result is almost entirely on highways, which are the simplest roads to drive for a robot. Google’s result is also heavily highway biased, though they have reported a lot more surface street work. None of the teams have testing records in complex and chaotic streets such as those found in the developing world, or harsh weather.

It is these facts which lead some people to conclude this technology is decades away. That would be the right conclusion if you were unaware of the exponential curve the technologies and the software development are on.

Huge Hyundai investment

For some time, I’ve been asking where the Koreans are on self-driving cars. Major projects arose in many major car companies, with the Germans in the lead, and then the US and Japan. Korea was not to be seen.

Hyundai announced they would produce highway cruise cars shortly (like other makers) but they also announced they would produce a much more autonomous car by 2020 — a similar number to most car makers as well. Remarkable though was the statement that they would invest over $70 billion in the next 4 years on what they are calling “smart cars,” including hiring over 7,000 people to work on them. While this number includes the factories they plan to build, and refers to many technologies beyond robocars, it’s still an immense number. The Koreans have arrived.

Matternet launches drone delivery platform

I often speak about deliverbots — the potential for ground based delivery robots. There is also excitement about drone (UAV/quadcopter) based delivery. We’ve seen many proposed projects, including Amazon prime Air and much debate. Many years ago I also was perhaps the first to propose that drones deliver a defibrillator anywhere and there are a few projects underway to do this.

Some of my students in the Singularity University Graduate Studies Program in 2011 really caught the bug, and their team project turned into Matternet — a company with a focus in drone delivery in the parts of the world without reliable road infrastructure. Example applications including moving lightweight items like medicines and test samples between remote clinics and eventually much more.

I’m pleased to say they just announced moving to a production phase called Matternet One. Feel free to check it out.

When it comes to ground robots and autonomous flying vehicles, there are a number of different trade-offs:

  • Drones will be much faster, and have an easier time getting roughly to a location. It’s a much easier problem to solve. No traffic, and travel mostly as the crow flies.
  • Deliverbots will be able to handle much heavier and larger cargo, consuming a lot less energy in most cases. Though drones able to move 40kg are already out there.
  • Regulations stand in the way of both vehicles, but current proposed FAA regulations would completely prohibit the drones, at least for now.
  • Landing a drone in a random place is very hard. Some drone plans avoid that by lowering the cargo on a tether and releasing the tether.
  • Driving to a doorway or even gate is not super easy either, though.
  • Heavy drones falling on people or property are an issue that scares people, but they are also scared of robots on roads and sidewalks.
  • Drones probably cost more but can do more deliveries per hour.
  • Drones don’t have good systems in place to avoid collisions with other drones. Deliverbots won’t go that fast and so can stop quickly for obstacles seen with short range sensors.
  • Deliverbots have to not hit cars or pedestrians. Really not hit them.
  • Deliverbots might be subject to piracy (people stealing them) and drones may have people shoot at them.
  • Drones may be noisy (this is yet to be seen) particularly if they have heavier cargo.
  • Drones can go where their are no roads or paths. For ground robots, you need legs like the BigDog.
  • Winds and rain will cause problems for drones. Deliverbots will be more robust against these, but may have trouble on snow and ice.

In the long run, I think we’ll see drones for urgent, light cargo and deliverbots for the rest, along with real trucks for the few large and heavy things we need.

Delphi's cross-country trip and a raft of Robocar News

I’ve been on the road, and there has been a ton of news in the last 4 weeks. In fact, below is just a small subset of the now constant stream of news items and articles that appear about robocars.

Delphi has made waves by undertaking a road trip from San Francisco to New York in their test car, which is equipped with an impressive array of sensors. The trip is now underway, and on their page you can see lots of videos of the vehicle along the trek.

The Delphi vehicle is one of the most sensor-laden vehicles out there, and that’s good. In spite of all those who make the rather odd claim that they want to build robocars with fewer sensors, Moore’s Law and other principles teach us that the right procedure is to throw everything you can at the problem today, because those sensors will be cheap when it comes time to actually ship. Particularly for those who say they won’t ship for a decade.

At the same time, the Delphi test is mostly of highway driving, with very minimal urban street driving according to Kristen Kinley at Delphi. They are attempting off-map driving, which is possible on highways due to their much simpler environment. Like all testing projects these days, there are safety drivers in the cars ready to intervene at the first sign of a problem.

Delphi is doing a small amount of DSRC vehicle to infrastructure testing as well, though this is only done in Mountain View where they used some specially installed roadside radio infrastructure equipment.

Delphi is doing the right thing here — getting lots of miles and different roads under their belt. This is Google’s giant advantage today. Based on Google’s announcements, they have more than a million miles of testing in the can, and that makes a big difference.

Hype and reality of Tesla’s autopilot announcement

Telsa has announced they will do an over the air upgrade of car software in a few months to add autopilot functionality to existing models that have sufficient sensors. This autopilot is the “supervised” class of self driving that I warned may end up viewed as boring. The press have treated this as something immense, but as far as I can tell, this is similar to products built by Mercedes, BMW, Audi and several other companies and even sold in the market (at least for traffic jams) for a couple of years now.

The other products have shied away from doing full highway speed in commercial products, though rumours exist of it being available in commercial cars in Europe. What is special about Tesla’s offering is that it will be the first car sold in the US to do this at highway speed, and they may offer supervised lane change as well. It’s also interesting that since they have been planning this for a while, it will come as a software upgrade to people who bought their technology package earlier.

UK project budget rises to £100 million

What started with a £10 million pound prize has grown in the UK has become over 100m in grants in the latest UK budget. While government research labs will not provide us with the final solutions, this money will probably create some very useful tools and results for the private players to exploit.

MobilEye releases their EyeQ4 chip

MobilEye from Jerusalem is probably the leader in automotive machine vision, and their new generation chip has been launched, but won’t show up in cars for a few years. It’s an ASIC packed with hardware and processor cores aimed at doing easy machine vision. My personal judgement is that this is not sufficient for robocar driving, but MobilEye wants to prove me wrong. (The EQ4 chip does have software to do sensor fusion with LIDAR and Radar, so they don’t want to prove me entirely wrong.) Even if not good enough on their own, ME chips offer a good alternate path for redundancy

Chris Urmson gives a TeD talk about the Google Car

Talks by Google’s team are rare — the project is unusual in trying to play down its publicity. I was not at TeD, but reports from there suggest Chris did not reveal a great deal new, other than repeating his goal of having the cars be in practical service before his son turns 16. Of course, humans will be driving for a long time after robocars start becoming common on the roads, but it is true that we will eventually see teens who would have gotten a licence never get around to getting one. (Teems are already waiting longer to get their licences so this is not a hard prediction.)

The war between DSRC and more wifi is heating up.

2 years ago, the FCC warned that since auto makers had not really figured out much good to do with the DSRC spectrum at 5.9ghz, it was time to repurpose it for unlicenced use, like more WiFi.

There is now a bill to force this being proposed.  read more »

How to avoid a pilot suicide

After 9/11 there was a lot of talk about how to prevent it, and the best method was to fortify the cockpit door and prevent unauthorized access. Every security system, however, sometimes prevents authorized people from getting access, and the tragic results of that are now clear to the world. This is likely a highly unusual event, and we should not go overboard, but it’s still interesting to consider.

(I have an extra reason to take special interest here, I was boarding a flight out of Spain on Tuesday just before the Germanwings flight crashed.)

In 2001, it was very common to talk about how software systems, at least on fly-by-wire aircraft, might make it impossible for aircraft to do things like fly into buildings. Such modes might be enabled by remote command from air traffic control. Pilots resist this, they don’t like the idea of a plane that might refuse to obey them at any time, because with some justification they worry that a situation could arise where the automated system is in error, and they need full manual control to do what needs to be done.

The cockpit access protocol on the Airbus allows flight crew to enter a code to unlock the door. Quite reasonably, the pilot in the cockpit can override that access, because an external bad guy might force a flight crew member to enter the code.

So here’s an alternative — a code that can be entered by a flight crew member which sends and emergency alert to air traffic control. ATC would then have the power to unlock the door with no possibility of pilot override. In extreme cases, ATC might even be able to put the plane in a safe mode, where it can only fly to a designated airport, and auto-land at that airport. In planes with sufficient bandwidth near an airport, the plane might actually be landed by remote pilots like a UAV, an entirely reasonable idea for newer aircraft. In case of real terrorist attack, ATC would need to be ready to refuse to open the door no matter what is threatened to the passengers.

If ATC is out of range (like over the deep ocean) then the remote console might allow the flight crew — even a flight attendant — to direct the aircraft to fly to pre-approved waypoints along the planned flight path where quality radio contact can be established.

Clearly there is a risk to putting a plane in this mode, though ATC or the flight crew who did it could always return control to the cockpit.

It might still be possible to commit suicide but it would take a lot more detailed planning. Indeed, there have been pilot suicides where the door was not locked, and the suicidal pilot just put the plane into a non-recoverable spin so quickly that nobody could stop it. Still, in many cases of suicide, any impediment can sometimes make the difference.

Update: I have learned the lock has a manual component, and so the pilot in the cockpit could prevent even a remote opening for now. Of course, current planes are not set to be remotely flown, though that has been discussed. It’s non trivial (and would require lots of approval) but it could have other purposes.

A safe mode that prevents overt attempts to crash might be more effective than you think, in that with many suicides, even modest discouragement can make a difference. It’s why they still want to put a fence on the Golden Gate Bridge had have other similar things elsewhere. You won’t stop a determined suicide but it apparently does stop those who are still uncertain, which is lots of them.

The simpler solution — already going into effect in countries that did not have this rule already — is a regulation insisting that nobody is ever alone in the cockpit. Under this rule, if a pilot wants to go to the bathroom, a flight attendant waits in the cockpit. Of course, a determined suicidal pilot could disable this person, either because of physical power, or because sometimes there is a weapon available to pilots. That requires more resolve and planning, though.

Uber price in LA approaches robocar cheap

I was recently considering the price of UberX in Los Angeles. It’s gotten disturbingly low:

Flag drop: $0 18 cents/minute 90 cents/mile

This is not a very good deal for the driver. After Uber’s 20% cut, that’s 72 cents/mile. According to AAA, a typical car costs about 60 cents/mile to operate, not including parking. (Some cars are a bit cheaper, including the Prius favoured by UberX drivers.) In any event, the UberX driver is not making much money on their car.

The 18 cents/minute — $10.80 per hour, drops to only $8.64/hour while driving. Not that much above minimum wage. And I’m not counting the time spent waiting and driving to and from rides, nor the miles, which is odd that the flag drop fee. There is a $1 “safe rides fee” that Uber pockets (they are being sued over that.) And there is a $4 minimum, which will hit you on rides of up to about 2.5 miles.

So Uber drivers aren’t getting paid that well — not big news — but a bigger thing is the comparison of this with private car ownership.

As noted, private car ownership is typically around 60 cents/mile. The Uber ride then, is only 50% more per mile. You pay the driver a low rate to drive you, but in return, you get that back as free time in which you can work, or socialize on your phone, or relax and read or watch movies. For a large number of people who value their time much more than $10/hour, it’s a no-brainer win.

The average car trip for urbanites is 8.5 miles — though that of course is biased up by long road trips that would never be done in something like Uber. I will make a guess and drop urban trips to 6.

The Uber and private car costs do have some complications: * That Safe Rides Fee adds $1/trip, or about 16 cents/mile on a 6 mile trip * The minimum fee is a minor penalty from 2 to 2.5 miles, a serious penalty on 1 mile trips * Uber has surge pricing some of the time that can double or even triple this price

As UberX prices drop this much, we should start seeing people deliberately dropping cars for Uber, just as I have predicted for robocars. I forecast robotaxi service can be available for even less. 60 cents/mile with no cost for a driver and minimal flag drop or minimum fees. In other words, beating the cost of private car ownership and offering free time while riding. UberX is not as good as this, but for people of a certain income level who value their own time, it should already be beating the private car.

We should definitely see 2 car families dropping down to 1 car plus digital rides. The longer trips can be well handled by services like Zipcar or even better, Car2Go or DriveNow which are one way.

The surge pricing is a barrier. One easy solution would be for a company like Uber to make an offer: “If you ride more than 4,000 miles/year with us, then no surge pricing for you.” Or whatever deal of that sort can make economic sense. Sort of frequent rider loyalty miles. (Surprised none of the companies have thought about loyalty programs yet.)

Another option that might make sense in car replacement is an electric scooter for trips under 2 miles, UberX like service for 2 to 30 miles, and car rental/carshare for trips over 30 miles.

If we don’t start seeing this happen, it might tell us that robocars may have a larger hurdle in getting people to give up a car for them than predicted. On the other hand, some people will actually much prefer the silence of a robocar to having to interact with a human driver — sometimes you are not in the mood for it. In addition, Americans at least are not quite used to the idea of having a driver all the time. Even billionaires I know don’t have a personal chauffeur, in spite of the obvious utility of it for people whose time is that valuable. On the other hand, having a robocar will not seem so ostentatious.

Issues in regulating robocars, and the case for a light hand

All over the world, people (and governments) are debating about regulations for robocars. First for testing, and then for operation. It mostly began when Google encouraged the state of Nevada to write regulations, but now it’s in full force. The topic is so hot that there is a danger that regulations might be drafted long before the shape of the first commercial deployments of the technology take place.

As such I have prepared a new special article on the issues around regulating robocars. The article concludes that in spite of a frequent claim that we want to regulate and standarize even before the technology has been out in the market for a while, this is in fact both a highly unusual approach, and possibly even a dangerous approach.

Read:

Regulating Robocar Safety : An examination of the issues around regulating robocar safety and the case for a very light touch

Keep Calm and Carry Passengers -- UK robocar projects level up

The government baked robocar projects in the UK are going full steam, with this press release from the UK government to accompany the unveiling of the prototype Lutz pod which should ply the streets of Milton Keynes and Greenwich.

This comes along with the realizations of laws enabling of testing of vehicles (with safety drivers) and discussion of changes to the UK vehicle code.

The new pod follows a similar path to other fully-autonomous prototypes, reminding me of the EN-V from GM, the MIT City Car and the Google buggy prototype. It’s electric, meant for “last mile” and will lose its steering wheel once testing is over.

I also note they talk eagerly about the Meridian shuttle being tested in Greenwich, even though that’s a French vehicle.

When it comes to changes to the vehicle code, I think it’s premature. Even without looking at the proposed changes, I would say that we don’t know enough to work out what changes are needed, even though we all might be full of ideas.

One proposal is to remove the ban on tailgating to allow convoys. A reasonable enough thing, except people are not going to build convoys for quite some time, I think. The Volvo/SARTRE experiment found a number of problems with the idea, and you don’t want to do your first deployments with something that could crash 10 cars if it goes wrong instead of one. You do that later, once you feel very confident in your tech.

Another proposal called for changing how cyclists are treated. The law in the UK (and some other places) demands cyclists be given the full berth of a car, and in practice nobody ever does that, and if they did do it, it would mean they just followed along at bicycle speed, impeding traffic. One of those classic cases, like speed limits in the USA, where the law only works if nobody follows it. (Though cyclists would say that they should just get the full lane like the law says.)

We will need to fix these areas of the vehicle codes, but we should fix them only after we see a problem, unless it’s clear that the vehicles can’t be deployed without the change. Give the developers the chance to fix the problem on their own first. If you fix the law before you know what the vehicles will be like, you may ensconce old thinking into the law and have a hard time getting it out.

It is interesting to see Governments adapt so quickly to a disruptive technology. It’s quite probable that our hype is a bit too good and will come back to bite us. I predicted this sort of jurisdictional competition as governments realize they have a chance to make their regions become players in the new automotive industry, but they are embracing some things faster than I expected.

Multi car EV chargers

Electric Vehicles are moving up, at least here in California, and it’s gotten to the point that EV drivers are finding all the charging stations where they want to go already in use, forcing them to travel well outside their way, or to panic. Sometimes not charging is not an option. Sometimes the car taking the spot is already mostly charged or doesn’t need the charge much, but the owner has not come back.

Here in Silicon Valley, there is a problem that the bulk of the EVs have 60 to 80 miles of range — OK for wandering around the valley, but not quite enough for a trip to San Francisco and back, at least not a comfortable one. And we do like to go to San Francisco. The natives up there don’t really need the chargers in a typical day, but the visitors do. In general, unless you are certain you are going to get a charger, you won’t want to go in a typical EV. Sure, a Tesla has no problem, but a Tesla has a ridiculous amount of battery in it. You spend $40,000 on the battery pack in the Tesla, but use the second half of its capacity extremely rarely — it’s not cost effective outside the luxury market, at least at today’s prices (and also because of the weight.)

Charging stations are somewhat expensive. Even home stations cost from $400 to $800 because they must now include EVSE protocol equipment. This does a digital negotiation between the car and the plug on how much power is available and when to send it. The car must not draw more current than the circuit can handle, and you want the lines to not be live until the connection is solid. For now that’s expensive (presumably because of the high current switching gear.) Public charging stations also need a way to doing billing and access control.

Another limit on public charging stations, however, is the size of the electrical service. A typical car wants 30 amps, or up to 50 if you can get it. Put in more than a few of those and you’re talking an upgrade to the building’s electrical service in many cases.

I propose a public charging pole which has 4 or even 8 cords on it. This pole would be placed at the intersection of 4 parking spots in a parking lot. (That’s not very usual, more often they end up placed against a wall, with only 2 parking spots in range, because that’s where the power is.) The station, however, may not have enough power to charge all the cables at once.  read more »

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