Transportation

Uber begins more active testing. Lyft will sell rides

Uber has announced the official start of self-driving tests in Pittsburgh. Uber has been running their lab for over a year, and had various vehicles out there mapping and gathering data, but their new vehicle is sleeker and loaded with sensors - more than on Google’s cars or most of the other research cars I have seen. You can see several lidars on the roof and bumpers, and a seriously big array of cameras and other sensors.

In addition, recently it was announced that the GM-Lyft-Cruise combination will be offering rides in 2017 in a self-driving Chevy Bolt. Of course, there will be a safety driver in the car supervising it so it would be an empty taxi coming to pick you up, but it’s a nice step.

These two announcements bring attention to two of the most important companies in the space, even though their technical efforts are much less mature than Google’s or Daimler’s. That’s because of one key forecast that I have emphasized from the start:

A large fraction of the automotive industry is going to switch to be about selling rides, not selling cars

As we all know, Uber has already become the #1 brand in the world in selling rides in just a few years. It’s a very important position to have. Lyft has #2 but other companies like Didi own China (and just got a $1B investment from Apple.)

As the owner of the ride brand, Uber has a lot of control. The brand of the car that drives you is less important and interchangeable. But that’s not the only advantage these ride companies have:

  • Ride companies have huge volumes of drivers on the road all day. They can be used as a resource for mapping, testing and verifying self-driving systems. Companies like Google had to pay staff and buy cars to do that.
  • Ride companies can combine human driven ride service with robotic taxis, to take you from anywhere to anywhere any time. It just costs more if you want to travel where the robots can’t.
  • Uber and Lyft can fail in their research program and still win. They just have to find somebody else to sell them the cars. Of course that does mean a power trade — it’s very nice to own the magic sauce that makes it all work, but the ride companies are among the few would could have another provider and still have a lot of control.

At the same time, Lyft is now bound to probably work with GM, and Didi possibly with Apple, which leaves Uber with more flexibility among these.

The ride companies are already doing big experiments in real ride-sharing, ie. multiple independent passengers in the same car. Today, using UberPool is popular and can save significant money. A more interesting question arises when robotic taxi service is available for 30 cents/mile. I don’t think people would share their ride to reduce the price from $1.50 to $1. Saving 50 cents does not move the needle for most people of even moderate income levels.

How will ride companies compete?

An important social question asks how many ride companies can compete in a market? Right now Uber has established a lot of dominance. In San Francisco, birthplace of Uber, Lyft and Sidecar, Sidecar shut its doors from difficulty competing with the other two. Is there room for only a few companies? That’s bad, because competition is good for the public.

The first intuition is that fleet size is a big competitive advantage because you can offer faster pickup times and more choices of vehicle. Customers will care a lot about how long they have to wait for a ride. That will vary of course based on random positions of vehicles, and also how good the predictive positioning is in the fleet management system.

At the same time, it is possible to have a successful limo company today with just one limo. You only do scheduled rides (or ad-hoc rides booked via networks like UberBlack) but you have a business. It is not the size of your fleet that fully governs your wait time, but rather the ratio of the size of your fleet to the number of customers you have. Lyft has a smaller fleet but also fewer users, so I find it can often match or beat Uber on wait time, though neither wins all the time. There is a natural balance here — the better your fleet-size/user-base ratio is, the shorter wait times you have, but that brings you more customers until the advantage starts reducing.

I’ll have more analysis of this in the future.

Otto and self-driving trucks -- what do they mean?

Today sees the un-stealthing of a new company called Otto which plans to build self-driving systems for long haul trucks. The company has been formed by a skilled team, including former members of Google’s car team and people I know well. You can see their opening blog post

My entire focus on this blog, and the focus of most people in this space, has been on cars, particularly cars capable of unmanned operation and door-to-door service. Most of those not working on that have had their focus on highway cars and autopilots. The highway is a much simpler environment so much easier to engineer, but it operates at higher speeds so the cost of accidents is worse.

That goes doubly true for trucks that are fast, big and massive. At the same time, 99% of truck driving is actually very straightforward — stay in a highway lane, usually the slow one, with no fancy moving about.

Some companies have done exploration of truck automation. Daimler/Freightliner has been testing trucks in Nevada. Volvo (trucks and cars together) has done truck and platooning experiments, notably the Sartre project some years ago. A recent group of European researchers did a truck demonstration in the Netherlands, leading up to the Declaration of Amsterdam which got government ministers to declare a plan to modify regulations to make self-driving systems legal in Europe. Local company Peloton has gone after the more tractable problem of two-truck platoons with a driver in each truck, aimed primarily at fuel savings and some safety increases.

Safety

While trucks are big and thus riskier to automate, they are also risky for humans to drive. Even though truck drivers are professionals who drive all day, there are still around 4,000 killed every year in the USA in truck accidents. More than half of those are truck drivers, but a large number of ordinary road users are also killed. Done well, self-driving trucks will reduce this toll. Just as with cars, companies will not release the systems until they believe they can match and beat the safety record of human drivers.

The Economics

Self-driving trucks don’t change the way we move, but they will have a big economic effect on trucking. Driver pay accounts for about 25-35% of the cost of truck operation, but in fact early self-driving won’t take away jobs because there is a serious shortage of truck drivers in the market — companies can’t hire enough of them at the wages they currently pay. It is claimed that there are 50,000 job openings unfilled at the present time. Truck driving is grueling work, sometimes mind-numbing, and it takes the long haul driver away from home and family for over a week on every long-haul run. It’s not very exciting work, and it involves long days (11 hours is the legal limit) and a lot of eating and sleeping in truck stops or the cabin of the truck.

Average pay is about 36 cents/mile for a solo trucker on a common route. Alternately, loads that need to move fast are driven by a team of two. They split 50 cents/mile between them, but can drive 22 hours/day — one driver sleeps in the back while the first one takes the wheel. You make less per mile per driver, but you are also paid for the miles you are sleeping or relaxing.

A likely first course is trucks that keep their solo driver who drives up to 11 hours — probably less — and have the software drive the rest. Nonstop team driving speed with just one person. Indeed, that person might be an owner-operator who is paying for the system as a businessperson, rather than a person losing a job to automation. The human would drive the more complex parts of the route (including heavy traffic) while the system can easily handle the long nights and sparse heartland interstate roads.

The economics get interesting when you can do things that are expensive for human drivers and teams. Aside from operating 22 or more hours/day at a lower cost, certain routes will become practical that were not economic with human drivers, opening up new routes and business models.

The Environment

Computer driven trucks will drive more regularly than humans, effectively driving in “hypermile” style as much as they can. That should save fuel. In addition, while I would not do it at first, the platooning experimented with by Peloton and Sartre does result in fuel savings. Also interesting is the ability to convert trucks to natural gas, which is domestic and burns cleaner (though it still emits CO2.) Automated trucks on fixed routes might be more willing to make this conversion.

Road wear

There is strong potential to reduce the damage to roads (and thus the cost of maintaining them, which is immense and seriously in arrears) thanks to the robotruck. That’s because heavy trucks and big buses cause almost all the road wear today. A surprising rule of thumb is that road damage goes up with the 4th power of the weight per axle. As such an 80,000lb truck with 34,000lb on two sets of 2 axles and 6,000lb on the front axle does around 2,000 times the road damage of a typical car!  read more »

What should be in every hotel or AirBNB?

My recent efforts in consulting and speaking have led to a lot more travel — which is great sometimes, but also often a drain. I’ve been staying in so many hotels that I thought it worth enumerating some of the things I think every hotel room should have, and what I often find missing.

Most of these things are fairly inexpensive to do, though a few have higher costs. The cheaper ones I would hope can be just included, I realize some might incur extra charges or a slightly more expensive room, or perhaps they can be offered as a perk to loyalty program members.

Desk space for all occupants

Most rooms usually only have a workspace for one, even if it’s a double room. The modern couple both have computers, and both need a place to work, ideally not crammed together. That’s also true when two co-workers share a room. And in a perfect room, both desk spaces share the other attributes of a good desk, namely:

  • The surface is not glass. I would say more than half the desks in hotel rooms are glass, which don’t work well with optical mice. Sure, you put down some papers, but this seems kinda silly.
  • Of course, 2 or even 3 power outlets, on the desk or wall above it. Ideally the “universal” kind that accept most of the world’s plugs. (Sure, I bring adapters but this is always handy.) Don’t make me crawl under the desk to plug things in, have to unplug something else.

To my horror, Marriott has been building some new hotels with no desk space at all. Some person (I would say some idiot) decided that since millennials use fewer laptops and just want to sit on a couch with their tablet, it was better to sacrifice the desk. Those hotels had better have folding desks you can borrow, in fact all hotels could do that to fix the desk space shortage, particularly if rooms are small. Another option would be a leaf that folds down from the wall.

Surfaces/racks for luggage and other things for everybody.

Many rooms are very lacking in table or surface space beyond the desk. Almost every hotel room comes with only one luggage holder, where a couple might find themselves with 3 or in rare case 4 bags. I doubt these folding luggage holders are that expensive, but if you can’t put more than one in every room, then watch people as they check in, and note how many bags they have, and have somebody automatically send up some extra holders to their room. At the very least make it easy for them to ask. I mean these things are under $30 quantity one. Get more!

Bathrooms need surface space, too. Too often I’ve seen sinks with nowhere to put your toiletries and freedom bag. In fact, I want space everywhere to unpack the things I want to access.

Power by the bed (and other places)

Sure, I get that older hotel rooms did not load up with power outlets, and modern ones do. But aside from the desk, most people want power by the bed now, for their phone charger if nothing else. If you just have one plug by the bed, put a 3-way splitter (global plug, of course) on that plug so that people can plug things in without unplugging the light or clock. And ideally up high, so I don’t have to crawl behind things to get at it.

A little more controversial is the idea of offering USB charging power. Today, we all carry chargers, but the hope is that if charging becomes commonplace, then like the travel hair dryer people used to carry and no longer do, we might be able to depend on finding a charger. Problem is, charging standards are many and change frequently — we now have USB regular (useless) and fast-charge, along with Qualcomm quick-charge and USB C. More will come. On top of this, strictly you should not plug your device into a random USB port which might try to take it over. You can get what’s called a “USB Condom” to block the data lines, but those might interfere with the negotiation phase of smarter power standards. A wireless “Qi” charging plate could be a useful thing.

As a couple, we have had up to 8 things charging at the same time, when you include phones, cameras, external batteries, headphones, tablets and other devices. So I bring a 5-way USB fast charger and rely on laptops or other chargers to go the distance.

Let me access the HDTV as a monitor, or give me a monitor.

Some rooms block you from any access to the TV. Some have a VGA or HDMI port built into a console on the desk. The latter is great, but usually the TV is mounted in a way that makes it not very useful as a computer monitor for working. It’s primarily useful for watching video. I pretty much never watch video in a hotel room, so given the choice, I would put the monitor by the desk, and it should be 1080p or better — in fact 4K should be the norm for any new installations. If you don’t have one, have one I can call down for, even at a modest fee.  read more »

Did a Tesla self-crash in self-park mode?

A recent news story from Utah describes a Tesla which entered self-park (“summon”) mode and drive itself into the back of a flatbed truck raises some interesting issues.

Tesla says that the owner of the vehicle initiated auto-Summon, which requires pressing the gear selector stalk twice and then shifting into park, then leaving the vehicle. After that the car goes into its self-park mode in 3 seconds, and the driver is supposed to be watching because the feature is a beta.

The owner says he never activated the self-park, and if somehow he did by accident, he was standing by the car for 20 seconds showing it off to a stranger, and as such he claims he is absolutely certain the car did not begin moving 3 seconds after he got out. Tesla says the logs say otherwise.

Generally, one believes log files over human memory, though these stories are surprisingly at odds. When doing Summon, the Tesla is flashing its hazard lights and moving, so it’s not exactly subtle. And it’s not supposed to work unless the keyfob is close to the car. No doubt there will be back and forth on just what happened.

However, there are some things that are less disputed:

  1. Unless the owner is out and out lying, there is a problem which allowed an owner to activate the auto-summon feature by accident, and to do so when not close to the car. (When you activate it the hazards start blinking and it shows auto-park on the screen.)
  2. The car should not have hit the metal bars on the back of the flatbed. However, Tesla warns that the feature may not detect thin objects or hanging objects. These bars are quite low, but are sticking off the end of the truck by a large amount. Clearly the obstacle detection is indeed very “beta” if it could not see these. Apparently auto-park is done using the ultrasonic sensors, not the camera. Bumper based ultrasound is not enough.

This also adds some fuel to the ongoing debate about maps. The car was in a place where there would be no reason to initiate Tesla’s self-park, which is designed for it to drive straight into narrow parking spaces. In this case, it is not necessary to have a map of all the spaces a car might self-park, but even a fairly coarse and inaccurate map could allow the car to say, “This seems like an odd place to use the self-park feature, are you sure?” And pretty much all parallel parking spaces on the side of the road qualify as a place you would not use this particular self-park function.

So is the owner lying? Was he playing with auto-summon and screwed up? (You have to screw up royally as it drives quite slowly and any touch on the door handles or the fob will stop it.) The problem is that he claims that the car did it while he was not present, which is not supposed to happen, and if he was present, why did he not stop it?

Google develops a Chrysler minivan

If you had asked me recently what big car company was the furthest behind when it came to robocars, one likely answer would be Fiat-Chrysler. In fact, famously, Chrysler ran ads several years ago during the superbowl making fun of self-driving cars and Google in particular:

Now Google has announced a minor partnership with Chyrsler where they will be getting Chrysler to build 100 custom versions of their hybrid minivans for Google’s experiments. Minivans are a good choice for taxis, with their spacious seating and electric sliding doors — if you want a vehicle to come pick you up, it probably should have something like this.

This is a pretty minor partnership, something closer to a purchase order than a partnership, but it will be touted as a great deal more. My own feeling is it’s unlikely a major automaker will truly partner with a big non-auto player like Google, Uber, Baidu or Apple. Everybody is very concerned about who will own the customer and the brand, and who will be the “Foxconn” and the big tech companies have no great reason to yield on that (because they are big) and the big car companies are unlikely to yield, either. Instead, they will acquire or do deals they control with smaller companies (like the purchase of Cruise or the partnership with Lyft from GM.)

Still, what may change this is an automaker (like FCA) getting desperate. GM got desperate and spent billions. FCA may do the same. Other companies with little underway (like Honda, Peugeot, Mazda, Subaru, Suzuki) may also panic, or hope that the Tier 1 suppliers (Bosch, Delphi, Conti) will save them.

Google custom designed a car for their 3rd generation prototype, with 2 seats, no controls and and electric NEV power train. This has taught them a lot, but I bet it has also taught them that designing a car from scratch is an expensive proposition before you are ready to make many thousands of them.

The coming nightmare for the car industry

I have often written on the challenge facing existing automakers in the world of robocars. They need to learn to completely switch their way of thinking in a world of mobility on demand, and not all of them will do so. But they face serious challenges even if they are among the lucky ones who fully “get” the robocar revolution, change their DNA and make products to compete with Google and the rest of the non-car companies.

Unfortunately for the car companies, their biggest assets — their brands, their experience, their quality and their car manufacturing capacity — are no longer as valuable as they were.

Their brands are not valuable

Today if you summon a car with a company like Uber, you don’t care about what brand of car it is, as long as it’s decent. Even with the “luxury” variants of Uber, you don’t care which type of luxury car shows up, as long as it meets certain standards. For companies who have most of their value in their nameplate, this is nightmare #1. The taxi service (Uber or otherwise) becomes the brand that is seen and valued by the customer.

When you are buying a car for 5 years at the dealership, you care a lot about the brand, both for what it means, and for what it says about you when you show up driving it. When you buy a car by the ride, you don’t care a lot about the brand, because you are only going to use it for a short time.

Their brands might be tarnished

There will be accidents in Robocars, unfortunately. Those accidents will cost money, but they will also cause problems in public image. The problem is, “Mercedes runs over grandmother” is a headline that will make people less likely to buy any type of Mercedes. As such, Mercedes has plans to market self-driving car service under their Car2Go brand. You may not even know that Car2Go is Daimler, and they might like it that way. “Google car runs over grandmother” is bad news for the Google car project, but is not going to make anybody stop doing web searches with Google. (Except the grandmother…)

The non-car companies don’t have a car brand to tarnish, but they do have famous brands. They can use those brands to attract customers without the same risk. Big car companies have famous brands but may be afraid to use them.

They might just be the contract manufacturer

Companies like Uber, Google, Apple and others don’t plan to manufacture cars. Why would they? There is tons of car manufacturing capacity out there. They can just go to carmakers and say, “here’s a purchase order for 100,000 cars — built to our spec with our logo on them.” It will be very hard to turn down such an order. Still, some companies will be too proud to do this, or too unwilling to sign their own suicide note.

If they don’t accept the order, somebody else will. If nobody in the west does, somebody in China will. China is the world’s #1 car manufacturing country, but the cars are rarely exported to the west. They would love to change that.

A likely model for this is the relationship of Apple and Foxconn. Foxconn makes your iPhone, but many don’t know that. Foxconn makes good money, but Apple makes much more, designing the product and owning the customer. The car companies don’t want to be Foxconn in the world of the future, but the alternative may be to be much smaller.

(BTW, Foxconn has said it is interested in making cars.)

First-rate quality might not be that important

Chinese manufacturers don’t have the quality of the current leaders. But they may not need to. Just as Apple taught Foxconn how to make good iPhones, they might follow the same pattern here. But they don’t need to. That’s because a less reliable robocar is not the same sort of problem an unreliable personal car is. Sure, it should not break down while you are riding in it — but even then the company can quickly send you a replacement to pick you up in just a few minutes. If it breaks down otherwise, it just goes out of service. This costs the fleet manager money, but they saved a lot of money with the lower quality manufacturer. When cars can move on demand to service customers, breakdowns are not the same sort of problem. When your own car breaks down it’s a nightmare, and you will pay a lot to avoid it. For a fleet, it’s just a cost. All cars are down for maintenance some of the time. Cheaper cars will be down more, but if they are cheap enough, it still saves money.

Customer perception of quality is still important. The vehicle must maintain the level of comfort and interior quality the customer has paid for. Safety related failures are of course much less tolerable.

New car designs will be radically different

The robocar of the future will look quite different from the cars of the past. Existing car companies can handle this, but they lose some of the advantage that comes from decades of experience. The future robocars are probably electric and much simpler, with hundreds of parts rather than tens of thousands. It’s a new world and experience with the old may actually be a disadvantage. Only Nissan and Tesla have lots of electric car experience today, though GM is building it. Electric platforms are much simpler and ripe for creativity from new players.

The challenge of robotaxis for the poor

While I’m very excited about the coming robocar world, there are still many unsolved problems. One I’ve been thinking about, particularly with my recent continued thinking on transit, is how to provide robotaxi service to the poor, which is to say people without much money and without credit and reputations.

In particular, we want to avoid situations where taxi fleet operators create major barriers to riding by the poor in the form of higher fees, special burdens, or simply not accepting the poor as customers. If you look at services like Uber today, they don’t let you ride unless you have a credit card, though in some cases prepaid debit cards will work.

Today a taxi (or a bus or Uber style vehicle) has a person in it, primarily to drive, but they perform another role — they constrain the behaviour of the rider or riders. They reduce the probability that somebody might trash the vehicle or harass or be violent to another passenger.

Of course, such things happen quite rarely, but that won’t stop operators from asking, “What do we do when it does happen? How can we stop it or get the person who does it to pay for any damage?” And further they will say, “I need a way to know that in the rare event something goes wrong, you can and will pay for it.” They do this in many similar situations. The problem is not that the poor will be judged dangerous or risky. The problem is that they will be judged less accountable for things that might go wrong. Rich people will throw up in the back of cars or damage them as much as the poor, perhaps more; the difference is there is a way to make them pay for it. So while I use the word poor here, I really mean “those it is hard to hold accountable” because there is a strong connection.

As I have outlined in one of my examinations of privacy a taxi can contain a camera with a physical shutter that is open only between riders. It can do a “before and after” photograph, mostly to spot if you left items behind, but also to spot if you’ve damaged or soiled the vehicle. Then the owner can have the vehicle go for cleaning, and send you the bill.

But they can only send you the bill if they know who you are and have a way to bill you. For the middle class and above, that’s no problem. This is the way things like Uber work — everybody is registered and has a credit card on file. This is not so easy for the poor. Many don’t have credit cards, and more to the point, they can’t show the resources to fix the damage they might do to a car, nor may they have whatever type of reputation is needed so fleet operators will trust them. The actions of a few damn the many.

The middle class don’t even need credit cards. Those of us wishing to retain our privacy could post a bond through a privacy protecting intermediary. The robotaxi company would know me only as “PrivacyProxy 12323423” and I would have an independent relationship with PrivacyProxy Inc. which would accept responsibility for any damage I do to the car, and bill me for it or take money from my bond if I’m truly anonymous.

Options for the poor

Without the proxy, robotaxi operators will want some sort of direct accountability from passengers for any problems they might cause. Even for the middle class, it mostly means being identified, so if damage is found, you can be tracked down and made to pay. The middle class have ability to pay, and credit. The poor don’t, at least many of them don’t.

People with some level of identity (an address, a job) have ways to be accountable. If the damage rises to the level where refusing to fix it is a crime at some level, fear of the justice system might work, but it’s unlikely the police are going to knock on somebody’s door for throwing up in a car.

In the future, I expect just about everybody of all income levels will have smartphones, and plans (though prepaid plans are more common at lower income levels.) One could volunteer to be accountable via the phone plan, losing your phone number if you aren’t. Indeed, it’s going to be hard to summon a car without a phone, though it will also be possible using internet terminals, kiosks and borrowing the phones of others.

More expensive rides

A likely solution, seen already in the car rental industry, is to charge extra for insurance for those who can’t prove accountability another way. Car rental company insurance is grossly overpriced, and I never buy it because I have personal insurance and credit cards to cover such issues. Those who don’t often have to pay this higher price.

It’s still a sad reality to imagine the poor having to pay more for rides than for the rich.

An option to mitigate this might be cars aimed at carrying those who are higher risk. These cars might be a bit more able to withstand wear and tear. Their interiors might be more like bus interiors, easily cleaned and harder to damage, rather than luxury leather which will probably be only for the wealthier. To get one, you might have to wait longer. While a middle-class customer ordering a cheap car might be sent a luxury car because that’s what’s spare at the time, it is less likely an untrusted and poor customer would get that.

Before we go do far, I predict the cost of robotaxi rides will get well below $1/mile, heading down to 30 cents/mile. Even with a 30% surcharge, that’s still cheaper than what we have today, in fact it’s cheaper than a bus ticket in many towns, certainly cheaper than an unsubsidized bus ticket which tends to run $5-$6. Still my hope for robotaxi service is that it makes good transportation more available to everybody, and having it cost more for the poor is a defect.

In addition, as long as damage levels remain low, as a comment points out, perhaps the added cost on every ride would be small enough that you don’t need worry about this for poor or rich. (Though having no cost to doing so does mean more spilled food, drink and sadly, vomit.)

Reputation

Over time, fortunately, poor riders could develop reputations for treating vehicles well. Build enough reputation and you might have access to the same fleet and prices that the middle class do, or at least much cheaper insurance. Cause a problem and you might lose the reputation. It would be possible to build such a reputation anonymously, though I suspect most people and companies would prefer to tie it to identity, erasing privacy. Anonymous reputations in particular can be sold or stolen which presents an issue. One option is to tie the reputation to a photo, but not a name. When you get in the car, it would confirm you match the photo, but would not immediately know your name. (In the future, though, police and database companies will be able to turn the photo into a name easily enough.)

Poor riders would still have to pay more to start, probably, or suffer the other indignities of the lower class ride. However, a poor rider who develops a sterling reservation might be able to get some of that early surcharge back later. (Not if it’s insurance. You can’t get insurance back if you don’t use it, it doesn’t work that way!)

It could also be possible for the poor to get friends to vouch for them and give them some starter reputation.

Unfortunately, poor who squander their reputation (or worse, just ride with friends who trash a car) could find themselves unable to travel except at high cost they can’t afford. It could be like losing your car.

The government

The government will have an interest in making sure the poor are not left out of this mobility revolution. As such, there might be some subsidy program to help people get going, and a safety net for loss of reputation. This of course comes with a cost. Taxes would pay for the insurance to fix cars that are damaged by riders unable to be held accountable.

The alternative, after all, is needing to continue otherwise unprofitable transit services with human drivers just for the sake of these people who can’t get private robocar rides. Transit may continue (though without human drivers) at peak times, but it almost surely vanishes off-peak if not for this.  read more »

How would a robocar handle an oncoming tsunami?

Recently a reddit user posted this short video of an amazingly lucky driver in Japan who was able to turn his car around just in time to escape the torrent of the tsunami.

The question asked was, how would a robocar deal with this? It turns out there are many answers to this question. For this particular question, as you’ll see by the end, the answer is probably “very well.”

Let’s start with the bad news. On its own, built in a world where few thought about tsunamis, there is a good chance the vehicle would not handle it well. The instinct for most developers is to be conservative and cautious when facing an unknown situation. The most cautious thing is to do nothing, to just stop and perhaps ask for help from a person in the car or a remote center. Usually if you don’t understand the situation, doing something is much riskier than doing nothing. Usually — but clearly not here.

This situation might be viewed as similar to something you might expect a car to have programming for — something is approaching fast towards you. Cars will probably have logic to deal with a car coming the wrong way down their lane, and this looks a bit like that. It’s actually stuff coming in both lanes. We can imagine the car might have logic to attempt to retreat in that situation, though this isn’t going to look too much like anything the sensors have seen before. With 3D sensors, though, it will be clear that something huge is coming fast. And with a map of what the road should look like, you will easily tell the wall of water and debris from what you should be seeing.

The best reason the car might handle this however, is the very existence of this video, and the posts about it — including this blog post here. The reason is that the developers of robocars, in order to test them, are busy building simulators. In these simulators they are programming every crazy situation they can think of, even impossible situations, just to see what each revision of the car software will do. They are programming every situation that their cars have encountered on the road. Every situation that caused their software to make an error, or anybody else to make an error.

In other words, if you can think of it after a little bit of thinking, they probably thought of it too. And if it’s in blog posts and famous news stories, they probably heard about it. Flooding and every kind of strange weather ever reported. The details of every accident from every police report that can be turned into a simulation. Earthquakes. Tornadoes. Hurricanes. Alien invasions. Oncoming tanks. If you can think of it without a major effort, and it seems like it could happen, they will put it in. And so every car will indeed be tested. In fact, the developers will probably have fun with the really strange situations which are so rare that they may not have commercial or safety justification, but still are interesting. Scenes from movies. James Bond car chases. You name it.

In this particular case, there is another thing to help with this situation. Tsunamis don’t happen by surprise, not any more. The world, having seen them like this, now has earthquake detection and tsunami warning everywhere robocars are likely to go in the near future. The warnings will be transmitted along the same data stream warning cars about traffic, weather and road conditions. We even have maps of the terrain and can even predict what areas are low and which areas cars should head to in the event of a tsunami warning, and they will take routes designed to avoid risk. With superhuman knowledge, they will not panic and do much better than people at taking the route to high ground, and so they odds of them confronting the wall of water would be very slim, unless there was no choice. The robocar simply would not have been going down that road the way the Japanese driver was.

Now we get to a final special ability of robocars — they will be just as capable in reverse gear as they are going forward, other than due to the speed limitations of reverse gear. So while you reverse timidly, a robocar need not do so. It will be able to pull off the fastest 3 point turn you can imagine if it wants to, or even just escape in reverse. Of course if it needs more speed than reverse offers, it would turn around in the best spot to do so. Stanford has even done a lot of research on drifting, and this will go into simulators too, so cars will probably know how to turn around as fast as a stunt driver if they have to. Electric cars may be able to go as fast in reverse as they can going forward to top it all off. (I should note that not all car designs feature sensors that see the same forward and back, so this may not be true for all vehicles, but all vehicles that can reverse at all need not be timid about it the way people are.)

So for this situation, and anything else we know about, robocars should do a superhuman job. That doesn’t mean there aren’t things nobody ever thought of. But the more videos and stories like this that get recorded, the less and less probable unknown events will be, and thus an unknown event where the software does the wrong thing becomes not impossible, but very low probability.

What is the optimum group vehicle size?

My recent article on a future vision for public transit drew some ire by those who viewed it as anti-transit. Instead, the article broke with transit orthodoxy by suggesting that smaller vehicles (including cars and single person pods) might produce more efficient transit than big vehicles. Transitophiles love big vehicles for reasons beyond their potential efficiency, so it’s a hard sell.

Let’s look at the factors which determine what vehicle size makes the best transit.

Before the robocar future arrives, vehicle size is partly dominated by the need for drivers. Consider a bus route which could have one 40 person bus every 30 minutes or a 20 person bus every 15 minutes. The smaller vehicles have the same capacity, and but they will use a little more energy, a little more road space and cost somewhat more to buy. This leads to the intuition that bigger must be better.

At the same time the smaller vehicles need twice as many drivers. Labour is more than half the operating budget of many transit agencies. Look at the Chicago Transit Authority and you see labour listed as 69% — and much labour is actually in other subcontractor categories — while fuel and electricity are only 7% — the capital costs like vehicles are not even included here. Needing twice the drivers dominates the equation.

Riders of course would have an easy time deciding. They would of course love having vehicles every 15 minutes! Indeed they would be very pleased to get a 7 person van every 5 minutes if they could, the difference would be qualitative, not just quantitative, because when you get to that frequency you start thinking about it more like a car. In addition, the 2 small vehicles do about 1/8th the damage to the road as the one large vehicle.

Dolmu?

Taking the cost of drivers out, what is the optimum size? More to the point, what provides the optimum balance between rider demand (which would love more frequent service in smaller vehicles) and efficiency (which pushes for larger vehicles, up to a point?) In particular, more smaller vehicles does not just have to mean more frequent service on one route, it can also mean more routes. More routes can both mean getting places you could not get to before, and also getting there faster because you don’t need as many transfers.

Here’s where big vehicles are better:

  • When near full, or overfull, they use:
    • Less energy per passenger-mile
    • Less road space per passenger
    • Less vehicle cost (depreciation, maintenance etc.) per passenger
  • Less frequent service forces people to bunch their travel together with others, allowing the advantages above.
  • Fewer stops also forces people to bunch together, to live near transit and to walk more.

Here are some of the advantages of more, smaller vehicles

  • As noted, road damage is roughly as the 4th power of vehicle weight per axle.
  • More frequent and/or ubiquitous service as described above
  • Less likely to be lightly loaded (smaller vehicle is sent when demand is light.)
  • When lightly loaded, much more efficient in all factors than large vehicle
  • While the whole fleet takes more total road space than the large vehicles, each vehicle causes much less obstruction of traffic.
  • Able to use smaller bus-stops and navigate tighter turns and narrower roads.
  • Able to park in smaller spaces including many lots for cars (though still taking as much or slightly more total space.)
  • Stops are sometimes fewer, and take less time (fewer people getting on/off any given vehicle.)
  • Each vehicle is considerably less expensive.

The big trade-off comes because the load varies. The full 40 person bus is an efficiency and cost win over two full 20 person buses (or 10 full 4 person cars) but not as much of a win as you might imagine. But the real question involves the frequent issue of a half-full 40 person bus vs. a full 20 person bus. In this case, the smaller vehicle is quite a bit more efficient. Even worse is the 1/4 full 10 person bus vs. the half full 20 person bus or 3 4-person cars. Here the winner is probably the cars, and this is important, because the average bus in the USA actually has just under 10 people on it.

The ideal situation would be to send out a fleet of 40 or even 60 person buses at the peak of rush hour, and then put those in garages, and send out small buses during the off-peak takes and just cars in the off-off-peak times like the night. Have every vehicle run as close to full as possible and you get your greatest efficiency. This is not an option for a few reasons:

  • To do that with buses, you must lower frequency to keep them full, and riders will reject that
  • Agencies usually can’t afford huge fleets of large vehicles as well as huge fleets of medium vehicles to keep the large vehicles idle for most of the day. They are better off choosing with a loss of efficiency.

In the robocar world, they will be able to call upon a large fleet of small vehicles (cars for 1-4 people) at all times and they won’t need to own them. But the transit companies and agencies still must own these larger (8 to 60) person vehicles.

In some cities, it may be practical to keep a fleet of large vehicles for use only at rush hour. In fact, that’s what some commuter train lines use, and they are the most efficient transportation lines in the USA. The rush-hour-only commuter trains run full out to the suburbs, spend the night in the suburbs and run full back into town. That’s really efficient. The commuter trains with daytime service are not nearly as good. Train lines that can drop cars off-peak get a win here as well.

How practical it is depends on how long you need the big bus to last. Transit vehicles tend to be robust, heavy and expensive, and they are well maintained to maximize their lifetime. A bus that only works rush hour will last more years than one that works all day. The problem is it may last too many years, to the point that it becomes obsolete or wears out from time rather than just miles. Leaving vehicles idle also means tying up capital for longer, so even if you find a good schedule for depreciation of the vehicles, the cost of money makes it difficult to have two or three different fleets.

So in the end, cities have to choose. Because of the labour cost of drivers, they almost always choose the bigger vehicles. Without that cost, the advantages of the smaller vehicles win out because of the variability of load. If the line regularly runs low-load vehicles, it has chosen a size that is larger than optimal.

This is all general analysis. The next step I would like to see from the transportation research community is to build these models with the actual numbers from real transit systems. For each city, for each route, the optimal size will be different. And of course, the existence of the robocars will change demand, which also changes load. They can change demand down (by being a superior solution) or up (by making it easier to get to the shared vehicle.) They can also replace the big vehicles entirely at off-peak times. That sounds like competition, but it actually can be enabling. One reason transit agencies run their big vehicles all day long (erasing their efficiency) is that riders want assurance they can come in at rush hour and then decide to leave early or late. Thus there has to be off-peak service. If riders can be assured that something else (like a robotic taxi or even an Uber) can get them home inexpensively off-peak, they are more willing to take the transit in.

Indeed, it could make sense for transit agencies to say, “we will have low service after 8pm, but if you can show you rode with us in the morning, we will subsidize a private car for you after hours 10 times a month.” They might actually save money by offering this rather than running a mostly empty bus.

comma.ai's neural network car and the hot new technology in robocars

Perhaps the world’s most exciting new technology today are deep neural networks, in particular the convolutional neural networks such as “Deep Learning.” These networks are conquering some of the most well known problems in artificial intelligence and pattern matching, and since their development just a few years ago, milestones in AI have been falling as computer systems that match or surpass human capability have been demonstrated. Playing Go is just the most recent famous example.

This is particularly true in image recognition. Over the past several years, neural network systems have gotten better than humans at problems like recognizing street signs in camera images and even beating radiologists at identifying cancers in medical scans.

These networks are having their effect on robocar development. They are allowing significant progress in the use of vision systems for robotics and driving, making those progress much faster than expected. 2 years ago, I declared that the time when vision systems would be good enough to build a safe robocar without lidar was still fairly far away. That day has not yet arrived, but it is definitely closer, and it’s much harder to say it won’t be soon. At the same time, LIDAR and other sensors are improving and dropping in price. Quanergy (to whom I am an advisor) plans to ship $250 8-line LIDARS this year, and $100 high resolution LIDARS in the next couple of years.

The deep neural networks are a primary tool of MobilEye, the Jerusalem company which makes camera systems and machine-vision ASICs for the ADAS (Advanced Driver Assistance Systems) market. This is the chip used in Tesla’s autopilot, and Tesla claims it has done a great deal of its own custom development, while MobilEye claims the important magic sauce is still mostly them. NVIDIA has made a big push into the robocar market by promoting their high end GPUs as the supercomputing tool cars will need to run these networks well. The two companies disagree, of course, on whether GPUs or ASCICs are the best tool for this — more on that later.

In comes comma.ai

In February, I rode in an experimental car that took this idea to the extreme. The small startup comma.ai, lead by iPhone hacker George Hotz, got some press by building an autopilot similar in capability to many others from car companies in a short amount of time. In January, I wrote an introduction to their approach including how they used quick hacking of the car’s network bus to simplify having the computer control the car. They did it with CNNs, and almost entirely with CNNs. Their car feeds the images from a camera into the network, and out from the network come commands to adjust the steering and speed to keep a car in its lane. As such, there is very little traditional code in the system, just the neural network and a bit of control logic.

Here’s a video of the car taking us for a drive:

The network is built instead by training it. They drive the car around, and the car learns from the humans driving it what to do when it sees things in the field of view. To help in this training, they also give the car a LIDAR which provides an accurate 3D scan of the environment to more absolutely detect the presence of cars and other users of the road. By letting the network know during training that “there is really something there at these coordinates,” the network can learn how to tell the same thing from just the camera images. When it is time to drive, the network does not get the LIDAR data, however it does produce outputs of where it thinks the other cars are, allowing developers to test how well it is seeing things.

This approach is both interesting and frightening. This allows the development of a credible autopilot, but at the same time, the developers have minimal information about how it works, and never can truly understand why it is making the decisions it does. If it makes an error, they will generally not know why it made the error, though they can give it more training data until it no longer makes the error. (They can also replay all other scenarios for which they have recorded data to make sure no new errors are made with the new training data.)  read more »

The future of transit is self-driving medium sized vehicles with no fixed routes or schedules

Most of our focus these days is on self-driving personal cars. In spite of that focus, the effects on mass transit will also be quite dramatic, in ways far beyond taking the driver out of the bus. Indeed, for various reasons, I believe traditional approaches to mass transit (large vehicles on fixed routes and schedules, sometimes with private right-of-way) will be obsoleted by robocar technology, and that the result will be almost 100% good — transportation that is better, faster, more convenient and even more sustainable. (The latter shocks people, who think that anything with small vehicles is inherently less energy efficient.)

I have a new special article on Robocars.com outlining potential visions for the future of transit, and what they might mean. The vision is a work in progress, but I invite debate.

Click for The Future of Mass Transit

The math says we probably make a lot more robocars -- maybe

I frequently see people claim that one effect of robocars is that because we’ll share the cars (when they work as taxis) and most cars stay idle 95% of the time, that a lot fewer cars will be made — which is good news for everybody but the car industry. I did some analysis of why that’s not necessarily true and recent analysis shows the problem to be even more complex than I first laid out.

To summarize, in a world of robotic taxis, just like today’s taxis, they don’t wear out by the year any more, they wear out by the mile (or km.) Taxis in New York last about 5 years and about 250,000 miles, for example. Once cars wear out by the mile, the number of cars you need to build per year is equal to:

Total Vehicle Miles per year
Avg Car Lifetime in Miles

As you can see, the simple equation does not involve how many people share the vehicle at all! As long as the car is used enough that the car isn’t junked before it wears out from miles, nothing changes. It’s never that simple, however, and some new factors come into play. The actual model is very complex with a lot of parameters — we don’t know enough to make a good prediction.

People travel more in cars.

It’s likely that the number of miles people want to travel goes up for a variety of reasons. Robocars make car travel much more pleasant and convenient. Some people might decide to live further from work now that they can work, read, socialize or even sleep on the commute. They might make all sorts of trips more often. Outside of rush hour, they might also be more likely to switch from other modes, such as public transit, and even flying. Consider two places about a 5 hour drive apart — today flying is going to take just under 3 hours due to all the hassles we’ve added to flying, even with the improvements robocars make to those hassles. Many might prefer an uninterrupted car ride where they can work, watch videos or sleep.

Vehicles run empty to reposition

Regular taxis have wasted miles between rides. Indeed, a New York taxi has no passenger 38% of the time. Fortunately, robocars will be a lot more efficient than that, since they don’t need to cruise around looking for rides. Research suggests a more modest 10% “empty mile” cost, but this will vary from situation to situation. If you need the robotaxi fleet to constantly run empty in the reverse commute direction, it could get worse. Among those who believe robocars will be more personally owned than used as taxis, we often see a story painted of how a household has a car that takes one person to work, and returns home empty to take the 2nd person, and then returns again to take others on daytime errands. This is possible, but pretty inefficient. I think it’s far more likely that in the long term, such families will just use other taxi services rather than have their car return home to serve another family member.

Cars last longer

The bottom part of the equation is likely to increase, which reduces the number of cars made. Today, cars are engineered for their expected life-cycle — 19 years and 190,000 miles in California, for example. Once you know your car is going to have a high duty cycle, you change how you engineer it. In particular, you combine engineering of parts for your new desired life cycle with specific replacement schedules for things that will wear out sooner. You want to avoid junking a car with lots of life in the engine just because the seats are worn out, so you make it easy to replace the seats, and you have the car bring itself to a service center where that’s fast and easy.  read more »

GM buys "Cruise" for $1B

General Motors has purchased “Cruise,” a small self-driving startup in San Francisco. Rumours suggest the price was over one billion dollars. In addition, other rumours have come to me suggesting that at least one other startup has been seeking a new round of funding at that valuation, but did not succeed due to the market downturn.

I gave Cruise some small assistance when they were getting started, and wrote about them when they showed off their first prototype. Since then, Cruise, as expected, moved away from highway autopilot retrofit into making a proper robocar, and their test Leaf has been running around SF with 4 velodyne LIDARs and other sensors for a while.

Even in my wildest dreams, I did not imagine startup valuations this high, this soon. (Time to get my own startup going.) Let’s consider why:

First, GM, as the world’s 2nd largest car company, is way behind on robocars. They were one of the first companies to announce a highway autopilot (called, ironically, “Super Cruise”) for the 2014 Cadillac. However, they quickly pulled back on that announced, and for the last few years have continued to delay it, recently announcing it would not even appear in the 2017 car, even though Mercedes, Tesla and several other companies had products like that.

GM’s main academic partner was CMU. They sponsored Boss, the CMU team that won the Darpa Urban Challenge, headed by Chris Urmson (who now leads the Google car project.) Recently, Uber moved into Pittsburgh in a big way and poached many of the top people from CMU for their project. This left GM with very little, a poor position for the world’s 2nd largest car company.

Next, we have Kyle Vogt, founder of Cruise. Kyle was on the founding team for justin.tv, and also for Twitch, which had a billion dollar acquisition — in other words, Kyle is not precisely hurting for money. He has not confirmed this to me, but I suspect when GM showed up at his door, he was not interested in joining a big car company, and his resources meant he was not in any hurry. I then presume GM took that as negotiation and bumped the price to where you would have to be crazy to say no.

GM will let cruise be independent, at least for now. That’s the only sane path. We’ll see where this goes.

Google's crash is a very positive sign

Reports released reveal that one of Google’s Gen-2 vehicles (the Lexus) has a fender-bender (with a bus) with some responsibility assigned to the system. This is the first crash of this type — all other impacts have been reported as fairly clearly the fault of the other driver.

This crash ties into an upcoming article I will be writing about driving in places where everybody violates the rules. I just landed from a trip to India, which is one of the strongest examples of this sort of road system, far more chaotic than California, but it got me thinking a bit more about the problems.

Google is thinking about them too. Google reports it just recently started experimenting with new behaviours, in this case when making a right turn on a red light off a major street where the right lane is extra wide. In that situation it has become common behaviour for cars to effectively create two lanes out of one, with a straight through group on the left, and right turners hugging the curb. The vehicle code would have there be only one lane, and the first person not turning would block everybody turning right, who would find it quite annoying. (In India, the lane markers are barely suggestions, and drivers — which consist of every width of vehicle you can imagine) — dynamically form their own patterns as needed.)

As such, Google wanted their car to be a good citizen and hug the right curb when doing a right turn. So they did, but found the way blocked by sandbags on a storm drain. So they had to “merge” back with the traffic in the left side of the lane. They did this when a bus was coming up on the left, and they made the assumption, as many would make, that the bus would yield and slow a bit to let them in. The bus did not, and the Google car hit it, but at very low speed. The Google car could have probably solved this with faster reflexes and a better read of the bus’ intent, and probably will in time, but more interesting is the question of what you expect of other drivers. The law doesn’t imagine this split lane or this “merge.” and of course the law doesn’t require people to slow down to let you in.

But driving in so many cities requires constantly expecting the other guy to slow down and let you in. (In places like Indonesia, the rules actually give the right-of-way to the guy who cuts you off, because you can see him and he can’t easily see you, so it’s your job to slow. Of course, robocars see in 360 degrees, so no car has a better view of the situation.)

While some people like to imagine that important ethical questions for robocars revolve around choosing who to kill in an accident, that’s actually an extremely rare event. The real ethical issues revolve around this issue of how to drive when driving involves routinely breaking the law — not once in a 100 lifetimes, but once every minute. Or once every second, as is the case in India. To solve this problem, we must come up with a resolution, and we must eventually get the law to accept it the same what it accepts it for all the humans out there, who are almost never ticketed for these infractions.

So why is this a good thing? Because Google is starting to work on problems like these, and you need to solve these problems to drive even in orderly places like California. And yes, you are going to have some mistakes, and some dings, on the way there, and that’s a good thing, not a bad thing. Mistakes in negotiating who yields to who are very unlikely to involve injury, as long as you don’t involve things smaller than cars (such as pedestrians.) Robocars will need to not always yield in a game of chicken or they can’t survive on the roads.

In this case, Google says it learned that big vehicles are much less likely to yield. In addition, it sounds like the vehicle’s confusion over the sandbags probably made the bus driver decide the vehicle was stuck. It’s still unclear to me why the car wasn’t able to abort its merge when it saw the bus was not going to yield, since the description has the car sideswiping the bus, not the other way around.

Nobody wants accidents — and some will play this accident as more than it is — but neither do we want so much caution that we never learn these lessons.

It’s also a good reminder that even Google, though it is the clear leader in the space, still has lots of work to do. A lot of people I talk to imagine that the tech problems have all been solved and all that’s left is getting legal and public acceptance. There is great progress being made, but nobody should expect these cars to be perfect today. That’s why they run with safety drivers, and did even before the law demanded it. This time the safety driver also decided the bus would yield and so let the car try its merge. But expect more of this as time goes forward. Their current record is not as good as a human, though I would be curious what the accident rate is for student drivers overseen by a driving instructor, which is roughly parallel to the safety driver approach. This is Google’s first caused accident in around 1.5M miles.

It’s worth noting that sometimes humans solve this problem by making eye contact, to know if the other car has seen you. Turns out that robots can do that as well, because the human eye flashes brightly in the red and infrared when looking directly at you — the “red eye” effect of small flash cameras. And there are ways that cars could signal to other drivers, “I see you too” but in reality any robocar should always be seeing all other parties on the road, and this would just be a comfort signal. A little harder to read would be gestures which show intent, like nodding, or waving. These can be seen, though not as easily with LIDAR. It’s better not to need them.

Uber, Lyft and crew should replace public transit at night

I have a big article forthcoming on the future of public transit. I believe that with the robocar (and van) it moves from being scheduled, route-based mass transit to on-demand, ad-hoc route medium and small vehicle transit. That’s in part because of the disturbingly poor economics of current mass transit, especially in the USA. We can do much better.

However, long before that day, there is something else that could be done. Many mass transit systems shut down at night. Demand is low, and that creates a big burden for the “night people” of the world, who are left with taxis and occasional carpooling, or more limited night bus service.

I think transit agencies should make a deal with companies like Uber to operate their carpool services (UberPool and LyftLines) during transit closure hours, and subsidize the rides to bring them down equal to, or closer to a transit ticket. This could also be the case for other seriously off-peak times, like weekends and holidays.

Already the typical transit ticket in the USA is heavily subsidized. The real cost of providing a transit ride is much higher. In the transit-heavy cities, fares pay about 50-60% of operating cost, but in some cities it’s only 15-20%. The US national average is around 33%. And that’s just operating cost, it does not include the capital costs in many cases. One thing that pushes the number the wrong way is operation during off-peak hours on lightly loaded vehicles. So while the average ride may cost $6 to provide, it can be more at night. Already the mobile-summoned based carpools are close to that price. (For promotions, they have actually gotten to less. They also subsidize to get going, though.)

There are some big issues. First, not everybody has a smartphone, a data plan or even a phone. You need a method for those without them to summon a ride. You could start with an 800 number so any phone (or the few remaining payphones) could summon a ride. You could also make mini-kiosks by building a protective case and putting a surplus tablet at every subway stop and many bus stops.

Another issue is that these services, particularly the carpool versions, depend on not having anonymous riders. People feel much safer about carpooling with strangers if those strangers can be identified if there is a problem. Transit riding is anonymous, and should be. The solutions to this are challenging. On top of all this, riding in a mobile-hail car is never paid for with cash, and the drivers are not going to accept cash. At the least, this means you would need to provide tickets that people buy (from machines at stations or in advance) which the driver can scan with their phone. So no just deciding to take a ride with cash. Transit cards are an other issue, though there is no requirement that they work, because at least at first, this service is meant for hours when the transit was not even running, so it’s OK if it’s an extra cost.

Dolmu? Finally, there is the issue that this is too good. A ride in a private car vs. a late night transit bus, for the price of a bus? People will over-use it, and that would of course get the Taxis angry, though there is no reason they could not participate as they are all going to supporting mobile-app hail. But the subsidy may be too expensive if people over use it.

One solution to that is to only allow it to take you between transit stops. Even that’s “too good” in that it may be faster than the transit, and much faster if the trip involved changes, especially changes during limited service times. You could get extreme and only allow it between limited sets of stops, or require 2 rides (for the same price) to simulate having to change lines. This also makes carpooling much easier, as the drivers would mostly end up cruising close to the transit lines. IF they do it in vans it could be quite efficient, in fact.

We probably don’t need to go that far in limiting it, but we could. You could tune the ease and quality of the service so the demand is what you expect, and the subsidy affordable. And the ride companies could actually use this as a way to gain extra revenue. They could offer you a door to door ride with a subsidy for the portion that would have been along the transit line. For example, today you can take Uber to the subway station, ride the subway for $2 and then take Uber from the end station to your destination, and that can be cheaper than just taking the Uber directly. This ride could be offered at some subsidized price and keep up the volume. The taxi companies can either get into the 21st century and play, or not compete.

Aside from improving transit service (by making it 24 hours) this also lets us experiment with the future world of ad-hoc demand based public transportation, when we get to the future where the vans are driving themselves. More on that to come.

Low clearance underpasses for small robocars

I recently read a report of a plan for a new type of intersection being developed in Malaysia, and I felt it had some interesting applications for robocars.

The idea behind the intersection is that you have a traditional intersection, but dig in one or both directions, a special underpass which is both shallow and narrow. One would typically imagine this underpass as being 2 vehicles wide in the center of the road but other options are possible. The underpass might be very shallow, perhaps just 4 to 5 feet high.

The underpass is available only to vehicles which fit, which is to say ordinary height passenger cars or even just ordinary height half-width vehicles. Big vehicles such as SUV, vans, trucks etc. would not use the underpass, and instead use the at-grade intersection, where you would have traffic signals or stop signs.

Why is this such a good idea? It’s vastly cheaper to make such an underpass. Because it’s so shallow, it is cheap to dig and shore up the walls. You can start the downramp much closer to the intersection because you don’t need to go so far down. It’s a tiny fraction of the cost of a regular overpass or underpass which requires lots of space to go up and down, and must be high enough for big trucks to pass underneath. Not so here, as trucks never go under it.

The downramp could begin a very short distance from the intersection, or it could begin further out to allow for a longer tunnel, such space now dedicated to the left turn lanes. (Or the right turn lanes if the tunnels are on the outside rather than center of the road.)

The center has the advantage of only digging one tunnel for both directions and providing that space for the left-turn lane. The downside is you have this physical tunnel entrance with protective bollards in the middle of a road, which may present some risk — though there are many places where there are tunnel entrances in the middle of roads, but they are full sized. Indeed we have intersections like this in full sized mode, including on Geary St. in San Francisco. The alternative on the edges requires two trenches and puts the obstacles to the side, mixing straight-through underpass traffic with right turning traffic.

Cars small enough to use the tunnels would get a transponder to signal their ability, possibly to raise a gate. In addition, a camera system would detect any too-large vehicle trying to enter the tunnel and do whatever it can to stop it. In the end, a too-large vehicle would end up hitting soft barriers if it failed to stop or divert. (Most parking lots today have hanging barriers to let vehicles know they won’t fit.)

Now the small, light vehicles, such as the one-person robocars, could bypass the traffic lights if they are red. They might get an “express” lane that is just for them which goes through these underpasses so it’s a smooth ride all along the road, other than the ups and downs.

Robocars would have a better time knowing where they fit and letting the intersection know they fit. More to the point, their ability to drive “on rails” would allow a wider robocar to go down a narrower tunnel, keeping a tiny margin that a human driver could never handle. Human driven vehicles would need to be narrower if they used these tunnels.

This would strongly encourage the use of small, lower-height vehicles, which are also very energy efficient. Really strongly — who would want to drive in a big SUV that has to stop at traffic lights when you can go nonstop in a small pod? Of course, you probably still use the light if making a turn. This in turn would cause a drop in vehicle size and congestion, and increase overall road capacity beyond what we get from having no stopping for a large fraction of vehicles.

If you want to get extreme, you could even have just a one lane tunnel if it’s all robocars. The simplest approach would be to have the express lane (with tunnels) only go in the commute direction during rush hour. Off peak, the robocars could pace their trips in pulses so that they alternate what direction they move through the underpass. On a north-south road, you could imagine during the red lights having 15 cars northbound, then 15 cars southbound back and forth until the light is green and you allocate the tunnel to the most popular direction. Humans could not obey this easily but robots could.

This works best when one of the roads intersecting is bigger than the other, since it’s harder to have both routes get an underpass. You could have one take a deeper underpass — at 10’ deep under a 5’ deep one, it’s still not nearly as deep as a full road underpass. Or with all robocars, you could have the robots alternate through the underground intersection at full speed under computer control. People have built computer modules of this “reservation” style intersection for many years, but they never could solve the problem that not every car in an intersection is a trustable robocar, and as such, you can never make an intersection like this. If all cars are robocars, an underground at-grade intersection could easily allow traffic to flow on both routes, in both directions, with proper timing. Since you would not see the other vehicles coming it might not even be as scary.

I think these underpasses would pay for themselves in the increase in road efficiency they would generate, but if not, you could also require a toll to use them. I think a lot of people would pay a modest toll to have no red lights on their trip. Since all you need do is dig a shallow trench, shore up the walls, and cover it with metal plates or similar, it’s a completely different scale of problem from a real underpass. Without too much money, every major road could become a non-stop robocar road.

You can, of course, create more capacity by building full elevated guideways only for use by small, light vehicles. These are again, much cheaper to build than full roads that can handle heavy trucks, and they take up only pillar space so they can be run down the center of many roads. They still need to be up high enough for big vehicles to go under them. Aside from the cost, the big issue is how they change the built environment, blocking out the sun and putting vehicles running in front of the 2nd or 3rd floor of buildings and houses. This is like a PRT plan but you only need to build these in the most congested zones.

There isn’t a lot of details on these plans, but I read about them at Reason’s Surface Transportation newsletter.

Wanted: A better method for multi-leg flight booking

I’m doing a lot of flying these days for international speaking and consulting, and I try whenever possible to have 2 or more clients when I fly overseas, since the trips and time-changes can be draining.

By far my favourite flight search tool is Google flight search. That’s because it’s an order of magnitude faster than most of the other tools, and while it lacks some features I would like, once you have speed, there is no substitute for it. I also like routehappy when I am being particular about seats, though it doesn’t cover all airlines which makes it useless for primary search.

To save money, however, what I really need is a tool that can get smart about the various arcane prices airlines put on flights which can vary tremendously. In particular the situations where airlines have decided not to simply sell one-way fares at around half the price of return trips. This is almost universally true between the USA and Europe and on some domestic routes, and less true on travel involving Asia. It is quite common for one-way trips to cost the same as round trips, and sometimes, bizarrely, even more. In the case of some KLM flights, I have found a one way costing double the price of a round trip. The Dutch know this and commonly book returns on KLM and don’t fly the return leg. There are stories of airlines punishing people who do that but they are rare. (The airlines are much more upset about “hidden city” booking, where people notice a flight to X connecting through Y is much cheaper than the direct flight to Y, so they book to X and just walk off the plane there.)

Throwing away the return leg doesn’t stop the trip from costing as much as a return. Your goal is to pay a more fair price, and that usually means making sure that you fly all your flights (or certainly your transatlantic flights) ticketed by the same airline. That works some of the time, but not always. The best airline to fly out may be a terrible airline to fly back on. You may have to take a flight with a painful time and routing one way to get the schedule you need the other way. Of course, this is the supposed purpose of the pricing — to make you buy both directions from the same airline, but it’s often a false victory, I suspect it loses for the airline almost as much as it wins, and it pisses off customers.

Trying all the permutations

Airlines have tons of hidden fare rules that jack up or seriously reduce fares involving certain cities. If you are going to these cities, you want to use them.

If we consider a complex trip that goes A -> B -> C -> D -> E -> A (4 stops) you can put that into most of the flight search engines as a “multi city” trip. You’ll sometimes get back a great answer, but usually you get back a ridiculous one. That’s because the engine just shops that out to all the airlines, which means you only get airlines that sell all 5 routes. And if the itinerary is far flung, there may be no airlines that sell them all at a good price, or with a good routing. (Of course, rarely does any one airline fly all the routes, but they all have tons of partners they can build tickets from.)

So it turns out the best way to fly this trip means combining one-ways (where they are fairly priced) and open jaws. I have found, for example, that you can often save a huge amount of money by buying something like “A->B, D-E” from one airline and “B->C, E-A” from another and “C->D” one way from a third. Bizarrely, adding the right extra legs to certain itineraries triggers serious price drops. This is particularly true when you involve cities with lots of competition (like New York) or inherently low prices (like India.)

So what I want is a flight search engine that will try all the combinations. There are engines that will check if sets of one-ways will do the trick (Kayak calls it a hacker fare) but that’s not enough. Price all 5 together, and then the sets of 4 with a single one-way, then the sets of 3 with the different sets of 2 and so on. You want to combine the price search with a flight quality search too, so that you flight on shorter, better flights.

When I do this as a human, I do it with some knowledge of the geography. For example, if you have a short leg which is only flown nonstop by one airline, it’s pretty obvious you want to price that out independently from the other flights, because if your ticket comes from an airline that doesn’t partner with the nonstop airline, they will put you on a ridiculous connection instead of a cheap one-hour flight.

In addition, there is another advantage to breaking up a flight into smaller groupings. It gives you more ability to change the flights or even to skip them. In many cases, to avoid people playing tricks, airlines will cancel the rest of an itinerary if you don’t show up for an early leg, often with no refund. Once, when a change in plans put me in Copenhagen instead of Bergen, Norway the night before my planned flight from Bergen back to San Francisco (via Copenhagen), SAS insisted I fly to Bergen just so I could turn around and get on the flight back to Copenhagen for my connection.

Round the world

This gets worse when you do a multi-leg trip, and worse, a “round the world” trip involving Asia, Europe and the Americas. In the latter case, sometimes your best course is the special around-the-world tickets offered by the 3 big alliances. These tickets cost around $10,000 in business class, around $4K in coach. For certain types of trips they are the clear winning choice. They are flexible — you can book them as little as 3 days in advance, and you can change your flights, even the cities, for free or low cost. They are refundable with a small penalty! You can add side trips for personal travel at little to no extra cost, and you can go to obscure airports that are expensive to fly to for the same price. They have a small number of downsides:

  • They can cost more than many directly booked trips. If your client is paying, it may not be fair to charge them $10K for something you could book for $7K. Though you can always eat the extra cost if you are doing side-trips as it can easily be worth it.
  • You are limited to one alliance only, though most of them have several airlines to fly you on the route.
  • They fetch from a more limited inventory if flying in business class, so quite often, particularly if booking late or changing your plans, you may see the flight you want is not available in the class you paid for.
  • Of course, they have their RTW restrictions — you must cross each ocean exactly once, along with a few others. Usually not a problem, but sometimes.

So if you ever see that your complex trip is adding up to a high cost, look into these. OneWorld also has some subset trips that don’t require a Pacific crossing.

Smart travel agents

While a computer should be able to do all this, perhaps there are still members of the dying profession of travel agents who can do a decent job on this. Let me know if you know of some. In the past, there were ticket consolidators, who buy up buckets of tickets and then have the power to sell them at reasonable one-way prices. This can be good, though sometimes it means being a 2nd class passenger, not getting loyalty miles and not being able to deal directly with the airline for service.

Robotic landing pad gets more serious

In 2010, I proposed the idea of planes with no landing gear which land on robotic platforms. The spring loaded platforms are pulled by cables and so can accelerate and turn with multiple gees, so that almost no matter what the plane does, it can’t miss the platform, and it can even hit hard with safety.

Today I learned there is a European research project called Gabriel with very similar ideas. In their plan, the plane has landing pillars which insert into the platform, rather than wheels. This requires retractable pillars but not the weight of the wheels. The platform runs on a maglev track but can tilt and rotate slightly to match the plane as it lands or takes off.

Overall I still prefer my plan — and I have added some refinements in the intervening years.

  • I am not quite sure of the value of maglev, which is quite expensive. Cables can provide high acceleration quite well.
  • The pillars still need a complex mechanism (which can fail) though they make a very solid connection — if you can place them just right.
  • Their platform tilts up — this may mean it can provide power longer which could be useful. It also allows easier release of pillars.
  • My approach allowed, in theory the ability to land in any direction, eliminating crosswinds. Gabriel uses a linear track.
  • I don’t think there is much need for communications between the aircraft and the platform. Can’t see much the platform can’t figure out — it can easily track the aircraft with its cameras and position itself. There are a few things that could be communicated, but why not have it work fine even if the communications are out — which could happen.
  • My goal was to have a super short runway, taking off and landing with high acceleration.
  • My aim was to handle small aircraft, Gabriel seems aimed at larger ones. Admittedly larger ones may be more tolerant of landing only at prepared airports.

One refinement I have added involves the hard question of what to do if you lose power at takeoff. This is the scariest thing in flying, and you must be able to recover. You could have a longer takeoff runway, so that there is enough space to slow down again if the aircraft loses power just before being released.

An alternative, as suggested by Gregg Maryniak is to have a “catch” airfield downrange from the main airfield. In this case, if you lost power, the system could keep accelerating you and even release you, with enough power that you can climb over the intervening space and then glide to a landing on an emergency catch platform — which would grab you no matter what, and let you land hard. The intervening land could be farmland or any sort of land use willing to be at the end of an airport, but it need not be airstrip. The downside of this is you must take off along a vector which lets you get, with no power, to the catch robot, so you may have to deal with crosswinds. You could have more than one catch robot allowing different takeoff vectors, but it’s still vastly less land than a typical airport would require, with most of the land finding other uses. Indeed it might be possible to have a small set of catch robots arrayed around the takeoff airstrip and allow takeoff in almost any direction.

The emergency catch robots, being only for emergencies, might stop you faster than an ordinary landing, and thus require less land. For example, if you can take 20m/s/s of deceleration (2gs) you can stop from 40m/s in just 40 meters, meaning the emergency catch strip could be very small, an insignificant amount of land. At such a small size, it’s easy to imagine an array of pads around the main takeoff-zone. Admittedly it’s a hard landing, but it would be a rare exception. Better be belted in on takeoff and everything stowed in the back.

It seems concluded for now, but it will be interested to see if anything develops further.

The Electric Car may be entering its "cell phone" period

I’ve been electric car shopping, but one thing has stood out as a big concern. Many electric cars are depreciating fast, and it may get even faster. I think part of this is due to the fact that electric cars are a bit more like electronics devices than they are cars. Electric cars will see major innovation in the next few years, as well as a decline in their price/performance of their batteries. This spells doom for their value. It’s akin to cell phones — your 2 year old cell phone still functions perfectly, but you dispose of it for a new one because of the pace of innovation. Electric cars are not at that pace, but they are skirting the phenomenon.

When it comes to Robocar, I remind people that the computer will be the most important part of the car, not the engine or other features. And the computer and software are on the Moore’s Law curve, like your phone. The battery system is not like this, but digital features are becoming more and more important parts of every car.

The most obvious cause of the big depreciation is not related to the cars. There is a $7500 federal tax rebate on a new electric car, so the moment you drive it off the lot, its blue book value drops an additional $7500. In addition, different states offer credits from of up to $5,000, and unless you take the car out of state, that amount will also drop off the value. This is the primary culprit for the huge depreciation numbers, but there is more.

Perversely, people with higher incomes don’t get California’s $2,500 credit, so for them, buying used is a very wise idea, because somebody else got the credit, and it’s reflected in the price of the car. Of course, if you are rich enough, you may tolerate paying $2,500 more than everybody else for the new car. In fact, if not for the sales tax, it would be a good strategy to get somebody else to buy a car for you and get the credit, then buy it from them. Or take over a lease (getting to that…)

There are rumours that vendors might even be trying to subsidize against this depreciation to avoid a collapse in the price of their cars. After all, such low used car value discourages confidence in the car (and steals away buyers of new cars.) Rumours suggest Nissan has been known to offer incentives to get people to keep their lease-returns rather than take them back, and there are stories of even Teslas getting low prices at auction, though in the retail market they have actually done pretty well.

The Leaf is the most popular electric car, and only it and the Tesla are real market cars from big players. The other cars are all “compliance” cars, made by companies who must meet quotas of green vehicles. The 2015 Leaf has a cited range around 80 miles, and users report a real range on the highway closer to 60 miles. For me, that means a car that can’t take me to San Francisco and back. The Leaf would handle a large fraction of my trips around Silicon Valley, but not being able to go to SF is a major detriment in this town. So I decided not to get a 2015 Leaf.

Better cars keep getting pre-announced

That decision was magnified when Nissan announced the 2016 Leaf would be able to do 107 miles. Technically, that’s enough for the San Francisco trip, though in reality it’s just on the edge. Any charging would allow the trip, including a 5 minute (“gas pump” level) stop at a DC supercharger (if nobody else is using it.) So I was waiting for that car to come out when…

They announced the Chevy Bolt, a $30K car (after rebate) with a 200 mile range. Finally a reasonably priced car with enough range. And then rumours circulated of a similar range in the 2017 Leaf — it needs to if it will compete, and so every other car needs to as well. Who will buy a 100 mile 2016 car when a 200 mile 2017 car for not much more is being promoted?

Of course, in a year, something even more appealing than the Bolt will be announced. While the Bolt’s range is enough for 99% of my drives (leaving out only Lake Tahoe and road tripping) there is still much that can improve — other parts of the car, the electronics, and of course the battery pack getting even cheaper at that range.

Every year, cars get a little bit better, but we’re in for a period of about 5 years in electric cars where each new year is a lot better, and that’s trouble for people trying to sell them if the customers figure that out. A cell phone is cheap enough to throw out after 2 years. A car is not. To top it off, in a few years the robocar features will start getting more serious (starting with the first no-supervision traffic jam assist) and so other parts of the car will also be on the Moore’s Law curve.

The battery is probably not on that curve, but it’s on a good one. The Bolt’s 200 mile range is a result of an expected reduction of battery cost from $500/kwh a couple of years ago to $200/kwh by 2020, and that’s without any breakthroughs or new chemistry. (It is speculated the Bolt’s battery cost will already beat that $200 number.) Breakthroughs — which sometimes come when enough money is pushing the process — could easily do much more.

Robocar answer

Robocars have an answer to this rapid depreciation. If they are used as Taxis, they can survive. The typical New York Taxi drives 62,000 miles each year and wears out in 5 years. Personal cars take 19 years to wear out, and go around 200,000 miles. Robotaxis will wear out and be scrapped after just 5 years, which means it is less of a burden when they are 4 years old and obsolete from a technology standpoint. (We may also design these vehicles to make it easy to give them hardware upgrades so their electronics can keep pace.)

Personal robocars have it harder. Your 4 year old personal vehicle is going to look like crap compared to the new ones. It will get software updates to match them (which is vital) but without hardware updates it will, like an old iPhone, no longer even be able to handle the software updates. If you buy a personal robocar, get one where it’s easy to swap out the hardware, and expect to pay the cost of this.

Wear and tear of electric cars

The battery is the lifeblood of the electric car. No matter how new the rest is, a reduced range is a deal-killer for most buyers. Indeed, some predictions say the rest of the power train should wear out more slowly than traditional cars, so the depreciation is unfair in some ways.

Battery swap is an option on some electric cars, but that’s a big cost to pay over what you planned to pay. Older battery packs will still work, but deliver less range. Owners will salivate for new packs that are cheaper, lighter, fresher and possibly even higher capacity than what they have. That’s all good, but if you buy an electric car with a pack only good for 4 years at today’s prices, you’ve lost all the economies the electric car hopes to give you. Of course, robocars and especially robotaxis can manage their batteries for much longer life

It might make sense to buy a 2012 Leaf for $8,000 and pay $5K to add a battery pack to it that’s brand-new, giving you a car close to matching a new one in certain ways.

With all this, why look at electric cars today? For me, my electricity bill would actually go down due to metering differences, and of course my gasoline bill would drop too. And they are zippy and fun to drive and quite green with California’s (relatively) green energy grid. And because of this depreciation, used ones are a major bargain. The buyers of new cars (and the federal government) took the hit on a new electric, but you can pick up a 2012 Leaf for $8,000. That’s because all those 2012 units are coming off their leases, and people want them a lot less with those fancier models out there. (In addition, it is known the 2012 had some battery life issues fixed in 2013.)

A lot of people are leasing electric cars. Leasing has one financial advantage (you pay sales tax only on the depreciation you take, rather than the whole car) and otherwise it’s a bad idea unless you’re sure the vendor has guessed badly on the residual value of the car after the lease. With electric cars, you take so much of the depreciation that the tax advantage is not so great. But many electric owners are leasing. The $2500 tax credit in California can often pay for the downpayment, making it easy to come up with the money, and owners are, with good reason, willing to let the vendor take the risk on battery decay and mega-depreciation. Vendors are not idiots, though, and so their residual values are low, but perhaps not low enough. Of course, if you know better cars are coming and are sure you only want the car for 2 years, leasing can ease your legwork.

On the other hand, you can sometimes take over the lease of another electric car owner, letting them suffer the “due at signing” downpayment (which often exceeds all the monthly payments on a short lease) and giving you a car for a very short time, which might be a wise choice with all the new vehicles coming down the pipe.

Maintaining Privacy in the Robotaxi

While I’ve been in love for a long time with the idea of mobility-on-demand and the robocar taxi, I continue to have some privacy concerns. The first is simply over the idea that a service company gets a map of all your travels. Of course, your cell phone company, and companies like Google with their Location History (Warning, don’t click or you will be freaked out if you didn’t know about this) know this already, as does the NSA and probably all the other spy agencies in the world. That doesn’t make it much better to add more trackers. The online ride companies like Uber are tracking you too.

It will be sad to lose the anonymous taxi we used to have, where you hailed a cab and paid in cash and no record was made (until cabs got tracklogs and video) of your travels. In my article on Robocars and Privacy written many years ago I outlined some plans for anonymous taxi service and I continue to push this idea.

In the article, I outline the concern that a taxi company will want to be able to photograph the vehicle when you’re not in it, to assure you haven’t dirtied or damaged the interior, and also to check if you left something in the vehicle by accident. People will be less comfortable with a camera that can be turned on all the time, and LEDs to inform you if a camera is on can’t really be trusted, so we want to have a physical shutter.

This led me to a simple solution: The physical shutter on the camera could be the switch by which you signal the start and end of a ride. The ride can’t begin until you close the physical shutter, and it doesn’t close out until you open it. You want a lever for the shutter on the outside of the car by the main passenger door, so you can open and close it when you are not in the car, so it doesn’t take a picture of you if you are trying to use an anonymous taxi. A connected lever inside could allow people who are not trying to be anonymous (but rather just private on their journey) to both control the shutter, and signal the car to go or conclude the ride.

You might not want to be inside when it takes the photo anyway, because a bright flash would be advised, for a millisecond brighter than the sunlight coming in the car. That way the images will be under the same light, night or day, making it easy to compare before and after images to detect dirt or lost items.

If you leave the car without opening the shutter, it would honk at you, or ding on your phone to remind you to come back and open it.

Cars will likely have some other cameras too, for video conferencing. I expect video conferences to be popular in robocars, and while your own phone can do that for you, a camera with stabilization in it could be a useful idea. Here, we could use a physical shutter, though this time with a remote actuator that makes noise, so you can easily see if it’s open. Even more simply, the video camera and monitor might not connect to anything in the car, but rather only connect to your phone via a car dock. (The connection must be wired, unfortunately.) If the camera is not connected you can be reasonably confident it’s not spying on you.

Of course, a truly malicious operator could have hidden cameras, or a secret connection to the video conference camera, but there’s not to much you can do about that. What we want protection from are attackers breaking into the car’s system, and vendors who change their mind about your privacy. We also want a stake in the ground that routine surveillance of passengers is not acceptable.

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