Robocars

Anatomy of the first robocar accidents

I have prepared a large new Robocar article. This one covers just what will happen when the first robocars are involved in accidents out on public streets, possibly injuring people. While everybody is working to minimize this, perfection is neither possible nor the right goal, so it will eventually happen. As such, when I see public discussion of robocars and press articles, people are always very curious about accidents, liability, insurance and to what extent these issues are blockers on the technology.

So please consider:

Anatomy of a Robocar Accident

This article comes in part from having attended the “We Robot” conference in April at Stanford University. While it was generally about robots and the law, robocars were probably the most popular topic. Several of the papers in the proceedings are well worth it for those interested in the law of robotics. (The real law, not the silly Asimov laws.)


In a curious coincidence, last week saw an unusual robocar accident in Brazil that caused minor injuries — on live TV no less. On a Brazilian TV show, professor Alberto Ferreira do Souza from the Federal University of Espirito Santo has just shown TV Presenter Ana Maria Braga their robocar, which features the smaller 32-line Velodyne LIDAR on the roof and various other sensors. After the successful demo, he reaches into the car to turn off the system and restore the car to manual. Unfortunately, the car has stopped on an incline, and in doing so from outside the car, this releases the hold on the brakes that their drive-by-wire system had and the car starts rolling down the hill, and the open door whacks Braga hard, though fortunately with only minor injuries. Here is a video and Here’s the story in Portuguese with a different video clip. I have no idea why a puppet parrot is commenting on the accident.

As you can surmise, the self-driving software was not directly at fault here, but rather bad human judgement in turning it off. Curiously, this is not the first time we’ve seen serious problems with humans not correctly handling turning systems on and off. I routinely show a video of my friend Anthonly Levandowski, who built a motorcycle for the DARPA grand challenge and forgot to turn on an important system just before the race, causing his bike to tip over right out of the starting gate. Volvo also had the “press demo from hell” when their crash-prevention system did not operate. It was reported that a battery had discharged by mistake, and that in recharging it they had disabled the collision system.

There have been several small robocar accidents. Just about every team in the DARPA Grand Challenges had a car go awry during early development and testing, and a few even had accidents during the challenge, with one small car to car fender bender and a fairly hard hit on concrete barriers. Google has also reported their car has been rear-ended while stopped at a light during testing — a situation where blame is always placed on the rear car.

Oliver Kuttner on Very-Light-Car

Last year, I met Oliver Kuttner, who led the team to win the Progressive X-Prize to build the most efficient and practical car over 100mpg. Oliver’s Edison2 team won with the VLC (Very Light Car) and surprised everybody by doing it with a liquid fuel engine. There was a huge expectation that an electric car would win the prize, and in fact the rules had been laid out to almost assure it, granting electric cars an advantage over gasoline that I thought was not appropriate.

The Edison2 team made their focus on weight, though they far from ignored drag. Everybody made an aerodynamic car, but what they realized was that making the car light was key. And batteries are heavy, heavier than efficient liquid fuel engines. Hybrid systems, with both batteries and two motors are even heavier than what they built. They also developed a new type of suspension which was much lighter and allowed a simpler car.

Since the X prize, they have built electric cars as well — their techniques still work there, even if that’s not where they found the greatest X-prize results — and recently showed of their latest 1,400lb model which seats 4. (Though I can’t say I think it’s comfortable with 4.) Equally impressive, Oliver reports they have done succesful forward offset collision tests, and done well at them, contradicting a popular impression that small, light cars must be death traps on the road.

This bodes well for robocars. As I wrote 2 weeks ago, I think the small, light car is the future of transportation if we want it to be efficient, and the robocar can, by delivering such vehicles for people making shorter solo or 2 person trips — ie. the vast majority of all trips — make this happen.

Earlier, I brought Oliver in to give a talk at Google in the Greeen@Google series. Here is a video where I host him describing the car and their thinking around it. His thinking on cars is fresh and while it’s very challenging to start a new car company, here’s somebody who might just do it.

We’ve often said that in the most distant future, when car accidents are very rare, we will be able to make our cars lighter because over 30% of the weight of a modern vehicle goes into safety features. I think we can get those light vehicles even sooner.

We Robot Robot Law Conference and Robot Block Party

It’s National Robotics Week, and various events are going on — probably some in your area.

Today and Tomorrow I am at the We Robot conference at Stanford, where people are presenting papers puzzling over how robots and the law will interact. Not enough technology folks at this iteration of the conference — we have a natural aversion to this sometimes — but because we’re building big moving things that could run into people, the law has to be understood.

On Wednesday is the Robot Block Party, also at Stanford, and always fun, with stuff for kids.

Thursday has the xconomy robot conference which looks good though I probably won’t be there.

After the Phoenix APM event on the 21st I will be at Asilomar attending two conferences simultaneously. One is MLove, where I will join a session on connected cars. In a strange coincidence, MLove is located at the same conference center as another invite-only conference I attend annually for old-time (and new-time) microprocessor hackers. The odd thing was that normally when I get an invite that conflicts with a conference I am at, I have to say no — but if they are nice enough to do it at the same conference center on the same days, things can change. Both conferences are lots of fun, and it’s actually annoying to have them overlap since I would like to go to most of both of them.

A few Singularity U events are coming up, but most are sold out are invite-only in the coming month.

Speaking on Personal Clouds in SF, and Robocars in Phoenix

Two upcoming talks:

Tomorrow (April 4) I will give a very short talk at the meeting of the personal clouds interest group. As far as I know, I was among the first to propose the concept of the personal cloud in my essages on the Data Deposit Box back in 2007, and while my essays are not the reason for it, the idea is gaining some traction now as more and more people think about the consequences of moving everything into the corporate clouds.

My lighting talk will cover what I see as the challenges to get the public to accept a system where the computing resources are responsible to them rather than to various web sites.

On April 22, I will be at the 14th International Conference on Automated People Movers and Automated Transit speaking in the opening plenary. The APM industry is a large, multi-billion dollar one, and it’s in for a shakeup thanks to robocars, which will allow automated people moving on plain concrete, with no need for dedicated right-of-way or guideways. APMs have traditionally been very high-end projects, costing hundreds of millions of dollars per mile.

The best place to find me otherwise is at Singularity University Events. While schedules are being worked on, with luck you see me this year in Denmark, Hungary and a few other places overseas, in addition to here in Silicon Valley of course.

The rise of the small and narrow vehicle

Many of the more interesting consequences of a robotic taxi “mobility on demand” service is the ability to open up all sorts of new areas of car design. When you are just summoning a vehicle for one trip, you can be sent a vehicle that is well matched to that trip. Today we almost all drive in 5 passenger sedans or larger, whether we are alone, with a single passenger or in a group. Many always travel in an SUV or Minivan on trips that have no need of that.

The ability to use small, light vehicles means the ability to make transportation much more efficient. While electric cars are a good start (at least in places without coal-based electricity) the reality is today’s electric cars are still sedans and in fact are heavy due to their batteries. As such they use 250 to 350 watt-hours/mile. That’s good, but not great. At the national grid average, 300 wh/mile is around 3000 BTUs/mile or the equivalent of 37mpg. Good, and cleaner if from natural gas, but we can do a lot more.

Half-width vehicles have another benefit — they don’t take up much room on the road, or in parking/waiting. Two half-width vehicles that find one another on the road can pair up to take only one lane space. A road that’s heavy with half-width vehicles (as many are in the developing world) can handle a lot more traffic. Rich folks don’t tend to buy these vehicles, but they would accept one as a taxi if they are alone. Indeed, a half-width face-to-face vehicle should be very nice for 2 people.

The problem with half-width vehicles (about 1.5m or 4.5 feet if you’re going to fit two in a 12’ lane using robotic precision) is that a narrow stance just isn’t that stable, not at decent speeds. You like a wide stance to corner. One answer to that is the ability to bank, which two-wheeled vehicles do well, but which requires special independent suspension to do with 3 or 4 wheels. 2 wheels is great for some purposes, but 3 and 4 have a better grip on the road, particularly if a wet or slippery patch is encountered.

There are quite a number of 3 and 4 wheelers with independently adjustable wheels made. Consider the recent concept I-road by Toyota which exemplifies this well. There are however a number of vehicles that are not concepts, and this (rather long) Gizmag video provides a summary of a variety of real and concept vehicles in this space, as well as enclosed motorcycles and scooters, including the Nissan Landglider, the VW 1L, the Twizzy, the Tango, the Lumeno Smera and many others. Skip to about 13 minutes to see many of the 3-wheelers. Another vehicle I like is the Quadro — Watch this video of the 4 wheel version. These vehicles are aimed more at the motorcycle market and are open, while I suspect the single person robocar will be an enclosed vehicle.

I also wrote earlier about efforts on two wheels, like the concept vehicle the Twill. Other recent efforts have included the gyro-stabilized Lit Motors C-1 which can be fully enclosed on two wheels because you don’t have to stick your legs out.

I suspect the 4 wheeled bankable vehicles are the ideal solution, and the technology is surprisingly far along. Many companies prefer to make 3 wheeled vehicles because those currently get classed as motorcycles and require far less work to meet regulations. These exemptions are reportedly ending soon, and so the effort can shift to 4 wheels which should have the most stability.

The ability to bank is important not just to stay stable with a narrow stance. Banking also means you can tilt the passenger to make turns more comfortable in that the force vector will be mostly up and down, rather than side to side. In a turn it feels more like getting heavy and light rather than being shifted. Some people, however, will have trouble with motion sickness if they are not themselves looking out the window and feeling part of the banking move. Being able to tilt forward and back can have value so that starts and stops also produce more up and down force vectors rather than forward and back. While this is not yet demonstrated, it may be possible to make vehicles which provide minimal discomfort to many passengers when doing things like turns, stops and the roundabout. Roundabouts seem like a great idea for robocars in many ways, since you don’t need to have stop signs or lights, and robocars should be able to insert themselves into gaps in traffic with precision and confidence. Frequent roundabouts, however, would be disconcerting with all the turning and speed changes, to the point that many would prefer just a straight road with timed traffic lights, so that a clever car that knows the timing never hits a red.

Another entry in the narrow vehicle field that got a lot of attention is the autonomous driving Hitachi Ropits. The Ropits — here is a video — is a narrow vehicle with small wheels, and is able to be autonomous because it is super-slow — it only goes 3.7mph — you can keep up to it with a brisk walk — and is meant to go on sidewalks and pedestrian lanes, more of a mobility for the aged than a robocar. However, it is a new entry in the autonomous vehicle pantheon from a new player.

The big question that remains about these vehicles is crash safety. As motorcycles they are not receiving the same sort of testing. In a world that is mostly robocars, one could argue that you don’t need the same levels of crash safety, but we aren’t there yet. All is not lost, however. Recently I sat in a prototype of the Edison2 Very Light Car. The VLC is a 4-seater with a narrow body but a wide stance, for handling. This vehicle has been crash tested with good results, and it could be made with independent suspension and banking and a narrower stance if the market wanted that.

Small vehicles, just 4.5 feet wide and 10-12 feet long can make a huge difference. First of all, they are inherently (except the Tango) going to be light, and light is the most important thing in making them efficient. But they will also take up less space on the road, able to go 2 to a lane (or even lane split in some places.) They will also take up much less space parking. The combination of their small size (about 1/3 of a typical car) and their ability to pack close together “valet style” as robocars means you will be able to fit 4 or 5 of them in the same amount of parking lot area that today fits a single car in a non-valet lot. As noted, while many robocars will not be parking at all because they will be taxis that head off to get their next fare, those that do wish to park will be able to do it at vastly greater densities than we have today, and the consequences of that are big.

There are a few other options for increased stability with normally narrow stance. These might include:

  • Low center of gravity — this is what the Tango does, filling the very bottom with lead-acid batteries. Passengers might sit lower — some vehicle designs involve lowering after the passenger gets in.
  • Variable stance: a possible ability to widen the stance with an extendable axle so the vehicle takes a whole lane when in places that need that cornering ability and stability.
  • Extra wheel: The ability to temporarily deploy an extra wheel (probably not a drive wheel) to one side or both to temporarily increase stability. This wheel might take all the weight on that side, or balance with the others. Vehicles side-by-side could even coordinate to still fit in a lane but that sounds risky.
  • Just go slow: Narrow stance vehicles might just be used in lower speed urban routes, and take corners fairly slow.
  • Gyroscopes, under robotic control.

It’s important to consider that the risk of instability in a narrow vehicle is mostly one for human drivers, who are used to wide stances and may make errors on the physics. A robocar, with full knowledge of the vehicle’s characteristics and the shape of the road simply won’t try any turn that would tip it, and it won’t pick routes that have turns that would require the vehicle go so slowly as to impede traffic. Knowledge of road traction can complete this sort of analysis.

V2V and connected car part 3: Broadcast data

Earlier in part one I examined why it’s hard to make a networked technology based on random encounters. In part two I explored how V2V might be better achieved by doing things phone-to-phone.

For this third part of the series on connected cars and V2V I want to look at the potential for broadcast data and other wide area networking.

Today, the main thing that “connected car” means in reality is cell phone connectivity. That began with “telematics” — systems such as OnStar but has grown to using data networks to provide apps in cars. The ITS community hoped that DSRC would provide data service to cars, and this would be one reason for people to deploy it, but the cellular networks took that over very quickly. Unlike DSRC which is, as the name says, short range, the longer range of cellular data means you are connected most of the time, and all of the time in some places, and people will accept nothing less.

I believe there is a potential niche for broadcast data to mobile devices and cars. This would be a high-power shared channel. One obvious way to implement it would be to use a spare TV channel, and use the new ATSC-M/H mobile standard. ATSC provides about 19 megabits. Because TV channels can be broadcast with very high power transmitters, they reach almost everywhere in a large region around the transmitter. For broadcast data, that’s good.

Today we use the broadcast spectrum for radio and TV. Turns out that this makes sense for very popular items, but it’s a waste for homes, and largely a waste for music — people are quite satisfied instead with getting music and podcasts that are pre-downloaded when their device is connected to wifi or cellular. The amount of data we need live is pretty small — generally news, traffic and sports. (Call in talk shows need to be live but their audiences are not super large.)

A nice broadcast channel could transmit a lot of interest to cars.

  • Timing and phase information on all traffic signals in the broadcast zone.
  • Traffic data, highly detailed
  • Alerts about problems, stalled vehicles and other anomalies.
  • News and other special alerts — you could fit quite a few voice-quality station streams into one 19 megabit channel.
  • Differential GPS correction data, and even supplemental GPS signals.

The latency of the broadcast would be very low of course, but what about the latency of uploaded signals? This turns out to not be a problem for traffic lights because they don’t change suddenly on a few milliseconds notice, even if an emergency vehicle is sending them a command to change. If you know the signal is going to change 2 seconds in advance, you can transmit the time of the change over a long latency channel. If need be, a surprise change can even be delayed until the ACK is seen on the broadcast channel, to within certain limits. Most emergency changes have many seconds before the light needs to change.

Stalled car warnings also don’t need low latency. If a car finds itself getting stalled on the road, it can send a report of this over the cellular modem that’s already inside so many cars (or over the driver’s phone.) This may take a few seconds to get into the broadcast stream, but then it will be instantly received. A stalled car is a problem that lasts minutes, you don’t need to learn about it in the first few milliseconds.

Indeed, this approach can even be more effective. Because of the higher power of the radios involved, information can travel between vehicles in places where line of sight communications would not work, or would actually only work later than the server-relayed signal. This is even possible in the “classic” DSRC example of a car running a red light. While a line of sight communication of this is the fastest way to send it, the main time we want this is on blind corners, where LoS may have problems. This is a perfect time for those longer range, higher power communications on the longer waves.

Most phones don’t have ATSC-M/H and neither do cars. But receiver chips for this are cheap and getting cheaper, and it’s a consumer technology that would not be hard to deploy. However, this sort of broadcast standard could also be done in the cellular bands, at some cost in bandwidth for them.

19 megabits is actually a lot, and since traffic incidents and light changes are few, a fair bit of bandwidth would be left over. It could be sold to companies who want a cheaper way to update phones and cars with more proprietary data, including map changes, their own private traffic and so on. Anybody with a lot of customers might fight this more efficient. Very popular videos and audio streams for mobile devices could also use the extra bandwidth. If only a few people want something, point to point is the answer, but once something is wanted by many, broadcast can be the way to go.

What else might make sense to broadcast to cars and mobile phones in a city? While I’m not keen to take away some of the nice whitespaces, there are many places with lots of spare channels if designed correctly.

Solving V2V Part 2: Make it Phone to Phone

Last week, I began in part 1 by examining the difficulty of creating a new network system in cars when you can only network with people you randomly encounter on the road. I contend that nobody has had success in making a new networked technology when faced with this hurdle.

This has been compounded by the fact that the radio spectrum at 5.9ghz which was intended for use in short range communications (DSRC) from cars is going to be instead released as unlicenced spectrum, like the WiFi bands. I think this is a very good thing for the world, since unlicenced spectrum has generated an unprecedented radio revolution and been hugely beneficial for everybody.

But surprisingly it might be something good for car communications too. The people in the ITS community certainly don’t think so. They’re shocked, and see this as a massive setback. They’ve invested huge amounts of efforts and careers into the DSRC and V2V concepts, and see it all as being taken away or seriously impeded. But here’s why it might be the best thing to ever happen to V2V.

The innovation in mobile devices and wireless protocols of the last 1-2 decades is a shining example to all technology. Compare today’s mobile handsets with 10 years ago, when the Treo was just starting to make people think about smartphones. (Go back a couple more years and there weren’t any smartphones at all.) Every year there are huge strides in hardware and software, and as a result, people are happily throwing away perfectly working phones every 2 years (or less) to get the latest, even without subsidies. Compare that to the electronics in cars. There is little in your car that wasn’t planned many years ago, and usually nothing changes over the 15-20 year life of the car. Car vendors are just now toying with the idea of field upgrades and over-the-air upgrades.

Car vendors love to sell you fancy electronics for your central column. They can get thousands of dollars for the packages — packages that often don’t do as much as a $300 phone and get obsolete quickly. But customers have had enough, and are now forcing the vendors to give up on owning that online experience in the car and ceding it to the phone. They’re even getting ready to cede their “telematics” (things like OnStar) to customer phones.

I propose this: Move all the connected car (V2V, V2I etc.) goals into the personal mobile device. Forget about the mandate in cars.

The car mandate would have started getting deployed late in this decade. And it would have been another decade before deployment got seriously useful, and another decade until deployment was over 90%. In that period, new developments would have made all the decisions of the 2010s wrong and obsolete. In that same period, personal mobile devices would have gone through a dozen complete generations of new technology. Can there be any debate about which approach would win?  read more »

V2V vs. the paths to a successful networked technology (Part 1)

A few weeks ago, in my article on myths I wrote why the development of “vehicle to vehicle” (V2V) communications was mostly orthogonal to that of robocars. That’s very far from the view of many authors, and most of those in the ITS community. I remain puzzled by the V2V plan and how it might actually come to fruition. Because there is some actual value in V2V, and we would like to see that value realized in the future, I am afraid that the current strategy will not work out and thus misdirect a lot of resources.

This is particularly apropos because recently, the FCC issued an NPRM saying it wants to open up the DSRC band at 5.9ghz that was meant for V2V for unlicenced wifi-style use. This has been anticipated for some time, but the ITS community is concerned about losing the band it received in the late 90s but has yet to use in anything but experiments. The demand for new unlicenced spectrum is quite appropriately very large — the opening up of 2.4gz decades ago generated the greatest period of innovation in the history of radio — and the V2V community has a daunting task resisting it.

In this series I will examine where V2V approaches went wrong and what they might do to still attain their goals.


I want to begin by examining what it takes to make a successful cooperative technology. History has many stories of cooperative technologies (either peer-to-peer or using central relays) that grew, some of which managed to do so in spite of appearing to need a critical mass of users before they were useful.

Consider the rise and fall of fax (or for that matter, the telephone itself.) For a lot of us, we did not get a fax machine until it was clear that lots of people had fax machines, and we were routinely having people ask us to send or receive faxes. But somebody had to buy the first fax machine, in fact others had to buy the first million fax machines before this could start happening.

This was not a problem because while one fax machine is useless, two are quite useful to a company with a branch office. Fax started with pairs of small networks of machines, and one day two companies noticed they both had fax and started communicating inter-company instead of intra-company.

So we see rule one: The technology has to have strong value to the first purchaser. Use by a small number of people (though not necessarily just one) needs to be able to financially justify itself. This can be a high-cost, high-value “early adopter” value but it must be real.

This was true for fax, e-mail, phone and many other systems, but a second principle has applied in many of the historical cases. Most, but not all systems were able to build themselves on top of an underlying layer that already existed for other reasons. Fax came on top of the telephone. E-mail on top of the phone and later the internet. Skype was on top of the internet and PCs. The underlying system allowed it to be possible for two people to adopt a technology which was useful to just those two, and the two people could be anywhere. Any two offices could get a fax or an e-mail system and communicate, only the ordinary phone was needed.

The ordinary phone had it much harder. To join the phone network in the early days you had to go out and string physical wires. But anybody could still do it, and once they did it, they got the full value they were paying for. They didn’t pay for phone wires in the hope that others would some day also pay for wires and they could talk to them — they found enough value calling the people already on that network.

Social networks are also interesting. There is a strong critical mass factor there. But with social networks, they are useful to a small group of friends who join. It is not necessary that other people’s social groups join, not at first. And they have the advantage of viral spreading — the existing infrastructure of e-mail allows one person to invite all their friends to join in.

Enter Car V2V

Car V2V doesn’t satisfy these rules. There is no value for the first person to install a V2V radio, and very tiny value for the first thousands of people. An experiment is going on in Ann Arbor with 3,000 vehicles, all belonging to people who work in the same area, and another experiment in Europe will equip several hundred vehicles.  read more »

Top Myths of Robocars (and why V2V is not the answer)

There’s been a lot of press on robocars in the last few months, and a lot of new writers expressing views. Reading this, I have encountered a recurring set of issues and concerns, so I’ve prepared an article outlining these top myths and explaining why they are not true.

Perhaps of strongest interest will be one of the most frequent statements — that Vehicle to Vehicle (V2V) communication is important, or even essential, to the deployment of robocars. The current V2V (and Vehicle to Infrastructure) efforts, using the DSRC radio spec are quite extensive, and face many challenges, but to the surprise of many, this is largely orthogonal to the issues around robocars.

So please read The top 10 (or so) myths or robocars.

They are:

  • They won’t be safe
  • The big issue is who will be liable in a crash
  • The cars will need special dedicated roads and lanes
  • This only works when all cars are robocars and human driving is banned
  • We need radio links between cars to make this work
  • We wont see self-driving cars for many decades
  • It is a long time before this will be legal
  • How will the police give a robocar a ticket?
  • People will never trust software to drive their car
  • They can’t make an OS that doesn’t crash, how can they make a safe car?
  • We need the car to be able to decide between hitting a schoolbus and going over a cliff
  • The cars will always go at the speed limit

You may note that this is not my first myths FAQ, as I also have Common objections to Robocars written when this site was built. Only one myth is clearly in both lists, a sign of how public opinion has been changing.

CES Report, Road tolling and more

I’m back from CES, and there was certainly a lot of press over two pre-robocar announcements there:

Toyota

The first was the Toyota/Lexus booth, which was dominated by a research car reminiscent of the sensor-stacked vehicles of the DARPA grand challenges. It featured a Velodyne on top (like almost all the high capability vehicles today) and a very large array of radars, including six looking to the sides. Toyota was quite understated about the vehicle, saying they had low interest in full self-driving, but were doing this in order to research better driver assist and safety systems.

The Lexus booth also featured a car that used ultrasonic sensors to help you when backing out of a blind parking space. These sensors let you know if there is somebody coming down the lane of the parking lot.

Audi

Audi did two demos for the press which I went to see. Audi also emphasized that this is long-term concept stuff, and meant as research work to enhance their “driver in the loop systems.” They are branding these projects “Piloted Parking” and “Piloted Driving” to suggest the idea of an autopilot with a human overseer. However, the parking system is unmanned, and was demonstrated in the lot of the Mandarin Oriental. The demo area was closed off to pedestrians, however.

The parking demo was quite similar to the Junior 3 demo I saw 3 years ago, and no surprise, because Junior 3 was built at the lab which is a collaboration between Stanford and VW/Audi. Junior 3 had a small laser sensor built into it. Instead, the Piloted Parking car had only ultransonic sensors and cameras, and relied on a laser mounted in the parking lot. In this appraoch, the car has a wifi link which it uses to download a parking lot map, as well as commands from its owner, and it also gets data from the laser. Audi produced a mobile app which could command the car to move, on its own, into the lot to find a space, and then back to pick up the owner. The car also had a slick internal display with pop-up screen.

The question of where to put the laser is an interesting one. In this approach, you only park in lots that are pre-approved and prepared for self-parking. Scanning lasers are currently expensive, and if parking is your only application, then there are a lot more cars then there are parking lots and it might make sense to put the expensive sensor in the lots. However, if the cars want to have the laser anyway for driving it’s better to have the sensor in the car. In addition, it’s more likely that car buyers will early adopt than parking lot owners.

In the photo you see the Audi highway demo car sporting the Nevada Autonomous Vehicle testing licence #007. Audi announced they just got this licence, the first car maker to do so. This car offers “Piloted Driving” — the driver must stay alert, while a lane-keeping system steers the car between the lane markers and an automatic cruise control maintains distance from other cars. This is similar to systems announced by Mercedes, Cadillac, VW, Volvo and others. Audi already has announced such a system for traffic jams — the demo car also handled faster traffic.

Audi also announced their use of a new smaller LIDAR sensor. The Velodyne found on the Toyota car and Google cars is a large, roof-mounted device. However, they did not show a car using this sensor.

Audi also had a simulator in their booth showing a future car that can drive in traffic jams, and lets you take a video phone call while it is driving. If you take control of the car, it cuts off the video, but keeps the audio.  read more »

Robocars and road charging

Some articles from 2012

Happy 2013: Here are some articles I bookmarked last year that you may find of interest this year.

An NBC video about the AutonoMOUS team in Berlin which is one of the more advanced academic teams, featuring on-street driving, lane-changes and more.

An article about “dual mode transport” which in this case means all sorts of folding bikes and scooters that fit into cars. This is of interest both as competition to robocars (you can park remotely and scoot in, competing with one of the robocar benefits) and interesting if you consider the potential of giving limited self-driving to some of these scooters, so they can deliver themselves to you and you can take one way trips. The robocar world greatly enables the ability to switch modes on different legs of a trip, taking a car on one leg, a bike on another, a subway on a 3rd and a car back home. Now add a scooter for medium length trips.

Here is an analysis of how the U.S. overpays greatly for public transit buildout as well as other infrastructure projects. This probably plays a role in the poor performance of public transit in the US.

While I’ve pointed to many videos and sources on the Google car, rather than talk about it myself, if you want a fairly long lecture, check out this talk by Sebastian Thrun at the University of Alberta.

The Freakonomics folks have caught the fever, and ask the same question I have been asking about why urban and transportation planners are blind to this revolution in their analysis

You may have read my short report last year on the Santa Clara Law conference on autonomous vehicles. The Law Review Issue is now out with many of those papers. I found the insurance and liability papers to be of of the most use — so many other articles on those topics miss the boat.

The future of the city and Robocar Oriented Development

It’s been a while since I’ve done a major new article on long-term consequences of Robocars. For some time I’ve been puzzling over just how our urban spaces will change because of robocars. There are a lot of unanswered questions, and many things could go both ways. I have been calling for urban planners to start researching the consequences of robocars and modifying their own plans based on this.

While we don’t know enough to be sure, there are some possible speculations about potential outcomes. In particular, I am interested in the future of the city and suburb as robocars make having ample parking less and less important. Today, city planners are very interested in high-density development around transit stops, known as “transit oriented development” or TOD I now forecast a different trend I will call ROD, or robocar oriented development.

Read the essay Robocar Oriented Development

For a view of how the future of the city might be quite interesting, in contrast to the WALL-E car-dominant vision we often see.

Earlier I wrote an essay on robocar changes affecting urban planning which outlined various changes and posed questions about what they meant. In this new essay, I propose answers for some of those questions. This is a somewhat optimistic essay, but I’m not saying this is a certain outcome by any means.

As always, while I do consult for Google’s project, they don’t pay me enough to be their spokesman. This long-term vision is a result of the external work found on this web site, and should not be taken to imply any plans for that project.

Is the California High Speed Rail Plan ignoring accelerating technological change?

(Of late I have been writing a few articles for some other online sites. The following is an article that appeared on Forbes.com It was also commented on positively and negatively with angry threads.)

There’s been much debate in the USA about High Speed Rail (HSR) and most notably the giant project aimed at moving 20 to 24 million passengers a year through the California central valley, and in particular from downtown LA to downtown San Francisco in 2 hours 40 minutes.

There’s been big debate about the projected cost ($68B to $99B) and the inability of projected revenues to cover interest on the capital let alone operating costs. The project is beginning with a 130 mile segment in the central valley to make use of federal funds. This could be a “rail to nowhere” connecting no big towns and with no trains on it. By 2028 they plan to finally connect SF and LA.

The debate about the merits of this train is extensive and interesting, but its biggest flaw is that it is rooted in the technology of the past and present day. Indeed, HSR itself is around 50 years old, and the 350 kph top speed of the planned line was attained by the French TGV over 30 years ago.

The reality of the world, however, is that technology is changing very fast, and in some fields like computing at an exponential rate. Transportation has not been used to such rapid rates of change, but that protection is about to end. HSR planners are comparing their systems to other 20th century systems and not planning for what 2030 will actually hold.

At Singularity University, our mission is to study and teach about the effects of these rapidly changing technologies. Here are a few areas where new technology will disrupt the plans of long-term HSR planners:

Self-Driving Cars

Cars that can drive and deliver themselves left the pages of science fiction and entered reality in the 2000s thanks to many efforts, including the one at Google. (Disclaimer: I am a consultant to, but not a spokesman for that team.) Readers of my own blog will know it is one of my key areas of interest. By 2030 such vehicles are likely to be common, and in fact it’s quite probable they will be able to travel safely on highways at faster speeds than we trust humans to drive. They could also platoon to become more efficient.

Their ability to deliver themselves is both boon and bane to rail transit. They can offer an excellent “last/first mile” solution to take people from their driveways to the train stations — for it is door to door travel time that people care about, not airport-to-airport or downtown-to-downtown. The HSR focus on a competitive downtown-to-downtime time ignores the fact that only a tiny fraction of passengers will want that precise trip.

Self-delivering cars could offer the option of mobility on demand in a hired vehicle that is the right vehicle for the trip — often a light, efficient single passenger vehicle that nobody would buy as their only car today. These cars will offer a more convenient and faster door-to-door travel time on all the modest length trips (100 miles or less) in the central valley. Because the passenger count estimates for the train exceed current air-travel counts in the state, they are counting heavily on winning over those who currently drive cars in the central valley, but they might not win many of them at all.

The cars won’t beat the train on the long haul downtown SF to downtown LA. But they might well be superior or competitive (if they can go 100mph on I-5 or I-99) on the far more common suburb-to-suburb door to door trips. But this will be a private vehicle without a schedule to worry about, a nice desk and screen and all the usual advantages of a private vehicle.

Improved Air Travel

The air travel industry is not going to sit still. The airlines aren’t going to just let their huge business on the California air corridor disappear to the trains the way the HSR authority hopes. These are private companies, and they will cut prices, and innovate, to compete. They will find better solutions to the security nightmare that has taken away their edge, and they’ll produce innovative products we have yet to see. The reality is that good security is possible without requiring people arrive at airports an hour before departure, if we are driven to make it happen. And the trains may not remain immune from the same security needs forever.

On the green front, we already see Boeing’s new generation of carbon fiber planes operating with less fuel. New turboprops are quiet and much more efficient, and there is more to come.

The fast trains and self-driving cars will help the airports. Instead of HSR from downtown SF to downtown LA, why not take that same HSR just to the airport, and clear security while on the train to be dropped off close to the gate. Or imagine a self-driving car that picks you up on the tarmac as you walk off the plane and whisks you directly to your destination. Driven by competition, the airlines will find a way to take advantage of their huge speed advantage in the core part of the journey.

Self-driving cars that whisk people to small airstrips and pick them up at other small airstrips also offer the potential for good door-to-door times on all sorts of routes away from major airports. The flying car may never come, but the seamless transition from car to plane is on the way.

We may also see more radical improvements here. Biofuels may make air travel greener, and lighter weight battery technologies, if they arrive thanks to research for cars, will make the electric airplane possible. Electric aircraft are not just greener — it becomes more practical to have smaller aircraft and do vertical take-off and landing, allowing air travel between any two points, not just airports.

These are just things we can see today. What will the R&D labs of aviation firms come up with when necesessity forces them towards invention?

Improved Rail

Rail technology will improve, and in fact already is improving. Even with right-of-way purchased, adaptation of traditional HSR to other rail forms may be difficult. Expensive, maglev trains have only seen some limited deployment, and while also expensive and theoretical, many, including the famous Elon Musk, have proposed enclosed tube trains (evacuated or pneumatic) which could do the trip faster than planes. How modern will the 1980s-era CHSR technology look to 2030s engineers?

Telepresence

Decades after its early false start, video conferencing is going HD and starting to take off. High end video meeting systems are already causing people to skip business trips, and this trend will increase. At high-tech companies like Google and Cisco, people routinely use video conferencing to avoid walking to buildings 10 minutes away.

Telepresence robots, which let a remote person wander around a building, go up to people and act more like they are really there are taking off and make more and more people decide even a 3 hour one-way train trip or plane trip is too much. This isn’t a certainty, but it would also be wrong to bet that many trips that take place today just won’t happen in the future.

Sprawl

Like it or not, in many areas, sprawl is increasing. You can’t legislate it away. While there are arguments on both sides as to how urban densities will change, it is again foolish to bet that sprawl won’t increase in many areas. More sprawl means even less value in downtown-to-downtown rail service, or even in big airports. Urban planners are now realizing that the “polycentric” city which has many “downtowns” is the probable future in California and many other areas.

That Technology Nobody Saw Coming

While it may seem facile to say it, it’s almost assured that some new technology we aren’t even considering today will arise by 2030 which has some big impact on medium distance transportation. How do you plan for the unexpected? The best way is to keep your platform as simple as possible, and delay decisions and implementations where you can. Do as much work with the knowledge of 2030 as you can, and do as little of your planning with the knowledge of 2012 as you can.

That’s the lesson of the internet and the principle known as the “stupid network.” The internet itself is extremely simple and has survived mostly unchanged from the 1980s while it has supported one of history’s greatest whirlwinds of innovation. That’s because of the simple design, which allowed innovation to take place at the edges, by small innovators. Simpler base technologies may seem inferior but are actually superior because they allow decisions and implementations to be delayed to a time when everything can be done faster and smarter. Big projects that don’t plan this way are doomed to failure.

None of these future technologies outlined here are certain to pan out as predicted — but it’s a very bad bet to assume none of them will. California planners and the CHSR authority need to do an analysis of the HSR operating in a world of 2030s technology and sprawl, not today’s.

Mercedes cruising S-Class, NHTSA and Google

While there had been many rumous that Mercedes would introduce limited self-driving in the 2013 S-class, that was not to be, however, it seems plans for the 2014 S-class are much more firm. This car will feature “steering assist” which uses stereo cameras and radar to follow lanes and follow cars, along with standard ACC functions. Reportedly it will operate at very high speeds.

There’s also a nice article on the Mercedes test facility. They are well known for their interesting test facilities, and this one uses an inflatable car being towed on a test track, making it safe to hit the car if there is a problem.

Media sources are also reporting that Google (disclaimer, they are a client) has hired Ron Medford, deputy director of the National Highway Transportation Safety Agency, which sets the vehicle safety standards and is currently researching how to certify self-driving cars.

Stanford Racecar, Car Legality, Humanoid Robot Drivers, Chinese Project

The robocar news continues to increase in pace.

Robot racing

On Tuesday I stopped by the Atlantic’s Big Science day where Chris Gerdes of Stanford’s CARS centre announced results of their race between a robocar and humans on a racetrack. The winner — the humans, but only by a small margin. The CARS team actually studied human driver actions to program their car, but found the human drivers have gotten very good at squeezing most of the available performance out of the vehicles, leaving little room for the robot to improve.

Another result reaffirmed studies of passenger reactions. People taken through the first lap were quite scared, but by the next lap they relaxed and gained confidence in the system. This result shows up time and time again, and has convinced me that while many people tell me they think robocars will not become popular because people will be too scared to ride them, those people are wrong, even about their own behaviour. Most of them, at least.

Cars Legal

Also on the Stanford front, Bryant Walker Smith, who has decided to make robocar law a specialty, has released an analysis of the legality of robocars in the USA. The conclusion — robocars which have a human occupant who can take the wheel in the event of a problem are probably legal in almost all states, not just the states that have explicitly made them legal.

DARPA humanoid robot contest includes driving

DARPA ran the 3 grand challenges for robocars but stopped in 2007 after the urban challenge. Their latest challege contest involves making humanoid robots, but the DARPA Robotics Challenge includes a phase where your robot should be able to do a variety of tasks on rough terrain, including getting into a car and driving it. There are 4 tracks to the challenge. 3 are in the physical world, with either provided robots or team-built robots. The 4th is in the virtual world which will allow smaller teams to compete without the cost of working with a physical robot. I have written before about the opportunities of a robocar simulator for testing and contests, and so I am eager to see how this simulator develops.

China

Research in China has advanced. The National Natural Science Foundation has announced the goal of diong a short drive near Beijing and finally a long trip all the way to Shenzhen, 2400km away. This project primarily uses vision and radar, so it will be interesting to see if they can do this reliably without lasers.

Nissan Swerves, Volvo drives in a traffic jam, MobilEye cruises the highway

Three big automaker announcements — and not about V2V even though the ITS World Congress is going on this week.

First, Nissan, whose self-parking Leaf I just wrote about has also announced a steer-by-wire system and tests of a car that will swerve to avoid a sudden obstacle. Of course almost all cars have power steering, but in a steer-by-wire car there is no mechanical linkage by default from the steering wheel to the steering motors. This allows a wheel to have “software defined feel” and is good for eventual robocars. In such cars a fail-safe restores a mechanical link if the main system fails.

However, the swerving car, which is demonstrated avoiding a cardboard pedestrian which jumps out into the road, is a new level of technology for major car makers. (Braking for these obstacles has been done for a while.)

Not much later, Jerusalem company MobilEye announced they had converted an Audi A7 to self-drive using 5 of their cameras as well as radar. MobilEye makes the vision system found in a lot of different cars — their specialty is a dedicated chip for vision processing. This article, which is in Hebrew outlines the car, which cost 588K NIS to build.

Volvo, which uses MobilEye, announced today that their 2014 cars would feature a traffic jam assist. Several companies have announced traffic jam assist (which is a low speed lane-keeping plus ACC) but Volvo has put a firm date on it. Also new in Volvo’s system is doing more than following lane markers — it also swerves to follow the car in front of it, as long as that car stays in the lane.

Of course, this does leave open the question of what happens if 2 or more of these start following one another, but that’s some time in the future and they have time to work on it.

In other news, the NHTSA has announced a grant to a team at Virginia Tech to research safety standards for robocar user interfaces. They have in the past stated they think the handoff between manual and automatic is an important safety function they might regulate.

And yes, there is lots of V2V news from the ITS world congress, but my skepticism for most forms of V2V remains high.

Nissan's Self-Parking Leaf

Nissan is showing a modified Leaf able to do “valet” park in a controlled parking lot. The leaf downloads a map of the lot, and then, according to Nissan engineers, is able to determine its position in the lot with 4 cameras, then hunt for a spot and go into it. We’ve seen valet park demonstrations before, but calculating position entirely with cameras is somewhat new, mainly because of the issues with how lighting conditions vary. In an indoor parking garage it’s a different story, and camera based localization under the constant lighting should be quite doable.

This other video from Engadget with a more detailed demo shows the view from the car’s cameras, which appear to be on the side mirrors as well as front and back for a synthetic 360 degree view. They also have an Android app for control and the ability to view through the cameras. Alas, chances are low you would get that bandwidth in the parking garage, but it’s a cool demo.

There was a huge raft of press coverage after last week’s signing of the California law. This ranged from polls showing strong acceptance of the tech to editorial critiques about the law being too fanciful or the technology taking jobs. (It is true that there will be job displacement, but at the same time, Americans spend about 50 billion hours driving which is a much larger sink on the GDP.)

Science Fiction movies at Palo Alto Film Festival, and Robocars legal in California

I haven’t bothered quickly reporting on the robocar story every other media outlet covered, the signing by Jerry Brown of California’s law to enable robocars. For those with the keenest interest, the video of the signing ceremony has a short talk by Sergey Brin on some of his visions for the car where he declares that the tech will be available for ordinary people within 5 years.

The bill itself was news earlier on, and the regulations enabled by the bill have yet to be written, so the signing marks a milestone but there is far to go.

In other news you can read an article today in the Atlantic about some of my predictions for self-delivering cars.

Tonight I will be on a panel at the Palo Alto International Film Festival at 5pm. Not on robocars, but on the role of science fiction in movies in changing the world. (In a past life, I published science fiction and am on this panel by virtue of my faculty position at Singularity University.)

Whither Platooning -- and talk at Dorkbot tomorrow

Tomorrow (Wed Sep 19) I will give a robocars talk at Dorkbot SF in San Francisco. Dorkbot is a regular gathering of “People doing strange things with electricity” and there will be two other sessions.

Last week, the SARTRE project announced it was concluding after a long period of work on highway platooning. Volvo lead the project which demonstrated platoons on test tracks and on some real roads. They also did a number of worthwhile users studies in simulation.

People have been interested in platooning for a while. The main upsides they are looking for are:

  • It’s much easier than a Robocar — the platoon is lead by a truck with a professional driver who handles everything with human intelligence
  • Putting the car at short spacings can result in a huge increase in highway capacity, though you tend to want somewhat larger headways around the convoys
  • There is fuel saving — about 10% or so for the lead vehicle, and up to 30% for following vehicles, at spacings of about 4 to 6m. This is not quite as much as people hoped but it is real.
  • The equipment in the following cars is simple — V2V radios and possibly some radar for backup.

Unfortunately, platooning comes with some downsides as well

  • If you have an accident, it can be catastrophic as you might crash a whole convoy of vehicles.
  • Non-platoon drivers may interfere with the convoy. The gaps must be kept small enough that nobody tries to enter them. A non-member in the middle of the convoy is bad news. You need small gaps to save fuel too.
  • Trucks must go only at the front of the convoy due to their longer stopping distance. New trucks must insert in the middle. Cars can insert more easily at the end of the convoy.
  • Convoys in the right lane can make it harder for people merging, and in general they can present a barrier to traffic.
  • Driving with a short gap is disconcerting. Behind a truck, you can’t even see the lane markers.
  • In rain, your windshield gets completely washed out with spray (and sometimes salt spray) which is even more disconcerting.
  • Following cars get hit by small stones and debris from the forward vehicle. After a long period of following, windshields are unacceptably chipped or cracked.
  • While radar is the primary means of tracking the car in front, and almost all vehicles do a nice radar reflection from the rear licence plate, many vehicles have other reflections further forward. You must avoid trying to follow 4m behind the front of a truck! To help this, vehicles in the tests had superior radar reflectors mounted on them.

For good workable convoys, some of these problems need to be solved. It could be that in rain convoys must spread out (losing a lot of the fuel saving) though there is the danger of cars cutting in.

Convoys with longer gaps can still increase road capacity a lot, but they probably have to be robocar convoys. Robocar convoys can handle cars trying to cut into the gaps. They may wish to start honking if somebody cuts-in (and the car in front might also flash its rear lights and slow slightly to make it very clear to the cut-in that they should not have done this.) This would be a problem when convoys are new, as people might not know what it all means, though they would have tried to go into a space that is clearly too small to safety enter. Cars in convoys might need to have a screen on the back that can display a sign “You have barged into a convoy, change lanes immediately or be reported to police.”

Robocars could handle the rain to some degree, but even their laser sensors would not like operating in heavy spray, though their radars would get excellent returns from a reflector on the vehicles.

The stone chip problem is harder to solve. Robocars capable of full auto operation could try to protect their windshields, but this is disconcerting to occupants. And the rest of the car gets stone chips too.

It could be that platooning is only practical with vehicles that are dedicated to it, such as highway commute vehicles and long distance highway vehicles. Built for this purpose, they would just accept the stone chips as part of life. They might come with extra heavy duty wipers or other ways to deal with the rain. And they would be full robocars, able to handle disconnects and independent operation.

This result will disappoint those who felt platoons were a good early technology. I have felt they also suffered from a critical mass problem. To use a platoon, you would need to find one, and until the density of lead vehicles was high enough, you might not find one. You could do it at rush hour with mobile apps that track the presence of lead vehicles so you can time your departure to find one — you might even have an appointment for every commute. And they might run only on nice clean highways on dry days and still be valuable. But less valuable, I am afraid.

On lower speed roads the fuel saving is not much, but the problems are less. There are traffic lights on most low speed roads though which present another problem.

Raft of Robocar News and Attack Ads

A round-up of just some of the recent robocar news:

Stanford Shelly at 120mph

While the trip up Pikes Peak by Stanford’s Audi TT did not offer the high speeds we had hoped for, they have recently being doing some real race driving tests, clocking the car around a track at 120mph. Even more impressive because this car drives with limited sensors. Here the goal is to test computer driven high-speed tactics — rounding corners, climbing hills and more. While they didn’t quite reach the times of professional drivers, chances are someday they will, just from the perfect understanding of physics.

Driving this fast is hard in the real world because you’re going beyond the range of most sensors (radar and special lidars can go further, and cameras can see very far but are not reliable in all lighting.) The Stanford team had a closed track to they were able to focus on cornering and skidding.

KPMG report on self-driving cars

The consulting firm KPMG has released an extensive report on self-driving cars. While it doesn’t contain too much that is new to readers of this site and blog, it joins the group which believes that car-to-car communication is going to be necessary for proper deployment of robocars. I don’t think so, and in fact think the idea of waiting for it is dangerous.

Speaking of V2V communication

For some time the V2V developers have been planning a testbed project in Ann Arbor, MI. They’ve equipped 3000 cars with “here I am” transponders that will broadcast their GPS data (position and velocity) along with other car data (brake application, turn signals, etc.) using DSRC. It is hoped that while these 3000 civilian cars will mostly wander around town, there will be times when the density of them gets high enough that some experiments on the success of DSRC can be made. Most of the drivers of the cars work in the same zone, making that possible.

If they don’t prove the technology, they probably won’t get the hoped-for 2013 mandate that all future cars have this technology in them. If they don’t get that, the 75mhz of coveted spectrum allocated to DSRC will get other hungry forces going after it.

I owe readers a deeper analysis of the issues around vehicle-to-vehicle communications.

Google cars clock 300,000 miles

Google announced that our team (they are a consulting client) has now logged 300,000 miles of self-driving, with no accidents caused by the software. It was also acknowledged that the team has also converted a hybrid Lexus RX-450h in addition to the Toyota Prius. Certainly a more comfortable ride and the new system has very nice looks.

Google will also begin internal testing with team members doing solo commutes in the vehicles. Prior policy is vehicles are always operated off-campus with two staff onboard, as is appropriate in prototype systems.

Political attack ad goes after robocars

Jeff Brandes pushed Florida’s legislation to allow robocar testing and operations in that state, 2nd after Nevada. Now his political opponents have produced an ad which suggests robocars are dangerous and you shouldn’t vote for Mr. Brandes because of his support of them. While we should expect just about anything in attack ads, this is a harbinger of the real debate to come. I doubt the authors of the ads really care about robocars — they just hope to find anything that might scare voters. My personal view, as I have said many times, is that while the technology does have to go through a period where it is less safe because it is being prototyped and developed, the hard truth is that the longer we wait to deploy the technology, the more years we rack up with 34,000 killed on the roads in the USA and 1.2 million worldwide. And Florida’s seniors are among the first on the list to need robocars. Is Jim Frishe’s campaign thinking about that?

Collision Warning strongly pushed in Europe

The EU is considering changing its crash-safety rules so that a car can’t get a 5-star rating unless it has forward collision warning, or even forward-collision mitigation (where the system brakes if you don’t.) These systems are already proving themselves, with data suggesting 15% to 25% reductions in crashes — which is pretty huge. While the law would not force vendors to install this, there are certain car lines where a 5-star rating is considered essential to sales.

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