A solar panel on a robocar

I often see people say they would like to see solar panels on electric cars, inspired by the solar-electric cars in the challenge races, and by the idea that the solar panel will provide some recharging for the car while it is running and without need to plug it in.

It turns out this isn’t a tremendously good idea for a variety of reasons:

  • You’re probably not going to get more than a couple hundred watts of PV peak power on a car with typical cells. Even properly mounted on a roof in a sunny place like California, each peak watt delivers an average of about 5 watt-hours in a day, so 200 watts gives you 1kw-h. That’s good for around 4 to 6 miles on today’s electric cars. Not a huge range boost.
  • While thin film panels don’t weigh a lot the power they provide during actual driving would normally be only a minor boost. My math suggests they weigh more than the battery for the power they will provide while operating.
  • Panels on a car will instead be mounted flat, cutting about 30% of their output. Normally you want to tilt to the angle of the sun.
  • Cars are often in the shade, even parked indoors. Unless you work to pick your parking to have sun all day, you’ll only get a fraction of the power.
  • If you do leave your car in the sun, in many places that means it will get quite hot, you’ll burn up some of the solar energy cooling it down. (Indeed, the solar panels sometimes found on today’s hybrids and EVs don’t charge the battery, they just run a cooling fan.)
  • The worst one: If your battery is not somewhat discharged, it doesn’t have any place to put the solar energy, and so it is just thrown away. But due to range anxiety, people prefer their electric cars be kept full. It takes careful planning to use that energy.
  • A car is a very bumpy place, so you need more rugged panels than what you might put on a roof.

It is possible to get more than 200w on a car — some of the solar challenge cars that exist to be nothing but panels have gotten around a kw by using high price, high-efficiency panels. But it’s still generally much better to just put the panels on a roof where they will realize their full potential, and feed the grid, and charge from the grid.

However, on Friday I was teaching a class on the future of Robocars to my students at Singularity University and in the exercises some students wondered if they might do something for solar powered cars. (I was impressed since the students, having had only a short time to think about the issue, have to work to bring up something new.)

Robocars might solve some of the problems above, and thus possibly make sense as a place to put panels.

  • A robocar parks itself and can move. So one with a solar panel can move around to make sure it’s always in the sun, and that the sun is striking it from the right angle. It can’t move too far or too often without wasting some of the power, but it can do something.
  • When the batteries get so full that they are not making proper use of the solar energy, a robocar can find a charging station, not to charge but rather to sell excess power back to the grid and other cars. (This presumes charging stations are set up this way.)
  • Robocars could dock with other robocars that are more discharged and offer them the extra solar power, no charging stations involved — though fancy robotics are needed on the charging interface, or human beings who can do the connections.
  • If a robocar has an actuator that can tilt the panels, it can do even better. While an ordinary car could have this, an ordinary car would not have the ability to rotate in the plane of the ground to track the sun without another actuator.

It’s still not great, but it might improve things. Generally it still may be better to have the panels on rooftops and get the most from them. However, when we start thinking about super lightweight cars, cars that travel for under 100 watt-hours/mile, as well as higher efficiency panels, we might get some value if the panels are light.

It’s also expensive to install panels on top of existing facilities. Turns out that while panels are dropping below 1$/watt next year thanks to cheap Chinese capital and manufacturing, the cost of install is still over $2/watt. Cost of install on newly manufactured buildings — or cars — can be cheaper because it’s designed in from the start. The car already has the complex electrical system, while houses need to add them if they go solar.

People really are in love with the idea of a solar powered car. It’s not really possible to go green this way right now, but the future might bring something interesting.

Car users frustrated with their tech

The latest JD Power survey on car satisfaction has a very new complaint that has now the second most annoying item to new car owners namely problems with the voice recognition system in their hands-free interface. This is not too surprising, since voice recognition, especially in cars, is often dreadful. It also reveals that most new tech has lots of UI problems — not every product is the iPod, lauded from the start for its UI.

But one interesting realization in the study is that users have become frustrated at having too many devices with too many UIs. Their car (which now has a touchpad and lots of computer features) uses a different UI from their phone and computer and tablet and whatever. Even if the car has a superb UI, the problem is that it is different, something new to learn and remember.

One might fix this by having the same platform, be it iOS or Android on several of the devices, but that’s a tall order. Car vendors do not want to make a phone one one platform and tick off people used to the other platform.

The answer lies in something the car makers don’t like: Don’t put much of their own smarts in the car at all, and expect the user to slot their own mobile phone or tablet into the car. This might be done with something like Nokia’s “Terminal Mode” where the car’s screen and buttons can be taken over by the phone, or by not having a screen in the car at all, just a standard mounting place.

Some time ago I wrote that cars should stop coming with included radios as they used to 30 years ago, and let the slot in the dashboard where the radio and electronics go become a center for innovation. In particular innovation at the speed of consumer and mobile devices, not innovation at the speed of car companies. But there are too many pressures to stop this from happening. Car companies get to charge a lot for fancy radio and electronics systems in the cars, and they like this. And they like the control over the whole experience. But as they get more complaints they may realize that it’s not the right thing for them to be building. Especially not when the car (and the in-dash system) last for 10 to 15 years, while most consumer electronic devices are obsolete in 1-2 years.

There aren’t that many makes of cars, nor so many mobile platforms, so making custom apps for the car and the mobile platform isn’t that hard. In fact, I would expect you would see lots of competing aftermarket ones if they opened up the market to it. And open source ones too, built by fans of the particular cars.

Robocar projects, laws and other news

An update on the backlog of robocar related news caused by my recent travel and projects:

Nevada law

Many people have noticed the new law recently passed in Nevada which directs the Dept. of Transportation to create guidelines for the introduction of self-driving cars on Nevada roads. Here is the text of the law. Because Google, whom I consult for on robocars, helped instigate this law, I will refrain from comment, other than to repeat what I’ve said before: I predict that most transportation innovation will take place in robocars because they will be built from the ground up and bought by early adopters. The government need merely get out of the way and do very basic facilitation. This is very different from things like PRT and new transit lines, which require the government’s active participation and funding.

You’ll find lots of commentary on the story in major news media.  read more »

Volkswagen announces simple self-driving car

Dodge leading human resistance to robocars

Dodge has released a few interesting commercials for its Charger muscle car, somewhat prematurely pushing it as the antithesis of a robocar. Most amusing is the second ad which features an ugly car with a literal robot in the driver’s seat (something also seen in the Total Recall and I, Robot movies.) The first ad just has visuals of the car but actually mentions the Google car as one of the signs of increasing robot control. For some reason, the car, rather than the people behind it, is named the “leader of the human resistance.”

It’s easy to understand the sentiment behind these ads, particularly when you are trying to market a car as a powerful “man’s car” oriented to the thrill of driving. The people who want the car to drive itself are not like you, you want an exciting drive and this is the car for you, it says. (Other ads decry an online test drive, and cars that get lots of “boring” miles per gallon.)

The ad does pose an interesting question. When I talk, I often get people who say that they have no interest in a robocar (and that Americans won’t have interest in them) because they love to drive and would not give it up. I often ask back, “so do you love to commute?” It’s also clear from the example of New York City that Americans will certainly give up driving if it’s the right choice for their locale. People who grew up in L.A. don’t try to keep their car if they move to Manhattan, they do what makes sense for their new area.

Driving is fun, of course, particularly on an interesting road with a powerful car. Indeed, many find driving a stickshift even more fun in such circumstances, though they are almost gone from U.S. cars. (I’ve mostly owned stickshift cars though when I bought my most recent I ended up with an automatic where you can manually change the gears. But I find I don’t use the manual mode.) Being a passenger on windy roads is not nearly so much fun, and even makes many people a bit queasy, though this almost never happens to the driver even with the same moves.

Obviously I suspect the Dodge ad is wrong when it says that “robots will never take our cars.” But human driven cars will also exist for a long time, and not just in the muscle car market. Many people will enjoy — or even need — a car they can take control of when the road gets “interesting.” But in our ordinary driving, the road itself is rarely interesting. We may well take special trips where the software drives us to the fun road and we take over after that, though with a better safety system. On the other hand, when it comes to scenic drives, people will want to go slowly and be passengers, getting a chance to look out the windows and enjoy the view rather than concentrate on the road. We may see “tourist cars” in popular tourist spots which are either convertibles or have nearly transparent tops — reminding us perhaps of the bubble roof cars from the Jetsons — for those whose focus is on the view.

There will be a sector of the market that wholly buys into Dodge’s tongue-in-cheek message. I’m pretty confident in predicting that the opposite segment that embraces the technology will be more than large enough for it to find all the early adopters it needs. As people get used to the idea, it will then go mainstream, even if it never captures everybody.

Of course, I’m almost certain the Dodge Charger, like all other cars, is full of processors with tons of code. The fuel mixing system that gives it its power is computerized in a typical car. One technology “leading the resistance” against another.

This does mean a lot of changes for the automobile industry, as I wrote in my article on car design changes. Today a car’s price is remarkably correlated with its horsepower, which is part of the reason Dodge wants to advertise this way. Even when luxury is the real product, you will still find extra horsepower. This may change as people want comfort in their ordinary car, and only want horsepower in the vehicle they rent for the weekend.

Google Robocars at TED, Shanghai bubble cars, Robot Week, lives saved

Here’s a few Robocar updates.

First of all, the TED talk given by Sebastian Thrun, leader of the Google self-driving car team (disclaimer: they are a consulting client) is up on the TED web site. This is one of the short TED talks, so he does not get to go into a lot of depth, but notable is one of the first public showings of video of the Google car in action on ordinary city streets. (The first was at PodCarCity, but video was not made available on the web.)

At TED the team also set up a demonstration course on the roof of a parking lot, and allowed some attendees to ride and shoot videos, many of which are up on the web. While the car does perform well zooming a slalom course, and people have a lot of fun, the real accomplishment is what you see video during the talk.

Another “City of the future” video has appeared featuring robocars prominently. This Shanghai 2030 video plays out a number of interesting robocar aspects, though their immense elevated road network reminds me more of retro futurism. A few things I think will be different:

  • The people in the car sit side-by-side. I think face-to-face is much more useful. It’s more pleasant for conversation, and it allows for a narrower car which has huge advantages in road footprint and drag. Some people can’t stand facing backwards, and so there will still be side-by-side cars if you have two people like that, but I think a large fraction of cars will move to face-to-face, either narrow (for 2) or wide (for 3 or more.)
  • The video shows cool displays projected onto the windscreen. This “heads up” sort of display makes sense if you have to keep your eyes on the road while using the screen, but in these cars, the people don’t. On the other hand it’s true that some people get motion sick looking down while riding, but you can also put an opaque screen in the middle of the window in a robocar.

It’s National Robotics Week with lots of robot related events. In the Bay Area on Thursday, an all-day robotics demo day for kids and adults will take place at Stanford’s robotic car lab, so people will get a chance to see Junior and other Stanford robocars there.

Fatalities drop

The trend continues — last year U.S. road fatalities dropped again to 32,788. That’s a steady decline since over 43,000 5 years ago. And this is in spite of total vehicle miles going up. As a result, the death rate per 100 million miles is now 1.09, the lowest it has been in 60 years.

That’s very good news, though many forces fight for the credit. The leading contender seems to simply be that cars are getting safer in crashes, with better crumple zones and air bags, and more people wearing seatbelts. Medicine has also gotten better. Some will also be coming from better cars with safety systems like anti-lock brakes, crash-warnings and lane-departure warnings — precursors to robocar technology — but it would be wrong to assume these are a big component. Also worth noting that this happens in spite of the rise of people talking and texting while driving, though the secretary gives some credit to the recent laws banning this. But that doesn’t explain why the drop began in 2005.

It’s also odd that while fatalities drop almost everywhere, they’re actually up in New England by 18% and by 4% around the midwestern Great Lakes, and generally up around the north-east.

Google car demo, Toyota Vision and mind-driving

A few recent Robocar updates for you:

Google took its car down to the TED conference in Long Beach and did a few demo drives for people. In this mashable story you can catch some videos, inside and outside, of the car driving around a cone-based course on top of a parking lot near TED.

Toyota recently released a video with a vision of future transportation, including lots of self-driving cars in a city of the future. This short animated video has trucks in platoons and call-on-demand cars that come to your location and drive you around the city, or let you disengage and self-drive outside the automatic lane. In Toyota’s city there are special lanes which have guide markers and also inductive powering of the electric cars. While the powering may be valuable, I believe that the special infrastructure vision is an old one, and there are already several demonstrations of driving on existing roads without modification.

Once such demonstration comes from the “Made in Germany” team which certainly likes to come up with demos to attract attention. In this case they combined a headband that reads EEG/EMG signals with the controls of their robocar for what they call Brain Driver. The car does most of the driving, but signals from the headband can be used to tell it to go left or right at intersections, or accelerate and brake. My general experience of such EEG headbands has indicated that getting 5 unambiguous signals like that quickly is a tough job from pure EEG, so I am curious if they added some EMG (muscle) to it.

The brain driver is just a demo, but it does show one interesting technology, which is the ability for robocar technology to allow a vehicle to be driven through a very, very simple user interface — ie. just a few buttons or a joystick. I suspect that for people so disabled that they can only communicate via EEG — that’s majorly disabled — it will be better to wait for a full robocar technology that doesn’t require any human input for the driving part.

(Disclaimer: Google is a consulting client of mine.)

Blind man drives, sort of, with a robocar

A release from the National Federation for the Blind reports a blind person driving and avoiding obstacles on the Daytona speedway. They used a car from the TORC team at Virginia Tech, one of the competitors in the Darpa Grand Challenges. In effect, the blind driver replaced the “drive by wire” component of a robocar with a more intelligent and thinking human also able to feel acceleration and make some judgements. As the laser and other sensors in the car detected obstacles and turns, the computer sent audio and vibratory signals to the driver to turn, speed up or slow down.

While this demo is pretty simple, it was part of a larger project the NFB has to encourage computer and robotic technologies to let the blind do what the sighted can do. In my robocar roadmap I outlined a number of bodies who might promote and lobby for robocar technology, in particular the blind, so it’s good to see that step underway. They did it as well in 2009 with a simpler dune buggy.

This car did not use the fancy and expensive 64 line Velodyne LIDAR sensor that has become the norm on most other working robocars. The Virginia Tech team (Victor Tango) was the only one of the 6 teams to complete the urban challenge not to use that LIDAR. The car shown isn’t nearly as decorated with sensors as Victor Tango was, at least from looking at it visually, indicating good improvements in their system.

Working on Robocars at Google

As readers of this blog surely know, for several years I have been designing, writing and forecasting about the technology of self-driving “robocars” in the coming years. I’m pleased to announce that I have recently become a consultant to the robot car team working at Google.

Of course all that work will be done under NDA, and so until such time as Google makes more public announcements, I won’t be writing about what they or I are doing. I am very impressed by the team and their accomplishments, and to learn more I will point you to my blog post about their announcement and the article I added to my web site shortly after that announcement. It also means I probably won’t blog in any detail about certain areas of technology, in some cases not commenting on the work of other teams because of conflict of interest. However, as much as I enjoy writing and reporting on this technology, I would rather be building it.

My philosophical message about Robocars I have been saying for years, but it should be clear that I am simply consulting on the project, not setting its policies or acting as a spokesman.

My primary interest at Google is robocars, but many of you also know my long history in online civil rights and privacy, an area in which Google is often involved in both positive and negative ways. Indeed, while I was chairman of the EFF I felt there could be a conflict in working for a company which the EFF frequently has to either praise or criticise. I will be recusing myself from any EFF board decisions about Google, naturally.  read more »

Comparing electricity to a gallon of gasoline

The “burning” question for electric cars is how to compare them with gasoline. Last month I wrote about how wrong the EPA’s 99mpg number for the Nissan Leaf was, and I gave the 37mpg number you get from the Dept. of Energy’s methodology. More research shows the question is complex and messy.

So messy that the best solution is for electric cars to publish their efficiency in electric terms, which means a number like “watt-hours/mile.” The EPA measured the Leaf as about 330 watt-hours/mile (or .33 kwh/mile if you prefer.) For those who really prefer an mpg type number, so that higher is better, you would do miles/kwh.

Then you would get local power companies to publish local “kwh to gallon of gasoline” figures for the particular mix of power plants in that area. This also is not very easy, but it removes the local variation. The DoE or EPA could also come up with a national average kwh/gallon number, and car vendors could use that if they wanted, but frankly that national number is poor enough that most would not want to use it in the above-average states like California. In addition, the number in other countries is much better than in the USA.

The local mix varies a lot. Nationally it’s about 50% coal, 20% gas, 20% nuclear and 10% hydro with a smattering of other renewables. In some places, like Utah, New Mexico and many midwestern areas, it is 90% or more coal (which is bad.) In California, there is almost no coal — it’s mostly natural gas, with some nuclear, particularly in the south, and some hydro. In the Pacific Northwest, there is a dominance by hydro and electricity has far fewer emissions. (In TX, IL and NY, you can choose greener electricity providers which seems an obvious choice for the electric-car buyer.)

Understanding the local mix is a start, but there is more complexity. Let’s look at some of the different methods, staring with an executive summary for the 330 wh/mile Nissan Leaf and the national average grid:  read more »

  • Theoretical perfect conversion (EPA method): 99 mpg-e(perfect)
  • Heat energy formula (DoE national average): 37 mpg-e(heat)
  • Cost of electricity vs. gasoline (untaxed): 75 mpg-e($)
  • Pollution, notably PM2.5 particulates: Hard to calculate, could be very poor. Hydrocarbons and CO: very good.
  • Greenhouse Gas emissions, g CO2 equivalent: 60 mpg-e(CO2)

Designing a better, faster, secure, vastly cheaper airport with proto-robocars

Like just about everybody, I hate the way travel through airports has become. Airports get slower and bigger and more expensive, and for short-haul flights you can easily spend more time on the ground at airports than you do in the air. Security rules are a large part of the cause, but not all of it.

In this completely rewritten essay, I outline the design on a super-cheap airport with very few buildings, based on a fleet of proto-robocars. I call them proto models because these are cars we know how to build today, which navigate on prepared courses on pavement, in controlled situations and without civilian cars to worry about.

In this robocar airport, which I describe first in a narrative and then in detail, there are no terminal buildings or gates. Each plane just parks on the tarmac and robotic stairs and ramps move up and dock to all its doors. (Catering trucks, fuel trucks and luggage robots also arrive.) The passengers arrive in a perfect boarding order in robocars that dock at the ramps/steps to let them get on the plane through every entrance. Luggage is handled by different robots, and is checked and picked up not in carousels and check-in desks, but at curbs, parking lots, rental car centers and airport hotels.

The change is so dramatic that (even with security issues) people could arrive at airports for flights under 20 minutes before take-off, and get out even faster. Checked luggage would add time, but not much. I also believe you could build a high capacity airport for a tiny fraction of the cost of today’s modern multi-billion dollar edifices. I believe the overall experience would also be more pleasant and more productive for all.

This essay is a long one, but I am interested in feedback. What will work here, and what won’t? Would you love to fly through this airport or hate it? This is an airport designed not to give you a glorious building in which to wait but to get you through it without waiting most of the time.

The airport gets even better when real robocars, that can drive on the streets to the airport, come on the scene.

Give me your feedback on The Robocar Airport.

Key elements of the design include:  read more »

Drivers cost 1.7 million person-years every year in the USA, 3rd of all major causes

I’ve written frequently about how driving fatalities are the leading cause of death for people from age 5 to 45, and one of the leading overall causes of death. I write this because we hope that safe robocars, with a much lower accident rate, can eliminate much of this death.

Today I sought to calculate the toll in terms not of lives, but in years of life lost. Car accidents kill people young, while the biggest killers like heart disease/stroke, cancer and respiratory disease kill people when they are older. The CDC’s injury prevention dept. publishes a table of “Years of Potential Life Lost” which I have had it calculate for a lifespan of 80 years. (People who die after 80 are not counted as having lost years of life, though a more accurate accounting might involve judging the average expected further lifespan for each age cohort and counting that as the YPLL.)

The core result of the table though is quite striking. Auto accidents jump to #3 on the list from #7, and the ratios become much smaller. While each year almost a million die from cardiovascular causes and 40,000 from cars, the ratio of total years lost is closer to 4 to 1 for both cardiovascular disease and cancer, and the other leading causes are left far behind. (The only ones to compete with the cars are suicides and accidental poisoning which is much worse than I expected.)

The lesson: Work on safe robocars is even more vital than we might have thought, if you use this metric. It also seems that those interested in saving years of life may want to address the problem of accidental poisoning. Perhaps smart packaging or cheap poison detection could have a very big effect. (Update: This number includes non-intentional drug overdoses and deaths due to side effects of prescription drugs.) For suicide, this may suggest that our current approaches to treating depression need serious work. (For example, there are drugs that have surprising effectiveness on depression such as ketamine which are largely unused because they have recreational uses at higher doses and are thus highly controlled.) And if you can cure cancer, you would be doing everybody a solid.

Note: Stillbirths are not counted here. I would have expected the Perinatal causes to rank higher due to the large number of years erased. If you only do it to 65, thus counting what might get called “productive years” the motor vehicle deaths take on a larger fraction of the pie. Productivity lost to long term disability is not counted here, though it is very common in non-fatal motor vehicle accidents. Traffic deaths are dropping though so the 2009 figures will be lower.

How Robocars affect the City, plus Masdar & City of Apple

I decided to gather together all my thoughts on how robocars will affect urban design. There are many things that might happen, though nobody knows enough urban planning to figure out just what will happen. However, I felt it worthwhile to outline the forces that might be at work so that urban geographers can speculate on what they will mean. It is hard to make firm predictions. For example, does the ability for a short pleasant trip make people want a Manhattan where everybody can get anywhere in 10 minutes, or does the ability to work or relax during trips make people not care about the duration and lead to more Sprawl? It can go either way, or both.

Read Robocar influence on the future of cities.

Masdar Video

In other notes, now that Masdar’s PRT is in limited operation, there are more videos of it. Here is a CNN Report with good shots of the cars moving around. As noted before, the system is massively scaled back, and runs at ground level, underneath elevated pedestrian streets. The cars are guided by magnets but there is LIDAR to look for pedestrians and obstacles.

City of Apple

The designer of Masdar, Foster + Partners, has been retained to design the new “City of Apple” which is going to spring up literally a 5 minute walk from my house. Apple has purchased the large Cupertino tract that was a major HP facility (and which also held Tandem, which HP eventually bought) and a few other companies. This is about a mile from Apple’s main HQ in Cupertino. Speculation about the plan includes a transportation system of some kind, possibly a PRT like in Masdar. However, strangely, there are talks of an underground tunnel between the buildings which makes almost no sense in this area, particularly since I can’t imagine it would be too hard to run elevated guideway along the side of interstate 280 or even on the very wide Stevens Creek Boulevard.

Sadly, aside from Apple, there’s not a lot for the system to visit if it’s to be more than intra-company transport. The Valco mall and the Cupertino Village are popular but Cupertino doesn’t really have a walkable downtown to speak of.

Of course if Apple wants to tear down all the HP buildings and put up a new massive complex, it will be hard to call that a green move. The energy and greenhouse gases involved in replacing buildings are huge. For transportation, robocars could just make use of the existing highway between the two campuses. It’s not even impossible to imagine Apple building its own exits and bridges on the interstate — much cheaper than an underground tunnel.

SARTRE "road train" update

The folks at the SARTRE road train project have issued an update one year into their 3 year project. This is an EU-initiated project to build convoy technology, where a professional lead driver in a truck or bus is followed by a convoy of closely packed cars which automatically follow based on radio communications (and other signals) with the lead. They have released a new video on their progress from Volvo.

I have written before about the issues involved in this project and many of them remain. It’s the easiest way to get a robocar on the highway, but comes with a particularly high risk if it fails — and failure in the earliest stages of robocar projects is very likely.

In the video, some interesting elements include:

  • The building of a simulator to test driver attitudes and reactions. Generally quite positive, in that people are happy to trust the driving to the system and the lead driver. This will change a bit in a real car, since a simulator can only do so much.
  • The imagine people eating, drinking, listening to music and reading while in the convoys, but they don’t talk about the elephant in the car: sleeping. People doing anything else can quickly take the controls in a problem, but sleepers may not. And there’s also that act that we metaphorically call “sleeping together.”
  • Their simulations depict cars leaving the convoy from the middle. However, in this situation it seems you can’t give them too much brake-accelerator control for the difficult task of changing lanes when you are just a few feet from the cars in front and back of you. You must maintain the speed of the train until you have fully left its lane, but that means you can’t do the usual task of changing speed as you enter your new lane. Exit from the trains will need some work. (There are suggestions in the comments that make sense.)
  • They expect to have to make legal changes to allow this. However, since it’s an EU initiated project, they have a leg-up on that. This might pave the way for more robocar-friendly laws in Europe.
  • While they plan to do a live test by 2012, they are much more cautious on predicting when the trains might be common on the roads.
  • They do speculate if a simple robocar function for “stop and go” traffic, which is able to follow the car in front of you at lower speeds, might come first. Indeed, this is pretty easy, and not much more than a smarter version of existing auto-follow cruise control with steering and lane-following added.
  • Their main pitch is environmental, as drafting should save decent fuel. However, I think most people will be interested in the time saving, and I’ll be interested in how the public accepts it.

Audi TT to Pikes Peak, Masdar PRT goes into action

Two bits of robocar news from last week. I had been following the progress of the Stanford/VW team that was building a robotic Audi TT to race to the top of Pikes Peak. They accomplished their run in September, but only now made the public announcement of it. You can find photos and videos with the press release or watch a video on youtube.

This project began with the team teaching the vehicle to “drift” — make controlled turns while wheels are skidding, something needed on the windy curves and dirt/gravel/pavement mix on the way up to Pikes Peak. Initial impressions were that they had the goal of being a competitor in the famous Pikes Peak Hill Climb — a time trial race to the top by human drivers, the fastest of whom have climbed in in 10 minutes, 3 seconds in major muscle cars. The best standard cars have done it in about 11.5 minutes, and Audi says a stock TT would take a bit under 17 minutes.

The autonomous Audi’s time of 27 minutes, with a top speed of 45mph, is thus a bit disappointing for those who were hoping for some real man vs. machine competition. The team leader, Burkhard Huhnke, downplayed this, saying that the goal was to come to a better understanding of computer controlled cornering and skidding, in order to make better driver assist systems for production vehicles. Indeed, that is a good goal and it is expected that robocar technologies will first appear as driver assist and safety features in production cars.

The actual run was also marred by tragedy when the helicopter filming it crashed.

Earlier, I spoke with James Gosling — more famous as the creator of the Java language — about his role in the project. Gosling knows languages and compilers very well, and he helped the team develop a compiler so the interpreted scripts they were writing in languages like Matlab. Gosling’s compiler was able to run the resulting code around 100x faster than the interpreter, allowing them to do a lot more with less hardware.

There is strong interest in man vs. machine robocar contests. Such contests, aside from setting a great bar for the robots, will demonstrate their abilities to the public and generate strong public interest. This turned out not to be such a contest, but someday a robot will race to the top of Pikes Peak in better than 10 minutes. It will have a bigger engine, and many more sensors than the Audi in this run, which mostly relied on augmented GPS (extra transmitters were put by the roadside for full accuracy.)

A future car will have a complete map in its head of where all road surfaces are, and their characteristics. It will know the physics of the car and the road better than any human driver. The main thing humans will be able to do is use their eyes to judge changing road conditions, but they don’t change very much, and computer vision or sensor systems to make such judgments don’t seem like an impossible project.

Masdar PRT in operation

In other news, the greatly-shrunk Masdar PRT system, built by 2getthere Inc. of the Netherlands, has entered production operation in Masdar, an experimental city project just outside Abu Dhabi. The project only has 2 stops for passengers (and 3 more for cargo) at this point. It runs at ground level, and pedestrians use an artificial level one floor up.

These pods have many robocar features. They use rubber tires and run on open, unmarked pavement, guiding themselves via odometry and sensing magnets embedded every 5 feet or so in the pavement. They also have laser sensors which see obstructions on the roadway and any pedestrians. They will stop for pedestrians, and even follow you if you walk ahead, maintaining a fixed distance. The system is not designed to mix with pedestrians, however, and the control software shuts down the relevant section of the track if passengers exit their vehicle outside a station.

The tracking is accurate enough that, as you can see, the tires have left black trails on the pavement by constantly running in the same place.

Photos and video can currently be found at the PRT Consulting site and this video shows it pulling out of a station. There is only one other video — I hope more will arrive soon.

The economy has scaled Masdar’s plans back greatly. The original plan called for a whole city done one floor up with a network of these proto-robocar PRT pods running underneath, and no traditional cars in the whole city.

Robocars vs. Deer and the flying bumper

Today, I was challenged with the question of how well robocars would deal with deer crossing the road. There are 1.5 million collisions with deer in the USA every year, resulting in 200 deaths of people and of course many more deer. Many of the human injuries and crashes have come from trying to swerve to avoid the deer, and skidding instead during the panic.

At present there is no general purpose computer vision system that can just arbitrarily identify things — which is to say you can’t show it a camera view of anything and ask, “what is that?” CV is much better at looking for specific things, and a CV system that can determine if something is a deer is probably something we’re close to being able to make. However, I made a list of a number of the techniques that robots might have to do a better job of avoiding collisions with animals, and started investigating thoughts on one more, the “flying bumper” which I will detail below.

Spotting and avoiding the deer

  • There are great techniques for spotting animal eyes using infrared light bouncing off the retinas. If you’ve seen a cheap flash photo with the “red eye” effect you know about this. An IR camera with a flash of IR light turns out to be great at spotting eyes and figuring out if they are looking at you, especially in darkness.
  • A large number of deer collisions do take place at dusk or at night, both because deer move at these times and humans see badly during them. LIDAR works superbly in darkness, and can see 100m or more. On dry pavement, a car can come to a full stop from 80mph in 100m, if it reacts instantly. The robocar won’t identify a deer on the road instantly but it will do so quickly, and can thus brake to be quite slow by the time it travels 100m.
  • Google’s full-map technique means the robocar will already have a complete LIDAR map of the road and terrain — every fencepost, every bush, every tree — and of course, the road. If there’s something big in the LIDAR scan at the side of the road that was not there before, the robocar will know it. If it’s moving and more detailed analysis with a zoom camera is done, the mystery object at the side of the road can be identified quickly. (Radar will also be able to tell if it’s a parked or disabled vehicle.)
  • They are expensive today, but in time deep infrared cameras which show temperature will become cheap and appear in robocars. Useful for spotting pedestrians and tailpipes, they will also do a superb job on animals, even animals hiding behind bushes, particularly in the dark and cool times of deer mating season.
  • Having spotted the deer, the robocar will never panic, the way humans often do.
  • The robocar will know its physics well, and unlike the human, can probably plot a safe course around the deer that has no risk of skidding. If the ground is slick with leaves or rain, it will already have been going more slowly. The robocar can have a perfect understanding of the timings involved with swerving into the oncoming traffic lane if it is clear. The car can calculate the right speed (possibly even speeding up) where there will be room to safely swerve.
  • If the oncoming traffic lane is not clear, but the oncoming car is also a robocar, it might some day in the far future talk to that car both to warn it and to make sure both cars have safe room to swerve into the oncoming lane.
  • Areas with major deer problems put up laser sensors along the sides of the road, which detect if an animal crosses the beam and flash lights. A robocar could get data from such sensors to get more advanced warning of animal risks areas.

Getting the deer to move

There might be some options to get the deer to get out of the way. Deer sometimes freeze; a “deer in the headlights.” A robocar, however, does not need to have visible headlights! It may have them on for the comfort of the passengers who want to see where they are going and would find it spooky driving in the dark guided by invisible laser light, but those comfort lights can be turned off or dimmed during the deer encounter, something a human driver can’t do. This might help the deer to move.  read more »

Robocar impact on traffic congestion and capacity

Many people wonder whether robocars will just suffer the curse of regular cars, namely traffic congestion. They are concerned that while robocars might solve many problems of the automobile, in many cities there just isn’t room for more roads. Can robocars address the problems of congestion and capacity? What about combined with ITS (Intelligent Transportation Systems) efforts to make roads smarter for human driven cars?

I think the answer is quite positive, for a number of different reasons. I have added a new Robocar essay:

Traffic Congestion and Capacity with Robocars

In short, a wide variety of factors (promotion of small, single passenger cars, ability to reverse streets during rush-hour, elimination of accidents and irrational congestion-fostering behaviour, shorter headways, metering of road usage and load balancing of roads and several others) could amount to a severalfold increase in the capacity of our roads, with minimal congestion. If you add the ability to do convoys, the increase can be 5 to 10 fold. (About 20-fold in theory.) The use of on-demand pooling into buses over congested sections allows a theoretical (though unlikely) 100-fold increase in highway capacity.

While these theoretical limits are unlikely, the important lesson is that once most of the cars on the roads are robotic, we have more than enough road capacity to handle our current needs and needs well into the future. In general, overcapacity causes building, so in time we’ll start to use it up — and have much larger cities, if we wish them — but unlike today’s roads which add capacity until they collapse from congestion, advanced metering can assure that no road accepts more vehicles than it can handle without major risk of congestion collapse.

Even before most cars are robotic, various smart-road efforts will work to improve capacity and traffic flow. The appearance of robotic safety systems in human driven cars will also reduce accidents and congestion along the way. Free market economist Robin Hanson believes the ability of cities to grow much larger will be one of the biggest consequences of robocar capacity improvements.

Can a battery trailer solve range anxiety?

I’ve written before about solutions to “range anxiety” — the barrier to adoption of electric cars which derives from fear that the car will not have enough range and, once out of power, might take a very long time to recharge. It’s hard to compete with gasoline’s 3 minute fill-up and 300 mile ranges. Earlier I proposed an ability to quickly switch to a rental gasoline car if running out of range.

A company called EMAV has proposed a self-propelled battery trailer to solve this problem. While I am not sure how real the company is, the idea has value, particularly when it comes to robotics. As I have written, robocars can solve the “range anxiety” problem in several ways; mainly that robots don’t care about how convenient charging is, and people don’t worry about the range of a taxi beyond the current trip. But batteries are still an issue, even there.

The trailer proposal has the car hitch on the small trailer (which has room for cargo as well) and it provides the extra batteries you need when dong a long trip. The trailer is also motorized so it puts no load on the possibly small car that is “towing” it. EMAV imagines you might buy this, keep it charged, and only put it on when you need to do a long trip.

That could work, but presents a few problems. First of all, cars are much less nimble when they have a trailer on them. Backing up is much harder, and in fact novices will get completely stymied by it. You take an extra-long parking space if you can fit at all. There’s also extra drag.

We might solve the maneuvering problem a bit with a mildly robotic trailer that has a link to the car controls, making backups and turns more natural. This can be done either with steerable wheels on the trailer or just independent motor wheels which can be turned at different speeds. Such a trailer might be able to couple much more closely with the car, possibly going right on the tail so that it acts like an extension of the vehicle. This might also solve the parking problem.

Things could also be aided by making the couple and decouple very simple and easy. That’s a tall order because of safety issues, and the need for a high-current wire. The ideal would be an automatic decouple, so you could temporarily drop the trailer off somewhere if you needed to handle roads and parking where a trailer isn’t workable. Even better but harder would be an automatic recouple, obviously requiring some more sophisticated robotics in the trailer, and a fully safe coupling system.

With standardization, trailers like this could be left on lots all over a city. Anybody with a compatible electric car could, if they needed it, stop off at a convenient lot to grab a trailer. (The trailer would also be in a charging station, making automatic coupling even harder.) With the trailer grabbed there would be no range anxiety. The trailer could simply provide power, or it could go further and charge the car at high speed, allowing the trailer to be dropped off at another charging station an hour or so later. (While this sounds nice, battery chemistries may doom this plan, since you now are putting two batteries through heavy use cycles to get one unit of charge into the car, doubling the battery lifetime cost of the energy.)

While eventually trailers would need to get back to their base after one-way trips, there are lots of ways to encourage various drivers to do that. As long as the dropped trailer is not entirely empty, you can offer drivers who take it back a ride without using their own battery, for example.

This approach might be better than the battery-swap stations planned by “A Better Place.” The Better Place battery swap is cool, but requires all cars that use it be designed around its one particular battery configuration, and that people not own their own batteries. The swap stations are expensive and land intensive, while trailer depots would require nothing but a little land and a charging station for the trailer. A special trailer hitch is a much smaller modification of a car, too.

(One variation of the “PRU” trailer has the trailer contain a diesel generator rather than a battery pack. This of course has the range of liquid fuel, and doesn’t even need a charging station where you drop it of. It’s not being particularly green when used in this fashion of course, a bit worse than a serial hybrid car. If the trailer is heavy enough it could physically push the car and not need an electrical connection to it, though people might get highly confused by steering in such situations.)

As a cheaper and more flexible version of battery swap, this approach could be good for robocars too. Robots, unlike people, will not feel too burdened by the issues of driving a vehicle with a trailer, especially if they can control the trailer’s motors or steering. Parking’s easier too, especially if they can do robotic docking and undocking. While I have written how important it is that people don’t care about the range of a taxi, the owner of a taxi cares about the duty cycle. If they robotic taxi has to spend too much of its time recharging, the return on investment is not nearly as quick. The trailer approach, like the battery swap approach, means downtime only for the batteries, not the vehicle. If the trailers are themselves simple robocars, they can move at low and safe speeds to come meet robocars that need them for a range boost. Even if not, they need not take up much space and they’re easy to scatter everywhere for quick access. Indeed, the car itself might always use a trailer and thus have only enough battery power within it to get from one trailer to the next.

Pod Car City News, and Vislab reaches Shanghai

I’m at the Pod Car City conference, taking place today and tomorrow in San Jose for PRT developers and customers. Some news tidbits from the conference:

  • There were interesting presentations with videos from the three main vendors of working systems: ULTra (Heathrow), 2GetThere (Masdar) and Vectus (Swedish test track and some more.) Some were new videos showing the systems in action at a level not seen before.
  • Sebastian Thrun of the Google robocar team gave his first outside talk on that project, with some great videos (not released to public, unfortunately.) Quite impressive to see the vehicle handling all sorts of traffic, even deciding when to cross over the solid line in the middle when it’s clear to avoid getting too close to parked cars, just as human drivers do.
  • Sadly, during the public session (before Thrun’s talk) when several audience members sent in questions about the Google cars, both the host from San Jose and the leaders of the 3 PRT companies all punted saying they knew little about them.
  • In spite of that there was intense interest in Thrun’s talk, with lots of questions and not nearly as much negativity as is sometimes directed at robocars from the PRT community.
  • All vendors punted on my question about the current cost of pods (which external estimates suggest is around $100K since they are made in small quantities.)
  • Lots of action in Sweden. Soon, a city will be chosen for a trial PRT system, probably either Stockholm or Uppsala. Then, a company will be picked — most people think it will be Vectus.
  • Vectus, which makes a rail-based PRT, will be installing a system in Suncheon City, South Korea, which will be a people mover into the wetlands park there. Vectus showed many films of how well their system handles bad weather, though they are the only ones to use rails.
  • In Masdar, one of the biggest challenges has been the oppressive heat, and the power for air conditioning. To make the PRT work, stations must be close as people will simply not walk long distances outside when it’s 40 degrees and humid.
  • Interesting note about the rationale that helped sell ULTra at Heathrow: The big advantage is the predictable time of a PRT trip, which normally involves a pod already waiting and a direct trip. Even if that trip is no faster than a parking shuttle, not knowing when the parking shuttle bus will come is a major negative for those going to flights.
  • Ron Diridon of the California High Speed Rail board declares that HSR will be a complete failure if there isn’t something like PRT around the HSR stations to disperse people into the towns. He’s half right — HSR is likely to be a big failure, PRT or not, though the PRT would help.
  • San Jose is doing intensive study of a PRT to serve the airport, the nearby Caltrain and Light Rail stations, along with parking lots, rental cars and a couple hotels. This might well be useful but still is just a parking shuttle mostly. Few people take Caltrain or light rail to the airport (in spite of the existing free bus) and I doubt a lot more will.
  • At the same time, thanks to ULTra, San Jose and other towns are starting to accept PRT as something costing 10-15 million per mile. That’s a lot cheaper than light rail, and in the bay area, hugely cheaper than the 50-year old BART system which people think of as modern.
  • Attended a session on lessons from air traffic management for pod management. Interesting stuff but I don’t think that useful for the problem. Planes get spaced by 5 miles and 2,000 feet. Cars and pods will be spaced by tens of feet.
  • Attended another session on trying to model passenger loads. This session was much more concerned about surge loads in many markets, where a class might let out and suddenly 100 people are at the PRT station trying to use it, removing the no-wait benefit (and the associated high predictability benefit.) One thing Robocars will probably do better since they have no concept of stations and you can get as many cars into an area as you can fit on the road and take out via it. Planners predict that if PRT waits are long in a campus situation, people will walk instead, but you would never have to walk instead with a robocar — just walk away from the crowd to get one.
  • Still too much “transit” oriented thinking in the PRT crowd, I think. In fact, many are hoping to pitch PRT as a feeder which will increase usage of other transit lines. I think transit will fade away in about 25 years.

Vislab completes their autonomous drive to Shanghai

The team from the Vislab autonomous challenge made it to Shanghai, and their cars are now in the Italian pavilion at the World’s Fair. Congratulations to them. They sent me a nice PDF press release. It details elements from their blog about how they almost got a ticket, gave up driving at night, blew through toll booths, picked up hitchhikers, and could not handle crazy drivers.

Heathrow ULTra almost ready, Masdar cybercars scaled way back

There’s news about the world’s two small PRT (Personal Rapid Transit) projects, which are both fairly robocar like, in that they involve self-steered rubber tired vehicles.

The Heathrow ULTra parking shuttle, which has 3 stops, uses pods which travel an ordinary pavement guideway with small curbs on the sides which the vehicle reads to guide itself. This system has been delayed many times, but reports it is finally getting close to opening. ULTra reports their system is now being used in a trial by the employees at LHR Terminal 5, though not the general public. Their newsletter also details how this demonstration system has spurred a fair bit of interest in a number of places, particularly India and Silicon Valley.

ULTra pods require dedicated track and don’t have tools to avoid pedestrians. The initial system is quite small.

The news is worse for the PRT system of Masdar, near Abu Dhabi. Masdar was planned as an all-green, car-free city. Aside from a maglev and light rail, the plan was to use an unusual arabian architecture. The ground level would be used by the PRT cars and other city vehicles, but a second “main floor” level would be built above this with the pedestrian walkways and main entrances to all the buildings. Arab streets are designed to be narrow, and elevated streets for people are easier to make than those for trains. To take the PRT, one would go into the “basement” which was really at ground level. In these streets, cybercars from 2getthere are to run. These are also rubber tire vehicles, but they get their guidance by following magnetic markers embedded in the road. Many people like the magnet approach as it is easy to follow, reliable and fairly cheap to install, even in existing roads.

Unfortunately as reported in Arabian News and this press release the plan for a city full of this “undercroft” and PRT cars has been scaled back. In particular, further reports indicate the elevated pedestrian street model will only be built in a limited zone at and around the university. The PRT will have only a 2 passenger stops, 1.7km of road and only 8 vehicles for the public (plus freight and VIP vehicles and 3 freight stops.) Outside this area will be conventional ground-level streets with conventional transit. It’s not been stated if private cars will also roam the regular streets, since the goal was a car-free city.

The article does make me wonder if they are thinking about robocars for those streets. The 2getthere cybercars do include some basic obstacle avoidance, though they are not ready to go out with the public. But at some point it will be possible, and the Masdar transportation plan might be realized even without the undercroft approach, or combining it with regular shared streets.

Robocars might also make sense for the Heathrow parking lot shuttle. Today the PRT is taking people to two stations in a large outdoor parking lot, but navigating a parking lot is a fairly easy problem for robocars — the environment is roughly controlled, and while there are pedestrians and slow-moving cars going in and out of parking spaces, these are easy to reliably avoid with LIDAR and other sensors. A better parking shuttle might take you right to your car, and pick you up there too if it is able to see people waving, or they text their spot number to a special number.

Of course, even better would be if the car then took you not to the airport entrance but into the airport, right to security. And even better if it was able to pick you up right at your gate and drive you (secured) along the controlled roads of the airport, out the security gate and right to the parking lot, taxi stand and rental car facility.

This has been a busy week of robocar developments, sparked in part by Google’s announcement. However, the PRT developments are just a coincidence.

Berlin University demos a whistlecar

The AutoNOMOS team at Freie Universität Berlin led by Raul Rojas has shown a demo of their robocar acting as what I have called a whistlecar. Their latest car, named “Made in Germany” performed an autonomous taxi pickup for the press which you can see played out in this video.

They’ve built a wireless interface to their car, and in the demo, a developer uses an iPad application to send his GPS coordinates to the car and command it to come to him at a hotel’s entrance. The vehicle (which has been given more detailed maps including a map of the parking lot it is waiting in and the driveway of the hotel) then moves entirely vacant along streets to stop at the hotel entrance. Using the developer interface, they are also able to watch the car on the map as it moves to the hotel, and play out diagnostics on the iPad.

The FU-B team has been quite fond of wireless interfaces. Earlier this year for fun they built an iPhone app to access the drive-by-wire controls of their car so you could steer the car from outside using the iPhone. This is fun, but also in some ways a step back since the car has the ability to drive itself. Remote controlled cars are unexciting in comparison.

What is a major milestone for AutoNOMOS is that they have the confidence to operate Made in Germany entirely vacant on quiet city streets around their university, with the human supervision done by somebody with a remote control outside the vehicle. I would presume the vehicle, if it loses wireless connectivity, stops and attempts to assume a safe state, at least for now. Rojas says they haven’t done this very often, doing most testing on closed courses.

The whistlecar vision is an important one, I believe, for several key reasons. First, it may be deployable before robocars are considered safe enough to carry people at a speed they would accept, and as such it’s one of the incremental steps on the roadmap. Secondly, it enables car delivery, car sharing and autonomous refueling/recharging/servicing. By delivering a shared car that is the right car for a particular trip, transportation can become an order of magnitude more efficient than it is today when everybody rides alone in a sedan or SUV no matter what the trip.

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