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

The efficacy of trusted traveler programs

A new paper on trusted traveler programs from RAND Corp goes into some detailed math analysis of various approaches to a trusted traveler program. In such a program, you pre-screen some people, and those who pass go into a trusted line where they receive a lesser security check. The resources saved in the lesser check are applied to give all other passengers a better security check. This was the eventual goal of the failed CLEAR card — though while it operated it just got you to the front of the line, it didn’t reduce your security check.

The analysis shows that with a “spherical horse” there are situations where the TT program could reduce the number of terrorists making it through security with some weapon, though it concludes the benefit is often minor, and sometimes negative. I say spherical horse because they have to idealize the security checks in their model, just declaring that an approach has an X% chance of catching a weapon, and that this chance increases when you spend more money and decreases when you spend less, though it has diminishing returns since you can’t get better than 100% no matter what you spend.

The authors know this assumption is risky. Turns out there is a form of security check which does match this model, which is random intense checking. There the percentage of weapons caught is pretty closely tied with the frequency of the random check. The TTs would just get a lower probability of random check. However, very few people seem to be proposing this model. The real approaches you see involve things like the TTs not having to take their shoes off, or somehow bypassing or reducing one of the specific elements of the security process compared to the public. I believe these approaches negate the positive results in the Rand study.

This is important because while the paper puts a focus on whether TT programs can get better security for the same dollar, the reality is I think a big motive for the TT approach is not more security, but placation of the wealthy and the frequent flyer. We all hate security and the TSA, and the airlines want to give better service and even the TSA wants to be hated a bit less. When a grandmother or 10 year old girl gets a security pat down, it is politically bad, even though it is the right security procedure. Letting important passengers get a less intrusive search has value to the airlines and the powerful, and not doing intrusive searches that seem stupid to the public has political value to the TSA as well.

We already have such a program, and it’s not just the bypass of the nudatrons (X ray scanners) that has been won by members of congress and airline pilots. It’s called private air travel. People with their own planes can board without security at all for them or their guests. They could fly their planes into buildings if they wished, though most are not as big as the airliners from 9/11. Fortunately, the chance that the captains of industry who fly these planes would do this is tiny, so they fly without the TSA. The bypass for pilots seems to make a lot of sense at first blush — why search a pilot for a weapon she might use to take control of the plane? The reality is that giving a pass to the pilots means the bad guy’s problem changes from getting a weapon through the X-ray to creating fake pilot ID. It seems the latter might actually be easier than the former.  read more »

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.

Terminal mode or a standard mounting port for mobile phones in cars?

It’s very common to use mobile phones for driving activities today. Many people even put in cell phone holders in their cars when they want to use the phones as navigation systems as well as make calls over a bluetooth. There’s even evidence that dashboard mounting reduces the distracted driving phenomenon associated with phones in cars.

Nokia and others are pushing one alternative for the cars that have dashboard screens. This is called “Terminal Mode” and is a protocol so the phone can make use of the display, buttons and touchscreens in the car. Putting the smarts in the phone and making the dash be the dumb peripheral is the right idea, since people upgrade phones frequently and cars not nearly so much. The terminal mode interface can be wireless so the phone does not have to be plugged in, though of course most people like to recharge phones while driving.

Terminal mode will be great if it comes, but it would be good to also push for a standard port on dashboards for mounting mobile phones. Today, most mobile phone holders either stick to the windshield with a suction cup, or clamp onto the vents of the air conditioner. A small port or perhaps flip out lever arm would be handy if standardized on dashboards. The lever arm would offer a standard interface for connecting a specific holder for the specific device. In addition, the port would offer USB wiring so that the holder could offer it to the phone. This would offer power at the very least but could also do data for terminal mode and some interfacing with other elements of the car, including the stereo system, or the onboard-diagnostics bus. Access to other screens in the back (for playing video) and to superior antennas might make sense. While many phones use their USB port to be a peripheral to a PC, some have “USB to go” which allows a device to be either master or peripheral, allowing more interesting functions.

Even with terminal mode, there could be value in having two screens, and more buttons, though of course apps would have to be developed to understand that. However, one simple thing is that a phone could run two apps at once on two screens (or even two apps at once on the larger screen of the car) which would actually be pretty handy.

Selling empty middle seats by dutch auction

I have written before about letting passengers pay for an empty middle seat next to them and recently about ANZ’s cuddle class and related programs which partially implement this.

While I believe airlines could sell the empty middle for somewhere in the range of 30-40% of a regular ticket, this still has issues. In particular, are they really going to bump a poor standby passenger who had a cancelled flight and make them stay another night so that people can get a more comfortable seat?

One idea is to allow the sale of empty middles by dutch auction. In effect this would say, “If there are going to be empty middles on this plane, those who bid the most will get to sit next to them.” If this can be done, it’s a goldmine of extra revenue for the airline. What they sell costs them nothing — they are just selling the distribution of passengers on the plane. If the plane fills up, however, they sell it all and nobody is charged.

The dutch auction approach would let each passenger make an offer. If there are 5 empty middles, then the 10 people who sit next to them win, but they all pay the 10th highest bid price. If only 9 passengers bid, the 10th highest price is zero, and everybody pays zero — which is what happens today, except it’s semi-random. While this may seem like a loss for the airline, many game theory tests suggest that dutch auctions often bring the best result, as they make both sides happy, and people bid more, knowing they will actually pay the fair price if they win.

(On the other hand, airlines are masters at having two people pay vastly different prices for exactly the same thing and have managed to avoid too much resentment over it.)

There is one huge problem to solve: How do you arrange that matched bidders are sitting together to share the empty middle? Each empty middle benefits two passengers.  read more »

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.)

Air New Zealand "Cuddle Class"

Some years ago I made the proposal that airlines sell half of a middle seat at half price or less so that two coach passengers could assure they would have an empty middle next to them.

I learned a while ago about one approach to this plan, a new “cuddle class” from Air New Zealand also known as the skycouch. It’s a row of 3 coach seats that folds down into a very narrow and short bed for two. The idea is that couples can book the whole row for 2.5x the cost of one seat, ie. the empty middle is being sold at a pretty reasonable half-price, or 1/4 price per person.

As I noted earlier, that alone would be worthwhile. Many people would gladly pay 25% more for an aisle or window with a guarantee that nobody was in the middle, and would get together with other solo voyagers to do this. Air New Zealand has for some time offered what it calls the “Twinseat” which is the ability to buy (for a fairly low price around $60) an assured empty adjacent seat “subject to availability.” This is something different — it’s simply saying that, if there are going to be empty middles on the plane anyway, the people who pay more at the gate will get those next to them. You can’t assure it on a flight unless you make sure you take a flight that won’t fill up.

This skycouch seat however has armrests that really go all the way up, and a footrest that comes up to make the whole thing a platform. Frankly, since 3 seats is only 4.5’ long and the bed is narrower than a twin bed, you need a couple that sleeps together very comfortably while spooning. While everybody likes doing that for a little while, it’s fewer who can do that for a whole night. One person could buy the whole row, I guess, but at 2.5x it starts to approach a nice business class seat, many of which now lie flat. (Mind you I’m picky enough that I don’t sleep that well in the business class flat seats, and I have yet to want to pay for the 1st class ones.)

It’s nice to the see the innovation, though. I mean some airlines even have coach armrests that don’t go up all the way when reclined, and that’s a real pain for couples who want to relax together even in the old seating designs.

What would be more interesting, if less romantic, would be a way to have a portable platform that could be installed on top of this row to turn it into two bunkbeds. From a physical standpoint, you could have 4 slots for poles, some reinforcing straps to form X braces on the poles, and a board with inflatable mattress on the top, such boards packed somewhere compactly in the ceiling when not in use. The poles would have to go up and hold a net and bars to stop the top bunkmate from falling out. But the hard part would be making this strong enough to qualify as safe in an emergency landing, since an emergency might arise while these are still assembled, though they would all be dismantled well before landing and they would only be used on flights 10 hours and up. If there were a section of these you could help it along by having no recline in these seats so the seat backs are solid and able to support the upper berth.

In this case, you could have strangers happily paying 125% of the base ticket price for one of these bunks. Lot of work to set up and tear down, though. Probably need a weight limit in the upper bunk. If you can do it at all.

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.

Another pedal-powered monorail: Skyride

Last year I wrote about an interesting but simple pedal powered monorail/PRT system called Shweeb which had won a prize/investment from Google. Recent announcements show they are not alone in this concept. Scott Olson, the original developer of the Rollerblade, has founded a company called Skyride Technologies to build their own version of a pedal powered suspended monorail.

You will find much that is similar between the two concepts, though they were developed independently. I will have to give Skyride the nod of picking names, though. Skyride offers both pedaling and a rowing-machine style interface, the latter aimed both at the disabled and those seeking a different kind of workout.

At present, the Skyride car is also open to the air, which has both advantages and disadvantages when it comes to cooling, drag, and exposure to the elements. Skyride does not also seem to offer the “bumper” system in the wheel cartridge which Shweeb claims will allow vehicles to safely hit one another and then push one another in trains.

Both are confined to prototype tracks for now, though the Schweeb one is an amusement ride that is open to the public. Both have plans to solve the most important problem in turning this into a real transportation system for campuses or urban areas, namely a switch that lets the vehicle smoothly and safely change tracks. Switching has always been an issue in monorails — not that it can’t be solved, but it’s just a little harder than changing lanes in a car. Rail systems sometimes put the switching in the track (that’s what regular heavy rail does) but that’s not very practical if you are going to have very frequent small vehicles. You want in-vehicle switching but with no risk of derailing.

While this concept is interesting, and even more fun if they can prove it works and then add some automation, I am not sure it will ever become a really big space. Still, having 2 companies will not doubt spur a bit more innovation.

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 »

My phone should know when I start a trip

Every day I get into my car and drive somewhere. My mobile phone has a lot of useful apps for travel, including maps with traffic and a lot more. And I am usually calling them up.

I believe that my phone should notice when I am driving off from somewhere, or about to, and automatically do some things for me. Of course, it could notice this if it ran the GPS all the time, but that’s expensive from a power standpoint, so there are other ways to identify this:

  • If the car has bluetooth, the phone usually associates with the car. That’s a dead giveaway, and can at least be a clue to start looking at the GPS.
  • Most of my haunts have wireless, and the phone associates with the wireless at my house and all the places I work. So it can notice when it disassociates and again start checking the GPS. To get smart, it might even notice the MAC addresses of wireless networks it can’t see inside the house, but which it does see outside or along my usual routes.
  • Of course moving out to the car involves jostling and walking in certain directions (it has a compass.)

Once it thinks it might be in the car, it should go to a mode where my “in the car” apps are easy to get to, in particular the live map of the location with the traffic displayed, or the screen for the nav system. Android has a “car mode” that tries to make it easy to access these apps, and it should enter that mode.

It should also now track me for a while to figure out which way I am going. Depending on which way I head and the time of day, it can probably guess which of my common routes I am going to take. For regular commuters, this should be a no-brainer. This is where I want it to be really smart: Instead of me having to call up the traffic, it should see that I am heading towards a given highway, and then check to see if there are traffic jams along my regular routes. If it sees one, Then it should beep to signal that, and if I turn it on, I should see that traffic jam. This way if I don’t hear it beep, I can feel comfortable that there is light traffic along the route I am taking. (Or that if there is traffic, it’s not traffic I can avoid with alternate routes.)

This is the way I want location based apps to work. I don’t want to have to transmit my location constantly to the cloud, and have the cloud figure out what to do at any given location. That’s privacy invading and uses up power and bandwidth. Instead the phone should have a daemon that detects location “events” that have been programmed into it, and then triggers programs when those events occur. Events include entering and leaving my house or places I work, driving certain roads and so on.

And yes, for tools like shopkick, they can even be entering stores I have registered. And as I blogged at the very beginning of this blog many years ago, we can even have an event for when we enter a store with a bad reputation. The phone can download a database of places and wireless and Bluetooth MACs that should trigger events, and as such the network doesn’t need to know my exact location to make things happen. But most importantly, I don’t want to have to know to ask if there is something important near me, I want the right important things to tell me when I get near them.

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.

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