Transportation

Robocars: Deliverbots -- computer driven trucks

For part seven of my series on Robocars, I now consider the adjunct technology I am calling Deliverbots — namely robot driven trucks and delivery vehicles, with no people inside. These turn out to have special consequences of their own. Read:

Deliverbots


Robocars: When?

For part six of my series on Robocars, consider:

When can robocars happen?

I discuss what predictions we can make about how long the Robocar future will take. While there are many technological challenges, the biggest barriers may be political, and even harder to predict.

We don’t seem to have the Jetson’s flying cars yet. What goes wrong with these predictions, and can we figure it out?


Downsides to Robocars

For part five of my series on Robocars, it’s time to understand how this is not simply a utopian future. Consider now:

The Downsides of Robocars

Every good technology has unintended consequences and downsides. Here I outline a few, but there will be more than nobody sees today. I still judge the immense upsides to be worth it, but you can judge yourself.


Car design changes due to Robocars

Robocars will suggest a great number of possible changes in the way we design and market cars. I now encourage you to read:

Automobile design changes due to Robocars

The big green benefit of robocars comes in large part from the freedom they offer in redesigning the automobile, in particular the ability to specialize automobiles to specific tasks, because they can be so readily hired on demand. Or to specific fuels in certain areas, or for sleeping, and much more.


Robocars: Roadblocks on the way

For part three of my series of Robocars, now consider:

Roadblocks on the way to Robocars

A lot of obstacles must be overcome before Robocars can become reality. Some we can see solutions for, others are as yet unsolved. It’s not going to be easy, which is why I believe an Apollo style dedication is necessary.


Robocars: The Roadmap to getting there

In part two of my series on Robocars, let me introduce:

The Roadmap to Robocars

Here I outline a series of steps along the way to the full robocar world. We won’t switch all at once, and many more limited technologies can be marketed before the day when most cars on the road are computer driven. Here are some ideas of what those steps could be — or already are.


Robocars are the future

My most important essay to date

Today let me introduce a major new series of essays I have produced on “Robocars” — computer-driven automobiles that can drive people, cargo, and themselves, without aid (or central control) on today’s roads.

It began with the DARPA Grand Challenges convincing us that, if we truly want it, we can have robocars soon. And then they’ll change the world. I’ve been blogging on this topic for some time, and as a result have built up what I hope is a worthwhile work of futurism laying out the consequences of, and path to, a robocar world.

Those consequences, as I have considered them, are astounding.

  • It starts with saving a million young lives every year (45,000 in the USA) as well as untold injury in suffering.
  • It saves trillions of dollars wasted over congestion, accidents and time spent driving.
  • Robocars can solve the battery problem of the electric car, making the electric car attractive and inexpensive. They can do the same for many other alternate fuels, too.
  • Electric cars are cheap, simple and efficient once you solve the battery/range problems.
  • Switching most urban driving to electric cars, especially ultralight short-trip vehicles means a dramatic reduction in energy demand and pollution.
  • It could be enough to wean the USA off of foreign oil, with all the change that entails.
  • It means rethinking cities and manufacturing.
  • It means the death of old-style mass transit.

All thanks to a Moore’s law driven revolution in machine vision, simple A.I. and navigation sponsored by the desire for cargo transport in war zones. In the way stand engineering problems, liability issues, fear of computers and many other barriers.

At 33,000 words, these essays are approaching book length. You can read them all now, but I will also be introducing them one by one in blog posts for those who want to space them out and make comments. I’ve written so much because I believe that of all short term computer projects available to us, no modest-term project could bring more good to the world than robocars. While certain longer term projects like A.I. and Nanotech will have grander consequences, Robocars are the sweet spot today.

I have also created a new Robocars topic on the blog which collects my old posts, and will mark new ones. You can subscribe to that as a feed if you wish. (I will cease to use the self-driving cars blog tag I was previously using.)

If you like what I’ve said before, this is the big one. You can go to the:

Master Robocar Index (Which is also available via robocars.net.)

or jump to the first article:

The Case for Robot Cars

You may also find you prefer to be introduced to the concept through a series of stories I have developed depicting a week in the Robocar world. If so, start with the stories, and then proceed to the main essays.

A Week of Robocars

These are essays I want to spread. If you find their message compelling, please tell the world.

Is Green U.S. Transit a whopping myth?

As part of my research into robotic cars, I’ve been studying the energy efficiency of transit. What I found shocked me, because it turns out that in the USA, our transit systems aren’t green at all. Several of the modes, such as buses, as well as the light rail and subway systems of most towns, consume more energy per passenger-mile than cars do, when averaged out. The better cities and the better modes do beat the cars, but only by a little bit. And new generation efficient cars beat the transit almost every time, and electric scooters beat everything hands down.

I encourage you to read the more detailed essay I have prepared on whether green U.S. transit is a myth. I’ve been very surprised by what I’ve found. It includes links to the sources. To tease you, here’s the chart I have calculated on the energy efficiency of the various modes. Read on, and show me how these numbers are wrong if you can!

I have added a follow-up post on the comparison between lots of small personal ultralight vehicles and larger shared transit vehicles.

Note: If you want to comment on the cyclist figure, there is different thread on the fossil fuel consumption in human food which details these numbers and invites comments.

Holy cow: Walking consumes more gasoline than driving!

Note to new readers: This article explores the consequences of using so much fuel to produce our food. If you come out of it thinking it’s telling you to drive rather than get some exercise, you didn’t read it! But if you like surprising numbers like this, check out the rest of my Going Green section and other sections.

In my growing research on transportation energy economics, I’ve come upon some rather astonishing research. I always enjoy debates on total cost analysis — trying to figure out the true energy cost of things, by adding in the energy spent elsewhere to make things happen. (For example, the energy to smelt the metals in your car adds quite a bit to its energy cost.)

Humans are modestly efficient. Walking, an average person burns about 100 Calories per mile at 3mph, or 300 per hour, while sitting for the same hour burns around 80 Calories just keeping you warm. In other words, the walking 3 miles uses about 220 extra Calories. Calories are kilocalories, and one Calorie/kcal is about 4 BTUs, 4200 joules or 1.63 watt-hours.

While walking 1 mile burns an extra 74 Calories, on a bicycle we’re much better. Biking one mile at 10mph takes about 38 extra calories over sitting. Again, this is the extra calories.

A gallon of gas has about 31,500 Calories in it, so you might imagine that you get 815 “mpg” biking and 400 “mpg” walking. Pretty good. (Unless you compare it to an electric scooter, which turns out to get the equivalent of 1200 mpg from pure electricity if you allow the same perfect conversion.)

But there’s a problem. We eat, on average about 2700 Calories/day in the USA, almost all of it produced by agribusiness. Which runs on fossil fuels. Fossil fuels provide the fertilizer. They run the machines. The process and transport and refrigerate the food. In many cases our food — cows — eats even more food produced with very high energy costs.

I’ve been digging around estimates, and have found that U.S. agriculture uses about 400 gasoline-gallon equivalents per American. Or 1.1 gallons per day, or about 10 Calories (40 BTU) from oil/gas for every Calorie of food. For beef, it’s far worse, as close to 40 Calories of oil/gas (160 BTU) are used to produce one Calorie of beefy goodness.

You can see where this is going. I’m not the first to figure it out, but it’s worth repeating. Your 3 mile walk burned 220 extra Calories over sitting, but drove the use of 2,200 Calories of fossil fuel. That’s 1/14th of a gallon of gasoline (9oz.) So you’re getting about 42 miles per gas-gallon of fossil fuel.

If you eat a lot of beef or other livestock, and want to consider your incremental food as having come from beef, it’s around 10 miles per gallon. A Hummer does better!

So yes, if you drive your Prius instead of walking it’s going to burn less fossil fuel. If 2 people drive in a more ordinary car it’s going to burn less fossil fuel than both of them walking.

Biking’s better. The average-diet cyclist is getting 85 miles per gallon of fossil fuel. Still better for 2 to share a Prius. The beefeater is, as before only 1/4 as good. At 21mpg he’s better than a Hummer, but not that much better.

This is a fuel to fuel comparison. The fuel burned in the cars is the same sort of fuel burned in the tractors. It has extra energy costs in its extraction and transport, but this applies equally to both cases. And yes, of course, the exercise has other benefits than getting from A to B. And we have not considered a number of the other external costs of the vehicle travel — but they still don’t make this revelation less remarkable. (And neither does this result suggest one should not still walk or bike, rather it suggests we should make our food more efficiently.)

And no, picking transit isn’t going to help. Transit systems, on average, are only mildly greener than cars. City buses, in fact, use the same energy per passenger mile as typical cars. Light rail is sometimes 2 and rarely even 3 times better than cars, but in some cities like San Jose, it uses almost twice as much energy per actual passenger than passenger cars do. Taking existing transit vehicles that are already running is green, of course, but building inefficient lines isn’t.

Many people take this idea as a condemnation of cycling or exercise. It isn’t. Cycling is my favourite exercise. It is a condemnation of how much fossil fuel is used in agriculture. And, to a much lesser extent, a wakeup call to people who eat the average diet that they can’t claim their human-powered travel as good for the planet — just good for them. What would be good for the planet would be to eat a non-agribusiness diet and also walk or bike. How your food is farmed is more important though, than where it comes from. It’s the farming, not the shipping, that’s the big energy eater.

Obviously if you were going to need the exercise anyway, doing it while getting from A to B is not going to burn extra oil. Human powered travel well above the need to exercise is the only thing that would hurt, if fueled by U.S. agriculture. And eating a high calorie diet and not exercising would be just as bad.

Happy eating!

What’s not wrong with these numbers

As I note, since most of us need to exercise anyway, this is not at all a condemnation of walking and cycling, but rather of the amount of fossil fuel that agriculture uses. However, a lot of people still find faults with this analysis that I don’t think are there.

  • No, it doesn’t matter that making the fuel costs energy. It’s (roughly) the same fuel going into the tractors as going into the gas tanks. We’re comparing fuel in tank to fuel in tank. But if you really want to factor that in, about 82% of well energy makes it to the gas tank of the car or tractor.
  • Yes, I do account for the fact that just eating or sitting consumes calories. This calculation is based on the extra calories that biking or walking take, compared to sitting in a car. The base “keep you alive” calories are not counted, but they do require more fossil fuel to create.
  • I don’t include the energy required to make a car, which ranges from 25% (Prius) to 7% (Hummer) of its lifetime energy usage. However, most cyclists and pedestrians still own cars, so this is still spent if it sits in the garage while you walk. And while a 2000lb car may take 60-100 times as much energy to make as a 30lb bike, this is not so large a difference if expressed per lifetime vehicle-mile.
  • This is based on the USA averages. Of course different food means different results, but doesn’t change this story, which is about the average eater.
  • I don’t include the energy needed to build roads for bikes, cars and food delivery trucks. The reality is, we’re not going to build fewer roads because people take some trips walking for exercise. Nor are people going to not buy a car because they do that.

Robodelivery and high-end, low-usage equipment rental (and NPR interview)

Earlier on, I identified robot delivery vehicles as one of the steps on the roadmap to robot cars. In fact, these are officially what the DARPA grand challenges really seek, since the military wants robots that can move things through danger zones without putting soldiers at risk.

Deliverbots may well be allowed on the road before fully automated robotaxis for humans because there are fewer safety issues. Deliverbots can go more slowly, as most cargo is not super-urgent. If they go slower, and have a low weight limit, it may be the case that they can’t cause much harm if they go astray. Obviously if a deliverbot crashes into an inanimate object, it just cost money and doesn’t injure people. The deliverbot might be programmed to be extra-cautious and slow around anything like a person. As such, it might be allowed on the road sooner.

I gave a talk on Robot cars at the BIL conference, and an attendee came up to suggest the deliverbots enable a new type of equipment rental. Because they can bring you rental equipment quickly, cheaply and with no hassle, they make renting vastly more efficient and convenient. People will end up renting things they would never consider renting today. Nowadays you only rent things you really need which are too expensive or bulky to own.

By the way, the new NPR morning show the “Bryant Park Project” decided to interview a pair of speakers, one from TED and one from BIL, so I talked about my robot cars talk. You can listen to the segment or follow links to hear the whole show.

It was suggested even something as simple as a vacuum cleaner could become a rental item. Instead of buying a $200 vacuum to clean your floors once a week, you might well rent a super-high quality $2,000 unit which comes to you with short notice via deliverbot. This would also be how you might treat all sorts of specialized, bulky or expensive tools. Few will keep their own lathe, band saw or laser engraver, but if you can get one in 10 minutes, you would never need to.

(Here in silicon valley, an outfit called Tech Shop offers a shop filled with all the tools and toys builders like, for a membership fee and materials cost. It’s great for those who are close to it or want to trek there, but this could be better. This in turn would also let us make better use of the space in our homes, not storing things we don’t really need to have.

Predictive traction control

Yesterday I wrote about predictive suspension, to look ahead for bumps on the road and ready the suspension to compensate. There should be more we can learn by looking at the surface of the road ahead, or perhaps touching it, or perhaps getting telemetry from other cars.

It would be worthwhile to be able to estimate just how much traction there is on the road surfaces the tires will shortly be moving over. Traction can be estimated from the roughness of dry surfaces, but is most interesting for wet and frozen surfaces. It seems likely that remote sensing can tell the temperature of a surface, and whether it is wet or not. Wet ice is more slippery than colder ice. It would be interesting to research techniques for estimating traction well in front of the car. This could of course be used to slow the car down to the point that it can stop more easily, and to increase gaps between cars. However, it might do much more.

A truly accurate traction measurement could come by actually moving wheels at slightly different speeds. Perhaps just speeding up wheels at two opposite corners (very slightly) or slowing them down could measure traction. Or perhaps it would make more sense to have a small probe wheel at the front of the car that is always measuring traction in icy conditions. Of course, anything learned by the front wheels about traction could be used by the rear wheels.

For example, even today an anti-lock brake system could, knowing the speed of the vehicle, notice when the front wheels lock up and predict when the rear wheels will be over that same stretch of road. Likewise if they grip, it could be known as a good place to apply more braking force when the rear wheels go over.

In addition, this is something cars could share information about. Each vehicle that goes over a stretch of road could learn about the surface, and transmit that for cars yet to come, with timestamps of course. One car might make a very accurate record of the road surface that other cars passing by soon could use. If for nothing else, this would allow cars to know what a workable speed and inter-car gap is. This needs positioning more accurate that GPS, but that could easily be attained with mile marker signs on the side of the road that an optical scanner can read, combined with accurate detection of the dotted lines marking the lanes. GPS can tell you what lane you're in if you can't figure it out. Lane markers could themselves contain barcodes if desired -- highly redundant barcodes that would tolerate lots of missing pieces of course.

This technology could be applied long before the cars drive themselves. It's a useful technology for a human driven car where the human driver gets advice and corrections from an in-car system. "Slow down, there's a patch of ice ahead" could save lives. I've predicted that the roadmap to the self-driving car involves many incremental improvements which can be sold in luxury human-driven cars to make them safer and eventually accident proof. This could be a step.

Predictive suspension

I’m not the first to think of this idea, but in my series of essays on self driving cars I thought it would be worth discussing some ideas on suspension.

Driven cars need to have a modestly tight suspension. The driver needs to feel the road. An AI driven car doesn’t need that, so the suspension can be tuned for the maximum comfort of the passengers. You can start bu just making it much softer than a driver would like, but you can go further.

There are active suspension systems that use motors, electromagnets or other systems to control the ride. Now there are even products to use ferrofluids, whose viscosity can be controlled by magnetic fields, in a shock absorber.

I propose combining that with a scanner which detects changes in the road surface and predicts exactly the right amount of active suspension or shock absorption needed for a smooth ride. This could be done with a laser off the front bumper, or even mechanically with a small probe off the front with its own small wheel in front of the main wheel.

As such systems improve, you could even imagine it making sense to give a car more than 4 wheels. With the proper distribution of wheels, it could become possible, if a bump is coming up for just one or two of the wheels to largely decouple the vehicle from those wheels and put the weight on the others. With this most bumps might barely affect the ride. This could mean a very smooth ride even on a bumpy dirt or gravel road, or a poorly maintained road with potholes. (The decoupling would also stop the pothole from doing much damage to the tire.)

As a result, our self-driving cars could give us another saving, by reducing the need for spending on road maintenance. You would still need it, but not as much. Of course you still can’t get rid of hills and dips.

I predict that some riders at least will be more concerned with ride comfort than speed. If their self-driving car is a comfortable work-pod, with computer/TV and phone, time in the car will not be “downtime” if the ride is comfortable enough. Riders will accept a longer trip if there are no bumps, turns and rapid accelerations to distract them from reading or working.

Now perfect synchronization with traffic lights and other vehicles will avoid starts and stops. But many riders will prefer very gradual accelerations when starts and stops are needed. They will like slower, wider turns with a vehicle which gimbals perfectly into the turn. And fewer turns to boot. They’ll be annoyed at the human driven cars on the road which are more erratic, and force distracting changes of speed or vector. Their vehicles may try to group together, and avoid lanes with human drivers, or choose slightly slower routes with fewer human drivers.

The cars will warn their passengers about impending turns and accelerations so they can look up — the main cause of motion sickness is a disconnect between what your eyes see and your inner ear feels, so many have a problem reading or working in an accelerating vehicle.

People like a smooth, distraction free trip. In Japan, the Shinkansen features the express Nozomi trains which include cars where they do not make announcements. You are responsible for noticing your stop and getting off. It is a much nicer place to work, sleep or read.

Rental car that personalizes to you

Rental car companies are often owned by car manufacturers and are their biggest customers. As cars get more and more computerized, how about making rental cars that know how to personalize to the customer?

When Hertz assigns me a car, they could load into its computer things like the dimensions of my body, so that the seat and mirrors are already set for me (simply remembered from the last time I rented such a car, for example.) If I have a co-driver, a switch would set them for her. The handsfree unit would be paired in advance with my bluetooth phone.

The prep crew would have made sure there was a charger for our cell phones and other mobile devices in the car, at least for the major charger types such as USB and mini-USB, which should become standard on car dashes soon anyway. Perhaps there could even be a docking cradle.

The radio stations should be set to how I set them the last time I was in the rental town. If this is unknown, stations of the formats I like should be on the buttons I use. (Button 1 for NPR/CBC, Button 2 for Jazz, Button 3 for Rock, Button 4 for Classical, Button 5 for Traffic etc.) Or if satellite radio is used, settings for that could be preserved all over the world.

Any other car settings should be remembered and re-loaded for me.

All cars will have a GPS soon of course, but it should also be a bluetooth one that will transmit to my laptop or PDA if I want that. While I don’t want the company keeping a log of where I drive, it would be nice if I could specify destinations I plan to visit on the rental car web site when I reserve the car, and these would be pre-loaded into the GPS. And perhaps it could also be trained to my voice. For cars with a keycode entry, the code could be “my” keycode.

In other words, every possible thing you can easily customize about your own car should be available for loading into a rental car, to make it seem more like your car. And, of course, if you already drive such a car, it could very well be your car. (Though in the USA, because the rental car companies have these close relationships with Ford, GM and the like, don’t expect that if you drive an imported car.)

Is it that much time to set up a car when you rent it? Not really. But this is just something nice for the future. Regular readers will know I predict that as cars drive themselves, we will far more routinely use hired vehicles, and this sort of “make it mine” technology will become more important then.

A plane that goes on a train

As I noted, at DLD Lufthansa had a contest (which I won) for suggestions on how to innovate to compete with trains. They set the time horizon out 15 years, which really means a lot is possible, so while I mostly threw in ideas from this blog which are short term, I put in some longer term ones too.

One was the equivalent of “multi modal transport.” To do this, you would build new short-haul planes which consisted of an empty shell, like the cargo planes you have seen where the nose hinges up, and cargo modules are slid in on rails. This would be combine with “passenger modules” which can slide into the shell, and which can also slide into a special rail car. There might be one module on a plane, though it is also possible to have several.

Passengers would board a train normally at the train station. Then, as the train moved to the airport, they could move to the passenger module car. They would place their luggage onto a belt to put it down low into the luggage module (under the passenger module) or be assisted by a porter. They would enter the passenger module, stow their carry-ons and otherwise get ready in their seat. By the time the train got to the airport, all passengers would be in their seats, belted and ready.

The train would split up into different cars if there were several flights on it, and each would move to a terminus where the plane-shell was waiting. Yet to be invented technology would laser-align the train and the parked shell in advance, and then the passenger module would slip into the aircraft hull on special rails. Connecting passengers could board the train at the airport before it moves to the hull, and their bags could be loaded into the bottom the standard way. (Though this is for short-haul flights, so there may not be connecting passengers.) An automated system would connect power, data and air venting on the passenger modules. Water/sewage would be self-contained and processed at the train station. Catering would probably be handled there too.

The nose would come down, the pilots board via their own door and takeoff would begin shortly.  read more »

German Ideas

I’m back from my German trip, which included the DLD conference and a bit of touring in Austria and Bavaria. DLD was a good crowd of people and speakers, though the programming was a bit of a mishmash. I’ll have some nice photos up soon.

One highlight was winning Lufthansa’s contest for innovative ideas to help aviation compete with trains. I mostly offered ideas you may have seen on this blog before, and a couple of new ones, but one of them was good enough to win their very nice prize, 2 business class tickets anywhere Lufthansa flies. I suspect I’ll return to Africa with these as that’s pricey to get to, even in coach. Of course I was helped by the fact that most conference attendees did not notice the contest/forum, and I had few competitors.

This was my 3rd trip to Germany (if you don’t count changing planes) but the first serious one as an adult. So some of these observations will be old but I felt it worth writing them down.

General observations:

  • Note to self: Go back and do more travel in Europe when the Euro was 80 cents, not $1.47. It does put a lot of sticker shock on the prices of things.
  • In particular, over $7 for gasoline, and they take it in stride. They use a lot more transit all over Europe of course, and drive a lot more tiny cars that are much better on fuel. I rented a Toyota Yaris, which actually was quite suitable except climbing some hills in the Alps. They need to start selling more cars like it in the USA, if just for parking.
  • Why do Europeans make good bread so reliably? In the USA, bad bread is just too easy to find.
  • The food in Tirol is great, a nice mix of Italian and Germanic. Surprised this hasn’t spread out more into the world. Tirol used to be Italian, now it’s Austrian.
  • We found a tremendous deal for SIM cards for our phones at the Schleker drugstores for smobil.de. For 15 euros we got 2 SIM cards, each loaded with 10 euros of airtime, and best of all 1/cent minute for on-network calls for the first 30 days. For us all we wanted was 10 days and thus they were like almost free walkie-talkies. Of course, higher prices while in Austria so nothing’s perfect but this rate was hard to beat. Unfortunately all instructions, menus etc. were in German.
  • OK, Salzberg, I get it that Mozart was born in your town. Really.
  • Pizza seems to be the top fast food of Bavaria and Tirol, with Donner Kebabs a close second. Now close to Italy you would think that made sense until you realize that Pizza itself, while Italian in heritage, was developed in the USA. (Not that Italians don’t know how to make it well, of course.)

Good ideas:

  • An old idea, but that Autobahn works. People keep to the right, and don’t block traffic that wants to go faster out of some sense of knowing what the right speed for others is. Lower accident rate, people going much faster.
  • Lufthansa has a very simple SMS check-in (for German Residents only) but you still need to get a card at the airport.
  • Boarding in Frankfurt, they had a sealed waiting area, and you had your boarding pass/passport scanned when you entered the waiting area, not when trying to get on the plane. As a result, loading the 777 was super fast, they just wanted to make sure you were in the rows they called. They did not allow Premier members to board early — but I think that’s the right thing to do anyways.
  • Stay in German Gasthausen and Pensions rather than fancier hotels. Cheaper and better experience.
  • For even cheaper calling if you don’t have a local SIM card, hunt for wireless and use Skype or VoIP from your laptop.
  • The pedestrian plaza at MUC airport to walk to the trains from the terminal is quite nice. Nice pedestrian spaces are not so common in U.S. airports which are all about getting people from cars to planes.
  • Deutches Museum, which we intended to spend more time in, but instead must return to again.
  • It’s fun to see how totally vanished the borders have become. I wonder if some day the disused border stations might be rented out as gas stations or convenience stores. Even the Swiss-Austrian border is just a wave through, no questions, no showing of ID. Meanwhile, the Canada-US border grows tighter, with passport demands and probably fingerprints some day.
  • Taking the side-roads when the Autobahn in Austria wants to go through a 20km tunnel. What views! Some of the tunnels don’t seem to bypass anything, they must be there to keep snow off the roads and highway noise away from the rural settings. Pretty expensive way to do that, though.

Ideas that may not be so good:

  • Almost all the toilets we used had their tank (and yes, at least some had a tank) mounted in the wall. Germans don’t seem to want to see the tank. Not sure how you fix it when it goes bad, though. Like Australians, some had 2 buttons (one for #1 and one for #2) or a way to stop the flush for a lesser flush. Perhaps I am confused and all were just on 3/4” pipe and had no tank, but some seemed to.
  • One downside of the local hotels: German beds, which involve two twins next to each other, and two independent integrated sheet/blankets. Really annoying for a couple sleeping together, hard to tuck in, easy to create air gaps. Easy for cleaning but that’s about it.
  • Most of the old towns had complex regulations about who could drive in and when. As such, it could not be expressed in international road signs, making it very confusing for tourists — and these old towns are the main tourist targets — who come in cars. Bring a good translation guide to try to understand where you can stop or park! I’m not demanding everybody speak English, of course, but in tourist areas a special effort is worthwhile.
  • Car rental is very expensive and has not reached the computerized ease of use seen from things like Hertz #1 Club where you just walk up and your car is waiting, keys in it. Of course it is a much less car oriented place, but there are still lots of cars. Unlike almost everything else, rental car companies advertise rates without taxes.
  • Germans for some time have been huge consumers of bottled mineral water, usually fizzy. I don’t like this myself, and in fact I don’t even like the bottled still waters which are the only alternatives a lot of the time. It’s not just the fact that it’s $8 for a bottle at most restaurants: bottled water is very un-green which you would think the birthplace of the Green party would understand. But when I asked for tap water they always looked at me strangely, and in one case even refused to serve it to me! Attempts to explain the ecological point always resulted in “that’s the first time I’ve heard that.”
  • Like many other countries, a hotel room for 2 is much more than a room for 1. Which is, I guess, good for the single traveller and bad for the couple. Of course, one main reason is that almost always a room comes with a fairly nice breakfast. Some hotels list their double price, some list a per-person price for a double making it harder to compare.

More automatic valet parking and self-driving tow vehicles.

I want to enhance two other ideas I have talked about. The first was the early adoption of self-driving cars for parking. As I noted, long before we will accept these cars on the road we’ll be willing to accept automatic parking technology in specially equipped parking lots that lets us get something that’s effectively valet parking.

I also wrote about teleoperation of drive-by-wire cars for valet parking as a way to get this even earlier.

Valet parking has a lot of advantages. (I often joke, “I want to be a Valet. They get all the best parking spots” when I see a Valet Parking Only sign.) We’ve given up to 60% of our real estate to cars, a lot of that to parking. It’s not just denser, though. It can make a lot of sense at transportation hubs like airports, where people are carrying things and want to drive right up close with their car and walk right in. This is particularly valuable in my concept of the minimalist airport, where you just drive your car up to the fence at the back of the airport and walk through a security gate at the fence right onto your plane, leaving a valet to move your car somewhere, since you can’t keep it at the gate.

But valet parking breaks down if you have to move the cars very far, because the longer it takes to do this, the fewer cars you can handle per valet, and if the flow is imbalanced, you also have to get valets back quickly even if there isn’t another car that needs to come back. Valet parking works best of all when you can predict the need for your car a few minutes in advance and signal it from your cell phone. (I stayed at a hotel once with nothing but valet parking. The rooms were far enough from the door, however, that if you called from your room phone, your car was often there when you got to the lobby.)

So I’m now imagining that as cars get more and more drive-by-wire features, that a standardized data connection be created (like a trailer hitch brake connection, but even more standard) so that it’s possible to plug in a “valet unit.” This means the cars would not have any extra costs, but the parking lots would be able to plug in units to assist in the automated moving of the cars.  read more »

Videocall terminals, with scanners and printers, for customer service

I just went through a hellish weekend at the hands of United Airlines, trying to change planes at Dulles on Saturday, and not getting to California until Monday. I wasn’t alone, and while I do wish to vent at the airline, there are things that could have been better with a bit of new thinking.

As flights were canceled or delayed, and planes filled up, for most customers the only answer was the customer service centers inside the terminals. These quickly had lines of hundreds of people with waits of several hours. In some cases, just for simple transactions like getting a hotel voucher because you had been moved to the next day. (While it is possible to get such vouchers at the ticketing desks outside the secure area, Dulles is not an easy airport to move around, and people were reluctant to take the shuttles to the master terminal and leave the secure area without knowing their fate.)

Among the many things the airline is to be faulted for is having no real way to deal with the huge numbers of customers who need service when a cascading problem occurs. Multi-hour waits simply don’t cut it. The answer lies in extending the facilities of the self-service kiosks. At those kiosks you can do basic check-in, changes of seating and some other minor changes. You go up, put in your card or confirmation number, and you can do some transactions. You can also pick up the phone and talk to an agent sitting in their Nova Scotia call center. The kiosk has a printer that can print boarding passes. Unfortunately the agents are not empowered to do more than help you with what the kiosk can do. They can’t be like the other customer service agents and rebook flights or issue vouchers.

When you have a big company like an airline, that may suddenly need hundreds of agents for one trouble spot, video kiosks with printers (and scanners) seem like a great idea. Stations could be installed where customers can come and talk to an agent by videocall. They can feed documents into scanners or show them to the camera. They can feed documents into hoppers that will destroy them if that’s needed. And a more full printer could print them any documents they need — boarding passes, tickets, hotel, food and transportation vouchers. In fact, unless agents have to physically handle luggage or control who gets on a plane, they don’t need to be right there at all.

Of course this is not as personal as a live human in front of you. But it’s much better than a phone agent (and lots of listening to Rhapsody in Blue.) And, if the need arises, you can suddenly have 100 agents serving a problem area instead of 5, and focus the on-site agents on on-site problems.

Of course, the scanners and printers are only needed at rare intervals during the transactions, so another approach would be to let people have a combined web/videocall experience on any laptop computer, and to contract with the providers of airport wifi service to make access to the airline’s support website a free feature. Do that and suddenly there can be a thousand customer service videoconference tools in an airport that needs one. (They can all show video, and a growing number of laptops can also send it.) A smaller bank of scanners and printers can handle the portions of the transaction that need that. For example, you contact customer service on the laptop and the agent tells you to line up at scanner #5 and scan your documents. Then you work out your problems, and the agent tells you to go to printer #3 and get your new documents. (Destruction of old documents can be handled by the machine or possibly an on-site agent who does little but that.)

In fact, a lot of the stuff done at airport gates could be done this way. All the hassling at the desk is easy to do remotely. Only the actual ushering onto the planes needs live people. It may be less personal but I would rather have this than standing in line for long periods. They key factor is the ability to move agents around to where they are needed in an instant, so that there is no waiting (and little wasted time by agents.)

Of course, agents can also be very far away. Though I would resist the temptation to make them too far away (like India.) Not that there aren’t good workers in India but too many companies fall for the temptation to get employees in India that are even cheaper than the good ones, and simply not up to the jobs they are given. The Nova Scotia crew were helpful and their distance was not a problem.

This principle can apply to conference and tradeshow registration as well. Why fly in staff to a remote tradeshow to do such jobs which tend to be quite bursty. Have local staff to man scanners and printers, and remote staff to talk on the videophone and solve my problems. It’s so much cheaper than the cost of transporting and housing staff.

Of course, you can also just plain have a good internet/web customer service center. But I’m talking here about the problem of people who are at your facility, and deserve more than that. They need a live person to solve their problems, they need to combine what they can do on the computer with what a skilled (and authorized) agent can make happen, and because they are on location and upset, and not just at home on the computer, they deserve the expense of a bit more money to provide good service.  read more »

More on selfish merge and jams

I wrote earlier this week about selfish merging and traffic jams and this prompted some to ask if the selfish merge is really selfish. Update: There is more and new thinking in this later post on selfish merge being not so selfish.

There are two forms in which it is selfish. At its most basic, it is barging into line. A series of cars is traveling the road, and one car, who is behind all the others, waits for them to merge out of the vanishing lane, then zooms ahead of all of them, and get somebody up front to let them in where the merge has made things stop-and-go. 100 people behind the merger are delayed 5 seconds each, and he gains 500 seconds compared to joining the back of the line. That’s if you presume it’s a zero sum situation.

However, I believe it is worse than zero-sum, for a couple of reasons. A typical highway lane can handle 2,000 cars/hour, but only about 1,000 if traffic slows to a crawl. Cars that merge while traffic is still flowing are less likely to cause the collapse than those who attempt to merge from a stopped position at the end of the vanishing lane. It starts when somebody slows to let them in, or they barge in forcing somebody to brake.

Now if two lanes able to carry 2,000 cars/hour merge to one, we can only have smooth flow if there are in fact only 1,000 cars per hour (or fewer, since heavy merging reduces capacity to about 1,500 cars/hour) in each lane. If input is within the output capacity of the continuing lane, we can do fine. However, if slowing to stop and go reduces the chokepoint to 1,000 cars per hour, we can only handle 500/cars/hour/lane or the jam backs up for a long distance. Once input exceeds the output capacity we must take more dramatic steps to stop a long traffic jam.

This is the theory that supports metering lights on highways. As long as the highway flows at good speed, its capacity is high and sufficient for the traffic. If it gets a burst of high-demand, it collapses into a traffic jam. Thus, for people waiting at metering lights, while they are annoyed at waiting, in fact because everybody is being metered they will get there faster than if they don’t wait. For the car at the “tipping point” it can be the case that if they wait, they will join a smooth traffic flow, but if they rush into traffic, they will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and slows everybody, including themselves.

My proposal is similar to metering lights, except for a merge. Merging reduces lane capacity as cars must increase spacing to allow safe merging. Or they must stop entirely in a jam. If demand starts to exceed capacity, my proposal is to prohibit merging well down the highway. The cars in the continuing lane zoom through without merging using the full capacity of the lane. However, from time to time they must stop (creating a waiting line) to let the cars in the vanishing lane through, also at full speed without merging. The volume of cars through the chokepoint is what matters here, and if we can increase that to 2,000 cars/hour instead of 1,000 cars/hour, we will have a far shorter jam when there is no choice but to have a jam (ie. more than 2,000 cars/hour coming in.) And by encouraging cars to merge early, we can avoid a jam when we have less than 1,500 cars/hour coming in. When we have something in between, we introduce a hopefully short single pause but maintain a little under 2,000 in output capacity. We would need experimentation to learn what the output capacity is with metered stopping.

Radio transmitter to solve selfish merge

I have written before about the selfish merge which is a tricky problem to solve. One lane vanishes, and the merge brings everybody to a standstill. Selfish drivers zoom up the vanishing lane to the very end and are let in by other drivers there, causing the backup. The selfish strategy is the fastest way through the blockage, yet causes the blockage.

My thinking on Burning Man Exodus made me wonder if we might have a robot signal drivers not with lights but with radio. At the merge point we would place a computer with a radio transmitter, and detectors to measure the speed of traffic in each lane. If traffic flowed at a good speed, it would do nothing. If traffic slowed, signs would light up saying “Tune to and Obey AM 1610. $500 fine for lane changing without clearance.”

The robot would be at the merge point, and also have traffic lights marked with lane numbers of names.

The radio robot would then move the lanes through the merge. The key is the robot can tell an entire lane to start moving slowly simultaneously, and to stop simultaneously, even over a longer distance. So it can command the left lane to start moving and the others to remain stopped and not to change lanes. When the left lane has emptied, it can command it to stop and the red light for that lane would go on (clearly visible at the merge point.) A camera could record anybody running the red light or changing lanes into that lane as it is emptying. As it is clearing, the radio voice can tell the next lane to prepare to move, and give it the green light and the verbal command to do so. Lower priority would be given to the lane that is vanishing and those stuck in it — they were supposed to do a nice zipper merge a mile back, and are only stuck in it because they didn’t do so. This means that zooming up in the vanishing lane becomes punished rather than rewarded, and as a result, this jam-clearing approach would be needed far less.

The system would have to be experimented with and tuned for the best results.

There is a problem that there has to be some point where the system starts, after which lane changes are forbidden. There is a risk that a jam could be created there rather than at the physical merge point, by people in the vanishing lane trying to get into to continuing lane. This is the parameter we would tune — how much punishment can we give the people who wait too long in the vanishing lane before they start creating a jam a bit further up the road? Perhaps no punishment is needed, just equal treatment.

Of course there are two types of merges. Some are temporary, due to construction. Others are permanent. I am primarily aiming at the temporary ones here though it’s possible that solutions could be found for permanent merge-jams. However, in permanent merges, drivers get to know the parameters and will try to game them. If we move where the merge is it’s hard not to simply move the jam.

There is also the question of the very few cars without radios, and those who can’t understand basic instructions in the languages given on the radio. (The instructions can be said in up to 3 languages, I would think.) Such drivers would have to just follow the other cars, which is doable, even if their reaction time will not be as quick. Drivers who can’t read the signs already face the risk of violating traffic laws, of course.

I also don’t know how much gain you get from everybody being able to stop and start at once on voice command. Obviously moving cars need wider spacing than stopped cars, so you can’t actually start everybody at once like a train. Still, I think it should be possible to drain a blockage faster with the combination of coordinated starting and nobody else being allowed to merge into the lane during the period.

It’s also possible the voice could tell cars in the vanishing lane to simultaneously enter the continuing lane once it has been cleared, but that requires a way to stop oncoming traffic from entering that lane during that process, and it’s easier if all equipment can be placed at the merge point.

Is robot delivery on the roadmap for self-driving cars?

Last week I talked briefly about self-driving delivery vehicles. I’ve become interested in what I’ll call the “roadmap” (pun intended) for the adoption of self-driving cars. Just how do we get there from here, taking the technology as a given? I’ve seen and thought of many proposals, and been ignoring the one that should stare us in the face — delivery. I say that because this is the application the DARPA grand challenge is actually aimed at. They want to move cargo without risks to soldiers. We mostly think of that as a path to the tech that will move people, but it may be the pathway.

Robot delivery vehicles have one giant advantage. They don’t have to be designed for passenger safety, and you don’t have to worry about that when trying to convince people to let them on the road. They also don’t care nearly as much about how fast they get there. Instead what we care about is whether they might hit people, cars or things, or get in the way of cars. If they hit things or hurt their cargo, that’s usually just an insurance matter. In fact, in most cases even if they hit cars, or cars hit them, that will just be an insurance matter.

A non-military cargo robot can be light and simple. It doesn’t need crumple zones or airbags. It might look more like a small electric trike, on bicycle wheels. (Indeed, the Blue Team has put a focus on making it work on 2 wheels, which could be even better.) It would be electric (able to drive itself to charging stations as needed) and mechanically, very cheap.

The first step will be to convince people they can’t hit pedestrians. To do that, the creators will need to make an urban test track and fill it with swarms of the robots, and demonstrate that they can walk out into the swarm with no danger. Indeed, like a school of fish, it should be close to impossible to touch one even if you try. Likewise, skeptics should be able to get onto bicycles, motorcycles, cars and hummers and drive right through the schools of robots, unable to hit one if they try. After doing that for half an hour and getting tired, doubters will be ready to accept them on the roads.  read more »

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