Transportation

Off to "Driverless Car Summit" and speaking to SV Autonomous Vehicle meetup Jun 20

I’m off for AUVSI’s “Driverless Car Summit” in Detroit. I attended and wrote about last year’s summit, which, in spite of being put on by a group that comes out of the military unmanned vehicle space, was very much about the civilian technology. (As I’ve said before, I have a dislike for the term “driverless car” and in fact at the summit last year, the audience expressed the same dislike but could not figure out what the best replacement term was.)

I’ll be reporting back on events at the summit, and making a quick visit to my family in Toronto as well. I will also attend the Transportation Research Board’s conference on automated vehicles at Stanford in July.

Then I’m back for the opening of our Singularity University Graduate Studies Program for 2013 at NASA Ames Research Park this coming weekend. My students will get some fun lectures on robocars, as well as many other technologies. Early bird tickets for the opening ceremony are still available.

On June 20, I will give a talk at a meeting of the new Silicon Valley Autonomous Vehicle Enthusiasts group. This group has had one talk. The talks are being hosted at Nissan’s new research lab in Silicon Valley, where they are researching robocars. I just gave a 10 minute version of my talk at Fujitsu Labs’ annual summit last week, this will be the much longer version!

SU consumes much of my summer. In the fall, you’ll see me giving talks on Robocars and other issues in Denmark, London, Milan as well as at our new Singularity University Summit in Budapest in November, as well as others around the USA.

Affordable robocars -- will it be cameras or LIDAR?

There have been a wide variety of announcements of late giving the impression that somebody has “solved the problem” of making a robocar affordable, usually with camera systems. It’s widely reported how the Velodyne LIDAR used by all the advanced robocar projects (including Google, Toyota and many academic labs) costs $75,000 (or about $30,000 in a smaller model) and since that’s more than the cost of the car, it is implied that is a dead-end approach.

Recent stories include a ride in MobilEye’s prototype car by the New York Times, a number of reports of a claim from the Oxford team (which uses LIDAR today) that they plan to do it for just $150 and many stories about a Romanian teen who won the Intel science fair with a project to build a cheaper self-driving car.

I have written an analysis of the issues comparing LIDARS (which are currently too expensive, but reliable in object detection) and vision systems (which are currently much less expensive, but nowhere near reliable enough in object detection) and why different teams are using the different technologies. Central is the question of which technology will be best at the future date when robocars are ready to be commercialized.

In particular, many take the high cost of the Velodyne, which is hand-made in small quantities, and incorrectly presume this tells us something about the cost of LIDARs a few years down the road, with the benefits of Moore’s Law and high-volume manufacturing. Saying the $75,000 LIDAR is a dead-end is like being in 1982, and noting that small disk drives cost $3,000 and declaring that planning for disk drive storage of large files is a waste of time.

Read:

Cameras or Lasers in the robocar

I will add some notes about Ionut Budisteanu, the 19-year old Romanian. His project was great, but it’s been somewhat exaggerated by the press. In particular, he mistakenly calls LIDAR “3-D radar” (an understandable mistake for a non-native English speaker) and his project was to build a lower-cost, low-resolution LIDAR, combining it with cameras. However, in his project, he only tested it in simulation. I am a big fan of simulation for development, learning, prototyping and testing, but alas, doing something in simulation, particularly with vision, is just the first small step along the way. This isn’t a condemnation of Mr. Budisteanu’s project, and I expect he has a bright future, but the press coverage of the event was way off the mark.

NHTSA published plan on how they want to regulate robocars

Today the National Highway Transportation Safety Agency (NHTSA) released their plan on regulation of automated vehicles, a 14 page document on various elements of the technology and how it might be regulated.

No regulations yet of course, but a message that they plan to look hard at the user interface, particularly on the handoff between a human driver and the system. All reasonable stuff. They define 4 levels of autonomy (similar to prior lists) and say they don’t expect full unmanned operation for some time, and discourage states from even making it legal to use level 3 (where the driver can do another task) by ordinary folks yet — only testing should be allowed.

It’s good that NHTSA is studying this, and they seem to understand that it’s too early to write regulations. It’s pretty easy to make mistakes if you write regulations before the technologists have even figured out what they intend. For example this document, as well as some Nevada law documents, suggested regulations that required the vehicle to hand over control if the driver used the wheel, brakes or accelerator. Yet by another logic, if the driver kicks the gas pedal by mistake and does not have her hands on the wheel, would we want the law to demand that the system relinquish the wheel, causing the vehicle to leave the lane if the driver doesn’t get on it quickly?

At this point their goal is lots of research on what to do, and that’s reasonable. Of course, the sooner the vehicles can get on the road safely, the sooner they can save lives, and NHTSA understands that. I also hope that the laws will not push small players out of the market entirely, as long as they can test and demonstrate safety as well as the bigger players.

Betterplace dies -- how do you make an electric robotic taxi fleet?

It seems that Better place has gone to… a better place to put it ironically. I’m not greatly surprised, I expressed my skepticism last year.

But I do believe in the idea of the self-driving electric taxi as the best answer for our future urban transportation. So how do you make it happen?

There’s a big problem with this vision. Electric cars today have perhaps 100 to 150 miles of range, which means 3 to 6 hours of operation, depending on the speeds you go. You can make more range (like a Telsa S) but only by adding a lot of weight and cost. But an effective taxi is on shift all day, or at least all the waking hours, and could easily operate 8 to 10 hours per day. While any taxi will have downtime during the day (particularly at off-peak hours) the recharge of the battery takes so long it’s hard to do during the day. Ideally you want to charge at night, when power is cheap. So let’s consider the options.

Large battery pack

You could make a vehicle with enough battery for a full day’s work, and charge it at night. This is very expensive today, and also takes a lot of room and weight in the vehicle, reducing its efficiency. You also need taxis at night so either way you have to have some taxis that work at night and recharge in the day, but not as many.

Battery swap

While battery swap did not pan out for Better Place, it actually makes much more sense for a robotic taxi fleet. You just need a few swap stations in the city. It doesn’t bother the robots if they take a while for a swap (mainly it bothers you because you need more stations.) And while humans would get very angry if they came to the swap station and saw they were 4th in line at 5 minutes/swap, robots would just schedule their swaps and get in and get out.

That’s all good, and it solves a few other problems. Taxis will be putting on lots of miles every day, and they will probably wear out their battery quickly. If the rest of the vehicle has not worn out, swap becomes ideal — replace the vehicle’s components when you need to, including the most expensive part, the battery. It also makes it easier to charge all batteries only at night, on cheap baseload power.

Swap also allows the batteries to be only used in the “easy” part of their duty cycle (from 80% to 20%) without much hassle. You only get 60% of the range, but you don’t care a lot, other than in having to buy more battery packs. You just do the math on what’s cheaper.

Superchargers

A working supercharger that can recharge a vehicle in an hour solves the problem as well. Robotic taxis can always find a spare hour without much loss of efficiency. (Indeed with none as they will age by active mile or hour.) The big problem is that supercharging generally is felt to stress the batteries and reduce the lifetime of the packs. Certainly running a car on full cycle every day and supercharging it is not going to produce a happy battery.

A robocar supercharging station could do a few extra things, though. For example, you could hook the car up to a special cooling system to pump externally chilled coolant through the batteries, as heat is the big killer in the supercharge. You might even find a way to put some pressure in to keep the cases from expanding that much, as this is a big stressor when charging.

Supercharging probably has to be done in the day, with more expensive power. One charge for the morning peak and another for the evening. Some speculate it’s worth using your inventory of old battery packs to store power during the night to release in the day. Solar can also help during the day — on sunny days, at least.

While automated connection is good, you really would not have many supercharging centers, due to their high power needs, so they could have human staff to do the work.

Both the supercharging and battery swap stations do not need to be located all that conveniently for humans. Instead, you can put them near power substations where megawatts can be purchased.

More vehicles and ordinary L2 charging

If the batteries are more expensive than the vehicles, then perhaps just having more vehicles to house all your battery packs is the answer. Then you have vehicles spending their time idle, and charging at ordinary level 2 (6kw) rates. Full level 2 can add about 20 miles of range to a car like a Leaf in an hour. Depending on the usage patterns that might not be too bad. Of course it’s daytime power again, which is expensive. Urban taxis won’t go more than about 25mph on average if they are lucky, often less, particularly at rush hour. Suburban will go a bit faster. You need stations that allow a robot to recharge, which could mean inductive, or human-staffed, or eventual robotic plug-in systems. Don’t laugh at the idea of human-staffed. The robot will not be in a super rush, so stations near retail shops or existing gas stations would work fine as long as somebody can come out and tend to the robot on connect and disconnect within 5 minutes.

It may seem like more vehicles is more expensive, but that’s not necessarily true. It depends on how and why the vehicles wear out. Ideally you design the vehicle so battery and most major vehicle components all reach end-of-life at a similar time or that they can be replaced easily. That may mean a battery that can be swapped — but in the shop, not at an automatic swap station.

Plug in hybrids?

Plug in hybrids of course solve the problem, and they can charge when they can to be mostly electric and only use that gas engine more rarely. This actually creates a downside — it’s expensive to have a fossil fuel power train around to barely use it. And it adds a fair bit to the maintenance cost. This does allow for highway travel. Otherwise, you send a liquid fuel car to anybody wanting to do a long highway trip - save the electrics for the urban travel.

Very light vehicles

Today’s electrics use about 250 to 300 watt-hours/mile. OK, but not great. Efficient designs can go below 100 watt/hours per mile. That means doing 300 miles, which is enough for a full day in a city cab, needs only 30kwh (probably a 45kwh battery.) That’s a $22K battery today, but it will be a $9K battery by the end of this decade according to predictions. This might be quite reasonable.

New VW XL1 car, and a look inside Google [x]

Two interesting pieces today.

First is a report on the Volkswagen XL1 the car that gets 100km per litre, or 260mg.

As you read the description, you would be likely to ask, who would buy a car like this, which takes so long to get to highway speed and skimps on anything that would add weight?

The answer of course is that only a small minority are willing to buy lightweight, super-efficient cars with poor acceleration because they save a bunch of fuel. The average American car owner spends less than $2,000 a year on fuel, and while dropping it to $200 would be very nice, it’s not something people are ready to compromise a ton of other important car features for when they buy a car. It’s even harder to justify it to go from $800/year in a Prius to $200 in an ultralight, especially if the car costs more because of it.

This is the fact about robocars which changes the game. Mobility on demand from self-delivering robocars rewrites all the economics of cars because it changes the question from “What car should I buy?” to “What car do I want to ride in for this trip?”

If you buy such a car, you know you will do almost all your car travel in it. You are saying to yourself, I will never go driving for fun. I will never go on a trip in the mountains. I’ll never put 4 friends in my car. Never, or almost never. People don’t want to say that to themselves.

All that goes away when asking the question about what to ride in for an upcoming trip. If you’re going to be taxied across town, never even taking the wheel, you don’t care that the car can’t accelerate. In fact, you would prefer a gentle trip with smooth accelerations. You don’t care if the car can climb a mountain, or drive in snow, or even go on the highway if this trip doesn’t involve a highway.

Because you don’t care about those things, you will bump the priority of other things — is it comfortable? Does it come quickly? Is the price low? The latter question will make you prefer the efficient car.

Some questions will remain the same. You’ll always want safety. But so many of the other factors change so much that all the economics of cars get rewritten. So expect to see more cars like this, or the Very Light Car or the half-width vehicles I have written about.

Google [x]

You might like to read this story today that looks inside Google[x] the lab which is making Googl’es robocar and where I have been a consultant. That lab rarely lets the press in. You may not learn a lot about the Google car project from it, but you will learn about the thinking there.

Automating big-event parking

There are a growing number of apps designed to help people find parking, and even reserve and pay for parking in advance. Some know the state of lots. These apps are good for the user but also can produce a public good by reducing the number of people circling looking for parking. Studies suggest in certain circumstances a large fraction of the cars on the road are doing that.

This weekend, I attended the Maker Faire. I’ve been to almost every Make Faire, including the first, and now it’s grown to be far too successful — you can hardly walk down the aisles at the busy times. They need more space and a way to put more of it outside so thin out the crowds. Still, it is one of those places that makes you feel very clearly you are in the 21st century.

Early on Maker Faire realized it had a parking problem. The lot at the fairgrounds fills up now even before the event opens, and they manage various satellite lots and run shuttle buses to them.

This year they tried something interesting, a twitter feed with parking updates. They tweeted when lots filled up or re-opened, and suggested where to go. They took some limited feedback about lack of shuttles. I think that it by and large worked and reduced traffic around the event.

However, my judgment is that they were not entirely honest in their tweets. This year, and in prior years, they strongly encouraged people to go to one of the most remote lots, regularly telling people it was the fastest route to the event. This was not true. I don’t want to ascribe any particular malice here, but there is a suspicion that there is a temptation to make reports in the interest of the event rather than the user. This does have positives, in that cars diverted from near the event reduce traffic which makes the shuttle buses run much faster, but if you give wrong information (deliberately or by accident) this means people stop trusting it and you get the traffic back as more people ignore it.

For example, we stopped at a remote lot, and saw a very long shuttle line. We drove on to a closer lot (also reported as having spaces, but not reported as clearly a better choice) to find lots of spaces, no shuttle line, frequent shuttles and also a walk that was only slightly longer than the shuttle trip.  read more »

Daimler appears to have pulled back on the S-class traffic jam assist

Hints from the release this week of the 2014 Mercedes S-Class suggest that it doesn’t have the promised traffic jam assist. Update: Other reports suggest it might still be present.

The S-class only gets major updates infrequently, though an intermediate update will come in 2017. A story on Auto Express quotes Mercedes as saying “We can do it now, but there are rules in place that we have to accept” but that a fully autonomous car will come before the next full-revision of the S class due in 2021.

Instead, this car features a lanekeep + ACC mode that requires your hand be “touching” the wheel, and starts complaining if you take your hands off for a while.

This is a setback on what was to be the first commercially released car. While the various state laws do not tend to cover cars that provide an autopilot that requires constant visual attention from the driver, Mercedes may have been afraid of the regulatory environment in the Europe.

In addition, there has always been a special risk to this approach. Even if you insist to the driver that they must pay attention, they will surely ignore that warning once they get away with occasional inattention — after all, they will send text messages now with no auto-driving at all. Car companies can build a lane-keeping car today, but to stop you from trusting it too much they end up with systems like “keep touching the wheel” or a gaze detector that makes sure you keep watching the road, and people don’t like these systems very much.

Will Volvo and Audi, who have also announced plans for lakekeep+ACC super-cruise cars also pull back? Cadillac, which actually uses the name super-cruise, has pulled back from their 2015 date while at the same time talking to the press about their testing program.

Senate Hearings

In other news, the hearings in the Senate yesterday had most of their focus on these early technologies, and as expected, both David Strickland of NHTSA and the various industry folks were gung-ho on DSRC for V2V and very eager to recommend that the FCC not be allowed to convert the DSRC spectrum to unlicenced as it wishes to do. Here is a summary of the meeting which was attended by only a few senators. Both Johnson and Rockefeller surprised me with their skill in the questions. While Johnson was not up on all the ADAS technologies, he was able to see through a number of the industry claims.

New surveys with growing acceptance levels

Some interesting robocar surveys are out.

Today, a survey conducted by Cisco showed very high numbers of people saying, “yes, they would ride in a robocar.” 57% said yes globally, with 60% in the USA and an incredible 95% in Brazil. (Perhaps it is the trully horrible traffic in the big cities of Brazil which drives this number.) A bit more surprising was the 28% number for Japan.

When they asked people if they would put their kids in a car, the answer was lower, but only slightly lower, which surprises me, as I felt it should take a bit more trust demonstration for people do do that. The reality is that if 60% are saying yes right now, without having seen the technology at all, the real number is actually quite a bit higher.

The Japanese number is also curious, since our stereotype is that the Japanese are the people most accepting of robotics in the world.

An British Survey reported similar results, with highest desire in London — possibly also related to the amount of traffic.

Another survey from the UK asked the question “which company would you trust to improve car safety” with astonishing results. The winner was Apple, which has no announced car safety plans, with Google in 2nd place. What is shocking is that Volvo comes 3rd — really a close tie with Google, and Mercedes 4th. Volvo’s entire brand is to be the car safety leader, and Mercedes has been trying to take that status away, but I would never have guessed that the silicon valley tech companies would win this.

It’s even more surprising that Apple beats Google. While Apple certainly has a quality brand, Google is the only one known to be working on cars and safety. One has to wonder just how the questions were put to these new-car buyers.

Yesterday’s KALW radio show went pretty well, the phone-in questions were pretty reasonable. The MP3 is up on their site.

Radio show on Robocars, Monday the 13th at 7pm PDT

I will be a guest on Monday the 13th (correction — I originaly said the 14th) on a the “City Visions” program, produced by one of San Francisco’s NPR affiliates, KALW. The show runs at 7pm, and you can listen live and phone in (415-841-4134), or listen to the podcast later. Details are on the page about the show.

Other guests include Bryant Walker Smith of Stanford, Martin Sierhuis of the Nissan robocar lab and Bernard Soriano from the California DMV. Should be a good panel.

In other news — it develops fast these days:

  • South Carolina has introduced a robocar bill. Here is the text.
  • The Senate science, transportation and commerce committee will be holding hearings on robocars on May 15. Expect to see more of this.

Moonshots, laws, Tesla and other recent robocar news

Here’s a roundup of various recent news items on robocars. There are now a few locations, such as DriverlessCarHQ and the LinkedIn self-driving car group which feature very extensive listing of news items related to robocars. Robocars are now getting popular enough that there are articles every day, but only a few of them contain actual real news for readers of this site or others up on the technology.

Tesla

An offhand remark from Elon Musk reveals he is interested in an “autopilot” some day for Tesla models, and has spoken to Google about it. Google declined comment. Musk says he wants a cheaper, camera based system, a surprising mistake for him. (Cameras are indeed much cheaper but not yet up to the task. LIDARs are super expensive but Musk’s mistake is in not remembering that electronics technology that’s expensive in early, small volume models does not stay expensive.)

The Tesla Model S is not a good car to make into a robocar though — it’s super fun to drive, and that’s part of why you pay so much money for it. Nothing wrong with fun to drive cars, but you should automate the boring car and leave the fun car on manual, at least for now.

Shuttles driven by maps

The Cybergo made by French company Induct is a low speed robotic shuttle for campus use. Particularly interesting is that it drives using a laser and mapping for localization — a similar fashion to the Google car and other DARPA challenge cars. It is able to mingle with pedestrians by virtue of just going slow enough to be able to stop in time and be safe.

More Laws

More states are debating robocar laws. This wiki at Stanford has a good summary of existing actions. Notable is that Oregon pulled back on their law, and New York has just drafter theirs. Massachusetts is also working on one.

The Oregon pullback is notable because one of the cited reasons was the desire to study V2V. While I have written recently on issues with V2V this moves it out of the “mostly harmless” category. V2V efforts will be useful for robocars, but not for decades, and I strongly believe it would be extreme folly to allow V2V issues to affect the progress of robocars.

Unlike Nevada’s law, many of the other state laws do not cover unmanned operation. While the reasons for this are obvious, because it’s harder to understand unmanned operation in the context of existing law, we should not forget that unmanned operation is where most of the real benefits of robocars accrue — self-delivery, mobility on demand, parking, self-refueling, service to the elderly and disabled and much more. Not that manned operation is a slouch, offering the reduced accidents and recovery of productive time as benefits.

California’s DMV recently held hearings in Sacramento as part of their process of writing the regulations required by the California bill, passed in 2012. The regulations need to be done by 2015 but may be done sooner. The US DOT also solicited comments last month.

Google hits 500,000

I noted earlier that Google announced it had hit 500,000 miles of autonomous operation on ordinary streets. Even more notable was chief engineer Chris Urmson’s report of over 90,000 miles without a safety-critical incident. (This is an incident where the safety drivers had to take over where the vehicle would have probably caused an accident.) That’s not as good as a human yet — humans have an accident about ever 250,000 miles in the USA, but getting much closer. 500,000 miles, by the way, is more than the distance to the moon and back — Google [X] always talks about moonshots — and more than many people will drive in their lifetimes.

Cadillac & Car Companies

Cadillac has pushed back the supposedly 2015 delivery for their “super cruise” product. It now will come later in the decade. Car maker conservatism is to be expected, but other makers are pushing their dates forward. The Mercedes 2014 S Class is still on track to be first.

BMW has announced a partnership with Continental, the major auto parts supplier. Continental has been pushing their cruising car for a while — I’ve ridden in it — but BMW has its own impressive effort in ConnectedDrive Connect. Today, it is quite common for systems branded by a car maker to actually be made entirely by a supplier, who gives up the branding and limelight for money. It will be interesting to see how this collaboration works. They will be testing on the autobahn.

Car company date forecasts continue to be long term, with dates in the range of 2025 for full autonomy as cited by BMW.

Bosch, another top supplier, has been making its own announcements of advanced sensors and other tools.

Princeton slide deck

Many more papers and reports on robocars are being written. This slide deck from Princeton PAVE’s Kornhauser is notable for providing a number of worthwhile statistics on road use and related issues.

Fake Google Car in New York

A crew created a fake Google car and drove it around NYC. What’s impressive is how many people thought they were seeing the real thing.

Articles

While there have been scores of articles, I will point to my friend Virginia Postrel’s Bloomberg article on Silicon Valley and robocars since I was her prime source — so it must be good. :-)

A nice trick from Daimler which I liked — a system to be kind to pedestrians as they walk down the street near parked robocars that sense them. Their plan is to light the way for these pedestrians as a favour.

Whole magazine issue

The military magazine Mission Critical has devoted an entire issue to civilian robocars which includes an article on insurance by Guy Fraker (formerly of State Farm) and a few other items of interest.

More news to come. I have also updated my Robocar Teams page with more details on teams around the world building robocars.

Anatomy of the first robocar accidents

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

So please consider:

Anatomy of a Robocar Accident

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


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

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

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

Oliver Kuttner on Very-Light-Car

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Robot Robot Law Conference and Robot Block Party

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking on Personal Clouds in SF, and Robocars in Phoenix

Two upcoming talks:

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

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

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

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

The rise of the small and narrow vehicle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

V2V and connected car part 3: Broadcast data

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solving V2V Part 2: Make it Phone to Phone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enter Car V2V

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

Perils of the long range electric car

You’ve probably seen the battle going on between Elon Musk of Tesla and the New York Times over the strongly negative review the NYT made of a long road trip in a Model S. The reviewer ran out of charge and had a very rough trip with lots of range anxiety. The data logs published by Tesla show he made a number of mistakes, didn’t follow some instructions on speed and heat and could have pulled off the road trip if he had done it right.

Both sides are right, though. Tesla has made it possible to do the road trip in the Model S, but they haven’t made it easy. It’s possible to screw it up, and instructions to go slow and keep the heater low are not ones people want to take. 40 minute supercharges are still pretty long, they are not good for the battery and it’s hard to believe that they scale since they take so long. While Better Place’s battery swap provides a tolerable 5 minute swap, it also presents scaling issues — you don’t want to show up at a station that does 5 minute swaps and be 6th in line.

The Tesla Model S is an amazing car, hugely fun to drive and zippy, cool on the inside and high tech. Driving around a large metro area can be done without range anxiety, which is great. I would love to have one — I just love $85K more. But a long road trip, particularly on a cold day? There are better choices. (And in the Robocar world when you can get cars delivered, you will get the right car for your trip delivered.)

Electric cars have a number of worthwhile advantages, and as battery technologies improve they will come into their own. But let’s consider the economics of a long range electric. The Tesla Model S comes in 3 levels, and there is a $20,000 difference between the 40khw 160 mile version and the 85kwh 300 mile version. It’s a $35K difference if you want the performance package.

The unspoken secret of electric cars is that while you can get the electricity for the model S for just 3 cents/mile at national grid average prices (compared to 12 cents/mile for gasoline in a 30mpg car and 7 cents/mile in a 50mpg hybrid) this is not the full story. You also pay, as you can see, a lot for the battery. There are conflicting reports on how long a battery pack will last you (and that in turn varies on how you use and abuse it.) If we take the battery lifetime at 150,000 miles — which is more than most give it — you can see that the extra 45kwh add-on in the Tesla for $20K is costing about 13 cents/mile. The whole battery pack in the 85kwh Telsa, at $42K estimated, is costing a whopping 28 cents/mile for depreciation.

Here’s a yikes. At a 5% interest rate, you’re paying $2,100 a year in interest on the $42,000 Tesla S 85kwh battery pack. If you go the national average 12,000 miles/year that’s 17.5 cents/mile just for interest on the battery. Not counting vehicle or battery life. Add interest, depreciation and electricity and it’s just under 40 cents/mile — similar to a 10mpg Hummer H2. (I bet most Tesla Model S owners do more than that average 12K miles/year, which improves this.)

In other words, the cost of the battery dwarfs the cost of the electricity, and sadly it also dwarfs the cost of gasoline in most cars. With an electric car, you are effectively paying most of your fuel costs up front. You may also be adding home charging station costs. This helps us learn how much cheaper we must make the battery.

It’s a bit easier in the Nissan LEAF, whose 24kwh battery pack is estimated to cost about $15,000. Here if it lasts 150K miles we have 10 cents/mile plus the electricity, for a total cost of 13 cents/mile which competes with gasoline cars, though adding interest it’s 19 cents/mile — which does not compete. As a plus, the electric car is simpler and should need less maintenance. (Of course with as much as $10,000 in tax credits, that battery pack can be a reasonable purchase, at taxpayer expense.) A typical gasoline car spends about 5 cents/mile on non-tire maintenance.

This math changes a lot with the actual battery life, and many people are estimating that battery lives will be worse than 150K miles and others are estimating more. The larger your battery pack and the less often you fully use it, the longer it lasts. The average car doesn’t last a lot more than 150k miles, at least outside of California.

The problem with range anxiety becomes more clear. The 85kwh Tesla lets you do your daily driving around your city with no range anxiety. That’s great. But to get that you buy a huge battery pack. But you only use that extra range rarely, though you spend a lot to get it. Most trips can actually be handled by the 70 mile range Leaf, though with some anxiety. You only need all that extra battery for those occasional longer trips. You spend a lot of extra money just to use the range from time to time.  read more »

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

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

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

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

They are:

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

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

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