Series on robocars in Wired

I’m back from a trip to the Netherlands and Ontario, and there’s more to come on that, but the press awakening about robocars continues to grow:

This week, Wired has expanded it’s “Let the Robot Drive” series with more articles:

In other news the Sartre road-train project reports a successful high-speed test with with a convoy of 4 vehicles behind a truck.

Airline bureacracy reigns at United

Two recent flight booking experiences on United Airlines:

a) I booked a round trip to Toronto with miles. Due to new plans, I ended up getting a different flight to Toronto but wanted to take the same flight back. I had booked return tickets for 2 passengers, but you can book one-way tickets for the same miles price, and you can book passengers together or independently (later joining the reservations to sit together.) It doesn’t cost any more to get 4 single legs, it’s just a lot more work for you and the airline.

When I needed to change it, they said, no, there was no way to just use the return leg. I must cancel or not use the entire trip. To cancel and re-credit the miles is $250 for 2 passengers — so much for free. To re-book the one-way leg another $200 or so. The original booking was $125 in fees. That’s a bunch. Had I booked it as independent trips, I could have used my return leg, and just refunded or re-used the outgoing leg. I decided to re-use the whole trip and buy a paid fare ticket. Perhaps that’s what they wanted, but now if I want flexibility I must jump through hoops booking, and make them jump too.

b) The alternate trip was to Brussels. I booked a flight with one flight number that stops and changes flights in Chicago. It’s really two flights but with one number. Many other alternatives existed that were really two flights with different numbers. On checking in, I found that there were business class seats available. Normally on United, if you have status, that means a complimentary upgrade to busines class on the domestic flights. But because I booked it as one flight, I have no domestic flight. Other people on the same flight to Chicago with me are getting upgraded because they are not flying on to Europe while I’ll sit in coach. It’s not a long flight, but still. Next time, never book a single flight unless that’s what you really want, which you may do if it’s the same plane and that reduces your risk of lost luggage and gets you better seats. In this case, there is no advantage to the single flight number it seems, and a big loss.

Of course, phone staff have no power to make things right. Sigh.

End of rant.

Robocars and battery swap?

Update: When I first wrote this, I was under the mistaken belief that Better Place only swapped one type of battery module. At present they only support one, but their swap stations are designed to support up to six kinds, as long as they can be loaded and unloaded from below.

Recently, electric car battery-swap company Better Place announced delivery of their first cars in Israel. Israel is a country of small size where it makes sense to deploy a technology like this with a chicken and egg problem. They hope to have enough battery swap stations that people feel they can drive an electric car and refuel it as quickly and conveniently as a gasoline buggy.

I remain skeptical about battery swap for electric cars, but think robocars solve many of those problems. Here’s why:

To have a workable battery swap system, you need to standardize the battery module, ideally having just one or two form factors and electrical characteristics. Just one to start, in fact. This has many downsides:

  • A large part of the innovation in electric cars today is in the batteries. A big part of what Tesla did was their new cooling system. Designers all want to be able to play with chemistries, voltage, controllers and more. They might give up playing with size and placement but not those things.
  • It’s still an issue to not be able to vary size and shape of the battery, at least for people wanting to build cars of unusual shape.
  • A large part of the cost of an electric car today is the battery. With the swap system, you can’t buy the battery with the car. You get whatever battery you are swapped. That’s good in some ways, but eliminates open market competition on these systems because there is only one buyer — the swap company.
  • Swap machines are expensive, take land and still take five minutes, arrival to departure. That’s almost as quick as filling up with gas, but a typical gas station has 8 pumps, and some have many more. If there are several cars in line at a single swap station, you’re in for a serious wait.

On the plus side, people actually need swaps more rarely than they imagine. A 70-100 mile range car will hardly ever feel the need for a swap — in many ways the availability of the swap makes you feel more comfortable about the car, even if you rarely use it. It’s better than the level 3 charge which can damage the battery and still takes 15-20 minutes.

I think robocars (cars able to move while empty to the swap station) solve many of these problems. They solve them because while robocars (particularly those operating as taxis) need to run all day and thus want to swap batteries, the cars can move to the swap station on their own, when they are not serving somebody.

  • There is much less need to standardize, though it does help. Your car simply goes to a swap station that has its type of battery available.
  • While it wastes energy and a little time, it doesn’t bother the robot to have to go a few miles to find such a station. You don’t need one on every popular route.
  • The robot can schedule an appointment for a swap if need be. Not that it really minds waiting a lot, unless it has a job to do. But with a scheduled swap it might even do one while carrying a passenger, if it happens to be passing a swap station and can book a no-wait appointment for the time it will be passing, and the passenger doesn’t mind the 3 minute stop.
  • Most typically, this will be used by taxi fleets. Each taxi fleet can have their own swap station, for the type of battery cases they like. They can program their taxis to take jobs that bring them closer to the swap station when they will be running low. You can get buy with just one swap station for the whole fleet, or perhaps just a few. The taxi fleet can have a mixture of cars of different swap types and cars without swap ability. The latter can’t run all day and must spend time in charging stations as planned.
  • With robocars, you can solve range problems not by swaping the battery, but by swapping the car. If you have a car that is running low, it can stop in a convenient lot to have you switch quickly to a taxi with lots of charge. Then the car you were in can head off for charge or swap in no paticular rush.

By allowing lots of types of battery form factors and swap stations, you allow innovation and competition in these areas, which in the long run is a win for the customer. Anything that blocks competition may sound good at first but quickly bogs things down.

Now I still want to credit Better Place for working to solve the range and range anxiety problems of electric cars. There will still be competition because I don’t expect all electric car vendors to want to be compatible with their system. But I think their technology comes into its own best when the cars can worry about the swap rather than the drivers.

Video of BMW's ConnectedDrive Connect car

BMW has spoken in the past of their Highly Automated Driving project. A new video about ConnectedDrive Connect goes into more details. While BMW insists this is just a research project and won’t be in their cars for a long time, they also are expected to soon produce a traffic jam autopilot to compete with the offerings from Mercedes and Audi.

The approach in this car is a bit different. They have a small LIDAR on the side of the vehicle, which presumably is there to find the lane markers, and a forward facing camera behind the rearview mirror. The other systems are mostly using cameras for their lane finding. They also have ultrasonics, which are typically used for automated parking and some blind-spot detection. LIDARs are currently much more expensive than cameras, but this is a concept car for now. (More complete robocars tend to use fairly advanced LIDARs.)

The 5,000km was reported back in September This comes after reports that their track trainer had done about 12,000 miles in a 3-series on the track. There are more details on this system at MIT Tech Review.

Article by Tom Vanderbilt and more

I’ve talked before about Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt. It’s an interesting journey into the world of traffic psychology and engineering, and has one chapter on robocars. That chapter was based on seeing Junior at Stanford, and things have come a long way since then.

Friday, Wired released Let the Robot Drive, a decent length article on the Google car (he came for a test ride) and various other projects, including more about the Mercedes 6-D vision system. For those hungry for Google Car news it’s a good place to go.

There’s also an article by John Markoff about the SCU legal conference I wrote about on Saturday, which finishes off quoting a joke I said there.

At the same time a different long article with a more futurist bent appears at the World Future Society web site by Thomas Frey.

SCU conference on legal issues of robocars

Yesterday I attended the conference on the legal implications of robocars put on by Santa Clara University Law Review. It was a well done conference, with some real content from a varied group of regulators and legal scholars, a sign of how real the robocar world has become.


After a technology introduction where Sven Bieker of Stanford outlined the challenges he saw which put fully autonomous robocars 2 decades away, the first session was on civil liability. The short message was that based on a number of related cases from the past, it will be hard for manufacturers to avoid liability for any safety problems with their robocars, even when the systems were built to provide the highest statistical safety result if it traded off one type of safety for another.

In general when robocars come up as a subject of discussion in web threads, I frequently see “Who will be liable in a crash” as the first question. I think it’s a largely unimportant question for two reasons. First of all, when the technology is new, there is no question that any lawsuit over any incident involving the cars will include the vendor as the defendant, in many cases with justifiable reasons, but even if there is no easily seen reason why. So potential vendors can’t expect to not plan for liablity.

But most of all, the reality is that in the end, the cost of accidents is borne by car buyers. Normally, they do it by buying insurance. But if the accidents are deemed the fault of the vehicle maker, this cost goes into the price of the car, and is paid for by the vehicle maker’s insurance or self-insurance. It’s just a question of figuring out how the vehicle buyer will pay, and the market should be capable of that (though see below.)

No, the big question in my mind is whether the liabilty assigned in any lawsuit will be significantly greater than it is in ordinary collisions where human error is at fault, because of punitive damages. The cost of collisions is well established and understood, and there is a large industry to manage it, and if robocars are, as planned, safer, then that cost goes down, and that means savings for the car buyer and for society — a big win for all. However, if the cost per collision is much higher even though the number of collisions drops, this can impede the ability of a robocar industry to innovate or even to exist and save those injuries.

Unfortunately, some liability history points to the latter scenario, though it is possible for statutes to modify this.


All cars must have insurance today, and it is normally bought by the car owner/driver, and covers almost all accidents. If a safe robocar is delivered, the lower rate of accidents should mean cheaper insurance. Alas, in California, one of the world’s largest insurance markets and home to robocar labs at Google, Stanford/VW and others, it’s not so simple. California’s Proposition 103 demanded that any insurance policy’s price must be based on weighted factors, and the top 3 weighted factors must be, in order, driving record, number of miles driven and number of years of experience. Other factors like the type of car you have — ie. if you have a robocar — must be weighted lower. So this law makes it very hard to give very cheap insurance for a robocar, and makes it close to impossible to do it for somebody who is getting the robocar precisely because they are a bad driver and have found themselves facing expensive insurance if they keep driving.

Because Prop 103 is a ballot proposition, it can’t easily be superseded by the legislature. It takes a 2/3 vote and a court agreeing the change matches the intent of the original ballot proposition. One would hope the courts would agree that cheaper insurance to encourage safer cars would match the voter intent, but this is a challenge.


Kevin Vincent and Steve Wood from NHTSA, which writes the federal motor vehicle safety standards and does the crash tests, among other things, spoke and gave a fairly robocar-positive message. They are working to assure the vehicles operate safely on the roads, but do appear to be fully aware of how they are a new technology under new rules, and they don’t want to impede adoption by overregulating. They are working out plans to test vehicles in simulation, on test tracks and on the road to rate for safety and seem to have a generally forward-thinking plan.

Local and criminal laws

The session on criminal laws centered more on the traffic code (which isn’t really criminal law) and the fact it varies a lot from state to state. Indeed, any robocar that wants to operate in multiple states will have to deal with this, though fortunately there is a federal standard on traffic controls (signs and lights) to rely on. Some global standards are a concern — the Geneva convention on traffic laws requires every car has a driver who is in control of the vehicle. However, I think that governments will be able to quickly see — if they want to — that these are laws in need of updating. Some precedent in drunk driving can create problems — people have been convicted of DUI for being in their car, drunk, with the keys in their pocket, because they had clear intent to drive drunk. However, one would hope the posession of a robocar (of the sort that does not need human manual driving) would express an entirely different intent to the law. While the car might have an emergency manual override, as is likely for other reasons, one would hope it is the drunk’s responsiblity if they use it, not the car’s responsiblity for having it there.


The session on privacy left me a little wanting. There was no addressing the issue that cars will have cameras on them, recording the whole world once they get frequent enough. Most of the concern was on the logs of all your movements, which is indeed a concern — and already one with cell phones.

ITS and Spectrum

There were sessions on ITS and DSRC (the spectrum allocated for communications from vehicles to other vehicles and to local infrastructure points.) I’ve written on this topic before, and while I believe that of course robocars will make use of any such signals, they can’t be built to depend on them, and will in fact only encounter them occasionally for the next decade at least. As such, robocar development proceeds without much connection to the connected vehicle world, which I am sure bemuses those in the connected vehicle world.

You can read another press report on the conference and one from John Markoff of the NY Times.

French Robocar Effort, and CES news

A new robocar project named “Quasper” has emergence in France from the IRSEEM Esigelec lab and IFSTTAR. This vehicle uses a commercial actuator robot to control the wheel and pedals for drive-by-wire, and features a variety of typical sensors, though it only has a couple of smaller SICK LIDARSs rather than a high resolution LIDAR like the Velodyne used by many other projects. Their work is fairly basic for now. Because the DBW system occupies the driver’s seat, manual control is done through a joystick which controls the drive-by-wire robot. As a nice aesthetic touch, they have put much of the electronics in a standard roof box on top of their minivan. (Some of the early robocars did have a certain mad-science look with all their gear covering the roof.)

Here is a video of their vehicle in operation

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, which I attended, most of the car announcements were for information and entertainment systems in cars. The one positive light is that many car vendors now realize they no longer can own and control all the digital systems in a car, and are making tools to connect with the driver’s phone and tablet for various purposes. They are not quite ready to use the phone as their data connection, though so most mean you will be paying for 2 data connections.

Mercedes and Audi had displays relating to ADAS and autonomous driving. While there was no sign of the Mercedes 2013 S class that will feature an autopilot, they did show a rather strange demo of a future self-driving car where the windshield was now a giant augmented reality screen. There, using hand gestures, you could point and objects in the real world and learn more about them. Of course, if your car is self-driving, you could use any interface, not just a gestural one. Today, gestural interfaces are not very well developed and most people prefer touchscreens and keyboards.

Audi showed their lane-keeping system and crash avoidance tools. While they didn’t make a deal about it, reports say they are planning to have a traffic-jam autopilot like the Mercedes one, but up to 60kph instead of just 40kph. This means combining their lane-departure-correction system, which steers you back into the lane using the steering motor, and their automatic cruise control which follows the car in front. It’s now up to Audio and Mercedes to see who comes out first. It will be very interesting, as well, to see how the public responds to it.

Mercedes is downplaying the value of a self-driving car. In a keynote by M-B boss Dr. Dieter Zetsche, he said the following (as reported by Motor Trend):

“We don’t believe that autonomous driving is the ultimate goal. We still want the driver to be in charge, in control, be the pilot. But when you are stuck in a traffic jam, when you are driving five hours straight through Nebraska, it might not be the most fun (to drive). And at that time you can switch and say, ‘Take over, I’ll read a nice book, look at movies, or listen to music.’ So it’s your choice, you’ll always be in control, but you have the choice to hand (the controls) over to an autonomous car.”

High end brands like Mercedes are in an uncomfortable situation. For a long time, they have sold their product based on the excitement of driving. They are torn between that message and the value of the robocar. My own prediction is that initially, people will indeed be keen on cars which do the boring driving, but take them to places where the driving is more fun. While fun driving will not go away, I predict people will start feeling that more and more driving is a chore to leave to the robot, and less and less is a thrill that demands taking the wheel. Look at how readily people who move to New York or other non-driving cities adapt to not driving. But that’s not a message sporty car brands will want to say. At the same time, self-driving will be a desired luxury feature and so luxury cars will have to offer it. The problem is that high end brands tend to offer both sport and luxury, often in the same vehicles.

Time for delivery companies to work weekends

This time of year I do a lot of online shopping, and my bell rings with many deliveries. But today and tomorrow, not Saturday. The post office comes Saturday but has announced it wants to stop doing that to save money. They do need to save money, but this is the wrong approach. I think the time has come for Saturday and Sunday delivery to be the norm for UPS, Fedex and the rest.

When I was young almost all retailers closed on Sunday and even had limited hours on Saturday. Banks never opened on the weekend either. But people soon realized that because the working public had the weekend off, the weekend was the right time for consumer services to be operating. The weekend days are the busiest days at most stores.

The shipping companies like Fedex and UPS started up for business to business, but online shopping has changed that. They now do a lot of delivery to residences, and not just at Christmas. But Thursday and Friday are these odd days in that business. An overnight package on Friday gets there 3 days later, not 1. (If you use the post office courier, you get Saturday delivery as part of the package, and the approximately 2 day Priority mail service is a huge win for things sent Thursday.) In many areas, the companies have offered Saturday and even Sunday delivery, but only as a high priced premium service. Strangely, the weekend also produces a gap in ground shipping times — the truck driving cross-country presumably pauses for 2 days.

We online shoppers shop 7 days a week and we want out stuff as soon as we can get it. I understand the desire to take the weekend off, but usually there are people ready to take these extra shifts. This will cost the delivery companies more as they will have to hire more workers to operate on the weekend. And they can’t just do it for ground (otherwise a 3 day package sent Friday arrives the same time as an overnight package.)

Update: I will point out that while online shipping is the David to the Goliath of brick & mortar, changing shipping to 7 days a week will mean a bunch more stuff gets bought online, and shipped, and will bring new revenue to the shipping companies. It’s just just a cost of hiring more people. It also makes use of infrastructure that sits idle 2 days a week.

This is particularly good for those who are always not hope to sign for packages that come during the work week. The trend is already starting. OnTrak, which has taken over a lot of the delivery from Amazon’s Nevada warehouse to Californians, does Saturday delivery, and it’s made me much more pleased with Amazon’s service. When Deliverbots arrive, this will be a no brainer.

Concept robocars at Tokyo Auto Show and more

As expected, there’s more news from the Tokyo auto show, which is well known for strange concept cars.

First there is the Toyota Fun Vii

The video is very science-fictional, though they have built a concept to look at without the auto-driving. Amusingly, they do show something I have always thought would be a nice ironic demo — playing a car racing game while in a self-driving car. While we are some distance away form a car where the entire surface, inside and out, is a display, I do think we’ll see display panels on robocars to help them act as taxis. Those display panels will say who the taxi is for, and might even have your favourite bumper sticker slogan while you move inside. Inside displays will be useful for all the things you would expect — dashboard, work and entertainment.

Toyota is also showing a Prius with a system them call AVOS (Automatic Vehicle Operation System.) While this is said to be a longer-term self-driving systems, report suggest that what will be done at the motor show is back-seat rides demonstrating parking ability and pickup at the door, similar to Nissan’s Pivo and Stanford’s Junior 3, but with some added obstacle avoidance. I have not seen reports of rides as yet. The Prius itself is use more basic sensors than the Google car and other major robocars.

Speaking of Nissan, this brief interview with Mitsuhiko Yamashita, head of R&D, still promotes the idea of dedicated lanes, which I believe would vastly slow the deployment of self-driving vehicles.

On the other hand, speaking of Google, here’s a New York Times op-ed by Sebastian Thrun with his picture of the future.

Nissan Pivo 3 concept has valet park, come-get-me features

Nissan has announced a new version of their Pivo concept car. The Pivo 3 here’s a story with a video offers 4 wheel steering and automatic parking, including a claimed functionality for automated valet parking. In the AVP case, the car requires a special parking lot, though it is not said what changes are needed. A few years ago the Stanford team demonstrated Junior 3 which could valet park in a lot to which it had a map, and which had no civilian pedestrians.

The Pivo 3, it is reported, “will come and pick you up when you summon it.” Presumably this involves both the parking lot and the path to the door where you summon it containing the special infrastructure it needs, but this is not described. What’s also described is something fairly important — automatic charging, where the car takes itself to a charging station and hooks up.

They say they have no commercial plans for the car, but that they do expect to put such functionality into other cars around “2016 to 2017.”

With the Tokyo motor show about to start, expect new announcements from Japan in the days to come — for example Toyota has promised a self-driving Prius at the show, in a similar parking lot mode to the Pivo.

BMW designer feels robocars over a decade away and the never-driving baby

In contrast to the optimism I usually present here, and last week’s article about a self-driving Mercedes just a year away it’s worth noting this interview with various BMW folks where they provide a much more cautious timeline of at least a decade. Part of their concern comes from the use of computer vision systems. These are much cheaper than laser scanners but do not provide the reliability needed; it’s no accident that all the successful teams in the Darpa urban challenge relied very heavily on laser scanning.

I’m enough of an optimist that I am ready to bring forward the question “When will a child be born that never drives because of robocars?” Of course there are many people in the developed world who never get a licence for a variety of reasons, particularly people who live their lives in Manhattan and other transit-heavy cities. But for most of us, getting a licence and getting on the road is a rite of passage. Yet studies are showing that teens are now waiting longer to get a licence with various reasons speculated.

Nonetheless eventually we will see somebody who would normally have been jumping at the chance to get a licence and get out on the road who never gets one because they have a robocar. It won’t be easy of course, since even those who have robocars will still need to travel to places that don’t have them and rent cars, but many people who don’t have licences today just make use of taxis and transit in those situations.

I will put forward the proposal that this child may already have been born. When I see a baby today, I wonder, “will this child ever learn to drive?” While 16 years is aggressive for the ubiquitous fully autonomous operation needed for this, I do think we’re on the cusp, and if that child has not yet been born, it’s not too far away.

One reason for this is all the forces that are already reducing teen driving. A teen debating whether to take the effort to learn to drive might easily be swayed not to because mom has bought him a robocar. Once a successful safety record for robocars is demonstrated, parents will buy them for teens — instead of buying them driving lessons — and pressure the teens to not take the risk of driving themselves.

In other news, here’s a pointer to work by designer Charles Rattray on the look of future robocars. His designs match with my position that many robocars should be half the width of today’s cars, carrying only 1-2 people, since the vast majority of cars today only carry 1-2 people. Today’s car buyers insist on 5 passenger sedans (or larger) but when you have mobility-on-demand you can use the right vehicle for the trip on every trip, and that’s going to mostly be one person vehicles. This in turn, is the real key to efficient transportation, because while you can do great things with more efficient or electric power trains and more aerodynamic cars, nothing compares to making the car smaller, lighter and narrower in a major way. He has many design sketches and a video of how he sees the cars in action.

2013 Mercedes S class to feature autopilot for stop-and-go

For the first time, a car company has put a date on shipment of a car with self-driving ability.

According to British site Auto Express, Mercedes has revealed that their 2013 S-class will feature self-driving. Not clear if there is an official company press release, though the company has been talking about such features, as have many other companies. Realize that the 2013 model year is just a year away.

The car will feature radar based automatic cruise control, combined with lane-marker following, and the automatic driving will only operate below 40kph. In other words, this is designed to let you take your hands off the wheel in stop-and-go traffic jams, not to drive you at actual open driving speeds. You’ll need to pay attention to the road, not read a book, but at that low speed you’ll have decent warning if something goes wrong and the car starts drifting, so I suspect that in spite of warnings not to do so, people will get away with minor tasks like reading a few e-mails or even sending some.

While a very basic level introduction, this is still a milestone and will pave the way (love those road metaphors) for other companies. While the focus of the DARPA grand challenges and most visions of the robocar future has been on cars that can drive completely on their own, there are now strong signals that the technology will arrive in the form of driving assist, and human drivers will be called upon to still do much of the driving, in particular the tricky bits the systems aren’t safe to handle. In my article a few years ago the roadmap to robocars I suspected we might see a few specialized applications first, such as robot valet parking and even autonomous vehicles for military delivery applications, but now the autopilot is on track for showing up commercially first.

What to do in high speed rail?

Last week, new studies came back on the California High Speed Rail project. They have raised the estimated cost to $99 billion, and dropped the ridership estimate to 36.8 million and $5.5 billion in annual revenue. Note that only around 20 million people currently fly the SF to LA corridor — they expect to not just capture most of those but large numbers of central valley trips.

Even at the earlier estimates the project was an obvious mistake, and there’s no way to financially justify spending $99 billion to pull in $5.3 billion/year even subbing zero in for the large operating cost. But for various political reasons involving getting federal money, some are still pushing for this project, and we may well build a short train to nowhere in the central valley just to get the federal bucks.

They’re planning there because the various cities in the populated areas have been fighting legal battles to block the train there, not wanting its disruption. Because the train can only stop if a very few places at the speed it wants to go, a lot of towns would end up having construction and noise and street blockage and not get a lot of use from the train.

The local opposition is a tough barrier, because the train ends up really only being useful where the people are. While I have doubts about how many people would ride the long haul, since few want to go from downtown SF to downtown LA, lots of people would ride a fast train in the urban areas. In particular, what nobody talks about is running the HSR primarily to the airport, and streamlining both security clearance and the connection with new technology. The only reason HSR is pushed as possibly competing with flights is because of the nightmare we have made of flying, where people have to get to airports 45 minutes ahead of even short-haul flights and take a fair bit of time to get out of airports on the other end and make it through traffic to their destinations. A fast train from a downtown to the airport where you clear security (and check bags) right on the train, and the train drops you right at the central gate areas post security would create an unbeatable trip from downtown anywhere to downtown anywhere.

For fast trains, the San Francisco to San Jose route is so short that a 250mph HSR could do the 48 mile trip between the towns in 12 minutes without stopping, call it 15 with the start and stop at each end. This opens up an interesting cost saving — you could build a single track, and have a train zip back and forth on it, and still provide service every 30 minutes. You could put a double-track section in the middle and have service every 15 minutes, with lots of safety interlocks of course. A single track requires less land, less of everything and could probably be built along easier routes, even highway medians in some cases. You could avoid turnaround time by having double track at the endpoints, so one train is leaving for opposite route the moment the other train arrives, giving each train quite a long turnaround — with double rolling stock.

Of course, having no stops is not that valuable because only a few people want to go from SJ to SF. People would want a stop at the airport as I have indicated, and at least one in Mountain View or Palo Alto. Each stop costs a bunch of time, and eventually the trip gets long enough that the single-track trick becomes less useful. For a while I’ve wondered if you could make trains that could dock, so that the main train runs non-stop and is able to shed cars which stop at local stops (not that hard) and to dock with cars coming from local stops (harder.) I proposed this 7 years ago near the start of this blog, and there are serious rail designers thinking along the same lines — see the video in that link.

In the Priestman Goode proposal, they have trains docking side to side. That seems much more challenging though it offers fast transfer. If you combine the two ideas, you would have two tracks — one for the nonstop trains and one for the docking shuttles which serve all the local stops. Indeed, if you could do this you could get rid of the old regular speed rail service running on existing track pairs because this would be superior in all ways except cost. My own proposals attempted to dock on a single track, which seems easier to me.

Robocars play a role in all this too. Even the HSR authority realizes they have a big problem, in that once people get quickly to an HSR station, they still have to get to their real destination. Using local transit may mean spending more time on a local bus than on the HSR. The mobility on demand of robocars is a great answer, and I’m pretty sure that with a 2030 forecast completion date (if they’re lucky) we’ll have robocars long before then. And the one thing cars can’t readily do is go very fast efficiently between cities.

The docking approach, should it work, has another advantage. The main train can take the best route (cheapest or shortest) without too much regard for where the stations are. People like stations in urban centers, but bringing the high speed train right through such areas (like Palo Alto) is hard and has caused the lawsuits. If the train goes through the industrial space along the Bay, and a spur goes into downtown for the shuttle that docks with it, you get a win all around.

Another approach that doesn’t require dock/undock works when you have a solid terminus like SF. You have 3 trains leave SF at the same time. The first one goes express to San Jose. The second goes express to Palo Alto and Mountain View and then switches to low speed tracks to go to Sunnyvale and Santa Clara. The third goes to SFO airport. Because SFO airport is also an origination point, it sends a train to SJ just before or after the one from SF, and another train to Mountain View right after that one. Mountain View to SJ service might be able to fit in or have to be local service. These sub-trains are just a few cars. This is not as energy efficient, though it can be if the trains are able to get close to one another and draft, sort of a virtual coupling without physical contact. You need perfect sync, and special long-spring collision bumpers in case the sync fails and they bump. The risk of higher-speed bumping must be prevented by failsafes that don’t even let the trains get on the same track until speed is matched close enough. This requires more than just a single track of course.

Paying drivers to leave the road

Congestion on the roads has a variety of sources. These include accidents of course, reductions in road capacity, irrational human driving behaviours and others, but most of all you get congestion when more cars are trying to use a road than it has capacity for.

That’s why the two main success stories in congestion today are metering lights and downtown congestion charging. Metering lights limit how fast cars can enter the highway, so that you don’t overload it and traffic flows smoothly. By waiting a bit at the metering light you get a fast ride once on the highway. Sometimes though, especially when the other factors like accidents come into play, things still gum up.

Now that more and more cars are connected (by virtue just of the smartphone the driver carries if nothing else) the potential will open up for something else in congestion — finding ways to encourage drivers to leave a congested road.  read more »

ITS vehicle to vehicle demo at ITS World Congress

I’m just back from the “ITS World Congress” an annual meeting of people working on “Intelligent Transportation Systems” which means all sorts of applications of computers and networking to transportation, particularly cars. A whole bunch of stuff gets covered there, including traffic monitoring and management, toll collection, transit operations etc. but what’s of interest to robocar enthusiasts is what goes into cars and streets. People started networking cars with systems like OnStar, now known in the generic sense as “telematics” but things have grown since then.

The big effort involves putting digital radios into cars. The radio system, known by names like 802.11p, WAVE and DSRC involves an 802.11 derived protocol in a new dedicated band at 5.9ghz. The goal is a protocol suitable for safety applications, with super-fast connections and reliable data. Once the radios in the car, the car will be able to use it to talk to other cars (known as V2V) or to infrastructure facilities such as traffic lights (known as V2I.) The initial planned figured that the V2I services would give you internet in your car, but the reality is that 4G cellular networks have taken over that part of the value chain.

Coming up with value for V2V is a tricky proposition. Since you can only talk to cars very close to you, it’s not a reliable way to talk with any particular car. Relaying through the wide area network is best for that unless you need lots of bandwidth or really low latency. There’s not much that needs lots of bandwidth, but safety applications do demand both low latency and a robust system that doesn’t depend on infrastructure.

The current approach to safety applications is to have equipped cars transmit status information. Formerly called a “here I am” this is a broadcast of location, direction, speed and signals like brake lights, turn signals etc. If somebody else’s car is transmitting that, your car can detect their presence, even if you can’t see them. This lets your car detect and warn about things like:

  • The car 2 or 3 in front of you, hidden by the truck in front of you, that has hit the brakes or stalled
  • People in your blind spot, or who are coming up on you really fast when your’re about to change lanes
  • Hidden cars coming up when you want to turn left, or want to pass on a rural highway
  • Cars about to run red lights or blow stop signs at an intersection you’re about to go through
  • Privacy is a big issue. The boxes change their ID every minute so you can’t track a car over a long distance unless you can follow it over every segment, but is that enough? They say a law is needed so the police don’t use the speed broadcast to ticket you, but will it stay that way?

It turns out that intersection collisions are a large fraction of crashes, so there’s a big win there, if you can do it. The problem is one of critical mass. Installed in just a few cars, such a system is extremely unlikely to provide aid. For things like blindspot detection, existing systems that use cameras or radars are far better because they see all cars, not just those with radios. Even with 10% penetration, there’s only a 1% chance any given collision could be prevented with the system, though it’s a 10% chance for the people who seek out the system. (Sadly, those who seek out fancy safety systems are probably less likely to be the ones blowing through red lights, and indeed another feature of the system — getting data from traffic lights — already can do a lot to stop an equipped car from going through a red light by mistake.)  read more »

Google's robocar explained in video

Since getting involved with Google’s self-driving-car team, I’ve had to keep silent about its internals, but for those who are interested in the project, a recent presentation at the intelligent robotics conference in San Francisco is now up on youtube. The talk is by Sebastian Thrun (overall project leader) and Chris Urmson, lead developer. Sebastian led the Stanley and Junior teams in the Darpa Grand Challenge and Chris led CMU teams, including BOSS which won the urban challenge.

The talk begins in part one with the story of the grand challenges. If you read this blog you probably know most of that story.

Part two (above) shows video that’s been seen before in Sebastian’s TED talk and my own talks, and maps of some of the routes the car has driven. Then you get Chris showing some hard technical details about mapping and sensors.

Part three shows the never before revealed story of a different project called “Caddy”: self-driving, self-delivering golf carts for use in campus transportation. The golf carts are an example of what I’ve dubbed a WhistleCar — a car that delivers itself and then you drive it in any complex situations.

If you want to see what’s inside the project, these videos are a must-watch, particularly part 2 (embedded above) and the start of part 3.

There’s lots of other robocar news after the Intelligent Transportation Systems conference, which I attended this week in Orlando FL. The ITS community is paying only minimal attention to robocars, which is an error on their part, but a lot of the technology there will eventually affect how robocars develop — though a surprising amount of it will become obsolete because it focuses on the problems caused by lots of human driving.

Oxford and BAE make "Wildcat" robocar

The list of robocar teams grows again with a new project from Oxford university, led by Paul Newman. Nissan is also involved, though the base vehicle is a Bowler Wildcat off-road vehicle.

The project sports a LIDAR design I have not yet seen, with 4 laser units on a mount spinning at what looks like 1-2hz, but they claim a 40hz sampling rate and do have very nice mapping results. They claim their localizer is very good, and demos show it working on rough off-road terrain. Some videos also see it doing waypoint driving without the LIDAR but they talk about why GPS is not adequate.

The Daily Mail story has the best pictures and details. You can also visit the MRG youtube channel.

The vehicle reportedly uses stereo vision as well as the LIDAR, and has left and right bumper mounted lasers as well as the roof unit.

There are additional videos, made by reporters in this BBC news story and a good interview in this Telegraph story.

The claims about the vehicle have a British understatement. They say it will be 10-15 years before it’s ready for the roads, and talk mostly about simple problems like handling traffic jams — something Audi, BWM and VW have all claimed they will release in the middle of this decade, using simpler sensor systems. He also envisions a future arms-race where a car that can do 10 minutes/day of self-driving competes with one that can do 15.

Congestion is their main message it seems, citing the Dept. for Transport’s figures of a 25 billion pound cost for congestion in 2025 in the UK.

Bigdog becomes Alphadog -- walking robots step closer to the real world

Earlier I wrote about the transportation potential of walking robots-of-burden like BigDog. While these robots are not for the long haul, a whole range of options are opened up by a wheeled vehicle that can get to where the road ends, and then lower legs to walk along rough terrain, up stairs and up hills.

Boston Dynamics has gone even further with their latest model, AlphaDog

The AlphaDog’s legs are hydraulic, and so adding legs like this to a car which has a motor and compressor is not so far fetched. In this design they could easily fold up into the sides of a single person wheeled vehicle. In the video, the robot is shown carrying 400lbs of weights, and a range of 20km is claimed. You might not quite want to ride it yet, but that’s coming.

Let’s look at some of the consequences for transportation and cities:

  • Houses need not be on streets to have full access by small vehicles and cargo delivery robots. They can be on the side of hills and up stairs. Neighbourhoods can be built with just small lightly paved or graded paths so that the robot’s legs don’t disturb the terrain.
  • The robots may well, in a controlled environment, be able to place their feet with good precision. As such the path for a walking robot might look like just a series of stone pads dotting the grass — the way some paths for people look. In reality they would be more sturdy, but that’s what they could look like.
  • In developing countries which do not have infrastructure, they may never have to put in that much infrastructure. Combined with flying robots, delivery of goods can become possible to any location, and at high speed.
  • The world’s tourist destinations may become swamped with people who can ride a walking robot to remote locations where before the daunting hike kept the crowds down. There will be efforts to ban walking chairs, but the elderly and disabled will be able to fight such bans as discriminatory.
  • Indeed, for the disabled and aged, the walking chair robot might well open up lots of the world that is now closed. The main issue would be power and noise. The motors that power BigDog are very noisy. AlphaDog in the video is using external power.
  • Robotic cargo delivery (deliverbots) need no longer be limited to places you can roll up to. That can include places inside buildings, even up stairs.

BMW Robocar, Audi and more

Some Robocar updates, since with Burning Man and Singularity U my posting volume has been down:

BMW Highly Automated Driving

BMW has announced a prototype car with a “Highly Automated Driving” feature on the 5 series. The vehicle, which has logged 3,000 miles of minimal driver involvement, uses a vision system from the lane departure camera, maps, the ACC radar and high-accuracy GPS. It is claimed to handle allowing and doing highway merges. The system is not meant to allow the driver to take their eyes off the road, though, and his highway-only. The system was also called “ConnectedDrive Connect (CDC)” which strikes me as a somewhat awkward name.

BMW also recently demonstrated some other self-driving technology on test tracks and has a very active lab. With Volkswagen’s Temporary Auto Pilot, Mercedes and Audi all promoting concept cars with autonomous modes, German companies seem to be the most engaged in the field. BMW has also shown a “traffic jam assistant” similar to the Audi system below.

Audi EV A2 has traffic jam autopilot

Another concept car (An earlier Audi was used in the Pikes Peak challenge) from Audi will feature an autopilot for stop and go traffic. Here they combine lane-keeping and automatic cruise control, except at lower speeds where the risk is low. The driver still has to pay some attention, and when traffic gets moving again they must take full control. Still, it’s aimed at one of the greatest annoyances of commuting.

Made in Germany continues on the roads

The AutoNOMOS team reports success with their vehicle on the streets of Berlin, though so far only 80km of operation. They have 6 laser sensors, and claim that they believe the vehicles will soon be ready to deploy on private roads, but will need a decade of legal work to be used on the public streets.

Autonomous tractor out working the fields

For some time the concept of “precision agriculture” has been the high-tech hotspot in farming. Here, tractors equipped with GPS and other location technologies take detailed maps of the fields and the crops and custom control spray of fertilizers, pesticides and other substances according to data about what’s right for each small square. However, farmers are still at the controls. Some day, tractors may drive themselves and engage in many farm activities. In the fields, there is not usually much to run into and you don’t go very fast. On the other hand, most family farmers today farm as a lifestyle and aren’t looking to automate it, but agribusiness operators are.

Here’s a report on an autonomous tractor project, guided for now just by GPS.

Interesting robocar test in China

A report from China Daily details a successful 286km trip by a vehicle from the National University of Defense Technology.

According to the report the vehicle did fully autonomous highway driving, and did not use GPS, just LIDAR, radar and vision systems. Modern robocars do not rely exclusively on GPS, as it is both inaccurate and goes out in certain regions, but they do like to use it to help them localize, so not using it at all suggests a good localizer. They also report handling fog, thunderstorms and poor lane markers, all good acheivements.

There is what appears to be a machine translated article with some photos. The external photo seems to show an unmodified car, the internal one shows what appear to be two stereo cameras left and right, though the article talks mostly about LIDAR and radar, not vision systems. Dai Bin, spokesman for the team has published papers on both LIDAR based obstacle avoidance and vision systems similar to the one used by Stanley in the Darpa desert challenge for off-road use.

It will be interesting to hear more about the work of this team.

In other news, BMW has announced that its 2014 i3 battery-electric car will also offer a combination of lane-keeping and adaptive cruise control]( while under 25mph, effectively being a “stop and go traffic autopilot.” This is an interesting early offering, since it’s easier to put this together at low speeds in the controlled highway environment.

Also included will be a detection system for impeding collisions which can apply the brakes, and a fully automatic parallel parking system (most earlier systems still needed human control of the brake, causing amusing-if-it’s-not-you accidents for people who didn’t think they had to do anything.)

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