Michigan to build fake-downtown robocar test site

I’m working on a new long article about advice to governments on how they should react to and encourage the development of robocars.

An interesting plan announced today has something I had not thought of: Michigan is funding the development of a fake downtown to act as a test track for robocar development. The 32 acre site will be at the University of Michigan, and is expected to open soon — in time for the September ITS World Congress.

Part of the problem with my advice to governments is that my main recommendation is to get out of the way. To not try too hard both to help and to regulate, because even those of us trying to build the vehicles don’t have a certain handle on the eventual form of the technology.

A test track is a great idea, though. Test tracks are hugely expensive to make, entirely outside of the means of small entrepreneurs. They immediately resolve most safety concerns for people just starting out — every team has had small runaway issues at the very start. Once past that, they can be shared, in fact having multiple vehicles running the track can be a bonus rather than a problem.

Big car companies all have their own test tracks, but these are mostly real tracks, not urban streets. Several companies have built pre-programmed robotic cars which drive in specific patterns to test ADAS systems and robocars. The DARPA Urban Challenge was run on an fake set of urban streets on an old military base, so this idea goes back to the dawn of the modern field. (Old military bases are popular for this — Mythbusters used a California one for their test of blind and drunk driving.)

This track will probably bring teams to Michigan, which is what they want. Detroit is in trouble, and it knows it. Robocars are going to upend the car industry. Incumbent players are going to fall, and new players are going to rise, and that could be very bad news for Detroit.

My home province of Ontario is facing the same problem, to a lesser degree. A lot of the Ontario economy is in cars as well, and so they’ve started a plan to introduce testing legislation. I don’t think this is the right plan — testing is already legal with a good supervising driver in most jurisdictions, though I have not yet examined the Ontario code. Ontario has one big advantage over Michigan, though, in that it is also a high-tech centre. Right now the car companies in Detroit are finding it very difficult to convince high-tech stars to come move to Detroit, in spite of being able to offer high pay and the fact that you can literally get a mansion for the price of the downpayment on a nice San Francisco condo. Toronto doesn’t have the same problem — in fact it’s one of the most desired places to live for Canadians, and for people from all over the world. Ontario’s combination of high-tech and big automotive might end up doing well.

At least in Ontario, everybody will be motivated to solve the snow problem sooner than the California companies are.

The Valley of Danger -- medium speed roads for robocars

With last week’s commercial release of the Navia, I thought I would release a new essay on the challenges of driving robocars at different speeds.

As the Navia shows, you can be safe if you’re slow. And several car company “traffic jam assist” products say the same thing. On the other end, we see demos taking place at highway speeds. But what about the middle range — decent speeds on urban streets?

Turns out that’s one of the harder problems, and so there is a “valley” in the chart which makes safe operation harder in that zone.

So read my more detailed essay on these challenges: The Valley of Danger for Robocars

Induct's "Navia" officially for sale for $250,000

A significant milestone was announced this week. Induct has moved their “Navia” vehicle into commercial production, and is now taking orders, though at $250,000 you may not grab your wallet.

This is the first commercial robocar. Their page of videos will let you see it in operation in European pedestrian zones. It operates unmanned, can be summoned and picks up passengers. It is limited to a route and stops programmed into it.

The “catch” is that it stays safe by going only 20km/h, where it is much harder for it to harm things. It’s aimed at the campus shuttle market, rather than going on public roads, but it drives on ordinary pavement, not requiring special infrastructure, since it localizes using a prepared laser map of the route.

Now 20km/h (12mph) is not very fast, though suitable for a campus shuttle. This slow speed and limited territory may make some skeptical that this is an important development, but it is.

  1. This is a real product, ready to deploy with civilians, without its own dedicated track or modified infrastructure.
  2. The price point is actually quite justifiable to people who operate shuttles today, as a shuttle with human driver can cost this much in 1.5 years or less of operation.
  3. It smashes the concept of the NHTSA and SAE “Levels” which have unmanned operation as the ultimate level after a series of steps. The Navia is at the final level already, just over a constrained area and at low speed. If people imagined the levels were a roadmap of predicted progress, that was incorrect.
  4. Real deployment is teaching us important things. For example, Navia found that once in operation, teen-agers would deliberately throw themselves in front of the vehicle to test it. Pretty stupid, but a reminder of what can happen.

The low speed does make it much easier to make the vehicle safe. But now it become much easier to show that over time, the safe speed can rise as the technology gets better and better. (To a limit — see my article on the dangers at different speeds.)

The route limitation has two elements. The first is that they want to keep it only in safe locations, which makes sense for an early release. It also avoids legal issues. The second is simpler — they are using a map based approach, so they can only drive somewhere that has been mapped. Mapping means driving a scanner over the route and building a map of all the details, and then typically having humans confirm the map. This is the same way that the cars from Google and almost all other vendors do it when they are doing complex things that go beyond following lane markers on a highway. As such it is not that big a barrier. While building new infrastructure is hugely expensive, mapping it is much more modest in comparison, though non-trivial. Covering the whole world would take time, but it becomes possible to quickly add routes and destinations.

I single out the Navia because of its ability to drive without requiring any changes to the roads or extra infrastructure. Previous shuttle-style systems like the ULTra PRT at Heathow (which I rode a couple of months ago), the Masdar PRT and earlier Cybercar projects all required a dedicated guideway or fenced-off ground track to run. While the Navia is being kept to private property for safety and legal reasons, there is no technical reason it could not operate in public spaces, which moves it from PRT into Robocar territory.

The Navia is very much designed to be a shuttle. It is open-air and doesn’t really have seats, just padded bars to lean against. There is no steering wheel or other traditional control. This belies that common expectation of the first vehicles looking just like traditional cars.

Félicitations, Induct.

CES Robocar News

CES has become a big show for announcing car technology. I’m not there this year due to other engagements, but here’s some of what has been in the news.

Most impressive is probably BMW’s prototype 2 and 6 series vehicles, which have features both for existing drivers and for future self-operation. The video below shows a BMW 235i doing a slalom around cones on its own, and then drifting on wet pavement. BMW claims their active assist will help you in both understeer and oversteer situations. That feature wil be in trials in 2015. Here’s an older article on BMW efforts.

Earlier I wrote about Ford’s plan for the C-Max which positions its solar panel under a concentrator which remains more a concept gimmick but is still interesting.

There’s been a raft of “connected car” announcements, by which we mean cars using the mobile network to provide apps and related features. The biggest news is a new consortium planning to use Android as a platform for connected infotainment in cars, called the Open Automotive Alliance. It has GM, Audi, Honda, and Hyundai involved, and of course Google. It may be bad news for QNX, which for now is the remaining shining star in RIM/Blackberry’s portfolio, as QNX has a strong position as the infotainment OS in a number of cars. (Having gone to school at UW long ago, I am friends with all the founders of these companies.)

The win will be cars that don’t try to be too smart, and let the phones do most of the work. My phone is just a few months old, while my car is ten years old, and this ratio is not that uncommon. Put the smarts where the innovation is moving fastest, because even if you don’t, they wild end up there eventually by consumer demand.

Audi is demonstrating their A7 with new self-drive features at CES. It even has Nevada plate number 046 for Autonomous vehicle testing — people are wondering who all these plates have gone to. Google only took a few, Continental took some, and Audi took some around 007. While nobody does primary testing in Nevada, everybody doing test demos at CES needs these plates.

Bosch is running a full “driverless car experience” in their booth and some panels during the show. The panel is happening in just 15 minutes as I write this.

Delphi is also doing a demo of all their driver assist tech. This is mostly aimed at driver monitoring, which is seen as important for the transition to full robocar operation where lots of driver intervention is required.

Induct is showing off the Navia in a track — I write more details about how it is now for sale. Though it’s not quite “consumer” electronics.

No, we don't want much more Fedex and UPS on Dec 24

A big story this Christmas was a huge surge in the use of rush shipping in the last 2 days before Christmas. Huge numbers of people signed up for Amazon Prime, and other merchants started discounting 2 day and overnight shipping to get those last minute sales. In turn, a lot of stuff didn’t get delivered on time, making angry customers and offers of apology discounts from merchants. This was characterized as a “first world problem” by many outside the game, of course.

When I shop, I am usually travelling outside the US and so I have to get stuff even before the 24th, and I’ve had stuff I left to the last day not delivered several times, so I know to avoid doing it. Some packages are not going to make it, and this should be expected — even desired.

While it makes sense to increase the infrastructure a bit as online shopping grows in popularity, you don’t want to go nuts at Christmas. If you need to build your infrastructure to handle every Christmas gift, you have to build it too big, and you pay for that through higher prices the rest of the year. Shippers need to figure out their real capacity, and everybody needs to plan based on it.

The failure this season was not a failure of the delivery system. Rather it was a failure of either the shippers to tell the merchants what their capacity was, and/or a failure of the merchants to communicate to customers that too much was being shipped and not everybody could be promised Dec 24 delivery.

The obvious way to fix this is first to have the shippers get a solid handle on their capacity for the various types of shipping to the various destinations. They can also identify the bottlenecks and widen them a modest amount.

The next thing is for the merchants to know just how much shipping they can buy. There can either be a live spot market — so the merchant web sites just stop offering the delivery promise when the capacity is reached, or merchants could even attempt to pre-contract for capacity, paying for it whether they need it or not (or reselling it if they know they won’t need it.) Merchants should be building their own forecasts about available capacity and querying shippers for updates on just how much more is left. Capacity isn’t a fixed thing — it depends on the size of packages and where they are going and many other things — but this is a problem computers can handle.

Finally, the shippers and the merchants can start increasing the price of the rush shipping so that demand and supply match. This can be based on accurate forecasts, or just live data. As Dec 23rd wears on, the price of next-day shipping will keep going up and up so only the serious buy it. Of course, this might reveal just how keen some people are to get items, and justify having more capacity in years to come. Indeed, as the price goes up, it may make sense for Amazon to say, “Listen, we’re just going to buy this for you at your local Wal-Mart, it will be waiting for you there.” Wal-Mart surely won’t mind that.

There are also some tricks to increase capacity. For example, most people would probably tolerate having to pick up items at a retail location — FedEx and UPS and the USPS of course have tons of those — especially if it is the only option or offers a serious discount over surge priced home delivery. (This is not as good for sending gifts to remote locations.) Temporarily contracted depots could also be used. You want to streamline these depots, as lots of people will be coming in, so you want some nice system where people bring in a bar code and everything is optimized to get them out the door with the right package quickly.

All of this will push people to shop and ship a little earlier, smoothing out the rush, and avoiding having to design the system for one peak day. I have always found it remarkable that most stores and malls have giant parking lots (back in the brick and mortar world) which are only filled in December. It’s such a waste — but something robocars will fix in the future.

Delivery to the wrong address

I had a missed delivery myself this year. In this case it was on December 14th because I went home early, and I had the gifts arriving 2 days before I left. But oddly, I got the note that the package had been delivered at 6pm — but it wasn’t. Both UPS and Amazon had very little set up to handle this. Amazon’s system insists you wait at least a day to complain about this, which was no help to me. I could have used that day to replace the items if I were sure it wasn’t coming.

After I left, the package showed up on my porch on Sunday. UPS does not operate Sunday so it seems pretty likely they had left the package with a neighbour who was perhaps away for a few days. I presume the neighbour eventually came and dropped off the package but they left no note. (Of course I wish they had done it right away — replacing the gifts in Canada cost me a bunch extra.)

Amazon had already given a refund — fairly good service there — and so I just had UPS return the package as undelivered which costs me nothing, so that all worked out, except the scramble and the extra cost of replacing the items.

I don’t know how often this happens — it’s in the Amazon FAQ so it must be often enough — but there are some obvious fixes. The UPS driver’s wand, which scans the package on delivery, should record more data, including any location from a GPS in the wand or the truck, but perhaps more easily the MACs and signal strengths of any WIFI nodes visible when the package was scanned.

That information would have both allowed UPS to say, “OK, that’s odd, this doesn’t match where the package should be going” right when it was scanned, or it would have allowed me to figure out where it went and get it right away.

You’re probably wondering, didn’t I just imagine it was stolen? I did consider that possible, though in my safe neighbourhood it doesn’t appear to be a real danger. Somebody following UPS trucks at Christmas time to steal gifts would be very Grinchey, not to say it doesn’t happen. In safe neighbourhoods, UPS and Fedex routinely just leave packages at the door. Not actually signed for, I presume they just eat the loss the rare times they are stolen, or perhaps the merchant does. It’s small enough shrinkage that the system handles it.

Ford's solar charging robocar design

One of the silly ideas I see often is the solar powered car. In 2011, I wrote an article about the solar powered robocar which explained some of the reasons why the idea is anti-green, and how robocars might help.

I was interested to see a concept from Ford for a solar charging station for a robocar which goes further than my idea.

In the Ford proposal, there is a special garage with sun exposure and a giant Fresnel lens, which can focus light on a solar panel on the car parked in the garage, effectively a solar concentrator based PV system. The trick is that the car is able to move during the day, so as the sun moves (or rather the Earth and the garage turn with respect to the sun) the car adjusts to put the panel in the beam of the Fresnel lens. They predict they could get 21 miles of range in six hours of sunlight. That’s a bit over 5kwh, meaning the panel must generate just under a kw during those 6 hours.

Normally 1kw of solar panel is quite large, and the roof of the garage is large to make this happen. The downside is this would make the panels really, really hot, which reduces their efficiency and frankly, could be dangerously hot and also wear out the panels and roof quickly. (We would need to see what temperature parameters they plan for.)

In the end, this system still falls into the pitfalls that make a green solar powered car a contradiction in terms. To be green, you must use all the power panels generate. When this car is not in the garage, its panel will produce minimal output, since as it moves about its day it will park in shade or at the wrong angle to the sun, and the panels will be horizontal. The only way to properly exploit panels is to have them at the very least facing south in a permanently sunny spot, tilted to the latitude (or sun-tracking) and combined with the grid, so every single joule they generate is put to use.

There is a minor win for solar on a vehicle, which is when you are driving, the energy is never stored, and thus battery weight can be slightly lowered and there are no storage or transmission losses. However, unless you are going to make something like the cars that compete in the solar races, this doesn’t make up for the waste of having panels whose output is mostly unused. Toyota figured out a good use for a panel on the Prius — it runs the ventilation fan, whose demand matches the sunlight and heat of the day. Every joule of that panel is used, and keeping the car cool saves on AC when driving. Had the panel fed into the hybrid battery, its output would be thrown away most of the time when the battery was not low.

As I noted in my earlier article, robocars could make better use of solar panels because they could arrange to always store themselves in the sun, pointed in the right direction, and could even go find connection stations to feed their power back to the grid if the batteries were not low. (You need some robotic ability to connect to the charging station without a human, and ideally without the 10% loss of inductive coupling but even that is tolerable.)

In that world, you could put up Fresnel or other concentrating charging stations which cars could seek out to make the best use of their panels. However, these cars are now consigned to never being garaged or parking in the shade, which is not really what we’re looking for.

This does have the advantage of not needing to plug in, though inductive charging stations are also something robocars would move themselves to. If the vehicles are used off-grid, this would be somewhat more valuable even if on-grid the panels (concentrated or not) should just feed that grid.

There’s another downside to the heat of this system. In the summer at least, you then have to spend a fair bit of energy cooling the car down. The extra energy gained from sitting in the sun might be lost in cooling if the wait was modest. A cooling fan is a good idea while in the sun.

In other News

Michigan has passed its law regulating the testing of robocars there. It’s being touted as a way to “save jobs” by preventing the flight of automaking innovation to other locations. It’s going to be a tall order. The Detroit car companies are opening labs in silicon valley, in part because it’s very difficult to recruit the very best people to come live in Detroit, no matter how cheap the housing is — and you can have a mansion in Detroit for the price of a shack in San Francisco. If Michigan wants to retain its car dominance, it will need to do even more.

Several announcements planned for CES. Delphi will be showing off their latest work, which is more ADAS related. Bosch will be showing off their prototype cars, and presumably Audi and others will return.

Results from the Ann Arbor V2V test bed are expected soon. The original plan was for the DoT to propose regulations demanding V2V in all new cars in 2013. They missed that deadline, of course, but many expect something very soon. Results of this testbed are expected to be crucial. I predict the results will be lukewarm when viewed through the robocar lens — which is to say, the V2V systems will only have been found able to prevent a tiny number of incidents which could not also be detected with advanced sensors directly on the cars. They may not publish that number, as there are incentives to make the test report as a success.

UK, Michigan & Sweden push robocars, Toyota doesn't -- and Amazon delivery drones

The past few weeks have been rife with governments deciding to throw support behind robocars.

I wrote earlier about the plan for pods in Milton Keynes, NW of London. The UK has also endowed a a £10m prize fund to build vehicles and for a town to adapt to them. This will be managed in part by the Oxford team which has built a self-driving Wildcat and Nissan LEAF.

In Michigan, they have been working on a new robocar law that may be the next one, and the University of Michigan has a plan to put a fleet of cars out by 2021. Ann Arbor is the site of the ITS V2V testbed, which will probably slow this effort down, but Michigan is keen on not having the auto industry taken away from it.

Volvo, while now a Chinese company, has had many efforts, including their Sartre convoy experiments. Now they have declared that they will have 100 cars on the road in Gothenberg in 2017. They will also build parking systems.

In spite of all this, Toyota recently declared it is only building vehicles for research purposes, and has no desire to market such cars. Toyota had been a leader among the Japanese companies (until Nissan took over that role by building a research lab in silicon valley) but it’s surprising to see them drop out. Of course I predict they will regret that.

Amazon drone delivery

The big news this weekend was the announcement that wants to do drone delivery, accompanied with a concept video. This got everybody buzzing. I was interviewed for stories by the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal (paywall) as well as the New York Times because of my prior writings on deliverbots.

Some of you may remember I post I did early last year on drone defibrillator delivery and the efforts of our students at Singularity University to build Matternet for drone delivery in the developing world.

Drone delivery is interesting, though its big value will be in lightweight, urgent items like medicines. Ground vehicles will still win for cost and efficiency for most items. However, the drones can be much faster, and have options like delivering to places ground vehicles can’t reach — like your roof or your backyard. Deliverbots must get safe and legal on busy streets, drones have to figure out how to not hit one another (or people on the ground) in crowded airspace. The LIDARS that make ground vehicles practical have enough range for ground travel but poor range as flying sensors. Radar is good in the air but can have interference problems.

Getting a drone to land at any given address is a hard problem. There are trees, overhead wires, wind gusts and strange geometries. I suspect drone delivery will work best if the drop location has already been scanned and mapped. However, if there is a decent clearing, I could see it working by having the recipient put down a special marker (like a QR code) on the ground. GPS is not accurate enough to fly with but camera could pull out special markers.

One great marker would be your cell phone. Either with its “flash” LED pointed up and pulsing, or its screen, if the screen is bright enough. Go outside, put your phone down, have it guide the drone partway in with radio and GPS, and then have the drone’s camera follow the flashing light. If phones had better raw GPS access (they don’t — not yet) they could also provide differential GPS information to a drone to guide it in.

This works because with robot delivery, you never need to deliver to an address — you deliver to a person. Wherever that person is, or at least never when the person isn’t there, unless you want to. A robot delivery service will wait for a signal that you are home or one the way before delivering to your home, but might also deliver to you in whatever parking lot you are in, or your office. The robot won’t release the cargo unless it gets the ACK from your phone as you “sign” for it.

Multi-copter drones today don’t have a lot of capacity and range, but it’s improving. Liquid fuels for larger drones might help boost that. Fixed wing drones have much more capacity, but they need runways (or a skilled launcher) to take off. Some fixed-wing drones can land vertically if they have motors powerful enough to lower them down tail first though they tend to need something suitable to land on in such cases.

Robot delivery should make existing retailers, even big box ones like WalMart, scared of online retailers like Amazon. While a drone won’t replace WalMart on a trip where you plan to fill your shopping cart, it might well be very suitable for the things you buy from Walgreens.

More Robocar Updates and Press

Back from Budapest, tomorrow I head to Buenos Aires to talk cars and security to city officials. (I wondered if I am ending up touring the world in alphabetical order.)

In the meantime, some interesting tidbits and press:

  • One of the best articles about Google’s project in the New Yorker
  • I appear on APM’s “Marketplace Tech” for a short piece on robocars.
  • A new project in the Netherlands spearheaded by TNO & Delft. I visited with TNO early last year to talk to them about their driving simulators and working to convince them that they should focus on LIDAR and self-driving. They were skeptical about the effort back then!
  • More interest from government officials. Hearings in DC today, more progress towards passing a law in Michigan to enable Robocar testing, and a ride by the Japanese PM in several vehicles at the Toyko Motor Show. I also met with top Hungarian officials in Budapest, where a large fraction of their GDP comes from car manufacture. They need to bring the R&D to Hungary to exploit this technology, though. French President Hollande has also called for an initiative there. The jurisdictional competition I wondered about many years ago is getting ready to start humming.

Let’s see what I can tell the Argentinians. They have one of the poorer driving records in Latin America and kill 3 times as many people per 100,000 vehicles than the USA does.

Robocars in Milton Keynes, more surveys and studies

I’m back from one European tour and this weekend back in Budapest for our “Singularity University Summit” on the 15th and 16th. If you are nearby, come check it out.

While I’ve been away, a few news items.

UK Grants and plan for Milton Keynes

In the UK, they want to push for advanced transportation. This includes a 75 million pound grant program, and some money for a robocar taxi system in the town of Milton Keynes, NW of London. Milton Keynes is one of those those “cities of the future of the past” — a planned community with an unusual geometry, and the planned pods may fit right in. At first, they are planning a PRT-like service with private ROW for the pods, and the people involved include companies from the PRT field like ARUP. (It was reported in some news reports that ULTra, which makes the PRT for the Heathrow Airport — I rode it last month — would be involved but they do not appear to be.) The big news is that the plan is for the pods in MK to eventually leave their private ROW and become self-driving taxis operating in the town.

(With any luck I may be on public radio tomorrow talking about this.)

Eventually a billion pound investment is planned in advanced transportation tech.

A town taxi is a worthwhile project, especially because the town can clear the roadblocks. I am less optimistic about what “big infrastructure” project companies like ARUP will do, because they have a different mindset. The great thing though is that even if these cars begin caged, the precedent will let them become truly useful by going door to door. MK was a town designed to be polycentric, with services in every block. Such towns are harder to serve with transit as trips go from anywhere to anywhere. Transit usually goes hand in hand with centralized towns where the vast majority of trips are to and from the city centre.

More studies

The Eno Transportation center released a report on the economics of robocars. This report outlines the cost savings with different levels of deployment, and predicts huge financial benefits even with modest deployment — something readers of this blog will not be surprised to hear reported.

Other studies released include a survey that suggest that 90% of people would use a robocar if it reduced their insurance rates. What’s interesting about this study is the huge number of positives. Prior studies have all seen much smaller numbers of people willing to use a robocar 20-35%. Those studies have been couched in the idea that it’s a new, expensive thing, not a money saver.

At first, robocars will be more expensive, as all new technologies are. But they will save people money in the long run, and the insurance savings will actually be only a small part of that equation. My own forecasts suggest that the price of driving can be cut by at least a third, perhaps by half, through the use of smaller, more efficient vehicles. While the costs of fuel and accidents (insurance) are high, the cost of depreciation is still the biggest cost in operating a car.

Measuring safety

In another nice tidbit, Chris Urmson, the head of the Google car project, gave a talk at RoboBusiness where he outlined some safety metrics being tracked. One of the big problems with robocars is that since humans have accidents only ever 250,000 miles and fatal accidents every 80 million miles, you can’t just drive every new software revision hundreds of millions of miles to compare it to humans. So Google is tracking how often the car does “risky” behaviours that are often found before accidents, like weaving out of lanes or other unsafe moves. And the results, he reports, are very good at present.

Cliff Nass

There has been lots of news coverage in the last month in various media — it is becoming so regular I don’t report it here. But one sad item sent to me involved the sudden death of Clifford Nass of Stanford’s REVS center. Cliff was an HCI expert who was moving his expertise towards cars and other related technologies and was a fixture at local events, always willing to be contrarian with facts to back it up — my kind of guy. It’s a tragedy.

Another survey had serious numbers of people saying that once they got a robocar “they would never drive again.” All these surveys do have an issue as they just propose a hypothetical and let the respondent figure out what it means. The real answers will come when more people get a real chance to try one out.

Robocars European Tour: London, Milan, Lecce, Vienna, Budapest

I’ll be back and forth to Europe in the next month giving a number of talks, mostly about robocars. Catch me at the following events:

  • Wired 2013 UK in London, where 4 Singularity U speakers will do an hour, including me — Oct 17-18. Looks like a great speaker list.
  • Frontiers of Interaction in Milan, Oct 25 — Design, Technology and Interactive.
  • TEDx Lecce in Lecce (boot heel of Italia) on Oct 26 — a major TEDx event with many international speakers.
  • Pioneers Festival in Vienna, Oct 30-31. Reports are this event is great, with an amazing venue. I’ll be interviewed on EFF topics and car topics there.

Singularity University Summit (Europe)

And the big event is the Singularity University Europe Summit a combination of the popular Singularity Summit series and the Singularity University Program. Most of our great faculty will be there for two days in Budapest, November 15-16. Readers of this blog can get a 10% discount by using the promo code “Bradbudapest” when registering. Expect a mini-reunion of a number of our European alumni there. To toot our own horn, the majority of folks who come out of our programs call it the best program they’ve ever been to. At the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in the core of town.

Enough with the Trolley problem, already

More and more often in mainstream articles about robocars, I am seeing an expression of variations of the classic 1960s “Trolley Problem.” For example, this article on the Atlantic website is one of many. In the classical Trolley problem, you see a train hurtling down the track about to run over 5 people, and you can switch the train to another track where it will kill one person. There are a number of variations, meant to examine our views on the morality and ethics of letting people die vs. actively participating in their deaths, even deliberately killing them to save others.

Often this is mapped into the robocar world by considering a car which is forced to run over somebody, and has to choose who to run over. Choices suggested include deciding between:

  • One person and two
  • A child and an adult
  • A person and a dog
  • A person without right-of-way vs others who have it
  • A deer vs. adding risk by swerving around it into the oncoming lane
  • The occupant or owner of the car vs. a bystander on the street — ie. car drives itself off a cliff with you in it to save others.
  • The destruction of an empty car vs. injury to a person who should not be on the road, but is.

I don’t want to pretend that this isn’t an morbidly fascinating moral area, and it will indeed affect the law, liability and public perception. And at some distant future point, programmers will evaluate these scenarios in their efforts. What I reject is the suggestion that this is anywhere high on the list of important issues and questions. I think it’s high on the list of questions that are interesting for philosophical class debate, but that’s not the same as reality.

In reality, such choices are extremely rare. How often have you had to make such a decision, or heard of somebody making one? Ideal handling of such situations is difficult to decide, but there are many other issues to decide as well.

Secondly, in the rare situations where a human encounters such a moral dilemma, that person does not sit there and have an inner philosophical dialogue on which is the most moral choice. Rather, they will go with a quick gut reaction, which is based on their character and their past thinking on such situations. Or it may not be that well based on them — it must be done quickly. A robot may be incapable of having a deep internal philosophical debate, and as such the robots will also make decisions based on their “gut,” which is to say the way they were programmed, well in advance of the event. A survey on robohub showed that even humans, given time to think about it, are deeply divided both on what a car should do and even how easy it is answer the question.

The morbid focus on the trolley problem creates, to some irony, a meta-trolley problem. If people (especially lawyers advising companies or lawmakers) start expressing the view that “we can’t deploy this technology until we have a satisfactory answer to this quandry” then they face the reality that if the technology is indeed life-saving, then people will die through their advised inaction who could have been saved, in order to be sure to save the right people in very rare, complex situations. Of course, the problem itself speaks mostly about the difference between “failure to save” and “overt action” to our views of the ethics of harm.

It turns out the problem has a simple answer which is highly likely to be the one taken. In almost every situation of this sort, the law already specifies who has the right of way, and who doesn’t. The vehicles will be programmed to follow the law, which means that when presented with a choice of hitting something in their right-of-way and hitting something else outside the right-of-way, the car will obey the law and stay in its right-of-way. The law says this, even if it’s 3 people jaywalking vs. one in the oncoming lane. If people don’t like the law, they should follow the process to change it. This sort of question is actually one of the rare ones where it makes sense for policymakers, not vendors to decide the answer.

I suspect companies will take very conservative decisions here, as advised by their lawyers, and they will mostly base things on the rules of the road. If there’s a risk of having to hit somebody who actually has the right-of-way, the teams will look for a solution to avoid that. They won’t go around a blind corner so fast they could hit a slow car or cyclist. (Humans go around blind corners too fast all the time, and usually get away with it.) They won’t swerve into oncoming lanes, even ones that appear to be empty, because society will heavily punish a car deliberately leaving its right-of-way if it ends up hurting somebody. If society wants a different result here, it will need to clarify the rules. The hard fact of the liability system is that a car facing 5 jaywalking pedestrians that swerves into the oncoming lane and hits a solo driver who was properly in her lane will face a huge liability for having left their lane, while if it hits the surprise jaywalkers, the liability is likely to be much less, or even zero, due to their personal responsibility. The programmers normally won’t be making that decision, the law already makes it. When they find cases where the law and precedent don’t offer any guidance, they will probably take the conservative decision, and also push for it to give that guidance. The situations will be so rare, however, that a reasonable judgement will be to not wait on getting an answer.

Real human driving does include a lot of breaking the law. There is speeding of course. There’s aggressively getting your share in merges, 4-way stops and 3-point turns. And a whole lot more. Over time, the law should evolve to deal with these questions, and make it possible for the cars to compete on an equivalent level with the humans.

Swerving is particularly troublesome as an answer, because the cars are not designed to drive on the sidewalk, shoulder or in the oncoming lane. Oh, they will have some effort put into that, but these “you should not be doing this” situations will not get anywhere near the care and testing that ordinary driving in your proper right-of-way will get. As such, while the vehicles will have very good confidence in detecting obstacles in the places they should go, they will not be nearly as sure about their perceptions of obstacles where they shouldn’t legally go. A car won’t be as good at identifying pedestrians on the sidewalk because it should normally never drive on the sidewalk. It will instead be very good at identifying pedestrians in crosswalks or on the road. Faced with the option to avoid something by swerving onto the sidewalk, programmers will have to consider that the car can’t be quite as confident it is safe to do this illegal move, even if the sidewalk is in fact perfectly clear to the human eye. (Humans are general purpose perception systems and can identify things on the sidewalk as readily as they can spot them on the road.)

It’s also asking a lot more to have the cars able to identify subtleties about pedestrians near the road. If you decide a child should be spared over an adult, you’re asking the car to be able to tell children from adults, children from dwarves, tall children from short adults — all to solve this almost-never-happens problem. This is no small ask, since without this requirement, the vehicles don’t even have to tell a dog from a crawling baby — they just know they should not run over anything roughly shaped like that.

We also have to understand that humans have so many accidents, that as a society we’ve come to just accept them as a fact of driving, and built a giant insurance system to arrange financial compensation for the huge volume of torts created. If we tried to resolve every car accident in the courts instead of by insurance, we would vastly increase the cost of accidents. In some places, governments have moved to no-fault claim laws because they realize that battling over something that happens so often is counterproductive, especially when from the standpoint of the insurers, it changes nothing to tweak which insurance company will pay on a case by case basis. In New Zealand, they went so far as to just eliminate liability in accidents, since in all cases the government health or auto insurance always paid every bill, funded by taxes. (This does not stop people having to fight the Accident Compensation Crown Corporation to get their claims approved, however.)

While the insurance industry total size will dwindle if robocars reduce accident rates, there are still lots of insurance programs out there that handle much smaller risks just fine, so I don’t believe insurance is going away as a solution to this problem, even if it gets smaller.

So are there no ethical issues?

The trolley problem fascinates us, but it’s more interesting than it is real. There are real ethical questions (covered in other articles here) which need to be dealt with today. Many of them derive from the fact that human drivers violate the strict rules all the time in their driving, to the point that in many places, it’s impractical or even impossible to drive strictly by the book, or even strictly by a high-conservative defensive driving. Cars must assert their rights at 4-way stops, speed, force their turn at merges and cross the double-yellow line to get around obstacles sometimes. Figuring out how to get law-bound programmers to make this work is an interesting challenge.

The robocar and the bicycle

I’ve written about the issues relating to robocars and walking before. On one hand, some people may find themselves hardly ever walking with convenient door-to-door robocar transportation. Others may find the robocars may enable walking by allowing one-way waking trips, or enabling trips that that allow drive-walk-drive (eliminating short driving trips done just to save the trouble of walking back to get the car.)

Some similar factors apply to cycling. In a lot of the world, people bike because it’s much cheaper and they can’t afford a car. In the richer countries, most people can afford cars, but people bike because they enjoy it, or seek the exercise. They may also wish to avoid traffic, take routes only bikes can take, or avoid burning gasoline.

Let’s consider something possible with robocars: on-demand bicycle delivery. This could either be small delivery robots which can hold bicycles, or the “bikebot” — a small robot that clamps onto a bicycle and uses the bike’s wheels in concert with the robot’s. The bikebot could be a very efficient way to delivery a bicycle — certainly using less energy per mile than a human being does, or that producing the human’s food does. (A future bike could be designed so that a bikebot module can be clamped to it easily.)

Bicycles on demand offer the chance to cycle just when you want to. This could increase by quite a bit the times when you actually would cycle.

This gets combined with the robocar’s one-way taxi ability for humans. The robocar can bring the humans, and/or the bicycles to the places they want to bike. (More efficiently, too, since bikes on bike racks are not very aerodynamic.)

Just like it does for walking, the multi-mode, multi-leg trip becomes enabled. For example, I often find I drive to Google, and then to Nasa which is 2.5 miles away, and then back home. The 2.5 mile leg is ideal for cycling — there’s even a bike trail for much of it — but I can’t do this. First I would have to always bring my bike. (While Google does provide bikes, they are tiny single-gear bikes not meant to leave campus.) I could do the round-trip to come back and get my car, but that’s less convenient and can hit some nasty traffic patterns — traffic in and out of Google at rush hour is very bad. This is a personal example, but I am sure you can all think of examples from your own life where you take an intermediary trip today (in your car) of a few miles that might be very nice for biking.

Weather is another impediment to biking. When I used to bike commute, I would drive instead if the forecast called for rain in the afternoon, even if it was nice in the morning. With robocars I could bike in, and ride back.

Bike delivery means choice of bike. Recumbents are hard to carry in cars, but no challenge for a custom bike delivery robot. They are more comfortable to ride and faster on flats and downhill. You could even climb a hill in a diamond bike and descend in a recumbent. Or, let’s face it, you could also have the cheater’s option of climbing the hard hills in a car, or with power assist, and riding alone when going down or traversing flatter terrain. That might be a cheater’s option, but it would get more people cycling. Your gear could shadow you in a small cargo robot.

The robocar also offers easy transportation for you, and your bikes, to the places where it’s fun to bike. Get driven to the coast, then bike it, then get driven back from your endpoint. Or bike the “interesting parts” and drive the boring (or difficult) ones.

The main issue? At least at first, a human will need to be there to put a bike into a bike-delivery robot or clamp a bikebot on the bike. That means you must declare your destination in advance, with enough time to get that robot to that spot so you can hand over the bike. Perhaps in the future, there will be robots that can pick up a waiting bike without a human to help. Quick one-way trips will probably not be with your personal bike, but rather a rental. While there are those who insist on their personally chosen bike for long rides, most people can tolerate a quality rental bike for a quick urban leg. Trikes, which are super easy to ride, can also be offered, and even bikes and trikes with motor assist when you want the non-exercise advantages of a bicycle could be provided.

Cycling could also be great for commute times. Many commuters might be happy to get a ride (perhaps even in groups) to the outskirts of the CBD, but as they enter the congested zone, have their car drop them off next to a bike for a quick ride to work. Long enough to get some exercise but not long enough to need a shower. This does present a problem when it rains and everybody wants to ride all the way in, though.

In the less developed world, where the bicycle is the transportation of choice due to cost, the robocar will take away some riders as it offers lower-cost transportation, protected from the weather, without up-front investment. However, eventually the above factors from the developed world will bring people back to the bicycle even though they can afford the car.

Will EV recharging soar to very high costs?

I recently read a complaint by an EV driver that the charging station at De Anza College cost 55 cents/kwh. The national average price for electricity is around 10 cents, and at that price a typical electric car costs under 3 cents/mile for electricity. Gasoline costs about 8 cents/mile in a Prius, about 13 cents in a decent non-hybrid and 18 cents/mile in the average car which gets 22mpg. (At least here in California.) But the college’s charger’s electricity is almost 15 cents/mile in most electric sedans today, which is more than the gasoline in any gasoline car an eco-conscious person is likely to buy. (California Tier III electricity is 30 cents/kwh and thus almost as much.)

The price of charging stations varies wildly. A lot of them are free still, financed by other motivations. Tesla’s superchargers are free — effectively part of the cost of the car. It’s not uncommon for parking lots to offer free charging if you pay for parking, since parking tends to cost a fair bit more. After all, you won’t put more than 20kwh in a Leaf (and probably a lot less) and that costs just $2 at the average grid price.

This got me thinking of how the economics of charging will work in the future when electric cars and charging stations are modestly plentiful. While the national grid average is 10 cents, in many places heavy users can pay a lot more, though there are currently special deals to promote electric cars. Often the daytime cost for commercial customers is quite a bit higher, while the night is much lower. Charging stations at offices and shops will do mostly day charging; ones in homes and hotels will do night charging.

Unlike gasoline pumping, which takes 5 minutes, charging also involves parking. This is not just because charging takes several hours, but because that is enough time that customers won’t want to come and move their car once full, and so they will take the space for their full parking duration, which may be 8 or more hours.

Charging stations are all very different in utility. While every gasoline station near your route is pretty much equivalent to you, your charging station is your parking spot, and as such only the ones very close to your destination are suitable. While a cheap gas station 2 miles off your route would have a line around the block, a free charging stations 2 miles away from your destination is not that attractive! More to the point, the charging point close to your destination is able to command a serious premium. That have a sort of monopoly (until charging stations become super common) on charging at the only location of value to you.

Put another way, when buying gasoline, I can choose from all the stations in town. When picking an EV charge, I can only choose from stations with an available spot a short walk from my destination. Such a monopoly will lead to high prices in a market where the stations are charging (in dollars :-) what the market will bear.

The market will bear a lot. While the electricity may be available cheap, EV owners might be easily talked into paying as much for electricity as gasoline buyers do, on a per-mile basis. The EV owners will be forgetting the economics of the electric car — you pay the vast bulk of your costs up front for the battery, and the electrical costs are intended to be minor. If the electricity cost rivals that of gasoline, the battery cost is now completely extra.

Naturally, EV owners will do at least half their charging at home, where they negotiate the best rate. But this could be worse, as they might well be talked into looking at the average. They could pay 80 cents/kwh in the parking lot and 10 cents/kwh at home, and figure they are getting away with 45 cents and “still beating gasoline.” They would be fooling themselves, but the more people willing to fool themselves, the higher prices will go.

There is another lack of choice here. For many EV drivers, charging is not optional. Unless they have easy range to get back home or to another charging place they will spend lots of time, you must charge if you are low and the time opportunity presents itself. To not do so is either impossible (you won’t get home) or very foolish (you constrain what your EV can do.) When you face a situation where you must charge, and you must charge in a particular place, the potential for price gouging becomes serious.  read more »

A Tesla self-driving car?

It began with reports on a job ad at Tesla for an ADAS engineer to work on self-driving systems, and now there is a declaration from Elon Musk of a desire for a semi-automated car in three years. Musk says he expect the car to be “90% automated” which I will interpret as meaning it does highway driving. It is not said if this is the same sort of highway driving found in products like Cadillac’s “super cruise” or similar offerings from BMW, Mercedes, Volvo and others — which requires the driver be alert and watching, or a much harder full cruise ability that allows the driver to do other things, like read. I’m pretty sure it’s not a car that can run unmanned — Musk correctly feels that is a whole lot extra.

My reaction to this is mixed, in that there are things that make sense and don’t make sense.

On the plus side:

  • Tesla is a great car company, and as a brand new one, perhaps the one most capable of not thinking like a car company. This is a big advantage. There is already a great culture of car innovation there.
  • Tesla has a focus on great and novel car experiences, regardless of price, and this fits in well with that. Their customers will not be bothered by the initial high cost of the hardware.
  • Their cars are already pretty much drive-by-wire and easy to adapt.
  • If Tesla does decide to work with Google (the articles say they will not) there is already a strong friendship between the two CEOs
  • Even in the best car, there are certainly lots of roads where you would rather not do the driving.
  • With inductive charging (or some fancy plugging-in robot) it’s possible the car could do some self-parking and more importantly, self-recharging.

On the negative:

  • Tesla’s cars are hugely fun to drive. While I believe for every car there value in having it drive itself on many roads, I would have to say the Teslas are the cars for which this is the least true! So it’s not that one would not appreciate self-driving in one’s Tesla, but it’s just that you would appreciate it even more in almost all other cars.
  • Electric cars are not currently suitable as taxis that drive all-day, though Tesla has talked about battery swap, which would solve that issue. I doubt they mean to sell them for that market, as they would not be self-delivering in any event.
  • Teslas are unjustifiably expensive. Well, unjustifiable to other than early adopters or those who just want the best at almost any price. That may change as batteries drop in price, though.
  • If this is just super-cruise where you must pay attention, it’s nice, but not a revolution. Not yet, anyway.

The RV of the future

Over the years, particularly after Burning Man, I’ve written posts about how RVs can be improved. This year I did not use an regular RV but rather a pop-up camping trailer. However, I thought it was a good time to summarize a variety of the features I think should be in every RV of the future.

Smart Power

We keep talking about smart power and smart grids but power is expensive and complex when camping, and RVs are a great place for new technologies to develop.

To begin with, an RV power system should integrate the deep cycle house batteries, a special generator/inverter system, smart appliances and even the main truck engine where possible.

Today the best small generators are inverter based. Rather than generating AC directly from an 1800rpm motor and alternator, they have a variable speed engine and produce the AC via an inverter. These are smaller, more efficient, lighter and quieter than older generators, and produce cleaner power. Today they are more expensive, but not more expensive than most RV generators. RV generators are usually sized at 3,600 to 4,000 watts in ordinary RVs — that size dictated by the spike of starting up the air conditioner compressor when something else, like the microwave is running.

An inverter based generator combined with the RV’s battery bank doesn’t have to be that large. It can draw power for the surge of starting a motor from the battery. The ability to sustain 2,000 watts is probably enough, with a few other tricks. Indeed, it can provide a lot of power even with the generator off, though the generator should auto-start if the AC is to be used, or the microwave will be used for a long time.

By adding a data network, one can be much more efficient with power. For example, the microwave could just turn off briefly when the thermostat wants to start the AC’s compressor, or even the fans. The microwave could also know if it’s been told to cook for 30 seconds (no need to run generator) or 10 minutes (might want to start it.) It could also start the generator in advance of cooling need.

If the master computer has access to weather data, it could even decide what future power needs for heating fans and air conditioning will be, and run the generator appropriately. With a GPS database, it could even know the quiet times of the campsite it’s in and respect them.

A modern RV should have all-LED lighting. Power use is so low on those that the lights become a blip in power planning. Only the microwave, AC and furnace fan would make a difference. Likewise today’s TVs, laptops and media players which all draw very few watts.

A smart power system could even help plugging into shore power, particularly a standard 15a circuit. Such circuits are not enough to start many ACs, or to run the AC with anything else. With surge backup from the battery, an RV could plug into an ordinary plug and act almost like it had a high power connection.

To go further, for group camping, RVs should have the ability to form an ad-hoc power grid. This same ability is already desired in the off-grid world, so it need not be developed just for RVs. RVs able to take all sorts of input power could also eventually get smart power from RV campsites. After negotiation, a campsite might offer 500v DC at 12 amps instead of 115v AC, allowing the largest dual-AC RVs to plug into small wires.  read more »

Mercedes and Vislab release videos of their real-road tests

Videos have been released on some real-world tests of robocars. The most notable is from Mercedes.

As a nice reflection on the past, Mercedes drove the 100km route done by Bertha Benz in the first automotive road trip 125 years ago. You will also find that this alternate video is much better at talking about the technical details of the vehicle.

The Vislab team from Parma also released video of their drive around town. As the name suggests, Vislab’s research has a focus on computer vision, though this test vehicle also has 3 small LIDARs.

The Mercedes video has a lot of statements from MB engineer Ralf Herrtwich about their goals in doing this using existing sensors (cameras and radar primarily) and not (though he does not name it) LIDAR which he says is years or decades away. While I don’t want to criticise the accomplishments of his team, nor in any way deny that everybody would love to be able to make a safe driving system using the most cost-effective sensors, his philosophy seems backwards to me.

First, those of us used to Moore’s law think that planning to use hardware that is expensive today but which will come down greatly in price by the time things are commercialized is the obviously right strategy. It seems backwards to limit yourself to the technologies of today in planning a product for the future just because they are cheaper today. To use the metaphor of a great Canadian athlete, you skate to where the puck is going to be.

This is magnified by the fact that the problems of robocars are safety problems, not problems of cost or ones of appearance. With safety as the dominant goal, it seems very odd to me to imagine that one would, in the first vehicles to be made, avoid using a sensor that could improve safety and performance markedly just because of cost or appearance. If the cost difference were forecast to be ridiculous, one could consider it, but it makes no sense if the cost is within the noise to early adopters. That’s why Tesla is able to succeed with such an expensive car — the early adopters are more interested in a cool, high-performance electric car than they are in the cost. The other argument that is made — that the established sensors are more tested and robust — has some merit but is surely a short term optimization.

It could be argued that attempting to build a vehicle without LIDAR is skating to where the puck is going to be in the next game. After all, there is optimism that vision and radar will be enough for safe driving some day. As we all know, humans can drive with simple vision — even with one eye closed — and no radar or other sensors aside from hearing. So some day, cameras and a lot of processing probably can safely drive a car, and do it with low cost hardware. But the first production robocar? Deliberately not having lasers when it’s such a challenge to meet the safety goals? It seems very unlikely.

The notes on appearance are also odd to me. (It is commonly noted that research sensors like the Velodyne are big and make the car look unusual and not like a car.) We even see the IEEE Spectrum keen on how the new CMU car does not look like a robot) unlike BOSS from the urban challenge. While the research vehicles like BOSS were over-the-top on top, I think the reaction of early adopters is going to be quite the opposite. They will want their shiny new robocar to look distinctive and clearly different from regular cars. Prius owners reacted the same way, and there was not even much need for the Prius to have such a distinctive shape, though being more like a raindrop never hurts.

I suspect this approach is in part inspired by a marketing goal. The auto companies, not wanting to appear to be trailing Google on robocar research, are making extra effort to appear to be on a different course, and in fact ahead of Google and the rest on that path. “We’re doing what the competition is doing, but we’re not as far along” is not a very good press release. That’s OK if it were just for appearances — and I’m in favour of there being many competing approaches because any paradigm, including mine, can turn out to be wrong — but I hope that these teams really expect their approach is the best and fastest path to a safe and capable vehicle.

Here, by the way, are more details of the 33 mile trip by the GM/CMU collaboration. This vehicle has an “automotive grade” LIDAR — meaning one of the smaller ones that is one to four planes, not the giant 64 plane Velodyne used by CMU’s BOSS, Google and many others.

Daimler, Nissan both predict they will sell robocars in 2020

Recent news has been big. First, Nissan announced it would sell robocars by 2020 and now today Daimler has announced the same. (Note that the 2014 S-class is the first car with a self-driving feature, a “you must still pay attention” traffic jam autopilot.)

In addition, sources have claimed that Google is either about to announce a collaboration with Conti on Sept 12 or is making plans to produce its own car and taxi service. (I was quoted, though not about Google, in one of the artciles in the series.

While I don’t comment on Google’s plans, I do believe it has one big advantage in this race. It doesn’t know what the rules of the car industry are, and has no desire to follow them. The car companies have huge resources, and better expertise on cars, but their internal rules and practices, honed over a century, are sure to hobble them. They won’t take the risks that non-car companies will take, won’t want to damage existing business lines, and will face attacks within the companies from the “company immune system” which seeks to attack disruptive ideas within big companies.

Google’s main impediment is that it is also a big company, though an unusual one. But this business is so hard to enter that we have yet to see a start-up make a play.

The statements from all these parties will do lots of good, lighting fires under the other players, including the unannounced ones. I believe that in the 2020s, the software and sensor system which drives the car will be the most important part of the car, more important than even the engine. While the world will be better off if there are multiple competing suppliers of this part, whoever dominates this will dominate the car industry.

The new car stereo is -- the noise cancelling headphone

Probably the most expensive add-on that people get in their cars today is the stereo. Long ago, cars often came without stereos and there was a major aftermarket. The aftermarket is still here but most people elect for factory stereos which fit in seamlessly with the car and often cost a huge amount of money.

The car’s not a great place to listen to music — it’s noisy and you are distracted and you often stop and have to get out in the middle of a song. But because people find they listen to more music in their cars than at home, they often pay huge bucks for a fancy car stereo. (Not counting the people who deliberately buy a system so loud it’s meant for other people outside the car to hear.)

While you could put a nice stereo system in a robocar, and some people will, another way they can save money is they don’t need to have much audio at all, not once they can do full-auto operation. The prohibition on headphones by the driver should go away, and it could become popular to just use nice headphones — possibly noise cancelling headphones or in-ear noise-blocking phones. A better audio experience with much less noise, and a lot cheaper too. And there is the option for each person in the car to have their own headphones and tune their own audio stream.

People will like to share, so the car might contain a simple audio distribution system to feed audio streams to people who are sharing, though the source of the music should still be somebody’s phone or device, not something built into the car. In addition, there could be a system to mix in some of the in-cabin audio, so you can still hear the other people when they talk. Microphones on each person’s headphones could pick up their voices and actually provide a clearer read of their voices. Headphones with position sensors could allow simulation of stereo on the other people. Alternately a microphone array could exist around the car, particularly at each seat.

There are some downsides to push things into the traditional way:

  • Wearing headphones is uncomfortable on long trips
  • They are a pain to remember to put on. You want to avoid cords, so they would be wireless, but then you must be sure to put them in their charging dock.
  • On small aircraft, there is so much noise that everybody does it this way, but they tend to be bulky (due to the high noise) and unpopular for that reason

So people might elect to still have decent speakers and listen to music without headphones. But there is less need to buy a really expensive sound system, since if you want the top quality you probably want to go for the headphones. This may also apply to decisions to do expensive sound elimination in the car. For some, nothing may change, but that’s OK. What’s interesting is the option to do car sound in ways never done before.

No, the car sharing aspect of robocars isn't as exciting as people hope

Frequently, in reporting on robocars, it is often cited that one of their key benefits will be the way they enable car sharing, greatly reducing the number of cars that need to exist to serve the population. It is sometimes predicted that we’ll need to make fewer cars, which is good for the environment.

It is indeed true — robotaxi service, with cars that deliver themselves and drop you off, does greatly enable car sharing. But from the standpoint of modern car sharing, it may enable it too well, and we may end up having to manufacture more cars, not fewer.

Today’s car sharing companies report statistics that they replace around 13 privately owned cars for every car in the carsharing fleet. Some suggest it’s even as high as 20.

This number is impossible for average drivers, however. The average car is driven 12,000 miles/year. To replace 13 average cars would require a vehicle that was actively driving, not just signed out, 11 hours/day and each vehicle would wear out in 1-2 years.

Three things are happening.

  • Carsharing is replacing the more marginal, less used vehicles. A household replaces a 2nd or 3rd car. Carsharing is almost always used by people who do not commute by car.
  • Carsharing is often considerably less convenient than a private car. It discourages driving, pushing its users into other modes of transport, or selecting for customers who can do that.
  • Related to that, carsharing shows the true cost of car ownership and makes it incremental. That cost is around $20/hour, and people rethink trips when they see the full cost laid out per mile or per hour. With private cars, they ignore most of the cost and focus only on the gasoline, if that.

The “problem” with robocars is that they’re not going to be worse than having a private car. In many ways they will be better. So they will do very little of the discouragement of car use caused by present day carshare models. The “dark secret” of carsharing is that it succeeds so well at replacing cars because of its flaws, not just its virtues.

Robotic taxis can be priced incrementally, with per-mile or per-hour costs, and these costs will initially be similar to the mostly unperceived per-mile or per-hour costs of private car ownership, though they will get cheaper in the future. This revelation of the price will discourage some driving, though robotaxi companies, hoping to encourage more business, will likely create pricing models which match the way people pay for cars (such as monthly lease fees with only gasoline costs during use) to get people to use more of the product.

There is an even stronger factor when it comes to robotaxis. A hard-working robotaxi will indeed serve many people, and as such it will put on a lot of miles every year. It will thus wear out much faster, and be taken out of service within 4-5 years. This is the case with today’s human driven taxicabs, which travel about 60,000 miles/year in places like New York.

The lifetime of a robotaxi will be measured almost exclusively in miles or engine-hours, not years. The more miles people travel, the more vehicles will need to be built. It doesn’t matter how much people are sharing them.

The core formula is simple.

Cars made = Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT) / Car lifetime in miles

The amount of sharing of vehicles is not a factor in this equation, other than when it affects VMT.

Today the average car lasts 200,000 miles in California. To be clear, if you have 8,000 customers and they will travel two billion miles in 20 years (that’s the average) then they are going to need 8,000 cars over those years. It almost doesn’t matter if you serve them with their own private car, and it lasts all 20 years, or if you get 2,000 cars and they serve 4 people each on average and wear out after 5 years.  read more »

Self-driving cars, autonomous vehicles, driverless cars and robocars

Our technology is having trouble with settling on a name. That’s OK before it’s mainstream but will eventually present a problem. When people in the field are polled on what name they like, there is no clear winner. Let’s look at some of the commonly used candidates:

Driverless Cars

Recently, this has become the most common term used in the press. There is a “Driverless Car Summit” and the Wikipedia page has used that name for some time.

In spite of this popularity, the term is very rarely used by people actually building the vehicles. Attendees at the “Driverless Car Summit” when polled all said they dislike it. Until recently, the most common news story about a driverless car would say, “then the driverless car rolled down the hill and careened into the other lane, hitting a tree.”

My personal view is that this term is like “horseless carriage.” Long ago the most remarkable thing about the automobile was that it had no horse. Here it’s the lack of driver (or at least lack of action by the driver.) Of course, these cars have something driving them, but it’s a computer system. While this term is most popular, I am confident it will fade away and seem quaint, like horseless carriage did.

Self-driving cars

This term is popular among developers of the cars. Its main problem is that it’s too long to be a popular term. The acronym SDC is a reasonable one. In web hits, this is tied with Driverless Cars, but falls behind that name in searches and news mentions.

Autonomous Vehicles

This term was most popular in the early years, though it is most commonly found in research environments and in the military sphere. In the military they also use “unmanned ground vehicle” — another term too unwieldy for the public —though they usually refer to remote controlled vehicles, not self-driving ones.

Annoyingly, the acronym “AV” has another popular meaning today. Most of the terms here are too long to become common use terms, and so will be turned into acronyms or shortened, but this one has an acronym problem.

Automated Road Vehicle

This term has minor traction, almost entirely due to the efforts of Steve Shladover of UC Berkeley. In his view, the word autonomous is entirely misused here and the correct term is automated. Roboticists tend to differ — they have been using “autonomous” to mean “not remote controlled” for many years. There are two meanings of autonomous in common use. One is to be independent of direct control (which these cars are) and the other one, “self-governing” is the one Steve has the issue with. As a member of the program committee for TRB’s conference on the area, he has pushed the “automated” name and given it some traction.

Unfortunately, to roboticists, “automated” is how you describe a dishwasher or a pick-and-place robot; it’s a lower level of capability. I don’t expect this terminology to gain traction among them.


I selected this term for these pages for a variety of reasons. It was already in modest use thanks to a Science Channel documentary on the DARPA challenge called “robocars.”

  • Talking to teams, they usually just called their vehicle “the robot” or “the car.”
  • It is short, easy to say, and clear about what it means
  • It is distinct and thus can easily be found in online searches
  • It had some amount of existing use, notably as the title of a documentary on the Science Channel about the DARPA challenges

However, it is doing poorly in popularity and only has about 21,000 web pages using it, so I may need to switch away from it as well if a better term appears. Today it reminds people too much of robotics, and the trend is to move away from that association.

On the other hand, no other term satisfies the criteria above, which I think are very good criteria.  read more »

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