Transportation

Electric car vendors: bundle in short-term gasoline car rentals, with charging

Looking at new electric cars like the Nissan Leaf, we see that to keep costs down, cars with a range of 100 miles are on offer. For certain city cars, particularly in 2-car families, this should be just fine. In my particular situation, being just under 50 miles from San Francisco, this won’t work. It’s much too close to the edge, and trips there would require a full charge, and visits to other stops during the trip or finding parking with charging. Other people are resisting the electrics for lesser reasons, since if you ever do exceed the range it’s probably an 8 hour wait.

An alternative is a serial hybrid like the Chevy Volt. This has 40 miles range but a gasoline generator to provide the rest of the range and no “range anxiety.” Good, but more expensive and harder to maintain because electric cars are much simpler than gasoline cars.

Here’s an alternative: The electric car vendor should cut a deal with car rental services like ZipCar and Hertz. If you’re ever on a round trip where there is range anxiety, tell the car. It will use its computer and internal data connection to locate a suitable rental location that is along your route and has a car for you. It will make all appropriate reservations. Upon arrival, your electric car would transmit a signal to the rental car so that it flashes its lights to guide you and unlocks its doors for you. (The hourly car rental companies all have systems already where a transmitter unlocks the car for you.)

In many cases you would then pause, pull the rental out of its spot and put your electric in that spot. With more advanced robocar technologies, the rental would actually pull out of its spot for you. Zipcar has reserved spots for its vehicles and normally it makes no sense for the renter to have just pulled up in a car and need the spot, but it should work just fine. At Hertz or similar companies another open spot may be available.

Then off you go in your gasoline car. To make things as easy as possible, the negotiated contract should include refill of gasoline at a fair market price rather than the insane inflated price that car rental houses charge. Later come back and swap again.  read more »

Robocar challenge from Italy to China

Today marks the start of a remarkable robocar trek from Italy to China. The team from the Vislab International Autonomous Challenge start in Italy and will trek all the way to Shanghai in electric autonomous vehicles, crossing borders, handling rough terrain and going over roads for which there are no maps in areas where there is no high-accuracy GPS.

This would be impossible today so they are solving that problem by having a lead car which drives mostly autonomously, but sometimes has the humans take over, particularly in areas where there are no maps. This vehicle can be seen by the other vehicles and also transmits GPS waypoints to them, so they can follow those waypoints and use their sensors to fill in the rest. The other vehicles also will have humans to correct them in case of error, and the amount of correction needed will be recorded. Some of the earliest robocar experiments in Germany used this approach, driving the highways with occasional human correction. (The DARPA grand challenges required empty vehicles on a closed course, and no human intervention, except the kill switch, was allowed.) This should be a tremendous challenge with much learned along the way about what works and what doesn’t. As a computer vision lab, these cars appear to want to use vision a lot more than other robocars, which have gone LIDAR all the way. (There are LIDARs on the Vislab cars, but not as fancy as the 64 line Velodyne.)

They are using electric cars to send a green message. While I do believe that the robocars of the future will indeed be electric, and that self-recharge is a cruicial element of the value of robocars, I am not as fond of this decision. “One thing at a time” is the philosophy that makes sense, so I think it’s better to start with proven and easy to refuel gasoline cars and get the autonomy working, then improve what’s underneath. But this is a minor quibble about an exciting project.

They have a live tracking tool (not up yet) and a blog you can follow.

More robocar news to come. Yesterday I had an interesting ride in Junior (Darpa Grand Challenge II winner) and we trusted it enough to have Kathryn stand in the crosswalk while Junior drove up to it, then stopped and waited for her to walk out of it.

Losing your passport

Last week, on my trip to Berlin, I managed to drop my passport. I don’t know where — it might have been in the bathroom of Brussels airport trying to change clothes in a tiny room after a long red-eye, or it might have been when Brussels Air made me gate check a bag requiring a big rearrangement of items, or somewhere else. But two days later, arriving at a Pension in Berlin I discovered it was missing, and a lot of calling around revealed nobody had turned it in.

In today’s document hungry world this can be a major calamity. I actually have a pretty pleasant story to report, though there were indeed lots of hassles. But it turned out I had prepared for this moment in a number of ways, and you may want to do the same.

The upshot was that I applied for a passport on Wednesday, got it on Thursday, flew on Friday and again on Monday and got my permanent passport that same Monday — remarkable efficiency for a ministry with a reputation for long bureaucracy.

After concluding it was lost, I called the Canadian Embassy in Berlin. Once you declare the passport lost, it is immediately canceled, even if you find it again, so you want to be sure that it’s gone. The Embassy was just a couple of U-bahn stops away, so I ventured there. I keep all my documents in my computer, and the security guy was shocked I had brought it. He put all that gear in a locker, and even confiscated my phone — more on that later.  read more »

Rolling travel bag that plugs in

Since I’m on the road (Washington DC right now, then Berlin on Monday for a few days and then Toronto for the weekend of the 11th) I will lament on the problem I have noted before in travel power. We have to carry so many chargers. I have also found it’s a pain to take them all out and put them back in again.

So how about an electrified rollaboard travel bag. It would plug in, and of course you would have the right adapters for the countries you are going to. Then, along the bottom it would offer a power strip of sorts, with receptacles for your home plug form. The back of these units tends to have spare room due to the bars.

It would also feature an internal USB powering hub, with a few USB jacks, but also built in would be some retractable cables with micro-usb (the new power standard for phones and some other devices) or mini-usb if you still need that. (Alternately have one and adapters for the other.)

Next a universal battery charger. They sell these now with plates that adapt to the various camera batteries, and they even have plates for nimh AA batteries etc. Perhaps even 2 plates.

And of course a universal laptop power supply, but this needs a somewhat long cord. Now I know, you need a power supply to carry with the laptop to meetings, so do you want to carry two? Perhaps not, but I actually like to when space is not super tight. It’s possible this supply could be done in a way that it can snap out, and so all you carry is an extra wall cord. Since I like retractables however you might want another laptop cord and special tip for it.

The advantage: One thing to plug in and unplug when you go from room to room.

And the fact that the wheelies, because of their carry handle, tend to have some extra room to put stuff if it is built in.

The downside: Standards change and your wheelie could get obsolete. The x-ray people may take a bit of time to get used to it as well.

PR2 robots and open source

I don’t often write about robots that don’t go on roads, but last night I stopped by Willow Garage, the robot startup created by my old friend Scott Hassan. Scott is investing in building open robotics platforms, and giving much of it out free to the world, because he thinks progress in robotics has been far too slow. Last night they unveiled their beta PR2 robots and gave 11 of them to teams from 11 different schools and labs. Those institutions will be all trying to do something creative with the robots, just as a Berkeley team quickly made it able to fold towels a few months ago.

I must admit, as they marched out the 11 robots and had them do synchronous dance there was a moment (about 2 minutes 20 seconds in that video) when it reminded me of a scene from some techno thriller, where the evil overload unveils his new robots to an applauding crowd, and the robots then turn and kill all the humans. Fortunately this did not happen. The real world is very different, and these robots will do a lot of good. They have a lot of processing power, various nice sensors and 2 arms with 7 degrees of freedom. They run ROS, an open source robot operating system which now runs on many other robots.

I was interested because I have proposed that having an open simulator platform for robocars could also spur development from people without the budgets to build their own robocars (and crash them during testing.) A robocar test model is going to involve at least $150,000 today and will get damaged in development, and that’s beyond small developers. The PR2 beta models cost more than that, but Willow Garage’s donations will let these teams experiment in personal robotics.

Of course, it would be nice for robocars if there were an inexpensive robocar that teams could get and test. Right now though, everybody wants a sensor as nice as the $75,000 Velodyne LIDAR that powered most of the top competitors in the DARPA urban challenge, and you can’t get that cheaply yet — except perhaps in simulator.

BigDog, and walking Robocars

Last week, I attended a talk by Marc Raibert the former MIT Professor who founded Boston Dynamics, the makers of the BigDog 4-legged walking robot. If you haven’t seen the various videos of BigDog you should watch them immediately, as this is some of the most interesting work in robotics today.

Walking pack robots like BigDog have a number of obvious applications, but at present they are rather inefficient. BigDog is powered by a a 2 stroke compressor that drives hydraulics. That works well because the legs don’t need engines but can exert a lot of force. However, its efficiency is in the range of 2 gallons per mile, though this is just a prototype level. It is more efficient on flat terrain and pavement, but of course wheels are vastly more efficient there. As efficient as animals are, wheeled vehicles are better if you don’t make them heavy as tanks and SUVs.

BigDog walks autonomously but today is steered by a human, or in newer versions, can follow a human walking down a trail, walking where she walked. In the future they want to make an autonomous delivery robot that can be told to take supplies to troops in the field, or carry home a wounded soldier.

I wondered if BigDog isn’t trying too hard to be a mule, carrying all the weight up high. This makes it harder for it to do its job. If it could just tow a sledge (perhaps a container with a round teflon bottom with some low profile or retractable wheels) it might be able to haul more weight. Particularly because it could pay out line while negotiating something particularly tricky and then once stable again, reel in the line. This would not work if you had to go through boulders that might catch the trailer but for many forms of terrain it would be fine. Indeed, Boston Dynamics wants to see if this can work. On the other hand, they did not accept my suggestion that they put red dye in the hydraulic fluid so that it spurts red blood if damaged or shot.

The hydraulic design of BigDog made me wonder about applications to robocars. In particular, it seems as though it will be possible to build a light robocar that has legs folded up under the chassis. When the robocar got to the edge of the road, it could put down the legs and be able to climb stairs, go over curbs, and even go down dirt paths and rough terrain. At least a lightweight single person robocar or deliverbot might do this.  read more »

Mini roads for robocars

At the positive end of my prediction that robocars will enable people to travel in “the right vehicle for the trip” and given that most trips are short urban ones, it follows that most robocars, if we are efficient, will be small light vehicles meant for 1-2 people, with a lesser number of larger ones for 4-5 people. 2 person cars can even be face to face, allowing them to be under 5’ wide, though larger ones will be as wide as today’s cars, with some number as big as vans, RVs and buses.

Small, lightweight vehicles are not just greener than transit, they also require far less expensive road. While the initial attraction of robocars is that they can provide private, automated, efficient transportation without any new infrastructure, eventually we will begin building new development with robocars in mind. Various estimates I have seen for multi-use paths suitable for people, bikes and golf carts range around $100K to $200K per mile, though I have heard of projects which, thanks to the wonders of government contracting, soar up to $1M per mile. On the other hand, typical urban streets cost $2M to $3M per mile, an order of magnitude more.

Consider a residential robocar block. It might well be served by a single 10’ lightweight use lane. That lane might run along the backs of the houses — such back alley approaches are found in a number of cities, and people love them since the garage (if there is one) does not dominate the front of your home. It might also be in the front of the house. New construction could go either way. Existing areas might decide to reclaim their street into a block park or more land for the homeowners, with a robocar street, sidewalk and bike path where the road used to be.

We only need a single lane in one direction on most streets, though the desire to get 8’ wide vehicles in means there would be 2 lanes for the narrow vehicles. The lane would have no specific direction, rather it would be controlled by a local computer, which would tell incoming vehicles from which direction to enter the lane and command waiting vehicles to get out of the way. Small wider spots or other temporary holding spots would readily allow cars to pass through even if another vehicle is doing something.

You would not need a garage for your robocar as you can store it anywhere nearby that you can find space, or hire it out when you don’t need it. You might not even own any robocar, in which case you certainly don’t need a garage to store one. However, you probably will want a “delivery room,” which is something like a garage which has a driveway up to it. Deliverbots could use this room — they would be given the code to open the door — to drop off deliveries for you in a protected place. You could also have the “room of requirement” I describe in the deliverbots page.

This plan leaves out one important thing — heavy vehicles. We still need occasional heavy vehicles. They will deliver large and heavy items to our houses, ranging from hot tubs to grand pianos. But even heavier are the construction machines used in home construction and renovation, ranging from cranes to earth movers. How can they come in, when their weight would tear up a light-duty road?

The answer is, not surprisingly, in robotics. The heavy trucks, driven by robots, will be able to place their tires quiet precisely. We can engineer our robocar paths to include two heavy duty strips with deeper foundations and stronger asphalt, able to take the load.

Alternately, since the tires of the trucks will be further apart than our robocars, they might just run their tires on either side of a more narrow path, essentially on the shoulders of the path. These shoulders could be made not from heavy duty materials, but from cheap ones, like gravel or dirt. The trucks would move only very slowly on these residential blocks. If they did disturb things there, repair would be easy, and in fact it’s not too much of a stretch to predict either a road repair robot or a small road repair truck with a construction worker which moves in when problems are detected.

The volume of heavy trucks can be controlled, and their frequency. Their use can be avoided in most cases in times when the pavement is more fragile, such as when the ground is soaked or freezing. If they do damage the road, repair can be done swiftly — but in fact robocars can also be programmed to both go slowly in such alleys (as they already would) and avoid any potholes until the gravel robot fills them. Robocars will be laser scanning the road surface ahead of them at all times to avoid such things in other areas.

I keep coming up with dramatic savings that robocars offer, and the numbers, already in the trillions of dollars and gigatons of CO2 seem amazing, but this is another one. Urban “local roads” are 15% of all U.S. road mileage, and rural local roads are 54%. (There are just over 2.6 million paved road-miles in the USA.) To add to the value, road construction and asphalt are major greenhouse gas sources.

To extend this further, I speculate on what might happen if small robocars had legs, like BigDog.

Volvo collision avoidance fails and other things that will happen again

Last week, Volvo was demoing some new collision avoidance features in their S60. I’ve talked about the S60 before, as it surprised me putting pedestrian detection into a car before I expected it to happen. Unfortunately in an extreme case of demo disease known to all computer people, somebody has made an error with the battery, and in front of a crowd of press, the car smashed into the truck it was supposed to avoid. The wired article links to a video.

Poor Volvo, having this happen in front of all the press. Of course, their system is meant to be used in human driven cars, warning the driver and braking if the driver fails to act — not in a self-driving vehicle. And they say that had their been a driver there would have been an indication that the system was not operating.

While this mistake is the result of a lack of maturity in the technology, it is important to realize that as robocars are developed there will be crashes, and some of the crashes will hurt people and a few will quite probably kill people. It’s a mistake to assume this won’t happen, or not to plan for it. The public can be very harsh. Toyota’s problems with their car controllers (if that’s where the problems are — Toyota claims they are not — have been a subject of ridicule for what was (and probably still is) one of the world’s most respected brands. The public asks, if programmers can’t program simple parts of today’s cars, can they program one that does all the driving?

There are two answers to that. First of all, they can and do program computerized parts of today’s cars all the time and by and large have perfect safety records.

But secondly, no they can’t make a complete driving system perfectly safe, certainly not at first. It is a complex problem and we’ll wait a long time before the accident rate is zero. And while we wait, human drivers will kill millions.

Our modern society has always had a tough time with that trade-off. Of late we’ve been coming to demand perfect safety, though it is impossible. Few new products are allowed out if it is known that they will have any death rate due to their own flaws. Even if those flaws are not known in the specific, but are known to be highly likely to exist in some fashion. American juries, faced with minutes of a meeting where the company decided to “release the product, even though predictions show that bugs will kill X people” will punish the company nastily, even though the alternative was “don’t release and have human drivers kill 10X people.” The 9X who were saved will not be in the courtroom. This is one reason robocars may arise outside the USA first.

Of course, there might be cases the other way. A drunk who kills somebody when he could have taken a robocar might get a stiffer punishment. A corporation that had its employees drive when robotic systems were clearly superior might find a nasty judgement — but that would require that it was OK to have the cars on the road in the first place.

But however this plays out, developers must expect there will be bugs, an bugs with dire consequences. Nobody will want those bugs, and all the injuries will be tragic, but so is being too cautious on deployment. Can the USA figure a way to make that happen?

Robomagellan contest disappoints

This weekend I attended the annual “Robogames” competition, which took place here in the Bay Area. Robogames is mostly a robot battle competition, with a focus on heavily armed radio-controlled robots fighting in a protected arena. For several years robot fighting was big enough to rate some cable TV shows dedicated to it. The fighting is a lot of fun, but almost entirely devoid of automation — in fact efforts to use automation in battle robots have mostly been a failure.

The RC battles are fierce and violent, and today one of the weapons of choice is something heavy that spins at very high speed so that it builds up a lot of angular momentum and kinetic energy, to transfer into the enemy. People like to see robots flying through the air and losing parts to flying sparks. (I suspect this need to make robots very robust against attack makes putting sensors on the robots for automation difficult, as many weapons would quickly destroy a lot of popular sensors types.) The games also featured a limited amount of automated robot competition. This included some lightweight (3lb and 1lb) automated battles which I did not get to watch, and some some hobby robot competitions for maze-running, line following, ribbon climbing and LEGO mindstorms. There was also semi-autonomous robot battle called “kung fu” where humanoid robots who take high level commands (like punch, and step) try to push one another over. There is also sumo, a game where robots must push the other robot out of the ring.

I had hoped the highlight would be the Robo-magellan contest. This is a hobbyist robot car competition, usually done with small robots 1 to 2 feet in length. Because it is hobbyists, and often students, the budgets are very small, and the contest is very simple. Robots must make it through a simple outdoor course to touch an orange cone about 100 yards away. They want to do this in the shortest time, but for extra points they can touch bonus cones along the way. Contestants are given GPS coordinates for the target cones. They get three tries. In this particular contest, to make it even easier, contestants were allowed to walk the course and create some extra GPS waypoints for their robots.

These extra waypoints should have made it possible to do the job with just a GPS and camera, but the hobbyists in this competition were mostly novices, and no robot reached the final cone. The winner got within 40 feet on their last run, but no performance was even remotely impressive. This was unlike past years, where I was told that 6 or more robots would reach the target and there would be real competition. This year’s poor showing was blamed on budgets, and the fact that old teams who had done well had moved on from the sport. Only 5 teams showed up.

The robots were poor for sensors. While all would have a GPS, in 1 or 2 cases the GPS systems failed and the robots quickly wandered into things. A few had sonar or touch-bars for obstacle detection, but others did not, and none of them did their obstacle detection well at all. For most, if they ran into something, that was it for that race. Some used a compass or accelerometers to help judge when to turn and where to aim, since a GPS is not very good as a compass.  read more »

The radio will be a major innovation center in cars, near-term

I’ve been predicting a great deal of innovation in cars with the arrival of robocars and other automatic driving technologies. But there’s a lot of other computerization and new electronics that will be making its way into cars, and to make that happen, we need to make the car into a platform for innovation, rather than something bought as a walled garden from the car vendor.

In the old days, it was fairly common to get a car without a radio, and to buy the radio of your choice. This happened even in higher end cars. However, the advantages in sound quality and dash integration from a factory-installed radio started to win out, especially with horizontal market Japanese companies who were both good at cars and good at radios.

For real innovation, you want a platform, where aftermarket companies come in and compete. And you want early adopters to be able to replace what they buy whenever they get the whim. We replace our computers and phones far more frequently than our cars and the radios inside them.

To facilitate this, I think the car’s radio and “occupant computer” should be merged, but split into three parts:

  1. The speakers and power amplifier, which will probably last the life of the car, and be driven with some standard interface such as 7.1 digital audio over optical fiber.
  2. The “guts” which probably live in the trunk or somewhere else not space constrained, and connect to the other parts
  3. The “interface” which consists of the dashboard panel and screen, with controls, and any other controls and screens, all wired with a network to the guts.

Ideally the hookup between the interface and the guts is a standardized protocol. I think USB 3.0 can handle it and has the bandwidth to display screens on the dashboard, and on the back of the headrests for rear passenger video. Though if you want to imagine an HDTV for the passengers, its possible that we would add a video protocol (like HDMI) to the USB. But otherwise USB is general enough for everything else that will connect to the guts. USB’s main flaw is its master-slave approach, which means the guts needs to be both a master, for control of various things in the car, and a slave, for when you want to plug your laptop into the car and control elements in the car — and the radio itself.

Of course there should be USB jacks scattered around the car to plug in devices like phones and memory sticks and music players, as well as to power devices up on the dash, down in the armrests, in the trunk, under the hood, at the mirror and right behind the grille.

Finally there need to be some antenna wires. That’s harder to standardize but you can be we need antennas for AM/FM/TV, satellite radio, GPS, cellular bands, and various 802.11 protocols including the new 802.11p. In some cases, however, the right solution is just to run USB 3.0 to places an antenna might go, and then have a receiver or tranceiver with integrated antenna which mounts there. A more general solution is best.

This architecture lets us replace things with the newest and latest stuff, and lets us support new radio protocols which appear. It lets us replace the guts if we have to, and replace the interface panels, or customize them readily to particular cars.  read more »

Houseguest from heaven

I recently stayed at the home of a friend up in Vancouver. She had some electrical wiring problems, and since I know wiring, I helped her with them as well as some computer networking issues. Very kindly she said that made me a houseguest from heaven (as opposed to the houseguests from hell we have all heard about.) I was able to leave her place better than I found it. Well, mostly.

This immediately triggered a business idea in my mind which seems like it would be cool but is, alas, probably illegal. The idea would be a service where people with guestrooms, or even temporarily vacant homes, would provide free room (and board) to qualified tradespeople who want to have a cheap vacation. Electricians, handypeople, plumbers, computer wizards, housepainters, au pairs, gardeners and even housecleaners and organizers, would stay in your house, and leave it having done some reapirs or cleanup. In some cases, like cleanup, pool maintenance and yard sweeping, the people need not be skilled professionals, they could be just about anybody.

Obviously there would need to be a lot of logistics to work out. A reliable reputation system would be needed if you’re going to trust your house to such strangers, particularly if trusting the watching of your children. You would need to know both that they are able to do the work and not about to rob you. You would want to know if they will keep the relationship a business one or expect a more friendly experience, like couch surfing.

In addition, the homeowners would need reputations of their own. Because, for a skilled tradesperson, a night of room and board is only worth a modest amount of work. You can’t give somebody a room and expect them to work the whole day on your project — or even much more than an hour. Perhaps if a whole house is given over, with rooms for the person and a whole family, more work could be expected. The homeowner may not be good at estimating the amount of work needed, and come away disappointed when told that the guest spent 2 hours on the problem and decided it was a much bigger problem.

Trading lodging for services is an ancient tradition, particularly on farms. In childcare, the “au pair” concept has institutionalized it and made it legal.

But alas, legality is the rub. The tax man will insist that both parties are making income and want to tax it, as barter is taxable. The local contractor licencing agency will insist that work be done only by locally licenced contractors, to local codes, possibly with permits and inspections. And immigration officials will insist that foreign tourists are illegally working. And there would be the odd civil disputes. An unions might tell members not to take work even from remote members of cousin unions.

The civil disputes could be kept to a minimum by making the jobs short and a good deal for the guests, since for the homeowners, the guest room was typically doing nothing anyway — thus the success of couch surfing — and making slightly more food is no big deal. But the other legal risks would probably make it illegal for a company to get in the middle of all this. At least in the company’s home country. A company based in some small nation might not be subject to remote laws.  read more »

Robot car virtual contest and demolition derby

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the need for a good robocar driving simulator. Others have been on the track even earlier and are arranging a pair of robotic driving contests in simulator for some upcoming AI conferences.

The main contest is a conventional car race. It will be done in the TORCS simulator I spoke of, where people have been building robot algorithms to control race cars for some time, though not usually academic AI researchers. In addition, they’re adding a demolition derby which should be a lot of fun, though not exactly the code you want to write for safety.

This is, however, not the simulator contest I wrote about. The robots people write for use in computer racing simulators are given a pre-distilled view of the world. They learn exactly where the vehicle is, where the road edges are and where other cars are, without error. Their only concern is to drive based on the road and the physics of their vehicle and the track, and not hit things — or in the case of the derby, to deliberately hit things.

The TORCS engine is a good one, but is currently wired to do only an oval racetrack, and the maintainers, I am told, are not interested in having it support more complex street patterns.

While simulation in an environment where all the sensing problems are solved is a good start, a true robocar simulation needs simulated sensors — cameras, LIDAR, radar, GPS and the works — and then software that takes that and tries to turn it into a map of where the road is and where the vehicles and other things are. Navigation is also an important thing to work out. I will try to attend the Portland version of this conference to see this contest, however, as it should be good fun and generate interest.

Let me print my boarding pass long before my flight

I love online check-in, and printing your boarding pass at home to avoid doing anything but going to the gate at the airport. Airlines are even starting to do something I asked for many years ago and sending a boarding pass to the cell phone that can be held up to a screen for check-in.

But if they can’t do that, I want them to let me to print my boarding pass long before my flight. In particular, to print my return boarding pass when I print my outgoing one. That’s because I have a printer at home but often don’t have one on the road.

Of course, you can’t actually check in until close to the flight, so this boarding pass would be marked as preliminary, but still have bar codes identifying what they need to scan. On the actual day of the flight, I would check in from my phone or laptop, so they know I am coming to the plane. There’s no reason the old boarding pass’s bar codes can’t then be activated as ready to work. Sure, it might not know the gate, and the seat may even change, but such seat changes are rare and perhaps then I would need to go to a kiosk to swap the old pass for a new one. If the flight changes then I may also need to do the swap but the swap can be super easy — hold up old pass, get new one.

I could also get a short code to write on the pass when I do my same-day check-in, such code being usable to confirm the old pass has been validated.

Police robots everywhere?

It is no coincidence that two friends of mine have both founded companies recently to build telepresence robots. These are easy to drive remote control robots which have a camera and screen at head height. You can inhabit the robot, and drive it around a flat area and talk to people by videoconferencing. You can join meetings, go visit people or inspect a factory. Companies building these robots, initially at high prices, intend to sell them both to executives who want to remotely tour remote offices and to companies who want to give cheaper remote employees a more physical presence back at HQ.

There are also a few super-cheap telepresence robots, such as the Spykee, which runs Skype video conferencing and can be had for as low as $150. It’s not very good, and the camera is very low down, and there’s no screen, but it shows just how cheap such a product can get.

“Anybots” QA telepresence robot

When they get down to a price like that, it seems inevitable to me that we will see an emergency services robot on every block, primarily for use by the police. When there is a police, fire or ambulance call to an address, an officer could immediately connect to the robot on that block and drive it to the scene, to be telepresent. The robot would live in a small, powered protective closet either paid for by the city, but more likely just donated by some neighbour on the block who wants the fastest possible emergency response. Called into action, the robot’s garage door would open and the robot would drive out, and probably be at the location of the emergency within 60 to 120 seconds, depending on how densely they are placed. In the meantime actual first responders might also be on the way.

What could such a robot do?  read more »

Transit energy chart updated from latest DoE book

Back in 2008 I wrote a controversial article about whether green transit was a myth in the USA. Today I updated the main chart in that article based on new releases of the Department of Energy Transportation Energy Fact Book 2009 edition. The car and SUV numbers have stayed roughly the same (at about 3500 BTUs/passenger-mile for the average car under average passenger load.)

What’s new?

  • Numbers for buses are now worse at 4300. Source data predates the $4/gallon gas crisis, which probably temporarily improved it.
  • Light (capacity) rail numbers are significantly worse — reason unknown. San Jose’s Light rail shows modest improvement to 5300 but the overall average reported at 7600 is more than twice the energy of cars!
  • Some light rail systems (See Figure 2.3 in Chapter 2) show ridiculously high numbers. Galveston, Texas shows a light rail that takes 8 times as much energy per passenger as the average SUV. Anybody ridden it and care to explain why its ridership is so low?
  • Heavy rail numbers also worsen.
  • Strangely, average rail numbers stay the same. This may indicate an error in the data or a change of methodology, because while Amtrak and commuter rail are mildly better than the average, it’s not enough to reconcile the new average numbers for light and heavy rail with the rail average.
  • I’ve made a note that the electric trike figure is based on today’s best models. Average electric scooters are still very, very good but only half as good as this.
  • I’ve added a figure I found for the East Japan railway system. As expected, this number is very good, twice as good as cars, but suggests an upper bound, as the Japanese are among the best at trains.
  • I removed the oil-fueled-agriculture number for cyclists, as that caused more confusion than it was worth.
  • There is no trolley bus number this year, so I have put a note on the old one.
  • It’s not on the chart, but I am looking into high speed rail. Germany’s ICE reports a number around 1200 BTU/PM. The California HSR project claims they are going to do as well as the German system, which I am skeptical of, since it requires a passenger load of 100M/year, when currently less than 25M fly these routes.

The Robocar Babysitter and revolutions in child-watching

Watching and managing children is one of the major occupations of the human race. A true robot babysitter is still some time in the future, and getting robocars to the level that we will trust them as safe to carry children is also somewhat in the future, but it will still happen much sooner.

Today I want to explore the implications of a robocar that is ready to safely carry children of certain age ranges. This may be far away because people are of course highly protective of their children. They might trust a friend to drive a child, even though human driving records are poor, because the driver is putting her life on the line just as much as the child’s, while the robot is just programmed to be safe, with no specific self-interest.

A child’s robocar can be designed to higher safety standards than an adult’s, with airbags in all directions, crumple zones designed for a single occupant in the center and the child in a 5-point seatbelt. As you know, with today’s modern safety systems, racecar drivers routinely walk away from crashes at 150mph. Making a car that won’t hurt the child in a 40mph crash is certainly doable, though not without expense. A robocar’s ability to anticipate an accident might even allow it to swivel the seat around so that the child’s back is to the accident, something even better than an airbag.

The big issue is supervision of smaller children. It’s hard to say what age ranges of children people might want to send via robocar. In some ways infants are easiest, as you just strap them in and they don’t do much. All small children today are strapped in solidly, and younger ones are in a rear facing seat where they don’t even see the parent. (This is now recommended as safest up to age 4 but few parents do that.) Children need some supervision, though real problems for a strapped in child are rare. Of course, beyond a certain age, the children will be fully capable of riding with minimal supervision, and by 10-12, no direct supervision (but ability to call upon an adult at any time.)  read more »

Poor Man's Teleporter

One of the things that’s harder to predict about robocars is what they will mean for how cities are designed and how they evolve. We’re notoriously bad at predicting such things, but it is still tempting.

A world of robocars offers the potential for something I am dubbing the “poor man’s teleporter.” That’s a fleet of comfortable robotaxis that are, while you are in them, a fully functional working or relaxing environment. Such robotaxis would have a desk and large screen and very high speed wireless net connection. They have a comfy reclining chair (or bed) and anything else you need from the office environment. (Keyboards and mice are problematic, as I have discussed elsewhere, but there may be ways to solve that.)

The robotaxi will deliberately pick the most comfortable route for a trip, with few turns, few stops and gentle acceleration. It will gimbal in corners and have an active suspension system eliminating bumps. The moment you enter it, your desktop could appear on the screen, copied from the desk you left (thanks to communication with one of your wearable devices, probably.) You can do high quality videoconferencing, work on the net, or just watch a video or read a book — the enclosed book reader could be set to the page you were last reading elsewhere. If you work in a building with a lobby, the electric robotaxi could enter the lobby and meet you right at the elevator. It might even go vertical and ride up the elevator to get you during less busy times. (For some real science fiction, the robotaxis in Minority Report somehow climbed the buildings and parked in people’s homes.)

For many it would be as though they had not left their desks. Almost all the trip will be productive time. As such, while people won’t want to spend forever in the car, many might find distance and trip time to not be particularly important, at least not for trips around town during the workday. While everybody wants to get home to family sooner, even commute times could become productive times with employers who let the employee treat the travel time as work time. Work would begin the moment you stepped into the car in the morning.

We’ve seen a taste of this in Silicon Valley, as several companies like Google and Yahoo run a series of commute vans for their employees. These vans have nice chairs, spaces for laptops and wireless connectivity into the corporate network. Many people take advantage of these vans and live in places like San Francisco, which may be an hour-long trip to the office. The companies pay for the van because the employees start the workday when they get on it.

This concept will continue to expand, and I predict it will expand into robocars. The question is, what does it mean to how we live if we eliminate the time-cost of distance from many trips? What if we started viewing our robotaxis as almost like a teleporter, something that takes almost no time to get us where we want to go? It’s not really no-time, of course, and if you have to make a meeting you still have to leave in time to get there. It might be easier for some to view typical 15 minute trips around a tight urban area as no-time while viewing 30-60 minute trips as productive but “different time.”

Will this make us want to sprawl even more, with distance not being important? Or will we want to live closer, so that the trips are more akin to teleportation by being productive, short and highly predictable in duration? It seems likely that if we somehow had a real Star-Trek style transporter, we might all live in country homes and transport on demand to where the action is. That’s not coming, but the no-lost-time ride is. We might not be able to afford a house on the nice-walkable-shops-and-restaurants street, but we might live 2 miles from it and always be able to get to it, with no parking hassle, in 4 minutes of productive time.

What will the concept of a downtown mean in such a world? “Destination” retailers and services, like a movie house, might decide they have no real reason to be in a downtown when everybody is coming by robotaxi. Specialty providers will also see no need to pay a premium to be in a downtown. Right now they don’t get walk-by traffic, but they do like to be convenient to the customers who seek them out. Stores that do depend on walk-by traffic (notably cafes and many restaurants) will want to be in places of concentration and walking.

But what about big corporate offices that occupy the towers of our cities? They go there for prestige, and sometimes to make it easy to have meetings with other downtown companies. They like having lots of services for their employees and for the business. They like being near transit hubs to bring in those employees who like transit. What happens when many of these needs go away?

For many people, the choice of where to live is overwhelmingly dominated by their children — getting them nice, safe neighbourhoods to play in, and getting them to the most desired schools. If children can go to schools anywhere in a robocar, how does that alter the equation? Will people all want bigger yards in which to cacoon their children, relying on the robocar to take the children to play-dates and supervised parks? Might they create a world where the child goes into the garage, gets in the robocar and tells it to go to Billy’s house, and it deposits the child in that garage, never having been outside — again like a teleporter to the parents? Could this mean a more serious divorce between community and geography?

While all this is going on, we’re also going to see big strides in videoconferencing and virtual reality, both for adults, and as play-spaces for adults and children. In many cases people will be interacting through a different sort of poor man’s teleporter, this one taking zero time but not offering physical contact.

Clearly, not all of these changes match our values today. But what steps that make sense could we actually take to promote our values? It doesn’t seem possible to ban the behaviours discussed above, or even to bend them much. What do you think the brave new city will look like?

More notes:

It is often said that cars caused the suburbanization of cities. However, people didn’t decide they wanted a car lifestyle and thus move where they could drive more. They sought bigger lots and yards, and larger detached houses. They sought quieter streets. While it’s not inherent to suburbs, they also sought better schools for kids and safer neighbourhoods. They gave up having nearby shops and restaurants and people to get those things, and accepted the (fairly high) cost of the car as part of the price. Most often for the kids. Childless and young people like urban life; the flight to the suburbs was led by the parents.

This doesn’t mean they stopped liking the aspects of the “livable city.” Having stuff close to you. Having your friends close to you. Having pleasant and lively spaces to wander, and in which you regularly see your friends and meet other people. Walking areas with interesting shops and restaurants and escape from the hassles of parking and traffic. They just liked the other aspects of sprawl more.

They tried to duplicate these livable areas with shopping malls. But these are too sterile and corporate — but they are also climate controlled and safer and caused the downfall of many downtowns. Then big box stores, more accessible from the burbs, kept at that tack.

The robotaxi will allow people to get more of what they sought from the “livable city” while still in sprawl. It will also let them get more of what they sought from the suburbs, in terms of safety and options for their children. They may still build pleasant pedestrian malls in which one can walk and wander among interesting things, but people who live 5 miles away will be able to get to them in under 10 minutes. They will be delivered right into the pedestrian zone, not to a sprawling parking lot. They won’t have to worry about parking, and what they buy could be sent to their home by delivery robot — no need to even carry it while walking among shops. They will seek to enjoy the livable space from 5 miles away the same way that people today who live 4 blocks away enjoy those spaces.

But there’s also no question that there will continue to be private malls trying to meet this need. Indeed the private malls will probably offer free or validated robotaxi service to the mall, along with delivery, if robotaxi service is as cheap as I predict it can be. Will the public spaces, with their greater variety and character be able to compete? They will also have weather and homeless people and other aspects of street life that private malls try to push away.

The arrival of the robocar baby-sitter, which I plan to write about more, will also change urban family life. Stick the kid in the taxi and send him to the other parent, or a paid sitter service, all while some adult watches on the video and redirects the vehicle to one of a network of trusted adults if some contingency arises. Talk about sending a kid to a time-out!

Graphic with traffic death stats

Here’s a nice graphic showing traffic deaths around the world. Of course, all these numbers are going to drop over the next 10 years thanks to various collision avoidance and accident survival technologies in cars, and eventually, we hope, robocars.

Needed: An open robocar driving simulator. Here's how.

I was recently approached by a programmer named Keith Curtis, formerly at Microsoft and now a FOSS devotee. He wants to develop a driving simulator for testing robocar systems. I think this is a very worthwhile idea — sort of a “Second Life” for robots. We have a head start — the world of racecar video games has already done a lot of the legwork to simulate driving, and there are two open source car racing systems.

A good simulator would bring some tremendous benefits to robocar development.

  1. Anybody, even a solo hacker in their basement, could develop and test robocar software on the cheap, and with no cost and risk from crashes. Small teams, perhaps working in car-less garages, could contribute greatly to the field.
  2. Testing could go faster, and include regular exposure to extreme situations not often found in the real world, like crazy drivers, strange hazards, map errors, sensor failures and more.
  3. Simulator testing allows the creation of new sensors which are plausible, but too expensive or too far in the future to work with in the real world. It allows teams to say, “What if we had 1cm accurate GPS? What if we had 180 line LIDAR to 100m?” and see if they can build robocar controls to use it.
  4. Robocar contests could be held in simulation, on the cheap and with no physical risk. The winners could then get funding to build real-world vehicles to race for a bigger prize.
  5. The simulator APIs for car controls and sensors can become prototype APIs for real-world interfaces, allowing easy testing and switching.

Of course, robocar simulation is nothing new. Several teams in the DARPA challenges built simulators to try out ideas. These remained proprietary efforts. Road simulation is also frequently used for traffic simulators. An open simulator would be shared, and the community (and not just the robocar development community) could contribute terrain, streets, sensors and simulators for elements such as pedestrians, human driven cars, blowing trash and new sensors, to name just a few.

Our wonderful new fast GPUs will be able to generate camera views anywhere in the 3D world for those working on machine vision. Simulating LIDAR, radar, ultrasound, odometry, accelerometers etc. is not yet done in car racing games but these things should not be hard to add. Indeed, any company selling a sensor would be well advised to build a simulated version of it. And people hacking at home love to make 3-D maps of terrain. Existing real terrain models could be imported, or new ones made by driving around with LIDAR on real streets.

To explore this more I have written a new article on how to build a robocar driving simulator where I also point to an up and coming open source simulator called “Rigs of Rods” which actually simulates the vehicles at the physics level, treating them as a network of many connected parts.

The robocar world needs somebody ready to fun the kick-starting of such a simulator, and possibly some contests within it.

Terror and security

One of the world’s favourite (and sometimes least favourite) topics is the issue of terrorism and security. On one side, there are those who feel the risk of terrorism justifies significant sacrifices of money, convenience and civil rights to provide enough security to counter it. That side includes both those who honestly come by that opinion, and those who simply want more security and feel terrorism is the excuse to use to get it.

On the other side, critics point out a number of counter arguments, most of them with merit, including:

  • Much of what is done in the name of security doesn’t actually enhance it, it just gives the appearance of doing so, and the appearance of security is what the public actually craves. This has been called “Security Theatre” by Bruce Schneier, who is a friend and advisor to the E.F.F.
  • We often “fight the previous war,” securing against the tactics of the most recent attack. The terrorists have already moved on to planning something else. They did planes, then trains, then subways, then buses, then nightclubs.
  • Terrorists will attack where the target is weakest. Securing something just makes them attack something else. This has indeed been the case many times. Since everything can’t be secured, most of our efforts are futile and expensive. If we do manage to secure everything they will attack the crowded lines at security.
  • Terrorists are not out to kill random people they don’t know. Rather, that is their tool to reach their real goal: sowing terror (for political, religious or personal goals.) When we react with fear — particularly public fear — to their actions, this is what they want, and indeed what they plan to achieve. Many of our reactions to them are just what they planned to happen.
  • Profiling and identity checks seem smart at first, but careful analysis shows that they just give a more free pass to anybody the terrorists can recruit whose name is not yet on a list, making their job easier.
  • The hard reality is, that frightening as terrorism is, in the grand scheme we are for more likely to face harm and death from other factors that we spend much less of our resources fighting. We could save far more people applying our resources in other ways. This is spelled out fairly well in this blog post.

Now Bruce’s blog, which I link to above, is a good resource for material on the don’t-panic viewpoint, and in fact he is sometimes consulted by the TSA and I suspect they read his blog, and even understand it. So why do we get such inane security efforts? Why are we willing to ruin ourselves, and make air travel such a burden, and strip ourselves of civil rights?

There is a mistake that both sides make, I think. The goal of counter-terrorism is not to stop the terrorists from attacking and killing people, not directly. The goal of counter-terrorism is to stop the terrorists from scaring people. Of course, killing people is frightening, so it is no wonder we conflate the two approaches.  read more »

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