Robocars

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.

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.

Robocars

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 »

The numbers say let Robocars exceed the speed limit

I’m often asked whether robocars will keep themselves to the speed limit and refuse to go faster, unlike cruise controls which let the driver set the automated speed. In many countries, the majority of human drivers routinely exceed the limit which could present issues. On the other hand, vendors may fear liability over programming their cars to do this, or even programming them to allow their human overlord to demand it.

While the right answer is a speed-limit doctrine like the French Autoroute, where the limit is 130 kph/80 mph and few disobey it, until we can come to that answer, the math suggests that travel might be overall safer if the robocars are allowed to speed in the same way humans do, at the request of humans. And indeed, that is how prototype implementations have been built.

I felt this subject (and related subjects about how cars should deal with laws that are routinely broken by human drivers) deserved a special article. Read about it at:

Robocars and the Speed Limit

Vislab does successful test on real streets

A nice result for Vislab of Parma, Italy. They have completed a trial run on public roads using their mostly vision-based driving system. You can see a report on the Vislab site for full details. The run included urban, rural and highway streets. While the press release tries to make a big point that they did this with a vacant driver’s seat, the video shows a safety driver in that seat at all times, so it’s not clear how the test was done. They indicate that the passenger had an emergency brake, and a chase car had a remote shutoff as well.

The Vislab car uses a LIDAR for forward obstacle detection, but their main thrust is the use of cameras. An FPGA-based stereo system is able to build point clouds from the two cameras. Driving appears to have been done in noonday sunlight. (This is easy in terms of seeing things but hard in terms of the harsh shadows.)

The article puts a focus on how the cameras are cheaper and less obtrusive. I continue to believe that is not particularly interesting — lasers will get cheaper and smaller, and what people want here is the best technology in the early adopter stages, not the cheapest. In addition, they will want it to look unusual. Cheaper and hidden are good goals once the cars have been deployed for 5-10 years.

This does not diminish the milestone of their success, making the drive with this sensor set and in these conditions.

Report from TRB's workshop on automated road vehicles -- down with the NHTSA levels

This week I attended the Transportation Research Board Workshop on Automated Road Vehicles which has an academic focus but still has lots of industry-related topics. TRB’s main goal is to figure out what various academics should be researching or getting grants for, but this has become the “other” conference on robocars. Here are my notes from it.

Bryant Walker Smith told of an interesting court case in Ontario, where a truck driver sued over the speed limiter put in his truck and the court ruled that the enforced speed limiter was a violation of fundamental rights of choice. One wonders if a similar ruling would occur in the USA. I have an article pending on what the speed limit should be for robocars with some interesting math.

Cliff Nass expressed skepticism over the ability to have easy handover from self-driving to human driving. This transfer is a “valence transfer” and if the person is watching a movie in a tense scene that makes her sad or angry, she will begin driving with that emotional state. More than one legal scholar felt that quickly passing control to a human in an urgent situation would not absolve the system of any liability under the law, and it could be a dangerous thing. Nass is still optimistic — he notes that in spite of often expressed fears, no whole field has been destroyed because it caused a single fatality.

There were reports on efforts in Europe and Japan. In both cases, government involvement is quite high, with large budgets. On the other hand, this seems to have led in most cases to more impractical research that suggests vehicles are 1-2 decades away.

Volkswagen described a couple of interesting projects. One was the eT! — a small van that would follow a postman around as he did his rounds. The van had the mail, and the postman did not drive it but rather had it follow him so he could go and get new stacks of mail to deliver. I want one of those in the airport to have my luggage follow me around.

VW has plans for a “traffic jam pilot” which is more than the traffic jam assist products we’ve seen. This product would truly self-drive at low speeds in highway traffic jams, allowing the user to not pay attention to the road, and thus get work done. In this case, the car would give 10 seconds warning that the driver must take control again. VW eventually wants to have a full vehicle which gives you a 10 minute warning but that’s some distance away.  read more »

Vislab to move to urban streets

The Vislab team from Parma, Italy, which you may remember did the intermittently autonomous drive from Italy to Shanghai a couple of years ago is back with a new vehicle, dubbed BRAiVE which tomorrow begins testing on real urban streets.

The difference is this car is mostly based on vision systems, the specialty of Vislab. You can see a photo gallery of the car but it deliberately does not look particularly different. You can see a few low profile sensors. They claim the car uses “mostly cameras” so it’s not clear if there is still a LIDAR on the vehicle or it’s just cameras and radar. The cars to Shanghai used an array of both cameras and single plane LIDARs. It is said that the sensors are “low cost” though an exact list is not given.

This will be an interesting experiment. Previous vision based systems have not proven adequate for urban driving. They have been able to do it but not reliably enough to trust people’s lives to it. Cameras remain attractive for their low cost and other reasons outlined in my recent article on LIDAR vs. cameras.

The sensors on this vehicle are not that obvious. There remain two schools of thought on this. One believes that a significant change in the car form factor with obvious sensors will be a turn-off for buyers. Others think buyers, especially early adopters, will actually consider unusual looking sensors a huge plus, wanting the car to stand out. I’m in the latter camp, and think the Prius is evidence of this. Its unusual shape outsells all other hybrids combined, even the more ordinary looking Camry hybrid, where the Camry is the best selling car there is. However, there will be markets for both designs.

It will be interesting to see the results of this research, and what rates of accuracy they gain for their vision system. Lots of competing approaches is good for everybody.

AUVSI Driverless Car Summit Part 2

The AUVSI summit on “driverless” cars last week contained 2 days of nothing but robocars, and I reported on issues regarding Google and policy in part 1.

As noted, NHTSA released their proposal for how they want to regulate such vehicles. In it, they defined levels 0 through 4. Level 2 is what I (and GM) have been calling “super cruise” — a car which can do limited self driving but requires constant human supervision. Level 3 is a car which can drive without constant attention, but might need to call upon a human driver (non-urgently) to handle certain streets and situations. Level 4 is the fully automatic robocar.

Level 2 issues

Level 2 is coming this year in traffic jams in the Mercedes S and the BMW 5, and soon after from Audi and Volvo. GM had announced super cruise for the 2015 Cadillac line but has pulled back and delayed that to later in the decade. Nonetheless the presentation from GM’s Jeremy Salinger brought home many of the issues with this level.

GM has done a number of user studies in their super cruise cars on the test track. And they learned that the test subjects very quickly did all sorts of dangerous things, definitely not paying attention to the road. They were not told what they couldn’t do, but subjects immediately began texting, fiddling around in the back and even reading (!) while the experimenters looked on with a bit of fear. No big surprise, as people even text today without automatic steering, but the experimental results were still striking.

Because of that GM is planning what they call “countermeasures” to make sure this doesn’t happen. They did not want to say what countermeasures they liked, but in the past, we have seen proposals such as:

  • You must touch the wheel every few seconds or it disengages
  • A camera looks at your eyes and head and alerts or disengages if you look away from the road for too long
  • A task for your hands like touching a button every so often

The problem is these countermeasures can also get annoying, reducing the value of the system. It may be the lack of ability to design a good countermeasure is what has delayed GM’s release of the product. There is a policy argument coming up about whether level 2 might be more dangerous than the harder levels 3 and above, because there is more to go wrong with the human driver and the switches between human and machine driving. (Level 4 has no such switches, level 3 has switches with lots of warning.)

On the plus side, studies on existing accidents show that accident-avoidance systems, even just forward collision avoidance, have an easy potential for huge benefits. Already we’re seeing a 15% reduction in accidents in some studies just from FCA, but studies show that in 33% of accidents, the brakes were never applied at all, and only in just 1% of accidents were the brakes applied with full force! As such, systems which press the brakes and press them hard when they detect the imminent accident may not avoid the accident entirely, but they will highly reduce the severity of a lot of accidents.  read more »

RIP Martin Lowson, creator of ULTra PRT

I was sadly informed this morning by Ann Lowson that transportation pioneer Martin Lowson has fallen to a stroke this weekend.

Martin had an amazing career but it was more amazing that he was still actively engaged at age 75. We shared a panel last month in Phoenix at the people-mover conference and continued our vigourous debate on the merits of cars like his on closed guideways compared to robocars.

His career included leading a large team on the Apollo project, and building the world’s fastest helicopter, as well as faculty positions at Bristol, and you can read some about it here. For me, his big contribution was to found the ULTra PRT company, the first to commercially deploy a PRT. It runs today at Heathrow, moving people between the terminal and the business parking lot.

PRT was conceived 50 years ago, and many, including Martin and myself, were fascinated by the idea. More recently, as readers know, I decided the PRT vision of personal transportation could be realized on city streets by robocars. It’s easier to do it today on dedicated guideway, but the infrastructure costs tell me the future lies off the guideway.

That doesn’t diminish the accomplishment of being the first to make it work on the guideway. ULTra uses small cars on rubber tires, not a train on rails. They are guided by a laser rangefinder and are fully automated, with no steering wheel.

Last year I invited Martin in to give a talk to Google’s car team, and he got a ride in the car, which he quite enjoyed, even though it didn’t convince him that they were the future. But unlike other skeptics, I gave him the deepest respect for his skill and experience. People who can found companies and lead engineering and public acceptance breakthroughs while senior citizens are a very rare thing, and the world will miss him.

Driverless Car Summit 2013 Part 1 - Fear of Google

This week I attended AUVSI’s “Driverless Car Summit” in Detroit. This year’s event, the third, featured a bigger crowd and a decent program, and will generate more than one post.

I would hardly call it a theme, but two speakers expressed fairly negative comments about Google’s efforts, raising some interesting subjects. (As an important disclaimer, the Google car team is a consulting client of mine, but I am not their spokesman and the views here do not represent Google’s views.)

The keynote address came from Bryan Reimer of MIT, and generated the most press coverage and debate, though the recent NHTSA guidelines also created a stir.

Reimer’s main concern: Google is testing on public streets instead of a test track. As such it is taking the risk of a fatal accident, from which the blowback could be so large it stifles the field for many years. Car companies historically have done extensive test track work before going out on real streets. I viewed Reimer’s call as one for near perfection before there is public deployment.

There is a U-shaped curve of risk here. Indeed, a vendor who takes too many risks may cause an accident that generates enough backlash to slow down the field, and thus delay not just their own efforts, but an important life-saving technology. On the other hand, a quest for perfection attempts what seems today to be impossible, and as such also delays deployment for many years, while carnage continues on the roads.

As such there is a “Goldilocks” point in the middle, with the right amount of risk to maximize the widescale deployment of robocars that drive more safely than people. And there can be legitimate argument about where that is.

Reimer also expressed concern that as automation increases, human skill decreases, and so you actually start needing more explicit training, not less. He is as such concerned with the efforts to make what NHTSA calls “level 2” systems (hands off, but eyes on the road) as well as “level 3” systems (eyes off the road but you may be called upon to drive in certain situations.) He fears that it could be dangerous to hand driving off to people who now don’t do it very often, and that stories from aviation bear this out. This is a valid point, and in a later post I will discuss the risks of the level-2 “super cruise” systems.

Maarten Sierhuis, who is running Nissan’s new research lab (where I will be giving a talk on the future of robocars this Thursday, by the way) issued immediate disagreement on the question of test tracks. His background at NASA has taught him that you “fly where you train and train where you fly” — there is no substitute for real world testing if you want to build a safe product. One must suspect Google agrees — it’s not as if they couldn’t afford a test track. The various automakers are also all doing public road testing, though not as much as Google. Jan Becker of Bosch reported their vehicle had only done “thousands” of public miles. (Google reported a 500,000 mile count earlier this year.)

Heinz Mattern, research and development manager for Valeo (which is a leading maker of self-parking systems) went even further, starting off his talk by declaring that “Google is the enemy.” When asked about this, he did not want to go much further but asked, “why aren’t they here? (at the conference)” There was one Google team employee at the conference, but not speaking, and I’m not am employee or rep. It was pointed out that Chris Urmson, chief engineer of the Google team, had spoken at the prior conferences.  read more »

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

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

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

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

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

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

Affordable robocars -- will it be cameras or LIDAR?

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

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

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

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

Read:

Cameras or Lasers in the robocar

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

NHTSA published plan on how they want to regulate robocars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Large battery pack

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

Battery swap

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

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

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

Superchargers

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

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

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

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

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

More vehicles and ordinary L2 charging

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

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

Plug in hybrids?

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

Very light vehicles

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

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

Two interesting pieces today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Google [x]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Senate Hearings

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

New surveys with growing acceptance levels

Some interesting robocar surveys are out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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