An MIT team has been working on a car that is “hard to crash.” Called the intelligent co-pilot it is not a self-driving car, but rather a collection of similar systems designed to detect if you are about to hit something and try to avoid it. To some extent, it actually wrests control from the driver.
When I first puzzled over the roadmap to robocars I proposed this might be one of the intermediary steps. In particular, I imagined a car where, in a danger situation, the safest thing to do is to let go of the wheel and have the car get you to a safe state. This car goes further, actually resisting you if you try to drive the car off the road or towards an obstacle.
This is a controversial step, and the reasons are understood by the MIT team. First of all, from a legal liability standpoint, vendors are afraid of overriding the human. If a person is in control of a vehicle and makes a mistake, they are liable. If a machine takes over and saves the day, it’s great, but if the machine takes over and there is an accident — an accident the human could have avoided — there could be high risks to the maker of the machine as well as the occupant. In most designs, the system is set up so that the human has the opportunity for control at all times.
Actually, it’s even worse. A number of car makers are building freeway autopilots which still require attention from the driver in case the lane markers disappear or other problems ensue. One way some of them have built this is to require the driver to touch the wheel every so often to show they are alert. They will beep if the driver does not touch the wheel, and they will even disengage if the driver waits for too long after the beep. Consider what the companies have interpreted the liability system to require: That the right course of action, when the system is driving and the driver has her hands off the wheel, is to disengage and let the vehicle wander freely and possibly careen off the road! Of course, they don’t want the vehicle to do that, but they want to make it clear to the driver that they can’t depend on the system, can’t decide to type a long E-mail while it is running.
And this relates to the final problem of human accommodation. When a system makes people safer, they compensate by being more reckless. For example, anti-lock brakes are great and prevent wheel lock-up on slippery roads — but they cause drivers to feel they have invincible brakes and studies show they drive more aggressively because of them. Only a safe robocar avoids this problem; its decisions will always be based on a colder analysis of the situation.
A hard-to-crash car is still a very good idea. Before a full robocar is available, it can make a lot of sense, particularly for aging people and teens with new licences. But it may never come to market due to liability concerns.
There have been experiments with dedicated lanes in the past, including a special automated lane back in the 90s in San Diego. The problem is much easier to solve (close to trivial by today’s standards) if you have a dedicated lane, but this violates the first rule of robocars in my book — don’t change the infrastructure.
Aside from the huge cost of building the dedicated lanes, once you have built a lane you now have a car which can only drive itself in that dedicated lane. That’s a lot less valuable to the customer, effecitvely you are only get customers who happen to commute on that particular route, rather than being attractive to everybody. And you can’t self-drive on the way to or from the highway, so it is not clear what they mean when they say the driver sets a destination, other than perhaps the planned exit.
Yes, the car is a lot cheaper but this is a false economy. Robocar sensors are very expensive today but Moore’s law and volume will make them cheaper and cheaper over time. Highway lanes are not on any Moore’s law curve, in fact they are getting more expensive with time. And if the lane is dedicated, that has a number of advantages, though it comes with a huge cost.
Of course, today, nobody has a robocar safe enough to sell to consumers for public streets. But I think that by the early 2020s, when this study might recommend completing a highway, the engineers would open up the new lane and find that while it’s attractive for its regular nature and especially attractive if it is restricted and thus has lighter and more regular traffic, the cars are already able to drive on the regular lanes just fine.
A better proposal, once robocars start to grow in popularity, would be to open robocar lanes during rush hour, like carpool lanes. These lanes would not be anything special, though they would feature a few things to make the car’s job easier, such as well maintained markings, magnets in the road if desired, no changes in signage or construction without advance notice etc. But most of all they would be restricted during rush hour so that cars could take advantage of the smooth flow and predictable times that would come with all cars being self-driving. Unless humans kept taking over the cars and braking when they got scared or wanted to look at an accident in the other lanes, these lanes would be metered and remain free of traffic jams. However, you need enough robocar flow to justify them since if you only use half the capacity of a lane it is wasteful. On the other hand, such lanes could be driven by the more common “super cruise” style cars that just do lane following and ACC.
Hats off to the video embedded below, which was prepared for a futuristic transportation expo in my home town of Toronto.
Called the PAT (People and Things) this video outlines the UI and shows a period in the day of a robotic taxi/delivery vehicle as it moves around Toronto picking up people and packages.
I first learned about the video from a new blog on the subject of consumer self driving cars — as far as I know the second serious one to exist after this one. The Driverless Car HQ started up earlier this year and posts with a pretty solid volume. They are more comprehensive in posting various items that appear in the media than I am, and cover some areas I don’t, so you may want to check them out. (That’s a conscious choice on my part, as I tend not to post links to stories that I judge don’t tell us much new. An example would be that the SARTRE road train just did a demo in Spain last month, but it was not much different from demos they had done before.)
Of course, as I said earlier, sadly “Driverless Car” is one of my least favourite terms for this technology, but that doesn’t impede the quality of the blog. In addition, while I do report news on the Google car on this blog, I tend to refrain from commentary due to being on that team, and the folks at DCHQ are not constrained this way.
Face recognition of passengers as they approach the car
Automatic playing of media for the passengers (apparently resuming from media paused earlier in some cases)
Doing package delivery work when needed
Self-cleaning after each passenger
Optional ride-share with friends
In-car video conferencing on the car’s screens
Offering the menu of a cafe which is the destination of a trip. (Some suspect this is a location-based ad spam, but I think it’s a more benign feature because the passenger is picking up his ride-share friend at the cafe.)
And the UIs are slick, if a bit busy, and nicely done.
The concept vehicle at the Brickworks is fairly simple but does present some ideas I have felt are worthwhile, such as single passenger vehicles, face to face seating etc. It’s a bit too futuristic, and not aerodynamic. In the concept, it adjusts for the handicapped. I actually think that’s the reverse of what is likely to happen. Rather than making all cars able to meet all needs, it makes more sense to me to have specialized cars that are cheaper and more cost effective at their particular task, and have dedicated (more expensive) vehicles for wheelchairs. (For example, I like the hollow vehicles like the Kenguru.) I think you serve the disabled better for the same money by having these specialized vehicles — the wait may be slightly longer, but the vehicle can be much better at serving the individual’s needs.
Ford, which has already touted the value of robocars, has announced plans to do a traffic-assist autopilot system sometime mid-decade. Ford joins Mercedes, VW/Audi and Cadillac in announcing such systems. Ford’s vehicle will also offer automatic parking in perpendicular parking spots. For some time many cars have offered automated parallel parking. Since most people do not find perpendicular parking all that difficult, perhaps their goal here is very tight spaces (though that would require getting out of the car and blocking the rude driver, which I have found out only gets your car vandalized) or possibly parking in a personal garage that is very thin.
AUVSI and Mercedes
On the negative front, Mercedes appears to have backed off their plan to offer a traffic jam assistant in the 2013 S class. Earlier in June I attended the AUVSI “Driverless Car Summit” in Detroit, and Mercedes indicated that while they do have that technology in their F.800 concept car, this is only a prototype. As currently set up, the Mercedes system requires you to touch the wheel every 8 seconds. Honda was promoting this in 2006. Mercedes also showed their “6D” stereo vision based system which demonstrated impressive object tracking. They also claimed it does as well in differing light conditions, which would be a major breakthrough.
Some other notes from the conference:
There was effectively universal hate for the term “driverless car.” I join the haters, since the car has a driver, but it’s a computer. No other term won big support, though.
While AUVSI is about unmanned military vehicles, they put on a nicely demilitarized conference, which was good.
There were still a lot of fans of DSRC (a car data radio protocol) and V2V communications. Some from that community have now realized they went down the wrong path but a lot had made major career investments and will continue to push it, including inside the government.
The NHTSA is doing a research project on how they might regulate safety standards. They have not laid out a strategy but will be looking at sensor quality, low level control system squality, UI for the handoff between manual and self-driving and testing methodology.
I liked Mercedes’ terms for various modes of self-driving: Feet off, Hands off, Eyes off and Body out. The car companies are aiming at hands off, Google is working on Eyes Off but Body out (which means being so good that the car can operate without anybody in it or without any attention from the occupant) is the true robocar and the long term goal for many but not all projects.
Continental showed more about their own cruising system that combines lane-keeping and automatic cruise-control. They now say they have the 10,000 miles of on-road testing needed for the Nevada testing licence, but have not yet decided if they will get one. There is some question is what they are doing requires a licence under the Nevada regulations. (I suspect it does not.) However, they were quizzed as to whether they were testing in Nevada without a licence, which they deny. Continental says their system is built entirely from parts that will be “production parts” as of early 2013.
Legal and states panels showed progress but not too much news. States seem to be pleased so far.
The National Federation for the Blind showed off their blind driving challenge. They have become keen on building a car which has enough automation for a blind person to operate but still uses the blind driver’s skills (such as hearing and thinking) to make the task possible. This is an interesting goal for the feeling of autonomy, but I suspect it is more likely they will just get full-auto cars sooner, and they accept this is likely.
One of my first rules of robocars is “you don’t change the infrastructure.” Changing infrastructure is very hard, very expensive, requires buy-in from all sorts of parties who are slow to make decisions, and even if you do change it, you then have a functionality that only works in the places you have managed to change it. New infrastructure takes many decades — even centuries, to become truly ubiquitous.
That’s why robocar enthusiasts have been skeptical of things like ITS plans for roadside to vehicle and vehicle to vehicle communications, plans for dedicated highway lanes with special markers, and for PRT which needs newly built guideways. You have to work with what you have.
There are some ways to bend this rule. Some infrastructure changes are not too hard — they might just require something as simple and cheap as repainting. Some new infrastructures might be optional — they make things better in the places you put them, but they are not necessary to operations. Some might focus on specific problem areas — like special infrastructure in heavy pedestrian areas or parking lots, enabling or improving optional forms of operation in those areas.
Another possiblility is to have robocars enable a form of new infrastucture, turning it upside down. The infrastructure might need the robocars rather than the other way around. I wrote about that sort of plan when discussing a solar panel on a robocar.
A recent proposal from Siemens calls for having overhead electric wires for trucks. Trolley buses and trams use overhead electric wires, and there are hybrid trolley buses (like the Boston T line) which can run either on the wires or on an internal diesel. These trucks are of that type. The main plan for this is to put overhead wires in things like shipping ports, where trucks are running around all the time, and they would benefit greatly from this.
I’ve seen many proposals for electrication of the roads. Overhead wires are problematic because they need to be high enough to go over the trucks and other high vehicles, but that makes them harder to reach by low vehicles. You need two wires and must get good contact. They are also damn ugly. This has lead to proposals for inductive power supplies buried in the road. This is very expensive as it requires tearing up the road. There are also inductive losses, and while you don’t need to make contact, precise driving is important for efficiency. In these schemes, battery-electric cars would be able to avoid using their batteries (and in fact charge them) while on the highway, vastly increasing their range and utility.
Robocars offer highly precise driving. This would make it easier to line up on overhead wires or inductive coils in the road. It even would make it possible to connect with rails in the roadbed, though right now people don’t want to consider having a high voltage rail on the ground, even on a highway.
It was proposed to me (I’m trying to remember by who — my apologies) that one new option would be a rail on the side of the highway. This lane would be right up against the guardrail, and normally would be the shoulder. In the guardrail would be power rails, and a connector would come from the left side of the vehicle. Only a robot would be able to drive so precisely as to do this safely. Even with a long pole and more distance I am not sure people would enjoy trying to drive like this. A grounding rail in the roadbed might also be an option — though again tearing up the roadbed is very expensive to do and maintain.
There is still the problem of having a live rail or wire at reachable height. The system might be built with an enclosed master cable and then segments of live wire which are only live when a vehicle is passing by them. Obviously a person doesn’t want to be there when a car is zooming through. This requires roboust switching eqiupment for the thousands of watts one wishes to transfer. You also have to face the potential that a car from the regular lanes could crash into the rail and wires, and while that’s never going to be safe you don’t want to make it worse. You also need switching if you are going to have accounting, so only those who pay for it get power. (Alternately it could be sold by a subscription so you don’t account for the usage and you identify cars that don’t have a subscriber tag who are sucking juice and fine them.)
There is also the problem that this removes the shoulder which provides safety to other cars and provides a breakdown lane. If a vehicle does have to stop in this lane for emergency reasons, sensors in the rail could make sure that all robocars would know and leave the lane with plenty of margin. They would all have batteries or engines and be able to operate off the power — indeed the power lines need not be continuous, you don’t have to build them in sections of the road where it’s difficult. If other cars are allowed to enter the lane, it must not be dangerous other than physically for them to brush the wires.
It’s also possible that the rail could be inductive. The robocar could drive and keep its inductor contact just a short distance from the coils in the rail. This is more expensive than direct contact, and not as efficient, but it’s a lot cheaper than burying inductors in the roadbed. It’s safe for pedestrians and most impacts, and while a hard impact could expose conductors, a ground fault circuit could interrupt the power. Indeed, because all vehicles on the line will have alternate power, interruption in the event of any current not returning along the return is a reasonable strategy.
For commuters with electric cars, there is a big win. You can get by with far less battery and still go electric. The battery costs a lot of money — more than enough to justify the cost of installing the connection equipment. And having less battery means less weight, and that’s the big win for everybody, as you make the vehicles more efficient when you cut out that weight. Of course, if this lane is only for use by electrified robocars, it becomes a big incentive to get one just to use the special lane.
The power requirements are not small. Cars will want 20kw to go at highway speed, and trucks a lot more. This makes it hard to offer charging as well as operating current, but smaller cars might be able to get a decent charge while driving.
I’m doing a former-cold-war tour this month and talking about robocars.
This Friday, May 11, I will be giving the 2301st lecture for the Philosophical Society of Washington with my new, Prezi-enabled robocars talk. This takes place around 8pm at the John Wesley Powell Auditorium. This lecture is free.
A week later it’s off to Moscow to enjoy the wonders of Russia.
There will be a short talk locally in between at a private charity event on May 14.
I have not intended for this blog to become totally about robocars but the news continues to flow at a pace more rapid than most expected.
Nevada has issued its first licence for an autonomous car — to Google, of course. This is a testing licence with a special red plate with an infinity symbol on it. It’s a cool looking licence but what’s really cool is that even in the 2000s when I would give talks on this technology and get called a ridiculous optimist, I never expected that we would see an official licenced robocar in the USA in the spring of 2012 — even if only for testing.
This is a picture of a car with a California plate. The new plate has licence number 001, you can see a picture here.
The Nevada law enabled both the testing of vehicles in the state and their eventual operation by regular owners. For testing, the vehicles need to have two people in them, as has been normal Google policy. They must do 10,000 miles first off of Nevada roads — either on test tracks, or in the case of the early vehicles, in other states that don’t have a 10,000 mile requirement. German auto and tire supplier Continental has said it’s been racking up the 10,000 miles and wants to apply, and press reports say other applicants are in the wings. As far as I know this is the first officially licenced car in the world, though several other research cars have gotten special one-off permits to allow them to be tested on the roads in places like Germany and China.
More information has come from the Google team (to which I am a consultant) at the Society of Automotive Engineers conference in Detroit. In a speech there, covered in the Detroit Free Press and many others Anthony Levandowski outlined how Google has been talking to all significant car manufacturers about how they might work together to produce cars with Google’s technology. Google is not looking to become a car manufacturer, but does want to see a real car on the roads — and not next decade.
At the same time, talks with insurance companies about how to provide insurance for self-driving cars are also going on. Insurance companies pay the cost of all accidents, either directly through policies bought by the driver, or indirectly through insurance sold to manufacturers, and of course all these policies and cars are really paid for by car owner/drivers. As long as accidents are lowered, and the cost per accident remains the same, it’s a win.
At the same time J.D. Power and Associates released a study on self driving car markets. This survey shows around a third of buyers would like to get self-driving functionality in their car, and about 20% would pay $3,000 for it. While advanced laser-based scanners cost much more than that today, I am confident that Moore’s Law and higher volumes can bring things down to that price. These numbers are quite high for such a radical new technology. Such technologies normally only require a small volume of early adopters to get them going. The varoius basic autopilots announced by car manufacturers which require you to still keep your attention on the road will sell for well under $3,000.
Sebastian Thrun, leader of the Google X Lab, recently appeared on Charlie Rose where he spoke about the car, about Glass, and mostly about Udacity, his personal online education project. Sebastian also publicly posted that he took one of the Google self-driving Lexus cars up to lake Tahoe this weekend. I do think those long vacation home drives will be a big driver of people to pay serious money for a self-driving car. Saving time on the average 30 minute commute is one thing, but the 4 hour drive to Lake Tahoe is a real change, especially if you can use the time to interact with your family or get in serious reading or video watching. Of course, right now, Sebastian was keeping his eyes on the road in case he needed to intervene, since this is still a prototype.
Finally, NHTSA has released a report saying that robocars could eliminate up to 80% of crashes. While they won’t get to that number right away, I think they can even do better in time. David Strickland, the head of NHTSA, has stated he has very high hopes for the technology, which is tremendous news, because it means that one my biggest fears in my early days of forecasting this technology — too much government opposition — seems less likely.
Some accidents are caused by mechanical failures (like tire blowouts or bad brakes) freak weather and other situations a self-driving car can’t do much about. We may never get to zero. But this should still be the biggest lifesafer in the developed world until somebody cures some of the biggest diseases.
While Mercedes has been reported as promising a traffic-jam autopilot in the 2013 S class due later this year, I was surprised to learn that Honda briefly made claims that their 2006 “Accord ADAS” in the UK was a self-driving car.
However this car is, as the name suggests, an ADAS car with Honda’s lane-keeping system which will nudge the car back into the lane if you drift out of it. Such lane keeping systems have indeed been around for a while. This car notices if you keep your hands off the wheel for more than a short time, and sounds an alarm. In order to “self-drive” the demonstrator keeps his hands close to the wheel and touches it every so often to avoid the alarm. You get the impression that he and others have been using the car in this fashion.
It is no idle alarm. The LKAS nudge is not quite powerful enough to steer the car in any kind of real turn, and the camera finding lane markers of course occasionally fails to find them. This, again is common in fancy ADAS cars. What is interesting is that Honda allowed this to be pitched as an attempt at self-driving. They have not done this recently, though lane-keep ADAS systems have continued to be available since then from Honda and other vendors.
Honda has been generally not too active in announcements of self-driving cars. They have shown concept cars that listed self-driving as one of the features, but these were concept cars, not actual implementations. Toyota and Nissan have both made various announcements. The smaller Japanese companies (Mazda, Mitsubishi and Subaru/Fuji) also have no public projects.
On a second note, I will be speaking Wednesday morning at the MLOVE Conference in Monterey on self-driving cars. Then I will be heading over to the Asilomar Microcomputer Workshop — a 35 year old conference I’ve been going to for decades which happens to be in the same place at the same time.
In the Cadillac video below, they explain the system as a combination of ACC, lane-keeping and GPS. This is similar to the other announced plans from many other car companies, including Mercedes, BMW, VW/Audi and others. The use of GPS suggests the car may also use map information, which is not known to be used by the other announced products, but is heavily used by Google and the various eyes-free projects.
It is pure speculation, but perhaps they are building maps of where the lane markers are reliable enough and where they have faded out so that they can refuse to super-cruise when approaching those zones. They might also use the GPS to assure you super-cruise only on the highway or other limited areas.
In the video, which shows a demo at about the 1:10 mark, they are driving on a test track, and always next to a blue line along the lane markers. Obviously a real product could not depend on special lane striping if it wants to be broadly usable, but this may assist them in testing their system with confidence. (ie. compare what their lane-finder detects to what an independent system that tracks the blue line detects.)
GM has had various self-driving projects, including the futuristic EN-V and the sponsorship of BOSS in the Darpa Urban Challenge. The Cadillac brand is well positioned. Self-driving is initially going to be a luxury feature, but companies that sell sporty performance cars don’t want to detract from their image as selling a fun driving experience. A pure luxury brand like Cadillac does not have as much of that problem as BMW and Mercedes have. At the same time, the video insists that they don’t want to take away from driving.
Today Google released a new 3 minute video highlighting advanced self-driving car use. Here I embed the video, discussion below includes some minor spoilers on surprises in the video. I’m pleased to see this released as I had a minor & peripheral role in the planning of it, but the team has done a great job on this project.
This video includes active operation of the vehicle on not just ordinary streets, by private parking lots for door to door transportation. You can click on it to see it in HD directly on Youtube. read more »
You may not know the name of Continental, but they are a major supplier of components to the big automakers. A story in the Detroit Free Press details their latest project in autonomous driving. This is a VW Passat using radar Automatic-Cruise-Control combined with lane-keeping, similar to projects announced by Mercedes and VW/Audi itself. The story has a video showing the screen of the car displaying its lane-keeping. The car also has side radars to track vehicles or barriers to the left and right, according to the story. It’s aimed at stop-and-go traffic and empty highway. If it’s like the other products it requires constant human supervision, as it is not safe to not look at the road in case the lane markers vanish or other unexpected problems occur.
They claim they have done 6500 miles in Michigan, and that soon they will have the 10,000 needed for a testing licence in Nevada. The new Nevada law allows developers of robocars to test on Nevada highways once they have shown 10,000 miles on a test track or in another state, and under special testing rules. (The Google cars have over 200,000 miles in California and Nevada.)
The Nevada regulations specifically exempt vehicles which require full time human supervision, so in theory they don’t need a Nevada testing licence if this is such a vehicle. If it is planned to operate without such supervision it needs the licence and is more advanced that the other systems of this type.
An interesting note about the photo, credited to Conti — if this car actually does qualify as an autonomous car in Nevada, then that picture of the car robo-driving in Las Vegas presumably was taken before the regulations came into effect.
A recent article on bicycles and pedestrians in the robocar world appears at the Greater Washington web site, which has taken an interest in robocar topics. In particular they are concerned about the vision of a reservation-based intersection, which does not use traffic signals. These designs from U of Texas got a lot of press in the last few weeks after a presentation at AAAS, but they’ve been around for years and I have a number of links to them. What’s new is that the coming of robocars makes them seem more practical.
In a reservation based intersection, the computer handling the intersection hands out slots to cross the intersection. The slots are moving boxes that you have reserved, and you cross in them. The computer hands out the boxes so they never hit one another. The simulated result at first would scare people to death but over time they might trust it. However, it requires that every car on the road have automatic operation, since deviation from your reserved box does indeed mean serious risk. Human judgement just would not cut it here. As such, intersections like this are a long, long way away.
Closer, I think, is the concept of reservation based roads. These are road segments which hand out long term slots, such as “You can drive this block between 8:30 and 9am.” The road only hands out as many slots as it can handle, but does not try to schedule the cars down to the square foot-second. In such a system, as you approach that block on your trip, you would refine and correct the initial reservation, so that by the time you are a minute away, your window is just a few minutes. If roads can do this they can assure, well in advance, that they never get more cars on them than they can handle, and this reduces the odds that traffic will collapse due to congestion. The biggest cause of congestion is basic excess of demand over supply — accidents are the #2 cause.
Such a system can also handle human driven cars. Those cars are a bit less predictable and need wider reservation windows. They also will eventually need more space on the road, since robocars will eventually start packing themselves closer together once they are common enough to do that. Half-width robocars will commonly pair up in a lane with other half-width vehicles.
So what about the bicycles? It will be daunting for them. If there is a bike lane, that’s great of course. And at “bike rush hour” we can even make sure “parked” robocars get out of the way to make a bike lane if that’s what we want. (We may want another car lane even more.) Otherwise a virtual bike lane can be made if the bikes have to ride with the traffic.
Bikes do present a safety issue to be sure. In the worst case situation, a cyclist can fall off their bike and stop immediately, lying in the road. A vehicle following a bike has to leave enough space to assure they can stop before that, including reaction time. Reaction time should be better for robocars than for humans. Humans don’t leave enough space right now. We leave even less space behind cars because cars actually can’t stop super fast, and you brake with them. and if you hit them at slow speeds it’s “tolerable” — nobody will be seriously hurt. Hitting a cyclist or pedestrian at slow speeds can mean death.
(Head-on collisions are a different matter and they can cause great mayhem. I believe that moving mostly to one-way streets is the best solution to the problem of head-ons, and with robocars, the inconvenience of one-way streets can be greatly reduced.)
Robocars should end up much better at spotting cyclists than humans are, because robocar vision is 360 degrees and in 3-D. There are no blind spots in a robocar system and it’s always paying attention in all directions. The only negative in spotting them is their small size. A bike that appears out of nowhere from behind an obstruction is always at risk to both robocars and human drivers. Robocars will work very hard to not hit cyclists, and in fact in the future street that’s 100% robocar, a cyclists should feel pretty safe, and could even abuse the system, weaving back and forth and causing jolts for the passengers around the bike.
On the plus side, robocars might enable two things. The first would be the creation of dedicated lanes, paths and even elevated guideways for use by both bicycles and narrow lightweight robocar trikes. I anticipate these lightweight vehicles will become very common, as they are the most efficient vehicle for short urban trips. Because they are light and small, it’s vastly cheaper to build dedicated pathways and elevated guideways for them. These guideways could be made open to bikes if there are passing zones, since the robocars would sustain higher speeds. (We have not yet convinced many US cities to dedicate a lot of space and money to bike-only paths, otherwise that would be obviously better for bikes.) Robocar only lanes offer a cheap way to increase road capacity and offer ultralight robocar users a faster, zero-congestion trip in the busiest areas, and thus make a lot of sense for cities. The bang/buck is as high as it can get in transportation development, and it encourages green transportation, as these trikes use less energy/person than transit systems do.
Another interesting development might be the bike-bot. As I envision it, this is a very small robot that’s able to clamp onto a bicycle and move the bike from place to place, using the bicycle’s wheels as well as its own. This could offer a world of “bikes on demand.” No matter where you are, you could summon up a bicycle in a short time, and drop it anywhere. (At your destination, you would insert the bike into a bike-bot that sent itself there ahead of your arrival, and the bike-bot would take the bike to its next rider.) This could make bicycle use very convenient, and would be good, efficient exercise for all who need it.
I also suspect that we’ll see ultralight robocars that feature pedals. With the pedals, the rider would have the option of exercising and their energy would also go into powering the vehicle. The commute is a good time to exercise and watch videos or read. Not as much fun as recreational cycling, but more pleasant in other ways that cycle-commuting.
In the more distant future, when all cars are robocars, we will begin to see the conflict between the cars and the bikes and pedestrians described in the article cited above. The author is right that putting pedestrians on elevated bridges is not a good answer, and forcing bikes off valuable road is not good either. In an idealized robocar road, which has no parked cars on the side, and just many lanes of one-way traffic, the presence of the cyclist does use up a lot more road capacity per person than the cars do. We’re a long way from that idealized capacity, but should we come to depend on it, we might see pressure to push the bikes away, or charge them or the amount of square-foot-seconds of road they use. That will be a political decision, where we may decide many decades from now that to encourage cycling, it’s worth subsidizing it a bit.
The state of Nevada today approved regulations for self-driving cars in the state. Last year, Nevada passed a law outlining the path to these regulations, and their DMV has been working in consultation with Google, car makers and other parties to write them down. Today they were approved, allowing testing, certification and — someday — operation of vehicles in the state. Other laws are in consideration in other states inspired by the Nevada move. This is, frankly, much sooner than I anticipated.
In other news, a junker car race known as “24 hours of LeMons” (completely unrelated to Le Mans) has announced that self-driving cars may enter and are exempt from the normal requirement that cars cost no more than $500. The “X cedingly bad idea prize” of a million nickels (not quite as good as X prize purses of $10 million) probably won’t get too many takers at first. This race has a sense of humour but I’m not sure too many folks would risk their expensive autonomous car on that track or feel it safe enough to drive with crazy amateur racing drivers. I suspect they don’t really mean it and just wanted to issue a press release, but it will be fun when robocar technology is common enough that garage tinkerers on low budgets can enter races like this.
A new group has sprung up in the valley around the concept of the open source automobile. I will be speaking at their meetup, which was going to be at Hacker Dojo and has moved to Intel’s auditorium. Looks like a good crowd is signed up. Sorry, no deep Google secrets but there will be a video featuring the car and many visions of the future.
Update: When I first wrote this, I was under the mistaken belief that Better Place only swapped one type of battery module. At present they only support one, but their swap stations are designed to support up to six kinds, as long as they can be loaded and unloaded from below.
Recently, electric car battery-swap company Better Place announced delivery of their first cars in Israel. Israel is a country of small size where it makes sense to deploy a technology like this with a chicken and egg problem. They hope to have enough battery swap stations that people feel they can drive an electric car and refuel it as quickly and conveniently as a gasoline buggy.
I remain skeptical about battery swap for electric cars, but think robocars solve many of those problems. Here’s why:
To have a workable battery swap system, you need to standardize the battery module, ideally having just one or two form factors and electrical characteristics. Just one to start, in fact. This has many downsides:
A large part of the innovation in electric cars today is in the batteries. A big part of what Tesla did was their new cooling system. Designers all want to be able to play with chemistries, voltage, controllers and more. They might give up playing with size and placement but not those things.
It’s still an issue to not be able to vary size and shape of the battery, at least for people wanting to build cars of unusual shape.
A large part of the cost of an electric car today is the battery. With the swap system, you can’t buy the battery with the car. You get whatever battery you are swapped. That’s good in some ways, but eliminates open market competition on these systems because there is only one buyer — the swap company.
Swap machines are expensive, take land and still take five minutes, arrival to departure. That’s almost as quick as filling up with gas, but a typical gas station has 8 pumps, and some have many more. If there are several cars in line at a single swap station, you’re in for a serious wait.
On the plus side, people actually need swaps more rarely than they imagine. A 70-100 mile range car will hardly ever feel the need for a swap — in many ways the availability of the swap makes you feel more comfortable about the car, even if you rarely use it. It’s better than the level 3 charge which can damage the battery and still takes 15-20 minutes.
I think robocars (cars able to move while empty to the swap station) solve many of these problems. They solve them because while robocars (particularly those operating as taxis) need to run all day and thus want to swap batteries, the cars can move to the swap station on their own, when they are not serving somebody.
There is much less need to standardize, though it does help. Your car simply goes to a swap station that has its type of battery available.
While it wastes energy and a little time, it doesn’t bother the robot to have to go a few miles to find such a station. You don’t need one on every popular route.
The robot can schedule an appointment for a swap if need be. Not that it really minds waiting a lot, unless it has a job to do. But with a scheduled swap it might even do one while carrying a passenger, if it happens to be passing a swap station and can book a no-wait appointment for the time it will be passing, and the passenger doesn’t mind the 3 minute stop.
Most typically, this will be used by taxi fleets. Each taxi fleet can have their own swap station, for the type of battery cases they like. They can program their taxis to take jobs that bring them closer to the swap station when they will be running low. You can get buy with just one swap station for the whole fleet, or perhaps just a few. The taxi fleet can have a mixture of cars of different swap types and cars without swap ability. The latter can’t run all day and must spend time in charging stations as planned.
With robocars, you can solve range problems not by swaping the battery, but by swapping the car. If you have a car that is running low, it can stop in a convenient lot to have you switch quickly to a taxi with lots of charge. Then the car you were in can head off for charge or swap in no paticular rush.
By allowing lots of types of battery form factors and swap stations, you allow innovation and competition in these areas, which in the long run is a win for the customer. Anything that blocks competition may sound good at first but quickly bogs things down.
Now I still want to credit Better Place for working to solve the range and range anxiety problems of electric cars. There will still be competition because I don’t expect all electric car vendors to want to be compatible with their system. But I think their technology comes into its own best when the cars can worry about the swap rather than the drivers.
BMW has spoken in the past of their Highly Automated Driving project. A new video about ConnectedDrive Connect goes into more details. While BMW insists this is just a research project and won’t be in their cars for a long time, they also are expected to soon produce a traffic jam autopilot to compete with the offerings from Mercedes and Audi.
The approach in this car is a bit different. They have a small LIDAR on the side of the vehicle, which presumably is there to find the lane markers, and a forward facing camera behind the rearview mirror. The other systems are mostly using cameras for their lane finding. They also have ultrasonics, which are typically used for automated parking and some blind-spot detection. LIDARs are currently much more expensive than cameras, but this is a concept car for now. (More complete robocars tend to use fairly advanced LIDARs.)
The 5,000km was reported back in September This comes after reports that their track trainer had done about 12,000 miles in a 3-series on the track. There are more details on this system at MIT Tech Review.
I’ve talked before about Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt. It’s an interesting journey into the world of traffic psychology and engineering, and has one chapter on robocars. That chapter was based on seeing Junior at Stanford, and things have come a long way since then.
Friday, Wired released Let the Robot Drive, a decent length article on the Google car (he came for a test ride) and various other projects, including more about the Mercedes 6-D vision system. For those hungry for Google Car news it’s a good place to go.
There’s also an article by John Markoff about the SCU legal conference I wrote about on Saturday, which finishes off quoting a joke I said there.
At the same time a different long article with a more futurist bent appears at the World Future Society web site by Thomas Frey.