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Robocars

The future of computer-driven cars and deliverbots

All about sensors: Advanced radar and more for the future of perception

Earlier this week I talked about many of the LIDAR offerings of recent times. Today I want to look at two "up and coming" sensor technologies: Advanced radar and thermal cameras.

I will begin by pointing readers to a very well done summary of car sensor technologies at EE Times which covers almost all the sensor areas. For those tracking the field it is a worthwhile resource.

Advanced radar

Robocars have used radar from the earliest days. It's not that expensive, and has many superhuman capabilities -- it sees through fog and all other forms of weather, it has very long range, and it tells you how fast every target is moving.

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Gallery of photos from CES 2018, and other news

I have created a gallery in Google Photos with some of the more interesting items I saw at CES, with the bulk of them being related to robocars, robotic delivery and transportation.

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The GM/Cruise robocar interior is refreshingly spartan

GM revealed photos of what they say is the production form of their self-driving car based on the Chevy Bolt and Cruise software. They say it will be released next year, making it almost surely the first release from a major car company if they make it.

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Tons of LIDARs at CES 2018

When it comes to robocars, new LIDAR products were the story of CES 2018. Far more companies showed off LIDAR products than can succeed, with a surprising variety of approaches. CES is now the 5th largest car show, with almost the entire north hall devoted to cars. In coming articles I will look at other sensors, software teams and non-car aspects of CES, but let's begin with the LIDARs.

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Top Robocar News of 2017

Here are the biggest Robocar stories of 2017

Waymo starts pilot with no safety driver behind the wheel

By far, the biggest milestone of 2017 was the announcement by Waymo of their Phoenix Pilot which will feature cars with no safety driver behind the wheel, and the hints at making this pilot open to the public.

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San Francisco bans delivery robots

San Francisco just passed legislation largely banning delivery robots on the city's sidewalks. The rule allows each company testing such robots to get a permit which would allow only a trivial number of robots, and limit them to industrial streets at low speeds for testing only.

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How can robocar transit affect the personal safety of transportation, especially regarding sexual assault?

One "story of the year" for Time was the #metoo campaign, where (mostly) women shared stories of how they had been sexually harassed or molested, to make it clear just how widespread the problem is. Almost all women have a story, or many stories, sad to say.

I have frequently heard reports from women of being groped on crowded public transit. People are packed in, and villains use the plausible deniability and anonymity of the packed crowd to grope.

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Warner Brothers and Intel experiment with in-robocar entertainment. Is that a good idea?

Intel and Warner made a splash at the LA Auto Show announcing how Warner will develop entertainment for viewing while riding in robotaxis. It's not just movies to watch, their hope is to produce something more like an amusement park ride to keep you engaged on your journey.

Like most partnership announcements around robocars, this one is mainly there for PR since they haven't built anything yet. The idea is both interesting and hype.

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Has Uber already beaten private ownership on cost?

Today, various experts, like CR and the AAA rate the cost of private car ownership anywhere from 40 to 60 cents per mile, plus parking. That depends on your usage patterns, what car you buy and its age, plus a few other factors. Many people, though, pretend that using their car only costs the 8-12 cents/mile for gasoline. (A better estimate of the truly incremental cost without factoring in those things that don't vary with the miles is around 25 cents/mile.)

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DARPA challenge mystery solved and how to handle Robocar failures

A small mystery from Robocar history was resolved recently, and revealed at the DARPA grand challenge reunion at CMU.

The story is detailed here at IEEE spectrum and I won't repeat it all, but a brief summary goes like this.

In the 2nd grand challenge, CMU's Highlander was a favourite and doing very well. Mid-race it started losing engine power and it stalled for long enough that Stanford's Stanley beat it by 11 minutes.

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Uber buys 24,000 Volvos, Trolley Problems get scarier, and liability

Uber and Volvo announced an agreement where Uber will buy, in time, up to 24,000 specially built Volvo XC90s which will run Uber's self-driving software and, presumably, offer rides to Uber customers. While the rides are some time away, people have made note of this for several reasons.

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Robocar/LIDAR news and video of the Apple car

Robocar news is fast and furious these days. I certainly don't cover it all, but will point to stories that have some significance. Plus, to tease you, here's a clip from my 4K video of the new Apple car that you'll find at the end of this post.

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Waymo deploys with no human safety driver oversight

In a major milestone for robocars, Waymo has announced they will deploy in Phoenix with no human safety drivers behind the wheel. Until now, almost all robocars out there have only gone out on public streets with a trained human driver behind the wheel, ready to take over at any sign of trouble.

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The "disconnected car" is the right security plan for robocars

Once robocars got public attention, a certain faction promoted the view that we should be giving much more attention to the idea of the "connected car." The connected car was coming sooner, would have a big effect, and some said that it was silly to talk about robocars at all without first thinking of them as connected cars. Many even pushed for the vocabulary around robocars to always include connectivity, pushing names like "connected autonomous vehicle" as a primary term for the technology.

Robocars will be connected, but not nearly as much as people in the "connected car" world imagine. And the connection won't be essential. Some cars will work with only a connection when they are parked, or with intermittent connectivity during the day. But most of all, they won't connect out to the world. The robocar probably will connect only to servers at its HQ -- the company that made it or which runs the fleet it's in. It won't talk directly to infrastructure and other cars, it may not even talk two-way with the rider's phone.

Fortunately, the efforts to require vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure connectivity in cars are rumoured to have suffered a setback in the USA.

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V2V/V2I mandate may be dropped, the good and the bad

Rumours are swirling that the US Federal government will drop the proposed mandate that all new cars include a DSRC radio to do vehicle to vehicle communications. Regular readers will know that I have been quite critical of this mandate and submitted commentary on it. Whether they listened to my commentary, or this is just a Trump administration deregulation, it's the right step.

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Will robotic stores, billboards and RVs roam the streets?

A few years ago, Eran Shir (who was one of my students at Singularity University and who today has an interesting startup using mobile phones to solve ADAS and self driving problems) suggested that rather than delivery robots, the future might see roving stores. These would be self-driving trucks filled with the most popular items for their region which come to you. You would open them, shop, and automatically be charged for items. From time to time they would travel to a depot for restocking.

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Robocars will make traffic worse before it gets better

This blog, and many other sites, paint a very positive picture of the robocar future. And it is positive, but far from perfect. One problem I worry about in the short term is the way robocars are going to make traffic worse before they get a chance to make it better.

The goal of all robocars is to make car travel more pleasant and convenient, and eventually cheaper. You can't make something better and cheaper without increasing demand for it, and that means more traffic.

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Robocar-only highways are not quite so nice an idea as expected

Recently Madrona Ventures, in partnership with Craig Mundie (former Microsoft CTO) released a white paper proposing an autonomous vehicle corridor between Seattle and Vancouver on I-5 and BC Highway 99. While there are some useful ideas in it, the basic concept contains some misconceptions about both traffic management, infrastructure planning, and robocars.

Carpool lanes are hard

The proposal starts with a call for allowing robocars in the carpool lanes, and then moving to having a robocar only lane. Eventually it moves to more lanes being robocar only, and finally the whole highway. Generally I have (mostly) avoided too much talk of the all-robocar road because there are so many barriers to this that it remains very far in the future. This proposal wants to make it happen sooner, which is not necessarily bad, but it sure is difficult.

Carpool lanes are poorly understood, even by some transportation planners. For optimum traffic flow, you want to keep every lane at near capacity, but not over it. If you have a carpool lane at half-capacity, you have a serious waste of resources, because the vast majority (around 90%) of the carpools are "natural carpools" that would exist regardless of the lane perk. They are things like couples or parents with children. A half-empty carpool lane makes traffic worse for everybody but the carpoolers, for whom the trip does improve.

That's why carpool lanes will often let in electric cars, and why "high occupancy toll" lanes let in solo drivers willing to pay a price. In particular with the HOT lane, you can set the price so you get just enough cars in the carpool lane to make it efficient, but no more.

(It is not, of course, this simple, as sometimes carpool lanes jam up because people are scared of driving next to slow moving regular lanes, and merging is problematic. Putting a barrier in helps sometimes but can also hurt. An all-robocar lane would avoid these problems, and that is a big plus.)

Letting robocars into the carpool lane can be a good idea, if you have room. If you have to push electric cars out, that may not be the best public goal, but it is a decision a highway authority could make. (If the robocars are electric, which many will be, it's OK.)

The transition, however, from "robocars allowed" to "robocars only" for the lane is very difficult. Because you do indeed have a decent number of carpools (even if only 10% are induced) you have to kick them out at some point to grow robocar capacity. You can't have a switch day without causing more traffic congestion for some time after it. If you are willing to build a whole new lane (as is normal for carpool creation) you can do it, but only by wasting a lot of the new lane at first.

Robocar packing

Many are attracted to the idea that robocars can follow more closely behind another vehicle if they have faster reaction times. They also have the dream that the cars will be talking to one another, so they can form platoons that follow even more closely.) The inter car communication (V2V) creates too much computer security risk to be likely, though some still dream of a magic solution which will make it safe to have 1500kg robots exchanging complex messages with every car they randomly encounter on the road. Slightly closer following is still possible without it.

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GM accepts all liability in robocars, and other news

General Motors announced this week that they would "take full responsibility" if a crash takes place during an autonomous driving trip. This follows a pledge to do the same made some time ago by Daimler, Google and Volvo and possibly others.

What's interesting is that they don't add the caveat "if the system is at fault." Of course, if the system is not at fault, they can get payment from the other driver, and so it's still OK to tell the passenger or owner that GM takes responsibility.

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