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Robocars

The future of computer-driven cars and deliverbots

Many different approaches to Robocar Mapping

Almost all robocars use maps to drive. Not the basic maps you find in your phone navigation app, but more detailed maps that help them understand where they are on the road, and where they should go. These maps will include full details of all lane geometries, positions and meaning of all road signs and traffic signals, and also details like the texture of the road or the 3-D shape of objects around it. They may also include potholes, parking spaces and more.

The maps perform two functions. By holding a representation of the road texture or surrounding 3D objects, they let the car figure out exactly where it is on the map without much use of GPS. A car scans the world around it, and looks in the maps to find a location that matches that scan. GPS and other tools help it not have to search the whole world, making this quick and easy.

Google, for example, uses a 2D map of the texture of the road as seen by LIDAR. (The use of LIDAR means the image is the same night and day.) In this map you see the location of things like curbs and lane markers but also all the defects in those lane markers and the road surface itself. Every crack and repair is visible. Just as you, a human being, will know where you are by recognizing things around you, a robocar does the same thing.

Some providers measure things about the 3D world around them. By noting where poles, signs, trees, curbs, buildings and more are, you can also figure out where you are. Road texture is very accurate but fails if the road is covered with fresh snow. (3D objects also change shape in heavy snow.)

Once you find out where you are (the problem called "localization") you want a map to tell you where the lanes are so you can drive them. That's a more traditional computer map, though much more detailed than the typical navigation app map.

Some teams hope to get a car to drive without a map. That is possible for simpler tasks like following a road edge or a lane. There you just look for a generic idea of what lane markings or road edges should look like, find them and figure out what the lanes look like and how to stay in the one you want to drive in. This is a way to get a car up and running fast. It is what humans do, most of the time.

Driving without a map means making a map

Most teams try to do more than driving without a map because software good enough to do that is also software good enough to make a map. To drive without a map you must understand the geometry of the road and where you are on it. You must understand even more, like what to do at intersections or off-ramps.

Creating maps is effectively the act of saying, "I will remember what previous cars to drive on this road learned about it, and make use of that the next time a car drives it."

Put this way it seems crazy not to build and use maps, even with the challenges listed below. Perhaps some day the technology will be so good that it can't be helped by remembering, but that is not this day.

The big advantages of the map

There are many strong advantages of having the map:

  • Human beings can review the maps built by software, and correct errors. You don't need software that understands everything. You can drive a tricky road that software can't figure out. (You want to keep this to a minimum to control costs and delays, but you don't want to give it up entirely.)
  • Even if software does all the map building, you can do it using arbitrary amounts of data and computer power in cloud servers. To drive without a map you can must process the data in real time with low computing resources.
  • You can take advantage of multiple scans of the road from different lanes and vantage points. You can spot things that moved.
  • You can make use of data from other sources such as the cities and road authorities themselves.
  • You can cooperate with other players -- even competitors -- to make everybody's understanding of the road better.

One intermediate goal might be to have cars that can drive with only a navigation map, but use more detailed maps in "problem" areas. This is pretty similar, except in database size, with automatic map generation with human input only on the problem areas. If your non-map driving is trustworthy, such that it knows not to try problem areas, you could follow the lower cost approach of "don't map it until somebody's car pulled over because it could not handle an area."

Levels of maps

There are two or three components of the maps people are building, in order to perform the functions above. At the most basic level is something not too far above the navigation maps found in phones. That's a vector map, except with lane level detail. Such maps know how many lanes there are, and usually what lanes connect to what lanes. For example, they will indicate that to turn right, you can use either of the right two lanes at some intersections.

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No, you don't need to drive a billion miles to test a robocar

Earlier I noted that Nidi Kalra of Rand spoke at the AVS about Rand's research suggesting that purely road testing robocars is an almost impossible task, because it would take hundreds of millions to a billion miles of driving to prove that a robocar is 10% better than human drivers.

(If the car is 10x better than humans, it doesn't take that long, but that's not where the first cars will be.)

This study has often been cited as saying that it's next to impossible to test robocars. The authors don't say that -- their claim is that road testing will not be enough, and will take too long to really work -- but commenters and press have taken it further to the belief that we'll never be able to test.

The mistake is that while it could take a billion miles to prove a vehicle is 10% safer than human drivers, that is not the goal. Rather, the goal is to decide that it's unlikely it is much worse than that number. It may seem like "better than X" and "not worse than X" are the same thing, but they are not. The difference is where you give the benefit of the doubt.

Consider how we deal with new drivers. We give them a very basic test and hand them a licence. We presume, because they are human teens, that they will have a safety record similar to other human teens. Such a record is worse than the level for experienced drivers, and in fact one could argue it's not at all safe enough, but we know of no way to turn people into experienced drivers without going through the risky phase.

If a human driver starts showing evidence of poor skills or judgments -- lots of tickets, and in particular multiple accidents, we pull their licence. It actually takes a really bad record for that to happen. By my calculations the average human takes around 20 years to have an accident that gets reported to insurance, and 40-50 years to have one that gets reported to police. (Most people never have an injury accident, and a large fraction never have any reported or claimed accident.)

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Federal regulations past next hurdle

Today's news is preliminary, but a U.S. house committee panel passed some new federal regulations which suggest sweeping change in the US regulatory approach to robocars.

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Uncovered: NHTSA Levels of 1900 (Satire)

I have recently managed to dig up some old documents from the earliest days of car regulation. Here is a report from NHTSA on the state of affairs near the turn of the 20th century.

National Horse Trail Safety Administration (NHTSA)

Regulation of new Horse-Auto-mobile Vehicles (HAV), sometimes known as "Horseless carriages."

In recent years, we've seen much excitement about the idea of carriages and coaches with the addition of "motors" which can propel the carriage without relying entirely on the normal use of horses or other beasts of burden. These "Horseless carriages," sometimes also known as "auto mobile" are generating major excitement, and prototypes have been generated by men such as Karl Benz and Armand Peugeot, along with the Duryea brothers, Ransom Olds and others in the the USA. The potential for these carriages has resulted in many safety questions and many have asked if and how NHTSA will regulate safety of these carriages when they are common.

Previously, NHTSA released a set of 4, and later 5 levels to classify and lay out the future progression of this technology.

Levels of Motorized Carriages

Level 0

Level zero is just the existing rider on horseback.

Level 1

Level one is the traditional horse drawn carriage or coach, as has been used for many years.

Level 2

A level 2 carriage has a motor to assist the horses. The motor may do the work where the horses trot along side, but at any time the horses may need to take over on short notice.

Level 3

In a level 3 carriage, sometimes the horses will provide the power, but it is allowed to switch over entirely to the "motor," with the horses stepping onto a platform to avoid working them. If the carriage approaches an area it can't handle, or the motor has problems, the horses should be ready, with about 10-20 seconds notice, to step back on the ground and start pulling. In some systems the horse(s) can be in a hoist which can raise or lower them from the trail.

Level 4

A Level 4 carriage is one which can be pulled entirely by a motor in certain types of terrain or types of weather -- an operating domain -- but may need a horse at other times. There is no need for a sudden switch to the horses, which should be pulled in a trailer so they can be hitched up for travel outside the operating domain.

Level 5

The recently added fifth level is much further in the future, and involves a "horseless" carriage that can be auto mobile in all situations, with no need for any horse at all. (It should carry a horse for off-road use or to handle breakdowns, but this is voluntary.)

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News and commentary from AUVSI/TRB Automated Vehicle Symposium 2017

In San Francisco, I'm just back from the annual Automated Vehicle Symposium, co-hosted by the AUVSI (a commercial unmanned vehicle organization) and the Transportation Research Board, a government/academic research organization. It's an odd mix of business and research, but also the oldest self-driving car conference. I've been at every one, from the tiny one with perhaps 100-200 people to this one with 1,400 that fills a large ballroom.

Toyota Research VC Fund

Tuesday morning did not offer too many surprises. The first was an announcement by Toyota Research Institute of a $100M venture fund. Toyota committed $1B to this group a couple of years ago, but surprisingly Gil Pratt (who ran the DARPA Robotics Challenge for humanoid-like robots) has been somewhat a man of mixed views, with less optimistic forecasts.

Different about this VC fund will be the use of DARPA like "calls." The fund will declare, "Toyota would really like to see startups solving problem X" and then startups will apply, and a couple will be funded. It will be interesting to see how that pans out.

Nissan's control room is close to live

At CES, Nissan showed off their plan to have a remote control room to help robocars get out of sticky situations they can't understand like unusual construction zones or police directing traffic. Here, they showed it as further along and suggested it will go into operation soon.

This idea has been around for a while (Nissan based it on some NASA research) and at Starship, it has always been our plan for our delivery robots. Others are building such centers as well. The key question is how often robocars need to use the human assistance, and how you make sure that unmanned vehicles stay in regions where they can get a data connection through which to get help. As long as interventions are rare, the cost is quite reasonable for a larger fleet.

This answers the question that Rod Brooks (of Rethink Robotics and iRobot) recently asked, pondering how robocars will handle his street in Cambridge, where strange things like trucks blocking the road to do deliveries, are frequently found.

It's a pretty good bet that almost all our urban spaces will have data connectivity in the 2020s. If any street doesn't have solid data, and has frequent bizarre problems of any type, yet is really important for traversal by unmanned vehicles -- an unlikely trifecta -- it's quite reasonable for vehicle operators to install local connectivity (with wifi, for example) on that street if they can't wait for the mobile data companies to do it. Otherwise, don't go down such streets in empty cars unless you are doing a pickup/drop-off on the street.

Switching Cities

Karl Iagenemma of nuTonomy told the story of moving their cars from Singapore, where driving is very regulated and done on the left, to Boston where it is chaotic and done on the right.

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Can we test robocars the way we tested regular cars?

I've written a few times that perhaps the biggest unsolved problem in robocars is how to know we have made them safe enough. While most people think of that in terms of government certification, the truth is that the teams building the cars are very focused on this, and know more about it than any regulator, but they still don't know enough. The challenge is going to be convincing your board of directors that the car is safe enough to release, for if it is not, it could ruin the company that releases it, at least if it's a big company with a reputation.

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The DSRC/V2V/Connected Car Emperor has no clothes

Plans are underway to ask for a legal mandate to install radio communications devices in all new cars, starting around 2020. These radios would do "vehicle to vehicle" (v2v) and vehicle to infrastructure communication using a wifi-derived protocol called DSRC.

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Waymo starts pilot in Phoenix, Apple gets more real and other news

Waymo (Google) has announced a pilot project in Phoenix offering a full ride service, with daily use, in their new minivans. Members of the public can sign up -- the link is sure to be overwhelmed with applicants, but it has videos and more details -- and some families are already participating. There's also a Waymo Blog post. I was in Phoenix this morning as it turns out, but to tell real estate developers about robocars, not for this.

There are several things notable about Waymo's pilot:

  1. They are attempting to cover a large area -- they claim twice the size of San Francisco, or 90 square miles. That's a lot. It's enough to cover the vast majority of trips for some pilot users. In other words, this is the first pilot which can test what it's like to offer a "car replacement."
  2. They are pushing at families, which means even moving children, including those not of driving age. The mother in the video expects to use it to send some children to activities. While I am sure there will be safety drivers watching over things, trusting children to the vehicles is a big milestone. Google's safety record (with safety drivers) suggests this is actually a very safe choice for the parents, but there is emotion over trusting children to robots (other than the ones that go up and down shafts in buildings.)
  3. In the videos, they are acting like there are no safety drivers, but there surely are, for legal reasons as well as safety.
  4. They are using the Pacifia minivans. The Firefly bubble cars are too slow for anything but neighbourhood operation. The minivans feature motorized doors, a feature which, though minor and commonplace, meets the image of what you want from a self-driving car.

Apple is in the game

There has been much speculation recently because of some departures from Apple's car team that they had given up. In fact, last week they applied for self-driving car test plates for California. I never thought they had left the game.

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Luminar unstealths their 1.5 micron LIDAR

Luminar, a bay area startup, has revealed details on their new LIDAR. Unlike all other commercial offerings, this is a LIDAR using 1.5 micron infrared light. They hope to sell it for $1,000.

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No, Detroit is not winning the robocar race.

A new report from Navigant Research includes the chart shown below, ranking various teams on the race to robocar deployment. It's causing lots of press headlines about how Ford is the top company and companies like Google and Uber are far behind.

I elected not to buy the $3800 report, but based on the summary I believe their conclusions are ill founded to say the least.

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Flying cars, electogliding and noise

The recently released national noise map makes it strikingly clear just how much air travel contributes to the noise pollution in our lives. In my previous discussion of flying cars I expressed the feeling that the noise of flying cars is one of their greatest challenges.

LIDAR (lasers) and cameras together -- but which is more important?

Recently we've seen a series of startups arise hoping to make robocars with just computer vision, along with radar. That includes recently unstealthed AutoX, the off-again, on-again efforts of comma.ai and at the non-startup end, the dedication of Tesla to not use LIDAR because it wants to sell cars today, before LIDARs can be bought at automotive quantities and prices.

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California New Regs, Intel buys MobilEye, Waymo sues Uber

California has published updated draft regulations for robocars whose most notable new feature is rules for testing and operating unmanned cars, including cars which have no steering wheel, such as Google, Navya, Zoox and others have designed.

This is a big step forward from earlier plans which would have banned testing and deploying those vehicles. That that they are ready to deploy, but once you ban something it's harder to un-ban it.

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Electrify Caltrain? Or could robocars do it for less than 1.5 billion?

Caltrain is the commuter rail line of the San Francisco peninsula. It's not particularly good, and California is the land of the car commuter, but a plan was underway to convert it from diesel to electric. This made news this week as the California Republican house members announced they want to put a stop to both this project, and the much larger California High Speed Rail that hopes to open in 2030.

Uber talks of deal with Daimler which shows Uber's great advantage

I generally pay very little attention when companies issues a press release about an "alliance." It's usually not a lot more than a press release unless there are details on what will actually be built.

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Flying cars are coming, what will they mean?

Earlier I posted my gallery of CES gadgets, and included a photo of the eHang 184 from China, a "personal drone" able, in theory, to carry a person up to 100kg.

Whether the eHang is real or not, some version of the personal automated flying vehicle is coming, and it's not that far away. When I talk about robocars, I am often asked "what about flying cars?" and there will indeed be competition between them. There are a variety of factors that will affect that competition, and many other social effects not yet much discussed.

The VTOL Multirotor

There are two visions of the flying car. The most common is VTOL -- vertical takeoff and landing -- something that may have no wheels at all because it's more a helicopter than a car or airplane. The recent revolution in automation and stability for multirotor helicopters -- better known as drones -- is making people wonder when we'll get one able to carry a person. Multirotors almost exclusively use electric motors because you must adjust speed very quickly to get stability and control. You also want the redundancy of multiple motors and power systems, so you can lose a rotor or a battery and still fly.

This creates a problem because electric batteries are heavy. It takes a lot of power to fly this way. Carrying more batteries means more weight -- and thus more power needed to carry the batteries. There are diminishing returns, and you can't get much speed, power or range before the batteries are dead. OK in a 3 kilo drone, not OK in a 150 kilo one.

Lots of people are experimenting with combining multirotor for takeoff and landing, and traditional "fixed wing" (standard airplane) designs to travel any distance. This is a great deal more efficient, but even so, still a challenge to do with batteries for long distance flight. Other ideas including using liquid fuels some way. Those include just using a regular liquid fuel motor to run a generator (not very efficient) or combining direct drive of a master propeller with fine-control electric drive of smaller propellers for the dynamic control needed.

Another interesting option is the autogyro, which looks like a helicopter but needs a small runway for takeoff.

The traditional aircraft

Some "flying car" efforts have made airplanes whose wings fold up so they can drive on the road. These have never "taken off" -- they usually end up a compromise that is not a very good car or a very good plane. They need airports but you can keep driving from the airport. They are not, for now, autonomous.

Some want to fly most of their miles, and drive just short distances. Some other designs are mostly for driving, but have an ability to "short hop" via parasailing or autogyro flying when desired.

NHTSA ODI report exonerates Tesla in fatal crash

NHTSA released the report from their Office of Defects Investigation on the fatal Tesla crash in Florida last spring. It's a report that is surprisingly favorable to Tesla. So much so that even I am surprised. While I did not think Tesla would be found defective, this report seems to come from a different agency than the one that recently warned comma.ai that:

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Rodney Brooks on Pedestrian Interaction, Andrew Ng on Infrastructure, and both on human attitudes

Recently we've seen two essays by people I highly respect in the field of AI and robotics. Their points are worthy of reading, but in spite of my respect, I have some differences of course.

The first essay comes from Andrew Ng, head of AI (and thus the self-driving car project) at Baidu. You will find few who can compete with Andrew when it comes to expertise on AI. (Update: This essay is not recent, but I only came upon it recently.)

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