Can a battery trailer solve range anxiety?

I’ve written before about solutions to “range anxiety” — the barrier to adoption of electric cars which derives from fear that the car will not have enough range and, once out of power, might take a very long time to recharge. It’s hard to compete with gasoline’s 3 minute fill-up and 300 mile ranges. Earlier I proposed an ability to quickly switch to a rental gasoline car if running out of range.

A company called EMAV has proposed a self-propelled battery trailer to solve this problem. While I am not sure how real the company is, the idea has value, particularly when it comes to robotics. As I have written, robocars can solve the “range anxiety” problem in several ways; mainly that robots don’t care about how convenient charging is, and people don’t worry about the range of a taxi beyond the current trip. But batteries are still an issue, even there.

The trailer proposal has the car hitch on the small trailer (which has room for cargo as well) and it provides the extra batteries you need when dong a long trip. The trailer is also motorized so it puts no load on the possibly small car that is “towing” it. EMAV imagines you might buy this, keep it charged, and only put it on when you need to do a long trip.

That could work, but presents a few problems. First of all, cars are much less nimble when they have a trailer on them. Backing up is much harder, and in fact novices will get completely stymied by it. You take an extra-long parking space if you can fit at all. There’s also extra drag.

We might solve the maneuvering problem a bit with a mildly robotic trailer that has a link to the car controls, making backups and turns more natural. This can be done either with steerable wheels on the trailer or just independent motor wheels which can be turned at different speeds. Such a trailer might be able to couple much more closely with the car, possibly going right on the tail so that it acts like an extension of the vehicle. This might also solve the parking problem.

Things could also be aided by making the couple and decouple very simple and easy. That’s a tall order because of safety issues, and the need for a high-current wire. The ideal would be an automatic decouple, so you could temporarily drop the trailer off somewhere if you needed to handle roads and parking where a trailer isn’t workable. Even better but harder would be an automatic recouple, obviously requiring some more sophisticated robotics in the trailer, and a fully safe coupling system.

With standardization, trailers like this could be left on lots all over a city. Anybody with a compatible electric car could, if they needed it, stop off at a convenient lot to grab a trailer. (The trailer would also be in a charging station, making automatic coupling even harder.) With the trailer grabbed there would be no range anxiety. The trailer could simply provide power, or it could go further and charge the car at high speed, allowing the trailer to be dropped off at another charging station an hour or so later. (While this sounds nice, battery chemistries may doom this plan, since you now are putting two batteries through heavy use cycles to get one unit of charge into the car, doubling the battery lifetime cost of the energy.)

While eventually trailers would need to get back to their base after one-way trips, there are lots of ways to encourage various drivers to do that. As long as the dropped trailer is not entirely empty, you can offer drivers who take it back a ride without using their own battery, for example.

This approach might be better than the battery-swap stations planned by “A Better Place.” The Better Place battery swap is cool, but requires all cars that use it be designed around its one particular battery configuration, and that people not own their own batteries. The swap stations are expensive and land intensive, while trailer depots would require nothing but a little land and a charging station for the trailer. A special trailer hitch is a much smaller modification of a car, too.

(One variation of the “PRU” trailer has the trailer contain a diesel generator rather than a battery pack. This of course has the range of liquid fuel, and doesn’t even need a charging station where you drop it of. It’s not being particularly green when used in this fashion of course, a bit worse than a serial hybrid car. If the trailer is heavy enough it could physically push the car and not need an electrical connection to it, though people might get highly confused by steering in such situations.)

As a cheaper and more flexible version of battery swap, this approach could be good for robocars too. Robots, unlike people, will not feel too burdened by the issues of driving a vehicle with a trailer, especially if they can control the trailer’s motors or steering. Parking’s easier too, especially if they can do robotic docking and undocking. While I have written how important it is that people don’t care about the range of a taxi, the owner of a taxi cares about the duty cycle. If they robotic taxi has to spend too much of its time recharging, the return on investment is not nearly as quick. The trailer approach, like the battery swap approach, means downtime only for the batteries, not the vehicle. If the trailers are themselves simple robocars, they can move at low and safe speeds to come meet robocars that need them for a range boost. Even if not, they need not take up much space and they’re easy to scatter everywhere for quick access. Indeed, the car itself might always use a trailer and thus have only enough battery power within it to get from one trailer to the next.

Pod Car City News, and Vislab reaches Shanghai

I’m at the Pod Car City conference, taking place today and tomorrow in San Jose for PRT developers and customers. Some news tidbits from the conference:

  • There were interesting presentations with videos from the three main vendors of working systems: ULTra (Heathrow), 2GetThere (Masdar) and Vectus (Swedish test track and some more.) Some were new videos showing the systems in action at a level not seen before.
  • Sebastian Thrun of the Google robocar team gave his first outside talk on that project, with some great videos (not released to public, unfortunately.) Quite impressive to see the vehicle handling all sorts of traffic, even deciding when to cross over the solid line in the middle when it’s clear to avoid getting too close to parked cars, just as human drivers do.
  • Sadly, during the public session (before Thrun’s talk) when several audience members sent in questions about the Google cars, both the host from San Jose and the leaders of the 3 PRT companies all punted saying they knew little about them.
  • In spite of that there was intense interest in Thrun’s talk, with lots of questions and not nearly as much negativity as is sometimes directed at robocars from the PRT community.
  • All vendors punted on my question about the current cost of pods (which external estimates suggest is around $100K since they are made in small quantities.)
  • Lots of action in Sweden. Soon, a city will be chosen for a trial PRT system, probably either Stockholm or Uppsala. Then, a company will be picked — most people think it will be Vectus.
  • Vectus, which makes a rail-based PRT, will be installing a system in Suncheon City, South Korea, which will be a people mover into the wetlands park there. Vectus showed many films of how well their system handles bad weather, though they are the only ones to use rails.
  • In Masdar, one of the biggest challenges has been the oppressive heat, and the power for air conditioning. To make the PRT work, stations must be close as people will simply not walk long distances outside when it’s 40 degrees and humid.
  • Interesting note about the rationale that helped sell ULTra at Heathrow: The big advantage is the predictable time of a PRT trip, which normally involves a pod already waiting and a direct trip. Even if that trip is no faster than a parking shuttle, not knowing when the parking shuttle bus will come is a major negative for those going to flights.
  • Ron Diridon of the California High Speed Rail board declares that HSR will be a complete failure if there isn’t something like PRT around the HSR stations to disperse people into the towns. He’s half right — HSR is likely to be a big failure, PRT or not, though the PRT would help.
  • San Jose is doing intensive study of a PRT to serve the airport, the nearby Caltrain and Light Rail stations, along with parking lots, rental cars and a couple hotels. This might well be useful but still is just a parking shuttle mostly. Few people take Caltrain or light rail to the airport (in spite of the existing free bus) and I doubt a lot more will.
  • At the same time, thanks to ULTra, San Jose and other towns are starting to accept PRT as something costing 10-15 million per mile. That’s a lot cheaper than light rail, and in the bay area, hugely cheaper than the 50-year old BART system which people think of as modern.
  • Attended a session on lessons from air traffic management for pod management. Interesting stuff but I don’t think that useful for the problem. Planes get spaced by 5 miles and 2,000 feet. Cars and pods will be spaced by tens of feet.
  • Attended another session on trying to model passenger loads. This session was much more concerned about surge loads in many markets, where a class might let out and suddenly 100 people are at the PRT station trying to use it, removing the no-wait benefit (and the associated high predictability benefit.) One thing Robocars will probably do better since they have no concept of stations and you can get as many cars into an area as you can fit on the road and take out via it. Planners predict that if PRT waits are long in a campus situation, people will walk instead, but you would never have to walk instead with a robocar — just walk away from the crowd to get one.
  • Still too much “transit” oriented thinking in the PRT crowd, I think. In fact, many are hoping to pitch PRT as a feeder which will increase usage of other transit lines. I think transit will fade away in about 25 years.

Vislab completes their autonomous drive to Shanghai

The team from the Vislab autonomous challenge made it to Shanghai, and their cars are now in the Italian pavilion at the World’s Fair. Congratulations to them. They sent me a nice PDF press release. It details elements from their blog about how they almost got a ticket, gave up driving at night, blew through toll booths, picked up hitchhikers, and could not handle crazy drivers.

Heathrow ULTra almost ready, Masdar cybercars scaled way back

There’s news about the world’s two small PRT (Personal Rapid Transit) projects, which are both fairly robocar like, in that they involve self-steered rubber tired vehicles.

The Heathrow ULTra parking shuttle, which has 3 stops, uses pods which travel an ordinary pavement guideway with small curbs on the sides which the vehicle reads to guide itself. This system has been delayed many times, but reports it is finally getting close to opening. ULTra reports their system is now being used in a trial by the employees at LHR Terminal 5, though not the general public. Their newsletter also details how this demonstration system has spurred a fair bit of interest in a number of places, particularly India and Silicon Valley.

ULTra pods require dedicated track and don’t have tools to avoid pedestrians. The initial system is quite small.

The news is worse for the PRT system of Masdar, near Abu Dhabi. Masdar was planned as an all-green, car-free city. Aside from a maglev and light rail, the plan was to use an unusual arabian architecture. The ground level would be used by the PRT cars and other city vehicles, but a second “main floor” level would be built above this with the pedestrian walkways and main entrances to all the buildings. Arab streets are designed to be narrow, and elevated streets for people are easier to make than those for trains. To take the PRT, one would go into the “basement” which was really at ground level. In these streets, cybercars from 2getthere are to run. These are also rubber tire vehicles, but they get their guidance by following magnetic markers embedded in the road. Many people like the magnet approach as it is easy to follow, reliable and fairly cheap to install, even in existing roads.

Unfortunately as reported in Arabian News and this press release the plan for a city full of this “undercroft” and PRT cars has been scaled back. In particular, further reports indicate the elevated pedestrian street model will only be built in a limited zone at and around the university. The PRT will have only a 2 passenger stops, 1.7km of road and only 8 vehicles for the public (plus freight and VIP vehicles and 3 freight stops.) Outside this area will be conventional ground-level streets with conventional transit. It’s not been stated if private cars will also roam the regular streets, since the goal was a car-free city.

The article does make me wonder if they are thinking about robocars for those streets. The 2getthere cybercars do include some basic obstacle avoidance, though they are not ready to go out with the public. But at some point it will be possible, and the Masdar transportation plan might be realized even without the undercroft approach, or combining it with regular shared streets.

Robocars might also make sense for the Heathrow parking lot shuttle. Today the PRT is taking people to two stations in a large outdoor parking lot, but navigating a parking lot is a fairly easy problem for robocars — the environment is roughly controlled, and while there are pedestrians and slow-moving cars going in and out of parking spaces, these are easy to reliably avoid with LIDAR and other sensors. A better parking shuttle might take you right to your car, and pick you up there too if it is able to see people waving, or they text their spot number to a special number.

Of course, even better would be if the car then took you not to the airport entrance but into the airport, right to security. And even better if it was able to pick you up right at your gate and drive you (secured) along the controlled roads of the airport, out the security gate and right to the parking lot, taxi stand and rental car facility.

This has been a busy week of robocar developments, sparked in part by Google’s announcement. However, the PRT developments are just a coincidence.

Berlin University demos a whistlecar

The AutoNOMOS team at Freie Universität Berlin led by Raul Rojas has shown a demo of their robocar acting as what I have called a whistlecar. Their latest car, named “Made in Germany” performed an autonomous taxi pickup for the press which you can see played out in this video.

They’ve built a wireless interface to their car, and in the demo, a developer uses an iPad application to send his GPS coordinates to the car and command it to come to him at a hotel’s entrance. The vehicle (which has been given more detailed maps including a map of the parking lot it is waiting in and the driveway of the hotel) then moves entirely vacant along streets to stop at the hotel entrance. Using the developer interface, they are also able to watch the car on the map as it moves to the hotel, and play out diagnostics on the iPad.

The FU-B team has been quite fond of wireless interfaces. Earlier this year for fun they built an iPhone app to access the drive-by-wire controls of their car so you could steer the car from outside using the iPhone. This is fun, but also in some ways a step back since the car has the ability to drive itself. Remote controlled cars are unexciting in comparison.

What is a major milestone for AutoNOMOS is that they have the confidence to operate Made in Germany entirely vacant on quiet city streets around their university, with the human supervision done by somebody with a remote control outside the vehicle. I would presume the vehicle, if it loses wireless connectivity, stops and attempts to assume a safe state, at least for now. Rojas says they haven’t done this very often, doing most testing on closed courses.

The whistlecar vision is an important one, I believe, for several key reasons. First, it may be deployable before robocars are considered safe enough to carry people at a speed they would accept, and as such it’s one of the incremental steps on the roadmap. Secondly, it enables car delivery, car sharing and autonomous refueling/recharging/servicing. By delivering a shared car that is the right car for a particular trip, transportation can become an order of magnitude more efficient than it is today when everybody rides alone in a sedan or SUV no matter what the trip.

Google not alone with robocar advances

This weekend’s announcement that Google had logged 140,000 miles of driving in traffic with their prototype robocars got lots of press, but it’s not the only news of teams making progress. A team at TU Braunschweig in Germany has their own model which has been driving on ordinary city streets with human oversight. You can watch a video of the car in action though there is a lot of B-roll in that video, so seek ahead to 1:50 and particularly 3:20 for the inside view of the supervisor’s hands hovering just over the self-turning steering wheel. There is some information on Stadtpilot here, but we can see many similarities, including the use of the Velodyne 64 line LIDAR on the roof and a typical array of sensors, and more use of detailed maps.

The team at Vislab in Milan has completed most of their Milan to Shanghai autonomous car journey which I have been following. You can read their blog or watch video (sometimes live) of their trip. A lot of the blog has ended up being not about the autonomous challenges, but just the challenges of taking a fleet of very strange looking vehicles in a convoy across Eastern Europe and Asia. For example, they have trucks which can carry their robocars inside, and once decided it was simpler to cross a border into Hungary this way. However, they left driving the vehicles, and the exit officials got very concerned that there was no record of the robocars coming into the country. I presume it wasn’t hard to convince them they were not smuggling Hungarian robocars out.

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Google robocar breakthrough

Just released in a New York Times article and sidebar about highways and video, Google has unveiled an internal robot car project that has attained a remarkable level of robotic driving sooner than I and many others had predicted. The project combined the talents of Sebastian Thrun, leader of the Stanley/Junior team that won the Darpa Desert Grand Chellenge and came a close 2nd in the urban challenge, and Christopher Urmson from the CMU team that won the urban challenge and did second in the desert, along with 15 other engineers.

Their remarkable new Prius-based vehicles have completed over 140,000 miles of human-overseen driving on ordinary highways and city streets, including stretches of up to 1,000 miles without the human overseer feeling any need to apply a safety correction. By having a human in the car ready to grab the wheel, and a 2nd person also monitoring systems on a computer screen, the robotic operation on city streets is generally appraised to be legal.

As an example of the human intervention, during the test ride with reporter John Markoff, the human controller took the wheel when a cyclist ran a red light in a “just in case” intervention. Later examination of the sensors showed the car had indeed seen the bicycle and would have been expected to avoid it had the human not taken over.

This legal ability to have supervised driving should help build lots of great test data for robotic cars. Developers can build tools to try to judge whether, when a human intervened, the robot would have done anything particularly different, and look for those cases and judge and correct them. It also means, as I have described earlier, that we can start building the “trillion mile test suite” with all the data needed to do extensive virtual tests on new software revisions and prototype vehicles.

The new robotic Prius also looks a lot slicker than Junior, which very much has the experimental vehicle aesthetic. I expect the high resolution LIDARs to also get smaller and cheaper with time.

Later this week I should get a chance to see these vehicles up close and ride in one for more commentary. These results should make a stronger demonstration of how practical the technology is, to spur development and the legal steps necessary to move towards deployment when appropriate safety levels are reached.

Google of course is not a car company, but Sebastian Thrun has been involved there for some time as a creator of the street view camera car, and Larry Page has a longtime interest in transport innovation. Anthony Levandowski, creator of the Ghost Rider motorcycle entrant in the desert challenge and the PriBot (an earlier robotic Prius which he allowed to take him around the Bay Area while he supervised) is also a Google employee and on the team. Early research in robocars has come from academic labs and small teams, and it’s good to see Google get into funding groundbreaking work in the area.

Google is not a car company — but it has become one of the world’s leading companies in mapping an navigation.

In the long term, robocars should have a positive effect on society that exceeds even that of the search engine; this could become the biggest thing that Google does.

I'm loving the Shweeb concept

There was a bit of a stir when Google last week announced that one of the winners of their 10^100 contest would be Shweeb, a pedal-powered monorail from New Zealand that has elements of PRT. Google will invest $1M in Shweeb to help them build a small system, and if it makes any money on the investment, that will go into transportation related charities.

While I had a preference that Google fund a virtual world for developing and racing robocars I have come to love a number of elements about Shweeb, though it’s not robocars and the PRT community seems to not think it’s PRT. I think it is PRT, in that it’s personal, public and, according to the company, relatively rapid through the use of offline stations and non-stop point to point trips. PRT is an idea from the sixties that makes sense but has tried for almost 50 years to get transit planners to believe in it and build it. A micro-PRT has opened as a Heathrow parking shuttle, but in general transit administrators simply aren’t early adopters. They don’t innovate.

What impresses me about Shweeb is its tremendous simplicity. While it’s unlikely to replace our cars or transit systems, it is simple enough that it can actually be built. Once built, it can serve as a testbed for many of PRT’s concepts, and go through incremental improvements.  read more »

Dustbot, a prototype deliverbot

An Italian team has built a prototype robot they call Dustbot which is aimed (in a backwards way) at the deliverbot vision.

The goal of the dustbot is to travel on demand to houses through the narrow, pedestrian streets of European cities so people can give the robot their trash, which it then takes back to the dump and drops there. It does not automate the pickup of the trash — you have to be there and put your bag into it, though it is able to drop it on it own. It is not clear if they plan to have it operate on streets with cars, or if it is truly ready to wander with civilians.

This is an evolutionary extension of the already common delivery robots used in factory floors and in hospitals. The hospital robots interact with the general public, and do it simply by being so slow that impact or injury is very unlikely, even with a programming error. But looking at the market of the very narrow, mostly or all-pedestrian ancient urban street, the challenge is more difficult than a hospital, but not as difficult as a vehicle that has to go fast enough that it could hurt somebody.

In tune with my predictions about deliverbots, the key is that the robot does not have to be in a hurry, so it can go as slow as is necessary to be safe. As the system improves, that speed gets faster and faster until it’s practical to go on urban streets at 15mph (ducking out of the way of cars) and eventually at the same speed as the cars. This robot can also be limited to a specific area in which it is well tested and armed with accurate data, because that’s much less of a restriction on delivery robots than it is on cars. (If you need to deliver elsewhere, use another service — but people will resist a taxi that will only take them certain places.)

Dustbot is probably too slow right now to be economical, particularly because you must wait for it. A robot that can pick up a standardized container is not too hard, however. One nice advantage of working on the trash problem is that there is no issue in leaving it on the street, so you don’t need to arrange home access for deliveries as a deliverbot would. There’s also little risk of piracy of the cargo, or damaging it.

There’s lots of video and photos on the site, here is a fluffy BBC video about the Dustbot. Note that this is about a year old — I just had not heard of it until recently.

Robot landing pad for planes without landing gear

Here’s an idea that seems a bit wild and scary at first, but it’s doable today and has broad benefits: Small aircraft that don’t have landing gear, but instead land and take off from robotic “can’t miss” platforms pulled by cables on short airfields.

For every small aircraft purchaser, a big decision is whether to get retractable landing gear. They are very expensive, and create a risk of failure, but your plane will fly a lot faster and be more fuel efficient if you get them. What if we could leave the landing gear on the ground?

Imagine a wheeled platform on the runway with robotic control and a variety of systems to perfectly track an approaching aircraft. Pulled by cables, it can accelerate at several “g”s forward and back and left and right. As the aircraft approaches it tracks it and the cockpit display indicates positive lock. If the plane veers left, it veers left. If the plane speeds up it speeds up. Pretty much no matter what the pilot or winds do (other than missing the runway entirely) the plane can’t miss landing on it. It’s spring loaded so even if the landing is a bit hard the shock is cushioned. Done right, it’s just like having fancy shock absorbing landing gear.  read more »

We already trust our robocars

This story from the Register about a test at the Stanford VAIL Lab reports an interesting result. They created a fake robocar, with a human driver hidden in the back. The test subjects then were told they could push the autopilot button and use the car. And they did, immediately picking up their newspapers to read as they would in a taxi (which is what they really were in.)

Not only that, when they were told the robot could not figure out the situation and needed human assist, they gave it, and then went right back to autopilot.

So trust of a robocar is already at a higher level than we might expect. I’ve ridden in Junior, and K. has stood in front of it, but that was with a human ready to take over the controls. Like many others pondering the future of robotic transportation, I believe we’ll only put robocars on our ordinary streets once they demonstrate a level of safety much superior to human drivers what I call the “robocar vision.” This does not mean a perfect level of safety, though, and the resulting accidents and occasional fatalities will be the cause of much debate and legal wrangling which will slow the development of the technology when it is saving lives.

Update: You might also like the Cute VW concept video where the dad explains to his son all the strange concepts like petrol, driving, traffic jams, accidents and parking.

Robocar challenge from Italy to China

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

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

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

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

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

PR2 robots and open source

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

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

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

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

BigDog, and walking Robocars

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

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

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

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

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

Mini roads for robocars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Volvo collision avoidance fails and other things that will happen again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robomagellan contest disappoints

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robot car virtual contest and demolition derby

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

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

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

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

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

Police robots everywhere?

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

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

“Anybots” QA telepresence robot

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

What could such a robot do?  read more »

The Robocar Babysitter and revolutions in child-watching

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

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

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

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

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