Robocars

Car design changes due to Robocars

Robocars will suggest a great number of possible changes in the way we design and market cars. I now encourage you to read:

Automobile design changes due to Robocars

The big green benefit of robocars comes in large part from the freedom they offer in redesigning the automobile, in particular the ability to specialize automobiles to specific tasks, because they can be so readily hired on demand. Or to specific fuels in certain areas, or for sleeping, and much more.


Robocars: Roadblocks on the way

For part three of my series of Robocars, now consider:

Roadblocks on the way to Robocars

A lot of obstacles must be overcome before Robocars can become reality. Some we can see solutions for, others are as yet unsolved. It’s not going to be easy, which is why I believe an Apollo style dedication is necessary.


Robocars: The Roadmap to getting there

In part two of my series on Robocars, let me introduce:

The Roadmap to Robocars

Here I outline a series of steps along the way to the full robocar world. We won’t switch all at once, and many more limited technologies can be marketed before the day when most cars on the road are computer driven. Here are some ideas of what those steps could be — or already are.


Robocars are the future

My most important essay to date

Today let me introduce a major new series of essays I have produced on “Robocars” — computer-driven automobiles that can drive people, cargo, and themselves, without aid (or central control) on today’s roads.

It began with the DARPA Grand Challenges convincing us that, if we truly want it, we can have robocars soon. And then they’ll change the world. I’ve been blogging on this topic for some time, and as a result have built up what I hope is a worthwhile work of futurism laying out the consequences of, and path to, a robocar world.

Those consequences, as I have considered them, are astounding.

  • It starts with saving a million young lives every year (45,000 in the USA) as well as untold injury in suffering.
  • It saves trillions of dollars wasted over congestion, accidents and time spent driving.
  • Robocars can solve the battery problem of the electric car, making the electric car attractive and inexpensive. They can do the same for many other alternate fuels, too.
  • Electric cars are cheap, simple and efficient once you solve the battery/range problems.
  • Switching most urban driving to electric cars, especially ultralight short-trip vehicles means a dramatic reduction in energy demand and pollution.
  • It could be enough to wean the USA off of foreign oil, with all the change that entails.
  • It means rethinking cities and manufacturing.
  • It means the death of old-style mass transit.

All thanks to a Moore’s law driven revolution in machine vision, simple A.I. and navigation sponsored by the desire for cargo transport in war zones. In the way stand engineering problems, liability issues, fear of computers and many other barriers.

At 33,000 words, these essays are approaching book length. You can read them all now, but I will also be introducing them one by one in blog posts for those who want to space them out and make comments. I’ve written so much because I believe that of all short term computer projects available to us, no modest-term project could bring more good to the world than robocars. While certain longer term projects like A.I. and Nanotech will have grander consequences, Robocars are the sweet spot today.

I have also created a new Robocars topic on the blog which collects my old posts, and will mark new ones. You can subscribe to that as a feed if you wish. (I will cease to use the self-driving cars blog tag I was previously using.)

If you like what I’ve said before, this is the big one. You can go to the:

Master Robocar Index (Which is also available via robocars.net.)

or jump to the first article:

The Case for Robot Cars

You may also find you prefer to be introduced to the concept through a series of stories I have developed depicting a week in the Robocar world. If so, start with the stories, and then proceed to the main essays.

A Week of Robocars

These are essays I want to spread. If you find their message compelling, please tell the world.

Robodelivery and high-end, low-usage equipment rental (and NPR interview)

Earlier on, I identified robot delivery vehicles as one of the steps on the roadmap to robot cars. In fact, these are officially what the DARPA grand challenges really seek, since the military wants robots that can move things through danger zones without putting soldiers at risk.

Deliverbots may well be allowed on the road before fully automated robotaxis for humans because there are fewer safety issues. Deliverbots can go more slowly, as most cargo is not super-urgent. If they go slower, and have a low weight limit, it may be the case that they can’t cause much harm if they go astray. Obviously if a deliverbot crashes into an inanimate object, it just cost money and doesn’t injure people. The deliverbot might be programmed to be extra-cautious and slow around anything like a person. As such, it might be allowed on the road sooner.

I gave a talk on Robot cars at the BIL conference, and an attendee came up to suggest the deliverbots enable a new type of equipment rental. Because they can bring you rental equipment quickly, cheaply and with no hassle, they make renting vastly more efficient and convenient. People will end up renting things they would never consider renting today. Nowadays you only rent things you really need which are too expensive or bulky to own.

By the way, the new NPR morning show the “Bryant Park Project” decided to interview a pair of speakers, one from TED and one from BIL, so I talked about my robot cars talk. You can listen to the segment or follow links to hear the whole show.

It was suggested even something as simple as a vacuum cleaner could become a rental item. Instead of buying a $200 vacuum to clean your floors once a week, you might well rent a super-high quality $2,000 unit which comes to you with short notice via deliverbot. This would also be how you might treat all sorts of specialized, bulky or expensive tools. Few will keep their own lathe, band saw or laser engraver, but if you can get one in 10 minutes, you would never need to.

(Here in silicon valley, an outfit called Tech Shop offers a shop filled with all the tools and toys builders like, for a membership fee and materials cost. It’s great for those who are close to it or want to trek there, but this could be better. This in turn would also let us make better use of the space in our homes, not storing things we don’t really need to have.

Predictive traction control

Yesterday I wrote about predictive suspension, to look ahead for bumps on the road and ready the suspension to compensate. There should be more we can learn by looking at the surface of the road ahead, or perhaps touching it, or perhaps getting telemetry from other cars.

It would be worthwhile to be able to estimate just how much traction there is on the road surfaces the tires will shortly be moving over. Traction can be estimated from the roughness of dry surfaces, but is most interesting for wet and frozen surfaces. It seems likely that remote sensing can tell the temperature of a surface, and whether it is wet or not. Wet ice is more slippery than colder ice. It would be interesting to research techniques for estimating traction well in front of the car. This could of course be used to slow the car down to the point that it can stop more easily, and to increase gaps between cars. However, it might do much more.

A truly accurate traction measurement could come by actually moving wheels at slightly different speeds. Perhaps just speeding up wheels at two opposite corners (very slightly) or slowing them down could measure traction. Or perhaps it would make more sense to have a small probe wheel at the front of the car that is always measuring traction in icy conditions. Of course, anything learned by the front wheels about traction could be used by the rear wheels.

For example, even today an anti-lock brake system could, knowing the speed of the vehicle, notice when the front wheels lock up and predict when the rear wheels will be over that same stretch of road. Likewise if they grip, it could be known as a good place to apply more braking force when the rear wheels go over.

In addition, this is something cars could share information about. Each vehicle that goes over a stretch of road could learn about the surface, and transmit that for cars yet to come, with timestamps of course. One car might make a very accurate record of the road surface that other cars passing by soon could use. If for nothing else, this would allow cars to know what a workable speed and inter-car gap is. This needs positioning more accurate that GPS, but that could easily be attained with mile marker signs on the side of the road that an optical scanner can read, combined with accurate detection of the dotted lines marking the lanes. GPS can tell you what lane you're in if you can't figure it out. Lane markers could themselves contain barcodes if desired -- highly redundant barcodes that would tolerate lots of missing pieces of course.

This technology could be applied long before the cars drive themselves. It's a useful technology for a human driven car where the human driver gets advice and corrections from an in-car system. "Slow down, there's a patch of ice ahead" could save lives. I've predicted that the roadmap to the self-driving car involves many incremental improvements which can be sold in luxury human-driven cars to make them safer and eventually accident proof. This could be a step.

Predictive suspension

I’m not the first to think of this idea, but in my series of essays on self driving cars I thought it would be worth discussing some ideas on suspension.

Driven cars need to have a modestly tight suspension. The driver needs to feel the road. An AI driven car doesn’t need that, so the suspension can be tuned for the maximum comfort of the passengers. You can start bu just making it much softer than a driver would like, but you can go further.

There are active suspension systems that use motors, electromagnets or other systems to control the ride. Now there are even products to use ferrofluids, whose viscosity can be controlled by magnetic fields, in a shock absorber.

I propose combining that with a scanner which detects changes in the road surface and predicts exactly the right amount of active suspension or shock absorption needed for a smooth ride. This could be done with a laser off the front bumper, or even mechanically with a small probe off the front with its own small wheel in front of the main wheel.

As such systems improve, you could even imagine it making sense to give a car more than 4 wheels. With the proper distribution of wheels, it could become possible, if a bump is coming up for just one or two of the wheels to largely decouple the vehicle from those wheels and put the weight on the others. With this most bumps might barely affect the ride. This could mean a very smooth ride even on a bumpy dirt or gravel road, or a poorly maintained road with potholes. (The decoupling would also stop the pothole from doing much damage to the tire.)

As a result, our self-driving cars could give us another saving, by reducing the need for spending on road maintenance. You would still need it, but not as much. Of course you still can’t get rid of hills and dips.

I predict that some riders at least will be more concerned with ride comfort than speed. If their self-driving car is a comfortable work-pod, with computer/TV and phone, time in the car will not be “downtime” if the ride is comfortable enough. Riders will accept a longer trip if there are no bumps, turns and rapid accelerations to distract them from reading or working.

Now perfect synchronization with traffic lights and other vehicles will avoid starts and stops. But many riders will prefer very gradual accelerations when starts and stops are needed. They will like slower, wider turns with a vehicle which gimbals perfectly into the turn. And fewer turns to boot. They’ll be annoyed at the human driven cars on the road which are more erratic, and force distracting changes of speed or vector. Their vehicles may try to group together, and avoid lanes with human drivers, or choose slightly slower routes with fewer human drivers.

The cars will warn their passengers about impending turns and accelerations so they can look up — the main cause of motion sickness is a disconnect between what your eyes see and your inner ear feels, so many have a problem reading or working in an accelerating vehicle.

People like a smooth, distraction free trip. In Japan, the Shinkansen features the express Nozomi trains which include cars where they do not make announcements. You are responsible for noticing your stop and getting off. It is a much nicer place to work, sleep or read.

More automatic valet parking and self-driving tow vehicles.

I want to enhance two other ideas I have talked about. The first was the early adoption of self-driving cars for parking. As I noted, long before we will accept these cars on the road we’ll be willing to accept automatic parking technology in specially equipped parking lots that lets us get something that’s effectively valet parking.

I also wrote about teleoperation of drive-by-wire cars for valet parking as a way to get this even earlier.

Valet parking has a lot of advantages. (I often joke, “I want to be a Valet. They get all the best parking spots” when I see a Valet Parking Only sign.) We’ve given up to 60% of our real estate to cars, a lot of that to parking. It’s not just denser, though. It can make a lot of sense at transportation hubs like airports, where people are carrying things and want to drive right up close with their car and walk right in. This is particularly valuable in my concept of the minimalist airport, where you just drive your car up to the fence at the back of the airport and walk through a security gate at the fence right onto your plane, leaving a valet to move your car somewhere, since you can’t keep it at the gate.

But valet parking breaks down if you have to move the cars very far, because the longer it takes to do this, the fewer cars you can handle per valet, and if the flow is imbalanced, you also have to get valets back quickly even if there isn’t another car that needs to come back. Valet parking works best of all when you can predict the need for your car a few minutes in advance and signal it from your cell phone. (I stayed at a hotel once with nothing but valet parking. The rooms were far enough from the door, however, that if you called from your room phone, your car was often there when you got to the lobby.)

So I’m now imagining that as cars get more and more drive-by-wire features, that a standardized data connection be created (like a trailer hitch brake connection, but even more standard) so that it’s possible to plug in a “valet unit.” This means the cars would not have any extra costs, but the parking lots would be able to plug in units to assist in the automated moving of the cars.  read more »

Is robot delivery on the roadmap for self-driving cars?

Last week I talked briefly about self-driving delivery vehicles. I’ve become interested in what I’ll call the “roadmap” (pun intended) for the adoption of self-driving cars. Just how do we get there from here, taking the technology as a given? I’ve seen and thought of many proposals, and been ignoring the one that should stare us in the face — delivery. I say that because this is the application the DARPA grand challenge is actually aimed at. They want to move cargo without risks to soldiers. We mostly think of that as a path to the tech that will move people, but it may be the pathway.

Robot delivery vehicles have one giant advantage. They don’t have to be designed for passenger safety, and you don’t have to worry about that when trying to convince people to let them on the road. They also don’t care nearly as much about how fast they get there. Instead what we care about is whether they might hit people, cars or things, or get in the way of cars. If they hit things or hurt their cargo, that’s usually just an insurance matter. In fact, in most cases even if they hit cars, or cars hit them, that will just be an insurance matter.

A non-military cargo robot can be light and simple. It doesn’t need crumple zones or airbags. It might look more like a small electric trike, on bicycle wheels. (Indeed, the Blue Team has put a focus on making it work on 2 wheels, which could be even better.) It would be electric (able to drive itself to charging stations as needed) and mechanically, very cheap.

The first step will be to convince people they can’t hit pedestrians. To do that, the creators will need to make an urban test track and fill it with swarms of the robots, and demonstrate that they can walk out into the swarm with no danger. Indeed, like a school of fish, it should be close to impossible to touch one even if you try. Likewise, skeptics should be able to get onto bicycles, motorcycles, cars and hummers and drive right through the schools of robots, unable to hit one if they try. After doing that for half an hour and getting tired, doubters will be ready to accept them on the roads.  read more »

Broadcast traffic light data, and let cars use it

Self-driving cars are still some ways in the future, but there are some things they will want that human drivers can also make use of.

I think it would be nice if the urban data networks were to broadcast the upcoming schedule for traffic light changes in systems with synchronized traffic lights. Information like “The light at location X will go green westbound at 3:42:15.3, amber at 3:42.45.6 and red at 3:42.47.8” and so on. Data for all directions and for turn arrow lights etc. This could be broadcast on data networks, or actually even in modulations of the light from the LEDs in the traffic lights themselves (though you could not see that around turns and over hills.)

Now a simple device that could go in the car could be a heads-up-display (perhaps even just an audio tone) that tells you whether you are in the “zone” for a green light. As you move through the flow, if you started getting so fast that you would get to the intersection too early for it to be green, it could show you in the too-fast zone with a blinking light or a tone that rises in pitch the faster you are. A green light (no tone) would appear when you were in the zone.

It would arrange for you to arrive at the light after it had been green for a second or two, to avoid the risk of hitting cars running the red light in the other direction. Sometimes when I drive down a street with timed lights I will find myself trusting the timing a bit too much, so I am blowing through the moment the light is green, which actually is a bit risky because of red light runners. (Perhaps the city puts in a longer all-red gap on such lights to deal with this?)

More controversial is the other direction, a tone telling you that you will need to speed up to catch this green before it goes amber. This might encourage people to drive recklessly fast and might be a harder product to legally sell. Though perhaps it could tell you that if you sped up to the limit you would make the light but stop telling you after no legal speed can make it. Of course, people would learn to figure it out.

We figure that out already of course. Many walk/don’t walk signs now have red light countdown timers, and how many of us have not sped up upon seeing the counter getting low? Perhaps this isn’t that dangerous. Just squeaking through a light rarely helps, of course, because the way the timing works you usually are even more likely to miss the next one, and you have to go even faster to make it — to the point that even a daredevil won’t try.

This simple device could be just the start of it. Knowledge of this data for the city (combined with a good GPS map system of course) could advise you of good alternate routes where you will get better traffic light timing. It could advise you to turn if you’re first at a red light (which it will know thanks to GPS) if your destination is off to the right anwyay. Of course it could do better combined with real traffic data and information on construction, gridlock etc.

This is not a cruise control, you would still control the gas. However, if you pressed too hard on the gas your alert would start making the tone, and you would soon learn it is quite unproductive to keep pressing. (You could make this a cruise control but you need to be able to speed up some times to avoid things and change lanes.) People tend more often to speed up and then have to break for a short while waiting for the green, which doesn’t get you there any faster, and is a jerky ride.

The system I describe could be a nice add-on for car GPS systems.

The end of public transit

I’ve been writing a lot about self-driving cars which have automatic accident avoidance and how they will change our cities. I was recently talking again with Robin Chase, whose new company, goloco attempts to set people up for ad-hoc carpools and got into the issues again. She believes we should use more transit in cities and there’s a lot of merit to that case.

However, in the wealthy USA, we don’t, outside of New York City. We love our cars, and we can afford their much higher cost, so they still dominate, and even in New York many people of means rely strictly on taxis and car services.

Transit is, at first glance, more energy efficient. When it shares right of way with cars it reduces congestion. Private right of way transit also reduces congestion but only when you don’t consider the cost of the private right-of-way, where the balance is harder to decide. (The land only has a many-person vehicle on it a small fraction of the time compared to 1-3 passenger vehicles almost all the time on ordinary roads.)

However, my new realization is that transit may not be as energy efficient as we hope. During rush hour, packed transit vehicles are very efficient, especially if they have regenerative braking. But outside those hours it can be quite wasteful to have a large bus or train with minimal ridership. However, in order to give transit users flexibility, good service outside of rush-hour is important.  read more »

Self driving cars, and sooner than we think, but what about in Boston?

If you’ve been following things, you know that after the great success of the first Darpa Grand Challenge, a new Grand Challenge has been proposed, this time for urban driving. The cars will have to navigate a city with other cars on the road. (I’m going to presume demolition derby style vehicles and speeds.) This time DARPA is providing some funding, though it was impressive how last time the modest (by military standards) $2M prize attained what would have been science fiction just years ago.

So I’m refirming my view that self-driving cars will come to us moderately soon. The technology is very near, and the case is so compelling. In spite of interesting speculations about personal rapid transit, or virtual right-of-way or other items in my transportation category, this is the likely winner because it requires no new infrastructure, and if we let it, it can grow from the ground up.

I’m talking cars that can drive today’s roads, and are better at avoiding people and other cars than we are. They do it on their own, though they cooperate where it makes sense to do so but don’t have cooperate to work.

The most compelling case is that over 1 million people are killed every year in or by cars, about 42,000 in the USA. In fact, there are over 6 million car crashes reported to police in the USA every year, costing an average of $2,900 per vehicle per year (clearly not all borne by insurance companies.) But if that’s not enough, we’ll see:

  • Self valet parking — car drives you to front door, then parks itself somewhere cheap.
  • Ability to read, work or web surf while in transit
  • Dedicated lanes and coordination with timed lights for faster trips.
  • Possible eventual ability to reliably go through stop-signs and red lights safely.
  • Higher fuel efficiency
  • Presumably save hundreds per year on insurace with lower accident rates
  • Presumably save even thousands on parking (for CBD commuters.) Parking also possible in cheaper, super-dense remote lots when you do need to park close.
  • Car will go to airport to pick up friends.
  • Car will run errands to pick up prescriptions and other urgent things. Or people will own or rent small efficient mini-cars to do delivery errands.
  • Can’t afford a car? Put in a lockbox for your stuff and rent it out as a Taxi when you aren’t using it. Or use the cars people are renting out as Taxis.

I would pay double for a car like this, but in fact it’s likely to save money, not cost money.

All the other alternatives seem worse. Mass transit is slow at grade and super expensive in tunnels or elevated ROW, and has slow and cumbersome transfers, no personalization and no privacy. PRT requires expensive new ROW. Private driving is of course congested and expensive.

Cost of crashes and traffic update

Let’s look at all the costs of crashes and other traffic problems:

  • With fatal crashes, of course, the cost of human lives, and suffering for loved ones.
  • With injury crashes, the cost of the injury, possibly a lifetime of problems, but also lost work.
  • With all crashes, the cost of repairing the cars
  • The cost of all the other safety equipment in the cars (though we would probably want to keep most of it unless crashes truly went to an insignificant number.) Still making a car safe in a crash is a large portion of its cost. And we still don’t have air bags for the people in the back seat.
  • The cost of police, fire and ambulences and other crash-management infrastructure.
  • The cost of police to enforce traffic regulations (or the cost of tickets to drivers) and parking regulations.
  • For accidents during high traffic times, the cost of traffic delays — 20 minutes for 3,000 people amounts to 1,000 person hours.
  • The need for wider roads to handle human driven traffic, and shoulders for accidents.

Boston Driver

In a recent discussion, the subject of the selfish driver came up. In Boston, driving in traffic is a constant game of chicken. Self-driving cars would of course be programmed to always lose a game of chicken. Done properly, a rogue driver could barrel at full speed into a crowd of self-driving cars and they would, if possible to do safely, part like water around the rogue car. You would actually have to work hard to try and hit one, especially if they are communicating to do this even better. Which brings up the problem, how to deal with the rogue driver, because it now seems the smart thing for that driver to do.

I wrote earlier about the problem of the selfish merge — a problem we have been unable to solve, where people zoom up to the end in a vanishing lane, causing a traffic jam, because somebody always lets them in, making the zoom-up the fastest strategy. I wondered if a reputation system could help. I don’t want to build a system where we track all cars and the rogue driver gets an automatic ticket. Though it would be nice if they did it constantly that perhaps vacant cars would glom around the rogue driver — reversing the strategy so that they always win a game of chicken instead of always lose — and pen him in and escort him to the cops.

Outsourced valet parking with drive-by-wire cars

There already are some drive-by-wire cars being sold, including a few (in Japan) that can parallel park themselves. And while I fear that anti-terrorist worries may stand in the way of self-driving and automatic cars, one early application, before we can get full self-driving, would be tele-operated cars, the the remote driver in an inexpensive place, like Mexico.

Now I don’t know if the world is ready, safety-wise for a remote chauffeur in a car driving down a public street, where it could hit another car or pedestrian, even if the video was very high-res and the latency quite low. But parking is another story. I think a remote driver could readily park a car in a valet lot kept clear of pedestrians. In fact, because you can drive very slowly to do this, one can even tolerate longer latencies, perhaps all the way to India. The remote operator might actually have a better view for parking, with small low-res cameras mounted right at the bumpers for a view the seated driver can’t have. They can also have automatic assists (already found in some cars) to warn about near approach to other cars.

The win of valet parking is large — I think at least half the space in a typical parking lot is taken up with lanes and inter-car spacing. In addition, a human-free garage can have some floors only 5’ high for the regular cars, or use those jacks around found in some valet garages that stack 2 cars on top of one another. So I’m talking possibly almost 4 times the density. You still need some lanes of course, except for cars you are certain won’t be needed on short notice (such as at airports, train stations etc.)

The wins of remote valet parking include the ability to space cars closely (no need to open the doors to get out) and eventually to have the 5’ high floors. In addition, remote operators can switch from vehicle to vehicle instantly — they don’t have to run to the car to get it. They can switch from garage to garage instantly, meaning their services would be 100% utilized.

Read on…  read more »

Hybrid Personal Rapid Transit

When I was in high school, I did a project on PRT — Personal Rapid Transit. It was the “next big thing” in transit and of course, 30 years later it’s still not here, in spite of efforts by various companies like Taxi 2000 to bring it about.

With PRT, you have small, lightweight cars that run on a network of tracks or monorail, typically elevated. “Stations” are all spurs off the line, so all trips are non-stop. You go to a station, often right in your building, and a private mini-car is waiting. You give it your destination and it zooms into the computer regulated network to take you there non-stop.

The wins from this are tremendous. Because the cars are small and light, the track is vastly cheaper to build, and can often be placed with just thin poles holding it above the street. It can go through buildings, or of course go underground or at-grade. (In theory it seems to me smart at-grade (ground-level) crossings would be possible though most people don’t plan for this at present.)

The other big win is the speed. Almost no waiting for a car except at peak times, and the nonstop trips would be much faster than other transit or private cars on the congested, traffic-signal regulated roads.

Update: I have since concluded that self-driving vehicles are getting closer, and because they require no new track infrastructure and instead use regular roads, they will happen instead of PRT.

Yet there’s no serious push for such systems…

Read on.  read more »

Crash-avoiding cars

I’ve written before about automatic self-driving cars, both their risks (overregulation due to fear of their use by terrorists) and possible driving forces (oil companies excited by people taking longer trips) and more.

Generally, except for a few specialized applications (such as the automatic parking lot) such cars, if they are to be used where people or cars that may not under network control are present, must start with a basic ability to avoid accidents. In a vigourous debate with friend Charles Merriam last night, the question came up about where the value will lie. Charles is a big proponent of worrying first about crash-avoiding cars.

Right now we all pay from $250 to $500 per year, and often much more, for insurance to cover the risk of accidents. Of course, that’s just the financial cost, and financial proxies for suffering, so the real value we would put on an accident resistent car might be much higher. Perhaps $5,000 to $10,000 over the life of the car.

That seems like a highly lucrative market on its own. While the self-driving car has many other long term merits (because you can do other work while moving, and you don’t have to park it, and it can appear on demand as a taxi for you) we should be very close to financially justifying the accident-avoiding car today…  read more »

The peril in automatic cars

I hinted last week I would write about a peril from and to automatic cars, or actually any drive-by-wire cars.

That peril is they become highly useful terrorist weapons. Today terrorists get kamikazis to drive ordinary cars to attack targets and checkpoints. It will be easy to modify a drive-by-wire car (including the self-parking cars already on the market) to be controlled by the cheap remote controls found on toy cars and planes today, and easy to mount a wireless camera (X10, the terrorist's tool!) as well.

A remote control car can be a weapon on its own, just to smash into things, but more nastily it can be loaded with explosives or poison or other nasty things. If drive-by-wire cars become commonplace (and they will) this will be possible.

I present a problem without good solution, and I also fear some of the solutions even more than the problem. For example, one of the big advantages of the automatic self-parking car which I described earlier is the car that drops you off and picks you up right at the door of where you're going. However, just as false anti-terrorist security has made it almost impossible to park or pick people up at some airports, they will move to ban all vechicles from going just where we want them to go.

They may also start demanding government overrides for the automatic cars, so police can take control of our vehicles on demand, bypassing even manual control. They will try to tightly regulate the technology (stifling it) and only allow blessed companies to work on it. As I said, a problem without obvious solution.

The next market for automatic cars

I seem to be thinking a lot about the future of automatic cars these days. Already we're seeing cars in Japan that can park themselves in a tight parallel parking spot, and this leads me to think that the next market for the technology, after the basic automatic highway, won't be the city street but the parking lot.

Parking lots eat a lot of space, and where the land is expensive, automatic cars will offer automatic valet parking. Drive to the mall/office/whatever, enter the automatic lane and be whisked to the door. Get out and your car will run off and park itself efficiently, possibly some distance from the building. (In the future with more fully automatic cars trusted on city streets, it might rent itself out as an autotaxi.)

When ready to leave, use your cell phone to tell the car to come to the nearest door, and it will be waiting there. Obviously that's a great convenience, but the real reason this will happen is it saves a bundle for the building/parking lot, because they can park more cars in the same space, or even park cars offsite. Whatever cost is needed to bury guide-wires or other transponders is easily justified by the efficiency gain, especially in downtown multi-story lots, many of which already justify the cost of humans to do the work.

Later, however, I will reveal the big catch that may keep us from this.

Why don't oil companies develop automatic cars

I'll be writing more in the future on ideas for auto-drive cars (both plus and minus) but let me start by asking the question of why the oil companies haven't jumped up to foot the bill for the development of automatic cars and highways?

It seems a big win for them. Given the availability of a car that would drive itself on the freeway and perhaps a few major roads, people would be much more willing to tolerate longer commutes, and that seems a win if you sell gasoline. A multi-billion dollar win.

Not completely -- the automatic cars will be more fuel efficient (simply driving at constant speed is more fuel efficient, but they will also be more likely to be hybrid designs.) But that's coming anyway. Given the ability to read, work or sleep during the commute would easily make people willing to commute for longer. In fact, for those who can easily sleep, they might welcome a longer commute to get the chance to have a decent sleep period. (Though there are those annoying people who are asleep before the plane starts its taxi. I hate them.)

We're also talking about a car where, while in it, you can have a decent speed internet connection and phone. The commute time effectively could become fully effective work time. Or TV watching time, or reading time.

Of course, in theory an automatic car in special lanes would also not get subject to traffic jams, so a longer commute would take the same time, and a longer commute sells more gas -- though admittedly traffic congestion also sells more gas.

But once again, the upside for oil companies is huge, and it's also high for the automakers, and the highway planners. It's mainly not good for public transit, since it takes away one of its advantages. We already know the basics of how to build an automatic car on an automatic highway. One of the big remaining barriers is money, and this could be the source.

I've added some extra notes below...  read more »

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