CES Report, Road tolling and more


I'm back from CES, and there was certainly a lot of press over two pre-robocar announcements there:


The first was the Toyota/Lexus booth, which was dominated by a research car reminiscent of the sensor-stacked vehicles of the DARPA grand challenges. It featured a Velodyne on top (like almost all the high capability vehicles today) and a very large array of radars, including six looking to the sides. Toyota was quite understated about the vehicle, saying they had low interest in full self-driving, but were doing this in order to research better driver assist and safety systems.

The Lexus booth also featured a car that used ultrasonic sensors to help you when backing out of a blind parking space. These sensors let you know if there is somebody coming down the lane of the parking lot.


Audi did two demos for the press which I went to see. Audi also emphasized that this is long-term concept stuff, and meant as research work to enhance their "driver in the loop systems." They are branding these projects "Piloted Parking" and "Piloted Driving" to suggest the idea of an autopilot with a human overseer. However, the parking system is unmanned, and was demonstrated in the lot of the Mandarin Oriental. The demo area was closed off to pedestrians, however.

The parking demo was quite similar to the Junior 3 demo I saw 3 years ago, and no surprise, because Junior 3 was built at the lab which is a collaboration between Stanford and VW/Audi. Junior 3 had a small laser sensor built into it. Instead, the Piloted Parking car had only ultransonic sensors and cameras, and relied on a laser mounted in the parking lot. In this appraoch, the car has a wifi link which it uses to download a parking lot map, as well as commands from its owner, and it also gets data from the laser. Audi produced a mobile app which could command the car to move, on its own, into the lot to find a space, and then back to pick up the owner. The car also had a slick internal display with pop-up screen.

The question of where to put the laser is an interesting one. In this approach, you only park in lots that are pre-approved and prepared for self-parking. Scanning lasers are currently expensive, and if parking is your only application, then there are a lot more cars then there are parking lots and it might make sense to put the expensive sensor in the lots. However, if the cars want to have the laser anyway for driving it's better to have the sensor in the car. In addition, it's more likely that car buyers will early adopt than parking lot owners.

In the photo you see the Audi highway demo car sporting the Nevada Autonomous Vehicle testing licence #007. Audi announced they just got this licence, the first car maker to do so. This car offers "Piloted Driving" -- the driver must stay alert, while a lane-keeping system steers the car between the lane markers and an automatic cruise control maintains distance from other cars. This is similar to systems announced by Mercedes, Cadillac, VW, Volvo and others. Audi already has announced such a system for traffic jams -- the demo car also handled faster traffic.

Audi also announced their use of a new smaller LIDAR sensor. The Velodyne found on the Toyota car and Google cars is a large, roof-mounted device. However, they did not show a car using this sensor.

Audi also had a simulator in their booth showing a future car that can drive in traffic jams, and lets you take a video phone call while it is driving. If you take control of the car, it cuts off the video, but keeps the audio.

Robocars and road charging

There is an extensive article on the effect of robocars on plans for road use charging in the industry magazine Toll Trans.

Today, road use charging comes, quite sensibly from the gasoline tax. However, the current taxes are not paying the bill, and politically it's impossible to raise gas taxes. This has driven road agencies to all sorts of other proposals including orwellian GPS loggers to tax people based on road use. (They don't just read the odometer as that would tax you for your out of state driving which they are not supposed to do.) In addition, while there are hardly any electric cars on the road today, the road agencies use them as another reason -- the electric cars are unfairly using the road without paying any road use tax since they don't buy gasoline.

The authors in this article see robocars as a potential salvation, since they are already tracking what road they are driving on, and it's a small modification to have them make a report and charge road use taxes. And in fact, a draft version of the DC law for allowing robocars wanted to attempt this -- exempt them from gas taxes and require a road use tax collection.

Naturally, I want as few barriers to robocar adoption as possible during the early years. It's going to be hard enough to see a new technology do well without additional regulations. The authors of the article fear that if they don't set this precedent soon, they will never get it later.

From a social standpoint, though, this seems like a non-optimal plan. Electric cars probably need encouragement; that they don't burn gasoline and are cheaper to run is the reason people buy them. Robocars have many other advantages in addition to the potential for lower cost, but you don't want to discourage them. Any regulation plan of this sort should make sure its a clear win for the user to switch to the safer and more efficient robocar, not an extra cost. That means the road use charge should be less than the gas tax would have been. That's a problem for two reasons -- the road agencies want more revenue, not less, and if they exempt the robocar from gas tax because it pays another way (as the DC law suggested) this encourages major arbitrage games in border areas.

In a rational system, the right approach would be to raise the gas tax and tolerate giving the non-gas-burning cars a break until they become large in number. Failing that, a federal odometer tax does the job (other than for those who do road trips in Canada and Mexico a lot) without any tracking of where people go.

More press

There have been hundreds of articles in the press lately due to CES. You can see videos of the Audi cars and Toyota car. Also notable is an independent article from the NYT on the current efforts from automakers, a fun prank on drive-through employees.

Two recent interviews with Larry Page in Fortune and version 2 offer some Google pronouncements on the technology. I, of course, am not paid enough to be a Google spokesman.

Check out the videos of the Induct Cybergo also known as the Navia. It uses maps to navigate, which is the typical strategy in many research vehicles but has been less common in commercial systems. This vehicle is a campus shuttle offering, which goes only 12mph, allowing it to more easily be safe among pedestrians.


"However, the current taxes are not paying the bill, and politically it’s impossible to raise gas taxes."

Gay marriage and even gun control are being seriously discussed, so one shouldn't give up hope. Note that many places have much higher fuel taxes than the states, even countries where there is a large amount of car traffic (though, to be fair, there is also public transportation).

"This has driven road agencies to all sorts of other proposals including orwellian GPS loggers to tax people based on road use."

The Netherlands actually have such a system. They don't see it as Orwellian.

Something good about paying for roads via a fuel tax is that it encourages people to use less fuel whereas schemes based on distance travel don't. (Even if one factors in the type of vehicle, it still matters how it is driven.) A yearly tax without taking the amount of driving into account is even worse.

Electric cars should of course have to pay something, which should be based on the distance driven.

It is possible to devise a GPS based system that is not so Orwellian. However, the proposers don't often think that way. (The right way to do it, for example, is to just make a "smart odometer" that uses the GPS and a database which figures out what type of road you are on, and what state, and records independent odometry for each type. No record of all your comings and goings. You read it back (and update the maps) every year when smogging etc.)

However, we often see plans where the GPS just records a tracklog and later this is mapped to your miles on each type of road. This approach is more flexible -- you can change the maps as you wish, even after the fact, but it's more Orwellian. The robocar, the authors of the tolling article feel, gets people over the worry about the tracking device and so it's the opportunity to get these taxes in. The robocar, mind you, can do the non-Orwellian tracking I describe with real time updates to its map, since they will tend to have an ability for real time updates anyway. But so will most new telematics systems.

Yes, the gas tax is the sane approach, it's just that Americans are incredibly sensitive about gas prices, and a politician who raises them runs a chance of losing to one who boldly declares she won't raise them. And yes, alternate fuel cars and robocars should pay, however, I think it's not unreasonable, as a subsidy, to let them not pay, or pay less, while their volumes are small enough to not significantly affect the revenues. This fosters innovation, lets the small volume experiments get a leg up.

I would certainly not accept the argument that there are enough electric cars on the road today that we need to rework the tax system to remove their subsidy. Not while we're subsidizing them other ways even more, with rebates as we do.

Smogging? Present participle of smog (which doesn't make sense here, at least to me) or something else?

Yes, I agree that a subsidy is fine in the short term. However, we do need to stop people spinning them as "emission-free" or "climate-neutral" cars, since that depends on how the electricity was generated.

Here, you must bring in your car every so often (every few years, but it is semi-random) to get it smogged, which means they measure the emissions. If you don't pass you have to make repairs. It's an opportunity for a certified shop to examine the vehicle and read data from it, including the odometer (which they do read and report already.)

As such, it's an opportunity to read such data for road tax purposes without requiring new infrastructure. Of course, another way to do it is to bill you a high amount, and have you come in to prove you owe less, and then correct it all when you sell the vehicle or get it smogged.

Robocars of course will have network connections. A lot of cars have network connections today, but they probably are not able to write the law to force them all to have them. For privacy reasons, any sort of road tax report should not be done frequently anyway, once a month is more than enough, and once a year is probably fine.

OK, such things happen elsewhere as well; I just wasn't aware of the term "smogging".

I also went to 2013 CES, where Automotive Tech is an interest of mine. Here is video from Lexus press-conference:


Sports cars are a form of entertainment, driving is part of the fun. Why bother buying a car, just dialup a service of robot cars! (robot taxis) Formula 1 got rid of "active suspension" (computerized race cars), in order to put the drive back in the "equation".

Photo from the Lexus booth & Chevy booth (Spark EV):


Audi showed their hybrid LMP1 race-car:


It seems as if robotic cars is along the lines of "personal robotics". Dr Rodney Brooks (co-founder of iRobot & former MIT Computer Science prof) was at the SuperSession "The New Network Effect Changes Everything":


"How will the relationship among people, machines & infrastructure change in this increasingly networked world? Ericcson's President & CEO Hans Vestberg, Rethink Robotics Rodney Brooks, & Ford Motor Co's Chief Technical Officer Paul Mascarenas join Techonomy's David Kirkpatrick for demonstrations & discussion of how their disparate worlds are converging"

Personal robotics in home (vacuum cleaners, servants, etc), now extrapolated out to transportation.

Is this part of the Singularity world advocated by Ray Kurzweil, technology resulting in immersion/invasion of robots in human life? Intelligence controlled by robots/machines, humans using less brains (getting dumber), resulting in robots >> humans?

Anyone who has had to deal with mall parking lots during the recent holiday shopping frenzies can't wait for this capability. But the car will need the capability to phone its owner and tell her to return to the pickup point early when the lot is full and the car doesn't know what to do next. Park on the grass? Extend a row into unmarked space? Try to find street parking in a nearby neighborhood? Self-valet parking should often be easier legally since parking lots are private property and vehicles there don't need to be street legal, and insurance should be cheaper since speeds are lower.

The big velodyne LIDAR on the roof is just a stopgap technology. A small rotating periscope mirror on top of a telescoping mast with the laser and sensor in the base is much more elegant both cosmetically and electromechanically. And a tall mast can give a bird's eye view of the area making it easier to find an empty parking space.

Check out my parking article for full details of why finding parking and full lots should not be a problem. In the very unlikely event that a lot is full (and there is not a sign to say that) the car doesn't have to tell you, it just will go somewhere else, and take a little longer to get to you when you summon it.

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