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.


What happens to emergency vehicles in this scenario?

As noted, there's nothing that demands a fire truck be a big large truck. It could also be a group of smaller robots, some with firefighters, some with pumps and hoses, some with water tanks, some with gear etc. In fact, water tank robots could be constantly cycling back and forth between water sources and the fire, allowing lots of water delivery to places that don't have hydrants.

Ambulances would be just a small robocar for the patient and attendant. If there are extra machines needed that would not fit in such a vehicle, they could come on demand in another robot.

It is of course more energy efficient to have one large vehicle, and today multiple vehicles would mean multiple drivers, which is also difficult and inefficient. Drivers are not an issue with robocars, and energy efficiency is not our prime concern in emergency vehicles.

Most delivery trucks are large because they want to have one driver move a lot of gear, but this is not an issue in the robocar world.

Kaman is already demonstrating autonomous helicopter-type UAVs; these could certainly be used to deliver the largest items that could fit into a house.

And presumably in this robo-enhanced cyber-nautical mega-technofetish lifestyle, we'd all be living in Standard Design Housing/Living Block Units (think a shipping container with windows and doors) and those could be delivered by larger "skycrane"-type helicopters.

Well, these are pretty noisy and expensive, but if it's to deliver things that only come to a neighbourhood once a year, they could make sense. At least in the sense that they would be cheaper than having to put heavy duty roads in place for very rare trucks.

An intelligently designed city would allow most people to live without any kind of personally-owned or operated motorized vehicle at all. A well-designed city puts people in proximity to their regular destinations for work, shopping, play, and recreation. At the same time, an intelligently-designed city offers a multi-scale mass transit network that meets human and cargo needs for travel needed in addition to walking or bicycling.

Please reconsider this idea -- instead turn your efforts toward building proximity into city design and intelligently-designed housing, walking paths, bicycle paths, and mass transit systems.

A future city that has carnival rides (robocars) as its transportation network would be a nightmare as real and searing as the current suburban areas are today--far too much infrastructure built upon the idea of moving one person in one direction for no reason other than lazy city designers and inept transit designers can't figure out how to design a city. Human beings can walk and bicycle to nearby destinations and use mass transit to reach others. No need for "robocars" or copters or green cars or smart cars or intelligent highways or whatever kind of infrastructure manufacturers want to sell.

We have far less capacity to design our cities than we imagine. While we can also debate how much power we should have to design cities, the reality is that even if we wanted to exercise such complete control, these attempts fail far more often than they succeed.

You can't make people live near where they work unless you want to force them to move every time they change jobs. People are independent beings, not cogs in a machine. They will live where they want to live, work where they want to work and play where they want to play, and view it as their right to do so.

The question is not how to make people be more efficient at what we think they should do, it is to make them more efficient at what they want to do.

To boot, you suggest that an intelligently designed city offers a multi-scale mass transit network. That's far from proven, and may not even be true. What do you want to do when people disagree about "intelligent" city design? What about the large fraction of elder human beings who can't walk or bicycle everywhere?

I can agree with one thing in your text and this is that there should be more emphasis on car sharing. A huge amount of raw material goes into building a single automobile and this can be spread out among many people. Another way to reduce your individual VMT is by carpooling. Speaking for myself, I will stick to transit and cycling to get where I'm going.

The animated feature "Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius" has a subplot about automobiles. On a planet within the Milky Way galaxy an "advanced alien civilization" in perfecting their motorized transportion system, chose to devolve into amoebic blobs and live 24/7 inside their mobility devices; egg-shaped, flying 'cars' with voice-boxes for communication and mechanical arms to manipulate objects. Anyway, they were cruel blobs who offered human sacrifice to their god, a giant 3-eye'd chicken (The Big 3?) Jimmy was able to break the hypnotic spell (TV car commercials?) that kept the about-to-be-slain humans helpless. Forget Avatar. Rent Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius.

Once you get decent numbers of small vehicles you can also open sections of majors roads to them. Take away one lane each way and replace it with two each way for smaller vehicles and you more than double the capacity. Especially in rush hour, when you also benefit from them being shorter vehicles with better manouverability - the packing density on the road is somewhere between a full bus and a private car but the passenger throughput is closer to PT.

One thing you will need to keep an eye on is robocar priority - if they're treated like bicycles rather than cars they could be worthless simply due to the stop-start travel that would result. But if they get decent through roads you can expect bicycle riders to use those roads in preference, relying on the robocars sensors to keep them safe. Which might work out well for all, but will almost inevitably reduce the performance of the robocars.

Finally, given the similarity between your pictured microcar/robocar and velomobiles, it might be worth considering putting their sensor/comms systems into velomobiles. If they're light and low power that wouldn't be an issue but would allow velomobiles to interact more usefully with robocars. You;d effectively get a class of hybrid robocars - pedal-electric powered, robo-human controlled (I doubt you'd have many takers for robot control of the human powerplant).

While I have written a bunch about the congestion issues, I have some more planned in that area. Yes, I believe that small vehicles such as half-width single person (and 2 person face to face) can have a dramatic impact on road capacity and congestion over time.

The vehicle in the picture, called an Aero-rider, is electric powered, though it also has pedals. I do expect the single person robocar to be a small vehicle in a fiberglass shell similar to that, quite possibly with 3 wheels, limited to streets and about 40mph. A highway capable vehicle would be a bit bigger and heavier. It would not have pedals or be bicycle like, but it might stand up for entry and exit like the hypothetical Twill I wrote about earlier.

I use it as an example because of its remarkable energy efficiency when battery powered, which is around 300 btus/mile. I think the real life vehicle will not be quite as low-slung, with a more comfortable sitting position, and thus not as aerodynamic and light, and thus perhaps more like 500 btus/mile. There are already more full size electrics under 1,000 btus/mile so that's not too hard. (Average car is around 5,000 btus/vehicle mile, Honda Insight is around 2,000 per vehicle mile, with better passenger-mile numbers due to seating for more than one.)

Robot control with human pedaling might not be so unlikely. As I have noted, a very efficient electric bike is more efficient than a human on a pure watt-hours to calories of food comparison. Watt-hours need to come from power plans (tripling the energy needed in heat) but human calories come from factory farms (10 times the energy today). So in fact, the main reason to pedal would be to keep in shape, and be a bit more efficient if you grow your own food or eat only from highly energy efficient farms.

If your goal is to keep in shape, you might find you like to pedal and read at the same time while a robot steers. Or watch TV. Which is what many of us do on our exercise bikes, with no productive travel as a result.

Brad, it's critical to look at the details - just saying that merkins eat factory farmed food isn't enough. Especially for someone like me, where my power can come from Hazelwood (proud to be #1 in emissions per joule) but my food largely comes from local organic farmers. Even tweaks like merkins who are vegetarian can flip that balance. I'm assuming your energy consumption numbers account for the difference between various shaped bicycles (the difference between a dutch roadster and even a velomobile as crappy as the Aerorider are significant, even at 20m/s). FWIW, the current 24 hour hpv record holder uses around 120W at 14m/s. Designing a vehicle like that isn't as easy as you might hope, even the gross behaviours have hard limits. So a "high seat velomobile" starts to get very wide very quickly, or very dependent on an active balance system that needs to fit into a weight budget of 30kg or less. Current velomobiles are around 30-35kg and that seems to be the upper limit, with two that I know of under 30kg and in correspondingly high demand. Without huge regulatory change to allow either much more power for a "power assist bicycle" or much less certification of a "light motor vehicle", you're pretty locked into the "fully licensed motor vehcile and driver" cost model. See also: microcars :)

Robot guidance with human power would be interesting, but some of the technical details would need a lot of work. Communicating changing power requirements to the rider would be interesting.

Also, the pretence that more seats in the vehicle drops the energy use needs to be balanced against the reality that most moronists don't share their vehicles, which ties back to your comments about not forcing behaviour change.

The answer to the seats per vehicle question is that if you are hiring the robocar (rather than owning it) you get a vehicle with as many seats as you have people, or at least close enough to make things much more efficient. (Sometimes you will get a bigger vehicle if that's the closest thing to you or the most efficient way to allocate, and sometimes 2 people might get 2 single-units for the same reason.)

For the battery powered vehicle, one thing that lets the seat be higher is all that lead that is kept down low as possible. Yes, lead -- I think that in many cases today's lead-acid tech is going to be the right choice for some short range vehicles, especially those that need that balance. Lead acid batteries are cheap and we know how to recycle them very well. Their weight increases rolling resistance and acceleration power, but the ideal robocar doesn't start and stop a lot.

There are also plans, however, for computer stabilized 2-wheeled vehicles which track-stand when stopped.

We always want to leave room on our roads for velomobiles and cyclists, but they do have some disadvantages. They are not going to be nearly as predictable as robocars so they must be given a wider berth. They won't go as fast. One hopes they will be popular, but I suspect the fraction of the traffic they become will vary quite a bit, as it does today, depending on the city.

It will also be interesting to see if we can make a self-delivered bicycle or velomobile. In the web site, I imagine a small robot that clamps onto a bicycle and has some stabilization wheels of its own but also uses the bike's wheels to deliver bikes where people need them. It would be nice to press a button on your cell phone and find a nice bike waiting out front for you to ride. The robot would scurry elsewhere, ideally to where somebody else is getting off a bike and will insert it into the robot. You need this because, of course, if I am pedaling I don't want to carry the weight of batteries and a robot unless my plan is pedal-assist. A small robot that attaches to a velomobile trike is even easier.

Oh yeah, for mapping the human power input there are a few options, including having a robocar where all you are doing is pedaling a generator. It's a little less efficient but lets you both rest if you want, or pedal right through a stop. Alternately you would need some sort of variable clutch and perhaps some resistance (like on computerized exercise bikes) to signal the stoker to slow.

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