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Make robotaxis so cheap they can't even close their doors

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Brose self-closing door for future robotaxis

A recent article on automatic closing doors for robocars argues that the car must be able to close the door, because the passenger might leave it open, and the car can't drive with an open door.

There is some truth to that, in that when using an automated vehicle, people sort of expect it to open and close the doors for you. We find it frustrating riding those old or cheap elevators that make you manually open the door, which is strange, considering that we don't find any frustration in the other many manual doors we will use during the day.

This is one reason Waymo chose the Pacifica minivan which has motorized doors. There is something particularly futuristic about a vehicle that pulls up and opens its door for you.

The Brose door just closes and doesn't open, for the reason listed above. But I have been writing about how robocars offer the potential to make cars a great deal cheaper as the cost of the sensor package and computing drops. For example, since doors cost money, a solo robocar might have only one door rather than two, having just a kick-out emergency exit panel on the other side. The car will just always park at the curb with the door in the right place, since unlike humans, robocars can back up just as confidently as go forward.

There are low cost alternatives to this motorized door. In particular, we presume that every passenger has a smartphone. So, if they do somehow forget to close the door, they will get a series of alerts on that phone. They will want to pay attention, because the robotaxi company will not close out their ride until they close that door, and so they will still be paying for the car until they do so.

Generally, it makes sense that there be some obvious sound when a ride is closed out. In addition, since the cars sensors can watch the passenger walk away from the car, even if they are not responding to their phone, the car can emit a honk as you walk away, unless you have indicated that you are making a mid-ride stop to pick something up and wish to leave the door open.

In my articles on privacy, I have indicated there should be another ritual to close out a ride, namely physically opening the interior camera. Robotaxis will want an interior camera, so they can look at the interior after you leave and see if you've left something on the seat (most common) or possibly soiled the car such that it needs to go to a car cleaning depot. But we don't want that camera spying on us while we ride. The solution is to have a physical shutter over the lens. You close the shutter to start the ride, and you open it to close out the ride.

The switch to open it could be on the outside, but ideally it's a physical switch which can't be actuated remotely. If it is remotely actuated, we would want it to be obvious when it's open so we know that the car wants to surveil us.

Of course, this car with one-mechanical door is the budget car. There should be both budget cars that offer the lowest cost transportation as well as mid-range and luxury cars at higher prices. The ability to make budget cars means the robotaxi offers private transportation to new income classes, which is good (except from a congestion standpoint.)

Comments

A simple solution would be a spring operated door, like a residential screen door. With a speed limiter to prevent injury should it close on a child's finger. The door would remain unlatched until the vehicle reaches a certain speed. This would solve another potential problem: the robotaxi driving off with a piece of the former passenger's clothing lodged in the door. I wonder how the Waymo Pacifica addresses this problem.
As far as "closing out" the ride, don't expect passengers to perform any actions that don't directly benefit them; they will forget or simply be too lazy to do it.

Oh, it benefits them. If they don't close out the ride, and here the tone that says they did, the meter will still be running.

Charging hundreds of dollars to your customers because they forgot to manually open a camera or close a door (and ignored their phone or never enabled notifications in the first place) doesn't sound like a good business practice. Especially when it's really cheap to just have a door that closes itself and a camera that opens itself.

Charging hundreds of dollars for badly soiling the car and not reporting it is more reasonable. It wouldn't even have to be nearly that much. If the next passenger reports a cleanliness problem when the car arrives to pick them up, you send a new car to pick them up and send the soiled car to the shop.

I guess you could still do the camera thing (though it seems overly complicated for something which most public transit treats as a normal cost of doing business). But if the person forgets to open the camera and the next passenger doesn't report a problem, then there's no harm done and no need to charge anyone anything.

On the door, the car is going to beep at you (no phone needed) if you leave it without closing it. The car sees you and watches you walk away, it can make a whoop if the door isn't closed. This is only on the cheap model though. Lots of services charge you if you don't return a product in the proper condition. I guess if you ignore the alarm, and then ignore all the phone calls, the cost could get up to $20-$30, not hundreds. Unless the car is blocking traffic.

As for the camera, the inability of the car to open the camera is a feature, not a cost savings. To protect your privacy, you don't want the car to be able to open the camera without your permission.

I don't see the point of having such a cheap model. What are you going to save, a fraction of a penny per mile? If there's even any savings at all. Once these cars are custom built I'm not sure there would be *any* savings. And then add the cost of making the car watch you walk away and make a "whoop." And the cost of bad PR when you charge someone $20 for not manually closing a door in a car that is supposed to take away the manual labor of driving. As you point out, people expect elevator doors to close themselves. Also monorail doors, subway doors. Even the majority of store doors close themselves (either electronically or mechanically).

As for the camera, I don't see the point of having the camera at all if you're only going to use it in the way you describe. Forcing people to open it manually doesn't actually add any privacy at all compared to opening it automatically when the doors are opened. It just gives people a stupid task to do.

Almost any feature can be put on the "Why cut that to save 0.5 cents/mile?" category. With 250,000 mile lifetimes, that $1,200. So at the same time one should make nothing but luxury models. There is almost nothing on the list for these cars that will cost more than a penny a mile except the current price of some high-end LIDAR.

In this case, things like being able to make audible alerts or being able to watch the passenger leave use existing equipment and cost only software. But because of that, I don't think it would be common for people to actually leave the car not properly closed. Now people will "return" their car in imperfect condition all the time, actually. It's certainly common with everything else people rent. And they get charged for it. I just got charged the obscene rental car company refill surcharge yesterday because traffic made me late to the airport. About the 3rd time in my life for that, because I hate it so much, but they still do it and it doesn't kill their business.

As for the camera, the reason is that I and many others don't want to be watched when we ride. So I want a manual shutter. Obviously, if you don't care about being watched, you can not close the manual shutter and will have no requirement to open it again. And of course the next passenger can open it for you, and if the interior is damaged/dirty when they open it, it will be on me if I forgot to do so when I left.

You can have an automatic shutter but still not watch people when riding. The two things are not even related.

And yes, lots of features cost very little per mile. Maybe that's a reason to have lots of features on the cars. But right now we're talking about a very basic feature that many people are going to expect. Having different options on this would probably be more expensive than it saves, and leaving it out of the standard option would be off-putting.

Unfortunately car rental companies currently get away with doing a lot of annoying things. That's no excuse to annoy people who use robocars just to save a very small amount of money - if anything at all.

The vast majority of cars don't have self-closing doors. That's mostly minivans, which have sliding doors -- and the room for sliding doors. Motorized non-sliding doors are an issue because they can hit things, though a robot should have sensors to prevent that, and might only motorize closing rather than opening as the design above does. But I don't think this is on the must list, it's just a nice thing, and I want to point out that we're going to make the cheap version of the robotaxi very cheap. Cheap does mean without everything you might want. There will also be mid-priced and luxury offerings with everything you want.

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