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

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.


As an engineer myself, I find robocars a very cool idea. And as (it seems) one of the few people who drives a lot but doesn't particularly enjoy it often, I would really like to use them. However, I would push against them for the one reason that it gives lots of power to the government and anyone who reads the news knows that there is an increasing trend in serious abuses of that power.

First is a complete lack of privacy - there are now records on everywhere you drive. I have enough of that with Texas toll tags, photos of license plates and I hear more such sensors are coming.

Second is that if a cracker gains access, even just to monitor, he can wreak tremendous damage to lives.

Third, the system will generate marketing data that will be sold by the state and used against us to place billboards and driver-selective advertising. We almost have this today with cell phone tracking re bluetooth and other avenues. John Smith drives by the McDonalds and a sign practically invites him in my name and his favorite dish.

Fourth, in the event of any kind of protest or revolution, the state can shut down cars, giving them total control over transportation that they currently have over air travel and are slowing gaining on train and bus travel. Imagine a Do-Not-Fly list extended to a Do-Not-Drive list, where anyone with trigger names has their car shut off when they get within a mile of the Whitehouse.

Please consider these issues and add a new chapter to your excellent series that addresses them. The governments are NOT going to get more benign and we must not hand them more keys over our lives. As EFF Chairman all of these and more must surely have crossed your mind in writing your essays.

There may be some substance to your worries, especially if cars ever trust other cars to any extent as suggested by parts of the essays as an option for making them work better. Mostly, they seem to be derived from a belief that the system he is describing is somehow centralized. It isn't. The only difference between a robocar and a car today is that no human is needed to drive it. He mentions that some cars already rely on computers a good amount.

What could be worrisome is paying robotaxis, which can trivially record their source/destination, via credit cards, which can easily be linked to people. Also, a robotaxi might target ads based on that information in addition to appearance and clothing, possibly to the point that it could positively identify someone (say, by comparing the face to MySpace or Facebook photos). But these issues are in the future with or without robotaxis.

Self-driving cars do not magically give any group any more extra power than computers as compared to calculators. (In all fairness, doing your accounting with your computer makes identity theft a lot more likely than doing it on a four-function calculator.) As with any product or technology, security and privacy should be considered, but I do not see them as intrinsic concern for robocars.

Actually there is a chapter on that subject already. It doesn't speak only to that, but it is the main focus. I do plan over time to expand it to include ways to get around some of these problems.

One tough one is how to arrange anonymous use of robotaxis. I fear that people will want to assign reputations to robotaxi renters and have a way to track them down if they trash them. This will cause people to push only for identified robotaxi use. There are some solutions. For example, the reputation could be pseudonymous. The user could offer the bond of an insurance company who will be responsible if the vehicle is damaged, without revealing who the passenger is. But it will take work to make these systems be the norm. That's part of why I write this -- to get us ready for these problems.

"it the leading cause of death. "
No, do your statistics properly. Everything is the leading category of anything. Say accident kills 60%, disease kills 40%. The we could say the causes of death are 1. disease 2. workplace accident 3. traffic accident. Just state your percentage, don't try to rank categories that you haven't even bothered to elucidate (let alone justify). Because the time has indeed come for quality "robocar" advocacy.

But in fact there are some reasonably well established categories in death statistics, and traffic fatalities have long been their own category with lots of history. They are not over 50% of course, so I get your point.

The last DARPA Grand Challenge was held 11/3/07. Where is the one for this year? There was one in 2004 and 2005, and for some reason 2006 was skipped and so it's apparently the case with 2008, but what about 2009 and beyond? Disturbingly, when I go to the webpages of the finalists, most of them are still acting as if the 2007 event were held yesterday. Is that it? Is it done forever? Of course, the point of the challenge was not to design cars to take over the role of human drivers in city/highway traffic, but I got to believe there is still a lot more these cars can be challenged with before they can actually be deployed in the battlefield. I sure hope it comes back in 2009. Two years is a lot of time to make improvements. In addition to getting the researchers to compete and make better cars, it also gets people interested and more comfortable with the idea.

As far as I know there is no new challenge announced, but the prior ones have been such a great success that I would be shocked if they didn't want to do another. Of course, after some time, we move in to the commercial realm (mostly in selling to military at first) and at that point they may not need prizes.

There was an "exhibition" race earlier this year in Southern California. It's been suggested to me that soon it may be time to hold a non-academic conference on the matter, which would include contests no doubt. (There are a few different academic/robotics conferences that cover these technologies already.)

I've had a similar idea that I describe here - Scaling Traffic: People Pod Pool of On Demand Self Driving Robotic Cars who Automatically Refuel from Cheap Solar. Keep up the good work. It will happen sometime.

I am curious why you think cheap solar is an important part of things. Not that it would not be wonderful, and if we get it, it should be put on the grid quickly, but this is an orthogonal issue. Same with some wonderful new battery -- great if we get it, but robocars let us have usable electric cars with old, cheap battery tech. The better battery just makes it nicer.

One thing that some people think of that turns out to be a mistake is solar mounted on the vehicle itself. The power from such panels is modest, but worst of all, it would often be wasted. If the car's battery were near full (as you would want it to be) the solar power would be discarded. If the car was not pointed the right way or was in shade, the power would be lost.

Solar power on the grid can be angled to the sun (even if fixed) and always generating every watt it can. No watts thrown away, all available to be put into cars or other purposes. While a panel on a car could save a bit of battery capacity, I think the waste would outweigh that. (I am not saying you were proposing panels on cars, were you?)

"But few will buy the Tango today."

I suspect this is not so much a distrust of the batteries but more an issue of price.
The design is unusual, but I think it is a great solution for the single commuter.

Availability is also another factor, there are a few interesting EVs on the market but are either high cost high performance or just not sold outside their local area, i.e. California USA!

What we need is a cost comparable commuter vehicle that can cover at least 100 miles per charge at a reasonable speed 50 - 60 MPH.

Maybe the sentence should read

"But few CAN buy the Tango today."


While there are arguments back and forth, I think there's a reason that Hybrids are hot shit (and plug in hybrids the next hot shit) while electric cars did not find a market. Everybody who drives electric cars loves driving them. They don't love recharging them, nor the cost of the batteries. I don't think it's just a case of not having a suitable electric car (with today's battery issues) appear on the market.

The Tesla will sell very well for a car costing more than $100K, but it's those batteries that make it cost like that.

One aspect of robot cars that would contribute to their relative safety is that they're more likely to cooperate with one another. It's one thing to set up a program that guides one's own car... but if the cars can communicate with one another, then we'd see better on-road cooperation. For example, if my car had to switch to another lane to make a turnoff, it could send a request to other robot-controlled cars in that lane, which could ease off and allow me the space I'd need.

As for the issue of centralized control, and the guvmint shutting down drivers... well, they can do this now _anyway_, and it requires a lot of messy and occasionally dangerous police work.

Here's an interesting question; what about emergencies? I can see ambulances and police cars requesting "emergency access" which'd nudge other cars out of the way. But would ordinary drivers be able to request such access in rare occasions (like the classic wife-in-labor situation)?

In my view, if the cars pass the "school of fish test" the ambulance could just plow right through the school of cars, and they would part like water if they could.

The only difference is that the ambulance would not get a ticket for pulling this stunt.

In the more distant, HDV-less future, I imagine roads where traffic always flows very well by today's standards, and an emergency bot can get to you very quickly in normal traffic.

Hi Brad,

Great series -- really got me thinking about the possibilities, and convinced me that these are a better alternative to PRT, which I've been a fan of for a few years.

So, as an interested computer geek, I'm curious about where to go from here. Are there companies that are putting money into this kind of work? Or will it really take a presidential call to action for things to get moving? If the latter, what's the best way to start getting up to speed on some of this -- building my own self-navigating robots? Learning AI?

Appreciate your (or anyone else's) input on these questions.


DARPA hasn't announced a new challenge yet, but many hope they will. In the meantime a lot of technologies are being incorporated into cars by companies like VW, Audi, Lexus and others that I list at the start of the roadmap page. Companies making the components -- the sensors like LIDAR -- are active concerns, though I don't know of a company that is a pure play yet.

Great set of articles on robotic cars.

I had written about electric powered robotic cars as well.

My belief is that the city robocar only zones is the best way to start deploying robotic cars sooner.
The current versions of robotic cars are very close to being up to the job of navigating slower city streets.

I had not realized how poor the efficiency was of the US public transportation system.
This is of course not the case in places like Hong Kong and Japan and some places in europe where rider density
is far higher.

The main concern here is that people will object to robocar only zones in the early stages. They will be seen as elitist (only the rich, who can afford the initial, more expensive vehicles could take their cars into the zones.) However, if congestion pricing becomes common first, this could change things a bit. And the zones can't exist until the robocars are well tested and trusted with other robocars and pedestrians, in which case handling other cars is not a big deal.

Thus I predict the robocar only zones come later, as a means to de-congest core areas in a world that's about 60% robocar and 40% HDV, with cheap taxis for poorer people available in the central zone.

I can imagine systems to try to keep the pedestrians apart from the robocars but there still need to be intersections and crosswalks and there will still be jaywalkers even with giant barriers.

In areas with fully independent right-of-way you could get there sooner, but it's expensive. For example a network of small, robocar-wide tunnels might become cheap with new tunnel boring machines, allowing electric robocars.

As for Asian transit -- it is more efficient, but it still isn't as good as an ultralight single person electric, which is essentially an electric tricycle with composite shell.

My thinking is that, when the technology reaches the right point, people will demand that manually-driven vehicles be banned. That seems inevitable to me because most people trust themselves behind the wheel but don't trust "the average person." I'm not sure where the tipping point is, but I suspect it'll be early enough in the technology-adoption curve to surprise a lot of people.

I agree that this will likely begin with zones. But those zones could be quite large, in much the same way that some cities ban truck above a certain size anywhere inside the dense part of the city.

My brother at University of Miami in Florida related hearing a story from our mother, which I hadn't heard first hand, about life back in pre WW-II Yugoslavia in a German-speaking village near Belgrade.

A person could go to a party and get drunk as a skunk (think of Die Fledermaus -- partying and drinking and practical jokes represented in that comic opera were very much the cultural norm, at least for Grandpa's generation and friends). When it was time to leave, you simply needed to be lucky enough to have a friend stuff you into your horse-draw carriage -- instead of play a joke on you by leaving you on a park bench in a bat costume like in the opera.

Then all you had to do was give the horse a verbal command "Home!" The horse was inclined to return to its stable of dry straw bedding and fresh hay anyway, and you would be driven home, automatically and safely.

A horse is not nature's brightest creature, but it seems what you are trying to do is invent a computer and accompanying software to be at least as capable as a horse, or at least with regard to image processing, path planning, and obstacle avoidance. And a computer that doesn't leave "presents" on the roadway for someone else to clean up.

I'm glad I found this article, because I have been advocating this for a while, but you have a much bigger audience.

As an engineer, I'm sick of wasting my time driving when I know car itself could do the job much of the time. I even joined a DARPA Urban Challenge team, but it was poorly run so I dropped out.

I'll bet that the time wasted during driving adds up to an enormous amount of lost productivity, and a tiny bit of that value, spent on this project, could go a long ways.

I'd love to have an electric car (because they are better to drive), but frankly, not being a member of the Church of Climate Change, I'd be happy if my SUV could do the job. In fact, I've been think about how to interface to the cruise control...

Keep it up!

BTW, a long term (expensive infrastructure) solution to the battery charging problem is battery exchange. You drive to a service station, a robotic machine extracts your discharged smart battery pack, inserts a fully charged one, and charges your card based on the cost of the transaction (battery age, energy costs, overhead, a little profit). Notice that this uses a current approach (servicestations) - always a good thing if you can do it, and is more efficient (the power distribution capacity increase is focused on a few places rather than every home) and

Battery exchange, which I discuss, is a worthwhile thing, but it has some difficulties. Charging poles can be anywhere at a very low cost. Battery exchange stations are more major affairs. This requires lots of standardization of the batteries, and a good, safe cartridge design that can regularly make a connection over which hundreds of amps will flow.

The batteries would then have to be owned by the battery company, not the car owner, except in fleets. And the robotics for this are doable but would need to be built. So yes, I see it happening, but I see charging poles first.

You don't have to believe in global warming to want an efficient vehicle. How about just not wanting to pay $23 to go 100 miles in that SUV? And whether you hate CO2 or not, gasoline pollutes in many other ways.

I want my robocar to fly. And it should mix me drinks while we're flying. For me to even consider buying it it must give me shiatsu massages as a default, without me asking. BJs would be nice, too, and maybe a big 'ol steely dan should be standard equipment for the ladies. And I thought of a cool way to help even more with parking congestion. Why not install some sort of anti-gravity AI? That way my robocar could just float over my destination (e.g. a Star Trek convention) and I could just slide down a rope. Better still, all robocars could come with transporters that could zap us that last 50 feet from our hovering cars to our final destination . Better still, why not skip right over the robocar part and just give everyone a personal or family-sized transporter. That'd be awesome! No more traffic, no more accidents ('cept the occasional genetic blending with flies like in the movie). And all those highways could be turned into bike trails! Or open space! Or community gardens!

Yea. The future is gonna be so cool.

But watch the videos pointed to in the primary article and you may see why people are viewing this is something more than science fiction.

Wonderful, another step towards making me more subservient to the whim of politicians.

next, you'll want to automate my thermostat so the A.I. can decide the proper temperature for me.
Wait, that one's going to be here first.

You'll take the keys to my "dumb" car when you pry them from my cold, dead hands.

I get a little concerned over the idea that you seem to be working on Step G (or so), when we haven't gotten past Step B yet: The current leader in "practical robotics" is iRobot; yet their 5th-generation Roomba, which is capable of several things beyond what the Discovery (series 4), can now clean multiple rooms in a single "mission"; yet it is no longer possible to use two Roombas in adjacent rooms (which the simpler 4th-generation Discovery could do).

It seems that the 4th-generation used a single "command center" to program everything to the same (remote) clock, including the Virtual Walls; the 5th-generation Roombas each have their own Scheduler, and now use RF to turn the Virtual Walls on and off -- and the Virtual Walls are "keyed" to individual Roombas, so now, when one Roomba finishes its schedule, it turns off the Virtual Wall that had kept the other Roomba in its own playpen.

Apparently, iRobot thought that they'd had the "simple" problem so well contained that they could increase the "complex problem" capacity, and unfortunately, they overlooked something. (It's commonly noted that "software is someone else's idea of how to solve your problem".)

By your own admission, the first robocars are likely to kill people; but, What If (great Sci-Fi question): Steps C, D, and E get us to the point where there are a number of Robocars on the road, and everything seems to work; steps F and G bring us to your "school of fish" robocar-traffic-solution; and then some tiny, overlooked detail -- the "Naw, no one would EVER do THAT with a car" (as, apparently at iRobot, no customer was ever expected to use multiple Roombas on the same floor) -- causes your school of fish to all swerve TOWARD the fire-truck that all the programmers had expected it to AVOID --

-- and then hundreds of people are killed or maimed in one single "oops".

The shuttle explosion killed seven people, and ground the entire space program to a halt; what will a "cluster collision" (I could've used a different term there, hehe) do to any nascent Robocar program? And how can you be SURE you've solved ALL of the problems before you turn two tons of autonomy loose on the streets?

I do include a section on that, but it really depends a lot on political will. When I examined the numbers, and found that robocars could save us trillions of dollars, and millions of lives -- like curing a major disease -- I realized that this is a project society is stupid not to put a lot of effort into, whether it be private commercial funding or military or university lab research. But there is no crystal ball that can predict the time. My message is that this looks doable and well worthy of a major effort; as much as, if not more so than Apollo was.

The robocars won't go on the road until people feel they are really safe. They may start as whistlecars and deliverbots with no people in them except when going slow. Designers will work hard on that cascade accident scenario you describe. At first, they will do that just by leaving lots of space, as much as humans do, and often more -- as much as the road provides. They simply won't pack so closely, at first, that this could happen.

They also should not all run the same software, though people debate that with me. In fact, they will run multiple versions of software in one car. If any of the systems in the car says, "Hey, that plan is dangerous" it probably won't be done, or at the very least the other systems will all re-evaluate.

From a social standpoint, replacing human driving which kills 45,000 in the USA per year with robots that kill 500 a year would be a very wise choice, but I understand how the public will probably not think that way.

The primary problems appear to be socio-legal... And the primary way to get this done is to get a strong popular advertising campaign going.

Think MAHD - Mothers Against Human Drivers as a follow on campaign for well supported and funded MADD.

The number of people killed by drunk drivers is just a smallish portion of the 40,000 a year people killed..

Eliminating Human Drivers completely gets you all (or at least the vast majority) of the rest..

So this would appear to be a future that the existing MADD group could easily endorse, at least once proof of concept systems exist.

Only the more forward thinking of those groups will lobby for this. Most of the public will want proof it's safer than a human before they lobby for it. Certainly it will have trouble going on the roads until then. However, some advanced thinking groups will say, "This looks like it has the potential to be safer than a human driver, so let's do more R&D on it today, and let the designers know that once they make it safe enough, the law will not stand in their way."

... that iRobot seems to have no idea how to solve the abovementioned cooperation problem; their own monolithic mindset keeps them from seeing anything other than the problems that they themselves come up with.

OK AI Geeks, let's get back to the REAL point, and stop the masturbatory fantasies about robots doing everything.

When somebody else is holding the steering wheel, THEY decide where the car goes. IF IT GOES.

Let's say you put in your request for the botcar to come and ferry your brood to Grandma's house. You get the following response: "You have exceeded your carbon usage credits for this month, we apologize for your lack of deference to Gaia".

Carbon is going to be produced as a result of every human activity for a very looong time, electricity source notwithstanding. Hopefully AGW will soon be discredited, but that's a rant for another website.

This will be another excuse to control human movements.

I don't care if it will save lives. You can't put foam rubber on every sharp edge in the world, and I'd rather people didn't try. If I'm going to die in a car, I want it to be with my hands on the wheel. I would fervently wish for a software glitch or hack that kills a large number of people. That should put this idea where it belongs.

Yes, there are people who should not be allowed to drive. But every time the difficulty level of everyday life drops, you end up with more people who don't get even a small mechanical aptitude.

And there will always be that gross mechanical interface between the AI and the physical world.

Know what vision of the future scares me? People immobile in their homes, unable to do anything but frivolous cerebral pursuits, travel restricted because power generation is deliberately not expanded, and robots fulfilling most needs. Won't happen to me, I'm too old. But my infant son will, and probably won't see anything wrong with it.

BTW, UAV tech is way further along. Why don't you see airliners going first? Oh, that's right, that one's too obvious.

i totally agree, i would love robotic cars in certain areas say in an electric bus lane, but i would like to drive my own 911 when i own it thank you!

its amazing that people are thinking about giving up thse things, technology is there to guide us not to take over a gps and detailed map is good enough but why robots?

I'll feel safe riding in a robocar when...

1. It can routinely merge into the traffic stream of an uncontrolled freeway that is just at the edge of spontaneous slowdown capacity, like everyone is going 50 mph even though the limit is 65.

2. It can successfully negotiate a left turn thru a 4-way by 4-lanes intersection with an unexpected traffic light breakdown, in traffic with mixed human and robotic drivers, in the midst of a blinding Texas thunderstorm.

Piece of cake for many humans...

The robocar has to do a great deal more than that. These are fairly simple problems compared to what needs to be solved, like avoiding accidents, pedestrians running across the road when you are being tailgated etc.

The current condition of the various car manufacturing companies world wide and the impact of that on the rest of various economies is illustrative..

Assuming that huge public investment in mass transit could effect a huge change in car ridership, this is the impact that would have on these industries and various service sectors.. for better or worse.

RoboCars on the other hand could be (probably will be) manufactured by the existing car manufacturers, serviced by the same service sector, on roads built by the same contractors... etc. It provides a way to move most of the current industry and service sector employment forward into new areas with the least disruption. And as pointed out without huge public investment (that mass transit requires).

Robocars are also useful everywhere... not just in areas where sufficent density exists to justify mass transit.

Robocars will be one of those junctures that often turns industries upside-down and brings in new companies. There have been many barriers to entry in the car biz for some time, keeping it in the hands of big players. Time might be ripe for change.

I see more distributed manufacturing, because electric cars are much simpler and easier to make modular. Get a chassis from one place, motors from another. Get somebody to fab your body. Connections are no longer so mechanical, they are either digital (for controls and sensors) or high-power electrical (for main power system connection to wheel motors and batteries.) This makes it easier to make parts that can be interchanged. Drop in things you like on a dashboard, get seats from anywhere.

The main barrier is getting the whole thing safety certified. That is the one factor that big manufacturers will try to control so that they can retain their positions. They will lobby the government to make it hard to get certified, using safety as their excuse.

The killer app. The idea is to make the self-checkout stand at the grocer mobile. Order over the Internet,wait an hour, and the robovan shows up at your curbside.

A variant of the idea is the autonomous electric cargo van. The cargo van can guide itself for a mile using battery, but for long hauls, the cargo vans align themselves,and electrically connect. Then diesel electric hauler powers the convoy up and moves them down the road, to the next freight switching lot. Any parking lot becomes an automated freight yard. Cargo vans can be dropped off at the grocer where they drive themselves to the unloading dock.

I like this blog, and can't wait for a response, so I reply to myself. But I am reading the comments.

The Home Delivery Vehicle is a benign creature. It has wide, ovals vinyl bumpers atop inflated air and they travel about 20 MPH or less through the neighborhood. They do the reverse waste pick-up, and drop boxes of consumable on your curbside.

Delivery Bots don't prefer all electric or hybrid, but they do 90% of the last mile for freight on electric if asked. There is always a human operated diesel electric ready to convoy the delivery bot from warehouse to home, so the bot need only auto-route for two miles or less.

The delivery bot and the taxi bot remove about $200 in fixed cost for consumer freight. They are a great efficiency gain, and available today in factories, airport, demonstration rallys, competitions, etc.

The bot vehicles would like a little green paint and a cooperative DMV. These two supports would put the bots in gated communities and some adventurous communities next year.

That reduction of $200 in fixed expenses, and probably another $100 savings in variable costs, all related to transportation, represents the gain in utility of the American home over the utility or human operated vehicles. So, due to technology gains, homes should indeed be more valuable, especially in America where asphalt roads are the standard fare.

The green paint is an agreement between the human vehicle and the bots. It identifies likely places where bots might make a left turn, follow a lane, leave a box of groceries, or maneuver in a parking lot.

Bots are benign to light weight, lower speed vehicles, like smaller electric cars, scooters ad bicycles. Hence we might see greater efficiencies of use if we provide cocrete barriers for this class of silicon and light weights. Thus, lowering the total fixed cost of moving stuff drtops again as the utility of light weights gains along with the bots. Some commuter lanes in major freeways would be protected for the lightweights and bots.

Once communities try it out, they will like it; and the general consensus will provide a 15 year growth engine for America as we re-purpose out asphalt roads to efficiency multipliers in the rage of 3 to 7.

The main benefits will come from robocars on the highways. This is where the high speed accidents occur, and thus the majority of fatalities, as well as where most of the traffic congestion is. Once the majority of cars on the highways are computer controlled, traffic accidents will be greatly reduced, and the resulting congestion reduced as well. Fewer cars slowing down to rubberneck, and fewer erratic drivers will also help to reduce congestion.

Your ideas about robocars on city streets and the resulting improvements to society are interesting and well thought out, but I think this is much farther down the road. By the time it becomes practical, many things will have changed which we simply cannot predict. In addition, I think there will be a great deal of resistance of people to completely giving up control of their vehicles.

Highway-only robocars, however, may be viewed as just an extension of the current cruise control, so people may be more willing to accept them. You could drive yourself onto the freeway and activate the computer control. You then relax or attend to other business while the car navigates through the freeway interchanges, and then lets you know when it's close to the exit that you need to take. You then take over control, exit the freeway, and continue to your destination. This is a much easier problem than dealing with intersections and city streets. And we're much closer to that reality now, with adaptive cruise control and lane sensing technology, so it's easy to see this happening in the near future. And it could also become mandatory for people wishing to talk on a cell phone while on the highway to put their car under computer control.

We are in a depression precisely because the economy cannot find a path that reduces the cost of suburban shopping. The fixed transportation cost of a grocery shopping trip is about $50 when the consumer pinches pennies to save his suburban home. The suburban home owner has elastic substitutes, for his commute, even in suburbia. But the home owner only has one method to pick up groceries, the automobile. So, when money is short, he uses other methods for his commute, his car sits in the driveway at $300/month in fixed costs and he uses it oly five times a month when gas prices are high. So we can see why Detroit is dead.

Right now, we are actually suffering this deepening depression because our local politicians will not allow us to automate home delivery. It is the essential constraint of our time, either automate suburban streets or abandon suburbia.

Having seen how much my parents lives closed down when they ceased to be able to drive, I am strongly hoping that robocars come along by the time I cease to be able to drive (maybe another 20 years, if I am lucky).

Also, I have several friends who cannot drive (epilepsy, seriously impaired vision) and have their lives significantly restricted by this. Robocars would give them a freedom the rest of us enjoy.

Finally, as someone who enjoys a beer or three, I would be very pleased not to have to have the "who is not drinking tonight" discussion. While I don't get drunk, I certainly go far beyond the safe level for driving (essentially, none) and an inexpensive robotaxi would be wonderful. (Yes, there are taxis here, but a manned taxi home can double the cost of the evening).

Where do retired boomers live and where to they go? Much of it is from gated communities to controlled private strip malls. These are controlled traffic situations, and we have automated traffic solutions for these today. Automated taxis are being deployed in airports; and factories have automated delivery around the factor campus.

Now, what is the public road between the strip mall and the gated community? Most of it is about a quarter mile of public roads. That is the constraint, how to deal with the bureaucracy on that quarter mile.


And how do you generate electricity? The efficiency of generation is about 60%, plus variable losses in transmission. Over 50% of electricity is generated by coal, so don't give me all this crap about "saving the planet".

Coal generated electricity is indeed a problem that must be solved. But using 1/10th the energy is still a win. Instead of 10 gallons gasoline it means the coal equivalent of half a gallon of gas and the NG equivalent of 1/5th of a gallon of gas.

You could use hydrogen generated from solar energy. They are already doing this in Europe.

Robotaxis are an utterly bad idea because of vandalism.

There are parts of the world where people would vandalize the vacant cars, but then most cities of the world are full of vacant cars sitting on streets. Those cars aren't covered in cameras and sensors and constantly wired into the network, and able to move away if somebody touches them, and they seem to suffer only a tolerable amount of vandalism in most places today.

I haven't seen anything in you robocar blog on the Intellidrive government/industry program. Did I miss it?

Is another name for the broad program showing up called "intelligent transportation systems." ITS is a more near-term project to create data and communications services related to driving, with things like road and traffic data, car-to-car communication, parking etc.

Nothing wrong with near term work, in fact it's essential and robocars will want to make use of any reliable ITS data they can get their hands on. In my articles on congestion and parking you'll see a lot of references to present and future ITS concepts.

However, it's also been one of my contentions that we want robocars to work without infrastructure changes. ITS data is great but it may be many years before you can depend on it, and that means the first robocars have to drive using their own resources at least some of the time. So you don't get to solve problems like that first. I've also written about the 802.11p protocol aimed at communication to cars from things like traffic lights and streets.

For car to car communications, you need to worry about whether you can trust the other car, at least if you use it for important decisions. That's complex and requires a PKI, and systems of certifying trust. Some information is just information though, and does not require trust. If a car ahead broadcasts about some ice or debris your action would be to be cautious and probably slow, just as you would with today's main mode of car to car communication -- brake lights.

The RoboCars are really the victory of science ie artificial intelligence and robotics. I also know my question may occur foolish if, but I need to know can the car will be able to take decision when something would be moving fastly above car say. something huge dropping above it. I know this is not checked by any individual driving the car but, i would be great if It can take decision when any action like this happens. if these module are included then I say its great and more inspiring.


Hi Brad,

Interesting stuff. Do you think it will make a difference (theoretically perhaps not) if the robocar's footprint will be smaller (or sleeker) than usual?

Hi Brad,

Interesting stuff. Do you think it will make a difference (theoretically perhaps not) if the robocar's footprint will be smaller (or sleeker) than usual?

I have an article on many possible engineering design changes on the site. One key reason is that the more robocar-for-hire mobility on demand there is, the more it makes economic sense to buy and hire unusual or specialty vehicles. In particular the one person vehicle, which is what you want for most trips, but which few will buy because that's all it does is one person trips. That works both ways. You might own a bigger car and hire a robot for your solo commute, or you might own the solo car and hire bigger cars when you have to take the family around.

The future of automated/autonomous personal transportation and freight delivery is neither a car nor a delivery truck and it is not the Google's driverless car either.

Why is anyone trying to figure out how to make a car or a truck drive themselves after they are designed and built to be driven? I suppose the reason is that we already have the vehicles and the roads; but, has anyone considered developing and implementing a fully automated/autonomous personal transportation and freight delivery system using vehicles no one has to drive from the start? I did and submitted a U.S. Patent Application for it.

The proposed transportation system consists of vehicles that move on steel rails on their own propulsion using electric motors and respond to voice or panel commands to drive itself to a physical address anywhere the tracks can take them. With the implementation of my transportation system proposal a dad or a mom will be able to place their kids in a fully automated/autonomous vehicle that will take them to school and that same vehicle can come back to take dad to work. At work he can send the vehicle back home so that his wife can do her errands. At the mall she can send the vehicle to a specialized parking facility for such vehicles and she will later be able to recall it with her cell phone. Back home she will have the groceries she purchased on the internet delivered to her from her favorite supermarket. Later that day grandma can send them a piece of pie she baked without ever having to leave her house.

There are no crossings along the tracks path and there's no need for track switches to route vehicles to its destination as each vehicle has a steering mechanism. Once the vehicles start moving there's no need for them to stop until they reach their destination. Location markers and electronic signals in the tracks along with sensors in the vehicles allows a computer on board each vehicle to use navigation software to determine the exact position of the vehicle at any time and program the fastest way to a destination. The information is relayed to computers at a master control that identifies each vehicle then handles and monitors vehicular flow along the tracks networks or trackways. As each vehicle get their power from the tracks assembly there's no need to recharge them. A power meter and a relay device in each vehicle communicating with a processing center allows for automatic electronic transactions so that each vehicle owner can be charged to their account for power consumption, tolls and vehicle registration.

Passengers and freight are transported inside a module that hangs from a propulsion dolly. Rubber bumpers attached at each end of the propulsion dollies allow the vehicles to travel bumper-to-bumper at a uniform constant speed during rush hour for optimal performance of the system. As the vehicles travel bumper-to-bumper at high speeds the system resembles a canning or bottling line in full operation. When the vehicles merge the system resembles a zipper being closed and as the vehicles diverge the system resembles a zipper being opened. The propulsion dolly motor will slow down or speed up controlled by a computer on board each vehicle to allow the vehicles to keep on rolling and merge without colliding with each other automatically.

Passengers and freight modules can be any size and take any shape as long as they fit within the tracks boundaries and are able to traverse the curved and inclined track sections. Vehicles are privately owned and passengers are expected to ride with the same comforts and amenities of a modern automobile. The set-up of rental and taxi business operations using such vehicles is also a possibility. Vehicles can have movable seats so passengers can adjust them to face the forward movement or look back as the vehicle moves along the tracks. As the passengers and freight modules hang from a propulsion dolly this allows the modules to swing out in curved track sections so as to diffuse the centrifugal force and to remain in a horizontal position when the dolly traverses inclined track sections resulting in a more comfortable ride for passengers.

The vehicles passengers module can travel close to the ground as a car does and over obstacles and pedestrians along elevated track sections. Some track sections are designated to leave and pickup passengers at home and institutional, commercial and public spaces. Vehicles moving along elevated track sections will ride a loop until a space is available to leave and pickup passengers and will then descend to pedestrian level to do so. An array of conventional signals and barriers are used to protect pedestrians from being hit by a moving vehicle as passengers move from or to their vehicles. Once passengers leave their vehicles these can be sent anywhere on their own to pickup and transport other passengers or to a designated parking space and then these can later be recalled using a cell phone. Specialized multi story mechanized parking buildings for such vehicles are foreseen. The vehicles freight modules can also travel close to the ground to allow for easier loading and unloading of the modules. Detachable cargo containers can also be used instead of freight modules. Tracks can go inside a building, around buildings attached to the buildings and from one building to another attached to bridges high above the ground. To get high into a building and to a higher or a lower track vehicles travel a spiral track section. When vehicles get inside an enclosed space they come out traversing across the same track section they got in.

Batteries on each vehicle will provide for emergency power backup. If a vehicle losses propulsion due to a malfunction it will be pushed at the dolly bumpers by other vehicles to the next emergency exit. In the event of an accident or structural failure of the tracks a master control can stop all vehicles at once and redirect traffic. Vehicles can also be stopped manually from the inside of a passengers module or by using an external emergency stop button on premises accessible to anyone as a safety measure while they move close to the ground such as when leaving or picking up passengers. Catwalks with stairs to ground level installed at a convenient distance one from the other allow passengers to leave their vehicles in an emergency situation when the passengers modules are high above the ground.

No other transportation system in use today can claim driverless door-to-door freight delivery but my proposal does. Same thing for personal transportation even if it is to a building floor several stories from the ground or from one building to another at any height. No need to go to a station then wait in line to get a PRT (Personal Rapid Transit) pod car. PRT is not a reliable nor an efficient personal transportation and freight delivery alternative to a car and a freight truck because such vehicles only go from one station to another as a collective transportation system does and the only similarity to a personal transportation system is that people can travel in a private vehicle. Another drawback of current PRT is that you could end up waiting in line for a long time until a vehicle is available to pick you up. Is there a personal transportation system with vehicles that can travel bumper-to-bumper at a uniform constant speed during rush hour for optimal performance of the system? My proposal has them and when they do the system resembles a canning or a bottling line in full operation. Prior art contraptions that resemble features of my proposal are not a practical proposition for a personal transportation and freight delivery system that allows people to go anywhere they want and allows delivery of freight anywhere along the tracks, their main drawback being the vehicles guideway configuration.

Accordingly it is the object of my proposal to provide a personal transportation and freight delivery system that: 1-Is easy to build, setup and operate as a fully automated transportation system using conventional automation methods and equipment. 2-Is a reliable, safe and efficient alternative to a car and a freight delivery truck that can really save lives and reduce traffic accidents. No Google driverless autonomous car can accomplish this as their developers claim as they still rely on cars moving on roads. 3-Allows people to go anywhere the tracks will take them using their own fully automated/autonomous vehicle no one has to drive. 4-Is a reliable, safe and efficient alternative to a delivery truck using fully automated/autonomous vehicles no one has to drive to deliver all sorts of goods and merchandise anywhere along the tracks. 5-Can transport a single passenger more efficiently than a car does as the passengers modules can be shaped ergonomically to transport only one passenger. 6-Can transport freight more efficiently than a delivery truck does as the freight modules and detachable cargo containers can be shaped in any form and size. 7-Uses less land than streets, highways and freeways construction does. 8-Adapts easily to the existing urban outline. 9-Contributes less environmental pollution than cars and trucks do. 10-May help reduce oil dependence. Google driverless cars developers suggest autonomous cars will be able to reduce oil dependence yet they still rely on cars moving on roads. 11-Allows children, older people and people with disabilities to provide their own personal transportation since no driving skills are needed to operate such vehicles. 12-Allows passengers to carry out other activities while they go from one place to another since there’s no need to drive such vehicles. 13-Have the least moving parts subject to wear and tear and most components are easily accessible for proper maintenance and repairs. 14-Allows vehicles to travel over obstacles including cars and pedestrians. 15-Allows vehicles to travel inside a building and into an office space or a living space several stories above ground. 16-Allows vehicles to travel from one building to another at any height from the ground. 17-Enables a more comfortable ride for passengers than a car does in curved and inclined path stretches.

Considering that the proposed transportation system should have a significant influence in our daily lives and will allow for innovative changes in the architecture and design of our cities it is reasonable to expect that the implementation of a transportation system such as this could transform our way of life and the urban landscape in the XXI Century as the automobile did in the XX Century.

Thanks, AZ

I am far from convinced that robo cars will maintain the current safety standards which we currently have in place. Today in the middle of a bridge span, dry wall on the roof of a panel van began to lift off and fly toward traffic behind the van. There is no way a robo car could have handled this situation without causing further danger to the occupants or other vehicles around the robocar. For instance, the robo car would not have known a strong cross wind would carry the dry wall off the side of the bridge within 30 feet of lift off. The robo car would not have known the object was dry wall in the first place. Who knows what the "programmer" had coded into the software for this case. Clearly a lot more needs to be done and disclosed before we should endanger ourselves by allowing robo cars on the road.

It is also clear that robo cars are not the Utopian end all goal. In order to make use of a robo car safe, our rights to travel freely will most likely be diminished. The robo car's software can not account for all possible circumstances where a human brain will have had 5 solutions to the problem within 1/2 a second. There will be a movement to reduce influencing factors. This means people will have to have their rights taken away to make a robo car more safe.

This is not a matter of technology readiness, it is a matter personal freedom and our rights to travel anywhere freely and safely. A robo car is simply not up to that task.

I just discovered your blog and thesis and I love it. In the section called "The Curse of the Human Driver" I have discovered a typo. the sentence "While these death numbers are the most compelling argument for robocars, we seem to have become so innure to them that it may be the gasoline-saving consequences that you will see" should be "While these death numbers are the most compelling argument for robocars, we seem to have become so innured to them that it may be the gasoline-saving consequences that you will see"

This is not a critcism. I think your blog is very useful.

I would think that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) are a natural fit for robocars as not only do they provide the extra range (400 miles for a Hyundai ix35) but have the power to run the computers.

Just discovered your Robocars place and I find the information very interesting.
Will be handing references to clients and partners, as it paints a very accurace portait of the landscape (and will save us a lot of talk).

Now, about your article "Cameras or Lasers?" (

A new generation of low-resolution "flash-type" LIDARs are now coming out. They solve 5 out of the 7 disadvantages of LIDAR identified in your article:
- Expensive? Not!
- No Moving Parts
- High refresh rate
- Impervious to rain or snow (because of the introduction of “multiple return” – “Full waveform analysis” technology)
- Mounted inside – Behind windshield

Resolution and range are creeping upwards.

While they are not sufficient for fully automated driving.
LIDAR now does provide an affordable, reliable and safe solution for autonomous braking and automated cruise control applications.
Camera still has its place as a complement in other less safety-critical applications (lane keeping assist and sign recognition being examples).

Now, here is the shameless plug:
Aerostar is one of the players to watch in this area:
The advanced signal processing in Aerostar's sensors is a good example of what the next generation holds, after Continental's SRL1, which already has wide market acceptance and is seen on a number of car brands.
(For fairness sake:

This field is young enough that contributions from up and coming companies are not spam. Tell me more, here or by e-mail about your LIDAR. Units like the conti product are aimed at shorter range detection (like 10m.) A useful robocar LIDAR for higher speeds needs to see other cars to 100m, and smaller things at 50 to 75m. Well, actually, it has to see even further than that, because a highway speeds you need more like 200m for cars and deer or anything stopped in the Z direction. Radar is OK for things moving in the Z direction as it sees just fine that far, though with low resolution.

So tell us about these new generation sensors. What will be the refresh rate? What will be the range?

Behind the windshield is possible for all LIDARs but the 30% attenuation of most windshields up there is squared when the light comes back, and that means less range when staying within eye-safe limits. You can boost the power when it goes out, but coming back you still suffer.

is good but man uses a bigger font mah eyes burn

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