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Moonshots, laws, Tesla and other recent robocar news


Here's a roundup of various recent news items on robocars. There are now a few locations, such as DriverlessCarHQ and the LinkedIn self-driving car group which feature very extensive listing of news items related to robocars. Robocars are now getting popular enough that there are articles every day, but only a few of them contain actual real news for readers of this site or others up on the technology.


An offhand remark from Elon Musk reveals he is interested in an "autopilot" some day for Tesla models, and has spoken to Google about it. Google declined comment. Musk says he wants a cheaper, camera based system, a surprising mistake for him. (Cameras are indeed much cheaper but not yet up to the task. LIDARs are super expensive but Musk's mistake is in not remembering that electronics technology that's expensive in early, small volume models does not stay expensive.)

The Tesla Model S is not a good car to make into a robocar though -- it's super fun to drive, and that's part of why you pay so much money for it. Nothing wrong with fun to drive cars, but you should automate the boring car and leave the fun car on manual, at least for now.

Shuttles driven by maps

The Cybergo made by French company Induct is a low speed robotic shuttle for campus use. Particularly interesting is that it drives using a laser and mapping for localization -- a similar fashion to the Google car and other DARPA challenge cars. It is able to mingle with pedestrians by virtue of just going slow enough to be able to stop in time and be safe.

More Laws

More states are debating robocar laws. This wiki at Stanford has a good summary of existing actions. Notable is that Oregon pulled back on their law, and New York has just drafter theirs. Massachusetts is also working on one.

The Oregon pullback is notable because one of the cited reasons was the desire to study V2V. While I have written recently on issues with V2V this moves it out of the "mostly harmless" category. V2V efforts will be useful for robocars, but not for decades, and I strongly believe it would be extreme folly to allow V2V issues to affect the progress of robocars.

Unlike Nevada's law, many of the other state laws do not cover unmanned operation. While the reasons for this are obvious, because it's harder to understand unmanned operation in the context of existing law, we should not forget that unmanned operation is where most of the real benefits of robocars accrue -- self-delivery, mobility on demand, parking, self-refueling, service to the elderly and disabled and much more. Not that manned operation is a slouch, offering the reduced accidents and recovery of productive time as benefits.

California's DMV recently held hearings in Sacramento as part of their process of writing the regulations required by the California bill, passed in 2012. The regulations need to be done by 2015 but may be done sooner. The US DOT also solicited comments last month.

Google hits 500,000

I noted earlier that Google announced it had hit 500,000 miles of autonomous operation on ordinary streets. Even more notable was chief engineer Chris Urmson's report of over 90,000 miles without a safety-critical incident. (This is an incident where the safety drivers had to take over where the vehicle would have probably caused an accident.) That's not as good as a human yet -- humans have an accident about ever 250,000 miles in the USA, but getting much closer. 500,000 miles, by the way, is more than the distance to the moon and back -- Google [X] always talks about moonshots -- and more than many people will drive in their lifetimes.

Cadillac & Car Companies

Cadillac has pushed back the supposedly 2015 delivery for their "super cruise" product. It now will come later in the decade. Car maker conservatism is to be expected, but other makers are pushing their dates forward. The Mercedes 2014 S Class is still on track to be first.

BMW has announced a partnership with Continental, the major auto parts supplier. Continental has been pushing their cruising car for a while -- I've ridden in it -- but BMW has its own impressive effort in ConnectedDrive Connect. Today, it is quite common for systems branded by a car maker to actually be made entirely by a supplier, who gives up the branding and limelight for money. It will be interesting to see how this collaboration works. They will be testing on the autobahn.

Car company date forecasts continue to be long term, with dates in the range of 2025 for full autonomy as cited by BMW.

Bosch, another top supplier, has been making its own announcements of advanced sensors and other tools.

Princeton slide deck

Many more papers and reports on robocars are being written. This slide deck from Princeton PAVE's Kornhauser is notable for providing a number of worthwhile statistics on road use and related issues.

Fake Google Car in New York

A crew created a fake Google car and drove it around NYC. What's impressive is how many people thought they were seeing the real thing.


While there have been scores of articles, I will point to my friend Virginia Postrel's Bloomberg article on Silicon Valley and robocars since I was her prime source -- so it must be good. :-)

A nice trick from Daimler which I liked -- a system to be kind to pedestrians as they walk down the street near parked robocars that sense them. Their plan is to light the way for these pedestrians as a favour.

Whole magazine issue

The military magazine Mission Critical has devoted an entire issue to civilian robocars which includes an article on insurance by Guy Fraker (formerly of State Farm) and a few other items of interest.

More news to come. I have also updated my Robocar Teams page with more details on teams around the world building robocars.


We do know that human drivers can operate cars without LIDAR, just visual light, so we can infer that all of the information that should be needed for a computer to drive a car is present as visible light. (Perhaps there are exceptions in fog, but I'm not sure if LIDAR solves that problem anyway.)

The typical Google LIDAR setup seems to have a large object added to the roof, which I suspect isn't good for drag coefficient. In most contexts, you seem far more energy efficiency sensitive than most people, which leaves me wondering why you're ignoring it when it comes to LIDAR (or am I misunderstanding how the LIDAR sensors are mounted?).

If light penetrates glass and a LIDAR sensor doesn't, being able to put the cameras behind the existing glass might be an advantage.

Are you of the opinion that people who cannot drive due to epilepsy, blindness, etc should not be allowed to ride solo in a Model S once autopilot technology becomes available ``because it's fun to drive'', and that such people should be forced to choose a different model of car?

I would presume almost nothing about the LIDARs of the future from the Velodyne of today. It's just one design, hand-made in small volumes. It will become cheap, and aerodynamic, and smaller. LIDAR does go through glass but today's car windshields have tinting, particularly at the top, so it's better to be outside, or have a non-tinted windshield if inside, but outside is easier and not that hard.

Yes, humans can drive with just visual light. However, the full problem of computer vision is far from solved, so machines are not as good with a visual view as people. But the world does not have to wait for that. LIDAR generally sees better, because it is 3-D and independent of external lighting. So why wait? If computer vision gets good enough, people will switch to it.

Not sure what you mean about the disabled. If you want to buy a model S, go ahead, but it's a huge waste of money to buy a $100,000 car which costs so much in part because it is so fun to drive, if you have no intention of driving it. If you just want a comfortable and efficient car there are many such cars costing less than half as much.

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