The Robocar Babysitter and revolutions in child-watching

Watching and managing children is one of the major occupations of the human race. A true robot babysitter is still some time in the future, and getting robocars to the level that we will trust them as safe to carry children is also somewhat in the future, but it will still happen much sooner.

Today I want to explore the implications of a robocar that is ready to safely carry children of certain age ranges. This may be far away because people are of course highly protective of their children. They might trust a friend to drive a child, even though human driving records are poor, because the driver is putting her life on the line just as much as the child's, while the robot is just programmed to be safe, with no specific self-interest.

A child's robocar can be designed to higher safety standards than an adult's, with airbags in all directions, crumple zones designed for a single occupant in the center and the child in a 5-point seatbelt. As you know, with today's modern safety systems, racecar drivers routinely walk away from crashes at 150mph. Making a car that won't hurt the child in a 40mph crash is certainly doable, though not without expense. A robocar's ability to anticipate an accident might even allow it to swivel the seat around so that the child's back is to the accident, something even better than an airbag.

The big issue is supervision of smaller children. It's hard to say what age ranges of children people might want to send via robocar. In some ways infants are easiest, as you just strap them in and they don't do much. All small children today are strapped in solidly, and younger ones are in a rear facing seat where they don't even see the parent. (This is now recommended as safest up to age 4 but few parents do that.) Children need some supervision, though real problems for a strapped in child are rare. Of course, beyond a certain age, the children will be fully capable of riding with minimal supervision, and by 10-12, no direct supervision (but ability to call upon an adult at any time.)

Solving these problems will be a priority because the benefits are huge. From the parent's point of view, it will mean not having to be a taxi for their children on trips to school and certain events. It also means the ability to send the child easily to schools or daycares fairly distant from the home without a bus. For the child it means a huge increase in mobility, and the ability to have friends from all over a city and meet and socialize with them almost as easily as neighbours, including being able to play with friends from a distant school. For parents who are apart -- be it permanently or just for the day, it means an ability to easily send a child from one parent to another. It also means an easy ability to send a child around town to friends and family who can watch the child, or to participate in circles of friends who share babysitting duties.

It also means the potential for an "instant babysitter." A parent, traveling with a child around town, or perhaps at home with the child, might find an urgent need to do something without the child. That parent could quickly call for a child robocar to take the child in minutes to the other parent or other family or friends who will then supervise the child on short notice. Children might find a robocar trip to grandma's house a frequent event, if grandma lives within a modest robocar distance. When a daycare closes, they might normally send the child to the parents but could also send to other guardians temporarily if the parents are not immediately unavailable. (Compare this with the current situation where they fine the parents very large amounts if they are not on time to pick up the child.)

To address all this, a satisfactory solution to supervising the child during the robocar trip is needed. If such trips are short, perhaps 10 to 15 minutes, many children will require no supervision, or may be adequately handled by being able to shout out and speak to the parent or relative on the phone at any time. For greater supervision, however, a videophone connection is possible. In certain age ranges, the videophone call would be immediate. If daddy is sending the child somewhere (perhaps to mommy) a 2-way video call could be set up immediately with mommy, so that she watches and talks to the child as he comes to her. This is actually more supervision than most children get in the back of a car, with the exception that you can't reach back or stop and attend physically to the child. If the trip is very short, that should not be an issue.

Beyond a certain age, the children will have no interest in talking with mommy. They would much rather have their favourite videos and games up on the screen. Mommy can still be watching them, though.

What if the child has a physical need which needs urgent attention? To provide for this, one can imagine a network of approved and bonded caregivers scattered around the city. They would register their availability and location through their cell phones. Some would be in their homes, some would be walking about. A typical trip would be plotted so it never gets very far from such a caregiver. Perhaps for some parents, if such a route can't be plotted, they would decide to do something else with the child, or pay more to access caregivers who only work on rarer cases for more money. The caregivers might not actually be paid, they might just be part of a network -- including the parents -- of people who trust and help each other.

If the parent watching or speaking to a child in a robocar identified a physical need that could not wait until the destination, they would just command the car to go to the nearest trusted caregiver. If the need is disciplinary, it probably can wait, but if not, there would be caregivers prepared and ready for that.

If the need is an urgent medical problem, a robocar would be a great place to be, as the robocar would take the child to the nearest medical care. The robocar might be able to ask the city and other cars to clear a path for it, making it a temporary ambulance. It might not be a hospital which is closest. In the future, medical professionals of all types might report their locations, even when off duty, so that they can be called upon to deal with urgent medical problems which they go to or which are brought to them by robocar. Indeed, such a service makes sense for everybody, not just for children.

At a certain age, children will get quite unruly. While one could design belts that can't be undone without authorization from an adult, it is unclear if this is a safe or good idea, so the children will probable figure out how to unbelt themselves. When in a tantrum, they will attempt to run around and shake the robocar, even to tip it. They must be designed to resist that. If they are being sent somewhere for disciplinary purposes, they may want to get out of the robocar. As an example, consider a child out with her father. She gets unruly, and after many warnings, the father makes good on the threat and sends the kid back home to the mother. It's an interesting question whether the best design is to have a car that, like the back of a police cruiser, the kid can't get out of unless there is some emergency, or to just accept that the kid can get out, just as they can from the back of a car stopped at a light today if there are not child door locks. More thinking needs to be done on this issue.

Robocars may revolutionize the economies of babysitting. Today, babysitting is commonly done at the home by local teens (or by relatives) and requires some pre-arrangement. Daycare, on the other hand, is done in groups with specific planned hours. Robocars might allow the pooling of baby-sitting, effectively an "evening daycare" where an adult, or an adult with teens, might supervise a larger number of like-age children while their parents go out for the night. This could be a business, or something done ad-hoc among groups of friends or relatives -- each sharing the duty of watching in a rotation.

Here the parents would just arrange for their child to stay in such a group, or perhaps even be able to arrange it ad-hoc, with any group within a 15 minute robocar trip. They would send off the kids to the evening daycare, and receive notice of their safe arrival as well as the ability to check in by video at any time. When they are ready to go home, the kids would be put back in the robocar and arrive home a minute after the parents. Robocars could also allow today's traditional teen-age babysitters, who do not have cars, to serve a much wider area -- typically friends of their parents who live outside the teen's neighbourhood.

Many of you may be wondering about the issue of kidnapping. Parents have become so afraid of kidnapping that they rarely let their children out, even at more mature ages. This is the case even though crime statistics show the crime rates, including stranger kidnapping and molestations, are actually lower than they were when our generation was allowed to roam the neighbourhood freely on foot or bicycle. The vast majority of kidnappings -- 99.9% -- are by persons known to the child, mainly the other parent in a custody battle. A child's robocar would not open up and allow access to the child to somebody unauthorized, though you can't prevent a well equipped person with something like a truck from surrounding or disabling a robocar in order to steal the whole car, or cut into it with tools. My personal view is that the risk of this is quite low, and this is beyond the capability of most molesters and even most estranged parents. In addition all of this would need to be done on-camera to an internet-connected robocar, so it would be hard to do anonymously, and an alarm pushed by the child or a watching parent could bring help quickly, including tele-operated emergency service robots located so as to reach any location in a couple of minutes.

In a few instances, parents will forget to revoke the parental permissions of an estranged spouse, and so that spouse might well be able to redirect a robocar to make it be the agent of the kidnapping. I doubt it will take too many stories of this before people avoid making this mistake.

Still, due to the risks, some parents will not want to send their children, at least in some age ranges, alone in a robocar. Others will have different thresholds about how long a trip they are willing to send their child on, or how far the child can get from trusted caregivers (or even close friends and family) on a trip. I expect other parents to embrace the robocars as a means of getting more of their lives back while still allowing full mobility for their children.

Of course, as I have also written, robocars will change family life by altering the character of family road trips. Unlike today's "parents in the front, kids in the back" car trips, a robocar family trip will be a pod with couches that face each other, allowing for quality family time. Or the seats may reconfigure for family video time. The children may resist this, preferring to absorb themselves in their games or social networking with friends over the computer, as they already do in the home, but the robocars will make face to face family interaction an inviting option.

I've also written about sleeper robocars, which may be used for overnight trips to distant vacation homes, and robo-RVs, which transport a whole house, in components, to a new location for family trips.



Some of these ideas are great, like the auto ambulance, and even works for *every* robocar.

I think the issues with unsupervised children needing help, throwing a tantrum, or attempting to escape are huge. In other words, I might use it to drive my 10 year old child to soccer practice three miles away, but would never lock my angry teenager in the car to send him to his mother across the city.

Moreover, as a society, I don't think we should delegate parenting to a car or other people who happen to be nearby.

Although, I don't want you to stop dreaming of these ideas,

The idea of the trusted parties along the path is not to use them as sitters, but as one-time short-term people to deal with an incident that needs physical hands on the scene. Mainly so that people know that "if something happens, there is somebody bonded I can count on to help." The parent would not be "absent" from the encounter, rather the parent would be present by phone or videophone, and directing the care-giver on what needs to be done.

A physically rebellious child who has to be physically stopped is indeed an issue. It may well be that some children can't be sent off in a robot, or at least not when in certain moods. Other children are emotionally quite capable of it. We can trust them to run off at the mall and come back to meet us at a meeting point and so on.

It may be that use of a robocar to send the child to the other parent when the child is disobeying may be harder to work out, as you say.

With an extra time horizon, the caregivers need not be strangers, but actual friends and relatives who live along the route, if the route is not too long. If your tolerance is, "Within 3 minutes, the child can be at a friend's house" that might be doable on many routes depending on the distribution of friends.

I think the reality is that the need for a diversion of a car will be very rare. Kids will be trained on the consequences of expensive disobedience, and parents will make sure they have gone to the bathroom. And be watching them. You may think having some parent or relative watching the kid is a burden, but it's nothing compared to the burden of having to take the kid home yourself, and it can often be done by somebody who is at a computer or TV anyway, which includes grandmas and uncles anywhere in the world.

Why swivel the seat at all? If the robocar is driving, why not have seats always face the back, even for adults? It seems clearly safer.

There might be other potential benefits to this too. Perhaps if the accepted norm in a robocar is to face the back, then passengers will be less focused on the driving of the car, and thus less nervous about letting a robot drive.

I wonder if a taxi company could introduce robocars by introducing rear-facing seats into cars with human drivers, with the driving compartment closed off so that the passengers can't tell whether a human or robot is driving the car. Then they'd gradually introduce robot driving: passengers would know that some fraction of rides are robot-driven, but wouldn't find out until after they arrived and got a discount because it was robot-driven. The taxi company would advertise its numbers: for a few months 5% of the rides would be robot-driven, with X accidents by humans and Y accidents by robots, then 10%, then 25%, and so on. Maybe this would help people get used to the idea.

First of all, there is a fairly large subset of people who don't like facing back. You will see it on the planes these days where they now have rear racing biz class seats -- the front facing ones are taken first, even though the rear facers are safer in a crash.

And of course with 2 or more people, not all will face the same way.

But a robocar designed for a strapped in child would just be a single seat in middle, facing the screen normally. However, if an accident is coming that can't be avoided, but can be predicted with half a second advance warning, the seat could be turned for maximum safety (which probably means back to the impact.) This is easiest on a seat for a single-child vehicle, because the child doesn't have dangling legs, and doesn't weigh so much so it doesn't require a large motor to spin the child.

However, there is merit for swivel in ordinary use as well. If the car is going to make a sharp turn, a seat could swivel so that the force vectors are always up-down and against the back of the seat, never side to side, and perhaps even never forwards, though that requires a lot of spinning people around which would defeat the purpose. (For example, when stopping at a stop light, you could stop facing backwards, then slowly turn around and accelerate facing forwards. However, spinning you for just the duration of a short stop makes no sense.)

In theory, it would be possible to make a passenger compartment that can be turned through many degrees of freedom (and with electromagnetic suspension) so that it doesn't move at all to bumps on the road, and all planned turns, accelerations and decelerations provide only downward (or downward and back) force from the viewpoint of the passenger. Ie. just slow periods of increased weight. At least I think it is, need to do some more thinking on it. It may be the case that you could then opaque the windows and not get motion sickness from the spinning world outside.

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