Robotic Snowplow


I've added a new concept to the notes section -- the Robo Snow Plow. In the article I describe the value of plows that can patrol the roads frequently without need for staff. Since you don't want to delay for recharging, these might be fuel-tank powered.

However, another interesting concept is offered, namely the repurposing of idle vehicles as temporary plows. The call would go out, and idle vehicles would travel to a depot where a plow or snowblower would be placed on them. Then they would go out and plow and clear light covers of snow. When done, or when needed shortly by their owner, they would return to a depot and drop off the plow unit.

Ordinary cars would be light and not able to plow heavy snow, but there are so many idle cars that you could get to all the streets before things got too heavy. If you didn't, you would need to assign heavier vehicles and real plows to those areas. And everybody's driveways would be kept clear by robot snow blowers too. Cars on the roads would give real-time reports of where snow is falling and how thick it's getting. Cities might be able to clear all their streets, sidewalks and driveways without needing extra vehicles.


Caltrans has a self-guiding snowplow, developed by California PATH, that it uses to clear mountain roads where the snow is often deep enough that the road is impossible to make out and driving off the road may mean plummeting thousands of feet down a mountainside. The PATH snowplow is huge -- it has a 6000 HP motor and wheels taller than me -- so for safety it has an operator on board even when running automatically. There's a good chance it's the world's largest automated vehicle.

Generally I am "against" the idea of automated vehicles following magnets buried in the road. I am not against it in that I think it's a good way to do guidance. I simply think it's a distraction from the real problem, which is to get a system that works on existing roads without having to upgrade them. Otherwise you build a system where the robocars, like transit, can only go on specially prepared tracks. Even if it becomes cheap to embed magnets in all the roads (with a machine that essentially has a giant punch) you want the complete flexibility humans have to change lanes, move around obstructions etc. You don't get that if you have to follow a track.

But snowplows are an interesting problem because all the visual cues go away and not even humans can see where the road is reliably, at least on these mountain roads. The more common technique is to have tall posts on the snow roads, but magnets can work as well, perhaps better.

It may also be possible to have localized radio transmitters that allow centimeter-accurate positioning to supplement GPS. This, combined with inertial guidance and the odometer, can give highly reliable positioning.

A plow however also has to identify obstacles in the road, and plow around them, and possibly call for a tow-truck on them. LIDAR is good at seeing bumps in the snow indicating something is buried, which could allow the plow to send out probes to find out what it is, and if it's something to plow around.

One of my goals, however, with the concept of adapting idle vehicles to use as plows is to never let the snow get very deep. With so many vehicles available, you can make sure it's never so bad you can't see the shape of the road.

And frankly, not just the idle vehicles. No reason that vehicles taking people on trips can't also be plowing, if there was time for them to fetch a plow-head at the depot. The limiting factor is the number of plow-heads available. Note that for light snow, plow-heads might be something cheap and light; not necessarily a giant scoop of heavy steel. More like a large version of the snow shovel that everybody already owns.

And let me add that I am of two minds in another way on magnetic guidance. While I think it is a dead end, it may have a role in enabling what I call the whistlecar. My thought is that we could deploy whistlecars well in advance of people-carrying passenger robocars. To do that we would need them to be able to move at reasonable speed, but only along roads that have been specially prepared for them -- perhaps with magnets though more probably with optical markings.

Then the whistlecars, when they get to the arterial path closest to their real destination, must be able to leave the marked path and travel a short distance on any ordinary road. To do this safely, they would do it more slowly than passengers would tolerate. Then the car is delivered to the summoner, who drives it anywhere within a modest distance of the whistlecar arteries.

I grew up in snow country. The snowblower operator lost his cookies one day while clearing next door. It seems a kid had built his igloo out onto the street.
Remote vehicles working in slippery conditions, impaired visibility and 'lost' vehicles and people. Scary thought.
4x4 Quads can be had with covers for operator protection and plows - though I think blowers are better for wet and heavy clearing. Besides, plowed snow has a tendency to build up too high to handle. Throwers can deal with that better.

Remember the plan is for using this more in very light snow, and doing it more frequently, so little can be buried in the snow. And remember that because robocars use LIDAR, they would see bumps in the snow as well as they would see objects on the road. And then pause and ask for a human to look at the HD video feeds and resolve anything they can't resolve.

A lot of magnets are already installed in roads in the form of loop detectors at intersections. While these loops are used for detection, not annunciation, no hardware changes would be necessary to repurpose them. So at least in some cases, magnetic marking of intersections would be cheap. On the general theme of repurposing existing hardware, it would seem that WiFi antennas and cell towers could periodically give a squawk that cheap sensors could detect. Another possibility with LED-equipped street and traffic lights is send a high-frequency identifier. ("Visible light communication" via HF-modulated LEDs is a hot trend for future indoor networking applications, but let me stop before I wander too far off-topic.)

As far as just marking roads, I wonder how much it would cost just to disperse some magnetic material, say iron oxide powder, in asphalt? Then whenever roads were repaved, the magnetic marking would be refreshed. This crude kind of marking wouldn't be sufficient to keep robocars in the center of a lane, but it should good enough to keep snowplows mostly on the road, especially if magnetic sensors were mounted on the sides to read as widely as possible. I used to work on read/write heads for disk drives, so the idea of reusing track-following methods amuses me tremendously.

Cell towers and some TV stations already give out such signals, and there are variants of GPS with very high accuracy.

Robocars can see lane markers just fine already, so no magnets are needed. The only question is in the snow, when even humans can't see the lane markers, but still work it out OK. They can see the sides of the road.

What a naive utopian fantasy!

How do you stop criminals from stealing robo-plows for
re-sale, either whole or broken down for scrap metal?
What about petty thieves who will just take the fuel? Or
vandals who vent their destructive urges on them? What
about liability issues when the robo-plows mistakenly damage
property, or injure someone?

And you want to compound the problems by using private
vehicles for robo-plowing?

What proof can you offer against design errors and human

I can guarantee two things: robo-plows will have failures,
some of which will be unforseen. And people will try to
game the system for their own advantage.

That people would steal snowplows. They sit in parking lots too, they don't get stolen and they are not even moving. Robocars will of course have cameras everywhere (they need it to drive) and if threatened, your crime will be on live video, and the police (and police robots, which won't shoot you but will block you) will know exactly where in real time.

There will be design errors and malfeasance of course. But tech like this will not be deployed until the level of it is well below the level with human drivers. Of course people will try to game things, they try to game everything.

Oh my god, you're right! Why there are millions of cars and
trucks left unattended in this country without the keys in the
ignition and none are EVER stolen!

And liquor stores and convenience stores have surveillance
cameras and they NEVER get robbed! Great Britain has literally
millions of street cameras and they've eliminated crime!

Yeah, right.

You think cameras on robo-plows is going to stop crime? Just
what do you think the police response time is going to be in the
middle of snow storm? And if the criminals are wearing ski masks
they won't even look out of place on the streets!

When I was a child, snow plows were a favorite target for our
snowballs, and they of course had human operators which detered
us not a bit. I can only imagine what kids would do to robo-plows.

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