Robocars

The future of computer-driven cars and deliverbots

Notes from Robodevelopers conference

I gave a few visits to the RoboDeveloper's conference the past few days. It was a modest sized affair, one of the early attempts to make a commercial robot development conference (it's been more common to be academic in the past.) The show floor was modest, with just 3 short aisles, and the program modest as well, but Robocars were an expanding theme.

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Robocars vs. PRT

Readers of this blog will know I used to talk a bit about Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) but have switched to a belief that it is now likely that robocars might fulfill the PRT vision before actual PRT can. To understand that, it is necessary to explore just why PRT has never really come about, in spite of being promoted, and possible for almost 40 years.

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A Week of Robocars

This special chapter in my series of essays on Robocars describes a fictional week in the Robocar world, with many created examples of how people might use Robocars and how their lives might change.

If you haven't been following my essay on Robocars, this may be a good alternate entry to it. In a succinct way, it plays out many of the technologies I think are possible, more about the what than the how and why.

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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.

Robodelivery and high-end, low-usage equipment rental (and NPR interview)

Earlier on, I identified robot delivery vehicles as one of the steps on the roadmap to robot cars. In fact, these are officially what the DARPA grand challenges really seek, since the military wants robots that can move things through danger zones without putting soldiers at risk.

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Predictive suspension

I'm not the first to think of this idea, but in my series of essays on self driving cars I thought it would be worth discussing some ideas on suspension.

Driven cars need to have a modestly tight suspension. The driver needs to feel the road. An AI driven car doesn't need that, so the suspension can be tuned for the maximum comfort of the passengers. You can start bu just making it much softer than a driver would like, but you can go further.

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More automatic valet parking and self-driving tow vehicles.

I want to enhance two other ideas I have talked about. The first was the early adoption of self-driving cars for parking. As I noted, long before we will accept these cars on the road we'll be willing to accept automatic parking technology in specially equipped parking lots that lets us get something that's effectively valet parking.

I also wrote about teleoperation of drive-by-wire cars for valet parking as a way to get this even earlier.

Valet parking has a lot of advantages. (I often joke, "I want to be a Valet. They get all the best parking spots" when I see a Valet Parking Only sign.) We've given up to 60% of our real estate to cars, a lot of that to parking. It's not just denser, though. It can make a lot of sense at transportation hubs like airports, where people are carrying things and want to drive right up close with their car and walk right in. This is particularly valuable in my concept of the minimalist airport, where you just drive your car up to the fence at the back of the airport and walk through a security gate at the fence right onto your plane, leaving a valet to move your car somewhere, since you can't keep it at the gate.

But valet parking breaks down if you have to move the cars very far, because the longer it takes to do this, the fewer cars you can handle per valet, and if the flow is imbalanced, you also have to get valets back quickly even if there isn't another car that needs to come back. Valet parking works best of all when you can predict the need for your car a few minutes in advance and signal it from your cell phone. (I stayed at a hotel once with nothing but valet parking. The rooms were far enough from the door, however, that if you called from your room phone, your car was often there when you got to the lobby.)

So I'm now imagining that as cars get more and more drive-by-wire features, that a standardized data connection be created (like a trailer hitch brake connection, but even more standard) so that it's possible to plug in a "valet unit." This means the cars would not have any extra costs, but the parking lots would be able to plug in units to assist in the automated moving of the cars.

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Is robot delivery on the roadmap for self-driving cars?

Last week I talked briefly about self-driving delivery vehicles. I've become interested in what I'll call the "roadmap" (pun intended) for the adoption of self-driving cars. Just how do we get there from here, taking the technology as a given? I've seen and thought of many proposals, and been ignoring the one that should stare us in the face -- delivery. I say that because this is the application the DARPA grand challenge is actually aimed at. They want to move cargo without risks to soldiers. We mostly think of that as a path to the tech that will move people, but it may be the pathway.

Robot delivery vehicles have one giant advantage. They don't have to be designed for passenger safety, and you don't have to worry about that when trying to convince people to let them on the road. They also don't care nearly as much about how fast they get there. Instead what we care about is whether they might hit people, cars or things, or get in the way of cars. If they hit things or hurt their cargo, that's usually just an insurance matter. In fact, in most cases even if they hit cars, or cars hit them, that will just be an insurance matter.

A non-military cargo robot can be light and simple. It doesn't need crumple zones or airbags. It might look more like a small electric trike, on bicycle wheels. (Indeed, the Blue Team has put a focus on making it work on 2 wheels, which could be even better.) It would be electric (able to drive itself to charging stations as needed) and mechanically, very cheap.

The first step will be to convince people they can't hit pedestrians. To do that, the creators will need to make an urban test track and fill it with swarms of the robots, and demonstrate that they can walk out into the swarm with no danger. Indeed, like a school of fish, it should be close to impossible to touch one even if you try. Likewise, skeptics should be able to get onto bicycles, motorcycles, cars and hummers and drive right through the schools of robots, unable to hit one if they try. After doing that for half an hour and getting tired, doubters will be ready to accept them on the roads.

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