The future of computer-driven cars and deliverbots
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.
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.
Yesterday I wrote about predictive suspension, to look ahead for bumps on the road and ready the suspension to compensate. There should be more we can learn by looking at the surface of the road ahead, or perhaps touching it, or perhaps getting telemetry from other cars.
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.
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.
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.
I've been writing a lot about self-driving cars which have automatic accident avoidance and how they will change our cities. I was recently talking again with Robin Chase, whose new company, goloco attempts to set people up for ad-hoc carpools and got into the issues again. She believes we should use more transit in cities and there's a lot of merit to that case.
However, in the wealthy USA, we don't, outside of New York City. We love our cars, and we can afford their much higher cost, so they still dominate, and even in New York many people of means rely strictly on taxis and car services.
Transit is, at first glance, more energy efficient. When it shares right of way with cars it reduces congestion. Private right of way transit also reduces congestion but only when you don't consider the cost of the private right-of-way, where the balance is harder to decide. (The land only has a many-person vehicle on it a small fraction of the time compared to 1-3 passenger vehicles almost all the time on ordinary roads.)
However, my new realization is that transit may not be as energy efficient as we hope. During rush hour, packed transit vehicles are very efficient, especially if they have regenerative braking. But outside those hours it can be quite wasteful to have a large bus or train with minimal ridership. However, in order to give transit users flexibility, good service outside of rush-hour is important.
If you've been following things, you know that after the great success of the first Darpa Grand Challenge, a new Grand Challenge has been proposed, this time for urban driving. The cars will have to navigate a city with other cars on the road. (I'm going to presume demolition derby style vehicles and speeds.) This time DARPA is providing some funding, though it was impressive how last time the modest (by military standards) $2M prize attained what would have been science fiction just years ago.
There already are some drive-by-wire cars being sold, including a few (in Japan) that can parallel park themselves. And while I fear that anti-terrorist worries may stand in the way of self-driving and automatic cars, one early application, before we can get full self-driving, would be tele-operated cars, the the remote driver in an inexpensive place, like Mexico.
Now I don't know if the world is ready, safety-wise for a remote chauffeur in a car driving down a public street, where it could hit another car or pedestrian, even if the video was very high-res and the latency quite low. But parking is another story. I think a remote driver could readily park a car in a valet lot kept clear of pedestrians. In fact, because you can drive very slowly to do this, one can even tolerate longer latencies, perhaps all the way to India. The remote operator might actually have a better view for parking, with small low-res cameras mounted right at the bumpers for a view the seated driver can't have. They can also have automatic assists (already found in some cars) to warn about near approach to other cars.
The win of valet parking is large -- I think at least half the space in a typical parking lot is taken up with lanes and inter-car spacing. In addition, a human-free garage can have some floors only 5' high for the regular cars, or use those jacks around found in some valet garages that stack 2 cars on top of one another. So I'm talking possibly almost 4 times the density. You still need some lanes of course, except for cars you are certain won't be needed on short notice (such as at airports, train stations etc.)
The wins of remote valet parking include the ability to space cars closely (no need to open the doors to get out) and eventually to have the 5' high floors. In addition, remote operators can switch from vehicle to vehicle instantly -- they don't have to run to the car to get it. They can switch from garage to garage instantly, meaning their services would be 100% utilized.
When I was in high school, I did a project on PRT -- Personal Rapid Transit. It was the "next big thing" in transit and of course, 30 years later it's still not here, in spite of efforts by various companies like Taxi 2000 to bring it about.
With PRT, you have small, lightweight cars that run on a network of tracks or monorail, typically elevated. "Stations" are all spurs off the line, so all trips are non-stop. You go to a station, often right in your building, and a private mini-car is waiting. You give it your destination and it zooms into the computer regulated network to take you there non-stop.
The wins from this are tremendous. Because the cars are small and light, the track is vastly cheaper to build, and can often be placed with just thin poles holding it above the street. It can go through buildings, or of course go underground or at-grade. (In theory it seems to me smart at-grade (ground-level) crossings would be possible though most people don't plan for this at present.)
The other big win is the speed. Almost no waiting for a car except at peak times, and the nonstop trips would be much faster than other transit or private cars on the congested, traffic-signal regulated roads.
Update: I have since concluded that self-driving vehicles are getting closer, and because they require no new track infrastructure and instead use regular roads, they will happen instead of PRT.
Yet there's no serious push for such systems...
I've written before about automatic self-driving cars, both their risks (overregulation due to fear of their use by terrorists) and possible driving forces (oil companies excited by people taking longer trips) and more.
Generally, except for a few specialized applications (such as the automatic parking lot) such cars, if they are to be used where people or cars that may not under network control are present, must start with a basic ability to avoid accidents. In a vigourous debate with friend Charles Merriam last night, the question came up about where the value will lie. Charles is a big proponent of worrying first about crash-avoiding cars.
Right now we all pay from $250 to $500 per year, and often much more, for insurance to cover the risk of accidents. Of course, that's just the financial cost, and financial proxies for suffering, so the real value we would put on an accident resistent car might be much higher. Perhaps $5,000 to $10,000 over the life of the car.
That seems like a highly lucrative market on its own. While the self-driving car has many other long term merits (because you can do other work while moving, and you don't have to park it, and it can appear on demand as a taxi for you) we should be very close to financially justifying the accident-avoiding car today...
I hinted last week I would write about a peril from and to automatic cars, or actually any drive-by-wire cars.
That peril is they become highly useful terrorist weapons. Today terrorists get kamikazis to drive ordinary cars to attack targets and checkpoints. It will be easy to modify a drive-by-wire car (including the self-parking cars already on the market) to be controlled by the cheap remote controls found on toy cars and planes today, and easy to mount a wireless camera (X10, the terrorist's tool!) as well.
I seem to be thinking a lot about the future of automatic cars these days. Already we're seeing cars in Japan that can park themselves in a tight parallel parking spot, and this leads me to think that the next market for the technology, after the basic automatic highway, won't be the city street but the parking lot.
I'll be writing more in the future on ideas for auto-drive cars (both plus and minus) but let me start by asking the question of why the oil companies haven't jumped up to foot the bill for the development of automatic cars and highways?
It seems a big win for them. Given the availability of a car that would drive itself on the freeway and perhaps a few major roads, people would be much more willing to tolerate longer commutes, and that seems a win if you sell gasoline. A multi-billion dollar win.