The future of computer-driven cars and deliverbots

Robomagellan contest disappoints

This weekend I attended the annual "Robogames" competition, which took place here in the Bay Area. Robogames is mostly a robot battle competition, with a focus on heavily armed radio-controlled robots fighting in a protected arena. For several years robot fighting was big enough to rate some cable TV shows dedicated to it. The fighting is a lot of fun, but almost entirely devoid of automation -- in fact efforts to use automation in battle robots have mostly been a failure.

The RC battles are fierce and violent, and today one of the weapons of choice is something heavy that spins at very high speed so that it builds up a lot of angular momentum and kinetic energy, to transfer into the enemy. People like to see robots flying through the air and losing parts to flying sparks. (I suspect this need to make robots very robust against attack makes putting sensors on the robots for automation difficult, as many weapons would quickly destroy a lot of popular sensors types.) The games also featured a limited amount of automated robot competition. This included some lightweight (3lb and 1lb) automated battles which I did not get to watch, and some some hobby robot competitions for maze-running, line following, ribbon climbing and LEGO mindstorms. There was also semi-autonomous robot battle called "kung fu" where humanoid robots who take high level commands (like punch, and step) try to push one another over. There is also sumo, a game where robots must push the other robot out of the ring.

I had hoped the highlight would be the Robo-magellan contest. This is a hobbyist robot car competition, usually done with small robots 1 to 2 feet in length. Because it is hobbyists, and often students, the budgets are very small, and the contest is very simple. Robots must make it through a simple outdoor course to touch an orange cone about 100 yards away. They want to do this in the shortest time, but for extra points they can touch bonus cones along the way. Contestants are given GPS coordinates for the target cones. They get three tries. In this particular contest, to make it even easier, contestants were allowed to walk the course and create some extra GPS waypoints for their robots.

These extra waypoints should have made it possible to do the job with just a GPS and camera, but the hobbyists in this competition were mostly novices, and no robot reached the final cone. The winner got within 40 feet on their last run, but no performance was even remotely impressive. This was unlike past years, where I was told that 6 or more robots would reach the target and there would be real competition. This year's poor showing was blamed on budgets, and the fact that old teams who had done well had moved on from the sport. Only 5 teams showed up.

The robots were poor for sensors. While all would have a GPS, in 1 or 2 cases the GPS systems failed and the robots quickly wandered into things. A few had sonar or touch-bars for obstacle detection, but others did not, and none of them did their obstacle detection well at all. For most, if they ran into something, that was it for that race. Some used a compass or accelerometers to help judge when to turn and where to aim, since a GPS is not very good as a compass.


The radio will be a major innovation center in cars, near-term

I've been predicting a great deal of innovation in cars with the arrival of robocars and other automatic driving technologies. But there's a lot of other computerization and new electronics that will be making its way into cars, and to make that happen, we need to make the car into a platform for innovation, rather than something bought as a walled garden from the car vendor.

In the old days, it was fairly common to get a car without a radio, and to buy the radio of your choice. This happened even in higher end cars. However, the advantages in sound quality and dash integration from a factory-installed radio started to win out, especially with horizontal market Japanese companies who were both good at cars and good at radios.

For real innovation, you want a platform, where aftermarket companies come in and compete. And you want early adopters to be able to replace what they buy whenever they get the whim. We replace our computers and phones far more frequently than our cars and the radios inside them.

To facilitate this, I think the car's radio and "occupant computer" should be merged, but split into three parts:

  1. The speakers and power amplifier, which will probably last the life of the car, and be driven with some standard interface such as 7.1 digital audio over optical fiber.
  2. The "guts" which probably live in the trunk or somewhere else not space constrained, and connect to the other parts
  3. The "interface" which consists of the dashboard panel and screen, with controls, and any other controls and screens, all wired with a network to the guts.

Ideally the hookup between the interface and the guts is a standardized protocol. I think USB 3.0 can handle it and has the bandwidth to display screens on the dashboard, and on the back of the headrests for rear passenger video. Though if you want to imagine an HDTV for the passengers, its possible that we would add a video protocol (like HDMI) to the USB. But otherwise USB is general enough for everything else that will connect to the guts. USB's main flaw is its master-slave approach, which means the guts needs to be both a master, for control of various things in the car, and a slave, for when you want to plug your laptop into the car and control elements in the car -- and the radio itself.

Of course there should be USB jacks scattered around the car to plug in devices like phones and memory sticks and music players, as well as to power devices up on the dash, down in the armrests, in the trunk, under the hood, at the mirror and right behind the grille.

Finally there need to be some antenna wires. That's harder to standardize but you can be we need antennas for AM/FM/TV, satellite radio, GPS, cellular bands, and various 802.11 protocols including the new 802.11p. In some cases, however, the right solution is just to run USB 3.0 to places an antenna might go, and then have a receiver or tranceiver with integrated antenna which mounts there. A more general solution is best.

This architecture lets us replace things with the newest and latest stuff, and lets us support new radio protocols which appear. It lets us replace the guts if we have to, and replace the interface panels, or customize them readily to particular cars.

Police robots everywhere?

It is no coincidence that two friends of mine have both founded companies recently to build telepresence robots. These are easy to drive remote control robots which have a camera and screen at head height. You can inhabit the robot, and drive it around a flat area and talk to people by videoconferencing. You can join meetings, go visit people or inspect a factory. Companies building these robots, initially at high prices, intend to sell them both to executives who want to remotely tour remote offices and to companies who want to give cheaper remote employees a more physical presence back at HQ.

There are also a few super-cheap telepresence robots, such as the Spykee, which runs Skype video conferencing and can be had for as low as $150. It's not very good, and the camera is very low down, and there's no screen, but it shows just how cheap such a product can get.

"Anybots" QA telepresence robot

When they get down to a price like that, it seems inevitable to me that we will see an emergency services robot on every block, primarily for use by the police. When there is a police, fire or ambulance call to an address, an officer could immediately connect to the robot on that block and drive it to the scene, to be telepresent. The robot would live in a small, powered protective closet either paid for by the city, but more likely just donated by some neighbour on the block who wants the fastest possible emergency response. Called into action, the robot's garage door would open and the robot would drive out, and probably be at the location of the emergency within 60 to 120 seconds, depending on how densely they are placed. In the meantime actual first responders might also be on the way.

What could such a robot do?

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.)

Needed: An open robocar driving simulator. Here's how.

I was recently approached by a programmer named Keith Curtis, formerly at Microsoft and now a FOSS devotee. He wants to develop a driving simulator for testing robocar systems. I think this is a very worthwhile idea -- sort of a "Second Life" for robots. We have a head start -- the world of racecar video games has already done a lot of the legwork to simulate driving, and there are two open source car racing systems.

A good simulator would bring some tremendous benefits to robocar development.

Off to BIL and TED

Tomorrow, I will be speaking on pre-Robocar technology at BIL an unconference that parallels the famous and expensive TED conference. This is in Long Beach, CA. Unconferences are fun, cheap and often as good as expensive conferences. I will also be attending a reception at TED tonight for Singularity University, which I lecture at, so I may see you if you're at TED as well.

Last night's EFF bash was a great success. Thanks to Adam Savage and all the others who made it go so well.

Foresight Institute Conference this weekend, Homebrew Robots and Germany

This weekend is the Foresight Institute conference on molecular nanotechnology and AI. I am on the board of Foresight Institute and will be speaking on the latest developments in robocars at the conference, along with a raft of great speakers. If you are interested in futurist issues around AI, nanotech and other accelerating technologies, this is the longest running conference in the field and the place to be.

Can we stop electric cars from playing music for safety?

I struck a nerve several years ago when I blogged about the horrible beep-beep noise made by heavy equipment when it backs up. Eventually a British company came up with a solution: a pulsed burst of white noise which is very evident when you are near the backing up vehicle but which disperses quickly so it doesn't travel and annoy people a mile away as the beeps do.

Robocar Talk, Volvo automatic pedestrian avoidance

First: I will be speaking on robocars tomorrow, Tuesday Nov 9, at 6:30 pm for the meeting of the Jewish High Tech Community in Silicon Valley. The talk is at 6:30pm at the conference center of Fenwick and West at Castro & California in Mountain View. The public is welcome to attend, there is a $10 fee for non-members.

Software recalls and quick fixes to safety-critical computers in robocars

While giving a talk on robocars to a Stanford class on automative innovation on Wednesday, I outlined the growing problem of software recalls and how they might effect cars. If a company discovers a safety problem in a car's software, it may be advised by its lawyers to shut down or cripple the cars by remote command until a fix is available. Sebastian Thrun, who had invited me to address this class, felt this could be dealt with through the ability to remotely patch the software.

New Robocar center at Stanford, Audi TT to race up Pikes Peak

Saturday saw the dedication of a new autonomous vehicle research center at Stanford, sponsored by Volkswagen. VW provided the hardware for Stanley and Junior, which came 1st and 2nd in the 2nd and 3rd Darpa Grand Challenges, and Junior was on display at the event, driving through the parking lot and along the Stanford streets, then parking itself to a cheering crowd.

Junior continues to be a testing platform with its nice array of sensors and computers, though the driving it did on Saturday was largely done with the Velodyne LIDAR that spins on top of it, and an internal map of the geometry of the streets at Stanford.

New and interesting was a demonstration of the "Valet Parking" mode of a new test vehicle, for now just called Junior 3. What's interesting about J3 is that it is almost entirely stock. All that is added are two lower-cost LIDAR sensors on the rear fenders. It also has a camera at the rear-view mirror (which is stock in cars with night-assist mode) and a few radar sensors used in the fixed-distance cruise control system. J3 is otherwise a Passat. Well, the trunk is filled with computers, but there is no reason what it does could not be done with a hidden embedded computer.

What it does is valet park itself. This is an earlier than expected implementation of one of the steps I outlined in the roadmap to Robocars as robo-valet parking. J3 relies on the fact the "valet" lot is empty of everything but cars and pillars. Its sensors are not good enough to deal well with random civilians, so this technology would only work in an enclosed lot where only employees enter the lot if needed. To use it, the driver brings the car to an entrance marked by 4 spots on the ground the car can see. Then the driver leaves and the car takes over. In this case, it has a map of the garage in its computer, but it could also download that on arrival in a parking lot. Using the map, and just the odometer, it is able to cruise the lanes of the parking lot, looking for an empty spot, which it sees using the radar. (Big metal cars of course show clearly on the radar.) It then drives into the spot.


Nissan emulates school of fish, and Singularity Summit Robocar notes

Some time ago I proposed the "School of Fish Test" as a sort of turing test for robocars. In addition to being a test for the cars, it is also intended to be a way to demonstrate to the public when the vehicles have reached a certain level of safety. (In the test, a swarm of robocars moves ona track, and a skeptic in a sportscar is unable to hit one no matter what they do, like a diver trying to touch fish when swimming through a school.)


European intelligent vehicle test

Robocar news:

This press release describes a European research project on various intelligent vehicle technologies which will take place next year. As I outline in the roadmap a number of pre-robocar technologies are making their way into regular cars, so they can be sold as safer and more convenient. This project will actively collect data to learn about and improve the systems.


Events: Randall Monroe (xkcd) tonight in SF, Singularity Summit Oct 3-4 in NYC

Two events I will be at...

Tonight, at 111 Minna Gallery in San Francisco, we at EFF will be hosting a reading by Randall Monroe, creator of the popular nerd comic "xkcd." There is a regular ticket ($30) and a VIP reception ticket ($100) and just a few are still available. Payments are contributions to the EFF.

Two wheeled robocars and the Twill

I have mostly written about 3 and 4 wheeled Robocars, even when the vehicles are narrow and light. Having 3 or 4 wheels of course means stability when stopped or slow, but I have also been concerned that even riding a 2 wheeled vehicle like a motorcycle requires a lot of rider participation. It is necessary to lean into turns. It's disconcerting being the stoker on a tandem bicycle or the passenger on a motorcycle, compared to being a car passenger. You certainly don't imagine yourself reading a book in such situations.

On the other hand 3/4 wheeled vehicles have their disadvantages. They must have a wide enough wheelbase to be stable because they can't easiliy lean. In addition, for full stability you want to keep their center of gravity as low as you can. The extra width means a lot more drag, unless you have a design like the Aptera Motors entrant in the Progressive 100mpg X-prize, which puts the wheels out to the sides.

I recently met Chris Tacklind, who has a design-stage startup called Twill Tech. They have not produced a vehicle yet, but their concepts are quite interesting. Their planned vehicle, the Twill, has two wheels but uses computer control to allow it to stay stable when stopped. It does this by slight motions of the wheels, the same way that pro cyclists will do a track stand. They believe they can make a 2 wheeled electric motorcycle that can use this technique to stay stable when stopped, though it would need to extend extra legs when parked.

This is intended to be an enclosed vehicle, both for rider comfort and lower drag. The seat is very different from a motorcycle seat, in that you do not sit astride the vehicle, but in a chair similar to a spacecraft's zero-G chair.

In addition, the vehicle is designed to have the rear wheel on a lever arm so that it can stand almost upright when stopped and then slope down low, with the rider reclined, at higher speeds. The reclined position is necessary for decent drag numbers at speed -- the upright human creates a lot of the drag in a bicycle or motorcycle. However, the upright position when slow or stopped allows for much easier entry and exit of the vehicle. As everybody knows, really low cars are harder to get in and out of. Twill is not the first company to propose a vehicle which rises and lowers. For example the MIT CityCar plan proposes this so the vehicles can stack for parking. Even without stacking, such designs can park in a much smaller space.