The future of computer-driven cars and deliverbots
It's just been reported that one of Uber's test self-driving cars struck a woman in Tempe, Arizona during the night. She died in the hospital. There are not a lot of facts at present, so any of these things might be contradicted later.
One of the biggest milestones of the robocar world has gotten just a little coverage. Waymo, which last year removed the safety driver from behind the wheel of their cars in Phoenix, still had a supervisor sitting in the back with a kill switch. That supervisor is now gone and the car comes to pick up passengers entirely unmanned.
Earlier this week, I wrote about making a subway for robotic vans which just has tunnels and ramps to the surface, rather than the vastly more expensive system of giant stations we use for today's underground transit. It offers the chance to save immense amounts of money because stations are expensive to build and maintain.
I have written a few times about the unusual nature of robocar accidents. Recently I was discussing this with a former student who is doing some research on the area. As a first step, she began looking at lists of all the reasons that humans cause accidents. (The majority of them, on police reports, are simply that one car was not in its proper right-of-way, which doesn't reveal a lot.)
This led me, though to the following declaration that goes against most early intuitions.
A hiker online asked me about when we might see a robotic "pack mule" to make long hikes easier. The big problem is energy (and noise) since right now the walking robots that exist use a lot of energy to travel, and most hikes involve some terrain you can't do on wheels.
He hoped for solar charging, but most hikers like to hike under cover away from the burning sun. The robot probably wants to be electric since nobody wants a loud engine on a pack robot on the trail. That's a problem.
San Francisco is building its new Central Subway -- an underground light rail line. Ground was broken in 2010 but due to delays it will not open until 2021. This line will finally make the Caltrain commuter rail (which otherwise dumps passengers into an industrial zone far from where most of them wish to go) more useful, and offer travel not slowed by SF's terrible central district congestion.
A new group has released a document called the "Shared Mobility Principles" for livable cities. It was started by Robin Chase (who built companies like ZipCar and others) and has had several of the mobile app taxi companies like Uber, Lyft, Didi and others sign on, though not Waymo, Cruise or the automakers.
At CES 2018, autos took over the show, and self-driving took over autos. At least in the industry, it's now mainstream. So what new approaches are teams taking, and how do they hope to win?
Earlier this week I talked about many of the LIDAR offerings of recent times. Today I want to look at two "up and coming" sensor technologies: Advanced radar and thermal cameras.
I will begin by pointing readers to a very well done summary of car sensor technologies at EE Times which covers almost all the sensor areas. For those tracking the field it is a worthwhile resource.
Robocars have used radar from the earliest days. It's not that expensive, and has many superhuman capabilities -- it sees through fog and all other forms of weather, it has very long range, and it tells you how fast every target is moving.
Autonomous flying personal transportation -- "the flying car" -- is becoming real. I have written previously about some of the issues such as noise, energy efficiency and "sky pollution" but it's clear that the engineering problems are being solved.
Solving those other problems is a challenge, but I can be more confident in predicting that in the 2020s, many ambulances, police, fire and military vehicles will be based on multirotor technology. This will be particularly true in more rural areas or areas with limited roads.
GM revealed photos of what they say is the production form of their self-driving car based on the Chevy Bolt and Cruise software. They say it will be released next year, making it almost surely the first release from a major car company if they make it.
When it comes to robocars, new LIDAR products were the story of CES 2018. Far more companies showed off LIDAR products than can succeed, with a surprising variety of approaches. CES is now the 5th largest car show, with almost the entire north hall devoted to cars. In coming articles I will look at other sensors, software teams and non-car aspects of CES, but let's begin with the LIDARs.
Here are the biggest Robocar stories of 2017
Waymo starts pilot with no safety driver behind the wheel
By far, the biggest milestone of 2017 was the announcement by Waymo of their Phoenix Pilot which will feature cars with no safety driver behind the wheel, and the hints at making this pilot open to the public.