Friday, September 28, 2012

Driver-less cars

This week saw California become the third state to legalize driver-less cars; heck, even The Onion commemorated the occasion!

Although the wheels of legislation move slowly, even when pushed hard by the 24th richest man in the world, it's clearly becoming a reality to contemplate a world in which cars drive themself.

What might such a world look like?

Let me direct your attention to some excellent work being done by Brad Templeton, who has been thinking about this problem a lot and has written a series of fascinating essays at his RoboCars site:

  • New design factors for Robot Cars
    Many of the big changes that will come about from robocars will come from how they free car designers from the constraints of human-driven cars which are the owner's sole, or almost-sole vehicle.
  • A Week of Robocars
    The vehicle has already been listening to data on traffic patterns and traffic light timings. It chooses the fastest route to the office with the fewest turns and stops, and gently accelerates on his way. Traffic capacity is good because 80% of the streets leading downtown have been rerouted as one-way into town, and all robocars that were parked along the side of the major streets moved themselves out of the way before rush hour.
  • Deliverbots -- self-driving delivery robots
    With deliverbots, you will be able to get absolutely anything for sale in a big city about as fast as you can get a pizza today, and it will be cheap. Certainly cheaper than going to a store yourself. This changes the very nature of stores, especially big-box warehouse stores. You'll go to stores for the service, and to personally see and try on products before you buy, but the best prices and speed will always come from warehouses scattered around town ready to send you a deliverbot.
  • The Whistlecar Vision
    This is a car which people still drive, but which is permitted to move around streets while vacant, so that it can deliver itself to drivers, as well as park and refuel itself. I call it a whistlecar because it may remind you of the Lone Ranger's ability to just whistle and have his steed come to him to ride.
  • Roadblocks to robocars
    The general aviation (small plane) industry has a different history. For many years leading to the 80s, almost every single plane crash resulted in a lawsuit. And many of those lawsuits found something wrong with the plane, even if they only gave it 5% responsibility for the crash. Juries like to blame machines over people in lawsuits by the families of dead pilots. The deep pockets of the airplane companies, like Cessna and Piper, were a great target for lawsuits.

    Over time, the insurance cost started to exceed the cost of the aircraft, or any reasonable profit. Cessna stopped making small aircraft in the 80s. Only after lobbying to get the liability rules tweaked (to limit the duration of liability so people could not sue over 20 year old planes) did things start up again, but at high prices and low volumes.

  • Privacy in Robocars
    Even with ordinary cars, we are starting to see systems that track them. Parking patrols now record all the licence plates in parking spaces using video cameras. Downtown cores working on "congestion charging" also are implementing licence plate cameras on every street. Many toll both systems either photograph licence plates or record RFID transponders. In some cases, the RFID transponders used for toll booths are also recorded in other locations, officially for traffic flow measurement.
  • Downsides to robocars
    Vehicles will probably be programmed to not execute various "unsafe" actions, even if ordered to by their owner. In the real world, we bend the law constantly in areas of human discretion. Strict adherance to the law would not necessarily provide the desired result. Humans are constantly doing things that have real, but low probability of causing an accident, some of which have become part of normal traffic flow. Defensive driving is good, but paranoid driving can ruin traffic flow.
  • Robocar Parking
    When a car on the inside needs to leave, it would just ask the robocars in the outer lane to move so that the gap moves next to the departing car. Since all the cars can move at once, in concert, this would take just a few seconds, especially for electric cars. If there are multiple blocking lanes, all those lanes would, at the same time, move their gap to be in the right place for the car that wants to leave. It doesn't matter how many lanes there are, this happens in the same amount of time -- a few seconds.
  • Random Notes
    Small robocars, designed for just a few people, can be smaller and lighter than cars, and this means that roads and guideways for them can be much cheaper than full-use roads we build today. Astonishingly cheaper. Most residential blocks, for example, might be served by a single 10 foot wide lightly paved alley in the front or back. New construction might run such back alleys (as are common in some cities) with no roads at all.

There's lots more, and it seems like Templeton is continuing to add to these essays over time. He's also got a special RoboCars Blog for more topical notes.

I found the essays quite stimulating; it's neat to think about what may soon be happening, and Templeton's essays are a great way to get yourself into that frame of mind.


No comments:

Post a Comment