Robocars

The future of computer-driven cars and deliverbots

Ford's solar charging robocar design

One of the silly ideas I see often is the solar powered car. In 2011, I wrote an article about the solar powered robocar which explained some of the reasons why the idea is anti-green, and how robocars might help.

I was interested to see a concept from Ford for a solar charging station for a robocar which goes further than my idea.

UK, Michigan & Sweden push robocars, Toyota doesn't -- and Amazon delivery drones

The past few weeks have been rife with governments deciding to throw support behind robocars.

I wrote earlier about the plan for pods in Milton Keynes, NW of London. The UK has also endowed a a £10m prize fund to build vehicles and for a town to adapt to them. This will be managed in part by the Oxford team which has built a self-driving Wildcat and Nissan LEAF.

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Enough with the Trolley problem, already

More and more often in mainstream articles about robocars, I am seeing an expression of variations of the classic 1960s "Trolley Problem." For example, this article on the Atlantic website is one of many. In the classical Trolley problem, you see a train hurtling down the track about to run over 5 people, and you can switch the train to another track where it will kill one person.

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The robocar and the bicycle

I've written about the issues relating to robocars and walking before. On one hand, some people may find themselves hardly ever walking with convenient door-to-door robocar transportation. Others may find the robocars may enable walking by allowing one-way waking trips, or enabling trips that that allow drive-walk-drive (eliminating short driving trips done just to save the trouble of walking back to get the car.)

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Will EV recharging soar to very high costs?

I recently read a complaint by an EV driver that the charging station at De Anza College cost 55 cents/kwh. The national average price for electricity is around 10 cents, and at that price a typical electric car costs under 3 cents/mile for electricity. Gasoline costs about 8 cents/mile in a Prius, about 13 cents in a decent non-hybrid and 18 cents/mile in the average car which gets 22mpg. (At least here in California.) But the college's charger's electricity is almost 15 cents/mile in most electric sedans today, which is more than the gasoline in any gasoline car an eco-conscious person is likely to buy. (California Tier III electricity is 30 cents/kwh and thus almost as much.)

The price of charging stations varies wildly. A lot of them are free still, financed by other motivations. Tesla's superchargers are free -- effectively part of the cost of the car. It's not uncommon for parking lots to offer free charging if you pay for parking, since parking tends to cost a fair bit more. After all, you won't put more than 20kwh in a Leaf (and probably a lot less) and that costs just $2 at the average grid price.

This got me thinking of how the economics of charging will work in the future when electric cars and charging stations are modestly plentiful. While the national grid average is 10 cents, in many places heavy users can pay a lot more, though there are currently special deals to promote electric cars. Often the daytime cost for commercial customers is quite a bit higher, while the night is much lower. Charging stations at offices and shops will do mostly day charging; ones in homes and hotels will do night charging.

Unlike gasoline pumping, which takes 5 minutes, charging also involves parking. This is not just because charging takes several hours, but because that is enough time that customers won't want to come and move their car once full, and so they will take the space for their full parking duration, which may be 8 or more hours.

Charging stations are all very different in utility. While every gasoline station near your route is pretty much equivalent to you, your charging station is your parking spot, and as such only the ones very close to your destination are suitable. While a cheap gas station 2 miles off your route would have a line around the block, a free charging stations 2 miles away from your destination is not that attractive! More to the point, the charging point close to your destination is able to command a serious premium. That have a sort of monopoly (until charging stations become super common) on charging at the only location of value to you.

Put another way, when buying gasoline, I can choose from all the stations in town. When picking an EV charge, I can only choose from stations with an available spot a short walk from my destination. Such a monopoly will lead to high prices in a market where the stations are charging (in dollars :-) what the market will bear.

The market will bear a lot. While the electricity may be available cheap, EV owners might be easily talked into paying as much for electricity as gasoline buyers do, on a per-mile basis. The EV owners will be forgetting the economics of the electric car -- you pay the vast bulk of your costs up front for the battery, and the electrical costs are intended to be minor. If the electricity cost rivals that of gasoline, the battery cost is now completely extra.

Naturally, EV owners will do at least half their charging at home, where they negotiate the best rate. But this could be worse, as they might well be talked into looking at the average. They could pay 80 cents/kwh in the parking lot and 10 cents/kwh at home, and figure they are getting away with 45 cents and "still beating gasoline." They would be fooling themselves, but the more people willing to fool themselves, the higher prices will go.

There is another lack of choice here. For many EV drivers, charging is not optional. Unless they have easy range to get back home or to another charging place they will spend lots of time, you must charge if you are low and the time opportunity presents itself. To not do so is either impossible (you won't get home) or very foolish (you constrain what your EV can do.) When you face a situation where you must charge, and you must charge in a particular place, the potential for price gouging becomes serious.

Mercedes and Vislab release videos of their real-road tests

Videos have been released on some real-world tests of robocars. The most notable is from Mercedes.

As a nice reflection on the past, Mercedes drove the 100km route done by Bertha Benz in the first automotive road trip 125 years ago. You will also find that this alternate video is much better at talking about the technical details of the vehicle.

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The new car stereo is -- the noise cancelling headphone

Probably the most expensive add-on that people get in their cars today is the stereo. Long ago, cars often came without stereos and there was a major aftermarket. The aftermarket is still here but most people elect for factory stereos which fit in seamlessly with the car and often cost a huge amount of money.

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No, the car sharing aspect of robocars isn't as exciting as people hope

Frequently, in reporting on robocars, it is often cited that one of their key benefits will be the way they enable car sharing, greatly reducing the number of cars that need to exist to serve the population. It is sometimes predicted that we'll need to make fewer cars, which is good for the environment.

It is indeed true -- robotaxi service, with cars that deliver themselves and drop you off, does greatly enable car sharing. But from the standpoint of modern car sharing, it may enable it too well, and we may end up having to manufacture more cars, not fewer.

Today's car sharing companies report statistics that they replace around 13 privately owned cars for every car in the carsharing fleet. Some suggest it's even as high as 20.

This number is impossible for average drivers, however. The average car is driven 12,000 miles/year. To replace 13 average cars would require a vehicle that was actively driving, not just signed out, 11 hours/day and each vehicle would wear out in 1-2 years.

Three things are happening.

  • Carsharing is replacing the more marginal, less used vehicles. A household replaces a 2nd or 3rd car. Carsharing is almost always used by people who do not commute by car.
  • Carsharing is often considerably less convenient than a private car. It discourages driving, pushing its users into other modes of transport, or selecting for customers who can do that.
  • Related to that, carsharing shows the true cost of car ownership and makes it incremental. That cost is around $20/hour, and people rethink trips when they see the full cost laid out per mile or per hour. With private cars, they ignore most of the cost and focus only on the gasoline, if that.

The "problem" with robocars is that they're not going to be worse than having a private car. In many ways they will be better. So they will do very little of the discouragement of car use caused by present day carshare models. The "dark secret" of carsharing is that it succeeds so well at replacing cars because of its flaws, not just its virtues.

Robotic taxis can be priced incrementally, with per-mile or per-hour costs, and these costs will initially be similar to the mostly unperceived per-mile or per-hour costs of private car ownership, though they will get cheaper in the future. This revelation of the price will discourage some driving, though robotaxi companies, hoping to encourage more business, will likely create pricing models which match the way people pay for cars (such as monthly lease fees with only gasoline costs during use) to get people to use more of the product.

There is an even stronger factor when it comes to robotaxis. A hard-working robotaxi will indeed serve many people, and as such it will put on a lot of miles every year. It will thus wear out much faster, and be taken out of service within 4-5 years. This is the case with today's human driven taxicabs, which travel about 60,000 miles/year in places like New York.

The lifetime of a robotaxi will be measured almost exclusively in miles or engine-hours, not years. The more miles people travel, the more vehicles will need to be built. It doesn't matter how much people are sharing them.

The core formula is simple.

Cars made = Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT) / Car lifetime in miles

The amount of sharing of vehicles is not a factor in this equation, other than when it affects VMT.

Today the average car lasts 200,000 miles in California. To be clear, if you have 8,000 customers and they will travel two billion miles in 20 years (that's the average) then they are going to need 8,000 cars over those years. It almost doesn't matter if you serve them with their own private car, and it lasts all 20 years, or if you get 2,000 cars and they serve 4 people each on average and wear out after 5 years.

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Self-driving cars, autonomous vehicles, driverless cars and robocars

Our technology is having trouble with settling on a name. That's OK before it's mainstream but will eventually present a problem. When people in the field are polled on what name they like, there is no clear winner. Let's look at some of the commonly used candidates:

Driverless Cars

Recently, this has become the most common term used in the press. There is a "Driverless Car Summit" and the Wikipedia page has used that name for some time.

In spite of this popularity, the term is very rarely used by people actually building the vehicles. Attendees at the "Driverless Car Summit" when polled all said they dislike it. Until recently, the most common news story about a driverless car would say, "then the driverless car rolled down the hill and careened into the other lane, hitting a tree."

My personal view is that this term is like "horseless carriage." Long ago the most remarkable thing about the automobile was that it had no horse. Here it's the lack of driver (or at least lack of action by the driver.) Of course, these cars have something driving them, but it's a computer system. While this term is most popular, I am confident it will fade away and seem quaint, like horseless carriage did.

Alain Kornhauser has proposed that Driverless Car refer only to cars capable of fully-unmanned operation, and those that need an occasional human be called self-driving. As yet this has not caught on.

Self-driving cars

This term is popular among developers of the cars. Its main problem is that it's too long to be a popular term. The acronym SDC is a reasonable one. In web hits, this is tied with Driverless Cars, but falls behind that name in searches and news mentions.

Autonomous Vehicles

This term was most popular in the early years, though it is most commonly found in research environments and in the military sphere. In the military they also use "unmanned ground vehicle" -- another term too unwieldy for the public --though they usually refer to remote controlled vehicles, not self-driving ones.

Annoyingly, the acronym "AV" has another popular meaning today. Most of the terms here are too long to become common use terms, and so will be turned into acronyms or shortened, but this one has an acronym problem.

Automated Road Vehicle

This term has minor traction, almost entirely due to the efforts of Steve Shladover of UC Berkeley. In his view, the word autonomous is entirely misused here and the correct term is automated. Roboticists tend to differ -- they have been using "autonomous" to mean "not remote controlled" for many years. There are two meanings of autonomous in common use. One is to be independent of direct control (which these cars are) and the other one, "self-governing" is the one Steve has the issue with. As a member of the program committee for TRB's conference on the area, he has pushed the "automated" name and given it some traction.

Unfortunately, to roboticists, "automated" is how you describe a dishwasher or a pick-and-place robot; it's a lower level of capability. I don't expect this terminology to gain traction among them.

Highly Automated Vehicle (HAV) and Automated Driving Systems (ADS)

For some time, HAV was the term used in NHTSA proposed regulations. It never caught on. The new regulations use ADS, it is unclear if this will catch on -- the acronym of course is an English word so it can't easily be searched for.

Robocars

I selected this term for these pages for a variety of reasons. It was already in modest use thanks to a Science Channel documentary on the DARPA challenge called "robocars."

  • Talking to teams, they usually just called their vehicle "the robot" or "the car."
  • It is short, easy to say, and clear about what it means
  • It is distinct and thus can easily be found in online searches
  • It had some amount of existing use, notably as the title of a documentary on the Science Channel about the DARPA challenges

However, it is doing poorly in popularity and only has about 21,000 web pages using it, so I may need to switch away from it as well if a better term appears. Today it reminds people too much of robotics, and the trend is to move away from that association.

On the other hand, no other term satisfies the criteria above, which I think are very good criteria.

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The numbers say let Robocars exceed the speed limit

I'm often asked whether robocars will keep themselves to the speed limit and refuse to go faster, unlike cruise controls which let the driver set the automated speed. In many countries, the majority of human drivers routinely exceed the limit which could present issues. On the other hand, vendors may fear liability over programming their cars to do this, or even programming them to allow their human overlord to demand it.

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Vislab does successful test on real streets

A nice result for Vislab of Parma, Italy. They have completed a trial run on public roads using their mostly vision-based driving system. You can see a report on the Vislab site for full details. The run included urban, rural and highway streets. While the press release tries to make a big point that they did this with a vacant driver's seat, the video shows a safety driver in that seat at all times, so it's not clear how the test was done.

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Report from TRB's workshop on automated road vehicles -- down with the NHTSA levels

This week I attended the Transportation Research Board Workshop on Automated Road Vehicles which has an academic focus but still has lots of industry-related topics. TRB's main goal is to figure out what various academics should be researching or getting grants for, but this has become the "other" conference on robocars. Here are my notes from it.

Bryant Walker Smith told of an interesting court case in Ontario, where a truck driver sued over the speed limiter put in his truck and the court ruled that the enforced speed limiter was a violation of fundamental rights of choice. One wonders if a similar ruling would occur in the USA. I have an article pending on what the speed limit should be for robocars with some interesting math.

Cliff Nass expressed skepticism over the ability to have easy handover from self-driving to human driving. This transfer is a "valence transfer" and if the person is watching a movie in a tense scene that makes her sad or angry, she will begin driving with that emotional state. More than one legal scholar felt that quickly passing control to a human in an urgent situation would not absolve the system of any liability under the law, and it could be a dangerous thing. Nass is still optimistic -- he notes that in spite of often expressed fears, no whole field has been destroyed because it caused a single fatality.

There were reports on efforts in Europe and Japan. In both cases, government involvement is quite high, with large budgets. On the other hand, this seems to have led in most cases to more impractical research that suggests vehicles are 1-2 decades away.

Volkswagen described a couple of interesting projects. One was the eT! -- a small van that would follow a postman around as he did his rounds. The van had the mail, and the postman did not drive it but rather had it follow him so he could go and get new stacks of mail to deliver. I want one of those in the airport to have my luggage follow me around.

VW has plans for a "traffic jam pilot" which is more than the traffic jam assist products we've seen. This product would truly self-drive at low speeds in highway traffic jams, allowing the user to not pay attention to the road, and thus get work done. In this case, the car would give 10 seconds warning that the driver must take control again. VW eventually wants to have a full vehicle which gives you a 10 minute warning but that's some distance away.

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AUVSI Driverless Car Summit Part 2

The AUVSI summit on "driverless" cars last week contained 2 days of nothing but robocars, and I reported on issues regarding Google and policy in part 1.

As noted, NHTSA released their proposal for how they want to regulate such vehicles. In it, they defined levels 0 through 4. Level 2 is what I (and GM) have been calling "super cruise" -- a car which can do limited self driving but requires constant human supervision. Level 3 is a car which can drive without constant attention, but might need to call upon a human driver (non-urgently) to handle certain streets and situations. Level 4 is the fully automatic robocar.

Level 2 issues

Level 2 is coming this year in traffic jams in the Mercedes S and the BMW 5, and soon after from Audi and Volvo. GM had announced super cruise for the 2015 Cadillac line but has pulled back and delayed that to later in the decade. Nonetheless the presentation from GM's Jeremy Salinger brought home many of the issues with this level.

GM has done a number of user studies in their super cruise cars on the test track. And they learned that the test subjects very quickly did all sorts of dangerous things, definitely not paying attention to the road. They were not told what they couldn't do, but subjects immediately began texting, fiddling around in the back and even reading (!) while the experimenters looked on with a bit of fear. No big surprise, as people even text today without automatic steering, but the experimental results were still striking.

Because of that GM is planning what they call "countermeasures" to make sure this doesn't happen. They did not want to say what countermeasures they liked, but in the past, we have seen proposals such as:

  • You must touch the wheel every few seconds or it disengages
  • A camera looks at your eyes and head and alerts or disengages if you look away from the road for too long
  • A task for your hands like touching a button every so often

The problem is these countermeasures can also get annoying, reducing the value of the system. It may be the lack of ability to design a good countermeasure is what has delayed GM's release of the product. There is a policy argument coming up about whether level 2 might be more dangerous than the harder levels 3 and above, because there is more to go wrong with the human driver and the switches between human and machine driving. (Level 4 has no such switches, level 3 has switches with lots of warning.)

On the plus side, studies on existing accidents show that accident-avoidance systems, even just forward collision avoidance, have an easy potential for huge benefits. Already we're seeing a 15% reduction in accidents in some studies just from FCA, but studies show that in 33% of accidents, the brakes were never applied at all, and only in just 1% of accidents were the brakes applied with full force! As such, systems which press the brakes and press them hard when they detect the imminent accident may not avoid the accident entirely, but they will highly reduce the severity of a lot of accidents.

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