Robocars

The future of computer-driven cars and deliverbots

RIP Martin Lowson, creator of ULTra PRT

I was sadly informed this morning by Ann Lowson that transportation pioneer Martin Lowson has fallen to a stroke this weekend.

Martin had an amazing career but it was more amazing that he was still actively engaged at age 75. We shared a panel last month in Phoenix at the people-mover conference and continued our vigourous debate on the merits of cars like his on closed guideways compared to robocars.

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Driverless Car Summit 2013 Part 1 - Fear of Google

This week I attended AUVSI's "Driverless Car Summit" in Detroit. This year's event, the third, featured a bigger crowd and a decent program, and will generate more than one post.

I would hardly call it a theme, but two speakers expressed fairly negative comments about Google's efforts, raising some interesting subjects. (As an important disclaimer, the Google car team is a consulting client of mine, but I am not their spokesman and the views here do not represent Google's views.)

The keynote address came from Bryan Reimer of MIT, and generated the most press coverage and debate, though the recent NHTSA guidelines also created a stir.

Reimer's main concern: Google is testing on public streets instead of a test track. As such it is taking the risk of a fatal accident, from which the blowback could be so large it stifles the field for many years. Car companies historically have done extensive test track work before going out on real streets. I viewed Reimer's call as one for near perfection before there is public deployment.

There is a U-shaped curve of risk here. Indeed, a vendor who takes too many risks may cause an accident that generates enough backlash to slow down the field, and thus delay not just their own efforts, but an important life-saving technology. On the other hand, a quest for perfection attempts what seems today to be impossible, and as such also delays deployment for many years, while carnage continues on the roads.

As such there is a "Goldilocks" point in the middle, with the right amount of risk to maximize the widescale deployment of robocars that drive more safely than people. And there can be legitimate argument about where that is.

Reimer also expressed concern that as automation increases, human skill decreases, and so you actually start needing more explicit training, not less. He is as such concerned with the efforts to make what NHTSA calls "level 2" systems (hands off, but eyes on the road) as well as "level 3" systems (eyes off the road but you may be called upon to drive in certain situations.) He fears that it could be dangerous to hand driving off to people who now don't do it very often, and that stories from aviation bear this out. This is a valid point, and in a later post I will discuss the risks of the level-2 "super cruise" systems.

Maarten Sierhuis, who is running Nissan's new research lab (where I will be giving a talk on the future of robocars this Thursday, by the way) issued immediate disagreement on the question of test tracks. His background at NASA has taught him that you "fly where you train and train where you fly" -- there is no substitute for real world testing if you want to build a safe product. One must suspect Google agrees -- it's not as if they couldn't afford a test track. The various automakers are also all doing public road testing, though not as much as Google. Jan Becker of Bosch reported their vehicle had only done "thousands" of public miles. (Google reported a 500,000 mile count earlier this year.)

Heinz Mattern, research and development manager for Valeo (which is a leading maker of self-parking systems) went even further, starting off his talk by declaring that "Google is the enemy." When asked about this, he did not want to go much further but asked, "why aren't they here? (at the conference)" There was one Google team employee at the conference, but not speaking, and I'm not am employee or rep. It was pointed out that Chris Urmson, chief engineer of the Google team, had spoken at the prior conferences.

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Off to "Driverless Car Summit" and speaking to SV Autonomous Vehicle meetup Jun 20

I'm off for AUVSI's "Driverless Car Summit" in Detroit. I attended and wrote about last year's summit, which, in spite of being put on by a group that comes out of the military unmanned vehicle space, was very much about the civilian technology. (As I've said before, I have a dislike for the term "driverless car" and in fact at the summit last year, the audience expressed the same dislike but could not figure out what the best replacement term was.)

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Affordable robocars -- will it be cameras or LIDAR?

There have been a wide variety of announcements of late giving the impression that somebody has "solved the problem" of making a robocar affordable, usually with camera systems. It's widely reported how the Velodyne LIDAR used by all the advanced robocar projects (including Google, Toyota and many academic labs) costs $75,000 (or about $30,000 in a smaller model) and since that's more than the cost of the car, it is implied that is a dead-end approach.

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Betterplace dies -- how do you make an electric robotic taxi fleet?

It seems that Better place has gone to... a better place to put it ironically. I'm not greatly surprised, I expressed my skepticism last year.

But I do believe in the idea of the self-driving electric taxi as the best answer for our future urban transportation. So how do you make it happen?

New surveys with growing acceptance levels

Some interesting robocar surveys are out.

Today, a survey conducted by Cisco showed very high numbers of people saying, "yes, they would ride in a robocar." 57% said yes globally, with 60% in the USA and an incredible 95% in Brazil. (Perhaps it is the trully horrible traffic in the big cities of Brazil which drives this number.) A bit more surprising was the 28% number for Japan.

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Radio show on Robocars, Monday the 13th at 7pm PDT

I will be a guest on Monday the 13th (correction -- I originaly said the 14th) on a the "City Visions" program, produced by one of San Francisco's NPR affiliates, KALW. The show runs at 7pm, and you can listen live and phone in (415-841-4134), or listen to the podcast later. Details are on the page about the show.

Other guests include Bryant Walker Smith of Stanford, Martin Sierhuis of the Nissan robocar lab and Bernard Soriano from the California DMV. Should be a good panel.

Moonshots, laws, Tesla and other recent robocar news

Here's a roundup of various recent news items on robocars. There are now a few locations, such as DriverlessCarHQ and the LinkedIn self-driving car group which feature very extensive listing of news items related to robocars. Robocars are now getting popular enough that there are articles every day, but only a few of them contain actual real news for readers of this site or others up on the technology.

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Anatomy of the first robocar accidents

I have prepared a large new Robocar article. This one covers just what will happen when the first robocars are involved in accidents out on public streets, possibly injuring people. While everybody is working to minimize this, perfection is neither possible nor the right goal, so it will eventually happen. As such, when I see public discussion of robocars and press articles, people are always very curious about accidents, liability, insurance and to what extent these issues are blockers on the technology.

So please consider:

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Oliver Kuttner on Very-Light-Car

Last year, I met Oliver Kuttner, who led the team to win the Progressive X-Prize to build the most efficient and practical car over 100mpg. Oliver's Edison2 team won with the VLC (Very Light Car) and surprised everybody by doing it with a liquid fuel engine. There was a huge expectation that an electric car would win the prize, and in fact the rules had been laid out to almost assure it, granting electric cars an advantage over gasoline that I thought was not appropriate.

We Robot Robot Law Conference and Robot Block Party

It's National Robotics Week, and various events are going on -- probably some in your area.

Today and Tomorrow I am at the We Robot conference at Stanford, where people are presenting papers puzzling over how robots and the law will interact. Not enough technology folks at this iteration of the conference -- we have a natural aversion to this sometimes -- but because we're building big moving things that could run into people, the law has to be understood.

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Speaking on Personal Clouds in SF, and Robocars in Phoenix

Two upcoming talks:

Tomorrow (April 4) I will give a very short talk at the meeting of the personal clouds interest group. As far as I know, I was among the first to propose the concept of the personal cloud in my essages on the Data Deposit Box back in 2007, and while my essays are not the reason for it, the idea is gaining some traction now as more and more people think about the consequences of moving everything into the corporate clouds.

The rise of the small and narrow vehicle

Many of the more interesting consequences of a robotic taxi "mobility on demand" service is the ability to open up all sorts of new areas of car design. When you are just summoning a vehicle for one trip, you can be sent a vehicle that is well matched to that trip. Today we almost all drive in 5 passenger sedans or larger, whether we are alone, with a single passenger or in a group. Many always travel in an SUV or Minivan on trips that have no need of that.

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V2V and connected car part 3: Broadcast data

Earlier in part one I examined why it's hard to make a networked technology based on random encounters. In part two I explored how V2V might be better achieved by doing things phone-to-phone.

For this third part of the series on connected cars and V2V I want to look at the potential for broadcast data and other wide area networking.

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Solving V2V Part 2: Make it Phone to Phone

Last week, I began in part 1 by examining the difficulty of creating a new network system in cars when you can only network with people you randomly encounter on the road. I contend that nobody has had success in making a new networked technology when faced with this hurdle.

This has been compounded by the fact that the radio spectrum at 5.9ghz which was intended for use in short range communications (DSRC) from cars is going to be instead released as unlicenced spectrum, like the WiFi bands. I think this is a very good thing for the world, since unlicenced spectrum has generated an unprecedented radio revolution and been hugely beneficial for everybody.

But surprisingly it might be something good for car communications too. The people in the ITS community certainly don't think so. They're shocked, and see this as a massive setback. They've invested huge amounts of efforts and careers into the DSRC and V2V concepts, and see it all as being taken away or seriously impeded. But here's why it might be the best thing to ever happen to V2V.

The innovation in mobile devices and wireless protocols of the last 1-2 decades is a shining example to all technology. Compare today's mobile handsets with 10 years ago, when the Treo was just starting to make people think about smartphones. (Go back a couple more years and there weren't any smartphones at all.) Every year there are huge strides in hardware and software, and as a result, people are happily throwing away perfectly working phones every 2 years (or less) to get the latest, even without subsidies. Compare that to the electronics in cars. There is little in your car that wasn't planned many years ago, and usually nothing changes over the 15-20 year life of the car. Car vendors are just now toying with the idea of field upgrades and over-the-air upgrades.

Car vendors love to sell you fancy electronics for your central column. They can get thousands of dollars for the packages -- packages that often don't do as much as a $300 phone and get obsolete quickly. But customers have had enough, and are now forcing the vendors to give up on owning that online experience in the car and ceding it to the phone. They're even getting ready to cede their "telematics" (things like OnStar) to customer phones.

I propose this: Move all the connected car (V2V, V2I etc.) goals into the personal mobile device. Forget about the mandate in cars.

The car mandate would have started getting deployed late in this decade. And it would have been another decade before deployment got seriously useful, and another decade until deployment was over 90%. In that period, new developments would have made all the decisions of the 2010s wrong and obsolete. In that same period, personal mobile devices would have gone through a dozen complete generations of new technology. Can there be any debate about which approach would win?

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V2V vs. the paths to a successful networked technology (Part 1)

A few weeks ago, in my article on myths I wrote why the development of "vehicle to vehicle" (V2V) communications was mostly orthogonal to that of robocars. That's very far from the view of many authors, and most of those in the ITS community. I remain puzzled by the V2V plan and how it might actually come to fruition. Because there is some actual value in V2V, and we would like to see that value realized in the future, I am afraid that the current strategy will not work out and thus misdirect a lot of resources.

This is particularly apropos because recently, the FCC issued an NPRM saying it wants to open up the DSRC band at 5.9ghz that was meant for V2V for unlicenced wifi-style use. This has been anticipated for some time, but the ITS community is concerned about losing the band it received in the late 90s but has yet to use in anything but experiments. The demand for new unlicenced spectrum is quite appropriately very large -- the opening up of 2.4gz decades ago generated the greatest period of innovation in the history of radio -- and the V2V community has a daunting task resisting it.

In this series I will examine where V2V approaches went wrong and what they might do to still attain their goals.


I want to begin by examining what it takes to make a successful cooperative technology. History has many stories of cooperative technologies (either peer-to-peer or using central relays) that grew, some of which managed to do so in spite of appearing to need a critical mass of users before they were useful.

Consider the rise and fall of fax (or for that matter, the telephone itself.) For a lot of us, we did not get a fax machine until it was clear that lots of people had fax machines, and we were routinely having people ask us to send or receive faxes. But somebody had to buy the first fax machine, in fact others had to buy the first million fax machines before this could start happening.

This was not a problem because while one fax machine is useless, two are quite useful to a company with a branch office. Fax started with pairs of small networks of machines, and one day two companies noticed they both had fax and started communicating inter-company instead of intra-company.

So we see rule one: The technology has to have strong value to the first purchaser. Use by a small number of people (though not necessarily just one) needs to be able to financially justify itself. This can be a high-cost, high-value "early adopter" value but it must be real.

This was true for fax, e-mail, phone and many other systems, but a second principle has applied in many of the historical cases. Most, but not all systems were able to build themselves on top of an underlying layer that already existed for other reasons. Fax came on top of the telephone. E-mail on top of the phone and later the internet. Skype was on top of the internet and PCs. The underlying system allowed it to be possible for two people to adopt a technology which was useful to just those two, and the two people could be anywhere. Any two offices could get a fax or an e-mail system and communicate, only the ordinary phone was needed.

The ordinary phone had it much harder. To join the phone network in the early days you had to go out and string physical wires. But anybody could still do it, and once they did it, they got the full value they were paying for. They didn't pay for phone wires in the hope that others would some day also pay for wires and they could talk to them -- they found enough value calling the people already on that network.

Social networks are also interesting. There is a strong critical mass factor there. But with social networks, they are useful to a small group of friends who join. It is not necessary that other people's social groups join, not at first. And they have the advantage of viral spreading -- the existing infrastructure of e-mail allows one person to invite all their friends to join in.

Enter Car V2V

Car V2V doesn't satisfy these rules. There is no value for the first person to install a V2V radio, and very tiny value for the first thousands of people. An experiment is going on in Ann Arbor with 3,000 vehicles, all belonging to people who work in the same area, and another experiment in Europe will equip several hundred vehicles.

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Top Myths of Robocars (and why V2V is not the answer)

There's been a lot of press on robocars in the last few months, and a lot of new writers expressing views. Reading this, I have encountered a recurring set of issues and concerns, so I've prepared an article outlining these top myths and explaining why they are not true.

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