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Earth Power Transportation

Robocars As the Best Way Geeks Can Save the Planet 394

Posted by timothy
from the at-least-the-parts-we-can-drive-on dept.
Brad Templeton writes "I (whom you may know as EFF Chairman, founder of early dot-com Clari.Net and rec.humor.funny) have just released a new series of futurist essays on the amazing future of robot cars, coming to us thanks to the DARPA Grand Challenges. The computer driver is just the beginning — the essays detail how robocars can enable the cheap electric car, save millions of lives and trillions of dollars, and are the most compelling thing computer geeks can work on to save the planet. Because robocars can refuel, park and deliver themselves, and not simply be chauffeurs, they end up changing not just cars but cities, industries, energy, and — by removing dependence on foreign oil — even wars. I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords." (More below.)
Templeton continues: "The key realization is that while the safety and timesavings that come from having computers as chauffeurs is very important and can save a million lives every year, a number of interesting consequences come from the ability of robocars to drive themselves while vacant. This allows them to deliver themselves to us on demand, to park themselves and to refuel/recharge themselves. On-demand delivery makes car sharing pleasant and allows the use of "the right vehicle for the trip" on most trips. Self-refueling means the people using cars no longer need care about range or how common fueling stations are, enabling all sorts of novel energy systems with minimal "chicken and egg" problems. Because passengers don't care about the range of their taxis, battery weight and cost are no longer issues in electric cars and scooters."
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Robocars As the Best Way Geeks Can Save the Planet

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  • by UncleWilly (1128141) * <UncleWilly07@NOspaM.gmail.com> on Thursday July 24, 2008 @06:29PM (#24326759)

    I'm so excited!

  • Wow, good job! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by clang_jangle (975789) * on Thursday July 24, 2008 @06:33PM (#24326813) Journal
    I scoffed a bit when I RTFS, but the essays are really good and make an excellent case. I read them looking for gaping holes to point out, but really didn't find any major unaddressed concerns. I have to say RTFA is highly recommended. Read it, you won't be sorry.
    • "Posted by timothy on Thursday July 24, @04:28PM"

      I scoffed a bit when I RTFS
      I read them...but really didn't find any major unaddressed concerns.

      "by clang_jangle (975789) * on Thursday July 24, @04:33PM"

      Just saying...

    • Re:Wow, good job! (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Otter (3800) on Thursday July 24, 2008 @06:41PM (#24326925) Journal
      Well, there is the small matter of making the robocars, but I guess it's not the job of a "futurist" to do that. Also, he seems to have jumbled a bunch of different enormous breakthroughs (limitless, cheap, clean energy; enormously powerful and reliable AI; efficient solution of enormous traveling salesman problems) into a single obsession. It's not like robocars per se somehow eliminate dependence on oil.
      • Re:Wow, good job! (Score:5, Interesting)

        by btempleton (149110) on Thursday July 24, 2008 @07:11PM (#24327295) Homepage

        I hope I don't gloss over this (read the roadblocks section.) There are many technical and political problems to solve.

        As for energy, the goal is to use far less energy than we use today (whether it's cheap or clean is nice but orthogonal) and it's far from limitless.

        The AI is not so powerful. Most animals can navigate in traffic of their own kind, even insects. But no, it's no tiny project -- but it's a tractable large project.

        You don't need to solve traveling salesman! In fact, I believe centralized control is a bad idea. You can solve traveling salesman over small problem sets, it's only trying to solve it for large numbers that's explosively NP.
        You just have to do better than we do today.

        • Re:Wow, good job! (Score:4, Informative)

          by cailith1970 (1325195) on Thursday July 24, 2008 @08:14PM (#24328047)

          The AI is not so powerful. Most animals can navigate in traffic of their own kind, even insects. But no, it's no tiny project -- but it's a tractable large project.

          Two problems with a lot of robot navigation systems that use visual processing are handling the differences in light at different times of the day, and handling a dynamic environment.

          The environment can look very different even just comparing morning and evening, not touching night or times of the year. This makes following a path that you learned under one set of conditions look like it's a different path in another set of conditions. It's not a problem in indoor environments that have controlled lighting, but in a "real" scenario, it's not a toy problem.

          • Re:Wow, good job! (Score:4, Interesting)

            by bzipitidoo (647217) <bzipitidoo@yahoo.com> on Thursday July 24, 2008 @11:30PM (#24329877) Journal

            Why do we even need AI for this? There's a wonderful invention called the railroad that has moved people and goods for nearly 2 centuries. Railroads take less energy. No steering required, all that is needed is throttle control.

            Whether or not rails are used, AI can be dispensed with by putting dumb signal readers in the cars, and having senders all along the roads. I recall reading of just such a project some years ago. We have signs all over the place advising drivers how fast to take corners and other such notices. Shouldn't be too difficult to make that all automatic. The vehicle will do only 3 things: don't collide with other vehicles, move at the speeds the road tells it to, and enter and exit the road system when the passengers wish.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Ignis Flatus (689403)
          that's great, but we've got lots of things that need to be done. what is the cost/benefit ratio of this project? it seems like a huge amount of effort for not much benefit. why not just let the technology proceed at its own pace? you might even get a better result.
          • Re:Wow, good job! (Score:4, Insightful)

            by btempleton (149110) on Thursday July 24, 2008 @08:33PM (#24328265) Homepage

            Not much benefit? Saving a million lives a year, globally? Saving 50 billion hours of human time every year in the USA? Cutting U.S. transportation energy needs in half? Reducing dependence on foreign oil and halting middle east imports with the wars that causes?

            Just what is your idea of a project with a lot of benefit?

            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by Ignis Flatus (689403)
              you're making a huge assumption about how many lives you'll save. fact is, they will kill people. they only question is, "what kill rate are we willing to accept?"

              and this also relates back to my prior comment, we have other things that need to be done, other problems we should solve. right now, AIDS is the number one killer of black women. maybe we should devote more resources to that. or cancer. even the obesity and diabetes epidemic seems like a bigger problem to me at the moment. it's not th
              • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

                by btempleton (149110)

                They won't be deployed until we are convinced they kill far fewer people than humans do at the wheel. In fact, I suspect in the USA a very low problem rate will be demanded. I think the engineers can deliver that rate.

                I could be wrong on that. It's worth trying.

                The number of people killed by human drivers in the USA is similar to that killed by Alzhiemer's or stomach cancer or several other major killers. Largest killer from 5 to 45 in fact.

                If I told you, "We could probably cure Alzheimers with a relat

    • Re:Wow, good job! (Score:4, Insightful)

      by dgatwood (11270) on Thursday July 24, 2008 @08:15PM (#24328061) Journal

      Well, there's one major unaddressed concern. Two, really. No, three. Four? Where to begin....

      The first is that a lot of people use a car not just as a means of getting somewhere, but as a place to store stuff when they get there. For example, if I take a day trip somewhere (fairly common), I don't necessarily have any place wherever I'm going to store all the stuff I might need. Heaven help me if I'm going to a musical gig with two or three instruments, a clothing change, binders full of music, etc. Most of that stuff stays in the car unless and until I need it. That simply isn't practical with non-personal vehicles. This was mentioned briefly, but dismissed with the suggestion of a portable "locker". I can't think of any situation I've been in where this would be sufficient other than commuting to work.... It certainly wouldn't work on the beach. Let's say I'm going to the beach, followed by going to someone's house. I might want to have a laptop with me at the house but not at the beach. I sure as heck wouldn't want to store it in a portable locker that someone could walk off with while I took a walk on the beach, nor is carrying it with me particularly practical. These problems happen almost constantly, at least in my life.

      If you go shopping for groceries at two different stores, it would be a huge waste of time and energy if you had to go home and drop off the grocery shopping, call a robotic cab to pick you up again, and go to the second store, but the prospect of hauling that merchandise into a second store is equally unacceptable. The "DeliverBot" idea is cute, but highly impractical. For one thing, the stores will immediately do what they do best: charge you a fee for the cost of the delivery and packing on top of the cost of your food. This means everybody pays more for everything. Worse, for smaller purchases, that would end up being a significant percentage of your total bill. Even a $5 delivery charge is huge if all you needed was a $4.00 carton of half-and-half.

      Even if you could get around that problem, you still have the issue of it arriving, finding out that it isn't what you ordered, and having to send it back, plus the extra latency of having to go out, shop, then wait for somebody to pack it somewhere and deliver it to you. That might work for large purchases, but it reduces spec buying to absolutely zero, so stores will fight it with every fiber of their being and will en masse refuse to participate in such a program in any useful way, so the result would be that such services would have to be run by third parties who would have to charge money for the service. Because people generally aren't willing to spend even a couple of bucks for delivery, such a service would almost inevitably die just like countless grocery delivery services before it.

      The notion that people adapt to not having cars is about like saying that people adapt to not having feet. Yeah, sure, but that doesn't mean I'm interested in having surgery to remove mine unless it would save my life. It would be possible to adapt, but every instance of that adaptation involves having to either build lots of additional facilities and pay extra money to use them (e.g. public lockers at the beach) or go a significant extra distance (driving back to your hotel/home/office) for no good reason. The former is expensive. The latter increases driving, which in part negates the environmental improvement these were designed to solve.

      The second is that people tend to want to personalize their automobiles for comfort, particularly on long vacations. Whether it's a vibrating seat or a DVD player for the kids or whatever. Either all of those sorts of comforts have to be built in or you'll have to have a way of specifying that you require those, at which point you've greatly increased the complexity of fleet management.

      Third, an eight hour road trip will, in fact, still require stopping to fill up at least once, and if the suggestion is changing automobiles, I suspect the author hasn't eve

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by kesuki (321456)

        a city that has a large cab pool is the best place to deploy this technology, you're right, robot cars don't eliminate the need for a car, but cabs are very useful in new york city, for say someone who rides the train to work, then wants/needs to take a cab because they didn't drive a car into the city.

        and who says robot car driving systems won't come with personal cars? if they can do it realistically for cabs, then they can do it for personal cars. also, a robot cab lets you redesign cabs entirely, you n

      • Re:Wow, good job! (Score:5, Insightful)

        by btempleton (149110) on Thursday July 24, 2008 @08:55PM (#24328553) Homepage

        You will find many of your issues addressed in the article. In fact, I have a large section on the question of how people like to store stuff in their cars, as I am one of those people. At the same time, in cities like NYC, where nobody owns cars, people seem to have managed to get past this "insurmountable" problem.

        Suggest you read the article for more on your concerns. If you wish to shop personally, by the way, you would load the deliverbot, not the store. Deliverbots should cost around 5 cents/mile, I predict, for small one suitable for typical cargo.

        People who want to own cars will still own cars, but they can own different cars, and hire specialized cars for specialized trips.

        The sleeper car does not need to refuel, if it's going slow. My example is a trip to Lake Tahoe that's 4 hours at 75mph but 7 hours at 40mph. Cars actually get *better* MPG at slower speeds, so it would have to refuel *less* often.

        As for renting durable goods. It costs more because there is a large overhead in renting today. Picture a world where delivery is quick and cheap, and thus the durable goods are also rented a far larger percentage of their time. This is a side-issue, but I think the potential here is very large for much cheaper rental, always beating the cost of owning something you use 2 hours/month.

        I am adding a section to the deliverbot concept about a room for the deliverbot. That's where the bed arrives, and stays if you like. I'm also wondering if we don't see better in-house robotic tech for moving furniture but I don't want to depend on it. Guest beds are worth paying extra for (to cover disinfect, inspection and work of moving in a house) because the real cost of a permanent guest bed is not the cost of the bed -- it's the space in the house an infrequent guest room takes.

        But I agree the deliverbot/renting speculation is a sideline to the real message of the article, so tell me what else you don't think is credible there.

      • Re:Wow, good job! (Score:5, Insightful)

        by clang_jangle (975789) * on Thursday July 24, 2008 @09:33PM (#24328917) Journal
        It seems several of your concerns revolve around what you perceive as lack of privately owned cars, but that is not actually a premise of the essays. He specifies that some people will still maintain personal vehicles, though for many doing so will no longer make economic sense. Similarly, your complaint of refueling on longer trips assumes there will be no more fuel-powered vehicles, but that assumption is not made in the essays either. If you read the whole thing (including the "stories" section), I think you'll find he's made a compelling case.
        Oh, and also your concern about store hopping -- just reserve the car until the trip is concluded, nothing I read would stop you doing that. Same for gigs, beach outings, etc.
        The only really big legitimate objections I can see many people having are that
        (1) the scenario he envisions would probably result in privately owned vehicles dedicated only to their owners' convenience becoming quite a bit more expensive than they are now (though I would actually call that a good thing, as IMO it should be more expensive to be wasteful), and
        (2) individual privacy could be affected. But then really, personal privacy is quickly becoming a thing of the past anyway, and may well be unavoidable. But that's a whole other can of worms...
      • Re:Wow, good job! (Score:4, Insightful)

        by vux984 (928602) on Thursday July 24, 2008 @10:36PM (#24329467)

        The notion that people adapt to not having cars is about like saying that people adapt to not having feet.

        Lots of people in large cities don't have cars. They cope far better than you think, and miss it less than you would expect.

        The second is that people tend to want to personalize their automobiles for comfort...

        Really? Have you been on a bus, train, subway, ferry, cruise ship, taxi cab, or airplane? Have you rented a car before?

        If people don't own it, they don't tend to personalize them. People personalize their cars because they own them, not because they have an innate need to personalize the things they travel in. The kids can bring a portable DVD player.

        While I'm pointing out flaws in the articles, I'd like to point out a flaw in the suggestion of renting infrequently used durable goods: it generally costs more... a lot more. We did the math for a power washer and concluded that buying a low-end power washer would pay for itself in three or four years worth of rentals even if I only used it once a year. Why? Simple.

        You apparently have a lot more space than I do, and space is part of the equation. If I bought a pressure washer, a tile saw, a large ladder, car ramps, and a other large durable goods that I have only occasional need for I would have have to rent an additional storage locker, and that would almost immediately nullify the economics of owning them.

        Indeed, a car itself is subject to this space cost. In a large city, a parking spot adds significantly enough to the cost of maining a vehicle that it can push the economics in favor of renting a vehicle when you actually need one.

        I know people paying $2500/year for a parking spot. Plus $2500/year for insurance. Plus maintenance. $6000+ per year will cover a lot more rentals, couriers, and delivery trucks than you might think. Sure public transit has a cost too, but that's less than they would be paying for gas... and that was at last years prices.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      Since this seems to be the "flaws" thread: My biggest concern with the robocars is mentioned at the very beginning of one of the articles, who owns the car and who controls the car. Every time I get in a car service car or Taxi here in NYC I am photographed by a camera in the car. It's there to help find/reduce taxi driver muggers. But if this is put into a robocar, maybe the camera will be linked into a wireless online system, to catch terrorists or something. In fact I would rather expect the robocars to
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by clang_jangle (975789) *
        I share your concerns, but I would argue that those are all good reasons to become more politically active, not to hold us back from achieving better use of technology. The kind of government we have allowed to develop is the problem here, after all. And they are already abusing our current technology. Does that mean we should all become Amish?
    • Battery Problem (Score:3, Insightful)

      by tknd (979052)

      I don't think he does a good job because he doesn't cite good workable examples of the technology in use. He just says "they've done that in DARPA" or some other high tech example. But things like DARPA are bleeding edge or pushing our technology to the limit. Those projects may not be feasible in actual mass production use. You can't simply say mass production will reduce the costs because if that was the solution to everything we would just 'mass produce' everything.

      Now on to the battery problem which h

  • by Chiasmus_ (171285) <ayatollah_hyperbole @ y a hoo.com> on Thursday July 24, 2008 @06:34PM (#24326823) Journal
    ...that this will usher in a glorious new era of alcoholism.

    After all, I think it's the driving problem that really prevents people from drinking to their full potential. I can't count the number of times I've thought "I know, I'll go to a bar and get hammered!" and then, a few seconds later, "ahhh, but I don't know how I'd get home."

    Yes, I think 2053 will have a few things in common with 1953 - a glorious time when men were men and martinis were brunch.
  • by BigJClark (1226554) on Thursday July 24, 2008 @06:34PM (#24326831)

    Because robocars can refuel, park and deliver themselves, and not simply be chauffeurs

    Yes, I believe another name is, the bus.

    And relax people, I know buses aren't completely oil-independant, however, our infrastructure isn't even close to what is need to support a billion electric cars.

    • by victim (30647) on Thursday July 24, 2008 @06:46PM (#24326979)

      Please read the article and then comment.

    • by btempleton (149110) on Thursday July 24, 2008 @06:49PM (#24327031) Homepage

      Go deeper into the article about the end of transit. Buses are actually quite inefficient, because while loaded at rush hour, on average they carry few passengers. In the USA, city buses use more fuel per passenger-mile than cars do -- on average. And none of the other forms are a great deal better, though some do beat cars. Lightweight electric vehicles are 10 times more efficient than buses. It's one of the key realizations about transit in the article.

      • Only in the US (Score:5, Informative)

        by tknd (979052) on Thursday July 24, 2008 @08:30PM (#24328231)

        While he does make this conclusion about U.S. data, he is fair and continues his search to other parts of the world like Europe and Asia. From this page [templetons.com]:

        Don't Europe and Asia do better?

        Much better. This Australian Study cites figures saying that Western Europeans use only 76% of U.S. BTUs/pm in their private transport, and only 38% in their transit -- 2.5 times more efficient. Rich Asians do even better at transit -- they are almost 4 times as efficient in terms of energy/passenger-mile.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by dargaud (518470)
          Funny, I just read this morning a paper about the perception of fuel use by cars being different in the US and the rest of the world. The main element, according to the article, is that while the rest of the world uses litres per 100km, the US uses miles per gallon. The article implies that when you compare two cars that do 5l/100km and 4.5l/100km, it has more psychological impact than comparing 47mil/gal and 52mil/gal because of the inverse relationship.

          I'm not sure I'm following their logic but they give

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Dice (109560)

      Have you ever tried to get somewhere on a bus?

      Here's what Google Transit gives me for my morning commute: link [google.com]. Travel time: 2.25 hours. 3 transfer events, involving a total of 3 bus lines and 1 BART train.

      Either that, or I could drive over 237 and get to work in 20min.

    • by eln (21727) on Thursday July 24, 2008 @06:59PM (#24327185) Homepage

      our infrastructure isn't even close to what is need to support a billion electric cars.

      This is a red herring that gets brought up over and over. Our infrastructure wasn't even close to what was needed to support a billion gasoline-powered cars in 1900 either. Luckily for us, not everyone immediately went out and got a car, and not everyone will immediately go out and buy an electric car either. We can expand the infrastructure over time as electric car adoption increases, just like we've done with basically every other technology that required infrastructure to work.

    • Personal public transit is not quite like a bus. Instead of just getting on and showing your bus pass, you'll have to tell the robocar who you are and where you are going. This is a totalitarian government's wet dream. It would be able to track your every move and completely deny you movement if it so chose. Robocars will usher in the new era where transportation, not just long distance travel, is a privilege, to be granted or withheld on a whim.

      • Such a scheme would indeed be a privacy nightmare, but I'm guessing that robocars will also be owned by private citizens and pretty much behave as automatic versions of the cars of today.
        • by Chemisor (97276)

          > I'm guessing that robocars will also be owned by private citizens

          That won't help. Whether the robocar is yours or rented, it still has to tell the traffic control where it is going, and, I am sure, who is in it. If you read the articles, you'll see a whole slew of schemes requiring "reservations" and access to information for planning purposes. Maybe that information will be free, and reservations could be avoided, but I bet that eventually there will not be any option for people who want privacy.

          • Privacy issue (Score:3, Insightful)

            by btempleton (149110)

            This is discussed in the article. There is nothing that requires there be a "traffic control" or that you tell it where you are going, but there will be people who want to build such a system, and we must create the technology with care to discourage such architectures.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by geekoid (135745)

        "This is a totalitarian government's wet dream."

        shut up.
        also, nice use of a strawman fallacy.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Essentially what you will be building is a taxi fleet without the need (or cost) of drivers. I guess some people would see value in getting their own driverless car (myself included for weekend/afterhours use) but for the usual daily grind I think that this would be great.

      This would be an adjunct to regular public transport - many commuters would still use the train etc, but a large fleet of really really cheap cabs would revolutionise city usage.

      Even having a personal driverless car would be fantastic. Fin

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by NeutronCowboy (896098)

        You're missing the best point about a driverless personal car: I can point it in a direction, go to sleep, and wake up when it gets somewhere. Or have lunch. Or shoot some emails. Or play halo. Traveling won't be the complete waste of time it is now.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by kesuki (321456)

      there is something really important if we really do make 'robo' taxis.

      Modular battery systems. why buy a $xx,000 dollar robo taxi, if it has to 'sit' while the battery pack charges? it can be electric, electricity is cheap, right now much cheaper than oil, and it would have been almost as cheap as oil even when gas was only a $1.

      what makes the most sense it to have a 'repair shop/charging station' where the robo taxi's go to swap batteries, if you want them to waste less fuel driving back to get batteries

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Kamokazi (1080091)

      Hello, welcome to rural and small urban America, which accounts for well over half the US's population. This 'bus' and concept of a thing you call 'public transportation' is foreign to us.

      Unfortunatly, for many people, public transportation is not even a possibility. Small towns with fewer than ~30k people generally don't have any sort of public transportation at all (carpooling isn't usually an option either...often your nearest co-workers are more out of your way then actually going to work), and even l

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by p0tat03 (985078)

      Not the same. The problem with America is that it is obsessive about its suburbs. Cars can deliver you right to your doorstep. To even be considered as a valid transportation provider, buses need to get you within a very short distance of your door. In a suburban environment this means a LOT of buses, most of which will be empty all the time.

  • Sounds like... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by fiannaFailMan (702447) on Thursday July 24, 2008 @06:35PM (#24326843) Journal
    ...Personal Rapid Transit, but on roads rather than rails.

    In any case I think that people would be better employed saving the planet by working to prevent so many car journeys being made in the first place by trying to put an end to Single Use Zoning and fixing the silly way we build our so-called cities. It's not as geek-friendly or glamorous as rolling out a shiny new car that looks like something from an episode of Buck Rogers, but North American culture has too much faith in high-tech solutions to complex problems.

    Prevention is always better than cure. Better to go back to building cities so that they can meet their original purpose of putting daily needs within walking distance. Better to fix the leak rather than put a bigger or more sophisticated bucket under it.

    • Rebuilding cities would be great, but will take many decades, even centuries. The key to the robocar idea is it is an innovation that can be introduced, one buyer at a time, once it's legal. That's how innovation really happens. (Compare 802.11 vs most other radio applications.)

      The key is to find a path to more efficient transportation the public will adopt quickly, once offered.

      • "...once it's legal."

        Provided that when it is legal, it's not taxed, or hindered by some other means to make it "equal" to manual and/or internal combustion versions, or like the EV-1 gets inexplicably 'recalled' as a failed attempt when it wasn't.

      • Decades? Centuries? I have more faith in developers than that. I agree that retrofitting sprawling suburbs is difficult. What's less difficult is allowing mixed-use zoning in new developments.
    • by mangu (126918)

      people would be better employed saving the planet by working to prevent so many car journeys being made in the first place

      Yes, I agree. Maybe if those geeks designed a world-wide web that allowed people to shop from their homes... Oh, forget that, driving to the supermarket or the mall is more glamorous and geek-friendly, I guess.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by el_cepi (732737)
      I completely agree. Cities were designed share infrastructure. We share the electricity, water, internet, garbage collection. But for some reason we decide that transportation shall not be shared and everybody needs to get a huge box to move everywhere. This killing the cities.

      Building a public transportation is the real solution. A huge infrastructure investment on public transportation similar to the one last century to build the highway system makes perfect sense to generate the government investm

    • Re:Sounds like... (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Chiasmus_ (171285) <ayatollah_hyperbole @ y a hoo.com> on Thursday July 24, 2008 @07:23PM (#24327477) Journal
      Prevention is always better than cure. Better to go back to building cities so that they can meet their original purpose of putting daily needs within walking distance. Better to fix the leak rather than put a bigger or more sophisticated bucket under it.

      While there are certainly advantages to living in geographically self-contained units, there are also massive benefits to centralizing industries.

      Yes, the "slow foods" movement will tell us, accurately, that shipping our produce from hundreds of miles away causes an incredible amount of waste in fuel.

      But consider the alternative - a small farm for every nine city blocks. Suddenly, instead of having a system where one farmer can produce food for a thousand, you have a system where one farmer produces food for, say, fifty. Which means you have to have 20 times more farmers. Which means there are fewer people to provide other services. The same goes for commerce: five corner stores might be more convenient than one larger, more centralized 7-11 - but now you have five times as many people working in low-end retail.

      It's centralization of the more menial services that allow so many of us to have jobs in less immediately-necessary services - like programming or science. And almost-completely-unnecessary services, like video game design and filmmaking? Forget about it.
    • Re:Sounds like... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by nEoN nOoDlE (27594) on Thursday July 24, 2008 @08:08PM (#24327977) Homepage

      Better to fix the leak rather than put a bigger or more sophisticated bucket under it.

      Cars that drive themselves are a way of fixing the leak... what you're proposing is fixing the leak by tearing out all of the pipes and starting from scratch. Cities have already been built. It will be VERY time consuming and EXTREMELY costly to rebuild them to be more efficient with everything within walking distance. Cars are constantly changing, new models come out every year and nowadays have a 10 year shelf life. We could update pretty much our whole society into self-driving cars within 20 years and at the expense of the driver. Can the same be said about rebuilding cities?

  • Infrastructure (Score:4, Insightful)

    by proudfoot (1096177) on Thursday July 24, 2008 @06:35PM (#24326855)
    One major issue with RoboCars is that any effective implementation of them will require substantial changes to our current infrastructure. GPS based navigation is helpful - but - RFID markers on roads is much more effective. Cars can locate other cars, as shown in the Grand Challenge, using LIDAR, but this is very, very expensive and sometimes unreliable. (The DARPA 08' cars used 70,000 dollar LIDAR systems, and i'm not too sure how long one would last) To effectively know the location of other cars, all cars would need a transponder, echoing its location and other data (speed, intentions, plans to change lane, etc) I'm not quite sure how long it will be before we can implement these systems. To get autonomous cars cheap, and in a reasonable amount of time, we'd have to start mandating transponders right about now.
    • What's $70,000 today in quantity 10,000 is $50 in 2020 in quantity 1 billion, if it's electronics.

      No need for RFIDs or transponders. You need a system that works without other cars or the roads doing anything to get a user adoption - and we can get that.

    • by mo (2873)

      Transponders aren't enough. Unless you make sure that people only throw couches into the road that also include transponders, you're gonna need real obstacle detection.

      Heaven forbid a sinkhole opens up, swallowing 100's of robocars like lemmings to a cliff.

      That doesn't mean there's not a software solution to this problem. Organisms like lizards do quite well at visually detecting obstacles with brain power that's reasonably close to modern computers. While it might be a hugely difficult software problem,

  • Long ranges can be handled by having cars sit on trains and with computer based scheduling it would be easier to use them (unless windows handles the scheduling or we need crazy security checks.)

    Although people could simply walk from their robocar to the train...

    Seriously, you can't move as many people with robocars as a subway does in a downtown area.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 24, 2008 @06:48PM (#24327013)

    The reason cars don't drive themselves is not a problem of technology, but of liability. Now, if there is an accident the driver is blamed. Carmakers are unwilling to take on that liability and themselves be blamed for accidents.

  • This isn't all that hard. It's more of a social problem than a technological one. Correcting for erratic and imperfect human drivers is the big problem.

    I think it was I-15 in San Diego that had a lane used as test for autonomous cars in the 1990s. It required a regular spacing of markers for the cars to follow and that that all the cars contain transponders. If that was doable on a freeway ~10 years ago, what's proposed here can be done. It may just mean that you're no longer allowed to drive your own

  • as a bicyclist, (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    let me say, that the greatest thing that 'geeks' can do to save the environment, is to ignore moronic BS like this, stop having grand utopian visions, and f@#$ stop buying s@#$ they dont need.

  • by mo (2873) on Thursday July 24, 2008 @06:53PM (#24327109)

    Ok, so it might not be as extreme as all that, but have you seen the inside of a taxi? It's thrashed, and I think the only reason it's not more thrashed is that there's an taxi driver who would beat you up if you did something stupid.

    TFAuthor says that people might want to rent their robocars out while they're at work. Like hell I would! The last thing I need is some jackass with a spiked belt ripping a hole in my leather seats.

    If robocars become practical, and energy costs rise, it's possible that the author's vision will be inevitable. Still, it's gonna suck to find that some bum puked in my robotaxi right when I'm late for work.

    Maybe we can engineer robocops to sit in every robotaxi to prevent the vandals from ruining it for all of us.

  • KISS (Score:3, Interesting)

    by 12357bd (686909) on Thursday July 24, 2008 @06:56PM (#24327143)

    Why not start by coupling a frontal sonar and the gas-brake control to enforce the safety distance? Easy to do, and could save a lot of lives.

  • by RJFerret (1279530) on Thursday July 24, 2008 @06:58PM (#24327163) Homepage

    ...be called "drunk", "on cellphone" or "putting on makeup"?

  • by timholman (71886) on Thursday July 24, 2008 @07:19PM (#24327421)

    I give a talk on the consequences of Moore's Law to a freshman class every year, and one of my topics is autonomous vehicles. This web site does a great job of summarizing the future of personal transportation. A few other points I discuss with the class:

    (1) Mass transit as we think of it will largely vanish within 20 years. Cities will find it far easier to maintain fleets of robocars, and dispatch them right to the doors of residents, rather than maintain traditional subway and bus lines. The "last half-mile" problem of getting from the door of your home to the door of your destination will be solved.

    (2) The authors discuss "sleeper cars", but they don't really consider all the ramifications. A huge chunk of overnight business travel (everything within a few hundred miles) will be taken over by robocars. People will go to bed in the sleeper car, open the door the next day, and find themselves at their destination. Consequently, hotels and motels will offer short-term rooms (for one or two hours) so that people can shower and dress on the road. A significant portion of the U.S. population will literally become nomadic, sleeping in robotic RVs every night, and waking up to a new destination every morning.

    (3) Once robocars are widely accepted, human drivers will be forced off the roads very quickly. How? By 100% enforcement of all traffic laws with high-tech imaging (also thanks to Moore's Law). A human will be unable to conform to the ultra-rigid driving laws that robocars will handle with ease.

    As I say to my students: "You are the last generation that will need to learn to drive. To your children, it will be an option. To your grandchildren, knowing how to drive a car will be as quaint a concept as knowing how to saddle and ride a horse."

    • by geekoid (135745) <dadinportland AT yahoo DOT com> on Thursday July 24, 2008 @07:29PM (#24327551) Homepage Journal

      You are lying to your students.
      The social and practical issues haven't even been looked at, much less solved.

      OTOH, I don't really expect any practicality from a professor.

      I ahve no doubt it will happen, but we are generations away. My son(now 10) might start to see real world use from these. If people like them, you still ahve another generation, at best, before they gin to approach critical mass. This is do to the fact that people like their freedom when driving, and/or already own cars.

      Also, driving is fun.

      • by timholman (71886) on Thursday July 24, 2008 @09:17PM (#24328783)

        I ahve no doubt it will happen, but we are generations away. My son(now 10) might start to see real world use from these. If people like them, you still ahve another generation, at best, before they gin to approach critical mass. This is do to the fact that people like their freedom when driving, and/or already own cars.

        So you're saying that in 50 years (two generations), autonomous vehicles won't be possible? You are seriously underestimating what will be accomplished in that time frame. I think we'll start seeing prototypes on the road within 20 years at the outside. About 10% of the U.S. auto fleet is replaced every year, so yes, add 30 more years and practically every car on the road will be autonomous. Everything else will be clunkers and antiques.

        And please note, no one will be taking away your freedom to drive when you want, where you want. The only difference is that you won't need to be behind the wheel.

        Also, driving is fun.

        Here we get to the crux of your argument. You enjoy driving, and can't imagine anyone taking away something that represents maturity and independence to you. You're still thinking like a teenager. Clearly you're not sitting in rush hour traffic an hour every day. Driving is pure drudgery 95% of the time for most people. I think the overwhelming majority of drivers will embrace robocars. They may occasionally choose to take manual control for a spin in the open country, but most of the time they'll be perfectly content to let the computer handle the grunt work.

    • by Grishnakh (216268) on Thursday July 24, 2008 @07:59PM (#24327891)

      (2) The authors discuss "sleeper cars", but they don't really consider all the ramifications. A huge chunk of overnight business travel (everything within a few hundred miles) will be taken over by robocars. People will go to bed in the sleeper car, open the door the next day, and find themselves at their destination. Consequently, hotels and motels will offer short-term rooms (for one or two hours) so that people can shower and dress on the road. A significant portion of the U.S. population will literally become nomadic, sleeping in robotic RVs every night, and waking up to a new destination every morning.

      You've got to be kidding. Unless you dose up all these travelers with Ambien, many of them are going to sleep very poorly. Even the best luxury cars aren't noise-free and vibration-free enough to provide a decent level of comfort rivaling a standard bed in a quiet room. Coming close is going to require a really massive vehicle, which even with electric drive would require a lot of energy to move around.

      (1) Mass transit as we think of it will largely vanish within 20 years. Cities will find it far easier to maintain fleets of robocars, and dispatch them right to the doors of residents, rather than maintain traditional subway and bus lines. The "last half-mile" problem of getting from the door of your home to the door of your destination will be solved.

      Even this sounds pretty silly. While robocars would certainly make sense in suburban areas, there are lots of high-density cities (esp in Europe) where subways make more sense. Even with automated control, cars simply consume too much space to efficiently move millions of people around quickly, as subways do every day.

      Finally, when do you really think these automated vehicles will ever be viable? We still don't have computers that don't crash frequently, or have various other software problems. ATMs with blue screens are a common occurrence. One computer glitch in a robocar could cause many fatalities. Even though human error certainly causes problems, you're not going to get people to accept and trust robocars until computers and software have a better reputation for reliability, and I'm guessing that that won't happen until Microsoft has been out of business for at least a century.

      Unless Aubrey de Grey figures out how to stop aging, I don't expect to see anything like this in my lifetime, no matter how technically possible it may be.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by bcmm (768152)

        We still don't have computers that don't crash frequently, or have various other software problems. ATMs with blue screens are a common occurrence. One computer glitch in a robocar could cause many fatalities.

        No, you mean you don't see computers that don't crash frequently, because people prefer cutting-edge to stable, for the machines they actually have to deal with. How the hell do you think air travel works without thousands of fatalities a day?

  • Brad still can't tell the difference between doable and practical.

    How are they insured? how do you get people to convert? How do you protect them fomr vandelism? Theft?

    then this little number:
    " Because passengers don't care about the range of their taxis, "

    um, I don't know about good ol' Brad, but I sure as hell care about the range of a vehicle I'm getting into. Will it take me to a meet 30 miles away safely and timely?
    Can I take one across the state?

  • The problem really is that US cities and suburbs were designed ONLY for cars, and not for pedestrians. To buy stuff there aren't local stores (except maybe in big cities like NY) where you can buy misc stuff for your house. No, you have to get in the car, drive for N minutes to the nearest Walmart, park, get your stuff, rinse, repeat.

    Right now I just googled for "pedestrian unfriendly" and got to this blog:

    http://nishantkashyap.blogspot.com/2007/07/pedestrian-and-poor-unfriendly-us.html [blogspot.com]

    The first thing that strikes you about any US suburb is the landscaping - beautifully manicured patches of green all along the road and absolutely no sign of dust - perfect settings to take a stroll or if your office is close enough may be take a walk to the office. But lo and behold, where do you walk? There are absolutely no footpaths, no pedestrian crossings and as if that was not enough you have absolutely no public transport as well- a total anti-thesis of a city like NYC and that is true for all such places in US - a lesson for those who get mesmerized by cities likes NYC and Chicago and start cursing our poor cities. Any day I am happy taking a cycle-rick in hot and dusty Lucknow or Amritsar than risking my life walking on the side of the picturesque road here where traffic may be moving at 100 kmps minimum. Everyone here keeps a car and absolutely no one walks - there are some crossing which have a no pedestrian sign - something which I saw for the very first time in my life.

    With absolutely no provisions for pedestrians or public transport - I wonder what do the poor do here. Everyone is forced to buy a car - no wonder US is the biggest contributor to greenhouse emissions and also leveraged 3 time over because you absolutely have to buy and maintain a car. Moreover, due to lack of basic exercise like walking US is also facing obesity crisis and has been forced to spend a good amount of funds on health care and low cal diets.

    Then I googled for "car free cities" and got to this website:
    http://www.carfree.com/cft/i003_qz.html [carfree.com]

    After reading that, you'll begin to understand what really is wrong with car pollution in the U.S.

  • by bluefoxlucid (723572) on Thursday July 24, 2008 @07:51PM (#24327799) Journal

    Fuck that, I'm getting something with a stick.

    Give me a diesel powered car any day, instead of gasoline engines. It's so much better on so many counts... a little bigger/bulkier though. But way more power and fuel efficiency, simpler engine, burns cleaner (turbocharge it, or it burns really dirty and isn't as efficient)...

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by btempleton (149110)

      Is diesel more fuel efficient? You get more miles per *gallon* of fuel but isn't that just because diesel is denser, and you have more pounds of fuel -- which is what really matters -- in each gallon. It's why the gallons cost more.

      Reverse for ethanol, where a gallon has only 75% of the energy of a gallon of gasoline.

  • by saccade.com (771661) on Thursday July 24, 2008 @08:07PM (#24327973) Homepage Journal
    Marshall Brain has taken a much wider view [marshallbrain.com] of how robots will affect the future. By the time Templeton's Robo-cars come about, transportation will only be facet of a very major impact on the human race.
  • by Pahalial (580781) on Thursday July 24, 2008 @10:10PM (#24329245)
    How exactly does this solve our dependence on coal power plants [ucsusa.org]?
  • by rwa2 (4391) * on Thursday July 24, 2008 @10:55PM (#24329593) Homepage Journal

    I am in full support of this vision. However (and unfortunately), I think the practical answer will resemble robotic trains more than robotic cars operating on the current network of roads. Plus, the main benefits of an improved transportation system will involve restructuring the way cities and communities are built when they are not sliced apart and divided by acres of roadways.

    First of all, while there has been some limited success in building autonomous cars, but we can't even get autonomous airplanes accepted into our air transportation system even though planes have practically been able to fly themselves for decades. Hell, most cities can't even get people to accept conductor-less subway trains, and have to hire college students or bums to sit in the front cabin.

    The robotic vehicle would have to be completely isolated and separated from unpredictable human traffic and other sources of interference, if only for liability issues.

    The best first step in widespread use of robotic cars might just be on the interstate highway system, where they could construct a special lane designed only for robotic vehicles. So you could drive your car/truck onto an interstate, auto-merge into the robotic lane, set the autopilot for your destination exit, and take a nap or otherwise entertain yourself until an alarm wakes you up to exit.

    For incursions into urban areas, you'd want something similar to the Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) systems everyone was investigating in the 70's. Take a look at the CabinTaxi system at: http://faculty.washington.edu/jbs/itrans/cabintaxi%20photos.htm [washington.edu] . There are modern PRT systems finally being planned for deployment recently in Heathrow and Dubai... however, they seem to be limited to airport shuttles and aren't really large enough to meet the promise of a large distributed network with many stations.

    Speaking of Dubai, the biggest obstacle will be financial, of course. The road and highway system is expensive, but a lot of the infrastructure is paid for by the user in purchase and maintenance of their own personal vehicles. While the city as a whole would find the entire system cheaper if the government would purchase and maintain a smaller number of shared vehicles, good luck convincing them to finance both the network and the vehicles if they can just build the network and have the users pay for their own vehicles. Of course, car sharing companies such as Flexcar / Zipcar offer something of a shared vehicle, they only have limited potential unless they'd allow one-way rentals... where you can pick up a Zipcar at one "station" and drop it off at another "station", where someone else could make use of it. You'd need some way of getting the cars back to empty stations, but that would realize benefits in terms of reducing the area of pavement needed for parking if everyone had their own personal vehicle.

    However, I don't think advanced transportation is the magic bullet that will solve all of our problems... I think much greater benefits will be realized by redesigning cities to be denser, more human friendly, and carfree (check out http://carfree.com/ [carfree.com] ), so people simply don't need to travel so far from a nice home to a nice place to work.

    So yes, I'm an Arcology nut (check out my MSSE thesis on my homepage). I think the Dantzig / Saaty "Compact Cities" book from 1971 had the most comprehensive plan for constructing a city that I have seen in my research (you'll have to look it up in a good library, it's fairly rare).

    In any case, I agree that this kind of development should be a national priority, since there is a *lot* of room for improvement. But since improving the place you live and how you get around are kinda mundane, "infrastructure" issues, I figure we'll see little to no advances in the Western world until China develops the technology and discipline and manages to dust us with their production efficiency, and maybe eventually a high standard of living (said only half-jokingly).

  • by Animats (122034) on Friday July 25, 2008 @02:02AM (#24330757) Homepage

    Having run a DARPA Grand Challenge team, I've been through most of this line of reasoning. I'm rather less optimistic.

    First, Templeton writes "The cost of accidents is arguably the single largest component of the per-mile cost of driving a vehicle", but doesn't provide justification for that statement. Total US gasoline consumption costs about $600 billion per year. The American Automobile Association says that US auto accidents cost about $164 billion per year. [cnn.com]

    Second, while we can do automatic driving in a situation where all the players are reasonably well-behaved vehicles, we're a long way from being able to do it safely in a populated area. Today's robot vehicle technologies have minimal "situational awareness". That's one of the hardest problems in AI. Right now, sensing systems are up to recognizing "obstacle" and "moving car-like thing". Pedestrian and bicyclist behavior prediction is a ways off.

    The whole section on robot vehicles with incredible evasive ability is bogus. Vehicles are limited by inertia and maneuvering room. Cutting the reaction time from 500ms to 50ms would help some. Half of all collisions would be prevented if braking started 500ms sooner, according to a Mercedes study. Chain collisions are an artifact of human reaction time; with minimal inter-vehicle coordination, all the cars in a lane could come to a fast stop without colliding. But evasive action requires room.

    Most of the estimates of huge savings come not from automatic driving but from electric cars. Especially little lightweight electric cars. You can get little electric cars now; I'm in Silicon Valley and I see them now and then. But they're about as common as Segways.

    Zipcar [zipcar.com] indicates that the car sharing concept can work. With automatic driving, the car could be delivered to you, so it could be used in less-dense areas than central cities. But it's really for people who only need a car occasionally. Zipcar is $10/hour.

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