Motordom
October 24, 2014

Ohrn Words: ICBC U and driverless cars

Lee Gomes writes at Slate.com about driverless cars, which are occasionally touted as a panacea for traffic congestion and the appalling death and injury toll on our roads. Not so fast, he says. Expect less autonomy, and longer time to achieve even that.
He describes Google’s current state of the art, and notes that their driverless cars depend completely upon detailed route maps that are orders of magnitude more complex and expensive to create than, say, Google maps. Likewise, car sensors, he says, cannot adequately recognise and react to changes in the car’s mapped environment. He uses the example of a newly installed traffic light, such as at a construction zone.  There are other weaknesses, like parking.
But the one that interests me most is the car’s computers’ inability to have and use “everyday common sense”, a.k.a. “generalized intelligence”, which most human drivers have, and which allows them to make rapid decisions when faced with the unexpected. For humans, this consists of rules of thumb, scenarios, behaviour patterns, and other things acquired by experience, observation and the “school of hard knocks”, also known as ICBC U.

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World Streets updates the latest addition to Parisian streets:

As electric vehicles reduce oil consumption and vehicle carbon emissions on a per-kilometre basis, a team from the International Energy Agency recently checked out the innovative Parisian car-sharing system that allows tourists and residents to criss-cross Paris for a modest fee – and an even more attractive cost in carbon emissions: zero.      

Autolib’ has a website at Website: http://www.autolib.eu

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My Business in Vancouver column:

I didn’t really think it was possible to develop a practical driverless car. Until Google did it. See for yourself:

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Already you can buy a “self-parking” car using the technology, and just a few weeks ago, California joined a few other states in legalizing the testing of fully automated vehicles.

I still wonder what the lawyers will do to the “auto-auto” when the first serious accident happens – but nonetheless, it’s on its way, and such an imminent prospect has unleashed a tsunami of speculation.

What a blessing, for instance, for those too young to drive, for those too old to drive safely, for the disabled, the inebriated and the texting distracted.

So does this mean that the streets will be crammed with driverless vehicles?

I expect just the reverse.

A car remains idle about 95% of the time – not a particularly efficient return on your investment. But what if you could send it out into the world to earn money until you need it, especially when the cost of such cars will initially be much higher?

Then the obvious question: why do you need a personal car at all? If there are literally tens of thousands of quasi-taxis all around you, immediately available with a click on your smartphone, why not just pay for the service, not the hardware?

Concerns about safety, damage and hygiene? Just become a member of a vetted private pool, rather like car-sharing today, that might number in the thousands.

Still, even with all the new possibilities, a relative handful of cars might be able to provide much of the non-peak demand: more use in far fewer cars.

Say goodbye to the taxi industry. And goodbye to the bus, say some, forecasting the end of transit.

Not at all, counters transportation blogger Jarrett Walker: the sheer amount of space required makes the prospect impossible – at least in compact centres during rush hours. The world may stratify into two modes: high-volume rapid transit and driverless vehicles. Plus walking and cycling for short-trip commuting and recreation.

Will driverless vehicles, however, encourage even more sprawl?

Maybe not. Think about the impact on the vast amounts of parking currently required. Who needs parking lots when the cars are in close-to-continual motion, especially when there are dramatically fewer of them needed to serve the population?

And it’s parking that creates commercial sprawl – all that asphalt separating all those tilt-up boxes.

Paradoxically, driverless cars might lead to more compact urban forms, especially when land prices adjust to take advantage of the freed-up space. Other forces might then shape our residential communities, allowing for gentler and more affordable densities not constrained by the need for as much expensive in-house parking.

There’s also another constraint on unlimited use of driverless vehicles: taxes. With a loss of fuel taxes as a source for transportation infrastructure, government would find it much easier to introduce road pricing.

With the software seamlessly integrated into the vehicle, trip costs could be billed to take into account time of day, length of trip, degree of congestion, type of fuel, size of car – instantly calculated, deducted from your transportation account and made visible in a way that voters would object to if done on their personal vehicles.

Privacy concerns? You bet. Driverless cars will provoke all sorts of lawyerly fodder. But the most interesting case will be the one where it’s clear a fatality could have been avoided if the driver had engaged the automated technology.

In other words, how much liability will you as a driver be taking on by controlling the vehicle yourself – and will you be able to afford the insurance?

Not only is the era of the driverless car soon to arrive, it might be followed by the end of the human-driven car.

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UPDATE: Grist reports on how the auto industry wants to keep aging boomers on the road:

Automakers are banking on boomers being able to stretch out their driving years with the aid of safety technologies — like adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning systems and blind-spot monitoring — that are becoming more common in cars.

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