September 15, 2016

Riding an Uberbot

UBER has a fleet of self-driving cars in operation in Pittsburgh.  Several journalists have taken a ride. Read excerpts from their reports, with links, below. But first, some thoughts from Uber’s top dog.
According to Travis Kalanick (Uber’s CEO) in Business Insider:

It’s not just an engineering challenge that’s deterministic, and I know what I have to build. We are figuring out as we go what has to be built because, even when you have the world’s experts on this challenge, there are things that even if you’re Google, or even if you’re anybody, Apple, all the guys that are working on it, there are things that haven’t been invented yet. And that’s part of the fun. . .
. . .  you’re still going to need a human-driven parallel, or hybrid. And the reason why is because there are just places that autonomous cars are just not going to be able to go or conditions they’re not going to be able to handle.

The first part of this quote points to the huge challenge of standardization, in a near-term future where an Uber car needs to communicate something about intent, timing, car-train cooperation or God-knows what else, to another robo-car made by Ford, Tesla, BMW, Mercedes, Apple, Google, Baidu, NuTonomy and so on.  And it’s all been invented in-house, with key components guarded jealously as trade secrets that enable domination.

Mike Isaac in the New York Times writes about the test drive experience:

During my ride, most of which I spent as a passenger in Boron 6’s back seat, my safety engineer proved his worth. At various moments, he had to take over the wheel and turn through intersections where locals are known to speed. When a truck driver backed out into the road illegally, he put his foot on the brake, immediately taking control of the car. . .
. . .  But for most of the ride, I felt safe. In self-driving mode, turns and stops were near seamless, and I often had to check in with my driver to see whether he or the computer was steering the car. I did grow a bit nervous a few times when watching how close the computer drove us to cars parked on the right side of a street. Though, admittedly, that could have been my mind playing tricks on me by being more vigilant than usual about my surroundings.

Nick Bilton in Vanity Fair has a different, but deeper, slant on Uber’s challenge from the robo-car. On the business side, Uber succeeds today by connecting cars (drivers) and passengers.  But what happens when someone else owns the car, and the service. And what happens to a society, like the USA and Canada, that is dependent upon cars, and car ownership for transportation and big chunks of GDP?  And what is the upshot when those vehicles, most of them currently idle and stored around 90% of the time, become much more effectively productive? Mr. Bilton digs into these ideas.
But back to Uber.

But if you think about it, Uber isn’t actually connecting passengers to cars. Instead, it is really connecting passengers to drivers. When those drivers are replaced by computers, Uber is a less important, and less valuable, middle man. Kalanick is fully aware of this reality. “We are definitely not building the cars,” he noted to B.I., “and I don’t know who is going to own the fleet.” That opportunity is open to a lot of other companies who are trying to not be erased by the approaching reality of autonomous vehicles. . .
. . . It seems that Uber is about to face the classic dilemma that stifles all big businesses as technology starts to attack them from the future: they must change in a way that eats away their core business, or someone else will. There are some businesses that can adapt quickly enough to the changes, and survive, and others that can’t. Steve Jobs was in the former camp when he released the iPhone in 2007, fully aware that it would kill the iPod, a core part of Apple’s revenue. In doing so, he was able to thrust Apple forward to become the most valued company in the world.

Read more »

The Economist looks at autonomous vehicles.  The article glows with the familiar wild optimism of Silicon Valley hubris, and none of it will come to pass quickly, in my opinion.  When and if it does, it will involve wrenching changes in the insurance industry among others, and it may be relegated (regulated?) to specific niches.
The vision of a driverless vehicle safely travelling our complex and changeable streets seems to me a utopia set in a future far, far away.  But, in the quest for unimaginable riches, practicality has a way of taking a back seat (get it?) to the visionary.

But Uber’s ambitions, and the expectations underpinning its valuation, extend much further: using self-driving vehicles, it wants to make ride-hailing so cheap and convenient that people forgo car ownership altogether. Not satisfied with shaking up the $100-billion-a-year taxi business, it has its eye on the far bigger market for personal transport, worth as much as $10 trillion a year globally.
Uber is not alone in this ambition. Companies big and small have recognised the transformative potential of electric, self-driving cars, summoned on demand. Technology firms including Apple, Google and Tesla are investing heavily in autonomous vehicles; from Ford to Volvo, incumbent carmakers are racing to catch up. An epic struggle looms. It will transform daily life as profoundly as cars did in the 20th century: reinventing transport and reshaping cities, while also dramatically reducing road deaths and pollution . . .
. . .   Self-driving cars will reinforce trends unleashed by ride-hailing, making it cheaper and more accessible. The disabled, the old and the young will find it easier to go where they want. Many more people will opt out of car ownership altogether. An OECD study that modelled the use of self-driving cars in Lisbon found that shared autonomous vehicles could reduce the number of cars needed by 80-90%. As car ownership declines, the enormous amount of space devoted to parking—as much as a quarter of the area of some American cities—will be available for parks and housing instead.

Read more »

Sandy James: This piece has just come out from Ryerson on the issue of autonomous vehicles. I took one look at this and wondered what people in fifty years will say when they look back on this type of video-will they think the same as we do now looking at those early videos of the benefits of the 1950’s highway construction across the USA?

What is notable is that walking and accessibility really do not get prime points here, and the interfacing between this new technology and peds/bikers gets no shrift.



pricetags: Given how easy it will be for pedestrians and cyclists to frustrate the flow of AVs, knowing that the vehicles will always stop and accede the right-of-way, will there be pressure to prohibit any other users than cars on the roads except in designated places like crosswalks (on the light) and separated cycletracks?

Read more »

Not quite ready for prime time – but already on the roads.  From The Guardian:



“Truck platooning” involves two or three trucks that autonomously drive in convoy and are connected via wireless, with the leading truck determining route and speed.

Wednesday’s arrival concluded the first-ever cross-border experiment of its kind, with self-driving trucks leaving factories from as far away as Sweden and southern Germany.

There’s a video here.

Read more »
This jumped out in a Newsweek article:

Uber reports that in some cities, one-third of its trips begin or end at a public-transit station.

This stuck me as relevant, having been at a conference where the Motordom types were suggesting that automated vehicles will do away with the need for transit – even rapid transit.  Because their world, in defense of more cars and bigger roads, looks like this:

In this version of the future, self-driving cars could smash through the Marchetti Wall*. They would unlock what’s known as “induced demand”—prompting commutes of such lengths that they’d have been previously unfathomable. Or we might find people deciding they never need to park their cars because, hey, cars can circle on their own.
McDonald imagines a commuter going to work in his self-driving car: “Let’s say he gets to the office, he gets dropped off at the front door. And he tells the car to go find its cheapest parking.” Maybe it drives out to the far suburbs, to park for free on a side street. “He says, ‘Okay, just go have fun today! Go drive around! Come back and get me at 5. Why not? It’s cheaper!'” The problem of cruising could morph into a Monty Pythonesque parody of modern life: a street clogged with traffic, but all the cars are empty. In economic terms, this is called a “rebound effect”: If you make something suddenly more efficient to do, people will do more of it.


Nothing, as the article notes, a little congestion/road pricing wouldn’t solve.


* The Italian physicist Cesare Marchetti observed that throughout history—going back to ancient Rome—the majority of people disliked commuting more than one hour to work. If you’re faced with a longer commute, you hit the Wall and rearrange your life, finding a new, more local job or moving closer to the office.

Read more »

From the New York Times Magazine:


The cars now being tested by Google, BMW, Ford and others all see by way of a particular kind of scanning system called lidar (a portmanteau of ‘‘light’’ and ‘‘radar’’). A lidar scanner sends out tiny bursts of illumination invisible to the human eye, almost a million every second, that bounce off every building, object and person in the area.
This undetectable machine-­flicker is ‘‘capturing’’ extremely detailed, millimeter-­scale measurements of the surrounding environment, far more accurate than anything achievable by the human eye. Capturing resembles photography, but it operates volumetrically, producing a complete three-­dimensional model of a scene. …
The sensory limitations of these vehicles must be accounted for … especially in an urban world filled with complex architectural forms, reflective surfaces, unpredictable weather and temporary construction sites. This means that cities may have to be redesigned, or may simply mutate over time, to accommodate a car’s peculiar way of experiencing the built environment.
The flip side of this example is that, in these brief moments of misinterpretation, a different version of the urban world exists: a parallel landscape seen only by machine-­sensing technology in which objects and signs invisible to human beings nevertheless have real effects in the operation of the city. If we can learn from human misperception, perhaps we can also learn something from the delusions and hallucinations of sensing machines. But what?


To see how driverless cars might perceive — and misperceive — the world, ScanLAB Projects drove a 3-D laser scanner through the streets of London.


While artists once traveled great distances to see sights of sublimity and grandeur, equally wondrous and unsettling scenes can now be found within the means of travel itself. As we peer into the algorithmic dreams of these vehicles, we are perhaps also being given the first glimpse of what’s to come when they awake.


Full story here.

Read more »
Scot found this in Vox: Once seniors are too old to drive, our transportation system totally fails them


Sprawl forces seniors to drive (even when it’s not safe)

Anyone who lives long enough will likely lose the ability to safely operate a car. But most states don’t require driving tests for elderly drivers renewing their licenses.

Many keep driving for longer than they should — and that can be seen in data on fatal crashes:

(Insurance Institute for Highway Safety)

Drivers are way more likely to be involved in fatal crashes past the age of 75. And for those 85-plus, the data is even worse than it is for teens.

This is mostly because in the event of a crash, older drivers are more likely to die from injuries than younger ones. But it’s partly because older drivers have deteriorating vision and reaction time, which leads to more crashes overall.

This doesn’t mean we should blame senior citizens for wanting to drive — it’s an overlooked cost of a system that gives them no choice. …

Once seniors stop driving, those who remain in suburban homes are marooned in an environment designed to be traversed by car. The most obvious problem, says Stephen Golant, a gerontologist at the University of Florida, is access to goods and services.

But seniors who are isolated also have worse health outcomes and lower life expectancies, even after adjusting for preexisting health conditions and other factors. This may be because they’re less likely to get health advice and monitoring from family and friends and also because they miss the emotional benefits of regular human contact. …

In surveys, more than 90 percent of senior citizens say they want to stay in their current homes as long as possible. Right now, if they want to avoid isolation, they’re often forced to give that up. …

… for those who live in sprawling suburbs not designed to be serviced by public transit, trying to use paratransit can be difficult — if not impossible. …


New solutions to senior transportation

The good news is that some communities and organizations are experimenting with new approaches.

Some are attempts to change development patterns in areas where seniors live. …

Other experts are optimistic that new technologies can help fill in the gap. “I think the Uber model is increasingly going to be important,” says Golant. “All kinds of products and services will increasingly be at the fingertips of all people, including seniors.”

He suggests that cities might start subsidizing Uber or Lyft rides for people who qualify for paratransit, as a more efficient way of allocating transit money. As an alternative, Stafford envisions nonprofit ride-sharing apps specifically tailored to seniors — and perhaps delivery of groceries and other goods as well.

More than anything else, self-driving cars could revolutionize seniors’ transportation options. Widespread self-driving technology is still years away, but Google has programmed cars that can safely navigate a heavily mapped area in Northern California.

Some experts are skeptical that they’ll ever be functional in real-world driving conditions across the country. But if they do, they could provide an easy means of getting around for people who can no longer drive — allowing millions of seniors to remain in their homes without becoming isolated.

Read more »

From the New York Times:


Eric Larsen heads research in society and technology at Mercedes-Benz Research and Development in Sunnyvale, Calif. …

The suburbs are still very important. You hear about people moving back into Detroit, but the urban areas that are growing larger in size are in the South and West, and they are suburban-born. They have downtowns, but they’re empty at night. That has implications for transporting goods and people. …

Young people have had their adulthood postponed by the recession, but most of them will still get married and move to the suburbs. They want children, and they want home-based lives. They like to have space around them. They fill up a car with kids, dogs and stuff from big-box supply stores. That means people will still want big cars. …

… there will be privately shared vehicles. We have a business called Boost, where minivans drive children after school. They are like school buses, but door to door, and parents can track them with a phone app. They have a concierge as well as a driver, because the driver can’t leave the bus and walk the kid right to the door. A 7-year-old needs that. In this case, we’re selling a mobility service rather than a product.

Mostly, we don’t think people will give up their own cars. Americans like to do everything in the cars. They eat in cars, they drink in cars, they have entertainment in cars and they change clothes in cars — people who leave the office at lunch and sleep in their cars, or wait in their cars for an hour at a time for their children.

Driving is really the distracting thing we do in cars. …

What about electric cars?

This part of the model isn’t broken for most car owners. Fracking has been a strong influence, keeping gas prices low. Internal combustion engines are getting better mileage. Natural gas is cleaner burning and is easier to install from a technology point of view. .

Refueling with gasoline is five minutes, once a week. People have anxiety around running out of fuel with electric cars. Tesla is building out a network of fast charging stations. Cities are doing it too, with charging stations at a few spots in city garages. But if electric cars become popular, are they really going to put a charger in every space in the garage? …

Wealthy people want to show that they care about saving the world. The Prius was generally bought by people who could afford a more expensive car. Tesla put that in an even sexier package — you get a high-performance car and it’s green.

One of the challenges is that luxury wants to be heavy, with better seats, more safety features, more stuff in the car. Authenticity matters too. Wealthy people want things that are natural and handmade.

In our AMG model we have an idea of “One man, one engine,” with the name of the person who made the engine on it. Leather will never go out of shoes or handbags, and probably not cars.

There’s a constant back-and-forth. It’s hard to be rich without contradicting yourself.


Other insights here.

Read more »

Said Tara Grescoe: “The more I read about self-driving cars, the more I realize that nobody knows what they’ll mean for our cities.”

More evidence (something else that never occurred to me) from CityLab: 


How Driverless Cars Could Make Traffic Dramatically Worse


A new simulation-based study of driverless cars questions how well these two big secondary benefits—less traffic and more comfort—can coexist. Trains are conducive to productivity in large part because they aren’t as jerky as cars. But if driverless cars mimic the acceleration and deceleration of trains, speeding up and slowing down more smoothly for the rider’s sake, they might sacrifice much of their ability to relieve traffic in the process. …

… if we want riding in a driverless car to be as comfortable as riding in a train, we need to consider the possibility that more traffic will be the result. Le Vine and company conclude:

Our findings suggest a tension in the short run between these two anticipated benefits (more productive use of travel time and increased network capacity), at least in certain circumstances. It was found that the trade-off between capacity and passenger-comfort is greater if autonomous car occupants program their vehicles to keep within the constraints of HSR (in comparison to LRT).

The work is a reminder that the full benefits of a driverless-car world might take quite some time to materialize—and that we should prepare for the challenges, too. Le Vine acknowledges that congestion might very well clear up once every vehicle in the fleet is autonomous, or even once there are enough to create driverless platoons. Until then, however, the traffic outcomes are much less predictable and very possibly negative.

Consider, for instance, that these simulations didn’t include pedestrians. Doing so no doubt would have led to even more starting and stopping, and thus more delay. And if seatbelts remain mandatory in driverless cars, that might require smoother acceleration and deceleration; much of the comfort of a train ride, after all, is the lack of seat restraints. Traffic behavior would also change if manufacturers offer people several driving profile options—say, from ultra-smooth to aggressive.

All the more reason to think driverless cars will complement, rather than immediately replace, public transportation in cities.

Read more »