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Where Robot Cars (Robocars) Can Really Take Us

Where Robot Cars (Robocars) Can Really Take Us

Or how computer geeks can enable the electric car, save the planet and millions of lives using near-term A.I. to make taxis and trucks deliver, park, recharge and drive themselves.

For the lastest news and updates , check out my Robocars Blog.

People have dreamed of cars that drive themselves for decades. Now, thanks to a contest sponsored by the U.S. military and further work by companies like Google, Volkwagon and Volvo, they are much closer to becoming reality than many people realize. It now feels possible to make the bold prediction that if we, as a society truly will it, we can make them popular by around 2020. More and more people are ready to declare that -- technology-wise -- it's a question of when, not if.

The technology behind this is fascinating, but even more interesting are other questions that surround the robot car future. Those issues include:

  • The staggering numbers that command that we do it.
  • How we might get past the social and legal barriers.
  • How it will change energy, pollution, cities, transit, war, work, real estate and manufacturing -- and yes, cars.

I'll tell you why and how robocars can deal with much of this, and paint you a "roadmap" to this future. I'll reveal why a number of the most interesting robocar boons come from things they can do when there's nobody inside.

But I want to start you with some amazingly huge numbers, so large they seem almost absurd. Nonetheless, I believe that robocars could, in the USA alone, per year, enable savings like these:

  • 33,000 lives and a million injuries (NIH). Mostly young people, for whom car accidents are the leading cause of death among major categories. Over a million lives/year around the world.
  • 230 billion dollars of accident cost (NTSB). About 2-3% of GDP.
  • 50 billion hours (or 1 trillion dollars) of people's time. Around 8% of GDP.
  • 50 billion gallons of imported gasoline, replaced with the equivalent of 10 billion "gallons" of domestic-source power plant fuel. Thus eliminating about 12-15% of the USA's CO2 emissions and nastier pollution.
  • A serious reduction in the urban land devoted to the ~600 million parking spaces, estimated to be up to 10% of urban land in many cities.

Now multiply that by 5 to get figures for the whole planet. If that's not enough to get you going, I am not sure what is.

The case for robot carsStart here.
RoadmapYou can get there from here. Plus a surprising amount is already for sale.
RoadblocksSocial and legal concerns that will get in the way.
Design ChangesHow robot cars change greatly how vehicles are designed.
A Week of RobocarsA set of stories from the Robocar world. You can also start here for a different path to the message of this article.
A future vision for transitHow transit might be much better in the future.
DeliverbotsChanges small robot trucks may bring.
WhistlecarsCars that humans drive but which self-deliver could come earlier.
DownsidesSome of the problems and downsides.
PrivacySidebar on privacy issues.
When?When can this really happen? How much will they cost?
FAQ / ObjectionsObjections, misconceptions and different visions from earlier robocar predictions.
Geeks save the EarthA short summary of why robcars are the computer person's best shot at making a big difference.
ParkingWhy there could never be a parking problem with robocars.
More notesMore surprising consequences.
Urban ChangesThe potential for "Robocar Oriented Development" in cities.
CompetitionHow robocar taxi services will compete for business.
TeamsSummary of various robocar teams and projects working around the world.
AccidentsDetails on legal and other aspects of the probable early accidents.
Speed LimitsShould Robocars speed?
GovernmentWhat should governments do?
RegulationRegulating Robocar safety (and the case for a light touch.)
Cameras vs LIDARA discussion of the use of different sensors in the early Robocars.
End of Mass TransitRobocars may spell the end for urban mass transit.
Green Transit MythSidebar on U.S. transit efficiency.
MotornetData networks for Robocars -- Connected Cars.
SimulatorPlan for a robocar driving simulator.
GlossarySome terms used or invented in this article.
The NumbersSome transportation statistics that make robocars so compelling.

Executive Summary

  • They're here: Robot cars (Robocars) are coming, and sooner than you think. Many of the technologies are already present in real cars and prototypes. There's an incremental path to get us there. Robocars make computers the most important part of cars, and bring the Moore's-law acceleration to transportation. Google's robocars have aready gone over 500,000 miles on regular roads, and done a 96,000 mile stretch without a safety intervention -- even taken a blind man on his errands. Basic self-driving products have been announced by Mercedes, Cadillac (shipping in 2013,) VW/Audi, BMW, Toyota, Nissan and GM.
  • They're Legal: California, Nevada and Florida have passed laws enabling and regulating them, and California and several other states are following suit. There are still barriers to public acceptance to be overcome, though.
  • Military-prompted, civilian made: The combination of military demand and desire for fancy safety systems in high-end automobiles will drive most of the rest of the technology. See videos of real robocars in action today.
  • Enables electric cars: By providing a solution to the range/battery problem, self-delivered cars enable the small electric car, which is vastly more efficient than existing cars or even trains. Don't know who killed the electric car but robcars can save it.
  • Greener: Efficient electric cars could reduce urban car greenhouse gas emissions by 80%.
  • Less War: A move to electric cars would vastly decrease the need to import oil from unfriendly nations.
  • End of Transit: Ultralight, single-rider urban robocars can get the equivalent of over 350 miles per gallon. In that future, our 20-40 passenger-mpg bus and rail transit systems fade away.
  • Autonomous: Unlike earlier designs, robocars will probably be fully autonomous (no special lanes or central control) and ride the streets safely with human driven cars and pedestrians.
  • Saves lives: Every year we delay deploying robocars (and related technology) in the USA, human driving will kill another 33,000, and 1.2 million worldwide.
  • Solves parking, congestion: Robocars can remove most problems with parking and traffic congestion. In fact, cities may need no more parking lots in the distant future.
  • Truly enables alternative fuels: Through the ability to go refuel themselves when not in use, robocars can experiment with novel fuels without needing a dense network of refueling stations on day one. Robots don't care how inconvenient refueling, recharging or parking are.
  • Right vehicle: On-demand, cellphone-summoned robotaxis can let you summon the right vehicle for the trip, freeing you to buy the right car for most of your trips rather than insisting on a car to handle all your needs. If you buy a car at all. And if you do, you might hire yours out when not using it.
  • Self-delivered: Before the robotaxi, a car which will bring itself to you on demand but which is still driven by a human could provide many of the benefits.
  • Little public money: Robocars require no new infrastructure or public money. It's all paid for incrementally by private citizens.
  • Bottom up adoption: Robocars can be designed for a competitive market, and bought by consumers. In electronics, this causes soaring innovation vastly unlike what central planning of transportation offers. Rich, technophile "early adopters" will drive the technology before it's ready for everybody.
  • Deliverbots: Deliverbots can change the economics of shipping and rarely used manufactured goods with just-in-time on-demand rental delivery.
  • If not here, elsewhere: If the USA isn't ready for them, Robocars will appear elsewhere first, like Singapore, China, India or Japan.

You can leave comments at this blog post.

In addition, you can read and subscribe to the Robocars section of my blog.

Here is a link to the "slides" of my Robocar talk as a Prezi.