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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. Many of the essays on this site were written over a decade ago but are still mostly accurate today -- but they could use some updating.

The dream of cars that drive themselves -- robocars -- has existed for decades. In the 2000s it got kickstarted, and the 2010s saw rapid development by scores of major players. Now the 2020s will see commercial deployment. It's not science-fiction any more.

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 make it necessary and inevitable.
  • 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.
  • A large portion of 870 billion dollars of accident cost (NHTSA). About 5% of GDP.
  • 50 billion hours (or 1 trillion dollars) of people's time. Around 8% of GDP.
  • 50 billion gallons of 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. I calculate that the human race drives around 1.7 light years every year. Yes, together we're going faster than light.

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 operating in pilot projects already, and will go into commercial deployment in the 2020s. There's a 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 10 million miles (2018) on regular roads, operated with no human supervision in special cases and today drive a special set of members of the public around the Phoenix area. And almost all automakers, and suppliers, plus many tech companies and startups are in the game, with many billions of dollars already invested.
  • They're Legal: Many U.S. states and many countries have passed laws defining their testing and operation, and some now have rules for vehicles with no human supervision to operate.
  • Military-prompted, civilian made: The military started it but the civiliant world has taken the ball and run far beyond that.
  • 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.
  • Greener: Efficient electric cars could reduce urban car greenhouse gas emissions by 80%.
  • 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.
  • Less War: A move to electric cars would vastly decrease the need to import oil from unfriendly nations.
  • 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: Nations are racing to take the lead, with big efforts in China, Japan, Singapore, Korea, Germany, Sweden, the UK and other places.

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.