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(Book from 2008)
A Week of Robocars
Here are some stories of the potential robocar world, to bring things to a human level. This is a hypothetical work of fiction. Company brands referred to are used in a fictional context.
John works downtown, about 8 miles from his home. He owns a single person robocar, but has no garage. His robocar is electric, and has about 3 kwh of batteries in it, which can go 30 miles if you drain it fully, but to keep the batteries healthy it never goes more than about 15. It's able to go about 40mph and never leaves city streets.
The car always takes itself to a charging pole at night, when power is cheap, so that it's full in the morning. Near the time that John's alarm is set for, it finds a place to wait a short distance from John's house. When he's ready to leave, John presses a button he's put in his kitchen, and the robocar moves to the front of his house. He's a bit late, so he brings his coffee and bagel with him.
He walks up, the car detects his cell phone approaching and unlocks for him. He gets in, and presses the button for it to start.
The vehicle has already been listening to data on traffic patterns and traffic light timings. It chooses the fastest route to the office with the fewest turns and stops, and gently accelerates on his way. Traffic capacity is good because 80% of the streets leading downtown have been rerouted as one-way into town, and all robocars that were parked along the side of the major streets moved themselves out of the way before rush hour.
John eats his bagel, and watches his favourite videoblog morning show on the screen. The vehicle moves down the road. It knows when the lights will be green so it never goes too fast and never sees a red light. However, John still manages to spill his coffee on the table. Swearing to himself, he calls up a bookmark on the computer to arrange cleaning.
The car is no-exhaust, small and electric and thus allowed to pull right into the elevator lobby of John's office building. He steps out, grabs a cloth from the bathroom and quickly wipes the coffee, then shuts the car door and gets into the elevator.
The car moves to a "Stuff Depot" branch not far from John's office. In the Stuff Depot, it backs itself up to a special robot station, and unlocks a panel on the trunk. A robot arm removes John's locker from the trunk, which is a standard size. The robot slots it into a rack.
The car then takes itself to the car wash John contracts with, where they clean up the spill. It also tops up the batteries with a high-current charger.
John doesn't really want to pay the whole cost of owning a car, so he lets the care hire out as a taxi when he's at work. Once charged, the car contacts Bay City Robotaxi, and registers it is available, and regularly updates where it is.
Mary's Sales Call
Mary works downtown as well. She needs to make a sales call to a customer 2 miles away. She picks up her cell phone as she leaves her desk, and tells it to get her a taxi. The phone tells the taxi company where she is, and she speaks her destination into the phone. The taxi company sees that John's car is close to Mary, has the battery capacity, and is available.
John's car rushes to Mary. She's half a mile away so this only takes 90 seconds at 20mph. By the time she gets to the lobby of her building, John's car is there. She watched it move on a map on her phone screen. The display on the front of the car says "Taxi for Mary" so she knows which one it is.
She signals with her phone and the door opens. Before she gets in, the car's internal camera takes a flash photograph of the interior. It adjusts the seats the way she likes them. She tells the car to go and it takes her to her destination. Her computer desktop immediately pops up on the screen, and she reviews her sales presentation during the short trip. After Mary leaves, the camera takes another photo of the car. The photos differ, and Harry back at taxi HQ takes a quick look at the photos. He sees Mary's notebook on the seat. Mary's phone is called to tell her she left the book, and the car gets as close to her as it can to let her pick it up. Had the photos shown that Mary had made a mess in the car, the car would have gone for cleaning again -- on Mary's tab.
There are no immediate needs after the trip, and it was so short a new charge is not urgent, so the car waits. It takes a spot blocking Martha's driveway. Many other cars are stored along the streets during this off-peak period, in some cases double parked. While it's waiting, a signal comes from Martha's house, "Clear the driveway." Martha's car was bringing her home, and told the house of its impending arrival. The house computer asked cars blocking the driveway to leave. John's robocar pulls away from the driveway, and shortly after that Martha's car pulls in to park. Martha never knows that John's car had been there. John's robocar either returns there or parks anywhere else convenient.
Back in his office, John forgot his prescription, but he keeps a spare bottle in his stuff locker. She he goes downstairs, and walks the short distance to his local Stuff Depot, where the lockbox he keeps in the trunk was stored. He opens it, gets what he needs and goes back up, not too different from how it was in the old days when you went down to the parking lot to get something from your car.
Later, John needs to run a quick errand. If his car were close, it would come for him, but since it's away on a hire, Bay City Robotaxi sends him a substitute. It's part of the deal. If the trip will be long, the substitute goes to Stuff Depot and picks up John's standard size locker. The substitute configures itself for John as it approaches. The computer is synced to his desktop and his phone. The seats move to a comfortable position for him. His music and books are ready. In fact, since one was available, John got the exact same model as his own car, just a different colour.
Fifteen minutes before John usually leaves the office, his car stopped hiring itself out and got his stuff locker. (Of course it never accepted a long term hire that would allocate it into John's commute time.) It moved itself closer to his office. When ready to leave his desk, John pushed the button on his cell phone and the car moved to him. By the time he got down, it was waiting in the elevator lobby for him, and the trip home was pretty much a repeat of the trip in, except this time 70% of the streets were rerouted one-way out of downtown.
John and his family will go visit Grandma 50 miles outside of town. As they planned the trip in advance, Bay City Robotaxi has a small minivan waiting by their door at the appointed hour, with enough liquid fuel for the 50 mile trip. They load the kids into the vehicle, which has seats facing one another for quality family time. The car gets onto the highway non-stop, and once on the highway joins a convoy of other robocars in the same lane, doubling its fuel economy and halving its road footprint.
John tries to talk to his kids, but they're more interested in playing their games on the minivan's screen. He makes them play a family game together instead. John had been a skilled gamer when he was young, though his son still beats him at the new games. John likes a race driving game, since he grew up back when you still drove cars.
They haven't set exactly when they will leave Grandma's, so when they use their cell phone to call for a return car, there isn't a suitable van this side of the highway. However, Grandma has a single person electric, and the Robotaxi company sends a small 4-seat electric to Grandma's house. The two vehicles set out together towards the highway. Just before the highway exit, they pull into a small lot. Waiting there is a natural gas powered minivan. A quick transfer into the minivan, and it moves onto the highway and takes them home.
Sunday, John and his buddy Mark are going out to the mountains to hike. John's robocar takes him to the edge of town, where one minute later, Mark's hired robocar also pulls up. Waiting there is a 2-seater sporty convertible -- with a steering wheel and a stick. Mark and John zoom up windy mountain roads with John at the wheel, having a good time.
The sportscar is fun to drive, but it has robocar technologies in it. With less driving experience, Mark tries to change lanes into another car in his blind spot. The wheel resists him and beeps. He looks and stops fighting the wheel. The car saved him from an accident.
Monty is a member of Red Beemers Auto Club. This is a car club, which owns a variety of red BMW robocars. They come in different sizes, but all from the same line with distinctive styling and luxury features. The club also has an arrangement with various robotaxi companies and private individuals who own these cars and hire them out.
When Monty calls for a car it's almost always a Red Beemer. That's what friends see him roll up in, and what they ride in when they ride with him. One of them (not always the same one) lives in his driveway. This costs Monty more than a lower-end car, though not as much as owning a single car did in the old days. But he figures it's worth it. The car is a way of expressing himself.
The Red Beemers Club cars do not normally hire out as robotaxis, but on rare occasions, when there is abnormally high need for cars, they do. The Beemers, when idle for long periods are listed on the spot market at a price that's double the going rate for similar cars. During the periods of highest load, many robotaxi companies are willing to pay this high rate in order to meet the guarantees of car availability they have given their customers. It's still cheaper than having to own extra vehicles. It's a nice subsidy for the club, though it doesn't make as much income as listing at market rate does, because demand at the higher price is so much less.
Rather than join a club, Charlotte has a subscription with Infiniti. Infiniti has opened a Robotaxi company. They don't sell their vehicles too often any more, instead they sell them by subscription. When Charlotte calls for a car, it's always a good condition Infiniti, pre-configured for her. The E-ink display on the back bumper still promotes her political candidate from the last election. Her stuff box is always inside -- it's a standard size and loaded by robots. Her Infiniti is always clean and charged.
On rare occasions, Infiniti is overbooked, and there is no Infiniti for her. She gets a different vehicle, but to make up for it, the car is either superior to what she subscribed to, or the trip is free.
Ava has a sudden rush errand. Her son Josh, 4, is with her, and her daughter Leah, 8 is at school but will be let out soon. A kid's robocar arrives for Josh. She makes sure he has gone to the bathroom and straps him in. In the car is a big video screen with HDTV video-conference ability. His father, Will, will set up a live video-conference and be watching Josh and talking to him for his trip to the daycare. If there's anything he can't solve during that short trip, he can command the vehicle to make an emergency trip to a responsible adult.
A similar car comes to pick up Leah at school. It has the authorization to do that. She sits and watches TV on the trip, but can call out for her parents or another adult any time. (With any luck, most of the kids still walk.)
Later, one of their parents comes to the daycare in a 3-person car to pick them up.
Ava's problems will take more time to solve, so her father Joe is flying in. Ava sends her robocar to the airport to pick him up. It's bonded, and shows up vacant at an airport security entrance. Inspected, it drives onto the tarmac right up to his just-arrived plane, where it waits with several other robocars. Joe gets off the plane and steps into Ava's robocar, which recognizes his cell phone and drives him off the airfield and to Ava's house.
Joe didn't want to wait for his checked luggage, so it's loaded later onto a small "deliverbot" -- an electric lightweight vehicle just for cargo. The deliverbot brings his bag up to Ava's house. It has been given a code to open the garage door, so it enters the house, and drops the luggage in the garage, then departs for another job. Joe gets a text message telling him his luggage is downstairs.
Maria is building a prototype of a new invention. To make a metal part, she needs a computer controlled lathe. She could go to a shared shop, but she needs to work with other things she has at home, so she goes to her computer and requests one. At a rental house, the lathe is loaded, possibly by robots, onto a deliverbot. About 15 minutes later, it signals her garage door to open and the lathe is deposited in her workshop. The deliverbot exits. She goes downstairs, plugs in the lathe and begins work on her prototype.
Now consider the downsides of robocars.
In addition, you can read and subscribe to the Robocars section of my blog.