The Next Step Forward in Driverless Cars

Milton Keynes, a British town that is not actually named after warring economists, is implementing a system of driverless “pods” that will replace (or maybe just supplement, it’s not clear) their current bus system. The pods will hold two people, can be called for via cell phone, will operate in a restricted area, and will travel at only 12 mph. Still, it’s the first time driverless vehicles will be allowed on public roads in the UK, so their track record seems likely to have some effect on the future of driverless cars.

There is no word on whether the town of Maynard Friedman intends to follow suit.

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About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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17 Responses to The Next Step Forward in Driverless Cars

  1. Troublesome Frog says:

    Super cool stuff. I do worry that you’re right about the first rollout having a big effect on future driverless car options, though. You have to choose the right vendor or you can poison the whole thing. I’d be pleased to see them using products from Google simply because they have gobs of data relating to driving in traffic that the other vendors simply don’t have yet.

    When you see articles like this one where an engineer says, “We’re spending less time in near-collision states,” it says to me that they’re doing a lot of analysis on what goes on in the busy streets and not just on the kinematics of the car they control. There’s no subsitute for field work and reams of LIDAR data.

    Starting with your car on little private tracks is one way to do it, but it’s not taking a very big bite out of the problem. Jumping from “no autonomous pod” to “autonomous pod on its own private track” is a much smaller leap that “private track” to “public road” is. On the bright side, the public probably doesn’t know that, so these things may increase acceptance even though they’re not the best indicator of real engineering progress.

  2. J@m3z Aitch says:

    T-Frog,

    As I read it, there’s not actually a separate track (despite the picture), just a specially paved lane. So other vehicles crossing into the pod’s territory is a greater potentiality than if it was on a restricted track.

  3. lancifer666 says:

    I have been thinking about autonomous cars quite a bit lately, not just because of the discussion here at Bawdy House Rules but also because it has been a frequently discussed topic in the auto magazines I read regularly (Car and Driver, Road and Track, AutoWeek, etc.).

    I think there are many issues that have not been thought out for when the autonomous car becomes more than the odd, one in a thousand, curiosity sharing the roads with human piloted cars.

    Speed limits for one. As I commute to work I count on the disparity in the speed of cars to maneuver through traffic. All it takes is two morons side by side doing the speed limit to produce a “rolling road block” that propagates back through the traffic pattern to generate an artery clogging parade of chock-a-block cars crawling along in unison.

    Try actually doing the speed limit on any road other than a small residential street sometime if you doubt me.

    The main North-South artery of Indianapolis is Meridian Street. It wasn’t designed for this purpose and many multi-million dollar mansion line much of its mid-town flanks. Thus it is burdened with a 35 mph speed limit for much of its length even though it is the only North South four lane road for miles.

    Luckily most drivers ignore the 35 mph limit and there aren’t too many lights so you can maintain a close to 50 mph clip most of the time.

    But all it would take is to dimwitted robots tooling side by side at the “limit” to mess up the morning commute for thousands of sentient drivers.

    I can hear you saying, “But, when these infallible automatons are turned loose we can raise the speed limit.” Good luck with that. I doubt city councils and state legislatures will be persuaded to do that.

    I hope the damn things kill a few drivers and scare people away from them at least until I am too old to get behind the wheel of my performance cars.

  4. lancifer666 says:

    Oops, should have been Bawdy House Provisions of course. Apologies to our host for garbling the name of this blog.

  5. Matty says:

    I sympathise but I’m not sure “It’ll make people obey the rules” is going to be seen as a negative by the people who will be making the decisions. Also as I understand most of the snarl ups from slow traffic are not due to the speed of the initial ‘obstruction’ unless it is really slow but to a kind of amplification as everyone hits their brakes when they see the car in front slowing until 35mph at the front of a line of traffic becomes a dead stop at the back. Enough robot cars could in principle avoid this by being able to more quickly and accurately match the actual speed of the car in front.

  6. Matty says:

    I’d say the odds are against something that moves at 12mph on a separate roadway killing drivers so you may have to wait for the introduction of robocars in normal traffic for that.

  7. J@m3z Aitch says:

    Matty,
    To clarify, I don’t think something moving at 12 mph not killing people is a meaningful signal, just that I think it will be taken that way by enough people that it will help make the pubilc more comfortable with driverless cars.

    And I agree with your response to Lance. I don’t find the normal problem is people driving the speed limit, but people driving below the speed limit, erratically changing lanes, braking too often, putting about at 5 mph trying to figure out which driveway they’re looking for, etc. If I could drive smoothly at 35, I could get a lot of places faster than if I was alternating between 50 and 10.

    But there’s no doubt it will eliminate the performance aspect of driving, which is where it really hits home for Lance. That’s a value, and so the loss of it will be a real cost to him. It’s not much of a value to me, so the loss won’t be a cost. Unfortunately there’s not much that can be done to resolve conflicting values.

  8. Troublesome Frog says:

    Unfortunately there’s not much that can be done to resolve conflicting values.

    I still think that the sets of people driving for pleasure and people whose commutes make them want to shoot themselves don’t have a lot of overlap in space and time. There aren’t a lot of performance drivers driving for pleasure in dense urban areas or during busy commute times where/when these vehicles are most likely to have a big effect on the landscape. Even with a very high rate of adoption, I’d expect the effect on human drives to drop off very rapidly as you move away from high density areas and times.

    The one scenario where that wouldn’t be true is the long, twisting, scenic mountain road. Hopefully these things will be smart enough to know what turnouts are and how to use them.

  9. lancifer666 says:

    I should have been more focused in my remarks. I specifically have an issue with two cars doing the speed limit side by side.

    Speed limits are designed to provide a speed that is safe under all traffic conditions. It is quite obvious, to anyone that actually drives a car for more than an hour, that they are widely ignored by the vast majority of drivers in most situations.

    So what is the programmer of Robbie the robot car to do? Code the car’s computer brain to violate the “law”? I think Robo Cars Inc’s legal department would frown on programming Robbie to break the law. So there will no doubt be robo-cars tooling along beside each other at exactly (within robo-car tolerances) the speed limit.

    If two cars do that today I, and the vast majority of drivers, grow insanely angry after about two minutes of this synchronized road block BS. Fingers fly, gaps narrow menacingly, road rage ensues. Is Robbie going to sense my impending meltdown and move his robo-ass out of the way?

    This is just one of the issues I thought of, but I’d like to hear an answer from those of you that want to sleep or watch Net Flicks in the back seat as Robbie relieves you of the tedium of locomoting about the surface of our planet.

  10. lancifer666 says:

    Troublesome Frog,

    There aren’t a lot of performance drivers driving for pleasure in dense urban areas or during busy commute times where/when these vehicles are most likely to have a big effect on the landscape.

    Au contraire my amphibious friend. I routinely relish dicing through the somnabulent heard of commuters in their bovine SUVs in my Miata on the way to my urban university campus. Like a border collie nipping at the heels of wayward sheep, I plan each move with precision and care, weighing the odds of nimrods that change lanes without turn signals, and watching for the lane wanderers drinking Starbucks lattes with one hand while texting with the other.

    Frequently another sentient driver will appear in my mirror. We often thrust and spar like WWI fighter aces as we roll and dive through the proles trudging along only dimly aware of their surroundings. We often exchange a “tip of the hat” wave as our paths diverge.

    As I have said before, if I had a transponder that would alert the drones to my presence and they would be programmed to get the FUCK out of my way I would be the biggest supporter of Robo-cars extant. Somehow I doubt the freedom and convenience of people that don’t want to buy Robo-cars is going to weigh heavily with those that design them.

    Thus I will fight them to the death!

  11. Troublesome Frog says:

    I think that AIs that are scrupulous about speed limits are also likely to be pretty good at following other rules like “stay to the right unless passing” and “don’t drive right next to somebody going the same speed as you” as well. Likewise “move to the right to allow faster traffic to pass” is probably pretty high on the priority list.

    My understanding is that when the Google engineer says “near collision states” he doesn’t mean that the car is close to crashing so much as it’s in a logical state where crash / no crash result is entirely in the hands of another driver rather than the AI alone. Having somebody tailgating you or being penned in with a car immediately over in the next lane are both situations that should score very low on a car AI’s “can I control this situation if it gets out of hand” heuristic.

    I’d expect the AI to be constantly trying to get into a situation that looks like this:

    *) All faster traffic is to my left and slower traffic is to my right.
    *) I can change lanes freely to avoid unforeseen hazards.
    *) I can safely stomp on the brakes if necessary.
    *) My LIDAR vision is minimally obstructed by cars around me.

    There are probably situations where that logic will produce some annoying behavior, but I don’t think that two cars side by side is one of them.

    From what I’ve heard, one of the big problems on the AI front is the fact that other drivers are aggressive and the AI will always accommodate it. If nobody wants to let it merge, it will sit there forever waiting for a safe opportunity. This will probably lead to problems once a critical mass of drivers realize that they don’t have to be polite to (or even legal/safe around) the AI.

  12. lancifer666 says:

    TF,

    That all sounds great but going from single cars in space to high density, congested jostling traffic will likely lead to more than a few “situations where that logic will produce some annoying behavior”.

    If these robots are programmed to yield to faster traffic and move to the right when challenged than I can see a problem already. These cars will be diving for the right and behind each other as sentient drivers approach them to move forward, leading to a march to the rear.

    If the population of these robots is less than say 20% it probably won’t cause too much of a problem, but once they reach some higher density it is going to cause the traffic pattern to be slowed and snarled as these cars accumulate to fill all of the spaces available on the right.

    And then there is the obvious problem of single lane roads. I once lived in an area that had many single lane roads that had 30 mph speed limits. I, and most of the traffic, moved at about 40 to 45 mph on these urban but non-residential roads.

    After getting two tickets in two weeks for doing around 45 mph I got pissed off and decided to prove a point by assiduously observing these idiotically low speed limits. It literally enraged the people behind me when I would do this. I had to stop my little protest when a lady behind me got so frustrated after a few miles of tailgating me she attempted to pass me in an area that had many blind curves. She nearly had a head on collision beside me forcing me and the oncoming car to swerve off of the road.

    Now imagine an army of drones plodding along that same road, and all of the other single lane roads with these common 30-35 mph speed limits. I may resort to guerrilla tactics if that happens.

    I would prefer a model where people are required to have much more training before taking to the roads with frequent “refresher” courses and skill testing to insure that drivers are in fact paying attention to the task of driving rather than move towards a system that accommodates people that don’t want to drive at the expense of the people that are safely and efficiently using the public roads.

  13. Troublesome Frog says:

    I think what you’re describing is congestion more than any failing of an AI system. What is the correct behavior to engage in when the roads are so full of cars that there isn’t way through for faster traffic, and do human drivers really behave that way?

    Maybe you and I have a different idea of what congestion looks like as the place I’m living in has commute traffic so dense that there is literally no way to gain an advantage by doing anything other than staying in your current lane and grinding forward with traffic. In fact, it’s probably a prisoners’ dilemma in that any attempt to make yourself individually better of makes you and everybody else globally worse off. Any place where weaving through traffic gets you head seems more “busy” to me than “congested.” In fact, any place where people going the speed limit are inhibiting progress doesn’t sound congested to me either.

    If the problem is that the posted speed limits are too low, then it’s really a problem with the law. I could certainly see the argument that if we’re going to live in a world where the posted speed limit is for morons in worst case conditions and nobody follows it in the general case, we need a split limit system like we have in some places with a limit for cars and a limit for heavy trucks. A higher limit for autonomous cars seems could be workable, given that they’re demonstrably much faster at responding to emergencies than any human is. Especially nifty would be options like permanent broadcasting sensors around blind curves so self-driving cars wouldn’t have to crawl along at 25 miles per hour just because humans are blind in those areas. Of course, the fastest way to get bad laws repealed is to enforce them good and hard on everybody.

    Regarding stricter testing, I’d love it. I currently live in an area with strangely bad drivers. Not aggressive or timid or inexperienced. Just uniquely inept–like nothing I’ve seen elesewhere. Like, 8-point turn in a 3-point turn space inept. It might be nice to have some sort of a “zap you back to traffic school” type of ticket that a cop can issue for general ineptitude. If you get, say, 2 from 2 different officers, you’re suspended until you pass a driver test again. It seems to me that the vast majority of accidents are caused by slow response times, not paying attention, or general boneheadedness. The accidents that require Michale Jordan reflexes and spatial problem solving genius to avoid are pretty rare. Picking the low hanging fruit would be a big win.

  14. lancifer666 says:

    TF,

    Yes, we are talking about different situations. Luckily for me here in Indianapolis bumper to bumper, crawl along traffic is limited to a few areas and a few times of the day.

    So , yes if you are so screwed that your only option is to creep along with backed up for miles traffic then Robbie is going to act the same as a human. The degrees of freedom being exactly none.

    I was referencing traffic that is moving fairly slowly but with openings between groups of cars. This is the situation where active and intelligent driving can move you along quite a bt faster than the average attentive commuter.

    I hope you perceived that my posts are a bit tongue in cheek. I doubt I’d resort to actively undermining a system that allowed robo-cars. I just want to ensure that the freedom I have to operate my own vehicle in a way that allows me to navigate at a decent clip and enjoy the experience are preserved.

  15. J@m3z Aitch says:

    This is the situation where active and intelligent driving can move you along quite a bt faster than the average attentive commuter.

    I’ve been with you driving, Lance, so this isn’t directed at you. But of course most people who think they’re active and intelligent drivers actually don’t manage to get along faster than the average commuter. Whenever I’m driving in L.A., or in Chicago at certain hours, I amuse myself by keeping track of the progress of drivers who only think they’re active and intelligent. Sometimes I catch their attention, so that when I pass them at the same speed and in the same lane I was in when they passed me, I can smile at them.

    I think the number of people who would be truly inconvenienced by this is a none-too-large fraction of those who think they would be inconvenienced.

  16. lancifer666 says:

    Hey James,

    Spell check changed my misspelled “inatentive” to attentive for some reason and I didn’t catch it. I agree that there are drivers that claw and scratch for every inch of space and I also take satisfaction when they pass me over and over again.

    If the traffic pattern is such that there is no advantage to lane changing I will sit back and wait it out. The situation I was referring to is when there are clumps of traffic caused by a few drivers reacting late to traffic lights (now usually caused by staring at their smart phones), eating, daydreaming and other non-driver and annoying behavior.

    I can usually get through these clusters of laggards and bolt into the space between for a few blissful miles of open road.

    Maybe I’m the rare exception but I even enjoy these urban commutes, if I’m driving one of my sporting machines (MR2, Miata or BMW 3251).

  17. J@m3z Aitch says:

    if I’m driving one of my sporting machines (MR2, Miata or BMW 3251).

    You know every time you write something like that people assume you’re an upper-middle class lawyer or stockbroker or such? ;) But I can vouch that these are all used cars.

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