Driverless in the rain

Occasionally someone will argue that we don’t need to invest in public transport as new technology like driverless cars will come along and render our roads much safer and more efficient. In some cases they say the impact on the transport system will be similar to the one that private vehicles started having on transport. At the transport debate just over a week ago Transport Minister even spoke about a future of diverless vehicles after being given a ride in one of Google’s prototype autonomous vehicles.

We’re told this technology is just around the corner and it will soon be on the market. However in many ways it seems much like a carrot that’s constantly hanging from a stick in front of us as despite the progress being made by Google the technology is still a long way away from becoming a reality.

Many motorists dream of the day they can sit back and relax while their car drives itself.

And while Google and other companies are working hard to make autonomous vehicles a reality, it could take years to create a car that can negotiate complex situations on the road – including wet weather conditions.

Google’s self-driving cars can’t currently cope in heavy rain or snow – or find their way around 99 per cent of the US, an insider has admitted.

According to MIT Technology Review, the current prototype cars are very reliant on maps to navigate and can’t react like a human driver, dodging potholes and other hazards.

Google’s cars have driven themselves over 700,000 miles (1,126,540km) but they can’t cope in snowy conditions and cannot negotiate heavy rain.

Chris Urmson, director of the Google car team, said this is because the detection technology is not yet strong enough to separate certain objects from weather conditions.

While the cars’ cameras can spot a traffic light changing, they can be confused by strong sunlight.

They don’t distinguish between an empty plastic bag – which could be easily driven over – or a rock, so cars must drive around both. They also can’t detect uncovered manholes or potholes.

Mr Urmson told the publication: ‘I could construct a construction zone that could befuddle the car.’

The cars ‘see’ pedestrians as moving blocks of pixels and know to stop, but unlike a cautious human driver, they could not spot a traffic policeman at the side of the road, waving for traffic to stop – which could lead to trouble.

Those seem like some fairly serious issues that need to be addressed before the technology could even be considered for public use. For their part Google thinks the issues could be resolved in 5 years-time but I suspect that timeframe could turn out to be a pretty wild guess. Going further, even if Google manage to get everything working fantastically within that time frame  it’s unlikely there’ll be more than a handful in the country for quite some time and it would take decades before they’re owned  in any quantities. For the time being at least it seems like we still not going to see any change to the status quo.

Gerry discovers electric cars

An interesting article in the herald this morning about Gerry Brownlee who to took a trip to the California to have a look at “alternative transport” options but only appears to have looked at cars

Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee says his scepticism about electric cars has all but disappeared after he took a spin along the Los Angeles coastal freeway in an electric sports car.

Mr Brownlee investigated alternative transport options while on a trip to the United States and also took Google’s driverless car for a 16km trip around San Francisco’s freeways.

In LA he test-drove the Tesla SP85, which is considered one of the world’s most advanced electric cars with a range of nearly 500km and a top speed of more than 210km/h.

The minister, who owns a diesel-powered Hyundai Sante Fe, raved about his zero-emission joyride. “I’ve been somewhat of a sceptic around electric vehicles. I don’t want to say I’m a total convert but I’ve been incredibly impressed by the technology that I’ve seen.

Personally I’m fairly optimistic about the impact electric cars will have, especially in New Zealand where a lot of power is already generated through renewable sources. While we at the blog obviously want to see a lot better public transport options provided to help give people choice – and we expect a lot of people would use PT when that happens – plenty of people will still choose to drive. Removing, or at least significantly reducing emissions will have a positive impact on air quality and the liveability of urban areas. But while electric cars might not produce emissions, they won’t do anything to reduce or ease congestion.

With the vast majority people in urban areas probably travelling less than 50km a day, the battery range is simply not an issue (assuming you remember to charge it). In fact with the range these things have, trips from Auckland trips to typical summer holiday destinations like the Bay of Islands or Coromandel Peninsula would not be a problem so it is only really long distance road trips that would be impacted and those are things most people don’t tend to do all that regularly.

Here is a promo video for the electric car Gerry had a go on.

As for the impact that driver-less cars would have, they could certainly be a way to save a little bit of money on having to hire ministerial limo drivers but I’m not sure about just how much congestion relief they will offer, as we have explained before here and here.

“When you’ve got a car that can perform to the sort of specifications that I saw at the Tesla factory you could just see that we’re not too many years off there being quite a significant percentage of electric vehicles in our fleet.”

He said battery technology and infrastructure was progressing much faster that he would have expected.

He pointed to Tesla’s plan to have battery change stations across the US by 2016.

Mr Brownlee said he did not expect the number of electric cars to rapidly increase on New Zealand roads, but said it was important to make sure regulations encouraged low-emissions vehicles. There are believed to be fewer than 100 here now.

The main policy designed to encourage growth in electric car use was the exemption from road user charges, which was introduced in 2009 and last year extended until 2020. Mr Brownlee said driverless cars were also likely to one day play a role in reducing congestion on motorways.

I think the discussion of electric cars and road taxes really highlights why we need to be starting to discuss if funding transport via fuel taxes are necessarily the best option. This is especially the case as we move towards much more fuel efficient petrol powered cars as well as hybrids while at the same time the government is spending like a drunken sailor on massive motorways. The article finishes with:

The minister road-tested Google’s prototype, which uses a combination of sensors and GPS to get commuters to their destination as efficiently as possible. He described it as “a very advanced form of cruise control”.

Even a small increase in the proportion of driverless cars was expected to cut congestion because all aspects of human error were eliminated. The cars were allowed on some US roads, but had not been developed for commercial production.

Mr Brownlee said he had asked the ministry to have a closer look at how it could best encourage the use of alternative transport as the technology developed.

While I think the move towards more fuel efficient and potentially even driverless cars are a good move, I would hardly call them alternative transport. Instead more of a evolution of what we have today. If he was really interested in alternatives he could have looked at what even “car mad” LA is doing with its transport spending, particularly with Measure R where people voted to increase taxes to pay for primarily a large range of public transport improvements.

On a slightly separate note, one my scariest driving experiences ever occurred in San Francisco a few years ago. I was on a road trip with my wife and some family members and we were driving down the 101 freeway at night somewhere around the airport area (I was driving). The freeway was something like 5 or 6 lanes wide in each direction was relatively empty with only a few cars in the far distance. We were in the middle lane and had cars flanking either side of us and when we came around a corner were faced with an oven sitting in the middle of our lane just a few hundred metres ahead of us. The cars beside us prevented a lane change so was a case of having to apply some rapid deceleration to be able to change lanes behind some other cars. An oven is certainly the last thing you expected to see on a road and would have been an interesting conversation trying to explain an accident with one to a rental/insurance company.

What future for driverless cars?

There was a good post and fascinating comments thread on Human Transit recently about driverless cars and what impact they may have on transport planning in the future. Jarrett Walker blogged that he can’t really see driverless cars being as revolutionary as some people think, for a few reasons:

  • Many of the benefits from driverless cars (such as increased capacity of the road system) only arise when there has been a complete changeover from current ‘driven’ cars and it’s difficult to see a pathway towards that eventual outcome.
  • Driverless cars will still (although potentially to a lesser degree) suffer from the ‘space extensive’ nature of individualised transport options so may not be that useful for very high demand routes.
  • If driverless technology becomes feasible then why wouldn’t there be a huge shift to driverless buses as well, which could dramatically lower the cost of public transport provision.

He concludes:

Sure, driverless taxis might replace many lower-ridership bus lines, but wouldn’t buses become driverless at the same time? In such a future, wouldn’t any fair pricing make these driverless buses much cheaper to use where volumes are high? Wouldn’t there be a future of shared vehicles of various sizes, many engaged in what we would recognize as public transit? As with all things PRT, I notice a frequent slipperiness in explanations of it; I’m not sure, at each moment, whether we’re talking about something that prevents you from having to ride with strangers (the core pitch of “Personal” rapid transit) as opposed to just a more efficient means of providing public transit, i.e. a service that welcomes the need to ride with strangers as the key to its efficient use of both money and space.

As I noted earlier, the comment thread is interesting because a few of his questions are answered in quite a lot of useful detail. For example, a progression path from the current system to a future transport system based around driverless cars:

1. A car maker introduces a driverless model that essentially works as a souped up cruise drive. A driver is still legally required, but the car will drive itself when you toggle it into cruise mode. This model will be expensive, but it will sell well to rich people who don’t like driving. Liability will naturally belong to the person who is in the drivers seat.
2. As these cars become more and more popular and proven to be safe, old/disabled people will lobby for regulations that the person being in the drivers seat don’t have to have a drivers license.
3. As these are getting safer and safer, regulations for someone being in the drivers seat will fade. More upper middle class people will buy them to driver their kids, pick themselves up from the airport, and so on and so forth.
4. At some point, taxi companies/uber start to buy these cars because they are cheaper then paying salaries.
5. As the number of automated cars grow, cities realize that they need smaller lanes and move more cars per lane. A few really big freeways will start seeing automation only lanes.
6. The prospect of skipping congestions means that they will sell better, allowing for more automation lanes to be built.
7. Meanwhile, competition slowly forces down taxi/uber prices, making car ownership less desirable for lower classes, reducing manual cars on the road.
8. Car makers only make automated cars because poorer people are buying less and less cars, and well off people all demand cars that at least CAN drive themselves.
9. And we are in the future utopia already.

I’m not completely up to date on the whole driverless cars thing. Some obvious issues that come to light are things like legalities when something goes wrong and how, if not impossible to work around, it’s certainly likely to slow down implementation. This is highlighted by another commenter:

…every time a driverless car hits a child who darts in to a street after a soccer ball or plows in to pedestrians in a crosswalk will set the movement back. When people-driven cars do this, we can usually find fault (“they didn’t see the kid”, “they were distracted by their phone”) but when a computer does it, there will be no easy answers and people will call for the cars to be off the road.

I guess one big advantage of driverless cars is that if they really do stop perfectly to ensure they don’t run over pedestrians, it pretty much turns every street into a defacto shared space because the vehicles will always automatically stop for you when you’re crossing the road.

Are driverless cars the future?

I wonder if you can guess who wrote the quote below?

Cars are noisy, they’re dangerous, they emit fumes, they take up so much space that our cities seem to be built for cars first and people second, and they are not much fun to sit in on a jammed Auckland motorway.

The price of petrol seems to go higher and higher, and it is true that some of the roads being built which seem like a great idea (e.g. the Puhoi to Wellsford motorway extension) don’t actually pass muster with some cost-benefit analyses.

If you read the quoted text above you could be forgiven for thinking it is something that we had written but no, this text came from a blog post yesterday on the Act party website. Now after picking yourself up off the floor and thinking that there may be a glimmer of hope the party was finally be starting to understand transport and urban issues, you can think again. The rest of the post is dedicated to enthusing how driverless cars and other technologies mean we should keep investing in roads and only roads. So lets have a look at some of their claims in a bit more detail.

The first claim is that driverless cars will give people some of the benefits of PT by allowing them to do things like read books or do work instead of driving while cars will also be driven better without humans at the wheel. Both claims are probably true but to really see the benefit of these cars we will likely have to wait until a substantial proportion of the existing vehicle fleet is replaced. Last year there were ~145,000  new cars registered and the total car fleet rose to just over 2.8 million vehicles. Even if every single car that came into the country tomorrow was driverless, it would take at least 20 years to replace the current fleet. In reality we are probably looking at more like 30-40 years, perhaps longer as it will take a while for the technology to start being embedded in all new cars made, that’s a long time to wait.

Of course what happens after your driverless car drops you at work. Well Act suggest that the car will take itself away somewhere and park itself. That all sounds nice but when every other person is using a car at the same time it means we either need to spend millions on additional parking buildings to house them all. Alternatively they could just go home and return when you need to be picked up but that brings about its own problems. What happens if you don’t have a set time to leave a certain place, does that mean you need to request your car and wait for perhaps 30 minutes or more for it to arrive?  Alternatively perhaps they are suggesting some kind of shared car scheme in which case it would likely require the government/council to purchase huge numbers of these driverless cars, how much would that cost taxpayers.

Act and many driverless car advocates also suggest that these computer controlled cars will be able to run closely together allowing for much more capacity to be achieved out of the existing road network. If that is the case then isn’t it a perfect reason NOT to invest in new roads as we would be better off to wait and see exactly what impact these cars have before spending millions on roads we may not need. I can’t help but think the party still ignores the reality of real live and still has this video on repeat:

Of course one thing all of the driverless car advocates don’t realise is there is a pretty big elephant in the room. As these cars will be so much smarter and also programmed to avoid crashes they will automatically stop (and tell the other vehicles around them to stop) if someone walks out on to the road. It shouldn’t take long for people to realise that they can easily take back the streets but just using them how they want and the cars will be forced let it happen. So perhaps we should welcome driverless cars, we can get shared spaces without it needing to cost ratepayers a thing (bet they didn’t think about this issue).