The race is on to figure out what self-driving cars should look like | WaPo

Matt McFarland writes in the Washington Post  “The race is on to figure out what self-driving cars should look like

David Levinson, a civil engineering professor at the University of Minnesota, argued in a recent paper that we’ll see a Cambrian explosion of new vehicle forms that are designed for specific tasks.

“The fleet will have greater variety, with the right size vehicle assigned to a particular job. Today there is a car-size arms race: people buy larger cars, which are perceived to be safer for the occupant, and taller cars, which allow the driver to see in front of the car immediately in front of them,” Levinson said. “Both of these advantages are largely obviated with autonomous vehicles. The car-size arms race ends.”

The road as an Ecosystem in the 21st Century

Today in the Tech World, there is discussion of “platforms” and “ecosystems”. When we hear talk about Apple vs. Google, it is as much about the Apple ecosystem, particularly that around iOS, the operating system for the iPhone, vs. Android OS. The Operating Systems enable both device-based and cloud-based software services. I can buy apps that work in either eco-system, but not both (without purchasing twice). I can buy peripherals that work on one or the other, but generally not both. This mobile telephone ecosystem logic follows and is much larger than the previous decades’ PC operating system ecosystems.

Roads are a different form of economic ecosystem, and perhaps the original one. There is the ecosystem for building roads, and there is an ecosystem for those using roads. Carriers as well as private vehicles are the users. But they have a set of roadside services (energy (hay, gasoline), shelter (inns (hello Jesus), motels, and hotels), and sustenance (food)) as well as many others that are less frequently used (tollbooths, money changing, black smithing, wheel wright, vehicle repair, and so on) that are configured a particular way for users of the road ecosystem.

While the types of vehicles using roads, as well as the materials with which they are made has changed over time, the platform of the road as a place on which to hang a series of road-serving businesses is long-standing, and unlikely to disappear even as roads change with the next technological shift in vehicles.

Without roads (dirt, gravel, block, rail, asphalt, or concrete), there would not be much economy. Certainly off-road vehicles and their passengers and drivers of various kinds would still require services, but the much higher cost of travel would significantly reduce the total economic impact. Secondary economic impacts on things like manufacturing, agriculture, and non-transportation services which do depend on transportation thus depend on this eco-system as well.

There is a fascinating series of books by John Jakle and colleagues describing the emergence of the first order 20th Century Road Ecosystem: Fast Food, Motels, Gas Stations, and so on. What happens in the 21st Century with Vehicle Electrification and Automation?

We can certainly speculate that charging stations ultimately replace gas stations. Even more, vehicles may be charged in motion from the roadway.

Food production and delivery may also change in ways that are difficult to foresee. We can speculate that with automated vehicles, food may come to us in motion, rather than us stopping at the side of the road. While this synchronization, resembling the in-air refueling of Air Force One, seems far out, with full information and automated drivers, it may be quite trivial. This may or may not be a net improvement in food quality.

Why stay at a hotel when your car can move you forward in space and time while you sleep?

How else will the Road Ecosystem Change in the 21st Century?

What if car driving is like playing chess


JS Writes in with an intriguing idea:

“What if car driving is like playing chess?  Self-driving cars may be possible and even valuable but the safest most efficient driving may be the combination of the computer and the person/people.  What if one Uber “driver” could drive 10 cars at once, or a team of 3 Uber drivers could drive 100 cars?”

And then sends in the following from the EconTalk podcast …
From Econtalk: Tyler Cowen on Inequality, the Future, and Average is Over 11:01


Russ: So let’s talk about what you’ve learned as a chess fan. And you write at some length. At first I was rather taken aback by this, but I grew to find it quite fascinating. You write at some length about the role of machines in chess tournaments, and particularly in freestyle. Talk about that and why it’s a nice potential template for future human interaction.

Guest: Freestyle is a form of chess where a human teams up with a computer. So, if you play human-and-computer against computer, for the most part human-and-computer, if it’s a practiced human, will beat the computer. Even though computers per se are much stronger than humans at chess, it’s the team that’s stronger than either one. And I think this is a good metaphor for a lot of what our job market future will look like. So there’s a big chunk of the book that looks rather closely at freestyle chess and tries to see what we can learn from it.

Russ: The thing I found most provocative about that is that the best freestyle teams do not necessarily have the best human players. In fact that could be something of a handicap.

Guest: That’s right. The really good human players are too tempted to override the computer and substitute in their own judgment. The best freestyle teams, they are quite epistemically modest, the human or humans involved. And what they are really good at is asking questions. So they’ll run two or three different computer programs and then just check on where do those programs disagree. And then they’ll probe more on those points. And that’s what the humans do well that the computers, at least not yet, aren’t able to copy. So it’s knowing what questions to ask that has become the important human skill in this freestyle endeavor.

I still think we will need to turn it all over to the computers, and the sooner the better. Human intervention will need to be so real-time that it is likely to be worse than the algorithm, and the lags in communication are sufficient to be debilitating. But the history of self-driving cars has yet to be written.

Autonomous vehicles: The legal and policy road ahead

CTS Catalyst summarizes some of the discussion from the recent Conference Autonomous vehicles: The legal and policy road ahead


… David Levinson hypothesized some possible directions:

  • Autonomous vehicles enable more car sharing. Instead of the sunk cost of car ownership, people pay the marginal cost per trip—and thus make fewer trips.

  • Shared cars can be right-sized for any given trip, so fewer large cars are needed. Increased safety reassures people about driving smaller cars.

  • Smaller cars travel closely together on narrower lanes, so capacity increases.

  • As networks get faster, people choose to travel farther. Cities decentralize and more megacities and “placeless places” develop.

  • At the same time, inner cities get denser, as less space is needed for parking and garages.

  • With lower labor costs, transit becomes more cost-effective.

  • Driverless trucks lower delivery costs. Combined with drones, robotics, and online shopping, retail shopping declines.

Autonomy Island

Ricardo Montalban and Herve Villechaize Fantasy Island (1977)
Ricardo Montalban and Herve Villechaize Fantasy Island (1977)

“Ze Car, Ze Car.”

“My dear guests, I am Mr. Roarke, your host. Welcome to Autonomy Island.”

Yes, here on Autonomy Island, all of the cars are autonomous. Your adventure will be to ride and drive in a place without fear of a human running you over.

When will an automaker (or collective of automakers, or government, or Google) buy all the cars on an island (and perhaps rent the government), replace them with new autonomous vehicles, and see what happens … to safety, to travel behavior, etc?

This is the kind of real world laboratory experiment that would be highly useful to understand the implications, the unintended side effects, the bugs and so on of robotic cars.

For instance, take the US Virgin Islands. St. Croix has a population of about 50,000 people. If it follows general US patterns, it has about 33,000 light vehicles. For about $1B [Less than the cost of a single NFL stadium] all of the cars could be replaced with autonomous vehicles at about $33,000 each. [This might be a stretch, but that would be a typical mass production cost.]

The USVI collectively has between 10 and 20 auto fatalities annually. At a $9.1 million value of life, that is at least $91M per year. In 11 years, the experiment would pay for itself if in fact it eliminates fatal crashes the way autonomous vehicles are expected to, leave aside any other potential benefits.

The advantages of an island are that it is a closed system, it can be fully mapped, no one can drive on or off. The advantages of a real island with real people are the ability to see how these interactions might actually occur in use.

Autonomous vehicles interacting with only autonomous vehicles should be much easier to design than autonomous vehicles in mixed traffic, as the environment is less variable. People, animals, weather, and so on are still potential confounding factors, but should be simpler to manage than a person in a car.

Robot cars will change your life — maybe | MinnPost

Bill Lindeke at MinnPost covers driverless cars: Robot cars will change your life — maybe. My quotes below …

David Levinson is an engineering professor at the University of Minnesota who attended this month’s conference. He explained to me that the key for autonomous vehicles is that they can react far more quickly and precisely to their surroundings.

“We could go down from 33,000 to a few hundred deaths per year by car,” Levinson told me. “In mixed environments, speeds can be regulated so that cars go much slower. People might be more wiling to travel at slower speeds in neighborhoods when they don’t have to stop at stupid traffic lights. And we won’t have the option to be more aggressive, like we can right now.”

Unlike many harried urban drivers today, robot cars would always stop for a child crossing the street or give plenty of room to a bicyclist. Saving tens of thousands of lives, while making cities safe again, is an inspiring vision.

Impeccably driven robot cars would also greatly expand our road capacity. Compared to mistake-prone humans, over twice as many robot cars might fit onto a lane of highway, which could make traffic jams (and freeway expansions) obsolete.

At the same time, the ability to daydream while driving is appealing to stressed-out commuters. As Levinson explained to me, robot cars might lead to even more driving than we see today.

“Autonomous cars will be faster on average, and as a result they’ll increase the distance people are willing to travel, “ Levinson told me. “They will also reduce the cognitive burden of drivers, and so people will be willing to spend more time driving. Both things would lead to further suburbanization.”

Future vehicles missing from Met Council’s transportation plan

James Warden at Finance and Commerce summarizes some discussion of Autonomous Vehicles from Friday’s conference, and my comments on in Future vehicles missing from Met Council’s transportation plan. [paywall]

Even so, changes like slower growth in the amount of driving are poised to reshape the region’s transportation needs, said David Levinson, a U of M professor and chair in transportation engineering for the university’s Department of Civil Engineering. Data from countries with older populations than the United States’ suggest the country is likely to see demand slow further as baby boomers age.

“We need to be thinking about not that we need to be adding capacity but maintaining what we have and what we need [and] thinking about strategic reductions in our capacity,” Levinson said. “That’s not a conversation that’s going on anywhere.”

How will driverless cars reshape Twin Cities?

James Warden at Finance and Commerce summarizes my session at the Autonomous Vehicles conference last Friday in How will driverless cars reshape Twin Cities? [paywall].

The downtown should become denser as driverless cars become more widespread, said David Levinson, a University of Minnesota professor and chair in transportation engineering for the university’s Department of Civil Engineering.

But residents outside the downtown will also choose to live farther away from the core because driverless technology will make their commutes more efficient and they’ll be able to do something besides driving during the commute.

“We know that the more people have to think about their trips, the more they overestimate the time they are actually taking,” Levinson said. “So if they don’t think about their trips, they’re going to tend to underestimate how much time they’re taking and they’ll be more willing to be traveling.”