Category Archives: Vehicles

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.

Electric Antecedents: How the Electric Vehicle Evolved | The Transportation Experience

Adapted in part from Garrison and Levinson (2014) The Transportation Experience: Second Edition, Oxford University Press. This provides additional background on the topic of  yesterday’s post Electric Avenue.

The Transportation Experience: Second Edition by William L. Garrison and David M. Levinson
The Transportation Experience: Second Edition by William L. Garrison and David M. Levinson

The automobile was the obvious technology of the future. It had been forecast and developed for nearly a century before mass production. Yet when the patent application of  future Congressman Nathan Read, an early steamboat developer in Connecticut who proposed a steam-powered automobile in 1790s, was read aloud in the House of Representatives, members struggled to suppress laughter. A century later some practical vehicles entered the market. The path was trod in fits and starts. In 1835 Thomas Davenport of Vermont built the first rotary electric motor which pulled 31-36 kg carriages at 5 km/h. In the late 1830s Robert Davidson of Scotland built a carriage powered by batteries and a motor, and later an electric coach, the Galvani, running on rail tracks. In 1851, Charles Page built an electric locomotive reaching a speed of 30 km/h. Those experiments ended without widespread market success. In parallel with steam and electric experiments, the Internal Combustion Engine(ICE) was patented in 1860 by Belgian engineer Jean Joseph Etienne Lenoir, who applied a coal-gas and air burning version to his three-wheeled Hippomobile. Nikolaus Otto developed his engine in the 1870s and Karl Benz used Otto’s engine to power a 600 watt (0.8 horsepower) three-wheel carriage in 1885. While today, the automobile is widespread and mostly employs the internal combustion or diesel engine, that technological outcome was not obvious to many of those in the field as late as 1900.

The electric grid, developed by Edison and others, was necessary for practical electrical transportation. Electricity was first widely applied in transportation to the streetcar. By 1879 Siemens and Halske built a 2.6 km line in Berlin. Battery trolleys were tested in early 1880s in places like the Leland Avenue Railway in Philadelphia, but by 1887, a New York financial syndicate funded Sprague Electric Railroad and Motor Company to build a 19.2 km line in Richmond, Virginia. Over the next three decades trolleys exploded across US cities. The electric streetcar, and other electric railways, transmitted power to the vehicle via a cable, a technology not suited for the automobile.

1893 World’s Columbian Exposition displayed six automobiles. The only one from the US, by William Morrison of Iowa, was electric. Yet the energy density of the battery remained the principal constraint on the electric vehicle’s market share. By the turn of the century, range and the energy per unit weight of battery compared with gasoline engines were already defined as key weaknesses by the best engineering talent of the time.

Battery-powered vehicles have more limited range (distance before recharging/refueling) than gasoline-powered vehicles due to energy density. The limits to battery technology result from battery weight. Each additional battery reduces the effectiveness of all the others, as they must spend some of their stored energy moving around other batteries instead of the rest of the car and passenger. Diminishing returns set in quickly. (The same issue affects liquid fuel of course, but it is not as severe since the energy density is higher).

While longer distance touring was a relatively small market, people consider the extreme use for the vehicle they buy, not the average, hence the personal trucks we see on urban and suburban streets. A vehicle must be usable in a maximal number of conditions. People imagined traveling longer distances than an EV could run. Other problems were the under-developed electric grid (as late as 1900 only 5 percent of factory power was electric) and lack of charging stations, especially at homes.

The plug to connect the car battery to a wall socket was not developed until 1901, prior batteries had to be removed from vehicles, no trivial task. While some electric utilities encouraged EVs and helped charge and maintain them at central stations, promoting local EV sales, most utilities saw these customers as nuisances rather than a source of business. Range (c. 1901) was about 4 hours, so charging was a frequent event. Fast charging (a charging time of one or two hours was considered fast) deteriorated the batteries. People thought of solutions. For instance, a charging hydrant, dubbed an “electrant.” located every few blocks was proposed, but never implemented, to permit travelers to pull over and pay for a metered amount of electricity. These ideas have been reappeared in recent decades as people seek to solve the same problems with electrics. Again, the number of charging stations remains quite limited, as no one wants to invest in a network of charging stations until there are many plug-in electrics requiring charges, and few will buy plug-in electrics if the cost and convenience does not match its technological competitors.

Another concept, developed by L.R. Wallis in 1900 was to have a parent battery company, from which batteries would be leased, and then swapped out when needing recharging for already charged batteries. This idea has been revived with Shai Agassi’s company Better Place in the 2000s, which hoped to develop a network of battery exchange centers, before entering bankruptcy. Similarly, electric garages, modeled on livery stables (for horses) were established to limit the owner’s need to deal with the difficulties of charging and maintaining the car.

While range and charging issues were obvious downsides, the primary advantages of electric vehicles at the time had to do with user interface. Charles Kettering had yet to develop the self-starter, so gasoline engines required the user to get out and crank. This was a non-starter for upper-income women, who thus preferred electric vehicles. EVs were often marketed to women, but this feminizing of the product may have discouraged men. An emerging middle class of urban professionals, managers, and white-collar workers formed a market for a new type of transportation.

The best-selling Oldsmobile sold only 425 vehicles in 1900. The market was still minuscule, but growing exponentially. Detroit in 1900 was much like Silicon Valley in the 1970s, with its HomeBrew Computing Club that begat Apple Computer and Microsoft. By 1912 Model T sales reached 82,388, in 1914: 200,000, in 1915: 400,000. Despite Edison’s encouragement of Ford’s gasoline-powered car, as noted in the opening quote, later Edison and Ford worked together in a failed attempt to bring about an electric car that was competitive with gasoline-powered vehicles.

In 1900 and 1905 the 1,200 electrics sold were fewer than 10 percent of all vehicle sales. Ultimately EVs fell further and further behind as economies of scale drove down the relative cost of its competitors, attracting a greater and greater share of consumers. Like Internal Combustion Engines (ICEs), EVs were rising in sales, but at a much more modest pace, growing to only 6,000 vehicles in 1912.

Because of the difficulty consumers had with charging, Salom and Morris of the Electric Storage Battery (ESB) Company proposed a fleet of rental cars (an antecedent to car sharing), where professional would charge and maintain the vehicles. Individuals would still rent or lease a particular car. However, this failed to get critical mass, and required picking up the car, rather than storing it at home. In the end this became a fleet of cabs, where instead of recharging batteries in the vehicle, batteries would be swapped in and out, and charged (slowly) out of the vehicle.

Owner of New York’s Metropolitan Street Railway Company, Henry Melville Whitney consolidated the electric vehicle industry beginning in 1898, acquiring ESB, combining with Pope, and absorbing the Riker company, with the aim of establishing a fleet of 15,000 electric cabs to serve urban America. This “Lead Cab Trust” began to fail when the batteries, designed for smoother running streetcars or stationary operations did not do well on bumpy road surfaces and the frequent charging and discharging use of cab service, rather than the more sedate private ownership. Batteries deteriorated with use along with age.

The Edison Storage Battery Company aimed to develop a nickel-iron alkaline battery to replace the lead-acid battery. Edison’s competitor, ESB, tried to perfect the lead acid battery. The New York Electric Vehicle Transportation Company, part of EVC (the Lead Cab Trust) was probably the largest consumer of such batteries. It also developed its own central station and substation, and started running electric buses on Fifth Avenue as well as other routes. Other subsidiaries of the Trust fared less well, the New England and Illinois branches of EVTC folded in 1901. Edison hyped his battery for years, but it was not widely used once it came to market, as the cost-energy density tradeoff never worked favorably.

The self-starter for the automobile was modeled on the newly motorized cash register, by National Cash Register engineer Charles Kettering. His company DELCO was acquired by General Motors. This seemingly modest innovation made the gasoline powered automobile usable by those without the strength to turn the crank, and thus as easy to start as an electric. After Kettering, the automobile become an electric system in miniature: Its generator (with the battery) was the central station, which distributed current through a network for uses like starting the car, but also for headlights, and later radios and other purposes.Battery makers thus boomed not from selling batteries to makers of EVs but from selling to makers of gasoline-powered cars containing an electric self-starter.

Electric Vehicle in Kyoto
Electric Vehicle in Kyoto

It would be nearly a century before EVs became popular again.

References:

  • Hoffmann, P. (2002). Tomorrow’s Energy: Hydrogen, Fuel Cells, and the Prospects for a Cleaner Planet. The MIT Press.
  • Koppel, T. (1999). Powering the Future: The Ballard Fuel Cell and the Race to Change the World. Wiley.
  • Lienhard, J. (2006). How Invention Begins: Echoes of Old Voices in the Rise of New Machines. Oxford University Press.
  • Nye, D. (1992). Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, 1880-1940. The MIT press.
  • Schiffer, M., T. Butts, and K. Grimm (1994). Taking Charge: The Electric Automobile in America. Smithsonian Institution Press
  • Sperling, D. and D. Gordon (2009). Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainability. Oxford University Press, USA
  • Swift, E. (2011). The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Automated Vehicles are Probably Legal in the United States

Bryant Walker Smith writes 99 pages saying Automated Vehicles are Probably Legal in the United States:

“This paper provides the most comprehensive discussion to date of whether so-called automated, autonomous, self-driving, or driverless vehicles can be lawfully sold and used on public roads in the United States. The short answer is that the computer direction of a motor vehicle’s steering, braking, and accelerating without real-time human input is probably legal. The long answer, which follows, provides a foundation for tailoring regulations and understanding liability issues related to these vehicles.
The paper’s largely descriptive analysis, which begins with the principle that everything is permitted unless prohibited, covers three key legal regimes: the 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic, regulations enacted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and the vehicle codes of all fifty US states.
The Geneva Convention, to which the United States is a party, probably does not prohibit automated driving. The treaty promotes road safety by establishing uniform rules, one of which requires every vehicle or combination thereof to have a driver who is “at all times … able to control” it. However, this requirement is likely satisfied if a human is able to intervene in the automated vehicle’s operation.
NHTSA’s regulations, which include the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards to which new vehicles must be certified, do not generally prohibit or uniquely burden automated vehicles, with the possible exception of one rule regarding emergency flashers.
State vehicle codes probably do not prohibit—but may complicate—automated driving. These codes assume the presence of licensed human drivers who are able to exercise human judgment, and particular rules may functionally require that presence. New York somewhat uniquely directs a driver to keep one hand on the wheel at all times. In addition, far more common rules mandating reasonable, prudent, practicable, and safe driving have uncertain application to automated vehicles and their users. Following distance requirements may also restrict the lawful operation of tightly spaced vehicle platoons. Many of these issues arise even in the three states that expressly regulate automated vehicles.
The primary purpose of this paper is to assess the current legal status of automated vehicles. However, the paper includes draft language for US states that wish to clarify this status. It also recommends five near-term measures that may help increase legal certainty without producing premature regulation. First, regulators and standards organizations should develop common vocabularies and definitions that are useful in the legal, technical, and public realms. Second, the United States should closely monitor efforts to amend or interpret the 1969 Vienna Convention, which contains language similar to the Geneva Convention but does not bind the United States. Third, NHTSA should indicate the likely scope and schedule of potential regulatory action. Fourth, US states should analyze how their vehicle codes would or should apply to automated vehicles, including those that have an identifiable human operator and those that do not. Finally, additional research on laws applicable to trucks, buses, taxis, low-speed vehicles, and other specialty vehicles may be useful. This is in addition to ongoing research into the other legal aspects of vehicle automation.”

(Via Marginal Revolution.)

Lean Machine for the 21st Century

ToyotaiRoadAutoblog tells me about the Toyota i-ROAD :

“According to Toyota, the “i-ROAD takes the company closer to its goal of creating the ultimate range of eco cars.” As you’re surely aware, that range of eco cars includes the enormously successful Prius family, but this new machine is nothing like the hybrid hatchback. And it’s not even a car – Toyota calls the i-ROAD a Personal Mobility Vehicle.
Toyota’s i-ROAD Concept, which debuts at this week’s Geneva Motor Show, is adorned with just three wheels, meaning it’s just as much a motorcycle as it is a car, and the driver and passenger sit in tandem style instead of side-by-side. This arrangement allows for a very thin 850mm width, which is about the same as a large motorcycle. Because the cockpit is enclosed, the occupants don’t need helmets, nor are they open to the elements outside.
Also like a traditional two-wheeler, the i-ROAD tilts through the turns and when driving on uneven surfaces. Toyota says its computer-controlled Active Lean technology automatically balances the vehicle with no input from the driver.

LeanMachine

This is of course cool technology, and we have been awaiting skinny cars for a long time (even before GM’s Lean Machine). Even without automation, this could add significant capacity and safety to road networks, as well as providing space conservation and energy reduction. Some videos follow. When will Toyota (or anyone) mass produce this so the costs are below those of passenger cars.

 

 

4 wheels bad, 1 wheel good (From the vehicles have too many wheels, Dpt.)

Ryno
A picture of the Ryno is to the right. (I have yet to see one in the wild). It is self-balancing, and so the Segway of mobility scooters/motorcycles. As they say, don’t let the road get in the way of your life. It is limited to 12.5 mph, and so one may ask, how is this better than a bicycle? Well if you don’t want to pedal. … How is this better than Segway? Well if you don’t want to stand, and somehow it looks cooler.

A page devoted to vehicles with only one wheel is here: Motorwheels monowheels They are not all of the unicycle variety.

Menace 2 Society

Menace2Society

For reasons mentioned in a previous post, we got a new car. I had been hoping my next car would be self-driving, but that was not to be. The new car needed to be bigger than the previous as we have 3 children who sometimes all need to be transported. The Subaru Forester and similar sized cars are incapable of carrying three children in the back row in three car seats (which is what the law requires in some states, seriously the car seat lobby must be making a fortune on fear-mongering). This requires 3 rows. After filtering for size of car, we considered the Dodge Durango, GMC Acadia, Ford Flex, Honda Odyssey, Honda Pilot, and Toyota Siena. Nissan was out of the running based on previous quality issues (damn poor Sentry that stalled out at intersections), and in the end that did in GM as well (damn poor Chevette that leaked over the driver’s foot when it rained, because water accumulated in the vents). Based on quality of ride and build, and reliability (both perceived and real), and the fact that I would not want to be in a minivan, we wound up with the Pilot, which we have nicknamed Menace 2 Society.
The car buying experience was not great (I purchased at Buerkle (pronounced Berkeley) Honda). The salesman let me do a short test drive, I would have preferred to be longer. They had their best price. I asked for lower. They had their Costco price. I asked for lower. They said ok to a lower price (take that Costco price guarantee). I probably could have pushed them more, but I didn’t have all day, and didn’t want to come back (since I was in a daily rental from Enterprise).
But then they had their financing people. I chose to finance primarily because I don’t carry around that much cash, but interest rates are so freakin’ low it would make sense in any case. Strangely the finance people also sell the service contracts. I don’t have special fondness for dealer service (though they are usually fine in my experience, if pricey), but I like to make one organization responsible for everything so there is a minimum of finger pointing. It seems break-even in costs, based on history with previous cars, though they get some money in advance, but like I said, the interest rates are really low. They also sell the undercoating/rust proofing after-market. There is controversy about this, some say it is like mattress protection, and too expensive or worthless. I plan on holding the car a long time assuming it doesn’t break, crash, or the price of gas doesn’t go about $10/gallon, so I am interested in long term preservation. My last car was held 14 years, and after treatment did not rust (but was beginning to rust beforehand at edges with scratches.) At any rate, they sold as a package and it is hard to decompose how much it is for each item. There is an insurance aspect to this, hoping I won’t use it, but if something goes wrong in the first 8 years, they can be held accountable.
As part of their service contract, they include a contracted service (Honda Care Roadside Assistance via Cross-Country Motor Club) that is like AAA for stranded cars etc. Good luck finding them though, this is not information they want you to have, or a service they want you to use (since you already paid for it, using it is a cost to them without future revenue.) In some ways I want to test it, and see if it works. I worry though that if I call them I will get a “no one is home” message. We are still AAA members from last season, I am debating re-upping.
Honda Financial Services are not swift with their systems. First, their site says this:

Please note: email spam filters may block our emails from being delivered. If you have a spam blocker, please set it to accept email from: hondafinancialservices@emailnotify.net

Why would this be? Was your server taken over by spammers? Can you not fix this properly?
Second, once you sign up for electronic payments, they don’t actually debit the first payment, only the second. Again, why? Then, since you didn’t make your first payment (assuming naively that since you signed up, they could deal with it), they send bill collectors after you. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to just take the money that was offered the first time.
The car runs and rides very nicely. It feels like I am just gliding down the road (especially compared to a 1998 Subaru Forester). My main complaint is with user interface:
dash

There are so many buttons and dials on the dashboard, if only they had voice control. It does, but it is voice control c. 1998 automated phone tree. You have to push a button, and then wait so long for it to tell you what you can do you have already reached your destinations. I complained about it in the test drive, and the salesman tried to explain that it wasn’t the most god-awful terrible piece of crap user interface (or something like that which I muttered), but really, this was a 2012 model, not a 1998 model.
The buttons are sort of randomly placed, environmental controls sandwiched between the radio and the navigation system. The problem is keeping your eye on the road and hitting the right button. I don’t have a solution, but I am sure Apple would. Start with fewer buttons, or maybe a touch screen that only gives you controls in the right mode (environment, entertainment, navigation, communications, car statistics, whatever), or maybe a good voice control that actually does what you tell it to.
The GPS is generally accurate in my limited experience, and not too intrusive, but programming it for the destination you want is a pain. Again touch screen would be really nice here. Give me a map, let me point to where I want to go, and then you find the best path from here to there. Or a smart voice control that could understand what I said at a normal rate of speech.
I periodically get surveys from someone on behalf of Honda about whether I would recommend it to a friend or family member. Thus far aside from the UI, I am happy with it, but as the saying goes, YMMV.

I am entitled

2012-08-29 at 17-11-28

In 1998 I bought a Subaru Forester at Albany Subaru in California. We test drove two all-wheel-drive vehicles with high reliability, it and the Outback. We asked Jeff, the salesman, which car would be better in the post-apocalypse. He said the Forester. In the event, that need has not arisen (yet), but the car was surprisingly useful once I took a job in Minnesota, the White Subaru being the car-du-jour of the Minneapolis Winter. When I moved to Minnesota, the car was still mortgaged to a California Credit Union, but I dutifully transferred license plates. We paid off the car sometime around 2001, and thus owned it outright. I never received the title, it was probably never sent, or may have been sent to my old California address. One never looks for things one is not expecting. For 11 years, this never mattered.
Though we maintained the car well, sometimes the fate of cars is as shown in the picture on the right (no people were seriously injured in the making of this photograph). It being a 14 year old car with serious body damage, it was not worth it for us to repair. We had been considering upgrading for a few years anyway, this accelerated the decision. The car was in the St. Paul impound lot. We had several options for disposal
(1) abandon it on the St. Paul Impound lot. This would get rid of the problem, but not provide a tax deduction;
(2) donate to charity;
(3) sell it untitled on Craigslist;
(4) abandon it on the street to be picked apart by recyclers.
To get it off the lot, or get anything out of the car, you have to pay rent to St. Paul. Since we still had things in the car, we paid the rent. Then AAA helpfully towed the car to the front of my house. However the car was barely operational. Surely it would be picked up in a day or two. I quickly realized that was not to be. I concluded after about a day I did not want to drag down property values in my neighborhood anymore with the unrepaired eyesore, and burned some rubber (the driver side rear tire was bent inward and so created a burning rubber smell when it moved, but it did move while making an awful noise and mechanically the car still worked) and drove the car from the front of my house to my garage in the back alley.
Anyway, we wanted the second option, as it would give us a tax deduction. Unfortunately, all the charities require a title.
I searched my otherwise complete records. I had no title. (I had every insurance form since 1998, and every car care receipt, but no title). A charity helpfully informed the car title was registered in California.
I obtained a notarized lien release letter from my Credit Union, who is remarkably at the same address and phone number as 12 years ago.
At the beginning of September, I filled out a form and sent a check, with the lien release, and asked California to send me the title. About a month later I received a letter in reply returning the check uncashed saying they don’t keep records older than 4 years.
The next day, I sent a letter to Minnesota, filling out a form, with various explanations, asking to transfer title from California to Minnesota, with a check, a copy of the letter from California, and the lien release notice from the original lender. A few weeks later I got back a letter, with my original attachments, the check uncashed, saying that was the wrong form, and I need to send them a letter with a different form, asking for a title for untitled vehicles, rather than a transfer.
I sent them the new form. A few weeks later, they sent back a letter asking me to send them the letter from California and the notice from the Credit Union that they held no lien on the car. Naively I assumed they didn’t need that again, since they saw it the first time. Surely they would scan it and have it in their records.
So I resent the new form, with the letter from California and the lien release.
Success, finally in the beginning of December, I received a title in the mail from the State of Minnesota.
The next day, we went to Newgate School, which teaches car repair, and gave them the title and the keys to the car. I held the title for less than 24 hours. Two days later, they towed the vehicle from our garage. I hope someone learns something about bodywork, and someone else gets a decent car in return. We got our garage back, which the new car barely fits.
—-
I thought about calling this post “DMV: Or why people hate their government”. People often have unpleasant experiences with their government, especially the bureaucratic end (as opposed to the other non-bureaucratic end, like ?). DMV is perhaps the most common and most regular, but I could discuss the planning and permitting offices of local government, which are needlessly bureaucratic and succeed in preventing me from legally doing ethically reasonable things with my property. I don’t want to pick on Minnesota DMV (technically Driver and Vehicle Services here), since when I get my driver’s license, the line is far shorter than say it was in Maryland or California.
My main gripe has been the annual vehicle registration DVS has. I can do it online, if I pay an extra fee, or I can do it the old-fashioned way and write a check, which is cheaper to me, and must be costlier to them. Does no-one think about incentives?
Further, it was clear what I wanted on my first letter to them (the title to my car which they know I own and I have registered legally here for 13 years), they should have been able to handle it, or called and asked if they could tick a different box on a different form if that is what makes their databases happy. I could have done this in person, but mailing a letter is faster in terms of using less of my scarce time, though not faster in terms of solving the problem in real-time. In short, I would like people to think about ends and not just means.
California really shouldn’t be dumping data after 4 years either (are hard drives that expensive?). They must have some privacy rationale, but really, this is a car title, it is in the national registry, they should have been able to handle this too.
(In short, no wonder gun owners don’t want to be registered.)