Who first thought of a self-driving car? Who were they? Where were they? What were they thinking?
I can imagine hundreds, if not thousands getting behind the wheel every day, dreading the long boring, stressful commute ahead. At some point, they must have thought: I wish... I wish I was anywhere but here. I wish I could fly over this traffic and get there before anyone else. I wish...I wish this car would drive itself, already.What if the car drove itself? It wouldn’t matter where I lived, how far away I lived, or how long the commute was. I could live anywhere! I mean, who cares if it took even 4 hours to drive into work? I can spend that time doing something else...anything else. Sleeping, reading, learning the guitar, catching up on email, actually getting work done before I get to the office.
What if the car drove itself? Then I don’t have to live anywhere near the city. I can live by Lake Simcoe or on the Georgian Bay; commute to downtown Toronto every day and still make it back in time for sunset barbeques or lakeside picnics in the summer. Yes, I know that’s a 4-hour commute but who cares? I don’t have to drive it, the car does all the work. It doesn't matter to my company that I leave a couple of hours early because I’m just as productive anyway, probably more so because I’m much more relaxed and focused.This commute seems to be getting shorter every year! When we first bought my Tesla Model SDC a decade ago, we were among the first self-driving commuters so we shared the road with millions of human drivers, with the same stop-and-go traffic, horrendous drivers and accident-induced delays. What ideally be a 2-hour drive, most days would stretch closer to 3; occasionally doubling in length. It didn’t matter to me since we spent the time otherwise occupied only mindful of our surroundings whenever our forward momentum was interrupted.
I’ve noticed a significant shift in the commute though. Not only are we spending less time in the car every year, but the drive is smoother. Most days it hardly even feels like we’re moving, it is that smooth. All I know is, I get into the car downtown, start reading and before I know it I’m home and barely had time to finish a couple of chapters. Taking a look around at the other cars, everyone is either reading, on their laptop or chatting and laughing; there’s the odd person or two still holding onto the steering wheel. It's a rare thing to see; rare enough to feel odd; maybe even slightly annoying. They are the reason for any delays or accidents after-all. Anytime there’s a vehicle accident in the news these days, there’s a good chance there’s a person behind the wheel.
Politicians have taken notice of this fact too. Its become more popular to suggest making dumb cars obsolete altogether. You probably can’t ban them, that would be draconian. You could limit them to a single lane, apply special road taxes; just generally make them more expensive to drive. Not that they aren't already a pain to put on the roads. Insurance premiums for human drivers must be through the roof by now; if there’s still coverage available in Toronto.
My personal insurance premiums are a small fraction of what they used to be; even then they are only necessary to make up for limits in car manufacturer’s warranty coverage or in cases when I need to take control of the vehicle. XYZ insurance is advertising new on-demand insurance that only charges for the time when I’m in control of the vehicle. When was the last time I did that? That was at least a few years ago, wasn’t it? We lost 5G coverage for a few hours due to a network outage so, the vehicle couldn’t get updates from the cities Smart-Traffic infrastructure. So no traffic signals, no weather, no maps. We could continue in self-driving mode using just radar, lidar and cached maps, but we didn’t get the extended warranty coverage for those driving conditions, so thought it was better to take over the vehicle. It was miserable! As soon as we got home, I added the extended warranty.
Vehicle: Insurance Included
I sure don’t miss the old days of shopping for insurance coverage; trying to find the best deals and the right compromise between coverage and costs. Now everything so much simpler. Your basic insurance coverage comes with the vehicle purchase. Its composed of two parts: the autonomous warranty coverage, and the human driver coverage.
The autonomous warranty covers the vehicle when it is under AI control. The certification level, version and performance history of the AI determines the level of coverage. The higher quality AIs cost more up-front but perform way better, so there’s less need to take over control of the vehicle; and hence less human driver coverage. Once you choose the AI core, if you want to save a bit more money you can then choose to geo-fence your core to one or more designated areas. So if you know you’ll only mostly be driving in the GTA or Ontario, you can limit AI coverage to those areas. Later on, if you choose to take a drive outside that area, you can always take manual control or buy an add-on coverage for the duration of the trip. Either way, AIs are rated for their designated areas and past performance. The past performance includes both at-fault accidents and passenger experience ratings; which we can report at any time for unusual incidents.
You can even upgrade the AI separately from the vehicle. Usually, the AI core and the sensors (radar, lidar, cameras), come as a package, so if you upgrade one, you have to upgrade the whole set. Once the change is made, you then have to register the new set, by AID with the vehicle VIN. That allows the black-box and central tracking to keep the history with the core and sensor set and start a new history with the new set. I can then sell my old AI set on the second-hand market.
Each set has a pre-built lifetime for which it is guaranteed. After that guarantee period, any vehicle using that set can only get coverage from the secondary market. The secondary market charges for the coverage based on the past history and performance of the set, its age and expected life-span.
The human driver coverage is for manual control by the “driver”. I don’t understand the specifics but apparently, the car comes with a legally-required black-box that records all the cars actions and instruments over time and any incidents that happen along the way. So every time I take over the vehicle, it gets recorded and reported, and I get charged a per-use fee. In the event of an accident, the black-box data and Smart-Traffic data from the accident location are all uploaded to the insurance regulator for review. They can then reconstruct the accident in detail to determine who, or what is at fault.
The human coverage has an option for leasing so that, if I want to earn some extra cash, I can lease my car to Uber’s self-driving fleet whenever I’m not using it. Simply fire up the Uber app in the car to join the network, and away it goes. The endorsement looks at the vehicle usage in the Uber network to know how much to charge, then automatically deducts it from my fare. They get paid directly by Uber, so I don’t have to worry about that.
It's nice having the extra cash from Uber; it helps pay for the vehicle loan and charging expenses. It is almost like free money. I don’t miss the vehicle because I’m not using it anyway, and between Uber and Tesla, everything is taken care of. The car will even sense when the passenger makes a mess in the car, notify Uber with evidence and the passenger account, take itself to the AutoWash to get cleaned up, then automatically charge Uber (who of course, charges the customer. The same thing happens when the passage leaves stuff behind. The car notifies Uber. Uber then sends instructions (a map route really) for delivering the lost items after coordinating with the passenger for the meetup. Then when its time to head home, “recall” brings it back to my preferred pickup spot. I love my Tesla! Of course, on the days my wife is so inclined, I send the car home for her use until quitting time.
Public transit networks: Taxis, buses, delivery service
With all the new autonomous-everything in the GTA, I really don’t need a personal car. Put pen to paper and crunch the numbers, and it makes sense. The vehicle is practically free because of how much time I can spend leasing it to Uber. It is almost like an investment, a business, really. These Teslas with the new Graphene supercaps power packs, super-conducting motors and 3D printed composite bodies, can practically last forever. It is not like my old gas-guzzler from 12 years ago where it spent more time in the shop than on the road. Tesla is built to last forever. Nothing really lasts forever, but for practically infinite life-span of the battery and motors, and the modularity of the car, the Tesla comes pretty close. At any time, I can upgrade or replace the critical components direct from the factory without changing the body. And if I do need to change the body, or repair any damage, I can go to any local 3D shop to get the changes done. So you spend a fair bit up-front, add some here and there over the lifetime, but you pretty much have a car forever. So in my case, it makes sense to buy.
Even though I don’t have to do much with the car, it's probably way easier today than ever before to just use public transit. My daughter thinks owning a car is “sooooo ancient”. She can be anywhere in the GTA and call city transit which will arrange the nearest pickup location based on requests from nearby riders. Or just call an Uber to pick her up and take her directly to her destination. Even living in the country you get decent transit coverage. There’s always AutoCabs around to take you to the nearest HyperLoop station so you’re never too far away. In fact, with so much autonomous infrastructure in the cities, the province has started to focus on transit in the countryside. Very few people in the cities take transit. They prefer Uber or their own cars. I imagine, over the next few years, the province will be a lot less city-centred. With greater access to transit, more people could live and work in previously unreachable towns and villages...
The autonomous future opens several possibilities; a small sample of which are depicted above. Whole industries will be reduced or non-existent. Think taxi/Uber/transit/truck drivers, auto mechanics, body shops, insurance adjusters, auto insurance. The very face of transit and public infrastructure will change. Who needs dedicated rails when wheeled vehicles can travel at tremendous speeds, unencumbered by such nuisances as traffic lights and stop signs? Will speed limits still be a thing when humans cede control to machines? Will traffic jams be a reality when vehicles can plan their routes miles in advance using knowledge of the routes of other vehicles and their impact on traffic conditions?
New industries and opportunities will present themselves for creative entrepreneurs. Leasing a fleet of autonomous vehicles to a transit network, after-market vehicle driving system retrofits and upgrades, collecting parsing and monetising the petabytes of data generated by autonomous vehicles every day, generating and updating autonomous-friendly maps meant for machine consumption only, and above all, protecting that infrastructure from corruption; whether accidental or nefarious (the new tech will be prime targets for hackers). Can’t afford a full autonomy kit, we’ll lease one to you for a reasonable price; maybe even give it to you for free in return for your data as long as you don’t mind a few targeted ads every now and then. We’ll know your route, destination and how long it’ll take to get there so we can suggest some places you might want to visit along the way or the best Taco joint in case you’re hungry. There’s one coming up in 15 minutes. Order now and their drone delivery service will fly your order to the car; no need to stop.
There’s a lot of possibilities, once we get there. The question remains: where is “there” and what will it take to reach it? Let's address the former first.
Since 1905, the Society of Automotive Engineers has been creating transportation standards for the world. In 2014, they created the first version of the Taxonomy and Definitions for Terms Related to On-Road Motor Vehicle Automated Driving Systems; a document which codifies the level of attentiveness and intervention required by the human driver of an automobile.
The levels are:
- Level 0: No automation. Full driver control required at all times
- Level 1: Driver assistance (hands-on). Co-control of either steering or gas in some limited circumstances (think lane keeping assistance or accident avoidance)
- Level 2: Partial automation (hands off, eyes on). Think enhanced cruise control. The automaton fully controls both steering and gas to keep the vehicle on track but expects the driver to intervene when cruising is not possible
- Level 3: Conditional Automation (hands and eyes off). The automaton controls all aspects of driving and monitors the environment for events that may require its attention. Will request driver intervention in times of uncertainty. Basically semi-smart vehicles like Tesla with Auto-Pilot
- Level 4: High Automation (mind off). This is near full self-driving capability requiring no driver intervention. The automaton is limited to specific areas (geo-fenced) where it can expect near ideal conditions for self-driving. The driver never has to take control
- Level 5: Full Automation (steering wheel optional). This is the ultimate experience where the vehicle is smart enough to handle all eventualities and locations
Obviously, the ultimate goal is to migrate to Level 5 capable vehicles. In the next post in this series, we will explore what is involved in building a Level 5 autonomous vehicle. After that, we'll examine the current state of the art in autonomy. Finally, we'll wrap-up of the non-technical challenges that stand in the way of ubiquitous full autonomy.