Robocars: The Real Solution to Texting While Driving and ...

... drinking, finding decent radio stations, slurping hot coffee, reading tiny GPS maps, enjoying a hamburger, fixing make-up, shaving, and having sex too while on the road. This observation was provoked by U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood's announcement today that texting while driving is now banned for drivers of commercial trucks and buses. Lots of states already ban all texting while behind the wheel.

Electronic Frontier Foundation Board chairman Brad Templeton has the real solution to distracted driving -- robocars. He argues that it will soon be possible to install enough computing power in automobiles that they can drive themselves, enabling passengers to wile away their transit time with more enjoyable activities. Templeton's most intriguing test for the safety of self-driving autos is his school of fish test. As he describes it:'

In this test, a swarm of robocars of different types moves on a track. The skeptic is given a regular vehicle to drive in the swarm. If the vehicles pass the test, the skeptic can't hit a robocar no matter what they do. They can swerve, brake suddenly, even go against traffic and, so long as the traffic is not packed at an unsafe density, they can't hit a robocar or get one to hit them.

In an alternate version of the test, a pedestrian goes out into the flow and tries to touch a robocar. If they pass, no touch can be made. This is like a diver swimming with a school of fish. It's next to impossible to touch one of the fish.

Go here for Templeton's roadmap to the robocar future.

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  • Mango Punch||

    Reverse school of fish: Robocar tries to hit swarm of skeptics in various different cars driving on track.

  • ||

    MP: More like "school of sharks." ;-)

  • Pope Jimbo||

    The perfect test for me would be to run an entire elementary school through a track that contained hundreds of robocars. In each robocar would be 2-3 hard core drunks whooping it up.

    It either passes, or you get the greatest PR disaster ever.

    I also think that even if robocars passed all these tests the guv would still make it illegal to drink in them. MADD wouldn't be able to countenance people drinking and riding.

  • Hugh Akston||

    A swarm of robocars has to drive through a junior prom at 100 mph while the electric slide is playing. Dodge balls are randomly dropped from the ceiling into traffic while clumsy janitors and drunken chaperones deploy liquids of varying viscosities onto the floor. The cars pass if they maintain their heading and speed without being touched and blow their horns at the high point of the song.

  • Pope Jimbo||

    The perfect test for me would be to run an entire elementary school through a track that contained hundreds of robocars. In each robocar would be 2-3 hard core drunks whooping it up.

    It either passes, or you get the greatest PR disaster ever.

    I also think that even if robocars passed all these tests the guv would still make it illegal to drink in them. MADD wouldn't be able to countenance people drinking and riding.

  • joeshmo||

    we can't make cars to run on anything but gasoline .............. and I'm supposed to believe this will happen anytime soon?

  • pmains||

    We do make cars that run on other things, like compressed natural gas. Read here for more details.

  • joeshmo||

    .....not to mention, the auto-repair lobby groups will ensure sure this technology never makes it to market.

  • Bradley||

    Yes, the powerful auto mechanics lobby.

  • Dello||

    No, no: The MECHANICS will have even more work with all the stuff they'd have to pack in the cars (I'm a mechanic by trade, so I have some idea what it will take). It's the BODY SHOP guys that will be up in arms.

    That said, I can see an even larger market in car customizing for those guys.

  • ||

    Templeton's most intriguing test for the safety of self-driving autos is his school of fish test.

    I'm guessing, based on what snippets I have seen of the DARPA driverless vehicle competition, the "school of fish" test is strictly a hypothetical postulation.

  • juris_imprudent||

    You should read more than snippets. The first attempt was all but catastrophic, the second was a serious competition for the win. Amazing progress from the first try.

  • Zeb||

    As someone who works in the autonomous robotics industry, I doubt very much that this will be possible anytime soon, at least if each car is truly autonomous and does not depend on any infrastructure built into the roads. We can do very well navigating indoors, but most any outdoor environment is so dynamic and complicated that it is extremely difficult to reliably deal with all of the problems you might run into.
    It is getting better quickly, though.

  • Johnny Longtorso||

    Can my robocar still play Deathrace 2000?

  • ||

    In this test, a swarm of robocars of different types moves on a track. The skeptic is given a regular vehicle to drive in the swarm. If the vehicles pass the test, the skeptic can't hit a robocar no matter what they do. They can swerve, brake suddenly, even go against traffic and, so long as the traffic is not packed at an unsafe density, they can't hit a robocar or get one to hit them.

    Oh yeah? We'll see who's laughing after Jeremy, Hamster and Capt. Slow get in there.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    WAKE THE FUCK UP. THIS IS HOW SKYNET STARTS, PEOPLE.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Also, drinking while getting driven in a robocar will still be illegal. You don't need to know why.

  • Nancy Pelosi||

    Alcohol makes you fat and unhealthy and the U.S. taxpayer doesn't want to have to buy a new liver you ungrateful parasite.

    All your organs are belong to us.

  • ||

    Until computers can safely operate cars, flying cars will remain but a dream. It's a necessary precondition.

  • TXLimey||

    Could a group of professional drivers actually pass this test?

    Most of the drivers I see on the road drive as if they have the "computing power" of a Commodore 64.

  • ||

    I prefer to take an active role in the operation of my car(s).

  • T||

    I don't buy gas-guzzling absurdly overpowered motorcycles and trucks so a robot can drive me around in them. If I want to drink or surf the web, I have a wife who can drive.

  • ||

    Yes, yes, it's nice to drive oneself around. However, if it were all controlled by robots or, more likely, computers, we could haul ass. I like the idea of going 250 on the highway.

  • ||

    Michael Montemerlo, the lead on the very impressive Stanford "Junior" entrant to the DARPA Urban Challenge (ie, a guy whose job is to make robocars, and who is among the world's most successful in doing his job), thinks that fully autonomous cars are more than two decades away, according to this Ars Technica article.

    http://arstechnica.com/old/con.....rt-1.ars/4

    I'm inclined to believe him.

  • JD||

    Yeah, the optimism sounds kind of crap to me. Consider professional auto racing: everyone on the track is a highly skilled professional, everyone is going almost exactly the same speed and direction, the track is much cleaner and smoother and often better-lit than your average road, every driver knows the track well and knows what's coming up, there are no pedestrians, animals, red lights, construction equipment, etc...and yet collisions still occur. On the other hand, we're supposed to throw out every single one of those conditions, and still believe that robocars will ABSOLUTELY prevent an accident. Right. And they will be designed by the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny.

  • Publilius||

    If the vehicles pass the test, the skeptic can't hit a robocar no matter what they do. . . . If they pass, no touch can be made.

    This sounds awkward. Wouldn't a native English speaker say, "If the skeptic can't hit a robocar no matter what they do, then the vehicles pass the test," and "If no touch can be made, then they pass." ?

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    "Robocar, point on this Matchbox where the skeptic touched you."

  • ||


    In an alternate version of the test, a pedestrian goes out into the flow and tries to touch a robocar. If they pass, no touch can be made.

    I've got a list of people I'd like to nominate to be the test pedestrian...

  • OMG||

    great plan, until the robocar starts texting its little robocar friends. What you gonna do then? huh, what then

  • The Man||

    The wonderful world of the future...when cars are smart enough to drive themselves and artificial PhDs will teach us how to download our "minds" into our cars and so we can live forever as Hondas...The singularity awaits.

  • juris_imprudent||

    Two thoughts. First, Microsoft must be forbidden from being one of the software designers. Second, this strikes me about as interesting as "smart guns" - the downsides greatly outweigh the upside.

  • ||

    I agree that the real solution to texting (or drinking, or snogging) while driving is ... not to drive! What people need is a budget, robo-driven limo that takes them, whenever they decide to go, without significant waiting, from where they are to where they want to go, non-stop, without getting entangled in the vagaries and problems of street traffic, and then goes its own way after dropping off the passengers, without needing to be parked or otherwise cared for by them.

    Such systems exist, both in design and -- recently -- reality (e.g., at Heathrow Airport): Personal Rapid Transit.

    Although I'd prefer that PRT in the Santa Cruz CA area not resemble alien pods so much, I think that we and many other communities, small and large, could benefit from a transportation system that could grow as the city grows, using up much less right-of way than vehicular traffic (not to mention LRT or heavy-rail), while providing most of the desirable creature comforts and convenience of a personal auto, without the many downsides of owner-operatorship. If such systems existed, many people would still own, maintain, use and drive cars. But many more might not, and even those who did might choose to ride the PRT often enough to make it economically viable from normal operations and fare-box receipts alone. There are lot of people who own cars because they must. Give people a transit system that takes them where they want to go quickly, in safety, security, and comfort, for a reasonable fare, and you will give people a choice they do not now realistically have.

    The robo-car would be a tour de force. But frankly, I would prefer to segregate vehicular traffic from pedestrians and smaller, less robust (but perhaps more disruptively nimble) conveyances. PRT does this by running its small, light, all-electric cars on an elevated guideway infrastructure that has such a small footprint, it can pass THROUGH and INSIDE buildings, or along the narrowest streets and alleyways.

    For one of the best websites covering this topic, check out http://kinetic.seattle.wa.us/prt.html.

  • The Man||

    Right. Just like the monorails in Springfield, Ogdenville, North Haverbrook, and Brockway. I love the utilitarian, nerd chic, boxy look of those PRTs. Do *you* sell them or should I contact Lyle Lanley directly?

  • ||

    Laugh while you can, monkey boy. Let's see how things work out at Heathrow, shall we, before drawing sarcastic comparisons with the "monorails" lampooned in animated cartoon fiction on TV.

    I agree with you about the boxy look, by the way. We can do better. But what's under the body/hood is working pretty well at present. Styling issues can be handled a lot more easily than fundamental engineering problems, most of which appear to be solved, if the test results at Heathrow are any indication.

  • The Man||

    So, John Whorfin---I *suspected* James Anderson Merritt was merely a pseudonym---perhaps these PRTs are powered by the oscillation overthruster?

  • ||

    You insult me sir, to suggest that I could not have concocted a better, more entertaining pseudonym. Poison esophageal barbs at twenty paces?

    PRTs are, sadly, powered by plain old electricity. Here in Santa Cruz, of course, a large contingent among the PRT supporters demands that said electricity be solar in nature. But as far as I care, electrons are fungible.

  • DK||

    It has been my longstanding prediction that once we have reliable, mass-produced self-driving autos, there will be a push to ban manual human driving. Since auto accidents are one of the biggest preventable causes of death, I think it's almost a certainty there will be a push to ban human driving if safer automated driving becomes commmon.

    So, enjoy driving while you can. The future is going to resemble the Rush song Red Barchetta.

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