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RoboCar's could save our cities, according to Brad Templeton

In 20 years or so our cities could start seeing automated self-driving RoboCars driving themselves around, relieving us of drudgery, reducing traffic accident rates, enabling better use of the land tied up by roads, making electric cars more practical, and generally saving the world. Google's Self-Driving Car project is today using modified Toyota Prius's to prototype the robotic cars of the future.

Brad Templeton, one of the earliest Internet Entrepreneurs, has, over the last few years, turned his attention to transportation system problems and come up with a vision of robotically driven cars in which programmers can save the world. If you will, rather than Revenge of the Nerds, this is Nerds as Saviors. According to Templeton, computation and sensor system capabilities will increase enough such that in 20 years or so self-driving vehicles, which he calls RoboCars, could lead to a massive redesign of the transportation system that results in lower accident rates, better traffic flow, more cars on the roads, reduced air pollution, and many other massive gains. All thanks to judicious application of computers and software.

The basic truism of the computing age is Moore's Law, which suggests that the power of computers will double every 18 months, an observation originally made in the 1960's, and that has remained true ever since. This phenomenal rate of growth, doubling every 18 months, has given us many computerized wonders, and leads many thinkers in the Singularity Movement (Templeton is on the faculty of the Singularity University) to believe that not only will engineers be able to maintain this rate of doubling in computer power long into the future, but that it'll result in even more massive changes to our society. It remains to be seen whether computer system complexity will continue growing like Gordon Moore predicted, or whether a hard limit will be reached. In any case we should not be surprised to learn that Templeton believes that, as computers grow their capabilities, that powerful computers can be installed in cars and other vehicles, granting us with new varieties of vehicle with new capabilities.

Templeton, in addition to being an early Internet entrepreneur and faculty member of the Singularity University, has been writing for years on the promise of what he calls RoboCars and is a consultant to the Google Self-Driving Car project, helping to develop the software used in the teams modified Toyota Prius's with which the RoboCar concept is being prototyped. In his vision there are five big gains if our society were to adopt RoboCars. While the adoption process will take twenty or more years before it fully pans out, some aspects of the vision are already being developed and sold in cars today.

A RoboCar is a self-driving car, that does not require a human to drive the machine because its computers and sensory system can see road conditions and drive the car on its own.

What are the gains Templeton sees from RoboCars?

Massive saving of life and reduction of injuries: Humans die or are injured in traffic accidents at an alarming rate. There are 1.8 million or so injuries per year, and 34,000 or so deaths per year, in car accidents. The direct cost of these accidents is $230 billion per year in lost GDP, in the U.S., according to a NHTSA study. Forty percent of fatalities are due to drinking, and 80% are due to some sort of inattention. Basically, this says that humans are imperfect drivers. Templeton suggests that RoboCars will be better drivers than humans, leading to a great reduction in deaths and injury, removing one of the burdens carries by our society.

Enabling efficient personal transportation: Traffic congestion, according to NHTSA studies, costs 41 hours per year per person of lost time. That time lost to commuting represents either lost personal time with friends and family, or lost work time and productivity. Either way it's a huge cost to human society valued in the trillions of dollars per year. A passenger in a RoboCar could do other things during their commute such as read books, read the news, or do work related to their job.

Many more people being transported on the existing infrastructure: Traffic congestion occurs because of the safe following distance required by humans to safely drive on modern highways. Population growth leads to ever more cars being driven around, and eventually the road space is filled with cars, and we mere humans are unable to cope with driving closely packed at highway speed without the inevitable chain collisions involving dozens of cars. RoboCars can react more quickly than humans, and a highway of RoboCars could drive closer together allowing more cars to drive per square mile of road surface. This would enable more cars to be driven around without increasing lanes of traffic.

Vast reduction in required parking lot space: Today our cities are infested with massive parking lots and parking garages. Studies have shown each car that exists requires between 3-8 parking spaces around the city, for there to be enough parking lot space to handle peak parking demand at each facility. Most parking lots only see peak demand a couple times a year, leading to most parking lot space going unused most of the time. This is land that could be used for other purposes, like homes or businesses or green-space. RoboCars could be used as the basis of massive car sharing networks, reducing the number of cars that need to be built, and reducing parking lot needs.

A revolution in delivering products from stores to homes: To some shopping is a burden, while to others it's recreation. RoboCars could be used to implement a system of automated product delivery, saving us the time we spend in the shopping process. You'd place an order for something via a website, and the company dispatches a robotically driven delivery van to bring it to your door.

While RoboCars are a compelling that could give huge gains, the vision is not completely rosy and wonderful. Software sometimes is buggy, right? Will we willingly let a Robot do the driving? What do RoboCars resolve in our sedentary lifestyle and the obesity epidemic?

See also: How will RoboCars work, and when will we have RoboCar's?


Aaron Turpen    February 20, 2012 - 6:21AM

Personally, I can see a future of RoboCars endlessly circling the block hoping to find a parking spot long after their owners have gone into the building. lmao

Seriously, though, I would love to see these becoming common. Where I live, we drive 45+ miles each way to go to the city* for shopping, appointments, etc. We make the trip maybe twice a week at most, but I would happily trade the drudgery of that drive for a ride in an automated car where I could sit in the back and play with my kids instead.

*"City" is defined in these parts as any place that has a McDonald's, a Walmart, and a Sheriff's office with more than one employee. Which is why, when someone asks me where I live, I usually answer with "90 miles from Walmart."

John D'Amico (not verified)    February 29, 2012 - 6:01PM

I see a convergence of the PRT, Google Car and ZipCar. For some this would never replace the joy(?) of owning and driving a BMW but it could easily serve as one's second car in terms of being able to call one into service over your smartphone. Different need scenarios could be accommodated. For instance, if I knew we had dinner reservations at 7PM I could pre-book a car earlier in the day over my smartphone telling it where I plan on going. Within 30 minutes of arrival the app could start updating me as to the current status of the car and the estimated time of arrival. Or, assume we decide to go out to dinner last minute, I could scan a list of next available cars displayed in terms of estimated arrival times I could then select one and receive updates as to when it will actually arrive. During or near the end of dinner I could again scan a list of available arrival times and book one. This is hardly different from how a taxi works today only with a much higher certainty of arrival time. All it would require is a little bit of advance planning on behalf of the customer to monitor car availability in your area. I don't see this as being terrible inconvenient as opposed to the real and expensive costs associated with car ownership. All of this of course is in addition to all the other benefits to society laid out in this article.