Monday, February 11, 2013

Cars Will Drive Themselves Without You

According to the fender it makes your coffee too!
(photo by Saad Faruque)

Cars that drive themselves are the all over the news (1, 2, 3, 4) these days.  Everyone is speculating about when cars will drive us to work, our kids to school and families cross country on vacations.  While this is fine to imagine, it's getting the cart before the horse. What should be discussed instead is the much bigger change which is closer at hand, vehicles driving by themselves without drivers or passengers.

Currently we're treating autonomous vehicles the same way we treated steam and combustion engines when they became small and reliable enough to replace the horse. There is nothing wrong with bolting a new technology onto an old platform.  This allows faster advancement during the research and development phase without building the underlying platform at the same time.  Until the 2nd DARPA race I, like many others, didn't think working autonomous software could be built earlier than 2050 at best.  Given the amount of time it was going to take to develop, it was best to focus on the software by using a car as the cheap and dependable platform to build on top of.  Now that it's obvious a computer can control a vehicle by itself with no help from a human driver, it's time to go back and ask what kind of vehicle it should be used with for the first commercial products.

No one analyzes their driving this way but try and break down a typical week of your driving based on why you are driving.  In one column put all the miles you drive in order to transport yourself to a location to do something that only you could do. For example, I drive to work every day.  I must transport myself or I probably won't get payed for any work that happens to get done.  I'm transporting myself to a destination to do something that not just anyone can do. As a counter example, I also go to the grocery store on average five days a week.  I have no need or desire to transport myself to the store and would be perfectly happy if the groceries I need simply appeared in my house in exchange for money.  Put all these trips in a 2nd column along with the mileage.  Everyone's totals will be different but for myself I am mostly moving around because I must but about 30% of my movement is for reasons that I would be perfectly happy if I could accomplish without leaving my house.

So why is 30% of my travel more important than the other 70%?  All the traveling I must do happens during times where my entire family must travel as well.  For example, the wife and kids are going or returning from work and school.  Giving me an autonomous car during this time doesn't improve life that much for me.  I'm still stuck in a commute by myself.  If I'm industrious I can start work but I'll probably just spend the time trying to entertain myself which I already do when I drive by listening to a podcast.  I'm not saying it wouldn't be better and I might make different choices than I currently do, but it would only be a marginal improvement.

For the remaining 30% of my time spent in a car it's possible to completely eliminate it all if I choose and the technology is there to do it.  Most shopping, eating in, dry cleaning and package delivery could be done for me and save a lot of time and effort. Maybe I can't replace 100% of these errands but I certainly would choose to never going to the grocery store again. Replacing these common trips with quality personal or family time seems a much better use than allowing someone to apply makeup or read email on the way to and from work would.  To put it another way eliminating 30% of my travel time is better than marginally improving the other 70%.

Sadly 90% of this traffic is going to the nearest Redbox location.  Haven't' they heard of Netflix?
(photo by Simon Forsyth)

The other big reason it doesn't make sense to kick start the autonomous vehicle revolution by having cars drive you to work is the huge social contract we would be asking everyone to agree to.  As soon as the first autonomous car starts driving on a street near you you've agreed to trust your life and those in your family to a lot of very complex computer code.  We do it everyday with humans in the form of student drivers but somehow when it's just a computer it's different. For a long time I had faith that this seemingly massive hurdle would be easier to accept as autonomous cars slowly became a reality.  The problem now is that the technology arrived 40 years earlier than I thought it would. It's going to take years to get general society to accept that the other 2-ton cars are on the same road as them with no driver in control.  Even worse than accepting them on the road is the additional decades for a lot of the population to actually let a car drive them or their family personally.  Imagine bringing a product to market where almost the entire population is against buying it and most are against anyone using one.

I asked several friends and family if they would put their children in a computer driven car and send them to school.  I wasn't too surprised when everyone said no. Most cited a lack of trust that the computer would not malfunction or would encounter a situation that physics dictated would end in a crash regardless of who or what was driving.  I then asked them to imagine that they knew that their children were safer statistically in a computer controlled car than being driven by them to school.  Most didn't have a hard time accepting this fact since most agreed that it would probably be true in the same way that flying is safer than driving.  Not one person would let their child be transported to school even while agreeing that they were putting their child in more danger by not doing it.  I can't say I was surprised that a parent would want to add a statistical bit of extra danger in order to be in the car in case the worst happened.  They just couldn't handle that there was a possibility their child would be in a wreck without them there, even if it meant they were more likely to be in one because the parent was driving.  What really threw me for a loop are those with teenagers who drive themselves. They would rather the teenager drive themselves than being driven by the car.  Some even admitted that their kids weren't good drivers. All cited there would be events outside the ability of a computer or human driver to handle.  In these situations they would rather the outcome determined by their teenager than a computer.  Almost all agreed that their logic wasn't sound on any level but it was their honest feelings.  Maybe this is simply a problem of correctly imagining the real scenarios but it's a anecdotal sign that self driving cars will have an uphill battle in general society.

If only we hadn't let the car drive.
(photo by Danny McL)

So what is my point?  Are we doomed to wait until 2050 or later to reap the benefits of self driving cars even though we've made this huge technological leap forward?  For the same reason the invention of the computer wasn't instantly followed up by the invention of robots there will be a lot of small steps first.  Just like robots, which we still really don't have as they are imagined by most people, the self driving car is better in Sci-Fi than in real life.

Before I go much further, I want to make up a new term. The phrase "Autonomous Vehicle" gets a little heavy to write over and over again by the end of an article and I need a new term that isn't confused with the more common and pervasive "Autonomous Passenger Car".  I've searched for many years for anyone else talking about the class of vehicle I want to talk about.  I have found nothing close unless you want to count the word "drone".  So without further explanation, I bring into existence the word "autocart".  If I'm lucky it will have the same cultural sticking power that it's predecessor the "horseless buggy" did. Now that I've birthed a new word however poorly justified or thinly supported, what is an autocart?

It's simply an autonomous vehicle that doesn't carry any human passengers.  Imagine a small, cheap and very lightweight vehicle capable of  carrying a few hundred pounds of cargo at most.  They would move at city speeds of 40pmh or less, just enough to not be a traffic nuisance.  By lightweight I am don't mean the 100lbs of a typical go cart.  Lightweight would be closer to 10lbs with no cargo.  Think wheels, a 2.5hp engine and an aerodynamic cargo cage.

Like this but with groceries and way less bad ass.
(photo by Roger Smith)

In the business of moving cargo around there is a term called payload capacity share that is expressed as a percentage.  This percentage represents how much cargo a vehicle can carry compared to its unloaded weight.  Most non-commercial cars and trucks have a payload capacity share of less than 40% while a tractor trailer can be up to 200%.  UPS and FedEx trucks are typically around 80% although UPS is working to improve this in their fleet.  Why is UPS putting money into improving the payload capacity share of their fleet?  Because the better this number the more cargo they can carry for a given fuel cost.

Freed from structural and safety requirements needed to carry a 200lb+ person, an autocart has the potential to have a payload capacity share of 2,000% or more.  Even more important the interior doesn't have to be tall enough to accommodate a person sitting up so they can be extremely aerodynamic.  If autocarts took over a significant percentage of just the existing cargo fleet the fuel savings would be enormous.

Better payload capacity share than a UPS truck but we can do better!
(photo by Graeme Newcomb)

What about the safety of pedestrians and other cars on the road?  I think everyone will agree that a 10lb autocart with 100-200lbs of cargo is inherently more safe than a 2-ton autonomous car. Sure there is a driver behind the wheel in case something goes wrong but will they notice in time if they are busy playing Sudoku?  Still I'm not sure I want 210lbs of autocart plowing into me at 40mph while I'm jogging either.  But given the low cargo weight an autocart wouldn't need to be very ridged.  They could be tested for pedestrian impacts and padded and shaped to be as safe as possible even if it means extra weight.  Building a lightweight, low speed autocart is a solvable engineering challenge while building a pedestrian safe car is not.

So autocarts can be safe and extremely efficient but will anyone use them?  Efficient and safe are positive qualities but not many things are sold based on these qualities alone.  To be used it has to solve a problem and not cause other problems of its own.  Lets take the most obvious use, to deliver packages and see how it compares with what is currently available.

Today you see something you want online and you decide to buy it.  Part of purchasing it is deciding how soon you need it and therefore how much it will cost to ship.  Even if the seller offers free shipping, there is still a shipping cost and the seller has just chosen to build it into the margin rather than split it out as a separate fee.  Its impossible to know what the lowest rate the big online stores have negotiated with their shippers but it is probably somewhere around $4 per package for an air shipment.  For smaller shippers it is probably in the $6-$8 range.

How does this cost break down?  I couldn't find any information on this but it's probably safe to say that the actual cost of air transportation is the highest percentage of the cost. The best information I could find indicated that air transport costs $0.80 per mile per ton.  So a 1lb package traveling 2,000 miles would cost $0.80 to transport.

First you have to get the package to the air terminal.  Large shippers have trucks dedicated to picking up their packages which is very cheap.  Smaller shippers must have a truck dispatched to their location based on need and this is why their cost is so much higher as everything else in the shipping chain is the same.  By using autocarts to do pickups for small shippers they could drive down the cost to a price much closer to what the larger stores enjoy.

Once the package is in the terminal in its destination city it must be delivered to someones house. This is the least efficient part of the entire process.  If the package wasn't shipped very far it might also be the most expensive part as well.  UPS and FedEx spend a lot of time and effort trying to make the route taken as fuel efficient as possible because fuel is the largest cost here.  Autocarts are ideally suited for replacing this step in the transportation chain given that they don't require human labor and they are very fuel efficient.

But would you want your package delivered by autocart?  How would it work?  That is a challenge but I believe a solvable one.  How can I be so sure?  Because it is easy to introduce the new delivery option and experiment. Maybe the next time you buy something online instead of 2-day shipping for $8 you have the option of 2-day automated delivery for $5. Guess which one you pick?  Even if the experience wasn't perfect you would probably choose it again for the cost savings alone.  Eventually I think it could be as good as today's delivery given that the typical delivery interaction is a box mysteriously showing up at my door.

This is just an example of one possible way autocarts would improve the most obvious use case.  Even this one case could be approached from a different direction.  Imagine using autocarts to optimize speed of delivery and not cost.  Several hours are lost at pickup time and almost a day on the delivery side in the current shipping chain.  This is why overnight is so expensive, aside from getting priority spot on the first plane out, your package is specially delivered to cut out the extra day on the delivery side.

Autocarts could also be used to do almost all of life's day-to-day errands.  More exciting are the possible new services that could be opened up.  Delivering take out could change from a few options that have high margins to every restaurant in town. It could revolutionize dry cleaning to become a full laundry service where all your laundry is picked up, cleaned, pressed and folded centrally and delivered back to you overnight.  Finally, the most exciting possibilities are the ones that haven't been dreamed yet.  Sure, autonomous cars could have the same wide open opportunities no one has thought of yet to change our lives but the autocart is much closer and can be done now.