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The RoBlog
Wednesday, July 04, 2012
Unoccupied Self-Driving Cars; Some Thoughts

I wanted to talk a little bit more about the quick comment I made in a previous post entitled "Renting Cars", Comments on FutureShock

It seems inevitable at this point that we will have some version (or versions) of a car that will drive itself.  Google’s had self-driving cars for a while now, and they’re far from the only ones pursuing this.  Nevada created a special kind of license plate for self-driving cars, though I believe they still require one or more people to be in the car while it’s driving.

So where does this lead us to in the future?

Obviously it will mean that we can focus on other things besides driving during in-car time (this seems like it can only be a good thing considering how many things compete for our attention already when we’re driving, and if nothing is competing for it, the dangers of getting drowsy).

It seems likely that once we have successful consumer grade self-driving vehicles, it will only be a short step to getting unattended automatic driving approved.

If this is the case, I think there’s a very real question about whether most people will even continue to own cars, but let’s assume for a few moments that they do.  What changes?

Your car can drop you off and then go find its own parking spot.  I’ve often thought it’d be cool if cars at the mall (say) would self-park, and then work their way to the front-most parking spots as people leave.  Of course, if cars were totally automated, this would probably be unnecessary as you’d just let your car know that you need it to pick you up and it would drive itself from whatever parking space it had found.

Your car could seek out a place to recharge (I’m making the assumption here that all self-driving cars would be electric, but while I think it’s likely, there’s no strong reason that it has to be the case).  This would be important if not every parking space had recharging capabilities, which we can pretty confidently suppose at least in the short run.  If, like my local grocery store, there were a small number of charging stations, then we may still get the situation I imagined above where cars jockey for the available spaces.

Tangenting here in two directions:
What is needed for a self-charging car?
For a self-driving car to recharge while you’re not there it would need a way to automatically connect with the energy grid.  Current charging stations require a person do much the same kinds of actions that gas-based refueling requires: lifting hatches, taking a fueling connection off of a fueling station and plugging it in to the car in the right place.

It would seem, then, that the best approach for recharging would be inductive recharging, and that a standard system for doing this should be adopted by car manufacturers and recharging station manufacturers alike sooner rather than later.

Besides the ease created for an automatic car, inductive charging is easier on humans as well as you just pull into the right space and you’re basically done.  There’s no reason that we should carry forward the old actions of fueling a car into a new fuel paradigm like electricity.

Of course, what we’ll probably get is cars that have a standard “plug-in” interface so that they can be plugged in pretty much anywhere, which will further encourage plug-in-style recharging stations.  Inductive (or similar drive-onto charging) will come around and most cars and stations will eventually accommodate both for maximum flexibility.

What is needed for cars to “jockey for available spaces”?
For self-driving cars to negotiate for limited fueling stations they need something that is almost as exciting as self-driving: car-to-car communication.  It’s so interesting, in fact, that I’m going to save it for another post.

Back to the benefits of having your own self-driving car.

You could potentially rent your car out to other people.  I can envision a web site where people indicate where they need to go and how long they need to be there and any private car that anticipates being free during that time can fill the need for a fee.  While being used, the car would ensure that it could return in time for its owner and refuse to travel (based on changed plans) to locations that would put that at risk (keeping an eye on current traffic, and having a historical traffic patterns both stored locally and available via the Internet).

Obviously, if you were tired, intoxicated, injured, under-age, or otherwise unable to drive, you could still get places in your car.

If you needed something picked up but you couldn't get away to get it, you could send your car (assuming someone would be there to load it in, and assuming that the thing you needed couldn’t be similarly shipped from its origin).  This holds for things like packages as well as things like children from school and in-laws from the airport.

Let’s explore the idea of picking up children a little further.  Obviously this would only work if the kid was capable of making good decisions (for example, I would totally trust my daughter now that she’s 10, but I don’t think I could when she was 4), or some trustworthy adult was there to make sure the kid was loaded appropriately. 

I’d probably want some kind of occupancy sensor that would alert me if there were more or fewer passengers than expected, and probably some on-board camera so that I could look in to make sure everything was alright (onboard cameras would be helpful in the renting situation above as well, since it could take before-and-after photos of your car in case the car gets damaged in some way by the renters).

I can image a line of cars at schools waiting to pick up the appropriate children.  Obviously there'd need to be some sort of process that made sure that the right kid got into the right car.  This would probably need to be both on the school’s end (right license plate, for example), and on the car’s end (facial recognition of the passengers).

Already we've found some interesting things to do with full automated cars, and I’m sure there is more, but I have some non-automated driving to do, so they, along with why self-driving cars may mean fewer people owning cars (which you can probably already see where that is going), will have to wait for now.

Let me know your thoughts on the future of “car” travel in the meantime.

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