Why are autonomous cars happening now?

Why are we seeing self-driving cars right now?  This question was originally asked in Quora. Below is my answer:

To understand the development of autonomous cars, it is helpful to think of them as a kind of a robot, or to use a term more favored by those in the industry, an “unmanned system.” Autonomous cars (Unmanned Ground Vehicles) transform the role of people from that of an operator/driver to one of payload/cargo. Two trends, one demographic and the other technological, are driving the development of autonomous cars.

The significant demographic trend is the aging of population. In the 2013 Robotics Roadmap, which was presented to the Congressional Robotics Caucus by industry leaders, the impact of this surging senior demographic was discussed for almost every possible unmanned application. Countries as diverse as the United States, Japan, Mexico, and even in the Middle East are experiencing a growth in the number of elderly inhabitants. These people want to maintain their independence as long as possible. Seniors are a growing and eager market for autonomous cars.

The driving technological trend has been the spread of unmanned systems, especially for military purposes. The military view unmanned systems as a “force multiplier,” i.e. a way of reducing the number of personnel (soldiers). Since soldiers are the single most expensive item on a battlefield (a wounded US combatant can cost $2 million), the deployment of unmanned systems can result in significant cost savings.

However, most unmanned systems still require humans to operate them. To realize their full economic and tactical potential, some degree of autonomy is required. As a result, there is very good research being done on autonomous capabilities of unmanned systems. Since autonomous cars are actually a kind of unmanned system, this technology is maturing very rapidly.

There are other factors driving the development of unmanned cars. Some futurists think that economic doldrums will place private vehicle ownership out of reach of ordinary people. Supposedly, the next generation will come to depend on fleets of taxicabs, made more economically practical by their autonomous capabilities.

For more discussion on this issue, please see the following articles:

[layerslider id=”31″]

Self-driving car accident [VIDEO]

Autonomous cars supposedly have a great safety record.  They do not make mistakes.  This frequently heard assertion is hardly comforting after viewing the video below.

Volvo explained the accident by stating that the autonomous system involved was not designed to avoid pedestrians (that’s a more expensive option than the one installed in the car in the video).  In other words, it’s the fault of the people, not the car.

Volvo’s explanation that the people did not understand the nature of the automatic avoidance system seems plausible, but it raises a concern. Autonomous cars (which we have argued are really Unmanned Ground Vehicles) will not happen all at once. Self-driving subsystems will be adopted piecemeal over the years.  Will future passengers/drivers understand what capabilities are and are not autonomous in their cars?  Should we expect more videos like this? What is the responsibility of the car company to educate its clients?

This incident reminds me of airplane calamities. Have you ever noticed how often airplane disasters are blamed on “pilot error”? I have always had the suspicion that airlines fault pilots for big crashes, because to acknowledge mechanical failure (which could be caused by inadequate maintenance or overuse) may leave them vulnerable to greater legal liability.

As I wrote above, Volvo’s explanation is believable, but the similarity to the overuse of “pilot error” is unsettling.

Autonomous truck  [VIDEO]

Ever have to explain LIDAR to a layman? Internal mapping? Autonomy?  In a brief period of time, this BBC video does  an admirable job of explaining in jargon-free terms some of the issues surrounding autonomous vehicles. This short video shot an autonomous 10-ton, 6-wheeled truck running through its paces, as an BBC announcer described the significance of its actions.

[layerslider id=”31″]

DARPA Robotics Challenge

Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGV) don’t get much love. Their aerial cousins, usually described by the technically inaccurate term “drone,” receive much more publicity, as well as greater funding. UGV developers fear that the Defense budget squeeze will disproportionately affect them.

However, one federal agency still believes in promoting UGV development. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is sponsoring the DARPA Robotics Challenge, “… a competition of robot systems and software teams vying to develop robots capable of assisting humans in responding to natural and man-made disasters.” In addition to a $2 million prize for the top contestant, this challenge represents a wonderful opportunity to explore capabilities and for developers to network.

Read more

What moral issues are there in using autonomous military robots in a conflict?

robot-apple ethicsRecently, the above question was asked in Quora, a social media website.  Below is my answer.  As you will read, my primary motivation was  in preventing people from forming onions based on superficial analysis and insufficient information.

Read more

AMAS & Army’s Big Unmanned Fleet

AMAS & Army's Big Unmanned Fleet smallerRecently, there has been a bit of press about a Capabilities Advancement Demonstration of autonomous vehicles at TARDEC (Tank-Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center).  My favorite headline about the demo so far is Is the U.S. developing a ROBOTIC army? (Daily Mail UK). Notice the attention-grabbing, alarm-generating capital letters for “ROBOTIC.” Read more

UGV cost & why they should have leather seats

Biggest problems facing robot developers

Recently, I interviewed Rob Culver, Director of AMREL’s Business Development and Sales of Unmanned/Manned Vehicle Systems.  Rob has done stints as a procurement officer, and in Special Projects Management Office at USASOC. After serving 23 years in the Army, Rob joined iRobot in 2005.  He traces his lifelong interest in robotics to reading Robert A. Heinlein’s “Starship Trooper” and Douglas Adams “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.”UGV with leather seats

My sense is that unmanned systems, especially ground vehicles, are at some kind of crossroads.  The technology is advancing rapidly, but the land wars are winding down.  The domestic market hasn’t increased to the point to make up for the slacking demand by the Department of Defense (DOD). What do you see as the biggest challenge to the industry?

Read more

Explosive UGV market growth, Fact or Fiction?

UGV Market GrowthWintergreen Research is publicizing a finding that the “…first responder and military ground robot marketplace will expand at close to 20% annually for the rest of the decade.”  Furthermore, “Markets at $4.5 billion in 2013 reach $12.0 billion by 2019.”

This is welcome news for the developers of Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGV).  Robohub points out that this projection is consistent with a Markets and Markets report that predicts a 17.4% CAGR for the same time period. Of course, any headline in the media must be greeted with a certain degree of skepticism. Do these projections make sense?

Read more