Thanks to DARPA’s “grand challenge” contests held in 2004, 2005, and 2007, autonomous vehicles on ordinary city streets are moving from science fiction to a technology within our grasp. While safe robot cars would give us computer chauffeurs who could save the lives of the million people who die annually in car accidents (and the trillion dollars annually this costs societies) this is only the beginning of the story.
Robocars have tremendous implications not just for how we get around, but also how much energy we use doing it, what vehicles we will own and how our cities work. Even before they drive us around, they will gain the ability to park and refuel themselves and deliver themselves to us.
By doing so two remarkable things could happen. First, car sharing and instantly available robotaxis can change the rules of car ownership, and what type of cars people demand. Secondly, by allowing people to no longer care about range – nobody cares about the range of their taxi beyond their current trip – or convenient fuel availability, a wide range of alternative fuel technologies become marketable. By eliminating the battery question, electric cars become practical, and lightweight single person vehicles can deliver 10 times the energy efficiency of existing cars or any transit system in the USA. The consequences of this are remarkable.
By turning transportation into a software problem, robocars deliver the benefits of Moore’s law to cars. Using existing roads, purchased by private individuals from rapidly innovating companies, robocars can deliver this with minimal government involvement or the decades-long time horizons of central transportation planning.
Indeed the potential is so great – millions of lives, trillions of dollars, billions of hours, and elimination of 50% of transportation-derived pollution – this developing robocars is arguably the single greatest project computer engineers can undertake in the early 21st century. See robocars.net for more of what will be discussed in this session.
Brad Templeton is chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (the leading cyberspace civil rights group.) He is a director of the Foresight Institute, a futurist/nanotechnology think tank and a director of BitTorrent Inc. Previously, he was founder and CEO of ClariNet Communications, the first dot-com company and the author of 12 packaged software products and other software package. He also created rec.humor.funny on USENET, from 1988 to 1995 the most widely read publication on the internet and now the world’s longest running blog. He is also a photographer, and has been for 10 years a popular technology-based artist at Burning Man.