Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Specification for a System of Autonomous Pod Cars

This autonomous car service has been around for a while, but this BBC article brought it to my attention

Hands off with Heathrow's autonomous pod cars

The Heathrow pod service is a glimpse of the future and in particular the nearer future of driverless cars.

At some time in the future you will be able to go from any point A to any point B br driverless vehicle. This will mean that the system has detailed knowledge of just about everywhere and can ramp from city speed to inter-city speeds.

But the nearer future is likely to see systems that run over known networks - such as current-day bus routes and run at citybus-like velocities with a maximum of 25-40 miles per hour.

I have been thinking about the design, usage and economics driverless cars for a while now. It's time I get some of these thoughts out of my head and online. The following is just a brain-dump. There are no references. No diagrams/pretty pictures. And not a lot of detail. But just a whole bunch of mostly fun thoughts.

Human drivers not needed

  • Cars available 24/7 with no lulls
  • Instructions entered via computer can be in any language
  • Fewer communications and misunderstandings
  • No unethical driving practices such as taking longer routes or stopping at more lights
  • Press button and knowledgeable person at operations provides help and support remotely

Reduced carbon footprint / lower costs

  • Cheaper because no steering wheel, speedometer, brake pedals required
  • Reduced weight because of no driver and no energy consumed transporting the driver
  • Lightweight vehicles that require little or no crash protection because they don't crash
  • All-electric with batteries charged between runs
  • Perhaps change batteries automatically at designated charging stations as needed on long runs


  • Apart from guidance system, no more complicated than a golf cart
  • Designed to be easy to wash, easy to maintain
  • Self-cleaning or passing through a cleaning machine between runs
  • Helps prevent transfer of communicable diseases
  • External bodies could have advertising or be designed to be part of an elegant urbanscape

Supply and Routings

  • Driving between known destinations means simpler guidance controls
  • Supplied on demand / Just-in-time delivery to any point on the network
  • Operate profitably with just a one or two passengers
  • Vehicles with seating for four or more also available upon call
  • Cars might be able to be transformed into convertibles, small trucks, wheelchair carriers and other specialty vehicles with minor modifications at the operations center 
  • Price could vary with demand

User Interface

  • Controlled from mobile phone. Like Uber or Lyft
  • No or minimal user interface required in vehicle
  • Vehicles with user interface and other adaptations in vehicle available on call for disabled / children 
  • For people without smartphones or who wish to travel anonymously, printed pre-paid embarkation destination tickets would be available. Ditto voice or keypad activated services.
  • Change destination while en route
  • Report potholes or other disturbances

Nice Features

  • Supplies power for mobile phones / tablets / laptops
  • Bluetooth speakers
  • Luxury / company / personal vehicles available upon request 
  • Guided tours of the city available - with all-you-can-eat get-on get-off
  • Heads-up displays augment reality while driving
  • Easy for people to create their own guided tours for foodies, shoe shoppers, architects etc
  • Charitable vehicles paid for by donations to help the less-advantaged to move about
  • Event valet parking services - help people get from even to parking areas
  • Call-up pedicab, jet-ski, snow-ski, ATV, dog-sled upon request as as appropriate for the climate

Crime and abuse prevention

  • Most journeys tied to mobile phone owner of record. What to do about stolen phones?
  • Video-recorded to spot abuse, tampering or un-social behavior
  • Excesses will alert operations to view the cab - such as
  • Vehicle shaking, internal movement, 
  • Loud noises, voice recognition of key words such as 'help' and 'stop'.

Advantages over buses

  • Vehicle available with seconds / few minutes of your arrival at embarkation location
  • Vehicle makes no intermediate stops start and end of journey
  • Much reduced empty vehicle time
  • No bunches and gaps issues

More Thoughts

Buses have to do the full length of the route. This usually means empty buses at the beginning and end of routes and not enough buses during rush hours. In contrast driverless cars can return to high demand locations as soon as passengers are dropped off.

Vehicles might be able to bunch together and ride with windows open to provide that special public we-are-riding-together aura.

Kiosks might be available at points throughout a city to enable booking a ride.

People with limited financial resources could ride vehicles at no charge that would otherwise be empty and returning to a rush-hour congestion point.

Perhaps two person vehicles could also accommodate one or two passengers standing up. People willing share would qualify for a discount. People willing to stand would qualify for an even bigger discount.

Are there special cars to transport bicycles or do all cars come with that capability?

Are cars wide and seat two abreast or narrow and seat one behind the other. Or can seats and wheels pivot so riders can choose how to configure the car?


Taxi-drivers, bus drivers, dispatchers, gas station attendants and all their ancillary HR and support staff must look for new jobs.

Private human driver driven car usage in cities just about dries up. Something like 20% of downtown areas is devoted to parking and space for cars driving around looking for spaces or withing for pickups. Almost all of that space now becomes available for things such as low-cost housing parklets, bicycle lanes and more.


Well, that was fun! And there's a lot more to be added in future revisions. There's only one issue: Who is going to do it and when? What city is likely to sell all their buses and sack all their drivers? I don't see any American city willing to take on such a battle.

Certainly if a new city of any significant size is being planned then a driverless car system will soon be a no brainer. But there are not that many new cities being built these days. Except for China. And, thinking about the current state of air quality in China, there would be a huge justification in building an all electric transit system.

The other locations of interest are the ancient but prosperous and free thinking cities of northern Europe. Cites such as Stockholm, Amsterdam or Copenhagen would be even more beautiful and livable if you could take away the messes that private gasoline engine cars have created in those cities.

So I will leave with this thought: it could will be some of the oldest and most historical cities in the world that will drag the rest of the kicking and screaming world into a kinder gentler future.

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