3 July 2013

Preparing for driverless vehicles

Filed under: driverless vehicles, futurist, Humanity Plus, robots, safety, sensors, vision, Volvo — David Wood @ 10:56 am

It’s not just Google that is working on autonomous, self-driving cars. Take a look at this recent Atutoblog video showing technology under development by Swedish manufacturer Volvo:

This represents another key step in the incorporation of smart wireless technology into motor vehicles.

Smart wireless technology already has the potential to reduce the number of lives lost in road accidents. A memo last month from the EU commission describes the potential effect of full adoption of the 112 eCall system inside cars:

The 112 eCall automatically dials Europe’s single emergency number 112 in the event of a serious accident and communicates the vehicle’s location to the emergency services. This call to 112, made either automatically by means of the activation of in-vehicle sensors or manually, carries a standardised set of data (containing notably the type and the location of the vehicle) and establishes an audio channel between the vehicle and the most appropriate emergency call centre via public mobile networks.

Using a built-in acceleration sensor, the system detects when a crash has occurred, and how serious it is likely to be. For example, it can detect whether the car has rolled over onto its roof. Then it transmits the information via a built-in wireless SIM. As the EU commission memo explains:

  • In 2012 around 28,000 people were killed and more than 1.5 million injured in 1.1 million traffic accidents on EU roads.
  • Only around 0.7% of vehicles are currently equipped with private eCall systems in the EU, with numbers barely rising. These proprietary systems do not offer EU-wide interoperability or continuity.
  • In addition to the tragedy of loss of life and injury, this also carries an economic burden of around EUR 130 billion in costs to society every year.
  • 112 eCall can speed up emergency response times by 40% in urban areas and 50% in the countryside. Fully deployed, it can save up to 2500 lives a year and alleviate severity of road injuries. In addition, thanks to improved accident management, it is expected to reduce congestion costs caused by traffic accidents.

That’s 9% fewer fatalities, as a result of emergency assistance being contacted more quickly.

But what if the number of accidents could themselves be significantly reduced? Here it’s important to know the predominant factors behind road accidents. A landmark investigation of 700,000 road accidents in the UK over 2005-2009 produced some surprising statistics. As reported by David Williams in the Daily Telegraph,

Vehicle defects are a factor in only 2.8 per cent of fatals, with tyres mostly to blame (1.5 per cent) followed by dodgy brakes (0.7 per cent).

The overriding message? It’s not your car or the “road conditions” that are most likely to kill you. It’s your own driving.

In more detail:

The biggest cause of road accidents in the UK today? The statistics are quite clear on this and it’s “driver error or reaction”. It’s listed by police as a factor in more than 65 per cent of fatal crashes and the heading covers a multitude of driving sins many of which you’re probably on first-name terms with. Topping the charge sheet is failing to look properly (the Smidsy factor – “Sorry mate, I didn’t see you’, relevant in 20.5 per cent of fatals involving driver error), followed by “loss of control” (34 per cent) which, says Greig, often means leaving yourself with “nowhere to go” after entering a bend or other situation, too quickly. Other errors include “poor turn or manoeuvre” (12 per cent) and “failed to judge other person’s path or speed” (11.6 per cent.).

Second biggest cause of fatal accidents, to blame for 31 per cent, is the “injudicious action”, an umbrella term for “travelled too fast for the conditions’ (15.9 per cent of those labelled injudicious), “exceeded speed limit” (13.9 per cent) or “disobeyed give-way or stop sign” (2.1 per cent)?

Third culprit in the daily gamble on who lives and who dies is “behaviour or inexperience” (28 per cent), which covers faults such as “careless, reckless or in a hurry” (17 per cent), “aggressive driving” (8.3 per cent) and “learner/inexperienced” (5.3 per cent).

The fourth main category is “impairment or distraction” (to blame for 19.6 per cent of fatal accidents) covering “alcohol” (a factor in 9.6 per cent of fatal accidents) and “distraction in vehicle” (2.6 per cent).

(The numbers add up to more than 100% because accidents are often attributed to more than one factor.)

These statistics give strength to the remark by Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google:

Your car should drive itself. It’s amazing to me that we let humans drive cars. It’s a bug that cars were invented before computers.

This suggestion commonly gives rise to three objections:

  1. The technology will never become good enough
  2. Even if the raw technology inside cars becomes better and better, there will need to be lots of changes in roadways, which will take a very long time to achieve
  3. Even if the technology did become good enough, legal systems will never catch up. Who’s going to accept liability for crashes caused by bugs in software?

The first objection is heard less often these days. As noted in a 2011 New York Times interview by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew P. McAfee of the M.I.T. Center for Digital Business, and authors of the book Race Against the Machine,

In 2004, two leading economists, Frank Levy and Richard J. Murnane, published “The New Division of Labor,”which analyzed the capabilities of computers and human workers. Truck driving was cited as an example of the kind of work computers could not handle, recognizing and reacting to moving objects in real time.

But last fall, Google announced that its robot-driven cars had logged thousands of miles on American roads with only an occasional assist from human back-seat drivers. The Google cars are but one sign of the times.

The third objection will surely fall away soon too. There are already mechanisms whereby some degree of liability can be accepted by car manufacturers, in cases where software defects (for example, in braking and accelerating systems) contribute to accidents. Some examples are covered in the CNN Money review “Toyota to pay $1.1 billion in recall case”.

Another reason the third objection will fall away is because the costs of not changing – that is, of sticking with human drivers – may be much larger than the costs of adopting driverless vehicles. So long as we continue to allow humans to drive cars, there will continue to be driver-induced accidents, with all the physical and social trauma that ensues.

That still leaves the second objection: the other changes in the environment that will need to take place, before driverless vehicles can be adopted more widely. And what other changes will take place, possibly unexpectedly, once driverless cars are indeed adopted?

That’s one of the topics that will be covered in this Saturday’s London Futurists event: The future of transport: Preparing for driverless vehicles? With Nathan Koren.

Nathan_Koren_PhotoAs explained by the speaker at the event, Nathan Koren,

The robots have arrived. Driverless transport pods are now in operation at Heathrow Terminal 5 and several other locations around the world. Driver-assist technologies are becoming commonplace. Many believe that fully driverless cars will be commercially available before the decade is out. But what will the broader impact of driverless transport be?

Automobiles were once called “horseless carriages,” as though the lack of a horse was their most important feature. In reality, they changed the way we work, live, and play; changed the way we design cities; and altered the global economy, political landscape, and climate.

It will be the same with driverless vehicles: we can expect their impact to be go far beyond simply being able to take our hands off the wheel.

This presentation and discussion goes into depth about how automated transport will affect our lives and reshape the the world’s cities.

Nathan is a London-based, American-born architect, transport planner, and entrepreneur. He is widely recognised as a leading authority on Automated Transit Networks, and designed what is scheduled to become the world’s first urban-scale system, in Amritsar, India. He works as a Transport Technology & Planning Consultant for Capita Symonds, and recently founded Podaris, a cloud-based platform for the collaborative design of Automated Transit Networks. Nathan holds an Architecture degree from Arizona State University, and an MBA from the University of Oxford.

I hope to see some readers of this blog, who are based in or near London, at the meeting this Saturday. It’s an important topic!

For additional background inspiration, I recommend the three short videos in the article “The future of travel: Transportation confronts its ‘Kodak moment'”. (Thanks to Nathan for drawing this article to my attention.)

Speakers in these videos talk about the industries that are liable to radical disruption (and perhaps irrelevance) due to the rise of collision-proof driverless vehicles. The airbag industry is one; car collision insurance might be another. I’m sure you can think of more.

19 January 2010

Mobile phones and sustainability

Filed under: Energy, GreenTouch, Mobile Monday, sensors, sustainability — David Wood @ 1:55 am

What role can mobile phones play in reducing energy usage worldwide and assisting the transformation to a sustainable economy?  More widely, what role can the mobile phone industry play in this whole process?

That topic was addressed at yesterday’s Mobile Monday London event, held (unusually) in Brighton.  One of the organisers, Jo Rabin, commented:

As any Londoner knows, Brighton is one of the further suburbs, and like the rest of South London, not on the tube. That said, a modest 50 minutes and £10 return advance booking gets you there in comfort from London’s convenient Victoria station (and others)

The event was entitled “Mobile Application Sustainability” and featured:

One striking claim from near the beginning of the event was when Galit Zadok described the mobile phone as “the least sustainable item of consumer electronics, ever” – on account of the very high numbers of mobile phones which are replaced every year.  To quote from the Green Switch paper (PDF):

an average replacement rate of 18 months, accounting for 500 million handsets replaced last year in Europe alone, … makes the mobile phone the consumer electronic device with the highest replacement rate in history

Galit noted some positive developments too, mainly over phone chargers.  Again quoting from the Green Switch paper:

Regulation is encouraging manufacturers to make reductions in no-load energy demands, and handset manufacturers are responding.  By 2008 Sony Ericsson reduced the average no-load power consumption by more than 90%, whilst Nokia has achieved 80% reduction.

To further spur the industry into action, in October 2009, the ITU has given its stamp of approval to an energy-efficient one-charger-fits-all new mobile phone solution. The new Universal Charging Solution (UCS) enables the same charger to be used for all future handsets, regardless of make and model. In addition to dramatically cutting the number of chargers produced, shipped and subsequently discarded as new models become available, the new standard will reduce the energy consumed by the charger. The new UCS standard was based on input from the GSMA, which predicts elimination of 51,000 tonnes of redundant chargers, and a subsequent reduction of 13.6 million tonnes in greenhouse gas emissions each year.

I was less convinced when listening to the claims of the Green Switch speakers that:

  • The power consumption of the handsets themselves amounts to a significant proportion of overall human energy usage;
  • The handset power consumption problem becomes worse, with more and more applications included on the device;
  • Therefore people should be encouraged to use simpler devices – or to run their devices in a “green” mode in which fewer applications are enabled.

To be clear, I’m all in favour of reducing the power used by mobile phone applications, since this will lead to longer periods between battery charging, and will therefore improve user experience.  Short battery life is a long-standing deeply difficult issue for manufacturers of smart mobile handsets.  I’ve also long recognised the problems that are posed as the amount of software included on a device increases.  For example, here’s an excerpt of an “Insight” piece that I wrote for the symbian.com website in November 2006 (copy available here):

Standing in opposition to the potential for swift continuing increase in mobile technology, however, we face a series of major challenges.  I call them “horsemen of the apocalypse”.  They include fire, flood, plague, and warfare.

Fire” is the challenge of coping with the heat generated by batteries running ever faster.  Alas, batteries don’t follow Moore’s Law.  As users demand more work from their smartphones, their battery lifetimes will tend to plummet.  The solution involves close inter-working of new hardware technology (including multi-core processors) and highly sophisticated low-level software.  Together, this can reduce the voltage required by the hardware, and the device can avoid catching fire (or otherwise drawing too much power) as it performs its incredible calculations.

Flood” is the challenge of coping with enormous quantities of additional software.  Each individual chunk of new software adds value, but when they coalesce in large quantities, chaos breaks loose: software projects delay almost indefinitely in their integration phase (think of Windows Longhorn), and users struggle to find their favourite functionality in amongst seething masses of menu options.  As summarised in Brooks’ Law (which ought to be as famous as Moore’s), “Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later”.  In other words, too many cooks spoil the broth.  Like the problem of fire, flood requires more than just money or people to solve.  It requires the right core software architecture, which allows add-on software to co-exist harmoniously…

So I care about the problems of power usage on mobile phones, and about the problems arising from an abundance of software on these devices.  However, I think it’s misleading to characterise these problems as problems of sustainability.

Here, my thinking follows the lead of David Mackay, Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, as spelt out in his book “Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air” and in other writing:

Turning phone chargers off when they are not in use is a feeble gesture, like bailing the Titanic with a teaspoon.

The widespread inclusion of “switching off phone chargers” in lists of “10 things you can do” is a bad thing, because it distracts attention from more effective actions that people could be taking.

(For some more details, page 70 of David Mackay’s book compares power consumption for different household items.)

Nevertheless, despite this quibble, I strongly agree that there’s a great deal that the mobile phone industry should be doing, to reduce energy usage worldwide and assist the transformation to a sustainable economy:

  1. As various speakers noted, applications mobile phones can collect (via various sensors) useful information about a person’s overall energy usage, and present this information back to the user.  Here, rather than being part of the problem, the mobile phone can be part of the solution;
  2. Mobile phones can also help communicate ideas about alternative energy solutions to users – solutions that are relevant to what the user is currently doing;
  3. Improved recycling of mobile phones will help too: making more phones software upgradable will be a step forward;
  4. There’s considerable scope for reducing the energy consumption on the server side of mobile phone networks (where it matters most).

A press release from yesterday highlights an example of the final point.  The press release is entitled “M1 looks at 35% reduction in carbon footprint in Singapore“.  Here’s an excerpt:

MobileOne (M1), the leading mobile operator in Singapore, expects to achieve up to 35% reduction of its telecommunications networks carbon footprint by early 2011. This is made possible by Nokia Siemens Networks Flexi Multiradio base stations. The vendor is currently modernizing M1’s 2G network to prepare it for a smooth transition to Long Term Evolution (LTE).

In addition, M1 is set to start an LTE trial in February 2010. Undertaken in collaboration with Nokia Siemens Networks, the trial will last two months and marks another step in M1’s commitment to deliver an energy efficient, high-speed mobile broadband service to its subscribers.

The LTE trial includes Nokia Siemens Networks’ Flexi Multiradio Base Stations that enhance network coverage and capacity, while lowering site power consumption significantly. This forms part of its end to end Energy Solutions portfolio, which is a clear commitment from Nokia Siemens Networks to drive innovative solutions for energy efficiency…

(Thanks to Stefan Constantinescu, for drawing attention to this particular press release.)

If a 35% carbon footprint reduction sounds impressive, here’s an even larger figure to consider. The newly formed Green Touch consortium announced a bold vision as part of their launch activities last week:

We aim to reduce energy consumption in worldwide ICT networks by a factor of 1000.

This is reiterated in the Green Touch description of “challenges and opportunities“:

The goal of this new consortium is to create the technologies needed to make communications networks 1000 times more energy efficient than they are today.

A thousand-fold reduction is roughly equivalent to being able to power the world’s communications networks, including the Internet, for three years using the same amount of energy that it currently takes to run them for a single day.

An early goal for this initiative is to deliver, within five years, a reference architecture, specifications, technology development roadmap and demonstrations of key components needed to realize a fundamental re-design of networks (including the introduction of entirely new technologies) that can reduce energy consumption – both by individuals and in aggregate – by 1000 times as compared to current levels.

Through a focused and collaborative cross-industry initiative, we intend to define the challenge, conduct breakthrough research, and deliver innovative new technologies and sustainable solutions that can be applied across ICT and beyond — for a greener and more sustainable communications future and for the benefit of all.

Their webpage “ICT Industry Combats Climate Change” provides more details:

Research from Bell Labs determined that today’s ICT networks have the potential to be 10,000 times (four orders of magnitude) more efficient then they are today. This conclusion comes out of Bell Labs’ fundamental analysis of the underlying components of ICT networks and technologies (optical, wireless, electronics, processing, routing, architecture, etc.) and studying their physical limits by applying established formulas such as Shannon’s Law, ‘father of information theory’.

Achieving even one-tenth of Shannon’s lower limit would cut network energy consumption by a factor of 1,000. A thousand-fold reduction in energy consumption is roughly equivalent to being able to power the world’s communications networks, including the Internet, for three years using the same amount of energy that it currently takes to run them for a single day.

These huge gains can only be achieved by rethinking the way telecom networks are designed in terms of low energy processing. Today’s networks are designed for optimal capacity, not efficient energy use. What is needed is a major breakthrough, a radical re-design of networks, and that can only be achieved through the contributions of all essential participants, from basic and applied researchers and component suppliers to network operators, equipment and system suppliers and governments.

While these re-designed networks would dramatically decrease direct ICT energy consumption, the energy savings would be overshadowed by the indirect effects. Because ICT constitutes what the World Economic Forum describes as “our collective nervous system,” touching nearly every industry sector2 a shift in the magnitude of ICT energy usage would reverberate throughout the global economy. By further enabling energy efficiencies across the energy-hungry portions of human enterprise, the ICT sector holds the potential to substantially contribute to the fight against climate change on a global scale…

What kind of people are behind this consortium?  It’s an impressive list:

Service Providers: AT&T, China Mobile, Portugal Telecom, Swisscom, Telefonica

Academic Research Labs: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Research Laboratory for Electronics (RLE), Stanford University’s Wireless Systems Lab (WSL), the University of Melbourne’s Institute for a Broadband-Enabled Society (IBES)

Government and Nonprofit Research Institutions: The CEA-LETI Applied Research Institute for Microelectronics (Grenoble, France), The Foundation for Mobile Communications (Portugal), imec (Headquarters: Leuven, Belgium), The French National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control (INRIA)

Industrial Labs: Bell Labs, Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology (SAIT), Freescale Semiconductor.

The press release also contains endorsements from:

  • Dr. Steven Chu, US Secretary of Energy
  • Ed Miliband, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, UK
  • Christian Estrosi, Minister for Industry, France
  • Jong-Soo Yoon, Director General, Ministry of Environment, South Korea
  • Paulo Campos, Secretary of State for Public Works and Communications, Portugal

Next time MoMo London looks at the topic of mobile sustainability, I hope there will be time to include an update on progress from the Green Touch team!

Footnote: Here’s a ten minute video summary of last week’s press conference launching Green Touch:

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