Robots on Our Streets (and Everywhere Else)

The development of self-driving vehicles is progressing at a steady pace. It’s only a matter of time before seeing a human drive a vehicle on public roads will be akin to seeing a horse and carriage on a motorway. Even if introduced globally right now while still in development, self-driving technology would drastically reduce fatalities.

Unfortunately, today’s society would only accept this technology if it is perfect. That’s because it is “understandable” that crazed primates may kill other beings because of recklessness and inattention, but it certainly won’t be tolerable for a computer to make a mistake, even if it would happen a thousand times less often – and most likely due to freak coincidences rather than the machine actually making a mistake. But society will evolve. Self-driving is here to stay and like it or not, primates will soon be relegated to driving on the race track or some other place where the potential of threatening life is lower.

And while self-driving is currently one of the most debated topics, we should really be talking about self-piloting, which is a more generic term. It covers more of what will actually happen: all machinery will soon be able to pilot itself. So how would worldwide fleet of interconnected self-piloting machinery change life on Earth?

The purpose of any post in the Futurology^ category is to launch a wild, boundless speculation regarding what he future holds regarding a certain concept. To get things going, here are some of the things I imagine can be accomplished in the near future (coming decades) by self-piloting vehicles. Feel free to submit your own ideas in the comments below. With your approval I may integrate these in the article, giving proper credit.

  • A Vehicle Management System will control all traffic. The system will have different behaviors based on vehicle type and region. For example, the VMS will have special policies for motorways. The motorway VMS will be responsible for managing inter-city travel. When a vehicle reaches a city, the VMS will switch to city-specific policies which have been set by the city’s authority. This allows for seamless vehicle control which adapts to any number of different regional rules (for example what side of the road a vehicle can drive on or at what altitude can a plane fly in a certain airspace).
  • Obviously, the VMS will have to be extremely well protected against security threats and will have to be thoroughly tested for many years. It should be decentralized, redundant and a server located no further than two network hops away, guaranteeing millisecond-precision. I believe that such a system should be open source, so that the community (especially engineers and scientists) can peer review it and safeguard it. Quantum cryptography could be one way for ensuring security but lacking that, a multiple-server, low-latency redundant cross-reference system could also be employed.
  • No more traffic jams. This is one of the most important advantages of having a Vehicle Management System. The system will balance traffic across entire regions so that the time spent to reach any given destination is approximately equal for everybody. When the traffic is congested in an area, it will be improved by redirecting a part of it.
  • No more traffic lights for cars. The VMS will manage intersections easily because it will know each car’s route, physical characteristics and current state. Not only will there be telemetry from cars, but this will be cross-referenced with sensors installed along the road. Imagine a crossroads where cars go with 70 kmph (45 mph) all day long, not breaking for a single millisecond, frequently “missing each other” other with less than a meter. Perhaps it’s scary to imagine now, but this will be a common sight in a few decades. This change leaves more time for pedestrian traffic lights.
  • Quieter cities, cleaner cities. Due to increased efficiency and distribution of traffic, roads will be less noisy. With fewer traffic lights, there is less breaking and accelerating, less pollution.
  • Priority tiers. Public services such as ambulance, fire department and police will be able to use the VMS to make sure they can reach their destinations in the fastest possible way. Lives will be saved when room is made for an ambulance for many kilometers in advance. Such a system could also allow regular citizens to save lives. For example somebody that happens to have the nearest car to the victim of some accident can immediately declare the emergency by calling the appropriate number. Then, the vehicle will be given top traffic priority and used to transport the victim to the hospital or to a rendezvous point with a proper ambulance (and since all vehicles are in the same network, an ambulance rendezvous will be very easy for the VMS to achieve).
  • High efficiency transportation. Vehicles will be able to form trains where a more powerful vehicle (such as a truck) can pull several cars at once while also acting as an aerodynamic shield. Such trains will often be reconfigured while moving based on what destinations each vehicle has (a vehicle will often disconnect from the middle of the train only for the two parts of the train to reconnect to each other after the departing vehicle changes lanes). Fuel costs will be automatically calculated by the VMS and billed to traffic participants. For example the truck I mentioned will be paid (from the accounts of all vehicles it helped) for the extra fuel it spent as well as for the aerodynamic shield it offered, providing an incentive for powerful vehicles to help optimize fuel consumption for everybody.
  • Fewer cars. Much fewer cars. As a consequence of having a VMS, people will be able to more easily engage in carpooling. It will be easier to implement systems where more buildings share the same cars. Commuters will also be helped by small, regional buses that are adjusting real-time to the transportation demands of a region.
  • Most of this can also be extended to all other types of traffic. Planes, subways, cargo ships, ferries and trains will coalesce into a global mesh of moving machinery where the VMS can handle a person’s entire itinerary for thousands of miles using the cheapest and most environmentally friendly means of travel, also taking into account the person’s preferences and budget. Because the system has a view of everything moving everywhere, it will be able to dynamically allocate entire transportation fleets according to demand. For example no more clogged buses after a concert. The VMS will know that an event is over and will automatically adjust the entire “transportation chain” from buses to trains and airplanes for quick & smooth transportation of participants.
  • Delivery services will see drastic improvements. Private vehicles that reach remote areas sooner than dedicated delivery vehicles could earn extra money for delivering items. The driver wouldn’t have to lift a finger. If the destination is along the way, the vehicle will be able to make a short stop to drop the delivery for other robots to pick up, or if not, it will take care of the delivery after the passenger leaves.
  • Less boring jobs for pilots of airliners, ferries and trains. A part of these pilots will become “incident managers”, called upon when there are situations when robots require human intervention. A quantum internet will allow these persons to control machinery with zero latency, as if they were inside the vehicle.
  • Automated farming and mining^. There are plenty of places where this is already in place, especially because there is much less regulation for self-piloting vehicles when outside of public roads. I expect that the industrial applications for self-piloting vehicles will be the main profit drivers going forward. This will create space and resources for the technology to mature.
  • Some of the foremost companies to look out for in the field of AI and self-piloting are: nVidia^, Google^ and Amazon^ (click on the links to read one of the interesting things that each of these companies are doing in the field of AI).

The Futurology Disclaimer: I do not claim that my ideas are original. I’m sure these suggestions are just scratching the surface of what can be achieved, but hopefully they’ve scratched enough to get anybody inspired to come up with more. I’m also sure many of these ideas are already being worked on by several organizations. If any of the ideas listed by anybody on this page are original and will benefit any organization, I expect credit to be given where it’s due.

Version history:

2017-05-31 – 1.0 – Written.

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