Autonomous long distance trains announced for Australia

Mining giant Rio Tinto will invest U$518 million in autonomous trains for its long distance heavy haul rail network. The company plans to put the first autonomous train into operation in 2014. Rio Tinto currently operates 41 trains from its Australian mines to ports with 148 locomotives and 9400 iron ore cars.

The company expects productivity improvements because of greater flexibility in train scheduling and the removal of driver changeover times. Besides increased network capacity, they also expect more efficient fuel use and thus lower carbon emissions.

Generally trains are much better suited for autonomous operation than road-based vehicles because of their fixed tracks. Unfortunately, very few truly autonomous driverless trains are in operation today. While some cities have driverless commuter systems, these typically operate in carefully controlled environments where most of the intelligence is located within the rail network and little intelligence within the locomotive itself. The Rio Tinto approach needs to be different: because of the size of the rail network (1500km) most of the intelligence will have to be placed within the locomotive. Hopefully Rio Tinto will be able to demonstrate quickly that significant productivity improvements are possible by using autonomous trains and thus start the transition towards more efficient and cost effective public transportation systems. It remains to be seen, however, to what degree labour unions and train regulators will be able to limit progress in this area.

Image © Copyright 2012 Rio Tinto

Green license plates for driverless cars

Nevada’s Department of Motor Vehicles has now issued the regulations for operating autonomous cars. In testing mode, they will carry red license plates and they must have at least two occupants. One of them must be able to assume control over the vehicle at all times. Once an autonomous car has been certified for fully autonomous operation, the car will display green license plates (Nevada’s  standard license plates are blue-gray).

Key issues of the regulation:

  • Whether physically present or not, the operator of an autonomous car shall be deemed the driver with respect to applicable traffic laws.
  • Operators of autonomous cars require a special Nevada driver’s license with a ‘G’ amendment. The amendment can be easily obtained for the holder of a Nevada drivers license and costs $5.
  • Autonomous cars may be sold in the state once they have passed testing and certification by the car manufacturer or an autonomous technology certification facility.
  • Autonomous technology certification facilities will be private entities and will be licensed by the Department of Motor Vehicle.

The regulation requires the following components within each autonomous car:

  • A black box which captures the last 30 seconds and retains its data for 3 years
  • A visual indicator when in autonomous mode inside the vehicle
  • An easily accessible, non detracting mode switch for engaging or disengaging autonomous mode
  • A failure routine which allows the car to transfer control back to the operator when it detects an error or which safely moves the car out of traffic and brings it to a stop should the operator not be able to assume immediate control.
  • It does not explicitly mention a mechanism to limit autonomous mode to the geographical area (e.g. Nevada highways) where autonomous mode is legal.

The regulation contains provision for the testing phase

  • Minimum 1 Mio U$ deposit or surety bond (maximum 3 Mio U$ for more than 10 vehicles)
  • Report any accident the autonomous car is involved with within 10 days to the Department.

This is a landmark regulation, setting up precedent on which other laws will be modeled. The regulation does not really solve the responsibility problem by deeming the operator the driver. It is clearly modeled on the assumption that the autonomous vehicle will be privately owned by Nevada residents, and does not consider the issue of car-sharing and operating autonomous vehicles as taxis (Would the taxi’s passenger be considered the operator and therefore need a Nevada driver’s license with ‘G’ amendment?).

By addressing the case where the operator is not present within the car, the regulation already looks ahead to the time where autonomous cars will not be limited to highways but may roam all public roads!



Florida’s autonomous car bill much weaker than Nevada’s

The United States is quickly establishing itself as the leader in autonomous car technology. Several states are currently introducing bills addressing autonomous vehicles. Last summer Nevada became the first state to allow the operation of autonomous vehicles on state highways as long as conditions to be spelled out by the Department for Transportation are met.
Currently two bills adressing autonomous cars are moving through Florida’s house (HB 1207) and senate (SB 1768). However these bills are not in the same league as the Nevada law (AB 511):

  • While the Nevada law explicitly allows both the operation and testing of autonomous vehicles, the Florida bill only considers ‘the purpose of testing the technology‘.
  • In Nevada, autonomous vehicles need not be under the control of a human whereas the Florida bill specifies that the ‘operation of the test vehicle must be continuously monitored in a manner that allows active control over the vehicle to be immediately assumed by a human operator‘.
  • The Florida bill requires the Department of Transportation and Motor Vehicles to draft a report recommending legislative action related to autonomous vehicles by February 1, 2014. In contrast, the Nevada bill authorizes its Department of Transportation to ‘adopt regulations authorizing the operation of autonomous vehicles‘ and specifies the various issues which need to be addressed.
  • The Florida bill only has one area where it is wider in scope than the Nevada law: It applies to all public roads whereas the Nevada bill is limited to state highways. Of course, as a human needs to be able to assume immediate control at all times in Florida, there is little difference to the status quo anyway. Google has already driven driverless cars thousands of miles under such terms on public roads in California.

In summary, little seems to be gained from the Florida bill. It does not contain reasons for autonomous car manufacturers to head to this state and will not help to establish Florida as a leader in this nascent industry.


Thrun to teach free online course on programming robotic cars

Driverless car pioneer and Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun will share his knowledge in this 7 week interactive online course. Thrun is not only the first winner of Darpa ‘s 2005 Grand Challenge competition for autonomous vehicles. He is also employed by Google where he leads their mostly secret Google cars project.

This will be a serious course, with a university-level work load, assignments and exams. Last fall Thrun and Peter Norvig taught their joint introductory class on Artificial Intelligence at Stanford in two versions: One version to their Stanford students and an online version with exactly the same content to approximately 160000 students from 190 countries. More than 23000 students completed the course!

After this experience Thrun co-founded Udacity, a company that believes that  “university-level education can be both high quality and low cost”. Through this venture Thrun simultaneously advances education and the adoption of autonomous cars. This course will excite thousands of students for this topic, advance the mind-share for autonomous cars and may even send future employees towards the Google robocars team.

The course CS373 is free, has few requirements – knowledge of the Python programming language would be helpful – and starts on February 20.