On the Road, There Will Be Robots Is a robot car better than a crow machine? Futurist Brad Templeton argues for the power of automation.
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On the Road, There Will Be Robots

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On the Road, There Will Be Robots

On the Road, There Will Be Robots

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Okay, from TED to BIL. A group of scrappy young folks who couldn't afford, Apparently, the $6000 entry fee for TED, had planned to hang out in Monterey, California, during the conference and hopefully meet up with the TED presenters in the bars after the talks were over and share thoughts and experiences.


Sort of like Slamdance became to Sundance.

MARTIN: Exactly, exactly. It developed into a shadow conference, exactly like Ally said, called BIL. Get it, BIL and TED...

STEWART: Excellent adventures.

MARTIN: Excellent adventures in technology and all things good in the world. And we believe in equal time here at the BPP. So in addition to our man from TED, Josh, who we just heard from, we've invited on futurist Brad Templeton who gave a few talks at the BIL shadow conference. The one that caught our eye in particular was about robot cars. Brad says robot cars may be a part of our lives sooner than we may think. And Brad joins me on the phone now. Hey, Brad.

Mr. BRAD TEMPLETON (Futurist; Director, Foresight Nanotech Institute): Good morning.

MARTIN: Thanks for being with us. Now, let's be honest, when I hear robot car, I think science fiction. What have you seen that makes you think that this really possible?

Mr. TEMPLETON: Well, it's really becoming something more than science fiction. Yes, I know, people over-promise flying cars, and they're very annoyed they weren't delivered.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TEMPLETON: Recently the military has started a series of contests, and in these contests, they've challenged people to build cars that can drive themselves. Now, they want them because they want to put cargo on the streets of Iraq and not worry about a solider dying when a roadside bomb blows it up. They have a very obvious reason for thinking a car that drives itself is great.

But these contests, with relatively small prizes, have actually generated winners. The first contest didn't, but the second contest had cars that went 150 miles down the desert roads at high speeds on curvy roads passing each other. And they had several cars that completed the course. And then they did a contest last year where they had cars having to drive around a city: Stopping at regular stop signs, four-way stops, making left turns, yielding to traffic. And again, several cars succeeded and won.

So there are prototypes of these cars that work today. In the computer industry, if you go one mile in one year, you end up going 30 miles in five years and 1000 miles in ten years. And I think this is coming much sooner than people think.

MARTIN: Now, Brad, I can kind of get how the military could apply this in a war zone or conflict situations, but how would you take that, those technologies that were applied in those contests, and apply it to a realistic practical day-to-day situation here in 2008.

Mr. TEMPLETON: Well, it won't be applied in 2008, but it will come I think closer to something like 2020.

MARTIN: We're going to use these in our day-to-day life? Or how would this happen?

Mr. TEMPLETON: Well, I have (unintelligible). Where we're going to start, actually, by just getting safer cars that you still drive yourself. And you can already see that. You can see cars that parallel park themselves in Japan. They have that. You can buy off the shelf today. They have cruise controls that look at the car in front of you and keep the space from that car. There are cars that you can buy that will warn if you leave your lane. Some of these technologies are already there.

And we'll start seeing cars sold in the high-end that are crash-resistant. That will try and stop you from steering into a car in the next lane if you're going to accidentally do that, or that if you see you accelerating or slipping on the ice. I mean, antilock brakes are a very simple example. So we'll start seeing that sold in cars, and the car will get better and better, and eventually they'll be able to drive themselves.

Now, the arguments for this are just astoundingly compelling. We've become blind to them because we're so used to the way that we drive. We kill 45,000 people every year in the United States and a million people worldwide because humans drive cars, 45,000 people, that's like Alzheimer's. If I told you it's just an engineering problem now to solve Alzheimer's wouldn't you be astoundingly excited.

MARTIN: I would be because that would be surprising. But is it really that easy? I mean, the idea that we would kind of surrender our autonomy and get in a car that's going to take us where we program it to go. How do we know that everybody else on the road is operating the same way? I mean, isn't there the chance that if we're all driving these robot cars, that there's someone out there who is really behind the wheel and we can't be accountable for those actions. You can't really be a defensive driver in a robot car.

Mr. TEMPLETON: Oh, actually, no, of course there'll be other people on the road if they're driving. I mean, you're going to have to have many, many years of transition when some people have bought cars and drive themselves and other people are still driving. So the robot cars will have to be as good or better than human drivers on roads with human drivers.

I've come up with a test, which I imagine will convince the skeptics that it's time to let people do this. I imagine that we'll make the cars as smart as fish, and that's not particularly smart. But if you've ever gone swimming or diving and you've been in a school of fish and tried to touch them, have you been able to do that?

MARTIN: Sure. No, they kind of scatter.

Mr. TEMPLETON: That's right. So I imagine cars that watch the other cars, and even the human driven ones, and predict them. And we'll take people out to a test track, and designers of the cars will have to reach a level where they can offer someone the keys to a Hummer and say, go, drive among those and see if you can hit one. And they won't be able to hit one. And go walk among them, and see if you can touch one. And you won't be able to touch one.

And when we can get to that level, the skeptics will be ready to believe.

MARTIN: Now, I have to say, when I first heard about this, I thought, wait a second. Aren't these TED and BIL conferences, aren't these folks really environmentally savvy and they're looking at ways to make things more eco-friendly? And the idea of robot cars didn't seem so eco-friendly to me.

Mr. TEMPLETON: Well, there are some aspects of it that aren't. But I started looking at the numbers behind transit systems, and realized that when you had a robot car, you also got to have a robot taxi. And that's the ability to, you know, take a cell phone and say, I need a cab to go uptown. And it would be somewhere near you, and it would come to you. And it would be, and this is what's most important, it would be the right vehicle for the trip. So if you are just taking a car on a short trip across town, you would just get a single person vehicle that was quite lightweight and electric-powered. And you wouldn't worry about the range of the vehicle, which is the thing that bothers people about electric cars today, is that they just don't have the batteries to go for a really long trip.

So if people drove the right vehicle for the trip, so that most trips were small light vehicle, and occasionally said, look, I need a Hummer now, I need a minivan now, and that came to you within a few minutes, well this could change dramatically use of vehicles. In fact, light electric vehicles are vastly more efficient even than trains, which are the best thing we have for efficiency today, even commuter trains.

MARTIN: Well, the whole thing, I have to admit, is very - it's a very sexy idea. I think we all kind of think eventually it'd be really cool to drive a robot car - or to be driven by a robot car. Brad Templeton is a futurist and a director of the Foresight Nanotech Institute. Hey, Brad, thanks so much.

Mr. TEMPLETON: Oh, thanks very much and have a good day.

MARTIN: Take care.

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