Friday 23 March 2018

The future is hummmm

I was watching some convincing propaganda from What3Words, the global locating service, by Clare Jones one of their top guns. She floated the idea that their W3W technology would be a boon for getting an Olli to the right place. Olli, what am dat t'ing?  It is an autonomous minibus made by a Phoenix AZ company called Local Motors in partnership with General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, US Army, Dominos, Airbus, Snap-On, Shell, Siemens, Peterbilt, Mouser, Oak Ridge National Lab, DARPA & IMTS. Which is, if you think a bit, a wildly eclectic bunch of players to be pushing the same bus uphill. It looks like a see-thru toaster on wheels but is a little bigger [this is not a toy or a kitchen appliance]; each unit is about 4m long, just under 2 tonnes kerbside weight [it's the batteries, stupid] with a carrying capacity of 800kg - that's about 12 normal adults, or 8 Rust-Belt Americans [and most of them can sit down: L below] for a range of about 50km.
It is not, therefore suitable for the Interstate, but as a bus it can shuttle back and forth from terminal to terminal, presumably pausing for recharge at a time and place to maximize efficiency. Once you've embraced driverless, you open up a world of flexibility because driverless / autonomous requires a huge front-loading of nifty software: to prevent cyclists being run down; to avoid potholes; and decide when to recharge.

But there's more:
  • it can deal with the disabled by detecting crutches or wheelchairs at the bus stop and deploying the ramp automatically
  • it can deal with the forgetful by detecting the bag under the seat of the person who is just leaving
  • it can deal with emergencies by detouring directly to the nearest hospital if one of the passengers collapses
  • it can deal with ASBOs by locking the doors and zipping over to the nearest police station
  • it can detect sign-language; Spanish; Bengali, Tamil, Hindi
All that requires some up-front infrastructural inputs: Meridian Autonomous, another company, scopes out proposed routes and maps them into the on-board computer. Obviously the granualarity of MA is far finer than the 3m x 3m square of W3W: getting +/- 3m of that cyclist is going to wipe out a few cyclists. MA claims they can drive an Olli to within 1.5cm of the intended destination.

Once you embrace all-wired up, you can imagine all sorts of flexibility. 20 years ago, in deepest rural Ireland Ring-a-Link was available. It would be bonkers to run a regular bus-schedule along our valley because the population density was so low and either a) sedentary or b) in possession of a car (or a tractor). Ring-a-Link would, on 12 hours notice, send a mini-bus to your door and take you somewhere else (usually civilisation, the doctor, the supermarket, the chemist) . . . and then bring you home again a while later. You'd probably share the ride with someone else. I took Dau.I and Dau.II in to town by Ring-a-Link in about 2001, as proof of principle. It cost me a flat-fee €3 and the girls went free (or was it half price); we had some interesting chat about the olde dayes with the two elderly ladies with whom we travelled. It was Demand Responsive Transport DRT. Olli could do that too: make a small detour off the route to deliver to her door Mrs Doohickey with the gammy leg. It could integrate the utilitarian benefit to Mrs D against the loss of time for the other passengers on board and come up with an [algorithmically] fair solution.

At about the same time, every Thursday evening I was locked into coming home 130km by bus from working in Dublin. It was rush-hour, and bus lanes were rare, so we fought and crawled through the stop-go traffic for the first 15km. Just as the road cleared and bus was picking up speed, it left the main road and plunged into the dormitory town of Bray . . . because there was an official bus stop in Bray. About once every couple months there a passenger waiting at that bus stop; the other 90% of the time it was a useless, revenue-absent, diesel-guzzling detour that delayed the actual passengers' arrival home by 15 minutes. At the time, I thought that the bus company could make Bray a request stop: requiring would be travellers to phone the company in advance. But I knew that everyone was far too rigid to embrace such a radical solution. Olli would take that sort of thing in his stride. With everyone wired up to the cloud, you can imagine Ollies zig-zagging across the city picking up people who want to get to near enough the same place. A certain amount of internet-based ride-sharing happened two years ago when there was a Dublin Bus strike and reduced taxi-fares.

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