Things I like about robot cars

google self-driving car


There has been a lot of press about self-driving cars, and as they come closer to public availability I find that people generally fall into 2 camps; either they are enthusiastic and think they will be a great time (and even money) saver or they are skeptical and can’t imagine an autonomous vehicle being as safe as a human-driven car. There is a small third group that likes driving, doesn’t like to give up control, and imagines they won’t get to places as fast as the law-abiding robots. That’s hard to imagine in many of our traffic-choked cities where commute speeds average something like 12 mph, but I digress.

With approximately 1 death per hour in California due to cars, it’s hard to fathom just how computers could do worse, especially considering that so many deaths and injuries are due to inattention, distraction and DUI’s – failings which computers generally aren’t vulnerable to.

Having been around machine control and automation all my working life, I understand the challenges but also know that the control systems and sensor technology are more than capable of providing greater levels of convenience and safety than we expect today. And particularly, the greatest beneficiaries will be the pedestrians, cyclists and other road users who aren’t protected by the cocoon of a modern car with airbags, crumple zones and the like. This video from Google shows some of the strides they have made to operate safely around pedestrians and cyclists – check this out Self-driving cars on city streets.

So I look forward to the day we see these vehicles on the road and following are some of my primary reasons. Please let me know if you have others to add to this list.

Why I like robot cars:

  • Unlike humans, they CAN multi-task
  • Kids won’t have to run in fear when my Mom goes out
  • They WILL come to a full stop at stop signs, probably even for right turn on red
  • They will always use their turn signals
  • My Dad won’t have to yell ‘SLOW DOWN’ when they go down our street
  • They won’t get DUI’s but you can still ride in one when you’re wasted
  • They won’t participate in Sideshows
  • When I’m biking I’ll be safer than with human drivers
  • I can have one come pick me up at work if I’m too lazy to ride my bike home.
  • No more arguments with my wife about who has to drive
  • We can both sleep on those long drives

Multi-modal, Mixed-terrain Bike Adventure

Caltrain from MV

One of the great things about living in the Bay Area is the network of (mostly) connected public transit you can use to get to a ride or finish a ride. Integrating public transit into your ride has some great benefits:

  • It’s easier to do point-to-point rides
  • You can skip over the portions that are less bike friendly
  • You can push your limits a bit and still have a bail-out option
  • And, of course, you can leave the car at home

Two of the great enablers are the Clipper Card which allows you to take just about every type of transit in the Bay Area without taking any cash and Google Maps on your smartphone which helps you find the next transit option.

And surprisingly, transit helps mountain bike riders and not just roadies. Sure, you can’t catch a bus up to Skyline and Demo but light rail goes to Santa Teresa, Alum Rock and Campbell which puts you within a short pedal of some decent trails. I’ve also taken Caltrain to Belmont and pedaled the 1.5 miles to Waterdog.

When we lived in the UK for a couple years we used the extensive rail network on a few multi-day loops and more frequently on day rides. Sometimes it was just to get in a bit of variety and other times it was to get back home after we got caught in the all-too-frequent downpours. When we moved to Mountain View, one of our reasons to pay the extra rent was the easy access to 2 different rail transit options and the 22 bus going up and down El Camino Real which means we aren’t so reliant on the car.

My old friend Andy introduced us to the Caltrain, Golden Gate Bridge, Mt Tamalpais, Tiburon dirt loop with return to SF via ferry. Starting a ride like this with a sunny-day pedal along the Embarcadero with views of the Bay Bridge and a crossing of the Golden Gate would make any tourist jealous. It gets even better once you hit the dirt in the Marin Headlands and make your way to Mt. Tam. The trails aren’t very technical, with the vast majority being fireroads, but the scenery is as good as you can hope to get so close to such a dense urban area.

I did a variant of the Mt Tam ride the other weekend with my target destination being the Gestalt Haus pub in Fairfax. It has to be one of the most bike-friendly places in the Bay Area with bike parking INSIDE, a range of quality beers on tap and reasonably-priced food off the grill.

GH inside

I also thought my new route (carefully mapped out on ridewithgps.com) might be a bit easier since it didn’t climb all the way to the top of Mt. Tam. The stats said it would be 5000 feet of climbing but that COULDN’T be right could it?

My day started off with a quick ride to downtown Mountain View for a cup of coffee before I caught the first train North. There were a surprising amount of other cyclists on the train at this hour – maybe everyone had a big day planned.

I always like the first transit ride on any trip. Whether for a day trip or a month away there is a feeling of possibilities and excitement and never being completely certain what will happen. I arrived in SF just after 8:30 and was a bit surprised to find sunny skies and warm temperatures so early. All I needed was a light jacket for my pedal along the Embarcadero which was an easy cruise with just a few tourists at this early hour.

Bay Bridge fog

A huge cruise ship was docked just a bit further up the Embarcadero disgorging it’s thousands of customers into a long line of taxis that were idling in the bike lane. Not too much of a problem as I was going by but I had to wonder – when does ‘Bike Lane’ mean Bikes Only – just when it’s convenient?

taxis in bike lane

After this it’s a pleasant cruise through Fisherman’s Wharf, then Maritime Park where the swimmers are always out early and then the little climb through Fort Mason where I get my first view of Mt Tam seemingly a long way away.

Mt Tam across the bay

I had a brief second thought about the trip but considered what was waiting for me at Gestalt Haus, the perfect weather and the snowstorm my family was experiencing back East so I rode on towards Crissy Field. This was the first time I had ever done this ride alone so it was nice to stop wherever I wanted and not worry about time. I read a lot of the signs and stopped a bit longer than usual at every overlook.

Headlands view

The Golden Gate Bridge crossing is always spectacular and since cyclists are on the West side you get a view of ocean and wild lands that the pedestrians on the other side don’t get to enjoy as easily. Soon I”m across the bridge and up the road into the Marin headlands. Fairly stiff first climb of the day but hard to notice my effort with the view of the Pacific and the coast wrapping around to the South. Where the climb levels out I get my first taste of dirt on a downhill fireroad that’s fun and a little loose on the cyclocross bike. A great feeling since I know I’ll be on dirt for several hours now before returning to pavement just above Fairfax. Bottoming out in the first valley I have a view of green hills and lots of Poppies. Marin had a pretty good rainfall a few weeks back when the Peninsula got very little and the green hills and wildflowers are the evidence.

Poppies

After a 15 minute fireroad climb out of the Valley I hit a little bit of singletrack and at the exact spot where I planned to take a short break I notice that my rear tire is going flat. Not a bad place to fix a tire

flat repair with a view

From here I dropped into Tennessee Valley and just to the North I got great views of the Coast

coast north of Tennessee Valley

followed by some steep roller coaster climbs as I ascended to about 2000 feet on the West flank of Mt. Tam. Then it was a fast, steep descent towards Fairfax with views to the North with San Pablo Bay just barely visible looking East

Almost in Fairfax

And then suddenly I was at quiet and very still Lake Lagunitas

Lagunitas

and from there I had just a bit more dirt until I was in Fairfax.

There might not be a much more welcome site after a long day in the saddle

GH

I had about 2 hours to hang out in Fairfax since the Larkspur ferries don’t run as frequently in the off-season so I enjoyed a couple of beers and a large Kielbasa piled high with sauerkraut. My day could have happily ended here but I still had a flat 7 mile pedal ahead and the 30 minute crossing back to SF. The Larkspur ferry is absolutely worth the price of admission with views of Tiburon, Angel Island, San Quentin, Alcatraz and seemingly the entire Bay Area on this sparkling day.

ferry view

At the SF ferry building with still an hour to wait for the ferry to Oakland so I decided to take BART to meet my honey and the rest of her group in time for dinner.

So that gave me 3 different transit modes and about 42 miles of mixed terrain goodness for the day. And best of all, my mini-vacation helped me see the Bay Area in a whole new light.

What about you? Do you have any favorite transit-supported rides?

 

 

Complete Streets, Hanoi Update

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After the relative traffic calm of Laos & Cambodia I absolutely wasn’t prepared for Hanoi. As you can see above there are no lanes or obvious flow in the fairly typical intersection shown. It’s in the center of the Old Quarter which is busy all day and night. An easy fix to the above would be to make it a roundabout so that vehicles were forced into a predictable flow. There’s a small fountain that acts as a bit of a traffic circle off to the left of the picture but the main traffic flow doesn’t go around that. However a new roundabout would only work if there was enforcement and I don’t see much police presence.

It would have been great to see some police attention to keep scooters off the sidewalk behind us but that didn’t happen as you see below. This was pretty common behavior in the afternoon commute we witnessed. For those turning right at the worst intersections, the easiest time saver was to jump on the sidewalk for the right turn then get back on the street. So we were watching our back the rest of the walk home.

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For walkers it’s pretty intimidating. The shear density of the traffic and the almost complete lack of accommodation for pedestrians makes it truly dangerous for walking. The best thing you can say is that vehicles don’t seem to get much above 30 kph so an accident probably won’t be fatal.

I used Google ‘My Tracks’ on 2 different taxi trips (one 7 km and the other 6 km). The first trip averaged 14 kph (yes kilometers/hour not miles/hour!) and the other 12 kph. Just about anyone could maintain that speed on a bike so I don’t think it would be too hard to get people back on bikes if you could somehow reduce the terror of mixing it up with heavier vehicles. However, all the vehicles are much more tightly packed than I’m used to in the US so it’s intimidating to ride a bike. I would think the quickest way to convert people to riding bikes would be to ban all other vehicles from the most traffic-impacted roads. Of course, I don’t imagine cyclists have much lobbying clout since they are likely poorer than the car and scooter users.

Pedestrian safety is enough of a concern that hotels provide advice when you check in on how to cross the street

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Ideally you find a bit of a gap in traffic and slowly cross while keeping an eye on the vehicles coming at you. It’s OK to stop midway across but NEVER back up since that’s unexpected. Mostly the scooters and cars will drive around you but that assumes they are paying attention and not engaged in their smartphone which is quite common. It mostly worked for me but it is not a relaxing city for walkers and quite stressful. In 3 days I saw 3 accidents right in front of me. They looked to be mostly cuts and bruises and thankfully not worse. Pretty bad considering I rarely witness accidents in the US. My wife was much more intimidated than me. She probably would have taken a taxi or 2 just to CROSS some of the worst intersections if I hadn’t been acting as a human shield. I don’t know how the infirm or elderly could navigate here.

Complete Streets, SE Asia Edition

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I’m sure there have been many doctoral degrees granted on the study of transportation in developing countries but I have to add my observations and speculations without a shred of data but only observation. For those of you trained in planning, my apologies up front.

In the US, one of the movements gaining traction these last few years is ‘Complete Streets’. Basically the idea that streets have to be designed for ALL users, not just the automobile. Chicago gained some notoriety in the last year by mandating a change in approach such that street design would be done with consideration of the following priorities in descending order of importance: Pedestrians, transit, bicycles, and, at the bottom, cars. This simple statement has the potential to truly change how we get around cities and should make it safer for the must vulnerable users.

This is interesting to me as I travel around Cambodia and Laos these last few weeks as everywhere I travel I see the results of the rapid ascendance of scooters and cars. 20+ years ago when I traveled last in SE Asia scooters were mostly evident in the larger cities and wealthier countries but they are now commonplace just about everywhere. Cars are coming on strong but are still for the affluent it seems as they seem to make up only 5-10% of traffic (at least in Laos and Cambodia). As vehicle use changes in a generation or less, clearly the infrastructure hasn’t kept up. In many places scooters, cars and trucks are parked on sidewalks (if there are any) or completely blocking walking paths forcing pedestrians into traffic.

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Bigger, faster, more expensive makes the rules
As a pedestrian here you can’t help but feel that your job is to ‘Get Out of the Way!’ In most hierarchical societies I have visited, wealth ordains certain privileges and nowhere is it more apparent than on the street. In California there is still some modicum of respect for the pedestrian but here it feels like a battle. Most car drivers in California still give pedestrians right of way at crosswalks whereas in SE Asia, pedestrians seem to be expected to know their place. And that place is in the dirt and puddles weaving between cars, motos, construction, feral dogs and trash on the edge of the road.

So in a generation or less many developing countries have gone from relative walking and cycling paradise to the first world model of having to integrate disparate modes onto roads not designed to mix 60kg people and 2000kg machines.

Is this just the natural evolution of technology? That we implement ‘advancements’ before we know how to integrate them? Scooters are faster than bike or foot travel so it allows a villager to have a job in another location that pays better. How does one deny her that opportunity? Maybe that scooter allows a Mother to get her child in for more regular medical attention. If you have the resources why wouldn’t YOU buy one if it meant a better life for your family?

The traffic flow here is not quite lawless, but is mostly chaotic. Pedestrians know that nobody will stop for them, unless there is the rare traffic signal (and even then please be careful), so to cross a street you step into traffic and start, stop and weave until you get to the other side. Vehicles will mostly steer around you and it seems bad form to run across the street. If you’re in a vehicle (bikes included) and want to turn left across traffic you don’t stop at an intersection and wait for an opening, you continue on and cross to the side of opposing traffic and ride/drive on the far left until you get to your street then turn left (still opposing traffic) and eventually cross over to the other side of the street and merge with traffic. Chaotic for new arrivals like me, but totally expected by the locals so it (mostly) works. As a pedestrian it does mean that crossing the street is a bit harder (look 4 ways as they teach kids now) but I’m still uninjured.

Naturally, this all makes me wonder how the transportation infrastructure evolves. In an ideal (and likely more expensive world), the infrastructure would develop in anticipation of the needs of all the users. But the reality is that it’s easy to buy a car or scooter and start using it before society is ready for it but considerably harder to modify or create the infrastructure to allow all users to use the roads in relative comfort and safety.

So maybe the model that so frustrates cyclists and pedestrians in the US is just part of the natural evolution of transportation infrastructure. Regardless, it’s frustrating to watch the process occur everywhere as if we never learned anything.

Thankfully we’re trying to do a better job in the US than in the past. Do any of you know what is being done in the developing world to not repeat our mistakes? I would like to hear.

In the end it all comes down to the bathroom

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I’m lucky that my wife is pretty easy going while traveling. From early on in our relationship we enjoyed traveling fairly rough and searched out cultural experiences rather than luxury vacation spots. We have each other’s back while on the road and we both have a pretty good ‘manana’ attitude when things go wrong.

Before a trip we both research different aspects of our destination then develop a general route plan but for longer trips almost never book hotels ahead except the first night after flying in. Staying flexible allows us to adjust our plans on the fly. Thus we never stay longer than we want somewhere and can stay longer in the places we like.

Not booking hotels in advance hasn’t generally been an issue except in very busy times when we have had to accept our second or third choice. Given the number of fake reviews on travel websites and the ability of photographers to ‘put lipstick on the pig’ we’re not too surprised when we check into a hotel and find that the best part of our hotel was the pictures. In the particularly bad cases we get our money back and walk down the street to another hotel (one of the benefits of never carrying more than one light pack).

Winona usually rolls with these disappointments and if we’re really dissatisfied we move the next day or (very rarely) in the middle of the night. I still remember brushing up against a cockroach in bed in Mexico at 11 at night and agreeing to find another room NOW. We packed our backpacks and were out the door in 5 minutes without a word to the staff. I had no argument with this move and remember leading the charge out of the hotel.

Where we have the only significant disconnect is with respect to the bathroom. I just don’t see the dirt she sees. I can deal with the shower, toilet, sink combo where EVERYTHING gets wet when you shower (move the TP outside before you start the shower!) I can deal with the cold shower. I can deal with the squat toilet (must be tough on older people with bad knees). I can deal with the tiny towel that is always damp. Back in our Indonesian travel days we learned all about the ‘Mandi’ and I accepted that she just might drain and refill it when we moved in.

She hates all the above and probably a bunch of other things she has told me about that still haven’t registered in the tiny part of my male brain that is reserved for ‘wife’s concerns’.

So I have a strategy. Let her pick the room. That’s it. She researches online. If that doesn’t happen and we show up at a new place she walks in and checks it out alone with ZERO interference from me. Then I ask her if the bathroom was OK. Then I say ‘Want to check out another place?’ When she says she is happy I always ask ‘Are you sure?’ Then I ask again trying to discern if she really is OK with the room or just ready to drop her pack for the night.

This strategy mostly works but even if it the bathroom passes the initial review there is usually some grumbling.

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I look at the combo toilet/shower as above and think, ‘What a brilliant time saver’. She says ‘EVERYTHING gets wet’. Must be a Mars/Venus thing…

I have to admit that the only living being to ever get warm from the shower below is the size of a flea.

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My innocent comment that we don’t need a warm shower in a tropical climate is met with the kind of icy glare that makes me search for some hot water to thaw out.

Note to other men: Don’t EVER say, ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. You’ll likely be getting stronger sleeping on the floor.