13 May 2017

Autonomous Cars - Completely Obvious Patents

I'm very excited about autonomous vehicles. The transition to self-driving cars will change society as much as the arrival of trains or the transition from horse drawn carriages to cars. I don't know if ten years from now my kids will need driving licenses, but I'm pretty sure my grandkids will be hard pressed to find a use for them even if they had them.
One thing I'm not excited about is a new round of litigation with completely obvious patents. The Internet brought us the "like X but on the internet" software patents, autonomous cars will bring us "like X but with self-driving cars" patents.
It is probably too late change this, I'm sure the patent mills are busy churning completely obvious patents to use in the next couple of decades.
In this post, I'll list some of the ways self-driving cars will change the way we do things. While many of the things listed here are my own ideas I'm under no illusions that these ideas are novel, in fact, that is the whole point. Maybe if there were more, this is how things will change, posts by lay-people about new technologies we'd have less obvious patents.

The Road to Autonomous Vehicles

We won't have autonomous vehicles on all our roads overnight. The transition will take time, years certainly maybe decades.
Here's one way this can happen.
It will start small, autonomous self-driving options will appear in regular vehicles as luxury options and will trickle down to more basic models; companies will replace drivers with autonomous cars. At first, autonomous cars will require supervision, either a driver present in the vehicle or remotely from a control centre.
Autonomous cars that communicate with one another have advantages over human drivers. Caravans of autonomous cars can travel safely at fast speeds while maintaining short distances between the cars better utilizing the road. They can also negotiate merging and traversing intersections efficiently without the need of traffic lights.
At some point some roads will become self-driving only. Congested city centres, which may already limit traffic  and new tolled "super-speed" lanes in highways are prime candidates. Closing roads to human drivers will allow the roads themselves to become intelligent roads able to coordinate traffic in more efficient ways.
This description of the rise of autonomous cars is probably wrong or at the very least incomplete, but however it happens, I believe the end result will be more or less "intelligent" roads with only self-driving cars. Human driving will become a leisure activity, similar to horse riding. Roadway signs, traffic lights and rear view mirrors will become obsolete. Direction indicator lights might remain but only as a way to highlight to pedestrians the intent of the car.

Valet Parking and the Effect on Mass Transportation

If a car can drive itself then the first thing that comes to mind is that you no longer need to waste time parking. The car can drop you off and pick you up at the entrance and park itself. Shopping centres and similar venues will change the way their parking lots are arranged to accommodate drop-off and pick-up zones. Without the need for humans opening doors to get in and out of the car, parking lots will be able to pack more cars into a smaller space. 
Expect someone to patent layouts for parking lots or even the whole concept of valet parking with self-driving cars.

Once you think about it, however, why stop at the shopping centre? Why would I take the bus or train to work when I can have my car drop me off and drive off to park somewhere else, or back home. Most people who commute using public transport do so because parking near work is impossible or prohibitively expensive. How cities deal with this challenge depends on whether they'll be able to cope with the increased traffic; Some cities may close non-public transport altogether, but for many having cars driving in and out business districts without staying will not be a problem, it may even save money through savings in public transport upgrades that will no longer be needed and increase income from existing and new tolls. One thing is certain, ridiculously expensive parking will be a thing of the past.
Expect a lot of litigation for obvious ideas based around having the car waiting for you when you need. Sync your calendar so the car knows it needs to pick you early for a school event, or to drive you to meetings? That's a patented idea (I mean system or device that allows...). Have the car take into account weather and driving conditions so it reaches you just in time, there'll be a patent for that as well. Sending a message to tell the car to come and pick you now may be OK, maybe.

Another industry that will be hit by self-driving cars is the air travel industry. A plane is able to fly in two hours a distance equal to ten hours of driving, but this requires getting to the airport, checking in and out and taking a loan car at the destination. Factor in that it is not you doing the driving and suddenly flying is not as appealing at least for the shorter overland distances.

The End of Car Ownership?

Won't self-driving cars not mean we won't own cars anymore? I don't think so. Autonomous cars will spell the end of "driving services" as we know them. There will no longer be a difference between renting a car and hailing a taxi. There is a future where at the push of a button a car will be waiting for you whenever you need a ride. All this for a price competitive with car ownership. However a car you own is heavily personalized; there are things you need or may need which are always on your car such as umbrellas, coats, phone chargers, children toys, sunglasses and junk you have nowhere else to put. Autonomous cars will certainly expand the pool of people who do not need to own a car, but I don't think it'll eliminate it. Most probably people will get their first car when they start a family instead of as soon as they can afford it.
On a related note, once you own a car, you might think you'll be able to use it to earn extra income. After all, once it drops you at work, why not hire it to a company, Uber-like, so it can serve as a taxi for the next seven hours that it won't be needed.
I do not think this will happen; I believe most cars used for driving services will belong to the companies, not hired from individuals. Hiring your car means clearing it of all your belongings and maintain it at an acceptable level of cleanliness. Driving services will be very cheap; I can currently find ads for car rentals as low as $10 (AUD) a day. Granted this is for the most basic model, with draconian insurance and no fuel costs. A more realistic estimate may be $50 per day all inclusive. At this price point, car rental companies can pay employees, maintain offices and parking lots, service and replace cars, etc. and still be profitable. How much is the actual cost of the car in all of this? Would you go through the hassle of keeping your car in a hireable condition for a few extra dollars a day?

Moving Around

Autonomous cars will make use of satellite navigation and an ever increasing assortment of electronic means to reach their destination. Countries which embrace autonomous cars will become increasingly more proficient in reporting road closures as well as the opening of new roads. Even so, there will still be times when this fails. Unexpected road closures due to accidents, network outages, etc. may prevent the navigation framework used by autonomous cars from being aware a road is not available. How will autonomous cars cope in these occasions? The same way people cope right now, by looking at detour signs and following the instructions of traffic controllers. Autonomous cars should be able to understand these same as humans or there may be more efficient methods.
Accident response crews may have electronic devices that broadcast the lane closures to nearby vehicles and construction crews may broadcast detours.
Vehicles should also be capable of working "of the grid", they should be capable of remembering routes and following directions.
The whole field of "the same as people used to do, but for autonomous cars" is rife for patent abuse.