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Innovation Part 2: Autonomous Vehicles

Profile image for Ross Coombes

Intro

Unfortunately we couldn’t fit an actual Google self-driving car in the Innovation Lab and apparently Southampton’s St Mary’s Stadium didn’t fancy having one tear up their pitch so we had to think of something else instead.

When I was a kid, my parents had separated when I was very young. Several years later, on Xmas Day, I was presented with a huge rectangle of wrapping paper and I was told that this was a joint present between my parents.  They added that it was also so expensive that this single present would also be both my Xmas and birthday present combined - that’s 4 presents in one.  My resentment for having a birthday in the Xmas holidays didn’t develop until my teens, at that moment my mind was going wild with what could be so amazing.  When I opened it - I was not disappointed, I loved it - my very own massive Scalextric set!!

The premise for Scalextrics hasn’t changed all that much since then - cars that drive around in a little groove.  But that’s cheating, motor racing doesn’t work like that, cars don’t race around a track in lanes, they block, duck in and out of slipstream and take different lines through corners.

In the modern world of self-driving cars though, we don’t need to limit ourselves with a groove, Apple has brought kids racing toys into the modern era with Anki Drive.

 

 

Aside from being a great demonstration of the capability of Bluetooth enabled physical games that can be paired with a phone app, it also demonstrates some of the complex control algorithms used by self-driving cars to navigate their way around a space.

As well as being able to control the speed of your car, you can also race against other Artificially Intelligent (AI) racers.  The cars have weapons too so you can shoot at your opponent Mario Kart style.

You start by placing the cars on the track, they then slowly drive around learning the track as they go.  Once they’ve got it, they drive themselves back to the start grid, the race starts and off they go, flying around the track at impressive speeds, all controlled autonomously.  

To challenge the AI of the cars, we added jumps, banking, made parts of the track raised and wobbly and before you knew it, the cars were getting themselves into all sorts of trouble.  They were falling off the jump, over-cooking the corners, knocking each other off the track and finding themselves lost on the carpet - it was like having 4 haribo-fed gerbils on the loose.

As you can imagine, it was a lot of fun and I think we were all guilty at times of forgetting that there was a serious innovation point behind it - self-driving, autonomous vehicles.

They’ve already been running a muck in California and San Francisco for some time, the future of driving may be to not drive at all.  For those of you that had to drive to work this morning, that may come as good news.  Thinner lanes and driving closer together might just be enough to eradicate congestion but even if it doesn’t, rather than wasting time waiting for the car in front to move, what if you could just sit in the back, what would you do with the extra time?

Chris Urmson talks about how the cars work and his personal motivation for bringing these self-driving cars to the masses.

I’d be the first to miss being behind the wheel but even I’ve got to admit, the more I learn about how human attention works and how short our attention span is and how easily we are distracted, the less it makes sense that we should be trusted with such a potentially dangerous task if a safer alternative exists.

Let’s bring this back to reality though because unless you are reading this as a car manufacturer or have businesses involving transporting goods or people you may be struggling to connect with this particular dot.

So let’s consider the underlying principles - what is a self driving car really?  

A car is essentially a familiar looking robot with four wheels.  What it’s doing is navigating a space by repeatedly assessing its environment and deciding on a course of action.

 

WHAT ELSE CAN THAT BE USED FOR?

A robot trolley that follows you around a store or works behind the scenes in the warehouse?

Don’t know about you but I have a long list of things I don’t enjoy about DIY.  Trying to gracefully control a B&Q trolley loaded with plaster is definitely one of them.

Perhaps a drinks trolley for your office or reception that can take orders?

I think the Adido boardroom would definitely benefit from a smart drinks trolley and I think our visitors would love it.  “OK Trolley, I’ll have the usual please”

A robotic waiter that never drops food or accidentally serves to the wrong table?

If it makes it quicker, that would be cool, especially if it automatically brings the sauces and the cutlery too.  Oh and if I could gesture a thumbs up at the robotic waiter rather than having to answer “Everything is fine thanks” with a mouthful that would be super.

Perhaps all still a bit “tomorrow” for now but the difficult part has been done, we’ve overcome the technical aspects to autonomously control vehicles that can also learn from us.  The next hurdle for self-driving cars is a political one but the technology is here and it will find its way into other areas quicker than you think.

Have a think of an application for your business that could be make things more efficient or just get people’s attention.

When you’re done... perhaps you’d like to read Part 3 of this series - Virtual Reality.

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