Giant fleet of small scheduling nightmares

In tenuous link between my recent posts on automation, here and especially here, where back in November I discussed autonomous vehicles and their impact on employment. I also said:

While many cities are salivating over the ability of self-driving, autonomous vehicles to fix their broken road and transport infrastructure, that’s missing the point.

Sometime between then and last weekend I became a weekend subscriber to the (Boulder) Daily Camera, a great local paper for the Boulder/Denver metro area. Right on queue, my first Sunday paper was laying in the snow on the drive this weekend and I opened it up and parsed it during the day. One item that particularly caught my eye was Dave Kriegers main editorial entitled “Imagine a giant fleet of tiny buses“.

serveimageI grabbed a pen, marked the editorial up, scribbled in the margins and sat down on Monday morning and wrote an open forum letter. It didn’t get published, I have no idea if it’s policy not to publish corrections on staff written op-ed pieces, or they just didn’t think it interesting enough to include?

Since a big fuss has blown up about an Uber self driving car today, running a red light yesterday(in full transparency, Uber self driving development has a big office here in Louisville that is a build-up from the Uber acquisition of Microsofts Bing mapping service.) I thought I’d turn Mondays open forum letter into a blog post.

This also lets me correct one misstatement. Self-driving cars will help with congestion theoretically. In heavy traffic, they will drive at a regulation speed, a safe distance from the vehicle in front, thus avoid the hard braking and the impact that can have on several miles of traffic.

It is hard to respond to Dave Kriegers editorial imaging “a giant fleet of tiny buses” in 300-words, but I’d like to have a try.

First, I completely agree with his sentiment that if you keep trying the same old thing, you’ll keep failing. However, when it comes to his “giant fleet of small buses” he falls into the same trap most transport ‘imagineers’ do when the come to self-driving vehicles. For the sake of brevity, let’s assume they’ll be electric; let’s assume they can dock themselves; let’s assume they have a slightly better range than current electric cars.

Dave jumps to the conclusion that less space will be needed for parking. Sort of, except the cars have to be charged somewhere. But yes, they could be charged in either fields or reclaimed parking garages outfitted with self-docking chargers. Dave then makes the confusing jump to the conclusion that “[they] could reduce congestion because fewer cars would serve more people”.

Anyone that’s given any serious thought to scheduling and transportation would understand implicitly that that isn’t true. It’s implied because it fits the paradigm of autonomous vehicles. If 20,000 people want to get into Boulder today between 7:15am and 9:00am in their own unshared transportation, and the demand is the same in the era of self-driving cars, then, you’ll have the same number of journeys. Add in the recharging trips, the fact that using Daves logic, there will be less self-driving cars, then some of those cars will have to drive in and out and back into Boulder, actually increasing the number of journeys and therefore contributing to the congestion.

If we take Daves “less parking space” claim at face value, then what will the space formerly used by parking garages be used for? Green space… err no, more offices/accommodation, with the potential to further increase the number of journeys and congestion.

Don’t get me wrong, self-driving cars are great, but until we have flying cars they will only help indirectly with congestion won’t help with congestion. The only way is shared transport. Bus Rapid Transport isn’t it either. Trams, street cars, metro-rail are the only real fix.

Will self driving cars save Austin from itself?

If you had 100 destinations you’d have removed some of the major bottlenecks, but we don’t. We have the Central Business District. It’s a major constraint and getting people in cars in and out of it no matter how automated the cars are will have the same fundamental problems and constraints. Anyone who says otherwise really doesn’t understand the problem.

There has been a lot written recently about (semi) Autonomous Vehicles (SAVs) aka Self driving cars. Especially yesterday following the Tesla announcement, see also this NPR report.

Self driving cars have long been held out as a solution. They arrive when you need them, they take you to your destination at regulated speeds, they can adjust to traffic congestion, and collisions, road work etc. Once you’ve arrived, they disappear not requiring a parking space either in a building, or on the street. Nirvana.

Proposing self driving cars as a solution to traffic congestion, where the congestion is caused by constraints is simply a nonsense. They are a first world solution, to a first world problem. “Why can’t I text/read/sleep while I’m stuck in traffic?”

There has long been discussion among the urban transportation advocates, while they promise to reduce accidents and better manage traffic density and improve capacity through stable and reduced “headway” (the distance between cars). Anyone who proposes they can solve traffic congestion without understanding the constraints and capacity issues, just doesn’t understand the challenge. This Forbes article screams “Self-Driving Cars Would Slash Traffic, End Street Parking” yet aside from the obvious nod to headway and predictability doesn’t address the problem. This Qoura discussion covers many of the points

Here is a response I wrote yesterday on the issue to the #ATXRail mailing list. It refers to an earlier post that discussed in some technical detail the problems of scheduling and capacity.

Again, I find myself being the naysayer, Roger Cauvin made some extremely salient and possibly too technical points about any transit system design, but especially as it relates to individual transit options such as autonomous cars. The problem that most simply don’t understand is the scheduling and availability of these cars at scale.

First, whats scale? How many would be needed to make a real difference? Scale certainly isn’t a hundred, it’s not a thousand, it’s probably 10,000 maybe more. Second, lets assume these are free movement vehicles, they don’t run on track or are constrained by guide rails. Third, lets assume that they are capable of transporting 2-3 max. but the assumed capacity is one passenger. Fourth, lets also assume these are not individually owned vehicles, or at least if they are, they are available ala Uber/Lyft for other people to book. Fifth, lets assume they are electric and capable of driving themselves to charging stations where they either connect or are connected to a recharge point.

Now we have the basics of your capacity based system and you can start working on its constraints. What you don’t have is any real clue about the usage patterns, how they’ll be used, who by, for what, at what time and so on. Until you can produce even a first pass for this you cannot make any assumption that autonomous vehicles can solve anything except perhaps more consistent traffic flow, and improved emissions. Anyone who claims autonomous cars can solve anything without this data is simply blowing smoke and must be pushed back on.

They are great for private vehicle journeys. I have a Mercedes that will already follow a GPS journey, has variable cruise control that will slow down and speed up the car based on the MAX speed of the vehicle a set distance in front and will bring the car to a stop based on either breaking vehicles or an obstruction in front; it pretty much does everything except steer, but it vibrates the steering column to let you know when to turn and when you’ve are moving out of a lane etc. This type of vehicle which we’ll see for all new vehicles in the next 5-7 years, if not before, will much better regulate driving.

They’ll minimize the concertina effect of drivers speeding up, jumping lanes and breaking too hard which will make congested roads flow much more smoothly. In practice they can also stop people jumping traffic lights, travelling faster than the legal speed limit and other traffic law infringements.

This begs question will drivers allow this to happen, and can insurance companies be convinced to drive the adoption of it?

So assuming all that gets done, autonomous vehicles will become totally acceptable and usable. And then we’ll have the scheduling issues that Roger alluded to. They are real.

Having self driving parks valet park themselves is cool, the question is where? At scale, say 5,000, you need at least say 2,000 spaces, and over night, probably 4,000. Lets those spaces also need to be charging points. Someone has to invest in building and powering those points. The “free” market will(really?). Then all you have to go is schedule cars between where they are, the users, the users destinations, and the parking spaces. When the primary destination is still downtown Austin, you have some massive constraints, not magical relief.

Although I don’t work in that area now, I work on computer systems scheduling for 15-years, specializing on at-scale systems. These were airline, banking and transaction systems. That had very similar constraints in so much as they all used run one one or two mainframe systems. I was the lead architect for a system we spent more than 2-years modelling an internet banking system that eventually successfully supported 900,000 concurrent users on two servers. I helped fixed the design and scheduling for a single system that supported 23,000 concurrent users, a record at the time. Before you all say but yeah cloud computing has changed all that, it really hasn’t.

The design and use pattern considerations Roger discussed are key. If you had 100 destinations you’d have removed some of the major bottlenecks, but we don’t. We have the Central Business District. It’s a major constraint and getting people in cars in and out of it no matter how automated the cars are will have the same fundamental problems and constraints. Anyone who says otherwise really doesn’t understand the problem.

It’s true, as automated cars become standard features of our cities, it will be easier and easier to write the scheduling rules to make them work within the unique constraints each city has. Austin will have more than many cities constraints because of the sprawl, because of the access road problems, and especially if we have not viable alternatives.

On the “self driving” Mercedes observation, I had never thought of trying this.

Update: 1:23 added in Qoura link.

DVT and the American Way

As we approach the holiday season, I am reminded to check the American Way magazine to see if they’ve updated their advice about Deep Vein Thrombosis, aka DVT. My legs are sore from Sundays race, so better safe than sorry.

Looks like I’m still in with a chance to win the 100,000 award miles for my letter to the editor last month, after all they have not changed the advice. Here is what I wrote:

I’m in 22a of AA 1149, I’ve been here for about 3.5 hours since boarding. The guy in the exit row seat in front, despite a polite request, refuses to put his seat upright.

The space left between us is so small, I can only use my laptop as an oversize MP3 player, lid closed. I’ve read American Way cover to cover and it’s a great issue.

I did though find the diagrams for avoiding DVT hilarious. I can barely do the ankle rotations in the space I have, knee/chest lifts even knee lifts are simply not possibly. Perhaps you could update the diagrams?

Yours, 3-million miler(almost) 6ft triathlete with a 35 inch waist…

and yes, the following illustration is still there in the December 2014 issue.

See page 106
See page 106

After all, you wouldn’t want find out that you needed seat savers in order to prevent a real

Decaying Texas

It’s been an interesting month. I live in Austin Texas, boom town USA. Everything is happening in construction, although nothing much in transport. In many ways Austin reminds me of rapidly developing cities in China, India and other developing countries. I’ve travelled some inside Texas, but most on I10 and out East. I’ve tended to dismiss what I’ve seen in small towns, mostly because I figured they were unrepresentative.

Earlier this month I did my first real US roadtrip. I had my Mum with me for a month and figured a week or so out of the heat of Texas would be a good thing. We covered 2,500 miles, most up from North West Texas, also New Mexico, and Colorado. On the way back we went via Taos, Santa Fe, and Roswell and then back through West Texas.

There they were small town after small town, decaying. Every now and again you’d drive through a bigger town that wasn’t as bad, but overall massive decay, mostly in the commercial space. Companies had given up, gone bust, or got run out of town by a Walmart 30-50 files away. Even in the bigger ones, there was really no choice, there were Dollar Stores, Pizza Hut, McDonalds or Burger King, Sonic or Dairy Queen, and gas stations. Really not much else, except maybe a Mexican food stop.

It was only just before sunset on the drive back through West Texas, with my Mum asleep in the backseat, I worked out that my camera and telephoto lens rested perfectly between the steering wheel and the dashboard and I started taking pictures. These are totally representative with what I’ve seen all over Texas. Just like the small towns out near Crockett and Lufkin in East Texas; pretty similar to anything over near Midland; outside El Paso; down south towards Galveston.  Decaying Texas.

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What there were plenty of, in the miles and miles of flat straight roads, were oil derricks, and tankers, hundreds upon hundreds of them. It’s not clear to me what Governor Perry means when he talks about the Texas Miracle, but these small towns, and to some degree, smaller cities have more in common with the towns and cities in China and India, slowly being deserted, run down in the rush to the big cities.

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Interestingly, while writing and previewing this entry on wordpress, it suggested the mybigfatwesttexastrip, which ends with the following

The pictures above tell the story of a dying West Texas town and the changing landscape of population movement away from the agrarian society to the city.

Holiday Travel, make coming home better

ImageI had an interesting discussion about holiday travel yesterday, what tips, tricks and special things had I learned over the years? The one that got the most surprised reaction, was my advice on coming home.

One thing that I’ve learned to before leaving, along with turning off the lights, emptying the trash, clearing out the coffee maker etc. is to put fresh, claen sheets on the bed, to change the towels in the bathroom and every trip to change my toothbrush and to try to leave the house as tidy as I can.

When you get home, not only will everything be familiar, but in a few key ways, your home will have some of the best aspects of a hotel. Enjoy the travel, make coming home special.