Beyond Autonomous Vehicles: Autonomous Robots and the Supporting Cast

Originally published on ReadWrite on August 11, 2017

Autonomous transportation has been on a tear recently. Maybe it’s fascination with Tesla and Musk. Maybe it’s excitement about the future. Regardless, the news flow has been a torrent. Most of the automotive majors – GM, Nissan-Renault, Jaguar and Volkswagen to name a few – have made big announcements around autonomous development in the past month alone.

Getting in the action, Congress has ramped up its efforts on national policy for autonomous vehicles. Specifically, the Senate has created principles to guide federal legislation on autonomous vehicles, and a bundle of bills introduced in the House would pave the way for federal regulators to tackle this area. It’s a big opportunity.

Let’s hope we’re more effective on this political front than we have been on others recently, and that we enable the US’ success in one of the largest emerging economic targets. This one should be bipartisan.

As our politicians and policy makers turn toward that task, here are several key items to consider.

Think beyond autonomous transport of humans.

Our fascination with a future in which autonomous vehicles buzz us about town diverts our attention from a broader conversation on automation.

We’re overindexed on autonomous transportation. We’re underindexed on autonomous everything else.

The robots are here already. Food DeliveriesLandscapingLogisticsSecurityGarbage collectionCar valets. It’ll go well beyond these… Courier services. Events. Construction. Medical. Maintenance & repair. Insurance services. Media & entertainment.

In tackling rules for autonomy, we need to tackle allowances and operating bounds for autonomy broadly. These “robots” will share roadways and rights of way with autonomous transport vehicles. That needs to be orchestrated, not after thought.

Further, legislation should address both ground and airborne autonomous robots. The rules for smaller grounded robots need to extend to sidewalks and even hallways. For airborne robots, the rules need to address airways above public rights of way.

Understanding the stakes, several states - VirginiaIdahoWisconsinFlorida - are getting ahead of this game and have passed legislation allowing autonomous deliveries. A gaggle of others is not far behind. 

It’ll prove much more impactful to create a national framework for autonomous vehicles (that extends well beyond deliveries) before the patchwork of state approaches bogs down overall progress. 

Address the supporting infrastructure.

The focus on autonomous to date has been most heavily on the vehicles themselves, without much consideration for the supporting infrastructure to make a reality of the smart mobility future.

We need our transportation network to be informed by networked intelligence nodes that extend each vehicle’s sensor sight. We need our transportation network to support more fluid charging models that don’t require vehicles to “return to base” every time batteries get low.

That means we need to address the infrastructure around transportation arteries and intersections. Sensors. Communications. Charging.

5G COMMUNICATIONS

Simply, we need a higher-speed, lower-latency communications network with better coverage than we currently have.

5G is going to be the smart mobility enabler. We absolutely need 5G speeds (paired with tiered processing architectures) to responsively handle the volumes of data that are coming from autonomous systems. Plus, we’ll need the new communications capabilities to grow the new services that autonomy will uncover.

We’ve failed if network latency is the new distracted driving.

Reasonable allowances for, and acceleration of, 5G deployments along major conduits and roadways should be part of thoughtful legislation on autonomy. Bonus for the politicians out there. 5G will be a job creator. Accenture says so.

SENSORS

We’ll want to augment vehicle information systems with stationary sensors and information systems to give intel on roadways ahead.

No robot is an island.

Simply, external sensors and monitoring have to be part of the package. Throughways that are better instrumented, monitored and managed should receive broader allowances for development of autonomy.

CHARGING

Lastly, we need to think about public charging infrastructure for autonomous vehicles. It will be a complete disaster if every vehicle needs to return to base every time charge wanes. Unnecessary congestion and hamstrung opportunity must be avoided.

The network will be the charger.

Legislation should include considerations and motivations to build electric charging infrastructure along city routes and corridors, particularly wireless charging infrastructure, where bots and Buicks alike can charge in the course of daily routes. Federal support to further develop wireless charging would be a boon.

Borrowing from what I said above: it’ll prove enabling to create a national framework for autonomous infrastructure.

For good or for bad, autonomy is coming. It’ll be developed domestically… or it’ll be developed elsewhere. We want to win the race to own autonomy and robots and supporting infrastructure. It’s about about seizing the opportunity ahead.

We can spend our energy debating about the jobs of the past or focus on keeping the ones of the future. Autonomy is a meaty future manufacturing target for jobs and economic acceleration. Let’s grab it.

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