A city filled with self-driving cars is great, in theory. Cars will wander the streets, picking up passengers, and self-routing networks will mean you never have to wait in traffic. But what about the reality? That’s what a six-day experiment in Singapore was designed to find out. Only instead of a city, it took place in a sprawling public park, and instead of cars, it used golf carts.
The experiment was run by the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), headed up by MIT professor Daniela Rus. Carts ferried park visitors around between ten stations, where pickups could be scheduled, and riders were asked to fill out a questionnaire after riding. Ninety-eight percent participants said they’d use the carts again.
"We would like to use robot cars to make transportation available to everyone," Rus says MIT News. "The idea is, if you need a ride, you make a booking, maybe using your smartphone or maybe on the Internet, and the car just comes."
The carts are a lot simpler than Google’s high-tech self-driving cars. They each use one camera, plus a number of off-the-shelf laser rangefinders. They only measure distance in one direction and are mounted at different heights for better coverage. And that’s it. The rest is up to the algorithm, the brain which drives the vehicle.
Because the carts top out at 15 mph, they have time to think, and over the six days of the experiment there was only one major incident—when a cart faced off with one of the park’s monitor lizards, each of them too polite to move first. Otherwise, the simple principle of keeping a virtual perimeter around the moving cart (called the "dynamic virtual bumper") was enough to let it share paths with pedestrians and cyclists, without mishap.
Now, carts are different from cars, but Rus makes an excellent point about vehicles in cities.
"It’s fast enough for the elderly population who no longer have a driver’s license and live in special areas where maybe their friend lives a mile away, and that’s too far to walk," she says. "If they want to go to the doctor or shopping, they can use the self-driving golf carts."
Maybe we don’t even need self-driving cars in cities. After all, if we’re swapping out drivers, then why should we keep the huge four-seater monsters they used to drive? Surely something smaller and slower is appropriate for the city, where the space is shared by so many other people and vehicles. Maybe all those James Bond villains were right when they equipped their secret lairs with primary-colored golf carts. And maybe golf carts could be the future of city transport? After all, 15 mph is faster than the average traffic speed London, currently 8.98 mph.