Archive for November 25th, 2008

Let the Bot Drive

Last week, at the ITS America conference in New York City, I finally got a chance to actually go for a ride-along in “Junior” (well, a clone anyway), the fully autonomous VW Passat designed by Sebastian Thrun and his colleagues at the Stanford Racing Team, which took second place in DARPA’s Urban Challenge. Mike Montemerlo, who appears in Traffic, was riding in the backseat, where he generated the visualization of our drive that I’ve posted above.

The trip, down an blockaded and empty Eleventh Avenue, just outside the Javits Center, was absolutely unnerving. With a researcher from Volkswagen sitting in the driver’s seat, just in case something went wrong (it didn’t), the car drove a pre-programmed route for ten minutes, stopping at stop signs, navigating around hazards, and whisking back and forth before the assembled crowd. Its behavior — i.e., waiting for another (autonomous) car to fully clear the intersection before proceeding — was arguably better than most of what passes for driving in New York City. What if a barrel suddenly flew into the road, I wanted to know. The car would stop, and then figure out a safe way around the hazard.

Junior lurched a bit here and there, particularly upon stopping and starting, but as Montemerlo noted, the robot was optimized for an autonomous race, without passenger comfort being a priority. But it was striking how quickly I adjusted to the experience, growing perhaps a bit too comfortable with the car’s steady hand, which leads me to believe a societal switch to autonomous driving (at least in certain environments) might not be as big a psychic hurdle as we imagine. Did driving in New York City have anything to teach Junior? Montemerlo noted that given the car’s usual home is Palo Alto, and is thus not so experienced with rain, the algorithms had to optimalized for the day’s wet streets. And again, the street was closed off — put it at the mouth of the Holland Tunnel on Friday afternoon and it might implode.

The concentric bands you see around the car in the video, by the way, are the what the Velodyne High-Definition Lidar is “seeing” as it sweeps, ten times a second, in a 360 degree rotation on the roof of the Passat. You can also make out a number of pedestrians walking here and there. Note also the “target acquisition” the car makes as it approaches the fixed objects. The red bands represent things in motion. It’s hard not to summon The Terminator or some such when watching the video, seeing the omniscient power of the car to detect the array of objects in its path, able to calculate speeds and distance with unerring accuracy, while at the same time not feeling compelled to talk on a cell-phone or fix its hair in the mirror. Drivers, we’ve been warned: This is like Big Blue on wheels.

(video courtesy of Mike Montemerlo)

Posted on Tuesday, November 25th, 2008 at 1:09 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Honk If You Love to Read About Honking

Dave Johns explores the dark heart of honking — and imagines a world without it — over at Slate.

We chatted briefly about the piece, and I told him I was reluctantly “pro-horn,” though I do wonder if it shouldn’t be disabled while the car is not moving — or would some driver someday need that horn to warn someone who was approaching them at speed while they themselves were stuck there, helpless? But as he concludes (after not finding much hard data on the subject — welcome to my world!), it’s a people problem, not a technological problem.

Posted on Tuesday, November 25th, 2008 at 8:32 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Kids These Days

“Bus driver accused of braking hard to topple pupil.”

Not from The Onion.

Posted on Tuesday, November 25th, 2008 at 8:26 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

Please send tips, news, research papers, links, photos (bad road signs, outrageous bumper stickers, spectacularly awful acts of driving or parking or anything traffic-related), or ideas for my Transport column to me at:

For publicity inquiries, please contact Kate Runde at Vintage:

For editorial inquiries, please contact Zoe Pagnamenta at The Zoe Pagnamenta Agency:

For speaking engagement inquiries, please contact
Kim Thornton at the Random House Speakers Bureau:

Order Traffic from:

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Random House | Powell’s

U.S. Paperback UK Paperback
Traffic UK
Drive-on-the-left types can order the book from

For UK publicity enquiries please contact Rosie Glaisher at Penguin.

Upcoming Talks

April 9, 2008.
California Office of Traffic Safety Summit
San Francisco, CA.

May 19, 2009
University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies
Bloomington, MN

June 23, 2009
Driving Assessment 2009
Big Sky, Montana

June 26, 2009
PRI World Congress
Rotterdam, The Netherlands

June 27, 2009
Day of Architecture
Utrecht, The Netherlands

July 13, 2009
Association of Transportation Safety Information Professionals (ATSIP)
Phoenix, AZ.

August 12-14
Texas Department of Transportation “Save a Life Summit”
San Antonio, Texas

September 2, 2009
Governors Highway Safety Association Annual Meeting
Savannah, Georgia

September 11, 2009
Oregon Transportation Summit
Portland, Oregon

October 8
Honda R&D Americas
Raymond, Ohio

October 10-11
INFORMS Roundtable
San Diego, CA

October 21, 2009
California State University-San Bernardino, Leonard Transportation Center
San Bernardino, CA

November 5
Southern New England Planning Association Planning Conference
Uncasville, Connecticut

January 6
Texas Transportation Forum
Austin, TX

January 19
Yale University
(with Donald Shoup; details to come)

Monday, February 22
Yale University School of Architecture
Eero Saarinen Lecture

Friday, March 19
University of Delaware
Delaware Center for Transportation

April 5-7
University of Utah
Salt Lake City
McMurrin Lectureship

April 19
International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (Organization Management Workshop)
Austin, Texas

Monday, April 26
Edmonton Traffic Safety Conference
Edmonton, Canada

Monday, June 7
Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals
Niagara Falls, Ontario

Wednesday, July 6
Fondo de Prevención Vial
Bogotá, Colombia

Tuesday, August 31
Royal Automobile Club
Perth, Australia

Wednesday, September 1
Australasian Road Safety Conference
Canberra, Australia

Wednesday, September 22

Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s
Traffic Incident Management Enhancement Program
Statewide Conference
Wisconsin Dells, WI

Wednesday, October 20
Rutgers University
Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation
Piscataway, NJ

Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Ontario Injury Prevention Resource Centre
Injury Prevention Forum

Monday, May 2
Idaho Public Driver Education Conference
Boise, Idaho

Tuesday, June 2, 2011
California Association of Cities
Costa Mesa, California

Sunday, August 21, 2011
American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Attitudes: Iniciativa Social de Audi
Madrid, Spain

April 16, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Gardens Theatre, QUT
Brisbane, Australia

April 17, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Centennial Plaza, Sydney
Sydney, Australia

April 19, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Melbourne Town Hall
Melbourne, Australia

January 30, 2013
University of Minnesota City Engineers Association Meeting
Minneapolis, MN

January 31, 2013
Metropolis and Mobile Life
School of Architecture, University of Toronto

February 22, 2013
ISL Engineering
Edmonton, Canada

March 1, 2013
Australian Road Summit
Melbourne, Australia

May 8, 2013
New York State Association of
Transportation Engineers
Rochester, NY

August 18, 2013 “Ingenuity” Conference
San Francisco, CA

September 26, 2013
TransComm 2013
(Meeting of American Association
of State Highway and Transportation
Officials’ Subcommittee on Transportation
Grand Rapids MI



November 2008

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