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Autonomous cars are so close to reality

When I declared automated cars to be on our roads within 5 years and highly adopted in 10 years with private transportation becoming obsolete in 15-20 years, my friends looked at me like I was nuts and an overoptimistic technologist.

Mark my words, a transportation revolution is happening and most people are completely unaware how fast it is coming.

Telsa has joined the ranks of autonomous vehicles: Tesla Testing Software For Autopilot Trips Between Seattle & San Francisco

Elon Musk’s promise to deliver a fully functional self-driving car within the near future appears to have some truth to it — it seems to have not been an exaggeration, in other words (despite his habit of overstating things). The company has reportedly begun testing software that will allow the Model S to “drive itself” all the way from San Francisco to Seattle.

[Source, Clean Technica]

I so welcome it. The ramifications of autonomous vehicles is huge! Think of the infrastructure changes alone:

  • No more parking lots. (turn mall parking lots into actual parks)
  • No more signage = prettier cities.
  • No more painted roads.
  • Narrower and fewer roads = less maintenance, less environmental impact.
  • No more DUIs.
  • No more road rage.
  • No more divided highways (the cars negotiate the number of lanes each direction as demand dictates)
  • No more stress of ownership (ie. no more insurance, unexpected repairs when payday is still weeks away, worry over other’s ruining your vehicle by running into you)
  • No more accidents.
  • The elderly can become mobile again.
  • Special needs (mentally, disabled, blind, etc) people who previously could not drive will have refound freedom.
  • Greater quality time on commutes. (Trips to work can be productive. You can sleep on the long commute to granny’s house. Practice guitar while passengering to that gig. Play cars with your child instead of demanding they play the alphabet game once more time.)
  • Moving vans delivered to your door. (Want to move a bedroom suite from Cincinnati to Knoxville? Have Penske autodeliver a truck to the house in Knox then let the truck take you to Cincinnati, load, and the truck returns you or better yet just send the truck to Cincinnati and have locals load it.)

So many possibilities!

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The Megabus Chronicles

In July of last year, Cathy, Evan and I traveled to Washington D.C. for the 4th of July. Our adventure began and ended on the Megabus which was chronicled as a series of posts on Reality Me. Now you can read those posts in order in one place.

Notes to megabus passengers
Notes for megabus passengers: morning arrivals require sunscreen and Tilley hats, both left at house.

Megabuddies
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Megabuddies
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First Megabus ride
Megabus adventure thus far. Bus was already pretty full when arrived in Knoxville presumably from Atlanta. We were very fortunate to actual find 3 seats near one another. Bus is relatively comfortable if you don’t mind “warm” and “friendly.” The older lady with the neck brace has reclined her seat into my lap which is nice in that “this provides a sense of security like the safety bar on a roller coaster. The low rumble of road noise and blowing of something they toy with referring to as air conditioning has me wishing I had purchased the Parrot Zik noise canceling headphones. For some reason I can’t get the pressure equalized so my jaw is tiring from trying to pop my ears. Evan is thrilled and so am I. Cathy looks happy. The crowd is very subdued. The bus appears maintained with the exception of a blatant problem with the windscreen. (See picture) Not sure if that growing smell of sweaty person is odeur o’ Doug’s failing deodorant or my traveling companion. In an attempt to keep the bus a constant “warm” I am certain the driver is recirculating the air. I don’t know Washington D.C.’s pollution index (insert mandatory congress joke here) but I am quite looking forward to inhaling it deeply.

Would I ride the Megabus again? I can guarantee I will make one more trip.

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Funny signs
All my life I’ve been amused with Virginia’s road signs “speed limit enforced by aircraft”. It’s one of those signs which makes me wish I were a cartoonist or animator. Instead I’ll have to stick to written word. I think the signs should be appended to read “speed limit enforced by aircraft…because if our plane can catch you then you were really flying !”

Megabus status
30 minute lunch break complete. Now the bus smells like warm sweaty bodies AND grease.

MegaArt
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MegaNap
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Megabus status
We seem to be making great progress. We’ve only got another…6 hours?! Forget Guantanamo. They should have just driven the detainees around the country on the Megabus. Shoot, I’ll talk!

Megabus status
To contend with the ordeal, children have been subdued with movies and video games. Passengers hide from the misery by trying to awkwardly sleep double-overed upon one another in odd pretzel formations using the other body as a contrived mattress or simply leaning back and accepting the reclined seat in front of them as some peculiar top sheet.

MegaStop
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Megabus status
A mutiny has occurred and the driver has been ejected from the bus.

Megabus status
A passenger from London thinks she can drive the bus since it’s a doubledecker. We pull out with cheers all around. The oncoming traffic is quick to get out of the way.

Megabus status
We’ve gone down a deadend road and now sit in the back parking lot of a run down motel. Insert obligatory hooker joke here.

MegaCrowded
“Mom, I’m crowded.”

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Megabus status
Our new driver made it known that the downstairs passengers have comfortable climate control while the upstairs passengers sweat. As night befalls us, the downstairs passengers will lose light and electronics while the upstairs parties on. Ignorance is bliss. The bus grumbles. We have become fractured into the haves and the have nots. A battle for limited resources looms.

MegaWater
Hipster water bottle

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MegaStink
The problem with voicing the question, “Good God what’s that smell?!” Is that you may not want to hear the answer.

Megabus status
Passengers have begun to realize that dinner is not being served on this flight. I cannot recall the last time the stewardess walked down the aisle. Rations are running low. The poker players in the back of the upper deck now wager with pretzels, potato chip crumbs, half empty water bottles, and those hard candies granny brought but no one wants. The upper faction has elected leaders who now sit in the front seats with the great view. Congress is in session debating war. The lower faction, now a dictatorship led by the bus driver with the really accurate watch, has realized that they control the bathroom. The poker players are pleased knowing the intrinsic value of their half empty chits increases with every passing minute and every sip. Tension is high. Stomachs empty. Bladders full.

Megabus status
The clans agreed to meet. A tentative truce had been worked out via couriers. The plan was to allow the Lowers shared time in an Uppers seat for light and tech withdrawal therapy while the Upper was granted time in the bathroom. All looked well until the tribal councils attempted a meeting on the stairs only to find a drunkard had declared himself a lone state and would not allow anyone to pass without correctly answering three questions to which he promised a wrong answer would have you ejected from the roaming realm. With the degrading conditions physically and politically, the patron saint of steering elected to pray to his deity Dispatch for guidance and a holy grail glowed thusly betwix a sacred McDonald’s and, for those read a similar albeit somewhat but not quite different book, a 7 Eleven (now open 24 hrs). The Patron Saint of Steering declared the respite for air, bio breaks, and cooling down to be exactly 30 minutes and not a minute longer. The Uppers, forgetting the patron saint had previously been the leading dictator of the Lowers, enthusiastically rushed into their respective churches of convenience. And promptly 15 minutes later, the bus left.

MegaRain
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Megabus status
What’s it like on the upper deck of a Megabus with no a/c in a rain storm? Remember the Santa Maria…

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Megabus Status
The natives were satiated by the impromptu stop. Peace found between the clans. Giddiness resuscitated as a rail line appeared simultaneously indicating our close proximity to the promised land as well as an alternative yet perhaps only slightly less hellish means of transport.

Mild skirmishes threaten to erupt as Lower and Upper pushed to rapidly exit the now mobile roaming realm bringing back ancestral memories of our youthful days and fights during the Great Eternal Drive. But as the rush of cool, exhaust filled, urine tainted, dead rat stinking air inflated our withered lungs, love grew again between the clans for we survived The Ordeal.

Luggage retrieved, I turn to my wife, “We should try an Uber!”

Megabus status
And now the Megabus journey is complete

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Guess what I did on the way to work!

I knew things were about to get messy so I put on some rubber gloves. I worked it by myself but was getting nowhere then a female sales associate joined me. The two of us grunted, writhed, and struggled but could not get it in despite having used excessive lubricant on the rubber. The tip got messy and we had to stop to clean it. Then it occurred to me to put some lubricant on my finger, insert it in the opening, and rub it around the inside edges. After that it slipped in with ease and I explained, "It just wasn’t enough lube. You had to use more lube." I gave it three screws and was finished. Btw, the headlight on the van is working now.

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Out of Electrons

[n.b. This first draft is riddled with typos.]

The first statement everyone makes when you tell them you drive an electric car (an ev) is "I could never drive one of those. They don’t go far enough." The truth of the matter is they do go far enough and once you start driving one range anxiety is laughable. The next thing out of their mouths is the question "how long does that take to charge?" I answer with the 120V numbers of trickle charging 11-22 hours, 220V recommended charging is 2-4 hours, and 440V charging gets a full charge in 30-40 minutes. They respond, "I can gas up in 5 minutes and gas is everywhere." The 220V chargers are fairly prolific but you have to know what you are looking for and that’s where I made my mistake last night. I drove past the charger.

The naysayers of electric vehicles really are just making excuses. It’s a comfort zone thing. They are used to having their internal combustion engines and gas stations. Truth of the matter is we have all run out of gas before. Or been down to fumes praying the next exit on the interstate has a gas station that is open. We’ve all borrowed a can of gas to make it to the gas station. I was in the car with a friend whose car ran out of fuel in a dangerous curve. A policeman pulled up, opened his hood, picked a coke bottle up off the ground, fished a tube out of the engine and put 40 ounces of fuel in the car so my friend could get to the gas station. Until then, I didn’t know that feature was built into a police cruiser.

What happened?

I have not gone to the expense of installing a 220V charger at the house so we trickle charge over night. We get about an 88 mile range on the car which is great for daily commuting and most of the things we do in our lives. We’ve even taken our Nissan Leaf to the entrance of the Smokey’s so we could go tubing in Townsend with no problem. Next year, Nissan will release a new EV with a 200 mile range and Telsa will release a less expensive version of their car with a 300 mile range. Those ranges are comparable to any ICE (internal combustion engine) and when you factor in the power of those direct drive motors, the lack of maintenance (all I have to do is rotate tires and change break pads…that’s it!), the quiet of the car, the lack of a fuel bill, and the pleasure of driving them, we will see more and more EVs on the road. Since we trickle charge, after a day of heavy use, we might wake to an incomplete charge. Yesterday, we began with a 50 mile range and a long list of errands.

I begin heavy driving days by looking at the map of chargers. This is not dissimilar to planning a road trip in the 70s. Yesterday, I knew we would be near the Cracker Barrel with a 440V charger and thought we might take a 30 minute snack break there but we didn’t. When our errands were done, we had not hit any chargers and I said to the wife, "We need to go to Calhouns and have appetizers or drinks for half an hour before going to the in-laws." We didn’t. I said, "We have enough charge to make it to the in-laws but we will have to plug in at their house." I looked for an extension cord only to find it being used in the boys’ room. I said, "Shut down your computers and give me the extension cord." The boys whined. The wife said, "Granddaddy will have an extension cord." We drive to the in-laws and I as my son, the 18 year old who starts college next week, to plug in the car. A bit later I decide to check on it only to find it not charging. After 15 minutes of fiddling and manual reading, I decide to plug into a different outlet. Upon unplugging the extension cord, I find the ground plug has been broken off. Of course the car circuitry will not attempt a charge on a non-grounded system. My disbelief that my son who wants to study physics and chemistry doesn’t know better leaves me feeling like a failure of a father. I see another extension cord and they are all broken. My choices? Have someone follow me to Cracker Barrel (4.1 miles away with 3 miles on the battery) or I could drive to Home Depot and buy an extension cord (this, I should have done!). Granddaddy insists on fixing his cord and steals the 18 year old away. Light begins to fade and I decide to leave the 18 year old but he shows up just as we were pulling away…good thing, I ended up needing him to push the car.

I had a plan: Go shopping. While shopping, get some juice.
I had a backup plan: Charge the car over drinks.
I had a backup backup plan: Charge the car at the grandparent’s house.
I had a backup backup backup plan: Charge the car at Victor Ashe Park.
I had a Hail Mary: Charge the car at Cracker Barrel (taking the wife and two bashful adult boys into the neighboring Hooters for half an hour would have been amusing).

My first plan of charging while shopping failed and I had not really counted on it anyway. Most businesses have not yet caught onto the fact that providing charging to customers will pull customers in. We went to Costco yesterday to inquire about membership. The salesperson repeated proudly, "and you get discounted gas" over and over. I wanted to say, "I don’t care about your gas. Why don’t you have an electric charger?" Thursday, when Cathy and I went to see the opening of Guardians of the Galaxy, we didn’t need a charge but I paid Calhouns $3 to use their charger to top off the car while we watched the movie…because it was convenient. Right now I split my grocery shopping between Fresh Market, Earthfare, Kroger, and Publix. The first one of those businesses that realizes they should provide a charger will probably win the lion’s share of my grocery shopping. EVs en masse are coming rapidly and businesses are completely missing the boat as they install more gas stations. Petrol stations are going the way of the dinosaur. I truly can’t remember the last time I pumped gas. Businesses need to install electric charging stations and they need to do it in parking spaces closest to the entrance. Mark my words!

My backup plan was to have drinks at Calhouns but we dillydallied at the house. Nonetheless, we still stopped at West Hills Park and took a 15 minute charge. We should have made it a 30 minute charge as planned. Hindsight.

The backup backup plan was to charge at the grandparents. Haven’t relented on taking my own extension cord, we arrived, as described above, only to find no available extension cords. Acting against my gut once again, I did not take the car to a charging station nor did I go buy an extension cord. Can you guess why I’m buying and leaving in the spare tire compartment? Yes, a very long extension cord dedicated to the Leaf!

The car now reported 3 miles on the batter. Cracker Barrel was 4.1 miles away so it was the Hail Mary. Had I gone straight there, I think we could have charged at Cracker Barrel while having drinks at Hooters and giggling as the boys struggled to look and not look at the waitresses. That didn’t happen of course. The backup backup backup plan ended up being Victor Ashe Park. We made it! The park was open. The two chargers glowed like lighthouses in the night. One was flashing out of order. The other looked like it was going to work but when I plugged in it declared "Electrical fault: Charging station will reset in 15 minutes." I pressed the button on the steering wheel to locate nearby charging stations and Copper Cellar popped up 1.1 miles away. Where was a Copper Cellar 1.1 miles from Victor Ashe Park? My curiosity piqued and my hopes rose.

The new backup backup backup backup plan became the Copper Cellar (still could have drinks!). With three dashes where numbers usually tell me how many miles I have left and Hal chanting loudly, "You aren’t going to make it Dave" but in a woman’s voice using the words, "Extremely low battery charge. Find a charging station now." I drove off into what quickly became an industrial park of offices in chain length fence. I knew exactly where I was. I hidden treasure trove of Knoxville’s restaurant industry’s corporate offices and supplies houses (you can get some killer kitchenware here). I panicked. I presumed the chargers were behind a fence for employees. I failed to read my app that said the charging stations were available 24/7 for Blink customers. As I rounded a corner I looked down at the dashboard map and compared it to my phone to calculate the most direct route to Cracker Barrel. Looking down, I failed to see the two available charging stations glowing brightly like beacons in the light. Angels sang. Daylight penetrated the night illuminating the stations. And we drove right past them. The director looked dejected. Coughed. Signaled the angels to stop their chorus. Apologized the the crew and asked them to reset the set in hopes that some other moron in an electric car would come by within the next year. Three tenths of a mile later, a turtle appeared on the dashboard. A message said, "Motor power limited." And the car died. The Holy Grail of Cracker Barrel and Hooters was a mere 2.3 miles away. The boys pushed the car onto a busy road and I rapid costed away from them to park in Hell on Earth…the Weigel’s at Pleasant Ridge Rd and Wilson Rd. They offered the plug by the ice machine as long as I didn’t unplug their ice machine. I unplugged their ice machine and 40 minutes later gave up and called a tow truck.

I learned several things in the next hour of my life.

  1. Statefarm roadside assistance doesn’t know what an electric car is.
  2. Nissan doesn’t list the number for their roadside assistance anywhere but once you find it the NoGas roadside assistant is awesome!
  3. Cracker Barrel turns off their chargers when they close.
  4. Apparently I should be carrying a gun.

I got towed twice last night. Something I had assured myself I would never allow to happen once. As an evangelist for electric cars, I’m embarrassed. As someone who made choices against his gut feelings, I’m irritated. As a moron who drove right past his salvation, I’m angry at myself. Overall, it made a great story and I am laughing at it. Plus I’m motivated to install a 220V charger at the house now.

While trying to arrange a tow with Statefarm, my phone announces its low battery. I pull my Energizer portable battery out of my Scottevest and it is dead too. Can this evening get more ironic?! I tell the boys to get their uncle to pick them up and Statefarm arranges to send a tow truck at no expense within the hour. My son hugs me and I’m left to enjoy the heavy bass, tire squeals, wafts of cigarette smoke, and overhear talks of drug deals, and prostitution arrangements. Okay, perhaps I embellish slightly.

Cathy has left her phone with a better charge with me and I eventually find Nissan’s Roadside Assistance number. They check my vin and tell me of a wealth of benefits I am entitled including towing me to the nearest charger (plus 50 miles…which means the house) at no charge to me. Is this a one time deal? No. Whenever I need it. But the Statefarm tow driver arrives with his flatbed as I am speaking to Nissan so I tell them, "next time."

The tow driver quirks his head, "Can you get it in neutral?" We discuss options: 1) My house with the difficult driveway 2) the mystery charger three tenths a mile away or 3) Cracker Barrel next door to boobies and beer. He says that is close to his house and he is on his last run. We arrive at Cracker Barrel and unload the car only to find that the chargers are inactive. They don’t operate from 11pm-6am (only during Cracker Barrel’s business hours) WHY?! We stare at the map and decide to try the industrial park. Sure enough, there they are…and working. The driver unloads the car. Wishes me well. They turns and asks, "Are you carrying protection?" He meant a gun. I answered, "No." He replies, "You really should carry protection." I play the game, "I don’t have my permit yet." He answers, "It’s really not hard to get. You gonna be okay?" "Yes." He looks east, "I think they’ve gated it but I’d get out of here as quickly as possible if I were you.&quot And he drove away.

I spend 40 minutes charging my car, my phone and myself (with a little chanting), and I played a lot of World of Tanks Blitz because I’d left my book, I Am Pilgram, at home by mistake. I am a pilgram in the electric vehicle world. I’m an early adopter. I understand the risks and I embrace the adventure! No regrets.

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I welcome our robotic overlords!

Remember when I said that within 5 years (10 at the worst) we would see driverless vehicles on the road and the decline of private transportation? The side affects will be narrower roads, no traffic lights, no signage, interstates without barriers and numbers of lanes determined by need, and best of all no more parking lots.

My estimate of 5 years was a little conservative. Try 5 months.

The UK government has announced that driverless cars will be allowed on public roads from January next year.

[Source, BBC, News Technology

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Megabus status – the deep blue sea

Megabus status: My 9 year old traveling companion decided a trip to the water closet was in order. My only experience to allow me preconceptions is airplane lavatories with their tight confines, lack of sound proofing for the nearby passengers, and sucking whoosh of the blue cleansing of the stainless steel bowl. I sent the youth in first and am glad he returned. The Megabus lavatory compared to an airplane is rather spacious with white polished fiberglass surfaces not dissimilar to my home bath. This one in particular was remarkably clean. The big difference is that the Megabus toilet resembles a portapotty where the airplane has a stainless steel bowl with a flap that opens upon flushing to let you play bombardier and pretend you’ve just launched something on the unsuspecting persons 30000 feet below the bus instead has the same stainless steel but the opening is large enough to lose a child to the sloshing blue sea of yuck.

In other news, the driver read about my how pleased I was with the air conditioning and turned on the heater.

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Megabus status

Journey underway. Despite being second in line only 2 of the 4 front seats secured. In other news, we scored 2 front seats! The bus is clean. Windshield not cracked and almost perfectly clear. Air conditioning is working (knock on wood). I even have an empty seat beside me. The only negative thus far is that apparently they were out of shock absorbers and had to install pogo sticks instead about as long as you hold your arms up in the air and scream “wheeee” it’s really not that bad.

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Megabus Status

The natives were satiated by the impromptu stop. Peace found between the clans. Giddiness resuscitated as a rail line appeared simultaneously indicating our close proximity to the promised land as well as an alternative yet perhaps only slightly less hellish means of transport.

Mild skirmishes threaten to erupt as Lower and Upper pushed to rapidly exit the now mobile roaming realm bringing back ancestral memories of our youthful days and fights during the Great Eternal Drive. But as the rush of cool, exhaust filled, urine tainted, dead rat stinking air inflated our withered lungs, love grew again between the clans for we survived The Ordeal.

Luggage retrieved, I turn to my wife, “We should try an Uber!”