Use Your iPad to Call a Robot Taxi To Drive You Around Berlin!

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autonomous-taxi-berlin
Berlin's robot taxi is awesome to watch. Completely empty except for passengers.

In the future, not only will you not have to drive your car, you won’t even have to own it. Researchers at the Free University of Berlin have developed an autonomous taxi that can transport a passenger without a human in the driver’s seat. Not only that, but you can summon the taxi using just your iPad. GPS technology brings the robot car directly to the location of your mobile device, and lets you track the cab as it makes its way to you. Once in the taxi, you can use the iPad to set your destination. Then you just relax and enjoy the drive. Watch one of the developers, a student assistant named Arturo Reuschenbach, hitch a ride in the cab of the future in the video below. No matter how confident you are that your robot taxi won’t crash, you should always test it out with a guinea pig student in the back seat first.

It was only a few days ago that we covered Google’s massive announcement that they had built an autonomous fleet of cars and driven them more than 140,000 miles. While the demonstration of a robot taxi isn’t quite at that level of ground breaking news, it’s still pretty damn impressive… and it’s much cooler to watch. Google always has someone sitting in the driver’s seat when their cars go out on the road. I’m ten times as excited when I see the Berlin car driving completely empty, even if the two vehicles are practically accomplishing the same task.


A warning: I don’t think the www.autonomos-lab.de address referenced in the video is valid. Try http://autonomos.inf.fu-berlin.de/ instead.

The robot cab is part of the ongoing AutoNOMOS project at the Free University. Their first car, The Spirit of Berlin, had a great showing at DARPA’s Urban Challenge in 2007. Their newer robot car, Made in Germany, is the one used for the autonomous taxi project. Made in Germany comes complete with laser scanners, radar, internal sensors, and cameras to help it navigate. The iPad App seen in the video was developed in partnership with Appirion, and is an updated version of an earlier App called iDriver, which can let you steer a robot car using an iPhone.

I’m not making a big deal out of the “come pick me up” aspect of the robot taxi, because, in my opinion, it’s not really all that much different than what a robot car normally does. Sure, you’ve externalized the input for directions to come from a mobile device, but robot cars have always been heading to specific GPS coordinates. Don’t get me wrong, it’s looks completely awesome, and I would love to be able to use such a system. Technologically, however, it’s not that big of a leap forward.

For those of you who read my rant discussion about the recent Google autonomous car announcement, you’ll know that I don’t believe robot cars will be on our roads anytime soon. First, the technology is getting better, but it’s not quite up to human standards, and it can’t handle the same range of situations that human drivers experience. More importantly, the social and legal ramifications of having a machine controlling a deadly vehicle in a human environment haven’t been addressed. Court cases and insurance concerns will keep robot cars off the roads long after they can outperform humans behind the wheel. I’ve said all this before.

However, while watching the Made in Germany pick up Reuschenbach I realized that my arguments against the rapid adoption of robotic cars are very Americentric. Well, maybe Ameri-Euro-centric. Not everyone handles individual safety in the same legal manner as the US and EU. Major breakthroughs in robotic cars may be centered in the West, but relaxed legal systems, or more daring governments, may allow them to be first adopted in other nations. I could see China putting robot cars on the road as soon as they are technologically ready and simply dealing with social/legal concerns as they arise. I still think that lawsuits and debates over who is responsible for robotic car accidents will stall 100% autonomous cars from arriving in the US, but they could show up elsewhere sooner. It may take a huge drop in vehicle fatalities in these first-adoption countries to push the more litigious of us to protect their use with special laws and regulations. In any case, it’s still going to be a few more years before you’ll be hailing a robot taxi on your iPad in Berlin. Unless your name is Arturo. In which case you are the focus of all my techno-jealousy.

Man, riding in a robot car looks so cool!

[screen capture and video credit: AutoNOMOS]
[sources: AutoNOMOS, Appirion]