Why we can’t have nice things

If you can’t even find the car, how are you going to care for a robot?  

October 08, 2015

In’text’icated driving

We all know how distracting smartphones can be in cars, especially after an AT&T study this past May showed that drivers are doing more than texting behind the wheel—they’re also browsing the web, checking email, and even video chatting.

Well, police in Marietta, Ga., have had enough, so in July they launched a unique undercover operation to catch distracted drivers.

Police officers dressed up as construction workers and meandered around cars at a busy intersection pretending to take survey readings. But in reality, they were peeking inside those cars looking for distracted drivers. 

When they found one, they radioed ahead to a patrol car that would then pull over the unsuspecting motorist and issue a $150 ticket.

Many of the drivers who were busted said that they didn’t realize the state texting ban applied to motorists stopped at a traffic light.   

Ironically, in Georgia it is legal for police to text or even operate their computers while driving.

Dude, where’s my car?

A retired man in Norway either has terrible searching skills, or the best pickup line ever. 

Björn Brandvold was driving home to Oslo when he stopped in the German city of Hanover to visit a bank. 

He wanted to withdraw money but had to walk to multiple banks before finding one that could help him. By the time he had his cash, Brandvold, 78, realized that he had no idea how to get back to his car.

So he started looking. And looking and looking. A week went by. Then two. At some point he met Gertrud, a 73-year-old local who not only helped him search, but also gave him a place to sleep. (Mmm-hmm.)

Eventually the story got picked up by local media, and three weeks of hunting finally came to an end when a newspaper reader found the car parked near her home. 

”I must have walked really far that night,” Brandvold told German newspaper Bild. ”I would have never searched there.” (Mmm-hmm.)

Perfect strangers

Can a pint-sized robot with a limited vocabulary manage to hitchhike cross-country relying entirely on the kindness of strangers?

That’s what Canadian researchers wanted to find out when they created hitchBOT last year.

Forget the Terminator or RoboCop—this android was designed to look as unthreatening as possible. Assembled for just $1,000, hitchBOT stood 3 ft tall and featured an old beer cooler bucket for a torso, blue pool noodles for limbs, and a square head with an LED smiley face protected by a clear cylinder. 

It sported yellow Wellington boots and matching gardening gloves, and its middle was wrapped in solar panels which powered its computerized “brain.” 

hitchBOT’s first social experiment began last July when its inventors placed it on the shoulder of a highway outside Halifax with its hitch thumb pointed high. 

Over the next 26 days, hitchBOT hitched 19 rides and traveled over 6,000 miles before reaching its target destination of Vancouver.  

Since hitchBOT was unable to move on its own and traveled alone, helpful humans had to physically lift the 25-lb robot into their vehicles and buckle it in. At the end of the ride, drivers would often pass hitchBOT to other travelers or leave it where others would easily notice it.

hitchBOT was programmed to carry on a limited conversation with its human companions using text-to-speech software. It also was equipped with GPS and 3G wireless connectivity that allowed it to post updates of its location on the Internet.

After its successful trek across Canada, hitchBOT spent this past February exploring Germany, followed by a vacation in the Netherlands in June.

After a year of travels that included attending a wedding, meeting Santa Claus, flying on an airplane, and even spending a week with a heavy metal band, hitchBOT was ready to tackle its biggest adventure yet: the U.S.

On July 17, hitchBOT set off from Salem, Mass., with a note taped to its head reading “San Francisco or Bust.”

Things started well in Boston where hitchBOT took in a Red Sox baseball game and was briefly taken to sea. 

But somewhere along the line hitchBOT fell in with the wrong crowd. Just two weeks into its journey, hitchBOT was found beheaded on the side of a road in Philadelphia, dismembered and disemboweled. 

While heartbroken, hitchBOT’s creators promise to keep the project alive. Like they say, sometimes bad things just happen to good robots. R&B

David Matthews

David Matthews has been chronicling the unexpectedly humorous side of transportation news for his Roads Report column since 2000. The stories are all true.

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