2195: Dockless Roombas
Title text: The company started out exploiting a loophole in the law banning scooters. The city was mad at first, but then they noticed how much they were saving on street cleaning.
In this comic Cueball discovers two Roombas outside, and Megan explains that they are dockless Roombas for rent. Cueball is confused, but then Beret Guy walks in, activates one with an app on his smartphone, and rides away standing on it.
A Roomba is a small automated (robotic) vacuum cleaner designed to clean a room or other bounded area by repeatedly and automatically going over the floor, vacuuming, until it has made multiple passes, and either runs low on power or is turned off. The "intelligence" of various models can vary from relatively random operation with basic techniques to get around obstacles, to models that generate a general mental map of the area and contents and attempt to be deliberate in passing over all reachable areas. A Roomba generally includes a recharging "dock", which it can find and automatically connect with when it gets low on power, allowing it to recharge and perhaps automatically begin another round of cleaning. Roombas are a recurring theme on xkcd. In 1193: Externalities it was Ponytail that drove a Roomba. And in 1486: Vacuum Beret Guy flew on a regular vacuum cleaner.
A dockless scooter is a system of sharing personal scooters whereby they can be left anywhere for someone else to use, rather than returned to a particular home location. They are typically activated via a smartphone app. The term "dockless" in the name refers to the fact they have no predefined home, or place to dock. Like a Roomba, they do need recharging, but no special station is needed for that -- anyone can pick them up and recharge them overnight from a standard power outlet, receiving a fee from the scooter company for this service. In the past several years they have become popular in many large cities around the world. Scooters have recently been featured in 2188: E Scooters.
The humor here is replacing the scooters with Roombas, which people would then ride. There are multiple problems with this idea:
- A Roomba is not powerful enough for someone to ride. At best, a small animal like a cat or squirrel might be able to ride atop one.
- A Roomba has small wheels and is designed for relatively flat and uniform surfaces. Even if a person could successfully ride on one, sidewalks have cracks and unevenness and bumps which would lead to a rough ride with lots of opportunities to get stuck. (But riding Roombas has come up on xkcd before, in the Externalities comic)
- A Roomba requires a way to recharge its batteries and, unladen, generally runs for an hour or so before it needs to be recharged. That is why it always comes with a dock. Dockless would imply it would not have a way to recharge. With a heavy load like a human, one would expect the run time to be drastically less.
- The cleaning capabilities of a Roomba require that it be confined to a bounded area and that it go over the surfaces to be cleaned in multiple passes. A "free range" Roomba would not be very effective at cleaning.
- A Roomba's dirt canister is quite small and needs to be emptied when it fills up. This would happen quite quickly if it were operated on streets and sidewalks.
The title text refers to the controversy in many cities surrounding dockless scooters, which can be dangerous to pedestrians when in use and can block sidewalks and driveways when not. Dockless scooters were introduced in many cities before there were any regulations about scooter use, with some critics claiming scooters exploited loopholes in existing law and regulation, and leading some cities to pass legislation to specifically ban or curtail the use of dockless scooters. Here it is the Roombas that exploit loopholes in those scooter laws, which initially bothers city officials before they realize the positive benefit of the Roombas cleaning their streets as they are ridden.
- [Cueball and Megan walk in from the right and sees two Roombas on the ground in front of them.]
- Cueball: Are those... Roombas?
- Megan: Yeah, the dockless rental apps have really taken off.
- [Cueball stops and turns to look at Megan, who has also stopped, as Beret Guy comes walking in from the left with his smartphone in his hand.]
- Cueball: What?
- [As Cueball and Megan turn to look at Beret Guy, he stops between the two Roombas, looking down at the Roomba to his left. He taps his smartphone and the Roomba makes a sound.]
- Smartphone: Tap tap
- Roomba: Unlock
- [Beret Guy is squatting down on the Roomba as it drives him away, while Cueball and Megan turns to stare after him,]
- Roomba: Whirrrr
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