Tag Archives: autonomous vehicles

Cars: Electric Soon, Self-driving Later – 1/16/17

The auto industry is facing not one but two revolutionary changes in the near future: electric vehicles and self-driving cars.

As cheaper batteries, lighter materials, and more powerful electric motors continue to improve the range and lower the price of electric vehicles, analysts are at the point of predicting an impending wave of electrification in the automotive industry.

Right now, makers of electric vehicles might be taking a risk accommodating the still costly technology, but in 10 years price and regulations could make electric the only viable option in the market.

But while electric vehicles are largely the same as vehicles on the road today, autonomous cars are only being tested in populated areas in recent years and face heavy scrutiny from regulators and the general public.

Still, the massive investments traditional car companies and the nontraditional businesses are making in the technology suggest that seeing self-driving cars in daily life is inevitable. Uber has been testing self-driving cars in Pittsburgh; Waymo, the self-driving car unit spin off from Google, is teaming up with Chrysler; Ford is extending Chariot, the van-sharing service; and the examples go on and on.

The benefits of the technology are simply too great for businesses to ignore, especially for companies interested in providing ride hailing services. For Uber and Lyft, replacing drivers with computers would reduce the cost of taxi services immensely and create a cheap car service that could be available at all hours. No more worrying about background checks, unions, or all the other expenses that come with hiring people.

And as Uber, Lyft and their competitors push for fully autonomous ride-hailing services that cut out the cost of human drivers, they are set to speed the adoption of electric cars as well. Electric cars beat out conventional ones for a number of reasons including fuel-cost savings, easier and safer automated refueling, and better compatibility with computer systems.

Autonomous technology will be restricted to urban areas for at least the next few years and could take decades to reach the country where mapping roads is more difficult. Still, whenever cars that drive themselves take off, car makers have made it clear they want a part of the business.

Between electrification and autonomous capabilities, the future of the personal vehicle is at a turning point. What that means for drivers, car companies, and society in general will be interesting to see.

Waymo: Google’s Contribution to Self-Driving Cars – 12/30/16

After seven years in development, Google’s self-driving car project has spun off from parent Alphabet Inc. and become its own entity: Waymo.

With John Krafcik serving as chief executive officer, Waymo won’t be selling cars so much as the brains to make them drive themselves. Waymo’s autonomous technology will be sold commercially for a variety of uses, according to Krafcik, the most prominent example being a ride-sharing service using Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ minivans. The program is expected to begin around the end of 2017.

Waymo’s partnership with Chrysler is one of many examples of car makers embracing driver-less car technology. Tesla Motors Inc., BMW, Ford Motor Co., and Volvo have all promised fully autonomous cars will arrive within five years. General Motors Co., Daimler AG, Toyota Motor Corp., and Volkswagen AG’s Audi luxury line have also invested billions into developing their own autonomous vehicles. In Pittsburgh, Uber Technologies Inc. has begun a test using autonomous Volvo sport-utility vehicles as robot taxis. Auto supplier Delphi Automotive PLC and startup NuTonomy Inc. have robo-taxi tests started in Singapore.

While there is plenty of debate over what the threshold of “self-driving” actually looks like, there is no doubt that the technology is expected to have a huge impact on the automotive industry and society as a whole.

Boston Consulting Group predicts the value of the autonomous vehicle industry will increase to $42 billion by 2025 and account for a quarter of global sales by 2035. Proponents of the technology suggest that urban congestion and road deaths would be dramatically reduced as robot drivers never get drunk, sleepy, or distracted, and can let you out while they search for a parking spot on their own.

Waymo is only one fish in a sea of companies looking to profit from a self-driving vehicle revolution; however, its spinning off from Alphabet may be a sign that the industry ready to come into the spotlight.

Self-Driving Cars: Semantics and Reality – 10/26/16

Depending on who you ask, self-driving cars are either already here or decades away. The reason for this is the existence of many different degrees of autonomy.

Today, a one-lane highway autonomy program in Japan shows an early degree. By removing many of the variables that would otherwise add too much complexity for today’s computers, the ProPILOT technology amounts to what many would call “self-driving”. Optimistic observers would then point to the operations of Uber in Pittsburgh as “urban driving”, a significant advancement signaling more to come before 2020.

Yet, this is different from the truly driverless car.

Ford Motor Co., BMW AG, Volvo Car Corp. and Lyft Inc. all say they will produce fully autonomous vehicles by 2021 or sooner. And while such claims are not technically false, they play fast and loose with the reality of the technology for the sake of hype.

To quote a few experts in the field:

Mary Cummings, a professor of engineering at Duke University, told WSJ, a fully autonomous car “operates by itself under all conditions, period.” She adds, “We’re a good 15 to 20 years out from that.”

Chris Urmson of Google’s self-driving car project told the SXSW conference that “self-driving technology will arrive for some of us in a few years, and for the rest of us in 30. That is, it could arrive soon for very specific uses; but as a full-bore replacement for humans, it will take a long time.”

“I always remind people we’ve had driverless vehicles carrying people between terminals at an airport for 40 years,” says Steven Shladover, manager of the Partners for Advanced Transportation Technology program at the University of California, Berkeley. “But they’re operating in a very well protected right of way.”

So there are some nuances that should be addressed.

Driverless vehicles have existed for a while, but not in a form most people would notice or care about.

If you want to take a taxi sans driver around Pittsburgh or some other open-minded major metropolitan area, then you have the chance to do so as part of one of the several test programs going on.

If you want your own car to carry you around the city, Ford, for example, has said it would release such a car by 2021… but only in the portion of major cities where the company can create and regularly update its 3-D street maps. Volvo, Lyft, GM, and Israel’s Mobileye NV will impose similar geographic limits on their self-driving vehicles.

If you want your car to drive itself just about anywhere you could drive it yourself, you’ll probably have to wait a couple decades or at least until 2030.

The reality is that, for now, “self-driving” cars will primarily have autonomous features like the ability to maintain a safe following distance, change lanes and stop in an emergency. Of course, someone just trying to get around the city wouldn’t care that their self-driving taxi can’t make a cross country road trip. As it comes closer to the driverless ideal, self-driving technology will save lives and change the world for the better regardless of the semantics behind what makes a car truly autonomous.

Computer Take the Wheel – 9/23/16

For all the good self-driving vehicles are likely to do, they might only be able to reach their full potential if no humans are allowed behind the wheel.

Proponents of the technology, one of which is the Federal government, see it dramatically reducing the 1.25 million roadway fatalities a year globally. They base this on the fact human error is the cause of 94% of such deaths thus it should be removed. Since robot drivers never get drunk, sleepy or distracted and have “superhuman intelligence” that allows them to see around corners and avoid crashes, the line of reasoning seems solid.

Google’s self-driving car project is developing cars without steering wheels and gas or brake pedals specifically because testing showed how poorly human-computer mixes do relative to the computer acting alone. In 2012, Google let employees test a partially autonomous system for automated highway driving only to find that human drivers were incapable of reacting quickly and safely when they assumed the car was in control. The testing led the company to pursue full autonomy, even if it took longer.

Ford agreed with that sentiment during an announcement that the company would begin selling self-driving taxis with no steering wheel or pedals in 2021.

Of course, not everyone is comfortable with the idea of turning over control. According to a July survey of 2,500 consumers by Altman Vilandrie & Co., a Boston-based consultant, almost two-thirds of U.S. consumers believe self-driving cars are dangerous with more than half of those surveyed saying they would refuse to ride in a self-driving car.

That opposition may soften as more drivers become more familiar with semi-autonomous features, such as automatic braking and advanced cruise control systems, or try out a self-driving Lyft taxi, the majority of which are expected to be autonomous within five years, according to the company’s co-founder and president, John Zimmer.

In the end, governments may give financial incentives or insurance companies could charge a higher premium for manually operating a car, but it remains challenging goal to convince hundreds of millions of human drivers that they’d be better off with a computer at the wheel.

Racing Towards Autonomous Vehicles – 9/22/16

In spite of years of more experience, Google has yet to launch an autonomous vehicle service to match the practical, less-ambitious programs of rivals like Uber.

Google’s project started in 2009, the same year Uber Technologies Inc. was founded, but it is Uber that recently let users hail autonomous Volvo SUVs in Pittsburgh. Many companies are also offering partially autonomous features in their vehicles like the “auto-pilot” Tesla puts in some of its electric cars.

Part of Uber’s success can be attributed to having more data. Since its service is tied to the smartphones, it has access to significantly more of the driving data used to guide self-driving vehicles. Google could do something similar to commercialize its software by providing it to existing manufacturers or a ride-sharing service. So far, it has not. It struck a deal in May with Fiat Chrysler, but that only to put its software in 100 minivans and talks with other car companies have yet to produce high-volume agreements.

Tech giants, car-makers, and autoparts suppliers are all in the race to develop the hardware and software of tomorrow’s self-driving vehicle.

Many car-makers are pursuing their own self-driving strategies. For example, General Motors Co. has bought out a self-driving software startup and invested $500 million in ride-sharing service Lyft Inc., in hopes of creating its own autonomous vehicle service. In 2017 Volvo, already coordinating with Uber, will test self-driving cars with ordinary motorists as volunteers. And Ford has said it would launch a fully-autonomous car, without steering wheel or pedals, for car-sharing schemes by 2021. Unfortunately for parts-makers, such deals often cut them out of the equation as car-makers invest in in-house production.

Yet, the biggest profits are likely to come from the “operating system” that integrates software and the mechanical parts of the car. And in this area, tech giants like Google still have huge advantages. Uber may be getting more data from its ride sharing fleet, but Google is ahead in machine-learning, the key component in ensuring a car wouldn’t need a driver.

Still, despite having the most experience and most advanced technology, Google’s reluctance tackle early opportunities for application may be giving other companies the chance to take the inside lane on commercializing the technology.

New Guidelines for Self-Driving Cars – 9/21/16

The Obama administration has revealed the guidelines for self-driving cars that tech and auto industry leaders have been waiting for.

The Transportation Department has already allowed exemptions to some rules for the purpose of testing of autonomous vehicles, such as, the case of considering Google’s AI system to be a driver. The new guidelines go a step further in order to address contradictory regulations at the state level.

The guidelines were left intentionally vague compared to the safety requirements imposed on standard human-driven vehicles to allow flexibility, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Though they give NHTSA oversight of the software technology used in driverless cars, states would continue to regulate driver’s licenses, car registrations, traffic laws, insurance and legal liabilities.

The policy gives suggestions rather than a hard legal framework. Still, the recommendations give auto makers and technology companies a firmer sense of regulators’ expectations since they amount to an official endorsement of automated car technology. Mark Rosekind, NHTSA’s administrator, has said self-driving cars are crucial to addressing human error, which the agency estimates is a factor in 94% of fatal car crashes and responsible for almost 35,000 deaths in the U.S. last year.

Now regulators will need to balance optimism and the commercial interests of developers with concerns over public safety. To accomplish that much, the new guidelines targeted four main areas: a 15-point safety standard for the design and development covering safety features, privacy, digital security, communication between cars and drivers, and more; a call for states to come up with uniform policies; clarification on current regulations; and openness for new regulations. The Department of Transportation also reiterated its authority to recall any vehicles found to be unsafe.

Overall, the government’s endorsement is expected to speed up the rollout of fully-autonomous cars. Uber is already testing driverless cars in Pittsburgh, while General Motors Co. and Uber rival Lyft have discussed running a fleet of self-driving Chevrolet Bolt electric taxis. Tesla and other car makers are also working with the technology though they have so far kept to more conservative semi-autonomous features.

All this puts pressure on urban planners and insurers. Only about 6% of cities have considered the effect of driverless cars in their long-term planning, according to a survey last year by the National League of Cities. Meanwhile, auto insurers are trying to figure out what impact autonomous vehicles will have on their business models. KPMG actuaries, for example, estimated an 80% drop in the U.S. accident-frequency rate by 2040.

Regardless of who wins in November, the guidelines will likely be kept in place to provide at least a little stability and support for a promising technology.

Self-Driving Ships: (No) Sailors OverBoard – 9/6/16

Self-driving cars may get more attention in the news, but their cousins in the water are also threatening a revolution in nautical transport.

Increases in offshore bandwidth are allowing ship designers, their operators, and regulators to plan for a future in which cargo vessels sail the oceans with the most minimal of skeleton crews: the ship itself. Ship operators believe more automation will enable them to optimize ship use, including cutting fuel consumption, by removing equipment and living quarters needed by sailors.

British engine maker Rolls-Royce Holdings PLC is leading the Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications initiative. It foresees the potential to use technologies developed for self-driving cars and airlines to improve ships and allow for autonomous operations on open seas. Much like driverless vehicles on land, unmanned ships would use infrared detectors, high-resolution cameras and laser sensors to monitor their surroundings and send data to command centers. Oskar Levander, vice president for innovation at Rolls-Royce’s marine unit, claimed that unmanned shipping could cut transport costs by 22%, mostly due to lower labor costs and greater fuel efficiency.

Testing has already begun. The Stella ferry has been equipped with sensors to test the concept of autonomous operation and next-generation satellite fleets are set to make ship-to-shore data transfers cheaper than ever. Inmarsat PLC recently launched its Fleet Xpress service aimed at that purpose.

Automating shipping faces safety, security, navigational and legal challenges in crewless container ships, though. Currently, the International Maritime Organization, the UN body overseeing global shipping, prohibits ship operations without crew, and defends the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea requiring all ships to be “sufficiently and efficiently manned.”

Safety rules for nautical transport have changed over time in response to new technologies like electronic charts and automatic identification systems, but it is unclear how new rules will account for security issues like piracy and the rescue of distressed ships.

An operational proof-of-concept ship likely won’t appear sooner than 2020 with industry-wide use of self-driving ships is not expected until at least 2030. Still, it looks as though the days of ghost ships criss-crossing the seas is not too far off.

Self-Driving Trucks: How Close, How Fast – 9/2/16

The arrival of self-driving trucks will be a major source of cost-savings for companies and consumers as well as a major source of anxiety for the drivers the technology is intended to replace.

The stakes are undoubtedly high as the American Trucking Association reported that the trucking industry brought in revenues of over $700 billion in 2014, but what exactly would the change entail and how close are we to seeing computerized truck drivers displace human ones?

Well, on one hand you have cheaper shipping, safer roads, and more fuel efficient driving practices as autonomous trucks operate for longer hours without the incentive to drive as quickly or recklessly. Today, labor represents around 75% of the cost of shipping a full truckload from L.A. to New York. Reducing the cost of labor would mean savings for shippers who would then pass on some of those savings to consumers. In addition, computer systems don’t need to rest at night so they can drive at slower, more fuel efficient speeds while reaching their destinations faster.

On the other hand, you have the loss of one of America’s most common jobs. The trucker and many others would see direct harm to their livelihood and they would no longer help sustain countless motels, restaurants, and other support industries. Cheaper goods and shipping don’t really match up to a stable, well-paying job.

It would be a difficult choice to make from a compassionate standpoint, but businesses usually don’t stay compassionate long after costs of a disruptive technology fall and they need it to stay competitive. Thus, many are testing the technology. In the mining sector, Rio Tinto is already using them in its Australia operations, and Volvo will soon begin testing its own self-driving truck at a mine in Sweden. Outside mining, Uber has acquired Otto, a startup working on retrofitting trucks to add autonomous capabilities, in its own attempt to break into the trucking industry presumably leveraging its existing work with self-driving cars.

Trucks are a prime target for automation because they offer significant cost savings from greater efficiency and labor cost reduction. Yet, for now, technology and regulations often require a driver and a humans are still better navigators on smaller, trickier roads in urban areas. Driving on highways is easier to automate since speeds are consistent, pedestrians are absent, and there are fewer corners to create blind spots. Though the transition to fully-autonomous fleets will not happen over night, there are some features to automate driving on highways would allow vehicles to travel for longer hours, consume less fuel, and operate more safely while keeping a human in the driver’s seat. Otto, now owned by Uber, will sell its kit by around 2020 at a cost of $30,000 and even that needs a human in the cab.

The truly large cost savings will come when drivers are replaced completely; however, the day that computers take the wheel without direct supervision is still many years away.

Companies Racing to Ready Self-Driving Car Tech – 9/1/16

Thanks to the rapidly falling cost of sensors, companies in the automotive and tech sectors are now racing to get on the ground floor of a self-driving car revolution. For this article, I’ll just be listing off some of the recent developments in the industry.

Volvo Car Corp. will begin its project in Sweden in 2017, while Nissan Motor Co. and Tesla Motors Inc. prepare to launch competing systems by 2020.

Google parent Alphabet Inc. recently said it would be partnering with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV to test its self-driving technology in minivans.

General Motors Co. plan includes buying a stake in ride-hailing startup Lyft Inc. and putting out a fleet of driverless Chevrolet Bolt taxis.

Meanwhile, Ford says it’s going to deliver self-driving cars by 2021 in volume, offering full Level 4 self-driving features though they will still be primarily aimed at ride-sharing programs and luxury car buyers until costs can be brought down.

Even top auto-parts suppliers Delphi Automotive PLC and Mobileye NV are working together to develop an autonomous driving system that car makers could begin installing in their vehicles as soon as 2019, though they say they will likely hit the market closer to 2021.

While manufacturers are planning to mass-produce self-driving cars by 2021, few expect them to replace personal transport close to that time given psychological and financial constraints. Ford company executives expect its first shipments to go to commercial-fleet operators looking to cut labor costs. Still, so long as the sensor technology keeps getting cheaper, it is only a matter of time before autonomous cars have the chance to go mainstream.

Self-Driving Taxis – 8/31/16

Self-driving taxis are starting to hit the roads in America and abroad as Uber and others try to move first on the new technology.

Uber is set to begin testing a fleet of 100 self-driving taxis in Pittsburgh, a city of busy streets, bridges, and snowfall. Real customers will hail the taxis with smartphones as the ride-sharing company plans to perfect the technology and cut labor costs. Many companies are working on their own autonomous vehicle programs, but Uber’s push is particularly aggressive, even with two trained safety drivers on each ride. The project is sure to draw attention and give customers a chance to become familiar with the new technology while also exposing any flaws to public scrutiny.

Proponents of self-driving vehicle use say that human error causes a vast majority of traffic deaths; however, regulators will need more data to be sure that the technology is the solution. So far Google’s fleet of 50 cars has already logged over 1 million miles without a fatal accident, according to the company, but it will take more than 100 million miles in real-world conditions and plenty of debate before U.S. regulators can start making significant moves. Still, the technology already has a strong lobbying effort on its side.

The U.S. is not the only place where autonomous vehicles are in development. In Singapore, self-driving taxis are already picking up passengers as the startup nuTonomy sought to beat Uber to the chase though at only six cars to Uber’s 100.

For now, the taxis are only running in a 2.5-square-mile business and residential district called “one-north,” and pick-ups and drop-offs are limited to specified locations. The cars, like Uber’s, have a trained driver as well as a researcher to monitor the car’s computers. Singapore also makes for a less intense testing environment due to its good weather, infrastructure, drivers, and supportive government.

With testing reaching into cities, self-driving taxis are near ready for commercial use so all that’s left is to see how customers react.

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