A Long, Long Away to go for Driverless Car and other Auto Tech News

The New York Times posted an article this week entitled: Despite High Hopes, Self-Driving Cars are ‘Way in the Future.” Indeed they are…something I’ve been saying ever since I started writing about the car of the future and auto tech.

Ford’s CEO Jim Hackett said in April, “We overestimated the arrival of autonomous vehicles.” The real reason: It is really hard!

Ford and Volkswagen announced last week that they are joining forces to work on AVs and electric vehicles together. The partnership goal is to bring AV ridesharing services to a few urban areas in 2021. Let’s not hold our breath.

Their partner in this idea is ARGO AI and chief executive Bryan Salesky who said the promise of driverless cars which could go anywhere anytime was ‘way in the future.’ He added that Argo and other competitors have developed about 80 percent of the technology needed for AVs (such as cameras, radar and sensors) but still need to develop and fine tune the software that can reliably drive in all circumstances.

Salesky added that there are two difficult areas to solve before AVs go mainstream. The first is developing the AI so it can handle the ‘corner cases”—instances that include pedestrians crossing the street even if the vehicle has the green and street sweepers making U-turns even if they don’t have the right away.

The other area of difficulty is called ‘micro maneuvers’…basically the building of experience in handling the nuances of driving. For example, a driver who edges into an intersection who might dart out and does…as a human driver, we generally can spot this before it happens. Same with a driver we as human drivers can tell is looking for a parking space. We make accommodations in our own driving to allow the driver the space to park.

The defined leader in the AV race is Waymo which currently operates a driverless fleet of 600 test vehicles, about the same number on the road as a year ago. Chief External Officer Tekedra Mawakana said this about the situation:

“The reason we don’t have a service in 50 states is that we are still validating a host of elements related to offering a service. Offering a service is very different than building a technology.”

Waymo currently operates their test vehicles in the Phoenix, Arizona area, land of plenty of sunshine and fairly good roads. European start-ups are now testing driverless vehicles in cities and streets that were built for horses—that will be the real test whether or not automated transportation can actually cut it.

Earlier this year, Tesla’s Elon Musk declared that his company would have as many as a million robo taxies by the end of 2020. Many are skeptical and rightly so. He also recently announced that his company would be providing Level 5 capabilities soon in an over-the-air update. According to an article in this week’s Washington Post, many industry executives and regulators are on edge because of Tesla’s unregulated auto pilot system that does not use LIDAR, the current standard for AV technology. Instead, Tesla will incorporate a custom-designed computer chip.

Currently, Musk claims that all new Teslas have the hardware to self-drive but the software still needs to catch up. And when it does, the company will then send that over-the-air update. The claim is that the cars will be able to drive in cities just as well as they already do on highways. Since there are no regulations, companies are guided by industry standards and Tesla is moving full steam ahead.

Please remember that we will have to drive with the auto pilot Teslas (and any other driverless vehicle) whether they are safe or not and whether we are ready or not.

Also this week, Tesla released its quarterly report on its auto pilot safety program. With this report, the company used a comparison between cars with the autopilot and cars without.

“In the 2nd quarter, we registered one accident for every 3.27 million miles driven in which drivers had Autopilot engaged. For those driving without Autopilot but with our active safety features, we registered one accident for every 2.19 million miles driven. For those driving without Autopilot and without our active safety features, we registered one accident for every 1.41 million miles driven. By comparison, NHTSA’s most recent data shows that in the United States there is an automobile crash every 498,000 miles.*

That seems pretty safe but why I am still feeling some anxiety?

Auto Tech Recent Short Takes

Luminar announced last week that it has developed a production-ready LIDAR that could cost as little as $500. The unit called IRIS is about the size of a soda can and weighs about 2 pounds. CEO Austin Russell says it’s “automotive grade” which means it can fit on a bumper or windshield and last for years on the road. Luminar just finished its latest round of funding and raised $250 million to help build capacity at its Florida manufacturing plant. Russell also stated that his company is currently working on six highway-driving focused projects with automakers. He projects that nothing will be ready for commercial vehicles until 2022 or 2023.

Perhaps by 2025, auto headlights will become smart and include sensors and AI chips. That’s according to Japanese company Koito Manufacturing. The lamps will be able to process information and react to certain situations such as poorly lit crossings, pedestrian signaling and even color alarms to alert other road users. A company spokesman said recently that they may no longer be seen as lamps but ‘corner modules.’

Trucking company Peloton announced this past week that it has configured and is now testing a level 4 driverless truck platooning system. Utilizing vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technology, a single driver would now be able to drive two trucks paired for connected driving. This improves aerodynamics, fuel economy and safety. CEO Josh Switkes said, “We’ve taken a different approach to commercial introduction of Class 8 vehicles. We see drivers as the world’s best sensors, and are leveraging this to enable today’s drivers to be more productive through automated following platoons.” He also stated that drivers who learn to use this technology would likely receive more pay, better routes and schedules.

Car and Driver reported this week that some car windows are harder to break in an emergency. AAA has published a new report that lists 21 pages worth of cars and trucks that have laminated side or rear glass that could not be broken with consumer breaking tools. This is important to note in case a driver and his or her passengers find themselves in a vehicle that is on fire or has plunged into a body of water.

If you read an auto tech story of interest, please send the URL to us at [email protected].

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