The Driverless Car Race continues at Breakneck Speed

Despite the first pedestrian accident between a driverless test car and a pedestrian on March 18, Waymo made a big announcement this week that it would purchase 20,000 Electric Jaguar I-Pace SUVs to create its fleet of ridesharing cars. After purchase, the vehicles will be fitted with components to make them driverless. Waymo expects that the fleet would be able to handle one million rides per day which would average about 50 rides per car per day. Waymo will continue to use Chrysler minivans as well.

Waymo has been testing cars without safety drivers for a number of months and has said that the company’s focus is on developing and deploying driverless technology rather than becoming an automaker. The plan is audacious enough to outplay Uber and Lyft, already established ridesharing services that have also been trying to develop driverless technology.

The Tempe, Arizona crash between an Uber autonomous 3 testing vehicle and pedestrian Elaine Herzberg was not only a tragedy for the victim’s family but also a major setback for Uber’s driverless car testing program. Uber has been desperate to put their ridesharing fleet on driverless status because they would like to keep the money the company currently pays out to its 600,000 drivers worldwide. This would free up 30 percent more cash for the company that has never turned a profit even though it is one of the highest valued startups currently at $72 million. But should Uber continue pursuing this dream of driverless?

Since the accident, Uber has taken all of its driverless cars off the roads, been banned from testing any further in Arizona and has decided to not renew its testing permit in California until the crash investigation has been completed.

A article this week investigated impressions from former Uber Safety Drivers who say they saw this coming. The cause of the tech failures is still under investigation but it does bring up another important question that researchers have known was problem from the get go—Can humans really be relied on to take over in an instant in the autonomous driving stage 3? A number of companies have decided not to test their driverless vehicles until driving stage 4 and 5. Waymo is one of them.

According to a recent New York Times article, Uber has been having problems for a while. The company’s driverless cars were having trouble going through construction zones and driving next to tall vehicles. Human drivers had to intervene far more often than other AV testers. Waymo, for example, averaged nearly 5,600 miles before the driver had to take control on test roads in California last year. The GM Cruise reported to California regulators that their cars averaged 1,200 miles without driver intervention. Uber struggled to meet its target of a mere 13 miles.

The pressure has been on Uber to push the miles to the point where the cars were no longer picking up passengers but instead just driving to accumulate miles and gather data so to keep moving as fast as possible towards the glorious driverless car future.

In December 2017, Uber decided safety drivers should go solo instead of two drivers which appears to be a standard testing protocol. The second person is generally used to keep track of system performance. Uber spokesperson Matt Kallman, said that the second person was in the car for purely data related tasks, and not safety. The company now handles those tasks after the car has been driven.  Kallman added that miles per intervention was not a measure of safety but a rate of system improvement.

Uber was striving for a car without a human safety monitor completely by December. Remember the company is desperate to start turning a profit.

But Uber has always been the bull in the china shop. Just because it was first in disrupting the taxi and livery industries does not mean it will be the first in the driverless car race, however. Uber, with a much publicized toxic corporate culture in the past, has never cared about rules and regulations and has more than likely tried to cut corners every which way.

Even though Uber considers itself a tech company, in Europe Uber is considered a Taxi service and will be regulated as such. This past week, however, Uber defeated an appeal by 80 Philadelphia Taxi companies that accused the ridesharing disruptor of trying to monopolize that city’s vehicle-for-hire market. The Taxi companies claimed that Uber entered their market in October 2014 without having to comply with various local regulations governing taxis. The three judges said that Uber entering the market actually bolstered competition by offering customers lower prices, more availability and an easier way of hailing and paying for rides.

Uber also had a big part in creating the “gig economy” which some say is the new serfdom.

Even though the driverless car race will continue, two articles caught my eye this week that suggested an undercurrent of possible dissent on the horizon.

One was an editorial from the Chicago Tribune which posited this thought: Voters should be asked if they want more driverless cars.

The other was a freewheeling conversation reported on from the recent NADA (National Automobile Dealers Association) Convention with the 2018 NADA Chairman Wes Lutz and Scott Smith, CEO of Sonic Automotive who publicly talked about their doubts over autonomous vehicles.

An update to last week’s Car of the Future Blog:

Ten US Senators are now pressing the driverless car industry on forced arbitration. They sent a letter to 60 manufacturers noting this potentially glaring omission. This omission benefits these companies at the expense of passengers. This Uber crash has certainly spurred further scrutiny of the AV industry which is good news for consumers. Even though the US House has already passed an AV bill, the Senate bill stalled on safety questions before the Uber Crash. Will be interesting to watch what happens next!


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