Driverless Commute – April 13

Welcome again to The Driverless Commute, presented by the global law firm Dentons, a weekly digest clocking the most important technical, legal and regulatory developments shaping the path to autonomy.

1. Frenemies

As US lawmakers squabble over the scope and intent of a comprehensive federal framework for the testing and deployment of autonomous vehicles, their counterparts in Beijing have begun vying for carmakers’ interest and affection by strategically normalizing testing protocols across the entire country.

In the US, some 33 states allow for the conditional testing of autonomous vehicles. The federal leadership vacuum has left the industry to contend with a fractured, competing and sometimes conflicting patchwork of local law and regulation that’s stifling innovation.

Not so in China, where the industry ministry this week published national guidelines regulating driverless cars. The new rules green light the testing of experimental autonomous vehicles in any and every city in the country.

National, cohesive rules. What a novel concept.

The new regime doesn’t give car makers carte blanche, but instead places a sharp premium on safety thresholds. The new rules of the road:

  • Vehicles must first be tested in non-public zones
  • Road tests are restricted to designated streets
  • A qualified contingency driver must be present and ready to assume operation of the vehicle if and when necessary

The contingency driver precondition, government officials said, was non-negotiable after a pair of gruesome autonomous vehicle crashes in the US last month.

While the US was first to the starting line, due in large part to Silicon Valley’s nerds and Detroit’s gearheads, China has made autonomous driving one of its government’s top priorities.

What you’re looking at today is the early contours of the next moon race.

The Driverless Commute, a subscription-based service, is provided by Dentons’ global Autonomous Vehicles team. If you believe a colleague or associate would benefit from this service, please share this link so they may subscribe.

2. Stop replying on Google Alerts

Imagine knowing every word of consequence, on the subject of automotive autonomy, whether spoken (on radio, cable and local affiliate news programs) or written (in printed and digital formats, including on social platforms).

No more surprises, only opportunities.

Meet the Console, a best-in-industry intelligence service that marries advanced machine learning algorithms with human analysis to create comprehensive, real-time advisories on everything autonomy.

A service of Dentons’ 3D Global Affairs, which yokes traditional legal capabilities with government affairs, corporate competitive analysis, and strategic communications, the Console mines the public record to populate an easy-to-navigate knowledge platform.

TEST DRIVE IT FOR FREE. Email us for a no-obligation demonstration of the Console.

3. Up next on Oprah’s Favorite Things: LiDAR

Notwithstanding Elon Musk’s years-running gripes about LiDAR, the technology has become the primary mechanism by which driverless cars perceive the world around them.

The earliest LiDAR arrays could run you as much as $70,000 per device, making tough the prospect of testing fleets.

The cost arc fell sharply within the last two years, most recently when Velodyne, a long-time leader in perception software and hardware, said it would reduce by half the cost of its self-described most popular LiDAR sensor.

First made available for purchase in 2016 at $8,000, the instrument costs just $4,000 per unit today.

But now Luminar, a self-driving sensor startup backed by billionaire Peter Thiel, says it will release a new sensor platform that costs just $3. No, that wasn’t a typo.

How it works:

“Luminar’s technology is different from other lidar systems. It uses a longer wavelength of light to operate at higher power, allowing it to see darker objects over longer distances. It’s also able to zoom in on areas of specific interest.

“But its sensors, which uses a mechanical mirror system and expensive indium gallium arsenide semiconductors, were difficult and pricey to produce. Early units cost at least tens of thousands of dollars … Over the last year … the firm has taken steps to change that.

“It acquired a chip design firm … hired consumer electronics experts, and set up its own manufacturing complex. Careful redesign of its laser detector chip has cut costs from tens of thousands of dollars to just $3, and automation means the sensors will be built in eight minutes.”

4. Forward progress

California’s public utility regulator unveiled on Friday a proposal that would, if approved, authorize autonomous ride-sharing pilots with dual tracks: with and without contingency drivers.

The proposal by the Public Utility Commission, which regulates companies who operate in the transportation space, could come up for a vote as early as May 10. The move comes as the Department of Motor Vehicles last week cleared the way for fully driverless cars, pending approval of a rigorous application. To date, though, only one firm has petitioned for the right.

Both moves signal positive forward progress for the industry even as negative headlines related to a pair of fatal crashes continue to haunt some of the industry’s most prominent actors.

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Eric Tanenblatt

About Eric Tanenblatt

Eric Tanenblatt is the Global Chair of Public Policy and Regulation of Dentons, the world's largest law firm. He also leads the firm's US Public Policy Practice, leveraging his three decades of experience at the very highest levels of the federal and state governments.

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James Richardson

About James Richardson

James Richardson is a strategic communications counselor with 15 years’ experience advising presidential candidates, Global Fortune 500 executives, national nonprofits, and sovereign governments on strategic communications and reputation management. He helps lead Dentons’ 3D Global Affairs practice.

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