Welcome again to The Driverless Commute, a weekly digest presented by the global law firm Dentons that clocks the most important technical, legal and regulatory developments shaping the path to autonomy.
1. Club DMV, California’s most exclusive social scene
Waymo, the self-driving unit of Google parent Alphabet, has petitioned California’s transportation regulators for permission to test fully driverless cars on state roads.
Earlier this year, the state announced that it would presently abandon its contingency driver requirement for autonomous vehicles on the condition that the car remain responsive to a remote teleoperator. And last week the public utility agency unveiled plans to allow for fully autonomous commercial ride-sharing.
The DMV’s move, which prompted the governor of neighboring Arizona to hastily advance even more permissive testing protocols by executive order, would bring Level Four and Five driverless cars—that is, those lacking any conventional human controls—to the Golden State’s public roads for the first time.
At least, in theory it would.
Only two firms—including Waymo, whose spokesperson independently verified its application, and an as-yet-unidentified hopeful—have applied for privileges under the new rules. But even if Waymo’s application is approved, the expanded regime wouldn’t exactly present a new frontier for the company, which is already engaged in testing without safety drivers in Arizona.
In theory, that Waymo already possesses data and safety metrics from its parallel pilot in a neighboring jurisdiction should burnish its case and credentials before regulators. But government officials don’t appear all that agreeable to green lighting any permits in the wake of a pair of driverless car-related deaths.
As a rule, the DMV says it won’t identify applicants until such a time as their petition has been granted, and they’re quick to note that there’s no statutory timeline for reviewing and approving applications. Translation: you can ask, but they don’t have to answer.
Autonomous vehicles require data. Gobs of it. Some, like Tesla, are capturing that data softly in the background (what they call “shadow mode”) to measure how their system might have responded if it were in operation, but virtually everyone else is probing the real world in real time.
We’ve written that the teleoperation requirement advanced by California in March represented a smart regulatory middle ground as the dangerous chasm between semi-autonomy and full autonomy is finally, incrementally crossed, but we’ve encountered less discriminating doormen in Manhattan and Los Angeles than the California DMV.
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2. On your marks
When the Chinese industry ministry earlier this month normalized autonomous vehicle testing protocols across the whole country, leapfrogging a laggard and fractious regulatory landscape in the United States, we mused that the global dynamic was reminiscent of the Cold War race for the moon: two global powers racing for a technology that promises to reshape industry and transcend geopolitics.
Then, as now, US industry was early and eager, but China’s one-party government has galvanized its tech and automotive industries by harmonizing a legal and rule-making process that would have taken years elsewhere in the world.
- Last month, government officials announced the construction of a £2 billion, 100-mile “intelligent super highway” that would connect three major cities in eastern China, including the home city of China’s largest online retailer, Alibaba, which had previously not been in the driverless race. Outfitted with solar panels, the highway would charge electric cars as they traversed the route and include a “smart traffic controlling system” to support autonomous vehicles.
- On Tuesday, Alibaba chief executive Jack Ma said the company had begun testing self-driving technology and has aspirations of developing an entire ecosystem devoted to driverless cars.
As a direct consequence of the government’s posture, nearly every tech firm in China is today an autonomous driving firm.
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General Motors’ self-driving unit Cruise, which aims for a 2019 commercial unveiling of its ride-sharing platform, has poached seven senior engineers and data scientists from last-mile grocery and package delivery startup Zippy.ai.
The acquisition doesn’t include Zippy’s intellectual property, but instead was a move to secure the brains behind the operation. Now in the GM fold are Zippy co-founders Gabe Sibley, Alex Flint, and Chris Broadus, whose “expertise in machine learning, computer vision, and simulation is among the best in the industry,” Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt wrote this week.