Driverless Commute – February 23

Welcome again to 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. Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto

The increasingly crowded autonomous ride-hailing space grew a little more cramped this week with the news Friday that car maker Nissan had partnered with online services firm DeNA (pronounced D-N-A) to take to market a new robo-cab platform in Japan early next month.

The new service, Easy Ride, will launch initially with limited scope, geofencing its fares to a 4.5-kilometer radius of the car maker’s global headquarters in the Minato Mirai district of Yokohama, but the company said it plans to expand significantly by 2020.

It’s been a busy month for Japan’s ride-hailing market, estimated at $16 billion:

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. Mr. Clean

Tunnel car washes have been automated in the West for decades now, so there’s a bit of chaffing irony that these autopilot conveniences won’t be available for an automated vehicle.

To say nothing of the inability of these rolling super computers to communicate with not-so-super in-bay automatics that scrub the dirt and bird droppings from your car (you saw it here first, folks: vehicle-to-car wash communication), the real problem is the delicate nature of the vehicle’s various sensors and cameras.

Not only will these cars’ external guidance systems require hand washing to ensure safe operation, but they’ll require it often and with great care. Lest you doubt us, our friends on the engineering side caution that even simple water spots or soap residue could effectively blind an autonomous vehicle to its surroundings if not adequately cleaned.

Taken to scale, that hand wash-only imperative becomes not only a nuisance but a tremendous obstacle for any fleet enterprise.

Auto manufacturers who are strategically broadening their business to include robo-cab services–by our latest count, there are at least a half-dozen who are hedging their bets that personal car ownership will fall to basement levels by 2040–could possibly leverage their network of affiliate dealers for maintenance needs, but where does that leave everyone else in the ride-hailing game? Desperate for partnerships, mainly.

Enter car rental agencies. Avis Budget Group, which operates one of the world’s largest fleets, inked a deal last summer to service Waymo’s autonomous Chrysler Pacifica fleet in Phoenix, Arizona, one of the service’s initial testing grounds. The symbiotic quality of the partnership was pretty apparent even then, but now we’re learning that ABG’s deal to manage Waymo’s minivans includes also the task of cleaning them. From CNN:

“‘There are special processes that definitely require a lot more care and focus, and you have to clean [the vans] quite often,’ Avis chief innovation officer Arthur Orduña [said]. ‘We give them the premium level of service that I don’t think any vehicle globally is getting.’

Orduña wouldn’t reveal exactly how they’re washing the vehicles. But other self-driving car companies such as Toyota, Aptiv, Drive.AI and Uber described to CNN that they use microfiber cloths along with rubbing alcohol, water or glass cleaner for manual cleanings. For snowy and icy conditions, Uber has a worker apply windshield washer fluid with a squirt bottle to its camera lenses. A puff of air is then used to remove whatever residue remains. Toyota primarily uses rubbing alcohol on a cloth to clean camera lenses, but sometimes turns to cleaning wipes. But May Mobility, a self-driving startup based in Ann Arbor, Mich., relies on a cloth and water for the entire vehicle.”

3. Rush hour

The immersion of even a handful of autonomous vehicles into bulk traffic stimulates better flow of traffic and fuel consumption , according to new research out of Rutgers and Vanderbilt this week.

What they learned:

  • “Autonomous car[s] controlled the traffic flow by dissipating … stop-and-go waves so that traffic wasn’t so oscillating as it does when all the cars are driven by humans.”
  • The researchers determined that even a small percentage of autonomous vehicles (5 percent) could have a significant impact in eliminating waves and reducing the total fuel consumption by up to 40 percent and the braking events by up to 99 percent.”

You can get the white paper here.

4. Trust falls

Germany-based TÜV Rheinland went to field in the United States and China with a survey this month to gauge consumer readiness (or wariness) for autonomous vehicles, finding that Sino attitudes towards driverless cars are considerably warmer than those here in the States.

In fact, Chinese motorists are nearly twice as trusting of autonomous tech than Americans (63 percent to 34).

Could that delta in consumer trust between the two nations give China a leg up in the global arms race to autonomy? Quartz wonders:

“Chinese citizens are already accustomed to ceding their data to companies and government services. Tight control of the Chinese media may also affect perceptions of self-driving technology. ‘We can only assume that this perception is driven by media reports on accidents and current issues with autonomous vehicle technology, which is seemingly more present in the US than in China.’ Matthias Schubert, executive vice president of mobility at TUV Rheinland, told Quartz in an email. If the US wants to lead, the government and companies will ‘need to educate the public with more and better information about the benefits of the new technology,’ Schubert said.”

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.

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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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