Driverless Commute – February 2

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

1. Better beat the mail man

California transportation authorities on Monday released the state’s annual disengagements report, containing a much-anticipated measure of miles traveled autonomously and the (self-reported) instances each licensed pilot program was forced to disengage its driverless platforms for technical or safety reasons while operating on public roads.

It’s the closest thing you’ll get to a no-spin report card in the marketing-cluttered world of autonomous vehicles. And as with any class, there are both the curve-busters and the burnouts.

First, the kids begging for swirlies:

  •  Waymo is the most competent of the bunch, traveling some 350,000 miles on California roads between December 2016 and November 2017. The company, which ordered way mo’ (they say “thousands”) new minivans this week, reported that it disengaged from autonomous mode just 63 times during that 11-month period—or an average of 5,596 miles between hiccup.
  • GM Cruise LLC aka Cruise Automation, the self-driving incubator General Motors acquired from founder Kyle Vogt for more than $1 billion in 2016, logged a fraction fewer miles than Waymo (just 131,000, according to the report), but still averaged 1,214 miles between disengagements. A GM company spox says that makes for a “1,400 percent rate of improvement in the performance of its autonomous systems.”

And now, everyone else:

  • Japanese carmaker Nissan logged the third-lowest rate of disengagement, traveling 5,000 miles with 24 disengagements for an average of 208 miles between disengagements.
  • Drive.AI traveled 6,572  miles with an average of 65 miles between disengagements. Last year, it managed just 9 miles between disengagements.
  • Chinese search giant Baidu logged an average of 41 miles between disengagements.
  • Nvidia, the old school graphics processing powerhouse that’s segued into artificial intelligence, averaged just 4.6 miles between disengagements.
  • Mercedes-Benz reported 1.3 miles between the average disengagement.
  • Uber was not required to file a report, because its permit was only greenlighted last summer. (You may recall they attempted to flout the state’s testing regime last year.)
  •  Automakers TeslaFordBMWHonda, and Volkswagen reported zero miles traveled autonomously on public roads.

Important caveats:

  • Disengagements are part of the testing process, and not always a measure of failure.
  • These reports lack critical context about the nature of disengagements.
  • California—and don’t tell this to our friends in Silicon Valley—isn’t the singular proving ground for autonomous vehicles. Today, there are robocabs cruising the streets of Boston, Atlanta, London, Singapore and Beijing. However, those companies wishing to keep their driverless projects shrouded from obsessive handicapping types may opt to test instead in locales with less astringent public reporting requirements. Waymo, for instance, in 2017 traveled roughly half as many miles in California as it did the year prior, due in large part to the company’s strategic decision to shift its fleet further east.

No spin zone: While the California’s disengagement report doesn’t paint a complete, or even fair, picture of the race to autonomy, that doesn’t mean its results are misaligned. This is still a two-man race between Silicon Valley (Waymo) and Detroit (GM).

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. Grocerybot

A pair of ex-Googlers this week unveiled a last-mile autonomous delivery vehicle specially designed to transport groceries.

Nuro, which just teased it had raised $92 million in Series A funding from Chinese and Silicon Valley venture firms, said it hopes to have several of its delivery pods on public roads by the end of 2018. The prototype is the height of an ordinary SUV but far slimmer, and is compartmentalized to hold two separate deliveries.

3. Fighting the future

One of the world’s largest labor unions wants to prohibit United Parcel Service (UPS) from leveraging drones and driverless vehicles in the delivery of packages. The curious, but not entirely surprising, demand was made by the Teamsters union as it kicked off new contract negotiations with the delivery and logistics giant last month.

Good luck with that, guys.

Fleet operations are investing heavily in autonomous vehicles for the explicit reason of automation and, especially in the case of high labor cost firms like UPS and Uber, they regard the shift to automotive autonomy as a business imperative.

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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