Driverless Commute – February 9

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. Settling

Attorneys for Uber announced in court Friday that the ride-sharing giant would make an equity payout valued at $245 million to Waymo to settle a year-long trade secrets battle.

In exchange, Waymo, which sued Uber last February for misappropriating its trade secrets after the company acquired autonomous trucking start-up Otto, agreed not to pursue its additional trade secret claims—of which there were in excess of 100—against the company.

The settlement comes only five days into the courtroom proceedings and marks the latest in a string of clean-up duties for new Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi.

Uber’s statement reads in part: “To our friends at Alphabet: we are partners, you are an important investor in Uber, and we share a deep believe in the power of technology to change people’s lives for the better. Of course, we are also competitors. And while we don’t agree on everything going forward, we agree that Uber’s acquisition could and should have been handled differently.”

And the rejoinder from Waymo, whose parent company, Alphabet, was already a major investor in Uber before today’s settlement: “We have reached an agreement with Uber that we believe will protect Waymo’s intellectual property now and into the future. We are committed to working with Uber to make sure that each company develops its own technology. This includes an agreement to ensure that any Waymo confidential information is not being incorporated in Uber Advanced Technologies Group hardware and software. We have always believed competition should be fueled by innovation in the labs and on the roads and we look forward to bringing fully self-driving cars to the world.”

2. The Ten Commandments

A raft of progressive urban land and environmental groups joined league last week with some of the world’s largest technology and mobility companies to endorse 10 principles of city planning.

The document, organized by Zipcar co-founder and former chief executive Robin Chase, is comprised mostly of the sort of self-satisfied platitudes you’d expect (“We prioritize people over vehicles,” OK), but one plank triggered our interest: “We support that autonomous vehicles in dense urban areas should be operated only in shared fleets.”

“Due to the transformation potential of autonomous vehicle technology, it is critical that all AVs are part of shared fleets, well-regulated, and zero emission,” the document adds. “Shared fleets can provide more affordable access to all, maximize public safety and emissions benefits, ensure that maintenance and software upgrades are managed by professionals, and actualize the promise of reductions in vehicles, parking, and congestion, in line with broader policy trends to reduce the use of personal cars in dense urban areas.”

First, the signatories:

  • The tech and mobility guys: Uber, Lyft, Didi, and Ola
  • The urban planning crew: C40 Cities, World Resources Institute, ICLEI, Partnership for Sustainable Low Carbon Transport, Transportation for America, and Shared-use Mobility Center
  • The environment watchers: National Resources Defense Council and Rocky Mountain Institute

Just as striking as the document’s endorsers are those who haven’t signed:

  • Cities. Not one municipal government—not even those in Massachusetts or California—have endorsed the document.
  • Auto manufactures who have begun investing in ride-sharing platforms, like GM or Daimler.

Be smart: Policy pronouncements of this sort usually presage lobbying offenses. That disruptive firms like Uber and Lyft might leverage the very same tools of incumbency that very nearly ran them out of business is perhaps the best, starkest marker yet that the innovation economy has matured. Whereas these firms once had to fend off regulatory barriers to entry on shoe-string budgets, they’re now aiming to bring to bear the same competition-crushing mechanisms.

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.

3.  Sharing the road

Autonomous cars have a cyclist problem—namely, they struggle in detecting them and reacting to their sometimes-erratic behavior that doesn’t always hew to the rules of the road.

In 2014, Volvo, among the earliest traditional car maker entrants to autonomous vehicle market, presented a possible solution: a smart helmet that would communicate with connected cars. Ford, in partnership with Tome Software and Trek Bicycles, presented a slightly more elegant solution at CES: a brand agnostic bike-to-vehicle communications system that could be affixed to any ordinary bike. By alerting a connected, autonomous car to a bike’s presence, it saves valuable processing time that would be otherwise spent deciphering LiDAR imagery of a nimble traffic-weaving dart.

But why should cyclists have to bear the financial burden of compensating for an autonomous vehicle’s literal blind spot? In 2016, the last year for which data is publicly available through the US Department of Transportation, 835 cyclists died from collisions with motor vehicles and a dizzying 45,000 experienced injuries of varying severity. Three quarters of those deaths occurred in urban areas.

For your weekly dose of parade rain, by way of Slate:

“Autonomous cars … can accurately detect other vehicles, pedestrians, even big game charging suddenly across a street. Forcing cyclists alone to strap a sensor onto their backs feels like a crutch, a cop-out. In truth, some envision that the only way an autonomous car future will work is if everyone—vehicles, cyclists, pedestrians, pets—are connected to the same system, an idea known as V2X, or vehicle-to-everything. This would help self-driving vehicles to be the most informed about their surroundings and prepare for any possible interactions. The problem is that it requires everyone to take part, which poses several noteworthy financial and logistical questions, such as who pays for this system, how it’s deployed, how it’s enforced, and whether pedestrian and traffic laws would need to be changed in order to facilitate cooperative behavior. … In this scenario, autonomous car success hinges on a large number of difficult-to-control variables. But if the cars themselves are able to successfully sense and react to their surroundings, from a cyclist taking the lane to a toddler dashing into the street, the only variable that needs controlling is the technology itself.”

4. Cannibalism

The declining cost of highly autonomous ride-sharing will sharply aggravate demand for privately purchased vehicles, with a precipitous slip in new car sales beginning in the year 2030, according to a new economic forecast by the Zurich-based financial services outfit Credit Suisse.

Says the report: “Our global automotive production chain model forecasts global car production flatlining from 2030 with rising production in developing markets offset by declines in developed markets. Within that, we expect UK production levels to begin a structural decline from around 2030, falling about 1% per year from that year as autonomous vehicles comprise a greater proportion.”

5. An Olympic display

A fleet of five hydrogen fuel cell-powered Level Four autonomous vehicles successfully completed this week the 118-mile highway journey between Seoul, South Korea and Pyeongchang, the mountainous and snowy site of the 2018 Winter Olympics.

The demonstration, made by South Korea’s own Hyundai, marks the single longest autonomous journey at highway speeds (between 62 and 68 miles-per-hour) on the peninsula. While highway tests are not uncommon in other quarters of the world, the company says the demonstration was the world’s longest to-date for hydrogen-electric autonomous vehicles.

The company had previously only planned to deploy the cars in Pyeonchang—itself a challenge, owing to the city’s winter weather and topography—but the Seoul jaunt was a considerably more ambitious undertaking.

6. Manifest Destiny

Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced Wednesday during a fourth-quarter earnings call that the all-electric car maker would undertake its long-promised cross-country autonomous slog by summer this year.

Musk, who this week blasted a cherry red Tesla into space with a mannequin driver (pictured above—no, seriously), had previously pledged one of his cars would make a continental trip in autonomous mode last year, but was forced to delay the demonstration amid continued work on the platform’s self-driving systems.

“The upcoming autonomous coast-to-coast drive will showcase a major leap forward for our self-driving technology,” wrote in an earnings announcement (PDF) released to investors. “Additionally, an extensive overhaul of the underlying architecture of our software has now been completed, which as enabled a step-change improvement in the collection and analysis of data and fundamentally enhanced its machine-learning capabilities.”

ALSO: During the same call, Musk called LiDAR a “crutch.”

7. Sound off

The Driverless Commute is an intelligence service that’s designed, well, to make you more intelligent.

But is it? Is there a realm (patent filings, federal and state law and regulation movements, acquisitions) whose coverage we’re neglecting at your expense? We’re people-pleasers here—so email us and we’ll make the necessary adjustments to make the Driverless Commute the least painful commute of your week.

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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