Driverless Commute – January 5

Happy New Year and welcome again to the Driverless Commutepresented by Dentons, a weekly drive time digest clocking the most important technical, legal, and regulatory developments shaping the path to global autonomy.

1. The definitive field guide to autonomy (in 2018)

Now a decade since researchers first demonstrated the viability of automotive autonomy—what you might consider the driverless revolution’s Kitty Hawk moment—the first ordinary consumer applications of autonomous vehicles are arriving.

But revolutions happen very slowly and then, dramatically, almost at once. On a relative scale, we’re still in the trickle phase. Even Ford, considered by most to be leading Detroit in the race towards autonomy, won’t have its first fully autonomous vehicle ready for market until at least 2021.

At times, though, even a trickle can feel dramatic. Waymo, Alphabet’s driverless spinoff that has logged a factor more test miles than even the closest competitor on public roads, has plans to presently expand its robotic minivan trials (sidebar: never before have minivans been so coveted as sexy by tech writers), while Lyft and Uber meanwhile roll out new pilots across the United States.

The dawn of truly autonomous vehicles is cresting. But unlike the last transportation sea change (personal mobility) that was made normal through private use and ownership, the driverless revolution will grow commonplace first through fleet services: robocabs, driverless delivery, and sentient shuttles. We turn now to Bloomberg for the how-to guide in navigating these services in the new year:

  • Robocabs: “Summoning a robot taxi won’t feel any different than ordering up a ride with a human driver. You open an app on your phone, punch in your destination, and immediately get a response. That’s where things begin to get different. … [Y]ou meet your robo-taxi at a designated pickup area for autonomous vehicles. Separate pickup and drop-off areas will make it simpler and safer for the robot to find its fare without the clutter of pedestrian and vehicle traffic. You will know the white Chevy Bolt is for you because it will flash your name in a light bar just above the windshield—or, if you prefer privacy, the display will flash a number you select. As it pulls up, the small SUV greets you with a computer voice: ‘Hello, Mr. Jones.’ You punch in a code on the door; it unlocks and slides open.”
  • Driverless delivery: “Fido is running low on dog food, so you order a 25-pound bag with a shopping app on your phone. Within hours, the bag is on a semi truck, still driven for now by a human, headed for a warehouse on the outskirts of Phoenix. … When the big rig arrives, its contents are dispersed to the vans via an automated logistics system of conveyors that sorts items by destination. These driverless vans … travel mostly on surface streets, going no faster than about 35 miles per hour. If a robotic delivery van takes to the highway—unlikely in the early stages of deployment—it would probably travel in a dedicated lane to avoid snarling traffic with its slow-moving ways. Devoid of a driver’s cockpit, the battery-powered vans look like a metal cube on wheels. They are a study in function over form, maximizing cargo carrying and minimizing style. The vans will also be marked with special lighting above the windshield to alert other drivers and pedestrians that they are driverless.”
  • Autonomous shuttle: “You’ve just picked up your bags from baggage claim, and now you’re making your way to the rental car counter. Even though the vehicle you borrow won’t yet be automated, the way you get there will be. As you step outside, an airport shuttle van trundles up … There’s no driver, just an attendant to help you with your bags. The presence of an employee reassures you it’s safe, even though this box-on-wheels has no apparent rail line to guide it through airport sprawl. Airports, corporate office parks, and student campuses have been the launchpads for autonomous vehicles to take their first, tentative spins. Repetitive routes and enclosure from traffic make these safer spaces to teach autonomous machines.”

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. A name to remember: Aurora

Aurora Innovations, the buzzy full-stack AV solutions firm founded by Chris Urmson, the technologist who once led Google’s self-driving project as CTO, lifted the veil this week on two already-mature strategic partnerships with Volkswagen Group and Hyundai, two of the world’s largest carmakers.

Both companies hope to take to market Aurora’s Level Four–powered vehicles commercially by 2021, pending experimental pilots later this year. (More on Hyundai’s plans in a press release here.)

While rivals in the machine learning space are still tinkering on the periphery by dressing up driver assistance platforms, Urmson says Aurora is going for the moonshot: Level Five autonomy. (Urmson, it’s worth noting, was Google’s driverless tech lead when the project was still housed in the search giant’s moonshot division.)

“At Aurora, we’re building a driver,” he told the Verge. “We’re not building a driver assistance system. We really have a deep understanding of what it will take to actually get to a truly driverless vehicle.”

While only a year old, Aurora, which also employees the former director of Tesla’s Autopilot program and Uber’s autonomy lead, is distinguishing itself by developing the full suite of integrated tech necessary to power an autonomous vehicle—everything required to make, in Urmson’s words, a driver—unlike piecemeal hardware and software suppliers that currently dominate the crowded field.

‒ Be smart: Your Driverless Commute correspondents once posited in this space that the race for automotive autonomy could be viewed through the smartphone paradigm: iPhone, which tightly integrates every aspect of hardware and software, or Android, a mix-and-match open-source platform that can be installed on any product. Unwilling Google outgrowth Aurora, fittingly, is pursuing the Android model, creating a central nervous system that can be applied to any physical body.

(For those curious, Apple’s iPhone owns 33 percent of the US market, down from 41 percent last year, while Google’s open-source platform comes in at 66 percent.)

3. Choose your news: 2018 will be the year of the driverless car! No, it won’t!

“Fully driverless cars could be months away.”Ars Technica

“Let’s face it: we’re talking about a technology that will never happen.” ‒ British railway historian Christian Wolmar in the UK’s Spectator.

Serious technical hurdles remain until Level Four and Five autonomy are accessible, to say nothing of the more prosaic challenges of regulation, insurance and public infrastructure. With the exception of perhaps Mr. Wolmar, everyone agrees autonomy is the future. But how far in the future remains a question for debate.

Email us your forecasts for the year and we’ll feature them here.

4. Welcome to the Matrix, Neo

While technologists are preparing for a future without driving, Nissan instead is hedging its fortunes with a decidedly contrarian view: that customers don’t want to surrender the act of manual driving but only to enjoy the experience.

Next week, the Japanese carmaker—which, it should be noted, is aiming for a 2020 AV rollout—will unveil its experimental brain-to-vehicle technology, which responds to brainwaves faster than the boring, old central nervous system. (You’ve heard of vehicle-to-vehicle, or V2V, vehicle-to-infrastructure, or V2I, and vehicle-to-everything, or V2X, but now add B2V to your car-of-the-future lexicon.)

How it works: “The ‘B2V’ system requires a driver to wear a skullcap that measures brain-wave activity and transmits its readings to steering, acceleration systems that can start responding before the driver initiates the action. The driver still turns the wheel or hits the gas pedal, but the car anticipates those movements and begins the actions 0.2 seconds to 0.5 seconds sooner”.

Said another way: think turn, and the car begins to turn faster than you can manage a swivel of the wrists. WATCH:

‒ EXIT QUOTE, from Nissan’s Dr. Lucian Gheorghe, who’s overseeing the project: “We imagine a future where manual driving is still a value of society. Driving pleasure is something as humans we should not lose.”

If you need a ride from Nissan’s brain-to-vehicle demonstration at CES next week, Lyft says it’s providing autonomous fares to more than 20 pre-set destinations.

5. Bargain bin

Velodyne, a longtime leader (the company was founded in 1983, before even some Driverless Commute readers were born) in perception software and hardware, announced last week it would reduce by half the cost of its self-described most popular lidar sensor.

First made available for purchase in 2016 at US$8,000, the VLP-16, which detects its three-dimensional surroundings in real time and for the length of about 300 feet, costs just US$4,000 per unit today.

We don’t mean to rain on your hopes of buying that new autonomous vehicle with your tax return, but: VLP-16 is Velodyne’s entry-level offering, and the company’s catalogue includes sensors that are both more expensive and more powerful, cresting upwards of US$85,000 for the most sophisticated systems. It’s a positive development that prices of lidar—just one of the three-party holy trinity of guidance systems for autonomous vehicles—are falling, but it doesn’t yet mean that AVs are an affordable purchase.

WIN AT BAR TRIVIA: Lidar is an acronym for light detection and ranging. You can thank us later.

6. Mistrust in Britain

A majority of British motorists say they would not buy an autonomous vehicle out of skepticism of carmakers’ motives, concern for price, or wariness of safety, according to a new survey, even as British Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond unveiled plans late last year to invest hundreds of millions of pounds to upgrade electric car charging points to expedite AV rollout in the nation.

The survey finds widespread mistrust of autonomous vehicles and the motives behind them, per the Daily Mail. More than half of respondents said they thought carmakers were investing in the cars “out of greed,” while one third said they would not pay an upcharge on an autonomous vehicle. Three in four were not confident that driverless cars were safe or invulnerable to hacking.

The paper quotes transit expert Mr. Christian “Autonomy-Won’t-Ever-Happen” Wolmar (you remember him): “There is no demand for driverless cars, they are not something we need or want. The whole concept that we will end up with shared electric pods that will take us anywhere ignores the day-to-day experience of most people.”

7. Symbiosis

The ink is drying this week on South Korean electronics giant LG’s smart collaboration with mapping gurus HERE to create a next-generation telematics hub for autonomous vehicles, combining the power of telecommunications with uber-accurate location services and high-resolution maps to aid in a car’s situational awareness (gridlock avoidance, ftw!).

More from TechCrunch: “LG’s no stranger to the world of telematics, including vehicle safety and entertainment offerings … But it’s looking forward to advance ADAS and next-generation autonomous vehicle tech and partnering with HERE … to transition in the direction that the industry is heading. LG’s offering will incorporate communications tech including GPS, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and mobile networks including the forthcoming 5G standard to help communicate data transmitted by other autonomous vehicles on the road and information systems to in-car navigation and technology centers.”

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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