Driverless Commute – March 2

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. Snow birds

Ford Motor Co. announced this week it would deploy its first-wave autonomous fleet in sun-dappled, neon-splashed Miami-Dade County, FL, in partnership with quick-service pizza delivery chain Domino’s Pizza Inc. and on-demand delivery service Postmates.

The Detroit carmaker, which this time last year made a $5 billion investment in artificial intelligence firm Argo AI, will anchor what it calls a “self-driving terminal” in the south Florida hub to flesh out the best practices for operating and managing massive fleets of autonomous vehicles. (Just last week, we warned of the tremendous challenge for fleets in this space presented by otherwise banal tasks, such as car washing.)

Unlike Waymo, which negotiated a maintenance partnership with car rental giant Avis Budget Group, Ford intends to go it alone—at least for now. “We’re going to be open to [maintenance partnerships],” Sherif Marakby, Ford’s vice president of autonomous vehicles and electrification told Recode, “but for us to learn how it works and what the issues are, we needed to do it on our own for the first time.”

While the operations terminal will work to systemize the maintenance of a major robofleet, the primary function of the initiative is to learn how customers, especially those engaging in last-mile delivery, interact with autonomous vehicles, and all the various hurdles in operating in traffic-plagued metros.

Why Miami was selected:

  • The always-sunny climate—in March, the average high is 80° F/27°C—won’t impact the cars’ self-driving sensors.
  • Its traffic is among the worst in the world. (Inrex, a roads analytics outfit, says Miami has the tenth-worst congestion on the planet.)
  • Florida has one of the most permissive testing regimes in the US.

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. Intelligence

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3. Moonshot

California transportation authorities said Monday the state would allow the testing next month of Levels 4 and 5 autonomous vehicles (which lack contingency drivers). Regulators stipulated, however, that any car able to drive itself must remain responsive to a remote operator in case of emergency. (Teed up: commentary on the blossoming cottage industry of teleoperations.)

To date, some 50 car makers and tech companies have won approval to test on California’s roads. However, those wishing to test without an approved driver or to allow the public to use their technology have had to apply for a special permit. New requirements include black box-type recording systems and vehicle-to-operator and law enforcement communications bridges.

California hopes that by easing what some have regarded as draconian, innovation-stifling rules it will lure back companies it has lost to more permissive jurisdictions, such as Arizona, where Waymo has been operating without safety drivers since last year. The new rules bring it into alignment with states like Florida, which just won a major fleet pilot from Ford.

4. Public education

Just over half of American adults are unlikely to use self-driving cars and an even higher percentage—six in ten—say they would be uncomfortable riding in them, according to a Gallup survey released in late Februrary.

Anecdotes from this still-early phase of deployment (we’re not the first to wonder if autonomous tech is weathering the development challenges of the ninety-ninety rule) aren’t helping assuage those concerns, either.

A contingency driver was forced to intervene last week during a Hyundai demonstration in Pyeonchang, South Korea, the alpine site of the 2018 Winter Olympics, when a fuel cell-powered Nexo that was fast-approaching a bustling pedestrian crosswalk didn’t appear inclined to stop.

A journalist riding in the car asked: “Was this computer-controlled car going to stop on its own, or barrel through a busy crosswalk?” Hyundai reps insist the car would have responded in time and that the safety driver was exercising an abundance of caution. But the episode remains a sticking point for an industry already facing a skeptical public.

So how can the industry—especially those banking on autonomous ride-sharing, which requires a requisite level of confidence—begin to assuage fears of the new technology?

Waymo thinks the answer lies in normalizing the experience through small doses—from the safety of your computer. The company, which aims to launch its commercial service this year, unveiled (on YouTube, naturally) a 360-degree video of an autonomous fare from its pilot in Phoenix. WATCH:

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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