The Driverless Commute: Apple stuns with Drive.AI acquisition; did Florida go too far in new AV bill?; Toyota throws in with Baidu’s Apollo project; and Waymo rolls out limited partnership with Lyft in Arizona

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1. Assumptions and expectations

Apple, the famously secretive consumer electronics giant, said this week it had acquired self-driving startup Drive.AI, whose human-robot interaction systems and deep-learning approach earned it an outsize reputation in the autonomous constellation.

The days of going-it-alone are behind us.

  • Like many struggling to reconcile real-world deployment challenges (it turns out, engineering self-driving cars is a lot harder than marketers promised) with stratospheric expectations, Drive.AI had come into hard times recently. According to reports, it filed paperwork ahead of the Apple announcement that it intended to dissolve and lay off its entire workforce.
  • Previously, the company had a variety of splashy pilots under its belt, including a recent test in Texas in which human contingency drivers had been removed from some vehicles.
  • On the heels of tie ups between Volkswagen and Argo AI and another between Honda and Cruise Automation, we asked back in March which of the big carmakers would buy Drive.AI. To be fair, we weren’t far off.

This week’s announcement stunned analysts, who had interpreted Apple’s silence on its autonomous driving initiative as a signal of retrenchment. Looking outside-in doesn’t always yield the best intelligence, it seems.

  • In an industry of snake oil salesman, Apple’s refusal to engage in chest-beating that’s typical of self-driving firms is a unique outlier. (The CEO of one company promised his vehicles would be fully self-driving by the end of the year. Four years ago. That same CEO now says they’ll go Level 5 this year.)
  • Don’t expect that posture to somehow shift with the acqui-hire of Drive.AI, whose assets, including a fleet of self-driving shuttles and IP for converting conventional cars into self-driving ones, and workforce, chiefly in engineering and product design, are being folded into Apple’s Project Titan.

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2. Too lax?

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a new law earlier this month to allow fully autonomous vehicles to operate whether or not a human contingency driver was present in the vehicle.

The bill is the third of its type in the nation, but is uniquely permissive. Now academics and transportation expects are asking whether the framework is an ill-considered invitation to danger.

The new rules, which are slated to take effect in July, don’t require that autonomous driving systems be tested, inspected, or certified by state officials before deploying, but requires that commercial and private owners of autonomous vehicles have a minimum of $1 million for death, bodily injury or property damage coverage. (The website Jalopnik described the framework as a “potentially deadly autonomous car experiment.”)

At issue is the very loose language used to define an autonomous vehicle and its safe operation. The bill reads:

“The hardware and software that are collectively capable of performing the entire dynamic driving task of an autonomous vehicle on a sustained basis, regardless of whether it is limited to a specific operational design domain.”

As people trained to look for loopholes, the words “sustained basis” certainly caught our attention. How long is a sustained basis? Is it the more than 11,000 miles Waymo cars drove in California on average between so-called disengagements (that is, when a self-driving car becomes overwhelmed in some way and must surrender operation to a human), or is it closer to the 2.5 miles driven by Toyota’s cars? Or maybe the 1.2 miles managed by SAIC between disengagements qualifies as a “sustained basis” in Florida.

3. The Auto(nomous) Bahn

Toyota is joining Baidu’s open source self-driving platform as trade tensions between China and US continue.

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