Welcome again to The 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.
As US lawmakers squabble over the scope and intent of a comprehensive federal framework for the testing and deployment of autonomous vehicles, their counterparts in Beijing have begun vying for carmakers’ interest and affection by strategically normalizing testing protocols across the entire country.
In the US, some 33 states allow for the conditional testing of autonomous vehicles. The federal leadership vacuum has left the industry to contend with a fractured, competing and sometimes conflicting patchwork of local law and regulation that’s stifling innovation.
Not so in China, where the industry ministry this week published national guidelines regulating driverless cars. The new rules green light the testing of experimental autonomous vehicles in any and every city in the country.
National, cohesive rules. What a novel concept.
The new regime doesn’t give car makers carte blanche, but instead places a sharp premium on safety thresholds. The new rules of the road:
- Vehicles must first be tested in non-public zones
- Road tests are restricted to designated streets
- A qualified contingency driver must be present and ready to assume operation of the vehicle if and when necessary
The contingency driver precondition, government officials said, was non-negotiable after a pair of gruesome autonomous vehicle crashes in the US last month.
While the US was first to the starting line, due in large part to Silicon Valley’s nerds and Detroit’s gearheads, China has made autonomous driving one of its government’s top priorities.
What you’re looking at today is the early contours of the next moon race.
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3. Up next on Oprah’s Favorite Things: LiDAR
Notwithstanding Elon Musk’s years-running gripes about LiDAR, the technology has become the primary mechanism by which driverless cars perceive the world around them.
The earliest LiDAR arrays could run you as much as $70,000 per device, making tough the prospect of testing fleets.
The cost arc fell sharply within the last two years, most recently when Velodyne, a long-time leader in perception software and hardware, said it would reduce by half the cost of its self-described most popular LiDAR sensor.
First made available for purchase in 2016 at $8,000, the instrument costs just $4,000 per unit today.
But now Luminar, a self-driving sensor startup backed by billionaire Peter Thiel, says it will release a new sensor platform that costs just $3. No, that wasn’t a typo.
“Luminar’s technology is different from other lidar systems. It uses a longer wavelength of light to operate at higher power, allowing it to see darker objects over longer distances. It’s also able to zoom in on areas of specific interest.
“But its sensors, which uses a mechanical mirror system and expensive indium gallium arsenide semiconductors, were difficult and pricey to produce. Early units cost at least tens of thousands of dollars … Over the last year … the firm has taken steps to change that.
“It acquired a chip design firm … hired consumer electronics experts, and set up its own manufacturing complex. Careful redesign of its laser detector chip has cut costs from tens of thousands of dollars to just $3, and automation means the sensors will be built in eight minutes.”
4. Forward progress
California’s public utility regulator unveiled on Friday a proposal that would, if approved, authorize autonomous ride-sharing pilots with dual tracks: with and without contingency drivers.
The proposal by the Public Utility Commission, which regulates companies who operate in the transportation space, could come up for a vote as early as May 10. The move comes as the Department of Motor Vehicles last week cleared the way for fully driverless cars, pending approval of a rigorous application. To date, though, only one firm has petitioned for the right.
Both moves signal positive forward progress for the industry even as negative headlines related to a pair of fatal crashes continue to haunt some of the industry’s most prominent actors.
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