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 full autonomy.
1. Parade, meet rain
Waymo is the uncontested leader in the global race for autonomy, but don’t take our word for it.
The company’s technology stack, which Google began developing nearly a decade ago now in its famous research and development X Lab, is widely regarded as the industry’s most mature. Its ever-expanding fleet has begun logging more than one million new miles every month, and mandatory public safety reports show its disengagement rate—that is, the number of times a car’s contingency driver had to assume operation of the vehicle—is wildly outstripping even its closest competitors.
One investment bank even projected the Alphabet spinout would own fully 60 percent of the global self-driving taxi market by the year 2030.
And yet a stunning new (paywalled) report Tuesday by technology tabloid The Information suggests Waymo’s designs on launching a commercial autonomous ride-hailing service by year’s end may be more fiction than feasible.
Citing five people with direct knowledge of Waymo’s Phoenix, AZ, pilot, the website reported that the company’s famous white and green minivans struggle around pedestrian clumps, in taking unprotected left turns (that is, intersections where left turns aren’t specifically metered), and in merging into high-density highway traffic. The cars’ (alleged) inability to perform simple driving tasks that humans must negotiate every day has begun to sour fellow motorists’ view of the pilot:
“More than a dozen locals who work new Waymo’s office gave The Information the same unequivocal assessment of the cars … : ‘I hate them.’
“One woman said that she almost hit one of the company’s minivans because it suddenly stopped while trying to make a right turn, while another man said that he gets so frustrated waiting for the cars to cross the intersection that he has illegally driven around them. …
“A Waymo spokesperson says that its cars are ‘continually learning’ and that ‘safety remains its highest priority’ during testing. The spokesperson also said that Waymo is using feedback from its early rider program to improve its technology.”
The anecdotes demonstrate perhaps the most significant challenge for roboticists: finding the safe balance between conservatively programming driverless cars and giving them latitude, as determined by machine learning, to drive according to the cars around them. But as the parent of any teenage driver who’s applied the imaginary acceleration and braking pedals will attest, indecision and road wariness can cause wrecks.
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2. Crash into Me
When an autonomous vehicle is involved in a collision, it’s almost always the fault of a human driver. That’s the findings of a new study examining California state incident reports.
Of the 88 reported crashes that involved an autonomous vehicle over the last four years in the Golden State, a self-driving vehicle in autonomous mode was found responsible in only one case. By contrast, the remaining 81 crashes were the consequence of human error—and in 6 cases the fault of a human contingency driver of an autonomous vehicle.
The bottom line: Even as Waymo reportedly struggles with unprotected left turns, you’re probably still a worse driver.
3. Windows to the soul
As experimental autonmous vehicles graduate from closed-track pilots to the open road, carmakers are increasingly struggling to contrive processes to help uneasy and mistrustful pedestrians and other motorists relax when they encounter a self-driving car in the wild.
These human-robot interaction programs have begun taking many forms, like Drive.ai’s dayglow-orange-painted vans that include a suite of LED screens to communicate messages to those in close proximity.
And then there’s British luxury brand Jaguar Land Rover’s attempt: virtual googley eyes that remind (and date) your humble Driverless Commute correspondents of the robot from the 1986 film “Short Circuit.”
To offset concerns about whether or not an autonomous vehicle has properly processed its surroundings, Land Rover has outfitted a new driverless prototype with eyes that acknowledge a passing pedstrian’s position by fixing its gaze on them. It is, in the estimation of the popular tech blog Mashable, “kinda creepy.”
4. The Auto(nomous)bahn
- Yandex, Russia’s largest technology firm, has launched an autonomous ride-hailing service in Innopolis, Russia. The company said the pilot, which is limited to two self-driving vehicles who will take fares under the supervision of a contingency driver, is the first of its kind in Europe.
- The world’s first commercial driverless taxi pilot debuted this week in Tokyo ahead of the 2020 Summer Olympics. The city’s government has previously said it hoped to go completely driverless for the massive event.
- Speaking of Japan: Carmaker Toyota said it would presently invest USD$500 million in Uber to help underwrite a self-driving tie-up.
- Luxury electric carmaker Byton unveiled a new autonomous, electric concept car this week at the 2018 Pebble each Concours d’Elegance.
- TheDrive.com tested out the Nuro-Kroger driverless grocery delivery program in Phoenix.
5. Know it before your competitors
Our best-in-industry intelligence service, The Console, marries machine learning algorithms with human analysis to create comprehensive, real-time advisories on everything autonomy.
The Console monitors, digests and packages everything of consequence to your business: television and radio chatter, social media scoops, legislative and regulatory activity, legal filings, acquisitions and white papers.
A service of Dentons’ 3D Global Affairs, which yokes traditional legal capabilities to government affairs, corporate competitive analysis and strategic communications, The Console mines the public record to populate an easy-to-navigate platform. Click here to request a no-obligation demonstration of the service with James and Eric.