Welcome again to the Driverless Commute, presented by Dentons, a weekly drive time digest clocking the most important technical, legal, and regulatory developments shaping the path to global autonomy.
1. Don’t stop believin’: In nod to its Motor City roots, Ford plants electric, autonomous vehicle projects in Detroit
Ford Motor Company signaled last week it would move its principal electric and autonomous vehicle units to a recently redeveloped campus in Detroit’s historic Corktown neighborhood. The new site will be operating in the first quarter of the new year, and will house in excess of 220 employees.
What the relocation means:
- In autonomy, Ford’s betting on urban mobility: The Corktown facility from which Ford hopes to birth the next generation of car is just two miles from Detroit’s central business district—just the sort you might expect to see, say, a Level 4 autonomous vehicle cruising around. Company executives hope that anchoring the electric and autonomous business and strategy units, referred internally as Team Edison, will force engineers to understand and resolve the unique challenges of urban mobility issues (like congestion, pollution, and access).
- Detroit’s renaissance is real, and companies want to play a role in it: Chamber of Commerce types have been buzzing at least since 2008 about a revival unfolding in Detroit, battered by decades of sputtering manufacturing and widening economic inequality. But after a municipal bankruptcy in 2014 that allowed city leaders to critically reorganize the local government, key economic indicators—like new construction—are finally catching up to the opinion pages. By anchoring one of the company’s sexiest units within the city, Ford—like Fiat Chrysler, which operates a major assembly plant within city limits—has recommitted itself to the city that gave the carmaker its start.
Mark your calendars: Ford says it will take to market its first fully autonomous vehicle by 2021.
— Dust off that resume: A Driverless Commute tipster notes Ford’s website is seeking a new “global autonomous vehicles strategy manager” to lead Team Edison’s “strategy development and execution.”
2. Choose your adventure: will the autonomous future be electric?
From outward appearances, you’d be forgiven for thinking General Motor Co. was banking on an imminent, radical disruption of the classic owner-driver model. Consider: Last week, company executives promised to launch a new electric, driverless taxi service within a year, telling investors they believe the profits from the new platform could eclipse traditional earnings within a decade.
But for electric, autonomous ride-sharing to change the conventional ownership model, the cost-per-mile has to drop (to the realm of $1 per mile, some say), a proposition to which CEO Mary Barra said the company is committed. In the interim, GM means to ride the S curve.
— “The owner-drive model will be there for a very long time,” Barra said last week at a press event. “So far we see (mobility) as additive, but we see it as having potential to grow and be quite substantial. … If you look at where ride-sharing is the most popular, it’s in dense, urban environments where we have low market share, so that’s where we see it as additive.”
— GM, like Tesla, is strategically marrying its battery-electric propulsion and autonomous efforts. But the future of autonomy, like the owner-driver model, will be dictated by economies of scale, not altruistic environmentalism: for commercial fleets, when cars are carrying neither people nor goods—but instead, say, charging for an extended period—money is being lost.
Ford and ride-sharers Waymo and Uber are instead pursuing hybrid propulsion, because, they say, they’re best suited to powering the computing components of an autonomous vehicle.
The operation of the autonomous driving system in the first-generation vehicle produced by GM’s self-driving unit, Cruise, consumed between 3-4 kilowatts of electric power, according to a recent confession by one of the startup’s primary engineers. By The Verge’s math, that would drain the entire 60kWh capacity of GM’s all-electric Bolt battery before the car ever got rolling.
Whether the future of autonomous vehicles is an electrified one, as GM and Tesla hope, will be a measure of efficiency, not values. The ball, as they say, is in the engineers’ court.
3. A car for every condition?
California remains the home of the most ambitious and prolific autonomous vehicle pilots, thanks in part to the state’s tech culture and regulatory bellwether status. But cruising down a sun-dappled Golden State road is far different from, say, skidding across frozen mix in Northern Europe. So what does that mean for engineers? Headaches, mostly.
— “Martti is one of two cars designed by VTT Technical Research Center; it’s designed to handle rough and icy conditions, while its “spouse” Marilyn is made for more ordinary urban drives. Different situations call for different sensors and strategies — for instance, plain optical cameras perform poorly on snowy roads, and lidar is less effective, so Martti will rely more on radar. But Marilyn has a rear-mounted lidar for better situational awareness in traffic.
Recently Martti accomplished what the researchers claim is a world first: driving fully autonomously on a real snow-covered road (and hitting 25 MPH, at that). Others from Yandex to Waymo have tested cars in snow, but from their reports these seem to have been more controlled conditions. Martti’s drive took place in Muonio on a public road almost totally obscured by snow.”
— Exit question: Will the car classes of tomorrow be a function not of stylistic choices of size, but terrain?
— SPEAKING OF engineering complications, VICE’s science and technology vertical, Motherboard, brings your daily dose of downer this week: “Connected/autonomous vehicles (CAVs) need ubiquitous, reliable, and extremely fast wireless networks to commute with other vehicles, infrastructure, and devices while driving. Any kind of delay or latency in transmitting vital information to a self-driving car could be extremely dangerous.”
Said another way: interstate travel in a data-hungry autonomous vehicle, especially beyond the reach of connection-saturated metropolises, could prove pretty challenging when you can’t even make a reliable call to grandma’s landline.
More from VICE: “[H]uge parts of the world have terrible cell and internet coverage and it’s uncertain whether the 4G cellular network’s successor, 5G, will be enough to power the self-driving industry. That means CAV makers might have to get creative in proposing new and potentially revolutionary networking solutions, like mesh networking.
“Before you get mental images of self-driving cars careening into crowds due to a dropped connection, you should know there’s a wireless spectrum band (5.9 GHz) currently reserved for CAVs. That spectrum is primarily used for dedicated short-range communications (DSRC) … But as the name implies, it’s mean to be a short-range solution. It typically taps out at one kilometer …
Mesh networking, or letting people use their internet connection to provide access to others, could potentially alleviate some of the communication problems the CAV industry is facing … You can visualize it as a chain: The first link has a Wi-Fi connection, and all the others linked to it piggyback off its connection to access the internet rather than each link connecting to the cell tower individually. In the CAV context, the connection would be Wi-Fi, 4G/5G or DSRC, or switch between them.”
4. Volvo scales back autonomy pilot timeline, scope
Volvo, the Sweden-based carmaker who recently inked a deal with Uber to build out the ride-sharing giant’s driverless taxi fleet with some 24,000 specially outfitted SUVs, is scaling back its ambitions for its driverless project. The company had previously said it would provide 100 autonomous XC90’s (the same purchased by Uber) to 100 lucky Swedish families. Now, the testing program will involve 100 people—not cars—and the delivery of the vehicles won’t be complete until 2021. The cars will not feature Level 4 autonomy.
Why the sudden retrenching? In short, Volvo is suffering from run-of-the-mill commitment issues.
— From a report in Business Insider: “Volvo is scaling back the program because it isn’t ready to commit to specific sensor hardware yet. Marcus Rothoff, the director of Volvo’s self-driving program, said sensor hardware is improving much faster than the automaker thought it would when it announced the Drive Me program, making it hesitant to commit to one solution right now.
— From a report in Automotive News: “Volvo also wants to make sure its customers are completely confident with the new technology because if they don’t trust it they won’t use it. Failure here would result in the launch of ‘a high-cost product with limited customer value.’”
***The Driverless Commute, a subscription-based service, is provided by Dentons’ Global Autonomous Vehicles Team. Click here to speak with our experts across the world to learn more about any of the items contained in this newsletter.