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. Rule book
Transportation analytics firm INRIX (whose name you may know from its Global Traffic Scorecard, which ranks the worst traffic spots in the United States) on Tuesday unveiled a new digital library and communications bridge to allow local and road authorities to collect and convert a jurisdiction’s complete rules of the road—including both static and variable speed limits, school zones, stop signs, bike lines, and cross walks—into the lingua franca of connected cars: zeros and ones.
Because today’s roads were designed and maintained for human drivers, autonomous vehicles are likewise forced to rely on external safety cues, which they identify through sensors or cameras or, when sensor horizons are unclear, by consulting a third-party library.
But the INRIX platform, the company said, would allow car makers to communicate directly with those who would regulate and police them, making for better compliance in those situations where lines, signs and other physical markers informing drivers of the rules of the road have fallen victim to time or vandalism.
Importantly, the service also allows the vehicles to log and report infrastructure needs, such as potholes, missing street or traffic markers, or inadequate lane striping.
The company is actively courting cities to join the initiative, but, at the time of its launch, didn’t disclose whether it had any buy-in yet.
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2. Rethinking the car
Normally tight-lipped driverless startup Zoox lifted the veil this week on its efforts to build—wait for it—a fully bidirectional, electric autonomous vehicle.
The project, detailed for the first time in a lengthy interview in Bloomberg, amounts to a radically new expression of the term “car,” and rates somewhere close to the offspring of a Joe Dirt-looking all-terrain dune buggy and a possessed bumper car.
Zoox is aiming to engineer the mobility trifecta: all-electric, autonomous, ride-sharing. At once. And it thinks everyone else is doing it wrong. More from Bloomberg:
“Zoox founders Tim Kentley-Klay and Jesse Levinson say everyone else involved in the race to build a self-driving car is doing it wrong. Instead of retro-fitting existing cars with fancy sensors and smart software, they want to make an autonomous vehicle from the ground up.
“The one they’ve built is all-electric. It’s bidirectional so it can cruise into a parking spot traveling one way and cruise out the other. It makes noises to communicate with pedestrians. It has screens on the windows to issue custom welcome messages to passengers. …
“Both founders sound quite serious as they argue that Zoox is obvious, almost inevitable. The world will eventually move to perfectly engineered robotic vehicles, so why waste time trying to incorporate self-driving technology into yesteryear’s cars?”
When Zoox’s earliest cars appeared in 2013, the popular car blog Jalopnik took to calling the startup’s tech stack “vaporware horsesh*t.” That description, Kentley-Klay explained, inspired the cheeky name for their latest cars: the VH1 through 5.
3. Don’t wait for the news once a week
Our best-in-industry intelligence service, The Console, marries machine learning algorithms with human analysis to create comprehensive, real-time advisories on everything autonomy.
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4. The Auto(nomous)bahn
- A Chinese autonomous startup that just raised $214 million in funding says that China still lags the United States in the driverless race but that the gaps—in technology innovation, data collection and, perhaps most importantly, talent—are dramatically narrowing.
- Speaking of Chinese startups: A former Apple engineer who was accused of stealing the company’s AV technology pleaded not guilty in US federal court this week. Prosecutors alleged that he stole proprietary data after he was hired by Guangzhou-based Xiaopeng Motors. Buried in the criminal complaint against the ex-engineer is the news that about 5,000 Apple employees are either actively working on its driverless project or have been read into it.
- The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration still believes it’s too early to begin regulating self-driving cars.