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.
1. A Waymo of your very own?
Waymo said Thursday it had negotiated a mammoth contract to purchase some 62,000 autonomous minivans from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles in a deal that some have speculated could top $2 billion, advancing at the same time the company’s long-rumored initiative to sell fully driverless cars to private consumers.
A partnership between the two companies began in 2016, when Waymo purchased 100 Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivans. It scored another 500 units from the Italian-American carmaker in 2017, and in January of this year announced a third purchase of “thousands” more minivans. It wasn’t immediately clear if this week’s buy was an extension, or merely a supplement to, that deal.
The terms of the new deal, which would grow Waymo’s distinctive white-and-green fleet by a factor of 100, were not disclosed, nor is it clear when Waymo will take possession of the new cars.
Of most interest, the deal marks the first concrete instance in which Waymo, whose CEO, John Krafcik, had previously hinted in vague terms about the possibility of licensing its technology, has disclosed that it’s in discussions with carmakers about making autonomous vehicles available for public purchase.
The licensing talks are still early stage, they warned, and would be non-exclusive. If executed, it means that (wealthy) private individuals or, more likely, large companies (with sprawling campuses or anchored in suburban markets) could purchase their own Waymo vehicles.
The Chrysler deal is the latest in a string of huge purchases by Waymo, which announced in March it had agreed to buy 20,000 sleek Jaguar I-Pace vehicles. The driverless Jaguars are slated for deployment in early 2020, but Waymo is intimately familiar with the Chrysler van, for which it has already designed and implemented the necessary advanced driver assistance systems required for Level 4 operation.
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Two Democratic members of the US Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, which has stalled a bipartisan effort to adopt a federal regulatory framework for driverless cars, released this week a letter the pair had sent to more than two dozen firms engaged in public testing of autonomous vehicles.
The letter, dated just one day after the National Transportation Safety Board released its preliminary findings about the Tempe, AZ, incident in which an autonomous Uber fatally struck a pedestrian, demands answers from Uber to ten exacting safety questions, including:
- Where and why it selected specific jurisdictions for testing on public roads;
- The internal criteria used to determine that the technology stack was safe enough for public testing;
- Whether recent AV crashes have led to changes in testing procedures (e.g., adding safety fallback drivers in vehicles), and the rationales for those decisions;
- The total number of disengagements (i.e., times a human driver had to wrest control of a vehicle for any reason. California already requires reporting on this);
- How it selects and hires safety drivers, and whether it limits the amount of time any one driver can actively monitor a vehicle’s operation; and
- What safety data is recorded, and whether it shares such data with other AV manufacturers and suppliers.
Letters were also sent to other firms, including Waymo, GM, Intel, Ford, Tesla, and Nvidia. While they were not publically released, senators’ offices suggested that the questions were similar.
3. Money talks
General Motors’ shares soared to post-bankruptcy highs on news that Softbank Vision Fund, the technology arm of the global investing giant, would inject $2.25 billion into the carmaker’s autonomous vehicle unit.
The investment will come in two phases, with the first, totaling $1.35 billion, coming as GM’s Cruise deploys its robocab platform next year. The investment means Softbank will own just under 20 percent of GM, which said it would put $1.1 billion of its own funds into Cruise as part of the deal.
The deal’s dizzying magnitude reflects the growing confidence of the market in the technology, even as a pair of fatal crashes involving autonomous vehicles have raised questions about readiness.
4. Going Driverless Down Under
Australia’s National Transport Commission, the federal agency that minds the nation’s roads and transportation systems, signaled this week that it would draft legislation to authorize the use of driverless cars on public roads.
In a white paper released on Wednesday, the NTC said the biggest hurdle to deployment is the regulatory assumption of human drivers.
“With automated vehicles, there will be times when an ‘automated driving system,’ rather than a human, will be in control of the vehicle. We need a nationally consistent law to know who is in control of a motor vehicle at any point in time,” NTC chief executive Paul Retter wrote (PDF). “Without a change to existing laws or new law, there would be no-one to hold responsible for compliance with our road rules when an automated driving system is in control of a vehicle.”
The bare bones of the bill would, according to Mashable:
- “Allow an automated driving system (rather than a human) to perform the dynamic driving task when it is engaged;
- “Ensure that there is always a legal entity responsible for driving;
- “Set out any obligation son relevant entities, including the ADS entity, and users of automated vehicles; and
- “Provide flexible compliance and enforcement options.”
NTC said it’s aiming to have the legislation ready for adoption and implementation by 2020, when driverless cars are expected to go to market in significant numbers.
For those keeping track, APAC’s regulatory focus is kicking the West’s behind, with China and Singapore having already adopted national rules.
5. Seeing around the corner
Dentons’ best-in-industry intelligence service, The Console, marries machine-learning algorithms with human analysis to create comprehensive, real-time advisories on everything autonomous.
It 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 with government affairs, corporate competitive analysis, and strategic communications services, The Console mines the public record to populate an easy-to-navigate platform.
6. First comes a $1.8 billion lawsuit, then comes marriage?
Uber is engaged in talks to incorporate Waymo’s blossoming fleet into its ride-hailing network, its chief executive said at a technology conference this week.
“We’re having conversations with Waymo about putting their cars on our network,” Uber’s Dara Khosrowshahi said Wednesday at Recode’s Code Conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, CA. “If something happens, great. If not, we can live with that, too.”
The move would represent a stunning reconciliation between the two disrupters, who only months ago were adverse parties in a billion-dollar litigation.