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. Marketers beware
Concerned with the increasingly romanticized pabulum used to describe today’s still-very-limited driver assistance programs—a dynamic we’ve repeatedly warned would have deadly repercussions in this space—an independent vehicle safety assessor in Britain says it will begin rating semi-autonomous offerings against car maker’s promotional claims.
Thatcham Research Center, the UK’s answer to the US-based IIHS, will, starting this summer, study the various driver assistance systems available to consumers in hopes of determine whether the functionality of driver assistance systems actually live up to their hyped branding.
“Part of the problem … is that these features come with names that don’t make clear what they are or what they do. Tesla calls its system Autopilot. Nissan offers ProPilot Assist, Mercedes has Drive Pilot. Audi is gearing up to launch Traffic Jam Pilot (just not in the US). Cadillac has Super Cruise, BMW has Active Driving Assistant, and Volvo offers Adaptive Cruise Control with Steer Assist.
“Tesla’s branding may be the catchiest, but Volvo’s is the most accurate, or at least the most understandable. That’s why Thatcham will start judging automakers on whether their system names are likely to confuse drivers. Those using ‘pilot,’ which implies control, will get marked down. Those with ‘assist’ will likely get a higher grade. They remind drivers that these systems are a helping hand, not an excuse to browse Instagram.”
Thatcham, to prove its point on driver over-reliance on (or inflated-confidence in) their driver assistance systems, took the BBC on a closed-track demonstration:
“To demonstrate the dangers of partial automation, Thatcham took a Tesla out on its test track at Upper Heyford, in Oxfordshire. With the Autopilot system switched on, the Model S kept in lane and slowed to a halt when a car it was following encountered standing traffic.
But on a second run the car in front switched lanes at the last moment, and the Tesla was unable to brake in time, running into a stationary vehicle.”
Stated another way: The ADS-enabled car absolutely plowed through the stalled car, which, for purposes of the demonstration, was a mock shell of a Ford Fiesta. You’ll want to watch:
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2. Don’t get left behind
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3. Partnerships, acquisitions and talent scoops
- Voyage, the autonomous vehicle startup that is piloting its technology in the world’s largest retirement village in Florida, has inked a deal with Enterperise, the US-based car rental giant, to manage and maintain a new fleet of Chrysler Pacifica minivans. Voyage won’t own the cars, but will instead lease them from the Enterprise. The arrangement follows a trend of technology companies outsourcing the costly responsibility of fleet management and acquisition to more established incumbents. Apple leases its Lexus 450h hybrids from Hertz Donlan’s fleet management offshoot, while Waymo continue to leverage Avis’ footprint to service its ever-growing fleet.
- RideOS, a smart routing startup founded by a pair of Uber alums, announced this week that they have raised $9 million in venture cash in a deal backed by Sequoia Capital and entered into a partnership with Ford’s autonomous division.
- Swedish car manufacturer Volvo, which earlier this year announced the creation of a new tech venture fund, has aquired a stake in laser sensor startup Luminar. Volvo had already been collaborating with Luminar, whose lidar arrays were being used in tests alongside those of rival firms, but the new investment (for an undisclosed amount) deepens the relationship. While the move clears a principal barrier for Volvo’s autonomous ambitions, it hardly represents an earth-shattering alignment: Ford and Baidu invested in lidar maker Velodyne in 2016 and GM aquired Strobe the following year.
- Argo AI, a Pittsburgh-based artificial intelligence startup that emerged from virtual obscurity last year with $1 billion in backing from Ford, has grown from about a dozen employees it had at the time to upwards of 330 today, in part by luring away marquee engineers and roboticists from some of the industry’s biggest names.
4. Insuremaggedon averted?
Even with private car ownership expected to decline as autonomy reshapes the mobility paradigm, insurers may not be facing the bleak outlook that industry analysts had once forecast.
“We do not expect revenue for auto insurance companies to experience a sudden decline as a result of autonomous vehicles,” reads a new report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance. “Instead we expect a gradual shift in the type of auto insurance products as well as new revenue sources for insurance companies.”
That’s in contrast to an unpromising 2016 analysis by Morgan Stanley, which estimated a possible industry contraction of as much as 80 percent by 2040 . The reason for BNEF’s sanguinity? A restructuring of the policy holder-insurer relationship. The new report states:
“Rather than individual drivers, manufacturers and technologies companies will be more likely to need coverage, and that shift could be a boon for insurers that are quickest to adapt. … Even if autonomous driving makes the roads safer, accidents that do occur could cost a lot more, by damaging expensive sensors, for example. That’s already happening as car manufacturers adopt new technologies, such as cameras in bumpers, that push up the average cost of repairs.
“The road to a truly disrupted future is long. Rather than fully autonomous cars taking over, it’s more likely that drivers will use autonomous features part of the time, to park or while stuck in traffic. For now, that will create a space for insurers to cover both the individual owner and the car itself.”
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