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.
Honda, the Japanese auto giant, agreed to purchase a $750 million stake in Cruise Automation, the self-driving unit of rival car maker General Motors, and at the same time announced it would inject an additional $2 billion into the project over the next 12 years.
The tie-up, which brings Cruise’s valuation to $14.6 billion after an earlier $2.25 billion investment by SoftBank’s Vision Fund, is a remarkable vote of confidence in GM’s self-driving efforts and reflects the reality of the difficulty of engineering (and financing) the car of the future in isolation.
It’s also a remarkable concession borne of the desperation gripping the auto industry today. While overlapping tie-ups have mostly been the province of technology outfits on the periphery, the GM-Honda marriage is an admission that even titans will need to forge partnerships with one-time rivals if they’re ever going to go to market.
Together, the two are working to develop a purpose-built autonomous vehicle for mass, global distribution. What a GM-Honda-built car will resemble is anyone’s guess, but Cruise chief executive Kyle Vogt teased out some possibilities in a statement this week. He said:
“Shouldn’t the car of the future have giant TV screens, a mini bar, and lay-flat seats? Maybe it should. We’ve been quietly prototyping a ground-breaking new vehicle over the past two years that is fully released from the constraints of having a driver behind the wheel.”
GM, which was the first firm to petition the US government in January for a waiver from federal vehicle safety standards that require conventional controls like steering wheels, already boasts one of the world’s largest test fleets. But that description—come on, a minibar!—doesn’t bear any resemblance to it, or to any car for that matter.
This notion is as much a reimagining of a conventional car as it is today’s self-driving cars. Indeed, GM-Honda’s car of the future is equal parts short-haul flight replacement and means of ordinary conveyance.
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The software update that Tesla chief executive Elon Musk has long promised will enable self-driving is being delayed—a striking reversal of fortune for a company once regarded as closest to achieving full autonomy.
Just one week after soliciting employees to test Tesla’s “full self-driving capabilities” in exchange for a reduced sticker price on the purchase of a new vehicle, Musk conceded in an overnight tweet Thursday that he was “holding back” the refresh because the task is so daunting.
“Holding back Autopilot drive on navigation for a few more weeks of validation,” he wrote. “Extremely difficult to achieve a general solution for self-driving that works well everywhere.”
It was two years ago now that Musk promised buyers (and investors) that Tesla would offer cars with the hardware necessary for self-driving, and that the feature required only testing and the regulatory green light before being activated.
3. The Auto(nomous) Bahn
- British Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said at a Conservative Party conference this week that the UK would see driverless cars on public roads “within three or four years.”
- In a bid to increase public comfort with self-driving vehicles, Ford is calling on all AV players to commit to human-robot interaction standards. The Detroit giant said it would be using light bars on its driverless cars to communicate to pedestrians, cyclists and other motorists the car’s intent: yielding, active driving and start-to-go.
- Jaguar publicly debuted in California this week the all-electric model of which Waymo has purchased 20,000 units to retrofit with autonomous hardware.
- California Governor Jerry Brown has signed legislation authorizing police to impound autonomous vehicles that lack proper approval from state safety authorities.
- One of Waymo’s self-driving minivans crashed into a highway divider after the car’s contingency driver fell asleep and unwittingly deactivated self-driving mode.
The US Department of Transportation on Thursday amended its driverless vehicle policy, vowing to consider the appropriateness of existing safety standards requiring conventional controls and to adapt its definition of “driver” and “operator” to allow for automated system control.
The 80-page document is the government’s third iteration of its completely voluntary guidelines. (You can read it in full here.)
The new guidance also pointedly includes big trucks, whose interstate utility has been artificially handicapped by conflicting state rules. A single, federal highway regime would allow autonomous trucks to transport freight all across the country.
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