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. Hype or Hope
Driverless vehicles’ capabilities have plainly been over-hyped, their technical progress grossly exaggerated and their real-world deployment stymied, as manufacturers, investors and would-be operators sober up to the unique challenges and costs of engineering and testing the car of tomorrow, today.
Consider these two front-page stories from one of Britain’s most influential papers, separated by eleven months:
- March 17, 2018, The Times: “Driverless cars on UK roads this year after rules relaxed“
- February 6, 2019, The Times: “Driverless cars on UK roads by end of year“
Like the plucky protaganist in Little Orphan Annie, it seems that we’re always looking to a tomorrow that’s “always a day away” when the “sun’ll come out” and autonomous vehicles will be as common as yellow cabs on NYC streets.
Headlines last year that promised wide-scale autonomy deployment by the end of 2018 have already proved to be as badly mistaken as those insisting the same this year are likely to be. Don’t misunderstand us: Self-driving cars are coming—but nowhere near as soon as marketers and C-suite executives alike (sometimes in bad faith) have promised.
First, developers must overcome a raft of legal, practical and philosphical challenges.
- Weather: It’s no coincidence that the biggest autonomous-driving pilots are anchored in sun-dappled jurisdictions. Winter weather not only complicates a vehicle’s traction, but frustrates its self-driving componetry, as sleet, rain, snow and fog can all obstruct camera operation and distort laser functionality.
- Humans: AVs may be programmed to strictly adhere to the rules of the road, but their less-evolved human road-faring counterparts aren’t so wired. As the cases of road rage against Waymo’s pilot in Phoenix, AZ, demonstrate, robocars remain easily overwhelmed by human aggression (or imprudence).
- Unmetered left turns: Left turns are considered by US safety officials to be among the most dangerous driving situations, which helps explain why delivery giant UPS makes a practice of avoiding them in last-mile deliveries. It also helps explain why overly cautious AVs struggle to negotiate pedestrians and oncoming traffic when navigating such a fraught situation.
- Outmoded roads and connected infrastructure: Smart cars require smart roads and traffic systems, each transmitting and receiving traffic and safety data to a broad array of connected instruments. But even in the most modern, traffic-intensive communities, simple road features such as signage and lane markings are often missing or unclear. Some cities, like Las Vegas or Atlanta, have begun the costly task of building special “technology corridors” to address these issues, but most road infrastructure remains a last-century holdover.
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2. Driverless delivery dominoes
Amazon, whose logisitics network is among the world’s most robust, was part of a group of investors this week that poured $530 million into self-driving startup Aurora
While the retail heavyweight is no stranger to possible AV applications—it’s begun piloting, in its home state of Washington, an autonomous delivery pod the company developed in-house and it’s partnering with trucking startup Embark to test interstate delivery using self-driving trucks—Amazon’s fresh investment in Aurora, which is widely regarded as one of the most serious players in the self-driving sector, suggests the company is increasingly looking to autonomous tech to help eliminate some costly (human) inneficiecies from its multi-layered delivery system.
Exit question: If Amazon goes driverless, will the likes of UPS and FedEx follow suit?
Not without a bitter fight from drivers. In contract negotiations last year, the The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which represents some 260,000 UPS employees, tried in vain to get the delivery giant to forswear self-driving delivery trucks and drones. Despite losing the battle, union activists are still agitating to block commercial application of autonomous technology on the grounds that it’s unsafe.Amazon, whose logisitics network is among the world’s most robust, was part of a group of investors this week that poured $530 million into self-driving startup Aurora.
3. The Auto(nomous) BahnExit question:
- Dramatically reining in their ambitions, AV firms are scaling back to fixed-route tests while they gather more information about human-robot interaction and the technology’s upper bounds.
- The Nissan-Renault-Mitsubishi automaker alliance is sidling up to Waymo to partner on self-driving development.
- Academics are increasingly worried that AVs will worsen congestion, not ease it, as was widely predicted in early models, in the interest of avoiding parking fees.