All posts in “Autonomous Vehicles”

Truly driverless cars could soon be allowed on California’s roads

The California DMV is almost ready to allow autonomous vehicles on the state’s public roads without a human test driver behind the wheel. 

The state’s regulators released a set of proposed revisions to its policies that, once passed, will also grant the public permission to use self-driving cars. The new rules are now subject to a 15-day public comment period, which closes on Oct. 25.  

The DMV’s proposals are meant to conform to new federal regulations for driverless cars, which cleared through a Senate panel earlier this month, and await a vote after passing in the House in September. 

We might not see the human-free systems in action immediately if the rules go into effect in 2018 — most companies have only shown off autonomous platforms that are capable of “Level 3” autonomy, which means there is some need for human operation — but the road ahead is clear for more advanced tech. 

The move marks a shift in self-driving car testing. If the rules pass, we might see more prototypes out in the wild that lack standard features like steering wheels, pedals, and mirrors — the types of vehicles that Google and Ford have described as the ultimate future for automotive transportation. 

Test vehicles laden with sensors have collected road data on California’s streets for a few years now — but there has always been a human operator ready to take control in case the computer system controlling the car failed. If a company wanted to test out its platform sans driver, it wouldn’t be allowed on public roads. 

That’s largely because the DMV required companies testing on public roads to submit annual disengagement reports, which disclose the number of times a human operator was needed to take control of the vehicle. Some of the new rules will address those disengagement reports, while others will give companies more guidance on operating the test vehicles with public passengers. 

The California DMV has proved to be a force to be reckoned with in the self-driving development space. Uber learned the hard way not to cross the regulatory body, as its pilot autonomous passenger program was booted from the state when Uber refused to register for a permit. (The ride-hailing company has since obtained permission from the DMV to test its tech in San Francisco without public passengers.)

The California DMV has proved to be a force to be reckoned with

The DMV has granted 42 companies permission to test out self-driving tech on public roads, and has nearly 1,000 registered operators for the autonomous vehicles. With major players like Lyft, Uber, Waymo, and Tesla headquartered in the state, it’s no surprise that its regulations are becoming more progressive.   

There are public self-driving pilots on the road in other states, most notably Waymo’s in Arizona and Uber’s in Pennsylvania. Since Silicon Valley is the main hub for development in the tech world, however, California could be where we start to see driverless cars really take off — so the state’s DMV is embracing that future. 

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Self-driving cars still need to earn the public’s trust

Ford CEO Jim Hackett made a surprising public admission earlier this month: He’s not yet comfortable with the self-driving car technology his company or any other company has built.

“The trust isn’t real high,” he told an audience in Michigan after asking if they’d take a ride in a driverless car that morning if given the chance. “I wouldn’t yet, either.”

Hackett’s comments highlight one of biggest challenges for automakers and tech companies working to develop autonomous vehicles: Convincing the public driverless cars are safe.

A recent AAA survey found that over three-quarters of respondents admitted to being afraid of riding in a self-driving car, and only 10 percent said they’d feel safer with driverless vehicles on the road. With highly publicized incidents like Tesla’s fatal Autopilot accident and Uber’s self-driving trial fail, those fears shouldn’t come as a big surprise.

But for all the billions of dollars and time invested in developing autonomous driving systems, the companies responsible for the technology will have to convert consumer fears into enthusiasm. 

Just think: a few years ago, you would never have jumped in a stranger’s car for a ride. 

Eventually, they will. Here’s how: 

Keep the ride familiar

The first step to building widespread acceptance for self-driving cars is showing the public what these systems are capable of IRL. That means actually getting people into the vehicles and putting them on the road, an effort that’s already underway in a few very limited trial programs.    

The self-driving pilots being operated by Lyft, Uber, Waymo, and GM’s Cruise are likely the first place the public will encounter autonomous vehicles. The way these programs operate will ease nervous passengers into the world of driverless cars — mostly because they’ll still require a human driver or operator behind the wheel at all times, ready to take over if something goes awry.

With “drivers” behind the wheel, passengers who summon autonomous Uber and Lyft vehicles will have an experience that isn’t much different than a regular ride — and Lyft plans to keep human operators in its cars even beyond the testing phase.

This experience will likely increase public acceptance as these programs expand and the technologies improve, giving the human operators less to do as passengers grow more accustomed to the autonomous systems. Just think: a few years ago, you likely would never have jumped in a stranger’s car for a ride. Now you may do it a few times a month.

Eventually, Lyft and its peers will phase human operators out of vehicles completely — but by then, we’ll be so used to the autonomous driving systems that it won’t matter.  

Make AI friendlier

Teaching the public about the systems controlling autonomous cars will be just as important as showing off a vehicle’s performance. Getting people familiar with the foundational technology in self-driving cars will happen through a combination of educational and PR campaigns. The biggest players in self-driving tech are already hard at work broadcasting their message.  

Intel, for example, is already working to demystify its self-driving car technology. The company has one of the most recognizable faces in the world behind its efforts, too, with a new ad campaign starring LeBron James and his new driverless car. 

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The ad shows how even a person of James’ stature can be apprehensive about getting in a self-driving car — but after a short trip in one, he’s “fearless.” LeBron’s smile has worked magic for Nike and Sprite, so Intel’s betting he might have the same success with autonomous vehicles.    

Waymo also launched a multi-pronged public education campaign to spread the gospel of self-driving cars to the masses, teaming with organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and the National Safety Council. The company will look to educate the public on the potential safety benefits that are projected to come with self-driving cars, with a focus on eliminating car crashes caused by human error completely. 

PR and education programs like these will help win the public’s good faith, all while artificial intelligence becomes even more commonplace in other areas of our lives. Digital assistants like Google Assistant and Alexa will play a major role in familiarizing people with AI. This could ultimately help establish trust in a driverless vehicle, especially when these digital assistants become more common in cars and begin controlling more components.

Ford CEO Jim Hackett might not trust his company’s self-driving car technology as it exists today — but he did say that he thinks he’ll be comfortable taking an autonomous ride “very soon.” As Ford develops its technology ahead of the 2021 target, his most important job will be to make sure people are completely comfortable taking a seat in a car that doesn’t need a driver.

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Waymo and Intel are officially teaming up to build self-driving cars

Waymo and Intel just announced a blockbuster new partnership in the self-driving space — but it’s a collaboration that’s actually been going on for years. 

The two companies, which are among the leaders in the race to develop driverless car technology, officially announced their partnership in a blog post penned by Intel CEO Brian Krzanich. There were no financial terms revealed, and other details about the partnership were not disclosed, but we did gain some new insights about Waymo’s driverless vehicle platform. 

We now know that Waymo was using Intel’s tech well before the partnership was made official earlier today. A separate post from Waymo revealed that it has used Intel technology in its self-driving cars since 2009, long before it spun out from Google as a standalone company last year

Intel played a big part in developing Waymo’s in-house self-driving hardware platform, which is used in its fleet of Chrysler Pacifica minivans. Waymo wrote that its engineers worked closely with Intel to integrate processors and other Intel tech into the platform, specifically to create its compute system that crunches the road data collected by its suite of sensors, also built in-house.  

It’s not exactly clear why the collaboration was made public after so long. Krzanich wrote that the collab “ensures Intel will continue its leading role in helping realize the promise of autonomous driving and a safer, collision-free future,” which doesn’t really mean much of anything beyond the fact that Intel’s tech will be used in Waymo’s vehicles. 

A Waymo rep couldn’t share any other details about the partnership when we reached out via email, providing only a statement from Waymo CEO John Krafcik. “Intel’s technology supports the advanced processing inside our vehicles, with the ability to manufacture to meet Waymo’s needs at scale,” it read.  

Both companies have accumulated impressive sets of allies in the effort to create self-driving systems. Waymo has teamed with Lyft, Chrysler, and Avis, while Intel bought Mobileye and partnered with BMW and Fiat Chrysler (FCA)

By acknowledging Intel’s position in Waymo’s platform, both companies can add another big name to their roster of partners, and potentially open up the door for more public collaboration going forward. True self-driving cars are still far off in the future, and from the way the field is coming together, collaboration will be a shortcut for more rapid development. 

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Rolls-Royce hopes its self-piloting ship concept will be the naval vessel of the future

When ships are autonomous, the navy and other shipping industries won’t need a crew onboard.

That’s what Rolls-Royce is working on with their autonomous naval vessel concept that plans to have a 3,500 nautical-mile range. 

Earlier this week, the British company known for its cars unveiled plans for the nearly 200-foot long ship with an electric propulsion system that makes humans unnecessary.

The company sees a future in the next 10 years or so where autonomous boats are out in the water for up to 100 days, eliminating the need for remote controlled ships or crews. 

The autonomous ship will fight off drones while moving through dangerous waters.

The autonomous ship will fight off drones while moving through dangerous waters.

Image: rolls-royce

Rolls-Royce general manager of naval electrics, automation and control, Benjamin Thorp said in a news release, “Such ships offer a way to deliver increased operational capability, reduce the risk to crew, and cut both operating and build costs.”

That means the ships could be used for military purposes without risking human life. They could complete surveillance and patrol missions without needing to worry about supplies and or the risks of a human crew. What’s considered a dangerous mission could change if people aren’t part of the equation. Also, without people and supplies, the ships will have a much lighter load.

These ships, which navies could mix into their fleets, will of course feature Rolls-Royce electric generators — or could eventually run on gas turbines. Other tools from the company will also be included to help the ship run on its own.

A big issue is fuel consumption, so the company is putting photovoltaic solar panels on the vessel to power the boat while its idling or using less power. It’ll also have 3,000kWh of energy storage, just in case.

Rolls-Royce says autonomous technology is mostly already here, so this is the next step. It’s just a matter of pairing powerful sensors with artificial intelligence to create an awareness system that can navigate itself, according to the company.

The ship is all conceptual, but the Verge reported a Norwegian company is launching an automated cargo ship next year that plans to be autonomous by 2020. The U.S. military has an autonomous warship, as well.

So keep an eye on the water for when these crew-less ships set sail. 

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Uber shows off its autonomous driving program’s snazzy visualization tools


Uber’s engineering blog has just posted an interesting piece on the company’s web-based tool for exploring and visualizing data from self-driving car research. It’s a smart look at an impressive platform, and definitely has nothing to do with a long piece published last week lauding a similar platform in use by one of Uber’s most serious rivals, Waymo.

Okay, maybe it has a little to do with that. The piece, over at The Atlantic, is quite interesting, but seemed rather to suggest that Waymo is unique in its approach to improving its autonomous cars’ AI. In fact, it’s likely that every company working on this stuff has a pretty similar approach, at least if they’re keeping pace with the state of the art.

The cool secret technique that in fact all the companies in question know about is the possibility of using and learning from data that’s been hoarded over a million miles of test driving. Once you’ve driven that far, you have so much data that you can mix and match it in a virtual environment and let the AI navigate it just as if it were real. The computer doesn’t know the difference! Meanwhile you can tweak the data, watch for unusual events or compare multiple models.

The Uber post just focuses on visualization of this data, and with details on its tools, which are wisely web-based, leading to easy collaboration and quick turnaround on new features. These days web apps can access the GPUs, communicate in real time and so on — no need for a local client any more for many things. It makes for cool GIFs.

What the post doesn’t really get into, but is pretty much a foregone conclusion given the sophistication of the tools they’re showing off, is how to further multiply the data’s value by essentially making up the environment out of whole cloth.

Take for example the problem of dealing with a major event like a parade or protest. Would you let your naive self-driving car run free during a marathon just so it has a chance to learn how the runners act? Of course not.

What you can do is open up your excellent map of Boston, shut down several main thoroughfares, add lots and lots of pedestrians and erratic drivers to the virtual world and then set your AI driver agents to work getting around. You’ll see when it breaks down, how it reacts to situations it’s never seen in real life and so on. It’s like a thought experiment that generates usable data and improves the AI.

So maybe the timing is just a coincidence, but it seems like this post, while cool on its own, is Uber’s way of saying “Hey, we’re doing this too. Look!” Because at this point, if you’re an autonomous car developer and you’re not using simulations with all kinds of variations, you’re going to have a bad time.

Featured Image: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch