All posts in “Autonomous Vehicles”

Toyota’s autonomous driving program returns as new test track announced

See that oval? That's where Toyota will test out autonomous driving "edge cases."
See that oval? That’s where Toyota will test out autonomous driving “edge cases.”

Image: toyota research institute

After a woman was struck and killed by a self-driving Uber vehicle in Tempe, Arizona earlier this year, Toyota paused its autonomous driving program.

Now, more than a month later, the car company is resuming its testing in California and Michigan within the next few weeks, a company spokesperson said — and they’re rolling out brand new facilities.

As its vehicles ease back onto the roads, Toyota is building a massive autonomous driving test facility in Michigan. The closed-course track was announced Thursday and is set to open in October, located in Ottawa Lake at the Michigan Technical Resource Park.

The 60-acre track will give Toyota a space to test “edge cases,” or situations too dangerous to test on public roads. The research facility will simulate and construct congested city environments, slick roads, and highways with high-speed entrance and exit ramps — everything needed for a self-driving proving ground.

Even if Toyota is moving forward with its autonomous program, Uber is still paused, as federal investigators assess how 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg was fatally hit by an autonomous vehicle while crossing a road. 

“Our thoughts continue to be with Elaine’s loved ones. Our cars remain grounded, and we’re assisting local, state and federal authorities in any way we can,” an Uber spokesperson said Thursday.

Back in March, a Toyota spokesperson told Bloomberg, that the Uber fatality directly affected its testing. “Because we feel the incident may have an emotional effect on our test drivers, we have decided to temporarily pause our [testing program].”

Now, Toyota’s restarted its engines — with Uber’s nightmare in the rearview mirror. 

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Waymo reportedly applies to put autonomous cars on California roads with no safety drivers

Waymo has become the second company to apply for the newly-available permit to deploy autonomous vehicles without safety drivers on some California roads, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. It would be putting its cars — well, minivans — on streets around Mountain View, where it already has an abundance of data.

The company already has driverless driverless cars in play over in Phoenix, as it showed in a few promotional videos last month. So this isn’t the first public demonstration of its confidence.

California only just made it possible to grant permits allowing autonomous vehicles without safety drivers on April 2; one other company has applied for it in addition to Waymo, but it’s unclear which. The new permit type also allows for vehicles lacking any kind of traditional manual controls, but for now the company is sticking with its modified Chrysler Pacificas. Hey, they’re practical.

The recent fatal collision of an Uber self-driving car with a pedestrian, plus another fatality in a Tesla operating in semi-autonomous mode, make this something of an awkward time to introduce vehicles to the road minus safety drivers. Of course, it must be said that both of those cars had people behind the wheel at the time of their crashes.

Assuming the permit is granted, Waymo’s vehicles will be limited to the Mountain View area, which makes sense — the company has been operating there essentially since its genesis as a research project within Google. So there should be no shortage of detail in the data, and the local authorities will be familiar with the people necessary for handling any issues like accidents, permit problems, and so on.

No details yet on what exactly the cars will be doing, or whether you’ll be able to ride in one. Be patient.

Luminar puts its lidar tech into production through acquisitions and smart engineering

When Luminar came out of stealth last year with its built-from-scratch lidar system, it seemed to beat established players like Velodyne at their own game — but at great expense and with no capability to build at scale. After the tech proved itself on the road, however, Luminar got to work making its device better, cheaper, and able to be assembled in minutes rather than hours.

“This year for us is all about scale. Last year it took a whole day to build each unit — they were being hand assembled by optics PhDs,” said Luminar’s wunderkind founder Austin Russell. “Now we’ve got a 136,000 square foot manufacturing center and we’re down to 8 minutes a unit.”

Lest you think the company has sacrificed quality for quantity, be it known that the production unit is about 30 percent lighter and more power efficient, can see a bit further (250 meters vs 200), and detect objects with lower reflectivity (think people wearing black clothes in the dark).

The secret — to just about the whole operation, really — is the sensor. Luminar’s lidar systems, like all others, fire out a beam of light and essentially time its return. That means you need a photosensitive surface that can discern just a handful of photons.

Most photosensors, like those found in digital cameras and in other lidar systems, use a silicon-based photodetector. Silicon is well-understood, cheap, and the fabrication processes are mature.

Luminar, however, decided to start from the ground up with its system, using an alloy called indium gallium arsenide, or InGaAs. An InGaAs-based photodetector works at a different frequency of light (1,550nm rather than ~900) and is far more efficient at capturing it. (Some physics here.)

The more light you’ve got, the better your sensor — that’s usually the rule. And so it is here; Luminar’s InGaAs sensor and a single laser emitter produced images tangibly superior to devices of a similar size and power draw, but with fewer moving parts.

The problem is that indium gallium arsenide is like the Dom Perignon of sensor substrates. It’s expensive as hell and designing for it is a highly specialized field. Luminar only got away with it by making a sensor a fraction of the size of a silicon one.

Last year Luminar was working with a company called Black Forest Engingeering to design these chips, and finding their paths inextricably linked (unless someone in the office wanted to volunteer to build InGaAs ASICs), Luminar bought them. The 30 employees at Black Forest, combined with the 200 hired since coming out of stealth, brings the company to 350 total.

By bringing the designers in house and building their own custom versions of not just the photodetector but also the various chips needed to parse and pass on the signals, they brought the cost of the receiver down from tens of thousands of dollars to… three dollars.

“We’ve been able to get rid of these expensive processing chips for timing and stuff,” said Russell. “We build our own ASIC. We only take like a speck of InGaAs and put it onto the chip. And we custom fab the chips.”

“This is something people have assumed there was no way you could ever scale it for production fleets,” he continued. “Well, it turns out it doesn’t actually have to be expensive!”

Sure — all it took was a bunch of geniuses, five years, and a seven-figure budget (and I’d be surprised if the $36M in seed funding was all they had to work with). But let’s not quibble.

Quality inspection time in the clean room.

It’s all being done with a view to the long road ahead, though. Last year the company demonstrated that its systems not only worked, but worked well, even if there were only a few dozen of them at first. And they could get away with it, since as Russell put it, “What everyone has been building out so far has been essentially an autonomous test fleet. But now everyone is looking into building an actual, solidified hardware platform that can scale to real world deployment.”

Some companies took a leap of faith, like Toyota and a couple other unnamed companies, even though it might have meant temporary setbacks.

“It’s a very high barrier to entry, but also a very high barrier to exit,” Russell pointed out. “Some of our partners, they’ve had to throw out tens of thousands of miles of data and redo a huge portion of their software stack to move over to our sensor. But they knew they had to do it eventually. It’s like ripping off the band-aid.”

We’ll soon see how the industry progresses — with steady improvement but also intense anxiety and scrutiny following the fatal crash of an Uber autonomous car, it’s difficult to speculate on the near future. But Luminar seems to be looking further down the road.

Massterly aims to be the first full-service autonomous marine shipping company

Logistics may not be the most exciting application of autonomous vehicles, but it’s definitely one of the most important. And the marine shipping industry — one of the oldest industries in the world, you can imagine — is ready for it. Or at least two major Norwegian shipping companies are: they’re building an autonomous shipping venture called Massterly from the ground up.

“Massterly” isn’t just a pun on mass; “Maritime Autonomous Surface Ship” is the term Wilhelmson and Kongsberg coined to describe the self-captaining boats that will ply the seas of tomorrow.

These companies, with “a combined 360 years of experience” as their video put it, are trying to get the jump on the next phase of shipping, starting with creating the world’s first fully electric and autonomous container ship, the Yara Birkeland. It’s a modest vessel by shipping terms — 250 feet long and capable of carrying 120 containers according to the concept — but will be capable of loading, navigating, and unloading without a crew

(One assumes there will be some people on board or nearby to intervene if anything goes wrong, of course. Why else would there be railings up front?)

Each has major radar and lidar units, visible light and IR cameras, satellite connectivity, and so on.

Control centers will be on land, where the ships will be administered much like air traffic, and ships can be taken over for manual intervention if necessary.

At first there will be limited trials, naturally: the Yara Birkeland will stay within 12 nautical miles of the Norwegian coast, shuttling between Larvik, Brevik, and Herøya. It’ll only be going 6 knots — so don’t expect it to make any overnight deliveries.

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“As a world-leading maritime nation, Norway has taken a position at the forefront in developing autonomous ships,” said Wilhelmson group CEO Thomas Wilhelmson in a press release. “We take the next step on this journey by establishing infrastructure and services to design and operate vessels, as well as advanced logistics solutions associated with maritime autonomous operations. Massterly will reduce costs at all levels and be applicable to all companies that have a transport need.”

The Yara Birkeland is expected to be seaworthy by 2020, though Massterly should be operating as a company by the end of the year.

Nvidia suspends all autonomous vehicle testing

Nvidia is temporarily stopping testing of its autonomous vehicle platform in response to last week’s fatal collision of a self-driving Uber car with a pedestrian. TechCrunch confirmed this with the company, which offered the following statement:

Ultimately [autonomous vehicles] will be far safer than human drivers, so this important work needs to continue. We are temporarily suspending the testing of our self-driving cars on public roads to learn from the Uber incident. Our global fleet of manually driven data collection vehicles continue to operate.

Update: Shortly afterwards, the statement was apparently improved on internally and the following appended (brackets mine, replacing acronyms):

The accident was tragic. It’s a reminder of how difficult [self-driving car] technology is and that it needs to be approached with extreme caution and the best safety technologies. This tragedy is exactly why we’ve committed ourselves to perfecting this life-saving technology.

Likely someone pointed out that it wasn’t particularly charming to respond to a fatal system failure in an autonomous vehicle by saying that “ultimately” they’ll be safer, even if it’s true.

Reuters first reported the news.

The manually driven vehicles, to be clear, are not self-driving ones with safety drivers, but traditionally controlled vehicles with a full autonomous sensor suite on them to collect data.

Toyota also suspended its autonomous vehicle testing out of concern for its own drivers’ well-being. Uber of course ceased its testing operations at once.