All posts in “Autonomous Vehicles”

Can self-driving cars even honk their own horns?

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) will likely change the way we get around forever, but the AI that controls them might not be able to tell other cars on the road when they’re driving like assholes. 

At least not at first. 

Case in point: The City of Las Vegas and AAA’s self-driving shuttle, one of the most advanced public autonomous trials in the U.S., was hit by a semi-truck within hours of its maiden trip last month. The Navya Arma bus was stuck between a car behind it and the slowly advancing truck, which backed its way into the the shuttle. 

The shuttle behaved exactly as it was designed to in the situation, according to a AAA rep — but it didn’t move or, more importantly for the truck driver who might not have seen the vehicle behind it, honk a horn to make its presence known. One of the most essential tools for interpersonal communication between drivers wasn’t even in the AI’s protocol, which made us wonder: Can self-driving cars even beep?

Fostering these systems of communication will be one of the biggest jobs for AV developers, since honking and other audio and visual alerts are essential to the task of driving. 

The answer in this particular instance is yes, but the feature is limited to certain situations. “The shuttle does have the capacity to automatically honk its horn, but that function wasn’t designed for defensive driving techniques — such as honking when an object is actively backing toward the vehicle,” AAA’s rep told Mashable in an email. Instead, the shuttle beeps “offensively,” when objects in its path like pedestrians or idling vehicles don’t move after several seconds.  

Building in beeping

The question of whether AVs can honk has wider ramifications than just the trial in Las Vegas. Robocars will share the roads with human drivers for a protracted period of time in the future, since it will probably take decades for human-operated cars to be eliminated from the roads completely. There will be a learning curve for everyone, and mixing people and robots together will require increasing levels of communication between humans and machines to replace the system of beeps, waves, and middle fingers that rule the road today.  

Fostering these systems of communication will be one of the biggest jobs for AV developers, since honking and other audio and visual alerts are essential to the task of driving. Industry leader Waymo has worked to create the proper protocols for its self-driving vehicles to honk their horns, with different types of beeps to signal intention to other drivers on the road. 

Silicon Valley AV startup Drive.ai has also emphasized machine-human interaction in its platform since launching out of stealth mode last year, and it has shared images of concept designs equipped with obvious visual cues for pedestrians and human drivers on the road. The company’s most current platform can automatically beep in response to on-road stimuli, for the record — but Drive.ai’s CEO Sameep Tandon has wider concerns than just giving the vehicles a horn to honk. 

“We’re really interested in the question of how do vehicles communicate with the outside world and how we can use that to enhance trust,” he said in a phone interview. “How do we know that the vehicle is going to be transparent about what its doing? If it does sense danger, it should be able to communicate.” 

Signaling intention is a two-way street, however, and Tandon says people need to adjust their expectations to help bring AVs along.

“Generally speaking, [building AV communication] is something where it’s going to be a combination of working with people and society at large so that people understand that hey, these are robots — maybe I should behave slightly different around them,” he said. “It’s not the type of thing where there’ll be one solution and it’ll solve every single thing, there’s going to be a need to meet in the middle and work with society to get there.”

Emilio Frazzoli, CTO and Chief Scientist for recent Delphi acquisition and fellow Lyft partner nuTonomy agrees that collaboration in communication will be key to a future filled with self-driving cars — but nuTonomy’s vehicles don’t have protocols to honk their horns at the moment. He said in a phone interview the company is instead focused on perfecting the systems that control blinkers and active signaling, which he believes are used more often than a horn, and therefore more important.  

That’s not to say that audio cues are excluded from nuTonomy’s platform entirely. “Personally I hate beeping and people who do that,” said Frazzoli. “One of the ways we had our cars signal to human driven vehicles nearby that the car is ‘annoyed’ with their behavior was to actually play the sound of angry R2-D2 from Star Wars. That was kind of cool because it wasn’t perceived as rude, but it made people consider what they might be doing wrong. It worked pretty well.”

Making robots more human

The main goal of AV technology is to create safer roads, whether the cars can beep or not. Even though the systems aim to make a fundamentally imperfect task perfect by removing the flaws flesh and blood drivers bring to the steering wheel, however, the only way they’ll be able to coexist with people on the road will be to embrace the ways humans interact.

That’s a fine line to straddle for the teams developing the systems, like the AAA rep who told us that the shuttle scenario happened in part because the AV didn’t behave like a human driver. Waymo’s engineers approached their beeping training in a similar manner, with an explicit goal to give the platform the same type of capabilities as a “patient, seasoned driver.”

The key for successful self-driving cars will be to adopt all of the positive attributes of the best human drivers without any of the distractions or physical shortcomings. Managing the horn is one piece of the puzzle. 

As more self-driving cars hit the streets, like nuTonomy’s recently launched trial with Lyft in Boston, fellow motorists will need to practice patience. Maybe we should be prepared to treat an encounter with vehicles laden with sensors and cameras the same way we handle intersections with clearly marked student driver cars: Give them a wide berth and some extra attention when they’re nearby. Just don’t expect the robots to thank you with a wave before speeding away.

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Lyft’s self-driving cars are now on the road in Boston

Bostonites have a new way to get around the city’s famously contentious streets: robotaxis.  

Lyft and autonomous driving company nuTonomy announced their joint pilot program has been cleared by the city’s authorities to begin picking up passengers. The two companies first disclosed their partnership back in June, but had to wait until the city’s regulatory bodies gave it the green light to actually offer Lyft users driverless rides. 

The program will begin in Boston’s Seaport district, matching riders looking to travel on routes within the area with driverless cabs. The cars will have human safety operators, like other trials, and the program will emphasize rider education about self-driving cars as one of its major points of focus.   

Image: nutonomy/lyft

The Boston program is the first time a self-driving company and ride-hailing company have teamed to put robotaxis on city streets in the U.S., since Lyft’s other self-driving pilot, Drive.ai in the Bay Area, still hasn’t commenced. 

These Lyft trips won’t be the first self-driving rides in Boston, however; nuTonomy launched its own public passenger pilot in the city last month. The company, which was recently acquired by Delphi, also previously partnered with ride-hailing app Grab for a similar program in Singapore last year.

Boston presents a particularly challenging landscape for autonomous vehicles, with a combination of challenging weather conditions and streets filled with terrible drivers. This type of development is becoming more common in the industry; autonomous programs are expanding beyond more comfortable West Coast climes for difficult test sites in Michigan and New York City

Autonomous vehicles need to be equipped to handle just about every environment — so Lyft and nuTonomy will give them a chance to prove themselves by sharing the roads with hot-blooded Bostonians to start. 

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Intel and Warner Bros. are teaming up to build in-cabin entertainment for autonomous cars

When fully autonomous vehicles finally hit the road, they’ll turn everyone into a passenger. As such, we’ll need something to do in order to pass the time while we’re riding in our vehicles.

Luckily, Intel and Warner Bros. are here to help.

Intel and Warner Bros. announced today at the L.A. Auto Show that they’re teaming up to develop in-cabin entertainment experiences for cars of the future.

The two companies will essentially work together to create a new concept vehicle dubbed the AV Entertainment Experience. The car will be the only one of its kind, a specially-tailored vehicle that will be a member of the Intel/Mobileye 100-vehicle testing fleet announced back in August.

The AV Entertainment Experience will use Warner Bros. properties like Batman and Harry Potter along with cutting-edge technology to keep passengers occupied during drives.

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich touted the potential for VR and AR experiences in the vehicle to go along with more traditional entertainment options like TV and movies. AR could specifically be used to open up passengers to advertising opportunities, he wrote, echoing Intel’s June study that outlined a potential new $7 trillion passenger economy once self-driving vehicles become the norm. 

Intel isn’t the only company interested in what passengers will do to pass the time in the autonomous vehicles of the future. Audi’s 25th Hour project studied test subjects in a mockup AV interior to determine how they’ll be most likely to spend their self-driven rides. 

Audi’s researchers found that people were likely to use the extra time for work, not play, so WB and Intel might have a steep road to convincing future AV riders to put their laptops down to enter a virtual playground. If the car can become a Batmobile, though, that might be a different story.

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Apple might test self-driving cars at this track

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Apple’s self-driving car project might have a new test site. 

The company is leasing an Arizona proving ground to experiment with its nascent autonomous platform, according to a Jalopnik report citing a source familiar with the project. The facility in Surprise, Arizona was previously owned by Fiat Chrysler, which took advantage of the area’s brutal climate to conduct tests on how heat affected its vehicles.

Apple’s designs for the now-empty property would be focused squarely on testing its autonomous platform, which is thought to be the main focus of the company’s automotive development after the rumored work to actually produce a car, “Project Titan,” reportedly shuttered last year. Tim Cook confirmed Apple’s self-driving car platform earlier this year, and the company’s test vehicles have reportedly been spotted on California’s public roads. 

The proving ground would give Apple an opportunity to test out specific driving scenarios its platform might not encounter in its other pilots and a dedicated space to put test vehicles through their paces free of state regulations and prying eyes.

An Apple spokesperson declined to comment on the Arizona lease report when reached by Mashable via email. 

Apple has been linked with an automotive testing ground before, when people believed the company would build its own vehicles and Project Titan rumors were prevalent. Apple was rumored to have tabbed California’s GoMentum track to test its vehicle prototypes back in 2015, but nothing was ever publicly confirmed. Toyota recently signed an agreement to test its driverless cars on the site. 

Apple computer scientists published new research about their tests with self-driving car software last week, a rare move from employees of the ultra-secretive company. The system they described eliminates the need to use cameras to detect objects around a self-driving car, and could be a key candidate for closed-course testing if the Arizona site really is Apple’s latest move to become a player the world of self-driving car development.  

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Lyft now has permission to test self-driving cars on California’s roads

Lyft might be prepping its own self-driving tests for California's streets.
Lyft might be prepping its own self-driving tests for California’s streets.

Image: Getty Images for Lyft

Lyft just took a small but essential step forward in the development of its own self-driving car project. 

The California DMV granted the rapidly growing ride-hailing company permission to test autonomous vehicles on the state’s public roads. The registration, which the DMV gives after the submission of an application and an annual $150 fee, has become a rite of passage of sorts for the various AV projects from automakers, tech companies, and startups that are currently racing to develop their own platforms.   

Registering with the state means that Lyft will now have to submit certain information to the DMV about its operations, most significantly an annual disengagement report detailing the number of times human operators had to take control of test vehicles. Lyft joins the likes of massive companies like Volkswagen, Waymo, Apple, and Ford with the registration, rounding out the full list of testers to 45. 

The decision to register now is important for Lyft’s greater designs for expansion and its plans to launch its own fleet of AVs. Until recently, the company was content to depend on partnerships to actually put its self-driving cars on the streets, as associates like Waymo, Drive.ai, GM, Udacity, and Ford already have permission to test on the state’s public roads. 

But Lyft announced that it would open its own Silicon Valley autonomous development center in July, which signaled that the company will eventually need to test its own autonomous cars on public roads. Lyft’s reps had no comment when we reached out for more details about its autonomous program, or if public testing is imminent.

Unlike main rival Uber, which famously challenged the DMV’s rules and was subsequently booted from operating its self-driving cars in the state (before conceding and applying for the permit), Lyft appears to have handled the paperwork ahead of time.

The registration is just the latest sign of Lyft’s growth. The company also recently raised its largest round of funding in a $1 billion drive led by a Google fund and announced its long-awaited international expansion into Canada. A leaked investor document obtained by Bloomberg projected domestic growth of 61 percent by the year’s end, which could bring Lyft’s presence in the U.S. to over a third of the total ride-hailing market.

Lyft is still behind Uber when it comes to self-driving cars, though. The larger ride-hailing company has public pilots running in Arizona and Pittsburgh, and just signed a massive deal with Volvo that will provide its very own 24,000-vehicle self-driving fleet, an unprecedented move that could help to change the industry’s dominant, contractor-reliant business model.  

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