All posts in “Self Driving Cars”

Waymo is duping us all with its new self-driving taxi service

Well, Waymo did it. It launched a self-driving taxi service before the end of 2018. This is, on the surface, exactly what it said it would do, and it didn’t even come down to the wire — it’s only Dec. 5. 

But a closer examination shows this isn’t what Waymo once promised eager would-be riders.

Basically, Waymo slapped a “launch” label to its already-existing early rider self-driving car service, started charging its select group of about 400 preexisting customers for rides, and is letting them talk about the experience and even bring a guest along for a ride.

A slick name for the service and a video showing all you can do with a computer in the driver’s seat gloss over an inconvenient detail: From a service standpoint, this is almost exactly what it was offering before. In its “how it works” post about the One app, Waymo writes it expects “to gradually roll out so even more people can ride with us.”

So instead of a truly public launch it’s only the invited early riders who get to ride the before-the-end-of-the-year service. And it’s only in the Phoenix area including the cities of Chandler, Tempe, Mesa, and Gilbert. And within those towns, only within geofenced areas.

The early riders were warned months ago that the service they were using for free would one day charge for schlepping them around town, and that day has come. Fair enough, but just because Waymo’s now accepting credit cards doesn’t mean this isn’t much more than a limited pilot.

The Waymo One app offers self-driving car rides for a fare.

The Waymo One app offers self-driving car rides for a fare.

Image: waymo

Credit where it’s due: Waymo is the only company to have applied for a truly driverless testing permit in California and is also testing driverless rides in Arizona. It built its own Uber- or Lyft-like ride-hailing app, complete with a payment system. It’s tested more than 10 million real road miles in its vehicles. But these milestones don’t mean much for Wednesday’s announcement. 

The list of “howevers” is just as long, though. Safety drivers are still in the cars and remote operators will be monitoring rides as well. The true “public” doesn’t have access to the service. And the first-ever Waymo app isn’t even available in the App Store or Google Play for anyone but Google’s handpicked customers.

At best, Waymo took an incremental step towards a self-driving service. At worst, the Google-created company is duping us all. Nothing substantive has changed compared to what the company has been doing since April 2017, geographically and demographically. It’s still the same Phoenix suburbs with its wide, sunny streets and same people who are used to and know what to expect from a Waymo ride. Regardless of how Waymo is framing this, those unflattering reports from The Information and Bloomberg that questioned whether a full launch would happen before 2019 now look validated.

Bottom line: Waymo still isn’t ready for prime time. The cars can be slow to turn, hesitant in certain situations, and overly cautious. Local Arizona reporters who recently followed Waymo minivans for three days found the cars use “extreme caution in maneuvers” and often frustrate other riders on the road. It’s certainly impressive what Waymo has achieved, but those achievements may be incompatible with today’s roads, and least in some situations.

Because of these shortcomings, Waymo wants to keep the less-than-perfect rides within the early rider crew. These are the people who know that the Waymo car is bad at changing lanes or can’t always handle the chaos of a busy parking lot.

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Even watching a promo video for the new Waymo One service, the wording (“this is where we’re going”) and visuals carefully focus on what the service will eventually become: driverless, accessible, and as easy to use as any other ride-hailing app. 

Until then, however, Waymo One is just a new label for the same driverless promises, most of which are still a ways down the road. 

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In pouring rain, self-driving delivery vans show off autonomous skills

A little rain didn’t dampen ThorDrive, a self-driving car platform based in Seoul, from launching its self-driving delivery service. 

Starting Thursday, driverless vans will drop off purchases from a hardware store in Silicon Valley — no human driver steering, accelerating, or braking required.

In a demo ride Thursday in the pouring rain, a small Ford van with ThorDrive branding and four Velodyne LiDAR sensors that use light to measure distance between objects, sensors, and cameras drove some passengers around downtown Palo Alto in the heart of Silicon Valley.

ThorDrive outfits its delivery vans with necessary autonomous equipment.

ThorDrive outfits its delivery vans with necessary autonomous equipment.

Image: sasha lekach / mashable

A safety driver and operator in the front seat kept riders posted on what and why the car was doing what it was doing — but after Thursday’s launch ThorDrive won’t have to deal with pesky humans asking questions and judging how the car stops or slows down. 

Instead, the focus will be on delivering orders from hardware store chain Ace Hardware, starting with the Hassett Hardware store in Palo Alto and a few of its big clients, like the local fire department and the Channing House retirement community.

The pilot will run for free for the next month, and the service plans to expand in 2019. The company tentatively plans to build out a separate delivery app for the vans to autonomously drop off orders. Pricing has yet to be worked out, but the hardware store currently doesn’t offer delivery services. With that in mind, the new delivery method needs to be factored into the business.

ThorDrive COO Farshid Arman said at the launch event that even if the vans are only delivering barbecue supplies or gardening mulch and equipment, “we still have to be just as safe.” Even if there aren’t any passengers inside the vehicle, the autonomous vans need to watch out for pedestrians, bicyclists, scooter riders, and other vehicles on the road.

In the backseat of the van with me was Velodyne president Mike Jellen and Palo Alto vice mayor Eric Filseth. Like me, they were impressed with the van’s ability to navigate through less-than-ideal driving conditions with steady rain, large puddles, debris strewn across streets, and pedestrians with umbrellas trying to get out of the wet. 

As Jellen pointed out, because of the reliance on LiDAR instead of cameras, the rain didn’t pose much of a problem. Light could still emit from the devices and the rain didn’t obstruct its view of objects.

No hands on the wheel.

No hands on the wheel.

Image: sasha lekach / mashable

Only at one point did the driver need to intervene when on a narrow two-way street a car was double parked and eventually tried to back into an open space, right at the corner of the intersection. The human driver in the car in front of us had trouble with the scenario, so it wasn’t that embarrassing for the ThorDrive driver to overtake the automated system and move the car around, but it showed its limitations.

The self-driving skills are pretty rudimentary at this point — it can’t back up or really park itself yet — but it very accurately and carefully approached stop signs, left-hand turns, pedestrian crossings, and other commonplace driving scenarios. It was almost too safe, cautiously crossing intersections and stopping fully. At one point a light turned yellow and instead of speeding up to make it through, the van stopped, which was the right call, but not what anyone else would do.

Filseth told ThorDrive founder Seung-Woo Seo after the ride that the ride was “pretty impressive” and that the car mitigated a “blizzard of complicated situations.”

ThorDrive follows a trend from other car makers and autonomous vehicle companies: transporting things instead of people. Unlike Waymo and GM’s Cruise with their taxi service goals, it’s easier to get a delivery service off the ground. Several grocery delivery programs have kicked off this year. Walmart and Ford announced earlier this month that you can order Walmart products in the Miami area delivered in a self-driving Ford vehicle. Nuro and Kroger also partnered recently for a food delivery program, while AutoX also offers autonomous delivery in Silicon Valley from online grocer GrubMarket.

Ford says it will have a self-driving car service by 2021, but in the meantime is working on autonomous deliveries. Before the Walmart partnership, Ford was dropping off Domino’s pizza orders. Instead of driving people, delivery services are an easier way to show proof-of-concept for self-driving.  

The ThorDrive COO said ThorDrive isn’t using delivery as a stepping stone to a passenger service. The company intends to stay in the commercial logistics business because of what he considers a “bigger market than [driving] people” and a growing demand for a last-mile solution to get online orders into people’s homes.

In Korea, the company is mulling a possible autonomous shuttle which would carry people — another more predictable, lower risk way to test and perfect self-driving systems.

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Best gifts for drivers who wish their car would drive itself already

Disclosure

Every product here is independently selected by Mashable journalists. If you buy something featured, we may earn an affiliate commission which helps support our work.

Help that special driver in your life head off into the sunset with a car almost as smart as a robot.
Help that special driver in your life head off into the sunset with a car almost as smart as a robot.

Image: german autolabs / phrame / drivemode dash / nonda

We get it — it seems like every company is promising self-driving cars any day now, but where are they? 

Sure, some Cruise Chevy Bolt cars and Waymo minivans are awkwardly test-driving around cities like San Francisco and Phoenix, but our driverless future still seems impossibly far away. You want to be napping, watching Netflix, and sipping on an evening cocktail while your car drives you home after a long day at work.

While we wait on the robots to completely take the wheel, here are some gift ideas that will at least help make it feel like you’re driving into the future. Nothing can match true autonomy, but for the driver on your gift list who dreams of a robot car, these gifts can make her feel like her ride is at least getting smarter.

These are fun gift ideas, but let’s remember: cars don’t drive themselves just yet. So no, you can’t watch Harry Potter movies from the passenger seat. Eyes on the road.

Pay attention!

Pay attention!

Image: The Distracted Driving Device

The whole point of autonomous cars is to make driving safer. Until we have the machines making sure we don’t hit other cars and people, we need to pay attention. That means looking away from our smartphones. The Distracted Driving Device won’t let you start the car unless your phone is in the distraction-prevention cradle. For real.

Price: $349

Back it up.

Back it up.

Image: Nonda

Nonda’s smart rearview camera gives you the gift of eyes in the back of your head. For cars that don’t have a back-up camera, the ZUS Wireless Smart Backup Camera lets you see what’s happening behind the car, all 170 degrees behind. The device connects to your smartphone and stays charged for three months.

Price: $119

Sound straight to your ears. And no one else's.

Sound straight to your ears. And no one else’s.

Image: sowlo

An in-car assistant that talks to you and only you. That’s what Noveto’s Sowlo infotainment sound system can do, so your passenger doesn’t have to hear a text from your mom. Sounds waves are sent only to your ears using 3D sensors. The only problem is the headphone-free, personalized sound driving experience isn’t here yet. But one day!

Price: Wait for it.

Use your phone in a less dangerous way.

Use your phone in a less dangerous way.

Image: drivemode dash

With big buttons and voice controls, the Drivemode Dash app makes using your phone while driving not the most reckless and dangerous activity it typically is. It’s still not meant for Instagram browsing but the important stuff is easy to access like maps or phone calls.

Price: Free

Get plugged in.

Get plugged in.

Image: harman/at&T

AT&T offers the Harman Spark plug-in smart car device to turn even your 1999 Honda Accord into a connected car. Once plugged in, the Spark can help find parking and lets you pay from the car, acts like a virtual mechanic that flags car problems, and turns your car into a WiFi hotspot.

Price: $79.99

Turn your trunk into a locker with a Phrame license plate holder.

Turn your trunk into a locker with a Phrame license plate holder.

Image: phrame

So you want to get groceries delivered to your trunk. But how do you get the delivery guy the key? That’s where turning your license plate into a smartphone-controlled key holder comes in. The Phrame license plate lifts up to reveal a lock box controlled through an app. So don’t worry about exchanging keys or trudging down to the parking lot to pick up your delivery.

Price: Reserve for upcoming release

Monitor the drivers in your life.

Monitor the drivers in your life.

Image: life360

Image: life360

If your car can’t monitor how you’re driving, there’s an app for that. The Life360 driver protection app uses sensors in your phone to detect if you’ve crashed and automatically calls emergency crews. It’ll also alert your emergency contacts. A weekly report lets you know how distracted you’ve been on the road and other bad driving habits you should work on like hard braking and speeding. The app also connects you to roadside assistance for those frustrating moments when you lock the keys in the car or get a flat.

Price: $7.99 a month

Chris at your service.

Chris at your service.

Image: German autolabs

Chris is a voice-controlled AI for your car, like Alexa in your living room but for the driver’s seat. You can even gesture toward the device and it’ll send a text or open up navigation — for those moments when you want to chat with your car or turn it into your digital butler. You know, normal car things.

Price: $285 USD

Connect your car.

Connect your car.

Image: skyroam solis

This 4G LTE global WiFi hotspot and powerbank connects you to the internet no matter where you are. Boot up the hotspot, connect your phone or laptop or tablet while in the passenger seat, and you’re good to go. Or stop wasting your phone plan data just to stream your music or podcasts while on the road. It’s small enough to easily sit on the dashboard, in a center console, or glove compartment, turning your car into a connected vehicle.

Price: $149.99 with 24-hour day passes for $9 each or $99/month for a monthly unlimited WiFi subscription. Available for $9.95 daily rentals.

10. E-bikes

The Gazelle commuter bike and Trek Domane e-bike are just some of your e-bike options.

The Gazelle commuter bike and Trek Domane e-bike are just some of your e-bike options.

There are so many e-bikes to choose from — even GM is releasing electric bicycles next year — but riding one is the ultimate snub to the auto industry. Instead of waiting for cars to drive themselves you’re getting a bicycle that gives you a boost up hills. Take that.

Price: Various: $4,299 for Gazelle Cityzen, $6,999 for Trek Domane+, $3,299 for Yamaha Urban Rush

The forward is by Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook fame. Really. (Not really.)

The forward is by Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook fame. Really. (Not really.)

Image: Grand Central Publishing

What’s better than the promise of life-altering tech than a whole book filled with satire about the tech industry? The gift of laughter can’t be beat.

Price: $15.41 on Amazon

Last-ditch gift: Lyft/Uber gift card

Make someone else drive you around.

Make someone else drive you around.

Image: Uber

If self-driving cars are all about not driving yourself, then making someone else drive you around is a solid substitute. Uber and Lyft gift cards might be fairly low-tech gifts, but the gift of essentially a chauffeured ride will make anyone forget how far we have to go for self-driving vehicles to be everywhere.

Price: However much you want to spend

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Ford self-driving cars shift from pizza delivery to Walmart order pickup

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Ford teamed up with Domino’s last year to test out self-driving cars for pizza delivery. And while a hot cheesy pie is certainly delicious, the autonomous technology is now being put to even better use.

On Wednesday, Ford announced that it is now using Postmates delivery service to bring Walmart products to customers’ homes via self-driving Ford vehicles. Ford and Walmart already partner with the delivery service Postmates, making it a smoother (and more obvious) collaboration. Ford works with Argo AI to power the self-driving part of the car.

Starting in the Miami area, where Domino’s is still testing autonomous pizza delivery and Ford has developed a urban self-driving car proving ground, the service will kick off with Walmart employees putting groceries into the car. The self-driving car then takes the bagged items to its destination, wherever someone who ordered items from the Walmart, Postmates, or other delivery app can come out and grab the bags from the trunk. 

The cars are clearly marked as Ford self-driving cars as well as “research” vehicles.

A touchscreen on the car window provides instructions and gives access to the trunk. As it’s still in testing, a safety driver will be in the front seat, so don’t expect to see driverless cars roaming around with your groceries.

In a blog post, Ford said by the end of this year autonomous Walmart deliveries will expand to 100 regions in the U.S. at 800 Walmart stores. In 2019, Ford says at least 1,600 Walmart stores will offer self-driving deliveries.

Humans haven't been entirely replaced yet.

Humans haven’t been entirely replaced yet.

Image: ford / walmart

Walmart never shies away from new technology at its stores. It’s previously experimented with a self-serve kiosk, self-driving floor scrubbers, and AI-powered shopping apps. Back in July, Walmart partnered with Waymo, Google’s self-driving car company, for Phoenix users to get autonomous rides to the store to pick up pre-ordered groceries.

While taking a self-driving car to the store is something decidedly different, self-driving grocery delivery isn’t new. Kroger and Nuro kicked things off, and AutoX offers a digital grocery shopping experience delivered by autonomous vehicle in the San Jose, California area.

Ford plans to have a self-driving car service in 2021, but until then it continues to partner with companies to bring users food, groceries, and other products. 

Why go to the store when a robot car can bring everything to you?

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It’s not just Waymo: Mercedes says it’s launching a self-driving car service

Self-driving car companies have been testing their vehicles for years, but now regular riders are starting to catch rides in the robot cars. 

Instead of merely watching a vehicle loaded with cameras, sensors, and other equipment drive by, some lucky folks (and not just company employees) are now able to experience the autonomy in person.

Waymo is sticking to its end-of-2018 timeline for a self-driving taxi service in Arizona. GM’s Cruise says 2019 is the year for a car service to drive San Franciscans around. And, in Dubai, a self-driving taxi service has already hit the streets.

Now, Daimler, the company that owns Mercedes-Benz, says it’s working with German auto parts company Bosch, to offer a self-driving car service for “select” riders in the San Jose area in the second half of 2019. 

Autonomous Mercedes-Benz S-Class cars will drive passengers between west San Jose and downtown. Notably, San Jose is in the heart of Silicon Valley, south of San Francisco.

The Daimler-Bosch service will still have a safety driver present to monitor the trip, which riders can hail from an app. The car will then drive to the passenger, and take them to their chosen destination. 

Details about who can use the service and how much it will cost weren’t immediately clear, but it’s considered a trial program as the companies gear up for a wider roll-out.

Both Daimler and Bosch have self-driving testing permits in California and have been testing in the state since its self-driving program opened up. In the latest disengagement report, Bosch reported testing through July 2017. Neither company has reported a crash involving an autonomous vehicle. The California DMV says as of this week, 113 collision reports have come into the department.

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