All posts in “Self Driving Cars”

This is why self-driving cars suck at making unprotected left turns

Human drivers suck at left-hand turns, too.
Human drivers suck at left-hand turns, too.

Image: John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Human or robot driver, left-hand turns in a car are tough. Unprotected turns? Even harder.

Cruise, the self-driving car company backed by General Motors, put out a video Thursday showing its self-driving electric Bolts making left turns all over San Francisco’s busy streets. The company says it makes 1,400 unprotected left turns every 24 hours.

For an autonomous car company it seems like this shouldn’t be hailed as such an achievement, but it is. Waymo, the Google self-driving car spinoff company, notoriously struggled in Phoenix to turn left during testing on public roads. Its Chrysler Pacifica minivans were just too timid to make it through the oncoming traffic. People have noted that the robo-taxis have improved in those situations.

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In an emailed statement, Cruise president and CTO Kyle Vogt said, “In an unpredictable driving environment like SF, no two unprotected left-turns are alike. By safely executing 1,400 regularly, we generate enough data for our engineers to analyze and incorporate learnings into code they develop for other difficult maneuvers.” 

So while this is an important step for Cruise in its goal of launching a fleet of robo-taxis in San Francisco by the end of the year, it’s also a good reminder about the limits of autonomous vehicles.

Bob Leigh, senior market development director of autonomous systems at RTI, works with 40 different companies building autonomous vehicles of some sort: passenger vehicles, flying cars, hyperloops, and more. In a phone call Thursday he started off explaining that left-hand turns are just hard. Period.

Human drivers in the U.S. crash 10 times more making left-hand turns than right-hand turns. But the machines should be able to handle judging the risk, details, and surroundings required to successfully turn left. You can plug in a risk algorithm and have the car system scan for pedestrians,  the timing of oncoming traffic, and more. And yet, the machines still struggle with the maneuver. 

Ultimately it comes down to this: turning left on American roads is a very human, social move. It’s almost a negotiation, Leigh says. Drivers edge out into the lane, trying to assert themselves through. 

“A right-hand turn is a consistent maneuver,” Leigh explained. “A left-hand turn is a lot of variability.”

There’s pedestrians, oncoming traffic, and small gestures and nudges drivers make that are hard for a machine to emulate. It takes a lot of training, data, simulations, and iteration to teach an autonomous vehicle to balance a reckless, dangerous move barreling across oncoming traffic and staying timid and conservative and waiting for 10 minutes just to turn left. 

“That’s all communication,” Leigh said. And we know social interaction is not self-driving cars’ strongest suit – it’s a computer, after all. Cruise’s video shows it’s mastering what’s considered one of the hardest parts of autonomous driving in the U.S. “You can show a level of maturity,” Leigh said.

After all, we can’t all be like UPS, making only right-hand turns.

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How GM Cruise uses its Dashride acquisition to build a robo-taxi company

It started back in their college days when Thomas Bachant and Nadav Ullman were trying to get safe rides around the University of Connecticut campus. There was a disconnect between the partygoers who needed a ride and the designated, sober drivers.

So the two teamed up and built a mobile app, Sobrio, to make it easier to find someone going out but not drinking. When that took off at their campus they brought it to other universities. After graduation, they bought an RV and drove from campus to campus to get students hooked up to the ride platform.

Eventually they started getting calls from fleet managers who said that they wanted what they had built for universities for, say, a limo company’s service. Sobrio became Dashride and the team was then working with ground transportation companies on their dispatching software, booking, billing, and other operations. 

Now the co-founders are working with one of the biggest companies in the self-driving space, General Motor’s Cruise Automation. Cruise raised $1.15 billion earlier this month, now valuing the GM- and Honda-backed company at $19 billion. Late last year, the San Francisco-based autonomous vehicle company acquired Dashride and its seven-member engineering team. 

It makes a lot of sense: Cruise is preparing for a taxi service in San Francisco by the end of this year. As of February, 175 Cruise cars were registered for self-driving testing in California. The taxis will be autonomous all-electric Chevy Bolt cars — and several hundred will eventually be available for a hired ride as part of the Cruise network.

That’s a lot of charge levels, equipment, miles driven, maintenance checks and more to keep track of — which is where Dashride comes in.

The Dashride team with one of the Cruise autonomous vehicles.

The Dashride team with one of the Cruise autonomous vehicles.

Image: cruise

Through their fleet management software the team is taking their experience monitoring and managing fleets of delivery, campus, and non-medical emergency vehicles and translating that into a system where one day no one’s in the driver’s seat noticing a low battery warning.

Bachant compared robo-cars to human-driven vehicles in a recent phone call with Mashable: “Think about a human with a car. They’re gonna know when their car is low on fuel, or when to go in for an oil change.” But now with Cruise the team is thinking about “how a fleet operates without drivers,” Ullman added. 

The “dash” in their acquired company’s name hints at the “mission control”-like dashboard that Cruise now uses to track its vehicles on a map and with key data points like charge level, time out on the road, and where that particular car is due next.

Behind the scenes of Cruise's self-driving fleet.

Behind the scenes of Cruise’s self-driving fleet.

Image: Cruise automation

Fleet management is nothing new — for truck and delivery companies tracking trips and vehicles is crucial and has been for decades. Canadian company Geotab, a connected vehicle and data company, tracks 1.6 million vehicles, including many part of large commercial fleets like at PepsiCo and UPS.

Mike Branch, VP of data and analytics at Geotab, in a phone call last week explained how once fleets plug in the company’s device into the van, taxi, garbage truck, or other vehicles, Geotab “can tell you when your battery is going to die on your vehicle before it does.”

A connected truck reports back on its engine health or other needs.

A connected truck reports back on its engine health or other needs.

Image: geotab

As fleets and long-haul truck routes slowly become robot-controlled, predicative maintenance and tracking data help manage an “unmanned” system that won’t have a driver to flag issues. 

“You need to be able to connect these things together,” Branch, speaking from the perspective of an actual autonomous vehicle, said, “Whether or not I’m healthy, what’s my tire pressure, how many miles have I driven, what’s my engine health, am I in range?”

As Cruise’s Bachant said, “we’ve already removed the human from the driver seat, now we remove it from operations.” It’s all about autonomy.

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Waymo’s self-driving cars will soon be on the Lyft app

Waymo and Lyft are partnering up to offer more Phoenix passengers a self-driving ride.

Waymo, an autonomous vehicle company from Google parent company Alphabet, launched its self-driving taxi service in the Phoenix area late last year. On Tuesday, Waymo’s CEO John Krafcik announced that 1,000 riders currently have access to the car service, called Waymo One. But now, through a partnership with Lyft, more riders can experience self-driving.

Over the next few months, 10 Waymo vehicles — the company modifies Chrysler Pacifica minivans with self-driving equipment like cameras and LiDAR sensors — will be available on the Lyft ride-hailing app in the Phoenix area where Waymo’s been operating. Once all the vehicles are available, Lyft will add an option to select a Waymo vehicle from the Lyft ride-hailing app.

These Waymo cars will pick up riders just like they’ve been doing for the past six months through the Waymo app. A safety operator is still in the car. 

Lyft isn’t entirely new to self-driving. Its Level 5 autonomous driving group in Palo Alto has teamed up with various companies to make a self-driving system. Autonomous Lyfts are available in Las Vegas through a partnership with Aptiv. 

During Lyft’s first ever earnings call on Tuesday, Lyft co-founder John Zimmer called the Waymo partnership “an important step” in expanding access to autonomous vehicles. He said the 10 self-driving cars would be available to request on Lyft starting in about three months. 

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Tesla’s self-driving ‘brain’ hit with serious Trump administration tariff

Pricey.
Pricey.

Image: Artur Widak / NurPhoto / Getty

Tesla will have trouble innovating its way out of this one. 

The car manufacturer is facing potentially serious financial headwinds in its attempt to equip all newly produced vehicles with the technology required to enable full self-driving. So reports TechCrunch, which notes that the White House won’t budge on a 25 percent tariff on the Chinese-assembled ‘engine control unit’ the cars require. Notably, this tariff wouldn’t apply to the entire car — just the ECU. 

The so-called Autopilot ECU is assembled in Shanghai, and that irks the White House. Tesla officially requested a tariff exemption on the unit in question, but that request was denied on March 15. The rejection letter had not previously been reported before this week.

“[After] careful consideration, your request was denied because the request concerns a product strategically important or related to ‘Made in China 2025’ or other Chinese industrial programs,” reads the rejection letter signed by United States Trade Representative general counsel Stephen P. Vaughn.

The ‘Made in China 2025’ program, which the Wall Street Journal notes is no longer actually referred to by that name in China, is the country’s attempt to boost 10 specific economic sectors. It has frustrated US officials, whom the Journal reports call it a subsidy program.  

So what does that mean for Tesla — both the company and customers hoping to embrace the self-driving future? Likely a more expensive ride, for one thing. 

“This module is the brain of the vehicle,” Tesla wrote in its now-rejected application for tariff exemption. “The imposed tariffs are forcing us to either source a new supplier, pass the cost increase to the end customer, or reduce operational costs within our internal operations, all having a reverse impact for what it believes to be the intention of the tariff.”

According to Tesla, a new supplier is essentially out of the question. 

“For a product as safety critical to consumers, and critical to the essence of Tesla, we turned to industry experts who could achieve this quality and complexity in addition to the deadlines, which was not possible outside of China,” the company wrote in the aforementioned application. “Choosing any other supplier would have delayed the program by 18 months with clean room setup, line validation, and staff training.”

In other words, it looks like the production — and cost — of self-driving Teslas is about to get a even pricier. 

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Waymo self-driving taxis now let you stream Google Play Music

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Jam out in a self-driving car.
Jam out in a self-driving car.

Image: waymo

Waymo One now lets you stream music through screens in its self-driving cars. 

Those tunes are provided by Google Play Music, the Spotify competitor that offers millions of songs for $9.99 a month. It’s perfect corporate synergy: Waymo and Google have the same parent company, Alphabet. 

Currently, the self-driving taxi service is only offered in the Phoenix area. One of those users posted about their experience on Reddit, saying they had eight different playlist options and a Google-esque “I’m feeling lucky” button to play a random assortment of songs. They did feel lucky, and ended up with 25 minutes of Lorde, Vampire Weekend, The Black Keys, and other artists. 

Aside from the playlists, the backseat screens only show some basic maps and ride progress. You can skip through tracks and adjust the volume, just in case your favorite song comes on. Be nice, though: the entire car can hear the music, including the safety drivers who sit in front of the company’s Chrysler Pacificas.

This is not the first time a ride-hailing service has let you stream tunes during your ride. Back in 2016, Uber introduced partnerships with Pandora and Spotify. We checked with Uber to hear about what happened to that feature but it looks like it’s long gone.

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Waymo also recently shared some details about its navigation and detection system, which recognizes and then predicts what pedestrians, groups of school children, bicyclists, and other vehicles are going to do. Above a Waymo car lets a bicycle pass when the bike lane is blocked.

Maybe now you’ll feel safe enough for that Lorde car karaoke session.

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