The Summer of Autonomy Hook-Ups

Earlier this month, the Michigan Senate unanimously passed four bills in quick order that allow testing of autonomous cars on public roads without a human driver behind the wheel. The legislation is designed to push Michigan to the forefront of autonomous testing.

Even California, where Google’s Self-Driving Car Project has centered its extensive testing for most of the last decade, has not been able to keep up. Last December, the California Department of Motor Vehicles issued a proposed law requiring, much to Google’s consternation, “that a licensed operator will be required to be present inside the vehicle and be capable of taking control in the event of a technology failure or other emergency.”

Not yet in the final throes of its rulemaking process, the California DMV is being extremely cautious about the status of the autonomy rules, saying it’s “not commenting on operational use of autonomous vehicles” until the public review and comment period has passed.

Google 1

These autonomy rules artificially pit California’s Silicon Valley against the Detroit-based auto industry. Perhaps it’s even more granular than that: Google, which lobbied for a more favorable California DMV rule, versus the auto industry.

Perhaps that’s why Google appears to be falling behind. The former chief of its Self-Driving Car Project, Chris Urmson, left the company in August, Bloomberg reports, just under a year after Google hired John Krafcik to lead the autonomous vehicles unit. Urmson has said repeatedly that he wants his son to be able to use a driverless car by the time he’s old enough for a driver’s license, in 2019. It doesn’t look like the younger Mr. Urmson will be able to do that with a Google car.

Meanwhile, Michigan’s Senate is unrelenting. “Lawmakers said the bills would put Michigan at the forefront of autonomous vehicle research and likened the speedy action on the bills to the U.S. race to become first to land on the moon,” the Detroit Free Press reports. And Silicon Valley is the new Soviet Union in this metaphor.

The Free Press goes on to quote a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law who criticizes the legislation for potentially protecting automakers from ride-sharing competition coming from Silicon Valley disrupters.

Volvo Autonomous Driving

“Traditionally, making cars has largely been limited to really big companies that have a lot of resources and incentives to be safe,” the professor, Bryant Walker Smith, tells the newspaper. “What automated driving presents is a return to the day when anyone can create a new technology in their garage and compete with existing modes of transportation.”

That assumes that teenage computer geniuses creating new, disruptive companies in their parents’ garages could handle the current safety standards, let alone those not yet written to determine how a car can or can’t drive itself on a public road. Just ask Elon Musk how hard this is—though come to think of it, he won’t admit to any difficulties.

The good professor seems to have missed news of corporate hookups between the big old bureaucratic, monolithic auto companies and the forward-thinking tech companies and shared-economy startups that have been announced in the past couple of months. Of course, some of these companies will get divorces before they can bring autonomous product to market, but the most remarkable thing about these collaborations is that they have already upended the timeline. While skeptics doubted the ability of automakers and disrupters to overcome legal, technical and infrastructure barriers in time to get full autonomy on the road by 2030, the automakers and disrupters are conspiring to move the timeline up to the early ‘20s.

2017 Ford Fusion Sport front three quarter in motion 02

Ford Motor Company CEO Mark Fields says you’ll be able to hail a fully autonomous ride-share Ford taxi, bereft of steering wheel and throttle/brake pedals, by 2021 and hopes to offer such cars to consumers by 2025. Its partnership deals include investments in LiDAR leader Velodyne, high-resolution 3-D mapping company Civil Maps, and in Pivotal Software, plus an exclusive licensing agreement with Nirenberg Neuroscience and full-on purchase of SAIPS, an Israeli machine learning and artificial intelligence startup.

Volvo XC90 Drive Me autonomous prototype in traffic

Volvo and ride-hailing pioneer Uber say they will have 100 self-driving Volvo XC90s, with two Uber employees in the front seats, on the road for hire in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania some time this fall. This fall. The autonomous XC90s will mix in with conventional Uber cars at random for rides only within the city of Pittsburgh, though if you’re lucky enough to become a test subject, your ride will be free—for now. Carnegie Mellon University, a leader in autonomous vehicle technology, first tested self-driving vehicles in Pittsburgh in the 1990s, and Mayor William Peduto told NPR’s “Hear & Now” that his city has been friendly and open to such testing since then. The pilot program has been in the works for about one year, Automotive News Europe reports, which means it came after Volvo began work on its test of 100 privately owned semi-autonomous XC90s in Gothenburg, Sweden on about 31 miles of local highway, but will start before the Swedish test program begins in 2017.

Delphi Singapore automated vehicles 04

Delphi announced it’s a lead contractor in Singapore’s ambitious urban/suburban autonomy program and will develop a “first mile/last mile” ride-sharing test system to complement the island state’s extensive mass transit network. Initially, this will entail three urban and suburban routes of no more than 3.5 miles, at speeds below 24 mph. However, the Tier 1 supplier expects to offer automakers commercially available technology by 2020 or ’21. Delphi’s program is extensive, ground-breaking, and cutting edge, but the automotive parts supplier (formerly part of General Motors, and a long time ago, named Delco) doesn’t garner the mass media attention of Ford, Volvo, GM, FiatChrysler, Mercedes-Benz, or for that matter, Uber, Google, or Lyft.

2015 Nissan Leaf side view

nuTonomy got the jump on everyone else, including Delphi, and began a driverless taxi service in Singapore, where it uses Renault Zoe (Nissan Leaf) and Mitsubishi i-MiEV electric cars on a 2.5-mile city circuit. Proponents of autonomy say electric vehicles are well suited to urban self-driving cars because they can circulate through recharge stations after many short trips. The nuTonomy program is not directly connected with Delphi, a spokesman for the automotive supplier says, although both are part of Singapore’s comprehensive new program. nuTonomy is a spinoff of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Google Car Prototype homepage

Google is distancing itself from its investment in Uber and plans to use its Waze app this fall to begin what it calls a “true” car-sharing service. Customers in San Francisco will be able to use the app to hail a car going in the same direction, but are limited to two such rides a day because the service is intended for work commutes, CNET reports. Riders pay 54 cents per mile and Google doesn’t get a cut. Though Google hasn’t officially connected the app with its pioneering driverless car program, it’s obvious where this is headed: When cars can drive themselves across San Francisco (and other locations), they can pick up and drop off ride-share commuters along the way, theoretically reducing traffic and avoiding expensive urban parking.

FiatChrysler and Google announced their hook-up to test autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivans in May but have given few details since. I’ve speculated that the slow-selling Fiat 500, assembled for North America in Mexico, would make a good platform for a production version of the Cyclops-like Google autonomous prototype bubble-car, but it’s just speculation.

2016 Chevrolet Volt with Lyft

General Motors’ announcement that it will test with its partner, Lyft, a fleet of autonomous ride-sharing cars within a year also emerged last May. We can expect to see these cars, probably in the form of the Chevrolet Bolt EV, by May 2017. Time is less certain for GM’s long planned Cadillac Super Cruise semi-autonomous system. It has been delayed at least a couple of times, and was originally supposed to be offered in the CTS, but now is slated for the CT6. That may have added to the delay, and certainly Ford’s announcement that it had successfully tackled the snow and ice problem with a Fusion test-car must have jarred the cross-town rival. If GM can get shared, autonomous Chevy Bolts and Super Cruise Cadillac CT6s on the road next year, it will be just behind Volvo in covering self-driving cars from both angles –high-speed, limited-access highways and freeways, and testing relatively low-speed autonomy on tight city streets full of pedestrians.

Automobile Magazine

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