In this series I’ve been writing about how Ford’s autonomous vehicle progress has been better than General Motors’s. Now that “GM Enhances Self-Driving Car Effort With Deal for Strobe” (Mike Colias, The Wall Street Journal, October 9th), is that still true? Strobe made lidar, a critical driverless technology that allows such vehicles to see what is around them, but was small enough to have only 11 employees. Will this corporate behemoth effectively manage this entrepreneurial startup without crushing it? Or does it just want the know-how Strobe has already accumulated? In any event, even if Ford and GM end up having a seesaw battle, this acquisition isn’t enough to turn the latter company around.
In partnerships of another sort, “Waymo teams with MADD, the NSC and more on self-driving education” (Darrell Etherington, TechCrunch, October 9th), the forerunning driverless nameplate has not only joined the National Safety Council, but has found common cause with three social organizations, the Foundation for Blind Children and the Foundation for Senior Living as well as Mothers Against Drunk Driving. All three are natural supporters of autonomous vehicles, and can help Waymo in getting political support, something they may end up needing a great deal. Another winner for them, as was its release three days later of its “Safety Report” (same author and source); the 42-page piece for public consumption explains how autonomous vehicles work, their current cybersecurity defenses, and “what happens after a crash should there be one.”
Speaking of winners and good progress, the online ink was barely dry on The Motley Fool’s recommendation of this company’s stock, when “NVIDIA introduces a computer for level 5 autonomous cars” (Roberto Baldwin, Engadget, October 10th). The device, “the size of a license plate,” “delivers 320 trillion operations per second, 10 times more than its predecessor,” but even NVIDIA admitted that it won’t be put into service soon, and then maybe only for “robotaxis,” on which “over 25 of its partners are already working.” When it powers an NVIDIA “pilot fleet” next year, we will know more.
Yes, it is a certainty that “Now is the time to plan for the autonomous vehicle future” (Tom Alberg and Craig Mundle, TechCrunch, October 11th). We learn herein that Audi, from whom we have heard little, now plans on “selling, in 2018, a production car with Level 3 authority (meaning it requires no human attention to the road at speeds under 37 miles per hour).” That just might be the first one available for general purchase. Alberg and Mundle also stated that a proposal has been made to the Seattle government to convert Interstate 5, which runs to the Canadian border on the way to Vancouver, to driverless-car-only use, with an intermediate stage of changing high-density vehicle lanes into autonomous-vehicle ones. Although many of the authors’ talking points are weak – it’s not clear that driverless cars will lead to “less congestion, reduced emissions, ...fewer new roads, reclaimed parking space,” or “lower transportation costs for all” – we must agree with the article’s ending, that “it is time to get going.”
Also, “California will allow self-driving cars with no human driver on public roads next year” (Sean Szymkowski, MotorAuthority, October 12th). The door is now open for more space in that state than Silicon Valley. Three years out, “Baidu plans to mass-produce Level 4 self-driving cars with BAIC by 2021” (Darrell Etherington in TechCrunch again, October 13th). Baidu, a huge Chinese company expanding from their Internet-providing core business to driverless technology, will find its most formidable adversary to be its country’s government, which has hampered other companies by impeding map updates, so we’re not sure if they will stay on schedule at all.
With all the positive news above, we were probably due to see a cold-water-splashing major-newspaper editorial, and we got one on October 14th. The New York Times Editorial Board spent its main Sunday space on “Would You Buy a Self-Driving Future From These Guys?”. It has present/future confusion, with “87 percent favored requiring that a person always be behind the wheel, ready to take control if something goes wrong” (fine for 2017, but that number will be way down by 2020 and we’ll laugh about that viewpoint in 2050), yet more mention of the May 2016 fatal Florida accident (since then, over 45,000 Americans have died in driver-caused crashes, which the Florida one was determined to be also), attempted talking points of “mass unemployment for taxi drivers” and “greatly reduce(d) car sales” (veterinarians and blacksmiths lost jobs also, in the course of the last major round of ground-transportation progress and almost immeasurable prosperity enhancement). True, auto safety standards should remain, but those connected with driverless vehicles are not, as the headline implies, generally malevolent, and assuming they are would in this case be wicked and destructive in itself.
By the time these cars are in general use they will be safer than they are now. But for the time being, there is, as with everything else in this area, a lot of work needed. One good thing about “Low-speed accidents frequent among driverless cars” (Ryan Beene, Bloomberg News, October 15th), is the hyphen-connected words starting its headline. The root cause of most of these crashes is that, per Gartner analyst Mike Ramsey in the article, autonomous vehicles “don’t drive like people. They drive like robots.” We, though, will be prepared for that, through everything from new driver’s-education teaching through almost certain changes in our own driving behavior, and will adjust. Also, as above, the cars do indeed need more development time, and are getting it.
Eventually, this series will end. But in the meantime, expect yet more next week.