Friday, June 23, 2017

Driverless Vehicles - Where Are We Now? – Part 1

This jobs-related subject not only hasn’t quit for years, but is intensifying, in both action and reporting and commentary.  How can we sort it out to determine when we are getting there?  First, we review what’s happened since our last posts.

In “Uber’s self-driving cars managed 20,000 miles last week – with a lot of help” (Transport, March 19), David Curry presented data leaked from this now thoroughly beleaguered ridesharing company.  In the week of March 8, Uber’s driverless vehicles managed 20,300 miles, but needed a “driver intervention” every 0.8 miles, with takeovers to avoid a “harmful event” 196 times, or once on average each 103 miles.  That’s not shabby at this point, and if that company were in better shape otherwise we’d say they were well on track. 

Six days later, though, per Mike Isaac in The New York Times, Uber was in trouble again, with one of their driverless cars involved in an Arizona accident causing minor injuries.  It was not at fault – the other driver did not properly yield – but the Uber car ended up on its side, and the mishap pointed out the difficulty of programming vehicles to account for others’ errors.  The company suspended their testing, but brought it back three days later after their investigation, per The Wall Street Journal.  Uber still drew commentary that same day asking “Is Uber’s self-driving program veering off track?” (Marco della Cava, USA Today), including concern that “testing in inclement weather is considered the Achilles heel of autonomous vehicles” and compared Uber’s “headlong rush into the self-driving car race” to the legendary Icarus flying too close to the sun.  Here, I think the author was overly influenced by Uber’s legal, ethical, and management problems, as everyone in the industry, almost perforce given the stakes involved, is moving quickly.  That company, though, was ranked 16th of 18 in “Why Ford and GM Are Actually Way Ahead of Tesla and Uber in Developing Self-Driving Cars” (Natalie Walters, The Street, April 6th), a piece which seemed not to recognize that, with consortia forming, Ford, for example, will soon not mean only Ford.

In “Smart cities need smart cars:  In the future, your car will be able to “see” through buildings” (Salon, March 26th), Angelo Young described a demonstration at January’s Consumer Electronics Show of late-development-stage autonomous car features, including electronically determining from stoplights when they will change, detecting pedestrians through their mobile phone’s signalling, and receiving information from nearby cars even out of their line of sight.  These improvements constituting “V2X,” or “vehicle-to-everything,” communications, are superb ideas, but the first two here depend on signals from the environment, which, with consistency problems, is not the way to best implement driverlessness.  That opinion of mine was underscored by another Angelo Young piece in the same publication, “Self-driving cars vs. American roads:  Will infrastructure speed bumps slow down the future of transportation?” (April 20th), which featured a Volvo executive from Scandinavia complaining about the lack of consistent lane markers in this country.  Determining the respective responsibilities of infrastructure and the vehicles themselves is a good conflict to work on now, even if my view that almost everything should fall on the latter does not carry.

They seem to seek involvement in everything else, so should it surprise us that “Amazon Wants to Use Self-Driving Vehicles” (Matthew Rocco, Fox Business, April 24th)?  That company is quietly, by their standards, moving into the field, with its Alexa virtual assistant going into Volkswagen, Ford, and Mercedes-Benz cars, and a special interest in “autonomous forklifts and big rigs.”  Whether it materializes as a producer or only as a massive user, it is as foolish to disregard Amazon here as elsewhere.

We learned from April 25th pieces in Fox Business and The Wall Street Journal that Waymo, part of Google’s Alphabet, will be using 500 Chrysler minivans to test a driverless vehicle program in Phoenix.  Along with putting their current technology to an extensive trial, the effort’s goal is, once again, to gauge customer acceptance of autonomous cars.  Although it is too early to expect any number of people to give up their vehicles, there will be a few, and it is an excellent idea for them to try out that concept as well.  Three weeks later, we saw “Lyft and Waymo Reach Deal to Collaborate on Self-Driving Cars (The New York Times, May 14th), in which Mike Isaac confirmed that “the deal calls for the companies to work together to bring autonomous vehicle technology into the mainstream through pilot projects and product development efforts.”  Isaac points out, presciently, that these agreements have a “fluid nature” – although no large joint venture in this field has yet collapsed, it is almost certain that some will – and that “many believe” driverless technology “will ultimately be a multibillion-dollar industry” (I hope he meant multitrillion).  He added the unintentional comic relief that Uber’s then-CEO Travis Kalanick called autonomous know-how “existential” to Uber’s future – more than he himself proved to be, anyway.


Next week, we look at what has happened with driverless vehicles in June.  Two weeks after that, you can expect the latest projected implementation timelines.  

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