Friday, June 30, 2017

Driverless Vehicles - Where Are We Now? – Part 2

One problem with writing on autonomous vehicles is that the topic can be so hot, with information pouring out so quickly, that I can write week after week without finishing it.  However, I will continue with my plan for summarizing and interpreting the June articles, though my stack now contains 16 of them. 

The first is Billy Duberstein’s and The Motley Fool’s June 3rd “Everything You Need to Know About Self-Driving Cars (But Were Afraid to Ask),” a good summary mentioning LIDAR, radar, and another car-autonomy-characteristic level scheme.  We stay on the business side with “G.M. Wants to Drive the Future of Cars That Drive Themselves” (The New York Times, June 4th), in which Bill Vlasic shows how General Motors, not previously on the technology’s front lines, is now moving money from other-country efforts to this cause.  Two days later, according to Mike Isaac in the same publication, Lyft, now adding software maker nuTonomy to its driverless partnerships, while using an approach “different from Uber’s,” is still “behind others.”  Its CEO Logan Green was quoted as saying “we don’t think there will be a single player that will win the whole autonomous vehicle game” – that is correct, but there may well be one consortium winner.

While reading John Markoff’s June 7th “A Guide to Challenges Facing Self-Driving Car Technologists,” also in The New York Times, I wondered if it hadn’t aged for some time before publication.  Still, it named six areas of technical concern, with the more original ones being “the ability to respond to spoken commands or hand signals from law enforcement or highway safety employees” and “detecting which small object on the roadway must be avoided,” which is not routine even for experienced drivers and will take a lot of iterative work, unless they simply avoid everything not flat.  The problem of “driving safely despite unclear lane markings,” in the news recently, though, cannot fall on the roads themselves.  The same day, author, and source yielded “Robot Cars Can’t Count on Us in an Emergency,” which told us that Google’s effort there was now focused on vehicles that cannot be driven – in other words, at a higher level than will first be implemented by others – before discussing “over-trust,” the valid concern that people, when needed to take over driving, won’t be ready.  An Audi A8-version luxury car, with self-driving expressway capability including notification that the driver must take over within a sensible 8 to 10 seconds, will be released next month, and will serve as a good trial subject.

Going back to corporate moves, Fox Business published two pieces, credited to Associated Press on June 13th and Reuters on June 15th respectively, “GM raises output of self-driving Bolts, boosts test fleet” and “Uber’s trucking ambitions on lower gear after Otto deal.”  They are almost self-explanatory, with General Motors claiming the title of the first company to “mass-produce self-driving vehicles” with a run of 130, and, with that, the statement from Cox Automotive senior director of content that this company is “the furthest along” in both their partnerships and their technical progress, followed by Uber’s latest bumbling move, plowing the Otto name under in favor of their main, badly tainted one, and their threat to prematurely implement automated 18-wheelers.  If Uber goes out of business, nobody will be able to say they did it quietly.  The same site offered Matthew Rocco’s “Avis scores Waymo deal, Hertz said to work with Apple on self-driving cars” (June 26th), showing that the major rental companies are also getting involved, including Avis soon offering such vehicles to “select customers in Phoenix.” 

On the legal front, we learned that “Texas explicitly allows driverless car tests” (John Fingas, Yahoo Finance, June 17th), if these vehicles, eminently reasonably, “have to obey existing traffic laws and carry insurance,” record video, and take on liability.  In case we didn’t know already, the “driver killed in Tesla self-driving car crash ignored warnings, NTSB reports” (Nathan Bomey, USA Today, June 20th) – in fact 13 of them, both visual and auditory – “and took no braking, steering or other actions.”  Now, I hope, we can retire discussion about this highly nonrepresentative event, with the lesson that driver-error fatalities will be possible for decades to come. 

The Wall Street Journal published two pieces on the effects of autonomous vehicles.  “Your Next Car May Be a Living Room on Wheels” (Chester Dawson, June 19th) opened our eyes to the massive changes and innovations we will see once internal car spaces need not focus on accommodating drivers.  Beyond storing passengers, we will have the potential to do about anything with them, especially if seat belts become unnecessary, and cars will have the capability to change these spaces from, say, TV-watching dens to conference rooms to bedrooms.  Late in the century, driverless safety may be so improved that we won’t even care about windows, leading to, along with the possibilities of vehicle sizes everywhere from smaller than Smart cars to larger than buses, great car-interior diversity.  The other piece, “The End of Car Ownership” (Tim Higgins, June 20th), offered a previously written misleading idea that cheaper taxis and autonomous vehicles forming “the majority of transportation in urban cities with temperate weather” will make all cars communal, and the expected but already publicized idea that auto companies will offer on-demand transportation packages.  Higgins also mentioned the coming different use of car interiors, but did not seem to recognize that having custom ones will increase, not decrease, ownership.

We got caught up, somewhat, with the government side in two June 25th USA Today pieces.  In “Regulators scramble to stay ahead of self-driving cars,” Nathan Bomey and Thomas Zambito told us that “more than 50 bills have been introduced in 20 states over the last several months providing some degree of regulation,” mostly in the South, Southwest, and across the Canadian border.  The need for states to continue regulating “driver behavior,” and the federal government to maintain standards for “testing” and “crash liability” are clear, but not “design requirements,” and all must be aware that what will be happening with autonomous vehicles in five years will not be the same as in 50.  Overall, governments have, thus far, struck a good midpoint.  In the three-page second, “States get ready for the self-driving car revolution,” author Marco della Cava gave a book’s worth of quotations, propositions and assertions, ranging from the intriguing but debatable “this is as challenging a position as it was when we went from horses to cars” to the misguided “the most critical upgrade amounts to making sure the lines on our 4 million miles of roads are solid” (many of which are gravel, of which, as the article itself points out, 60,000 miles are in Michigan alone), and the opinion that we need “a national vision for autonomous vehicles” (way, way too soon for that, and governments will know the least).  While sensors that communicate traffic and weather information are valuable, it is Sisyphusian for the burden of driverlessness to be put on the external environment.  At the same time, “cities vie to become hubs of self-driving technology” (also June 25th in USA Today), with Austin (highly appropriate in an interesting way, since it would not tolerate Uber), Columbus, Detroit, Nashville, Reno, Phoenix, Pittsburgh (watch out for that Pittsburgh left!), and the Silicon Valley area leading the way.

Last is an attempt at a high-level autonomous vehicle summary, June 25th’s “Transport’s coming upheaval,” from Cyrus Radfar in Yahoo Finance.  It paired driverless technology with Hyperloop, Elon Musk’s “new form of terrestrial travel using pod-like vehicles traveling over 700 mph in near-vacuum tubes,” which, while having potential, is not being pursued as intensely and extensively.  Radfar mainly summarized the progress in the field, but, strangely, concluded that it will not cut employment, thinking, for example, that repurposing some parking lots will be (indefinitely?) labor-intensive.  He gets points, though, for saying that more efficient transportation will in effect expand the coastal areas, which have historically had much of the population and prosperity, further. 

Next week’s post will be dedicated to the June federal jobs report.  On July 14th, you can look for more driverless car reporting, a conclusion, and updates of last year’s projected timelines on its implementation and its employment effects. 

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