Friday, March 13, 2020

Checking In On Autonomous Vehicles: Any Improvement?

It’s been months now, years really, since driverless cars got a lot of press.  There were, though, a string of small articles in the past two months. 

In “When will the highways be filled with autonomous cars?,” in the January 17th Fox Business, reporters there interviewed Intel CEO Robert Swan on the title topic, which hasn’t been gathering many encouraging views lately.  Swan was “pleasantly surprised by the amount of technology innovation that our teams have been able to deploy in cars over the course of the past couple of months,” and said that “no one really knows when that day will come.”  So no headway there. 

One promising area is bringing things to customers, exemplified in “Pizza-toting robots:  U.S. lets Nuro deploy driverless delivery vehicles (Reuters, February 6th).  Here, David Shepardson told us about a “first-of-its-kind approval by U.S. regulators,” in which company Nuro could “deploy up to 5,000 low speed electric delivery vehicles without human controls like mirrors and steering wheels.”  These “R2s” could truly be thought of as robots, as they would have neither drivers nor passengers, but would “at all times be monitored by remote human operators who can take over driving control if needed.”  The federal government helpfully ruled that “as a low-speed neighborhood vehicle,” the R2 “does not need to meet all safety requirements.”  Though Nuro’s road testing is still in the future, it seems they have a clear path to this limited objective, delivering pizzas and groceries on “pre-mapped neighborhood streets” in Houston within two years.  Per other coverage of this event, “US highway agency approves autonomous vehicle” that same day on Fox Business, these robots would stay below 25 miles per hour and allow customer access through providing an access code.  If it materializes, this would be, indirectly as well as directly, good news for driverless cars in general.

Going back to the Phoenix area, “The city of Peoria, Ariz., is piloting an autonomous shuttle program” (Times Herald-Record, February 10th).  Beep, “a Florida-based autonomous mobility solutions company,” planned to launch that 15-mile-per-hour-maximum transport, designed with an attendant onboard to help passengers but who cannot drive it as it has no pedals or steering wheel, on February 22nd, but I could find no confirmation in other press or the Beep website that that actually happened.  Beep, though, in conjunction with NAVYA is currently running a short-range shuttle in Orlando, so it has, almost uniquely, moved its services into the present.

 Another relatively live driverless possibility is the vehicle just large enough for one non-driving passenger.  Gary Gastelu described one in the February 11th Fox News “MOTIV single-seat autonomous ‘car’ is the ultimate in personal transportation.” The all-electric four-by-eight-foot device, “technically classified as a quadricycle,” can do 40 miles per hour and run for 150 minutes between charges, and would be summoned as a taxi “through an Uber-type scheme.”  The MOTIV looks like an enclosed golf cart, and won’t be here soon, as “there are currently no firm plans to put it into production.”

Overall, we have glimmers of hope in the driverless car world, but going is slow, and maintaining working examples seems to be unexpectedly hard, even when the technology is apparently fully ready.  The areas in which they can run are unusually small and are away from snow and major highways.  I will release my annual forecast in July, but now it doesn’t look good at all for anything broad-based, even later this decade. 

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