To start out, “Daimler shows off what its automated Mercedes-Benz Arocs trucks can do” (Darrell Etherington, TechCrunch, October 17th). That isn’t shabby. Like good soldiers, these German-made “industrial vehicles” gather in formations, can each take the lead, and follow “a strictly laid out and mapped path to coordinate their efforts.”
They’re also taking Manhattan, or five square miles of it anyway, now that we can expect “GM to Test Fleet of Self-Driving Cars in New York” (Mike Colias and Tim Higgins, The Wall Street Journal, also October 17th). We don’t have an expected date, but we do get the Boston Consulting Group projection that 25% of American-traversed miles could be provided by “shared, self-driving vehicles” in 2030, the insight that “hard-earned city driving is more useful for the car to learn how to handle unusual situations that human drivers take for granted, such as how to handle broken traffic lights at an intersection,” and Cruise Automation CEO Kyle Vogt’s view that this city will “present some unique challenges.” The latter is exaggerated, but autonomous vehicles will indeed need to learn how to handle aggressive human drivers, and New York is almost as good an American place as any to do that.
One thing hawked by developers of driverless vehicles has been their projected effect on road congestion. “Self-driving cars could ease traffic, but increase sprawl” (Fox Business, still October 17th) reported on another Boston Consulting Group finding, that the technology could “likely add vehicles to roads while simultaneously reducing traffic time.” Indeed, both should happen, though it may be nearer the end of the driverless revolution than the beginning.
We discovered another joint venture in “LG, Qualcomm join hands for autonomous driving” (Fox Business again, October 19th). This one brings in another Korean behemoth company, this time working with an American chip manufacturer to develop “fifth-generation wireless technology known as 5G,” which “is seen as crucial for autonomous vehicles.” The work will be done in Seoul, a good idea since South Korea, with its compact size and high connectivity standards, could quickly find itself on this forefront.
One story, published only days later in the same place as a doubting editorial, may have offset, if you want to call it that, its damage. A firsthand report from David Leonhardt, an established columnist there, The New York Times’s October 22nd “Driverless Cars Made Me Nervous. Then I Tried One,” related his experience going through suburban Washington in a “semi-driverless” Volvo S90. Leonhardt related how, even though “we don’t want computers to be in charge,” this sedan surprisingly, to him anyway, behaved itself. Judging by his inserting talking points such as the 30,000+ toll of American driver errors, the strongly positive effect of “automation” on reducing airline crashes, and the already-established tendency of driverless accidents to be “sensationalized… while we ignore tens of thousands of deaths from human crashes,” David Leonhardt has been won over, and we can expect many more to follow.
Also on October 22nd, The Motley Fool stepped away from its usual investment emphasis to opine that “Google’s Strategy to Educate the Public About Self-Driving Cars is Brilliant.” Author Danny Vena reminded us about Waymo’s huge-for-the-industry eight years of autonomous vehicle development, and told us some bits and pieces about its “public education campaign,” which, with the amount of concern growing about the technology, is a necessary part.
“I Just Drove The Car Of The Future – And It Wasn’t A Tesla.” So reported Thomas Koulopoulos in Inc.com on the same date. He identified himself as having a “lifetime love of driving,” a sentiment not usually consistent with enthusiasm about autonomous cars, but he seems sold on the technology. Among his intriguing views were that, instead of 90% of it, “the entire fleet of global transport will switch over to driverless with(in) 25 years,” that “gateway innovations” such as cruise control and lane departure warnings are “slowly weaning us off driving,” that in order to “acclimate drivers to being passengers” the companies will need to make “many incremental changes,” and that people will someday react to our early-21st-century driving experiences comparably to those today seeing “an old stagecoach or horse drawn wagon” and wondering “how in the world did people ride in those things for more than a few miles without having their teeth shaken loose from the jarring of wooden wheels on unpaved roads littered with rocks and ditches?”, when those traveling thusly knew that method was, in their time, “advanced.”
Another piece part, one of many that may turn out to be invaluable for driverless vehicles, was acclaimed in “Comma AI’s dash cams are a stepping-stone to autonomous driving” (Roberto Baldwin, Engadget, October 24th). Though these devices may seem unrevolutionary, as they are only OnePlus 3 Android phones with other things added, they still provide video records of trips, including any accidents. Also worthy technology is the subject of the same author’s and source’s October 26th “Baidu updates its open-source autonomous driving platform,” which this Chinese driverless company expects to “be powerful enough for a Level 3 car on the road by 2019, and primed for (a) Level 4 vehicle in 2021.” All from a firm not only “not even building cars,” and located in a country where mapping problems make it unlikely to achieve its autonomous-vehicle potential. Yes, it is a worldwide industry, and one where United States companies will need to continue to work hard to maintain their lead, which they, and others, seem thoroughly willing to do. That will prove to be an excellent thing.