By on October 13, 2017

waymo-pacifica

Autonomous cars have the unique capability to captivate the public’s imagination while simultaneously making them feel uneasy after considering things on a more practical level. A handful of self-driving related accidents, inconsistent development timetables, and a hands-off regulation strategy haven’t helped. But there is a sense that if the populace had a better handle on what went into making the technology work safely, some of their fears would be put to rest.

This week, Waymo — the relatively quiet autonomous vehicle arm of Alphabet Inc. — made an attempt to do just that. While also making a case for itself and the need for self-driving cars, the company released a 42-page outline of how its autonomous systems function. Written without a lot of technical jargon, the reading remains comprehensive and is one of the best attempts we’ve seen from a company to educate the public — rather than dazzle them with lofty promises.  Read More >

By on October 12, 2017

Volkswagen Truck & Bus launching trial projects for digital truck platoons

Having already dropped itself into an ocean of electric car R&D, Volkswagen is now making plans to develop battery-powered commercial vehicles aimed at servicing urban areas where public officials are having night terrors about air quality.

Jürgen Stackmann, VW’s board member responsible for sales and marketing, promised the company would be at “full steam” on EV production and development by 2020. That includes a battery-only option for “all styles and body types” by 2030, according to Stackmann. But the brand wants to have something similar on the table for trucks and buses before then.

Volkswagen Truck & Bus is investing 1.4 billion euros ($1.7 billion) into new electric drivetrains for use in both medium and heavy-duty distribution transport and city buses. While that development will go toward European vehicles initially, VW and strategic partner Navistar will use the “e-drivetrain” platform on U.S.-based electric trucks from 2019 onwards.  Read More >

By on September 26, 2017

us-capitol, public domain

This week, the Coalition for Future Mobility — a recently formed automotive trade group representing major automakers and self-driving advocates — will roll out a bevy of targeted television spots, print ads, and social media posts specifically designed to encourage Congress to adopt legislation assisting the budding industry’s growth.

Earlier in the month, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would expedite the deployment of self-driving cars and prohibit states from blocking autonomous vehicle testing. This was immediately followed by Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao publicly outlining the NHTSA’s updated automotive safety guidance — which was less about ensuring the safe development of self-driving cars and more about destroying regulatory red tape.

The Senate is the final piece of the puzzle. Automakers want to make sure it’s seeing things their way before casting their vote on whether or not the industry gets the governmental green light.  Read More >

By on September 21, 2017

Trump

Supposedly, everyone eagerly anticipates the day they can own a shiny-new self-driving car, but automakers, regulatory agencies, consumer advocates, Silicon Valley, and the White House are debating how exactly that’s supposed to happen. They haven’t reached a consensus yet — and that’s probably not likely to change anytime soon.

Most autonomous cars rely on array of cameras, LIDAR, GPS, inertial measurement devices, and complex control systems used to interpret sensory information before reacting accordingly. Vehicle-to-vehicle communication systems (V2V) are regarded by many as essential components to establishing fully automated travel. The theory is that, by allowing cars to communicate directly on a broadband frequency, they can better predict each other’s movements.

However, a recent Bloomberg article accuses the technology of “going nowhere fast,” citing the Trump administration as the chief culprit, and alluding to the direct stifling of technology that would give cars “superpowers” in the next few years.

I probably won’t have the opportunity to say this often — and it feels kind of strange to say it now — but these accusations aren’t entirely fair to the president or his administration.  Read More >

By on September 19, 2017

Fictional Autonomous Ford in Super Bowl Commercial

There’s nothing that will convince me that the first wave of autonomous taxis will be anything other than mobile biohazards, providing a slightly less convenient solution to paying a man to let you ride in the back of his Toyota Camry for a few miles. However, I will give them a shot once they arrive — mainly out of curiosity, which puts me in the minority.

Gartner Inc., an American research and advisory firm that works specifically within the realm of advanced technologies, recently completed a survey where over half of its respondents said there was no way in hell they’d get into the back of a fully autonomous vehicle. Its findings echo an American-based MIT study from earlier this year, as well as a global survey from Deloitte. The consensus: most of the population doesn’t feel particularly good about self-driving cars.

Not to be a defender of unproven technology, but there’s also nothing stopping a human cab driver from driving you to the wrong destination before trying to murder you with an axe. It doesn’t happen often, but it is a possibility. Likewise, autonomous cabs pose some element of risk no matter how good a job manufacturers do with those early models. But you’re not likely to be the occupant of the one that does goes haywire. It’s a problem of perception more than anything else.  Read More >

By on September 14, 2017

ford vtti autonomous research

Ford Motor Company has been funding research at Virginia Tech that takes an interesting approach to autonomous vehicle development. In early August, a reporter for an NBC affiliate in Washington D.C. filmed a video of a Ford Transit being driven by a man dressed up as the front seat of a car. Initially, it seemed like a strange campus prank. But it was later discovered that Virginia Tech’s Transportation Institute was doing research on how people would respond to a self-driving vehicle.

Apparently, they’ll approach it with a camera — even if it’s in the middle of the street or flying down the highway.

Ford later released a series of hysterical images featuring the man climbing into the false seat costume, announcing that it was researching reactions to the light bar stretched across van’s windshield. The lights are intended to replace cues like hand waves or head nods between drivers and pedestrians.

Presently, drivers have the ability to motion their hand at pedestrians, indication that it’s safe for them to walk. This author takes things a step further by mouthing easy to understand phrases like, “Fear not, I have decided to spare your life and will not crush you beneath my mighty wheels if you pass” as I ambulate my fingers in a walking motion and nod my head in a slow, deliberate fashion. It usually gets the point across, but it’s nice to know Ford can save me the trouble with a bunch of blinking lights.  Read More >

By on September 13, 2017

vision 2.0 NHTSA Autonomous vehicles

On Tuesday, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao outlined the Trump administration’s “Vision for Safety 2.0” at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute in Ann Arbor. The document is a collection of non-binding requests to manufacturers and a promise that they can go hog-wild with their autonomous vehicle testing, at least as far as the feds are concerned.

In a deluge of policy updates, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration tweaked its vision for safety, claiming it was responding to the recent increase in the number of road accidents.

While Obama-era guidelines weren’t particularly robust, the Trump administration has essentially built a technical-sounding framework aimed at destroying regulatory red tape. Ironically, the government seems to have gone out of its way to ensure it stays out of the way. In some respects, it has to. The speed of development is beginning to happen at a rate where any outside bureaucracy would have difficulty keeping pace. Chao said the guidance would remain flexible, ready to adapt to the changes as they come. But it is also without teeth, promoting development and the future promise for safety at the expense of any meaningful oversight.

Did the Department of Transportation and NHTSA sell themselves out to industry or do they actually think giving automakers carte blanche on autonomous testing was the best thing for public safety? Read More >

By on September 12, 2017

Tesla AutoPilot cruise control

According to a preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board, the “operational limitations” of Tesla’s Autopilot system played “major role” in a highly publicized crash in May of 2016 that resulted in the death of a Model S driver.

On Tuesday, the NTSB cited the incident as a perfect storm of driver error and Tesla’s Autopilot design, which led to an over-reliance on the system’s semi-autonomous features. After a meeting lasting nearly three hours, the agency’s board determined probable cause of the accident was a combination of a semi truck driver failing to yield the right-of-way, the Tesla driver’s unwillingness to retake the wheel, and Tesla’s own system — which may have set the framework for the accident.  Read More >

By on September 6, 2017

autonomous hardware

On Wednesday, the U.S. House unanimously approved a sweeping proposal to expedite the deployment of self-driving cars and prohibit states from blocking autonomous vehicle testing.

“With this legislation, innovation can flourish without the heavy hand of government,” Ohio Republican Bob Latta said on the House floor leading up to Wednesday’s vote. Latta is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee that developed the legislation with support from tech companies and the automotive industry.

One thing missing from the House measure is large trucks, which the Senate hopes to address in its own bipartisan legislation. Congress announced a September 13th hearing to examine the role of autonomous commercial vehicles and how they may fit into the Senate’s pending self-driving legislation. Meanwhile, the House’s bill moves up the board to be put to a vote within the Senate at a later date.  Read More >

By on September 5, 2017

semi trailer (raymondclarkeimages/Flickr)

A bit more than six years ago, I wrote “The Blockers” for this site as a work of fiction, suggesting that there may be a bit of a popular revolt against self-driving vehicles and that it might be led by those who felt personally dehumanized as a consequence of “progress.”

Now, the nice people at MIT Technology Review have caught up to your humble author’s dystopian point of view.

Read More >

By on September 2, 2017

Ford Chariot Shuttle

Earlier this week, we griped about Ford Motor Company’s market research into the validity of self-driving pizza delivery vehicles. Thankfully, that’s not the sole avenue the automaker is exploring. Since abandoning Uber Technologies’ self-driving program in April, Ford’s new vice president of autonomous vehicles and electrification, Sherif Marakby, has spent the summer seeking partners that might want to put autonomous vehicles on the road in the near future.

Meanwhile, Ford chief executive Jim Hackett, who took over in May, is conducting a review of the automaker’s overall strategy, including the heavy investments made into electric and self-driving vehicles that took place under former CEO Mark Fields. While it’s unknown how viable he’ll deem every aspect of company’s Fieldsian mobility plan, early assessments hint he’ll leave Marakby plenty to work with.  Read More >

By on August 29, 2017

ford_dominos_avresearch_06

Ford and Domino’s Pizza are joining forces to test self-driving pizza delivery vehicles in Michigan. The venture is an attempt to better understand how customers respond to and interact with autonomous vehicles and assess the future relevancy of the technology. But the cars in question aren’t actually self-driving, they’re simulated autonomous vehicles doing market research.

Essentially, Domino’s customers in Ann Arbor, Michigan will have the option to accept pizza deliveries from a standard Ford Fusion Hybrid with loads of visual accoutrements to denote a cutting-edge test vehicle and a human operator obscured by a partition and some tinted glass. The customer is the test platform, not the car.

While it’s understandable that removing the driver from the equation might someday save pizza chains tons of dough, there are a few things neither Ford, nor Domino’s, seem to have considered. Read More >

By on August 28, 2017

cadillac super cruise

Setbacks notwithstanding, we’ve been eagerly anticipating Cadillac’s entry into the world of semi-autonomous driving with its Super Cruise system, developed to help reinforce the automaker’s position as top-tier luxury brand. After all, vehicular opulence is now deeply embedded with technological achievement and few things shout “I’ve arrived” like a car that can chauffeur you around.

However, Cadillac is changing its implementation strategy, making Super Cruise standard on the highest trimmed CT6 — instead of leaving it as a pricy optional extra. It’s also launching an advertising campaign to whet the public’s appetite, with the first of its “Let Go” TV spots appearing on MTV’s Video Music Awards over the weekend.  Read More >

By on August 24, 2017

us-capitol, public domain

When the automobile came into its own, there wasn’t really a place for it. Roads had been reserved for foot traffic and horses for hundreds of years before the invention of the internal combustion engines. Pedestrian injuries were high until they were partitioned onto the sidewalk. Likewise, it was some time before the millions of horses were be rounded up, placed into a giant pit, and shot to death by 20th-century motorists.

However, the industry didn’t really take safety into account until Ralph Nader wrote Unsafe at Any Speed and holding automakers accountable for safety suddenly became fashionable — helping America pass the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act in 1966 and subsequent legislation. Granted, vehicular fatality rates still fell dramatically between 1925 and 1965, but the regulatory influence didn’t skyrocket until after Nader’s analysis of the industry.

With autonomous vehicles positioned to change the way we “drive,” the long-established and ever-growing rulebook may need revisions. In July, a collective of automakers, suppliers, engineers, and consumer groups, calling themselves the Coalition for Future Mobility issued a statement urging Congress to consider legislation it deemed “critical to the United States continuing to be a place of innovation and development for the life-saving technologies.” Fast forward to August, and there is already a bill on the table.  Read More >

By on August 22, 2017

ford-autonomous-car-technology

The United Nations recently voted to begin formal discussions on autonomous weapon systems, with 116 of the world’s leading robotics and artificial intelligence experts responding by calling on governments to simply ban them.

The coalition, fronted by Tesla’s Elon Musk and Alphabet’s Mustafa Suleyman, claims this is a dark road the world doesn’t want to go down. Aimed at the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence, a letter from the group warned the U.N. not to usher in the “third revolution in warfare” (following gunpowder and nuclear arms).

While I’m not about to suggest there aren’t serious risks involved with weaponizing thinking machines, it does seem lightly hypocritical for Musk to condemn them over a lack of trust while continuing to champion self-driving cars. Apparently, technology experts feel a Terminator scenario is thoroughly unacceptable but a potential Maximum Overdrive situation is just fine.  Read More >

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