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 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 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 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 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…)

By on August 21, 2017

money (401(k) 2012/Flickr)

There’s few things people living in the U.S. can agree on, but one of those things is the state of American road infrastructure. For the most part, it sucks. Eisenhower’s long gone, but his network of interstate highways, plus the spiderweb of two-lane roadways cross-crossing every corner of America haven’t grown better with age.

Meanwhile, the U.S. federal gas tax remains unchanged since its last hike in 1993. Still locked at 18.4 cents per gallon, the infrastructure funding shortfall created by the static federal tax is spurring states to pass their own gas tax increases. Michigan, California, and — controversially — New Jersey are among the most recent examples.

Still, boosting prices at the pumps only works if drivers still visit those pumps. What of the coming self-driving car wave, the vanguard of which are high-tech electric vehicles piloted by mere humans? Enter the taxman and his slim book of ideas. (Read More…)

By on August 17, 2017

EcoBoost Mustang Burnout, Ford Motor Co.

If you believe certain segments of the media, we’ll soon be able to avoid the drudgery of turning a steering wheel, pressing and releasing pedals, and — gasp! — shifting gears.

The inevitable onset of self-driving vehicles, tech aficionados and urbanists tell us, will bring traffic fatalities down to zero, somehow remove all congestion from the road, and turn our lives into a never-ending sojourn of blissful tranquility. Never again will you take that aimless and unprogrammed late-night drive, just for the hell of it. Never again will you bother with buying and owning a car. Automakers will simply turn their driverless cars loose, emptying driveways while filling streets with hands-off ride-sharing pods.

Not so fast, says Ford’s newly minted CEO. (Read More…)

By on August 3, 2017

Volvo-self-driving-car

Suppliers have begun putting automotive companies on blast for overly ambitious mobility claims. While self-driving cars are definitely en route, manufacturers have ramped up their arrival time and omitted the necessary pit stops to win favor with investors or the general public. Meanwhile, parts suppliers have been frank on the matter — explaining they know when autonomous cars are really coming because they’ll be the ones providing the tidbits that make them work.

Don Walker, CEO of Magna International, one of the world’s largest OEM parts suppliers, suggests automakers may even be misleading their customers. “A full autonomous vehicle is a long way off for lots of reasons, because of legislation, class-action lawsuits, all the complexities and the costs associated with it,” the executive said.

Speaking Wednesday at the 2017 Center for Automotive Research Management Briefing Seminars, Walker also took umbrage with the popular claim that electric vehicles could comprise around 25 percent of the new market by 2025. Instead, he claims EVs will only account for 3 to 6 percent of the global market within that timeframe — a figure predominantly dependent on how swiftly the highly regulated Chinese market grows. (Read More…)

By on July 14, 2017

V2V Intersection

Despite the Federal Communications Commission making a mess of net neutrality right now, it remains capable of serving corporate interests and the general public simultaneously. On Thursday, the FCC quintupled the allocation of the radio spectrum used for motor vehicle and aircraft radar systems to help avoid crashes.

While the majority of autonomous cars also use laser guidance and a complex network of cameras to navigate, radar remains an integral component. Presently, the 1 GHz of spectrum set aside in 1995 has been sufficient for self-driving vehicles using adaptive cruise control or automatic emergency braking. But we’re about to enter an era of connected cars that will be required to “speak” to one another, and those vehicles will need plenty of space to talk — 5 GHz of bandwidth, to be precise.  (Read More…)

By on July 13, 2017

junk car

With the entire automotive industry looking toward a future of driverless mobility, commercially owned self-driving taxis seem poised to be on the frontline of tomorrow. However, nobody seemed to realize that these vehicles will eventually become little more than mobile toilets.

Animals are universally disgusting and humans are no exception. While we’ve mastered land, air, and sea, consider the spaces we occupy while we traverse those expanses. Rental cars are returned filled with candy wrappers, spilt soda, and human hair. Uber vehicles are routinely vomited in. The subway is a haven for disease. Airplane interiors experience havoc within the first hour of a flight as the worst of us begin defecating into the seats, too lazy and weak to control ourselves.

Autonomous taxis aren’t likely to endure better treatment. Without a driver present, the urge to have drunken sex will be far too strong — and those odds only increase when you add a second occupant to the equation. With nobody watching, we’ll leave half-consumed hamburgers and cans of sweetened tea on their floors that will roll around and turn the carpet into a sticky magnet for larger pieces of garbage.  (Read More…)

By on June 26, 2017

google prototype-early

Earlier this month, Apple and Google both announced plans to kill off their self-driving car projects in favor of focusing on developing the underlying technology. We reported it here. But it’s a little weird that one announcement came so close on the heels of the other. Apple’s Project Titan, formerly a self-driving car project, will presumably continue to compete with Google’s Waymo, which is a subsidiary for Google’s efforts thus far in the field. It’s a race, even if neither company has acknowledged it as such.

Last we knew, Project Titan was testing self-driving Lexus RX450h SUVs around Silicon Valley, which were first spotted in late April. Waymo was arguably more successful, since they’d actually succeeded in building a fleet of the Firefly self-driving car pod.

Apple and Google are both being vague about this change in plans, as usual, but we already know a fair amount about how these companies interact with auto manufacturers. We just need to look at Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration. Some automakers eschew these systems entirely, in favor of their own native smartphone integration and infotainment interfaces. A handful of manufacturers have chosen to support just one or the other.

Many car brands, though, have decided to offer both interfaces to appeal to the most broad range of customers. In this way, Apple and Google both exert considerable influence on automakers based simply on the fact that they sell smartphones.

If Project Titan and Waymo both succeed at becoming functional and user-friendly self-driving car systems, car buyers can expect something similar. (Read More…)

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