Volvo to supply Uber with up to 24,000 self-driving SUVs for taxi fleet

A fleet of self-driving Volvo vehicles operated by Uber Technologies Inc. could be ready for the road as early as 2019, marking the ride-hailing firm’s biggest push yet to roll out autonomous cars.

Volvo said Monday that it would sell Uber tens of thousands of luxury sport utility vehicles between 2019 and 2021 outfitted with the Swedish automaker’s safety, redundancy and core autonomous driving technologies. Uber will then add its own self-driving technology to the autonomous taxi fleet.

Jeff Miller, head of auto alliances at Uber, said in a statement that the agreement put Uber on a path toward “mass produced self-driving vehicles at scale.”

The Wall Street Journal reported that the fleet described in the agreement would number 24,000 vehicles, though an Uber spokesperson said the figure is a “general framework” and not necessarily the actual number of cars that will be purchased. It’s unclear when exactly the vehicles will hit the road.

Uber could benefit from Volvo’s reputation for safety, particularly since the San Francisco firm’s reputation has suffered amid accusations of bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination at the company.

Uber was also hit in February with an intellectual property lawsuit filed by Waymo, the self-driving car company founded by Google, in a case that goes to jury selection this month.

Waymo accuses Uber of unlawfully obtaining trade secrets around its laser-based sensing system after the ride-hailing firm bought Otto, a driverless trucking technology company founded by Anthony Levandowski. Waymo alleges Levandowski downloaded thousands of sensitive files when he left the company and brought them to Uber.

Those controversies, among others, culminated in Uber’s ousting of company Chief Executive Travis Kalanick and a blow to the company’s reputation.

“For autonomy to really work, you have to have trust,” said Grayson Brulte, co-founder and president of Brulte & Co. “Right now, Uber does not have a very trusting relationship with the public.”

The Volvo deal marks one of Uber’s first major business initiatives under new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, the former chief of travel-booking firm Expedia. Uber, which is privately held and valued at just below $70 billion, is moving toward an anticipated 2019 initial public offering.

The “framework agreement,” which Volvo said was nonexclusive, builds on an earlier agreement from 2016 in which the two companies said they would co-develop autonomous vehicles. Volvo, which was acquired by Chinese automaker Geely Holding in 2010, said it also plans to use the base vehicle in the development of its own “independent autonomous car strategy.”

Volvo said it plans to release its own fully autonomous car in 2021.

It also plans to begin importing a new line of technology-laden Chinese cars under the Lynk & Co. brand into Volvo U.S. showrooms by the end of 2019. Geely, meanwhile, has technology partnerships throughout China.

This complicated alliance is typical of the nascent autonomous vehicle industry, in which automakers, tech companies and ride-hailing firms alike are trying to figure out the best combination of partnerships to reach the market first.

Earlier this year, Uber signed an agreement with Daimler in which the German automaker planned to introduce self-driving vehicles into Uber’s ride-hailing network. That deal, unlike the Volvo one, did not mention any vehicle purchase agreements.

Last year, Uber started offering rides in self-driving Ford Fusions to passengers in Pittsburgh as part of a test of Uber’s self-driving technology, though human operators still sit in the driver’s seat.

Ford has said it will start testing self-driving cars on the ride-hailing network of Uber’s rival, Lyft. And Lyft has signed partnerships with General Motors and Waymo.

“Everyone is hedging their bets so they don’t get left behind,” Brulte said. “There’s no real indicator of who’s going to win.”

It’s unclear how far along Uber’s driverless technology is at this point. While both Volvo and Ford have said they planned to have autonomous vehicles on the road by 2021, Uber has not disclosed when its cars will drive without human safety operators.

In March, a self-driving Uber SUV rolled onto its side after it was struck by a vehicle making a left turn at an intersection in Tempe, Ariz. Local police said the Uber SUV was obeying the law at the time, and that the driver in the other vehicle did not yield.

“Maybe they’re not the leader, but they’re near the front,” said Alain Kornhauser, an autonomous vehicle expert at Princeton University.

As part of the agreement, Volvo will supply the advanced XC90 SUVs over two years. In its current version, which includes some limited autonomous driving features, the car has a starting list price of about $47,000.

“It’s another example of how the [carmakers] are orienting themselves into an ecosystem, rather than having to be at the center,” said Alexandre Marian of AlixPartners, a consulting firm.

Michelle Krebs, executive analyst at Autotrader, said she expected to see more of these kinds of partnerships between Silicon Valley companies and traditional automakers.

“It’s pretty clear that autonomous vehicles and sharing go hand in hand,” she said.

As featured in the November 20, 2017 edition of The Los Angeles Times

Delphi acquires self-driving startup NuTonomy for $450 million

Old-line car parts supplier Delphi Automotive made a huge bet on the the future of driving Tuesday, buying autonomous car startup NuTonomy Inc. for $450 million.

It’s a big deal for Delphi, which started out long ago as a division within General Motors. The move gives NuTonomy access to capital and a big payday for founders and investors.

And, auto analysts say, the acquisition signals a consolidation period for self-driving car startups as major players in the global automotive industry position themselves for radical change.

“You’re going to see a lot of larger companies with healthy balance sheets gobble up a lot of startups,” said autonomous vehicles consultant Grayson Brulte.

Last year, General Motors paid about $1 billion for Silicon Valley driverless technology startup Cruise Automation. Earlier this year, Ford paid about $1 billion for a tiny Pittsburgh startup, Argo AI.

The startup field is crowded and Brulte expects more deals to come soon.

“There’s too many people competing for the same prize,” he said.

One reason big companies with strong balance sheets are rushing to buy self-driving startups is the scarcity of specialized talent needed to create autonomous-vehicle software and hardware.

“There’s not enough engineering talent, there’s not enough artificial intelligence talent, and there’s not enough policy talent to go around,” Brulte said.

Boston-based NuTonomy was founded in 2013. It has been testing autonomous taxis in Singapore and Boston since last fall.

Delphi Chief Technology Officer Glen DeVos says Delphi wants its autonomous system to be used on commercial vehicles in limited areas by 2019. DeVos says NuTonomy brings advanced software and fleet management experience to Delphi.

NuTonomy will remain in Boston and will maintain partnerships with French automaker PSA Group and ride-hailing provider Lyft. NuTonomy’s 100 employees will work with Delphi’s 100-member autonomous vehicle team.

By March, Delphi will have changed its name to Aptiv. In an effort to remake itself for a new age, the company said in September it plans to split itself in two, with Delphi Technologies focused on powertrains and Aptiv focused on self-driving and connected vehicle technology.

Delphi has long experience in supplying automotive electronics to major automakers. Aptiv will continue as an industry supplier, even as it builds NuTonomy’s business.

Elon Musk, chief executive at Tesla, issued a one-word tweet in reaction to the deal: “Groan.” Tesla is fashioning its own autonomous technology.

As featured in the October 24, 2017 edition of The Los Angeles Times

A Win For The Robots: California Poised To Permit Human-Free Driverless Car Tests

In a big step on the journey to our robot-laden future, California is moving to permit companies that are developing self-driving cars to test them in the state with no human safety driver at the wheel.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles on Wednesday released a revised proposal for rules governing the operation of robotic vehicles in the state that has more of them than anywhere else. The biggest change – barring further revisions after a 15-day public comment period – is to allow companies for the first time to apply to conduct tests on public roads in California sans human.

“We consider that we’ve always been the leader in the testing of these vehicles,” Brian Soublet, California DMV’s deputy director and chief counsel, said on a conference call. Although some states have may have moved faster to ease rules, “all indicators are it’s continuing to grow in California,” he said.

The action comes as Congress moves to create federal rules governing the operation of driverless cars that advocates say will usher in an unprecedented era of convenience for passengers and reductions in on-road fatalities. Companies including Alphabet’s Waymo, General Motors, Ford, Tesla and Uber have poured billions of dollars into perfecting the technology to carve out a leadership position as it transitions from testing to commercial operation in the next few years.

California currently has 285 self-driving vehicles that are permitted to operate on public roads, fielded by 42 auto and tech companies, according to the DMV. Since regulations currently require a human at the wheel in case of problems, there are also about 1,000 permitted test drivers for those vehicles.

States including Arizona, Michigan and Florida have modified rules to attract more companies to deploy autonomous vehicles, and that appears to be motivating California, said driverless industry consultant Grayson Brulte.

“California is clearly on defense trying to defend the state’s position as a leader in autonomous vehicle testing,” said Brulte, whose company is based in Beverly Hills. “It is a significant step toward the future of mobility.”

Among revisions the state made to previously proposed autonomous testing rules: A significantly higher registration fee.

Currently, companies are charged $150 a year for a permit to test robotic vehicles in the state. (Uber, under its former autonomous car chief Anthony Levandowski, inexplicably refused to comply with this rule when the company attempted to test vehicles in San Francisco in December.) That fee would now rise to $3,600 for a two-year autonomous test permit.

Waymo, the company created last year to commercialize Google’s self-driving car program, runs a large, public test of its latest vehicles in suburban Phoenix. Although Waymo’s autonomous minivans have safety drivers at the wheel and offers the service for free to pre-registered riders, a recent report suggested the Alphabet unit will soon operate the service as a commercial venture — and ditch its human backup.

While it hasn’t commented on that report, Waymo this week kicked off the first public ad campaign promoting the safety gains that will come with self-driving cars. The effort, dubbed “Let’s Talk Self-Driving,” is being done in conjunction with Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the National Safety Council and the Federation for Blind Children.

California initially proposed modifications to its testing rules early this year, and the latest version reflects input from “manufacturers, consumer advocates, local government, insurance companies and other stakeholders,” the DMV said. They also take into account modified guidelines from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that came out in September, DMV said.

A U.S. Senate panel last week unanimously approved a bill to allow deployment of self-driving cars without humans hovering at the wheel — and which would prevent states from setting rules barring that. It followed approval of similar legislation in the House of Representatives in September.

As featured in Forbes on October 11, 2017

UK Government Issues Cybersecurity Guidance for Connected and Automated Vehicles

On 6 August 2017, the UK government released ‘The Key Principles of Vehicle Cyber Security for Connected and Automated Vehicles’, guidance aimed at ensuring minimum cybersecurity protections for consumers in the manufacture and operation of connected and automated vehicles.

Connected and automated vehicles fall into the category of so-called ‘smart cars’. Connected vehicles have gained, and will continue to gain, adoption in the market and, indeed, are expected to make up more than half of new vehicles by 2020. Such cars have the ability through the use of various technologies to communicate with the driver, other cars, application providers, traffic infrastructure and the Cloud. Automated vehicles, also known as autonomous vehicles, include self-driving features that allow the vehicle to control key functions–like observing the vehicle’s environment, steering, acceleration, parking, and lane changes–that traditionally have been performed by a human driver. Consumers in certain markets have been able to purchase vehicles with certain autonomous driving features for the past few years, and vehicle manufacturers have announced plans to enable vehicles to be fully self-driving under certain conditions, in the near future.

The principles set forth in the UK government’s guidance are part of a wider push by the government to establish the UK as a player in the development of smart cars. Earlier this year, the government announced its plans for the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill, which will aim to establish the UK as a global leader and ensure that “the next wave of self-driving technology is invented, designed and operated safely in the UK” and it has further pledged £200 million to this cause.

The guidance has been produced in response to the large (and growing) risk of cybersecurity attacks presented by connected and autonomous vehicle technology. Increased connectivity and autonomy necessarily rely heavily on continuous streams of data. As Grayson Brulte, one of the leading authorities on autonomous vehicles, recently commented, “the scientific breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, LiDAR and edge computing combined with high-definition 3D mapping have made it possible for fully autonomous vehicles to operate in unpredictable environments such as cities.”

All of these scientific breakthroughs involve the collection and processing of massive volumes of data, which creates potential vulnerabilities from a cybersecurity perspective. With respect to autonomous vehicles, there are significant threshold questions that remain unanswered and that will significantly affect the cybersecurity risks of such vehicles. For example, it is unclear to what extent autonomous vehicles will interact with the transportation infrastructure and other vehicles or whether such vehicles will be designed to rely as heavily as possible on data that is generated by the vehicle itself. Similarly, it is unclear whether and under what conditions human intervention will be permitted, or whether it will be determined that the human risks of fallibility, distraction, and occasional malicious intent offset the potential safety benefit of human involvement. The autonomous vehicle industry has not reached consensus on these issues.

Nevertheless, it is apparent that providers will need to focus on developing robust programs for attempting to maintain the security of connected and autonomous vehicles. They also will need to pay close attention to the storage, processing and transfer of personal data in light of increased regulation and scrutiny under EU and international data protection and privacy regimes. As examples, providers will need to carefully consider disclosure obligations to relevant authorities as well as consents from consumers.

The principles set forth in the UK guidance are targeted towards the prevention of hacking and data theft by ensuring that cybersecurity becomes a key consideration for everyone in the automotive manufacturing supply chain. The guidelines consist of the following eight principles:

Principle 1: Organisational security is owned, governed and promoted at board level–this is aimed at promoting a ‘culture of security’ within an organisation
Principle 2: Security risks are assessed and managed appropriately and proportionately, including those specific to the supply chain
Principle 3: Organisations need to provide product aftercare and incident response to ensure systems are secure over their lifetime
Principle 4: All organisations, including sub-contractors, suppliers and potential third parties, must work together to enhance the security of the system
Principle 5: Systems are designed using a defence-in-depth approach–security measures should be designed to address failures and breaches through defence-in-depth and segmented techniques
Principle 6: The security of all software is managed throughout its lifetime
Principle 7: The storage and transmission of data is secure and can be controlled
Principle 8: The system is designed to be resilient to attacks and respond appropriately when its defences or sensors fail

These principles are articulated at a high level and are fairly self-evident to those with experience in the cybersecurity industry. Also, as of yet, these principles are not binding and do not impose concrete obligations on manufacturers of connected and automated vehicles. This cautious approach may reflect an appreciation that this emerging technology does not lend itself to detailed rules that might, in hindsight, turn out to be misguided. It may also reflect a recognition that development of autonomous vehicle technology is occurring on a global scale, and thus stringent regulation risks the loss of development projects to less regulated jurisdictions.

As featured in The National Law Review on September 13, 2017

Driverless cars on public highways? Go for it, Trump administration says

Go for it! In essence, that’s the Trump administration’s new directive on driverless-car development.

Under those guidelines, automakers and technology companies will be asked to voluntarily submit safety assessments to the U.S. Department of Transportation, but they don’t have to do it.

And states are being advised to use a light regulatory hand.

At a driverless-car test track in Ann Arbor, Mich., Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao painted a near future of greater safety, fewer deaths, higher productivity and more time spent with loved ones as robots increasingly take over the tasks of driving and commuters are freed for other activities.

She unveiled a document titled “Vision for Safety 2.0” and delivered a speech that was strong on vision and light on regulation.

“More than 35,000 people perish every year in vehicle crashes,” she said — 94% of those through driver error. After years of decline, fatalities are growing, she said. “Automated driving systems hold the promise of significantly reducing these errors and saving tens of thousands of lives in the process.”

Although the Vision document is vague, Congress is likely to pack on some meat. Last week, the House of Representatives passed a bill that eventually would let automakers each put as many as 25,000 cars on the road even if some features don’t meet current safety standards set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The cap would rise over a four-year period, allowing each automaker to field 275,000 driverless cars by the end of that period.

The House bill would require safety assessments, but permission to test would not be required. States would be required to follow federal regulations.

The Senate is considering a similar bill, though the Commerce Committee will consider at a Wednesday hearing whether to exempt trucks from the law. Labor unions fear that driverless technology could lead to job losses. Chao, who has expressed similar concerns in the past, said she’s working closely with Congress on the matter.

She was joined at Tuesday’s announcement by Mark Riccobono, president of the National Federation of the Blind, who said fully autonomous vehicles offer “an unprecedented opportunity to bring equal access to people with disabilities.”

Although widespread use of driverless cars is at least several years away, automakers and technology companies are making rapid progress, and features — such as automatic braking and adaptive cruise control — are already available on many new vehicles.

Tesla’s Autopilot feature, for example, enables the vehicle to pass cars automatically on the freeway. An option on the new Cadillac CT6 enables drivers to cruise along a freeway lane for hours without driver intervention. Even models from relatively inexpensive makers such as Hyundai, Mazda, Kia and Subaru offer automatic braking to avoid rear ending the car ahead.

Not everyone was happy with Chao’s announcement. Some consumer groups, which already thought the Obama administration’s standards were too lax, criticized a further pullback from government regulation.

“This isn’t a vision for safety,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s privacy project director. “It’s a road map that allows manufacturers to do whatever they want, wherever and whenever they want, turning our roads into private laboratories for robot cars with no regard for our safety.”

Two House Democrats, Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, issued a statement that calls Chao’s move a step backward: “The administration chose to cave to industry and pressure the states into not acting.”

But driverless-vehicle proponents cheered Chao’s presentation. “This is great news. Over-regulating autonomous vehicles will slow down the adoption of a technology which will create millions of new high-paying jobs across the United States and make roads safer for all Americans,” driverless industry consultant Grayson Brulte said.

Mitch Bainwol, chief executive of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers lobby group, appeared at the Chao event and said, “The future is not something we should be afraid of or try to slow down.”

The new standards replace guidelines published by the Obama administration in September 2016 that asked automakers to voluntarily submit reports on a 15-point “safety assessment.” They were also urged, but not required, to defer to federal rules on safety. Chao did not criticize those guidelines, but called them “Vision for Safety 1.0.”

“The new policy adjusts the tone but continues much of the substance of (the Obama administration) document,” said Bryant Walker Smith, law professor at the University of South Carolina. “It clearly reflects the input of the traditional automotive industry but doesn’t exclude potential new entrants such as Waymo.”

The previous approach, however, didn’t eliminate a patchwork of state-by-state regulations. California’s regulations, for example, are considered fairly strict. Florida, Michigan and Arizona barely regulate driverless cars.

The new “Vision for Safety” advises state officials to remain technology-neutral and not favor traditional automakers over technology companies; to remove regulatory barriers that keep driverless cars off the roads; and to make the federal Transportation Department’s voluntary recommendations into law.

New legislation that emerges from Congress, however, could have more serious implications for state regulations. Under the House bill, California and other states could not bar driverless cars allowed under federal law.

How that might affect a new set of driverless regulations that California officials plan to unveil by the end of the year is unclear. The state Department of Motor Vehicles, which regulates driverless cars, said in a prepared statement that it is reviewing the new federal guidelines.

Transportation officials from both administrations consider driver-assist technology and autonomous cars to be essential safety features that could dramatically reduce collisions, injuries and deaths.

The vast majority of traffic collisions are caused by human driver error, federal safety statistics show. Fatalities have been rising in recent years as cellphones and other distracting devices have become more popular.

In 2016, U.S. highway traffic deaths rose 6%, to about 40,000.

As featured in the September 12, 2017 edition of The Los Angeles Times