Self-Driving Cars May Ultimately be Safer than Human Drivers

As long as robot cars roam public streets and highways, they will occasionally kill people. That’s an ugly truth that no one in the driverless vehicle industry can deny.

Will those robot cars kill people at significantly lower rates than drunk, stoned, tired or distracted human drivers do now? Automakers, technology companies, politicians and regulators are betting they will, as driverless vehicles are rolling out faster than almost anyone expected as recently as a year ago.

As long as robot cars roam public streets and highways, they will occasionally kill people. That’s an ugly truth that no one in the driverless vehicle industry can deny.

Will those robot cars kill people at significantly lower rates than drunk, stoned, tired or distracted human drivers do now? Automakers, technology companies, politicians and regulators are betting they will, as driverless vehicles are rolling out faster than almost anyone expected as recently as a year ago.

Speculation by Tempe’s police chief that the robot may not be at fault in the crash may temper any public or political backlash.

Uber was testing the robot car in autonomous mode with a human engineer, who was behind the wheel but not driving. Elaine Herzberg, 49, walking a bicycle, stepped in front of the car from a center median, according to video evidence, police said.

“The driver said it was like a flash, the person walked out in front of them,” Tempe Police Chief Sylvia Moir told the San Francisco Chronicle. “His first alert to the collision was the sound of the collision.

“It’s very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode [autonomous or human-driven] based on how she came from the shadows right into the roadway.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are both investigating the incident.

Automakers who publicly responded to the news had different reactions. Toyota temporarily suspended public-road driverless testing in the U.S. In Germany, Volkswagen Group Chief Executive Matthias Mueller latched on to the chief’s assessment. “There are indications that this accident was unavoidable,” he said at an earnings news conference. “We won’t let ourselves be brought off course from our long-term strategy on the basis of tragic events like this.”

Uber issued a statement offering prayers to the victim and her family and promising a thorough investigation. Other companies at the forefront of driverless technology — automaker Tesla, ride-hailing company Lyft, driverless technology pioneer Waymo — have remained silent about the Uber incident thus far.

“That’s the right thing to do,” said Michael Sitrick, who heads Sitrick & Co., a Los Angeles crisis management and public relations firm. “They’re saying, ‘Let’s take a deep breath’ ” while the matter is sorted out.

The industry will need to think strategically about how to handle future tragedies, he said. In general, people fear new technology. “But when you’re putting people’s lives at risk, it’s much more serious than a bug in your phone,” Sitrick said.

The driverless vehicle industry faces a conundrum. Statistical proof that robot cars significantly reduce the crash and death rate would ease public acceptance of robot-caused carnage because it’s better than the alternative. But the only way to accumulate the hundreds of millions of miles of driving experience needed to prove that is to put the cars on the road.

In the face of uncertainty, emotions trump numbers for many people, Georgetown’s Towns said. “Behavioral research shows that losses are felt more strongly than gains.”

Or, as University of South Carolina law professor Bryant Walker Smith put it Monday: “This woman’s tragic death is going to be in every major newspaper and on every major website” while everyday highway deaths go uncovered.

The potential effects of robot cars and trucks are enormous. As the motor vehicle industry is transformed, market researchers say hundreds of billions of dollars — and millions of jobs — are at stake.

“Driverless cars are going to be one of the main pillars of the economy,” said Grayson Brulte, a driverless car industry consultant in Beverly Hills.

A technology-history buff, Brulte noted that in an early Wright brothers test, their new flying machine crashed and killed a U.S. Army lieutenant who rode along with Orville Wright, who was injured. The soldier had taken the place of the man originally scheduled for the ride: President Theodore Roosevelt.

“It’s very important that we do not allow one tragic accident to sway public opinion,” he said.

Carmakers and technology companies need to be far more transparent as they push forward, experts said. “It’s important that we all learn from this accident and we make these technologies even better, said Alain Kornhauser, a professor at Princeton University and a leading authority on driverless cars. “To that end Uber must release all of the data leading up to this crash. All of the video, radar, lidar and logic trails for the three or so seconds leading up to the crash. If this releases some of Uber’s intellectual property, so be it.”

That advice, however, bumps up against the highly secretive process of new technology development. Driverless technology companies are racing to develop and control the intellectual property in sensors and mapping and machine-learning software and reap the profits. Uber co-founder and former Chief Executive Travis Kalanick has called competing driverless systems an “existential threat” to Uber, which recently settled a lawsuit in which Waymo accused it of stealing trade secrets.

And up to this point at least, industry has successfully pushed for less regulation. Legislation that liberalizes driverless vehicle rules — allowing manufacturers to sell up to 2,500 driverless cars a year without having to follow regulations that require hardware such as steering wheels and side mirrors — has been passed by the U.S. House of Representatives. A similar bill is being considered by the Senate.

As featured in the March 21, 2018 edition of The Los Angeles Times

Lyft links with Magna to Sell Driverless Systems to any Auto Manufacturer

Lyft’s driverless car strategy became much clearer Wednesday.

The ride-hailing service announced it will partner with major automobile industry supplier Magna to develop driverless vehicle systems and make them available to any automaker that wants to buy them.

That could give Lyft a lot more choice when deciding what car brands to buy when it begins shedding labor costs by replacing human drivers with robots.

Canada-based Magna International is one of the world’s largest auto suppliers, with about $39 billion in revenue, offering a wide array of products, including powertrains and car seats.

Magna will invest $200 million in Lyft and collaborate on driverless system development. Lyft will lead the effort. Magna will manufacture the systems and sell them to automakers.

“Magna now becomes a one-stop shop for brands which want to deploy autonomous vehicles,” said driverless vehicle industry consultant Grayson Brulte.

Last year, another major parts supplier, Delphi, bought Nutonomy, a driverless car company based in Boston, for $400 million.

Lyft’s larger competitor, Uber, is developing its own driverless systems for cars and trucks. Google’s Waymo will begin a driverless ride-hailing system in and around Phoenix this spring.

As featured in the March 14, 2018 edition of The Los Angeles Times

Waymo Is Millions Of Miles Ahead In Robot Car Tests; Does It Need A Billion More?

Sometime this year Waymo, Alphabet Inc.’s prized driverless car bet, starts a first of its kind revenue-generating robo-taxi service in Phoenix.

Ahead of that the unit is maintaining a steady cadence of news underscoring how mature the former Google Self-Driving Car project is – including how big a lead it has over rivals in test miles.

Waymo this week said its test fleet has logged 5 million miles driving in autonomous mode on public roads. That’s more than double the 2 million miles Uber reached in December (though both companies are now capable or racking up a million test miles about every three months, based on reporting by Forbes’ Biz Carson). Waymo’s tally in computer-simulated tests, where it’s running 10,000 virtual vehicles through scenarios 24 hours a day, has passed 5 billion miles, and it also tries to stump robot drivers at a private test facility in rural California.

“In raw miles, Waymo is by far the leader,” said Grayson Brulte, a Beverly Hills-based driverless industry consultant. “They’re like Jesse Owens or Carl Lewis – running a 100-meter dash around everybody.”

But as many miles as it’s logged in the real world, Waymo may still be far from what it or any other company needs to do that. A 2016 study by RAND Corp. determined that demonstrating the reliability of autonomous vehicle tech to handle anything that could happen on public roads, in terms of reducing traffic fatalities and injuries, could require hundreds of millions or even hundreds of billions of test miles.

“They do have a meaningful lead – nobody else comes close to the millions of miles Waymo has driven on roads over the past decade,” said Nidhi Kalra, a San Francisco-based RAND scientist who was the lead author of the 2016 report. “It means they are finding the rarer and trickier situations and learning more and more. There’s just no true substitute for this.”

All those Waymo test miles racked since 2009 – predominantly in places with lots of sun and little snow or inclement weather – mean its fleet of robotic minivans have contended with more roadway circumstances than a human driver might confront in multiple lifetimes. Each mile is also uploaded to the cloud and shared across its fleet in a never-ending learning process for the artificial intelligence behind the wheel that Waymo says is key to building a better driver.

“We’ve now test driven in 25 U.S. cities, gaining experience in different weather conditions and terrains: from the snowy streets of Michigan to the steep hills of San Francisco, to the desert conditions of Greater Phoenix,” Waymo said in a recent blog post. “And because the lessons we learn from one vehicle can be shared with the entire fleet, every new mile counts even more.”

That helps explain why it does so well in annual tallies by California’s Department of Motor Vehicles that summarize how often a manufacturer’s test vehicles disengage from autonomous mode and hand over control to a human technician. Waymo said last month that its California test fleet had just 0.18 disengagements per thousand miles last year, compared with 0.80 disengagements per thousand miles for General Motors Cruise, the second-best performer in the DMV data.

Nothing is as critical as logging miles to verify the technology with statistical comparisons to human beings, said Chris Gerdes, a professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University and Director of its Center for Automotive Research.

“Humans tend to have roughly one fatal crash every 100 million vehicle miles traveled, so 5 million is still too small to compare on that basis,” he told Forbes. Yet if road tests focus on particularly difficult driving scenarios, “you can get a handle on these from much less than 5 million miles, assuming those miles are well distributed – not all on a couple of freeways, for instance,” he said.

Continually adding real-world test miles is critical for developing statistical models that can be used in computer simulation, Gerdes said. “These additional miles provide insight into how likely certain situations are and what sort of variability exists. This enables increasingly refined models that can point out potentially troublesome or critical situations for simulation.”

At this point, Waymo’s simulated miles may be more meaningful, owing to the greater complexity of “critical situations” it can create, he said. “I would imagine their simulator is highly refined and enables a lot of sensitivity testing in critical situations. The quality and comprehensiveness of a simulator is, to me anyway, more impressive than the number of miles simulated.”

RAND’s Kalra isn’t certain how to assess the value of Waymo’s massive amount of simulated driving data for two reasons. “We don’t know what those miles are like or how well they represent the real world, and we have no idea how well the vehicle actually did in simulation,” she said.

Given that Waymo’s robot chauffeur service will soon be offered to the public for the first time, we’ll soon find out exactly how much it’s learned from all those miles and the company has truly built a better driver.

As featured in Forbes on March 2, 2018

Cecil Spaceport Plans First Commercial Launch

The Cecil Spaceport has been a space center in name only since it was authorized in 2010, but that could change a year from now.

The Westside facility is gearing up for a possible first commercial space launch in December, although it will more likely happen next year, said Todd Lindner, director of Cecil Spaceport.

“In all likelihood, the launch will come in the spring of ’19” Lindner said Tuesday at a JAX Chamber forum on technology and automation in the transportation industry.

The spaceport has been working with Generation Orbit, based in Atlanta.

Cecil Spaceport is one of six U.S. facilities authorized to launch vehicles into space horizontally. Linder said the first payloads would likely be small satellites.

Although he didn’t say if it is possible at Cecil, Linder also said space tourism is drawing closer to reality, with paying customers reaching an altitude of 320,000 to 330,000 feet and achieving weightlessness for about 20 minutes.

He said the projected cost of those trips has dropped from about $250,000 to $120,000-$130,000.

“Eventually it will be affordable for all,” he said.

Space travel is not the only rapidly advancing transportation technology. Several panelists at the forum at the University of North Florida said autonomous vehicles — that is, vehicles on the road without drivers — are getting closer to reality.

“We will be there in the next two or three years,” said Dean Bushey, engineering professor at Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland.

Grayson Brulte, a California-based consultant who specializes in autonomous vehicles, thinks driverless vehicles will become so commonplace that the newest generation of Americans won’t even need driver’s licenses

“A child born in the last three years will never drive on a public road,” he said.

Brulte said autonomous systems will be coming online this year in major cities including Miami, Phoenix and Pittsburgh.

The Jacksonville Transportation Authority is testing a system called the Ultimate Urban Circulator that would operate autonomous vehicles through Downtown.

The JTA system would integrate the tracks of the Automated Skyway Express with lanes on city streets to extend the network of the underused skyway.

JTA Chief Executive Officer Nathaniel Ford said he believes that as the population of Downtown Jacksonville grows, residents will want to use the autonomous vehicles.

“There’s going to be a need for some type of Downtown transportation network,” Ford said before the conference.

“What I like about Jacksonville’s program is the city is taking something old, the Skyway, and making something new,” said Jordan Crenshaw, assistant policy counsel for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Technology Engagement Center.

Crenshaw said Florida cities are moving quicker to embrace autonomous technology than other states and the federal government.

“We can use a lot more Florida in D.C.,” he said.

JAX Chamber President Daniel Davis also supports autonomous vehicle technology to meet the city’s transportation needs.

“Instead of putting more bricks and sticks in the grass, how do we get smart about how we move people?” Davis said.

“I really believe the autonomous vehicle conversation is the future,” he said.

As featured in the Jax Daily Record on February 21, 2018.

Self-Driving Pledge Skirmish Opens a Debate

Reporting on self-driving cars gives journalists a chance to rise above the ideological bickering that defines most of the national debate today.

The operating standards of sensor configurations or specs on a software stack don’t exactly appeal to partisan fodder. But on Thursday, the announcement that 15 mobility companies — including banner names such as Uber, Lyft, and Zipcar and smaller upstarts such as Via and Ola — have signed on to a pledge to adhere to core principles for ethical deployment of self-driving vehicles set off a small skirmish online between progressive advocates of shared mobility and free market-types skeptical of heavy-handed control of development of this new technology. It foreshadows the debate to come, when self-driving cars hit the streets en masse and cities and states across the nation have to make tough decisions on what is and is not allowable in their jurisdictions.

The “Shared Mobility Principles for Livable Cities” pledge comes off as benign (People over vehicles! Promote equity!) but masks a deeper philosophical debate that goes back a century to the beginning of urban planning. Namely, how active a role should coordination and regulation play in our transportation, and what do services that get some degree of public support via roads or licensed monopolies owe their customers?

Viewed in that light, some of the principles actually do come off as fairly radical. For instance, the 10th and final principle advocates that autonomous vehicles in dense urban areas only be operated in shared fleets, eschewing personal ownership of self-driving cars in cities.

“All this is doing is supporting a political ideology,” said Grayson Brulte, an autonomous vehicle consultant who advises Beverly Hills, Calif. “I consider myself for the free market, but I think there will be shared and there will be private. What this coalition is proposing is anti-competitive; it’s eliminating choice.”

Some are skeptical, to put it mildly, of the names behind the pledge: The National Resources Defense Council, Transportation for America and Rocky Mountain Institute are all notable for their progressive politics. Robin Chase, a co-founder of Zipcar and primary advocate behind the pledge, has sounded the alarm over self-driving cars and climate change for years.

But it wasn’t so long ago that when urban and transit advocates would meet, cars as transport would be completely off the table in favor of biking or light rail. That’s changed with the advent of autonomous cars, yet it doesn’t seem like the companies behind this technology have caught wind.

For instance, it’s significant that the initial signatories on this pledge include just two companies, Uber and Lyft, that are seriously developing autonomous technology. They’re the only ones on a notable list including Waymo, General Motors and Aptiv that have had to seriously engage in city politics.

Rather than some sort of left-wing conspiracy that these principles are being painted as, they should be viewed as an entry point into a debate that will run for years after these cars hit the streets. While the focus is on developing the product now, the conversation is quickly shifting to the rules and regulations that will govern how autonomous cars are used. Moreover, there are legitimate arguments companies could make for and against shared mobility absent of the ideological rancor. For instance, shared fleets make a lot more sense if autonomous cars are too expensive for regular consumers to purchase.

Companies that may want to stay above the fray in the urban debates should rethink. They have a voice — and they should use it.

As featured in Automotive News on February 2, 2018.