Public Acceptance of Autonomous Vehicles

In this episode of The Road To Autonomy, Grayson Brulte discusses how the autonomous vehicle industry is coming together to build trust and public acceptance of autonomous vehicles at Self-Racing Cars 2018.

From Autonomous Vehicle Demo Days to outreach and education, the industry is working together to ensure that we can usher in the future of autonomy for the benefit of society.

Tune in to learn how the autonomous vehicle industry is coming together to build trust and public acceptance of autonomous vehicles.

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Driverless Cars are Growing in Number, but Makers Don’t Want to Reveal How they Sometimes Fail

On March 18, a robot-driven Volvo operated by Uber hit and killed a pedestrian in Arizona.

Advocates for automation maintained that the tragedy shouldn’t detract from the likelihood that driverless technology is eliminating human error and making driving safer. But the death, and a fatality five days later that involved Tesla’s Autopilot driver-assist system, were unusual in another way: They were rare instances in which driverless-car companies were forced to share data about how their systems work, in this case with investigators.

A schism is developing in the driverless-car world — but not between fans and foes of robot cars.

Instead, on one side are driverless-car advocates who believe data transparency will lead to safer deployment of driverless vehicles and help alleviate public fears about the strange and disruptive new technology. On the other are some automobile and technology companies that, for good commercial reasons perhaps, prefer to keep their workings cloaked in mystery.

The lack of transparency about the workings of sensors, logic processors, mapping systems and other driverless technology, like the debate over robot-car regulation, could shape public perception of the nascent industry, said Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of South Carolina.

“Essentially, [the public will be] looking to see whether these companies are trustworthy,” he said.

The stakes are high. Driverless-vehicle technology is expected to roil major segments of the world economy and market forecasters predict several hundred billion dollars a year in revenue for the winners.

Already semi-autonomous technologies such as Tesla Autopilot are operating on public roads, with deployment of driverless ride-hailing services from Waymo (a subsidiary of Google’s parent, Alphabet), Lyft, Cruise Automation and others due this year or next.

To understand the controversy, and the effect on public safety, it helps to know what data are being collected and how such information might be put to use if it were made more visible.

Most people are familiar with the idea of a “black box,” technically known as an event data recorder. They’ve been used for decades in the airline industry to help investigators evaluate crashes. But similar devices have become common in cars and trucks to record data on speed, steering, braking and the like over the few seconds before, during and after a crash.

The data issue today goes far beyond the black box, however. It now extends to cutting-edge robotic systems that use sophisticated sensors, complex computer chips and advanced software to take over some or all of the driving tasks that a human being would normally perform. The technology companies that create them are taking different approaches to engineering the systems. Industry and government have yet to determine how to use the data they generate after a crash.

In the Uber death, a video recorded by a dashboard camera — turned over to and released by Tempe, Ariz., police — showed the driverless-car system failed to brake for the pedestrian. It left open the question of whether the system sensors might have failed to notice the pedestrian at all.

Uber’s reaction was to apologize, then dip into some of its $15 billion in investment capital to pay the victim’s family in a legal settlement, thus avoiding a public trial.

Uber declined to make a company executive available to discuss data and transparency on the record, as did Waymo, Tesla and Lyft. Other companies — including Zoox, Nutonomy and General Motors, parent of Cruise Automation — agreed to talk.

Even driverless-car advocates are growing concerned about the silence from the industry’s major players. Grayson Brulte, a well-known consultant in the driverless industry, worries that recent polls have consistently shown the public is wary about driverless technology, while companies appear reluctant to engage with the public.

“They’re like Rapunzel up in the tower,” he said. “They have to let down their hair and climb down.”

Alain Kornhauser, who heads the driverless-vehicle program at Princeton University, said he believes that robot cars will improve safety, reduce driver stress, add productive time to the day and offer the elderly and disabled more independence. But the technology is far from perfect, he said, and some robot-induced deaths are inevitable.

Rather than wall off the lessons learned in fatalities such as the recent Uber and Tesla incidents, Kornhauser said, the companies should be sharing crash data with one another, with outside researchers and with the general public. And not just black-box data, but driverless-system data as well. That would make driverless cars safer and faster, he said.

“Uber should not gain a safety advantage over everyone else because they were involved in this crash,” Kornhauser said. “All of the video, radar, lidar and logic trails in the seconds leading up to the crash should be released to the public.

“If this reveals some of Uber’s intellectual property, so be it. If they want to protect their intellectual property, they shouldn’t crash on public roads.”

Current policy in some ways confuses the situation further, Kornhauser said. After the Tesla Model X fatality in Mountain View, Calif., on March 23, Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk defended the Autopilot system and seemed to blame the driver. He also repeated Tesla safety numbers that statistics experts have described as problematic. Musk’s words caused a public spat with Robert Sumwalt, head of the National Transportation Safety Board, who kicked Tesla off the investigative team.

Kornhauser suggested that transportation officials might be better off allowing objective data to be released while banning speculation that might favor a company or other party involved in a crash.

Karl Iagnemma, chief executive of driverless-technology company Nutonomy, said he believes a solution is possible. There is a concern, as in any other industry, that “if you share knowledge with a competitor, you might enable them to move more quickly.” But if the trade-off is a higher level of safety, he said, “I’m fine with that.”

Elements of the aviation safety model could be applied to driverless technology, he said. Airlines face far stricter requirements than automobiles on black-box data, and they confidentially share data with one another to improve safety. Eventually, government investigators reach conclusions and some of the data is made public.

“The promise of sharing data is that if data can be shared industrywide there’s a chance that you will not have that same crash happen again,” Iagnemma said. If federal authorities required such data from all industry players, “we would certainly use that information to improve our systems, absolutely.”

The information released to the public need not be highly technical and should avoid being defensive, according to law professor Smith. His suggestion: “Something went wrong. These are the things that went wrong. Here’s why they went wrong. Here’s what we’re going to do about it.”

But there’s no sign of that happening anytime soon, voluntarily or via regulation. Trump administration agencies have not said much about driverless-vehicle policy. Legislation is working its way through the Senate that would allow manufacturers to sell thousands of driverless cars each year to individuals, but the bill barely touches on data transparency. A similar bill quickly passed the House of Representatives last September.

The nonprofit Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, which represents a broad range of safety advocates, is pushing for changes in the Senate bill, including the creation of a public database that would publicize defects and operational issues with commercial driverless and driver-assist systems — similar to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s site.

In a letter sent recently to Mitch Bainwol, chief executive of the lobby group Alliance of Automotive Manufacturers, the safety group noted that the Senate bill requires only that driverless-car companies “describe” their systems. “As such, manufacturers will continue to submit slick marketing brochures … instead of providing actual data and documentation that will allow the public and NHTSA to accurately evaluate the safety of the technology,” the letter said.

“We are pro technology,” said Cathy Chase, the advocacy group’s president. “We do want to see this technology succeed. We do want to see fewer people being killed and injured.”

But if driverless-vehicle companies retain full control of system safety data, she said, “you have the fox guarding the henhouse.”

As featured in the April 30, 2018 edition of The Los Angeles Times

BMW and Daimler Merge Mobility Services Divisions

BMW Group and Daimler AG will merge their respective mobility service divisions into a 50/50 joint venture, while still maintaining competition within their core businesses.

The venture is a “clear sign” that the mobility market is “maturing,” Grayson Brulte, a consultant and co-founder of Brulte & Company told Auto Finance News.

“Across the board look for M&A activity in autonomy, ridesharing and carsharing,” he said. “There are too many companies competing for the same piece of the pie.”

The venture is designed to combine services in the five areas: On-demand mobility, carsharing, ride-hailing, parking, and charging. For example, Daimler’s Car2Go and BMW’s DriveNow carshare programs — which include a total of 20,000 vehicles, 4 million customers, in 31 major international cities — will be combined, pending regulatory approval of the merger.

Other Daimler services slated to merge with BMW programs include Urban booking and payment platforms Moovel and ReachNow; Ride-hailing services mytaxi, Chauffeur Privé, Clever Taxi, and Beat; digital parking services ParkNow and Parkmobile Group; and networked public charging stations ChargeNow and Digital Charging Solutions.

In regards to how the joint venture will specifically operate, and how the platforms will co-exist or change, could not be addressed yet, a Daimler spokeswoman told AFN.

“We just signed the agreement so it’s a little too early to say,” she said.

BMW did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

Harry Campbell, of the popular blog The Rideshare Guy, agreed there will be more M&A activity with OEMs.

“I think automakers know that a discreet point in the future is that ownership is going to be changing; transportation-as-a-service from Uber and Lyft have been eating away with this and autonomy, and I think carmakers know they’re going to be a big shift but aren’t sure how to be involved in this future model,” he said.

This future is one where we have reached full autonomy and autonomous services have proliferated the market. But in the meantime, BMW and Daimler are able to gather more data and learn more about customer behavior than each company would by itself. Brulte said he anticipates that the mobility ecosystem will see more mergers and acquisition activity throughout the year, although he was unsure of what companies may be next.

“Watch where the dominoes fall, because this is just the beginning,” he said.

The formation of the joint venture will produce a significant valuation and earnings effect at Daimler Financial Services, while BMW will see a one-time valuation and earnings effect in the BMW AG’s group financial statement and thus lead to an adjustment of the company’s guidance, the press release said. Under these circumstances, pre-tax earnings on Group level would increase slightly in 2018 compared with the previous year.

The Daimler spokeswoman declined to say how much this would impact future Daimler earnings but did say that if the joint venture receives regulatory approval this year it would significantly increase Daimler Financial Services’ EBIT. However, until regulatory approval is granted, it could not be determined when exactly an impact from the joint venture would be seen.

As featured in Auto Finance News on March 28, 2018

Uber Self-Driving Program’s Fate Unclear As It Lets California Test Permit Lapse

The future of Uber’s self-driving vehicle program is increasingly murky as the company has told California it won’t be renewing a permit to test robotic cars in the state.

This news comes after Arizona suspended the rideshare company’s AV program there following a fatal collision with a pedestrian.

Uber last week announced that it was halting all testing of autonomous vehicles on public roads in Arizona, California, Pittsburgh and Toronto after the March 18 accident that killed Elaine Herzberg, 49, as she crossed a dark street in Tempe, Arizona. The California Department of Motor Vehicles sent a letter to Uber on March 27 confirming the company’s decision.

“Uber has indicated that it will not renew its current permit to test autonomous vehicles in California. By the terms of its current permit, Uber’s authority to test autonomous vehicles on California public roads will end on March 31, 2018,” Brian Soublet, chief counsel for the California DMV said in the letter to Austin Heyworth, Uber’s public affairs manager.

Should Uber at some future date want to restart testing in California, not only will it need a new permit, the company “will need to address any follow-up analysis or investigations from the recent crash in Arizona and may also require a meeting with the department,” Soublet said.

The Arizona accident is the first known fatality involving a pedestrian and an autonomous vehicle, and a black eye for the Uber program that was working to get back on track after a high-profile legal fight involving stolen trade secrets with Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo. Federal investigators and Tempe’s police department are studying the accident to determine if Uber’s self-driving Volvo XC90 SUV had malfunctioning sensors, software, computers or an entirely different flaw.

“To regain public trust Uber has to come out and explain exactly what happened in Arizona and how it’s going to fix it,” said Grayson Brulte, an autonomous tech industry consultant based in Beverly Hills.

“You really have to wonder what is the long-term roadmap for Uber’s program? Does (CEO Dara Khosrowshahi) shut this down or hit the reset button and rebuild it from the ground up? And if so, does Uber partner with a big OEM rather than do it alone?”

Uber didn’t respond to a question about whether Khosrowshahi remains fully committed to the program, but confirmed the decision not to renew its California permit at this time.

“We proactively suspended our self-driving operations, including in California, immediately following the Tempe incident,” Uber said in an emailed statement. “Given this, we decided to not reapply for a California DMV permit with the understanding that our self-driving vehicles would not operate on public roads in the immediate future.”

In the wake of the Uber accident, Nvidia said today that it too was halting public roads tests of its self-driving vehicles. The company currently has just four cars registered for the AV program, according to the California DMV. Likewise, Toyota suspended tests of its autonomous vehicles on public roads in California and Michigan last week and has not yet resumed them, said John Hanson, a company spokesman.

Waymo, which today announced an autonomous vehicle partnership with Jaguar in addition to its program with FCA to get Pacifica Hybrid minivans, has continued its U.S. testing and has General Motors’ Cruise unit. NuTonomy, the self-driving tech unit acquired by Aptiv, has just restarted testing its robot cars in the Boston area after a brief suspension.

“Testing resumed today in Boston following a review of our program and its safety protocols with city officials,” the company told Forbes in an emailed statement.

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, who welcomed Uber’s self-driving vehicles to the state in late 2016, this week rescinded the rideshare company’s ability to test there. In a March 26 letter to CEO Khosrowshahi, Ducey said he’d directed the state’s Department of Transportation to “suspend Uber’s ability to test and operate autonomous vehicles on Arizona’s public roadways.” In addition to its fleet of more than 150 automated Volvo XC90 SUVs testing in and around Phoenix, Uber also stopped testing its self-driving semi-trucks in the state.

Uber’s Volvo test vehicle was loaded with sensors, including LiDAR and radar that can see pedestrians and objects in dark or in light. And even if the LiDAR, which shoots out pulsed laser beams to create 3D, 360-degree images of a vehicle’s surroundings, failed, the radar should have detected the metal bicycle that Herzberg was pushing.

For now, it’s hard to assess the broader impact of the crash on other developers of autonomous technology, Karl Iagnemma, nuTonomy’s CEO, said Tuesday at the NADA 2018 Global Automotive Forum in New York.

“It does shine some light on some of these questions about the uniformity of practices,” he said, such as how many human safety drivers are in the test vehicles and there use of redundant sensors and other equipment. For its part, nuTonomy takes a “real belt and suspenders approach to safety,” in terms of backup systems and heavy use of simulated testing, Iagnemma said.

The real risk is the threat “the public comes out of this with a partially formed view of autonomy,” he said.

As featured in Forbes on March 27, 2018

Beijing Issues First License to Test Autonomous Cars Despite Fatality In US

Beijing has issued its first license for testing autonomous vehicles on city roads, just days after the first known fatal accident involving an AV and a pedestrian in the U.S.

Baidu Inc. received a temporary license to operate AV’s on 105 kilometers of designated roads in the capital, in what was described as the first step towards wider testing.

The designated roads are located in less densely-populated areas on the outskirts of the city. The licenses are valid for 30 days and can be renewed after the self-driving cars pass follow-upassessments.

Earlier this month, Shanghai issued testing licenses for the first time to Shanghai-based SAIC Motor Corp Ltd, and electric vehicle start-up NIO.

The Beijing announcement comes four days after a 49-year-old woman was hit and killed by an AV being tested by Uber in Arizona. Uber and Toyota have halted AV testing the U.S. in response.

The timing of the Beijing announcement was seen by some as an indication of China’s desire to compete with the U.S. in the development of autonomous vehicles.

“The announcement seems timed to make a statement,” said Grayson Brulte, a business consultant in Beverly Hills who focuses on autonomous vehicles. “People don’t realize it but the U.S. is in a race to get this technology out there first. It’s a national security issue.”

In an apparent acknowledgement of the tragedy in the U.S., Tao Ji, technical director of Baidu’s automatic driving, said safety and obeying the rules of the road will be priorities in early tests, with the vehicles traveling below the speed limit.

“A driver usually learns how to drive better on actual roads instead of in a driving school, and so do self-driving cars,” added Guo Jifu, president of Beijing Transport Institute.

According to regulations for managing road testing for self-driving vehicles, autonomous vehicles are eligible for public road testing only after they have completed 5,000 kilometers of daily driving in designated closed test areas and passed assessments.

Despite the new licences, China has lagged behind the U.S. in testing AVs. In a recent study of national preparedness for autonomous vehicles by KPMG, China came 16th on a list of 20 nations in terms of readiness for autonomous vehicles, just below Spain, but ahead of Brazil, Russia and India.

China received an especially low score on the regulatory front. It cited AV unfriendly government regulations such as requiring public maps to be no more than 50 meters accurate, and requiring that drivers must keep both hands on steering wheels.

As featured in the China Money Network on March 23, 2018