DMV to Uber: Halt your Self-Driving Cars

California’s Department of Motor Vehicles is telling Uber that it “must cease” its autonomous vehicle experiment on San Francisco streets and a get a permit, threatening possible legal action if the company doesn’t comply.

The Associated Press reports that California regulators sent San Francisco-based Uber Technologies Inc. a letter saying while the regulator “encourages the responsible exploration of self-driving cars,” doing it without a permit is illegal. So far, 20 other companies have received permits for testing self-driving vehicles from the DMV.

Uber’s response so far has been defiant, saying that since its cars can’t drive “without the active physical control or monitoring of a natural person,” they don’t technically qualify as autonomous.

“This is where science and logic needs to trump blind compliance,” Anthony Levandowski, the leader of Uber’s self-driving program told the AP.

Uber’s history of skirting regulations have turned costly in the past. According to The Guardian, the ride-sharing company has had to pay out more than $160 million in lawsuits since 2009.

Grayson Brulte, an innovation consultant and co-chair of the City of Beverly Hills Mayor’s Autonomous Vehicle Task Force said that Uber’s move to ignore the DMV rule was calculated and – in his mind – was meant to push the conversation about autonomous vehicle regulations into the public sphere.

“Uber is being Uber, that’s what it comes down to. They’re forcing the hand of the regulators and the DMV,” Brulte said. “The DMV can force them to cease and desist and the big question will be how hard Uber will push back.”

Brulte added that he thinks the tight regulations over self-driving vehicles in California have stymied innovation in the state and could lead to a delay in the ultimate goal of lowering deaths from vehicle collisions to zero.

“What a lot of companies are asking themselves is ‘do we want to operate under these regulatory environments or we want to go to other states where they’re embracing innovation,” Brulte said.

The company’s San Francisco test drive of its autonomous vehicle technology is its second go-around with its fleet of self-driving Volvos. Earlier this year the company piloted its self-driving technology on the streets of Pittsburgh.

That go-around did not require a permit since the rides were free and the company wasn’t considered to be “offering transportation services to the general public for compensation,” according to the Pennsylvania Utilities Commission.

Uber said it was rolling out its self-driving Volvos as a way to build out its offerings for riders and help its autonomous software learn new terrain.

“Starting today, riders who request an uberX in San Francisco will be matched with a Self-Driving Uber if one is available. Expanding our self-driving pilot allows us to continue to improve our technology through real-world operations,” an Uber blog post reads.

“With its challenging roads and often varied weather, Pittsburgh provided a wide array of experiences. San Francisco comes with its own nuances including more bikes on the road, high-traffic density and narrow lanes.”

While it’s unclear how Uber will ultimately respond to the challenge from the DMV, what is more apparent is that this will only be the beginning of the dispute between state regulators and the maverick company over autonomous vehicles.

“Whatever happens, it’s definitely going to get more interesting before it gets resolved,” Brulte said.

As featured in the December 14, 2016 edition of the San Francisco Business Times

Why the Driverless Car Industry is happy (so far) with Trump’s pick for Transportation Secretary

Slicon Valley voted heavily for Hillary Clinton, but companies working on driverless cars seem overjoyed with President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Transportation secretary, Elaine Chao.

Chao will wield great power over how driverless cars and other automated vehicles will be regulated — or not.

Although she needs to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate first, she’s highly regarded in Washington, especially among Republicans, and her husband is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Moreover, as secretary of Labor under President George W. Bush, Chao was known not for the rules she crafted and enforced, but for her free-market approach that was generally hands-off.

For those in Silicon Valley and other tech firms where fears abound about too much government intervention and meddling, that’s a big relief.

“We expect the new administration to be pro-innovation, pro-American innovation and pro-American employment,” said Mike Jellen, president and chief operating officer of Velodyne Lidar, in reaction to Chao’s nomination.

Based in Morgan Hill, Velydyne is a major supplier of sophisticated sensors for driverless cars and trucks. Jellen believes enacting regulations to control advancing technology would impede innovation.

Others in the industry agree.

“We’d like to see her continue with her track record of light regulation,” said Grayson Brulte of Brulte & Co., an innovation advisory and consulting firm. “If she allows forward thinking entrepreneurs to build on the platforms that are autonomous vehicles, we’ll unleash an economic boom that will create huge numbers of jobs.”

Even consumer advocates offer cautious words of praise: “I’m concerned about her general anti-regulatory approach, but even though I disagree with her philosophy, I would say she is clearly qualified for the position,” said John Simpson, a director at Consumer Watchdog in Santa Monica.

Chao has served as a deputy secretary of transportation and was Labor secretary through Bush’s two terms, during which she pushed for less federal regulation and was criticized for allegedly not enforcing some regulations already on the books, such as overtime rules for wage earners. She describes herself at the top of her own homepage with a 2003 quote from Newsweek: “Elaine Chao – as slender as a stiletto, and as steely.”

She can’t approach automated vehicles as a deregulator — few federal regulations on driverless vehicles exist. Still, as automakers race to develop autonomous cars, the government faces big questions about how the vehicles will be adopted on a mass scale.

Safety is the biggest concern, and Chao must balance regulations that protect the public while avoiding those that impede innovation.

Today, some cars already come with semiautonomous features, such as Tesla and its Autopilot mode. As long as a driver is at the wheel to take control, federal laws put few limits on automation.

Federal law also says a car is not allowed on the road without a steering wheel or a brake pedal.

But at some point, those early rules could change.

Industry insiders say they don’t want Chao to ignore driverless car policy.

Instead, they hope to avoid a patchwork of differing and conflicting rules across the 50 states.

“This should be centralized,” said Alain L. Kornhauser, director of the transportation program at Princeton University and an autonomous vehicle expert, “but that doesn’t mean the states don’t play a part. It would be better if we had a common understanding.”

Although some had expected an aggressive regulatory approach from the Obama administration, it’s been mostly hands off under Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

In September, the department issued a federal automated vehicles policy that set guidelines for driverless car developers and sought to balance safety and innovation.

It avoided hard-and-fast regulations while making clear that additional rules were likely to come as more was learned about the technology and its record of safety. The policy also listed “model” regulations for the states to consider. And it set out reporting requirements so government officials could stay on top of the industry’s problems and progress.

The Obama policy “is light-handed enough to provide enough flexibility for innovation,” Kornhauser said.

Bridget Karlin, managing director for the Internet of Things at chip maker Intel, called the Obama policy “an important first step and a milestone.”

Still, Karl Iagnemma, chief executive of NuTonomy, a driverless start-up, hopes Chao will cut back on paperwork requirements that, he believes, favor established companies. “If you’re a large organization, you may welcome a bit of regulation to keep the small guys out,” he said.

Regardless of whether Clinton or Trump won, the industry was ready to push for more clarity after the election, especially for real-world testing of driverless vehicles on public roads.

“We want [government] support to test these fleets as soon as possible,” said Velodyne’s Jellen. “Anything that promotes real world testing could really have a major impact on the development of this technology and on saving lives.”

States can allow driverless car testing on, say, a closed business campus or a dedicated highway lane.

Michigan and Florida are establishing rules and guidelines as they aggressively promote their states as test beds for driverless cars. Economic development is one motivator. In Florida, the state’s huge population of retired baby boomers is another highway safety concern.

California’s Department of Motor Vehicles put forward proposed regulations this year, drawing complaints from industry representatives who consider them prescriptive and heavy handed.

To promote flexibility and innovation, Michael Boehm, executive director of the E4 Advanced Transportation Center in Los Angeles, suggested the state allow regions to, in certain cases, set their own local policies for testing self-driving vehicles.

For instance, desperate to cut pollution and ease congestion, the Southland might be up for allowing driverless trucks to be tested on dedicated freeway lanes, whereas other regions might balk at the idea.

Hod Lipson, a professor at Columbia University, said setting a safety standard based on statistical goals, not specific technologies, should be Chao’s top priority.

The Department of Transportation “really needs to provide a clear definition of how safe a car needs to be before it can drive itself, and then step out of the way,” he said. “Once consumers are assured of safety, the ripple effect will begin. But until that safety standard is defined, everyone’s in the dark.”

As featured in the December 6, 2016 edition of The Los Angeles Times

Apple’s deal with Indian ride-hailing firm Ola hints at bigger connected car ambitions

Apple may have scrapped its plans to build self-driving cars, but if its recent deal with Indian ride-hailing firm Ola is anything to go by, the tech giant’s auto industry ambitions are far from over.

Ola, India’s largest ride-hailing company, announced Tuesday that it is partnering with Apple to offer Apple Music as part of the in-car experience. The firm, which also announced partnerships with Sony, Qualcomm and Audio Compass, said the service will be made available in some of its vehicles as part of a platform called Ola Play. When passengers book an Ola ride, they will be able to interact with an in-car tablet to control the vehicle’s air conditioning, music, watch videos and even read ebooks.

“Cars were initially built for the driver,” Ola Chief Executive Bhavish Agarwal said during a news conference reported on by India media outlet YourStory. “But with ride-sharing, the control needs to be there for the passenger, and Ola Play works along that.”

The partnership is similar to a 2014 deal between Uber and Spotify, in which Uber passengers were given control of the car’s music through the Spotify app on their smartphone.

But analysts were quick to note that this is the second overseas ride-hailing company that Apple has either invested in or partnered with, suggesting that the Cupertino company may have plans to develop software or services for ride-hailing companies or even automakers.

“Apple invested $1 billion in [Chinese ride-hailing giant] Didi, so it has access to all their data. Now Apple will have access to Ola’s Apple Music data,” said Grayson Brulte, president of technology consulting firm Brulte and Co. “So you start to put the pieces together. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Apple try to gather all the data in the food chain.”

What Apple might do with this data is anyone’s guess. The notoriously secretive company did not immediately responded to a request for comment.

Brulte said he could see Apple shift from working on self-driving cars to working on the services and interfaces with which drivers and passengers interact. Think: The sleek and simple design of iOS, for cars.

The question now is what Apple’s next move might be, as this will be a clearer indicator of what Apple is betting on, Brulte said.

“What’s the next relationship?” he said. “We’re waiting for the third domino to fall, and when it does, we’ll understand where this is going.”

As featured in the November 22, 2016 edition of The Los Angeles Times

Beverly Hills, land of Ferraris and Lamborghinis, seeks status as Driverless Car Innovator

The ubiquitous Ferraris and Bentleys and Lamborghinis of Beverly Hills may soon be sharing the road with a new form of auto exotica: robot cars.

City leaders plan to put a robot fleet of mass transit vehicles on its roads as soon as it’s practical, aiming to make the wealthy little city of 34,000 a world leader in the early deployment of driverless vehicles.

“The potential of autonomous vehicles is enormous, not just for Beverly Hills, but for the entire region,” Mayor John Mirisch said.

Right now the robot fleet is more of an idea than a fully laid-out plan. But the city has taken a series of early steps, and sees itself as perfect proving ground for autonomous public transit: 5.7 square miles, a low-density population, well-marked and well-maintained streets unblemished by potholes.

The City Council in April adopted a resolution supporting driverless vehicles for public transit. The planning and information technology departments are actively developing a strategy to make it happen.

City officials are meeting with major and minor players in the field — from Google and Ford to small start-ups — inviting them to use the city’s roads as a driverless test bed.

“If you’re an innovator, test it here, put your vehicles on the roads of Beverly Hills,” said Grayson Brulte, a technology industry consultant and advisor to the municipality’s Smart City/Technology Committee.

Beverly Hills is organizing a symposium on driverless cars in January at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Arts. A close-off of Rodeo Drive for a driverless car demonstration day is also in the works, Brulte said.

Styling itself as a technology innovator preparing for a fast-arriving future, the city in December will start laying fiber optic cable to carry super-speed Internet service into every business and home. It will be linked to the city’s traffic control system, too. Researchers, dependent on huge volumes of traffic data generated by robot cars bristling with sensors, could tap into that high-speed network to collect it.

That sounds like the right environment to Aaron Steinfeld, who researches intelligent transportation systems at Carnegie Mellon University. Driverless research today, he said, works best “in environments that are consistent and easy to perceive.”

“Worn or absent road markings, potholes, and snow or fallen leaves all create challenges,” he said. “Wide roads and low speeds can help —– it’s easier to avoid a collision if there is time and space to react.”

Autonomous public transit is an idea that has been gaining traction.

In July, Tesla founder Elon Musk announced plans for a “high passenger density urban transport” vehicle that is in the early development stages “and should be ready for unveiling next year.” The small bus would be designed without a center aisle, with seats close to the entrances, and would be able to automatically pace itself with traffic.

Another company, Local Motors, is developing a small driverless bus called the Olli.

Automakers say they don’t expect to deploy driverless vehicles for three to five years at least. Beverly Hills plans to be ready when they do. The city staff is looking at financing — public, private, or a mix. It needs to figure out fares, how routes will be chosen, and where to put “valet” zones.

“Right now we don’t know what the perfect mix of vehicles is,” Mirisch said. “Four seats? Eight seats? Twelve seats?”

If Beverly Hills builds it, though, will people ride? After all, the glitzy city is known as a place where people come to cruise the streets in their own luxury cars — not line up at the corner bus stop to ride public transit.

Proponents say demographics work in their favor. The population is older than average: The median age of Los Angeles is 35, and 36.2 across California, but in Beverly Hills, it’s 43. While 8% of Los Angeles residents are over 70, in Beverly Hills, it’s 14% — and the percentage is growing.

“They’d love to get out more,” Brulte said. “Right now a lot of them need a relative to drive them, or need to call a taxi. With an on-call [autonomous vehicle], they’ll get their freedom back.”

The new Metro rail route known as the Purple line, now under construction, provides another rationale. It will create seven stations extending west, including one at Wilshire and Rodeo, smack in the middle of Beverly Hills.

The robot fleet, Mirisch said, could provide dependable “last-mile” connections between the Metro stop and Beverly Hills homes and businesses. People could use Uber or Lyft, but a dedicated transit system could be more regular and dependable and, depending on fare structure, cheaper. Chances are, he said, the robot fleet will be operating already by the station’s planned opening date, 2023.

Mirisch fought hard against extension of the Purple line to Century City. He continues to battle plans to allow high-density residential development around the Bevery Hills station, and is actively fighting passage of Measure M on the November ballot, which would raise the sales tax to boost Metro’s budget and fund other transportation projects.

He characterizes such development as a “Big Brother” imposition on local communities, and fears places like Beverly Hills will lose their low-density character.

Autonomous vehicles, he said, will prove a more effective, less expensive way to provide public transportation than costly rail projects.

That view could be seen as self-serving, but he’s got allies in the academic community. They include James Moore of USC, who has long criticized Metro for its huge costs and meager results.

“The number of complete transit trips per capita countywide is down 33% in the last 30 years” despite billions spent on mass transit, he said.

Joel Kotkin of Chapman University insists that most Americans prefer suburban-style living, and an autonomous public transit system would suit such communities well.

“The mayor is asking the right questions,” said Kotkin, an author and fellow in urban studies. “He’s reflecting not just Beverly Hills but people in Granada Hills, people who want something of a suburban quality of life.”

Not everyone is down with the program.

The Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce is a strong supporter of Measure M. The city may be small, but the total workforce brings the weekday population to more than 200,000 a day, says Mark Egerman, former mayor and lifelong Beverly Hills resident.

His office is a block from the new Metro station, which he said will provide a 20-minute shot downtown. Driverless cars will help people get to and from the station, he said, but so will taxis buses and Uber. “An autonomous car is still another car on the road,” he said.

Whatever the motivations and the social effects, driverless vehicles are emerging as an economic driver, and Mirisch wants Beverly Hills to be part of it.

City-states as distant as Singapore have re-geared their regulations to support driverless cars, as have such Northern California municipalities as Mountain View and Contra Costa County. In Pittsburgh, Uber has unleashed a small fleet of autonomous cars, a program it plans to expand to other cities soon.

Mirisch said cities in Southern California also need to get in gear, and fast.

“We can lag or we can lead,” he said. “If we don’t do it, other regions, other states and other countries will.”

As featured in the October 14, 2016 edition of The Los Angeles Times

Seniors are a Key Market for Autonomous Vehicles

Seniors are a Key Market for Autonomous Vehicles is an opinion letter written by Brulte & Company Co-Founder Grayson Brulte that was published in the Wednesday, July 13, 2016 edition of The Financial Times.

Sir, John Gapper’s overall analysis of the autonomous vehicle market is both accurate and refreshing (“Beware the car that can nearly drive itself”, July 7). He is correct to say that “almost no one knows exactly what an autonomous car is”, and this is an issue that has to be addressed, as there are fears.

In order to overcome these fears, autonomous vehicle manufacturers and service providers should host autonomous vehicle demo days in cities around the world with high senior members of the population in order to introduce the technology slowly and answer their questions.

Seniors may very well lead the adoption of autonomous vehicles, as they will regain their freedom through mobility. In the US, as of 2014 senior citizens counted for one in every seven Americans. This is 14.2 per cent of the population and a very powerful and loyal voting block. In the future, political campaigns will be won by focusing on the adoption of fully autonomous vehicles in society.

The future is bright for autonomous vehicles, but first we need to overcome the fear of the unknown. By introducing semi-autonomous vehicles to the public, Tesla is starting the process.

Grayson Brulte
Beverly Hills, CA, US
Co-Chair, Mayor of City of Beverly Hills Autonomous Vehicle Task Force

This letter was in in response to Seniors are key to market for autonomous vehicles article written by John Gapper in The Financial Times