Aurora, Volvo are Latest Partners on Self-Driving Heavy Trucks

(Reuters) – Global heavy truck manufacturers are lining up technology partners to help build out self-driving systems for long-haul freight that could see widespread commercial service well before self-driving robotaxis.

The latest alliance was announced Tuesday between Sweden’s Volvo Group and California-based Aurora Innovation, building on a working relationship that dates back several years, the partners said.

Analysts expect more such partnerships, as relatively young technology firms such as Aurora connect their autonomous vehicle systems knowledge with the deep manufacturing experience of legacy companies such as Volvo Trucks.

“You can’t go at it alone in autonomy,” said Grayson Brulte, president consultancy Brulte & Company. “The trucking industry is a completely different personality” than the passenger vehicle business, with different requirements.

Most of the larger truck manufacturers have turned to self-driving tech partners, driven in part by a chronic shortage of drivers and a boom in e-commerce, fueled by the global pandemic.

In January, Aurora announced a strategic partnership with U.S. truckmaker PACCAR, whose brands include Peterbilt and Kenworth.

Aurora’s founders include self-driving veterans from Tesla and Alphabet’s Waymo. Aurora last year said its first commercial product would be in trucking “where the market is largest (and) the unit economics are best.”

In 2020, Waymo Chief Executive John Krafcik told Reuters that “goods delivery is a bigger market than moving people” as Waymo expanded its focus to include heavy trucks.

Germany’s Daimler has formed a self-driving truck alliance with Waymo, while China’s largest heavy truck maker, FAW Jiefang, has partnered with Plus AI.

Volkswagen’s Traton truck group is an investor in TuSimple, as is U.S. truckmaker Navistar.

In a January earnings call, Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk said the long-delayed Semi electric truck is highly likely to be the first of the company’s vehicles to achieve full self-driving capability.

As featured in Reuters on March 30, 2021

A Next-Generation Gateway to the Great Outdoors

Self-driving vehicles should deliver more than transportation. They should deliver experiences.

That’s the belief of Grayson Brulte, an innovation strategist and co- founder of Brulte & Co., a mobility advisory company based in Palm Beach, Fla. Rather than no-frills robotaxi service, he believes purveyors of autonomous technology should instead focus on providing premium experiences.

Imagine reserving a vehicle at a hotel and being carried through a Napa Valley winery tour — no designated driver needed. Or imagine taking a self-driving vehicle to a ballgame where the tailgating happens on board.

“Self-driving technology should enhance the experience — that’s the Holy Grail,” he said. “You make the transportation not boring. You make it one of the most interesting parts.”

Such journeys were on Brulte’s mind recently when the National Park Service unveiled a first-of-its-kind partnership with Beep, a mobility operator, in which autonomous shuttles will be deployed to carry visitors in Yellowstone National Park next spring. 

At least for now, the pilot project is strictly about transportation: Two autonomous shuttle buses will trundle around the Canyon Village base area, helping to alleviate congestion while connecting parking areas with popular amenities. Operationally, these likely will be some of the first experiences members of the public have with self-driving technology.

It’s not difficult to consider how the National Park Service could utilize such shuttles in the future. 

“You take your family out, and the vehicle itself is teaching you about Old Faithful or buffalo or the history of Teddy Roosevelt in the park,” Brulte suggests. “The vehicle becomes a mobile classroom. Think about the potential of that. You are bringing the classroom to nature. That changes the game.”

To be clear, that’s not part of the current pilot project. But it’s a compelling vision of how autonomous vehicles could be used within the national park system. One that Joe Moye, CEO of Beep, says would be a natural evolution of the shuttles’ human staffing and technical capabilities. 

He notes the vehicles know their location within millimeters, which would lend themselves to site-specific educational programming. Beep’s shuttles, on the road in Lake Nona, Fla., are outfitted with video screens for advertising purposes. As the company transitions from a human safety driver aboard shuttles to a virtual ambassador in the years ahead, such a voice could double as tour guide.

All this aligns with a vision for AVs sketched by Sarah Sandman, an artist with the TED Fellows who was asked by Lexus to help think about new autonomous-vehicle designs.

“One of the most magical moments of travel that I’ve ever experienced was on the Empire Builder train going cross country,” she said of the Amtrak route that connects Chicago and Seattle. “There is a glass car. You can swivel and look out to see what’s happening in the glorious world.”

Autonomous vehicles can enable and enhance these experiences, forging connections with the outside world rather than cocooning occupants inside. At their best, they may reinforce the old adage about travel — getting there is indeed half the fun.

As featured in Automotive News on December 21, 2020

With Robotaxis Still a Distant Dream, Lidar Makes Itself Useful

The promise of self-driving cars and robotaxi fleets once seemed just around the corner, but reality is setting in. Makers of the underlying technology are pivoting to more realistic ways of making money in the here and now.

Among the most expensive components of autonomous vehicles are laser-based sensors that allow a car’s computer to “see” its surroundings. As automakers push back timelines for introducing self-driving models, companies that specialize in these laser sensors, known as lidar, are targeting more limited features for passenger cars that will go into production in a few years. That’s a shift from the driverless fleets once at the center of manufacturers’ strategies.

Companies are betting they can make this business model work by whittling down the cost of laser sensors, which can reach thousands of dollars. That would make it affordable enough for automakers introducing semi-autonomous features such as hands-free highway driving. Lidar is becoming more familiar to consumers, too, and is a feature of higher-end versions of Apple Inc.’s new iPhone 12.

Lidar startups have raised hundreds of millions of dollars, seizing on demand for high-tech auto investments. Luminar Technologies Inc.’s 25-year-old founder is set to become one of the world’s youngest billionaires when it completes a reverse merger later this year, and Velodyne Lidar Inc. went public via reverse merger last month.

The game plan is to generate revenue on the long road to full autonomy, said Grayson Brulte, who runs a consulting firm in Palm Beach, Fla., focused on autonomous vehicles.

“The only way in the current mobility market for autonomy or semi-autonomy to show revenue growth is ADAS,” said Brulte, using industry parlance for partial autonomy, or Advanced Driver Assistance Systems. “As higher levels of autonomy mature, then you can start to have that additional revenue growth.”

Surge in Sensors

The market for lidar sensors in light-duty vehicles could reach $46 billion in sales by 2030, with much of that going to enable partial autonomy, according to Sam Abuelsamid, principal analyst with Guidehouse Insights, a research company. A lot of that volume will come from makers of low-cost lidar sensors, including Continental AG and radar supplier Ibeo Automotive Systems GmbH, he said.

Innoviz Technologies Ltd., an Israeli startup backed by two of the world’s largest auto suppliers, Aptiv Plc and Magna International Inc., is pitching its latest sensors as a cheaper way for automakers to start phasing in more sophisticated technology because it allows for upgrades as self-driving systems become more capable and widespread.

Innoviz supplies lidar for BMW AG’s iNext car due in 2021, which will gradually introduce so-called Level 3 autonomy, meaning drivers will be able to take their hands off the wheel and eyes off the road in limited circumstances.

“This is really solving a big problem,” said Omer Keilaf, the company’s chief executive officer.

Gathering Data

Tesla, whose CEO Elon Musk famously dismisses lidar, has been gathering self-driving data for years by installing its camera-and-radar-based driver-assistance system on its cars. Last week, Tesla began rolling out a beta version of what it calls “Full Self-Driving” to some of its biggest fans and influencers to try out. Musk plans to charge $10,000 a pop for the package, which Tesla claims is advanced enough to use when driving on busy city streets — not just on highways.

Tesla didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment.

Despite its name — and Musk’s promises — the system does not offer full self-driving. Federal regulators are probing deadly crashes involving Autopilot, and critics have slammed the company for rolling it out prematurely.

Keilaf says Innoviz’s approach would be safer than Tesla’s, because lidar — which works well in low-light conditions — would serve as a backup for cameras and radar.

His company’s latest iteration will cost $500 per unit when produced at high volumes, Keilaf said. That is closer to the $40 to $50 per-unit cost for radar sensors and $10 to $15 for cameras, several of which are typically installed on each vehicle, Abuelsamid said.

Holy Grail Delayed

Luminar, which agreed to go public in a $3.4 billion reverse merger earlier this year, is supplying lidar for Volvo Car AB’s self-driving system that will be installed on cars starting in 2022. Dubbed Highway Pilot, it won’t require drivers to keep their eyes on the road at all times.

“It will likely take hundreds of thousands of vehicles to enable autonomy,” Luminar CEO Austin Russell wrote in a letter to investors earlier this month. “That scale is exactly what we can deliver with series production on consumer vehicles.”

Adding lidar will be lucrative for automakers because they can charge thousands of dollars more for the option of advanced autonomous features, Russell said in an interview.

The industry’s focus on mass production of passenger cars is a shift from a few years ago, when companies including Innoviz and Velodyne had trained their sights on AV test fleets. Since then, GM has delayed the rollout of its robotaxi service, while Ford Motor Co.’s former CEO said last year that the industry had overestimated the arrival of self-driving cars.

“If you talk to anybody about three to four years ago, everyone was working on this holy grail of autonomy,” Velodyne CEO Anand Gopalan said in an interview.

Pandemic Threat

Now driver-assist systems represent about 35% of the projects Velodyne has won or hopes to win in the next five years, while AVs and industrial robots make up about a 20% slice each.

High-tech suppliers may be wise to hedge their automotive bets. With fallout from pandemic-related shutdowns and the looming threat of a resurgence, global vehicle sales will be down 14% this year compared with pre-COVID-19 estimates and 22% lower than expected in 2021, according to LMC Automotive.

Velodyne’s Gopalan acknowledged the drop in sales could dampen automakers’ enthusiasm for pricey parts but said lidar remains critical for development of fully automated cars.

“With uncertainties in the marketplace, you may see certain delays,” he said. “But we don’t see a loss of appetite for the tech and the goal.”

As featured in Bloomberg on October 26, 2020

Yes, you’re Seeing more Robot Cars in San Francisco. Here’s Why Self-Driving is Picking up Speed

This was meant to be the year that robot cars went mainstream.

The self-driving car industry, largely based in Silicon Valley, brimmed with confident predictions that autonomous taxis would be commonplace by 2020, ushering in a golden age that would improve transportation, end traffic deaths and reduce congestion and carbon emissions.

Chalk up another way that 2020 dashed hopes.

“Machine learning did not advance as rapidly as (proponents) thought it would,” said Jesse Halfon, a Michigan automotive attorney. “It seems like industry-wide there is a consensus that (mass deployment) will take longer than thought.”

There are some scattered robot taxi pilot programs. In Arizona, Waymo has been giving paid rides in autonomous vehicles with backup drivers to a select group of civilians since December 2018. This year, it’s been removing safety drivers from some cars and will offer a truly driverless experience to the broad public by year end. In Las Vegas, Lyft has given over 100,000 paid autonomous rides with backup drivers. Cruise runs a free ride-hailing service in San Francisco for its own employees.

Still, in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, the epicenter for research and development on driverless cars, residents cannot hail a robot taxi.

Soon that could change thanks to proposed new state regulations that lay out ground rules for paid rides in autonomous cars — with and without backup drivers. The 130-page proposal from the California Public Utilities Commission still needs to go through months of comments from the public and the companies.

Even though collecting a few dollars a ride pales in comparison to the billions that self-driving companies have spent, they are adamant that this is a crucial step.

“One thing we’re really about is exploring the commercial option and being able to charge people money to learn what that is like,” said Nathanial Fairfield, distinguished software engineeer at Mountain View’s Waymo, a subsidiary of Google parent Alphabet. Fairfield was an original member of the Google self-driving project. “The progress on that from the (state utilities commission) has heartened us about the path of commercialization in California.”

Two years ago, Waymo was the first company to get a permit to test robot cars without a driver on California roads. But it has never done so. The roadblock was lacking state guidelines for running a ride service, it said.

“We’ve had our focus on other markets where there wasn’t that impediment,” said Michelle Peacock, Waymo head of global public policy.

Waymo won’t say when it will will do no-driver tests here, but meanwhile it’s ramping up city testing in San Francisco, in addition to Mountain View; opening a new facility in the Bayview; and embarking on a hiring spree.

Residents should expect to see many more of its cars out and about, including its next-generation electric Jaguar I-Paces as well as its existing Chrysler Pacifica minivans. By year end, it will have over a hundred cars on the road here; by next year it said they will number in the hundreds.

“We will test throughout the city in every nook and cranny,” Fairfield said. “It’s a natural place to get our fleet really exposed to a dense urban environment.”

General Motors subsidiary Cruise, the other company that’s furthest along in self-driving, has long touted the benefits of testing amid its hometown’s gnarly traffic. This month, it received permission to operate its white Chevy Bolts without humans aboard. It plans to do so by year end — the first company to operate truly driverless cars in San Francisco.

“This is our moonshot,” Cruise CEO Dan Ammann wrote in a blog post. “And the chaotic, gritty streets of S.F. are our launchpad.”

Ammann had previously said that Cruise would be running a robot taxi service by 2019 and then by 2020 — predictions that obviously did not come true. It too welcomed the new regulatory road map for commercialization.

Jeffrey Tumlin, director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, said he sees a lot of potential in autonomous vehicles to reduce traffic accidents, lessen carbon emissions and supplement public transit in places like lightly populated, hilly neighborhoods.

At the same time, he fears they also have the potential to mimic the traffic congestion, diminished wheelchair access and safety issues that he saw occur with Uber and Lyft.

To prevent that, he’s eager to work with self-driving companies, although San Francisco has no regulatory authority over the state-overseen transportation businesses.

With hundreds of autonomous vehicles being tested in the city, he’d like companies to share more about problems that arise. “We would feel a lot better if we were actually able to receive detailed safety data to determine if autonomous vehicles are truly safer than human driven vehicles, particularly for people outside the vehicle.”

He also wants to look at issues of equity and access. “We want to make sure we’re partnering with the private sector to uphold the public good rather than just create more exquisite convenience for the privileged and grow wealth for the investors in autonomous vehicle technology,” Tumlin said.

Some experts think robot cars are more likely to be like theme-park rides than workaday transportation options.

Grayson Brulte, who hosts a podcast called “Road to Autonomy,” thinks even a few years from now they will mainly operate in limited driving domains such as amusement parks and sports venues, as well as being an experience with cachet.

“Individuals who aspire to eat at three-star Michelin restaurants might aspire to ride in these vehicles,” said he said. “It could be a craze like an ‘it’ handbag.”

Besides Cruise and Waymo, three other companies — Zoox, AutoX and Nuro — have California’s OK to test cars without backup drivers. Foster City’s Zoox, which Amazon bought this year for a reported $1.2 billion, sent a generic comment, but sources close to the company said it has not conducted tests without drivers. San Jose’s AutoX did not respond to requests for comment.

Mountain View’s Nuro is the only company that says it has tested on California roads without drivers. For the last few months, it has operated its low-speed delivery vehicle on city streets fully autonomously with no drivers, occupants, or chase cars in Mountain View, as well as Houston and Phoenix, it said. The vehicle, called R2, is half the width of a conventional car, has no manual controls, and just storage compartments rather than room for people.

Lyft, which has centered California testing around Palo Alto, is now expanding it to San Francisco. It just resumed its robo-taxi rides in Las Vegas last week after pausing for several months during the pandemic.

The biggest lesson there, said John Maddox, Lyft senior director of autonomous safety and compliance, is how quickly passengers acclimate and just start looking at their phones.

“I’m the safety guy,” he said. “Boring is good.”

As featured in The San Francisco Chronicle on October 25, 2020

The Media’s Perspective on Mobility with Alan Ohnsman, Forbes

On Episode 15 of the SAE Tomorrow Today podcast, Brulte & Company Co-Founder and SAE Tomorrow Today Host Grayson Brulte sat down with Alan Ohnsman, Senior Editor, Future of Mobility, Forbes to discuss the future of transportation.

This wide-ranging conversation covers everything from electric vehicles and autonomous trucking to the re-emergence of passenger trains and how we’ll traverse Los Angeles over the next decade, plus a look at some of the major players emerging in mobility.

Alan kicks off the conversation at the beginning of his career in Japan, where his appreciation for trains, efficient mass transit and smart cities was born.

Grayson and Alan quickly jump into a conversation about all things Tesla: what were Alan’s initial impressions of the company back in 2006 and how has that perception changed, what would happen if Elon Musk stopped tweeting, and what happens to Tesla, A.E. (After Elon)?

The electric talk continues with Rivian and the massive capital being generated for EV startups in the space. Alan shares his perspective on the advantages that these startups have over OEMs for developing electric/hybrid battery technologies and when we might see a true electric SUV from a traditional OEM.

Grayson and Alan take a look at the role that the 3 A’s (Alphabet, Amazon and Apple) are playing in driving autonomy by combining services with mobility, and how that may be the deciding factor for success against more manufacturing-focused competitors, like Cruise.

The conversation takes on additional levels as Grayson and Alan explore how TuSimple is driving ahead of the automated commercial trucking pack, what role will Walmart play in mobility, and how does mobility change in Los Angeles over the next 10-20 years?

Before the conversation wraps, Alan circles back to trains. The two discuss how rail and companies like Brightline trains are going to be a really interesting part of the mobility ecosystem by connecting the middle distances to create quicker trips and safer roadways.

The Media’s Perspective on Mobility with Alan Ohnsman, Forbes is also streaming on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.