Robot cars — with no human driver — could hit California roads next year

California is back on the map as a state that’s serious about welcoming driverless cars

Truly driverless cars — vehicles with no human behind the wheel, and perhaps no steering wheel at all — are headed toward California streets and highways starting in 2018.

After months of criticism, state regulators Friday released a proposal for a new set of regulations to govern the testing and deployment of driverless cars on public roadways. They are seeking public comment and expect approval by the end of the year.

The regulations lay out “a clear path for future deployment of autonomous vehicles” in California, said Bernard Soriano, deputy director at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

The move comes after months of dissatisfaction with the DMV concerning an earlier set of proposed regulations considered draconian and anti-innovation by automakers and technology companies — especially compared with those of other states.

Florida and Michigan allow driverless cars on their roadways with few restrictions. Arizona has no driverless vehicle laws at all, and the state’s governor has made clear that driverless cars and trucks are welcome on Arizona highways.

Testing of driverless cars with a human behind the wheel has been allowed in California under certain conditions since 2014.

The new plan is much friendlier to driverless car testing but it’s no free ride. The DMV has long made clear that it must balance the introduction of new technology with public safety, and although driverless cars hold the promise of far fewer crashes and highway deaths, the technology is not fully baked.

Testing companies will be required to comply with federal safety standards and certify that their robot cars can adhere to California traffic laws and regulations. “If you program your vehicle to obey the law, it’s not going to run over pedestrians or crash into other automobiles,” Soriano said.

Communications technology monitored by a remote operator that could take immediate control of the car would be required.

The proposals also include regulations that could eventually result in deployment of driverless taxis and driverless vehicles for sale to the general public.

But some tough provisions in the earlier proposals have been softened or removed. Rather than seek special permission from each locality a driverless car passes through, a testing company merely needs to inform each locality of its plans. Instead of working out an emergency plan with each law enforcement and first responder unit that might be involved, the testers instead can file a communications plan.

The original regulations demanded that data be turned over to law enforcement after a crash. That’s been scrapped, though Soriano said testers are still subject to subpoena.

“California has taken a big step,” said Bryant Walker Smith, an expert in autonomous vehicle law at the University of South Carolina. “As I understand them, the DMV’s rules are a sea change from what was proposed.”

“The new proposed autonomous-vehicle regulations are a positive step for the California DMV,” said Grayson Brulte, an autonomous technology consultant in Beverly Hills. “The new proposed autonomous vehicle regulations clearly demonstrate the state of California’s commitment to the development and advancement of autonomous vehicle technology.”

Brad Stertz, director of government affairs for Audi in Washington, D.C., lauded the DMV for striking a “delicate balance” between safety and technology.

Not everyone is thrilled, though. “The new rules are too industry-friendly and don’t adequately protect consumers,” said John Simpson of Santa Monica-based Consumer Watchdog.

Among the new proposals is a rule that bars advertisements that mislead customers about a car’s autonomous capabilities.

“If you use terms that imply that a vehicle is autonomous and it’s not, we would consider that an advertising misstatement,” Soriano said.

In earlier proposals the DMV singled out names such as “autopilot” as possible violations. This time, “we are not calling out specific terms,” Soriano said.

A spokeswoman for Tesla, whose cars are fitted with a semi-autonomous system called Autopilot, said the company appreciated that the DMV had refined its proposed regulations since last year’s draft.

“We are also pleased that the DMV removed the proposed restrictions around use of the name ‘Autopilot.’ Our customers have made clear that they understand Autopilot’s intended use.”

As featured in the March 10, 2017 edition of The Los Angeles Times

Paving the Way for a Smarter, Safer Future of Autonomous Vehicles

Many industry experts agree that the future of autonomous vehicles has made great leaps during the past decade.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk once said self-driving cars are “solved,” comparing autonomous vehicles with “elevators that used to require operators but are now self-service.” A little more than a year later, 40-year-old Joshua Brown died while driving a semiautonomous Tesla Model S.

A truck made a legal left in front of Brown’s Tesla, but instead of stopping, the car sped under the truck’s trailer. According to Mike Demler, a senior technology analyst at The Linley Group, the Model S’s computer-vision detection system of sensors, radar, GPS, and image-processing software was not intended to be used in hands-free mode. “The sensors weren’t designed to account for cross traffic, only highway driving,” Demler says. “They could identify the backside of a car, not the side of a tractor trailer.”

Many industry experts agree that the future of autonomous vehicles has made great leaps during the past decade. Google, Volvo, and Uber are testing cars on public roads, and nuTonomy operates a fleet of six automated taxis for public use in a limited district of Singapore, a city-state with a supportive government and predictable weather. Demler expects the first deployment of fully autonomous cars to be on predesignated routes, such as on college and industrial campuses. He adds that Ford, BMW, and GM plan to have driverless cars available for sale in five years—likely for limited commercial use along constrained routes.

Going the Distance. Still, the Tesla incident is a major setback for the industry. It underscores an important point made by John Leonard, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who works on robot navigation, in a 2015 talk: For all the promising safety and environmental benefits, autonomous vehicles need to address fundamental perception and semantic questions—how to make a left turn against traffic, how to interpret the hand signals of a crossing guard or police officer, how to handle snow-covered roads—before widespread deployment on public roads.

To “see” the road, many autonomous cars rely on LiDAR (laser radar), a spinning cylinder that usually sits on the car’s roof. By bouncing a laser off an object and measuring the time of flight, LiDAR can judge distances and “see” in 360 degrees. But if high-resolution laser scanners, cameras, radar, and other sensing tools are the eyes of self-driving cars, their cognitive abilities can come from intelligent algorithms and artificial intelligence that interpret this raw data against information from reference maps, says Sravan Puttagunta, CEO of California-based Civil Maps.

As Puttagunta explains it, the Civil Maps platform (like those of competitors Mobileye, Delphi, and Bright Box) gives an autonomous vehicle contextual awareness, not merely a 2D navigation map. It uses artificial intelligence to process raw data coming from high-resolution laser imaging so that cars can localize precisely and make better tactical decisions—like what to do at a four-way stop or a roundabout.

Once the car is localized, Civil Maps’ software is able to project semantic map data into the field of view of the car’s sensors. This helps the vehicle’s decision engine contextualize the environment and selectively focus on relevant road features such as traffic signs, lane markings, signal lights, and so forth. It creates a machine-readable augmented reality (AR) map. That experience informs the car’s computer about what it should be doing and how it should interact with the road infrastructure.

“One of the benefits of the augmented-reality perspective is the ability to localize a car and superimpose information on top of a signal, so if a car can’t see the signal, it can expect it,” Puttagunta says. “This is also important in harsh weather conditions, when it might be hard to see lane markings.”

The company’s AR maps also offer a visual display so the passenger can understand the vehicle’s intentions and what the vehicle perceives. Over time, this will help build passenger trust and confidence, Puttagunta says.

With highly efficient map-data compression technology, Civil Maps is able to update and share that data in real time with other cars across 4G cellular networks. The company uses signature-based localization; it’s similar to how Shazam uses an acoustic signature to verify a song with a few notes, Puttagunta says, but based on road-level cues that can be aggregated and refined to improve safety.

Rather than sending out a fleet of cars to map a particular city, as Uber is doing in Pittsburgh, Civil Maps plans to crowdsource the data and partner with auto manufacturers, Puttagunta says. With more than $6.6 million in seed funding, including an investment from Ford Motor Co., the startup is working with partners and major automotive OEMs across three continents.

he Race Is On. Civil Maps is up against stiff competition, including Swiss-based Bright Box. The company’s aftermarket artificial-intelligence car platform, Remoto, has already been deployed in prototype tests by several automakers, including Infiniti, KIA, Hyundai, and Nissan. “The winner will be the company who achieves a working system with a minimum number of sensors and provides tech for volume OEMs,” says Bright Box CTO Alexander Dimchenko. “The key factor is who will gather the biggest volume of data.”

Dimchenko points out that competition among suppliers, software companies, and auto manufacturers has brought self-driving-vehicle costs down significantly. At the first Driverless Car Summit in Detroit, in 2012, Google disclosed that its driverless test cars contained about $150,000 in equipment, including a $70,000 LiDAR system. By comparison, Dimchenko estimates the 2018 cost of a fully autonomous Honda CR-V sport utility vehicle at $29,000–$30,000.

But even if the costs become feasible for ride-hailing services or individual riders, significant challenges remain before self-driving cars are deployed on public roads en masse, Demler says. Among those challenges are: the compliance of state and federal regulations; the need for standardized driving tests and insurance-company buy-ins; the expansion of smart infrastructure; and, perhaps most important, the uphill task of earning the public’s trust.

For bullish self-driving-car proponents such as Grayson Brulte, co-chair of the City of Beverly Hills Autonomous Vehicle Task Force, boosting public confidence through exposure is crucial. Driverless cars have the potential to eliminate distracted-driving deaths and solve urban congestion and parking problems, he says, but only when people are ready to embrace them. This spring, an undisclosed manufacturer will come to Beverly Hills to test-drive autonomous vehicles on public roads under real-world conditions—a moment Brulte eagerly awaits. “A child born today will never drive,” he says. “When you really start to understand that fact, things get interesting.”

As featured in Autodesk’s Redshift on March 1, 2017

How Ford will create a new Generation of Driverless Cars

In four years Ford will be mass producing cars without a steering wheel, accelerator pedal or brake pedal

The company believes that the future of the market lies in producing vehicles where a driver is not even required.

It has just announced a $1bn (£800m) investment in Argo AI, an artificial intelligence company which will produce the software needed for a new generation of self-driving cars.
Ford’s investment over five years will see the new company develop the software needed to make self drive cars a reality, initially in cities and then across a wider area.

It expects to profit from not only having its own autonomous car on the road in 2021, but by licensing the technology to other companies, including rival manufacturers.

Ford believes that the cost of owning, maintaining and parking a car in a city means that people will look for an alternative way of getting around and that is where its vision comes in.

The simplest way to look at the technology is to see it as the logical next step from a car club – or perhaps Uber without a driver.

A trip to the supermarket, for example, would entail summoning a self-drive car using a mobile phone app to get there and then repeating the process to go home with a week’s groceries.

It could be possible to go out for a night on the town without worrying about having a designated driver. “It would be a service where you pay for the time using a car, or a cost per mile,” a Ford spokesman explained.

The company estimates that the global car ownership market is worth $2.3 trillion. It has put a $5.4 trillion price tag on what it calls mobility services, including buses, walking, subways and cycling. Not surprisingly, car companies want a slice of that action as well.

General Motors has been more cautious about disclosing its plans. But the company has 40 Chevrolet Volt autonomous cars being tested in San Francisco, Detroit and Scottsdale, Arizona. There is an engineer in the driving seat ready to take over.

As yet it has not specified a timetable for unveiling its self-drive cars, although it says they will first be deployed in conjunction with the Lyft ride sharing service.

Toyota is also spending $1bn working with a number of academic bodies including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University.

It has divided its approach to the technology into two products, Guardian and Chauffeur. Guardian will add more safety features on models, but the driver will remain in control unless the technology senses, for example, a need to slam on the brakes.

Many of these features are already in use. Much of the same technology will be employed in Chauffeur, but it will be active all the time – effectively driving the car.

Gill Pratt, chief of the Toyota Research Institute, admitted that advocates of self-driving cars still have to win the confidence of consumers.

“Historically, humans have shown nearly zero-tolerance for injury or death caused by flaws in a machine,” he said at the Consumer Electronics Show last month.

“And yet we know that the artificial intelligence systems on which our autonomous cars will depend are presently and unavoidably imperfect.”

Car manufacturers are making a massive investment – some would say gamble – in a technology which has its critics. There are many who still question whether cars really are safer when they are controlled by a computer rather than a person. Sceptics point to the death of Joshua Brown in Williston, Florida, last May.

The former navy seal’s Tesla S saloon car was in self driving mode when it ploughed into a tractor-trailer after the car’s sophisticated battery of technology failed to spot the white sided truck against a brightly lit sky, and brake.

Supporters of driverless cars believe that one accident should not undermine a technology which in the long run will improve driver safety, cut pollution, eke more out of America’s road capacity and create jobs.

Road safety in America is poor. According to the latest estimates around 40,000 people were killed on the country’s roads last year.

To put that into context, according to World Health Organisation figures, 10.6 people per 100,000 population are killed on roads in the US compared with 2.9 in the UK.

This goes a long way towards explaining why there is considerable enthusiasm for driverless technology in Washington.

Many policymakers believe that if the human factor is taken out, then casualties will fall. Anthony Foxx, transportation secretary in the Obama administration, was a huge supporter of autonomous technology.

“Early indications are that the first few minutes of a ride in an autonomous car can be pretty scary to people who haven’t been in one before,” he said in one interview.

“But people get used to it quickly. People having real-life experiences with the technology will help in the long run. I’m sure that when the horse-and-buggy gave way to the automobile, there was probably an acceptance factor there as well.”

Last September, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration published a list of guidelines for the industry covering everything from data protection to the sobriety of somebody taking control of the car if the technology fails.

If anything, the Trump administration will adopt a more laissez-faire approach. Elaine Chao, the new transportation secretary, was averse to regulation when she served as labour secretary under George W Bush.

That seems to be the view in Silicon Valley as well, which has welcomed the Trump administration’s choice. “The autonomous vehicle industry could not have asked for a better pick as secretary of transportation than Elaine Chao,” said Grayson Brulte, who runs an innovation consulting firm.

“She has a proven track record of light regulation and she has made positive statements about the future impact of autonomous vehicles in our society. Ultimately, autonomous forms of transportation will completely transform our society and usher in the single greatest change since the industrial revolution.”

Oliver McGee, who served as a scientific adviser to Bill Clinton’s administration, believes the technology will be central to the Trump administration’s pledge to boost the US economy.

“Capital plus technology equals growth, it is basic economics,” he told The Daily Telegraph.

“This is what will be driving Donald Trump’s target for [above three per cent] growth. He needs innovation. “Autonomous vehicles will be part of a very large investment undertaken by Elaine Chao.

Her task will be to get Congress to support the $1 trillion spending over the next 10 years.”

This, of course, represents a major cultural shift for the auto industry, which for decades has sold cars on the basis that driving was something to be enjoyed, rather than handed over to a computer. There is also the basic question for all the companies whether consumers will buy into the idea.

“I think this is a tipping point issue,” said John Quelch, professor of marketing at Harvard Business School. “With any innovation there is a group of opinion leaders and early adopters who will set the stage and enable the concept to reach a critical mass.

Then there is a period of two to three years where people get used to the idea and are convinced of its value. “It is most likely to take off among car users who are using a particular stretch of highway or suburban mothers who are transporting their children to school for example.

“I think in 20 years in major cities, 50pc of cars will be driverless.”

Others, such as Adam Jonas, global head of automotive and shared mobility at Morgan Stanley, are more cautious. “If by the year 2030 more than 2pc to 3pc of miles travelled are truly autonomous, that would be a really impressive number.”

As featured in the February 27, 2017 edition of The Telegraph

Uber’s Bad Month Keeps Getting Worse

Nobody wants to be Uber right now

In the past month, the San Francisco ride-hailing firm faced a customer boycott and sexual harassment allegations, which have devastated employee morale and steered users away from the service. Then it was slapped with a lawsuit Thursday, in which Waymo — Google’s self-driving car project — alleged theft of trade secrets.

While Uber has in the past been adept at weathering bad publicity, brand and industry analysts are less sure about the company’s ability to emerge from the recent damaging events unscathed, particularly since Uber has pegged its future to self-driving cars.

It’s a remarkable turn of events for a company that had until recently plowed through any conflict on its path.

The lawsuit landed as Uber tried to right itself after 200,000 customers deleted the app because its chief executive served on a council advising President Trump. It was also reeling from allegations of a former employee who last weekend accused the firm of sexual harassment and a systemic cover-up — allegations that resulted in Uber recruiting former U.S. Atty Gen. Eric Holder to launch an investigation.

But the Waymo lawsuit may prove the biggest of the company’s many woes.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, alleged that former Waymo employee Anthony Levandowski downloaded more than 14,000 highly confidential and proprietary files shortly before his resignation in January 2016. He went on to found self-driving truck startup Otto, which was acquired by Uber in August of that year for $680 million. Levandowski now heads Uber’s self-driving car division.

Waymo alleges it’s a division that is using its proprietary technology.

“Instead of developing their own technology in this new space, Defendants stole Waymo’s long-term investments and property,” Waymo said in its complaint against Uber. In a separate blog post, Waymo wrote that it was seeking an injunction to “stop the misappropriation of our designs, return all trade secret information and cease infringing our patents.”

In response to the complaint, an Uber spokesperson said in a statement that the company had “reviewed Waymo’s claims and determined them to be a baseless attempt to slow down a competitor, and we look forward to vigorously defending against them in court. In the meantime, we will continue our hard work to bring self-driving benefits to the world.”

In addition to punitive damages, Waymo is expected to soon file a preliminary injunction against Uber to stop the company from continuing development on self-driving cars. Uber already has vehicles equipped with self-driving technology on the road in Pennsylvania and Arizona, but they were recently banned from California for operating without proper permits.

“This case is significant because not only does it allege a major effort to take confidential information, it alleges an effort to cover up his tracks,” said Daniel Handman, a partner at law firm Hirschfeld Kramer. “So the question for Uber is how much of this did they know, when did they know it, and what did they do about it? Because if Uber was complicit in this, that raises their level of culpability.”

Given the significant war chests of both companies (Alphabet has a market cap of $579 billion, while the privately held Uber has a valuation of more than $62.5 billion), a lawsuit could drag on for years and prove costly no matter its resolution.

Intellectual property attorneys drew comparisons between the Apple-versus-Samsung case, which took more than five years and went all the way to the Supreme Court, and the Mattel-versus-Bratz case, which lasted for eight years and resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in legal fees.

In that time, the race to bring autonomous cars to the road won’t slow, but if Waymo is awarded a preliminary injunction against Uber, then, depending on the scope of the injunction, Uber may have to hit pause on the development of its self-driving car technology.

While Waymo and Uber’s battle plays out in court, brand and auto experts say Uber now has a significant trust problem on its hands.

“One of the biggest hurdles with self-driving cars is getting the individual in the vehicle for the first time,” said Grayson Brulte, an autonomous vehicle expert and consultant. “And the problem here is when consumers see a story about this, it’s not going to say Alphabet sues Uber, it’s going to say Alphabet sues Uber over self-driving car tech. Then consumers will go down a rabbit hole: Are Uber’s cars not safe? What do they not have that they have to steal?

“It could set back the adoption of autonomous vehicles by years.”

Brand experts believe Uber may be shooting its future self in the foot when self-driving cars become mainstream.

“What Uber should be concerned about is not the people who love them or hate them, but the people in the middle ground, the people who are on the fence, who could switch over,” said Eden Gillott Bowe, president of crisis communications firm Gillott Communications.

Uber claims at least an 80% share of the U.S. ride-hailing market, according to reports. It’s also the only American ride-hailing firm to have a global footprint. Despite its dominance, though, analysts said ride-hailing is increasingly being treated as a commodity, and consumers have very little brand loyalty. When a BMW, Ford or Volvo launch their own on-demand self-driving car services, Uber will struggle to hold on to its current customers unless it gives them reason to remain loyal.

“They have to make sure going forward that they are as transparent and honest as possible through actions,” Gillott Bowe said.

The company has taken steps to restore consumer trust. Chief Executive Travis Kalanick stepped down from Trump’s economic advisory panel in early February after his involvement drew widespread criticism. He also called in Holder to investigate the company’s harassment and diversity problems.

Which is an important start, brand experts said. But even Holder’s hiring has come under fire, with early Uber investors Mitch and Freada Kapor alleging in an open letter to the company that those in charge of the investigation are “insiders.”

“They are in crisis at the moment,” said John Paolini, executive creative director of branding firm Sullivan, who believes Uber could weather this but that it won’t come easily. “When you think of an organization like Uber, which is really in its infancy, it’s like a puppy chewing up the slippers and the furniture. They’re grown so much faster than they’ve ever imagined, and it probably feels a little out of control.”

As featured in the February 25, 2017 edition of The Los Angeles Times

Faraday Future and Shared Autonomous Mobility

Alex Roy, Editor-at-Large of The Drive, Olaf Sakkers, Partner at Maniv Mobility and Grayson Brulte, Co-Founder of Brulte & Company discuss Faraday Future and shared autonomous mobility services at CES 2017 in Las Vegas, NV

Recorded live the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, NV on January 5, 2017.