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

After Uber Crash, Florida Still Welcomes Free-Range Robot Cars

The anything-goes approach meant to bring autonomous vehicles to Florida won’t change after the first fatal collision.

Florida has been trying to lure self-driving cars to the state for testing on public roads, shaping laws that are much more lax than places like California and New York. The fatal accident this week in Arizona, another state that’s opted for a laissez faire approach to unproven robo-cars, appears unlikely to change the state’s approach.

Jeff Brandes, the Florida state senator who has led the local effort to become a hotbed of autonomous vehicles, said in an interview this week he sees no reason to add tougher regulation to self-driving cars. Florida already allows carmakers and technology companies to run autonomous vehicles without a driver, and the companies aren’t required to report problems such as traffic accidents.

Lax oversight of self-driving vehicles came under new scrutiny on March 18 after an autonomous car being tested in Tempe, Arizona, by Uber Technologies Inc. stuck and killed a pedestrian. As a result, Uber, Toyota Motor Corp. and self-drive startup NuTonomy have said they would suspend testing.

“We have to remember that there was a safety driver in the vehicle,” Brandes said of the pedestrian death in Arizona. “The technology and the driver couldn’t react fast enough to avoid the accident. I don’t think this changes anything for the state of Florida.”

A Florida law passed in 2015 allows cars to be used without drivers. California allows tests without safety drivers but, unlike Florida, requires human operators to maintain remote control of the vehicle. California also requires companies to report all accidents and so-called disengagements, the instances when a driver takes over from the car’s autonomous system.

Companies would rather perfect their technology without worrying about public scrutiny, said Grayson Brulte, president of autonomous consulting firm Brulte & Co. That’s led to a migration from strict states to those with fewer rules. Arizona now has more than 600 autonomous vehicles on its road, according to the governor’s office, while California has about 365.

Across the U.S., 21 states have laws on the books governing the use of self-driving cars, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Another 11 have executive orders from governors. New York, one of the strictest states, requires a driver to be present in the vehicle and that tests be done with supervision of the state police. Michigan, on the more permissive end of the spectrum, allows self-driving cars to operate on any road in the state without steering wheels, pedals or human backup drivers.

Companies don’t want to test vehicles in states without laws that recognize self-driving cars. If an accident happened, they could be considered negligent for operating a technology that isn’t addressed by state law, said Michael Morgan, a partner with law firm McDermott, Will and Emery in Los Angeles.

“You need legal cover,” Morgan said, “which at a minimum is a statute that recognizes it and allows you to do it.”

Arizona has become a popular state to for trial runs. Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo tests its vehicle there, among other places, and plans to launch its first commercial ride-hailing using autonomous vehicles service in the Phoenix area later this year. Cruise Automation, the self-driving unit owned by General Motors Co., also runs in the state.

Arizona’s rules were created by Gov. Doug Ducey with a 2015 executive order. If the state legislature has other ideas, Brulte said, lawmakers could pass a provision that supersedes the order.

The fact that Florida has a law eliminates that political risk. “Florida has put policies in place to usher in the future of autonomy,” Brulte said.

Several companies have moved to take advantage of Florida’s accommodating environment to launch pilot projects. Volkswagen AG’s Audi brand has tested semi-autonomous drive systems there. Ford Motor Co. will be trying out a delivery service that handles groceries and pizza from Domino’s in Miami and Miami Beach, although the self-driving cars will include humans.

Voyage, a British startup, is already running a self-driving taxi service in the Villages, a massive retirement community north of Orlando that houses 125,000 people. Starsky Robotics, a San Francisco startup, has been operating a Freightliner tractor trailer with no driver in Florida. The truck is monitored from a remote driver who watches video feed via cameras.

Brandes, the state senator, said Florida is getting a lot of interest from tech companies and carmakers about deploying in the state. Florida’s laws, sunny weather and retiree population—which often needs transportation assistance—make it an ideal test bed.

“Many major companies are eyeing Florida as a place to deploy autonomous vehicles,” Brandes said. “We will move forward.”

As featured in Bloomberg on March 23, 2018

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