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Waymo applies for no-driver testing

Waymo, who is owned by Alphabet, this week applied to test cars without back up drivers on California roads, even as recent crashes involving autonomous vehicles has heightened fears about the safety of the technology

A source familiar with the matter told the San Francisco Chronicle that Waymo plans to extensively map the Californian terrain by having vehicles with test drivers cover it first, before using no-driver cars.

The move comes less than a month after a fatal accident involving a self-driving Uber SUV in Arizona raised fresh concerns about the safety of autonomous cars. That vehicle had a backup driver behind the wheel when it struck and killed a pedestrian on March 19, but dashcam videos showed the driver was not watching the road.

Waymo CEO, John Krafcik said that the Arizona tragedy would not have happened with a Waymo car.

“We have a lot of confidence that our technology would be robust and would be able to handle situations like that one,” Krafcik told a car dealers group the week after the accident.

The company started testing autonomous vehicles in 2009, when the idea was considered as incredibly forward-thinking. It was the third company to receive a permit for road tests, with backup drivers behind the wheel, in California. 

Waymo designed a bubble-shaped autonomous car that had no steering wheel or brake pedal, but California officials would not allow it onto public roads until those features had been added.

 

“Waymo has done extensive vehicle testing on our local streets with a good safety record,” Mountain View City Manager Dan Rich, said in a statement. He commended the company for committing to “transparency and information sharing.”

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Drivers struggle to stay engaged

The difficulty of keeping drivers in automated vehicles engaged is a growing safety concern that has spurred several car companies, including General Motors (GM) and Subaru, to position infrared cameras in the cockpit trained on the driver to track head and eye movement.

However, U.S. safety investigators have called on carmakers to do more to ensure drivers stay engaged when using an autonomous vehicles. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has opened three investigations, two of which involve Tesla vehicles, that call into question the progress that’s been made in guarding against motorist misuse of autonomous/semi-autonomous driving technology.

Tesla has lagged behind automakers in embracing driver monitoring. While the electric carmaker still relies on technology that federal investigators said was too easy to sidestep, it’s now working on unspecified improvements to its vehicles, according to the NTSB.

“They have indicated that they have already made some improvements and are working on additional improvements,” agency spokesman Peter Knudson said to Bloomberg, in the first indication that the company is contemplating more changes to its driver-assistance system. NTSB highway investigators have been in contact with Tesla technical staff, he added.

Driver-monitoring technology is needed for any vehicle that needs humans to handle part of the driving task, said Bryan Reimer to Bloomberg News, who studies driver behaviour at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This includes conventional vehicles without driver-assist systems, cars that guide themselves for some periods without human inputs, such as cruise control, and self-driving cars with people serving as safety monitors.

Motorists today are bombarded by distractions, from mobile phones to in-dash navigation systems, Reimer added. “Drivers need help making better decisions.”

The NTSB is investigating two crashes this year in which Tesla drivers were using Autopilot. The system can automate steering and follow traffic in some conditions, but the company warns drivers they must monitor it at all times. The system isn’t designed to be fully autonomous and can’t detect some objects in its path, according to Tesla. 

In the most recent case, a Model X slammed into a concrete highway barrier on March 23 in Mountain View, California, killing the driver Walter Huang. His family has hired Minami Tamaki LLP to explore legal options, the firm said Wednesday in a statement.

Tesla said in a blog post last month that Huang, 38, didn’t have his hands on the wheel for six seconds prior to striking the barrier where lanes split on the freeway.

“The driver had received several visual and one audible hands-on warning earlier in the drive,” the company said in the March 30 blog post.

“What Tesla has is basically a sensor that just detects whether your hands are on the wheel,” said Mike Ramsey, an analyst at researcher Gartner Inc. “If it doesn’t detect anything on the wheel for a certain amount of time, it first gives a visual warning, then an audible warning, then the car starts slowing down. It’s somewhere in the neighbourhood of 10 seconds or longer. At 70 miles per hour, that’s a long time — a lot can happen in that period of time.”

Tesla has installed an inward-facing camera above the rear-view mirror in its new Model 3 sedan, but hasn’t confirmed whether it could be used to monitor drivers.

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Uber believes AVs have a future

Uber Chief Executive Dara Khosrowshahi said on Wednesday that the ride-sharing company still believes in using autonomous technology after one of its self-driving vehicles was involved in a fatal crash in Arizona.

A pedestrian was killed after being hit by a self-driving Uber vehicle, resulting in the company to suspend testing of autonomous vehicles.

The accident has sparked conversations in the car industry about the apparent lack of safety standards for autonomous vehicles.

“We believe in it,” said Khosrowshahi, speaking at a transport forum, adding that Uber has always considered autonomous vehicles being “part of the solution.”

The company’s interest in investing in bike sharing and public transit should not be interpreted as a move away from self-driving cars, he added.

Arizona’s governor suspended Uber’s ability to test self-driving cars on public roads in the state following the crash.

Arizona had been key part of Uber’s autonomous project. About half of the company’s 200 self-driving cars and a staff of hundreds were located there. 

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US and UK most skeptical of autonomous vehicles

There is widespread interest in self-driving vehicles, but the US, one of the largest car markets in the world, displays higher levels of resistance than most other countries.

This is just one key finding from a report about the future of mobility released by Ipsos, a leading global market research firm.

Ipsos surveyed more than 21,000 adults across 28 countries about acceptance of autonomous vehicles (AVs), which autonomous features are most in demand, potential ownership models and regulation options.

The study was conducted as part of its What the Future series, which couples survey data and interviews with experts in the field to see what “big questions” companies should be asking themselves about the future of their industries.

Despite American tech and automotive companies leading the way in AV development, Americans are among the most reluctant to use it. Those in China, in contrast, are twice as likely to say they “can’t wait” to use AVs than Americans or Canadians.

Perhaps the reluctance of Americans to embrace this emerging technology has to do with its strong identity as a car-culture. Nearly six in 10 people consider themselves “car people,” and 81 per cent feel that the car they drive reflects their personality, a least to some degree. 

Fifty-eight per cent of global respondents responded to the poll saying they were unsure, but intrigued by the idea of self-driving cars. Comparatively, just 13 per cent said they would never use them and 30 per cent are excited to use the cars and can’t wait to do so.

As an new technology, much of the conversation surrounding self-driving cars revolves around regulation. When asked what kind of groups global consumers most trust to write proper self-driving car regulation, the majority of respondents answered that they most trusted those who manufactured the cars (43 per cent). The government was the second most trusted institution with 28 per cent of respondents answering that they trusted the government the most on the issue.

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KPMG’s latest report on AVs

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) are set to revolutionise not only transportation but the way people both live and work.

KPMG’s 2018 Autonomous Vehicles Readiness Index (AVRI) provides an in-depth view of what it takes for countries to meet the challenges of self-driving cars and which countries are most prepared for their arrival.

The Index evaluates each country according to four pillars that are integral to a country’s capacity to adopt and integrate AVs. These include: policy & legislation; technology & innovation, infrastructure and consumer acceptance.

Is New Zealand ready for an AV-driven future?

On policy and legislation, New Zealand received a score of 7.92 out of 10, putting them ahead of the Netherlands, in second place. The high score was due to New Zealand’s coherent AV regulation and also having a dedicated department to deal with AV regulation.

New Zealand legislation does not explicitly require a vehicle to have a driver present for the car to be used on the road, which allows the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) to provide support to those undertaking AV testing.

New Zealand is also collaborating with Australia to minimise duplication and share knowledge on AVs. The collaboration demonstrates how countries can pool resources to develop and improve autonomous vehicles.  New Zealand is also known for its particularly transparent regulatory framework; the World Economic Forum rated New Zealand highly for law-making and legal efficiency.

“New Zealand is affluent and large enough to support meaningful product trials, but small enough to prevent teething troubles damaging the reputation of a technology or company. Microsoft, Facebook and drone delivery company Flirtey have used it as a development lab. Christchurch has hosted the world’s first fully AV trial at an international airport,” says Jesse Phillips Director, Deal Advisory KPMG in New Zealand.

The country was ranked fifth in terms of consumer acceptance due to good rating from KPMG’ Change Readiness Index, as well as having AV testing in areas of high population density. It also offers a wide range of climatic conditions within a relatively small area.

New Zealand however scores less well on technology and innovation. KPMG’s research found there were no AV company headquarters, patents or major investments in the AV field, even though New Zealand has the third-highest market share of electric cars.

On infrastructure, New Zealand has landed in the bottom five due to low levels of 4G coverage outside of heavily populated areas, few charging stations and middling rating for road quality and road infrastructure.

How well did other countries do?

The Netherlands is the clear leader, it ranked within the top four of each of the four pillars and ranked number one on infrastructure. Netherlands has by far the highest density of electrical vehicle charging points, with 26,789 publicly-available points in 2016, according to the International Energy Agency’s Global EV Outlook.

“The Dutch ecosystem for AVs is ready. The intensively-used Dutch roads are very well developed and maintained and other indicators like telecoms infrastructure are also very strong. In addition, the Dutch government Ministry of Infrastructure has opened the public roads to largescale tests with self-driving passenger cars and lorries,” says Stijn de Groen, Manager, Digital Advisory KPMG in the Netherlands.

Australia was ranked reasonably well on the index. Several cities are hosting AV trials however, improvements to roads and electric charging infrastructure would help with its AV readiness.

Road transport relies on the quality of road infrastructure as well as the regulatory environment that determine access to that infrastructure. Poor showings on infrastructure undermines the ambitions of New Zealand.

The Netherlands leads this index because it performs strongly across all four pillars of research, showing how both its private and public sectors are highly engaged.

 

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Apple confirms plans for self-driving cars

An artist impression of an Apple AV

Apple is developing a self-driving car system, CEO Tim Cook has confirmed.

Cook told Bloomberg the technology corporation was concentrating its efforts on self-driving technology, and said “it’s a core technology that we view as very important.”

“We sort of see it as the mother of all AI projects,” he added. “It’s probably one of the most difficult AI projects to actually work on.”

Cook wouldn’t be drawn on whether the company was also considering manufacturing its own self-driving car

“We’re not saying from a product point of view where it will take us, but we are being straightforward that it’s a core technology that we view as very important,” he said.

In October 2016, Blooomberg reported that Apple scaled back its ambitious plans to create a driverless vehicle, cutting hundreds of jobs, and chose instead to focus on developing an autonomous driving system.

At the time, executives were given until late 2017 to prove that it was feasible to continue pursuing autonomous technology.

Apple first received a permit from the California state government to trial self-driving cars in March this year and is one of a growing number of car makers and tech companies working towards launching autonomous vehicles in the near future.

Ford, Honda, Google, Mercedes-Benz, Tesla, Toyota, Uber, Volvo, Jaguar-Land Rover, BMW, Nissan, GM, Audi, Hyundai, Bosch, and the PSA Group have all began developing self-driving cars, or have committed to putting fully autonomous vehicles on the road in the next five to 15 years.

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500 Chrysler minivans join AV trial

Local residents can test the self-driving cars

Google’s self-driving car project, recently renamed Waymo, is set to expand in Phoenix, Arizona, with Fiat Chrysler confirming an extra 500 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans will join the 100 already on American roads fitted out with Waymo’s autonomous technology.

Waymo has also announced that members of the public can use the fleet of self-driving cars for everyday travel, and is taking applications from Phoenix residence who want to use the service.

“The collaboration between FCA and Waymo has been advantageous for both companies as we continue to work together to fully understand the steps needed to bring self-driving vehicles to market,” says Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne.

“The addition of 500 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans is a further acknowledgement of the hard work put forth by both engineering teams.”

Waymo CEO John Krafcik says the collaboration is “helping both companies learn how to bring self-driving cars to market, and realise the safety and mobility benefits of this technology.”

The Chrysler minivan’s electrical systems, powertrain and chassis has been modified to accommodate Waymo’s hardware, which has racked up nearly 3 million miles on on-road testing.

With self-driving technology shifting from simulation software to the roads, traditional car companies are teaming up with tech firms to ensure their stake in the rapidly growing business.

Uber’s self-driving trial in partnership with Volvo began in December last year, and stole headlines after an SUV crashed while in autonomous mode. The vehicle was found not to be at fault, and the trial quickly resumed two days later.

Ford teamed up with start-up Argo in February, and plans to begin testing AVs in Europe this year. General Motors bought out Cruise automation in 2016 to bolster their self-driving ambitions, and recently partnered with Lyft to launch self-driving Chevrolet Bolts on the road, currently planned for 2018.

Despite some public unease around self-driving cars, experts are confident autonomous technology is a safer option than human drivers – of the 1.2 million deaths that occur on roads every year, 94 per cent are attributed to human error.  

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Uber resumes AV road tests

Uber’s autonomous Volvo XC90 SUV

 

Uber have cleared its self-driving cars and resumed its pilot programme three days after one of its vehicles was involved in a crash in Tempe, Arizona.

An Uber spokeswoman told Reuters the trials will resume in Tempe, San Francisco and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The programme was suspended last Saturday.

The incident occurred after another car – driven by a human – failed to give way to the turning autonomous vehicle. At the time, the Uber car was in self-driving mode, and a driver and engineer were in the front seats.

“The vehicles collided, causing the autonomous vehicle to roll onto its side,” a spokeswoman for the Tempe police department, Josie Montenegro, said in an email to journalists. “There were no serious injuries.”

The Uber Volvo SUV was deemed to be not at fault in the collision. No other such incidents have been reported in Uber’s self-driving pilot programme.

Although some other accidents have been reported in global trials, experts insist that AVs are ultimately safer than human-driven vehicles, and note that the majority of such AV crashes are very minor and down to human error.

 “Driverless cars keep getting better the more they drive, whereas humans have a roughly constant safety record over the years,” Hod Lipson, a professor of mechanical engineering and roboticist at Columbia University, told Reuters.

He estimated there were about 23,000 traffic fatalities per week globally.

So far, one person has been killed driving an AV in autopilot mode – 40-year-old Joshua Brown, when his Tesla Model S crashed into a truck on an American highway last May. Prosecutors decided not to charge Tesla earlier this year.

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Australia set for AV road trial

Australian technology company Cohda Wireless has received a $2.2 million government grant to test its radar system on public roads.

The grant from the South Australian Government’s Future Mobility Lab Fund will enable Cohda to test the technology on the streets of Adelaide by purchasing two autonomous cars to fit out with Cohda’s radar system.

The cars will contain the V2X-Radar developed by Cohda, which will allow them to detect buildings, road signs and older vehicles not equipped with car-to-car communications.

Previously, the V2X-Radar was trialled on a closed road on the outskirts of Adelaide. This test, however, will occur in the CBD and other urban roads, which will remain open.

Cohda’s system is a first in that it can ‘see’ around corners thanks to its radar technology, and is unaffected by rain, fog or snow.

Approval for the trial comes after South Australia became the first state to introduce laws allows for trials of AVs on open public roads.

Cohda CEO Paul Gray said South Australia was an ideal base for its company, as the new law meant the technology could be tested in real-world situations once it was developed.

“The sensor suites in autonomous vehicles today are still not perfect, and there are still some issues,” he said.

“We basically developed a range of applications that improve CAV (Connected Autonomous Vehicles) localisation and CAV sensor fidelity. It also reduces the cost, because it uses existing infrastructure, and we simply put in additional software to create greater accuracy,” he added.

Gray said Cohda’s technology could be programmed into AVs to increase sensor capabilities, potentially reducing the overall cost.

The V2X-Radar uses wireless signals of current V2X systems to share sensor information between vehicles and infrastructure.

These radio signals bounce off walls, road signs and other vehicles as they travel from transmitter to receiver, and the V2X-Radar can use these radio waves to identify objects within that environment, including non-V2X equipped vehicles.

The radar technology, combined with a 3D map, can provide highly accurate positioning and can instantly detect vehicle speeds.

 “Imagine driving down a row of park cars with a pedestrian standing in between two of them, about to head into traffic,” Gray said.

“This scenario is something that cameras, radars and LIDARs have problems picking up. This government fund would help to improve that, branching from technology that turns Wi-Fi into a form of radar.”

Gray hopes the trials would begin in the coming months, pending the official allocation of the grant.

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Intel buys Mobileye for $22 billion

Intel have announced plans to purchase Israeli technology company Mobileye at the cost of $22.09 billion.

Mobileye is a market leader in the field of autonomous vehicle technology, developing vision-based advanced driver assistance systems such as collision detection by reading inputs from cameras, radar and laser sensors.

The Jerusalem-based company has contracts with 27 different car makers and controls about 70 per cent of the market for software that runs autonomous emergency braking and semi-autonomous cruise control systems in passenger vehicles, according to the Associated Press.

 “This acquisition essentially merges the intelligent eyes of the autonomous car with the intelligent brain that actually drives the car,” Intel CEO Brian Krzanich said in a statement.

Krzanich added Intel can provide higher levels of internet connectivity and access to bigger data centres.

“If you put all of that together, you really get an end-do-end solution for autonomous driving,” said Mobileye Chairman and co-founder Amnon Shashua, who will continue leading the combined autonomous car unit.

Intel will purchase each share of Mobileye for (US)$63.54, 34 per cent higher than its Friday closing price. Both companies still need to approve of the transaction at board level.

Mobileye’s stock jumped 30 per cent at the news to (US)$61.25. Intel shares, however, fell 2.4 per cent to (US)$35.06.

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US to allow full self-driving trials

 California, the largest car market in the U.S. and a hub of autonomous technology development, has proposed plans to allow testing of self-driving cars on public roads without human back-up drivers by the end of the year.

The Californian Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) is seeking public comment on regulations for driverless testing and the public use of vehicles that will no longer require manual controls such as pedals and steering wheels.

“Since the adoption of the current testing regulations, the capabilities of autonomous technology has proceeded to the point where manufacturers have developed systems that are capable of operating without the presence of a driver inside the vehicle,” the department said in their initial statement.

So far, the state has granted 27 companies licences to test driverless vehicles on public roads, including large businesses such as Tesla, BMW and Uber, and small start-ups such as Zoox and AutoX.  

Companies who wish to test AVs without a steering wheel and back-up driver must apply for an exemption from the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration if they do not meet current Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.

Numerous car makers have expressed plans to deploy AVs on U.S roads by 2020.

The Californian DMV has opened the regulations to comments from the public and will hold a hearing on April 25.

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