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Top Robocar News of 2017

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Here are the biggest Robocar stories of 2017

Waymo starts pilot with no safety driver behind the wheel

By far, the biggest milestone of 2017 was the announcement by Waymo of their Phoenix Pilot which will feature cars with no safety driver behind the wheel, and the hints at making this pilot open to the public.

The huge deal is that Waymo's lawyers and top executives signed off on the risk of running cars with no safety driver to take over in emergencies. There is still an employee in the back who can do an emergency shutdown but they can't grab the traditional controls. A common mistake in coverage of robocars is to not understand that it's "easy" to make a car that can do a demo, but vastly harder to make one that has this level of reliability. That Waymo is declaring this level puts them very, very far ahead of other teams.

Many new LIDAR and other sensor companies enter the market

The key sensor for the first several years of robocars will almost surely be LIDAR. At some point in the future, vision may get good enough but that date is quite uncertain. Cost is not a big issue for the first few years, safety is. So almost everybody is gearing up to use LIDAR, and many big companies and startups have announced new LIDAR sensors and lower prices.

News includes Quanergy (I am an advisor) going into production on a $250 8-line solid state unit, several other similar units in development from many companies, and several new technologies including 1.5 micron LIDARs from Luminar and Princeton Lightwave, 128 plane LIDARs from Velodyne and radical alternate technologies from Oryx in Israel and others. In addition, several big players have acquired LIDAR companies, indicating they feel it is an important competitive advantage.

At the same time, Waymo (which created its own special long range LIDAR) has been involved in a giant lawsuit against Uber, alleging that the Otto team appropriated Waymo secrets to build their own.

Here is some coverage I had on LIDAR deals.

In more recent news, today Velodyne cut the price of their 16 laser puck to $4,000. 16 planes is on the low side as a solo sensor but this price is quite reasonable for anybody building a taxi.

Regulations get reversed.

In 2016 NHTSA published 116 pages of robocar regulations. Under the new administration, they reversed this and published some surprisingly light handed replacements. States have also been promoting local operations, with Arizona coming out as one of the new winners.

Intel buys MobilEye

There were many big acquisitions with huge numbers, including NuTonomy (by Delphi) but the biggest ever deal was the $16B purchase of MobilEye by Intel. MobilEye of course has a large business in the ADAS world but Intel wants the self-driving car part and paid a multi billion dollar premium for it.

Uber orders 24,000 Volvos

It's not a real order quite yet but this intent to buy $1B of cars to put Uber software on shows how serious things are getting, and should remove from people's minds the idea that Uber doesn't intend to own a fleet.

Flying cars get a tiny bit more real

They aren't here yet, but there's a lot more action on Flying Cars, or in particular, multirotor drone-style vehicles able to carry a person. It looks like these are going to happen, and they are the other big change in the works for personal transportation. It remains uncertain if society will tolerate noisy helicopters filling the skies over our cities, but they certainly will be used for police, ambulance, fire and other such purposes, as well as over water and out in the country.

A little more uncertain is the Hyperloop. While the science seems to work, the real question is one of engineering and cost. Can you actually do evacuated tubes reliably and at a cost that works?

Comments

because it *is* open to the public. I predict that about a year of successful operation with no major disasters will cause a surge in demand as cities clamor to get service in their areas. I'm just disappointed the manufacturer is not from the U.S.

I don't want to to say that Navya/Navia is not a pioneer -- they have been providing shuttles that have been in use by the public for almost 5 years. But because of that, they are not news. These shuttles run at very low speed, and the LV one has just 3 stops. At first, their shuttles ran only on private land and it's indeed a step to put them on public streets.

There is a similar safety driver with kill switch in the Navya, but not a steering wheel, but again, that's not as big a milestone at the low speeds because the safety driver can trigger an emergency stop with much more margin.

Being open to the public is a non-technological milestone. The truth is that for a service like Waymo offers, there is no big reason to open it to the public. You would just get swamped with riders and gain minimal R&D experience from it.

About 10 years ago when considering writing my own smartphone based ride sharing system (A real job and a lack of collaborators prevented this from becoming a reality) I wondered if the biggest beneficiaries of such a system would those tasked with funding roading infrastructure.
If transport as a service with a reasonable load factor became a reality the road building burden would obviously be reduced greatly.
I wonder if Waymo would be able to charge (extort) a large fee for having their service operate in a particular city/region?
I presume there are people in Waymo thinking hard about how there will be many (and very large) indirect benefits to cities from vehicles with higher load factor, which are smaller, cleaner, cause less congestion and less noise. If they are then they are obviously also thinking about how Waymo can capture some of this benefit for themselves.
Maybe they wouldn't risk doing something that could be seen as exploiting a monopoly position, but then again they might.
Have you thought much about how Waymo can do more than just swell rides and/or license software?

Cities do indeed beg to be the first to get this tech, though not for the reasons you state, but simply to be the cool futuristic city. At first the traffic and other benefits are small, but they will grow with time. But cities hardly have to bribe vendors, who expect a lucrative business. If cities want higher load factors, though, they could do that by taxing all vehicles by how much road they take up, which would naturally push to both smaller vehicles for solo riders and higher load factors of larger vehicles. But taxing vehicles is not easy to do. Instead of a tax they could do rebates to reward carpooling (as well as offering carpool lanes which is the main thing they do) but there's not a lot to rebate since cities don't charge cars anything except for parking and some tolls. States charge gas tax, other tolls and licence fees, but even that's not a great deal to rebate.

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