Robocar News: UK Legalization, MobilEye IPO, Baidu, new Lidar, Nissan pullback, FBI Weapons, Navia, CityMobil2

A whole raft of recent robocar news.

UK to modify laws for full testing, large grants for R&D

The UK announced that robocar testing will be legalized in January, similar to actions by many US states, but the first major country to do so. Of particular interest is the promise that fully autonomous vehicles, like Google’s no-steering-wheel vehicle, will have regulations governing their testing. Because the US states that wrote regulations did so before seeing Google’s vehicle, their laws still have open questions about how to test faster versions of it.

Combined with this are large research grant programs, on top of the £10M prize project to be awarded to a city for a testing project, and the planned project in Milton Keynes.

Jerusalem’s MobilEye going public in largest Israeli IPO

The leader in doing automated driver assist using cameras is Jerusalem’s MobilEye. This week they’re going public, to a valuation near $5B and raising over $600 million. MobilEye makes custom ASICs full of machine vision processing tools, and uses those to make camera systems to recognize things on the road. They have announced and demonstrated their own basic supervised self-driving car with this. Their camera, which is cheaper than the radar used in most fancy ADAS systems (but also works with radar for better results) is found in many high-end vehicles. They are a supplier to Tesla, and it is suggested that MobilEye will play a serious role in Tesla’s own self-driving plans.

As I have written, I don’t believe cameras are even close to sufficient for a fully autonomous vehicle which can run unmanned, though they can be a good complement to radar and especially LIDAR. LIDAR prices will soon drop to the low $thousands, and people taking the risk of deploying the first robocars would be unwise to not use LIDAR to improve their safety just to save a few thousand for early adopters.

Chinese search engine Baidu has robocar (and bicycle) project

Baidu is the big boy in Chinese search — sadly a big beneficiary of Google’s wise and moral decision not to be collaborators on massive internet censorship in China — and now it’s emulating Google in a big way by opening its own self-driving car project.

Various stories suggest a vehicle which involves regular handoff between a driver and the car’s systems, something Google decided was too risky. Not many other details are known.

Also rumoured is a project with bicycles. Unknown if that’s something like the “bikebot” concept I wrote about 6 years ago, where a small robot would clamp to a bike and use its wheels to deliver the bicycle on demand.

Why another search engine company? Well, one reason Google was able to work quickly is that it is the world’s #1 mapping company, and mapping plays a large role in the design of robocars. Baidu says it is their expertise in big data and AI that’s driving them to do this.

Velodyne has a new LIDAR

The Velodyne 64 plane LIDAR, which is seen spinning on top of Google’s cars and most of the other serious research cars, is made in small volumes and costs a great deal of money — $75,000. David Hall, who runs Velodyne, has regularly said that in volume it would cost well under $1,000, but we’re not there yet. He has released a new LIDAR with just 16 planes. The price, while not finalized, will be much higher than $1K but much lower than $75K (or even the $30K for the 32 plane version found on Ford’s test vehicle and some others.)

As a disclaimer, I should note I have joined the advisory board of Quanergy, which is making 8 plane LIDARs at a much lower price than these units.

Nissan goes back and forth on dates

Conflicting reports have come from Nissan on their dates for deployment. At first, it seemed they had predicted fairly autonomous cars by 2020. A later announcement by CEO Carlos Ghosn suggested it might be even earlier. But new reports suggest the product will be less far along, and need more human supervision to operate.

FBI gets all scaremongering

Many years ago, I wrote about the danger that autonomous robots could be loaded with explosives and sent to an address to wreak havoc. That is a concern, but what I wrote was that the greater danger could be the fear of that phenomenon. After all, car accidents kill more people every month in the USA than died at the World Trade Center 13 years ago, and far surpass war and terrorism as forms of violent death and injury in most nations for most of modern history. Nonetheless, an internal FBI document, released through a leak, has them pushing this idea along with the more bizarre idea that such cars would let criminals multitask more and not have to drive their own getaway cars.

To be fair, the FBI didn’t do this as a press release, though the leak got press as though they had. I hope their response will be more balanced. Developers should consider these issues (as well as security against computer attack) with care. But the fact that people can use a huge life-saving technology for ill is not a reason to stay away from it.

Navia is dead, long live Navia?

Several rumours circulating at AVS suggested that Induct, maker of the Navia which excited us so much in January, has had financial troubles, and has had to sell the Navia project to another group, which plans to continue it. However, I can’t find corroboration of those rumours on the web. It was cited as a reason the Navia was not used in…

CityMobil2 project in full swing in Italy

The European CityMobil2 project has started its first automated shuttle demonstration, in Oristrano (Sardinia.) A great talk and live (over Skype) demo was done at the Automated Vehicles Summit. The English pages are sparse but good photos can be seen at the Italian Facebook page.

The demonstration by Adriano Alessandrini contained some ideas I felt should be quite controversial. In their design, they attempt a near-absolute level of safety. To do this, they map all obstructions in their route along the beach, and play out hypotheticals, such as “What if somebody appeared from behind this obstacle riding a bicycle full speed into the road?” They then program the vehicle to slow down enough that it could stop if that happened. In practice, the example shown had a park bench on the sidewalk. A park bench would not hide a cyclist to a human eye but could to a LIDAR, and so the vehicle would slow to 8km/h — a slow human trot — approaching the bench. Parked cars along the road would require extreme slowdown, so Allesandrini advocates that the roads should be certified before use, and dangerous things — like parked cars, objects near the roadway, trees etc. — be removed or not permitted, and that other cars be forbidden or highly controlled.

While nobody wants to say they are against safety, the quest for perfect safety is the enemy of real safety. A vehicle that slows to 8km/h at every tree and park bench will not please its riders, and a vehicle that runs only on controlled and certified roads will not serve very many places — and thus deprive people of the other safety benefits it has to offer. We would not demand that a human driven shuttle go so slowly that it can brake in time if a crazy cyclist is going to ride out from behind a wall at 25 km/h. If we demand it of our self-driving shuttles we won’t get far.

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