Today's news is preliminary, but a U.S. house committee panel passed some new federal regulations which suggest sweeping change in the US regulatory approach to robocars.
The future of computer-driven cars and deliverbots
I have recently managed to dig up some old documents from the earliest days of car regulation. Here is a report from NHTSA on the state of affairs near the turn of the 20th century.
National Horse Trail Safety Administration (NHTSA)
Regulation of new Horse-Auto-mobile Vehicles (HAV), sometimes known as "Horseless carriages."
In recent years, we've seen much excitement about the idea of carriages and coaches with the addition of "motors" which can propel the carriage without relying entirely on the normal use of horses or other beasts of burden. These "Horseless carriages," sometimes also known as "auto mobile" are generating major excitement, and prototypes have been generated by men such as Karl Benz and Armand Peugeot, along with the Duryea brothers, Ransom Olds and others in the the USA. The potential for these carriages has resulted in many safety questions and many have asked if and how NHTSA will regulate safety of these carriages when they are common.
Previously, NHTSA released a set of 4, and later 5 levels to classify and lay out the future progression of this technology.
Levels of Motorized Carriages
Level zero is just the existing rider on horseback.
Level one is the traditional horse drawn carriage or coach, as has been used for many years.
A level 2 carriage has a motor to assist the horses. The motor may do the work where the horses trot along side, but at any time the horses may need to take over on short notice.
In a level 3 carriage, sometimes the horses will provide the power, but it is allowed to switch over entirely to the "motor," with the horses stepping onto a platform or otherwise being raised to avoid working them. If the carriage approaches an area it can't handle, or the motor has problems, the horses should be ready, with about 10-20 seconds notice, to step back on the ground and start pulling. In some systems the horse(s) can be in a hoist which can raise or lower them from the trail.
A Level 4 carriage is one which can be pulled entirely by a motor in certain types of terrain or types of weather -- an operating domain -- but may need a horse at other times. There is no need for a sudden switch to the horses, which should be pulled in a trailer so they can be hitched up for travel outside the operating domain.
The recently added fifth level is much further in the future, and involves a "horseless" carriage that can be auto mobile in all situations, with no need for any horse at all. (It should carry a horse for off-road use or to handle breakdowns, but this is voluntary.)
In San Francisco, I'm just back from the annual Automated Vehicle Symposium, co-hosted by the AUVSI (a commercial unmanned vehicle organization) and the Transportation Research Board, a government/academic research organization. It's an odd mix of business and research, but also the oldest self-driving car conference. I've been at every one, from the tiny one with perhaps 100-200 people to this one with 1,400 that fills a large ballroom.
Toyota Research VC Fund
Tuesday morning did not offer too many surprises. The first was an announcement by Toyota Research Institute of a $100M venture fund. Toyota committed $1B to this group a couple of years ago, but surprisingly Gil Pratt (who ran the DARPA Robotics Challenge for humanoid-like robots) has been somewhat a man of mixed views, with less optimistic forecasts.
Different about this VC fund will be the use of DARPA like "calls." The fund will declare, "Toyota would really like to see startups solving problem X" and then startups will apply, and a couple will be funded. It will be interesting to see how that pans out.
Nissan's control room is close to live
At CES, Nissan showed off their plan to have a remote control room to help robocars get out of sticky situations they can't understand like unusual construction zones or police directing traffic. Here, they showed it as further along and suggested it will go into operation soon.
This idea has been around for a while (Nissan based it on some NASA research) and at Starship, it has always been our plan for our delivery robots. Others are building such centers as well. The key question is how often robocars need to use the human assistance, and how you make sure that unmanned vehicles stay in regions where they can get a data connection through which to get help. As long as interventions are rare, the cost is quite reasonable for a larger fleet.
This answers the question that Rod Brooks (of Rethink Robotics and iRobot) recently asked, pondering how robocars will handle his street in Cambridge, where strange things like trucks blocking the road to do deliveries, are frequently found.
It's a pretty good bet that almost all our urban spaces will have data connectivity in the 2020s. If any street doesn't have solid data, and has frequent bizarre problems of any type, yet is really important for traversal by unmanned vehicles -- an unlikely trifecta -- it's quite reasonable for vehicle operators to install local connectivity (with wifi, for example) on that street if they can't wait for the mobile data companies to do it. Otherwise, don't go down such streets in empty cars unless you are doing a pickup/drop-off on the street.
Karl Iagenemma of nuTonomy told the story of moving their cars from Singapore, where driving is very regulated and done on the left, to Boston where it is chaotic and done on the right.
I've written a few times that perhaps the biggest unsolved problem in robocars is how to know we have made them safe enough. While most people think of that in terms of government certification, the truth is that the teams building the cars are very focused on this, and know more about it than any regulator, but they still don't know enough. The challenge is going to be convincing your board of directors that the car is safe enough to release, for if it is not, it could ruin the company that releases it, at least if it's a big company with a reputation.
While very few details have come out, Reuters reports that new proposed congressional bills on self-driving cars will reverse many of the provisions I critiqued in the NHTSA regulations last year.
Plans are underway to ask for a legal mandate to install radio communications devices in all new cars, starting around 2020. These radios would do "vehicle to vehicle" (v2v) and vehicle to infrastructure communication using a wifi-derived protocol called DSRC.
Waymo (Google) has announced a pilot project in Phoenix offering a full ride service, with daily use, in their new minivans. Members of the public can sign up -- the link is sure to be overwhelmed with applicants, but it has videos and more details -- and some families are already participating. There's also a Waymo Blog post. I was in Phoenix this morning as it turns out, but to tell real estate developers about robocars, not for this.
There are several things notable about Waymo's pilot:
- They are attempting to cover a large area -- they claim twice the size of San Francisco, or 90 square miles. That's a lot. It's enough to cover the vast majority of trips for some pilot users. In other words, this is the first pilot which can test what it's like to offer a "car replacement."
- They are pushing at families, which means even moving children, including those not of driving age. The mother in the video expects to use it to send some children to activities. While I am sure there will be safety drivers watching over things, trusting children to the vehicles is a big milestone. Google's safety record (with safety drivers) suggests this is actually a very safe choice for the parents, but there is emotion over trusting children to robots (other than the ones that go up and down shafts in buildings.)
- In the videos, they are acting like there are no safety drivers, but there surely are, for legal reasons as well as safety.
- They are using the Pacifia minivans. The Firefly bubble cars are too slow for anything but neighbourhood operation. The minivans feature motorized doors, a feature which, though minor and commonplace, meets the image of what you want from a self-driving car.
Apple is in the game
There has been much speculation recently because of some departures from Apple's car team that they had given up. In fact, last week they applied for self-driving car test plates for California. I never thought they had left the game.
A new report from Navigant Research includes the chart shown below, ranking various teams on the race to robocar deployment. It's causing lots of press headlines about how Ford is the top company and companies like Google and Uber are far behind.
I elected not to buy the $3800 report, but based on the summary I believe their conclusions are ill founded to say the least.
Recently we've seen a series of startups arise hoping to make robocars with just computer vision, along with radar. That includes recently unstealthed AutoX, the off-again, on-again efforts of comma.ai and at the non-startup end, the dedication of Tesla to not use LIDAR because it wants to sell cars today, before LIDARs can be bought at automotive quantities and prices.
California has published updated draft regulations for robocars whose most notable new feature is rules for testing and operating unmanned cars, including cars which have no steering wheel, such as Google, Navya, Zoox and others have designed.
This is a big step forward from earlier plans which would have banned testing and deploying those vehicles. That that they are ready to deploy, but once you ban something it's harder to un-ban it.
Caltrain is the commuter rail line of the San Francisco peninsula. It's not particularly good, and California is the land of the car commuter, but a plan was underway to convert it from diesel to electric. This made news this week as the California Republican house members announced they want to put a stop to both this project, and the much larger California High Speed Rail that hopes to open in 2030.
California published its summary of all the reports submitted by vendors testing robocars in the state. You can read the individual reports -- and they are interesting, but several other outlines have created summaries of the reports calculating things like the number of interventions per mile.
I generally pay very little attention when companies issues a press release about an "alliance." It's usually not a lot more than a press release unless there are details on what will actually be built.
Earlier I posted my gallery of CES gadgets, and included a photo of the eHang 184 from China, a "personal drone" able, in theory, to carry a person up to 100kg.
Whether the eHang is real or not, some version of the personal automated flying vehicle is coming, and it's not that far away. When I talk about robocars, I am often asked "what about flying cars?" and there will indeed be competition between them. There are a variety of factors that will affect that competition, and many other social effects not yet much discussed.
The VTOL Multirotor
There are two visions of the flying car. The most common is VTOL -- vertical takeoff and landing -- something that may have no wheels at all because it's more a helicopter than a car or airplane. The recent revolution in automation and stability for multirotor helicopters -- better known as drones -- is making people wonder when we'll get one able to carry a person. Multirotors almost exclusively use electric motors because you must adjust speed very quickly to get stability and control. You also want the redundancy of multiple motors and power systems, so you can lose a rotor or a battery and still fly.
This creates a problem because electric batteries are heavy. It takes a lot of power to fly this way. Carrying more batteries means more weight -- and thus more power needed to carry the batteries. There are diminishing returns, and you can't get much speed, power or range before the batteries are dead. OK in a 3 kilo drone, not OK in a 150 kilo one.
Lots of people are experimenting with combining multirotor for takeoff and landing, and traditional "fixed wing" (standard airplane) designs to travel any distance. This is a great deal more efficient, but even so, still a challenge to do with batteries for long distance flight. Other ideas including using liquid fuels some way. Those include just using a regular liquid fuel motor to run a generator (not very efficient) or combining direct drive of a master propeller with fine-control electric drive of smaller propellers for the dynamic control needed.
Another interesting option is the autogyro, which looks like a helicopter but needs a small runway for takeoff.
The traditional aircraft
Some "flying car" efforts have made airplanes whose wings fold up so they can drive on the road. These have never "taken off" -- they usually end up a compromise that is not a very good car or a very good plane. They need airports but you can keep driving from the airport. They are not, for now, autonomous.
Some want to fly most of their miles, and drive just short distances. Some other designs are mostly for driving, but have an ability to "short hop" via parasailing or autogyro flying when desired.
NHTSA released the report from their Office of Defects Investigation on the fatal Tesla crash in Florida last spring. It's a report that is surprisingly favorable to Tesla. So much so that even I am surprised. While I did not think Tesla would be found defective, this report seems to come from a different agency than the one that recently warned comma.ai that:
Recently we've seen two essays by people I highly respect in the field of AI and robotics. Their points are worthy of reading, but in spite of my respect, I have some differences of course.
The first essay comes from Andrew Ng, head of AI (and thus the self-driving car project) at Baidu. You will find few who can compete with Andrew when it comes to expertise on AI. (Update: This essay is not recent, but I only came upon it recently.)
CES has become the big event for major car makers to show off robocar technology. Most of the north hall, and a giant and valuable parking lot next to it, were devoted to car technology and self-driving demos.
Gallery of CES comments
Earlier I posted about many of the pre-CES announcements and it turns out there were not too many extra events during the show. I went to visit many of the booths and demos and prepared some photo galleries. The first is my gallery on cars. In this gallery, each picture has a caption so you need to page through them to see the actual commentary at the bottom under the photo. Just 3 of many of the photos are in this post.
To the left you see BMW's concept car, which starts to express the idea of an ultimate non-driving machine. Inside you see that the back seat has a bookshelf in it. Chances are you will just use your eReader, but this expresses and important message -- that the car of the future will be more like a living, playing or working space than a transportation space.
The main announcement during the show was from Nissan, which outlined their plans and revealed some concept cars you will see in the gallery. The primary demo they showed involved integration of some technology worked on by Nissan's silicon valley lab leader, Maarten Sierhuis in his prior role at NASA. Nissan is located close to NASA Ames (I myself work at Singularity University on the NASA grounds) and did testing there.
Their demo showed an ability to ask a remote control center to assist a car with a situation it doesn't understand. When the car sees something it can't handle, it stops or pulls over, and people in the remote call center can draw a path on their console to tell the car where to go instead. For example, it can be drawn how to get around an obstacle, or take a detour, or obey somebody directing traffic. If the same problem happens again, and it is approved, the next car can use the same path if it remains clear.
I have seen this technology a number of places before, including of course the Mars rovers, and we use something like it at Starship Technologies for our delivery robots. This is the first deployment by a major automaker.
Nissan also committed to deployment in early 2020 as they have before -- but now it's closer.
You can also see Nissan's more unusual concepts, with tiny sensor pods instead of side-view mirrors, and steering wheels that fold up.
Several startups were present. One is AIMotive, from Hungary. They gave me a demo ride in their test car. They are building a complete software suite, primarily using cameras and radar but also able to use LIDAR. They are working to sell it to automotive OEMs and already work with Volvo on DriveMe. The system uses neural networks for perception, but more traditional coding for path planning and other functions. It wasn't too fond of Las Vegas roads, because the lane markers are not painted there -- lanes are divided only with Bott's Dots. But it was still able to drive by finding the edge of the road. They claim they now have 120 engineers working on self-driving systems in Hungary.
You may have seen a lot of press around a dashcam video of a car accident in the Netherlands. It shows a Tesla in AutoPilot hitting the brakes around 1.4 seconds before a red car crashes hard into a black SUV that isn't visible from the viewpoint of the dashcam. Many press have reported that the Tesla predicted that the two cars would hit, and because of the imminent accident, it hit the brakes to protect its occupants. (The articles most assuredly were not saying the Tesla predicted the accident that never happened had the Tesla failed to brake, they are talking about predicting the dramatic crash shown in the video.)
The accident is brutal but apparently nobody was hurt.
The press speculation is incorrect. It got some fuel because Elon Musk himself retweeted the report linked to, but Telsa has in fact confirmed the alternate and more probable story which does not involve any prediction of the future accident. In fact, the red car plays little to no role in what took place.
Tesla's autopilot uses radar as a key sensor. One great thing about radar is that it tells you how fast every radar target is going, as well as how far away it is. Radar for cars doesn't tell you very accurately where the target is (roughly it can tell you what lane a target is in.) Radar beams bounce off many things, including the road. That means a radar beam can bounce off the road under a car that is in front of you, and then hit a car in front of it, even if you can't see the car. Because the radar tells you "I see something in your lane 40m ahead going 20mph and something else 30m ahead going 60mph" you know it's two different things.