At CES 2018, autos took over the show, and self-driving took over autos. At least in the industry, it's now mainstream. So what new approaches are teams taking, and how do they hope to win?
The future of computer-driven cars and deliverbots
Earlier this week I talked about many of the LIDAR offerings of recent times. Today I want to look at two "up and coming" sensor technologies: Advanced radar and thermal cameras.
I will begin by pointing readers to a very well done summary of car sensor technologies at EE Times which covers almost all the sensor areas. For those tracking the field it is a worthwhile resource.
Robocars have used radar from the earliest days. It's not that expensive, and has many superhuman capabilities -- it sees through fog and all other forms of weather, it has very long range, and it tells you how fast every target is moving.
Autonomous flying personal transportation -- "the flying car" -- is becoming real. I have written previously about some of the issues such as noise, energy efficiency and "sky pollution" but it's clear that the engineering problems are being solved.
Solving those other problems is a challenge, but I can be more confident in predicting that in the 2020s, many ambulances, police, fire and military vehicles will be based on multirotor technology. This will be particularly true in more rural areas or areas with limited roads.
GM revealed photos of what they say is the production form of their self-driving car based on the Chevy Bolt and Cruise software. They say it will be released next year, making it almost surely the first release from a major car company if they make it.
When it comes to robocars, new LIDAR products were the story of CES 2018. Far more companies showed off LIDAR products than can succeed, with a surprising variety of approaches. CES is now the 5th largest car show, with almost the entire north hall devoted to cars. In coming articles I will look at other sensors, software teams and non-car aspects of CES, but let's begin with the LIDARs.
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.
One "story of the year" for Time was the #metoo campaign, where (mostly) women shared stories of how they had been sexually harassed or molested, to make it clear just how widespread the problem is. Almost all women have a story, or many stories, sad to say.
I have frequently heard reports from women of being groped on crowded public transit. People are packed in, and villains use the plausible deniability and anonymity of the packed crowd to grope.
Intel and Warner made a splash at the LA Auto Show announcing how Warner will develop entertainment for viewing while riding in robotaxis. It's not just movies to watch, their hope is to produce something more like an amusement park ride to keep you engaged on your journey.
Like most partnership announcements around robocars, this one is mainly there for PR since they haven't built anything yet. The idea is both interesting and hype.
Today, various experts, like CR and the AAA rate the cost of private car ownership anywhere from 40 to 60 cents per mile, plus parking. That depends on your usage patterns, what car you buy and its age, plus a few other factors. Many people, though, pretend that using their car only costs the 8-12 cents/mile for gasoline. (A better estimate of the truly incremental cost without factoring in those things that don't vary with the miles is around 25 cents/mile.)
A small mystery from Robocar history was resolved recently, and revealed at the DARPA grand challenge reunion at CMU.
The story is detailed here at IEEE spectrum and I won't repeat it all, but a brief summary goes like this.
In the 2nd grand challenge, CMU's Highlander was a favourite and doing very well. Mid-race it started losing engine power and it stalled for long enough that Stanford's Stanley beat it by 11 minutes.
Uber and Volvo announced an agreement where Uber will buy, in time, up to 24,000 specially built Volvo XC90s which will run Uber's self-driving software and, presumably, offer rides to Uber customers. While the rides are some time away, people have made note of this for several reasons.
A couple of non-text interviews this week.
Robocar news is fast and furious these days. I certainly don't cover it all, but will point to stories that have some significance. Plus, to tease you, here's a clip from my 4K video of the new Apple car that you'll find at the end of this post.
In a major milestone for robocars, Waymo has announced they will deploy in Phoenix with no human safety drivers behind the wheel. Until now, almost all robocars out there have only gone out on public streets with a trained human driver behind the wheel, ready to take over at any sign of trouble.
Once robocars got public attention, a certain faction promoted the view that we should be giving much more attention to the idea of the "connected car." The connected car was coming sooner, would have a big effect, and some said that it was silly to talk about robocars at all without first thinking of them as connected cars. Many even pushed for the vocabulary around robocars to always include connectivity, pushing names like "connected autonomous vehicle" as a primary term for the technology.
Robocars will be connected, but not nearly as much as people in the "connected car" world imagine. And the connection won't be essential. Some cars will work with only a connection when they are parked, or with intermittent connectivity during the day. But most of all, they won't connect out to the world. The robocar probably will connect only to servers at its HQ -- the company that made it or which runs the fleet it's in. It won't talk directly to infrastructure and other cars, it may not even talk two-way with the rider's phone.
Fortunately, the efforts to require vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure connectivity in cars are rumoured to have suffered a setback in the USA.
Rumours are swirling that the US Federal government will drop the proposed mandate that all new cars include a DSRC radio to do vehicle to vehicle communications. Regular readers will know that I have been quite critical of this mandate and submitted commentary on it. Whether they listened to my commentary, or this is just a Trump administration deregulation, it's the right step.
A few years ago, Eran Shir (who was one of my students at Singularity University and who today has an interesting startup using mobile phones to solve ADAS and self driving problems) suggested that rather than delivery robots, the future might see roving stores. These would be self-driving trucks filled with the most popular items for their region which come to you. You would open them, shop, and automatically be charged for items. From time to time they would travel to a depot for restocking.
This blog, and many other sites, paint a very positive picture of the robocar future. And it is positive, but far from perfect. One problem I worry about in the short term is the way robocars are going to make traffic worse before they get a chance to make it better.
The goal of all robocars is to make car travel more pleasant and convenient, and eventually cheaper. You can't make something better and cheaper without increasing demand for it, and that means more traffic.