Autonomous vehicle testing ramps up, but deployment is still years away

While post-pandemic road testing has started up again for autonomous vehicles in the US and other countries, reaching the commercial level is still a long ways off — at least the fully autonomous vehicle part of it. Advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) continue being included as standard equipment on new vehicles, and other pieces of the puzzle continue to fall into place — but all of the technology will remain under strict scrutiny for years. On the other hand, aerial drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are already commercialized and growing in production options. UAWs have always been years ahead of autonomous vehicles.

Nuro, Inc., has authorization for deployment of autonomous vehicles in California, which was granted on Dec. 23, 2020.

The potential is huge for fleets, transit agencies, transportation planners, ride-sharing companies, shuttles, technology giants, robotics manufacturers, vehicle makers, and more. The transformation into connected, electric, shared, and autonomous vehicles is on its way, but at a slower pace than many had hoped for.

“In recent years, private and government testing of autonomous vehicles has increased significantly, although it is likely that widespread use of fully autonomous vehicles — with no driver attention needed — lies many years in the future,” according to the April 2021 briefing by the Congressional Research Service.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) just issued orders for manufacturers to report any crash that happens while a vehicle is automating some driving tasks and an injury or property damage is reported. It covers all vehicles that can partially automate functions, such as steering, acceleration, or braking. Fully autonomous vehicles (AVs) will go on the list later on, once they become available for sale. More will be revealed by NHTSA on the safety issues that AVs and ADAS face.

Safety has to be resolved
NHTSA’s move addresses the major roadblock for AVs to move forward to mass-market production: safety. The pace was slowed down after the 2018 death in Arizona of a pedestrian struck by an autonomous vehicle operated by ride-hailing firm Uber. The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the fatality was caused by an “inadequate safety culture” at Uber. Two April 2021 fatalities in a Tesla vehicle that was operating with no one in the driver’s seat raised further questions about the safety of AVs.

The federal government has put in place an overview on AV laws, and for the states to carry out the specifics. That will come in the form of national safety standards and requirements. The feds would like like states to lead the way dialogue with tech innovators, industry, and government.

The majority of testing has been taking place in a handful of states: Arizona, California, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Washington. California remains the busiest hub for AV testing.

In California, there are 55 permit holders for testing a self-driving car with a driver onboard. Eight of them are also permit holders for driverless testing. One of them, Nuro, Inc., also has authorization for deployment of autonomous vehicle that was granted on Dec. 23, 2020.

Nuro is an American robotics company based in Mountain View, Calif. The company develops autonomous delivery vehicles, and was the first company to receive an autonomous exemption from NHTSA since its vehicles are designed to carry goods instead of humans.

It joins up with Waymo, the self-driving unit of Alphabet, which opened up its fully driverless vehicles to all customers of its ride-hailing service in the Phoenix area back in October. Nuro and Waymo are operating and overseeing a fairly small number of AVs in the two states.

The other companies on the California permit holders list have been very visible in testing out AVs for nearly a decade. The list includes Apple, Argo AI, Baidu USA, BMW, Continental, Cruise, Delphi, DiDi, Honda, Intel, Lyft, Mercedes-Benz, Nio, Nissan, Nvidia, Pony.AI, Qualcomm, Ridecell, Telenav, Tesla, Toyota Research Institute, Volkswagen, and Waymo. Exploring some of the AV technology that these companies are developing, many times with partners, can be eye opening. The investment has been sizable, and thousands of employees have devoted their workdays to exploring and testing the technology.

Uber and Lyft go on to other things
Another clear sign that AV is a market segment that’s still years in the making is that companies are leaving after having invested substantially into it. Lyft recently sold its AV unit to a Toyota subsidiary, Woven Planet, for $550 million. Uber sold its business to Aurora, a startup headed by Chris Urmson, who played a key role in Google’s self-driving car division before it was named Waymo.

For the companies still in the business — automakers, Waymo, and a few startups, they’re likely to spend an additional $6 billion to $10 billion before the technology makes it to the commercial level.

“This is a transformation that is going to happen over 30 years and possibly longer,” Urmson said.

There may have been too much hype during 2014-15 after Google rolled out its self-driving test cars and every automaker, tech giant, and startup, claimed it would change the world within a brief time period.

Self-driving trucks is a segment that may see success before driverless passenger cars. Both Ways and Aurora are developing autonomous trucks along cars. The routes are simpler and less drivers involved. Daimler and Volvo are expected to do well in commercial autonomous trucks. Tesla has that opportunity, too.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk is known for making bold, sometimes outlandish, statements about Tesla rolling out breakthrough technology way ahead of competitors. That’s certainly been the case with fully autonomous vehicles, but Tesla owners have had enough of it. Musk’s bold claims go back to 2018, and then again in 2019 when his first promise didn’t come through. His wording changed over to a “feature-complete” system that would still rely on the driver’s attention, which most recently rolled over to Tesla’s Full Self-Driving (FSD) Beta. As usual, that test program is taking much longer than he’d hoped for. Musk had promised that an update should be coming “no later than June.” But Tesla owners went after him on Twitter as the month ended, and Musk had to back down.

Nearly all states considering laws or have them in place
States are taking it very seriously, with many of the rules governing testing of the vehicles. Forty-eight states have laws or regulations — or those that are under consideration — related to autonomous vehicles. Twenty-nine states have enacted legislation related to AVs, according to National Conference of State Legislatures.

These 29 states are Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, New York, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin (and Washington D.C.). Governors in Arizona, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Ohio, Washington and Wisconsin have issued executive orders related to autonomous vehicles.

Drones have been leading the way
Look up drones on Google, and you’ll be scanning through hundreds of Amazon listings on small drone aircraft used by teenagers and adults as a hobby. Some of the drones, aka UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), are being used for commercial purposes — weather and traffic reports, deliveries, and many other functions. For those working in the industry, aerial and water drones are far ahead of driverless cars; and reconnaissance aircraft, which have been used by the US military for over 40 years, lead the way.

One company, DroneDeploy, offers aerial inspections with UAVs. DroneDeploy works with clients such as construction companies, building inspectors, planning agencies, and designers, to keep upgrading its products for effective scrutiny of construction projects.

“Today you have to count on a superintendent walking by the right thing at the right time and taking a picture. Capturing everything with a drone will help you catch issues that you’re not catching now,” according to Austin Lay, Visualization Coordinator/sUAS Flight Specialist, Layton Construction.

On April 21, 2021, the Federal Aviation Administration passed final rules for remotely identifying drones and allowing operators of small drones to fly over people and at night under certain conditions. The Remote Identification (Remote ID) rule provides for identifying drones in flight and the location of their control stations, reducing the risk of them interfering with other aircraft or posing a risk to people and property on the ground.

“Drones can provide virtually limitless benefits, and these new rules will ensure these important operations can grow safely and securely,” said FAA Administrator Steve Dickson. “The FAA will continue to work closely with other Department of Transportation offices and stakeholders from across the drone community to take meaningful steps to integrate emerging technologies that safely support increased opportunities for more complex drone use.”

Major aerospace and defense companies have been making moves in this space for several years and have been working with government officials to comply with rules. Amazon Prime Air — a future delivery system from Amazon — is being designed to safely get packages to customers in 30 minutes or less using drones.

Boeing builds the MQ-35 Stingray aerial-refueling drone for the Navy. The company is also working on the Airpower Teaming System or “Loyal Wingman” military unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). 

Northrop Grumman has played a leading role in the deployment of pilotless aircraft for the military. Its RQ-4A Global Hawk surveillance drone grabbed attention in 2019 after it was shot down by Iran while operating in international airspace over the Strait of Hormuz. Its MQ-4C Triton, based on its Global Hawk drone, is playing a part in marine environments; Fire Scout, a rotary-wing drone, is being used in Navy ships.

Lockheed Martin builds the Stalker XE for special forces units, Desert Hawk III for UK forces, and the avionics for small quadcopter drones used by police. The company has also invested in artificial intelligence (AI) technology. Its AI team was a semi-finalist in Darpa’s dogfight challenge. In May 2020, the company announced a partnership between the Air Force Test Pilot School and the company’s Skunk Works division to strengthen the Air Force’s drone technology with AI.

Workhorse Group and AeroVironment have a presence
Electric truck builder Workhorse Group is best known for building battery-powered trucks and vans that have been winning a lot of fleet purchase deals. While recently suing over not winning the the U.S. Postal Service’s contract for electric trucks, Ohio-based Workhorse Group is up there with Rivian for gaining a significant presence in the commercial electric truck market.

The company’s Horsefly UAV product is expected to do well in the package delivery space. Horsefly Is a custom built, high-efficiency delivery UAV that is fully integrated with Workhorse’s line of electric delivery trucks. The Horsefly system is designed to conform to the FAA guidelines for UAV operation in the US, the company said. Most notably, being fully integrated with delivery trucks, the system is designed such that a driver or driver’s assistant can maintain line-of-sight operation of the UAV delivery process.

Not long ago, California-based AeroVironment had a significant role to play in the U.S. electric vehicle charging infrastructure. But in June 2018, the company sold its charging and test systems business to Webasto Group. AeroVironment employees in this division were carried over to their new employer.

AeroVironment has been strengthening its role as the Pentagon’s top provider of drones, but that’s not the end of it. The company said its Raven drone “is the most widely used unmanned aircraft system in the world today.”

The company built the Mars helicopter Ingenuity for NASA which performed the first controlled flight on another planet in April. It gained quite a lot of attention for the company and a lot more customers. Other achievements include bringing in oil giant BP (BP), the National Park Service, and law enforcement agencies have been drone customers.

And in other news…………

Infrastructure funding moves to Senate: The US House of Representatives approved a $715 billion surface transportation and water infrastructure bill Thursday in what Democrats say is the first step in sweeping infrastructure legislation that Congress hopes to finish by September. The vote passed 221-201 and goes to the Senate.

It includes provisions from the Biden administration’s $2.3 billion infrastructure proposal authorizing electric vehicle charging stations; spending on safety for roads, bridges, and highways; and rail, transit, and drinking and wastewater infrastructure. One major project could be $11.6 billion directed to connect New Jersey and New York’s Penn Station in Manhattan via four modern transportation tubes beneath the Hudson River.

Called the “INVEST in America Act,” the $715 billion contains more than $44 billion added during the amendment process to make greater investments in infrastructure.


President Joe Biden faces a set of political challenges getting through this funding round with more bills approaching asking for up to $6 trillion when all the numbers are totaled. Compromises and negotiations will continue with moderate Democrats clashing with the party’s left wing, and from Republican legislators.

The Senate just passed another transportation infrastructure bill last month. Many elements will have to be working out with Congress, which has its own set of priorities lad out in the INVEST in America Act.

U.S. PIRG sees that the INVEST in America Act would devote a record $547 billion to public transit, walking and biking infrastructure, and wildlife crossings, while emphasizing a fix-it-first, climate-friendly approach to transportation. It would improve water infrastructure, protect drinking water, and repair and expand the nation’s transportation system, the organization said.

Last November, Environment America and U.S. PIRG released Blueprint for America, an infrastructure plan to make American families and communities safer, healthier, and more resilient by focusing specifically on the areas of energy, transportation, water, solid waste, and natural infrastructure.

“No one wants dirty air, polluted water or unsafe roads. Adopting common-sense solutions to these problems is in the interest of all Americans and we applaud members of the House for coming together to do so today with the passage of the INVEST in America Act, said U.S. PIRG President Faye Park. “This bill shows a healthier, safer future is possible and we look forward to continuing to work with Congress to address all our infrastructure needs.”

Virgin Hyperloop is hoping that federal funding will include funding for some of its high-speed transportation projects. On June 16, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee passed S. 2016, the Surface Transportation Investment Act, which includes multiple provisions that will allow the continued development of hyperloop in the US, with bipartisan support.

“We applaud Chairwoman Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Ranking Member Roger Wicker (R-MS), and all the Members of the Committee for their inclusion of provisions that will further the advancement and growth of the hyperloop industry,” said Sir Richard Branson, Founder of the Virgin Group. “This is an important step to bringing hyperloop travel to Americans across the country.”

ACT Expo live investor summit: The Advanced Clean Transportation (ACT) Expo’s inaugural live Investor Summit will offer attendees a full picture of the current state of the industry, as well as key trends and projections for the coming year. The summit, taking place at the Long Beach Convention Center in Southern California, will be held on Monday, Aug. 30, kicking off the event. The conference and expo will be running Aug. 31 to Sept. 2. While it’s been a very tough time over the past year, clean transportation has seen a few gains being made. Investment in advanced clean commercial vehicle technologies and fuels are at an all-time high, with special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, investments in the industry grabbing headlines throughout this past year. Investment is expected to grow this year and into 2022. ACT Expo of this opening panel will offer attendees a good look at funding opportunities and significant projects taking shape.

AltWheels Fleet Day coming up in October: On Monday, Oct. 4, AltWheels Fleet Day will continue virtually and offers speakers, panels, and presentations on critical issues facing fleets and other stakeholders in alternative fuels and vehicles. Fleet managers will learn more about funding programs and emerging trends. More details will be coming out soon on speakers and subject matter. Last year, the conference went virtual for the first time and featured an impressive line-up of 19 expert speakers along with several sponsor videos.  The event drew 378 registrants to hear keynote talks from Anirban Basu, Chairman & CEO, Sage Policy Group, and Bill Van Amburg, Executive Vice President, CALSTART; as well as a series of panels and interviews of industry leaders from organizations such as Ford, Toyota, UPS, National Grid, US Environmental Protection Agency, Verizon Connect, and Blackburn Energy to name a few.

Past Co-Hosts of this event have included: NAFA Fleet Management Association Chapters in New England, NY, and NJ; MA Motor Transportation Association; ME Motor Transportation Association; MA Highway; Massport; MA Executive Office of Transportation; ME Dept. of Transportation; Clean Cities Coalitions (CT, MA, ME, NH, NJ, NY, RI); American Public Works Association of New England; and many more.
As a Co-Host, you will receive several benefits including free admission for all members; listing of your organization as a Co-Host on the Fleet Day website, with link, logo, and brief description; and other promotional activities provided by the Co-Hosts. For those interested, contact Meg Rivett, Event Director, at 508-498-8020 or by email at meg@classic-communications.com.

New vehicle emissions comparison study: Reuters has released analysis of data from a model that calculates the lifetime emissions of vehicles, a hot topic for debate in advancing electric vehicles and charging infrastructure to meeting climate targets. That comes through comparison of several electric vehicle (EV) models with traditional internal combustion engine choices that car buyers make. For example, if you own a Test Model 3, you’ll have to drive about 13,500 miles before you’re doing less harm to the environment than a gas-guzzling vehicle. The model was developed by the Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago. The detailed methodology includes thousands of parameters from the type metals in an EV battery to the amount of aluminum or plastic in a car. The study was conducted with Argonne’s Greenhouse Gases, Regulated Emissions and Energy Use in Technologies, which provided its GREET model for the study. GREET is now being used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the California Air Resources Board.

Ford makes leap in electrified sales: Ford sales of electrified vehicles jumped 117 percent in June, capping off a new first-half sales record on sales of 56,570 vehicles, hitting a record level. Mustang Mach-E sales totaled 12,975 vehicles, while F-150 PowerBoost Hybrid added an additional 17,039 vehicles to the total. Escape Hybrid and Escape Plug-in Hybrid sales totaled 15,642 – up 45.9 percent over last year. Ford’s Mach-E grew its sales 26.7 percent compared to May.

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