Uber’s new partnerships and Pittsburgh test project revealing the next phase of autonomous vehicle technologies

Uber autonomous vehicle test projectHave you ever wished you could ride in a passenger seat during a self-driving car test? You might want to go to Pittsburgh and skip Mountain View, Calif.

You can ride in an autonomous Ford Fusion as part of Uber’s self-driving car test project in Pittsburgh; and that will soon include a Volvo plug-in hybrid. Google has kept its test runs in its corporate hometown of Mountain View controlled to allow for only employees and strategic partners to participate.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick told the press last week that development of autonomous vehicles is essential to the future of the six-year-old ridesharing company. Much of it has to do with eventually eliminating the cost of paying drivers, which would allow Uber to drop the cost of a ride down and make it even more attractive to customers who don’t want to make a car payment or pay for a taxi ride.

“We’ve got to be laser-focused on getting this to market, because it’s not a side project for us,” Kalanick said. “This is everything. This is all the marbles for Uber.”

Uber is no longer involved with Carnegie Mellon University’s self-driving car research for reasons that were never explained. That alliance with the Pittsburgh-based university, which is considered to be the leading university R&D center for autonomous vehicles, ended in the spring after being formed a year earlier. Uber did hire away four faculty members and 36 researchers and technicians, but Uber never collaborated with CMU on a single project. The ridesharing company did provide the $5.5 million gift to the university that it committed to.

Uber does have its own drivers behind the wheel to reduce the risk factor and protect passengers and other vehicles on the streets; and the company is working with authorities in Pittsburgh and the state of Pennsylvania to make sure safety rules are followed in the test cars. Tesla Motors is continuing to back its semi-autonomous Autopilot system even after a fatality and several collision incidents related to the Autopilot system. Safety will continue to be the key issue to be addressed by all parties rolling out self-driving car technologies.

Last week was significant for the next phase of autonomous vehicles with announcements from Uber and two major automakers. Plug-in electrified and hybrid vehicles have typically been used in self-driving test projects.

Purchases of plug-in electrified vehicles are expected to reach the 10%-to-20% of U.S. new vehicle sales mark, from their current less-than-1% level, in the next 15 years, according to a few industry analysts. Being connected to self-driving technologies and mobility services is expected to support that sales increase.

Uber will be adding Volvo cars to its test project. The companies will be investing $300 million to put 100 self-driving Volvo XC90 plug-in hybrid SUVs on the streets of Pittsburgh in less than four months.

Self-driving hardware and software will be added jointly, and tech support will be provided by Volvo. Uber will be adding Lidar, radar, additional cameras and sensors. Uber will allow customers to summon the self-driving vehicles from their phones. The fleet will be supervised by Uber staff in the driver’s seat for the time being.

Uber said it is buying the XC-90s from Volvo and is adding the self-driving hardware and software for the specific needs of its ride-hailing service. Uber is developing the technology in its Pittsburgh tech center, opened just 20 months ago. Volvo will provide technical support.

Sherif Marakby, Uber’s vice president of global vehicle programs, is leading the project. He joined Uber in April after a 25-year career at Ford in numerous senior engineering management positions. In his most recent role with Ford, Marakby served as the automaker’s director of global electronics and engineering, a position where he was responsible for electrical components on all Ford vehicles globally, including infotainment, driver assist, and connectivity.

He said that Uber’s deal with Volvo isn’t exclusive. The ridesharing company will roll out the test project to other cities and there could be other automakers and technology suppliers joining in. As for now, working with Volvo makes a good deal of sense for Uber.

“The foundation of the collaboration is Volvo’s strength in safety and vehicle development, and Uber’s strength and commitment to autonomy and autonomous technology,” Marakby said. “A significant part of that is the software. All of that is developed in house.”

Uber also announced last week that it had acquired Otto, a 90-person start-up company providing self-driving truck systems that could bring more of that technology to shipping and cargo transport. The acquisition is taking place for an undisclosed cost.

Uber plans to open a 180,000-square-foot facility in Palo Alto, Calif., to house the trucking tech company. Otto will operate as a stand-alone company focused on upending the long-distance trucking industry. Otto had previously hired former Google and Carnegie Mellon engineers. After the acquisition is complete, Otto engineers will also work out of offices in San Francisco and Pittsburgh.

Uber’s chief said the strategic alliance will team up with hardware manufacturers, Otto’s software expertise, and Uber’s large network of more than 50 million monthly riders as potential customers for a wide range of delivery services. It places Uber in the best position to be competitive with Silicon Valley giants like Google, Kalanick said.

Ford Motor Co. is tapping into Silicon Valley talent as well, said CEO Mark Fields, last week while visiting the automaker’s Palo Alto research facility. Fields announced that the company will offer a fully automated driverless vehicle for ridesharing services in 2021.

Fields said Ford is increasing its investments in Silicon Valley technology firms, tripling its investment in semi-autonomous systems, and more than doubling the size of its Palo Alto research team while expanding its campus in Silicon Valley.

Ford’s chief said he was not concerned that rival General Motors had made a high-stakes play in ride services with its $500 million investment in Lyft in January. “We’re not in a race to be first,” Fields said.

Ford does not yet know whether it will partner with Uber, Lyft, or other ride-hailing and ridesharing service providers. Fields said Ford may choose not to partner, and roll out such services on its own. The automaker has been rolling out carsharing and ridesharing in Europe and the U.S. in test projects in recent years. Fields does see Ford going toward fully autonomous vehicles, similar to the strategy Google has taken.

Ford Chief Technical Officer Raj Nair said the company likely will not offer a fully autonomous car without steering wheels or pedals to consumers until 2025 or later. Launching a self-driving car first for ridesharing is a better way to reach the mass market and make the cars more affordable, he said.

Uber CEO Kalanick isn’t speculating on when Uber might be ready to dispense with the human driver, saying that full automation can only be used now in limited places light in traffic. Uber and Lyft riders are anticipated to be more open to using driverless cars. Studies show that younger, Millennial consumers make for most of the Uber and Lyft customers. They’re less interested in car ownership and want to tap into the most efficient, advanced technologies to meet their mobility needs. Many of them have taken ridesharing trips and enjoy the reduced cost and socializing. They prefer it over driving their own car home from work, being absorbed and stressed out over getting through congested traffic at slow speeds. Whether it’s a human or machine driving the car, their main purpose for using Uber and Lyft is accomplished.

Electrified vehicles are expected to play a role in the future of self-driving, shared rides in urban settings. Their cost efficiency is valued, and growth in the charging infrastructure is expected to take away fear of being stranded in an electric car. Evercar, a provider of shared EVs for on-demand drivers (like Uber and Lyft), reported in the spring that it has been growing quickly in Los Angeles. By applying innovations in electric vehicles and carsharing technology, the company is making it possible for nearly anyone to access a vehicle to drive for the on-demand economy, Evercar said.

Navigant Research sees a global trend developing with on-demand mobility programs sprouting up, which indicates that transportation is moving toward a future that is both shared and electric. Automakers and tech partners are testing projects to examine its potential.

BMW recently announced that it will be expanding its ReachNow carsharing program to cover Portland, Ore., after successfully bringing the service to Seattle earlier this year. The service attracted more than 13,000 members within its first month of operation. BMW uses a mix of vehicles for the program that includes Mini Coopers and the BMW i3.

Nissan recently announced its collaboration with San Francisco-based electric scooter-share company Scoot Networks. The two companies will deploy 10 mobility concept cars (the Renault Twizy) in the Bay Area.

On August 2, startup company Green Commuter launched a carshare and vanpool fleet in Los Angeles using Tesla Model X SUVs. And there are several other two-wheel and four-wheel electrified vehicles being used in demonstration projects around the world.

Navigant says that companies looking to capitalize on this rapidly evolving business will need to offer high levels of vehicle accessibility, affordable hourly usage rates, and differentiating product options. As for autonomous vehicles, a recent Navigant leaderboard rating placed Daimler, BMW, Audi, and General Motors as the top automakers in the field. Ford, Volvo, Toyota, and Honda followed in the leaderboard ratings. All of these companies are investing heavily in connected, electrified, advanced technologies.

Details coming out on Autopilot fatality in Tesla Model S

Tesla AutopilotThe fatality of a driver in a Tesla Model S with Autopilot is being described as the very first casualty from an autonomous vehicle technology. Here are details from the incident and where this may lead in the near future..……..

  • The crash took place on May 7 in Williston, Fla., but wasn’t in the public spotlight until June 30 when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said preliminary reports indicated that the crash occurred when a tractor-trailer made a left turn in front of the Tesla, and the car failed to apply the brakes.
  • The 2015 Tesla Model S sedan crashed in northern Florida into a truck that was turning left in front of it on a double-lane highway. The Tesla didn’t stop, hitting the trailer and traveling under it. The Tesla then ran off the road, hitting a fence and a power pole before coming to a stop.
  • It is the first known fatal accident involving a vehicle being driven by itself by means of sophisticated computer software, sensors, cameras and radar. Federal regulators, who are in the early stages of setting guidelines for autonomous vehicles, have opened a formal investigation into the incident.
  • The Florida Highway Patrol identified the Tesla driver who was killed as Joshua Brown, 40, of Canton, Ohio. He was a former Navy SEAL known for dismantling bombs for the Navy during the Iraq war, then coming home to start his own company to extend internet service into rural America. He loved his Model S so much he nicknamed it “Tessy.” He celebrated the Autopilot feature that made it possible for him to cruise the highways, making YouTube videos of himself driving hands-free. In the first nine months he owned it, Brown put more than 45,000 miles on the car. In a YouTube video that Brown posted a month before the fatal crash showing the technology saving him from another collision and wrote that he was “very impressed. “Tessy did great. I have done a lot of testing with the sensors in the car and the software capabilities,” Brown wrote on April 5 in comments posted with the 41-second video.
  • Tesla Motors issued a statement on the incident and investigation on June 30 that said it’s the first known fatality in over 130 million miles where Autopilot was activated. In “A Tragic Loss,” posted in the company’s blog, Tesla said that neither Autopilot nor the driver “noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied. The high ride height of the trailer combined with its positioning across the road and the extremely rare circumstances of the impact caused the Model S to pass under the trailer, with the bottom of the trailer impacting the windshield of the Model S.”
  • A digital video disc player was found in the Model S after the crash, the Florida Highway Patrol officials said on Friday. Whether the portable DVD player was operating at the time of the crash has not been determined. Witnesses who came upon the wreckage gave differing accounts on Friday about whether the player was showing a movie.
  • The 62-year-old driver of the tractor trailer, Frank Baressi, told the Associated Press that the Tesla was driving so quickly that it “went so fast through my trailer I didn’t see him.” Combined with the alleged high rate of speed the Model S was traveling, Baressi told the AP that he witnessed the Tesla “playing Harry Potter on the TV screen” though he acknowledged that he only heard the movie and couldn’t see it. “It was still playing when he died and snapped a telephone pole a quarter mile down the road,” Baressi said to AP.
  • One driver on the Florida highway said that right before the crash, the Model S was driving well over the speed limit, according to a local resident interviewed during a TV news report who had spoken to the witness.
  • Evidence from the crash will take NHTSA several weeks to issue a statement. NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation will examine the design and performance of the automated driving systems in use at the time of the crash. During the preliminary investigation, NHTSA will gather additional data regarding this incident and other information regarding the automated driving systems. “The opening of the Preliminary Evaluation should not be construed as a finding that the Office of Defects Investigation believes there is either a presence or absence of a defect in the subject vehicles,” NHTSA said in a statement.
  • The federal government is expected to release its national guidelines for autonomous vehicles this month, and will likely acknowledge the NHTSA investigation of the Tesla crash. Speaking last month at a telematics conference in Novi, Mich., Mark Rosekind, head of NHTSA, expressed concern over how much is really known about the safety of autonomous vehicle technology. “We need new safety metrics,” Rosekind said. “We also are going to have to broaden our view on the data sources for what those metrics might be. We have laboratory work. We have simulations and real world data.” The industry and regulators don’t know everything they don’t know about the safety of the most advanced autonomous technologies, he said.
  • Google has collected a lot of data from its self-driving car test runs in recent years. Its self-driving test cars have been in several minor collisions, but on the receiving end. Earlier this year, Google filed a California DMV accident report confirming that one of its autonomous vehicles (a Lexus RX450h) collided with a bus in Mountain View, Calif. The vehicle and its test driver incorrectly assumed that a bus approaching from behind would slow or stop to let the car through. The Lexus smacked into the side of the bus at low speed, damaging its front fender, wheel and sensor in the process. It was a minor incident with no injuries.
  • Google test cars primarily use a laser system known as Lidar (light detection and ranging), a spinning range-finding unit on top of the car that creates a detailed map of the car’s surroundings as it moves. Lidar is also used now on many of the experimental autonomous vehicles being developed by Nissan, BMW, Apple and others, but not by Tesla. The Tesla uses a computer vision-based vehicle detection system, but according to the company, it is not intended to be used hands-free and parts of the system are unfinished. Some experts speculate that a Lidar-driven car might have avoided this fatal crash.
  • Safety of vehicle drivers and passengers, and pedestrians and bicyclists, have been the core issue behind allowing autonomous vehicles to be tested, and eventually to roll out, on U.S. roads. The Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles made that very clear when the state adopted the nation’s first permission and guidelines for testing self-driving cars on its roads. Google and other companies have emphasized that issue more than any other reasons for investing in the technology. The Tesla fatality will heighten the debates – over whether cars should be fully autonomous as Google advocates, or they should have allowances for humans to take over in emergencies as the California DMV and others have expressed.
  • NHTSA just released a statistical projection of traffic fatalities for 2015, which estimates that 35,200 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes. That’s an increase of about 7.7% as compared to the 32,675 fatalities reported in 2014. It would will mark the highest level of fatalities since 2008, which saw 37,423 fatalities. This data will likely affect the debate even more.
  • Tesla just announced it will be releasing this month its Autopilot software version 8.0. That was in the works long before reporting of the investigation of the fatal crash, but the company says the update is the most important to its touchscreen since the launch of the Model S in 2012 and features significant improvements to the Autopilot. It will allow for improvements in the general Autopilot experience in traffic, but more significantly, it will introduce automatic off-ramp in exits on the highway, Tesla says.

Flying cars grabbing attention and funding right up there with autonomous vehicles

TerrafugiaIf you’re a fan of science fiction author Philip K. Dick, and movies made from his writings, you’ve probably been thinking about flying cars for years. Featured in the Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? novel and Blade Runner film – and “The Electric Ant” and “Minority Report” short stories (along with the Steven Spielberg film Minority Report) – flying cars will be one of the mobility options we use daily, according to the author.

Flying cars, and similar technologies such as aerial delivery drones, are on a similar track as autonomous vehicles. They’re still in the early testing and development phase, but it looks like we will see them on our roads and skyways much sooner than expected. Google co-founder Larry Page seems to think so.

Page, CEO of Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc., is spending his own money on two startups developing flying cars. He’s funded one of them, Zee.Aero, more than $100 million since it started in 2010. Since last year, Page has also been backing another startup, Kitty Hawk, which is making another flying car that could compete with Zee.Aero.

Zee.Aero conducts test flights of its prototype at an airport hangar in Hollister, Calif. The startup firm also has a manufacturing facility on NASA’s research center at the edge of Mountain View, Calif. Zee.Aero employees call Page the guy upstairs (‘GUS’). Page had demanded his involvement in the startup should stay hidden, according to an article last week in Bloomberg.

Kitty Hawk has headquarters about half a mile away from Zee.Aero, The startup is working on “something that resembles a giant version of a quadcopter drone,” according to Bloomberg.

Larry Page isn’t the only investor passionate about flying cars……..

Terrafugia TF-X received Federal Aviation Administration approval for test flights in late 2015. The hybrid-electric flying car will have fold out wings with twin electric motor pods attached to it, and is capable of recharging its batteries either from its engine or by plugging in to electric car charging stations. This mid-size car has twin helicopter-style rotors at the tips of its wings that fold out of the car and lift the TF-X into the sky. Once it’s up in the air, electric engines teamed with a 300-horsepower engine provide power. The rotors fold back, and a ducted fan pushes the TF-X along. It has a cruising speed of about 200 mph, with a range of about 500 miles.

The company says that development of the TF-X hybrid-electric flying car is expected to last 8-12 years. Once developed it will be tested in a wind tunnel at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It could go on sale for $120,000 and seat four people. You can watch the video here; and the image was taken from the video for the photo shown at the beginning of this article.

Google is working with NASA and 13 other companies, including Amazon and Verizon, to create an air-traffic control system for drones, called Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Traffic Management. With safety being a key concern, the federal government is seeking to work with the private sector to create rules of the aerial highways. Recent crashes of drones, including at national parks and on the White House grounds, have brought concern to watching over the new technologies being tested. The economic opportunities are part of gaining support from corporate backers.

“They definitely see it as an economic opportunity and as something that they want to participate in,” said Brian Wynne, president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. “This is real magic.”

NASA is researching prototype technologies for a UAS Traffic Management (UTM) system that could develop airspace integration requirements for enabling safe, efficient low-altitude operations. Currently, there is no established infrastructure to enable and safely manage the widespread use of low-altitude airspace and UAS operations. A UTM system for low-altitude airspace may be needed, perhaps leveraging concepts from the system of roads, lanes, stop signs, rules, and lights that govern vehicles on the ground today, whether the vehicles are driven by humans or are automated, NASA says.

Amazon has gained a lot of attention with its Prime Air automated delivery drones. In December, Amazon released a video showing a prototype of one of its delivery drones, which shares features of both helicopters and airplanes. Prime Air will get packages to customers within 30 minutes of them ordering it online at Amazon.com, according to Amazon’s Paul Misener. The range has to be over 10 miles and the carried weight will be less than five pounds for typical Amazon orders and up to 55 pounds, he said.

During a presentation at ACT Expo 2016, Steve Burns, CEO of Workhorse Group Inc., talked about the company’s truck-based HorseFly Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) delivery system, which is currently undergoing testing by Workhorse under a Section 333 exception granted by the Federal Aviation Administration. At its booth, the company showed a video featuring a small drone launching from the top of a delivery truck, flying a package to a nearby house and returning to the vehicle. Burns focused on the economic efficiencies and state-of-the-art technology in the HorseFly during his presentation.

A Chinese company’s EHang 184 has been cleared for testing in Nevada. The approval was given by the Nevada governor’s office to develop and test the vehicle at the state’s Federal Aviation Administration-approved drone test site. The electric passenger drone created by EHang was unveiled at CES in Las Vegas in January. The company says that it’s the world’s first passenger drone and is capable of autonomously carrying a person in the air for 23 minutes. It’s a 142-horsepower “personal flying vehicle” that can transport a single person at an altitude of more than 11,000 feet, China’s People’s Daily Online reported.

Other flying car projects in development described in a lengthy Bloomberg feature include:

  • Volocopter made by E-volo with a price tag of $280,000 and seating for two. The prototype all-electric vehicle will be sold as a hybrid to increase flight times. It will have 18 propellers in a circular structure placed above the cockpit.
  • AeroMobil 3.0 will cost $400,000 and seat four. It will be gasoline powered, can take off from driving down a road and soaring to the air quickly, and can cover a flight distance from, say, New York to Toronto. The company, AeroMobil, says it will start taking orders for it this year.
  • Moller Skycar is being built at Moller’s workshop in Davis, Calif. Moller International says it will cost $500,000 to $1 million and will seat four. It will have a range of 805 miles at 131 mpg, and a maximum speed of 308 mph. Founder Paul Moller has been trying to build a flying car for about 50 years; this is the fifth-generation flying car Moller has built. Investors have put in more than $100 million in his test projects over the years.
  • Lilium Jet, from German startup Lilium Aviation, is the world’s first all-electric vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) plane, according to the company. The price has yet to be determined and will seat two people. It has a range of 300 miles and a maximum speed of 250 mpg. The company says it will be easy to fly with software doing much of the work. Lilium Aviation has received funding form the European Union.
  • Joby Aviation says that customers will be able to call over its Joby flying car similar to getting an Uber ride. The all-electric plane, which seats two, will have a 100-to-200 mile range after being charged. The company expects to begin flying prototypes by this year’s end. It’s being built at a 500-acre compound in Santa Cruz, Calif. Future flying cars will seat four and look more like airplanes with six propellers positioned around the aircraft.

What you need to know about connected car technologies

McityIf you work in the auto industry, staying informed can be all-consuming these days – with the Takata airbag recall, the Volkswagen diesel car scandal, automakers striving to become the first one selling self-driving cars, and the impact low fuel prices is having on green car sales. There is one topic I would advise you to stay current on, as it touches upon all the rest – connected car technologies.

Connected cars is what we have now with mobile device connectivity to our dashboards for entertainment and driving directions – such as Bluetooth bringing Pandora from your smartphone to your car’s sound system; the deployment of safety features like lane departure warning systems, backup cameras, and driver assistance systems that are considered stepping stones to autonomous vehicle technologies eventually becoming the norm; intelligent transportation systems coordinated by the U.S. Dept. of Transportation with its goals of making roads safer and more efficient; and mobile apps on devices that lead you to the closest electric vehicle charging station and other features that make your car your own personal mobility device.

Here’s an overview of what’s happening lately in connected car technologies……..

  • Hacker threat: Automakers and suppliers think we’re very close to seeing connected car technologies being added to all new vehicles sold. A survey of OEM and supplier managers says they think it will take one to three years to secure the technology, according to a new study by International Data Corp. and commissioned by security company Veracode. The study came from test study last year showing by professional hackers taking over a Jeep Cherokee, raising the flag on the possibility of hackers making cyberthreats that they can carry out. The auto industry is aware that adopting these systems widely may bring privacy and safety problems, but companies are working hard and resolving and moving the technologies forward.
  • Fuel station of the future: At the Geneva Motor Show, Nissan showed a video presentation on it 12-month long project examining the role electric cars, autonomous vehicles, and vehicle-to-grid technology could play in the city of the near future. Nissan Europe has been collaborating with noted architects Foster + Partners on a project that imagines electric cars that can recharge themselves wirelessly both at home and elsewhere. What Nissan calls “The Fuel Station of the Future” integrates electric autonomous vehicles, the internet, and renewable energy.
  • Mcity: Along with Silicon Valley r&d labs, the University of Michigan’s Mcity project in Ann Arbor, Mich., has become the epicenter of connected car technology development. The University of Michigan Center for Entrepreneurship just created a partnership with the U-M Mobility Transformation Center to launch the pilot of the TechLab at Mcity. TechLab is a training ground for student interns to experience the process of transforming a lab innovation into a company, which will prepare them for the real world of product development. The Mcity test facility was launched last year, and comes from an alliance over several years between automakers, technology companies, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the university. The full-scale, 32-acre urban environment provides real-world road scenarios – such as running a red light – that can’t be replicated on public roads; vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technologies are part of testing grounds. Last fall, Ford became the first automaker to launch an autonomous vehicle test program at Mcity. The Ford Fusion Hybrid Autonomous Research Vehicle merges today’s driver-assist technologies, such as front-facing cameras, radar and ultrasonic sensors, and adds four LiDAR sensors to generate a real-time 3D map of the vehicle’s surrounding environment.
  • Connected car trade group: Connected car technology is becoming enough of an industry norm to create a trade group and a few conferences. The Connected Vehicle Trade Association (CVTA) announced that Paul Laurenza has been promoted from vice chair to chairman of the organization. Laurenza head national law firm Dykema’s motor vehicle and consumer product safety federal regulatory practices. Laurenza has advised clients on connected vehicle legal and policy issues for more than a decade, and is a frequent speaker and author on emerging intelligent vehicle technologies. CVTA was created to facilitate the interaction, and advance the interests, of the entities involved in the vehicle communication environment and developing bidirectional vehicle communications.
  • Conferences: Automotive Megatrends Magazine is hosting three events in Detroit this year combined into one. On March 15-17, day-long conferences will cover connected cars, autonomous vehicles, and fuel-efficient vehicles. All three will take place at The Henry in Dearborn, Mich. Connected Car Expo will take place again at the beginning of the LA Auto Show on Nov. 15-17, 2016. Keynote speakers will include John Zimmer, co-founder and president of Lyft, Inc.; and Arwed Niestroj, CEO of Mercedes-Benz Research and Development North America in California.
  • Who’s right – Musk or Zuckerberg? In an interview with Axel Springer CEO Mathias Döpfner for the German newspaper Die Welt am Sonntag, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t agree with Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s concerns over machines being stronger than humans, taking over and wreaking havoc. Musk and colleagues have serious fears that artificial intelligence could one day dominate and take over the human brain. They’ve poured money into a Y Combinator-led project to make sure it doesn’t happen. Zuckerberg thinks it’s more hysterical. “I think that the default is that all the machines that we build serve humans so unless we really mess something up I think it should stay that way,” Zuckerberg said.
  • Fiat Chrysler and Apple? Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO Sergio Marchionne, who describes himself as an “Apple freak,” would love to partner with the technology giant on building a car. Apple Inc. would be well served to partner with an established global automaker, given the complexity of auto manufacturing, Marchionne said at the Geneva Motor Show. Besides, Marchionne loves Apple’s technologies and owns every kind of product the company makes. Marchionne has been spending a great deal of time in the past two years looking for a major corporate partner to merge with – to eliminate Fiat’s debt and boost its profits. FCA has been behind its OEM competitors in electric vehicles, advanced connected car technologies, and mobility services. Partnering with Apple could be ideal, since that technology has invested in electric and autonomous vehicle technology projects – and would be better partnering with one or more OEMs.

This Week’s Top 10: More on VW diesel scandal, San Diego Gas & Electric installing 3,500 chargers

by Jon LeSage, editor and publisher, Green Auto Market

Here’s my take on the 10 most significant and interesting occurrences during the past week…….

  1. Volkswagen diesel recallMore on the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal……… Frank Tuch, previously head of VW’s group quality control, has left the company with details yet unknown beyond Tuch leaving “to take on new responsibilities elsewhere.” Tuch was appointed in 2010 by former CEO Martin Winterkorn, who did take partial blame for the scandal and left the company in September. Current CEO Matthias Mueller has been overhauling senior management positions in the wake of the emissions test-rigging scandal……… VW will be offering compensation packages to about 600,000 Americans who own one of these TDI diesel cars violating emissions limits. The U.S. attorney is finalizing the package and it’s not yet clear whether this will be a buy-back, cash, car replacement, repair, or some combination………  The European Union has become more flexible about considering new emissions rules soon after a protest measure was rejected by lawmakers. The new rules may be flawed, but lawmakers believe they will at least provide some greater regulation of emissions testing, according to Giovanni La Via, chair of the EU’s Environment Committee. Members of the European Parliament recently rejected a proposal to require on-road emissions testing for new vehicles.
  2. SDG&E installing 3,500 chargers: San Diego Gas & Electric has received regulatory approval to install up to 3,500 electric vehicle charging stations at 350 sites. The California Public Utilities Commission has approved its Electric Vehicle Grid-Integration pilot project, which may cost SDG&E $45 million to construct. The power utility thinks it’s a great opportunity to maximize use of renewable energy to charge EVs and reduce the need for new fossil-fuel power plants. That follows Southern California Edison winning CPUC approval for its $22 million “Charge Ready” initiative. SCE says it’s a pilot project installing up to 1,500 charging stations in its service territory.
  3. Incentives for fleet EV acquisition: Nissan’s Marc Deutsch and GNA’s Joe Annotti will be covering critical issues fleets face in deploying plug-in electric vehicles. ACT Expo is hosting a complimentary, one-hour webinar, which will highlight key incentives that help to substantially buy down the cost of electric vehicles, charging, and other costs of traditional vehicle ownership to maximize fleet deployment. Deutsch will be talking about significant fleet incentives; and Annotti will go over GNA’s Funding 360° Program that helps companies, municipalities, and organization track, evaluate, and apply for funding programs throughout North America. Click here to register for the free webinar, “Making Cents of Electric Vehicles: Key Incentives for Fleet Deployment,” which takes place tomorrow, Feb. 10, 2016, at 10:00-11:00 a.m. PT.
  4. Leaf turns around in used values: The Nissan Leaf has seen a reverse in its used vehicle valuation dilemma. During the fourth quarter of 2015, Kelley Blue Book Auction Values on model-years 2012 through 2015 Leafs were up three percent from where they were in the third quarter. That was while gasoline prices continued to plunge – 14.2%, or 32 cents, during that time period. “This rebound could be attributed to consumers now finding the current value of electric vehicles more attractive at their current price point following months of steady declines,” KBB analyst Sean Foyil said in the latest edition of Blue Book Market Report. That was during a time period when most used vehicles saw prices dropping as off-lease vehicle returns oversupplied the market.
  5. Goodbye Cadillac ELR: Cadillac won’t be building the next-generation version of its plug-in hybrid luxury ELR model. It has been released as a 2016 model year car, but General Motors hasn’t announced when it will be pulled off the market. It gained a lot of attention when launched as a 2014 model year electric vehicle with a $76,000 price tag. It was the only competitor out there, at the time, to the Tesla Model S. GM didn’t produce very many of them, and sales numbers were slight. It runs off a powertrain similar to the Chevrolet Volt, and it did get a lot of raves when it was first launched.
  6. More Google driverless car testing: Google is adding to its testing grounds for self-driving cars with a new route added in Kirkland, Wash., later this month. That follows six years of road testing in Mountain View, Calif., near its corporate campus; and Austin, Texas, which allowed for autonomous vehicle testing last summer. So far, 1.4 million miles of testing has been done. The company said that going up the Pacific Northwest provides “different driving environments, traffic patterns, and road conditions.”
  7. Oil tax in budget: President Obama today will be proposing a tax of $10 per barrel on oil in the 2017 budget to Congress. The goal is to create “a clear incentive for private-sector innovation to reduce our reliance on oil, and at the same time invests in clean energy technologies that will power our future,” the White House said. Tax proceed would go to the nation’s transportation infrastructure and to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide from transportation. That proposal could be killed off in the Republican majority House. “President Obama’s proposed $10 per barrel tax on oil is dead on arrival in the House,” House majority whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) said.
  8. RMI on fuel price increases: As we’ve seen clearly in the past year, rapidly declining gasoline and diesel fuel prices can hurt sales of, and support for, plug-in electric, hybrid, and alternative fuel vehicles. Amory Lovins, chief scientist at Rocky Mountain Institute, thinks that these market conditions are set to turn around. Read on for his perspectives.
  9. Army testing autonomous vehicles: The U.S. Army is going back strong to its R&D efforts that started in the 1980s. The Army recently has been testing convoys of autonomous vehicles that follow a truck driven by a human. These tests have included up to 10 vehicles equipped with cameras, radar and onboard computers to identify potential road hazards. The equipment is costing the Army about $175,000 per vehicle; the Army thinks this will go down to one tenth that cost once it becomes mass produced.
  10. Uber taking heat for changing logo: Along with increasing “surge pricing” that is driving up the cost of Uber trips, the latest controversy on the ridesharing giant is that its emblem has been changed dramatically. The title of a Washington Post piece tells the story, “Why everyone hates Uber’s new logo.” Riders has grown accustomed to its grey “U” logo. At the beginning of this month, the logo on the mobile app transformed into a circle with a thin line through the left side; and it rests within an aqua green background with etchy, thin lines in some sort of diagram. It could be the logo for any company, and the iconic U has gone away.

Automakers see a nexus between electric and autonomous vehicle technologies

Nissan Leaf autonomousGeneral Motors Co. is betting big on its future in the fast-changing automotive space. Along with its investments in Lyft, Sidecar, and its Maven startup brand, GM has announced management changes to support its next-generation vehicle technologies. Doug Parks, GM’s vice president for global product programs, is now vice president for autonomous technology and vehicle execution. Parks will oversee projects to develop new electrical and battery systems and software for autonomous and electric vehicles, the company said. There are other executives taking positions in GM’s new Autonomous and Technology Vehicle Development Team with similar backgrounds in electric vehicles and technology innovations.

There are other OEM executives who see a logical integration of electric and autonomous vehicle technologies. “The two most profound innovations in automotive since the moving production line are electrification and autonomy,” Tesla CEO Elon Musk said to Automotive News.

Tim Lipman PhD, Co-Director at the Transportation Sustainability Research Center, UC Berkeley, sees a “nexus” between autonomous and electric vehicles. Lipman spoke on a panel that I moderated last fall that was part of the Northern California Clean Technology Forum hosted by the Sacramento and East Bay Clean Cities Coalitions.

Autonomous vehicles are ideal for charging the electric vehicles most efficiently, such as during off-peak hours, Lipman said. Electric vehicles are easier to control and maintain than traditional internal combustion engine vehicles. Electric autonomous vehicles would be ideal for meeting energy efficiency and environmental targets in a fleet, he said. It’s all part of a larger trend that UC Berkeley’s  Transportation Sustainability Research Center is tracking as cities continue to grow in population; increasing traffic congestion and air pollution are driving policy changes with increased use of transportation alternatives such as carsharing, ridesharing, electric vehicles, and autonomous vehicle technologies, he said.

Nissan would agree on the nexus and integration of EV and self-driving technologies, as you can see in the Nissan Leaf photo above from the automaker’s 2014 Autonomous Drive Car test program.

Here’s a look at the latest developments in OEM strategic planning on the integration of electrified and autonomous vehicle technologies…….

  • Along with Doug Parks, GM is appointing to its new Autonomous and Technology Vehicle Development Team: Pam Fletcher, executive chief engineer of global electric vehicles, and Andrew Farah, chief engineer of global electrified vehicles. Scott Miller, current director of global C02 strategy, and Sheri Hickok, current chief engineer of GM’s Next-Generation Light Duty Pickup, will also join the team. Hickok will become executive chief engineer for “autonomous joint ventures and fleet execution,” GM said.
  • GM is investing $500 million in ridesharing company Lyft and has acquired the assets of Sidecar, the third largest ridesharing company in the U.S. after Uber and Lyft. GM President Dan Ammann last month said GM would partner with Lyft to create a network of autonomous cars for hire and a set of ridesharing services. In late January, GM also announced the launch of Maven, a carsharing service allowing users to access a Chevrolet vehicle on the new Maven mobile app for as little as $6 per hour, similar to what Zipcar offers. In the driverless car space, GM will it launch its “Super Cruise” semi-autonomous driving technology for Cadillac next year.
  • While Apple won’t comment on its strategic plans for autonomous and electric vehicles, its hiring practices indicate something is in the works. Jamie Carlson, former “Autopilot Firmware Manager” at Tesla Motors, joined Apple in August to work on a special projects team at the company. Along with Carlson, new-hire colleagues at Apple include Megan McClain, a former Volkswagen engineer with expertise in automated driving; graduate researcher Vinay Palkkode who came from Carnegie Mellon; and Paul Furgale, the former deputy director of the Autonomous Systems Lab at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. Apple seems to be considering making in an investment in an autonomous vehicle testing ground at the GoMentum Station in Concord, Calif. Earlier in 2015, news leaked out about Project Titan, the possible code name for Apple’s electric vehicle program. Apple has likely set up a lab to test out a vehicle that looks like a minivan. Several hundred employees were working on the project.
  • Google hasn’t commented on how its self-driving car research and development could tie into future EVs. Google has been putting a lot of test miles on its fleet of autonomous electric cars in use on the roads around the company’s Mountain View, Calif., headquarters.
  • As part of Tesla’s new Version 7.0 software package in the Model S, Autopilot was transmitted to cars in the U.S. in October, which was then followed by Europe and Asia. Tesla’s new Model X sport utility vehicle also offers Version 7.0 and Autopilot. Customers must pay a one-time fee of $2,500 to activate the self-driving software when they buy a car, or $3,000 to activate the feature after delivery. The software update uses cameras, radar, ultrasonic sensors, and data to steer down the highway, change lanes, and adjust speed in response to traffic. The driver can follow a lane on the highway and change lanes using the turn signal. The 7.0 software and Autopilot can deliver parallel parking that detects an open parking space and takes control if the driver asks for the car to park itself.
  • Tesla has been investing in high-resolution maps that Tesla has built in-house by tracking where its cars have driven. If cars appear to be switching out of Autopilot mode at a particular spot on the road, Musk said, Tesla will update its maps and its software. “The big differentiator here is that the whole Tesla fleet operates as a network, so when one car learns something, the whole fleet learns it,” Musk said. It is a “powerful network effect,” he said, adding that “any car company that doesn’t do this will not be able to have a good autonomous driving system.”