Autonomous Car Symposium voiced perspectives from key players in advanced vehicle technologies

Autonomous Car Symposium(Editor’s note:  Stay tuned for an upcoming white paper from Green Auto Market:  Hands off the Steering Wheel, The state of autonomous vehicle testing, regulations, and its next phase.)

A panel presentation held Saturday at Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles represented what I consider to be three of the pillars required for advanced vehicle technologies to succeed – commitment from engineering, automakers, and government policymakers and regulators. “Autonomous Car Symposium” featured Richard Mason, a senior engineer at the RAND Corp. who led the Golem Group garage team in building three test vehicles for the DARPA Grand Challenge for Autonomous Ground Vehicles. Jason Schulz, partnership manager for Toyota’s 21st Century Business Partnerships group, leads a team to research, identify, and leverage new technologies and partner companies. Bernard Soriano, deputy director at California Department of Motor Vehicles, is in charge of the department’s autonomous vehicles program.

The three panelists discussed where autonomous vehicles stand, and how these three pillars view what’s coming up on the landscape. Autonomous, driverless vehicles have been witnessing an onslaught of attention and debate in the past two months, with Google announcing that it may very well build its own driverless cars; and for the next two years will be testing its self-driving pods. A study was released this month by IEEE based on a survey of more than 200 engineers, researchers, and academicians; they believe 2030 to 2035 is a more realistic timetable for when autonomous vehicles will see the light of day. The Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International and the Transportation Research Board hosted the Automated Vehicles Symposium 2014 in San Francisco this month. Continental and Bosch were two of the conference sponsors; these major suppliers have been playing a prominent role in testing and developing autonomous vehicle technologies. Nissan added to the autonomous vehicle dialogue with a more detailed description of what the automaker will be rolling out in the next few years.

Mason has been part of seeing autonomous vehicles evolve from a student robotics project to becoming something very similar to what Google has been testing in recent years with its driverless Prius fleet. The 2003 Off-Road Robot Rally didn’t produce much; the Golum Group only made it five miles on the desert road test in its pickup truck; Carnegie Mellon University, which continues to play a leading role in testing these vehicles, had the best results at seven miles on that trip. Things got better in 2005, where the Golum team had a video camera onboard its Ram pickup and was able to practice obstacle avoidance, and reached the top speed in that year’s competition of 47 miles per hour. The truck eventually lost its memory and ran off the road. In 2007, the Golum team raced a much more capable vehicle – a converted Prius — which offered a look at the self-driving car of the future, Mason said.

Schulz gave voice to a perspective expressed by several automakers – autonomous vehicles are part of the overall role-changing identity taking place in the auto industry. For Schulz, autonomous vehicles represent a major shift for vehicles and automakers, but they’re not the only thing. His presentation discussed Toyota’s role in hybrid systems and alternative fuels, specifically the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle that Toyota is rolling out a year from now. Schulz talked about Toyota’s Advanced Active Safety Research Vehicle (AASRV) being test driven near the Toyota Research Institute in Ann Arbor, Mich. Toyota has been participating in a huge research vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) study with other automakers involving about 9,000 vehicles and organized by the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. He also mentioned the Driver Awareness Research Vehicle (DARV) introduced last year at the LA Auto Show. These studies tie into Toyota’s mission of making contributions to vehicle safety, mobile applications, and advanced technologies, Schulz said.

Soriano described the challenges that California faces overall in transportation – 32 million vehicles registered in the state and 323 billion vehicle miles driven per year. The nation has been seeing about 32,000 fatalities in vehicle collisions each year; and traffic congestion and wasted fuel consumption are factors influencing interest in autonomous vehicles. The state government has been receiving input from residents on their opinions on autonomous vehicles; the top concerns have been liability and “driver” definition – how will the driver be defined for responsibility in the event of a crash and how does the DMV determine who would be assigned with violating state vehicle codes; privacy issues – who owns the data and how is it used; and cyber security, Soriano said.

Soriano has been part of legislation taking shape and being adopted by regulatory agencies in California. He sits in on a statewide steering committee for Senate Bill 1298, which is setting the structure for California’s autonomous vehicle testing and deployment rules that will be released by the end of this year. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) participates in these meetings along with state agencies: California State Transportation Agency, Department of Insurance, California Highway Patrol, Office of Traffic Safety, California Department of Transportation, and the Department of Motor Vehicles.

NHTSA is years away from releasing federal regulations, but last year it did release guidelines with five levels for defining each type of autonomous vehicle; Level 0 is no automation; Level 1 is function- specific automation (typical of what we’re using right now in vehicles, such as cruise control); Level 2 is combined function automation; this level involves automation of at least two primary control functions operating in unison, such as adaptive cruise control in combination with lane centering. Level 3 is limited self-driving automation, which says that the vehicle can operate by itself in most situations – the driver may need to take over the car when approaching a construction zone, for example. Level 4 covers full self-driving automation. In Level 4, the vehicle is designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip. Most of California’s regulations cover Level 3 and Level 4, Soriano said.

As part of California’s SB 1298, the manufacturer testing standards were approved by the legislature in May and go into effect in September. The state has committed to passing through the second part by the end of this year covering deployment of the vehicles to owners, and rules for operating the vehicles on roads.

When a company tests an autonomous vehicle, they’re usually trying out LiDAR sensors mounted on the car’s roof, radar, cameras, and GPS. Mason said that the advanced sensors that autonomous vehicles require are currently pretty expensive. It’s not yet known how much a driverless car will cost in the future; while a recent JD Power and Associates study found that consumers are willing to pay about $3,000 more for this new technology, it’s likely to cost them more.

Bernard said that one issue being followed is how autonomous vehicles can bring mobility back to people who’ve lost use of their vehicle due to factors such as disabilities. Another advantage of driverless cars, as vividly presented during an Audi commercial, is a self-parking system. You can step out of your car and it will find a space and park itself; when you’re ready to leave, you pull out your smartphone and call the car to come and pick you up. People in the audience seemed to really like that perk.

There should have been one more chair on that stage. The fourth pillar could have been represented by an executive from a technology supplier such as Google, Continental, or Bosch. Google is playing the leading role on moving driverless cars forward, but Continental, Bosch, and other technology giants and Tier 1 suppliers have been quite active in testing projects in the US and Europe.

Robotics and autonomous vehicles raise fear factor in more jobs going away

roboticsIf you’ve spoken lately with students and 20-something Millennials, or with their parents, you may have heard about their interest in robotics for career opportunities – in engineering, management, public policy, computer sciences, and academics, among other fields. For those interested in finding out about the 10 best American universities to attend for education in artificial intelligence and robotics, check out this Business Insider article.

Career opportunities and realities are changing and will continue to do so for young people – and for older people from the Baby Boomer and GenX generations. Robotics is being introduced in several industries now, with the US Dept. of Defense (DOD) leading the way. Armed drones have been flying over Iraq lately to protect US military personnel assisting Iraqi forces from the unexpected uprising; unmanned ground vehicles continue to be tested as well. Lessons learned by the DOD eventually disseminate onto university and government research labs; there’s a growing demand for workers who can act as service technicians for robotics, along with those trained in designing and managing the next generation of robotic technologies.

Automotive executives from Nissan and a few competitors attended the Automated Vehicles Symposium last week; Nissan reiterated a bold statement – it will be the first automaker to roll out an autonomous vehicle by 2020. Daimler AG chief executive Dieter Zetsche said his company will have more to say about the next steps “in the not-too-distant future.” While it will take a few years longer than 2020 for autonomous vehicles to spread across US highways, the implications are huge for people making their living driving a car.

While speaking this spring at an economic think tank hosted by the American Enterprise Institute, Microsoft CEO Bill Gates said that within 20 years, a lot of jobs will go away and will be replaced by software automation (“bots”).  “Software substitution, whether it’s for drivers or waiters or nurses … it’s progressing. …  Technology over time will reduce demand for jobs, particularly at the lower end of skill set,” Gates said.

Auto assembly plants will see jobs go away as robotics take their place. Last year, BMW took a step in that direction with a handful of robots working side-by-side with human workers at its Spartanburg, SC, plant. For those employed as drivers – such as taxi and limo drivers, shuttle services, and commercial trucks – robotics and autonomous vehicles will mean job loss.

As for today, growth in ridesharing is pushing fear factor buttons. As Uber, Lyft, Sidecar, and other companies make ridesharing services booked on mobile devices easier and more plentiful, taxi and chauffeured transportation drivers are starting to feel the pinch. Ridesharing and carsharing are starting to change the business model for transportation companies and automakers. Intelligent transportation systems, connected cars, and autonomous vehicles are in the works. As Bill Ford, executive chairman at Ford Motor Co., says, there’s a radical shift taking place over the next 20 years: automakers will become personal-mobility companies.

The fast-changing work environment presents challenges and opportunities for everyone. Robotics is one of several technologies impacting job retention and creation, but I think there are several other factors to continue monitoring and preparing for…….

  • Next-generation lithium batteries used for electric vehicles and consumer electronics. Tesla Motors is moving forward on an ambitious lithium battery factory subsidiary, and several other major automakers are investing heavily on battery R&D.
  • Mobile devices on smartphones and tablets – people around the world are becoming more dependent on their mobile devices all the time and expect more applications to be delivered. Android Auto is a good example of major technology companies like Google partnering with automakers.
  • Ridesharing and carsharing services are in their early phases but seem to be finding a lot of users in Europe and the US, with other markets like India starting to show interest; automakers and car rental companies know this very well and are getting into the business.
  • Robotics and artificial intelligence need a trained workforce – for autonomous vehicles, factory production, testing labs, cargo container management, and many other applications. As high school and college students and workers are discovering, it does make a great deal of sense to prepare for the future and gain job skills in advanced technologies.

Will driverless cars, Google, DMV, and highway patrol officers control our mobility?

Google driverless carsDriverless, autonomous vehicles have been gaining a lot of attention recently – whether that be through Google claiming it will build its own prototype autonomous vehicles before existing automakers reach that milestone; or Daimler AG announcing it will roll out a commercial truck by 2025 that will be able to steer, brake and accelerate without a human driver behind the wheel. Then there’s Cruise Automation, a startup company that says it will roll out a $10,000 aftermarket driverless device that so far is only suited to operate on Audi A4 or S4 vehicles.

So what gives? Can we expect to see lots of driverless, autonomous vehicles on our roads within the next 10 years?

As far as state legislatures are concerned, four of them have already passed bills allowing autonomous vehicles to eventually make it to their roads – Nevada, California, Florida, and Michigan, plus the District of Columbia. It’s under consideration in 11 states – Hawaii, Washington, South Dakota, Minnesota, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, South Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana. And it’s failed in seven states – New Hampshire, Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Oregon.

It was fascinating to see Google initially test its driverless car technology on a converted Toyota Prius hybrid. Nissan rolled out its driverless test model in a Leaf electric car. analyst Michelle Krebs thinks that driverless cars long-term will be like hybrids and electric vehicles (EVs) – they won’t take over completely but will play a role in how automakers and government officials are looking at the future of transportation. “There are certain places this approach makes sense, such as heavy commuting cities where autonomous cars could run essentially like train cars without a track — mass transit. That makes brilliant sense. Or these cars could be programmed to handle most responsibilities on long, boring drives, including commutes. In those ways, they will extend the mobility of aging baby boomers, which is where the biggest market is, if you believe that Millennials really don’t want to drive,” Krebs told Forbes.

For those autonomous vehicles that do sell in the future, Krebs thinks they won’t be driverless only. They’ll be “cars you have the choice to drive or not drive. There are so many legal and insurance and regulatory issues, and none of them are being resolved.”

There are some big questions that need to be answered in the next decade for autonomous, driverless vehicles to take off:

  • If there’s a collision involving a driverless car, who will be liable? The car owner? The automaker? The state government? The insurance company? Will liability be doled out and shared by all the above?
  • Then there’s the American civil liberty tradition. Will “big brother” be breathing down our necks? How much personal privacy will citizens have in the future?

I estimate that driverless, autonomous passenger and commercial vehicles will make up a large share of sales in the next 25 years – up to 25% of new vehicles sold in the US. Here are a few market forces that could shape that trend:

  • Traffic congestion is getting worse all the time – as the “urbanization” trend goes strong and more Americans work in, and live in, cities. While mass transit and bicycling are gaining a lot of support, in the end, new vehicle sales will likely stay strong for years to come and traffic congestion will be getting worse. Driverless, autonomous vehicles seem to have the best shot at dealing with the gridlock problem. That will require an interdependent relationship between state highway officials, DMVs, highway patrols and city police departments, automakers, and technology suppliers like Google.
  • Commercial truck makers are exploring the option. Along with Daimler, Volvo Trucks has been testing out autonomous solutions. Volvo has participated in the Safe Road Trains for the Environment (SARTRE) a European Commission-funded project. It’s a tested concept where several vehicles are electronically linked together in a “road train,” with only the lead driver in active control – many times a Volvo truck driver. Big rigs could play a critical role, as they do take up a lot of space on highways and have a major impact on safety and the flow of traffic.
  • Cars are already going in that direction. You’ve probably noticed that with every new model year, automakers brag about offering the coolest, advanced technologies with the latest in connectivity, safety, fuel efficiency, and convenience. After recently test driving a driverless car, Rep. Larry Bucshon (R—Ind.) said it was “the next generation of cruise control.” EVs are typically considered to be part of the cool technology trend – especially the Tesla Model S. For some people, driverless cars will probably be a logical extension of where all of the technology seems to be inevitably headed.
  • The perks will be getting better all the time. If you ever own a driverless car, there will be several benefits gained. For one, the former-driver-now passenger could do something else besides drive the car – play video games, watch a “Breaking Bad” episode, finish up some work, read a mystery novel, or talk to their significant other over a two-way TV screen. Car commuters will become more like train passengers, feeling more relaxed and replenished when they come home. There’s also the likelihood that riding in a vehicle will become safer as more and more of them become automated and driverless. Then there’s improved fuel economy, as these automated vehicles will probably drive routes and speeds based on efficiency. Best of all, gridlock will probably recede as driverless systems place vehicles at peak performance in speeds driven, braking, lane changes, fluctuations tied to weather conditions, and other factors eliminating human error. Cars will be interconnected and can communicate with each other, making traffic smoother and safer.