• By John R. Quain

The Week in Autonomy: Is a Big AV Reset Coming?


There were plenty of autonomous car announcements over the last week or more, including releases from Waymo, Intel, and Uber. But what was most interesting about those announcements was what they omitted. Moreover, in spite of the full-speed-ahead tone of the press releases, there was a looming sense in the automotive industry that researchers were about to hit the autonomous driving reset button. And hit it hard.

Waymo, which some reports have prematurely and repeatedly denoted as running fully autonomous vehicles, still is not doing so. There are professional riders along in case of storm, although the company seems to be on the precipice of allowing cars to drive empty...but it hasn't done so yet (erroneous reports in places like the Verge notwithstanding).

However, Waymo did just receive approval from California's DOT to allow a few vehicles to run in fully autonomous mode (i.e. no human minder present) in Santa Clara county. That's a first for a state where there are literally scores of companies with approval to test autonomous vehicles--so long as a human safety driver is along for the ride. What was largely elided in Waymo's breezy blog post is the fact that the vehicles have to include remote monitoring and control.

Meanwhile, Uber began its apologia to get back into the self-driving race after its catastrophic failure in Tempe, Arizona, that resulted in the death of Elaine Herzberg. In an effort to overcome concerns that the company lacks the technical expertise and requisite knowledge to develop an autonomous vehicle, Uber has reportedly appealed to Pittsburgh to return to testing, possibly with not one but two human attendants in its test vehicles. The primary apologia came in the form of a flashy "safety report" that was more promotional ad slick than serious technical paper.

Also making announcements, Intel and its Mobileye subsidiary said they would begin testing self-driving electric vehicles in Israel next year as part of a robo taxi service--a.k.a, Mobility as a Service, a.k.a, MaaS. Volkswagen will supply the cars, Intel will supply the CPU, and Mobileye will supply the rest. The companies expect an actual commercial service won't be available until 2022.

The project will use Mobileye's AV kit, naturally. Mobileye has a major head start in the critical area of classification, but lacks one intrinsic part of the perception puzzle: Lidar. No mention of when they'd acquire that essential component, though it's been a glaring omission for quite some time and an absolute necessity from a safety perspective. An alternative approach might be to use lidar-created maps (like the GM Super Cruise approach) but one way or another Mobileye/Intel are going to have to fill the gap. (Intel did make a modest investment in Aeye a while back.)

And finally, not to be left out of the AV news, Daimler and Bosch confirmed the first California location for testing their own robo taxi: San Jose. Not exactly the most challenging test environment, but the Mercedes-Benz S-Class cars the companies plan to use should provide a pretty comfy ride. A select group of users will use a special app to hail the cars, which will have safety drivers/monitors along for the drive.

So with all these AV announcements, one might be led to believe that fully autonomous vehicles were just over the e-horizon.

But...there's been a lot of whispering among suppliers, engineers, designers, and AV startups that projections of offering autonomous cars in 2021 (or even earlier) were wildly optimistic. In Israel, long a hotbed of the technology underpinning many of these AV projects, there were many voices--in private--talking about how the automakers were going to have revise their projections with more cautious--nay, prudent--delivery dates. At the Smart Mobility Summit in Tel Aviv, which drew industry players from Seoul to Torino to Las Vegas, there was much commiseration about how the challenges of fusing the necessary technologies together were greater than what many people anticipated.

So is the big reset button about to be pressed in the AV world?

Waymo and GM may be the bellwethers here. There's been breathless news reports about how driverless taxis were about to pick people up every few weeks for more than a year, and we're still not there yet. Many see Waymo and GM as the responsible parents in this business, so keep an eye on mom and dad to see when AVs are ready for the real world.

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© 2023 by John R. Quain

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