Self-Driving Cars Still Face A Long Road

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick promised in 2016 that his company would get rid of human drivers by 2020. Various automakers heralded a huge shift in …

Self-driving cars are the future. Probably. Just maybe not as near a future as the automotive industry – and optimistic investors – had imagined.

A few years ago, the rise of driverless cars seemed not only inevitable but imminent. Google CEO Sergey Brin once predicted that “ordinary people” would be using fully autonomous vehicles by 2017. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick promised in 2016 that his company would get rid of human drivers by 2020. Various automakers heralded a huge shift in the type of vehicles they’d be making within a handful of years. Just a few years ago, the federal Transportation Department worried that technology would outpace regulation.

But more recently, a future without drivers seems much further off. In 2018, a self-driving car owned by Uber killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona. That accident put a chill on not only Uber’s testing, but the development of other autonomous vehicles, as popular sentiment shifted toward greater wariness. Companies abruptly seemed to realize the high stakes that testing in populated areas might involve.

Popular distrust may also hinder the widespread adoption of driverless cars, even as the technology improves. Beyond worries about accidental collisions, security is a major concern. No passenger wants to be in a car when the driver is subject to hacking. AAA found that 71% of Americans surveyed were afraid to ride in a fully autonomous car. Industry experts suggest that this fear will decrease as people have more experience with these vehicles. But when and how most people will get that experience isn’t clear.

Beyond safety concerns, there are other practical considerations. As Timothy B. Lee observed for Ars Technica earlier this year, there are two phases of development for self-driving cars. The first involves making sure the vehicle obeys traffic laws, preserves the safety of passengers and pedestrians, and generally avoids obstacles. Some companies, including Waymo, have made it this far.

Yet the second stage may be equally important for widespread adoption. In stage two, vehicles will have to learn to make quick, accurate decisions in order to move as a skilled human driver might. Otherwise, the vehicle could have trouble navigating roundabouts, merging onto highways, or completing other potentially dangerous but essential elements of driving. A car that doesn’t master stage two may get you safely from point A to point B, but it would be a long and frustrating ride. As Sam Anthony, the chief technology officer of Perceptive Automata, told The Huffington Post, “The difference between a good self-driving car and a perfect self-driving car is massive.”

Creating a smooth and straightforward ride has proven more challenging than automakers initially anticipated. While driving on well-paved roads in good conditions is one thing, autonomous vehicles have had trouble with heavy rain and other challenging weather. Construction and badly maintained roads also cause problems. Self-driving cars will need to anticipate the actions of human drivers, cyclists and pedestrians, which may be hard to predict through programming. All of this means development has taken more time than companies originally projected.

Regulation is also a concern. No federal rules currently govern the testing or development of autonomous vehicles, though some states make it harder or easier for developers to operate. Carmakers also may try to influence lawmakers. Some have suggested that updating road infrastructure could mitigate some of the vehicles’ technological shortcomings. An unnamed automotive official suggested to The New York Times that Manhattan could install anti-jaywalking gates at each intersection. (I’ll let you imagine how New Yorkers are likely to take this idea.) How the interplay between government and business evolves may hinder or help the rollout of self-driving cars and trucks.

While boosters remain – Tesla CEO Elon Musk remains confident that driverless vehicles will shuttle people to their destinations by late 2020 – most industry insiders agree we’re decades away from fleets of cars that don’t need monitoring from a human driver. General Motors’ subsidiary Cruise said in 2017 that it would launch automated taxis in San Francisco by the end of 2019. This July, Cruise announced that it would not meet the deadline and did not set a new one. Waymo launched a taxi-like service in Arizona last year as promised, except that human drivers remain behind the wheel.

In light of all these setbacks, it seems reasonable to wonder: Just how far away are self-driving cars from commonplace use? What if they never arrive at all, at least to the extent developers have promised?

Self-driving cars are not an all-or-nothing proposition. Many vehicles on the road now boast “advanced driver assistance systems” that automate at least some tasks, such as adaptive cruise control or the ability to park with minimal driver input. Much like automatic transmissions and power steering, such features are likely to become an everyday part of how we drive as older cars leave the roads. Even if we don’t reach a point where there is no driver, the driver may be able to rely with increasing confidence on the car’s computing power.

SAE International, an organization that develops engineering standards in the automotive industry and others, describes vehicle automation on a scale of zero to five. At level zero, the human driver is responsible for all driving tasks. Most cars with “advanced driver assistance systems” would be around a level two, though level three automated vehicles may become common in the future. Think of the way autopilot systems today assist in most, if not all, aspects of flying a commercial jet. Level five would be a fully autonomous experience, in which the only thing a human needs to do is enter the destination. That has yet to arrive.

In some cases, full level-five autonomy may never be the goal. For example, most startups focused on long-haul trucking intend to leave urban driving to humans for the foreseeable future, even when trucks are ready to handle highways unaided. Yet for those invested in a completely autonomous future for cars, levels one through four likely aren’t good enough.

Based on indications today, I would not be surprised to see autonomous vehicles in more limited use in the near future. On a closed course under controlled conditions, they can work. For instance, Optimus Ride recently launched a shuttle service in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which will carry passengers between the office park’s entrance and its new ferry dock. (For now, this service still involves human operators as a safety precaution.) Autonomous vehicles may be useful in areas that are otherwise closed to motor vehicles – say, moving people around amusement parks, airports or college campuses.

Investors, however, have plenty of reasons to be wary of any champagne-tinted predictions that traditional, human-driven cars will vanish. Self-driving cars are unlikely to revolutionize the auto industry in the next few years. They are not going to resolve the economics of ride-hailing services like Uber in the next year or two, either. In fact, like ride-hailing – as well as food delivery services and a variety of other sectors – self-driving cars are attracting a lot of hype but haven’t yet proven a profitable and reliable part of our future.

When it comes to truly driverless cars, the future may or may not be coming, but it certainly isn’t now.

Vice President and Chief Investment Officer Paul Jacobs, of our Atlanta office, contributed several chapters to our firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55, including Chapter 12, “Retirement Plans;” Chapter 15, “Investment Approaches and Philosophy;” and Chapter 19, “A Second Act: Starting a New Venture.”

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Uber reports billions in losses. With a driverless future far away, will investors balk?

The same huge losses came for Lyft as well: Two months after the competitor went public, it reported 1.14 billion dollars in losses. Lyft’s latest earnings …

SALT LAKE CITY — Ride-sharing companies are hemorrhaging money.

Uber posted its quarterly earnings on Thursday, making headlines for a $5 billion loss and slowed growth. The bulk of the losses can be attributed by payouts related to its initial public offering, but the company still spent enormous sums on development.

The same huge losses came for Lyft as well: Two months after the competitor went public, it reported 1.14 billion dollars in losses. Lyft’s latest earnings release, however, showed growth, and its losses are slowly declining.

Investors are wary and were concerned prior to the latest earnings. Uber’s IPO was called “hugely dissapointing” by CNN Business. Whether these companies will ever become profitable has been a looming question for some time, and it depends in large part on automation, in which both companies have been investing heavily. And whether they can deliver in time to reassure investors could be the key to their survival.

The ability to regularly get into the back of a driverless car is supposed to be right around the corner. Or at least, that’s the promise implicitly made by companies like Uber and Lyft. In one SEC filing, Lyft identifies the failure to develop autonomous vehicles “in a timely manner” as a risk factor. Uber pointed to the same risk factor if they fail to “successfully commercialize autonomous vehicle technologies.”

Ride-sharing apps are also numerous. Yes, Uber and Lyft are the biggest players, but in cities like New York, one can quickly accumulate four or five apps on their phone. I once had four — Juno, Via, Uber and Lyft — and would click between them, looking for the cheapest price or promo code. As one Washington Post columnist wrote, there is “fierce competition over every single ride.” The loyalty of riders remains in question, and the nature of the platforms makes it easy to quickly choose one over the other. As consumers have repeated over and over again, they are simply looking for the cheapest, easiest option.

Patrick Semansky, Associated Press

This March 20, 2018, file photo shows the Uber app on an iPad in Baltimore. Uber is about to embark on a wild ride on Wall Street with the biggest and most hotly debated IPO in years. Uber’s shares begin trading on the New York Stock Exchange, Friday, May 10, 2019.

One bright spot for companies is a recent Pew study that showed 36% of Americans have now used a ride-sharing app, astonishing growth from 2015 when just 15% had ever used the service and many did not know that ride-sharing apps existed.

The crowded market and ease of switching from one service to another has forced Uber and Lyft to compete on price, cannibalizing their profit margins.

Faith in Uber and Lyft’s ability to become profitable does not rest on the current mode of doing business, though. A company that has been pilloried for paying drivers low wages, posts consistent losses, and in theory should have few operating costs, shouldn’t look promising. But in the new business model of the digital age, the thing a company is currently making, creating or selling is not always the thing they are pitching to investors — and in this case, driverless vehicles are the real promise.

Bring this idea up to anyone in Silicon Valley and they will point to Amazon. It started off selling books, but what it was really pitching was domination and expansion of something that didn’t really exist yet — an online marketplace that customers would visit before the physical store.

At a tech conference, Uber’s CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said, “Cars are to us what books were to Amazon. Just like Amazon was able to build this extraordinary infrastructure first on the back of books and they went into additional categories, you’re going to see the same thing coming from Uber.” The mega-valuations of profitless companies demand a kind of domination, a monopolizing of markets, to ever live up to the potential.

Richard Drew, Associated Press

FILE – This Tuesday, June 12, 2018, file photo shows the Uber app on a phone in New York. Uber on Thursday, April 18, 2019, said that it is releasing a new feature to help riders ensure they’re getting into the right vehicles. The development comes several weeks after a University of South Carolina student was killed after getting into a car she had mistaken for the Uber ride she hailed.

But what if the thing ride-sharing companies are promising can’t be delivered, or at least not fast enough to keep afloat? Elon Musk has been optimistically announcing the advent of fully autonomous vehicles almost every year — they were coming in 2018, then 2019, and now 2020 will be the year they finally make their debut.

The autonomous vehicle marketplace is also very crowded. Over 60 companies have been given permits in California to test autonomous vehicles. The latest news reports are now predicting that automated taxis won’t be available until 2025, and it will be a decade until consumers can purchase their very own driverless vehicles.

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Regulations will create additional hurdles and public perception of fatal accidents. Last year an Uber autonomous vehicle killed a woman crossing the street in Arizona. As more autonomous cars grace the roads, more accidents are inevitable — and the question looms of how much the public will tolerate.

None of these factors are exactly new, but now that ride-sharing companies are public, there is increased scrutiny. The appetite for quarter after quarter losses may be coming to an end. But if investors are patient with Uber and Lyft and place the kind of faith in them that the markets placed in Jeff Bezos more than 20 years ago, they may yet see a return.

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Uber and Lyft are actually making traffic worse in some cities

It was a big promise to build an entire business on. But for the last handful of years, both Uber and Lyft have capitalized on the premise that by …

A joint analysis led by transportation consultancy Fehr & Peers examined Uber’s and Lyft’s combined mileage in September 2018 in the metro areas of Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. New York City wasn’t studied because of its vast public transportation system.

The results (which include city centers and their surrounding suburbs) reveal that, overall, Uber and Lyft make up just 1% to 3% of vehicle miles overall in the six metro areas. However, in places like San Francisco county, Uber and Lyft account for as much as 13.4% of all vehicle miles. It’s 8% in Boston, and 7.2% in Washington, D.C. On average, between the six cities, as much as 62% of miles driven had a passenger. The rest were drivers on their way to pick up someone or just driving around between getting booked for a ride.

However, both Uber and Lyft are justifiably pointing their fingers toward the biggest cause of traffic and emissions: privately owned and commercial vehicles. Those account for 87% to 99% of total miles in the six areas studied.

Lyft’s chief policy officer, Anthony Foxx (a former U.S. secretary of transportation), says this is a good time to consider congestion pricing to ease traffic, as is being implemented in Manhattan. Foxx is pushing for a democratic approach to this. “The most effective congestion pricing model is one that applies to all vehicles on the road, including private automobiles, ridesharing, and commercial vehicles such as trucks, limousines, coach buses and taxis,” he writes. In other words, everyone needs to share the responsibility.

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Self-Parking Garages, Robovans, and More Car News This Week

Uber is trying a subscription service that combines car rides, Eats, bikes, and scooters for $25 a month. Nissan will lay off 12,500 workers, or about 9 …

Take it from us, the experts at WIRED Transportation: When you’re trying to get from A to B, navigational prowess is just as vital as power, speed, or efficiency, if not more so. And this week, we’ve got a lot of stories about folks (and machines) finding their way, whether they’re autonomous cars in parking lots, internet-slinging balloons in the stratosphere, robo-vans moving between Walmart stores, or automakers and California regulators striking a compromise on emissions and electric cars.

Speaking of electrics, we watched Ford’s prototype battery-powered Ford F-150 haul a train, saw Cruise delay its plans to launch a robo-taxi service in San Francisco, and inspected financials from Tesla showing that while deliveries are up, so are losses. It’s been a week—let’s get you caught up.

Headlines

Stories you might have missed from WIRED this week

  • Always a company looking to exceed expectations, Elon Musk’s Tesla beat Wall Street’s prognostications by setting a delivery record in the second quarter. But it also lost more money than the analysts had anticipated.
  • Startup Gatik struck a deal with Walmart to use its self-driving vans to move groceries between a pair of stores in Arkansas, offering yet another example of how autonomous driving companies are pursuing increasingly specific use cases.
  • And for good reason: This self-driving business is super hard. Just ask Cruise, which this week announced that while it plans to launch a robo-taxi service in San Francisco, it won’t make that happen this year, as it had previously predicted.
  • The Trump administration may be set on rolling back Obama-era fuel economy targets, but California’s fighting back. Under a new deal with the state’s regulators, Ford, Honda, Volkswagen, and BMW pledged to get their fleets to average around 51 miles per gallon by 2026.
  • Eager to move past the testing phase of delivery drones, UPS has asked the FAA to be the first commercial entity authorized to fly cargo without any of the current rules barring flights over crowds, at night, or beyond the operator’s line of sight.
  • Don’t trust the valet to safely park your Benz? If you’re headed to Stuttgart in the near future, you may be able to let the car find its own spot.
  • For 42 straight years, the F-150 has been the best-selling vehicle in America. So even if Ford won’t say when the battery-powered version will hit dealer lots, it’s neat to see the truck go electric. Oh, and it pulled a train around a Canadian rail yard.

Undulating Blob of the Week

Turns out that navigating a powerless balloon through the stratosphere is like using a road network where streets change directions and speed limits, or disappear altogether. That’s why Loon engineers use this “Cartographer” map, which looks at wind currents to display distance as a function of time: Dark blue shading means it won’t take long at all to get to your destination, dark red means you’re in for a longer trip.

Loon

Stat of the Week

$648 billion

How much for-hire transportation services contributed to the US GDP in 2018, according to the DOT’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics. That includes trucking, air, rail, pipelines, and warehousing, along with services like Uber and Lyft.

Required Reading

News from elsewhere on the internet

  • From The Nib, a comic breaking down why biking in American cities can be dangerous—and how to make it better.
  • When the judge overseeing Tesla’s lawsuit against a short-seller and critic asked the automaker for evidence, Tesla dropped the case.
  • Uber is trying a subscription service that combines car rides, Eats, bikes, and scooters for $25 a month.
  • Nissan will lay off 12,500 workers, or about 9 percent of its global workforce, after its first quarter profit fell 90 percent from last year.
  • The auto insurance industry isn’t sure how to price for new active and automated safety tech, since claims of safety benefits are hard to verify
  • Colorado is increasing bus service between Denver and nearby ski resorts, hoping to tempt drivers fed up with traffic on I-70
  • Hauling a 1.25 million-pound train with a single electric vehicle isn’t quite as tough as it might seem
  • Aaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!

In the Rearview

Essential stories from WIRED’s canon

Now that Loon has been its own company for a full year, take a look inside X, the “moon shot factory” trying to build the next Google.


More Great WIRED Stories

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The future of mobility: here is how automotive technology changing with software

The primary use case for blockchain is transparency, consensus, and a … By making use of distributed ledger technology (DLT), cars will be able to …

A decade ago, when people spoke about connected vehicles, they thought it was just another fad. And today, we can see connected vehicles already plying on the roads with cars having algorithms that can take real-time decisions to make driving safer.

Increasing urbanisation and the growth of mega cities is set to change the way people move around very soon. Technological innovations such as autonomy, electrification, connectivity, and sharing are forcing the auto industry to rethink the way people commute.

“The software component in cars is going to be a trillion-dollar opportunity in the next decade. Each car will have a supercomputer talking to the infrastructure and other cars on the road,” says Elmar Degenhart, CEO of Continental AG.

When this happens, the future of mobility is going to be viewed very differently. If India can leapfrog these technologies, there can certainly be a revolution in mobility. However, one thing is certain, all automotive technology – at least the software component – will be built in India for the world. According to data from Continental the software part will be a $1 trillion opportunity by 2030. Currently, it stands slightly over $250 billion.

Here are some of the technologies that will be part of the future of mobility across the world.

Continental AG, robotaxi

Continental is testing its sensors on a robotaxi, which is aimed at picking up people from a metro station and dropping them home.

Robo-Taxis

For large cities that are increasingly suffocating due to traffic congestion, robo-taxis offer an effective way of tackling the challenges of urban mobility.

Robo-taxis were introduced to help reduce traffic jams, accidents, air pollution, and to address the issue of parking spaces in cities.

According to a study by consulting firm Roland Berger, around one quarter of transportation tasks could be carried out by driverless vehicles by 2030.

After all, it is much smarter to operate less driverless vehicles on a near-continuous basis than to have countless private cars, which often sit in a parking space for long hours.

In addition, on campuses, amusement parks, and shopping malls, autonomous vehicles such as the “CUbE”, developed by German automaker Continental, could be used to reduce walking distances and to transport people.

To further advance the development of driverless mobility, Continental acquired a minority stake in the French company EasyMile SAS, a leading producer of driverless technologies and intelligent mobility solutions, in 2017. Continental is currently working on such mobility systems in the USA and Japan.

Similarly, Bosch and Daimler, which have a partnership to bring out autonomous vehicles in the next three years, have just been given a go-ahead by German authorities to test a fully autonomous parking valet technology. Both the companies are also working on robo-taxis.

Early this year, serial tech entrepreneur and Founder of Tesla Elon Musk also outlined his plans of launching robo-taxis next year. If Musk is to be believed, his company will be putting at least a million self-driving robo-taxis on the road in some parts of the US by 2020.

Blockchain

Blockchain is all about decentralised data

Blockchain-powered cars

Ethereum-based blockchain tokens are very popular with those who use crypto to trade items. The primary use case for blockchain is transparency, consensus, and a system of records. Above all, this works on decentralisation.

Now, companies such as Continental, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and Crossroad.io have built a blockchain for data sharing with car companies.

So, here’s how it works. If you are driving through a new city, and don’t have required information of a particular route, you can make use of blockchain technology to connect to the cloud service of car companies operating in the area. These companies will then pull data from their customers driving on the particular route, and provide you with the details.

Individuals or drivers, who are fine with sharing their data, will provide details such as traffic jams and location landmarks. The data will be shared with a company like Continental, which will beam the data back to the person who has requested for it.

The payment made for subscribing that data goes in the form of rewards tokens to the drivers who provide the data. The drivers can then redeem these tokens on a blockchain exchange for normal or fiat currency. 

“Sharing of vehicle data across vendors can solve some of the toughest traffic problems and improve driver experience by leveraging the power of swarm intelligence,” says Phil Davis, President, Hybrid IT, Chief Sales Officer, HPE.

“Together with Continental, we provide the key to unlock the value of this data treasure by not taking control of the data by ourselves, but by giving control to the drivers and car manufacturers,” he adds.

Apart from this, Bosch is working with an energy supplier, EnBW, on a prototype that uses blockchain technology to improve the electric car recharging process. The idea is to streamline and tailor the entire process to customers’ needs, so they can select, reserve, and pay for recharging services as they see fit.

For example, the operator can use the software to offer customers transparent pricing models, with options varying in real time, and according to the availability of charging stations.

The entire transaction – reservation and payment – will be a fully automated blockchain operation. This service can factor other customer preferences into the equation. For example, a customer who has kids and likes coffee could opt for a charging station with a playground and cafés nearby. Initial trials with this new system are underway.



A car that pays its own parking fees

To make parking less of a chore, Bosch and Siemens are jointly developing a second application, a smart parking-management system, based on blockchain. By making use of distributed ledger technology (DLT), cars will be able to communicate directly with parking facilities in their vicinity and negotiate the best terms.

As soon as the car reaches the entrance of a parking garage, it will identify itself at the entry barrier, which will then be raised without the driver having to remove a ticket from the dispenser. The driver will also be able to leave the parking garage without further ado, since the vehicle will have already communicated with the exit barrier and settled the parking fee in a virtual transaction.

At present, the prototype has been installed at Bosch’s Renningen research campus and at the Siemens campus in Munich.

Distributed structures 

Distributed structures means data is decentralised. Rather than a few platform providers storing data in their data centers, here it is spread across numerous servers.

“To build trust in digital ecosystems, we need open platforms in which users have the power to decide for themselves,” says Volkmar Denner, CEO of Bosch.

This will ultimately benefit people. If users are “captive,” a web platform provider can change its terms of use at will. By gaining independence from the big internet players, users no longer have to blindly accept such changes.

“We are building trust in internet platforms with these distributed structures. They enable many players to participate,” says Michael Bolle, board of management member and CDO/CTO, Bosch.

Distributed platforms operated by an ecosystem encompassing numerous equal partners are also better protected against external attacks.

LED lazer lights

LED Lights today can send messages by using projection technologies. Here in this photo is the Osram developed LED lamps for cars to beam messages.

LED lightsIllumination to communication

While many people regard autonomous vehicles and electric mobility as the future of automotive industry, the automotive lighting market is also fast catching up.

For instance, Continental is exploring the future of modern lighting systems with its new joint venture – Osram Continental GmbH. While Osram supplies state-of-the-art lighting technology, Continental takes care of the electronics and software

“We have created a new company that will rethink the future of automotive lighting,” says Dirk Linzmeier, CEO of Osram Continental.

The first product to emerge from the development pipeline includes the Smartrix modules, which enable glare-free high beam light and dynamic low beam light, and laser headlights with a reach of 600 meters.

Another product is a system that can project warning messages while driving on the road. For example, if there is an alert telling the driver about an uncovered drain on the road, people can avoid driving through the drain, and also avert any accident.

Commenting about the future of mobility, Elmar says: “The future is already moving from electric vehicle technology to fuel cells, and we are looking at the impact of those technologies by 2030.”

A fuel cell uses chemical reactions to produce energy rather than using metals like lithium or lead that enable current battery technologies.

At least what is real is the software component that enables the bridge between all these technologies, which is a trillion-dollar opportunity according to all automobile companies.

(Edited By Megha Reddy)


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