Netherlands first to operate a self-driving shuttle in public traffic?

The competition for low-speed self-driving vehicles in public traffic is heating up. Now the executive council of Dutch ministers has given the green light for running two driverless shuttles in the Dutch city of Wageningen starting in December 2015. The electric shuttles will carry up to 8 persons from a train station to the university on a stretch of approximately 6km on public roads with a maximum speed of 50km/h. Although these will be tests, the shuttles will operate autonomously without safety drivers on board. The shuttles’ operations will be monitored remotely. Before the shuttles be placed in service both chambers of the Dutch parliament need to amend Dutch traffic law. If everything goes according to plan, the world’s first fully autonomous shuttles without backup driver on board could make history in the Netherlands in December!

© Ligier Group

Image: EZ-10 Autonomous Shuttle of Ligier Group, Easymile

Sources: de Gelderlander, carrepublic.nl

Accident rates of self-driving cars: A critique of the Sivak/Schoettle study

To what degree are self-driving cars likely to reduce accidents and traffic deaths? This is a very important but very hard question which has implications for testing, insurance, regulations and governments considering to accelerate or delay the introduction of autonomous cars. Now two researchers, Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle, of the Transportation Research Institute at the University of Michigan have examined this problem in a short study titled “Road safety with self-driving vehicles: General limitations and road sharing with conventional vehicles and arrived at four conclusions which – when read carefully – provide little insight into the problem but when read casually seem to raise doubts about the expectation that self-driving cars will be significantly safer than human drivers.

As an example the abstract summarizes their second conclusion as follows: “It is not a foregone conclusion that a self-driving vehicle would ever perform more safely than an experienced, middle-aged driver”.

Who could argue against this statement? Of course, this is not a foregone conclusion. This is a hard problem and a substantial question. Neither would it be a a foregone conclusion that a self-driving vehicle would ever perform more safely than an experienced, young driver (or even an unexperienced young driver). But many readers will interpret this conclusion that the authors – after having analyzed the issue – have found substantial problems that raise doubts as to whether autonomous cars could ever perform better than experienced, middle-aged drivers. But the full text of the report contains just one sentence which further examines this problem:

“To the extent that not all predictive knowledge gained through experience could exhaustively be programmed into a computer (or even quantified), it is not clear a priory (italics by the original authors) whether computational speed, constant vigilance, and lack of distractability of self-driving vehicles would trump the predictive experience of middle-aged drivers”. (Page 4)

Nobody can argue with this statement. It would be a good introduction to a chapter that looks at this problem in more detail, provides some framework, examines the different aspects etc. etc. But this does not materialize.

If we read the study carefully, then we find a pattern that valid questions are being raised, a small number of the aspects relating to these questions are outlined, and then the questions are rephrased into conclusions which themselves are questions. This is unfortunate because the topic is extremely important. More than a million people die in traffic accidents every year. If – twenty years from now – we might look back from a situation where traffic accidents have fallen by more than a factor of five, then we will be able to state with certainty how many lives could have been saved if self-driving cars would have been introduced a few years earlier. We might find that tens of thousands of people have lost their lives because governments and regulators did not realize the risk of delaying a highly beneficial technology and business and innovators were reluctant to advance the technology because of a climate of mistrust and skepticism with respect to the technology. Of course, from the perspective of today this is not a foregone conclusion but we need to make an effort to understand the risks and likely accident patterns of autonomous vehicles much better.

There are lives at stake both if we are too optimistic and too pessimistic over the potential of this technology. But the problem is not symmetric: If we are too pessimistic with respect to the potential of this technology, then we can easily find ourselves in a situation in the future where we find in hindsight that thousands of lives have been lost because of this pessimism and the resulting delay of the introduction. On the other hand, if we are overly optimistic with regard to the technology, and accelerate innovation in this area, it is unlikely that thousands of lives will be lost because the cars do not perform as safely as expected. We can be confident that certification bodies will do their work and uncover problems before they can cause thousands of deaths and regulators will most surely step in immediately when these cars do not perform as expected. At the current stage therefore, pessimism about the technology’s potential may be much more deadly than optimism (which should not be confounded with being blind about the risks).

We should work together urgently to formulate a theory of human traffic accidents and self-driving car accidents which can help us shed light on the issue and understand and organize the many different aspects of this problem. This is hard but it can be done. Please contact me at info.2011 ( at ) inventivio ( dot ) com if you are already working on this topic, if you know of a suitable approach for covering this problem or if you are interested in working together on this topic. I will post one approach on how this could be achieved next week.

Changes:
2015-01-23: Added link to the full text of the study.

 

Global technical regulations for autonomous vehicles: Informal working group established

As regulators grapple with autonomous technology, conflicts between country-specific laws could impede the adoption of this technology. The United Nations has a forum (“WP29“) which aims to avoid such problems by harmonizing vehicle regulations. Many aspects of technical regulations for wheeled vehicles are discussed in a broad range of (informal) working groups. Because of the rapid progress of autonomous technology, the informal working group on Intelligent Transport Systems has recently been renamed and refocused as informal working group on ITS/Automated Driving.

The participants are now laying the ground work for future regulations. They have discussed various approaches to frame levels of autonomy and seem to be leaning toward SAE’s 6 levels of automated driving. Unfortunately, this framework is not very useful because most of the interest lies in just 2 of the six levels, because it can be misinterpreted as conveying a linear progression of technology from level to level and because it is based on a limited, somewhat mechanistic perspective but fails to see the full complexity of the software-based self-driving vehicle and the complexity of the context in which it operates, which it interacts with and constantly learns about.

Fortunately, the group decided against addressing highly automated first and fully automated driving only beginning in 2016 (see annotated working group document). Both topics will now be considered somewhat in parallel, although the group still leans more toward highly automated driving. One of their future discussion items will be usage scenarios for highly automated driving. Maybe they will also consider some scenarios for fully automated driving and then begin to understand the extent to which mobility and with it the role of passenger vehicles will change.
An excellent source for information about this process is GlobalAutoReqs.com, which maintains an up-to date list of cross-referenced documents related WP9.

 

First fully autonomous Audi expected by 2017

Several news media have reported that Stefan Moser, Audi Head of Product and Technology Communications, has announced that the next generation Audi A8 (expected by 2017) will be able to drive with full autonomy. Mr. Moser emphasized that Audi wants to be first to bring a self-driving car to market. He explained that the car will be equipped with cameras and LIDAR, that the car will drive much safer than humans could, and that their system will be based on a redundant hardware architecture where all computing will be performed by at least two independent processors. He also cautioned that legal hurdles remain for fully autonomous driving which could delay the availability of these features.

This announcement shows that car makers increasingly want to be seen as innovation leaders in the autonomous driving space. Audi has a mixed record in this area. They have have been very active in the field of driving dynamics – i.e. racing a self-driving car up Pikes Peak or around the Hockenheim race track. But the sensing and route planning algorithms of these prototypes are still quite primitive – they rely mostly on differential GPS supplemented with custom-built 3D maps for navigation. Audi has made great progress in autonomous racing on empty tracks  but driving in a dynamic, changing environment with other vehicles, pedestrians, etc. is a different ball game. It does not help that Volkswagen’s CEO Martin Winterkorn remains quite sceptical about fully autonomous technology (Audi is a subsidiary of Volkswagen). On the other hand, Audi has established itself as a technology-leader with respect to the computing platform for driver-assistance systems via its partnership with NVIDIA.

We hope that Mr. Moser’s statements are an indication of a change of heart within Volkswagen and that they will aggressively tackle the challenges of autonomous urban and highway driving. This requires an extensive program of computer-based learning and optimization and needs millions of kilometers of test-driving with autonomous car prototypes on regular roads.

Source: Motoring.com.au, CarAdvice

Five guiding principles for autonomous vehicle policy

As self-driving car technology matures, politicians and regulators find themselves called to action. But the technology is a moving target and views about the technology’s path and impact vary widely. So how should policy makers approach the subject? Here are five guiding principles proposed by Marc Scribner,  a transportation and telecommunications policy specialist and research fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Scribner only discussed the principles briefly at a recent presentation at the Cato Institute. In the following I supplement each of his five bullet points with my interpretation:

1. Recognize and promote the huge potential benefits of self-driving cars

Policy makers need to familiarize themselves with the potential benefits of self-driving cars. First, they need to get the concepts right and clearly distinguish self-driving cars (which can drive without human supervision, even empty, and don’t need additional infrastructure) from other technologies such as driver assistance systems and connected cars. Connected cars and driver assistance systems are certainly also interesting topics but their benefits pale in comparison to the benefits of cars that drive themselves. Besides greatly reducing accidents, self-driving cars also bring individual motorized mobility to those who do not have a driver’s license – including people with disabilities and the elderly. They reduce energy consumption, simplify the introduction of alternative fuels and reduce the load on the road infrastructure.
Policy makers need to recognize that self-driving cars can solve or greatly reduce many longstanding problems. This is not a technology where a wait-and-see attitude is warranted. Politicians need to actively promote this technology. Of course, this does not mean that the technology’s risk should be ignored.

2. Reject the precautionary principle

Safety is a key concern and a key benefit of self-driving cars. There is good reason to expect mature self-driving cars to drive much safer than humans. They are equipped with 360 degree sensors, including cameras, radar and Lidar, are always alert, never tired, don’t drink and adopt a defensive, risk-minimizing driving strategy. But letting the first such cars drive by themselves on public streets is a difficult decision: what if anything goes wrong?
The application of the precautionary principle avoids this situation by requiring the developer to prove that the car is harmless. Unfortunately, proving that a self-driving car is safe is a hard problem and strict application of the principle could significantly delay the introduction of self-driving vehicles.
This weakness of the precautionary principle is well-known: There is the risk that erring on the side of caution when certifying self-driving cars prolongs the current carnage on our  on our roads. Unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury to delay a well-functioning self-driving car for a few more years to be extra-sure that everything is perfect when 33,000 people die in traffic accidents per year in the US alone and more than 1 million per year worldwide.
As much as it is not acceptable to let first prototypes roam the streets unsupervised it is not acceptable to delay and delay just to be on the safe side. A middle ground must be found. This is not an easy task for policy makers but one on which lives depend.

3. Don’t presume to know how the technology and law will evolve

Will autonomous vehicle technology gradually evolve from driver assistance systems? Will they first appear on the highway or in low-speed local settings? What new business models will emerge and what role will machines play? Will the US be the first to legalize fully autonomous vehicles or does the Vienna Convention on road traffic really prevent many European Countries from adopting self-driving vehicles? There are so many paths that this technology can take, so many changes in many different areas of business and society, so many proponents and possibly opponents that it is hard to be right about the path of technology and – consequently – of law. It is very dangerous to assume that the technology will evolve in one way, then regulate for this situation and subsequently find that the technology evolves very differently.

4. Let the innovators innovate

This section was originally entitled ‘minimize legislative and regulatory intervention’ and included the goal to give the innovators the space to innovate. But here I differ with Scribner: Unfortunately, transportation law is so much based on the concept of vehicles driven by humans that many laws do need to be changed. Current traffic laws contain so many elements that inhibit progress for this new and safer technology. Autonomous vehicles change the concept of what a car is and the laws need to be updated accordingly. Otherwise innovators will find it hard to make progress. This is a task that should be started immediately – before fully autonomous vehicles are ready for public roads.

5. Preserve technology neutrality

Laws and regulations should be technologically neutral. As much possible, they should avoid favoring a specific technical approach.

Autonomous vehicle roadmap: 2015-2030

Two and a half years ago I wrote a note on the various views about the paths for adopting self-driving vehicles. Since then, more and more signs point towards my ‘avalanche’ model, where the adoption of self-driving cars becomes a self-sustaining, accelerating process fueled by expectations of a fundamental transformation of the auto industry and major opportunities for profit.

As a thought exercise, I have sketched a hypothetical timeline which shows how this self-accelerating global innovation process could unfold. The purpose of the timeline is to show how autonomous vehicles could come into widespread use rather quickly and what kind of market and political forces could be involved. This is an extreme of many possible futures for self-driving cars:

2015 Google launches first short-range fully autonomous vehicle service in California at NASA Ames (not on public roads) and possibly in Mountain View (small scale pilot, limited to Google employees).

2015 The first auto makers (Daimler, Honda, Nissan?) announce major strategic initiatives and major investments to counter Googles’ threat and rapidly bring vehicles capable of full autonomy (Level 4) to the market.

2015 Car2Go (Daimler’s shared mobility service) announces a roadmap for autonomy in their car fleet.

2015 Automotive industry recognizes the implications of fully autonomous vehicles (transformation of mobility, significantly lowered worldwide demand). Analysts pound auto makers on their Level-4 autonomous vehicle strategy. Share prices begin a long decline.

2016 Google announces that their short range, limited-speed fully autonomous vehicle fleet will be built by Ford, Magna or others.

2016 China launches a major program to develop and deploy shared autonomous vehicles for local mobility. It recognizes that it can reduce infrastructure expenditure, jump-start their autonomous vehicle industry, reduce the ecological footprint of mobility etc.

2016 Google expands their short range autonomous vehicle service pilot to another US city that sees little rain and no snow, e.g. Las Vegas, NV or Sun City, AZ and starts their first overseas fleet.

2016 Price for semiconductor lasers used in LIDAR sensors falls below USD 150; this reduces the hardware/computing power costs for autonomous vehicles with 3D Lidars to below 10,000 USD.

2016 Transformative potential and benefits of autonomous vehicle technology are recognized widely. There is a bitter debate about the destruction of jobs.

2017 Several European countries have now adjusted their laws to allow the operation of fully autonomous vehicles on a national scale (not in international traffic).

2017 Autonomous long haul highway trucks start testing in the US, Europe or Japan.

2017 Rental car companies launch their own autonomous mobility inititiative.

2017 An international body for regulating autonomous vehicles is being formed in cooperation between the US, Europe and Japan.

2017 Google vehicles are now capable of driving in snow on pre-mapped routes.

2017 Automotive suppliers (Continental, Bosch, Valeo, or others) announce their own autonomous vehicles or special-purpose autonomous machines.

2017 Major road infrastructure projects are downsized because autonomous and connected vehicle technology have reduced the expectations on future transportation demands.

2017 Google moves their autonomous vehicle operations into a subsidiary which then merges with Uber and starts to roll out local autonomous vehicle mobility services in many more US cities.

2017 Singapore deploys the first autonomous bus for regular service. This is widely seen as a milestone for public transport and sends many transit corporations scrambling to update their strategies.

2017 The first countries mandate specific driving behavior for self-driving cars in certain driving situations.

2018 Car2Go starts to add autonomous vehicles to their fleet.

2018 The Google subsidiary/Uber merger rolls out autonomous vehicles internationally.

2018 Heavy investment into autonomous vehicle fleets and services based on autonomous vehicles. An almost unlimited amount of capital flows into startups and schemes. Countries compete trying to gain an advantage in the emerging new industries.

2018 Experience with autonomous vehicles shows that they are indeed much safer than the average human driver. People feel safe and comfortable in fully autonomous vehicles and there is no longer any question of user acceptance. No phenomenon similar to the ‘fear of flying’ can be found among users of self-driving cars.

2019 The Vienna Convention and European Laws are updated to allow the operation of fully autonomous vehicles.

2019 Autonomous vehicles now operate in over 50 cities worldwide.

2019 Rapid growth for autonomous trucks on specific routes. In many countries, truck drivers protest but this can only delay their adoption slightly.

2019 The first high-end consumer cars capable of fully autonomous driving on a large part of the national road network become available.

2020 The first countries introduce laws that prohibit bullying of autonomous vehicles (e.g. jumping in front of it to make it stop).

2020 Bleak outlook for automobile companies. Volume is down, consumers prepare for the transitioning to fully autonomous vehicles (which are not yet widely available for the consumer) or increasingly use/expect to use shared autonomous vehicle services. The fight for survival has begun: The auto industry has its “Kodak moment”.

2022 Prices for used cars decline. Too many people switch to shared autonomous vehicle schemes. Many others sell their old vehicles prematurely because they want to switch to the much safer fully autonomous models where they don’t need to drive if they don’t want to.

2022 The cost for autonomous vehicle hardware (sensors and computing power) has come down to 1500 USD.

2022 Mass transit companies increasingly rely on autonomous vehicles for transport. Transitioning the current workforce to a transit system based on autonomous vehicles is a major organizational and political challenge.

2022 Insurance rates favor operating cars in fully autonomous mode and prompt many people to stop driving on their own.

2023 Small autonomous buses are increasingly used for medium- and long distance trips. Trains have a hard time to compete on short to medium distances with autonomous buses.

2023 Most companies require that business trips with rental cars must occur in fully autonomous mode (for safety and productivity reasons).

2025 Fleets of autonomous vehicles now operate in most cities of developed nations.

2025 Automotive companies shut down more and more plants. Major automotive countries including Germany, Sweden and Japan desperately try to prop up their OEMs.

2030 Car ownership has declined dramatically. Only 20% of the US population still own a car (200 cars for 1000 people, today: 439 cars for 1000 people).  90% of all trips now happen in fully autonomous mode. Traffic accidents and fatalities have declined dramatically.

Passenger cars in 2040: New Shell & Prognos study fails to consider the impact of autonomous vehicles

shell-prognos-study-cover
Since 1958 Shell has been publishing scenario analyses of the German passenger vehicle market. Looking 25 years into the future until 2040, Shell and Prognos have just released a detailed analysis of the evolution of the stock of passenger cars, travel patterns and fuel consumption for this time frame. Although they look at an alternative scenario with an accelerated switch to zero emission vehicles, they conclude that “no revolution” is likely to occur until 2040. The only revolution they consider are engine-related changes: in neither scenario will electric or other alternative engine types overtake the internal combustion engine.

Unfortunately, their analysis completely overlooks the emergence of autonomous vehicles. This is more than an unfortunate oversight, because even a cursory analysis should show that fully autonomous vehicles could greatly change travel patterns: Significant parts of the population that currently don’t have access to individual motorized mobility could considerably increase the number of miles traveled. Autonomous mobility services could reduce car ownership and the stock of cars and could accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles for local trips.

How can this happen to a Shell – a company that has pioneered scenario analysis and has always emphasized that – rather than extrapolating the current situation into the future – scenario analysis aims to detect and think about alternative futures? How can their analysis miss a potential game changer for the auto industry?

For more than a year the media have bombarded the public with news about autonomous cars. There can be no doubt that the technology has made enormous progress in the last 10 years and continues to make progress at a rapid pace. No professional who looks at long-term socio-economic trends related to mobility can ignore the potential implications of autonomous vehicles any longer. There is no excuse! Of course, there is room for scepticism about the speed at which the technology will mature. But there is no room for scepticism about the speed at which self-driving cars will be adopted once they are mature (a little careful scenario analysis which looks at business models and transformative aspects of fully autonomous vehicles will quickly yield this insight…).

EU wraps up first autonomous bus demonstration in Italy with mixed results

The European CityMobil2 project aims to demonstrate automated road transport systems in Europe, develop guidelines to design and implemented such systems and propose a legal framework for certifying such systems.

One of their key activities is to demonstrate autonomous buses operating in various European cities. From July until today (September 4) two autonomous electric buses supplied by French company Robosoft carried passengers on a 1.3km pedestrian stretch next ta a beach near Oristano in southern Italy. The small-scale demonstration operated on 38 days and transported 1600 persons in 3000 trips.

Each bus was overseen by an experienced bus driver at all times; for legal and insurance reasons all passengers had to register as ‘testers’ before boarding. Participation and acceptance – also on part of the professional bus drivers recruited for the demo (who could have been worried that the buses were an early step towards replacing them) – were very positive.

Valuable lessons were learned during the demo. Not everything worked as expected. For safety purposes, the car’s maximum speed was reduced from the planned 15 to 20km/h to 12km/h. This was due to the large number of pedestrians which were on the road at peak times and technical issues that had to do with sensor range.

The autonomous operation was also limited because of problems with GPS reception. Localization was uniquely based on GPS – which is not a very practical approach for autonomous vehicles (fortunately the next demonstrators will use additional localization mechanisms). Before the demonstrator started, trees had been cut back to ensure good GPS reception but nevertheless during todays live demonstration in a webinar GPS reception was spotty and the driver had to manually override the vehicle.

Another critical problem has hampered the project in the last few days: The sensors started to report non-existing obstacles. This causes the bus to stop immediately. Because of this problem,  the bus had to be driven manually for the live demonstration. Surprisingly the team did not have an explanation for this problem. Robosoft is epxected to analyze the problem to determine the cause. But it is hard to understand that such a critical issue is neither analyzed nor fixed when it arises.

We applaud the hard work that has been put into these demonstrators. But the demonstrator also shows that Europe needs to become much more serious in its efforts to develop autonomous vehicles if  it does not want to get completely outdistanced by the American competition.

Sources: CityMobil2 webinar on 2014-09-04, CityMobil2

Sony enters the market for automotive imaging sensors

Increasing demand for driver assistance systems and the need for better sensors has prompted Sony to enter the market for automotive imaging sensors. Beginning in 2015, Sony will make a new sensor available that performs much better in low-light situations. Even in moonlight the sensor can produce color images, the company claims. Sony, which is a leading supplier of image sensors but so far has not entered the automotive imaging market hopes to grab significant market share from the leading automotive imaging sensor suppliers such as US-based Omnivision and ON Semiconductor (formerly Aptina).

Better sensors are crucial for the success of fully autonomous vehicles. Advanced image sensors could reduce the dependence of autonomous vehicles on costly 3D Lidar systems. Better image sensors could reduce the number of Lasers within the rotating LIDAR systems. Google’s current LIDAR sensors currently contains 64 lasers. However, it is not likely that fully autonomous vehicles operating in urban contexts will be able to operate without any LIDAR sensors within the next few years.

Sony’s entry into this market shows the potential of this market and may increase the incentives for innovative start-up companies to developing even more advanced sensors (e.g. ASCar, Inc: Flash Lidar, LeddarTech: LED flash sensor, Quanergy: 3D Lidar).

Source: Nikkei Asian Review

Singapore to start autonomous vehicle testing on public roads in 2015

Singapore clearly realizes the potential of autonomous vehicles for revolutionizing road transport. They already have several projects in place – including autonomous golf carts and a Navia shuttle. Now they have set up an oversight committee on Autonomous Road Transport which will support guidance on the research and implementation of self-driving cars. Besides government officials the board includes representatives from MIT, Nissan, Toyota and Continental.

Singapore wants to understand, shape and apply the technology to improve the road infrastructure. It envisions a greener future where a much smaller pool of cars provides urban mobility. In a first step, Singapore will allow testing driverless vehicles on select public roads of its one-north business district starting January of 2015. Of course, stringent safety measures must be in place. Another application of the technology for testing could be driverless buses that operate on fixed routes.
Singapore is the first city that systematically works towards a future with driverless cars. It recognizes that it needs to incorporate driverless technology into its long-term infrastructure plans already today. In addition, becoming a pioneer of this technology could lead to important competitive advantages for this city-state in the future.

Sources: Channel Asia 1,2