Convoys of self-driving trucks for the military

Since 2012 Lockheed Martin has been working on an autonomous driving kit for military trucks. An early but already quite impressive version has been demonstrated in January at Fort Hood, Texas. The ‘Automous Mobility Applique System’ can be quickly fitted to most tactical vehicles. It contains sensors – including a rotating 3D LIDAR and actuators to control the various car components. At the demonstration, several autonomous trucks drove in convoy mode, negotiated obstacles and had to dynamically re-plan their route.The system seems to be capable of negotiating some traffic including pedestrians and bicyclists.

Although the demonstration was impressive, there was no word on when the technology would be available in the field. Another demonstration is scheduled for later this year. The demonstration clearly shows that military is determined to make use of this technology and that military applications may not lag far behind the civilian.


Source: Lockheed Martin

Autonomous cars: Breakthrough for electric vehicles

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Rethinking mobility

Sometimes the breakthrough for a new technology does not materialize in one of those fields which receive most attention and where everybody expects the solution. When the British needed a practical method for determining a ship’s longitude in the 18th century, they spent many decades gazing at the stars, compiling lunar tables and searching for astronomic methods for determining longitude. But the breakthrough came with an entirely different technology: an extremely precise clock! Longitude could now be determined quickly and easily by comparing the clock’s Greenwich time with local time (which can be calculated by tracking the rise of sun).

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Today, electric mobility is in a similar situation: Billions of dollars have been invested in improving the usual components for electric vehicles: Battery technology – already quite advanced – is being perfected; charging infrastructures are being deployed; production processes are optimized and many of the legal and financial obstacles have been removed. Nevertheless, a real breakthrough is not in sight. As armies of engineers work on these problems, a much smaller group works on another technology which at first glance is not related to e-mobility: They develop autonomous vehicles that can drive themselves on regular roads and don’t require human input or modifications to the road infrastructure.
Only a deeper analysis shows how important fully autonomous vehicles will be for e-mobility: This technology changes fundamental aspects of mobility and enables alternative mobility scenarios which are more compatible with electric vehicles and where the biggest disadvantage of electric vehicles – their limited range – are much less of a concern. Range matters only in the current configuration of individual mobility which is based on individually-owned cars. If mobility is provided by fleets of driverless cars, then range limitations are no longer a problem because urban trips have an average trip length of less than 10km. They are much shorter than the range limits of current electric vehicles. Thus e-mobility may not need a breakthrough in vehicle range at all. It is sufficient to find new ways for reducing the range requirements for the vehicles!

Electric vehicles become competitive

Currently self-owned or leased cars are the cornerstone of individual mobility. Only a very small (even if growing) share relies on car-sharing and rental cars. These alternative mobility solutions currently have a big disadvantage: Every customer faces the problem of getting to the next available car and where it should be dropped off at the end of the journey. Once cars are capable of driving without any human intervention, however, this problem vanishes. Anybody will be able to request an autonomous vehicle by phone or mobile app. Within minutes a car will arrive to pick up the passenger and drop him off at the destination, where the car will then be ready to service the next customers.

Thus autonomous vehicles will initially provide the conditions for a breakthrough of car-sharing systems and autonomous mobility service providers. Compared to self-owned cars, they can provide individual mobility with a comparable level of service and comfort, and – because of better utilization and fleet optimization (see further below) – at significantly lower cost. In densely populated areas autonomous cars will therefore ensure that car-sharing systems greatly increase their share of individual motorized traffic.

This establishes the conditions for the breakthrough of electric vehicles. As part of fleets of autonomous vehicles, the advantages of electric vehicles can now be brought to bear: more robust and longer lasting motors, lower drive train complexity, lower service costs and lower emissions. Their shorter range is no longer a problem because fleet operators can dispatch vehicles that precisely match the mobility demands of their customers (local vs long-distance trips, number of passengers, baggage size etc.). As the vast majority of trips are local and short-range, most trips can be serviced with electric vehicles. A smaller number of fossil fuel vehicles can be used for long-distance trips. Thus fleets are likely to consist mostly of small electric two-seaters; only a smaller part will consist of larger vehicles or rely on fossil fuels. This potential for demand-based fleet optimization is a novelty that is only possible when cars can drive themselves to the customer. In this way total costs and resource consumption related to mobility can be reduced significantly.

Of course, fleets of autonomous cars do not have to use electric vehicles. However, there are three good reasons besides those already discussed above, why electric vehicles are particularly well suited for the first fleets of autonomous vehicles:
1) The first fleets with fully autonomous vehicles will appear in niche areas where it is easiest to control risk. Their speed and range will initially be quite low. At first, they may even travel partially on their own lanes and only later will increase their capabilities. An example is the project in Milton Keynes where 100 autonomous electric vehicles will be installed between 2015 and 2017 to ferry people between train station and city center. The requirements for these vehicles with respect to range, maximum speed, number of seats etc. differ markedly from the requirements for traditional cars. Current car models therefore do not constitute a good match for the first autonomous car fleets – even if they had been adapted for fully autonomous operation. At the same time, car manufactures are probably not eager to develop specialized low-volume models for use in early autonomous car fleets.
2) Current car models of the auto industry are not suitable for fully autonomous operation – even those with advanced driver assistance systems. They must be modified for pure fly-by-wire operation. All safety-critical components and systems have to be redundant. The modifications used in current prototypes and test vehicles are not suitable for productive use. It it is not at all trivial to adapt current car models for fully autonomous operation. Therefore the auto industry needs to develop a new vehicle platform from the ground up for fully autonomous operation. This could be a complex and time-consuming effort which will take longer than many fleet operators will be prepared to wait for.
3) The design and production of a small number of fully autonomous electric vehicles for local transport as part of fully autonomous fleets is much faster and easier than the design and production of classical cars adapted to the needs of fully autonomous mobility service providers. The complexity of electric vehicles is lower; relying on electric propulsion simplifies the redundant layout of all safety critical components. As an example, an electric motor has inherent safety benefits: It can be used for braking; if the motors are integrated into the wheels they could even play a role in emergency steering.

Whereas currently the lack of a national charging infrastructure for electric vehicles is often cited as a major problem, this problem also goes away when fleets of driverless urban cars are used. Because these vehicles are only used in local traffic in a specific region, it is sufficient to deploy the charging infrastructure for exactly that region and the actual number of electric vehicles and actual mobility demand. The infrastructure can then grow in synch with the fleet; it is no longer necessary to build up large infrastructures long before the first electric vehicles are placed into operation.

Economic pressures accelerate the transformation

Some innovations trigger intensive economic and societal changes which can advance with astonishing speed if they significantly change the cost structure and efficiency of processes. The power loom and the railroads are only two examples that highlight the potential dynamics.

Market forces work especially well, when they are brought to bear on inefficiently used capital-intensive resources. Such inefficiencies are very pronounced in transportation: Cars are among the largest single investments of private households; but their average utilization rarely exceed 6% – an incredible waste of capital. Therefore the potential for savings is enormous. The average US households spends more than 16% of its total expenses on car-based transportation.

A study of the Earth Sciences Institute at Columbia University has analyzed the savings potentials associated with fleets of self-driving cars in detail. They performed a simulation study based on the mobility patterns of Ann Arbor, a medium size city in Michigan which had about 285,000 inhabitants and 200,000 cars in 2009. 120,000 of these cars were used primarily for local traffic. Each day, 528,000 local trips occur in Ann Arbor with an average trip length of 9.3km and about 1.4 passengers per vehicle. The authors found that a fleet of 18,000 autonomous vehicles would be sufficient to satisfy the local mobility demand in Ann Arbor and ensure that no passenger would have to wait more than 60 seconds for their car – even during rush hours. This translates into a reduction in the number of cars by almost a factor of 7! Whereas a privately owned car with a range of 16,000km per year leads to costs of 0.46$/km, the fleet of driverless cars would reduce the costs per passenger-km to 0.25$. The study also examined the use of light electric vehicles instead of mid-size sedans which are typical used for car rentals. With electric vehicles, the costs would fall even further to 0,09$ per passenger-km. This is a cost reduction by a factor of five!

Although the study has not included all potential savings (not included were savings related to parking, congestion, aggregation of mobility demand, freed-up time) it clearly shows that this innovation has very high savings potential and can lead to a large increase in spending power for the individual. Even if not all consumers act rationally at all times, these calculations imply that a large number of households will choose autonomous mobility services instead of buying their own car in the future (we subsume the special case where a household purchases their own autonomous car but then rents it out to others as another variation of the fleet model). Only a smaller number of households will value the prestige of their own car or their love towards a car high enough to continue owning a car.

Another factor which will accelerate the growth of fully autonomous mobility providers is that even households which own a car will become customers of autonomous mobility services because they need their services in some situations: when a member of the family needs to be picked up somewhere, when multiple members of the household need to drive to different locations but the household does not have as many cars, when flying to other cities, etc. More and more people will then find that they can get around quite well without their own car. The number of situations in life where owning a car is almost a necessity will dwindle. Today there are many people for whom their own car is the only realistic way for getting to work. Fleets of driverless cars will greatly reduce such cases and therefore reduced the perceived need to purchase a car.

Paths towards new mobility

The transformation of mobility caused by fully autonomous cars will require some time. Despite the large advances of the last 30 years and the impressive prototypes which have been demonstrated by car manufactures (Daimler, Audi, Nissan), research institutes, Google and others, significant hurdles remain until fully autonomous cars will be able to drive on all roads without human intervention.

Currently there are two different visions of the path towards full autonomy. The conventional vision  assumes that autonomous technology will gradually evolve towards more and more advanced driver assistance systems until finally reaching full autonomy. It uses the typical diffusion process of automotive innovations (such as airbag and anti-lock braking) as a reference and assumes that the technology will slowly trickle down from the premium models to the middle-class models until it becomes standard for all new cars. However, there are significant hurdles – including regulatory problems – on this path. Several generations of models with ever more advanced driver assistance systems, with complete fly-by-wire and redundant layout of all safety-critical systems will be needed until models with full autonomy will appear on the market. If we follow this line of reasoning, then it may be well after 2030 that such cars are available in larger numbers and a decade or two more until fully autonomous technology is available in most cars. In addition, electric vehicles do not feature on this path, because it is based on personally-owned vehicles where range limitations of electric vehicles will continue to be a major problem.

However, there is a second path toward full autonomy which does not adhere to the standard car industry model of technology diffusion. Instead of trying to gradually integrate the technology into consumer cars, this path seeks to capitalize on the inherent advantages of full autonomy and targets those niches where full autonomy has the largest impact and can be implemented with a minimum of risk. We have seen above that full autonomy can greatly reduce mobility costs by providing mobility as a service using fleets of self-driving cars. A natural path towards full autonomy therefore starts with small, short range and most likely electric vehicles that provide local mobility at low speeds and in increasingly less controlled environments. The challenge for the pioneers is to find those settings which are best suited for limited, low speed operations of autonomous vehicles and which provide the best environment for their growth.

There is no shortage in candidates. Several systems with very low autonomy are already in operation: The ‘UltraPods’ at Heathrow Airport are electric autonomous four-seaters which ferry passengers between Terminal 5 and a parking lot. They run on separate lanes and use transponder chips embedded every few meters in the lanes for determining their position accurately. They also rely on internal lane maps for navigation. A similar approach has been adopted in the Netherlands where 6 autonomous electric buses carry people along a stretch of about 2km. A next step for such systems is to leave the confines of separate lanes at least in some cases and merge with regular traffic. Such an approach is planned for Milton Keynes, a British city, where 100 electric autonomous vehicles will be installed between 2015 and 2017 to transport people between the train station and the city center at low speed. Initially these vehicles will run on dedicated lanes (taken from current sidewalks); by 2017 they will expand their range and will be able to share lanes with pedestrians (there are currently no plans to put these cars onto the streets). This project has the advantage of minimizing risk while at the same time advancing the envelope of autonomous vehicles: algorithms will be perfected; approaches for the operational management of distributed fleets of self-driving vehicles will be developed; customer experience, preferences and service valuation will be understood better, a vehicular platform and technology architecture will be developed.

There are many areas where autonomous electric vehicles with even this limited capability are useful and can become economically viable very quickly. Similar approaches can be implemented in many cities where electric cars or buses may be installed for specific routes. Initially some infrastructure measures (such as separate lanes, fences which keep pedestrians away from the street, external sensors at critical locations) may be adopted; as experience and intelligence of the vehicle increases, these infrastructure measures can become obsolete.

Another variant of this approach would be if car makers or Google decided to implement their autonomous technology in a fleet of electric city vehicles that would operate on carefully selected routes in a suitable city. There are many ways in which this could unfold but there is no shortage of possible approaches for starting on a growth path for such fleets of autonomous electric vehicles. As the Milton Keynes Project shows, this is possible even with limited budgets.

Another advantage of this second path is a legal issue: A fleet of self-driving cars can be regarded as an intelligent transport system where the vehicles run on exactly specified paths. For such systems the legal limitations of the Vienna Convention on traffic which requires that every vehicle must be controlled by a driver at all times do not apply. This eliminates key legal problems which probably exist in countries which have ratified the convention (not ratified by: US, UK, Spain, China, Singapore and others). Even if the question has not been finally clarified, it is clear that countries have a considerable margin of interpretation which allows the implementation of fleets of driverless vehicles already today.

Overall, this alternative path to autonomous technology based on fleets of electric vehicles used for niche applications in controlled settings for urban local mobility is much more realistic and faster to implement than the vision of a universal fully autonomous car which can be used on all roads by anybody.


We are at the start of a development which could very quickly become an avalanche. Two years ago autonomous vehicles were widely regarded as utopian; by now it is clear that it is just a question of a few years until these vehicles appear on our roads. Right now, the view is still predominant that autonomous technology will do little to change the nature of cars and the nature of mobility. But a closer look reveals that the technology will lead to fundamental transformation from individually owned cars to mobility as a service and from mostly fossil fuels to electric vehicles. These fundamental changes hold many opportunities. Now is the time to take them…

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United Kingdom prepares to play leading role in driverless car revolution

The country which started the industrial revolution and the first revolution in mobility is determined not to sit on the sidelines as the next mobility revolution unfolds. The UK government wants to accelerate the adoption of autonomous vehicle technology and ensure that the UK plays a prominent role by establishing a UK city or region as a test and demonstration site for self-driving cars.

To start this process, it convened about 100 people in London in Mid-February to discuss the criteria for site selection. The city/region will be funded with 10 Mio Pounds. The very efficiently managed workshop rapidly generated insights about success criteria for such sites.

There seemed to be much consensus that fully autonomous vehicles hold the most promise; they will provide completely new opportunities in mobility services, applications and business models. There was some disagreement as to the state of autonomous technology. While some argued that the technology is basically there, others voiced concerns that significant challenges still remain. Disagreement was also visible with respect to standardization and interoperability. While some argued that the vehicles should be standardized and easily transferred to new locations, others argued that imposing such requirements would be too early and would accomplish little.

A representative from Google stressed the importance of speed in the implementation – a comment that reflected a sense of urgency which most participants seemed to share: There is only a short window of opportunity to gain a leadership position in this rapidly moving field.

Within Europe, the United Kingdom has some unique advantages for the early implementation of self-driving cars: It is not bound by the stipulations of the Vienna Convention on Traffic that every car must be controlled by a driver at all times. Unlike most European Countries (except Spain) it has never ratified the convention. In addition, its car industry is not as dominant as in many other countries (the UK is on position 17 of the 40 nations listed by the Organization of Motorvehicle Manufacturers (OICA) with respect to the number of employees in the car industry as percentage of the whole workforce; In contrast, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Germany and Spain are among the top five. This also means that the UK has less to fear from the disruption of the auto industry which fully autonomous vehicles might cause. At the same time, the UK has an excellent industry and research base, top universities including Prof. Newmanns Oxford Mobile Robotics Group, and already has a head start with more traditional electric driverless pods operating at Heathrow.

Given that another project is already under way to implement 100 self-driving pods in Milton-Keynes between 2015 and 2017(funded at much higher rates), the UK might indeed achieve a critical mass to become a key player in this autonomous vehicle revolution.

RAND report on autonomous vehicles

As policy makers are waking up to the potential and issues related autonomous vehicle technology, the US think tank RAND Corporation has released a comprehensive report which analyzes driverless car technology from a policy perspective. The report looks at costs and benefits, the state of the technology, current legislation, liability and concludes with recommendations for policy makers.


The report wavers between more incremental, functional perspectives (where autonomous technology is seen as an incremental improvement of current cars with little change to patterns of car use and ownership) and transformational perspectives (transformation of mobility, fully autonomous vehicles, fleets of driverless taxis). On one hand, the authors point out that the technology may enable developing countries to  “leapfrog autonomous vehicle technology” and “skip some aspects of conventional, human-driver centered travel infrastructure”. They point out that much urban space may be freed up because much fewer parking space is needed when fleets of self-driving cars provide mobility services (which actually may increase the density of urban centers) and argue that the declining costs of mobility may increase the number of vehicles miles traveled.

On the other hand, they warn that the adoption of self-driving car technology could be hindered because the individual car owner does not profit sufficiently from the reduction in external costs of the technology (an argument that seems quite far-fetched) and fail to point out the obvious incompatibility of new regulations that would impose the “Irrebuttable presumption of driver control of vehicle” with fully autonomous mobility services. While the report warns about job losses in the transportation industry, they neither mention the risks for the auto industry nor their potential lack of incentives for deploying fully autonomous vehicles.

In the same vein, the sections on liability are mostly focused on the various alternatives of assigning liability to either the driver or the automotive manufacturer. The car’s owner and entity responsible for maintenance is not seen as another alternative. Neither are the additional concerns addressed that may arise when autonomous fleets are operated by mobility service providers.

The study is an excellent read and brings together many important aspects of autonomous vehicles. For those interested in the legal issues it also contains a good discussion of the theories of liability which are relevant in the United States. As their final conclusion, the authors recommend that policy makers let the technology evolve and abstain from premature regulation.

The race for leadership in autonomous cars is on: Volvo to deploy 100 self-driving cars by 2017

2013 has been a year with a lot of buzz around self-driving cars. While Google has been mostly silent about their progress, many other players have demonstrated prototypes of  autonomous cars (including Mercedes, Nissan) and announced intentions to bring more and more autonomous features to the market.

Now Volvo Cars has announced a project to deploy 100 highly autonomous cars in the Swedish city of Gothenburg by 2017. The cars will drive without the need for human supervision on selected roads in Gothenburg (including motorways, regular surface streets etc.). In autonomous mode their speed will be limited to a maximum of 70km/h. The cars will not yet be able to drive fully autonously; they may have to return control to the driver in certain areas or traffic situations (however the car will be able to handle all short-term traffic situations without help from a driver). The cars will use 360 degree sensors including cameras, Lidar and radar. More information about the project is available in a video by Volvo.

The project is very significant because of its scope, short timeline until implementation and because it involves key partners such as the City of Gothenburg and the Swedish government (Swedish Transport Administration and Swedish Transport Agency) who may have to remove any remaining legal road blocks.

With this project the race has begun to establish autonomous vehicle technology in real-live urban settings. Much as we have predicted, the cars’ autonomous operation will be limited to a very specific region: Only selected roads in withing Gothenburg which  are carefully mapped. The cars will rely on the mobile communications to receive map updates as needed. Thus Volvo will have to build an operations center which supports the autonomous operation on a day-to-day basis and issues updates to the cars for changes, construction zones etc.

Volvo Cars has reported losses in the first half of 2013 of about 90 million USD on revenues of almost 9 billion USD; with the global economic recovery this may have improved in the second half of 2013. Nevertheless, as one of the smaller car makers,  leadership in the autonomous space may be a good strategy for survival.

It is not clear, however, whether Volvo realizes that much of the growth in this technology will come from fleets of self-driving cars operating in limited areas. If Volvo really wants to profit from the growth opportunities in this area, they will have to re-think their model structure and introduce smaller, probably even electric cars aimed at short-range fleet operations. Being owned by Geely, a Chinese automotive company, Volvo could be in an ideal position to introduce the new paradigm of autonomous mobility to China (which would greatly benefit from fleets of short-range autonomous electric vehicles for urban, pollution-free mobility).

The project shows that autonomous technology has entered a new phase where real projects are being implemented which require the cooperation of car makers, technology providers, cities and governments. The British project in Milton Keynes is another example as well as the project to rethink urban mobility in Singapore (where the French company Induct are involved with their Navia autonomous shuttle as well as MIT).

Sources: Lindholmen Science Park, Volvo

Nissan tests autonomous Leaf on Japanese highway

Underscoring their intention to develop vehicles which are capable of full autonomy, Nissan has shown one of their autonomous Leaf prototypes on a public Japanese highway to the press. The auto-pilot system not only kept lane and distance; it also was also able to switch lanes, overtake other cars and merge into traffic at on-ramps. Although the highway segment was short and no details were provided on the quality of the lane markings (or localization algorithms) and merging capabilities, this event certainly shows that Nissan is committed to its vision of fully autonomous driving and aims to be perceived as an innovation leader. The event does not yet show, however, that it prototypes are more advanced than similar prototypes by other auto makers (e.g. Daimler, BMW etc.).

Sources: Nissan, Japan-News

Driverless car white paper by KPMG: Why own a car?

When KPMG released their first white paper on self-driving cars in late 2012, we were surprised at how little thought they had given to the disruptive potential of fleets of driverless vehicles.They have corrected this now and a major headline and probably the guiding question of the report is: “Mobility on Demand: Why own a car?

This year’s report begins with the realization that the “momentum around self-driving vehicles is astonishing”. The authors acknowledge that the “industry is moving even faster than we predicted”. They look at the variety and number of autonomy-related news events during the preceding months. They conclude that “the technology is evolving at a rapid pace”. While the industry is definitely gaining momentum, the statement may be a bit on the optimistic side with respect to the technology: If we sort through all the announcements and public demonstrations of some cars driving in some state of quite limited autonomy, we can not see that many significant advances have occurred in the past 12 months.

They then look at the history of the first automotive revolution and proceed to report insights from focus groups. This is useful but yields few real surprises (even auto enthusiasts are willing to use self-driving cars; tech brands such as Google are a little more trusted even than premium auto brands with respect to the technology).

The most interesting section deals with a potential decrease in car ownership: “If half of all American families who currently own two or more cars were to give up one of their vehicles, how would that affect the automotive industry”. They point out that the ratio between fleet and retail sales could “change dramatically”. Mobility costs could decrease for the consumer and big data and dynamic pricing will be a key capability for autonomous mobility providers. They also hint at adverse consequences for mass transit systems.

It is great that the major consulting companies are beginning to realize how disruptive this technology will be (and it is nice that they are coming around to a view that we already had published in early 2010 (Autonomous cars – the next revolution looms).

If the momentum continues to increase – which is very likely – next year’s report will be very different. Then they may be at their best and provide a much more detailed look at business models, competitive space, impact, and strategic positioning for automotive companies and other industries. We will be looking forward to the next report!

French, Japanese prime ministers jump on the driverless bandwagon

World politicians are increasingly taking autonomous vehicles seriously. They start to recognize the importance of autonomous technology and the potential to profit from this innovation. French president Francois Hollande just presented a road map to revive French industry by promoting driverless cars and other technologies. Although it does not appear that France is prepared to fund driverless car development directly, they want to help bring about collaborations fostering this innovation. At this point, this may be what is needed most. There are many funds for this kind research available within the EU and venture capitalists are also discovering the high revenue potential in the area of self-driving cars. It is more important to clarify the legal ground rules for testing and operating driverless cars and making sure that these rules allow for fully autonomous operation. Because only fully autonomous operation will unlock the transformative potential of driverless technology and with it the investments needed to bring it about.

France and the other European countries should make clear that the they have the right and the intention to allow the operation of fully autonomous vehicles in their own territory as soon as they are certified to be extremely safe and as long as their operation is technically limited to a clearly specified region within the nation territory. Such a declaration would remove the doubts about the Vienna Convention standing in the way of automotive progress. Removing such legal uncertainties would open the floodgates for investors seeking to gain the pole position in this transformative technology.

France has good potential to accelerate this technology. The nation is open to novel technogies, has a great research base, has leading sensor manufacturers, and – even if the auto makers have invested much effort into autonomous technologies yet – has some well-positioned companies in the space. An example is the company Induct. It has positioned itself on one of the paths towards fully autonomous technology which is most likely to succeed economically: They don’t try to to build the perfect consumer car which can perform autonomously everywhere at every speed; they use autonomous technology to solve the last-mile transportation problem in  a limited and well known area and they initially focus on low-velocity operations which greatly reduces risk and therefore makes commercial success more likely. What they need are testing grounds, i.e. communities, airports, campus grounds where the vehicles can operate and be perfected.They have had problems finding testing grounds in Europe and have now found a more welcoming climate in Singapore – which is probably not what the Frence president had in mind…

Nevertheless, France should not go this path alone. It should at least partner with the other European countries to ensure that Europe remains at the forefront of this technology.

In Japan, prime minister Abe toured the streets around the parliament in Tokyo in three driverless cars (by Nissan, Toyota and Honda) in advance of the upcoming Tokyo Motor Show. Abe has made clear that he wants to advance “auto-pilot” technology as part of this economic policy.Japan has a long tradition of cooperation between government and industry to bring new technologies forward and is also a world leader in robotic technology – a key area that will both profit and play a crucial role in advancing driverless technology.

Overall, it is clear that autonomous technologies are starting to appear on the radar screen of world leaders. There are still too many misconceptions about this technology and the way it will come about. The views are still very auto-industry centric, focused on consumer cars, and fallacious ideas such as the ‘auto-pilot’ analogy still cloud their judgment. But behind all of this, world leaders are beginning to realize that a major innovation is in the making.




Will Britain be first to deploy fleets of autonomous cars?

In another sign that the race for leadership in autonomous car technology is heating up British newspapers (1,2,3) report that UK’s Automotive Council is investing 77 million Euros to deploy a fleet of 100 driverless vehicles in Milton Keynes by 2017. The vehicles will provide taxi services between downtown and the railway station. The vehicles will be fully electric, can carry up to two persons plus baggage and have a maximum speed of 19 km/h. They will be equipped with sensors and software for autonomous navigation. Details have not been finalized but it appears that the project plans to gradually increase the vehicle’s range and autonomy over time. When the first cars will be placed in service in 2015, they will operate on the sidewalk on dedicated lanes. As the project progresses, the vehicles’ range may be extended to include other areas; however, the vehicles will be limited to sidewalks where they will mix with pedestrian traffic or have their own lanes.

The Automotive Council is funded by the British Government and both the Secretary of Business and the Minister of State for Universities strongly support the project. Partners involved in the project are Cambridge University and ARUP, an engineering firm that also oversaw the development of the Heathrow Autonomous PRT Airport Shuttle. British firms already have begun exporting the autonomous PRT technology to other countries and the government hopes that this technology initiative may result in a leading position for the United Kingdom in the upcoming wave of autonomous mobility.

The Milton Keynes project has many advantages: The low speed and limited range allows gaining experience with fleets of mobile taxis while minimizing risks. Running on sidewalks rather than on city streets also reduces potential legal issues. By the time the project reaches its full scale in 2017, it should not be hard to apply many of their learnings to faster moving electric vehicles that can operate on regular urban streets at speeds of up to 50 km/h. The slow speed will also help to secure confidence and trust by the customers. The project will likely have positive effects on pollution by reducing the number trips driven with conventional cars, reduce accidents, increase the adoption of electric vehicles and reduce the costs for local transportation. Thus this project may pave the way for subsequent deployment of autonomous mobility services across the UK and the world.

Whether the Milton Keynes autonomous vehicle fleet will be the first autonomous vehicle fleet world wide which is not limited to separate tracks remains to be seen. There are strong contenders in the United States where Google is likely to introduce similar services (though on city streets) in some locations by 2017, in Singapore where Induct is experimenting with last mile driverless shuttles and probably also Zoox, a new service that will be unwrapped at the upcoming LA Auto Show.

We also expect key automotive manufacturers to announce such initiatives in the next two years. Daimler is particularly well placed for launching autonomous mobility services. In addition, we expect China to make an autonomous mobility services strategy a top priority within the next two years.

The race for the top position in the coming wave of driverless mobility services is still open. But one conclusion should be obvious: The fast path towards fully autonomous vehicles is not based on perfecting driver assistance systems for consumer cars but rather by deploying regionally focused fleets of special-purpose autonomous (and mostly electric) vehicles for urban mobility.

Addition (2013-11-10): A related Automotive Council presentation


Supervising autonomous cars on autopilot: A hazardous idea

As autonomous vehicle technology matures, legislators in several US states, countries and the United Na­tions are debating changes to the legal framework. Unfortunately one of the core ideas of these legal efforts is untenable and has the potential to cripple the technology’s progress. We show that the idea that drivers should supervise au­tonomous vehicles is based on false premises and will greatly limit and delay adoption. Given the enormous loss of life in traffic (more than one million persons per year world wide) and the safety potential of the tech­nology, any delay will incur large human costs.
Read the full paper (pdf).

Invalid assumptions about advanced driver assistance systems nearing full autonomy

  • The average human driver is capable of supervising such systems
  • Humans need to supervise such systems
  • A plane’s auto pilot is a useful analogy for such systems
  • Driver assistance systems will gradually evolve into fully autonomous systems

Supervising auto­no­mous cars is neither necessary nor possible

The car industry is innovating rapidly with driver assistance systems. Hav­ing started with park-assist, lane-de­parture warning, etc., the latest sys­tems now include emergency braking and even limited autonomous driving in stop-and-go traffic or on the high­way (new Daimler S-Class).

As the systems become more capa­ble, the situations will greatly in­crease where driving decisions are clearly attributable to a car’s software and not directly to the driver. This raises difficult questions of responsi­bility and liability in the case of acci­dents. From a legal perspective, the easiest solution is to keep the driver in the loop by positing a relationship between the driver and the car where the car executes the driver’s orders and the driver makes sure that the car only drives autonomously in situa­tions which it is capable of handling. The driver thus becomes the supervi­sor who is responsible for the actions of the car’s software to which he dele­gates the task of driving.

Unfortunately this legal solution can not accommodate advanced driver assistance systems which perform the driving tasks for longer periods in ur­ban, country- and highway traffic. We will call these systems auto-drive systems to distinguish them from the current, simpler driver assistance sys­tems which are typically used for narrow tasks and short times.

The legal model rests on the follow­ing two invalid assumptions:

1) An average human driver is ca­pable of supervising an auto drive-system

All ergonomic research clearly shows that the human brain is not good at routine supervision tasks. If a car drives autonomously for many miles without incident, a normal human will no longer pay attention. Period! No legal rule can change this fact. The human brain was not built for supervision tasks. In addition the su­pervision of a car traveling at high speed or in urban settings is very dif­ferent from supervising a plane which is on auto-pilot (see below).

If the developers of the auto-drive system build and test their car on the assumption that a human actively monitors the car’s behavior at all times because situations may arise that the car can not handle alone, then accidents will happen because some of the drivers won’t be able to react fast enough when such situa­tions occur.

Even if a human could remain alert during the whole drive, the problem remains how the user can distinguish which situations a car is able to handle and which situations it can not handle. How much knowledge will a driver need to have about the car’s capabilities? Once auto-drive systems evolve beyond the current very limited highway and stop-and-go scenarios, and are capable to drive in rain and urban settings, it will become very difficult for the manufacturer to enumerate and concisely describe the situations the car can or can not handle. It will become impossible for the average driver to memorize and effectively distinguish these situations.

2) Humans need to supervise cars operating in auto-drive mode

We saw in the last section that humans can not be relied upon to correct mistakes of a car while driv­ing. But humans might still be needed to ensure that the car does not attempt to drive autonomously in situ­ations that it can not handle well.

However, the car is equipped with a wide array of sensors and continu­ously as­sesses its environment. If it’s autono­mous capability has limita­tions, it must be able to detect such situations automatically. Therefore there is no need to burden the driver with the task of deter­mining whether the car is fit for the current situation.

Instead, the car needs to inform the driver when it encounters such a situa­tion and then requests to transfer control back to the driver.

Therefore any non-trivial driver as­sistance system must be able to in­form the driver when it enters situa­tions it can not handle well. There is no need to require that the casual driver be more knowledgeable than the system about its capabilities.

Auto-pilot: the wrong analogy

The most frequently used analogy for a driver-assistance system is the auto-pilot in a plane. Mentally as­signing the status of a pilot to the car’s driver who then watches over the auto-drive system may have ap­peal. But it overlooks the fundamen­tal differences between both con­texts: A car driving autonomously differs very much from a plane on auto-pilot. The nature of the tasks and the required reasoning capabili­ties differ considerably:

a) Physics of motion: A plane moves in 3-dimensional space trough a gas. Its exact movement is hard to formal­ize and predict and depends on many factors that can not be measured eas­ily (local air currents, water droplets, ice on the wings). A trained pilot may have an intuitive understanding of the movement that is beyond the ca­pabilities of the software. In contrast, a car moves in 2-dimensional space; its movement is well understood, easy to handle mathematically and predict, even in difficult weather (provided speeds are adequate to the weather).

b) Event horizon. Situations that re­quire split-second reactions are very rare while flying; they occur fre­quently while driving a car. Thus the hand-off and return of control be­tween human and machine is much more manageable in flight than in a car. There are many situations which an auto-drive system must be able to handle in full autonomy because the time is not there to hand off control to the human.

c) Training. The supervision task is the primary job function of a pilot, requires extensive, continual training and has many regulations to ensure alertness. This does not apply and can not realistically be applied to the average driver.

Therefore the relationship between pilot and auto-pilot can not be used as a model for the relationship be­tween driver and driver-assistance system.

Driver assistance systems can not gradu­ally evolve into auto-drive systems

Much of the discussion on the progress of autonomous vehicle tech­nology assumes that driver assistance systems will gradually evolve to auto-drive systems which are capable of driving on all types of roads in all kinds of driving situations. Initially, auto-drive will be available only for a few limited scenarios such as high­way driving in good weather. There­after more and more capable auto-drive systems will appear until the systems are good enough to drive ev­erywhere in all situations.

Unfortunately, this evolution is not likely. Cars which drive au­to­no­mously can not return control to a driver immediately, when they en­counter a difficult situation. They must be capable of handling any situa­tion for a considerable time until the driver switches his attention to the driving task and assesses the situa­tion. These cars can not limit themselves to driving in good weather or light rain only – they must be able to handle sudden heavy rain for as long as the driver needs to re­turn to the driving task which for safety reasons must be more than just a few seconds. At realistic speeds these cars may travel a considerable distance in this time. If the car can safely handle this delay, it must proba­bly be able to travel long dis­tances in heavy rain, too.

The same issue applies to traffic situa­tions: While highways may look like an ideal, well structured and rela­tively easy environment for driv­ing, many complex situations can arise there at short notice which a car on auto-pilot must recognize and deal with correctly. This includes many low-probability events which never­theless arise from time to time, such as people walking or riding their bi­cycle on highways. Driving in urban settings is much more complex and therefore a gradual path of auto-drive evolution is even more unlikely in such settings. Thus there maybe some low-hanging fruit for the developers of auto-drive applications (limited highway-driving); but almost all the rest of the fruit is hanging very far up the tree! Systems that are capable of driving in urban/countryside traffic can not start with limited capabilities. From the first day, they must be able to handle a very wide variety of situations that can occur in such settings.

Regulations that harm

We have already shown that the re­quirement of supervised driving is neither necessary nor can it be ful­filled for advanced driver assistance systems. But one could argue that the requirement does little harm. This is not the case. Wherever this rule is adopted, innovation will be curtailed. The safer and more convenient fea­tures of autonomous vehicles will only be available to the affluent and it will take a long time until most of the cars on the road are equipped with such technology. This means many more lives lost in traffic acci­dents, much less access to individual mobility for large groups of our popu­lation without driver’s license (such the elderly and the disabled), more waste of energy, resources, space for mobility.

Any country that adopts such rules will curtail innovation in car-sharing and new forms of urban inter-modal and electric mobility that become possible when autonomous vehicles mature that can drive without passen­gers.

It is obvious today that legislation that requires drivers to supervise ad­vanced driver assistance systems will not stand the test of time.

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Changes 2013-09-26: Updated title and part of the text