Navigant Research Blog

HD Maps Might Help Teslas Stop Running into Fire Trucks

— May 24, 2018

Recently, a Tesla in Utah ran into the back of a stationary fire truck at high speed. This is the second such incident this year and the National Transportation Safety Board is already investigating the earlier incident. Incidents involving Teslas get news coverage because of the strident safety claims made by Elon Musk for his company’s AutoPilot driver assist system, but such accidents can happen with many vehicle brands. Relying on a single sensor for active safety control is often inadequate, but high definition (HD) maps may actually turn out to be part of the solution.

Teslas, and many millions of other vehicles, are equipped with forward-looking radar sensors that are used for adaptive cruise control (ACC). The radar is used to detect a vehicle moving ahead while ACC is active and measures the gap to that vehicle. If the lead vehicle slows down, the ACC vehicle will automatically slow to maintain a safe gap.

Forward-Looking Sensors Not Seeing Everything

You might think that if ACC detects a stopped vehicle it would automatically slow to a stop, but as the two recent crashes indicate, this isn’t always true. When ACC is used at highway speed, the assumption is that the other vehicles on the road will also be moving. To prevent false positives that would cause the brakes to erroneously engage, these systems are designed to ignore static objects like road signs, light poles, etc.

When another static vehicle that was outside of the radar range comes within view of the sensor while moving at highway speeds (as both vehicles in these crashes were), it is not assumed to be a vehicle and thus it is ignored. Some vehicles also include a combination of automatic emergency braking and/or forward collision warning safety systems to prevent crashes, but these systems are not optimized for identifying stationary vehicles in the roadway when the vehicles are traveling at highway speeds. Refinements in the coordination between these systems will continue.

How Does Mapping Fit into This?

Today, increasingly detailed maps are being used not just for routing but also as inputs to hybrid propulsion systems and long-range sensors in partially automated vehicles from GM and Mercedes-Benz. In the coming years, HD maps with detailed locations of static objects will be used for precision localization. If a vehicle has HD maps with the locations of fixed roadside objects, it may be possible to fuse this with the real-time radar data to better understand which objects can safely be ignored. The addition of image data from the camera used for lane keeping assist and it should be possible to recognize legitimately stopped vehicles and respond accordingly.

Companies such as San Francisco startup Mapper and incumbent map providers like HERE and TomTom have begun building HD maps. Mapper has developed a low cost, multi-camera-based data collection system that can be installed in vehicles used for ride-hailing providers or in other fleets. By the end of 2018, up to 2 million vehicles from Volkswagen, BMW, and Nissan are expected to be on the road globally with Mobileye’s latest EyeQ4 image processor. These vehicles will also be collecting data that feeds into Mobileye’s Road Experience Management system and then into maps from providers including HERE.

The sooner we start augmenting existing driver assist systems with new data sources such as HD maps or fusion of other sensors in the vehicle, the sooner object classification should improve to help prevent more crashes. The Tesla crashes are getting the attention, but these are problems that afflict virtually every manufacturer and the technology needs to be improved in order to save more lives.

 

Lack of Automated Vehicle Test Standards Is an Oversight

— May 3, 2018

In a capitalist economy, companies have a fiduciary responsibility to maximize the returns for their shareholders. That can often be at odds with the general public good. Ideally, political and regulatory leaders can find ways to strike a balance between the two that helps the economy grow and allows the populace to be safe. When it comes to the automated vehicle industry, in the past few years those leaders have abdicated their responsibilities.

Vehicles today are safer than they have ever been. While we have seen an uptick in traffic fatalities in the past couple of years, the overall trend has been downward for nearly half a century. In large part, that is due to leaders having the courage to impose safety and emissions regulations since the early 1970s. Automakers complained vociferously every step of the way, but in the end, they have largely complied. We are now safer while automakers remain very profitable.

Regulations created some speed bumps, but the world did not come to an end. In virtually every business sector, companies faced with new rules whine about it, but ultimately, they adapt.

From a societal good perspective, 37,000 deaths on the nation’s roads every year is not acceptable. On the other hand, when considered against the 3.2 trillion miles we travel annually, that’s about 1.1 death for every 100 million miles. Over the long haul, a shift away from human drivers toward automated mobility will almost certainly slash those numbers dramatically. However, engineers still have a lot of development to do to prove that the technology we have available is better than us flawed humans.

We Need Real World Testing

The vast majority of the testing will probably be done in ever more sophisticated simulation environments. But we also need real world testing, and it seems reasonable to begin with the same tests we apply to humans that want to drive. Before a teenager can get their first driver’s license, they have to take a vision test to demonstrate that they can see and recognize pedestrians, signs, and other objects in the driving environment. They also have to demonstrate a basic knowledge of rules of the road.

In the US, the federal government is responsible for motor vehicle safety standards like occupant crash protection. The states are responsible for licensing and registration of drivers and vehicles.

Human test drivers have to pass those aforementioned evaluations. So too should the virtual drivers that many hope will someday replace us. The death of a pedestrian struck by an automated Uber test vehicle demonstrates the failure of the laissez-faire approach taken by Arizona and many other states to automated vehicle testing.

We Also Need Standards

SAE International has for decades provided a platform for industrywide standards development. The oft-quoted (and misquoted) automation levels are the product of an SAE standards committee. Now would be a good time for SAE to develop standards for testing that a sensor system can detect a pedestrian or cyclist at a minimum distance in various lighting and weather conditions. With those standards in hand, every state should require that any company wishing to test automated driving systems on public roads must demonstrate that they can pass those tests and respond appropriately when other road users are detected.

The standards should be technology agnostic, but would demonstrate the most basic functionality, just as a human must do. We will undoubtedly have more fatal crashes along the way to some hoped-for automated utopia, but requiring automated cars to pass a driving test is a minimum today.

 

Ford Takes the Exit Ramp from the Car Business

— May 1, 2018

In many respects, the company that Henry Ford built more than a century ago moved America from the cart to the car (this October will mark the 110th anniversary of the Model T). Today, Ford is undergoing another transformation as the transportation market continues to morph. During its 1Q 2018 financial results, Ford confirmed that its North American vehicle lineup will include only two cars from 2020, the iconic Mustang and the new Focus Active—and even the Focus is morphing into a crossover-style vehicle.

More than 90% of Ford sales in the next decade will be pickup trucks, utilities, and commercial vehicles. Despite the change in the shape of the average Ford vehicle, the company is committed to improving energy efficiency in addition to operational efficiency. In part, that means adding electrified propulsion options to just about every vehicle it builds—from the Mustang to the F-150 and every new SUV.

Until now, Ford has just taken token stabs at the battery EV (BEV) market with vehicles like the defunct Transit Connect Electric and slow-selling Focus Electric. Even its hybrid systems, which are second in sales only behind Toyota, are only available on three nameplates: the soon to be discontinued C-Max and the midsize Fusion and Lincoln MKZ sedans.

Changing with the Times

However, that’s all about to change. At the New York International Auto Show in March, Lincoln revealed a concept version of its upcoming Aviator SUV with a plug-in hybrid drivetrain. That vehicle is expected to share its hardware with the next generation of one of Ford’s best-selling vehicles, the Explorer. The upcoming Bronco, Escape, and other models will also be available as hybrids.

In addition, Ford is committing to BEVs with a new dedicated platform rather than just conversions like the current Focus. This will enable much improved packaging and performance and a better cost basis. Starting with a performance crossover BEV in 2020 to be built in the Mexican plant that currently builds the Fiesta, Ford plans to launch 15 more BEVs globally in 3 years. While six of the BEVs will be available in North America, many of rest will likely be optimized for the Asian market, where Ford has formed partnerships with Zotye in China and Mahindra Group in India. Some of them may even be cars.

These vehicles will likely represent the bulk of Ford’s business for many years to come. But Ford is also working to build its mobility service business into something that is commercially viable and profitable as soon as possible.

Surviving Today’s Crises

The first three generations of Fords to run their eponymous company, Henry, Edsel, and Henry II, surely wouldn’t recognize this new enterprise as the one they built up over more than 7 decades. But during their tenures, Ford also faced several existential crises and survived—albeit without quite the radical product changes today’s business is facing.

It seems that almost everyone running a car company today is cursed to “live in interesting times.” Today’s company leaders, including the founder’s great grandson Bill Ford and CEO Jim Hackett, will have their work cut out for them to rebuild Ford for a new generation and move travelers from the car to whatever comes next.

However, there is precedent for a company to make similarly shocking moves while transforming into more of a services company. IBM exited the PC business in 2004 that it helped to found to focus on supercomputers, software, and services. And that paid off: within a few years, the company was generating even higher revenue and profits.

 

Technology Misuse Endangering Automated Driving

— April 24, 2018

If we’ve learned anything from the era of reality television and user-generated online video, it’s that a surprising number of people will risk great harm by misusing themselves or technology to get some online attention. Whether it’s blowing up a microwave, eating laundry detergent pods, or misusing driver assist features on a car, too many are willing to abandon common sense in search of the dopamine hit that comes with seeing the number of views ratchet higher. I shake my head in bewilderment when I hear of someone swallowing a detergent pod, but at least they are not putting others in harm’s way.

Vehicle Travel Should Be Serious

More concerning is seeing videos of people using today’s vehicle partial automation systems, like Tesla AutoPilot, beyond the scope of its capabilities or trying to figure out how to trick it into functioning as a more highly automated system. I have no issues with hardware hacking of stationary devices, or vehicle systems not related to driving. Repurposing hardware you have purchased to provide added functionality can be fun, educational, and allows you to extract more value from it.

But modifying or tricking a vehicle’s guidance system puts innocent bystanders at risk, with potentially disastrous consequences. People who override driver assistance systems or pay little attention to the vehicle’s operation could negatively affect the adoption of automated vehicles.

Consumers Shouldn’t Overestimate Vehicle Autopilot

Tesla AutoPilot and similar systems from General Motors, Volvo, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, and others are not automated driving systems. Except for GM’s SuperCruise, none of these systems are reliably able to hold a vehicle in lane to the degree of hands-off functionality. All of the driving systems, including GM’s, require the driver to remain engaged with eyes on the road and ready to take over.

Overconfident Users Are Misusing Existing Automated Capabilities

While Tesla CEO Elon Musk often talks about software updates that will give AutoPilot full self-driving capability, that day has not arrived and may never be here with the current generation of hardware. Despite the well-known flaws and limitations of AutoPilot, Tesla owners continue to ignore warnings from the system and the company, using the system in ways or in places where it should be disabled. One owner that has posted dozens of videos to YouTube recently tried to demonstrate that stuffing oranges between the steering wheel rim and spokes could fool the system into thinking the driver’s hands were on the wheel. Had this been done on a closed track, it might have been an interesting stunt. On a public road, with other vehicles around, this was downright reckless.

An Apple engineer recently died when his Tesla was on AutoPilot mode and ran into a highway barrier in California. While the system clearly failed to hold the vehicle in the lane, this driver had previously complained about the car exhibiting the same bad behavior to Tesla service. Since the accident, several other Tesla owners have replicated the situation while recording video with a hand-held phone, risking further injuries.

A pedestrian was killed by an Uber autonomous test vehicle in another instance of a driver not paying attention as instructed and pushing the technology beyond its limits. Automakers need to continue clarifying the vast differences between the driver assist technologies of today and the driver not needed technologies of tomorrow.

Holding out Hope for Progress

A number of studies have already shown that a majority of people don’t trust automated driving systems. Automation has the potential to provide enormous societal benefits by saving lives and damage to property. However, if the actions of those looking for views erode public trust in the technology even as it improves, those benefits may remain off in the horizon.

 

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