Navigant Research Blog

Autonomous Vehicles Drive Themselves toward Reality

Dave Alexander — March 19, 2014

Australian startup Zoox made a splash at the LA Auto Show in December by hosting a stand at the Connected Car Expo to promote its ideas about autonomous vehicles.  Zoox’s view is that the best way to introduce fully autonomous driving is to start with a clean sheet of paper and develop a new type of transport from scratch, rather than incrementally changing existing vehicles.  The initial concept currently under development is a taxicab that uses a chassis made of four identical quadrants.  Each quadrant will have a wheel with its own electric motor, and all four wheels can steer.

The passenger compartment will have no steering wheel or pedal controls and will utilize a carriage layout, with passengers facing each other.  The design is being optimized for rapid prototype manufacturing techniques rather than mass production.  Zoox is targeting taxi fleets as its first customers, because the business model shows that the biggest savings come from eliminating the drivers’ wages.  The vehicles will be designed for low-speed travel on city streets.

Experience Not Required

At the Autonomous Driving conference in Berlin hosted by we.CONECT, the Zoox team actively sought feedback from the other participants.  They are in the first year of a 7-year product development plan, so there is no vehicle to sit in at present, but the overall concept is well thought out and some detail work has begun.  I am sure that the Zoox developers will be tracking progress of the Navia, a robotic driverless shuttle, and Tesla has shown what can be accomplished in the automotive industry without decades of experience.

One recurring theme in Berlin was how to develop an automated driving system that can return control to the driver safely when necessary, particularly when road conditions change beyond what the developers anticipated.  While driver assistance functions are steadily getting more sophisticated, there are huge advances to be made before people can safely be removed completely from the driving process.  Today’s incremental improvement process involves automating the control systems that have been developed over the last century for humans to use.  This seems to be the fundamental challenge that Zoox has identified, and it wants to approach the solution from the other direction.

Maps from the Cloud

In addition to the intriguing Zoox concept, the presentations at the Berlin conference were of high quality and networking opportunities were abundant.  Here are some of the highlights that I noted that gave me some fresh perspectives on the current state of autonomous driving technology:

  • Professor Emilio Frazzoli of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology pointed out that the biggest potential benefit from autonomous driving will be carsharing, far exceeding improved road safety.  His detailed analysis of traffic in Singapore indicated that 800,000 personal cars could be replaced by only 300,000 shared autonomous vehicles.
  • Dietmar Rabel, from digital map company HERE (formerly known as NAVTEQ and Nokia Location & Commerce), promoted the Internet cloud for continuous map updates and introduced the concept of crowdsourcing for accurate map data.  Rather than relying on map suppliers to continuously update the information, sensor data from connected vehicles could be shared through the cloud, thus providing near real-time updated map and road condition information locally.
  • Geoff Ballew of NVIDIA explained how his company has grown from a supplier of graphics boards for PCs into a high-performance computing specialist.  Rapid data processing will be a key requirement for self-driving vehicles to become a reality.

While the automotive industry makes slow but steady progress toward the goal of a self-driving vehicle, it’s also good to hear about new companies approaching the topic from a different perspective.  I shall continue to watch with interest as I work on an update to Navigant Research’s 2013  Autonomous Vehicles report.

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