Navigant Research Blog

Government Accelerates Autonomous Vehicle R&D in the United Kingdom

— August 14, 2014

At the end of July, the British government made a commitment to support the development of self-driving vehicles in the United Kingdom.  Up to three cities will be selected to host trial projects beginning in 2015, and they can apply for a share of a £10 million ($16.8 million) fund established to kick-start new investment in automotive technology.  The press release said that “Ministers have also launched a review to look at current road regulations to establish how the UK can remain at the forefront of driverless car technology and ensure there is an appropriate regime for testing driverless cars in the UK.”

The United Kingdom already has one of the world’s first autonomous vehicle shuttle services, which went into operation in 2011 serving Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 5.  A pilot scheme for fully autonomous pods in Milton Keynes was announced in November 2013.  And the Mobile Robotics Group at Oxford University is building its reputation as an advanced research organization in driverless vehicle technology.   Having the government working on legislation and helping to fund pilot programs is an important step forward in promoting the technology and attracting business to the country.

Unfortunately for the United Kingdom, though, the majority of engineering development work at the major European automakers takes place in Germany and France.  Ford still has an engineering center in Essex, but it’s much smaller than its sibling near Cologne, Germany.  Revised legislation and multiple testing areas in the United Kingdom may well inspire some companies to establish new satellite development centers in the country in the same way that they did in California when Google’s pioneering work began to get headlines a few years ago.  On the other hand, it may also spur governments on the European continent to introduce similar efforts in their countries.

Multiple Routes

One thing to bear in mind with this technology is that there are multiple streams of applications.  In the short term, there is the task of developing a more integrated approach to the individual advanced driver assistance systems functions that are already in production to be able to offer drivers help in well-defined situations such as cruising on a motorway or shuffling along in congested traffic jams.  Mercedes has already begun offering its Intelligent Drive on the new S-Class, and its competitors are not far behind.  Most promise something similar in the next couple of model years.  More fully automated systems that can follow instructions from a navigation system under limited circumstances are expected from about 2020 on, with full automation coming to market after 2025.  The United Kingdom could become a popular place for manufacturers to test such vehicle systems.

The other route is to go directly to small self-driving vehicles that operate at low speed (<25 mph) and with a limited range.  In the early days, these will only operate on roads or paths where conventional vehicles are prohibited.  These projects will have to be initiated by local governments rather than the automakers, and they will provide valuable practical experience of the benefits and challenges that autonomous vehicles can bring to a city or community.

 

In China, Cars Learn the Roads

— August 5, 2014

Navigant Research’s recent report, Autonomous Vehicles, focused on the activities of large global automakers, Tier One suppliers, and universities and research organizations (including, of course, Google) in Western Europe and North America.  Extensive work is also happening in Japan, and the Japanese automakers are among the companies providing a steady stream of interesting automotive engineering news.

Not so much is heard about what’s going on in China.  The rapid growth in vehicle sales in that country gets most of the headlines, along with the accompanying congestion and air pollution.  But, like Northern California, China also has a tech company that has built its fortune from an Internet search engine and has branched into R&D on self-driving vehicles.  Sometimes referred to as China’s Google, Baidu revealed in July that it’s working on what it calls a highly autonomous car.

Unlike the Google car that famously has no steering wheel or foot pedals, the Baidu concept will be a conventional vehicle with a driver when the first prototypes are shown in 2015, but it will have plenty of intelligence and awareness built in.  The best way to think about it is to consider an earlier form of personal transportation: the horse.  The rider gives instructions about when to start and stop and turn, but the horse knows to avoid obstacles and dangerous situations and can learn familiar routes and navigate itself through traffic.  This is a very different approach to the Google model, which requires highly detailed digital maps of every road before it can venture out.

Affordable Autonomy

The only other developer I have heard contemplating this approach is the Australian startup Zoox, which I mentioned in a previous blog.  Baidu is also reportedly working on a driverless bicycle that will be able to deliver packages as well as provide mobility to those unable to drive.  A prototype is slated for demonstration by the end of this year.

The Chinese approach is an interesting alternative to the high-tech and likely high-cost options for self-driving being developed in the rest of the world.  One of the keys to success in the mass market is affordability.  Another obstacle to the rollout of autonomous driving, in the West, is legislation.  In China, the government can act very quickly to support the modification of laws to allow driverless vehicles to operate on public roads if it deems the technology ready and the benefits are clear.

Chinese car makers have struggled to break into Western markets, typically finding it difficult to meet the extensive crash safety specifications required in the European Union and the United States.  They’ve had more success exporting to other countries in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East.  In all these regions, getting permission to offer semi-autonomous vehicles could prove relatively easy, and the potential benefits for safety and traffic flow are even bigger than they are in the high-profile Western countries.

 

Excitement Tempered Around Self-Driving Cars

— May 28, 2014

In recent weeks, Google has been publicly discussing the progress of testing its self-driving cars in more challenging environments.  Most of the original testing was done on California freeways, so the driving was relatively straightforward.  The more recent test routes have included a lot of local driving and urban challenges, like pedestrians and cyclists.  These scenarios have made the company more confident that its technology is getting close to being ready for production.

However, some of the original optimism has been tempered by reality.  In 2012, when the project was first made public, Google’s estimate was that the self-driving car was about 5 years away (2017).  At the time, some technology commentators and the media got very excited about the potential and were forecasting production rollouts would begin well before 2020.  In Navigant Research’s report, Autonomous Vehicles, released in the summer of 2013, we forecast that it would be 2025 before the technology would be ready for public use.  Today, Google estimates the technology will be ready in 6 years (2020).  Our forecast has not changed.

More Maps Please

It’s quite possible that Google will consider its technology ready for commercial launch in 2020, but that doesn’t mean that automotive manufacturers will have satisfied their own testing by that date.  The automakers know that everyone will be watching autonomous technology very closely, and they cannot afford any mishaps.  The testing will have to be very comprehensive.  For example, GM has been testing its own Super Cruise system for 2 years already, and the production launch was recently described as “within the next 5 years.”

But it’s not just the testing that is holding up production release.  The current Google vehicles have a rotating lidar scanner on the roof that not only costs more than the rest of the vehicle combined, but also is visually unacceptable for most, if not all, manufacturers.  The hardware development has a long way to go to be able to achieve the necessary accuracy and blend into the vehicle styling.  The Google system needs a high-resolution scanner and also relies on highly accurate digital maps.  So far, the company has developed detailed maps of lane markings, traffic signs, and signals for about 2,000 miles of road in the United States, mostly around Mountain View in California.  The United States has about 4 million miles of roads.  A lot more digitization will be required for Google’s autonomous vehicles to be used anywhere in the country, never mind all over the world.

Navigant Research believes that self-driving cars will become a reality, but that the technology will be rolled out incrementally over the next 10 to 15 years.  It’s great to see serious progress being made, but we still do not expect any major manufacturers to rush autonomous technology into production before 2025.  More details on this will come out in our updated Autonomous Vehicles report, slated for publication later this summer.

 

Autonomous Vehicles Drive Themselves toward Reality

— 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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