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Halo's remote operators deliver driverless cars in Las Vegas via T-Mobile's 5G network. Photo courtesy of T-Mobile

A new ride-hailing service in Las Vegas is targeting people who are curious about autonomous vehicles but aren't yet ready to climb into the back seat and let a robot drive.

Why it matters: Electric AVs promise to make urban transportation safer, more affordable and more accessible, potentially easing congestion and cutting carbon emissions.

  • But earning the public's trust is a challenge, so a handful of cities like Las Vegas are tiptoeing toward the robotaxi era.

What's happening: In the Phoenix suburbs, people can summon a driverless Waymo minivan, but only in certain neighborhoods. Within a year or so, other companies, including Cruise and Argo AI, could have limited robotaxi services operating in parts of San Francisco and Miami.

  • And in Las Vegas, one lesser-known company called Halo will deliver a car by remote control, then let users drive it away.

How it works: Riders use the Halo app to summon electric Kia Niro SUVs.

  • Driverless Halos arrive at pickup locations and riders hop in the driver seat and drive to their destination.
  • When they arrive, there's no need to park; they just exit the vehicles and the Halos move on to their next pickup location.

Between the lines: Halo's "driverless" cars in fact have a human driver they are tele-operated by specially trained operators sitting miles away behind a computer screen, using a steering wheel, foot pedals and other controls.

  • Tele-operation hinges on a strong 5G network to ensure there are no signal interruptions that could delay the operator's response to real-world situations.
  • Halo worked closely with T-Mobile in Las Vegas to build out a reliable 5G network to support its driverless cars.
  • "Imagine a remote pilot driving virtually," says Halo founder and CEO Anand Nandakumar. "The video should be seamless, with no freeze frames. Every packet we push from the car has to be reliably received on the car’s console, really fast."

Reality check: Halo lags behind most other AV companies. But its unique business model could help it catch up.

  • “Full autonomy is a massive challenge from both a technical and social trust perspective that won’t be solved for years to come,” said Nandakumar.
  • Halo's plan is to build automation over time, starting with a service that consumers can feel comfortable using today.
  • Using artificial intelligence, the cars will train themselves by learning from real customers' driving decisions.
  • "Every mile the customer drives, the AI is learning in the background," he says.

The bottom line: AAA found that 54% of drivers are afraid to ride in a self-driving car — and another 32% are unsure about it.

  • As with most innovations, real-world experience could eventually win them over.

Go deeper

Oct 14, 2021 - Technology

Car owners pay dearly for tech they don't use

BMW's gesture control technology is hard to master for many drivers, who say they just don't need it. Photo: BMW

Technology can be a big seller in new cars, but it turns out that many digital features go unused — assuming owners even know their car has them.

Why it matters: High-tech features are driving up vehicle prices. But if consumers don't use them — or are frustrated because the stuff doesn't work properly — then both automakers and car buyers are wasting their money.

Driving the news: For more than 1 in 3 advanced technologies, most owners didn't even use the feature during the first three months of ownership, a J.D. Power tech study found.

  • Usually, owners say it's because they don't need the feature, but sometimes it's because they don't know about it or find it difficult to use.

BMW's gesture control technology is a great example. It's supposed to let you wiggle a finger or wave your hand to perform tasks like adjusting the radio volume or answering a call — as opposed to touching a screen or button.

  • But the tech had the lowest overall satisfaction score in J.D. Power's annual U.S. Tech Experience Index for the second year in a row, with owners reporting 41 problems — meaning complaints — per 100 vehicles.
  • My thought bubble: I drove a BMW X6 last year that had gesture control as part of a $2,300 Premium package. I concur with BMW owners. It was easier to just use the buttons.

Other built-in technologies often go unused, despite big investments by automakers to add them. Some examples:

Digital marketplace: General Motors was the first to equip millions of cars with an in-car commerce platform called Marketplace that lets you order food, make restaurant and hotel reservations, and find gas stations from your dashboard.

  • But 61% of owners say they've never used their car's digital marketplace, and 51% said they don't need it.

Driver/passenger communications: Honda, Hyundai and Toyota are among carmakers that let drivers talk more easily with rear-seat occupants via a microphone or camera.

  • 52% say they've never used the system, and 40% say they don't need it. (Who needs a mic when you can just turn around and yell at your kids?)

Between the lines: Consumers are more likely to use emerging technology if the car dealer does a good job of demonstrating how it works, J.D. Power found.

  • But a lot of car salespeople aren't fully trained to explain all the features of the cars they sell — and often buyers don't ask, aren't interested, or can't take it all in.
  • Some dealers encourage buyers to schedule a follow-up visit to the dealership for a refresher.
  • When a buyer does get a lesson from their dealer about how to use an advanced feature, they use it more, the study found.
  • Examples of these features include "safe exit assist technology" — which warns parked drivers to wait for traffic before opening the door — and trailer assistance technology, which helps drivers maneuver a boat or RV, for example.
  • Yes, but: Owners are more than twice as likely to learn about such technology from an outside source (71%) than from a dealer (30%), the study found.

What car owners love: cameras, cameras and more cameras.

  • The top-rated technologies all provide an extra set of eyes: backup cameras with trajectory guidance, rear-view mirror cameras that enhance visibility, and 360-degree ground view cameras.
  • Electric vehicle owners also love one-pedal driving technology — which allows a driver to lift their foot off the accelerator to slow or stop without having to brake.

The bottom line: In-car technology has to be simple to use — and well-explained to the driver ahead of time — or it's not worth the money.

Bryan Walsh, author of Future
Oct 14, 2021 - Technology

Facebook's AI wants to learn the world through human eyes

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Facebook is announcing a new machine learning project that aims to teach AI how to understand and interact with the world through a first-person perspective.

Why it matters: Most computer vision is trained on images and videos taken from a third-person perspective, but to build AI assistants and robots that can work with us in the real world, researchers will need to compile data sets built on what is known as egocentric perception.

Parents in Michigan, Virginia sue AG over action on school board threats

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland during an October news conference in Mexico City. Photo: Hector Vivas/Getty Images

A group of parents in Michigan and Virginia accused Attorney General Merrick Garland in a federal lawsuit Tuesday of trying to "criminalize" free speech by directing law enforcement to review threats against school staff.

Why it matters: The lawsuit, filed by the conservative American Freedom Law Center on behalf of the parents in two school districts, accuses Garland of seeking to suppress free speech in his memorandum directing federal authorities to counter the threats spike.

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