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1 big thing: Ford CEO says AV progress isn't all about technology
Ford is as intent on finding a profitable business model for autonomous vehicles as it is on the underlying technology. CEO Jim Hackett tells me their AV research is advancing rapidly but they are equally focused on building a transportation service based on what people need and want.
Why it matters: Unlike some of its competitors, Ford — one of the world's largest automakers — hasn't crowed much about its position in the race to develop self-driving cars. That's led to the perception that Ford has fallen behind.
- But Ford is taking a slightly different tack, with the understanding that large-scale adoption of AVs won't happen unless paying customers see value in them.
The big picture:
- Waymo is the AV leader, with plans to launch a commercial robotaxi service in metro Phoenix by year-end.
- GM Cruise will follow in San Francisco next year.
- Ford, which is focused on a larger turnaround effort under Hackett, won't launch a self-driving fleet until 2021.
- Ford invested $1 billion in Argo AI, a tiny Pittsburgh-based artificial intelligence company with a handful of employees in February 2017.
- It offered lucrative stakes in the company to lure talent from Uber, Apple and Waymo, among others, and now has more than 800 people working on autonomous technology.
- The carmaker recently carved out its AV project as a separate business to accelerate development and attract investors, and expects to invest $4 billion through 2023.
Where it stands: Applying Argo AI's virtual driver system to its own vehicle hardware, Ford is now on a faster development trajectory than Waymo was, Hackett tells me.
"I don't think we're behind anyone else, even GM."— Jim Hackett
Yes, but: Ford says it isn't worried about being first; it wants to make money. The secret there is high utilization rates — keep those self-driving cars on the road, collecting revenue, as much as possible.
- That's why Ford is partnering with others to create demand for its vehicles rather than pouring money into building its own ride-hailing business like Waymo or GM Cruise.
- Hackett says automated goods delivery has as much promise as driverless taxis. With its partners' insights, Ford is designing a purpose-built AV it will introduce in 2021.
- Ford is studying ride-hailing patterns with its partner Lyft to identify spikes in demand. During slower times, it looks to deploy vehicles for other local businesses, like delivering flowers or dry cleaning.
- In Miami, Ford is testing automated pizza delivery with Domino’s, and robot package delivery with Postmates.
My thought bubble: If you don't have a business model that works, great technology doesn’t matter. Just ask Blackberry.
What's next: Ford is using its commercial vehicles expertise to develop routing and dispatch technology for fleet management, and is building out a transportation-as-a-service platform to integrate with its business partners. The company will pull back the curtain on these efforts next month.
2. For safety, AVs must spend time in virtual world
To ensure the safety of autonomous vehicles, companies have been testing fleets in San Francisco, Austin, Miami and elsewhere — gathering data and exposing their technology to everyday experiences, NVIDIA's Danny Shapiro writes for Axios.
However, road tests are a cumbersome form of validation — the Rand Corporation estimates it would take hundreds of millions to hundreds of billions of miles (nearly a century of driving) to prove an AV drives safely.
The big picture: Not all experience needs to come from road tests. Simulation platforms enable the AI brain powering an AV to run in a photorealistic world that mimics real-life traffic, exposing its deep-learning algorithms to scenarios and conditions as many times as necessary for the system to handle them perfectly.
- Manufacturers can also test hardware using a process called hardware-in-the-loop, in which one server simulates the driving environment while another contains the computer that will eventually run in the car.
- Human-in-the-loop testing adds another layer. Engineers can take over other vehicles in the virtual environment — like cars in a video game — driving them around the AV and testing how it reacts to sudden cut-offs or tailgaters.
Yes, but: Though virtual worlds like those seen in video games and movies can closely mimic the look and feel of reality, their scripted scenarios lack the same fidelity when it comes to the real world’s diversity and unpredictability.
The bottom line: While scripting the infinite number of potential traffic situations may be impossible, enabling diversity and spontaneity in simulation is a vital way to test a car’s reaction to unforeseen scenarios, validating AV technology without sacrificing safety.
3. Former regulators aim to help AVs on policy
There’s been a parade of former government safety officials joining mobility tech companies lately, including former U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, who joined Lyft this week as chief policy officer and adviser to co-founders John Zimmer and Logan Green.
Why it matters: These moves underscore the important role that regulation will play in the rollout of electric and self-driving car technology.
Other notable hires:
- Mark Rosekind, former NHTSA administrator under President Obama, is now chief safety innovation officer at AV startup Zoox.
- Paul Hemmersbaugh, who as NHTSA’s chief counsel helped write the federal automated vehicles policy, is now policy director at GM focusing on transportation as a service.
- Kevin Vincent, NHTSA’s chief counsel before Hemmersbaugh, is vice president for regulatory, government and safety affairs at Workhorse Group, the Ohio-based maker of electric truck chassis.
- David Strickland, also a former NHTSA administrator, handles transportation policy for automotive clients at the Washington law firm Venable.
The big question: Will cronyism complaints arise in transportation the way they do in the banking or telecommunications industry?
4. Rethinking the curb
With more and more people turning to ride-hailing options, shared bike systems or motorized scooters — and with the advent of AVs looming — urban planners and policymakers have started to rethink the curb, Carnegie Mellon's Karen Lightman writes.
The big picture: Historically, the curb has been the meeting spot for most buses and taxis, but curb space has increased in value. To take full advantage of this prime real estate, the use of curbs will have to be modified to make entries and exits easier, more efficient and better for the environment.
Monetizing curb time — one possible solution — would create a financial incentive for ride-hailing drivers to use designated pickup spots (like a driveway or parking lot) and impose penalties if they don’t.
- It would likewise encourage delivery trucks to make their drop-offs during off-peak hours, under penalty of per-minute fines.
What we're seeing: Some solutions will be more site-specific.
- Airports in San Jose and elsewhere are designating locations outside the flow of traffic for ride-hailing pickups.
- The Forbes Avenue Betterment Project in front of Carnegie Mellon University includes bump-outs in the street to accommodate pickups and drop-offs as well as a bike line to share curb space.
What's next: In an autonomous vehicle–laden world, the curb will not mainly be used for parking cars. Instead, it will act more as a revolving door, moving people and goods from the street to their destinations in a constant and seamless flow.
- To ensure a safe and secure curb, we’ll need sensors and advanced wireless connectivity, paired with edge and cloud computing networks.
5. Driving the conversation
- Toyota's Gill Pratt says safety is no argument for robocars (Philip E. Ross —IEEE Spectrum)
- Google's Waze traffic app makes big bet on nationwide carpooling service (Andrew Hawkins —The Verge)
- Mercedes-Benz plans first "eyes-off" driving system in next S-class, says incoming CEO (Christiaan Hetzner —Automotive News)
- Self-driving cars could make humans unhealthier than ever (Nick Stockton — Wired)
- Pennsylvania to allow statewide self-driving car tests (Sasha Lekach — Mashable)
6. What I'm driving
Sharing my insights on some of today's most advanced vehicles ...
This week I'm driving a 2019 Volkswagen Jetta SEL Premium, a candidate for North American Car of the Year. (I'm on the jury that gets to decide.)
The loaded version, at $26,945, gives you a ton of standard driver-assist technology. This includes emergency braking assist to help avoid a crash, adaptive cruise control to keep a safe distance from the car ahead, and lane-keeping assistance to keep you from drifting across the lines.
The bare bones version, at the entry-level price of $18,545, still comes standard with a rearview camera and a post-collision braking system that automatically brakes after impact to avoid further crashes.
- For an additional $450, you can add emergency braking assist, blind spot monitoring and rear traffic alert, which helps you back out of parking spaces. Well worth the extra money.
The bottom line: Even plebian cars like the Jetta offer a lot of technology for the money.
Erratum: Thanks to several sharp-eyed readers for pointing out that Tesla's Autopilot system does in fact change lanes automatically when the driver taps the turn signal. I updated the story in last week's edition.