Apr 12, 2019

Axios Navigate

Joann Muller

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Today Expert Voices contributor Jim Cleland makes the case for open-source development of AV technology.

1 big thing: Army steps up pace on AVs

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The Army unveiled new automated vehicle technology this week that could be deployed before self-driving cars hit city streets.

Why it matters: More than half of all battlefield casualties occur when soldiers are delivering fuel, food or other supplies in combat zones. AVs could reduce that risk.

What's new: This week at Fort Bliss in Texas, the Army demonstrated the first 10 driverless trucks it is developing for convoys, one of several robot-vehicle projects underway.

  • The leader-follower platoons would have a pair of drivers in the first truck, followed closely by a half dozen or so unmanned trucks.
  • 60 additional trucks will be deployed at 2 other U.S. military bases over the next year, giving soldiers an opportunity to work with them and develop tactics and procedures they can transfer to the battlefield.

The big picture: The Pentagon's fiscal 2020 budget proposal includes $3.7 billion in research and development of "unmanned and autonomous technologies," including autonomous weapons and unmanned battle ships.

  • About $350 million is for the Army's AV research, one DOD source tells Axios — a fraction of what carmakers spend annually.
  • Fun fact: The Defense Department has been working on AV research for decades, and its 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge launched the careers of many execs who are now racing to bring commercial AVs to market.

Of note: The Army's engineering challenges are different and, in some ways, more difficult...

  • There are no high-definition maps of war zones.
  • Roads may not even exist — and if they do, they might be impassable or change from day to day.
  • If there are road signs, they're often damaged or misleading.
  • Digital infrastructure in the form of 5G isn't likely to be available or accessible.

The backdrop: The truck platoon deployment is faster than expected, after Army Secretary Mark Esper, impressed by a demonstration, asked last year to push the timetable forward, according to National Defense magazine.

  • Like other AV developers, the Army wants to start racking up real-world miles to collect data that will make its AVs even better.
  • The original plan was to put 300 autonomous trucks into service in 2025. To bring the program forward, the Army pared down its original list of 45 requirements for AVs to 15 must-haves, Trucks.com reported.
  • The plan now is for production to ramp up starting in 2021, per National Defense magazine.
  • Oshkosh Defense received a $49 million contract in June 2018 to outfit its trucks with autonomy kits. Lockheed Martin is the systems integrator.

What to watch: As part of a broad modernization effort launched in late 2017, a Next-Generation Combat Vehicle team in Michigan is working on an "optionally manned fighting vehicle" to replace the Army's aging workhorse, the Bradley fighting vehicle.

2. Uber commits to AVs, despite setbacks

Uber self-driving test vehicle in San Francisco. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Uber says it will continue to invest heavily in automated driving technology, while admitting it has fallen behind competitors that could steal away customers with lower prices.

Why it matters: Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick once called AVs an "existential" risk to the business. But now, in an SEC filing, the ride-hailing company sounds more conservative, predicting a long period of “hybrid autonomy” and a continued reliance on human drivers for the foreseeable future.

Driving the news: Uber filed its long-awaited IPO on Thursday, seeking an initial market valuation of between $90 billion and $100 billion.

Details: The prospectus sheds some light on the company's AV efforts...

  • Uber spent $457 million last year on research and development of AVs, flying cars (known as eVTOLs), and other technology programs. And, it expects to increase its investments in the near term.
  • Its Advanced Technologies Group has built over 250 self-driving vehicles, collected data from "millions" of AV testing miles, and completed tens of thousands of passenger trips.
  • Even when robotaxis are deployed, Uber said it will still need human drivers for situations that “involve substantial traffic, complex routes, or unusual weather conditions.”

3 key partnerships could determine Uber's future strategy on self-driving cars:

  • Toyota: Uber will fit its AV technology into purpose-built Toyotas.
  • Volvo: Uber will develop its own fleet of self-driving cars based on the XC90.
  • Daimler: The German carmaker will introduce its own fleet of vehicles on Uber's network.

Yes, but: Uber said it expects competitors to launch commercial AVs at scale before it does, and warned that without drivers, rivals could slash prices on ride-hailing, meal delivery or logistics services.

  • Robotaxis and delivery AVs are likely to roll out city-by-city, each operated by different AV companies: Waymo in Phoenix, GM Cruise in San Francisco, and Ford in Miami.
  • With virtually no switching costs, that could make it difficult for Uber to defend its dominant market share.
  • Like its smaller rival Lyft, which went public earlier this month, Uber can't count on AVs to turn it into a profitable enterprise.

The bottom line: That existential threat to Uber's business still exists.

3. Why AV companies make tech open source

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Some AV developers are opening source code for their technology, a strategy they can use to collect data and tech from anyone using their code, and which could help bring products to market faster, attorney Jim Cleland writes for Axios Expert Voices.

Why it matters: Open source providers are experimenting with how much of their technology they should share, while protecting their intellectual property to stay competitive. Their decisions will have lasting implications for how AV technology develops.

What's happening: When companies designate source code as open, they typically require users to enter into a license in exchange for royalty-free access to the user’s technology or data. In the AV industry, that can be particularly valuable because of how much data is needed to teach a car how to drive using AI.

  • The visualization software used by GM Cruise and Uber — Worldview and Autonomous Visualization System, respectively — are both open source.
  • Baidu has opened its Apollo self-driving software platform for perceiving obstacles, planning routes and driving AVs.
  • Ford, Volkswagen, BMW, Daimler Continental, Jaguar Land Rover, Nvidia, Intel, Bosch, Udelv, Byton, Velodyne and others have joined Baidu’s Apollo open source consortium.

Yes, but: Closed source ownership of proprietary AV technology is still the dominant model in the AV world. For example, GM Cruise and Uber made only some of their AV tech stack open source, not their core AI.

  • Even companies that use open source code typically create their own proprietary add-ons to differentiate their AV tech stack or monetize their contribution.

Read more

Cleland is co-chair of Brinks Gilson & Lione’s automotive group.

4. Driving the conversation

Connected cars: Trump administration to unveil big 5G push (Kim Hart — Axios)

  • Why it matters: The news that the Trump administration will unleash the largest-ever swath of radio frequencies in the U.S. to propel 5G technology is huge for connected, self-driving cars, which need to be able to share massive amounts of data to navigate and avoid crashes.

EV incentives: Electric vehicle tax credits get a bipartisan boost in Senate (Ari Natter — Bloomberg)

  • What's new: The current $7,500 per-vehicle tax incentive for consumers phases down once a manufacturer sells 200,000 EVs. Lawmakers want to increase the cap to 600,000 vehicles to keep the nascent market for electric cars going.
  • Tesla and GM, which have already exhausted their credits, stand to benefit the most.

Op-ed: Big Brother wants to be your new car's co-pilot (Morgan Wright — The Hill)

  • My thought bubble: If this story doesn't send shivers down your back, you're not paying attention.
5. What I'm driving

Infiniti QX80 Limited's interior. Photo: Infiniti

This week I'm driving a 2019 Infiniti QX80 Limited, which, to me, is a big truck in a fancy dress.

Why it matters: The luxury SUV market is highly competitive, and in both performance and features, the Infiniti doesn't quite match up to premium competitors like the Mercedes GLS 450 or the Cadillac Escalade.

  • The "base" QX80 Luxe starts at $66,795, about the same as the fully loaded Nissan Armada Platinum Reserve I drove last December. (They share a platform.)
  • The QX80 Limited will set you back $91,450.

For that price, you should expect to be bathed in luxury. But the Infiniti tries a little too hard: Its open-pore wood accents, faux-suede surfaces, and two-tone color scheme are just too gaudy for my tastes.

  • But there are some nice convenience features, like the telescopic steering wheel that helpfully retracts when you're getting in or out of the vehicle, and the 360-degree camera makes parking this behemoth a little easier.

Standard driver assistance features include automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection and technology that keeps you in your lane or prevents you from backing over someone or something.

  • A predictive forward collision warning system can even warn the driver of risks two cars ahead.

The bottom line: Infiniti's flagship SUV is commanding, but does anybody need a $91,000 truck?

Joann Muller