Nov 9, 2018

Axios Navigate

Joann Muller

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1 big thing: Hunkering down for the AV race

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

In Silicon Valley and Detroit, there seems to be a shared view that the first company to deploy self-driving vehicles at scale will have a huge competitive advantage.

But Chris Urmson, co-founder and CEO of startup Aurora Innovation, tells me he is less worried about leading the self-driving car race than surviving to the end.

The big picture: Scores of auto and tech companies are sinking massive amounts of capital into autonomous vehicle technology, but only a handful of trusted players are likely to survive the inevitable shakeout.

"It's not about being first. It's about getting to the finish line. If we can get to the finish line, we'll be in really good shape."
Chris Urmson

The background: Urmson is the roboticist who led the Carnegie Mellon University team behind “Boss,” the self-driving Chevrolet Tahoe that won the Darpa Urban Challenge in November 2007.

  • He has 19 years of AV experience, including as head of Google's self-driving car project, now known as Waymo.
  • Urmson left Google in August 2016 and started Aurora in January 2017 with 2 partners, former Tesla Autopilot engineer Sterling Anderson and former Uber self-driving car researcher Drew Bagnell.

What's happening now:

  • Aurora has grown to 180 people, half in Pittsburgh and half in Silicon Valley.
  • Its focus is developing an automated driver, not building cars.
  • The company has development deals with Hyundai, Volkswagen and Byton, the Chinese electric car startup.
  • Aurora's mission is to deliver self-driving technology "safely, quickly and broadly," which means scaling up around the world and across economic strata.
"This isn't a toy for rich people. It's a way to make getting around safer and easier."
Chris Urmson

Where it stands: Aurora still has several years of work ahead to achieve the desired system reliability and robustness, Urmson says. The hardest part: Understanding humans and predicting their "weird" behavior.

What to watch: Some day people may have their own self-driving cars, but Urmson says first we'll see shared robo-taxi fleets in urban areas.

  • Long-haul autonomous trucks get a lot of attention, but Urmson doesn't believe that's a safe or smart way to start applying AV technology.
  • Level 3 autonomy, in which the car and driver pass control back and forth, is not realistic, Urmson says.
"If you're reading a book or watching a movie and suddenly [the car] says 'drive now', good luck. You don't really understand what's happening around you at that moment."
— Chris Urmson
  • While other companies are pushing out self-driving features piece by piece, making cars gradually more capable, Urmson says Aurora is aiming for full Level 4 autonomy.

The bottom line: With so much hype around self-driving cars, it's easy to get distracted by the competition. But Urmson is intent on keeping his team focused on the finish line "so that as that reckoning comes, we'll be able to make it through and push this technology forward." 

2. GM and Ford on two wheels

Image credit: Ford

America's two largest automakers are branching out beyond their traditional businesses: GM plans to launch a lineup of electrified bicycles and Ford just bought an electric scooter company.

Why it matters: By 2030, 60% of the world's population will live in urban areas, per the UN's World's Cities in 2016 report. As cities get more crowded, commuters are looking for alternative ways to complete their journeys, from ride-hailing to e-bikes to scooter-sharing — sometimes combining all three in a single trip.

What's new: Ford just paid close to $100 million to acquire Spin, an electric scooter-sharing company based in San Francisco with operations in 13 cities and campuses across the U.S.

  • Ford had already dipped its toes into scooters with the recent rollout of its Jelly service on the campus of Purdue University, which also happens to be Spin CEO Derrick Ko's alma mater.

What's next: GM will launch the e-bikes in 2019 under a new, as yet unnamed brand.

  • The first 2 products have been designed: one foldable, the other compact, both using a proprietary propulsion system developed by GM.
  • They'll be equipped with integrated safety features, including rechargeable front and rear LED lights.
  • The bikes will be "smart" and "connected," using telemetry inspired by GM's OnStar service
  • GM has launched a contest to name the new e-bike brand. The winner, to be announced in early 2019, gets $10,000.

What to watch: Amid a massive shift in transportation, automakers like GM and Ford will likely introduce more of these micro-mobility services as a way to hang on to customers who no longer feel the need to own a personal automobile.

3. Squaring off over Next Gen connectivity

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Next generation networks are expected to enable faster, more reliable data transmission and accelerate the deployment of better, safer AVs. But a debate is raging over the right technology to achieve vehicle-to-everything (V2X) connectivity, the World Economic Forum's Eric Jillard writes for Axios Expert Voices.

Why it matters: If cars can coordinate themselves at intersections and report on road hazards, accidents could start to become a thing of the past. But for the safety benefits to be comprehensive, vehicles will have to communicate in a standardized language.

Background: In 1999, the U.S. federal government set aside part of the communications spectrum in the 5.9 GHz band for communication dedicated to improving vehicle safety.

  • As a result, certain automakers, as well as city and state administrations, began to implement Dedicated Short Range Communication (DSRC) — essentially a version of WiFi — by installing in-vehicle communication devices and road side unit (RSU) infrastructure.

Where it stands: Until recently, DSRC was the only available V2X technology. But now an alternative has emerged — cellular vehicle-to-everything (C-V2X), which takes advantage of improved cellular networks.

  • The dilemma is companies and cities that have already invested in DSRC are hesitant to abandon it despite the newer technology's speed advantages. And automakers want global consistency on a single solution.
  • Early adopters of DSRC are on one side of the debate, while those that did not invest in DSRC are keen to exploit the advantages of C-V2X. 
  • Because C-V2X leverages cellular networks, it won’t require a massive deployment of the RSU’s necessary for DSRC. However, it remains largely untested at scale.

What to watch: Unless the U.S. government mandates DSRC (which it has been unwilling to do), many feel a cellular approach will be the winner. Europe is leaning toward DSRC but the progress of C-V2X in China may prove decisive.

Go deeper: Automaker policy teams alternately make the case for DSRC and for C-V2X.

4. Driving the conversation

I want to hear — and share — what you're reading about AVs. Send me a link to an article and your expert analysis of why it matters — joann.muller@axios.com.

Musk's new boss: Robyn Denholm, an Australian telecom exec on Tesla's board, takes over as chairwoman (Tim Higgins and Robb M. Stewart — The Wall Street Journal)

  • The big question: Can anyone keep CEO Elon Musk in check?

Different kind of row boat: Self-driving boats could be the next step for autonomous vehicles (Michael Tabb — Quartz)

  • Miniature replicas of the floating platform system are being tested in Amsterdam as a way to move cargo and trash.
  • They use GPS, laser sensors and cameras to navigate, but are a few years from deployment.
  • The bottom line: If planes can fly themselves, and cars are next, why not boats too? P.S. Love the name of this venture: "Roboat."

Quick trips: Self-driving cars could function as moving brothels (Olivia Rudgard — The Telegraph)

  • My thought bubble: I thought car sickness was the most disgusting thing that could happen in a robo-taxi.
5. Machine learning could detect AV cyberattacks

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

With cars further evolving from “just” hardware into software platforms, the wide range of IT systems in an autonomous vehicle present many opportunities for cyberattacks. Artificial intelligence can detect anomalous vehicle behavior or attempted code interference in real time, Yossi Vardi, CEO of automotive cybersecurity startup SafeRide Technologies, writes for Axios.

Why it matters: Compromised code in the systems that control acceleration, braking, directional guidance and other crucial safety functions can jeopardize lives on the road.

  • After hackers breach an AV’s system, they can identify vulnerabilities, infect additional areas of the vehicle, and collect and extract data.
  • Their malicious goals could include anything from tracking the vehicle's movements (perhaps with an eye toward robbing passengers or burglarizing their homes when they are far enough away) to disabling its brakes, putting people both inside and around the vehicle in danger.

How it works:

  • AI uses data from the vehicle's network and central computers to learn its normal behavior, typically before the vehicle is mass-produced. Algorithms can then process operating data to identify and flag any abnormal behavior as a potential cyberattack, triggering safety systems that can intervene.
  • These algorithms need to distinguish between real attacks and false positives, such as when a vehicle owner has modified the software for speed or other safety precautions.

What to watch: Attacks on AVs could spur a “horse race” between developers trying to continually improve traditional security measures and hackers developing more sophisticated attacks to upend these security systems.

6. What I'm driving

2019 Honda Insight. Photo: Honda

Sharing my insights on some of today's most advanced vehicles ...

This week's ride is the 2019 Honda Insight, a car that’s come a long way since 1999 when it introduced America to the whole idea of a hybrid-electric powertrain. Back then — prior to the Toyota Prius — the oddly designed Insight looked like a car wearing a skirt.

What’s new: Today’s version is much more stylish — a cross between the sturdy Accord and the sporty Civic — but it’s still a sedan, nonetheless. The Kia Niro and Hyundai Kona plug-in crossovers are more appealing.

  • With a soft foot, at speeds up to about 20 mph, the Insight can travel about a mile on electricity alone.
  • Acceleration is great around town, but when merging on the highway the 1.5-liter, 150-hp gas engine feels like it's straining.

Driver-assistance features come standard:

  • Lane-departure warning
  • Lane-keeping assist
  • Forward collision warning
  • Forward automatic emergency braking
  • Adaptive cruise control
  • Driver monitoring system to detect fatigue

Body blow: The Insight is also built to soften the impact should you hit a pedestrian. The hood is designed to deform slightly to help absorb energy and increase the chances the victim will survive.

The bottom line: At $23,000 to $29,000, the Insight is a practical, efficient — and safe — choice.

Joann Muller