Aug 21, 2019

Axios Navigate

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  • Today, I'm looking forward to a long drive to Ohio in a Kia Telluride for a reporting trip. I'll let you know what I think of their new 3-row SUV in an upcoming issue.
  • Expert Voices contributor Donna Barnett looks at what cities are doing to create AV-friendly environments.
  • Smart Brevity count: 1,257 words, < 5 minutes.
1 big thing: Why AV companies are spilling their secrets

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Self-driving technology is hard — so hard that even the industry front-runner is showing its cards to try to get more brainpower on the problem.

What's happening: Waymo announced today it's sharing what is believed to be one of the largest troves of self-driving vehicle data ever released in the hope of accelerating the development of automated vehicle technology.

  • "The more smart brains you can get working on the problem, whether inside or outside the company, the better," says Waymo principal scientist Drago Anguelov.

Why it matters: Data is a critical ingredient for machine learning, which is why until recently, companies developing automated driving systems viewed their testing data as a closely-guarded asset.

  • But there's now a growing consensus that sharing that information publicly could help get self-driving cars on the road faster.

What's happening: The idea is to eliminate what has been a major roadblock for academia — a lack of relevant research data.

  • Aptiv, Argo and Lyft have released maps and images collected via cameras and lidar sensors.
  • Now, even Waymo — the market leader, with more than 10 million autonomous test miles — is opening up its digital vault.

Context: On any given day, an AV can collect more than 4 terabytes of raw sensor data, but not all of that is useful, Navigant Research analyst Sam Abuelsamid writes in Forbes.

  • During testing, a safety driver typically oversees the vehicle's operation, while an engineer with a laptop in the passenger seat makes a notation of interesting encounters or challenging scenarios.
  • At the end of the day, all the sensor data from the vehicle is downloaded. The "good stuff," as Abuelsamid calls it — encounters with pedestrians, cyclists, animals, traffic signals and more — is analyzed and labeled.
  • It's a labor-intensive process, as the New York Times described in a fascinating story this week.
  • Humans — lots and lots of humans, NYT notes — must label and annotate all the data by hand so the AI system can understand what it's “seeing" before it can begin learning.
  • People pore over images of street scenes, drawing digital boxes around and adding labels to things that are important to know, like: This is a pedestrian, a stroller, a double yellow line.

Between the lines: The data that Waymo is releasing is particularly rich, collected from 1,000 driving scenes in 25 cities including Phoenix, San Francisco, Mountain View and Kirkland, Washington. Even so, it still amounts to just 5.5 hours of driving time.

  • Each segment captures 20 seconds of continuous driving in 360-degree footage captured from 5 lidar and 5 camera sensors, giving researchers the opportunity to develop algorithms to track and predict the behavior of other road users. 
  • Each of the scenes has been painstakingly labeled — 13 million labels in all.

The intrigue: Waymo's move shows how high the stakes have grown, says Gartner analyst Mike Ramsey.

  • "I don’t think they are worried about anyone catching them. They’re probably more worried about whether they can make this work, or if anyone can. Is this even doable after 10 years of working on this?"
2. California's war with Trump over auto emissions

Mercedes-Benz electric EQC goes on sale in 2020. Photo: Mercedes-Benz

It looks like California has the edge over President Trump in the tug-of-war over vehicle emissions standards, although Trump isn't staying quiet about it.

Catch up fast: The NYT reported yesterday that Trump, blindsided by a pact between California and 4 automakers to skirt his plan to relax tailpipe emissions rules, is trying to prevent any more firms from joining them.

  • At a White House meeting last month, a senior Trump adviser pressed Toyota, Fiat Chrysler and GM to stand by the president’s less restrictive emissions policy, per NYT.

What they're saying: California Gov. Gavin Newsom yesterday accused Trump of trying to scuttle his state's strict emissions standards to help the oil industry, calling it a “pathetic” decision disguised as an effort to help the auto industry, the LA Times reported.

  • Mercedes-Benz is on deck to join the pact with California, Newsom confirmed in comments reported by LAT, adding that discussions are under way with a 6th major automaker.
  • Ford, Honda, Volkswagen and BMW have already signed the voluntary deal, which would use more stringent vehicle emissions rules to lower greenhouse gas emissions.
3. Cities rewrite zoning and land use rules for AVs

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

A growing number of U.S. cities, including Las Vegas, Minneapolis and Chandler, Arizona, are re-examining their zoning, land use, and transportation regulations to ease the way forward for AVs, Donna Barnett writes for Axios Expert Voices.

Why it matters: Cities are exploring changes to decades-old laws in the hopes of attracting new technologies and investment as well as the economic and quality-of-life gains that come with them.

Context: According to a 2018 National League of Cities report, roughly half of America's largest cities are "preparing for self-driving vehicles in their long-range transportation plans."

  • The city of Chandler said last year that it was the first to amend its zoning code to lower the number of required parking spots for new buildings if AV use reduces parking demand. The city’s zoning amendment also makes it easier to install passenger loading zones.
  • "Las Vegas is working on a change to its zoning code to allow for downtown ride-share lots that would eventually also serve as AV passenger zones," according to a recent report.

The bottom line: As congressional AV regulations stall, city governments, urban planners and regulators are collaborating to revise local laws in order to offer friendlier conditions for AVs and the chance for cities to take a lead on this technology.

Go deeper: Read the full post.

Barnett is a partner and regulatory litigator at Perkins Coie.

4. Driving the conversation

Jaguar-Land Rover is bringing 3D augmented reality to cars. Photo: Jaguar Land Rover

3D world: To prepare for an autonomous future, Jaguar Land Rover brings 3D augmented reality into the cabin (Liane Yvkoff Forbes)

  • Why it matters: JLR says driver safety information projected onto the windshield's powerful new 3D head-up display could improve reaction times to road hazards.
  • Bonus: In an autonomous, ride-sharing future, the system could also offer passengers 3D entertainment.

Lexicology: Jaguar takes on Big Dictionary (Automotive News)

  • My thought bubble: In a clever bit of PR, the British carmaker is asking the the Oxford English Dictionary to update its definition of "car" to include EVs like its plug-in I-PACE. (Right now, a car "is a road vehicle, typically with four wheels, powered by an internal combustion engine...")
  • The marketing tipoff? Jag also created the social media hashtag "#RedefineTheCar."

Indulgence: Inside the 2019 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance (Hannah Elliott —Bloomberg)

  • Quick take: If you couldn't make it to Pebble Beach last weekend, check out this gallery of gorgeous cars.
5. Shop class, revived

Teacher Ron Grosinger and his students with their converted VW. Photo courtesy of Ron Grosinger

An inspiring story as the kids head back to school....

A New Jersey high school teacher managed to revitalize his school's dying auto shop class by teaching kids how to convert an old VW into an electric car.

Why it matters: The renamed Alternative Fuel Education Class at Memorial High School in West New York, N.J., is now cool, attracting the best science and math students, writes Hagerty, an auto enthusiast publication.

  • With sharply higher enrollment, the department now has 4 teachers and a new after-school automotive program.

Details: The credit is due to teacher Ron Grosinger, who roughly 10 years ago sold the school administration on the idea of teaching applied science and engineering principles through automotive applications.

  • With funding from the school, he bought a 1990 Volkswagen Cabriolet with 115,000 miles, then taught his students how to build an electric powertrain they could swap for the original internal combustion engine.
  • Over the next decade, his classes converted a diesel car to run on vegetable oil and worked on a multi-year project to build an electric Lotus 7 from scratch, according to Hagerty.
  • Volkswagen, which is making a huge bet on future electric vehicles, shared Grosinger's story on its website.

The bottom line: Teaching students about gasoline cars is the equivalent of teaching them about 8-track players, Grosinger tells VW.

  • “Teachers should encourage students to explore new and more efficient ways to move a person from point A to point B, whether that system is a train with solar panels on it, a car with an electric motor in it or retrofitting an existing technology with a different energy source."