Jan 25, 2019

Axios Navigate

Joann Muller

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Today in Expert Voices, Henry Claypool writes about efforts to make autonomous vehicles more accessible to people with disabilities and Carlo Ratti weighs in on smart infrastructure.

1 big thing: On the road to self-driving cars, experience matters

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The field is wide open for AV developers, making it hard to predict winners and losers. But look closely: the ones inching toward commercialization are quietly putting important building blocks in place.

Why it matters: There are many brilliant teams working on driverless car technology. But enabling a robot vehicle to drive from Point A to Point B is just the start — commercializing AVs will take a lot more work. To scale up, companies need the right leaders and partners with experience.

What's happening: Smart players are forging new relationships with companies that can help them progress towards that goal.

  • Waymo this week tapped Magna, a big Canadian auto supplier, to integrate its self-driving system into thousands of Chrysler and Jaguar vehicles at a planned factory in Michigan.
  • Velodyne, a leader in lidar sensors, just licensed its technology to Veoneer, another experienced auto supplier, to deliver a new automotive-grade lidar system for an unnamed carmaker.

Be smart: These partnerships are the real deal, proof that they are getting closer to bringing AVs to market. And while a lot of aspiring tech companies announce impressive partnerships, many are just deals to test their wares in the field.

What we're watching: Can the handful of development units be turned into large-scale production contracts?

The lab is different from the road, and there is real work involved to make sure new technologies are "automotive grade."

  • Fragile sensors can work great in the lab. But like every component in a car, they need to be rigorously tested for durability, safety and quality under a variety of conditions, including extreme vibration, temperature and humidity levels.
  • They also need to be carefully integrated into the vehicle to ensure safety and security, so expertise is important.

Some AV companies are also hiring new leaders with operational experience to take their business to the next level.

The bottom line: As hard as it is to design the perfect self-driving car, it's clear that other factors will determine which companies ultimately succeed in bringing them to market.

2. Making progress on accessibility challenges

Photo: Renault

AV companies are understandably focused on trying to perfect their technology for the general public, but they're also working on designs for those who could benefit most from mobility technology — the elderly and people with disabilities, policy expert Henry Claypool writes for Axios.

Why it matters: AVs will need to have accessible control panels, chassis modifications that accommodate wheelchairs, and advanced human-machine communication technology to fulfill their promise for mobility access and to be ADA-compliant.

Where it stands: Automakers are focused on rolling out technology that will assuage concerns about safety and build enthusiasm around the driverless experience. If the general public never warms up to AVs, they won't be available for anyone.

What we're watching: While auto shows have yet to showcase accessibility tech, there is reason to believe the industry is making progress...

Go deeper: Read the full post.

Claypool is a policy expert affiliated with UCSF and the AAPD, where he works on disability advocacy to automakers, and is a former director of the U.S. Health and Human Services Office on Disability.

3. Smarter roads and AVs could make cities safer

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Technological advances are set to transform not only vehicles as they take on more autonomy and connectivity, but also transportation infrastructure, MIT professor Carlo Ratti writes for Axios.

Why it matters: Developing technology for AVs to communicate with other vehicles as well as infrastructure like streets, traffic lights and road signs could both improve safety and decrease congestion.

Details: Several initiatives are already building prototypes of smart infrastructure components, some of which could potentially communicate with AVs directly.

  • Australian company Büro North has proposed traffic lights on the ground capable of lighting up in response to pedestrians.
  • Umbrellium in the U.K. has developed Starling Crossing, a pedestrian crossing that uses lights and signals to direct traffic. It relies on a neural-network framework that can anticipate people's movements and change the configuration of a crossing or buffer zone accordingly.
  • MIT's Senseable City Lab has developed slot-based intersections, modeled after air traffic control systems, that could double the rate at which approaching vehicles move through intersections.

Yes, but: A connected infrastructure system would collect enormous amounts of data on how, when and where people travel. It would be crucial to protect that data and leverage it responsibly in order to build public trust and get public buy-in.

Go deeper: Read the full post.

Ratti is an architect and engineer who leads the Carlo Ratti Associati design practice and the MIT Senseable City Lab.

4. Driving the conversation

Swept out: Chinese Self-Driving Startup Roadstar.ai Drops Co-Founder For Alleged Corruption, Faked Data (Edward Niedermeyer — The Drive)

  • Why it matters: Co-founder Zhou Guang's AV experience at Baidu and Tesla helped attract $128 million from Chinese investors, giving the startup instant credibility. That could all be at risk now.
  • Separately, in a statement to Axios, Roadstar.ai referred to the change as "growing pains" and said investors remain "committed."

Zigzag: Apple cuts more than 200 jobs from autonomous car unit (Ina Fried — Axios)

  • Why it matters, per Ina: Apple has had fits and starts in the project, changing leadership and approaches multiple times. The cuts follow the re-hiring of Doug Field, a former Apple executive who had been at Tesla.

Look, ma! Uber is exploring autonomous bikes and scooters (Megan Rose Dickey — TechCrunch)

  • Why it matters, per Stan Caldwell of Carnegie Mellon's Traffic21 Institute: Automated bikes and scooters could address inappropriate parking, rebalance fleets, improve rider safety and maybe keep riders on legal rights of way.

Sputnik AV: Russia's Yandex has created what may be the most aggressive AV tech (Pete Bigelow — Automotive News) (subscription)

  • My thought bubble: This is a fascinating and insightful first-person account of riding along with an unknown, but clearly ambitious, Russian AV developer.

P.S. In a sign of the times, WardsAuto’s annual 10 Best Engines Awards is being renamed Wards 10 Best Engines & Propulsion Systems to reflect the growing trend toward electrified vehicles. EV systems accounted for 40% of the winners the past 2 years. How long before all 10 winners are electric?

5. What I'm driving

The Sorento's third-row seat folds down for more cargo space. Photo: Kia

This week's ride is the family-friendly Kia Sorento SXL V6 AWD, which has been updated for the 2019 model year with new driver-assistance features and a standard third-row seat.

The Sorento is small compared to other mid-sized SUVs like the Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot or Toyota Highlander, so you're more likely to put your kids in the third row, not Grandma. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for in value.

  • The Sorento starts around $26,000 and climbs to around $47,000 for the fully loaded model I'm driving.

Safety points: The Sorento is available with just about every driver-assistance feature on the market today. A rearview camera is standard on all models, but the SXL has it all...

  • Front and rear parking sensors
  • A surround-view camera
  • Blind spot monitoring, plus lane departure warning and lane-keeping assist
  • Rear cross traffic alert
  • Adaptive cruise control with forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking
  • Pedestrian detection
  • Driver drowsiness monitoring

My thought bubble: In other vehicles, I sometimes feel like I'm vying for control of the wheel. But, the Sorento's subtle lane-keeping assist inspires confidence, not fear.

Joann Muller