Four Things I Learned about Autonomous Vehicles at MOVE 2019
With so much hype from the autonomous vehicle (AV) industry, I wanted to find out how different players are progressing. I came across MOVE conference in London a few months ago, it featured quite a number of AV companies so I thought it was worth checking out. The conference covered topics such as self-driving cars, energy and charging, smart cities, cycling and active mobility — mostly transportation challenges in urban areas.
The conference drew attention to solving some critical urban mobility problems. As urbanization accelerates, some of the problems needed to be solved include time wasted in traffic jams, congestion opportunity cost, urbanization of population, road traffic deaths and air pollution from vehicle emissions.
Being interested in AV, I mostly attended sessions and spoke to people involved in the industry, below are four trends I observed.
#1 — Emergence of AV ecosystem
According to several speakers, there are now many more companies providing services for AV players compared to just two years ago. AV relies on many modules such as road ready vehicle, camera, radar, LiDAR, high definition (HD) maps, system integrator, middle ware, machine learning training data and many more to form a holistic system.
For a self-driving car startup to build all the systems from ground up, it requires monumental effort. Back then, if a company wants to build an AV, it needs to build most of the systems from scratch. Today, there are a lot of companies specializing in each area which the AV players can partner with.
One example is Mapillary, a street-level imagery platform that uses computer vision to fix the world’s maps. According to Jan Erik Solem, CEO of Mapillary, perception systems from AV need training data and automotive HD maps need updates from cameras. By providing the semantic segmented layer on top of street view maps, AV can understand the surrounding while being on the road. Moreover, the constant update of these maps ensure AV always gets a real time version of the surroundings. AV players can now rely on Mapillary to provide accurate and up to date HD maps instead of doing all the hard work themselves.
#2 — More conservative tone on AV availability timeline
When will AV be widely available on public roads? That’s the question on everyone’s mind, especially skeptics. The tone I got from the conference is most people have come to terms with the true difficulty of launching Level 4 or Level 5 AV on public roads. The definitions are, Level 4 — high automation meaning no driver attention is ever required for safety but only supported in various spatial areas; Level 5 — full automation meaning no human intervention is required at all under all roadway and environmental conditions. Most AV players are chasing either Level 4 or Level 5 as their end objective.
To speed up the launch of AV, Voyage — a self-driving car company has taken a unique approach by focusing on serving self-contained communities. Oliver Cameron, CEO of Voyage said these communities are massive and under served. They could be retirement communities, military bases, ports, airports and college campuses. Voyage has launched its AV in The Villages, a retirement community in the United States. The geofenced area or an area with fixed boundary has characteristics like slower driving speed, simpler road and less driving edge cases— the best first location for self-driving cars. With this approach, self-driving car is already a reality for the people in The Villages.
As for when AV will be available on public roads, there were no clear consensus. It is unlikely to be this year or next year according to many people.
#3 — A multitude of challenges ahead
“You should really try out the MIT Moral Machine to understand the [ethics] problem” — Mate Rimac, CEO and founder of Rimac Automobili.
The MIT Moral Machine is a platform for gathering a human perspective on moral decisions made by machine intelligence, such as self-driving cars. When Mate was describing the challenges of AV adoption, he highlighted ethics as one of the tricky areas many parties collectively need to solve. Questions like if an AV needs to kill person A to save person B’s life, how should it decide? Should it save a young girl but kill a young boy? Should it save a young girl but kill an old lady? These are tough questions.
Rimac is an electric supercar maker developing autonomous capabilities and helping other original equipment makers(OEM) with electrification technologies. Other challenges raised by Mate includes, functional safety and redundant systems, computing power, data storage, regulation and social behaviour.
“Public acceptance [of self-driving cars] means at least human performance [in accident rates]” — Stan Boland, CEO of FiveAI.
The accident rate of an average driver is 1 incident per vehicle every 6 years. Although AV promises to eventually achieve much lower accident rates compared to a human driver, it needs to reach an inflection point where the accident rate is lower than human drivers for the public to accept the mode of transportation.
#4 — Major Tier 1 OEMs jumping on the bandwagon
From the conference floor, I saw a lot of delegates from major car makers. They were observing, exploring partnership with AV players and trying to transition themselves to remain relevant in the future. According to Sabine Scheunert, CDO of Daimler, the German car maker is in the midst of transforming from a car brand to a mobility provider.
She admitted Daimler is currently being challenged by fast-paced competition from new and different areas. New technologies and business models such as electric vehicle and battery tech, autonomous technology, mobility business model (Uber, Grab), cost position and asset structure is putting the car maker in a vulnerable position if it does not change. Her #inittowinit hashtag from the keynote demonstrated a strong commitment to this transformation.
Rimac also views 4 million robotaxis could replace half of the cars in the US (currently with more than 100M cars). If this becomes a reality in the future, what happens to OEMs which rely heavily on selling cars as the backbone of their business?
Understanding this path, it explains why major car makers have made huge investment into AV and ride hailing companies to better position themselves for the transition.
I was on a mission to understand more about the AV industry. Despite so many challenges as the industry matures, the ecosystem is growing at a tremendous speed. Would history repeat itself like how automobiles replaced horse carriages at the turn of the twentieth century? I believe it is a very real possibility.
Special shout out to Mate Rimac, who has made my trip possible by sharing one of his guest conference pass with me. I’m very grateful. I also wrote about how I got this idea in this article.
“Autonomous cars and new mobility have the potential to become the single largest positive change for humanity in the next decades.” — Mate Rimac
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