The Road To Autonomy

Automotive manufacturers and chip companies reveal what they’re up to in realizing self-driving cars.


Visions of autonomous driving were everywhere at CES 2018 in Las Vegas and the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Still, while there is progress in the technology, it will be years before the average motorist can get a fully autonomous vehicle.

Advanced driver-assistance systems are gaining in complexity and scope, representing steps toward automated driving.

At CES 2018, there was a baker’s dozen of exhibitors in the Self-Driving Technology Marketplace, including ZF Friedrichshafen, Renesas Electronics America, Aptiv, and Autoliv. The Stockholm, Sweden-based Autoliv is in the process of spinning off its Electronics business segment, which will be known as Veoneer. The supplier of ADAS and automated driving technology is scheduled to become an independent, publicly traded company during the third quarter of this year. Autoliv’s Passive Safety segment will continue to operate under the Autoliv name, with continued listings on the New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq Stockholm.

Fig. 1: The APTIV vehicle with autonomous technology drives on the strip Friday, December 1, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo by John F. Martin for APTIV

For all the attention paid to autonomous vehicles, the public attendees at the Detroit auto show were more interested in the latest pickup truck models. And vehicles with a high degree of autonomy won’t be in car-dealer showrooms this year or next year. They may be available on a limited basis in 2020.

Nvidia had plenty of announcements at CES 2018. It added Volkswagen to its portfolio of partnerships with automotive manufacturers, which takes in Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Tesla, Toyota Motor, Volvo Cars, and others. The chip vendor’s DRIVE IX technology was demonstrated in VW’s new I.D. Buzz microbus.

Nvidia and Uber announced that the ride-hailing company would use Nvidia’s chips in the computing systems of its self-driving cars and trucks.

Jensen Huang, Nvidia’s president and CEO, predicted at CES 2018 that robot taxis could be available in 2019, to be followed in succeeding years with vehicles that have varying levels of autonomy technology.

Announcements galore
At the Detroit auto show, Chery Automobile announced it would adopt the ZF ProAI system, which is based upon the Nvidia DRIVE AI technology, for Level 3 autonomous vehicles to be built and sold in China. The ProAI system was developed by Baidu, Nvidia, and ZF.

Baidu announced its second-generation Apollo 2.0 open-source self-driving system at CES 2018. Daimler, Ford Motor, and General Motors are among the 90-plus companies working on development of Apollo, along with Microsoft, Nvidia, and TomTom.

“Open platforms and ecosystems are the best way to accelerate the transition of AI technologies toward commercialization,” Baidu President and CEO Qi Lu said in a statement. “Based upon this idea, Apollo has emerged as the world’s most open, complete, and powerful autonomous driving ecosystem.”

GM announced at CES 2018 that it would put self-driving cars without steering wheels or floor pedals into volume production by 2019. This would represent the fourth generation of its driverless Chevy Bolt electric vehicles, which are going through public trials in Phoenix and San Francisco. The cars are being made at the GM plant in Orion, Michigan, and will be deployed as ride-hailing vehicles in various cities.

Lyft and Aptiv said they would extend their partnership in self-driving car technology, operating autonomous BMW prototypes in Las Vegas after the conclusion of CES 2018. Aptiv (formerly Delphi Automotive) and Lyft are said to be discussing a second pilot program in another American city. Waymo is also partnering with Lyft on self-driving technology.

The race is on
There are many companies, obscure and well-known, that are addressing various aspects of automated driving. Cisco Systems, Google, Green Hills Software, Intel, Qualcomm, and Renesas Electronics are among the better-known companies, each looking for their piece of the autonomous pie. And then there’s the lesser-known ventures, such as AImotive, Argo.AI (financially backed by Ford), Aurora, Clarion (a Hitachi subsidiary), Keolis, Navya, Nutonomy (acquired by Aptiv), Torc, Transdev, and Zenuity (a joint venture of Autoliv, Nvidia, TomTom, and Volvo).

The elimination of errors by human drivers is often cited as a compelling argument for automated driving. “A connected vehicle will save lives,” says Gary Streelman of Magneti Marelli Electronics Infotainment Navigation & Telematics. “When you look at that situation and say how we are going to fix that, you really need to fix the driver.”

Autonomous vehicles will generate massive amounts of data, and they will receive a lot of data as they operate along roadways.

Jennifer Dukarski, an attorney with the Butzel Long law firm in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is concerned about all the data that will be involved with autonomous vehicles. “The minute that you connect to any of your platforms is the minute that your vehicle is looking at you, taking pictures of you, checking your blood pressure, or like for those who were at CES, if you got to see the brain-to-vehicle interface that Nissan was demoing, taking your brain waves and mapping them to your steering ability,” she says. “As a repository of personal health data, facial recognition data, we need to start talking about what privacy laws are implicated.”

IHS Markit sees mobility-as-a-service as a driving factor in the future of automotive manufacturing. The market research and consulting firm has an ongoing project called “Reinventing the Wheel,” taking stock of continuing developments in automobiles and related industries.

“A great ‘automotive paradox’-where more travel via car than ever, but fewer cars will be needed by individuals-will be a defining quality of the new automotive future,” said Daniel Yergin, IHS Markit’s vice chairman. “The shift is just beginning. By 2040, the changes in transportation will be accelerating in a way that will be visible on roads and highways around the world. The pace and degree of this dynamic shift will have significant implications for industry, for public transportation systems and for how people get to work and live their lives – and spend their money on transport.”

Jim Burkhard, IHS Markit’s vice president, global energy markets and mobility, adds, “We could very well be on the cusp of the greatest transformation in personal transportation since the dawn of the automotive age. Understanding the implications of such a transformation requires a broad perspective that goes beyond any single industry or market.”

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao spoke at the Detroit auto show, hailing the “tremendous potential” of self-driving vehicles. She emphasized that autonomous driving should be available in rural areas, in addition to the big cities where the technology is widely expected to first take hold.

“We want to be inclusive, as well, and consider how this technology can benefit rural America,” Chao said in an interview. “And it is worth noting that rural America accounts for a disproportionately large share of highway fatalities. So automated technology (has) an important role to play in rural mobility and safety.”

Early results are in
During CES 2018, named the seven best semi-autonomous driving systems currently available on the market. They are:

  •  Audi Traffic Jam Pilot
  • BMW Traffic Jam Assistant
  • Cadillac Super Cruise
  • Mercedes-Benz Drive Pilot
  • Nissan/Infiniti ProPilot
  • Tesla Autopilot
  • Volvo Pilot Assist

“Semi-autonomous systems can help drivers minimize mistakes and have the potential to make driving safer,” said Brian Moody, executive editor for Autotrader. “All of these vehicle systems are either currently available or will be available in the near future, giving shoppers a great opportunity to get into a vehicle with the latest and greatest in-car driving technology. They represent the best in autonomous driving advancements, even if they don’t quite let you sleep or watch TV while you’re moving down the road.”

And in a surprising development, it appears that most self-driving cars of the future will be available in white or light colors. The reason: LiDAR sensors can more easily detect light-colored vehicles. It’s not the end of dark-colored vehicles. But the capability to detect darker paint colors will require more sensors, which means higher costs and higher prices.

Tesla has drawn a lot of publicity about its self-driving semi-trucks. They won’t be the only autonomous vehicles for transporting freight, however. Einride showed off its T-Pod autonomous big rig in Detroit. The Swedish company is in the testing phase in the development of the cargo vehicle and expects to deliver the first one for customer use during the third quarter of 2018. A formal entry into the U.S. market will come later.

Among other concept vehicles shown in the Motor City is the GM Surus, an acronym for Silent Utility Rover Universal Superstructure. The Surus is a hydrogen-powered flatbed vehicle suitable for a number of applications.

And then there was the odd-looking 2018 GMC Sierra 2500HD All Terrain X All Mountain Concept truck. Instead of the standard rubber tires, the vehicle has four Mattracks treads, similar to the treads of bulldozers and military tanks. The truck has a 6.6-liter turbo-diesel V8 engine with 445 horsepower and 910 pounds of torque.

The road goes on forever and the party never ends. Highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last-chance power drive. In short, the road to automated driving will be a long one, and progress may not be continuously steady. There will be government regulations to observe, and the accident liability issue will have to be worked out. Still, the car companies and their partners in the tech industry are optimistic about resolving the technical issues to be addressed in the next two decades, and beyond.

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