Friday Fun: Rich kids from China buying high-end cars in Vancouver, license plate readers and experts say AVs are ‘decades away’

Toyota's uBox concept vehicle, designed with customization in mind.

By Jeff Sanford

Toronto, Ontario — April 14, 2016 — It’s time for another edition of Friday Fun! This week: Hyper-rich kids of the Chinese Communist Party elite super heat the Vancouver high-end car market, license plate readers create private plate databases and all the reasons AVs may be decades away from getting on the road.

– According to Bloomberg the traditional “sports car” is in “serious trouble.” The report notes that “swanky sports cars are losing momentum in the US of late. Sales in the segment have declined for the past six quarters. Last year, nearly one-third of premium sports car purchases vanished, according to Edmunds.com. The trend is only accelerating this year.” There was a 52 percent drop in sales during the first quarter of 2016.

– Toyota and students at Clemson University have designed a concept car for “Generation Z.” These are the folks born after the millenials. It’s called the uBox, and according to a Toyota press statement, it’s “… a vehicle that can provide utility and recreation on the weekend, but that can also offer office space or other career-centric or lifestyle uses during the week.”

It’s a little boxy looking, but we’ve got to admit that the uBox has some neat features. For one thing, the interior offers a lot of customization options. You can use 3D printing to give it customized vents, bezels and door trim. Plus, the interior seaing can be rearranged to create more space for passengers or for working. You could easily turn one of these into a customized mobile office.

– According to a story running in Buffalo News, “Private companies have flocked to automatic license plate readers, not for policing, but for profit.” Privately owned plate readers take pictures of every plate they see, and search out select cars on “lists created for their business needs … Auto insurance companies use the data to detect ‘garage fraud’ – drivers falsely registering their vehicles in places with less costly insurance premiums.” Repo drivers have cameras on their dashboard that record every license plate in large databases. The trade is perfectly legal according to the report.

– Virginia has made police stop ticketing un-inspected cars … that are sitting in the parking lot of places where the cars are about to be inspected. The Washington Post reported that one particularly overzealous parking officer even ticketed a customer of a service center who’d moved inside the shop for an inspection. A scuffle followed, as well as a court case that drew attention to the desperate and dodgy revenue creation scheme.

– Interesting story in the New York Times this week about the very well-off young sons and daughters of Chinese Communist Party officials who have moved to Vancouver in great numbers. The kids are apparently boosting the high-end car market in the city. Sales have almost doubled. One of the young scions of the ruling class in China had a $600,000 Lamborghini Aventador Roadster Galaxy wrapped with an outer space graphic. Police in Vancouver recently impounded a group of $200,000 cars involved in racing. All the drivers were under 21.

– The world’s biggest traffic jam is taking place at ports all over the world right now. Reuters reports that the global oil market has been flooded with great surges of new crude from shale sources in the US. This week, “huge queues of supertankers have formed in some of the world’s busiest sea lanes, where some 200 million barrels of crude lies waiting to be loaded or delivered,” according to a Reuters report. The glut will only last so long, however. The International Energy Agency expects global oil markets to “move close to balance” in the second half of the year. The Saudis recently said the price of oil could spike again to $200 a barrel again if investment in new production isn’t maintained and production plunges wildly as a result of the current low prices.

– Radar, “WiFi roads” and autonomous cars will be tested in the UK by the end of 2017 as part of a well-funded government project run by Highways England. According to a report, “Included in the UK trials is a connected corridor on the A2/M2 between London and Kent where information will be transferred wirelessly to specially adapted vehicles and passed on to other cars suggesting changing lanes or alternative routes. Radar technology will be set up on motorways and in tunnels … to improve breakdown detection, while sensors will be placed on bridges and roads to speed up maintenance.”

– The Rand Corporation has released an extremely interesting report about automated vehicles. According to Rand analysts, it’ll be decades before autonomous cars are ever widely accepted. The report’s authors also state that testing vehicles in real situations will be the only way to figure out how safe they are.

The report goes on to “calculate the number of miles that would need to be driven to provide clear statistical evidence of autonomous vehicle safety, and finds that fully autonomous vehicles would “have to be driven hundreds of millions of miles and sometimes hundreds of billions of miles to demonstrate their safety in terms of fatalities and injuries. Under even aggressive testing assumptions, existing fleets would take tens and sometimes hundreds of years to drive these miles — an impossible proposition if the aim is to demonstrate performance prior to releasing them for consumer use … Our findings demonstrate that developers of this technology and third-party testers cannot simply drive their way to safety.”

Instead, the emerging AV industry will need to develop “innovative methods of demonstrating safety and reliability.” All in, “test-driving alone cannot provide sufficient evidence for demonstrating autonomous vehicle safety … Even with these methods, it may not be possible to establish with certainty the safety of autonomous vehicles. Uncertainty will remain.”

The report goes on to state that autonomous vehicles will not eliminate all crashes. Inclement weather and complex driving environments still “pose challenges for autonomous vehicles,” as well as for human drivers, and autonomous vehicles might perform worse than human drivers in some cases. There is also the potential for autonomous vehicles to pose new risks. You can check out the report at rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1478.html.

– Could AVs mean the end of high-speed chases? An article on CBS MarketWatch ponders some deeper issues posed by connected cars. Presumably a system of connected cars could have a police override function built in. Cars would simply come to a stop if police ordered the vehicle over. Some of the other possibilites that begin to arrive with connected cars included the ability to “talk” with the road and work out a maximally efficient pattern for efficient traffic flow. The cars and lanes could automatically be cleared for emergency vehicles. Emergency crews could “redirect AVs away from problematic lanes, and around police, fire and EMS activity.” Classes of vehicles could be banned from sensitive locations such as military bases. High-speed chases would be a thing of the past … until some miscreant secretly disables their car’s connected tech. We also predict that “classic” cars would become very popular with a certain class of people.

– Toronto has also released a report on AVs. The report mentions that the money in parking fines the city collects could be in danger.

– Despite their seeming acceptance of the trend, major automakers have warnd the NHTSA to slow down on introductions of AV regs. According to a report, Paul Scullion, Safety Manager at the Association of Global Automakers, warned at a meeting that issuing guidance instead of writing regulations could allow dangerous cars on the road.

“While this process is often time-consuming, these procedural safeguards are in place for valid reasons,” Scullion reportedly said. The Association of Global Automakers represents Aston Martin, Ferrari, Honda, Hyundai, Isuzu, Kia, Maserati, McLaren, Nissan, Subaru, and Suzuki and Toyota. Other meeting attendees reportedly “argued that today’s self-driving cars can be foiled by bad weather, poor lane markings and an inability to take directions from police officers.”

– Another story throwing some water on the overheated hype about AVs: MIT Technology Review suggests that the thing that’s really going to hold back the advance of truly autonomous vehicles is the cost: the sensors and computers are too expensive to be deployed widely. Achieving even “more complete automation will probably mean using more advanced, more expensive sensors and computers. The spinning laser instrument, or LIDAR, seen on the roof of Google’s cars, for instance, provides the best 3-D image of the surrounding world, accurate down to two centimeters, but sells for around $80,000 … Such instruments will also need to be miniaturized and redesigned, adding more cost, since few car designers would slap the existing ones on top of a sleek new model.”

Cost will be just one factor, though. While several US states have passed laws permitting autonomous cars to be tested on their roads, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has yet to devise regulations for testing and certifying the safety and reliability of autonomous features.

“Most daunting, however, are the remaining computer science and artificial intelligence challenges. Automated driving will at first be limited to relatively simple situations, mainly highway driving, because the technology still can’t respond to uncertainties posed by oncoming traffic, rotaries, and pedestrians … we might still be decades behind humans with our machine technology. There are major, unsolved, difficult issues here. We have to be careful that we don’t overhype how well it works.”


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