By Jeff Sanford
Toronto, Ontario -- January 27, 2018 -- In this week's Autonomous Report, lawsuits related to AVs, the flaw in current sensors and much, much more.
Dozens of media stories appeared this week noting a collision involving a Tesla. According reports the vehicle was traveling in semi-autonomous mode when sensors failed to pick up a fire truck, driving into it at a solid 65 mph. No one was killed. As several of the reports pointed out, the crash comes at a time when the auto industry is "seeking federal legislation that would ease deployment of self-driving cars.” Regulators are investigating the crash, but critics are already saying that AVs without light-emitting radar (LiDAR) are dangerous without constant driver attention. A LiDAR unit creates a digital picture of every object around a car, allowing it to ‘see’ houses, trees and stopped vehicles. The current generation of sensors on Tesla’s do not create this full picture. The sensors on the Tesla only pick up objects that are moving. If there are no objects moving, the sensor is not picking up anything - be it a rock, or a stationary fire truck. According to one report,“The manual does warn that the system is ill-equipped to handle this exact sort of situation: ‘Traffic-Aware Cruise Control cannot detect all objects and may not brake/decelerate for stationary vehicles, especially in situations when you are driving over 50 mph (80 km/h) and a vehicle you are following moves out of your driving path, and a stationary vehicle or object is in front of you instead." Tesla is not alone in this problem - Volvo's semi-autonomous system, Pilot Assist, has the same shortcoming… If the car in front of the Volvo changes lanes or turns off the road leaving nothing between the Volvo and a stopped car, “Pilot Assist will ignore the stationary vehicle and instead accelerate to the stored speed,” Volvo's manual reads. “The driver must then intervene and apply the brakes.” In other words, your Volvo won't brake to avoid hitting a stopped car that suddenly appears up ahead. It might even accelerate towards it… The same is true for any car currently equipped with adaptive cruise control or automated emergency braking. These systems are designed to ignore static obstacles because otherwise, they couldn't work at all. This is why some suggest an AV is only possible if LiDAR is part of the car’s digital nervous system, as it creates a true picture of what’s around the car to up to 300 meters into the distance.
Last year, Tesla CEO Elon Musk had been flirting with the idea of allowing owners to download a fully autonomous version of the car’s software. He also promised a Tesla would drive itself across America from the east to west coast by the end of 2017. Neither of these things happened as Musk had to back off his push to advertise the car as a full AV. The company ended up issuing a notice warning to drivers to keep their hands on the vehicle at all times.
In another recent case, the California Highway Patrol (CHP) found a driver passed out in his Tesla. The driver tried to get out of the charges by claiming the car was on autopilot, so he wasn’t at fault. He had, according to one news report, “... [a] very high blood alcohol content on San Francisco's Bay Bridge on Friday.” In a bid to get out of trouble the driver claimed the car had been set on autopilot. That is, he wasn’t driving. According to the story, “The highway patrol, seemingly unimpressed, arrested the unnamed driver, charged him with suspicion of driving under the influence, and towed his car.” Police later sent out a tweet, saying, “No it didn't drive itself to the tow yard." It’s worth knowing that at some point in the future people will be able to get really wasted and have their car drive them home. In fact, as reported here some months back, investment bank Morgan Stanley released a report suggesting the advent of AVs could see a huge boost in the earnings of alcohol companies. Once people don’t have to worry about drinking and driving, those who live in suburban and rural areas will be able to go out and get drunk and not have to worry about driving home. That’s going to be worth a trillion dollars to alcohol companies according to Morgan Stanley analysts.
An autonomous Bolt being tested by General Motors (GM) has also attracted a lawsuit. The car hit a motorbike in San Francisco. The rider claims he was seriously injured by a car being tested by GM's AV division, Cruise Automation. There was a human in the car. GM has a new job category, “Advanced Vehicle Trainer.” That person was in the car. But, according to a report, "The company acknowledged that the car, in autonomous-driving mode in heavy traffic, had aborted a lane change. But GM said that as its car was 're-centering itself' in the lane…” The motorcycle was riding between two lanes, which is legal in California (it’s called lane-splitting).
Another recent lawsuit involving an AV saw a driver in Minnesota accuse the Autopilot system in his Model S of, “... pitching the car into a marsh…” The driver has since retracted the statement about the car’s technology being at fault. http://bit.ly/2Gbm1pY, http://reut.rs/2DADbzA, http://bit.ly/2DAJGSY.
Musk may be burning through much of his cash on public relations. Legendary car industry veteran and a former vice chair of GM, Bob Lutz, continues to speak out frankly about Tesla. Lutz, says Musk hasn't figured out a basic fact about corporations: “Revenues have to be greater than costs ... when you are perennially running out of cash you are just not running a good automobile company.” Lutz did praise the latest Tesla electric car as, "... one of the fastest, best handling, best braking sedans that you could buy in the world today.” He went on to say it had enough acceleration to, “Beat any $350,000 European exotic.” He suggested auto collectors would want to buy one and store it in a garage. It is a classic, fancy and sophisticated automobile. Not question about that. But he was also quoted by a reporter from the Los Angeles Times as saying that, "Twenty-five years from now, [the Model S] will be remembered as the first really good-looking, fast electric car. People will say 'Too bad they went broke'.” According to Lutz, “The last time I checked their quarterly cash burn is about $250 million. For a company that size that's horrific.” It has been estimated that at some points during the company’s bid to set up a manufacturing facility for the latest model the company was burning through $200,000 an hour. http://bit.ly/2DOIBWQ.
It seems Google’s self-driving car unit, Waymo, has noted the above examples. It is going to cut out a step in the process of developing its AV. The company is going to make its vehicles fully self-driving so that there is no need for a human to have to switch from ‘hands off’ driving back to ‘driving mode.’ It’s too dangerous to ask humans to shift attention that way. According to a tech website the company has, “... stopped developing features that required drivers to take control in dangerous situations… as autopilot reliance left users prone to distractions and ill-prepared to maneuver. The decision followed experiments of the technology in Silicon Valley that showed test users napping, putting on makeup and fiddling with their phones as the vehicles traveled up to 56 mph,” according to a story in the tr. A source was quoted as saying, "What we found was pretty scary. It's hard to take over because they have lost contextual awareness." The company has, “... decided to focus solely on technology that didn't require human intervention a couple of days after [a] napping incident…” The company now argues against allowing "handoffs" between automated driving systems and people is too unreliable. "Our technology takes care of all of the driving, allowing passengers to stay passengers," the company said. The ride hailing pilot program the company is running in Phoenix, Arizona sees a, “... growing number of users in self-driving cars. The service area is limited to well-mapped roads on which Waymo has extensively tested.” http://reut.rs/2A8RYMo.
- A new company called Phantom Auto is building a technology that will let a "remote human driver take over briefly for AVs when they get into situations that they can't handle. Phantom Auto thinks it can help speed things along by working on so-called edge cases - rare situations that are likely to befuddle the vehicles, like very bad weather or unfamiliar obstacles the company's remote drivers, who get training for the purpose, are meant to take over for short distances--a hundred meters or so to get past an obstacle, say--so the car can resume operation solo.” The human operators can be anywhere in the world, though they are limited to driving at 25 miles per hour. http://bit.ly/2DpAjSG.