By Jeff Sanford
Toronto, Ontario -- March 5, 2018 -- In this week's AV Report, the problems with self-driving vehicles and car washes, an AV business starting from the ground up, robot deliveries to the door, and much, much more.
A report on CNN this week noted that, “the most cutting-edge cars on the planet require an old-fashioned hand-washing. Car washes have been automated for decades, but companies developing fully autonomous vehicles must rely on a human touch to keep their cars and trucks in working condition.” Those involved in testing self-driving vehicles have found there can be problems simply running AVs through a traditional car wash. According to the report the soap residue or water spots can effectively "blind" an autonomous car. Also, “a traditional car wash’s heavy brushes could jar the vehicle's sensors, disrupting their calibration and accuracy. Even worse, sensors, which can cost over $100,000, could be broken.” But it is also the case that, “a self-driving vehicle's exterior needs to be cleaned even more frequently than a typical car because the sensors must remain free of obstructions. Dirt, dead bugs, bird droppings or water spots can impact the vehicle's ability to drive safely.” The solution in the case of the Google test cars has been to hire car rental firm Avis to manage the fleet and keep it clean. According to the story, “Avis, which has years of experience managing large fleets of rental cars, has been tasked with cleaning and refuelling the self-driving van fleet of Waymo, the self-driving arm of Google's parent company.” Avis has already modified three of its branches in the Phoenix area to tend to the Chrysler Pacifica vans that Waymo will be acquiring to build its AV fleet. The Pacificas are those being built in Windsor, Ontario. "There are special processes that definitely require a lot more care and focus, and you have to clean [the vans] quite often," the chief innovation officer of Avis was quoted as saying. The CNN report goes on to note that Toyota uses primarily rubbing alcohol with a microfiber cloth to clean lenses. Cruise, the self-driving group of General Motors, is “building sensor cleaning equipment into their vehicles [that] should alleviate some need for manual cleaning.” There is even a new startup trying to work its way into this space. Seeva has emerged as a company that develops technology to clean AV sensors. “Seeva already offers a system that heats washer fluid to as hot as 160 degrees, and sprays it on surfaces to clean bugs, dirt or ice.” The chief executive officer of Seeva was quoted as saying that a solution is needed for cleaning AVs. As it’s happening now, software engineers are detailing cars. Engineers with experience in AI are commanding huge salaries these days, so having these guys shammying cars is financially unsustainable. “For self-driving technology to scale, we can't have engineers paid $150,000 a year running around the vehicles and wiping them down. It's going to be quite awhile before we get away from the manual care,” said Seeva’s CEO.
-Oliver Cameron is the founder and CEO of Voyage, a year-old startup based in Santa Clara, California. Voyage deploys autonomous vehicles in retirement communities across North America. The small company is a great example of the new businesses that will pop up as AVs emerge. The company currently has four autonomous Ford Fusions. The cars are deployed as a robo taxi-service in private residential communities in San Jose and Florida. According to the youthful CEO the new company caters to 160,000 residents along 750 miles of road. For anyone wondering about potential businesses of the future, his comments are fascinating: “My naive opinion, before our first deployment, was that a retirement community may be more conservative and risk-averse about utilizing self-driving cars, and that if we could win this uphill battle we could go into any other demographic with ease. It turns out I was really wrong, and that it was the total inverse. The residents love using self-driving cars, primarily because they hate driving their own cars. Whether it's for medical issues or because they want to just get around with zero friction, the residents have fallen in love with Voyage. A few days ago we hit a new record: 65 rides in a single day, and we are now doing that almost everyday. The residents can hail a car through an app. Currently we have certain operation hours, today it's between 2pm and 8pm, and evenings are especially busy as residents are going to dinner and social events. The communities have been very welcoming, as they have a goal to have their residents have an active lifestyle and get out of their homes. The only thing we have to do is mapping and insurance. That's it. Both of these are definite challenges, but they'll become solved problems over time.”
Uber is working on a new business similar to that of Voyage. The company announced this past week it is going to team up with health care organizations to provide transportation for patients going to and from medical appointments. The story was widely reported in the business press. According to one report, “The rides can be scheduled for patients through doctor's offices, by receptionists or other staffers. They can be booked for immediate pickup or up to 30 days in advance. That means patients without a smartphone – who wouldn't be able to use Uber otherwise – can become Uber customers. Instead of operating through an app, Uber Health will send its passengers ride information through an SMS text message.” According to the general manager of Uber Health, "Transportation barriers are the greatest for vulnerable populations. This service will provide reliable, comfortable transportation for patients." Serving these under-resourced communities is where the value of fleet-based ride-share AVs will be felt. According to the story, “one hundred health care organizations in the U.S., including hospitals, clinics, rehab centres, senior care facilities, home care centres and physical therapy centres have already used Uber Health's test program.”
Of course Japan has all this stuff figured out already. The country is way ahead on robots and AVs and is leading the world in the implementation of these new digital technologies. Most recently the government of Japan announced it will be promoting something called the Vision of Society 5.0. This government study indicates Japan will, “prioritize next-generation solutions that tackle pressing societal challenge. Japan aims to accelerate the deployment of self-driving vehicles and drones across public transport, logistics, agriculture and construction. The idea is to address coming demographic-related labour shortages, reduce traffic accidents, streamline supply chains and help deliver services to the mobility-impaired in remote areas.” Japan will host the 2020 Olympic games and you can expect to see huge use of AVs there. "We will provide autonomous driving transfer services at the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games and make automated driving on expressways possible,” said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently. Japan is currently deploying a global navigation satellite system named Michibiki. According to a story, “When the system is operational in 2018 it will be able to provide the world's most precise positioning signals, which are accurate to within 6 cm – crucial for the operation of self-navigating vehicles.” Prime Minister Abe also recently committed to making drone-delivery of packages a reality as early as 2018.
This relates to the trend in the industry to develop small unmanned AVs that can be used to deliver packages right to a client's door. There have been a flurry of announcements of late about various companies working on such vehicles. These small robots will change the way people shop. According to one recent media report, “The role of malls and other shopping areas will continue to shift – to be replaced by places people go for services, not products. There will be virtually no face to face purchases of physical goods.” What there will be are fleets of robots delivering your junk. Drones will likely be integrated into vehicle designs to deal with "last few feet" on pickup and delivery according to some analysts. One of these devices is being developed by a company called Nuro. "We like to call it a local teleportation service," according to a founder of the firm. Nuro's delivery pod weighs about 680 kgs. “It's roughly the same length and height as a conventional SUV, but only 1 metre wide. There is a glass windshield, mostly just to keep other drivers from freaking out. Each will come with a modular, customizable interior that can carry about 250 pounds. A grocer will be able to opt for shelves and refrigeration; a dry-cleaner can go with hanging racks; while peer-to-peer versions shuffling the detritus of Craigslist may have two empty cargo bays with some anchoring straps.”
Also in this space: Amazon filed a patent application for a detailed plan for an autonomous ground vehicle that can roll out from someone's home, pick up a package from a delivery truck and bring it to the right place."The AGVs may be owned by individual users and/or may service a group of users in a given area (e.g. in an apartment building, neighbourhood etc.)," the chief technologist at Amazon Robotics was quoted as saying. “The concept envisions a troop of AGVs lining up at a delivery truck, receiving their packages in turn and transporting them to the assigned address, or a designated delivery locker.”
Another news bit in this area from the past week: Food delivery startup DoorDash has just received a huge investment of $535 million through a round of funding from Japan’s SoftBank and major Silicon Valley VC firm, Sequoia Capital. As it is, the San Francisco-based DoorDash, “connects the dots between restaurants, transport infrastructure, and consumers, and it now operates in more than 600 cities across the country.” With another $535 million in the bank, DoorDash said it plans to increase its investment in DoorDash Drive, a fulfillment service that would open DoorDash to deliveries beyond the culinary spectrum. The company said it expects to nearly triple its presence in the U.S. to cover 1,600 cities. “Our vision for DoorDash is to build the last-mile logistics layer to empower every business to thrive in the digital and convenience economy,” said the DoorDash co-founder and CEO. The story goes on to note that, “this deal again highlights SoftBank’s growing influence in the investment world. Last May, SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son was among the biggest investors in Uber, China's Didi Chuxing, India's Ola and Singapore's Grab. Son has also made a major investment in massive re-insurer Swiss Re. Some have speculated that Son is making investments in both re-insurers and ride-share firms as a way of navigating the chaos that could arise in the insurance industry as AVs emerge and become common. According to a report, “The roll-out of autonomous motor vehicles is probably the greatest risk facing insurers, since people expect it will eliminate most road accidents. As the number of claims declines, so will the primary insurers' business, meaning there's less to re-insure.” Apparently Son sees a way to play this coming eventuality by getting involved in re-insurers. What that strategy could be is not yet clear, but will be interesting to watch.
-Some of the illegal ride-share firms now operating underground in British Columbia include the brand names, Longmao, Udi Kuaiche, U Drop, RaccoonGo, GoKabu, Dingdang Carpool and AO Rideshare. All have developed ride-sourcing apps according to the ministry of transportation, but they are operating illegally. "These companies have been recruiting drivers to operate their personal vehicles as commercial passenger-directed vehicles on the Lower Mainland," a member of the ministry of transportation was quoted as saying. The province has yet to change legislation to allow ride-hailing services, and so they have to operate underground. Even without legal standing the services are proliferating.