The Autonomous Report: Cadillac catches up to Tesla; universities compete in AutoDrive Challenge

Officials from SAE International, General Motors, the University of Toronto and the University of Waterloo at the official announcement that the universities will compete in the upcoming autonomous vehicle design competition, AutoDrive Challenge. The other competitors are Kettering University, Michigan State University, Michigan Tech, North Carolina A&T University, Texas A&M University and Virginia Tech.

By Jeff Sanford

Toronto, Ontario — April 15, 2017 — This week’s Autonomous Report digs into the upcoming AutoDrive challenge, a three-year competition between eight universities working on self-driving tech; a Ford exec who says autonomous vehicles (AVs) will be ready in five years, but it will be another decade before the public can buy them; how Cadillac’s autonomous tech has caught up to Tesla’s and much, much more!

– The Society of Automotive Engineers and General Motors recently announced that the University of Toronto and the University of Waterloo are finalists among eight North American universities who will compete in the upcoming autonomous vehicle design competition, AutoDrive Challenge.

“This new autonomous vehicle design competition will be a three-year challenge to develop and demonstrate a full autonomous driving passenger vehicle,” according to a press release. Throughout the three-year competition, students will focus on autonomous technologies and will work with “real-world applications of sensing technologies, computing platforms, software design implementation and advanced computation methods such as: computer vision, pattern recognition, machine learning, artificial intelligence, sensor fusion and autonomous vehicle controls.”

As well, “GM will provide each team a Chevrolet Bolt EV as the vehicle platform. Strategic partners and suppliers will aid the students in their technology development by providing vehicle parts and software. Throughout the AutoDrive Challenge competition cycle, students and faculty will be invited to attend technology-specific workshops to help them in their concept refinement and overall autonomous technical understanding.” Year 1, which begins in the fall 2017, will focus on concept selection for university teams by having them become familiar with their sensing and computation software. They will be tasked with completion of a concept design written paper as well as simple missions for on-site evaluation. These simple missions can include straight roadway driving and object avoidance/detection. In Year 2, the teams will refine their concept selections into a solid system development and will have more challenging dynamic events for testing onsite including dynamic object detection and multiple lane changing. In Year 3, the competition will “culminate with final validation of their design and concept refinement. The teams will navigate complex objectives of on-site testing, including higher speeds, turnabouts, and moving object detection.”

– Cadillac has caught up to Tesla’s Autopilot with its new “hands-free” Super Cruise technology. The feature will be available this fall on the new Cadillac CT6 sedan. According to a report on The Verge, “With a combination of cameras, sensors, and mapping data, Super Cruise will allow drivers to take their hands off the wheel during highway driving. Cadillac says Super Cruise represents ‘the industry’s first true hands-free driving technology’ — a clear shot at Tesla and its semi-autonomous Autopilot system … What Super Cruise won’t allow, though, is for the driver to get in the backseat and watch the car drive itself—as some Tesla drivers did before the software was updated to require the driver’s hands remain on the steering wheel. The CT6 comes with a driver-facing camera attached to the top of the steering column using infrared light to track head position and determine whether the driver is paying attention. If the driver attention wanders, Super Cruise uses an escalating series of alerts to ensure the driver keeps his or her eyes on the road.” The kind of features that may be incorporated into the car to do this include a “steering wheel light bar,” “visual indicators in the instrument cluster,” audible alerts like chiming or beeping, and “tactile alerts in Cadillac’s Safety Alert Seat.”

According to the story, “… your Cadillac will start flashing, beeping, and vibrating until you put down your smartphone and keep your eyes on the road.” As well, “If the driver remains unresponsive—or is incapacitated by a heart attack — then Super Cruise can actually bring the car to a controlled stop, while OnStar (GM’s driver assist system) contacts the authorities to send help, if need be.”

Cadillac also says the new sedans “will be the first to use LIDAR mapping data, in addition to cameras, sensors, and GPS to guide its hands-free technology.” This doesn’t mean that, “the new CT6 will come with one of those spinning Kentucky Fried Chicken buckets on the roof, like a self-driving Google or Uber car. The vehicle itself is not equipped with the laser sensor, but with a database created using a fleet of LIDAR-equipped vehicles, which Cadillac claims have mapped ‘every limited-access highway in the US and Canada’.” Cadillac has been busy lately.

– Ford has also been busy in the AV space. A recent report notes that Ford’s head of research, Ken Washington, thinks, “Autonomous cars might be road ready in less than five years, but it will be another decade before the general public are allowed to buy them.”

A news report suggests that, “Ford CEO Mark Fields said customers will be able to purchase autonomous cars by 2025, making Washington’s new estimate of 2026 to 2031 rather conservative.”

The story also notes that the “company stepped up its investment in the self-driving industry last month with the acquisition of Argo AI for $1 billion, to be paid over five years … It looked like a major acquisition of talent from Ford, to keep up with Google, Tesla, and other tech firms.” At the event, Washington insisted that “the auto industry is not behind when it comes to autonomous tech innovation. He also said that tech firms are now looking for auto partnerships, to ‘bring it home’.”

– A press release from Volvo includes a message from the CEO urging “governments and car industry to share safety-related traffic data.” According to the press release, Volvo believes governments and car makers should join hands in sharing traffic data in order to improve global traffic safety. The comments were made by Håkan Samuelsson, President and Chief Executive Officer of Volvo, at the 1st European Conference on Connected and Automated Driving in Brussels recently.

Volvo has already started doing this in Sweden and Norway in collaboration with local authorities. “Via a cloud based network, all Volvo cars in a certain area share anonymized information about road friction from their anti-skid systems. The info is transferred in real time to other Volvo drivers notifying them of icy road conditions. The same information is shared with road administrations so that they quickly can address icy road conditions. The same approach is used to warn drivers when another vehicle turns on its hazard lights, which may indicate a potential dangerous situation on the road ahead,” according to the story.

The technologies are known as Slippery Road Alert and Hazard Light Alert, and are now standard on some vehicles on sale in Sweden and Norway. “We think this type of data sharing should be done for free, for the greater good and to the wider benefit of society. It saves lives, time and taxpayer money”, said Samuelsson. “I call on other car makers and governments to work with us on realizing this type of data sharing as widely as possible.”

– A new study suggests that by 2030, a quarter of all miles driven in the US will be in self-driving electric cars. The study is from the Boston Consulting Group, and predicts that “residents in large cities will shift their driving habits thanks to a convergence of three emerging trends: ride-sharing, autonomous cars, and vehicle electrification. Driving in a vehicle that captures all three-in-one makes for a ‘far more compelling economic case than any of these forces alone’,” according to a report on Jalopnik.

– A story in Harvard Business Review poses a series of interesting “hard questions” about the coming future of connected cars. As AVs, vehicle electrification and artificial intelligence come together the effects will be felt throughout the economy. “It is a matter of time before we start seeing robo-taxis and autonomous commercial vehicles appear and upend today’s business models. Now is the time for business leaders and city administrators to get in front of the transformation,” according to the story.  Some of the questions HBR thinks future business leaders will need to consider include the following:

  • Transportation: How will driverless vehicles complement existing public transit infrastructure?
  • Automotive OEMs: How will these organizations reposition themselves to sell not just vehicles, “but mobility?” What is the role of the OEM in the value chain? Are these companies a, “facilitator, fleet operator or driverless ‘driver’ supplier (versus vehicle manufacturer)?” OEMs should also consider how it is the companies can help “businesses benefit from greater vehicle automation.”
  • Aftermarket automotive: What is the role of these organizations in a fleet-led urban future?
  • Insurance: What strategic moves should insurance companies pursue as increased autonomy shrinks the motor claims pool? What products will be relevant in the future when fleets and product liability are more important?
  • Financial services: How will vehicle ownership patterns evolve as Millennial and Generation Z customers claim a greater share of mobility consumption? How can banks finance fleets through leasing and/or mobility securitization?
  • Energy: How does the confluence of autonomy, sharing, and electrification change the fuel mix in automotive applications? What will the retail footprint be? How will the vehicle-to-grid (V2G) system look?
  • Retail and consumer business: If new mobility can dramatically reduce distribution costs, should the industry’s value chain and distribution be rethought? How does the logistics footprint need to evolve? What customer segments could a “mobility as a platform” offer?
  • Health care: How do the potential benefits of AVs help manage the needs of an ageing population? How driverless vehicles be used to reduce health care costs?
  • Public policy: How will society adapt to the loss of service jobs that results from automated driving? What new roles could fill this gap, and how can policy makers ease the transition?
  • Infrastructure: As mobility changes, how should governments approach master plans for airports, car parking, high-speed trains, energy, ports and toll roads? These plans have investment horizons of 15 to 30 years or longer. What will happen to demand, pricing, and usage patterns over that horizon? How can governments accommodate these different future scenarios?
  • Cities: How will autonomous vehicles affect congestion? Can the benefits of AVs be positioned against the probable increase in demand as mobility costs decline?

– The race to produce a more affordable LiDAR sensor is heating up. The LiDAR systems on the Google cars cost $70,000, but a bunch of companies are racing to create cheaper LiDAR. One avenue of research is to put “LiDAR on a chip” instead of having huge devices on the roof of the car. “While LiDAR generally consists of a number of high-quality optical components inside a spinning housing, several companies are attempting to design solid-state LiDAR sensors which consolidate the bulky components into a single chip. In this way, they hope to reduce the cost significantly and pave the way for the commercialization of any LiDAR-related technology,” according to a story.

Velodyne is currently the industry leader in LiDAR. The company opened a factory in January of 2017 to pump out the systems. They also have an R&D facility in San Jose, California. But other companies are quickly gaining. Ford and Chinese tech company Baidu have jointly invested $150 million in a company that is hoping to make “affordable LiDAR a reality,” according to a report. If LiDAR can be put on a chip it is expected that the costs could fall to under $50 a unit. Another company in the space is Innoluce, which is a Dutch company using a “microelectromechanical mirror system to arrive at a 100-dollar solution which offers improved resolution and range.”

Researchers at MIT are also working on a system that could cost as little as $10. “Currently, the sensor range is just two meters but the research team claims that there is a clear path to reach a 100-meter range,” according to a report. Oryx, an Israeli start-up, has “recently announced a new sensor which uses long-wave infrared lasers to illuminate the road. Since this terahertz laser is invisible to human eye, in comparison with a LiDAR, the new sensor can radiate at higher power levels. Besides, unlike LiDARs and cameras, the new sensor is not blinded by fog or direct sunlight. This is due to the fact that we do not have much sunlight radiation at these frequencies and water drops only poorly absorb these waves,” according to a report.

– Luminar, is a bay area startup that has just revealed it has a unique LiDAR technology that uses a “1.5 micron infrared light.” According to a story, “… you can put a lot more power into the 1.5 micron laser beam. That, in turn, means you can see further, and collect more points. You can easily get out to 250 meters, while regular LiDARs are limited to about 100m and are petering out there … Why doesn’t everybody use 1.5 micron? The problem is silicon sensors don’t react to this type of light. Silicon is the basis of all mass market electronics. To detect 1.5 micron light, you need different materials, which are not themselves that hard to find, but they are not available cheap and off the shelf. So far, this makes units like this harder to build and more expensive. If Luminar can do this, it will be valuable … They hope to sell it for $1,000.”


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