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News Roundup: MIT Rolls Out a Driverless Scooter, Mich. Gets a New Automated Vehicle Test Site, and More

Jennifer van der Kleut

A look at some of the most interesting headlines to come out of the driverless, connected-car world this week.

MIT rolls out a driverless scooter

MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) has developed a self-driving mobility scooter, and the systems and algorithms that power it could have positive implications for other types of driverless vehicles as well. So far, it is said the scooter works well both outdoors and indoors. The new scooter made its public debut in April when more than 100 people were invited to take it for a spin as part of a test of the software. On a scale of 1 to 5 with 5 being the safest, test-riders ranked the scooter’s safety on average between 3.5 to 4.6. Read more about MIT’s driverless scooter from NewAtlas.com.

 

Willow Run site in MI has been purchased for a new driverless vehicle test site

The news has been expected for nearly a year, and news outlets are reporting this week that it has finally happened–The former World War II bomber factory known as Willow Run in Michigan’s Ypsilanti township has been purchased by the new American Center For Mobility (ACM) for $1.2 million. Plans are to transform the 335-acre site into a state-of-the-art driverless vehicle test site. Conceptual plan designs have already been finalized, and construction could begin before the end of the year, according to Michigan state officials. The ACM anticipates the site opening for business in December, 2017. Read more from the Detroit News.

 

Texas A&M engineering students transform Ford F-150 into self-driving truck

Using only the on-board GPS system that came with the truck, a group of Texas A&M students have transformed an old 2005 F-150 Ford truck into a self-driving one. As the head chair of the engineering department, Professor Reza Langari explains, they devised a way to communicate a set path to the on-board GPS system and use that to help the truck navigate itself. With more than $100,000 invested in the vehicle, engineers will soon equip the truck with cameras and other devices which will allow the truck to drive even more fully on its own, Langari said. Read more about Texas A&M’s self-driving truck from NBC 5.

Image: MIT’s driverless scooter prototype, courtesy of MIT.

 

Denso and Google’s Alphabet Inc. the Only Bright Spots Among D20’s Broad-Based Losses

Eighteen losers and only two gainers ensured that this would be a down week for the Driverless Transportation Weekly Stock Index (D20).

The D20 lost 2.5 percent of its value to close down 4.05 points at 156.40.  The Dow and S&P 500 were also down for the week, but not nearly as much as the D20.  The Dow lost 0.6 percent and the S&P lost 1 percent.

The two bright spots were the Japanese Parts maker Denso Corp. (DNZOY) and Alphabet Inc. (GOOG).  Denso was up 2 percent, gaining $0.40 to close at $20.62, while Google gained $3.45 or 0.5 percent to close at $778.53.

Mobileye (MBLY) was the D20’s biggest price percentage loser.  Its stock price dropped $3.81, or 9.3 percent, to close at $36.99.

TomTom (TOM2) had more bad news as its share price plummeted 5.0 percent on the announcement that its Q3 revenue dropped 6 percent.

Visit the Driverless Transportation D20 Stock Index page to learn more about it and its component stocks.

 

Up-and-Comers:

Optimus Ride, an MIT-spinoff startup, has raised $5.25 million in a seed round to develop driverless technology.  CEO Ryan Chin has assembled an all-star cast in which lead investors NextView Ventures, FirstMark Capital and D20 constituent, Nvidia (NVDA), have placed their money and their trust.

NuTonomy Raises $16 Million in Funding for Self-Driving Taxi Pilot

Jennifer van der Kleut

NuTonomy, a self-driving car startup that is backed by Ford Motor Co., announced today it has raised $16 million in funding, which it says will help them achieve their goal of having autonomous taxis on the streets of Singapore by this fall.

Naturally, the Singapore government is one of the big investors, along with major investment firm Highland Capital.

NuTonomy spun out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2013, founded by PhD graduates Karl Iagnemma (CEO) and Emilio Frazzoli (CTO). Since then, NuTonomy has garnered a reputation as being one of the leading companies in the race toward driverless cars.

Now, CEO Karl Iagnemma says this latest round of funding will help them dramatically “accelerate [their] progress—more people and more cars,” he told the Wall Street Journal.

NuTonomy is just one on a list of eight companies working on self-driving technology that want to bring it to the streets of Singapore. The government asked for proposals last year, and eight companies submitted proposals–among which were NuTonomy, Uber and BMW.

“We are inviting companies and research institutions to test-bed their technology and concepts here, in real-life, mixed-use traffic conditions,” Singapore’s Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Transport Kin Keong Pang said in a statement.

Perhaps in a jab at the regulatory back-and-forth happening in the U.S. right now, Pang added, “We are contributing financial resources in these partnerships and we are able to fast-track regulatory and other administrative approvals, and get the trials and test-beds up and running quickly and with minimum fuss.”

TechCrunch explains, NuTonomy manufactures equipment that is used to retrofit existing vehicles and turn them into driverless ones. They are currently using retrofitted Mitsubishi iMiev electric cars, and are expecting to also use Renault Zoe EVs in its autonomous cab service later this year, the Wall Street Journal reports.

TechCrunch reports, NuTonomy is also currently testing cars in Michigan and in the U.K., where they are partnering with Jaguar Land Rover, among others.

Most recently, NuTonomy gained a lot of attention when it ran a test program for an autonomous shuttle operating in an office park that could be summoned by an app. Representatives said the amount of data gathered by the program was incredibly valuable.

Michigan Might Match Florida’s Driverless Rules

Burney Simpson

The Michigan legislature may soon consider a proposal that would allow the state to match the freewheeling driverless vehicle laws just enacted by Florida.

Michigan now allows the testing of autonomous cars on its roads under certain conditions by certain operators, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Michigan’s state Sen. Mike Kowall plans to introduce a bill that would jettison the testing requirement for the operation of driverless vehicles on the state’s roads, according to a report from Crain’s Detroit Business.

In April Florida enacted a law that gives those with a driver’s license the right to operate an autonomous vehicle on its roads without any testing requirement.

The potential Florida/Michigan match-up is the latest in the competition between the states for autonomous driving bragging rights and research dollars. States from Massachusetts to California are opening driverless test tracks or considering loosening rules for firms seeking to develop the technology in their borders.

Kowall, a Republican from White Lake and the Senate’s Majority Floor Leader, has already introduced a bill that would make it a felony to intentionally damage and/or take control of the computer system of a motor vehicle.

And in March the Michigan Senate passed a Kowall resolution calling for the adoption of intelligent transportation system technology throughout Michigan, and urged further testing of autonomous and connected vehicles.

Kowall told Crain’s he plans to introduce a series of bills on driverless vehicles that would discard the rules requiring testing, set insurance liability requirements for connected vehicle equipment manufacturers, and officially name the American Center for Mobility in Ypsilanti, Mich., a national center for the study of autonomous and connected vehicle technology.

FLORIDA SUN SHINES ON DRIVERLESS CARS

Florida300aOther states aren’t standing idly by, nor are they waiting for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to release its state policy guidelines on driverless vehicles this summer.

Florida roared ahead when it allowed the operation of autonomous vehicles on its roads by someone with a valid driver’s license (See “Florida Takes Brakes Off Driverless Tech”).

That law removes a previous testing requirement, and it allows the ‘driver’ to operate the vehicle even if she is not physically in the vehicle.

Tennessee last week enacted a bill allowing for the live testing of driverless vehicles that have been certified by the state, as long as a driver is present in the vehicle that has certain safety equipment installed. The law also creates a per-mile tax structure for the vehicles.

Tennessee calls itself the leading state for automotive manufacturing with GM, Nissan, Volkswagen, parts supplier Denso, and many others operating plants there.

Massachusetts is reportedly preparing to allow the testing of autonomous vehicles at a 60-acre site on the decommissioned Devens military base about an hour from Boston (“Driverless Testing in Massachusetts ‘in a Few Weeks’”).

Devens would be convenient for autonomous researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Volpe Transportation Systems Center.

That could compete with Michigan’s 335-acre American Center for Mobility that could become a big brother to Ann Arbor’s 32-acre Mcity autonomous vehicle test site that opened in 2015.

Michigan and Florida, along with California, Nevada and the District of Columbia, have enacted legislation allowing for the operation of driverless vehicles on their roads.

GOLDEN STATE SEES GOLD IN DRIVERLESS TECH

CaliforniaMap1California has approved 12 firms to conduct driverless testing. Many of the global auto OEMs and Tier 1 auto suppliers have operations in Silicon Valley.

The California General Assembly this month moved on several proposals that would reduce the authority of the state Department of Motor Vehicles over autonomous vehicles.

Some legislators have argued the DMV is hindering the development of the technology with unnecessary regulations (See “California Pols to DMV: Relax Draft Driverless Regs”).

Last week a bill that would require the DMV to hold public hearings on the NHTSA guidelines was approved by a 76 to 0 margin. Sponsor Assemblywoman Ling Ling Change has made no secret that she believes the DMV needs to get out of the way.

And the Transportation Committee approved AB 2862 that would allow the testing of autonomous vehicles without a driver, steering wheel, and brake and accelerator pedals. Autonomous testing leader Google had a hissy fit when the DMV in December released draft rules requiring such equipment.

The governors of Arizona and Virginia last year allowed for greater testing on their roads, while North Dakota and Utah have called for further research on autonomous vehicles.

Photos by Michigan Municipal League, 2011; California_map by Julie Jordan Scott, 2010; Florida February 2008 by Image Editor.

Driverless Testing in Massachusetts ‘in a Few Weeks’

Burney Simpson

Massachusetts may soon be testing autonomous vehicle technology at an 80-acre site about an hour’s drive from Boston.

Devens, a 4,400 acre former army base, is being marketed as a driverless test site by MassDevelopment, the state’s economic development and finance agency, according to reports. Military housing has been demolished on parts of the site but it has electric, water, and sewer infrastructure.  

Thatcher Kezer, SVP with MassDevelopment, says there is strong interest in testing at the site by several autonomous vehicle technology firms and organizations with operations in Massachusetts.

“Within the next few weeks, they’ll be testing,” Kezer told the Boston Herald this week.

Four firms, including one that would test a car and a second that will review driverless sensors, are ready to sign contracts, said Kezer who declined to share company names.

A FAVORABLE TESTING ENVVIRONMENT

Devens might attract Cambridge-based nuTonomy, a developer of autonomous vehicle software and algorithms. NuTonomy plans to begin on-road testing of a driverless taxi system this year in Singapore’s One North business district.

That city-state has “a more favorable testing and regulatory environment,” nuTonomy founder Karl Iagnemma told Masslive.com.

However, Massachusetts offers weather that could provide a true test of vehicle capability, according to an executive with the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge.

“If your vehicle can drive in Massachusetts,” it can drive anywhere, Ryan Harrington, chief of Volpe’s Technology Policy and Innovation division told the Herald.

nutonomy2Along with Volpe, the state is home to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Nutonomy’s Iagnemma and CTO Emilio Frazzoli have MIT connections.

Devens came to the fore this week at a meeting held in Boston that brought together officials from companies involved with driverless vehicles and robotics research along with Massachusetts’ transportation department and economic development arm.

Representatives from GM, Volkswagen, Lyft, and Zipcar attended the meeting.

Due to its size and links with driverless leaders the Devens site could offer competition to major autonomous vehicle test sites such as Mcity in Michigan, GoMentum in California, and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.

Michigan is preparing to greatly expand autonomous testing with the development of the 330-acre Willow Run site.

The Devens site was the U.S. Army’s New England headquarters for 79 years. It was closed in 1996 as part of military base realignment. MassDevelopment controls the area that now houses 100 business and organizations employing about 4,000 workers.

MassDevelopment says in 2015 it had a hand in nearly 300 projects that generated investment of more than $2.5 billion in the state.

Graphic of Devens by MassDevelopment; photo by NuTonomy.

MIT’s Localizing Ground-Penetrating Radar Could Be the Solution to Mapping and Sensing Challenges Facing Autonomous Vehicle Technology

Jennifer van der Kleut

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology think they have a viable solution to one of the biggest obstacles facing autonomous driving technology.

Mapping and GPS technology is a crucial element for driverless transportation technology. There are millions of miles of roads across the globe – how do we map them all, so that our driverless car always knows how to get us to our destination?

With construction and development constantly changing the face of our cities and roads, updates will also constantly be needed. Plus, adverse weather conditions such as heavy rain, snow and fog can blur lines separating lanes and block sensors and cameras.

“Most [Autonomous Ground Vehicle] sensors cannot determine the vehicle’s location [in] adverse conditions,” MIT researchers wrote in a report released in November of last year that is making the rounds on the Internet again this week.

MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory has developed localizing, ground-penetrating radar (LGPR) in answer to those challenges.

LGPR utilizes a sensor that provides real-time estimates of a vehicle’s location even in challenging weather and road conditions.

“LGPR uses very high-frequency radar reflections of underground features to generate baseline maps and then matches current [ground-penetrating radar] to the baseline maps to predict a vehicle’s location,” MIT’s report explains. “The LGPR uses relatively deep subsurface features as points of reference because they are inherently stable and less susceptible to erosion or damage over time.”

The very high-frequency radio waves can penetrate all kinds of weather, from snow to heavy rain to fog, they added.

Read more about this technology from MIT here.

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