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News Roundup: A Semi-Autonomous Motorcycle, Driverless Cars Hit Public Roads in England, and More

Jennifer van der Kleut

A roundup of some of the most interesting news to come out of the driverless, connected-car world this week:

BMW says helmets won’t be needed with their self-balancing motorcycle

While most of the world is focused on semi-autonomous features that can make cars safer, BMW has been quietly focusing on a semi-autonomous motorcycle. This week, the auto manufacturer unveiled its design for the Vision Next 100 bike, with features like semi-autonomous steering and self-balancing wheels. Instead of a helmet, the bike will come with a visor that has an internal display super-imposed over the road and surrounding environment. The bike’s connected-vehicle system will give alerts about obstacles and risks on that display. BMW says the self-balancing wheels are so effective, a rider won’t even need to put their feet down on the ground when they stop, and it will be so hard to crash the bike, traditional helmets and padded, protective clothing won’t be necessary. Read more about the Vision Next 100 on CNNMoney.

Driverless cars tested on UK public roads for the first time

As Britain keeps moving toward its goal of having driverless cars on the road by 2020, a test car hit the public streets of Milton Keynes for the first time on Tuesday. Traveling at about 5 km per hour, the small two-seater driverless pod car navigated the streets of the largely pedestrianized southern town, stopping for people that crossed in front of it and safely turning corners. The pod car, heavily adapted from a compact Renault car, was developed by the Oxford University spin-out Oxbotica. Read more about the driverless car’s first public trip from Reuters.

Lots of driverless news out of California this week

According to news outlets like Ars Technica, Wall Street Journal and Elektrek, things are really heating up in California, where the number of companies that have been issued permits to test autonomous vehicles has just climbed to 17, up by three just since the end of summer. The two newest permits were issued to Wheego, an electric vehicle powertrain engineering company, and Valeo, a familiar name in the industry as a longtime tier-one automotive supplier. Also recently, Chinese tech firm Baidu received a testing permit. In other California news, Elektrek was one of the first to spot prototypes of Google’s long-awaited self-driving Chrysler Pacific mini-vans in Mountain View last weekend, and published a few somewhat grainy photos. Read more recent industry news from Ars Technica.

Image: Vision Next 100 semi-autonomous motorcycle prototype, by BMW.

Nvidia Video of Self-Driving Car in Rain, Country Lanes

Burney Simpson

A new video from Nvidia researchers offers an extended view of an autonomous car driving on public roads in New Jersey, managing rain, an unmarked road, and other challenges.

Nearly all of the 14-minute video presents the point of view of a car observing the autonomous vehicle. There are a few minutes showing the autonomous car’s view as it travels a rolling country road.

The researchers used an Nvidia DevBox and Torch 7 for training and an Nvidia Drive PX self-driving car using a Torch 7. The system operates at 30 frames per second.

The video appears to have been shot around Holmdel, N.J., where Nvidia opened an office in February in what had been a Bell Labs site.

It’s not clear if it is legal to operate a self-driving vehicle on a public road in New Jersey. The state legislature has been considering proposals on the technology since 2012 but has yet to pass anything.

Much of the video shows the autonomous vehicle in a business park, and in what appears to be a blocked off parking lot.

A link to the video was included as part of a paper “End to End Learning for Self-Driving Cars” from 13 Nvidia researchers based in Holmdel.

The paper’s abstract reports the researchers “trained a convolutional Neural Network (CNN) to map raw pixels from a single-front-facing camera directly to steering commands.”

This system soon learned to drive on local roads “with and without lane markings,” on highways, and on unpaved roads, the researchers report.

The researchers says their system automatically learns how to detect road features with minimal human intervention.

They conclude that their system will bring better performance and smaller systems because “the internal components self-optimize to maximize overall system performance, instead of optimizing human-selected intermediate criteria, e.g., lane detection. Such criteria understandably are selected for ease of human interpretation which doesn’t automatically guarantee maximum system performance.

“Smaller networks are possible because the system learns to solve the problem with the minimal number of processing steps.”

Nvidia Video of Self-Driving Car in Rain, Unmarked Lanes

A new video from Nvidia researchers offers an extended view of an autonomous car driving on public roads in

Nearly all of the 14-minute video presents the point of view of a car observing the autonomous vehicle. There are a few minutes showing the autonomous car’s view as it travels a curving country road.

The researchers used an Nvidia DevBox and Torch 7 for training and an Nvidia Drive PX self-driving car using a Torch 7. The system operates at 30 frames per second.

The video shows the vehicle on a multilane highway, a curving country road, moving through a tight curve, driving in the rain, and on an unmarked dirt road.

The video was shot around Matawan and the Cheesequake State Park in N.J.

Much of the video shows the autonomous vehicle in a business park, and in what appears to be a parking lot that may have blocked off standard-driving vehicles.

The new video is linked to a paper “End to End Learning for Self-Driving Cars” from 13 Nvidia researchers based in the firm’s regional office in Holmdel, N.J., an old Bell Labs site.

The paper abstract reports the researchers “trained a convolutional Neural Network (CNN) to map raw pixels from a single-front-facing camera directly to steering commands.”

This system soon learned to drive on local roads “with and without lane markings,” on highways, and on unpaved roads, the researchers report.

The researchers says their system automatically learns how to detect road features with minimal human intervention.

They conclude that their system will bring better performance and smaller systems because “the internal components self-optimize to maximize overall system performance, instead of optimizing human-selected intermediate criteria, e.g., lane detection. Such criteria understandably are selected for ease of human interpretation which doesn’t automatically guarantee maximum system performance.

“Smaller networks are possible because the system learns to solve the problem with the minimal number of processing steps.”

Report: 20 Million Autonomous Cars on Public Roads by 2025

A new report by the firm Juniper Research predicts that a whopping 20 million cars traveling on public roads in the year 2025 will be autonomous.

That’s equivalent to 28 percent of all cars sold across the globe last year in 2014.

Quoted in an article on CTV News, Juniper researchers said that although to many, self-driving car technology still seems too far away, the amount of money automakers and tech companies alike on spending on development is too much to ignore.

“From the outside as consumers looking into the world of the automobile, progress towards a self-driving, road-accident-free future may seem like light years away, but R&D budgets are huge, and testing is reaching its final stages.”

“This is an important step in making millions of people’s lives better and improving their mobility,” commented Ford Motor Group executive Raj Nair.

Ford famously became the first automaker to test its self-driving Fusion Hybrid prototype at Mcity, the University of Michigan’s expansive fake city, built to be a simulated real city in which to test connected and driverless technology.

Read more on CTV News.

Successful Driverless Bus Tests Could Help Pave the Way for Self-Driving Cars

Jennifer van der Kleut

Driverless cars may still be a few years away, but one advancement appears to be paving the way for them—automated buses.

Several companies have reported successful tests of mostly-autonomous buses over the past couple of months, and the progress has industry analysts optimistic for the future of cars.

One of the most promising projects is that of CityMobil2, which has been testing driverless buses, shuttles and “cybercars” in several cities across Europe in the last year, including Rome and Torre Grande in Italy, and La Rochelle in France.

The company is partnering with several other companies such as French-based EasyMile and Robosoft, and the Netherlands’ 2getthere.

CityMobil is simultaneously working on a socio-economic study of the benefits of automated public transit, and launching public awareness campaigns in the areas where it is performing its tests.

One of the most eyebrow-raising tests that has been performed lately is that of China’s Yutong Bus Company, which posted footage of its self-driving bus traveling an impressive 20 miles along a busy Beijing highway with no driver interference.

The trip included passing through 26 traffic lights and even changing lanes with no assistance and no problems, representatives reported. The bus hit a top speed of 68 km per hour.

In Northern California, driverless passenger buses are coming to a Bay Area business park. The EZ10 bus—also manufactured by French company EasyMile, which works with CityMobil—will transport workers around an expansive office park in San Ramon.

The test will hopefully ease Americans into acceptance of autonomous vehicle technology as it travels along pre-set routes at low speeds, representatives say.

Elsewhere in Europe, autonomous buses are coming to Switzerland next year, news outlets are reporting. Swiss startup BestMile plans to test its automated transit system in the French-speaking city of Sion in southern Switzerland.

The company says its proprietary software will allow BestMile employees to remotely operate and monitor a fleet of buses.

The electric buses reportedly hold nine passengers each. The company says public tests will begin in the spring of 2016 and last two years.

Two other countries enthusiastically hopping on the driverless bandwagon are Australia and Greece.

In Greece, CityMobil 2 buses have already begun public tests in the town of Trikala, and are expected to last through February.

In Sydney, Australia, where underground trains are more the norm, the company Alstom has already delivered its first driverless train prototype, and commuters are being allowed to test-ride it at the Showground station in Sydney Metro Northwest. Those who test it will be invited to give feedback before final designs are decided upon.

All of this is music to the ears of those who anxiously await the advent of driverless transportation. If these and other public tests go well, industry professionals hope this will help shift the tide of public opinion of autonomous transportation technology.