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News Roundup: Baidu Surprises By Offering Up Its Driverless Technology to the World For Free, Autonomous Trains to Debut in Delhi This June, and More

Jennifer van der Kleut

A roundup of some of the most interesting headlines to come out of the driverless and connected-car industries this week:

Baidu challenges the likes of Google, Tesla by offering its driverless tech to all

Chinese tech giant Baidu surprised industry analysts this week by offering up its driverless vehicle software to the world in what many are calling an attempt to challenge the likes of Tesla Motors and Google. Baidu is naming the project Apollo and says it will offer automakers all the tools they need to build an autonomous vehicle. “Essentially, Baidu is trying to become to cars what Google’s Android has become to smartphones – an operating system that will power a number of driverless vehicles,” CNBC explains. Baidu has been investing heavily in autonomous drive technology over the past year or two. The company has already tested driverless cars on highways in Beijing, and recently obtained a permit to test in California. Read more from CNBC.

 

Driverless Metro trains to debut in Delhi in June

Indian news media is reporting that Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) is putting the finishing touches on a new system capable of operating without a driver, and says the public will be able to ride on it come June of this year. The trains will run on only two lines: Pink, which runs between Mukundpur and Shiv Vihar, and Magenta, which runs between Botanical Garden and Janakpuri west, covering a distance of 96 km. Testing took place between October and December of last year. Additional tracks are also being built, and testing will take place in new areas later this year. Read more from the Hindustan Times.

 

Grand Theft Auto 5 being used as simulation environment for driverless systems?

Possibly, soon. Professor Alain Kornhauser, professor of operations research and financial engineering at Princeton University, described the video game “Grand Theft Auto V” as “the richest virtual environment that we could extract data from” this week when speaking to media outlets. The actions of more than 1,000 virtual drivers and pedestrians in the game, along with “disordered roads” and changing weather offer a wealth of unpredictable conditions that can help teach artificial intelligence of driverless systems to respond safely, making the game a top-recommended game for developers to use as a training simulator. Read more from Engineering & Technology magazine.

Photo: A Metro train in Delhi, by Delhi Metro Rail Corporation

News Roundup: Dubai Residents Get Free Rides on Driverless Shuttle, Blackberry Expands Partnership with Ford Motor Co., 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:

 

Mercedes exec aims to clarify statement made on whether it would prioritize safety of car occupants over pedestrians in driverless car accidents

It’s an ethics dilemma that has caused controversy for years when it comes to talk of a driverless future–if a driverless car is faced with the choice of plowing ahead into a pedestrian, or veering to avoid the pedestrian but potentially crashing the car into a median and risking the lives of the car’s occupants (or any number of similar no-win traffic situations), which is the right choice? Well, it appeared at a recent public appearance by Christoph von Hugo, Mercedes manager of assistance systems, active safety and ratings, that Mercedes planned to always prioritize the safety of a car’s occupants over a pedestrian when he said, essentially, “save the life you know you can save.” However, Mercedes now appears to be backing away from those comments after backlash from outlets who surveyed consumers and found that many people would be uncomfortable riding in a driverless car programmed to sacrifice the life of the imagined pedestrian. Read more on Mercedes’ position (or lack thereof) from BT.com.

 

Dubai residents treated to sneak-peek rides on driverless shuttle

Dubai pedestrians were treated to a surprise glimpse into the future recently when Road and Transport Authority officials offered them rides in their new driverless shuttle. The vehicle was part of a public transport trial by the emirate’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA). The automated, 12-passenger shuttle bus carried passengers down a 700-metre stretch of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Boulevard, between a stop opposite Dubai Opera and the Vida Downtown Dubai hotel. After their ride, officials asked passengers to fill out a survey assessing their confidence in the technology, and whether they thought it was a passing fad. Read more from The National.

 

Blackberry expanding partnership with Ford, Ford will replace Microsoft’s Sync with Blackberry’s QNX platform

Since acquiring the QNX platform in 2010, Blackberry is reportedly focusing on a lucrative partnership with Ford and hoping it will pull them in a profitable new direction since abandoning their smartphone business. As part of a new agreement between Ford and Blackberry, reported by Blackberry recently, Blackberry will dedicate a team of engineers to work with Ford on replacing Ford’s current Sync by Microsoft infotainment system with QNX. Industry analysts say this bodes very well for Blackberry’s future as they transition from a hardware to a software company. Read more about the Ford-Blackberry partnership from TechRepublic.

News Roundup: Promising AI for Driverless Cars, Fleet of Driverless Taxis to Hit Singapore, and More

Jennifer van der Kleut

A roundup of headlines from the driverless and connected-car worlds so far this week:

FiveAI’s artificial intelligence system looks promising for autonomous cars

A Britain-based startup working on artificial intelligence (AI) for autonomous cars could prove to be quite the competitor for companies like Tesla and Google. FiveAI has secured millions in venture capital for its system that is “data light” (unlike Google) and requires no human supervision (unlike Tesla). FiveAI’s project will outfit a car with sensors run by a central computer system that is capable of “machine learning,” or applying what it learns from encounters to constantly improve its operations. Read more about FiveAI on Economic Times.

First fleet of driverless cars set to debut in Singapore

A fleet of driverless taxis is set to debut in Singapore next year. The venture is a joint project between Delphi Automotive and the Singapore Land Transit Authority (SLTA). Delphi will reportedly use a fleet of Audi vehicles equipped with automated driving and mapping systems and develop a cloud-based mobility software suite for managing the fleet. Passengers will be be able to hail the driverless taxis, which will reduce transportation costs in the city to less than 90 cents per mile, versus the current cost of around $3-4 per mile. Read more about Singapore’s driverless taxi fleet on E&T Magazine.

Robot shuttle debuts at Japanese shopping mall

The joint project between France’s EasyMile and Japan’s DeNA has finally come to fruition. The “robot” shuttle debuted on Monday. It is planned to go into full operation, shuttling passengers around Japan’s busy Aeon Shopping Mall in Chiba’s Makuhari district, next month. Read more about the shuttle on DriverlessTransportation.com and read about the shuttle’s debut this week on Japan’s Press-TV.

 

Driverless SmartShuttle in Switzerland is no Cuckoo Clock

Burney Simpson

Switzerland last week officially began offering live rides on the SmartShuttle autonomous, electric vehicle from Navya in the city of Sion.

The transportation system is led by PostBus Switzerland with a fleet management platform from BestMile. The BestMile platform gives PostBus a real-time overview of the fleet, and allows for its remote control.

Navya’s ARMA steering systems use Velodyne’s LiDAR Pucks, GPS RTK navigation devices, stereovision cameras, inertial navigation systems and odometry, according to a press release.

The SmartShuttle can be tracked in real time with a smartphone app or at a kiosk at a station. It was first announced last year and has been in a test mode since then.

“In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock,” Harry Lime in ‘The Third Man,’ 1949.

France’s Navya operated its driverless vehicle on the open road last year during the Intelligent Transport Systems World Congress (ITS) in Bordeaux. The vehicle can carry up to 15 passengers at a top speed of 16 miles an hour.

Switzerland-based BestMile is a spinoff from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL in English) in Lausanne. EPFL-developed algorithms enable dispatching and routing, charging management, maintenance planning, and emergency handling, according to BestMile.

OLLI SHUTTLE COUSIN

BestMile was a partner in the June launch in Maryland of the self-driving Olli shuttle by Local Motors (See “New Self-Driving Olli Shuttle ‘Talks’ with Passengers”).

The free service in Sion operates Tuesday through Sunday in the afternoon, carrying passengers on a loop between the Place du Midi and popular cathedrals. Plans call for the service to be expanded and to operate on a regular schedule through the week.

Sion, capital of the canton of Valais in southwest Switzerland, had a population of 33,296 in 2014. Most jobs are in the service sector, and it’s a popular tourist destination.

PostBus is Switzerland’s leading bus company, carrying more than 140 million passengers each year.

SmartShuttle image from BestMile.

Memorable Memorial Day for Self-Driving Vehicles

Burney Simpson

Self-driving car proponents in California and the Netherlands spent the Memorial Day weekend testing the technology, networking with other advocates, and working on the technology.

The first-ever Autonomous Vehicle Track Day self-driving car event was run at Thunderhill Raceway Park in Willows, Calif.

The event attracted about 24 firms, university workshops, and start-ups in the autonomous vehicle space. Innovators including PolySync, Denso, Renovo Motors, Velodyne and Nvidia were set to go.

This event was intended to help some firms address engineering challenges and interact with each other, according to venture investor Joshua Schachter, a driving force behind the Track Day. Schachter has said he would like to it turn into a self-driving car race.

Across the pond, the Grand Cooperative Driving Challenge (GCDC) was held on the A270 highway between Helmond and Eindhoven in the Netherlands.

The GCDC is a competitive demonstration of vehicle automation, along with Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V) and Vehicle-to-Infrastructure (V2I) communication.

The vehicles in the challenge demonstrated automated lane changing under three scenarios — vehicles that merge or join a lane of vehicles in a form of platooning; automated crossing and exiting the highway; and automated pace-making for emergency vehicles in a traffic jam.

This video shows some of the 10 student teams in the competition preparing for the event.

“We deliberately chose to test on the A270 public road. Researchers often use their own test environments and their own cars. But you don’t really know if it works until you’ve tried it on public roads, when you have interactions with other cars and the road surface,” Bastiaan Krosse, program manager for Automated Driving at TNO (Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research), said in a press release.

There were four leaders behind the GCDC competition — Eindhoven University of Technology, TNO, Viktoria of Sweden, and INDIADA of Span.

The GCDC is part of the i-Game research project, a European Commission-funded effort to speed the development of autonomous vehicles. It began in October 2013 and is scheduled to end this October.

The i-Game Project objectives include 1) unified architecture and requirements for an interoperable cooperative automated driving platform; 2) supervisory control system for cooperative automated driving applications; 3) standardized messages for interoperable wireless communications based automated driving; 4) and validation tools and events for performance and interoperability testing of cooperative automated driving applications.

Photo by TNO.

Uber Testing Self-Driving Live in Pittsburgh

Burney Simpson

Uber is testing self-driving cars on Pittsburgh roads, and it took a local reporter for a ride recently with John Bares, chief of the company’s local office.

Pittsburgh, in west central Pennsylvania, represents typical North American driving for many. It has four-season weather, is known for its hilly streets, and the area is a combination of older urban and open suburban roads.

“We have the world’s best test site right at our doorstep,” Bares told the Pittsburg Tribune. “We view it as, it’s not quite Everest, but it’s a hard mountain … but the beautiful thing is we do have that mountain right out of our front door to climb.”

Tech Crunch reports that Uber’s hybrid Ford Fusion is equipped with multiple cameras, sensors and lasers that can ‘see’ as far as 100 meters in all directions.

A human is in the driver’s seat at all times during the tests, as required by Pennsylvania law.

The Tribune reports that Uber has been testing the cars on Pittsburgh’s roads for several weeks but that this is the first public confirmation of the live tests.

The car can perform standard driving tasks on its own. It can detect double-parked cars, pedestrians, bicyclists, and other hazards.

The Fusions are programmed to beep when switching to human-driver mode, or when it senses something it doesn’t understand.

Uber created its Advanced Technology Center in Pittsburgh near the start of 2015. It soon hired several dozen researchers from Carnegie Mellon’s National Robotics Center, including Bares, its leader at the time.

Uber announced the live tests in a blog post. The post noted that self-driving vehicles have the potential to save the lives of the nearly 1.3 million people that die every year in car accidents.

“While Uber is still in the early days of our self-driving efforts, every day of testing leads to improvements. Right now we’re focused on getting the technology right and ensuring it’s safe for everyone on the road,” according to the post. “We’ve informed local officials and law enforcement about our testing in Pittsburgh, and our work would not be possible without the support we’ve received from the region’s leaders.”

 

Photo by Uber.

‘Summon’ Feature Drives Tesla Model S Into Trailer: Autonomous Bungle, or Driver Error?

Jennifer van der Kleut

It is unclear whether the car’s self-driving system or operator error is to blame after a Tesla Model S drove itself into another parked vehicle recently.

According to news outlets who spoke with the owner of the Model S, Jared Overton of Utah, Overton said he parked his Model S behind a truck with a large trailer when he was out running errands.

A few moments later, Overton returned to find his car crashed into the trailer parked in front of him, Electrek reports.

Electrek reports that Overton contacted Tesla Motors to report that his car had driven itself into the other vehicle on its own. Tesla engineers reported that they reviewed the car’s logs, and discovered that the car’s “Summon” feature had been activated.

The Summon feature on a Model S “allows the car to drive itself on short distances without anyone in the car,” Electrek explains.Jared-Overton-smashed-Tesla-windshield

However, Tesla engineers say the logs indicate Summon was activated seconds after the car was turned off–yet Overton said he actually stuck around for at least 20 seconds after getting out of the car and shutting it off because an interested passer-by stopped him and asked him questions about the car. Therefore, Overton said he would have seen if the car started moving on its own just seconds later.

Tesla representatives also explain that drivers are specifically cautioned to stick around and “supervise” the car’s movements when they activate Summon. Also, drivers have to double-press the button to activate it, followed by an audible notification that the feature is being activated, allowing them to cancel it if they wish.

BGR news website obtained a copy of a letter Tesla sent to the driver after reviewing the incident, with a complete report of the car’s logs:

“The vehicle logs confirm that the automatic Summon feature was initiated by a double-press of the gear selector stalk button, shifting from Drive to Park and requesting Summon activation. The driver was alerted of the Summon activation with an audible chime and a pop-up message on the center touchscreen display. At this time, the driver had the opportunity to cancel the action by pressing CANCEL on the center touchscreen display; however, the CANCEL button was not clicked by the driver.”

“In the next second, the brake pedal was released, and two seconds later, the driver exited the vehicle. Three seconds after that, the driver’s door was closed, and another three seconds later, Summon activated pursuant to the driver’s double-press activation request. Approximately five minutes, sixteen seconds after Summon activated, the vehicle’s driver’s-side front door was opened again.”

Overton gave Electrek the photo above, which he took when he returned to his car to find it crashed into the trailer of the truck parked ahead of him.

This incident not only appears to shows the early challenges of self-driving car systems like Tesla Motors’ Autopilot and self-parking Summon feature, but it also shows how valuable logs as precise as Tesla’s can be in evaluating these systems and determining ways to improve and perfect them.

BGR agrees: “Tesla’s precise logs are impressive, and could be valuable in future cases where a crash is caused by an autonomous feature of the car.”

Photos by Jared Overton/Facebook as published by Electrek and TechInsider.

 

Self-Driving, Electric Forklifts Automate Warehouses

Automated, electric-powered forklifts developed at the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute are contributing to the growing use of self-driving technology.

Coraopolis, Penn.-based Seegrid takes off-the-shelf electric-powered forklifts, adds hardware and software, and turns them into Vision Guided Vehicles (VGV), said Amanda Merrell, Seegrid marketing director.

This video shows the VGVs in action and contrasts their measured approach to the driving style of their human counterparts.

Once transformed, the VGVs perform such warehouse tasks as Put Away; Long Haul; End of Line where the finished product is taken to a shipping dock; Replenishment where inventory is moved from storage to picking; and more.

Seegrid says its VGVs reduce labor costs, improve warehouse safety, and increase productivity.

Customers include Volvo, Daimler, Denso, BMW, Jaguar Land Rover, and Freightliner.

The hardware that Seegrid adds includes 10 cameras that keep the forklift aware of its surroundings. The software includes coding that allows the warehouse operator to program a driving route for the VGV.

“You simply get on the machine, hit record, drive it on some particular route, get off, hit play, and it just loops around on that route forever,” Seegrid CEO Jim Rock told WESA.fm in Pittsburgh.

It hasn’t all been easy. Seegrid declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2014 as it got ahead of itself and explored new markets. Rock helped the firm to re-focus on its core forklift sector. In addition, supermarket operator Giant Eagle, an original Seegrid funder, agreed to swap debt for a greater equity share of the firm.

The company exited bankruptcy in February 2015.

A customer that purchases VGVs will use the Seegrid Supervisor app to manage the devices. It provides for real-time monitoring, intersection control, and the ability to set operating rules, such as recharging.

The operator programs the forklift to visit a charging station once its battery power has dropped to a certain level, “say when it’s at 30 percent,” said Merrell.

A human is still needed to physically attach the forklift to the recharging station, said Merrell.

Rock says the VGVs have operated safely for more than 125,000 miles due to sensors that stop the forklift when it senses a human is within a certain distance. And the VGVs beep and make other noises as they move so workers are made aware of their presence.  

Dr. Hans Moravec developed Seegrid’s technology at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. It was officially founded in 2003 and launched its first VGV in 2008.

General Motors and Lyft to Test Self-Driving Electric Taxis on Public Roads Within 1 Year

Jennifer van der Kleut

Just months after General Motors (GM) announced it was investing half a billion dollars in ride-hailing app Lyft, now the two partners say they will be conducting joint tests of driverless taxis on public roads–within a year.

The Wall Street Journal reports the tests will be of autonomous, electric Chevrolet Bolt taxis.

One other firm will have its hands in the mix as well. As GM recently purchased San Francisco-based tech firm Cruise Automation Inc., WSJ reports Cruise’s self-driving technology will power the cars.Lyft-GM car

WSJ says details are still being worked out, but that Lyft sources say the tests will involve average taxi customers in an undisclosed city (perhaps San Francisco?).

GM is hoping the popularity of its Chevy Bolt will soon take off, despite slow demand for electric vehicles due to most U.S. cities still lacking a sufficient supply of charging stations. GM is banking on the fact that more drivers will appreciate the larger storage space and passenger leg room of the Bolt, since the car’s electric battery is located under the floor instead of the front of the car.

This is just the latest in a long line of recent autonomous vehicle announcements by major automakers. Earlier this week, Google and Fiat-Chrysler announced a joint venture to manufacture self-driving Pacifica mini-va
ns
. Elon Musk and the gang at Tesla Motors announced they are taking a short-term profit hit in order to speed up productio
n to meet the demand for its less expensive Model S, now promising to have 500,000 cars ready by 2018 rather than 2020. And Volvo announced it would be conducting “the largest and most ambitious autonomous car test yet” with its “Drive Me London” program, scheduled for next year.

With all of those announcements (and more), plus several U.S. states working on autonomous vehicle legislation, things are certainly heating up.

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.