self driving

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California hints at removing backup drivers

The California Public Utilities Commission, a regulatory body that deals with transportation companies, has indicated that they will allow autonomous car companies to transport passengers without a backup driver – a huge step forward for developers, just as the industry faces scrutiny due safety concerns.

The commission has issued a proposal that means companies such as Alphabet Inc’s Waymo and General Motors Co can give members of the public a ride in a self-driving car without any backup driver present.

The proposal, which is set to be voted on at a meeting next month, would clear the way for autonomous vehicle companies to do more testing and get the public more closely acquainted with driverless cars in a state that has closely regulated the industry.

It also comes at a time when regulators across the country are analysing the autonomous technology in the aftermath of a fatal crash in Arizona where a self-driving Uber vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian.

The proposed California rules require that companies hold an autonomous vehicle testing permit for at least 90 days before picking up passengers.

The service must be free and passengers must be 18 years or older.


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What the Uber fatality reveals

The tragedy of the first fatal collision between an autonomous vehicle and a pedestrian points to a potential vulnerability with the emerging technology now being tested on the open roads.

While self-driving vehicles can reliably see their surroundings using sophisticated sensors and cameras, the software doesn’t always understand what it detects.

New details have been released about Uber’s autonomous vehicle that struck and killed a woman in Tempe, Arizona, which indicate that neither the self-driving system nor the human safety driver behind the wheel hit the brakes when she apparently stepped off a median and onto the roadway, according to an account the Tempe police chief gave to the San Francisco Chronicle.

The human driver told police he didn’t see the pedestrian coming, and the autonomous system behaved as if it hadn’t either.

“The real challenge is you need to distinguish the difference between people and cars and bushes and paper bags and anything else that could be out in the road environment,” said Matthew Johnson-Roberson, an engineering professor at the University of Michigan who works with Ford Motor Co. on autonomous vehicle research, to BloombergTechnology. “The detection algorithms may have failed to detect the person or distinguish her from a bush.”

After the Uber collision, the car continued traveling at 38 miles per hour, according to the Tempe police chief, and the driver told police he wasn’t aware of the pedestrian until the car collided with her. A police spokeswoman said the speed limit where the accident occurred is 35 mph.

This highlights what Johnson-Roberson describes as a shortcoming in robot reasoning.

“I live in Ann Arbor, a college town,” Johnson-Roberson said. “So on football weekends, when there’s a bunch of drunk college kids, I drive at a lower speed. Those are the kind of human decisions we make to anticipate a situation, and that’s hard with autonomous cars. We’re not there yet.” 

Autonomous vehicles also struggle to master weather elements. Snow, ice and rain can obscure sensors and render the most advanced computing power useless. That’s one reason most self-driving cars are being tested in sunny climates like Arizona and Texas.

The death is a tragedy for her family, and also a public-relations disaster for Uber and other companies that want to test their technology on public roadways. Waymo announced last year it would begin testing vehicles with no backup drivers. 

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Toyota launches a $4b automated car company

Toyota Motor Corp. revealed plans to form a new company, “Toyota Research Institute-Advanced Development” (TRI-AD) that will accelerate its efforts in advanced development for automated driving.

James Kuffner – CEO and representative director

To enable the new efforts at TRI-AD, Toyota Motor Corporation, Aisin Seiki Co., and Denso Corporation have concluded a memorandum of understanding on joint development of fully-integrated, production-quality software for automated driving.

The company is set to launch this month and will be headquartered in Toyota’s native Tokyo with operations around the world. Together, TMC, Aisin and Denso plan to invest more than NZ$4 billion in TRI-AD.

It’s expected to employ about 1,000 workers and will be headed by James Kuffner, who currently serves as the chief technology officer of Toyota’s U.S. research division. 

The primary focus of the company is primarily on developing the software components necessary for autonomous vehicles.

“Building production-quality software is a critical success factor for Toyota’s automated driving program,” said Dr. Kuffner.

“This company’s mission is to accelerate software development in a more effective and disruptive way, by augmenting the Toyota Group’s capability through the hiring of world-class software engineers. We will recruit globally, and I am thrilled to lead this effort.”

However, even with NZ$4 billion entirely for self-driving vehicle development, Toyota can expect to face an uphill battle with players such as Uber Technologies Inc. and Alphabet (Google) Inc.’s Waymo are already testing autonomous vehicles on public roads.

To catch up, Toyota may have to partner with one of the several startups that offer autonomous driving software for car manufacturers. 


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World first winter testing facility


The world’s first winter-testing facility for self-driving cars is to be built in New Zealand.

Steve Gould,  manager at the Southern Hemisphere Proving Ground, told Wheels Mag earlier in December that planning is well ahead for the facility and has hinted that several companies have already approached them about instigating winter testing for their cars.

Gould says the reason for the facility already gathering attention comes down to car maker’s being nervous about their car’s cameras having to read lane markings and road signs in white out winter conditions.

“Autonomous cars rely on GPS as well, of course, but they check what the radar is reading against that GPS reading, so once the radars are gone, what does the car do then?”

“Meanwhile the cameras are looking for a line down the side of the road and one in the middle, but they’re both covered in snow and ice. It’s going to be a challenge,” said Gould to Wheels Mag.

However, the people at Ford claim they are already having success with autonomous technology tackling winter conditions. Ford uses high-resolution 3D maps of roads, which include detail about where curbs, lane lines, trees and signs are, so the car knows where it is, even if it can’t ‘see’ them.

Despite those claims, Gould believes what we’ll probably see first are some autonomous vehicles being signed off to work in clear conditions, and the next stage will be teaching them to drive in winter’s worst.

“We might see a situation where you can only use the autopilot when the weather is right. When the car knows the temperature has dropped below zero or it’s snowing, it will tell you to take over control,” he adds.

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Self-driving cars by 2020

Consumer car brands are hinting they could be bringing in electrically powered self-driving cars as early as 2020. With cities around the world becoming more environmentally aware, it’s no surprise that the once far-fetched technology is closer than ever before. 

This year’s Tokyo Road Show revolves around the implementation of Artificial Intelligence (AI), which includes the ability for cars to drive themselves as well as assist the driver.

It also showcased that hybrid petrol/electric, fully electric (EV) and Fuel Cell Vehicles (FCV) are going to be a driving force for a cleaner environment and more cost-effective motoring.

The word ‘concept’ in the automotive industry has always been associated as a far-fetched idea manufactured in a way that showcases current design prowess. But this time the term ‘concept’ couldn’t be anymore real and not as crazy as one might think. 

Toyota Concept-i Series

Toyota’s Concept-I incorporates AI and connected technologies designed to help your car better understand people and therefore providing a safer driving experience. 

The car’s emotion recognition and “alertness level estimation” feature can tell the driver’s mood by analysing facial expressions and body language.
The Lexus LS+ concept also adopts AI technology, called ‘Urban Teammate’, that allows for fully automated, hands-free driving on regular roads, as well as ‘Highway Teammate’ for automated driving on fast expressways. 

Both of these technologies are due to come online for selected Toyota and Lexus models by 2020 and will provide automated steering along with automatic lane merging, lane changing and diverging as well as constantly keeping a safe distance to the car in front.

Like the Toyota Concept-i, the LS+ Concept both learns and ‘grows’ with its driver’s habits and styles over time.

Lexus LS+ Concept





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Australia set for AV road trial

Australian technology company Cohda Wireless has received a $2.2 million government grant to test its radar system on public roads.

The grant from the South Australian Government’s Future Mobility Lab Fund will enable Cohda to test the technology on the streets of Adelaide by purchasing two autonomous cars to fit out with Cohda’s radar system.

The cars will contain the V2X-Radar developed by Cohda, which will allow them to detect buildings, road signs and older vehicles not equipped with car-to-car communications.

Previously, the V2X-Radar was trialled on a closed road on the outskirts of Adelaide. This test, however, will occur in the CBD and other urban roads, which will remain open.

Cohda’s system is a first in that it can ‘see’ around corners thanks to its radar technology, and is unaffected by rain, fog or snow.

Approval for the trial comes after South Australia became the first state to introduce laws allows for trials of AVs on open public roads.

Cohda CEO Paul Gray said South Australia was an ideal base for its company, as the new law meant the technology could be tested in real-world situations once it was developed.

“The sensor suites in autonomous vehicles today are still not perfect, and there are still some issues,” he said.

“We basically developed a range of applications that improve CAV (Connected Autonomous Vehicles) localisation and CAV sensor fidelity. It also reduces the cost, because it uses existing infrastructure, and we simply put in additional software to create greater accuracy,” he added.

Gray said Cohda’s technology could be programmed into AVs to increase sensor capabilities, potentially reducing the overall cost.

The V2X-Radar uses wireless signals of current V2X systems to share sensor information between vehicles and infrastructure.

These radio signals bounce off walls, road signs and other vehicles as they travel from transmitter to receiver, and the V2X-Radar can use these radio waves to identify objects within that environment, including non-V2X equipped vehicles.

The radar technology, combined with a 3D map, can provide highly accurate positioning and can instantly detect vehicle speeds.

 “Imagine driving down a row of park cars with a pedestrian standing in between two of them, about to head into traffic,” Gray said.

“This scenario is something that cameras, radars and LIDARs have problems picking up. This government fund would help to improve that, branching from technology that turns Wi-Fi into a form of radar.”

Gray hopes the trials would begin in the coming months, pending the official allocation of the grant.

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US to allow full self-driving trials

 California, the largest car market in the U.S. and a hub of autonomous technology development, has proposed plans to allow testing of self-driving cars on public roads without human back-up drivers by the end of the year.

The Californian Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) is seeking public comment on regulations for driverless testing and the public use of vehicles that will no longer require manual controls such as pedals and steering wheels.

“Since the adoption of the current testing regulations, the capabilities of autonomous technology has proceeded to the point where manufacturers have developed systems that are capable of operating without the presence of a driver inside the vehicle,” the department said in their initial statement.

So far, the state has granted 27 companies licences to test driverless vehicles on public roads, including large businesses such as Tesla, BMW and Uber, and small start-ups such as Zoox and AutoX.  

Companies who wish to test AVs without a steering wheel and back-up driver must apply for an exemption from the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration if they do not meet current Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.

Numerous car makers have expressed plans to deploy AVs on U.S roads by 2020.

The Californian DMV has opened the regulations to comments from the public and will hold a hearing on April 25.

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Nissan trials self-drive LEAF

Nissan will conduct its first European real-world trials of self-driving cars in London.

The company has chosen England as the country, to trial its self-driving vehicles, despite concerns over Brexit.

A modified version of Nissan’s LEAF electric vehicle (EV), with autonomous driving technology will be tested in London next month.

“With future models secured and cutting-edge innovation being developed right here in the UK, we’re looking forward to a strong future of designing, engineering and manufacturing in the country for customers right across the world,” said Nissan Europe Chairman Paul Willcox.

These will be the first demonstrations of Nissan’s autonomous drive technology on public roads in Europe, representing the next step in Nissan’s Intelligent Mobility blueprint for transforming how cars are driven, powered, and integrated into wider society.

It follows recent announcements that both the refreshed Qashqai and the new LEAF, both coming soon, will be equipped with autonomous drive technology to enable single lane autonomous driving on motorways.

The announcement was made following a visit to the Nissan Technical Centre Europe (NTCE) in Cranfield, Bedfordshire, by the Rt Hon Greg Clark, the UK Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

NTCE, the European R&D hub for Nissan, is developing autonomous drive technologies as well as new advanced fuel, energy and efficiency technologies, in collaboration with the Nissan Technical Centre and Advanced Technical Centre in Japan.

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Driverless vehicle demo

Volvo showcased its XC90 electric vehicle on a 10 kilometre stretch of road in Tauranga on Friday.


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