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First Aftermarket Autonomous Cars Hit the Road in California

The number of self-driving cars on California’s public roads has nearly doubled in the last month. As of mid-June, 77 vehicles from eight manufacturers have been issued autonomous testing permits by the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). That’s up from 48 in May, and includes the first two vehicles fitted with self-driving technology that its maker claims “can be installed on almost any car.”

Cruise Automation is a Silicon Valley start-up developing a US $10,000 system called the RP-1 Highway Autopilot. As the name suggests, the RP-1 is designed to take over driving on freeways, keeping the car within lanes, and sensing and avoiding other vehicles. Its most obvious component is a pod mounted above the windshield, containing millimeter-wave radar, stereo video cameras, GPS and inertial sensors—although not the expensive laser-ranging lidar systems favored by Google.

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Holland Opens Some Roads to Robots

Robots will begin to get their driving licenses tomorrow in the Netherlands, provided of course they have a reputable human by their side. The program involves roadworthy cars and the roads everyone else uses, and thus goes beyond Britain’s recent inauguration of a slow robotic tram service in pedestrian malls.

But it’s still just a research program, not a full-blown public service. As the government’s announcement makes plain, only manufacturers, universities and other recognized research outfits will be allowed to play, and then only if they've already tested their vehicles under controlled conditions. There’s a lot of paperwork to fill out, and as the announcement notes,  “Please expect an average 3-to-6-month-turn-around time from sending in your application to executing the test.”

Holland has prided itself on its infrastructure ever since it began reclaiming land from the sea with dikes. It has the most densely automated road system in Europe, maybe even the world—though Japan might dispute such a claim.

Unlike in the United States, where companies such as Google have led the charge, the Europeans tend to emphasize putting smarts in the road rather than in the car. One notable project is an intelligent roadway that will run from Rotterdam through Munich and on to Vienna—a project in which the Netherlands appears to have been the prime mover.

Smart Cars Crave Max Headroom

​Although today’s cars fairly drip with digital power, most of it is packed into discrete modules—as many as 200 of them. Tomorrow's even more automated cars will centralize that power both to reduce bulk and to make room for a strategic computing reserve that could be applied to things not envisioned when the car was designed. 

So argues Josh Hartung in a commentary published recently on the Virgin site. “The key to this transition is known in the industry as ‘processor headroom,’ which is the extra capacity left over after the processor is done with all of its tasks,” he writes. “Today’s cars ship with very little processor headroom because they’ve been tested and verified to do a known set of tasks dependably well.” 

Hartung compares the smart car to Apple’s original iPhone, wonderful to be sure but nowhere near so great as it became a year later, after Apple opened the App Store: “The power of the phone as a platform instead of a purpose-built device launched a ‘Cambrian Explosion’ of uses that existed previously only in science fiction.” 

Hartung runs Harbrick, an automotive robotics startup in Idaho. He never says so in his commentary, but in March, Harbrick released an autonomous automotive operating system. The company says the system handles all major brands of automotive sensors, including LIDAR, and can easily accommodate sensors from unknown vendors.

What Apple did with iOS, its operating system for the iPhone, Harbrick obviously yearns to do for the self-driving car. So, no doubt, do many other companies. Remember how quickly Google confronted Apple with its own smartphone OS, in the form of Android? 

All this is harder to do for cars than for phones because cars can crash. Engineers will have to satisfy safety regulators before they can start concentrating a medley of widely differing functions on a single processor. You wouldn’t want the part that’s finding your favorite radio program to get in the way of the part that’s watching out for a head-on collision.

How Would You Like Your Robo-Car? Barista-bot? Burrito-mobile? Rolling Movie Theater?

In the future, we may have trouble recognizing autonomous cars as cars. They’ll, by necessity, share some of the same features as the cars that we’re used to: wheels, probably. Doors of some sort, if you want. A general affinity for roads. But we're getting rid of the idea of a human driver, even as we've already gotten rid of the need for a loud and filthy engine at the front.

What you’re left with is, instead of a car, a mobile space. Literally a platform, in the case of GM’s too-far-ahead-of-its-time Hy-wire concept. It sounds like marketing, but imagine for a moment that travel by car could become all about what you’re going to do along the way, instead of how long it takes to get there.

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Google and Delphi Robocars Meet on the Road

A Google self-driving car and a Delphi self-driving car recently had a close encounter of the robot kind while driving on public roads. But a lack of road rage programming meant that the Delphi robot car didn’t take offense when the Google robot car prevented its planned lane change.

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Autoliv's Automated Emergency Brake Works Almost Too Well

How much good is a faster-than-human automated braking system if the brakes themselves take a long time to bring the vehicle to a halt?  To really exploit such emergency “collision avoidance” systems, cars need big-foot brakes that work right now.

Sweden's Autoliv has demonstrated a radical way to do it. Under the chassis, there hangs a large metal plate that can shoot to the pavement in a fraction of a second, establishing a vacuum that exerts 15,000 newtons of force. The company says this can reduce braking distance by as much as 40 percent.

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Swedish Supercar Goes From Zero-to-Fabulous-to-Zero in Record Time

Sweden's wildest supercar, the Koenigsegg One:1, just set the world record for start-and-stop speed, going from zero to 300 kilometers per hour (187 miles per hour) and back to zero in 17.95 seconds—3.24 seconds faster than the previous record,  set by an earlier model from the same company.

The feat was performed by the company’s test driver Robert Serwanski at a track in Ängelholm, southern Sweden.

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VoiceBox Has Ways of Making Your Car Talk

In the past two weeks, Ford and Toyota have both come out against handing their dashboard electronics over to Google and Apple. They want to defend sunk investments in their own systems and keep the customers’ data—and the customers—to themselves.

That’s wonderful news for smaller companies like VoiceBox, a company in Belleview, Wash. that specializes in computer voice recognition

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Mercedes-Benz E Class Will Out-Robot Top-of-the-Line S Class

New cars famously lose value as they roll out of the dealership, and they may start losing it even faster now that tech—a perishable attribute—takes up so much of the sticker price.

A case in point is the upcoming Mercedes-Benz E class, which will have rather more robotic pizzazz than today’s top-of-the-line S Class. That’s like saying that next year’s Chevrolet will have more of what you most value in a car than this year’s Cadillac.

“Innovations in this area are coming thick and fast,” Thomas Weber, Daimler’s head of development, told Bloomberg News. “While we don’t want to feed wrong expectations, such as sleeping in the car, autonomous driving is set to become a reality much more quickly than the public thinks.”

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Is Google Angling to Corner the Auto Insurance Market?

It goes without saying that when self-driving vehicles dominate the world’s roads, automobile insurance will be different than it is today. Firstly, human error will be eliminated, causing a dramatic drop in the number of collisions that occur each year. As a consequence, the cost of insurance should go down. But robocars may change the insurance industry in other ways as well.

It’s possible that someday when you Google “auto insurance carrier,” the top item returned will be, well, Google. According to Valerie Raburn, chief innovation officer of insurance services at Xerox, Google is poised to take over the insurance market. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Raburn reports that the search giant-cum-automated vehicle industry frontrunner has styled itself as an aggregator of auto insurance quotes. Its Google Compare unit, which has been in operation in the United Kingdom since 2012, gathers quotes from carriers so shoppers can compare rates and policy coverages side by side. Google not only collects a fee each time a user on the site buys one of the policies about which it delivers information, but the company also gains a wealth of information on how risk is priced in the competitive market. This, says Raburn, “could allow the company to insure tomorrow’s vehicles, or simply roll the cost of insurance into the retail price of Google’s own driverless car once it hits the market.”

So it’s possible that auto insurance, as we know it, will cease to exist. If, in the distant future, all cars drive themselves, fault won’t be an issue. Raburn envisions self-driving cars being covered by something akin to the general product liability insurance that now covers your toaster, refrigerator, or coffee maker. And Google, having accounted for the cost of that insurance when it sets its cars’ retail prices, could effectively push today’s carriers out of the market. 

In March, the company brought Google Compare to the United States; the site, now available for drivers in California, brings up quotes from about a dozen carriers, including MetLife and Mercury Insurance. As the testing of self-driving cars on U.S. roads—and in specially-built testing grounds, such as Mcity, the 13-hectare simulated municipality on the Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan—brings us closer to the day when humans’ role in the driving experience is limited to telling vehicles where to go, Google is positioning itself to control what happens on the rare occasions that robocars crash.


Cars That Think

IEEE Spectrum’s blog about the sensors, software, and systems that are making cars smarter, more entertaining, and ultimately, autonomous.
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