In 2019, We’ll Have Taxis Without Drivers—or Steering Wheels

Waymo and GM Cruise will unveil them in limited areas, but a U.S. national rollout will need new road regulations

4 min read
Illustration: Blood Bros.
Illustration: Blood Bros.

opening illustration Illustration: Blood Bros.

A coming milestone in the automobile world is the widespread rollout of Level 4 autonomy, where the car drives itself without supervision. Waymo, the company spun out of Google’s self-driving car research, said it would start a commercial Level 4 taxi service by late 2018, although that hadn’t happened as of press time. And GM Cruise, in San Francisco, is committed to do the same in 2019, using a Chevrolet Bolt that has neither a steering wheel nor pedals.

These cars wouldn’t work in all conditions and regions—that’s why they’re on rung 4 and not rung 5 of the autonomy ladder. But within some limited operational domain, they’ll have the look and feel of a fully robotized car. The question is how constrained that domain will be.

Neither Waymo—a subsidiary of Alphabet, Google’s parent company—nor GM Cruise agreed to speak for the record. But it’s possible to judge their progress indirectly. In December Waymo turned its pilot ride-hailing project near Phoenix into a limited commercial service by charging select participants a fee. But it’s clearly looking at a bigger target or it wouldn’t have contracted to buy 20,000 all-electric Jaguar I-Pace SUVs over the next two years. GM Cruise says it will offer a commercial Level 4 ride service in 2019, operating within particular boundaries “at all times of day and night, and in light-to-moderate inclement weather.” It appears that the service will be available first in San Francisco.

The limits of current technology may keep these cars from roaming far from their minutely mapped bailiwicks, but to roam at all they’ll need clear rules from road-safety regulators. Chandler, Ariz., offered Waymo a pass, but a substantial rollout of any self-driving technology would require a uniform set of regulations nationwide. So far, no country has offered one for Level 4 cars.

This year Audi says it’ll be the first company in the world to sell a Level 3 car directly to the public, an Audi A8 sedan with a particular option. It’s called Traffic Jam Pilot, because it works only at speeds under 50 kilometers per hour (31 miles per hour), and it requires the driver to be prepared to take back the wheel after a warning—which is the definition of Level 3.

But Audi now plans to offer that option only in Germany and nearby countries with similar rules of the road. In the United States, the rules just aren’t there yet.

img

/image/MzE5ODMxMg.jpeg No Steering Wheel: Nothing mars the view from the Cruise AV, a modified form of the all-electric Chevrolet Bolt. There are no pedals or rearview mirrors, either. However, U.S. road-safety regulations still specifically require all these parts. Photos: GM

The key U.S. regulator, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), was supposed to have issued new rules for autonomous cars a few months ago. That deadline came and went, though, before the agency published what are merely voluntary guidelines. That’s not enough. There’s talk of reviving a U.S. Senate bill that would set a uniform policy, to go with a counterpart bill that’s already cleared the House of Representatives.

To allow huge numbers of self-driving cars on the roads, “NHTSA requires a ton of data on the performance of cars in the field, and if there are none, it becomes a chicken-and-egg problem,” says Brad Stertz, Audi’s director of government affairs in Washington, D.C. “Cutting through all that was the aim of the two bills.”

Maybe the Senate will act and NHTSA will yet come up with rules, missing its deadline by just a year. Or two. Even so, perhaps a delay of that magnitude isn’t such a big deal. Audi, for one, is in no big hurry to field Level 4 cars. Stertz says its Munich subsidiary, Autonomous Intelligent Driving, is doing all the work on that system, and the mother company won’t sell the resulting robocars before their time—perhaps not until well into the 2020s. Toyota is making similar estimates.

“All the companies working in the field can certainly do it at Level 4—in a restricted enough domain,” says Gill Pratt, who runs the Toyota Research Institute. “But to what extent would it be commercially viable?”

Pratt says Level 4 won’t make economic sense until the cars can handle a very broad range of driving environments more safely than even the best human drivers can. “Are we really there as a society, and has government set up the rules?” he asks. “I think the answer is no. Sensitivity to crashes is very high.”

Meanwhile, he says, there are ways of making cars at least as safe without shoving the driver aside. Toyota plans to unveil its own experimental Level 4 car, called the Urban Teammate, at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, a highly restricted environment. But features from that system will eventually trickle down into production cars, to serve purely as a backup to the driver.

Such a partial step to true autonomy in tens of thousands of cars might provide the data that regulators need to formulate rules. That is, the industry might soon be using a lot of partially automated chickens to provide some very valuable eggs.

This article appears in the January 2019 print issue as “Taxis Without Drivers—or Steering Wheels.”

A correction to this article was made on 16 January 2019.

The Conversation (0)

Q&A: Ghost Robotics CEO on Armed Robots for the U.S. Military

Jiren Parikh, the CEO of Ghost Robotics, on quadrupedal robots carrying weapons

6 min read
Ghost Robotics

Last week, the Association of the United States Army (AUSA) conference took place in Washington, D.C. One of the exhibitors was Ghost Robotics—we've previously covered their nimble and dynamic quadrupedal robots, which originated at the University of Pennsylvania with Minitaur in 2016. Since then, Ghost has developed larger, ruggedized "quadrupedal unmanned ground vehicles" (Q-UGVs) suitable for a variety of applications, one of which is military.

At AUSA, Ghost had a variety of its Vision 60 robots on display with a selection of defense-oriented payloads, including the system above, which is a remotely controlled rifle customized for the robot by a company called SWORD International.

The image of a futuristic-looking, potentially lethal weapon on a quadrupedal robot has generated some very strong reactions (the majority of them negative) in the media as well as on social media over the past few days. We recently spoke with Ghost Robotics' CEO Jiren Parikh to understand exactly what was being shown at AUSA, and to get his perspective on providing the military with armed autonomous robots.

Keep Reading ↓ Show less

Biggest Tech Companies Now Building the Biggest Data Pipes

Facebook will lay a record-capacity submarine cable across the Atlantic

4 min read

Google's Grace Hopper subsea cable landing in the seaside town of Bude in England

Google

Old-fashioned telecommunication carriers are falling behind in the global bandwidth race as global giants of content and cloud computing are building their own global networks. Facebook has commissioned electronics and IT giant NEC Corporation to build the world's highest capacity submarine cable. When finished it will carry a staggering 500 terabits—some 4000 Blu-Ray discs of data—per second between North America and Europe on the world's busiest data highway.

For decades, transoceanic cables were laid by consortia of telecommunication carriers like AT&T and British Telecom. As cloud computing and data centers spread around the world, Google, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft start joining cable consortia, and in the past few years Google began building its own cables. The new cable will give Facebook sole ownership of the world's biggest data pipeline.

Transoceanic fiber-optic cables are the backbones of the global telecommunications network, and their change in ownership reflects the rapid growth of data centers for cloud computing and content distribution. Google has 23 giant data centers around the globe, each one constantly updated to mirror the Google cloud for users in their region. Three years ago, flows between data centers accounted for 77 percent of transatlantic traffic and 60 percent of transpacific traffic, Alan Mauldin, research director at TeleGeography, a market-research unit of California-based PriMetrica, said at the time. Traffic between data centers is thought to be growing faster than the per-person data consumption, which Facebook says increases 20 to 30 percent a year.

Vying for maximum bandwidth at the intersection of Moore's Law and Shannon's limit

Fiber-optic developers have worked relentlessly to keep up with the demand for bandwidth. For decades, data capacity of a single fiber increased at a faster rate than the number of transistors squeezed onto a chip, the definition of Moore's Law. But in recent years that growth has slowed as data rates approached Shannon's limit, a point at which noise in the transmission system overwhelms the signal. In 2016 the maximum data rate per fiber pair (each fiber carrying a signal in one direction) was around 10 terabits per second, achieved by sending signals at 100 gigabits per second on 100 separate wavelengths through the same fiber.

Developing more sophisticated signal formats offered some improvement, but not enough to keep pace with the demand for bandwidth. The only way around Shannon's limit has been to open new paths for data delivery.

In 2018, Facebook and Google placed bets on broadening the transmission band of optical fibers by adding signals at a hundred new wavelengths to squeeze 24 terabits through a single fiber. Each bought one pair of fibers on the Pacific Light Cable stretching from Hong Kong to Los Angeles. The leader of the consortium, Pacific Light Data Communications, of Hong Kong, retained four other pairs in the six-pair cable. Although the cable was soon laid, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission has refused to license its connection to the U.S. network because of security concerns arising from its Chinese connections.

Keep Reading ↓ Show less

EP29LPSP: Applications in Plasma Physics, Astronomy, and Highway Engineering

Ideal for demanding cryogenic environments, two-part EP29LPSP can withstand temperatures as low as 4K

3 min read

Since its introduction in 1978, Master Bond EP29LPSP has been the epoxy compound of choice in a variety of challenging applications. Ideal for demanding cryogenic environments, two-part EP29LPSP can withstand temperatures as low as 4K and can resist cryogenic shock when, for instance, it is cooled from room temperature to cryogenic temperatures within a 5-10 minute window. Optically clear EP29LPSP has superior physical strength, electrical insulation, and chemical resistance properties. It also meets NASA low outgassing requirements and exhibits a low exotherm during cure. This low viscosity compound is easy to apply and bonds well to metals, glass, ceramics, and many different plastics. Curable at room temperature, EP29LPSP attains its best results when cured at 130-165°F for 6-8 hours.

In over a dozen published research articles, patents, and manufacturers' specifications, scientists and engineers have identified EP29LPSP for use in their applications due to its unparalleled performance in one or more areas. Table 1 highlights several commercial and research applications that use Master Bond EP29LPSP. Table 2 summarizes several patents that reference EP29LPSP. Following each table are brief descriptions of the role Master Bond EP29LPSP plays in each application or invention.

Keep Reading ↓ Show less

Trending Stories

The most-read stories on IEEE Spectrum right now