US autonomous truck trials go up a gear

The US Postal Service is trialling self-driving trucks between Texas and Arizona in partnership with autonomous vehicle specialist TuSimple.

The US has been ahead of the game when it comes to putting self-driving trucks on regular roads along with the rest of the traffic. This trial involves trucks that drive themselves but have someone sitting in the driver’s seat anyway, just in case, who presumably drinks endless cups of coffee.

The two week trial will, appropriately enough, mark a milestone in the development of autonomous vehicles if it’s successful. The parameters by which success will be measured aren’t clear but causing a massive pile-up would presumably constitute a failure.

While the eventual utopia of 100% autonomous vehicles is still a long way down the road, this sort of thing could extend the distances a truck can travel in one go without the driver requiring intravenous espresso, with this one covering 1,000 miles. The technology leans heavily on cameras, apparently, and we’re not aware of any mishaps but the thought of other drivers unwittingly sharing the road with these trial trucks is still a bit unsettling.

“It is exciting to think that before many people will ride in a robo-taxi, their mail and packages may be carried in a self-driving truck,” said Dr. Xiaodi Hou, Founder, President and Chief Technology Officer, TuSimple. “Performing for the USPS on this pilot in this particular commercial corridor gives us specific use cases to help us validate our system, and expedite the technological development and commercialization progress.”

We got in touch with the USPS and it gave us the following statement: The United States Postal Service is participating in an autonomous truck pilot program with TuSimple. The truck, with a safety engineer and driver on board, will make five round trips, between postal facilities in Arizona and Texas in late May.

“This pilot is just one of many ways the Postal Service is innovating and investing in its future.  We are conducting research and testing as part of our efforts to operate a future class of vehicles which will incorporate new technology to accommodate a diverse mail mix, enhance safety, improve service, reduce emissions, and produce operational savings.”

For many self-driving vehicles remain a disturbing prospect. While on one level technology can equip them with a greater range of tools and awareness of their immediate environment human drivers typically have at their disposal, there will always be the matter of judgment and decision-making. As trials of this sort of technology ramp up the first serious accident will be a test of how ready we are to embrace it.

Jaguar Land Rover takes a rewarding approach to the sharing economy

Jaguar Land Rover is testing out a new rewards scheme that will see drivers rewarded with cryptocurrency for sharing data.

Like many automotive companies around the world, Jaguar Land Rover has seemingly identified the future of the industry lies beyond purchasing a vehicle, and this is certainly an interesting approach. In return for sharing data with Jaguar Land Rover, such as traffic congestion or potholes, drivers will earn cryptocurrency.

“The connected car technologies we are developing will be transformative and truly turn your Jaguar or Land Rover into a third space, in addition to your home or office,” said Russell Vickers, Software Architect at Jaguar Land Rover.

“In the future an autonomous car could drive itself to a charging station, recharge and pay, while its owner could choose to participate in the sharing economy – earning rewards from sharing useful data such as warning other cars of traffic jams.”

Partnering with the IOTA Foundation, to make use of distributed ledger technologies, by sharing relevant driving information with either Jaguar Land Rover or a local authority, cryptocurrency will be deposited into the driver’s smart wallet. These rewards could be used for a variety of different things, such as paying for tolls, parking and electric charging.

The technology is currently being trialled at the new Jaguar Land Rover software engineering base in Shannon, Ireland, forming part of part of Jaguar Land Rover’s Destination Zero strategy which aims to achieve zero emissions, zero accidents and zero congestion. Like many manufacturing companies, Jaguar Land Rover is attempting to carve itself a slice of the increasingly profitable sharing economy.

O2 goes up a gear in the 5G race

O2 has announced it will switch-on its 5G network at Millbrook Proving Ground in Bedfordshire to fuel the testing of autonomous and connected vehicles.

As part of the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s (DCMS) AutoAir project, O2 and consulting engineering firm Atkins join the project to accelerate the development of 5G-enabled intelligent transport systems. The test will be on of O2’s first forays into the 5G world, with the rest of the network set to be turned on across 2019.

“5G will play a key role in how our country develops over the next few years,” said Brendan O’Reilly, O2’s CTO. “If implemented properly, 5G has the potential to drive economic growth, create jobs and enable a new host of technologies – including self-driving vehicles. That’s why we’re delighted to be supporting the trial activity at Millbrook, alongside ambitious partners who share our vision of building a truly Mobile Britain.”

With the UK recently crowned on of the worlds leading authorities on autonomous and connected vehicles in a recent report, a lot depends on the success of these projects to prove the hype. Future of Mobility Minister Jesse Norman has already promised autonomous vehicles will be on UK roads by 2021, so let’s hope this project is a success; no-one wants to see a politician with egg on their face.

“The AutoAir consortium is pleased to welcome O2 and Atkins the 2nd phase of the project”, said Paul Senior, CEO of Dense Air and Chief Strategy Officer of Airspan Networks, one of the founding members of the project.

“O2’s integration and commercialisation of the 5G network at Millbrook to support both public and private mobile use cases is a world first and will be a reference deployment for the UK mobile industry as it moves to support for 5G applications for Industry 4.0, large enterprise and Government.”

Using 2.3 GHz and 3.4 GHz spectrum, the test will aim to accelerate the adoption of connected and self-driving technology in the UK. Part of the test is aimed at improving road safety and helping traffic authorities to monitor and manage traffic flow. It also follows other trials to demonstrate seamless and efficient handoffs between different radio sites.

Earlier this year, McLaren, another partner in the consortium, lend one of its sports cars to the test. Driving around the track at 160 mph, the vehicle was able to receive and send data at 1 Gbps, while also sharing real-time UltraHD 4K video between a network of moving vehicles.

“This project will transform the way we design, maintain and operate on our future networks,” said Lizi Stewart, Managing Director, Transportation at Atkins. “Developing the first 5G neutral network in the UK will allow us to continue our drive for innovation and industry-changing initiatives for the transportation sector.”

While connected vehicles are certainly a prospect on the horizon, autonomous vehicles might be a distant dream. The technology might be progressing, but there is much more to such a revolutionary change in society than simply making a robot work. For O2, this will be of minor concern as the telcos strides towards the 5G finish line.

Brexit threatens UK’s pole position in autonomous vehicle race

The UK might be a world leader in connected and autonomous vehicles, but Brexit could throw out a few roadblocks and speedbumps.

According to a new report produced by Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) and Frost & Sullivan, the UK is one of, if not the, leading nation worldwide in the connected and autonomous vehicles segment. This position has been created through notable private and public investments, four test beds, three highway test sites and more than 80 R&D projects.

The UK also has digital infrastructure which enables the concept of autonomous vehicles, most notably reasonably high average 4G speeds, 77% geographical coverage and the highest percentage of roads which could theoretically be automated by 2030, one in five road miles. These figures are also backed up by friendly policies, most notably the world’s first insurance legislation for autonomous vehicles, which was introduced by Parliament in 2018.

All of these factors combined creates the most attractive market for connected and autonomous vehicle developers, according to the SMMT and Frost & Sullivan, though Brexit could throw all of this into chaos.

“The UK’s potential is clear,” said Mike Hawes, SMMT CEO. “We are ahead of many rival nations but to realise these benefits we must move fast. Brexit has undermined our global reputation for political stability and it continues to devour valuable time and investment. We need the deadlock broken with ‘no deal’ categorically ruled out and a future relationship agreed that reflects the integrated nature of our industry and delivers frictionless trade.”

While many are bored of Brexit now, changing the channel when the news shoots across to the Houses of Parliament, it is at a critical juncture. The decisions which are being made over the next few weeks will not only decide the future success of the UK as an economic power, but also how attractive it is as an investment destination for businesses around the world.

As it stands, a pondering, sluggish and seesawing political system does not encourage any business with policy certainty and consistency. The UK political and economic landscape is the laughing stock of the world and before too long this will hit hard with consequences.

However, the benefits of this industry are clear. The report suggests £62 billion could be added to the UK economy by 2030, if the country can ready itself appropriately. £25 billion could be realised through the value of time where consumers can make more use of the time spent in their vehicles, more efficient journeys lead to greater productivity and labour market flexibility could add £15 billion, while costs in insurance, running costs and parking could save £6 billion. New segments, such as electronics and data services could also contribute £18 billion.

“The UK already has the essential building blocks – forward thinking legislation, advanced technology infrastructure, a highly skilled labour force, and a tech savvy customer base – to spearhead CAV deployment over the next decade,” said Sarwant Singh, Senior Partner and Head of Mobility, Frost & Sullivan.

“However, it will require sustained and coordinated efforts by all key stakeholders, especially the government, to realise the significant annual economic benefits forecast for the UK from CAV deployment by 2030 and drive the vision of safe, convenient and accessible mobility for all.”

GSMA blasts EC over connected car tech choice

The battle for the soul of the European connected car industry has come down to G5 vs 5G and the European Commission has just picked a winner.

Today the EC adopted new rules around connected an automated mobility on EU roads that amounted to an endorsement of Cooperative Intelligent Transport Systems (C-ITS). On the surface this would appear to be quite a generic thing, but it seems to refer specifically to a set of technologies supported by ETSI, which include the ITS-G5 short-range wireless communications standard that uses 802.11p wifi rather than cellular.

“This decision gives vehicle manufacturers, road operators and others the long-awaited legal certainty needed to start large-scale deployment of C-ITS services across Europe, while remaining open to new technology and market developments,” said the European Commissioner for Mobility and Transport, Violeta Bulc. “It will significantly contribute to us achieving our ambitions on road safety and is an important stepping stone towards connected and automated mobility.”

Mobile trade association the GSMA isn’t so sure, however. In fact it reckons Europe is seriously missing a trick by going for this tech over cellular-based C-V2X, as you might expect. Not only that, but the GSMA reckons that by picking the wrong winner for connected vehicle tech, the EC is setting back the development of 5G on the whole.

“This piece of legislation relies on a biased view of technology and impedes innovation,” said Afke Schaart, VP & Head of Europe of the GSMA. “If the EU stays on this road, it will isolate itself further in the global 5G race and severely harm 5G investment in Europe.” Strong words Afke and we’re not sure accusing the EC of being biased is the best way to win it around, but you’re the lobbying expert so go for it.

The arcane matter of G5 vs 5G is a bit above our pay grade here at Telecoms.com, but a spot of light Googling reveals plenty of boffins have given it some thought. A couple of years ago this paper seemed to conclude the tech itself isn’t that important, but more recently NXP decided C-V2X is still a bit rubbish. It remains to be seen how binding this EC choice will be for the European automotive industry, but as the UK is continually reminded, the EU is not a big fan of challenges to its authority.

Drive.ai is on the road towards acquisition

One of the more interesting autonomous vehicle start-ups has reportedly hired investment bank Jefferies to search out a potential buyer for the firm recently valued at $200 million.

According to The Information (subscription required), the Texas-based, 100-person start-up is searching for a buyer, and while it operates in a relatively niche market in the long-run, it’s image recognition software could be a cunning purchase. It does also have the accolade as being one of the only autonomous driving services which is up and running, available to the general public.

The Drive.ai team has not confirmed the search as such, though a spokesperson has highlighted the team is always on the look-out for strategic partners.

For those who are looking to enter into the autonomous vehicles space, or bolster their capabilities, this could turn out to be a very shrew purchase. With a commercially viable business model and software which could be integrated into other aspects of the business, we suspect this might be a firm which will be of interest to numerous parties, especially with a reasonable low price tag.

Last year, the firm raised $77 million in equity financing, valuing the business at $200 million, though the final number would almost certainly be higher. Other autonomous vehicle start-ups have gone for more, while Aurora Innovation is set to receive $530 million in financing from the likes of Sequoia Capital and Amazon.

However, the limitations of the business model might worry some. Drive.ai is currently trialling autonomous vans, which drive along-specific routes, and can be hailed by potential customers through an app. It is one of the few services available to the general public, though it has no-where near the same footprint or monetization potential as autonomous taxis.

That said, the limited nature of this service might prove to be an advantage. Such is the dramatic change which would be required to ensure autonomous taxis can operate in today’s environments, these services will not emerge at scale for some time. Not only do you have to advance the technology side of these machines, but also make updates to infrastructure, regulations and safety principles, as well as considering the impact to the insurance world. The red-tape surrounding autonomous vehicles in parallel segments could significantly slow down progress.

The limited nature and controlled exposure of these vehicles could be an option many governments would consider giving the greenlight to in a much shorter time window. For the right company, this acquisition could prove to be a very shrewd acquisition.

HERE adds mobile operators to its monetisation map

The location and mapping service company HERE, in partnership with data analytics company Continual, launched two new data services, HERE Cellular Signals and HERE Traffic Analytics, aiming to increase its value for mobile operators in addition to the transport and autonomous car industries.

HERE Cellular Signals is generated by overlaying a radio map crowdsourced from its users on top of its in-house road map. The outcome of such a mesh will provide a snapshot of the network coverage, carrier presence, signal strength and bandwidth on a given road. HERE claims that there are 250 million connected devices out there with HERE user clients installed, and the radio data (including cellular and Wi-Fi traces as well as GPS coordinates) will be updated 800 million times a day, including 100 million times over cellular networks.

If the combined solution is proved robust enough, this can deliver benefits to mobile operators. In order to gather reliable data from live networks, mobile operators or its suppliers still need to send out engineers to do drive tests with car-mounted or hand-held measurement equipment. Such data are critical for network and RF planning and optimization, quality evaluations, and competitive assessments. HERE Cellular Signals will not completely replace such tests, but it can reduce the frequency and geographical coverage, and in turn reduce mobile operators’ operation costs.

When it comes to HERE’s home territory, i.e. transport and logistics industry of today and autonomous and self-driving cars of tomorrow, HERE Cellular Signals can help the fleets optimise their communication plans with the control centre based on the cellular network coverage and service plans on the routes. Connected vehicles need always-on connectivity to the cloud, to the road infrastructure and to other vehicles. A radio map like HERE Cellular Signals can therefore help connected car managers plan when to use online service and when to use offline service, or which roads to avoid so as to minimise the risk of dropped connection. This will be particularly critical when full auto-driving cars come to the roads which will demand end-to-end low-latency broadband connectivity, e.g. 5G.

“Bandwidth is a limited and expensive resource,” said Aaron Mayfield, Senior Product Manager at HERE Technologies. “As data traffic soars and new demands are placed on cellular networks, bandwidth optimization will increasingly become a delicate balancing act. HERE Cellular Signals is a valuable resource to add to the toolbox of cellular carriers to help manage these challenges.”

HERE Traffic Analytics, on the other hand, uses the data gathered from the roads to provide visibility into road traffic patterns.

Both of HERE’s new products are integrated in the Mobility Experience Analytics solution marketed by Continual, an Israeli user data analytics and AI company.

“As 5G networks and always-online automated vehicles edge closer to reality, we’re seeing growing convergence between the mobile telecom and automotive markets,” said Michiel Verberg, Senior Manager Strategic Partners at HERE Technologies. “We’re excited that Continual’s existing deep relationships with MNOs coupled with our established automotive partnerships will provide us with a unique opportunity to better address this important evolving market.”

HERE in its earlier life also had a legacy of working with mobile operators extensively. It was part of Nokia, which was acquired by the consortium of German car makers including Audi, BMW, and Mercedes, back in 2015.

“Continual’s Mobility Experience Analytics solution re-defines the approach that mobile operators and automotive companies can adopt towards monitoring and improving the connected experience of car drivers, passengers and subscribers who are traveling,” said Assaf Aloni, CMO of Continual. “HERE’s impressive portfolio of automotive and network technologies is very synergistic with ours, and the partnership is enabling us to create even stronger solutions for Connected Mobility.”

The two companies will demo the new services at the upcoming Mobile World Congress.

Telefonica and Seat get the MWC wheels turning

Telefonica is fuelling the hype as we motor towards MWC with connected car announcements alongside Spanish automotive giant Seat.

In an early effort to drive traffic towards its stand, Telefonica has carpooled with Seat to give the green light to three new innovations in the connected vehicles race. While there are sceptics who would want to curb autonomous vehicles enthusiasm, the duo is racing towards a happy middle-ground with three assisted driving use cases.

Firstly, the team will introduce pedestrian detection capabilities, which will allow traffic lights to sense the presence of pedestrians with thermal cameras, before relaying this information onto cars in the nearby area. Display panels will be able to inform the driver of potential risks on the road.

Secondly, connected bicycles equipped with a precise geolocation will notify vehicles in the area when the rider decides to turn right. The bikes will be detected by ultra-wideband beacons placed along the road, and should there be a risk of collision, the driver in the car will once again be notified.

While both these ideas will be powered by edge-computing, the final usecase will rely on direct communication interface. Should visibility be particularly low, stationary vehicles would detect moving vehicles, emergency lights would be turned on while the driver would, again, be notified on the display board.

These usecases might not be on the same level as the glories of autonomous vehicles, but there is a satisfactory amount of realism on display. Autonomous vehicles are not going to be on our roads for a long-time, and while that does not mean we should not continue to fine tune the technology, there has to be a focus on improving road safety today. This is exactly what is being done here.

Another similar concept is being developed in MIT. Here, an AI application analyses the way pedestrians are walking to understand whether there might be any risks. This sort of analysis is something we all do subconsciously, but a very useful and important addition to the connected car mix.

Using lidar and stereo camera systems, the AI estimates direction and pace, but also takes pose and gait into consideration. Pose and gait not only inform the pace and direction, but also give clues to future intentions. For instance, if someone is glancing over their shoulder, it could be an indication they are about to step into the road.

Looking further into the future, when autonomous taxis might be a real thing, this could also be incredibly useful. Of course, the simplest way to hail a taxi in this futuristic age will be through an app, but if the vehicle can see and understand an outstretched arm is a signal for a taxi, it would be a useful skill to incorporate into the AI.

All of these ideas are not only relevant for the long-term ambitions of the automotive industry but also very applicable today. Connectivity and AI can be incredibly beneficial for human-operated vehicles, especially with the advancements of edge-computing and leaning on the high bandwidth provided by 5G. Not everything has to be super-futuristic, and it’s nice to see a bit of realism.

Google unveils Assistant delights at CES

It wasn’t going to be long before Google stole the show with a horde of updates to the virtual assistant. And in fairness, some of them look pretty useful.

Who is leading the smart assistant battle varies depending on who you are talking to, but the importance of this segment is consistent throughout. With more users becoming comfortable with the voice UI, buying power will gradually shift away from the smartphone screen and onto connected devices. Whoever has the best and most prominent virtual assistant will control the relationship with the consumer.

Google might dominant search revenues for the moment, but the smart home and the connected economy are changing the status quo; the Google Assistant is one of the ways the firm will stay relevant. So, what is new?

To kick things off, the team has launched Google Assistant Connect, a platform for device manufacturers to bring the Google Assistant into their products in an affordable and easy-to-implement way. This is an important step for the Google team to take, as it allows for scale. Google’s speakers and smart products will not dominate the smart home forever. Sooner or later, traditional brands will take the lion’s share of spend as the mass market will be more comfortable buying from the trusted, specialised brands. But the ambition for Google in the smart home should be in the software not the products.

Google needs to make it as easy as possible for appliance and device manufacturers to incorporate the virtual assistant. Just as it is with the search engine, scale is everything. The more users Google is interacting with, the more accurate its algorithms become and more money its advertising models can generate.

As it stands, the Google Assistant currently works with over 1,600 home automation brands and more than 10,000 devices. This number will only accelerate as the mass market acceptance of smart home devices and applications becomes more apparent.

Another area which has been targeted by the firm in recent months has been automotive. Back in September, Google was named as the technology partner of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance, allowing it to embed the Android operating system directly in vehicles. Last year, the alliance sold a combined 10.6 million vehicles in 200 markets across the world. At CES, Google announced a number of new features which would increase the usability of its applications in the car.

One of the updates is to bring the Assistant to Google Maps. Not only will the Assistant help with navigation, but users will be able to use voice commands to send messages to friends, such as estimated time of arrival. The Assistant can also be commanded to search for points of interest or stop-off points along the designated route. It’s a useful little update.

The final update which we like to draw attention to is focused on travel. Before too long, users will be able to instruct the Google Assistant to check them into flights (starting with US domestic flights), and also book hotel rooms at the destination. How effectively this will work remains to be seen, and it will be interesting to see how many hotels the Assistant has to choose from (as well as the price ranges), but again, it is a useful update.

Virtual assistants are not new, but they are becoming increasingly normalised in the eyes of the consumer. The voice UI is starting to make a genuine impact on the technology landscape the sci-fi image of tomorrow might not be as ridiculous as once though. Perhaps if someone nails AR glasses the smartphone screen might become redundant sooner rather than later.

The connected car takes pole position at CES

With the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas, it perhaps shouldn’t come as much of a surprise the connected car is stealing the headlines at the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

Starting with Audi, pairing up with Disney the team has unveiled an in-car VR entertainment system which adapts the content to the movements of the car. The game itself is called ‘Marvel’s Avengers: Rocket’s Rescue Run’ and is based on the journey itself. If the car turns right or accelerates the spaceship in the experience does the same.

While Audi is the parent company, the open platform has been brought to the market through subsidy Holoride. Audi will license the technology to the start-up, which will be made available to all carmakers and content developers in the future.

“Creative minds will use our platform to come up with fascinating worlds that turn the journey from A to B into a real adventure,” said Nils Wollny, Head of Digital Business at Audi, and future the CEO of Holoride. “We can only develop this new entertainment segment by adopting a cooperative, open approach for vehicle, device and content producers.”

Moving across to the mapping side of the connected vehicle, Intel’s Mobileye announced a new agreement with UK mapping agency Ordnance Survey. Although this might not be the most exciting aspect of the connected car space, it is perhaps the most crucial; without the relevant location data, the OS is pretty much useless.

While this data will certainly supplement the Intel offering for the connected car space, Mobileye and Ordnance Survey will use the data to create new customized solutions derived from the location intelligence, to help companies realise the riches promised through the city segment.

“One key, and common, learning is that detailed and accurate geospatial data is a must for the success of these projects,” said Neil Ackroyd, Ordnance Survey CEO. “We envisage this new rich data to be key to how vehicles, infrastructure, people and more will communicate in the digital age. Our partnership with Mobileye further enhances our commitment to supporting Britain as a world-leading center for digital and tech excellence.”

For chipmaker Qualcomm there’s been no rest to check out the shows. While Audi, Ducati and Ford have all been using its tech to run various demos across the show, the team has also teamed up with Amazon’s Alexa to demonstrate in-car artificial intelligence.

“The vision behind Qualcomm Technologies’ automotive solutions is to continuously improve and expand the realm of possibilities for in-car experiences while delivering unparalleled safety-conscious solutions,” said Nakul Duggal, SVP of Product Management, Qualcomm.

“Leveraging Amazon’s natural language processing technology, along with services like Amazon Music, Prime Video, Fire TV and Audible, allows us to offer an exclusive, interactive in-car experience for both the drivers and passengers to leverage the latest innovations in a natural, intuitive way.”

The demonstration makes use of Qualcomm’s Smart Audio Platform to include immersive natural language instructions involving in-vehicle navigation, points of interest outside the car and multimedia services which users will use every day at home with Alexa.

“Our vision is for Alexa to be available anywhere customers want to interact with her, whether they’re at home, in the office or on the go,” said Ned Curic, VP of Alexa Auto at Amazon.

This is of course not the only bit of news featuring Amazon this week, as the team announced a partnership with navigation firm Here yesterday. The tie in gives the Here platform a smarter, voice UI and gives Alexa a useful little foray into the connected car segment, an area Google’s virtual assistant has got a little bit of a head-start in.

Finally, AT&T and Toyota Motor North America announced they will enable 4G LTE connectivity for various Toyota and Lexus cars and trucks across the US, starting at the end of the year. As part of the deal, owners of the relevant vehicles will also receive unlimited data plans from AT&T, while the vehicle will also become a wifi hotspot.

“Cars are the ultimate mobile device. Working with Toyota and KDDI we will bring the benefits of connectivity to millions of consumers,” said Chris Penrose, President of IoT Solutions at AT&T.

“This new technology deepens our relationship with Toyota. And we couldn’t be happier to continue working with them. We’re both founding members of the American Center for Mobility testing facility for connected and automated vehicles, where we will help deliver the future of connectivity.”