Uber says driving in Arizona is too dangerous but flying in France is fine

On one side of the Atlantic Uber is pumping R&D funds into making flying taxis a reality, but on the other an internal memo states it is shutting down testing of self-driving cars following the death of a pedestrian in March.

Starting in France, the team has announced plans to open a new Advanced Technologies Center in Paris, which will focus on bringing flying taxis into the world. UberAir is the business unit working to build a network of Vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft, and while it might sound incredibly exciting for adrenaline commuters, it might be a few years until we are soaring. First and foremost, the process begins with building artificial intelligence and airspace management systems to support uberAIR at scale.

Paris will be the centre of development for the moment, capturing a $20 million investment to make the dream a reality, but Uber has said it would like to demonstrate the technology in Dallas, Los Angeles, and a third, international city by 2020. The Advanced Technologies Center Paris (ATCP) will open will opened in the Autumn, with the recruitment drive for engineering, machine learning, and computer vision talent currently underway. Research will focus on capabilities across airspace management, autonomy, real-time communication networks, energy storage, and charging systems.

Aside from being a demonstration of how rapidly the technology industry is evolving, it also supports the idea of France surging up the technology global rankings. The research centre will certainly be something for President Macron to boast about, as will yesterday’s announcement which saw IBM pumping cash into the French technology scene. Macron has made it a priority to drive France forward as a centre of technology excellence, ultimately aiming to stimulate the start-up community across the country, and the presence of two technology heavyweights certainly adds credibility to the mission.

Elsewhere in the Uber world, the story is not as promising. Following the death of a pedestrian in an incident involving one of Uber’s self-driving vehicles, the team suspended operations, however an internal memo seen by ARS Technica this week confirms Arizona operations will be permanently shut down.

“We’ve made the tough call to wind down operations in Phoenix,” Eric Meyhofer, Head of Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group, wrote in the memo. “As you know, there’s been a public call for the suspension of our self-driving program on Arizona’s public roads and we have decided to refocus the bulk of our efforts in our engineering hubs in San Francisco and Pittsburgh. This is the best path forward as we work to get back on the road as soon as possible.”

As Meyhofer states, this is not the end of the self-driving programme, the team are focusing on talks with officials in Pittsburgh about resuming operations, as well as with California Governor Jerry Brown, the California DMV and the cities of San Francisco and Sacramento. Future tests will be scaled back, taking a more considered approach to development, the memo also notes.

Looking at the financial side of the business, Uber has been briefing investors on its Q1 performance which brought in $2.6 billion, according to Reuters, an 8% sequential increase and a 73% boost from the same period in 2017. When sales of its Southeast Asia business to Grab and its Russia business to Yandex, the company lost $312 million, down from $775 million in the previous quarter and $598 million 12 months ago. How attractive spreadsheets will look in a couple of months’ time remain to be seen, the team are battling various governments around the world over working conditions and employee holiday pay for example, but Uber is starting to look like a company which could actually make money.

Telefonica and Huawei give thumbs up to self-driving PoC

Telefonica and Huawei have completed a PoC for vehicle-to-everything (V2X) technology at their 5G Joint Innovation Lab in Madrid, built on 3GPP 5G NR specifications.

As part of the announcement, the pair stated the Ultra-Reliable and Low-Latency Communication (URLLC) mode for 5G NR can support V2X communications with higher system capacity and better coverage. During the exercise, the pair demonstrated 99.999% reliability, along with the low latency of 1ms required for autonomous driving in a typical every day environment.

This test does not necessarily show self-driving cars are closer than we thought, but it is a pat on the back for anyone who was involved with the 3GPP 5G NR Specifications. This in itself is a very positive step forward. It might not be the all singing, all dancing end-product, but the foundations for a much hyped area of the industry are seemingly solid.

“This PoC between Telefónica and Huawei is another step towards 5G commercialization and a fully connected society,” said Enrique Blanco, Telefónica Global CTIO. “We will strengthen our collaboration by verifying 5G key technologies. Multiple novel use cases will be developed and provided to our customers.”

“We are pleased with our further collaboration with Telefónica in 5G technologies,” said Wen Tong, Huawei Wireless CTO. “The 5G-V2X PoC is another joint effort to pave the way for commercialization of 5G and lay a solid foundation to realize the 5G vision of enabling cooperative autonomous driving.”

Looking at the nitty gritty side of the PoC, the pair used a novel self-contained frame structure for radio transmission. This frame structure was used for both the base station to the vehicle transmission and between vehicles. To improve performance, the test also included SCMA-based (Sparse Coded Multiple Access) Grant Free Access. This technology is designed to simplify uplink access procedures to reduce transmission latency.

As with other conferences earlier in the year, such as CES, this year’s MWC is likely to feature a number of demonstrations of this nature. Autonomous cars are the ‘wow’ factor which could grab the attention of passing engineers, though it should be worth noting this PoC is more of a thumbs up to the NR Specifications rather than an acceleration towards autonomous vehicles. While the technology might be closer the rest of the world isn’t anywhere near ready for autonomous vehicles.

Intel looks to maps to fuel autonomous vehicles race

Whoever wins the autonomous car race will make a fortune, so Intel is doubling down efforts. Millions are being directed towards R&D, and building its own mapping database is another good move.

Speaking at CES in Las Vegas, Mobileye (an Intel business) CEO Amnon Shashua said two million cars from BMW, Nissan and Volkswagen will all be fitted with a front-facing camera, which will aggregate location and environment data in the cloud, building high-definition maps with Mobileye’s Road Experience Management (REM) program. It might not be the most exciting aspect of autonomous vehicles, but an extensive mapping database is a good tool to have.

The boring parts of a technology are usually some of the most important, and this is no different. For an autonomous vehicle to work, it has to know what is going on around it. This isn’t simply a case of collecting visual data from the immediate surroundings, but being able to plan a journey at the beginning, or adjusting plans on data which has been collected from other vehicles further ahead. It isn’t the bouncing excitement of AI-processors or super-sensitive cameras, but it is just as (or arguably, more) important.

Aside from the BMW, Nissan and Volkswagen cars, relationships have also been announced with NavInfo and SAIC Motor, allowing the team to collect data in China. Considering most companies who have extensive mapping databases (Google, Uber etc.) have had difficulties operating in the Chinese market, these could be very significant partnerships.

As it stands, there are very few organizations which could answer the calls of the industry for suitably detailed mapping data, but Intel could soon be one of those. Assuming enough vehicles are sold, the database could be extensively populated without specific projects to collect the data, like Uber is doing now or Google has been doing for years. Such a database could make Intel a very attractive company for car brands to work with.

For the moment, this push is seemingly all about mapping data, but assuming the cameras get on enough vehicles, and the team is able to nail real-time data analytics, it would be a very useful database in the future. Intel has said the cameras on ADAS-equipped vehicles are intelligent agents that can also be used to collect dynamic data. Data on hazards, construction, traffic density and weather could be routed to other vehicles to allow for more efficient driving.

Mobileye recently signed a next-step agreement with Volkswagen to formalize the collection and marketing of this data, while there are also relationships the city of Dusseldorf, Spain Directorate-General of Traffic, Gett Taxi, Berkshire Hathaway GUARD Insurance, and Buggy TLC Leasing for the use of this information.

Data is the new oil in the digital economy, and should Intel be able to horde enough through activities like this, it could turn out to be a very useful revenue stream. All of a sudden, Intel is no longer just a manufacturer of processors, but a lean, mean, data machine which has a business model suitable for the connected era.

Right now, the team has been shouting about Level 2/3 autonomous driving (some self-driving capabilities, but humans will still need to be aware), as well as Level 2+ breakthroughs. Level 2+ is a new one for us, but generally these sorts of claims are when the engineering team is struggling with a breakthrough, but the marketing team need something new to say. Intel isn’t a multi-national for no reason, it has some of the finest PR-minds and spin-gurus in the business.

Intel won’t be able to make money with this information, or at least any serious cash, for some time, but as long as it keeps collecting it will be an incredibly valuable resource once society is ready for the mass market penetration of autonomous vehicles.

Autonomous car industry takes on a life of its own

How did SK Telecoms autonomous car get on with Korea’s busiest road, is Tesla hungry enough to design its own chips and how is Blackberry still a thing? All good questions raised this morning.

Starting with SK Telecom, the team announced it has successfully tested its self-driving vehicle in public, and we’re not talking about some Asda car park where it only has to worry about teenagers learning to parallel park.

The vehicle demonstration took place on the Gyeongbu Expressway, the most heavily travelled road in Korea, from Seoul Service Area to Suwon-Shingal Interchange (26km) at speeds up to up to 80kmph. Teaming up with Seoul National University team, Nvidia and LG Electronics, the test is one of the biggest milestones since receiving a license from the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport in July.

“Following today’s successful test-driving of our autonomous vehicle on an expressway, we will continue to test our self-driving cars on downtown roads, national highways and motorways,” said Park Jin-hyo, Head of Network R&D Center of SK Telecom. “Furthermore, we will connect self-driving vehicles to our 5G trial networks to advance technologies that can significantly enhance driving safety via IoT and real-time communication with the control tower.”

Over in the world of Tesla, the team is pushing boundaries once again, this time venturing into the previously unknown world of AI chips.

Very few people will argue over the innovation which has come out of Elon Musk’s business, but taking a dip into the world of microprocessors is something which might have caught a few people by surprise. According to sources at CNBC, Musk and his minions are working with AMD to create its own chipset for autonomous driving.

Musk has previously promised customers he will deliver on the promise of self-driving cars by 2019, and creating his own AI chipset to manage the autonomous driving tasks would certainly make that promise a bit more of a reality.

Tesla has not commented on the developments to date, but it has been noted the company is attempted to reduce reliance on other technology companies for future tech. Perhaps it was burnt by the Mobileye snub last year and just isn’t ready to open itself up to love quite yet. It has been working with Nvidia since the split, but maybe Musk just isn’t feeling this relationship is as fulfilling as with Mobileye. Perhaps he quite likes the idea of a spinsters life.

Heading up the team is Jim Keller a well-respected microprocessor engineer, known for previous roles at AMD and Apple. Keller is reportedly leading a 50-strong team in the venture, including several former colleagues after a raid of AMD employees in recent months.

Musk 2019

Finally, over to Blackberry. The Canadians have announced a partnership Delphi to provide the operating system for its autonomous driving system. This perhaps brings about one question; how is Blackberry still a thing.

The QNX operating system is certainly a well-respected name in the driving arena, but is there any need to maintain the Blackberry brand; is it actually adding any value? Most people associate the brand with a dated and clunky phone, more at home clipped onto the belt of an office supplies salesman than in-charge of an autonomous vehicle. Is this an association which anyone wants?

The partnership itself will see the pair work on software performance and safety in their operating system. Delphi’s autonomous driving system, Centralized Sensing Localization and Planning (CSLP), is set to launch in 2019, though the QNX safety OS will facilitate Delphi’s proprietary Ottomatika software algorithms and middleware, with the aim to enhance performance and safety.

“BlackBerry QNX will provide a robust software infrastructure for CSLP and help advance Delphi’s autonomous driving system,” said Glen De Vos, Delphi CTO.  “Safety in high performance computing systems is paramount to a production ready autonomous driving solution.”

“There is no safety without security,” said John Wall, GM of BlackBerry QNX. “With cyberattacks and threats to connected vehicles on the rise, it is imperative that auto manufacturers are provided with software that is safety certified, reliable and secure. This is an area in which BlackBerry QNX excels, and we look forward to the new opportunities this expansion with Delphi will bring.”

It is an area which certainly needs to be addressed, but one which has been glossed over to date. Perhaps this is because it is not a pleasant topic, but how do you ensure autonomous vehicles cannot be weaponised by nefarious individuals sitting on a laptop miles away. QNX claims to bring the capabilities to guard the system against malfunctions, malware, and cyber-attacks by implementing a multi-level, policy-driven security model.

If Blackberry can prove QNX is an OS which can safeguard the autonomous vehicle from external hacks, might this be a way for Blackberry to muscle its way back into the supply chain? It certainly is becoming a forgotten brand, but tackling a question no-one else wants to address would be a good way to recapture relevance.