DiDi Chuxing begins autonomous taxi trials

DiDi Chuxing has begun trials for self-driving taxis in Shanghai, offering free trips to users who are prepared to trust the AI-powered machines.

The ride-hailing and transportation service, effectively a Chinese-version of Uber, has geofenced the trials to downtown Shanghai, but is making a firm commitment to the future of transport, a worrying sign for professional drivers around the world.

“AI in transportation will no doubt revolutionize safety and efficiency of the urban transit system,” said DiDi CEO Cheng Wei.

“DiDi’s biggest strengths are in our rich use cases, data capabilities and a strongest long-term commitment to what we believe to be a clear direction of the future. It will be a long way and takes at least a decade of continued investment, before AV technology passes critical technology, business and regulatory milestones; but we are determined to tackle the challenges ahead.”

On-board mandatory safety drivers will still be present for emergency response, but the vehicles will be primarily operated by the AI. The service is geofenced for the moment, as V2X (vehicle-to-everything) hardware has only been deployed at a select number of intersections in the area.

It would perhaps surprise few this technology is being driven forward, forgive the pun, in China, but the implications are certainly global.

Uber is a company which has revolutionised the approach to transportation almost everywhere with an internet connection, but the financials of the business are somewhat iffy. With the company continuing to swallow financial losses at each earnings call, some have made the suggestion it will never be a profitable company until autonomous driving becomes mainstream.

Financial performance of Uber (USD – $, thousands)
Period Revenue Net loss
Q1 2020 3,543 2,936
Q4 2019 4,069 1,096
Q3 2019 3,813 1,162
Q2 2019 3,166 5,236
Q1 2019 3,099 1,012

Source: Uber Investor Relations

If the traditional transportation industry thought the introduction of Uber was a disruption, just wait until autonomous vehicles start hitting the road. This is not only a threat to revenues, autonomous taxis will supposedly be cheaper, but an existential threat to the career itself.

Autonomous technology will look attractive to transport companies, as we, the workforce, are the biggest burden to any accountant’s spreadsheets. There aren’t many companies where any column would eclipse the vast expense of paying salaries, not to mention how much of a nuisance we are in terms of demanding breaks, weekends and holidays.

Different regions will have different regulatory requirements with regards to autonomous vehicles, but this is a trial many will be watching with enthusiasm.


When will autonomous vehicle be a commercial reality for transportation companies?

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California drives forward with autonomous delivery

California has opened the traps for wide-scale testing and commercial application of autonomous vehicles for delivery companies across the state.

The application process for testing the vehicles will be almost exactly the same as that for autonomous passenger delivery vehicles, though if the companies involved want to charge a delivery fee to customers, an additional commercial licence will also have to be sought. The licences will cover self-driving systems in passenger cars, midsized pickup trucks and cargo vans, and may not have to feature a back-up safety driver.

“The adoption of these regulations means Californians soon could receive deliveries from an autonomous vehicle provided the company fulfils the requirements,” California DMV Director Steve Gordon said. “As always, public safety is our primary focus.”

The conditions for licences which include a safety driver are largely as you would expect, though the DMV has taken a somewhat surprising step by creating a separate list of requirements for vehicles where there is no back-up option.

  • Permission from the local authorities
  • Provide a link between the vehicle and a remote operator
  • Provide a link between the vehicle and law enforcement agencies
  • Demonstrate the vehicle can meet Level 4 or Level 5 under the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) autonomous technology descriptions

There are of course other conditions, including cybersecurity certifications. Interestingly enough, the cybersecurity element is a bit hazy. Whereas other conditions have been linked to specific bodies or agencies for certification, the security element needs to ‘meet industry standards’, a very nuanced term.

As it stands, there are currently 65 companies in California who have permits to test autonomous vehicles. These companies include all the automotive giants which you would expect, as well as the software firms powering the ‘brain’ of the vehicle, though we suspect this list will start to grow very quickly.

The larger logistics and delivery companies will of course want to be involved here, while we suspect there will also be entrepreneurs who will want to create their own fleet to serve smaller companies who exclusively focus on the primary business. Bob’s Burger down the road will never own its own fleet of autonomous delivery vehicles, but it could offer a slice of profits to make use of a supplier’s vehicles.

Intel takes the autonomous euphoria to the seas

Self-driving cars might not be with us for decades, but that hasn’t stopped Intel from partnering Rolls-Royce to take the autonomous trends to the high-seas.

The new partnership between the pair will combine the engineering know-how of Rolls-Royce and Intel’s AI smarts to create autonomous ships. With 90% of world trade is carried out by international shipping we’re surprised this idea hasn’t be raised earlier.

“We’re delighted to sign this agreement with Intel, and look forward to working together on developing exciting new technologies and products, which will play a big part in enabling the safe operation of autonomous ships,” said Kevin Daffey, Director, Engineering & Technology and Ship Intelligence at Rolls Royce. “This collaboration can help us to support ship owners in the automation of their navigation and operations, reducing the opportunity for human error and allowing crews to focus on more valuable tasks.”

“Delivering these systems is all about processing, moving and storing huge volumes of data, and that is where Intel comes in,” said Lisa Spelman, GM of Xeon Products at Intel. “Rolls-Royce is a key driver of innovation in the shipping industry and together we are creating the foundation for safe shipping operations around the world.”

While it might still be decades before autonomous vehicles hit the roads in any notable fashion, the seas and oceans seem a perfect environment for the autonomous technology. Not only do the ships rarely have to content with human beings crossing their paths, the dangers of shipping and the premeditated natures of shipping routes seem to make it a simpler task. We’re sure we are completely underestimating the complexities of the operations, but the biggest challenge for self-driving cars will be dealing with human operated vehicles and pedestrians; humans are unpredictable.

In terms of how the technology will work, the ships will have dedicated Xeon Gold servers onboard, turning them into floating data centres with heavy computation and AI inference capabilities. Unlike cars, these are vehicles which do not have to worry as much about being weight and space efficient so the compute problem becomes simpler. Rolls Royce’s Intelligent Awareness System uses AI-powered sensor fusion and decision making to provide situational awareness to the vessels, improving safety and allowing the ships to detect objects several kilometres away, while the data collected by the vessels will be stored using Intel’ 3D NAND SSDs, acting as a ‘black box’ in case of an accident.

Uber urged to sell self-driving unit; are investors stupid or greedy?

Just as transportation disruptor Uber unveils its financials for the latest quarter, investors have reportedly been pressing the management team to sell-off its self-driving unit, a move that’s either short-sighted or short-termist.

According to The Information, with losses piling high in the self-driving unit, reportedly $125-200 million a quarter for the last 18 months, investors are recommending the management team sell off assets and focus on the here and now. It doesn’t matter that self-driving cars are the future, or that the potential to kill Uber as a business lies in technology, investors don’t want the losses on the spreadsheets anymore.

In terms of the cash being spent on developments in the self-driving unit, it is a notable hole to fill. Even with Uber increasing revenues 51% year-on-year for the quarter to $2.7 billion, it is a lot. However, those who are suggesting the firm ignore the self-driving euphoria clearly don’t understand this is not a choice; for Uber to survive in the long-run, self-driving cars have to be a priority.

Uber exists today because it was a major disruptor to a long-time established area of society. It made taxis accessible once again, using technology to address pain-points, firstly, the complications of finding a car at 2am and, secondly, the price. Those who benefited from the status quo protested the presence of Uber, though the consumer was thrilled. In a cash-conscious society, offering a good service for less will always be a popular idea.

This is why investments in self-driving vehicles is imperative at Uber. If it doesn’t nail the self-driving experience, someone will come along and disrupt the market. Uber and similar services will soon become the status quo in Western societies, and self-driving cars will become the norm at some point in the future. This point might not be for five or ten or even twenty years, there are a lot of parallel hurdles, but if Uber is not ready with its own proposition, it will decline in popularity quickly.

Removing drivers is the next step to make the taxi service industry cheaper and more attractive to the consumer; it will happen, the only question which remains is when. For Uber, it is a case of disrupt or be disrupted. It has benefitted from a technology revolution in the taxi segment, and the next one is clear.

The investors who are calling for the sale of the self-driving unit are either short-sighted, unable to recognise trends in the industry, or short-termist, simply seeking a pay-out over the next couple of quarters with no eye on long-term interests. Neither is a particularly attractive description.

Ford pledges $4bn to drive forward autonomous vehicles business

Ford has announced the creation of a new organization and $4 billion in investment through to 2023 to accelerate the firms efforts in developing autonomous vehicles.

The new business, which will be known as Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC, will include Ford’s self-driving systems integration, autonomous vehicle research and advanced engineering, AV transportation-as-a-service network development, user experience, business strategy and business development teams. It will also be structured to allow for investment from third parties.

“Ford has made tremendous progress across the self-driving value chain – from technology development to business model innovation to user experience,” said Jim Hackett, CEO of Ford Motor Company. “Now is the right time to consolidate our autonomous driving platform into one team to best position the business for the opportunities ahead.”

Sherif Marakby will head up the new business for the moment, reporting into Marcy Klevorn, the President of Ford’s Mobility group, with a hope aligning the two areas will improve development. The new group will also hold Ford’s ownership stake in Argo AI, the company’s Pittsburgh-based partner for self-driving system development. It should also be worth noting the $4 billion figure includes the $1 billion already to committed to Argo AI last year. Despite the misleading PR play from Ford, it is still a notable pledge.

Spinning off business unit to allow more freedoms in the autonomous vehicles world is starting to look like a popular move after General Motors did the same with Cruise in May. Cruise, which was initially bought by General Motors in March 2016 for $581 million to bolster the software capabilities, also managed to attract attention from Masayoshi Son’s SoftBank Vision Fund, which committed to a $2.25 billion investment.

While rules, regulations, the ecosystem, infrastructure or the consumer, are not ready for the world of autonomous vehicles, progress is being made. General Motors filed a Safety Petition with the Department of Transportation for its fourth-generation self-driving Cruise AV, which it believes will be production ready by 2019. With General Motors making rapid progress, the cash injection and spin off from Ford becomes less surprising.

Ford expects its vehicles to be production ready by 2021, though with General Motors and Google’s Waymo both aiming to hit the roads before this point, Ford has some catching up to do. Realistically, although the technology might be ready, mass market penetration is likely to be decades away. Aside from the fact few are likely to swallow the substantial price tag as soon as the vehicles are available, there is still a huge amount of progress to be made in parallel spaces.

Rules and regulations will have to be-written to start, and the insurance industry will have to be restructured to account for less intervention from humans. The question also needs to answered on the allocate criminal and civil responsibility should an incident occur; should the owner of the vehicle be responsible, or should the automotive manufacturers be blamed as they own the AI? Cybersecurity is also a massive oversight. Finally, consumers need to be comfortable handing over control to a computer. We suspect the latter will take a huge amount of time and PR campaigns.

Traffic authority’s report on Tesla crash could hit autonomous development hard

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has released its preliminary findings after investigating a Tesla Model X crash while the vehicle was in autopilot mode.

Extenuating circumstances have been identified, though these are related to the death of the driver not the autonomous driving system, in the report which could have some very damaging repercussions to the development of autonomous vehicles. In the final second before the crash, the vehicle, which was under control of the autopilot, accelerated from 62 to 70.8 mph, while no evidence of pre-crash braking or evasive steering movement was detected.

“The NTSB continues to work with the California Highway Patrol and the California Department of Transportation to collect and analyse data, including all pertinent information relating to the vehicle operations and roadway configuration,” the report states. “All aspects of the crash remain under investigation as the NTSB determines the probable cause, with the intent of issuing safety recommendations to prevent similar crashes.”

Looking through the recorded performance data, the autopilot system was engaged on four separate occasions during the 32-minute trip, including a continuous operation for the last 18 minutes 55 seconds prior to the crash. During this period, the vehicle provided two visual alerts and

one auditory alert for the driver to place his hands on the steering wheel, all made at least 15 minutes prior to the incident. 8 seconds prior to the crash, the Tesla was following a lead vehicle and was traveling about 65 mph, before it began a left steering motion. At 3 seconds prior to the crash and up to the time of impact with the crash attenuator, the Tesla’s speed increased from 62 to 70.8 mph, with no pre-crash braking or evasive steering movement detected. In the last six seconds, the vehicle did not detect the driver’s hands on the steering wheel.

Testing of autonomous vehicles are still required to have humans in the driver seat right now, and Tesla might well point to inaction as the cause of the crash as opposed to failure of its system, though the report will not enforce the insistence autonomous vehicles are safer than human operated ones. This has been the fuel powering the campaign to normalise autonomous vehicles in the general public, though there have been a few incidents in recent months to falter this mission.

Aside from this incident, an Uber vehicle in self-drive mode struck a woman walking with her bicycle on the pavement in Arizona in March. Since that incident, Uber has suspended all self-driving projects in the state.

The development autonomous vehicles is a sensitive movement, as the technology is strongly dependent on trust. Regulators and users have to trust the technology to make safe and effective decisions, in a timely and logical manner. Removing the element of control from the driver is a big step for everyone involved. Any incident involved an autonomous vehicle will put considerable dents in the progress of the technology.