01 September 2016

Hailing the Autonomous Car

Are you ready for self-driving cars? 

Are they ready for you?

On 22 August 2016, Singapore's nuTonomy, a business founded by researchers from MIT, said it had begun testing a free taxi-hailing service in a local business district of about 0.8 miles surrounded by tech and biotechnology companies. 

The public road test, announced in The Wall Street Journal, supposedly beat Uber Technologies' U.S. trial using its own driver and a tech observer, to be conducted in Pittsburgh, PA, by a few days.

Articles on self-driving cars are beginning to increase in tech and automotive publications and mainstream media, such as USA Today. To illustrate, a recent Today editorial about the need for government regulators, like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), to proceed with caution. That agency is investigating the fatal crash of a Florida driver operating a Tesla car with the Autopilot system. 

As we post the first of the month, there's news that Google is moving into the ride-sharing market in the San Francisco area, competing with what appears to be its former business partner, Uber. Google uses the Waze app, which it owns, to pair fellow commuters for less money than it would cost to take Uber or Lyft.  

Stay tuned.

More to the story

Perhaps the place to begin is with a definition of terms; NHTSA's defined five levels of autonomy based on how many car functions are computer controlled. There are five levels, 0 to 4, and most auto companies (GM, Ford, and Tesla) aim to reach level 4 approval.

Here's a description of each level with examples provided by Bloomberg Business Week:

Level 0--1972 Chevrolet Vega 

Driver:  The driver is in complete control of the car at all times

Vehicle:  Automatic transmission optional

Level 1--1998 Mercedes S5000

Driver: The driver can regain control or stop the car more quickly than when driving without the automated function or functions

Vehicle:  Automation of one or more specific control functions, such as assisted braking                

Level 2--2016 Tesla Model S

Driver: The driver shares control as an intermittent operator; you'll want to take your hands off the wheel, but you shouldn't

Vehicle:  Partial automation of at least two primary control functions working together (e.g., adaptive cruise control with lane centering) to relieve the driver of tasks

Level 3--Uber, Google

Driver:  Professionally trained operator for ride-hailing service cedes complete control during certain conditions.

Vehicle:  Steering, throttle, braking, and other critical functions are automated; the car can monitor changes in road conditions (e.g., construction) that might require the human to retake control

Level 4--JohnnyCab (a 2084 robot taxi from Total Recall)

Driver:  Driver selects a destination, doesn't control car functions

Vehicle:  Fully automated; designed to perform all safety-critical functions and monitor road conditions for an entire trip; responsibility for safe operation rests solely with the car.


There'll be more hype from innovators and investors and concern from consumer safety researchers as this new way of driving or riding unfolds. Indeed, regulators and politicians will weigh in as well.

Who will lose and gain employment as Silicon Valley moves to the Midwest and other areas?

While only a foolish mind would try to predict the outcome, one thing is sure. Big businesses (Apple, GM, Ford, Tesla, Toyota, Google, Uber, Lyft, Intel, Mercedes Benz, Honda, and Delphi) are making big bets (nearly a billion dollars in 2016) that autonomous vehicles are the future. 

At what point will consumers, government regulators, insurers, and Wall Street, agree? 


(C) Bredholt & Co.