THE VIEW Autonomous Vehicles Richard Bishop

2017: the year of the robo-taxi?


❝ If you wait for

your robo-taxi to be able to handle everything, you’ll wait a long time. Instead, field a highly capable AV with the ability to always maintain safety ❞

utomated driving continues to be an obsession of both the tech and vehicle industries. At the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show, Mercedes introduced

their new corporate strategy as CASE: “Connected”, “Autonomous”, “Shared & Service” and “Electric Drive.” Hyundai, which is making investments of US$2 billion by 2018 in automation, demonstrated their automated Ioniq. Toyota introduced their Concept “I” which oper- ates in “Guardian” mode during manual driving and “Chauffeur” mode for automated driving. Audi USA CEO Scott Keogh said that their 2020 vehicle will be “Level 4” – driving with no inputs required of the humans inside. All of this is focused on the traditional model – build

cars, sell to customers, repeat. But now the fleet-oper- ated robo-taxi concept is beginning to dominate. If you live in Mountain View, California (as I do part of the year), you’ll see a Waymo vehicle several times a day – human inside quietly minding the joystick while the car drives itself and collects data. We’ve seen Uber robo-taxis operating with customers (and front seat engineers) in Pittsburgh and seen them kicked out of San Francisco only to re-surface in Phoenix. NuTonomy is transporting real customers in Singapore. Automated fixed-route shuttles are operating in more cities everyday it seems. At first it was the do-it-yourselfers like Google, Uber

Richard Bishop is principal of Bishop Consulting and Associate Editor of Thinking Highways North America

and NuTonomy. But now the traditional OEMs have awakened to this radically different business model. During 2016, Volvo Cars announced a US$300 mil- lion joint project with Uber to develop the XC90 as an autonomous platform. At CES, based on their 2016 announcement that they would produce no-driver- controls vehicles for the robo-taxi industry by 2021, Ford displayed their Level 4 prototype. Honda, in their first appearance at CES, featured automated driving with the New Utility Electric Vehicle (NEU-V), a two- seater concept car displayed to showcase artificial intel- ligence, connectivity, and automation. VW heralded “Moia,” a standalone mobility company that can be a future platform for robo-taxi services. Moia will have a global focus, aiming for China and a 2018 US launch. VW aims for Moia to become a “top 3” mobility provider by 2025. Not to be outdone, Mercedes recently announced that their automated vehicles will user the Uber service platform to offer robo-mobility.

It was Carlos Ghosn, Nissan CEO, who really stole

the show by introducing their Seamless Autonomous Mobility (SAM) concept. The pitch? If you wait for your robo-taxi to be able to handle everything, you’ll wait a long time. Instead, field a highly capable AV with the ability to always maintain safety, but put a human in the loop at a remote center for the infrequent cases when a car needs help understanding a situation. Nissan demonstrated SAM from CES by connecting

live to a robo-car at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, with whom they have collaborated to adapt similar “supervised autonomy” concepts from the Mars Rover vehicle. The car at NASA encountered a mock work zone lane blockage and automatically alerted a Mobility Services Operator sitting in the Nis- san CES booth. The MSO examined the live feed video and other sensor data to assess the situation and down- loaded a short route deviation to the SAM car. The car then executed the human-approved manoeuvre. Nis- san says that in these cases, the temporary workaround would also be shared with all other robo-cars, so that the need for human intervention would be less. Ghosn noted that Nissan is teaming with Internet company DeNA to test and develop such robo-taxis with opera- tions beginning in Tokyo by 2020. Given the marketing hype of CES, my hunch is that

2017 will be the year when robo-taxi services will first be offered to the public. No engineers with hands hover- ing near the steering wheel, just an empty car picking up those daring enough to give it a shot. Will they be everywhere? No way. Robo-taxi deployments will start in small zones which the Transportation Network Com- panies have determined are ideal – possibly an enter- tainment district in which the city has agreed to make traffic signal data available through DSRC or the cloud. These services will then spread steadily based on

uptake, performance, and technology evolution. And when these robo-drivers can handle both low speed city streets and the local highways, we’ll see the utiliza- tion explode. No-car lifestyles will become feasible for more and more people, with second cars becoming optional for even more. This evolution will take time, and there will be bumps in the road. But from where I sit, nothing is holding it back.


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