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Once again with driverless car legislation

Third time’s the charm, right?

Rep. Charlie Geren

State Rep. Charlie Geren isn’t about to let Texas get left in the dust when driverless vehicles start easing their way into everyday life. Especially since car manufacturers need somewhere to test them and could one day need someplace to mass produce them.

“I don’t want General Motors, or Ford, or Volkswagen, or Uber or anybody going anywhere else because Texas isn’t quite ready for this yet,” Geren told The Texas Tribune late Thursday.

The Fort Worth Republican this week filed House Bill 3475, which seeks to lay the framework for driving autonomous vehicles on Texas roads. Geren’s under no impression that the technology is well tested — or well trusted — enough that Texans are going to be walking into dealerships and buying driverless cars anytime soon. But he wants to get the ball rolling so car companies can expand testing of the technology in the state.

[…]

Among other things, the current version of Geren’s bill would require the owner or operator of an autonomous vehicle obtain a surety bond or insurance worth $10 million. The vehicles would have to be able to operate in compliance with existing traffic laws.

The automobiles would also be equipped with devices that could provide data on the vehicle’s automated driving system, speed, direction and location before at the time it’s involved in an accident.

Geren said his bill could change as those in the vehicle industry weigh in on it.

“I’m trying to get everybody in the business together on one bill,” Geren said.

It was industry opposition that stalled a 2015 bill by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, authored in hopes of setting some guidelines for autonomous vehicles in Texas. Among other things, it would have directed the Texas Department of Public Safety to create minimum safety requirements for driverless cars.

Google opposed that bill two years ago but declined to publicly explain why at the time. Months later, the company began using a Lexus RX 450h SUV outfitted with self-driving equipment to test driverless cars in Austin. The tech giant’s autonomous vehicle efforts have since spun off into their own company called Waymo, which opposes Geren’s bill.

“Waymo continues to work with legislators who have an interest in the safe development of fully self-driving cars,” a company spokeswoman said late Thursday. “We believe this legislation is unnecessary and may inadvertently delay access to technology that will save lives and make transportation safer and easier.”

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers also opposed the 2015 legislation out of fear that rules could have unintended consequences that would stymie development of the technology. The group echoed that sentiment on Friday, but did not speak specifically to Geren’s placeholder bill.

“If a state chooses to take legislative or regulatory action with respect to [autonomous vehicles], it is imperative that such action be focused on removing impediments to the safe testing and deployment of this technology,” said Dan Gage, a spokesman for the Alliance.

Some car manufacturers would prefer more guidelines.

“We think the right path is to come up with legislation that deals with where we are today and for the foreseeable future,” said Harry Lightsey, a public policy executive director for General Motors.

He said that autonomous technology has a long way to go before Americans trust it enough to give up control of the wheel but the landscape is changing so fast that some sort of framework would aid testing. That is key to gaining the kind of safety and performance data that would earn the public’s trust in the technology, Lightsey said.

“All of us have a lot to learn about full, self-driving cars and their impact on the urban landscape,” Lightsey said.

See here and here for more on Ellis’ 2015 bill. Believe it or not, there was a driverless car bill filed in 2013 as well. We’ve been talking about this for longer than you might remember. I don’t know that Rep. Geren’s bill will do any better than those two did, but it’s there just in case a consensus can be reached.

Are driverless cars ready or not?

GM and Lyft think theirs are pretty close.

Lyft

General Motors Co. and Lyft Inc. within a year will begin testing a fleet of self-driving Chevrolet Bolt electric taxis on public roads, a move central to the companies’ joint efforts to challenge Silicon Valley giants in the battle to reshape the auto industry.

The plan is being hatched a few months after GM invested $500 million in Lyft, a ride-hailing company whose services rival Uber Technologies Inc. The program will rely on technology being acquired as part of GM’s separate $1 billion planned purchase of San Francisco-based Cruise Automation Inc., a developer of autonomous-driving technology.

Details of the autonomous-taxi testing program are still being worked out, according to a Lyft executive, but it will include customers in a yet-to-be disclosed city. Customers will have the opportunity to opt in or out of the pilot when hailing a Lyft car from the company’s mobile app.

[…]

The new effort is directed mostly at challenging Alphabet and Uber. The Google self-driving car program has gained a sizable lead over conventional auto makers via testing in California and other states, and it received an additional boost this week through a minivan-supply agreement with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV. Uber, much bigger than Lyft, has its own self-driving research center in Pittsburgh and is preparing to usher autonomous vehicles in to its fleet by 2020.

I alluded to this yesterday. My reaction remains: Next year? Really? That’s pretty darned aggressive. It’s also pretty interesting considering that the people who are making driverless cars have been suggesting that we should maybe slow our roll a little.

Engineers, safety advocates and even automakers have a safety message for federal regulators eager to get self-driving cars on the road: slow down.

Fully self-driving cars may be the future of the automotive industry, but they aren’t yet up to the demands of real-world driving, several people told the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration during a public meeting Friday.

A slower, more deliberative approach may be needed instead of the agency’s rapid timetable for producing guidance for deploying the vehicles, according to an auto industry trade association.

[…]

A General Motors official recently told a Senate committee that the automaker expects to deploy self-driving cars within a few years through a partnership with the ride-sharing service Lyft. Google, a pioneer in the development of self-driving cars, is pushing Congress to give the NHTSA new powers to grant it special, expedited permission to sell cars without steering wheels or pedals.

But many of those who addressed the meeting, the first of two the agency has scheduled as it works on the guidelines, described a host of situations that self-driving cars still can’t handle:

—Poorly marked pavement, including parking lots and driveways, could foil the technology, which relies on clear lane markings.

—Bad weather can interfere with vehicle sensors.

—Self-driving cars can’t take directions from a policeman.

—Inconsistent traffic-control devices such as horizontal versus lateral traffic lights.

Until the technology has advanced beyond the point where ordinary conditions are problematic, “it is dangerous, impractical and a major threat to the public health, safety and welfare to deploy them,” said Mark Golden, executive director of the National Society of Professional Engineers.

There have been thousands of “disengagements” reported in road tests of self-driving cars in which the vehicles automatically turned control over to a human being, said John Simpson, privacy project director of Consumer Watchdog.

“Self-driving cars simply aren’t ready to safely manage too many routine traffic situations without human intervention,” he said.

There’s also the concern that driverless cars, which by definition will be connected to the Internet, will be vulnerable to malware. We’re not at a point where today’s cars can be successfully hijacked, as dramatized on a recent episode of Elementary, but it is something the industry is gaming out now. The larger point here is that our driverless car future may be farther off than we think. Or maybe it’s closer than we think. We’ll see how that taxi pilot goes.

One more thing:

Executives at Lyft and Uber have said one of the top hurdles to their success is navigating a patchwork of regulations that govern the use of autonomous vehicles and liabilities. In an effort to ease regulatory concerns, Lyft will start with autonomous cars that have drivers in the cockpit ready to intervene—but the driver is expected to eventually be obsolete.

“We will want to vet the autonomous tech between Cruise, GM and ourselves and slowly introduce this into markets,” Taggart Matthiesen, Lyft’s product director, said in an interview. That will “ensure that cities would have full understanding of what we are trying to do here.”

Well, at least we won’t be fighting about fingerprints any more. I shudder to think how much money will be dumped into those lobbying – and possibly electioneering – efforts.

Driverless car technology update

I have a personal stake in this story.

James Kuffner, the head of Google’s robotics division and one of the original team of ten who started its self-driving car work, has left the company for a job at Toyota’s $1 billion research institute in Silicon Valley.

His departure will come as a blow to the search and advertising giant, which has been plowing forward with a number of robotics projects including the self-driving car, which it hopes to offer for public use some time next year.

“It’s becoming clear that in the next phase of machine learning, access to lots of data to find and fix corner cases and to make a robust system is going to be very important, and I think Toyota is very well positioned to do that with its resources and its data,” Kuffner said in an interview at the CES expo in Las Vegas on Tuesday.

[…]

Toyota’s billion-dollar investment in the center was only announced in November, but the institute has already opened for business in two locations: one at the Stanford Research Park in Palo Alto and one in Kendall Square in Cambridge. They were chosen for their proximity to Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

TRI’s mission is to take fundamental robotics research into products that can benefit all of society. One of the loftier visions is the development of cars that are incapable of crashing due to their complex AI systems, but the institute will also look at home-help robotics for the elderly and other projects.

[…]

To be sure, the goal of a completely self-driving car that handles any situation and cannot crash is some distance away, but Kuffner said a lot will be possible in the next few years.

“We’re actually closer than people think to having self-driving cars on the road,” he said. “It is an evolution. There is a continuous spectrum between full manual control and full autonomous control, and there’s going to be phased deployments.”

He cited some of the current technologies making their way into cars, such as lane assist and adaptive cruise control.

“These safety features are creeping into lots of cars you can buy today, and the pace is increasing, so I think people will be happily surprised in the next five years at how our vehicles have changed.”

James is my cousin, and I found this story on his Facebook page in January. Needless to say, we’re all quite proud of him. I talked with him about his work on driverless cars a couple of years ago when we were in Portland visiting family, actually did an interview with him that I hoped to publish here, but we never got clearance from Google on it. I remember him telling me that when they started out, their intent was to make the autonomous cars follow all of the rules of the road, but quickly learned that this was not only impractical but dangerous. For example, in highway merge situations, sometimes you have to exceed the speed limit to ensure safety. They aimed instead at making the car behave more like a median driver, by which I mean one whose behavior is in the middle of the range of how drivers behave. It’s a challenging question to model behavior like this, and my guess is that’s one reason why we are seeing this phased implementation of the technology.

Anyway. The driverless car business continues to attract a lot of money and a lot of discussion about what the future of driving will look like. And a member of my family is playing a leading part in that. I think that’s pretty cool.

Electric cars and the power grid

Fascinating.

Pecan Street Project

It doesn’t take too long for visitors of Mueller, a 700-acre master-planned community in Austin, to realize that the neighborhood is peculiar.

The planned community, built on the site of the former Mueller airport, boasts almost too-perfect rows of homes with cheery pastel exteriors and quaint front porches. And then there are the neighborhood’s green flourishes—solar panels that adorn every other rooftop and the eco-friendly hybrid cars that roll almost silently through the development’s tidy streets.

Mueller isn’t just a subdivision—it’s a life-size green energy research test site. The New Urbanist, a mixed-use development, is home to a five-year “smart-grid demonstration project” led by Pecan Street, Inc., a nonprofit research and development organization focusing on green energy, and Austin Energy.

In late July, General Motors announced that it is partnering with Pecan Street, making 100 Chevy Volts available to Mueller residents to buy or lease. Since February, Pecan Street has been providing financial incentives for residents to join, matching the $7,500 federal tax credit extended to owners of electric vehicles with their own $7,500 rebate. Those who opt to lease will receive a $3,000 rebate.

Mueller’s 600 residents are currently using about sixty electric vehicles, according to Colin Rowan, Pecan Street’s director of communications, and 52 of those vehicles are Volts.

Now, the recent influx of electric cars in Mueller has allowed Pecan Street to test the impact that high concentrations of electric cars might have on the area’s smart energy grid.

“We’re interested in how the grid performs when you have a lot of electric vehicles pulling power in one area, and how people use them and charge them,” Rowan said. “That sounds kind of basic, but it actually puts some interesting stress on the grid. We’re very interested in finding out how that can be optimized so that it is actually a benefit to the grid and not a liability.”

The Statesman adds on.

For 16 years, OnStar has been communicating with GM customers in their cars, usually in times of emergencies. But now the company is re-imagining itself to also be an energy manager for a fleet of electric vehicles.

The electric vehicle market is minuscule today, but some day, they could potentially serve as a fleet of mobile batteries that could store power until it is needed by a homeowner or grid operators during peak power demands.

Until now, OnStar’s experiments have been limited to small demonstration projects or work in the lab. Now they want to begin test-driving their theories with Austinites.

“This partnership provides us with a unique opportunity to observe charging details with many real customers in a concentrated setting,” said Nick Pudar, OnStar vice president for strategy and business development. “We are moving our lab demonstrations into the real world.”

Among the possibilities are taking advantage of different rates for different times of day for cheaper charging, and using the stored energy in car batteries to help power one’s house or give back to the grid in times of high usage. This real-world experiment is set to run through the end of 2014. Very, very cool.