In 2019, We’ll Have Taxis Without Drivers—or Steering Wheels

  • January 3, 2019

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    A coming milestone in the automobile world is the widespread rollout of Level 4 autonomy, where the car drives itself without supervision. Waymo, the company spun out of Google’s self-driving car research, said it would start a commercial Level 4 taxi service by late 2018, although that hadn’t happened as of press time. And GM Cruise, in San Francisco, is committed to do the same in 2019, using a Chevrolet Bolt that has neither a steering wheel nor pedals.

    These cars wouldn’t work in all conditions and regions—that’s why they’re on rung 4 and not rung 5 of the autonomy ladder. But within some limited operational domain, they’ll have the look and feel of a fully robotized car. The question is how constrained that domain will be.

    Neither Waymo—a subsidiary of Alphabet, Google’s parent company—nor GM Cruise agreed to speak for the record. But it’s possible to judge their progress indirectly. In December Waymo turned its pilot ride-hailing project near Phoenix into a limited commercial service by charging select participants a fee. But it’s clearly looking at a bigger target or it wouldn’t have contracted to buy 20,000 all-electric Jaguar I-Pace SUVs over the next two years. GM Cruise says it will offer a commercial Level 4 ride service in 2019, operating within particular boundaries “at all times of day and night, and in light-to-moderate inclement weather.” It appears that the service will be available first in San Francisco.

    The limits of current technology may keep these cars from roaming far from their minutely mapped bailiwicks, but to roam at all they’ll need clear rules from road-safety regulators. Chandler, Ariz., offered Waymo a pass, but a substantial rollout of any self-driving technology would require a uniform set of regulations nationwide. So far, no country has offered one for Level 4 cars.

    This year Audi says it’ll be the first company in the world to sell a Level 3 car directly to the public, an Audi A8 sedan with a particular option. It’s called Traffic Jam Pilot, because it works only at speeds under 50 kilometers per hour (37 miles per hour), and it requires the driver to be prepared to take back the wheel after a warning—which is the definition of Level 3.

    But Audi now plans to offer that option only in Germany and nearby countries with similar rules of the road. In the United States, the rules just aren’t there yet.

    The key U.S. regulator, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), was supposed to have issued new rules for autonomous cars a few months ago. That deadline came and went, though, before the agency published what are merely voluntary guidelines. That’s not enough. There’s talk of reviving a U.S. Senate bill that would set a uniform policy, to go with a counterpart bill that’s already cleared the House of Representatives.

    To allow huge numbers of self-driving cars on the roads, “NHTSA requires a ton of data on the performance of cars in the field, and if there are none, it becomes a chicken-and-egg problem,” says Brad Stertz, Audi’s director of government affairs in Washington, D.C. “Cutting through all that was the aim of the two bills.”

    Maybe the Senate will act and NHTSA will yet come up with rules, missing its deadline by just a year. Or two. Even so, perhaps a delay of that magnitude isn’t such a big deal. Audi, for one, is in no big hurry to field Level 4 cars. Stertz says its Munich subsidiary, Autonomous Intelligent Driving, is doing all the work on that system, and the mother company won’t sell the resulting robocars before their time—perhaps not until well into the 2020s. Toyota is making similar estimates.

    “All the companies working in the field can certainly do it at Level 4—in a restricted enough domain,” says Gill Pratt, who runs the Toyota Research Institute. “But to what extent would it be commercially viable?”

    Pratt says Level 4 won’t make economic sense until the cars can handle a very broad range of driving environments more safely than even the best human drivers can. “Are we really there as a society, and has government set up the rules?” he asks. “I think the answer is no. Sensitivity to crashes is very high.”

    Meanwhile, he says, there are ways of making cars at least as safe without shoving the driver aside. Toyota plans to unveil its own experimental Level 4 car, called the Urban Teammate, at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, a highly restricted environment. But features from that system will eventually trickle down into production cars, to serve purely as a backup to the driver.

    Such a partial step to true autonomy in tens of thousands of cars might provide the data that regulators need to formulate rules. That is, the industry might soon be using a lot of partially automated chickens to provide some very valuable eggs.

    This article appears in the January 2019 print issue as “Taxis Without Drivers—or Steering Wheels.”

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