Silicon Valley startup Aeva aims to give driverless cars better vision

In January, with funding from Lux Capital and other venture capital firms, two former members of Apple’s Special Projects Group, Soroush Salehian and Mina Rezk, started Aeva.

The company aims to improve the ability of self-driving cars to see their surroundings, according to New York Times report. Salehian and Rezk are reimagining Lidar—that is, Light Detection and Ranging—technology, which today’s self-driving cars use along with cameras, radar, GPS antennas, and other implements to create a picture of the world around them.

Aeva’s lidar, the company says, measures distances more accurately than other such systems. And, unlike other lidar systems, Aeva’s judges velocity. It is also smaller and less expensive than today’s lidar technology.

Aeva aims to have it on the market by 2018.

Traditional lidar devices emit pulses of light and measure their wavelength and return times to determine how far away a given object is. Then, computers use the data to construct three-dimensional models of the surrounding world.

But, today’s lidar systems can only detect objects that are relatively close, and cannot always differentiate between one object and another, the Times notes. As a result, they do not perform well in bad weather or when moving at high speeds.

Radar, which uses electromagnetic waves rather than light waves to map the world, can detect objects at greater distances, making it more suitable when traveling at high speeds, and cameras can “read” street signs and differentiate between, say, a pedestrian and a crosswalk.

So, cameras, radar, lidar and other devices work together to “drive” today’s autonomous vehicles. Driverless cars will likely continue to employ this combination for the foreseeable future, as multiple detection systems represent multiple layers of security.

Lidar devices, along with the rest of the ensemble, are expensive. It costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to outfit a self-driving car with the necessary hardware. The prohibitive cost of production prevents companies from marketing self-driving cars to average consumers. So, the first self-driving cars are not privately owned; rather, they have debuted in the fleets of companies like Lyft and Uber.

But, the Times cites a report by the Boston Consulting Group that projects that the self-driving car market will be worth $42 billion by 2025. For that to happen, companies must find ways to produce the vehicles more affordably.

The Times equates Aeva’s system to a cross between lidar—which is ideal for judging distances—and radar, which is best at detecting speed. Rather than emitting a series of light pulses, the device sends out a constant wave of light. This approach, Rzek told the Times, allows Aeva lidar to produce a better resolution, work better in inclement weather, and handle reflective surfaces better than standard systems do.

“I don’t even think of this as a new kind of lidar,” Tarin Ziyaee, co-founder and chief technology officer at the self-driving taxi start-up Voyage, who has seen the Aeva prototype, told the Times. “It’s a whole different animal.”

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, developed a similar continuous-wave lidar system back in 2014, the Times notes. Other companies that develop lira technology, such as Velodyne and Oryx Vision, are exploring similar options, according to said publication.

Lidar’s applications go well beyond driverless cars. Law enforcement uses the technology to create automated speed traps. Lidar may one day track a user’s movements for virtual-reality environments.

Today, video game systems like the Xbox Kinect do not use Lidar, because Lidar devices are too expensive, too bulky, and too power-consumptive for the purpose. But, continuous-wave Lidar systems are cheaper and lighter than pulse-based ones.

Behnam Behroozpour of U.C. Berkeley told phys.org in 2014 that he envisions that Lidar can be used for “a host of new applications that have not even been invented yet.” For instance, cell phones could use the technology to recognize a user and detect his hand motions from across the room, allowing him to control the device with simple hand gestures.

BMW’s first level-5 self-driving offering, which the company plans to release by 2021, will allow human riders to use hand gestures to order Amazon packages, make a dinner reservation, and perform a range of other actions.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons

Chrysler to join BMW, Intel in autonomous driving consortium

Italian-American automaker Fiat Chrysler announced plans Wednesday to join an autonomous car development consortium with Germany’s BMW and American tech giant Intel, MarketWatch reports. UK-based Delphi Automotive PLC and German component manufacturer Continental AG each joined the group earlier this summer.

Israeli collision-avoidance software developer Mobileye was originally an independent member of the alliance, but in March, Intel acquired Mobileye.

The group has released a statement indicating intentions to build a self-driving framework “that can be used by multiple automakers around the world, while at the same time maintaining each automaker’s unique brand identities.”

The coalition aims to have a fleet of 40 test vehicles on the road by the end of the year. BMW said in March that it plans to field a Level 5 autonomous vehicle by 2021.

“In order to advance autonomous driving technology, it is vital to form partnerships among automakers, technology providers and suppliers,” Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne said in a statement. “Joining this cooperation will enable FCA to directly benefit from the synergies and economies of scale that are possible when companies come together with a common vision and objective.”

In May, Fiat Chrysler partnered with Google’s parent company, Alphabet, whose self-driving subsidiary is branded Waymo. In total, the automaker has given Waymo 600 Chrysler Pacifica minivans.

Marchionne has indicated that the Alphabet-Chrysler alliance is by no means exclusive.

“We need to be ready to collaborate with as many people as we can find,” he said in the company’s quarter two earnings report.

USA Today points out that cooperation is key to defraying the prohibitive costs of an autonomous vehicle, particularly for a company like Chrysler, which may be unable to allocate a huge budget toward autonomous vehicle development.

At this stage, investments in autonomous vehicle development are not yielding fruits on the bottom line because the gap between the capabilities of the technology and the trust levels of consumers is too wide to justify selling self-driving cars on the open market.

Marchionne has voiced concerns about the liability associated with the safety questions around self-driving cars. He also worries about the lack of regulation in place to assign responsibility for that liability.

For instance, if a Fiat Chrysler vehicle featuring, say, technology developed by Waymo and cameras built by Nvidia malfunctions, there are no regulations governing which of those companies would be held legally responsible.

“That’s a big issue going forward, because when you’ve got tier-one suppliers that will start providing autonomous driving equipment — both software and hardware — into these vehicles, the question about who owns liability associated with the running of those operations is a big issue yet untouched,” Marchionne said in January, per Aaron Marsh of FleetOwner.

Still, cooperation seems to be the strategy across the industry with respect to the push toward autonomous vehicles, although Ford and General Motors each has its own in-house self-driving development operation.

Auto manufacturers are increasingly partnering with tech companies and component-producers. Such automotive giants as Audi, Tesla, and Toyota have partnered with Nvidia Corp., whose Drive PX platform is among the most advanced systems of autonomous driving technology in the industry.

In April, Damlier AG, of which Mercedes-Benz is a subsidiary, formed an alliance with components producer Robert Bosch GmbH. Together, the companies are working toward developing a fleet of autonomous taxis that customers can hail. If the plan takes shape, the automotive alliance will compete with ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft.

Google’s Waymo has unveiled a similar system in Phoenix. Using an app proprietary to Waymo, customers can hail one of the 600 Chrysler vans mentioned above

Damlier and Bosch have also developed an autonomous valet system that can navigate a multi-story parking garage, find a spot, and park with no human input.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons

Lyft to Deploy Autonomous Cars by End of 2017

Ride-hailing company Lyft announced Friday that self-driving vehicles will be picking up customer  by the end of the year, Brian Fung of The Washington Post reports. The first autonomous Lyft cars will drive on the streets of Boston, but Lyft ultimately aims to create a network of hundreds of thousands of autonomous vehicles, which it will deploy across the country.

A litany of factors, including route, traffic, and weather, will determine whether an autonomous car arrives to pick up a Lyft user. The company’s website promises the dispatching algorithm will send a self-driving car only when there is “the highest confidence in routes and conditions.”

Lyft is leaving most of the development work to its numerous partners, which include Nutonomy, a software firm specializing in self-driving car technology; GM, which has already developed and tested 130 autonomous Chevy Bolts; and Jaguar Land Rover. Still, Lyft itself will “build sensor packages and other hardware on a limited basis.”

The partnership will allow automakers like GM who are developing autonomous vehicles to employ and hone their new technology amidst Lyft’s network of almost one million daily riders.

“We’re building a way for third parties to plug their self-driving cars into our network,” Luc Vincent, vice president of engineering at Lyft, told The Washington Post.

On its website, Lyft claims to offer “the most efficient way to bring…autonomous technology to the market.” The service will give autonomous cars “millions of weekly miles,” the website says, and work to “accelerate the growth of self-driving technology.”

The sensors on autonomous Lyft cars will collect and store data partners can use to develop safer, more reliable, and more efficient self-driving cars. Lyft will have propriety over said data, and will only share it with those it chooses.

Lyft is positioning itself as a pioneer in the autonomous car space, and betting that by getting in early, it can stake a claim and remain a focal point of the industry for years to come.

Kelly Blue Book analyst Karl Brauer pointed out to The Washington Post that years down the road, auto manufacturers will “still want [Lyft] to jumpstart their network of users that’ll be using the self-driving cars.”

In the short term—and perhaps also the long term—Lyft, along with ride-hailing companies like it, who will presumably follow suit (Uber already uses a few self-driving cars), will be the only avenue by which self-driving technology is available to consumers. That exclusivity could precipitate a boom in the ride-haling industry, and ultimately a concomitant drop in private vehicle ownership

Many analysts see a future of safer streets and more comfortable transportation. Some predict autonomous technology will ultimately reduce traffic accidents caused by human error by 95%, Fung says. Moreover, passengers in self-driving cars will have access to luxuries they could not afford as drivers: they can read the paper, have a business meeting, even toss back a beer or two.

Lyft does not plan to let go of its human employees. As autonomous cars become ubiquitous, today’s Lyft drivers will become “in-car baristas” and/or assistants for passengers requiring physical aid. Getting a ride may turn into a full-service entertainment experience.

But there are a number of kinks to work out, both regulatory and technological. Self-driving cars have never been tested on such a wide scale before, and many of those that have hit public streets have encountered issues. There is no better way to hone technology than to test it in real-world situations, but trusting nascent technology to handle a grave responsibility like driving a car is worrisome. To help alleviate safety concerns, a Lyft engineer will be stationed in the front seat of each autonomous vehicle, to monitor the car’s performance and keep everything running smoothly.

At present, rules and regulations governing development and testing of self-driving vehicles are drafted at the state level, which means such vehicles may be prohibited from crossing state lines, Fung says.  These restrictions make a company like Lyft an appropriate testing ground for the technology: Lyft can deploy a huge fleet of vehicles in a single city or state, and those vehicles can drive millions upon millions of miles, without having to leave that city or state.

Fung also notes that a house subcommittee approved a bill Wednesday that could “establish the first federal laws governing self driving cars.”

Whatever the obstacles, Lyft has set forth a bold timetable for the introduction of autonomous cars onto the streets and into the culture of America.

“You’re going to see it,” Lyft’s senior director of product, Taggert Mathiesen, told the Post. You’re going to see these vehicles on the street.”

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons

Arizona Crash Causes Uber to Momentarily Halt Its Autonomous Testing

Uber stopped all testing of its self-driving vehicles in Tempe, Arizona after one of the autonomous cars was involved in a three-car collision. Although there were no injuries sustained in the crash, the Uber vehicle was turned on its side during the accident and the other car appeared to sustain the majority of the damage.

It’s reported by a source that another car failed to yield to the Uber vehicle.  Uber did say that here was a person behind the wheel of the autonomous car, but was unclear about whether the person was driving or not.

Uber’s test of its autonomous vehicles started in Pittsburgh just last year. It didn’t take long for the company to expand its testing of future self-driving vehicles to Arizona. Yet not all cities and states were accepting of the testing. In fact, San Francisco doesn’t allow the autonomous cars on the roads after the California Department of Motor Vehicles banned the testing of Uber self-driving vehicles earlier in the Winter.

Uber’s self-driving tests were meant as a show of the companies continuing development of the new technology. Since it is one of many car companies who are currently in the race to produce a fully autonomous car in the next few years, Uber has continued to expand and further test its autonomous technology on car and SUVs alike.  However, Uber has had to dodge a few pot holes along the way. Waymo Alphabet Inc., who is also testing its own version of the self-driving car, sued Uber’s Otto unit the beginning of this year. The reason? Waymo claims that Uber stole the design for the device known as lidar which is a key component when it comes to autonomous vehicle technology.

Uber scuffed at the suit and dismissed it claims, calling them “baseless.”

This isn’t the first incident that Uber has been under scrutiny for. During the first few test runs that involved live human passengers, an Uber autonomous car was caught running a red light. Uber claimed that the incident was to be blamed on human error but further investigation proved that in Ubers reports the company noted that the car simply didn’t recognize the red light. Or five other lights after it.

Even though the Uber SUV accident that occurred this Friday proved no harm to any human involved, the incident itself shadows the scrutiny of Uber and its CEO. The company and its CEO Travis Kalanick are receiving accusations of sexist treatment in the workplace, as well as illegal performances.

The New York Times stated earlier this month that Uber was suspected of using a tool called Greyball. Greyball, it’s alleged, was used by Uber drivers to avoid not only law enforcement officials but government regulations.

After Bloomberg posted a video of Kalanick arguing with an Uber driver, the CEO admitted that he could use just a little bit of “leadership help.”

GM Says Self-Driving Bolt Soon to Come

General Motors is getting a head start on its autonomous vehicle testing venture. GM told a source that, with the help of Lyft, it plans on testing thousands of self-driving Bolt EVs by 2018. If the automaker is successful in this feat, it will be one of the first car makers to test such a large group of autonomous vehicles before 2020.

General Motors CEO, Mary Barra, said back in December that GM had plans to begin making a self-driving Bolt EV starting the beginning of this year.  The automaker was already testing about 40 self-driving Bolts in Arizona, California, and Michigan. Michigan’s governor signed a legislature not too long ago that finally allowed for the testing of self-driving cars.

This announcement isn’t really a surprise. The race to create an autonomous vehicle is on. Ford stated its plans for coming out with an autonomous vehicle for testing sometime in 2021. Fiat Chrysler announced their partnership with Waymo, who is also currently testing nearly 60 self-driving vehicles in four states, for the production of autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivans. Even Uber and Volvo are collaborating to make a self-driving version of the XC90 crossover. The two companies agreed to a $300 million deal to join forces with self-driving technology.

GM’s investment in Lyft took place last year when the automaker put $500 million into a minority stake in the company. That made GM the first car company to actually make a significantly large move toward the further production of self-driving vehicles. It was also stated that Lyft users and drivers preferred GM vehicles when renting. Lyft users and drivers gained access to GM’s OnStar options.

While Lyft didn’t immediately comment on the source, GM made a statement saying, “We do not provide specific details on potential future products or technology rollout plans. We have said that our AV technology will appear in an on-demand ridesharing network application sooner than you might think.”

Uber Has Trouble With Bike Lanes

Uber says its self-driving cars have a “problem” with the concept of bike lanes. It made this statement after a few of its autonomous cars were caught making various traffic violations in the city of San Francisco. Uber says its working to fix the way the cars make unsafe turns when confronted with biking lanes.

The Bicycle Coalition of San Francisco gave Uber a warning after its executive director, Brian Weidenmeier claims to have seen Uber’s self-driving car make unsafe right turns through bike lanes, twice. The vehicles allegedly moved across the bike lanes at the last second to turn, risking accidents with bicyclists.

However, that isn’t the only violations Uber’s self-driving cars have been reported making. Since they were released onto the streets of San Francisco, they have been reported to have blown stop signs, seen not yielding for pedestrians, and even running red lights.

The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition believes that these violations are unacceptable, and Uber should take more initiative to fix them. Even after Weidenmier alerted Uber’s engineering team of the issues and was informed that they would be taken care of, but they weren’t. Uber, however, continues to push on with its self-driving program, ignoring the criticism and complaints. The road to the future of fully autonomous vehicles seems to be bumpy so far.

Uber Defies DMV; Self-Driving Cars Still Being Tested in California

Uber says that it will continue to test its self-driving cars despite being told by the California DMV to cease all testing. The California Department of Motor Vehicles threatened to take action unless Uber shuts down all testing within the city of San Francisco unless the company obtains a permit to do so.

Uber doesn’t think that it needs a permit to do what companies like Tesla have been doing with cars that are able to park themselves without driver assist. Uber also believes that the only way they would need a permit is if the vehicles they are testing lack the presence of a human body in the driver seat.

Anthony Levandowsky runs the Uber autonomous car programs and says that there are people who occupy both driver and passenger seats in the vehicle to record and monitor the cars actions during the test. He says, “When the vehicle is operating, they are instructed to have their hands on the wheel. They have them in the 5 and 7 o’clock positions.” He also confirmed that there are two sets of controls in the vehicle, just like during drivers training, so the passengers are able to take over at any time during the test drive.

However, the DMV has threatened legal action unless Uber obtains the necessary permits to properly continue their testing. Companies like Google and Ford have already gotten the permits to test their self-driving models. Ford has even announced that it plans on producing a fully autonomous vehicle by the 2021.

Uber refuses to comply with the California DMV simply because they believe that their semi-autonomous cars don’t fit under the category of fully autonomous vehicle that would require them to file for a permit. However, the DMV stated that permit is to ensure that “those testing the vehicle have provided an adequate level of financial responsibility, have adequately trained qualified test drivers on the safe operation of the autonomous technology; and will notify the DMV when the vehicles have been involved in a collision.”

Michigan Makes History With Self-Driving Cars

Governor Rick Snyder approved a legislation that will allow Michigan to be the first state to test and sell self-driving cars. The law will allow the testing of cars that lack a steering wheel or brake pedal.

Companies like Ford, Fiat Chrysler, and Uber came together to help form the legislation. Once the technology is properly tested and secured, the self-driving vehicles can be sold. Google and Ford, which are part of the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, are just a few companies who want the government to release a better set of rules on the testing of self-driving.

Meanwhile, this September the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) asked states create rules for self-driving vehicles. NHTSA requested auto companies to come up with a fifteen-point system that will guarantee the safety of the upcoming technology. This request was contradicted by the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets who said in a statement that they wanted to keep the “state and local policymakers from pursuing their own rules and contributing to an inconsistent patchwork of regulations.”

The California DMV had rules that allowed self-driving cars on the road as long as there was a driver in the front seat. The new legislation that allows the testing of driverless cars is a win for Google who has been pushing for driverless cars on the road. Google’s disapproval of the DMV laws caused the DMV to review the law in October and have yet to be officially finalized.

With the American Center for Mobility’s 335 acres and the University of Michigan’s 32 acres, both set aside for the testing of self-driving cars, it’s evident that Michigan is more than ready for the future of self-driving cars.

Intel’s Core i7 the Future of Self-Driving Cars?

Chief executive Brian Krzanich has recently announced that Intel will invest $250 million in self-driving cars with the hopes to “make fully autonomous driving a reality.” Mobileye, the creators of Tesla Motors’ autopilot system, along with Delphi have signed on to help make this a reality.

Intel and Mobileye have teamed up with BMW to have a self-driving car produced by 2021. Intel has decided to use the Core i7 as a preliminary controlling source, along with Mobileye’s EyeQ chip. The Core i7 will be able to do “twenty trillion mathematical operations per second”, and after further development, the chip will have two times the processor power. Intel may also announce a few “more powerful” chip options at the Consumer Electronic Show this January in Las Vegas.

According to the New York Times, the Core i7 won’t be arriving in cars for another two more years. Intel also won’t just take any old Core i7 and stick it into a car without properly analyzing space for the chip, microprocessors, and factoring in temperature within the car to be compatible with the Core i7 chip.

While companies like Nvidia have dedicated the next few years to making their Tegra, basically like Intel’s Core, the new brain for future cars, Intel has not announced any competitors that have fueled the surge for autonomous cars. Nvidia’s new Parker Chip, which came out in August, already has the technology to identify road signs, other cars, and even pedestrians.

Google Loses $895 Million from Moonshot Projects

Despite Alphabet’s heavy investments in Google’s moonshot projects, the moonshot projects are proving to be more of a loss than a gain. For the past three months, the moonshot projects accumulated a loss of $895 million.

Google’s moonshot projects aren’t guaranteed to become actual products, rather, these projects are more experimental in nature. The moonshot projects consist of several ideas including self-driving cars, fast and efficient Fiber internet, and innovative home technology.

Google earned $185 million from this quarter’s moonshot projects, double what the projects earned the previous quarter. Although profit doubled, the amount invested also increased from $660 million in 2015 to $895 million this year.

Google reports that the majority of its revenue came from the Fiber Internet services which provide high-speed internet. In addition, Google is profiting from Nest and Verily, some of Google’s life science operations. News on Google’s potential production of its self-driving cars has yet to be disclosed.

Google officials aren’t giving up on their moonshot projects yet. Officials hope that these losses don’t persist after the projects’ early stages.

Investors are nervous about the huge losses related to its moonshot projects. Google promises to decrease funding of the projects and potentially cut the projects altogether if they don’t promise higher profits.