Driving driverless: Quest for an autonomous car has reached a truck now

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Published: March 15, 2017 4:25:16 AM

Uber’s dream is to bring “reliable transportation to everyone, everywhere,” now extended to everything too, with the trucks from Otto, a start-up it acquired last year.

Uber got a permit from California Department of Motor Vehicles to test two self-driving Volvo SUVs on public roads.

At San Francisco’s Pier 90, chock-a-block with cargo vehicles, it is pretty tough for any truck to stand out. But a white Volvo truck with Otto emblazoned on it is the centre of attention. This is the next big thing in automated cars and has already shown its mettle by delivering a consignment of Budweiser beer in Colorado, without a driver controlling it on the freeway.

Uber is one of the many companies thinking in terms of driverless car. While CEO Travis Kalanick says automated vehicles are “existential” for the ride-hailing company’s future, he is not alone in the race to drive without drivers. Just in the US, at least 23 companies—including Tesla, Google and Volkswagen—have registered in autonomous vehicle programmes. The idea that fuels this cutting-edge technology is pure economics, at the end of the day. Cars suffer from serious issues of inefficiency as they sit idle 95% of the time. Considering that the world has 1,200,000,000 cars, this is inefficiency at a gargantuan scale. Add to this the fact that cars amount for 22% of all emissions globally, and muddy the urban infrastructure problem by creating the need for parking spaces.

Since 1984, when the first experimental self-driving cars appeared, there has been much progress on the technology, leading to Mercedes-Benz showcasing its concept car, the F 015, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in 2015. Everyone has a different take on the technology, but in the end the idea is to make cars intelligent and independent enough to be aware of surroundings and take decisions based on that.

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Interestingly, Uber’s dream is to bring “reliable transportation to everyone, everywhere,” now extended to everything too, with the trucks from Otto, a start-up it acquired last year. Matt Sweeney, who heads product at Uber’s Advanced Technology Group, says “the truck and passenger vehicles share software and hardware components and this helps us work on different aspects of the self-driving problem at the same time.” But on scope, passenger vehicles are for urban environments where Uber has its focus on ride-sharing, while trucks will be for high-speed highways where the constraints are different.

Just last week, Uber got a permit from California Department of Motor Vehicles to test two self-driving Volvo SUVs on public roads, though it will need to have backup drivers behind the wheel in case the prototype cars malfunction. Its self-driving cars have been running test drives in other parts of the US, too.

The Otto truck comes with a rig of radars, laser scanners and stereo cameras that give the computers inside a live, 360-degree vision of its environment, with high dynamic range, high resolution and high colour information imagery, so that the truck can be smart enough to decide what to do next. But the computing task this presents is “almost as big as a small data centre.” Sweeney says the computing has to be done inside as “there is no tech that can let us send all that data to the cloud real time, and hence a lot of the computing has to be done in the truck itself.”

“A lot of the tech is based on prior mapping, but in subsequent runs we see differences that have come about in the area and pay attention on those objects that are different.”

Interestingly, Otto is being sued by Google’s Waymo self-driving car unit, which claims its former employee and start-up founder Anthony Levandowski stole its proprietary design for its laser-based radar system. There are other challenges too. “Uber tech is different because we are trying to make this on top of the ride-sharing network that we already have,” he added.

Nissan, in contrast, keeps the driver and not the technology at the centre, and its definition of an “autonomous car” is hence a vehicle with different levels of driving technologies that enable it to operate autonomously for certain periods of time. A Nissan spokesperson said on the technology side the challenges are in artificial intelligence software development, data processing and digital mapping technologies, while on the social environment side laws and regulations along with modifications of road infrastructure will become necessary.

This contrast in technologies is why it is important to see how the entire ecosystem evolves, maybe with different platforms talking to each other. But Uber is not depending on this. “We need to see and interact with vehicles, but there is no guarantee we will have that technology. So we are approaching it with the assumption it won’t exist,” says Sweeney.

Uber’s goal is to take its technology everywhere, but can these vehicles actually be practical for an environment like India. Sweeney accepts the new elements this will throw in, along with the sheer volume, will present a slew of challenges. “Those are situations we think we will be able to tackle, but those are not the first places we will go,” he explains, adding that they will look for opportunities where they can deploy this technology safely. Clearly, this drive has just started.

(The author attended the Uber Media Summit in San Francisco at the invitation of Uber)
nandagopal.rajan@expressindia.com

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