Tesla, Mercedes-Benz, Delphi (Audi) winning self-driving race

23 Mar 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Automated Car Set To Drive Itself From San Francisco To New York.

“Around the periphery there’s forward vision, there’s radar, there’s also lidar, the car has high accuracy GPS, and also vehicle to vehicle, vehicle to infrastructure communications,” Absmeier said.SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) – As tech companies and automakers experiment with self-driving vehicles, an autonomous car is set to embark on a first-of-its-kind coast-to-coast road trip. Delphi is putting its autonomous driving system to the long-distance test to collect more data about highways, from on-ramp to off-ramp, the technology will control the car with an operator behind the wheel in case of emergency. “We’re using radar and vision systems and those rely on the infrastructure and vehicles around them for the car to make decisions,” Absmeier said. With seven companies testing automated vehicles on California highways, many in the Bay Area, and others working in labs and on test tracks, the promise of leaving at least some of the driving to your car is becoming a reality.

An Audi SUV equipped with technologies from automotive parts supplier Delphi will begin its cross-country journey near the Golden Gate Bridge on Sunday. Both “ride” and “autonomous” might be pushing it: It was a Volkswagen Passat which could park itself, but it wasn’t smart enough to avoid any humans who wandered into its path. The 3,500 mile trip is expected to finish at the New York International Auto Show a week later. “Delphi had great success testing its car in California and on the streets of Las Vegas,” Delphi chief technology officer Jeff Owens said in a written statement. “Now it’s time to put our vehicle to the ultimate test by broadening the range of driving conditions.” The vehicle is equipped with several active safety technologies that the company has developed. And by completing a two-day, 550-mile Silicon Valley to Las Vegas trip to CES 2015, Audi showed that its “piloted driving” concept can handle highway as well as urban driving.

Each time I’ve tooled around in a self-driving vehicle since then—including trips in a Google car and a Nissan Leaf—it’s felt less like an experiment and more like something which might actually become common in the foreseeable future. Now automotive supplier Delphi wants to prove that self-driving technology can really go the distance by undertaking that most classic of American journeys: a cross-country road trip. Much of the American research into self-driving cars is taking place in or near Silicon Valley, and Sacramento is leading the way in regulating the vehicles. And that’s never been more true than with the excursion I just made in an Audi SQ5 modified for autonomous driving by Delphi, the gigantic supplier of parts, systems, and technologies to most of the world’s car manufacturers. Despite the progress and interest in self-driving cars, visions of a carefree commute — sipping on cocktails while the car heads home across the Bay Bridge at sunset or reading the newspaper over your coffee while the car carries you to work — may have to wait.

But Delphi is about to take its Audi on a 3,500-mile trek from San Francisco to New York, during which it will collect terabytes of data for use as it continues to develop self-driving technologies. Depending on how you define “self-driving” and whom you believe, automated cars are either just around the corner or still a couple of decades from reality.

The fact that Delphi’s car drove itself pretty much like a human would have—stopping at safe distances at stop lights, switching lanes when necessary, and not doing anything which felt particularly robotic—didn’t startle me. John Absmeier, director of Delphi’s global automated vehicle business development, announced the ambitious autonomous road trip last weekend at the Connected Car Pavilion in Austin, Texas during SXSW (which, full disclosure, I helped organize). Unlike the Google car I’d rode in, there was no giant spinning lidar sensor atop the vehicle to tip off other motorists that this particular Audi SUV was anything unusual. Hossam Bahlool, director of automotive products for Telenav, which produces navigation products and is working on self-driving technology, describes the public perception as “Hollywoodesque,” though he acknowledges it would be enjoyable to sit back and sip an after-work drink on the drive home. “My concern is that the public’s expectations have been raised to unreasonable levels because of the hype out there on the Internet,” said Steven Shladover, a research engineer with a UC Berkeley advanced transportation program. “It is our job to rein that in a bit. … It was well equipped with lidar, radar, and cameras, but they were unobtrusive—some of the gadgetry was even concealed behind the bumpers and license plate.

Compared to the production cars that Google has pressed into service as self-driving technology mules (and which feature gumball-machine-like LIDAR sensors on the roof), the Delphi Audi SQ5 looks much like an off-the-lot production vehicle, save for prominent logos. I’m sometimes the skunk at the picnic when I say it’s probably not going to happen anytime soon.” Automotive automation is already on the market and is becoming increasingly common. And the tech didn’t take up an out-of-the-ordinary amount of space, which I didn’t realize until after the trip was over and we popped the trunk, which was empty. That such an mundane-looking car could do something so extraordinary is in part just a sign of how much progress the industry has made tackling the challenge of autonomy.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and most automated car developers, use a five-stage progression to both describe and envision the advance of self-controlled cars. In addition to a variety of road conditions, the vehicle will also have to navigate murky legal territory since most states don’t yet have laws on the book regarding the operation on self-driving cars.

Absmeier noted that only four states—California, Nevada, Michigan, and Florida, plus the District of Columbia—currently have regulation in place for autonomous vehicles. “In the rest of the states it’s not precluded, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s legal,” he added. “So we’re taking every precaution and we’ve notified the states ahead of time.” Delphi is also taking care to not push the autonomous technology or the Audi’s human handlers. Unlike professional visionaries such as Tesla’s Elon Musk and Google’s Sergey Brin, Absmeier, who heads Delphi’s Silicon Valley lab, erred on the side of caution when I asked how soon a consumer might be able to go out and buy a self-driving car. Instead of naming a year, he pointed out that vehicles will take on more and more responsibility for the job in bits and pieces over the years to come. Rain and snow flurries the system can handle,” Absmeier noted. “But for the safety of the drivers and as the systems are still being developed, we’ll stop testing during heavy snow and heavy rain.” Just to be extra safe, the Delphi vehicle is taking a southerly route, “turning east at LA,” is how a Delphi spokesperson put it. John Absmeier, who runs the autonomous cars division of Delphi, an automotive technology firm, figures Level three cars could be on the road by 2017 or 2018 but that fully self-driving cars are unlikely for at least 10 years.

Shladover expects fully automated cars to be operating on freeways and possibly on some city streets in the 2020 to 2025 range but not in dense urban areas like downtown San Francisco before the 2030s. By the time it hits 100,000 miles and I begin to itch for a new ride, I expect that the notion of buying a more-or-less autonomous car won’t be fantasy—and might even be in my price range. Google, which has become widely associated with self-driving car research, is no longer following the incremental approach of developing automated features that assist drivers. In an experiment using four self-driving cars that followed each other, the rear car was slowed so much, Shladover said, that a frustrated driver would have liked to switch off the automation. Companies wanting to test self-driving cars on public roads and highways need to get a permit from the DMV and satisfy state requirements that include using only drivers with clean records and proper training, having a driver ready to take control at all times, and having at least $5 million in cash or insurance available to cover claims.

Regulations for testing were in place at the beginning of the year, as required by state legislation, but the rules for the public are still in development, said Bernard Soriano, the DMV’s deputy director. Among the things to be determined are whether a driver or operator would need to be ready to intervene, whether steering, acceleration and braking controls should be required, and what changes in the state vehicle code will be necessary. “It’s peppered with what the driver can and cannot do while driving,” said Soriano, who offered no prediction of when regulations are likely to be ready. Contra Costa County officials are working with Mercedes and other automotive developers to turn part of the former Concord Naval Weapons Station into a testing center — called GoMentum Station — for vehicle-to-vehicle communication and self-driving cars. The station has roads, tunnels, bridges, rail crossings and a small area that was once a town. “We’re trying to push this technology forward,” said Randy Iwasaki, executive director of the Contra Costa Transportation Authority and a former Caltrans director. “We’re an hour from Sacramento, where the regulations are being created, and 38 miles from Silicon Valley.” Public perception will also be an important factor in accepting the cars.

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