The race for fully self-driving cars has reached a pivotal point

Several events from the last months provide a strong signal that autonomous vehicle technology has led the auto industry to a pivotal point: The first auto makers are adapting their business model for fully self-driving cars and are providing explicit time frames!

Earlier this year GM invested 500 million USD in Lyft, purchased self-driving technology startup Cruise Automation for more than 1 billion USD and announced in July that GM will build its first self-driving cars for use within the Lyft fleet as self-driving taxi. In May BMW announced that they would have a self-driving car on the market within 5 years. Next came Uber, which acquired autonomous truck startup Otto for 680 Million USD and is now beginning field trials of fully self-driving taxis in Pittsburgh. But the key change at Uber is the way that its CEO Kalanick frames the issue. He makes it clear that Uber’s survival depends on being first (or tied for first) in rolling out a self-driving taxi network.

The latest announcement comes from Ford which plans to provide mobility services with fully autonomous self-driving Fords by 2021. This is a major effort: Ford is doubling its development staff in Silicon Valley, aims to have the largest fleet of self-driving car prototypes by the end of this year and will triple the size of this fleet again next year. It has also purchased 3 companies related to autonomous driving technology and has purchased a stake in Velodyne, the leading manufacturer of LIDARs for autonomous driving.

When we started to monitor the development of self-driving car technology in 2009 we expected that this technology would turn into an avalanche that sweeps through the auto industry. There have been many signs over the past years that the avalanche is picking up speed but until now we have been reluctant to claim that it is in full swing because even though the auto industry was continually increasing their activity around self-driving car technology all players had been very reluctant to openly call this a race and to publicly position fully self-driving cars as a key element of their strategy. There was a lot of posturing, many eye-catching public demonstrations of self-driving car prototypes but very little tangible action aimed at turning fully self-driving car prototypes into a real product.

After these recent signals, this situation has changed. It is now clear that auto makers have begun competing in earnest to adapt their business models to the coming wave of fully self-driving cars. No longer is Google the only company which is stepping on the gas; auto industry executives (and Uber) are now openly competing to bring the first self-driving cars on the market. It will come as no surprise to the readers of this blog that the initial business models are not concerned with selling cars but to provide mobility services.

These signals are important in themselves. They heat up the competition and force the rest of the auto industry to decide how to adapt their business model to fully self-driving cars and to explain this strategy to their investors, journalists and analysts. They increase the value of companies in the space and increase the competition for human capital (Google has probably lost between 500 million and 1 billion USD in human capital from the exodus of key members of their self-driving car group in this year (680 mio USD Uber paid for the Otto startup founded early 2016 by 4 Googlers (including Anthony Levandowski), plus Chris Urmson.). They also increase the effort of all parties involved (auto industry, suppliers, regulators, journalists, related industries such as transport & logistics, insurance, health care etc.) to understand the implications of fully self-driving cars which gradually drives away the many misconceptions and more clearly shows risks and opportunities. We are in the middle of a global, distributed innovation process around self-driving cars and driverless mobility where all parties are learning, refining their thinking, changing their vision of the future and adapting their actions accordingly. The avalanche is in full swing now and it will be a tough ride for those who fail to adapt while there is still time…

Intelligent vehicle symposium showcases advances in driverless technology

Driverless technology researchers gathered at the beginning of June for the IEEE Intelligent Vehicles Symposium. With almost 200 presentations from more than 600 authors probably no aspect of this technology was left untouched.

This was not just an academic get-together: many of the papers involved major car makers (BMW, Toyota, Daimler, Renault, Volvo, Opel, Volkswagen, General Motors, Hyundai) or automotive suppliers (Delphi, Bosch).

The conference started with a reportedly captivating keynote presentation by Google’s Chris Urmson. Unfortunately, I have not been able to obtain more detailed information about its content. Please contact me if you were there!! Robert Bertini (Intelligent Transportation Systems Lab) gave another keynote on the environmental issues related to intelligent transportation which took the perspective beyond technical issues towards societal and environmental impacts.

It is hard to pick out the most interesting papers. But Daimler presented a new approach for improving stereo vision using a ‘Stixel’-based approach for object recognition. They claim that they are able to reduce false positives by a factor of 8 over the state of the art while reducing the computational costs by a factor of 10.

China¬† also seems to be moving ahead with driverless technology. Two papers (1, 2) were presented from participants of the annual Chinese driverless vehicle competition (‘ Future Challenge of Intelligent Vehicles’) funded by their National Nature Science Foundation.

Several papers focused on pedestrian modeling and recognition. Volkswagen described their approach to systematically drive an autonomous car at the vehicle’s handling limits. DLR presented an approach to apply autonomous vehicles localization technology to trains.

The symposium was located in Alcala de Henares, Spain. It also included demonstrations of autonomous vehicle systems.

BMW shows highly automated driving on the Autobahn

BMW’s research group has released a video of a modified BMW 5 Sedan driving autonomously on the German autobahn. The car is equipped with lidar, radar, ultrasound and camara sensing technologies. The car drives completely autonomously on the autobahn. It switches lanes automatically, recognizes speed limits, and can cope with a wide range of unusual situations. As the project’s leader Nico K√§mpchen explains this requires exact knowledge of highway lanes – with centimeter precision! All the sensors have been integrated into the car in an unobtrosive way to avoid spoiling the car’s good looks. The car has now logged almost 5000 km of autonomous driving on the autobahn. While this is a research project, we expect that such technology will appear in high end models in the not so distant future.

Posted in BMW