The race for leadership in autonomous cars is on: Volvo to deploy 100 self-driving cars by 2017

2013 has been a year with a lot of buzz around self-driving cars. While Google has been mostly silent about their progress, many other players have demonstrated prototypes of  autonomous cars (including Mercedes, Nissan) and announced intentions to bring more and more autonomous features to the market.

Now Volvo Cars has announced a project to deploy 100 highly autonomous cars in the Swedish city of Gothenburg by 2017. The cars will drive without the need for human supervision on selected roads in Gothenburg (including motorways, regular surface streets etc.). In autonomous mode their speed will be limited to a maximum of 70km/h. The cars will not yet be able to drive fully autonously; they may have to return control to the driver in certain areas or traffic situations (however the car will be able to handle all short-term traffic situations without help from a driver). The cars will use 360 degree sensors including cameras, Lidar and radar. More information about the project is available in a video by Volvo.

The project is very significant because of its scope, short timeline until implementation and because it involves key partners such as the City of Gothenburg and the Swedish government (Swedish Transport Administration and Swedish Transport Agency) who may have to remove any remaining legal road blocks.

With this project the race has begun to establish autonomous vehicle technology in real-live urban settings. Much as we have predicted, the cars’ autonomous operation will be limited to a very specific region: Only selected roads in withing Gothenburg which  are carefully mapped. The cars will rely on the mobile communications to receive map updates as needed. Thus Volvo will have to build an operations center which supports the autonomous operation on a day-to-day basis and issues updates to the cars for changes, construction zones etc.

Volvo Cars has reported losses in the first half of 2013 of about 90 million USD on revenues of almost 9 billion USD; with the global economic recovery this may have improved in the second half of 2013. Nevertheless, as one of the smaller car makers,  leadership in the autonomous space may be a good strategy for survival.

It is not clear, however, whether Volvo realizes that much of the growth in this technology will come from fleets of self-driving cars operating in limited areas. If Volvo really wants to profit from the growth opportunities in this area, they will have to re-think their model structure and introduce smaller, probably even electric cars aimed at short-range fleet operations. Being owned by Geely, a Chinese automotive company, Volvo could be in an ideal position to introduce the new paradigm of autonomous mobility to China (which would greatly benefit from fleets of short-range autonomous electric vehicles for urban, pollution-free mobility).

The project shows that autonomous technology has entered a new phase where real projects are being implemented which require the cooperation of car makers, technology providers, cities and governments. The British project in Milton Keynes is another example as well as the project to rethink urban mobility in Singapore (where the French company Induct are involved with their Navia autonomous shuttle as well as MIT).

Sources: Lindholmen Science Park, Volvo

Nissan tests autonomous Leaf on Japanese highway

Underscoring their intention to develop vehicles which are capable of full autonomy, Nissan has shown one of their autonomous Leaf prototypes on a public Japanese highway to the press. The auto-pilot system not only kept lane and distance; it also was also able to switch lanes, overtake other cars and merge into traffic at on-ramps. Although the highway segment was short and no details were provided on the quality of the lane markings (or localization algorithms) and merging capabilities, this event certainly shows that Nissan is committed to its vision of fully autonomous driving and aims to be perceived as an innovation leader. The event does not yet show, however, that it prototypes are more advanced than similar prototypes by other auto makers (e.g. Daimler, BMW etc.).

Sources: Nissan, Japan-News

Oxford Mobile Robotics advances driverless car research

Oxford’s mobile robotics group has been making rapid progress in the development of driverless cars. As Prof. Paul Newmann explained in a lively lecture last Thursday (as part of the 14th Annual Robotics Systems Conference), it took his group of 20 PhD students just 4 months to build an autonomous car that was able to navigate local streets.

Prototype Autonomous Car (Photo: Hars, 2013)

While being equipped with some algorithms for obstacle detection, the car primarily serves as a test bed for advanced navigation algorithms. Similar to Google, the group uses prior knowledge about the roads to be traveled, but their algorithms can work with much simpler and much less expensive sensors. The car does not need 3D LIDAR sensors. It uses a much cheaper 2D Lidar which is affixed to the very front of the vehicle. The rotating laser captures a slice of points with distance information in a single line below the car as well to the right and the left of the car. As the car moves forward and scans line after line a 3D picture gradually emerges. The car determines its position by comparing the data points gathered to its prior knowledge. The sensor can capture about 40 lines per second. This works well for low speeds but would have to be increased for higher velocities.

Prof. Newmann has also come up with a new approach for navigating in snow and rain. Localization can be very difficult when snow changes the environment’s appearance. His solution is only seemingly simple: instead of trying to detect invariant properties of the landscape, he proposes to accept that the environment may have multiple appearances. Thus he adds the different ways that the environment may look to his store of prior knowledge. As the car drives a known area, it identifies that prior view (winter, summer..) which most closely matches the data captured by its sensors and uses it for localization. It will be interesting to see how robust this approach of “experience-based navigation” can be and how many variations of the environment will be needed to allow fully autonomous driving.

The group currently has two driverless car prototypes; one of them is part of a cooperation with Nissan. It will be interesting to see whether Nissan will incorporate some of the groups navigation algorithms into their solution.


Nissan to introduce fully autonomous vehicles by 2020

As the first major auto maker, Nissan has announced that they will develop fully autonomous vehicles capable of navigating even in urban traffic without supervision. Nissan’s Executive Vice President Andy Palmer claims that – unlike Google’s  driverless car prototypes – these vehicles will neither require costly 3D LIDARs nor will they need specially created maps for navigation. Nissan intends to bring the cars to the market by 2020.

Nissan wants to build on the successes of its Leaf Electric Car and further associate its brand image with innovation. In the past year, Nissan has taken major steps to accelerate autonomous vehicle development: They moved their autonomous research group from Japan to Silicon Valley and are building a testing ground for urban autonomous driving which is slated for completion by the end of this year.

While most other car companies are active in the field of autonomous driving and some (such as Volvo) have made general statements about fully autonomous vehicles, the Nissan announcement appears to be the first which is accompanied by action.

From an innovation diffusion perspective it is interesting to see that the commitment to fully autonomous technology does not come from one of the the top three auto manufacturers but from a large contender who sees the technology as a means to gain reputation and market share. Nissan does not seem to be concerned about the medium term business implications – a transformation of the car market from individual ownership to mobility service providers and a significant reduction of the total vehicle demand. They may count on a first-mover advantage; in addition, the combination of electric vehicles (the Leaf) and autonomous capabilities might be ideally suited for fleets of locally operating autonomous taxis.

It remains to be seen whether Nissan will be able to master the complexities of urban traffic without the advanced sensors and prior knowledge which Google is relying on. Nissan certainly has the plate full to catch up with Google. But with this action by Nissan and the ever-clearer intent of Google to challenge the biggest auto manufacturers it is probably just a question of months until the next auto makers will jump on the bandwagon. The next revolution in mobility is picking up speed…

Source: Nisssan


Audi first automaker to receive Nevada test license for autonomous cars

After Continental reported their test license in Nevada in December, Audi USA now claims to have become the second recipient of a license for testing autonomous cars – before Continental and after Google. Audi’s driverless Audi TTS race car can now roll through Nevada. The car has been developed by Stanford University and the Volkswagen Electronics Research lab in Silicon valley. In their statement Audi introduces the somewhat misleading term ‘piloted’ driving and ‘piloted’ parking for their autonomous driving. Apparently they still have a hard time imaging a future without driver or pilot…

Source: Audi 1,2

Update 09 Jan: German newspaper FAZ reports from CES hat Audi was optimistic about the introduction of driverless cars and expects to see autonomous vehicles on the market before the end of this decade.




Volvo cars aims for leadership in the field of autonomous driving

At a seminar in Washington last week, Volvo executive Peter Mertens has vowed to move beyond concepts and bring driverless car technology to the customer. He emphasized that Volvo cars “aims to gain leadership in the field of autonomous driving”. He also lamented the current trend to regulate this technology on the state-level in the US and emphasized the need for a comprehensive legal framework.

Volvo cars, which is owned by the Chinese Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, has a long history of improving car safety and has participated in the EU SARTRE road train project which was completed this year.

In the wake of Nissan’s announcements last month concerning drive-by wire technology in some of their upcoming models and their (limited) self-driving Nissan ‘Leaf’ prototype the statement by Volvo cars may be another sign that the tide is turning and competition in the driverless space may start to heat up.

It will be interesting to see when the larger car manufacturers begin to communicate their autonomous vehicle strategy.

Source: Volvo Cars


Chinese company to commercialize driverless cars?

CarNewsChina reported yesterday based on article in China Daily that a cooperation between China’s First Auto Works ( a commercial car manufacturer) and the National University of Defense may lead to the introduction of commercial driverless cars in China. There is no more specific information about this effort, but China has been accelerating its research in this area.

It would make much sense for this country to invest early into driverless technology. Driverless cars have many benefits: besides fewer accidents and lower mobility costs because of car-sharing, they also use road networks more efficiently and thus could greatly reduce the enormous investment needs for building up the traffic infrastructure in this large country.






Japanese government aims to implement driverless technlogy

Realizing that traditional approaches for Intelligent Transport Systems may be outdated, the Japanese transport ministry has announced an initiative for an ‘autopilot’ driverless system which will be operated on highways. A first demonstration is planned for 2013; the whole system should be operational by 2020.The initiative will start with an expert forum on June 27 consisting of researchers and industry representatives (including Toyota, Honda, Nissan).

The autopilot system will operate within private cars. These cars will be driven manually on standard roads. Once the car reaches the highway, the autopilot can be activated. This will reduce accidents on the highway and reduce traffic jams. Still in the tradition of ITS, the ministry envisions that highways will need to be equipped with technology supporting the autopilot mode. This may include systems for controlling the traffic flow at on-ramps and in traffic jams.

Accelerating the pace of development for driverless technology is an excellent fit for the Japanese industry which already is a world leader in robotics technology.

Source:  Daily Yomiuri, Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure,  Transport and Tourism

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.

Stanford course on the Future of the Automobile

Intelligent vehicles were the main topic of a 1-unit Stanford course from April to June. The course included guest lectures from Volkswagen Research (pdf), Hyundai (pdf), Volvo (pdf) and Bosch (pdf) and addressed technical, legal and some societal aspects of autonomous vehicle technology.

The course was offered by Sven Beiker and Chris Gerdes, both from Stanford’s Center for Automotive Research (CARS). Some of the key insights provided in the class:

  • Carsharing would benefit a lot – autonomous vehicles could be used by carsharing service providers as soon as 2018
  • Completely autonomous vehicles might be available by 2030 (this somewhat contradicts expected use in carsharing by 2018)
  • Over your lifetime you will spend about 1000 days in a car!
  • Autonomous cars and inter-car communication systems should evolve together; however it is difficult to impose new standards
  • The technology is advancing quickly

It is interesting, however, that the economic and business impacts of driverless technology seem to have been mostly absent from the course presentations (with the exception of a few bullet points in the final session). Issues such as how driverless technology might impact the cost of mobility,  what impacts driverless cars would have on the structure of the car industry, and on new business models and services were not addressed.

Nevertheless this has been an excellent course. I highly recommend taking a look at the  syllabus and the many excellent course presentations in PDF format.