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Realizing that traditional approaches for Intelligent Transport Systems may be outdated, the Japanese transport ministry has announced an initiative for an ‘autopilot’ driverless system which will be operated on highways.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

Google trademarks logo for a car-sharing service

Google is moving ahead with its efforts to introduce driverless cars. On June 13 it submitted a smiling car icon for trademark protection at the US Patent and Trademark Office (application 85650611). The application does not provide explicit information about the intended use beyond a reference to autonomous driving, but it is obvious that the icon was primarily designed to show available cars in an online map. We have tried to anticipate what this could look like (see graphic below). Whereas Google’s car sharing service will be a natural fit with Google maps, we had to use OpenStreetMap for the graphic because of copyright issues.

The graphic shows Google cars available in Las Vegas; we don’t know yet where Google might ultimately launch a car-sharing service but Nevada has become the first state where key legal hurdles for the operation of autonomous cars have been removed.

Why is Google protecting the logo now? Unless Google has made much greater advances with its technology than is currently known, it is unlikely that an autonomous car sharing service operated by Google could be introduced before 2015. But Google could either be working on developing the software infrastructure for their future mobility services which would quickly lead to icon and logo issues. Or they could be contemplating starting (or buying) a conventional car-sharing service first. They would get first-hand experience and could gradually expand it into a driverless mobility service.

The logo is clear evidence that Google considers car-sharing as the primary business model for its driverless technology. It will not compete with established car makers heads on; instead it will change the fundamentals of personal mobility. Greatly reduced costs through car-sharing and increased flexibility will drive millions of customers away from private car ownership and into the service offerings of Google. Car-makers beware!

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.



Traffic accidents are among top leading causes of death

A recent study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shows how dangerous motorized traffic is: Traffic accidents continue to be the leading cause of death for the age groups from 8 to 24 years! If the number of years lost are considered, then traffic deaths are at positions four in the year 2008 and five in 2009 among the leading causes of death for all age groups. Many accidents involve alcohol or human error. Many such accidents would not occur if the development and introduction of autonomous vehicle technology would be accelerated.

We should stop thinking about incremental measures to reduce traffic deaths by a few percent. Instead, we should aim to reduce it by at least a factor of three. Autonomous vehicle technology clearly has this potential!

Click the graphic to enlarge the image. Source: NHTSA