How Coronavirus Might Impact Society and, Ultimately, Driverless Vehicles!

I feel like people are constantly pondering what society will be like post-Coronavirus. While everyone is craving going back to the world we knew, we are also acknowledging that the world will never be the same. I appreciate that there have been many articles (like this one and this one) that present some of the societal shifts that could happen as a result of this pandemic and I figured I’d take it a step farther and see what it might mean in the driverless industry. Here are some of the big trends (relevant to driverless vehicles) that I’m seeing:

  • Car sales are shifting to an online marketplace (link here);
  • Shopping for groceries, clothes, and everything else is massively shifting online, which is reducing our individual car ownership, but putting heavy reliance on goods delivery (link here);
  • Since workplaces are encouraging working remotely, shopping has largely shifted online, and most public places are closed, people are driving much less (link here);
  • People are scared to ride public transit and take shared rides due to the close proximity to others (link here);

While many of these changes are out of necessity today, it’s very possible that they will instill long-term change. So what does this mean for driverless vehicles?  It’s clear people are eager for the driverless delivery of goods, which is a great opportunity for building consumer acceptance for driverless vehicles, in general. And this massive reduction in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) is reminding people of a cleaner, safer world – could this create longer-term impacts? Better environmental policies? On the other hand, this does not bode well for shared, driverless rides – though I’m hopeful this is not a long-term impact.

I hope our society can be thoughtful about how we re-open our society…not just with regards to the sharing of germs, but with our policies, our businesses, and our individual practices. Let’s think about the world we want and become proactively try to make it happen. Shared, electric, driverless vehicles – how do we get there? Encourage shared rides, incentivize electric vehicle usage, create supportive driverless regulations, discourage single occupancy vehicle usage (and vehicle ownership, in general), and continue to demonstrate and communicate driverless vehicle success stories. While the technology continues to be advanced, these are all important foundational elements.

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The Car Transformations that will Greatly Influence Driverless Vehicles

It’s no secret that driverless vehicles are coming to society a lot later than the media suggested. Articles with headlines like “It’s 2020. Where are our Self-Driving Cars?,” “Self-Driving Cars: Hype-Filled Decade Ends on a Sobering Note,” and “Driverless Cars are Taking Longer Than We Expected. Here’s Why” reflect where we are today.

In the meantime, the car industry is making a lot of other investments and advancements. Here are some exciting examples:

  • Electric vehicles – As stated in this article, “In 2018, ZEVs represented 1.9% of total sales nationwide, or about 334,000 vehicles out of 17.2 million new vehicles sold. By 2025, sales of ZEVs are required to be about 7 to 10% of total sales.”
  • Partially Automated Driving Systems (ADS) – Not to be confused with fully driverless technology, partial ADS presents great safety opportunities for vehicles today. Examples include adaptive cruise control, lane centering, and self-parking.
  • Ownership model – As stated in this article, “By 2025-26, vehicle subscription programs could account for nearly 10% of all new vehicle sales in the US and Europe.” We’re seeing this trend across all industries, so it’s no surprise that people are less inclined to own vehicles outright and that vehicle manufacturers and dealers are adapting to this trend.
  • Maintenance / upgradeability – As the vehicles are becoming “smarter” and more connected, they have the ability to have increased predictive maintenance (so they can identify potential maintenance issues before they happen) and they can be enhanced via “over the air” or other upgrades.
  • Data Machines – Often described as “computers on wheels,” vehicles are now storing and sharing more data than ever. This article states, “A car can generate about 25 gigabytes of data every hour and as much as 4,000 gigabytes a day” While vehicle manufacturers are still exploring how to monetize all of this data, there is no question that vehicle data is a growing part of the automobile industry’s value chain.

There’s no question that these will all have influences on driverless vehicles, so it’s important we keep following these exciting industry developments. I’m sure this list is actually much longer – what else am I missing?

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Will the Driverless Movement Slow Due to Coronavirus?

In some ways, the slowing of the driverless movement is inevitable – since just about everything in our society is slowing (besides the purchasing of toilet paper and Purell); however, I think this is a nuanced question that needs a deeper dive. I’m going to look at this through four lenses:

  1. Driverless technology advancement: People may be surprised to know that the majority of the driverless technology development that happens occurs behind a desk. This means that the code writing, testing, and simulations can all still occur, as scheduled. If anything, this might even happen more quickly as engineers are able to work with minimal distractions.
  2. Driverless technology testing: Driverless testing does require engineers to sit “behind the wheel” and so this aspect of driverless technology advancement has slowed if not stopped altogether. As this article shows, these companies are practicing social distancing like everyone else and, sadly, that applies to engineers sitting in vehicles. While this will have an impact on the overall driverless technology development timeline, I do not expect this to have massive impacts to the overall industry progress.
  3. Driverless technology acceptance: As noted in an earlier blog post, driverless vehicles may seem like the panacea for mobility during this pandemic since they can transport people seemingly with no driver. Acceptance for the use of driverless vehicles for goods transport may increase (see example here); however, I don’t think much has changed with regards to driverless passenger transport.
  4. Driverless technology commercialization: I’d say this is a topic that is entirely independent of the Coronavirus pandemic and, frankly, wasn’t close to happening for most of the driverless technology companies. Companies like EasyMile and Nuro have their niche markets with commercialized products; however, most other companies are still striving for Level 5 (fully automated) vehicles, which means that their technology is far enough away to not yet have (or at least publicize) a commercial strategy.

In addition to all of these aspects of the driverless technology advancement, we also have to consider how this will impact the introduction of shared and electric driverless vehicles. It’s been promising to see states take a lead in advancing aggressive clean energy goals (specifically California and Colorado); however, the shared aspect could be significantly impacted, especially when we see the “death spiral” that transit agencies are currently involved in (see article here).

Do my industry friends have any other perspectives?

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Are Driverless Vehicles Creating Jobs?

As someone who works in the driverless technology industry, this is a question that I get asked often. Not to mention, during this Coronavirus pandemic, it’s a timely question as so many people are losing their jobs. Let’s put this in perspective:

  • Most driverless technology companies have employed a minimum of 1-2 safety operators/vehicle. While a couple of driverless technology companies have started to introduce operations with no safety operators, it is going to be many years before we see any real scale in that area. Waymo has even made a long-term commitment to the Safety Operator position (link here).
  • The advancement of the technology has created a full industry of technology jobs for specialists in software engineering, artificial intelligence, robotics, etc. As stated in this article, “growth in the autonomous vehicle sector has been massive between 2015 and 2019: During this period, job postings increased by 833%, and job searches increased by 450%.”
  • Even when the industry is ready for true driverless operations, people will still be needed for a range of support, including remote supervision, vehicle maintenance, and customer support.

In the long-term, driverless vehicles will, ultimately, result in a reduction of jobs, but I believe this is a good thing! Currently, there are driver shortages in public transit, trucking, and many other industries. Driverless vehicles will help to address these shortages and enhance the cost-effectiveness and reliability of people mobility and goods movement. We, as a society, have been given a heads-up. If you’re a bus or truck driver today – you will likely have job stability for many years to come. Will I advise my two-year old to aim for a driving career? Probably not…

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Will Driverless Vehicles Help the Coronavirus Pandemic?

It’s fun to think that driverless vehicles could be the magical answer to this global pandemic…though that’s really not the case – at least for passenger transport. While public transit vehicles are seen as germ-carrying enclosures, driverless vehicles, in theory, will provide a mobility solution that can move a passenger – with no driver! Unfortunately, we’re not there yet; the majority of these operations still have 1-2 safety operators in one (germ carrying!) vehicle. For that reason, pretty much every driverless technology company has taken their vehicles off the road – whether for testing or actual deployments (see link here).

Unfortunately, the safest way to avoid the Coronavirus and get around today is in your private vehicle. This has had the potential to cause huge increases in single occupancy vehicle usage, congestion, and greenhouse gas emissions; however, there’s nowhere to go!  Since most places have “shelter-in-place” orders, people are not driving, which is actually having surprisingly positive environmental benefits. As outlined in this article, “the outbreak has, at least in part, contributed to a noticeable drop in pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.” We can’t attribute that to driverless vehicles, but it does show the benefits of reducing people movements (amongst other activities).

The opportunity that driverless vehicles present today is for goods movement. Per usual, this aspect of driverless mobility is often over-shadowed by the much sexier-sounding driverless passenger transport. Multiple driverless technology companies have been helping Chinese communities – delivering everything from grocery delivery to medical supplies (see example article here). If anything, empty streets and a lack of labor have accelerated the adoption and acceptance of this technology.

The technology still requires significant development, but it’s nice to know that the Coronavirus could have some benefit. Let’s all remember that driverless vehicles aren’t ready to solve all of the world’s problems! Any ideas for other potential driverless applications today?

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My Reflections on CES 2019

I just returned from my first CES experience. People are not kidding when they say that the crowds, the lines, and the sheer magnitude of the conference are on another level; nothing could have prepared me!  I was, however, mentally prepared to be blown away by the featured technologies and, to be honest, I was not. I have been debating whether or not to blog about this because who comes back from CES and says that?!?!

I must admit, I spent most of my time in the “Vehicle Technology” section. Just about every booth had a vehicle – either an existing vehicle with snazzy features or a conceptual design. Here are a few examples of the conceptual vehicles: Mercedes Benz “Urbanetic, (modular design)” Bell’s “Nexus” (flying car!), and Hyundai’s Elevate (walking car).

It was amusing to see how many companies are focusing on auxiliary technologies to support fully autonomous vehicles. Clearly these are fun to think about, but how soon will they actually be needed?! Some examples include:

  • Kia’s Real-Time Emotion Recognition Technology – This artificial intelligence technology can “change the cabin environment with settings which can play upon human senses.” Aptiv is doing something similar (see link here).
  • Audi and Disney’s Virtual Reality – “The VR experience is intended to match, visually, what the passengers feel as they ride: If the car turns, accelerates or brakes, the VR environment will do the same thing.” Intel and Warner Brothers are doing something similar (see link here).
  • Byton’s futuristic dashboard – This 48-inch curved unit stretches across the entire dashboard and “gives the driver information about the car and its surroundings…displays the infotainment system, and gives the front passenger access to entertainment like movies and television shows.”

And there were two significant disappointments for me at CES:

  1. Electric vehicle technology was barely mentioned. Outside of Nissan’s Leaf e+, electric vehicle technology did not get a ton of attention.
  2. Where was all of the good swag?! Even my one-year old wasn’t excited by my souvenirs…

That all being said, it was an incredible few days and I’m grateful for the experience. My favorite was hanging at the Continental booth where we demonstrated a robot completing first/last mile package delivery from EasyMile’s EZ10 (see video below). What did other people think about CES?

 

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Do Driverless Vehicles Require Drivers?

This may seem a bit counter-intuitive, but just about every driverless vehicle deployment has at least one operator in the vehicle. This article highlights how all Uber test vehicles will have “two employees in each autonomous vehicle.” Lyft and Aptiv launched a self-driving program in Las Vegas and, as stated in this article, “a trained operator will be in each car.”  Ford is testing vehicles in Miami and has “human back up drivers (see link here). Even Waymo, who took the safety drivers out of their driverless vehicles, decided to “put safety drivers back behind the wheels” and add “co-drivers” in an “effort to keep its safety drivers alert” (see link here). This is the case for just about every driverless vehicle deployment globally. But why?

It is clear the number one reason for safety drivers is safety. These safety drivers are trained to take over control of the vehicle, if required, at any time (see information about GM’s month-long training “driver” program here). Interestingly, AV manufacturers that are requiring two safety drivers cite the main reason for the second driver being oversight of the first driver or for capturing and recording data. Other reasons for a safety driver include passenger comfort, so passengers trying this new form of mobility can ask questions and feel more secure. The final reason is regulatory requirements. Some states are requiring human safety drivers – mostly due to outdated regulations (e.g., New York), while others are requiring a permit for the removal of the driver (e.g., California).

Ironically, Waymo has stated that one of their vehicles would have avoided an accident if the safety driver had left the vehicle in autonomous mode (see link here). This article combined an apology and a commitment to safety with a strong endorsement for their autonomous technology…. Brilliant!

As driverless technology developers advance from SAE Levels 2/3 to 4, with the ultimate goal of being fully driverless, it seems removing the human operator is one of the biggest challenges. This, along with many other factors, suggest that we are quite a few years away from fully autonomous vehicles being able to operate anywhere (Level 5), but please do let me know if you disagree!

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