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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The Need for Industry Standards in the Driverless Vehicle Industry

There’s never a dull moment in this industry. The technology is advancing (see examples here and here), government regulations are being developed (see update on U.S. regulations here), and new partnerships continue to be formed (e.g., Ford teaming with Walmart and Postmates). New demonstration and testing activities are cropping up daily (see examples here and here) and the media continues to cover all of this with unwavering commitment!  It’s an exciting time.

Industry is advancing their interests while governments – internationally and at all levels – are struggling to keep up. The question of standards creeps into many of the discussions; however, there has been little agreed-upon. The topics that generally are discussed as needing standards include: safety (in general), cybersecurity, data privacy, connected vehicles (DSRC), signage, and even standards on how the vehicles communicate with other road users. These are all huge topics independently and the implications of these standards, more often than not, will have implications for many industries (not just the driverless industry).

Who should establish these standards? Seemingly, it makes sense for the government to take the lead as a neutral third party representing the greater good. On the other hand, industry is getting patents for all aspects of the driverless technology, including, for example, pedestrian communication tools (see link here), which could influence standards. Ford is also developing their own standard for how driverless vehicles communicate with other road users, but they’re encouraging the industry to adopt them (see link here). There are also examples where government works with industry groups and standards organizations (e.g., connected vehicle standards or cybersecurity framework…not standards!). And here’s another example: the RAND Corporation, at the request of Uber’s Advanced Technology Group, developed an “company neutral framework for AV safety” (link here).

I’m sure we’ll continue to see every variety of methods to developing standards. My hope is that standards are not developed too late in the technology development process, the standards can be agreed-upon by most stakeholders, and that the standards do not limit innovation or advancement. What are your thoughts on how/when standards should be developed?

Note: I’ll be at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) – will you?  Please email me (lauren.isaac@easymile.com) if you’d like to meet up! 

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What Companies are Best Suited to Operate AV Fleets?

As I stood in line waiting for my turn to sign the papers for my rental car, I was alarmed by the fact that this rental company (a reputable company, for the record!) was relying upon computers and software that looked like they were from the 90s. Rental car companies are, seemingly, well-positioned to be AV fleet operators since they‘re already maintaining fleets of vehicles, but one has to wonder….can they handle the significant technological upgrade (amongst other business model changes).

When one looks at the various types of companies getting into the AV space, it’s clear there are strengths and weaknesses associated with each one.

  • Rental car companies are already maintaining fleets of vehicles; however, they are not involved in the manufacturing of the vehicles or the development of any technology (outside of partnerships). It is helpful that their locations are typically on or near airports and cities, where there is significant density.
  • Technology companies (e.g., Uber, Lyft, Waymo) have a significant customer base and they are clearly strong in developing technology (and financing!); however, they don’t own, maintain, or manufacture any vehicles.
  • Auto manufacturers fill in the gap of the prior two categories: they manufacture vehicles, but they generally do not own or operate fleets of vehicles (outside of dealerships) or specialize in technology development.

Interestingly, every one of these companies’ existing business models are threatened with the emergence of the autonomous technology, so it’s no surprise that they’re all finding innovative ways to integrate it into their business models. It is the categorization described above that has led to the gray area that has emerged in recent years. All of these companies are forming unprecedented partnerships and/or investments…here’s a sampling: GM/Lyft, Avis/Waymo, Enterprise/Voyage (a driverless tech company), Uber/Volvo, Uber/Toyota, Hertz/Apple, and the list goes on!

Who will come out on top?  It may take more than a decade to see winners and losers emerge, but what do you think?

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What is our Ideal Driverless Future?

I recently attended a FHWA Highway Automation Workshop on AV policy and planning (which was fantastic, fyi). At the end of the two-day workshop, we were tasked with a small group activity: Brainstorm our ideal driverless future. Sky is the limit… what does that look like?  It turns out it was the hardest task of the event…. There were representatives attending from cities, states, universities, federal government agencies, transit agencies, and OEMs, and yet, we all stumbled. It really led me to think “how can we get to our ideal driverless future if we can’t even describe what it looks like?”

Of course, it kind of depends on who you ask (based on my cynical mind…):

  • A car manufacturer might suggest that every person owns a driverless vehicle (theirs, of course) and all goods are delivered via personal vehicles.
  • A city planner might suggest that we use shared rides for every single trip and people only live in dense areas.
  • A transit agency planner might suggest that people only rely upon public transit to get around.
  • A university planner might suggest an open data platform where nothing is proprietary; and
  • If you’re this Oregon governor candidate from two years ago, you would actually want to see all long distance travel via water slides!

This is all an exaggeration, but my point is that everyone is coming from their biased perspectives. Who is representing the masses? And how can we actually get to a safe, equitable, reliable, accessible, efficient, and effective transportation system if we can’t all agree upon what that is?

I believe that we need to think with less extreme perspectives and actually develop policies and plans that represent better middle ground. Here are some general principles that support that thinking:

  • Create performance standards for driverless vehicles to ensure safe roadways;
  • Utilize pricing to better manage roadway congestion and maintenance;
  • Minimize zero and single-occupancy vehicle usage via strong policy and pricing mechanisms;
  • Shift public transit agencies into mobility managers that either provide transit operations or oversee private companies providing mobility services (based on agreed-upon goals and cost-benefit analyses);
  • Create maximum (not minimum) parking requirements in locations with reasonable mobility options; and
  • Encourage alternative fuel usage via strong policy and pricing mechanisms.

Easy, right? 😊 If you take only one thing away from this blog post, I hope it’s that transportation policymakers and planners will have job security for years to come…

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Our “Gateway Drugs” to Driverless Vehicles

Today, we see non-stop articles about society’s willingness to ride in a driverless vehicle. Companies and academic institutions have conducted countless studies globally that show a range of likelihood and circumstances that would enable people to accept this new technology. During my speeches and panels on driverless vehicles, I often ask audiences if they would be willing to ride in a driverless vehicle and the responses are wide-varying. It is largely dependent on the crowd’s age, their location, and their familiarity with the driverless technology. It’s fascinating to see the crowd ponder that decision: “Would I hop in a driverless vehicle today if it was waiting outside to take me to my next destination?”

Then I think back 10 years and wonder how that same crowd would have reacted to this question: “Would you be willing to hop in a car with a stranger to allow them to take you to your next destination?” I’m pretty sure most people would have thought I was crazy. Uber and Lyft have made getting into a stranger’s car 100% acceptable. Of course, the corresponding technology and perception of accountability does help, but I find it just as surprising that the drivers are willing to let strangers into their personal vehicles!  Uber and Lyft, our “gateway drugs” to driverless vehicles, prove how a new technology that brings both reliability and convenience are likely to outweigh “old school” thinking regarding mobility norms.

Driverless vehicles have the potential to add even more reliability and convenience – in addition to increasing safety. For this reason, I have no doubts that our society will accept and embrace the driverless technology wholeheartedly. Do you agree?

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Will We Ever See Level 5 (Fully Automated) Driving?

I think this gets at the heart of the “driving towards driverless” question… Vehicles that fall into SAE levels 1-4 are available today, but the leap to true fully automated driving is non-trivial. See Wired article here for SAE levels definition. Every idyllic image of driverless vehicles, including people sleeping or working, requires full automation. Many of the stated benefits of driverless vehicles also require full automation. Waymo is likely the company closest to this reality, but many automakers are stating that they’re working towards full autonomy in the next few years. Should we believe them?

So what’s keeping us from full autonomy?  Let’s ignore the lack of regulations and societal acceptance. The number of unpredictable and/or complex situations are, literally, endless. Fallen trees post-thunder storms, an overpass collapsing, construction work zones, traffic detours, and the list goes on! Our society seems to gauge progress towards Level 5 autonomy based on number of driverless test miles “driven;” however, how many miles will enable driverless vehicles to predict all of these extreme situations?

I believe that the more “connectivity” we have, the sooner full autonomy can come. “Connectivity” refers to all aspects of vehicle to vehicle (V2V), vehicle to infrastructure (V2I), and vehicle to everything else (V2X). Connectivity is going to increase the amount of information available to share with driverless vehicles and minimize the risk of those unpredictable situations. When will more V2X applications be available?  This will require a significant investment in standards, infrastructure, privacy and data sharing policies, and cybersecurity protections.

Bottom line – I am not expecting to see fully automated (level 5) vehicles for a while, but what do you think?

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