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The promise of the self-driving car: Getting closer to reality?

Although the technology still faces plenty of hurdles before commercial viability, autonomous vehicles will one day rule the road, writes ANNA KUČÍRKOVÁ

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Are you ready for your next car to drive itself?

The promise of the self-driving car: Getting closer to reality? 

It’s a question being asked more frequently – “when will self-driving cars become the dominant presence on streets everywhere?” 

Automakers and tech companies alike continue to push the narrative that self-driving cars have indeed arrived. However, a better answer of when they actually will scale to consumers is some variation of “be patient.” 

For better and for worse, it remains the best possible response in today’s tech-heavy, yet uncertain climate.

Back in 2015, outspoken Tesla CEO Elon Musk foresaw a self-driving car by 2018, with the claim: “My guess for when we will have full autonomy is approximately three years. In some markets, regulators will be more forward-leaning than others, but in terms of when it will be technologically possible, it will be three years.” 

That bold prediction has yet to materialize.

Google was also bullish on the fast rise and adoption of vehicle automation. While parent company Alphabet continues to advance their Waymo self-driving division beyond most competitors, it’s offset by the need for someone to sit in the driver’s seat. 

In 2018, GM and Ford made bold declarations of putting cars into production that were free of steering wheels and pedals, by 2019 and 2021, respectively. Since that time, GM has backed off their original plan with Doug Parks, GM’s vice president of autonomous vehicles, citing regulation: “Until we have exemptions [from the federal government], which we filed a petition for, and/or law changes, we probably wouldn’t go forward with Gen 4. But we think it’s really something we’ve got to talk about, we’ve got to work on.”

Ford, however, continues to push ahead towards their goal.

The hard truth though is that similar to many of history’s biggest advancements, there will be growing pains.

While that’s not as optimistic as one would hope, the reality is the sphere of self-driving technology, and the vehicles and they’re deployment, remains a work in progress. 

The good news is that real-world testing and application of certain autonomous concepts are well past the infancy stage.

As technology matures and the idea of a car without a steering column or pedals become less radical, the day will arrive when autonomous, self-driving vehicles rule the road.

But where are we now?

Let’s look at how far we’ve come in self-driving tech, including where the industry leaders stand in their development. And, what’s holding us back from a fully autonomous future.

The Current State of Automotive Autonomy

Any ground-up discussion on self-driving cars begins with the question, “what does it mean for a car to be considered self-driving or fully autonomous?”

Autonomous standards defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) and adopted by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) include six levels of vehicle automation.

Starting at Level 0, where there is no automation, the standards top out at Level 5 – full self-driving capabilities, no steering wheel, no pedals.

Most personal vehicles on the road today possess Level 1 or Level 2 automation – features such as adaptive cruise control, advanced assistance with acceleration and steering, automatic braking, or lane guidance. 

Many of these features are becoming standard on most classes of vehicle. So unless you’re driving around in a car built prior to the early 1990s, chances are high that yours has some form of automation.

However, the leap from Level 2 to Level 3 automation is a big one. Then the holy grail, of course, is Level 5. But how close are manufacturers to this pinnacle of long-promised self-driving technology?

Who’s Leading the Revolution?

No fewer than 50 different companies are working to bring self-driving vehicles to a street near you. The diverse list of firms involved ranges from luxury automakers such as Mercedes-Benz and Audi to small tech startups responsible for creating key components of the driverless technology. 

Others companies making a play include rideshare giants Lyft and Uber, the latter of which recently netted a $1 billion investment into their self-driving program. German manufacturer Continental who aims to revolutionize delivery and distribution by blending autonomous vehicles with delivery robots.

American legacy automakers GM and Ford have also made substantial investments towards mass-producing driverless cars. Even as they backed off their bold 2019 production goals, GM’s self-driving car program, Cruise, pulled in roughly $5 billion in outside investments.

Ford, for their part, have flown under the radar relative to others in the driverless segment. Even after admitting initial plans might have been too lofty, the automaker, in a partnership with startup Argo, are testing autonomous vehicles in Detroit, Miami, and Washington, D.C. They remain optimistic in hitting their 2021 production goal.

There are three companies, however, that collectively appear to be outpacing most others in the push to go driverless – Nvidia, Waymo, and Tesla.

Nvidia

In producing some of the top next-gen GPU and AI platforms for self-driving solutions, Nvidia has built an impressive partner roster which includes Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, and Volkswagen. 

Earlier this year, the company announced that Volvo is adopting Nvidia’s AutoPilot solution to deliver Level 2+ vehicle automation. In all, over 300 companies use Nvidia in the production of self-driving vehicles and related technologies.

Waymo

When looking at actual miles driven by autonomous vehicles, no one comes remotely close to Alphabet (Google’s parent company) subsidiary Waymo. More significant, Waymo’s commercial self-driving taxi service, Waymo One, is set to expand beyond its Phoenix-based test group of  400 early riders. 

With the opening of a new tech center in Mesa, Arizona, it positions the company to increase its fleet of driverless cars (with safety operator in the driver’s seat) and the group of early adopters.

Tesla

Perhaps most ambitious of all is Tesla, thanks in large part to its outspoken Principal and CEO, Elon Musk. The electric car company continues to push the boundaries of its current automated software, Tesla Autopilot, into a full-blown “self-driving suite.” Their commitment to doing so as early as next year runs counter to the measured approach adopted by the rest of the industry. 

It reflects just how far ahead Tesla might be (or believe they are) from everyone else. Consider the company’s claims that the self-driving hardware is already in place, and bringing it to the public is now only a matter of getting the software right. In addition, Tesla is pursuing automation without the bulky equipment that accompanies other self-driving cars.

The concern is that the rush without reason or continued research might lead to accidents.  Some worry a backlash would reinforce the belief that the world isn’t ready for fully autonomous cars. Or add to the laundry list of reasons why others maintain they are doomed to fail.

Expressing concern is Dieter Zetsche, former chairman at Daimler AG and head of Mercedes-Benz. Mr. Zetsche, according to the Washington Post, likens it to Boeing’s 737 Max air crashes: “Even if autonomous cars are 10 times safer than those driven by humans, it takes one spectacular incident to make it much harder to win widespread acceptance.”

The Question of Safety

There is little doubt that eventually, autonomous cars will become ubiquitous on streets and highways throughout the country. To reach that point, there are still plenty of obstacles the self-driving segment must clear.

As evidenced by Mr. Zetsche, first among them is safety, or in more precise terms, the perception of safety.

Currently, perception lingers that autonomous technology is far from safe. Before achieving mass acceptance, people will require reassurance that an AI-driven car is more adept at keeping them safe than their own driving instincts and abilities.

Long term, the point of AI performing better at navigating the hazards of the road will prove accurate. Humans, after all, are flawed beings, and there’s little doubt when viewing it collectively, self-driving cars will make roads safer. Consider this:

  • They’ll eliminate drunk and distracted driving.
  • AI controlling one car may better anticipate the actions of the AI in another vehicle, removing the unpredictability of two human drivers interacting.
  • Travel will also become more efficient, thus reducing the prevalence of speeding or dangerous/aggressive drivers.

Even with our shortcomings behind the wheel, recent accidents involving self-driving tech do give people pause. As the knowledge level of self-driving AI expands at an increasingly rapid pace, there is still a considerable learning curve to navigate.

Self Driving Cars Are Coming, Be Patient

Let’s reconsider our original question:

When will self-driving cars become the dominant presence on streets everywhere? 

While lacking a consistent approach to solving, then advancing, the pursuit of a self-driving car, that so many have committed to finding an answer is a positive sign for the future of automated transportation.

For a timely comparison, the 50th Anniversary of the first Apollo moon landings has reignited interest it what it took to reach the lunar surface. Hundreds of companies and billions of dollars moving toward a singular goal. And it was accomplished in less than a decade.

The circumstances may be different, the interests more disparate than unified, it remains a worthwhile note of what’s possible with industry and innovation all seeking a common goal. 

So while the answer to when we’ll see mass adoption of self-driving cars may still be some variation of “be patient,” the scope continues to narrow. Soon enough, being patient will give way to being a passenger.

Article reposted with permission. Original article here.

Cars

Mercedes brings older models to the connected world

The Mercedes Me Adapter is designed to bring older Mercedes Benz models into the connected world, allowing one to keep a close eye on the car via a smartphone. SEAN BACHER installs a unit

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In this day and age, just about any device, from speakers to TVs to alarm systems, can be connected and controlled via a smartphone.

In keeping with this trend, Daimler Chrysler has launched a Mercedes Me Adapter – a system designed to connect your car to your phone.

The Mercedes Me Adapter comprises a hardware and software component. The hardware is an adapter that is no bigger than a match box and plugs into the OBD2 diagnostics socket under the car’s steering wheel column. 

The software component is the Mercedes Me app, which can be downloaded for Android and iOS devices. (See downloading instructions at the end of the review.)

Setting up

Before you can start using the Mercedes Me Adapter, you need to download the app and begin the registration process. This includes setting up an account, inputting the vehicle’s VIN number, the year it was manufactured and the model name – among many other details. This information is sent to Daimler Chrysler. It is advisable to get this done before heading off to Mercedes to have the adapter installed, as it takes quite some time getting all the details in.

The next step is locating your nearest Merc dealer to get the adapter installed. You have to produce the registration papers and a copy of your ID – something Mercedes neglects to mention on its website, or anywhere else, for that matter.

What it does

The Mercedes Me Adapter is designed to show the car’s vital statistics on your mobile device. On the home screen, information like parking time, odometer reading and fuel level is displayed.

Below that is information about your most recent journeys, such as the distance, time taken, departure address and destination address. Your driving style is also indicated in percentage – taking into account acceleration, braking and coasting.

A Start Cockpit button displayed on the home screen includes a range of widgets offering additional information, including where your car is parked – right down to the address – as well as battery voltage, total driving time, distance and driver score since the adapter was installed. A variety of other widgets can be added to the screen, allowing for complete customisation.

Many users have have pointed out that that there is no real point to the adapter. However it does offer benefits. Firstly, your trips can be organised into personal and business categories and then exported into a spreadsheet for tax purposes. Secondly, you can keep a very close eye on your fuel consumption, as it automatically measures how many litres you put in each time you visit the garage and the cost (the cost per litre must be entered manually so it can work out total refuelling costs). This is also quite beneficial in terms of working out how much fuel you go through, without keeping all the pesky slips when it comes to claiming at the end of the month.

Probably the most important benefit is that it monitors the engine, electrical, transmission and gearbox, sending notifications as soon as any faults are detected. A perfect example was encountered on a recent trip I made to Pretoria. Upon arriving, I received a notification that I needed to check my engine, with the Mercedes roadside assist number blinking and ready for me to dial.

The notification did not even show up on the actual fault detection system, except for the faint glow of the orange engine light, which I would never have noticed in the bright light. I immediately took it Mercedes and they diagnosed it as an intermittent thermostat error, which they said is fine for now but that I have to keep an eye on the engine temperature.

Conclusion

The convenience of easily being able to export mileage for tax purposes and refuelling stops as well as being able to locate your car at anytime should be more than enough to qualify it as a pretty useful companion for your car.

Add to this the fact that it is completely free from Mercedes, and that makes it an absolute no-brainer. Should you not like it, simply unplug the adapter and uninstall the app. The only thing lost is half an hour while the Mercedes technician sets it up, ensures it is working and gives you a crash course on how to operate the app.

The adapter will only work in Mercedes Benz models from 2002 onwards. No warranties are lost, as the adapter does not increase the car’s performance and is a genuine Mercedes part.

2017 models and above do not need the adapter as everything is installed when the car is manufactured. All one needs to do is install the app and pair it with the car.

Get the Mercedes me iOS app here

Get the Mercedes Me Android app here

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Cars

LHI is coming to save your car from hazards

Local Hazard Information will give drivers advance warning of potential dangers lurking around the corner

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There are many times when knowing what is around the corner could be useful. But for drivers that knowledge could be critical. Now, thanks to Ford’s new connected car technology, it is also a reality.

Local Hazard Information (LHI) marks a significant step on the journey towards a connected transport infrastructure by helping drivers prepare for and potentially avoid dangers on the road. When drivers ahead encounter sudden tailbacks, accidents or spilled loads, the driver behind – and possibly out of sight – is given advance warning. This could also apply to everything from freak hailstorms, to sudden flooding, or even landslides.

The triggers for the system come from what is happening in the cars ahead. It could be that airbags have been activated, hazard warning lights are flashing, or windscreen wipers are in operation. Previous traffic incident alert systems have relied on drivers to input information in order to generate alerts. LHI works autonomously, without the need for any driver interaction, to generate information and issue warnings.

Hazards are only displayed – via the dashboard display – if the incident is likely to impact on the driver’s journey. LHI is designed to be more beneficial to drivers than hazard information from current radio broadcasting systems, which often deliver notifications not relevant to them.

Already featuring as standard and free of charge for the first year on the new Ford Puma, LHI technology is being rolled out across more than 80 per cent of Ford’s passenger vehicle line-up by the end of this year. Crucially, the benefit will not be limited only to those travelling in Ford vehicles. Information sent can be used to alert drivers of other manufacturers’ vehicles, and vice-versa.

“What makes Local Hazard Information different is that it is the cars that are connected – via the Internet of Things. There is no reliance on third party apps. This is a significant step forward. Warnings are specific, relevant and tailored to try to help improve your specific journey.” Joerg Beyer, executive director, Engineering, Ford of Europe

How it works

Sensors monitor activities including emergency braking, fog lights and traction control to detect adverse weather or road conditions. Data from these activities is then computed to determine the hazard location and whether a traffic incident has occurred.

The vehicle automatically provides updates through a secure connection to “the cloud” using the Ford Pass Connect modem. Ford’s technology partner HERE Technologies operates the central cloud-based platform that collates information from multiple vehicle brands, governed by a business-to-business agreement.

The more cars are connected to the network, the greater the efficiency of the system. When many vehicles generate the same warning, others in the vicinity receive incident information from the cloud via the cellular network, enabling drivers to reduce speed or take appropriate action.

Additional information is sourced from public authority incident databases and traffic reports to provide drivers with further advance warnings including approaching vehicles driving on the wrong side of the carriageway, animals or people in the road ahead, and roadworks.

The on-board modem will be connected at the time of vehicle delivery. Customers may choose to opt in/opt out of certain data sharing.

Local Hazard Information data provided by HERE Technologies.

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