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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

Girls get 50,000 toy cars to combat stereotypes

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“That’s for boys, not for girls” – a social stigma Mercedes-Benz USA and Mattel are determined to change, and they are hoping that donating 50,000 toy cars can help. Kicking off today for National STEM/STEAM Day, 50,000 young girls across the nation will engage in programs to challenge gender stereotypes that research shows can impact decisions later in life. It’s all part of “No Limits,” an initiative created by Mercedes-Benz in partnership with Mattel and the National Girls Collaborative Project (NGCP), a network of organizations that encourages girls to pursue science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers.

The first “No Limits” programs launch today with special workshops in Atlanta, Los Angeles and New York City, where thousands of young children will be inspired to think outside of the box when it comes to career aspirations. Through February 2020, girls across the U.S., through more than 100 organizations, will engineer toy racetracks, design cars, engage with female role models and attend STEM workshops through programs designed to expand how they see their future.

As a tangible reminder that they can do anything they set their minds to, MBUSA and Mattel will gift 50,000 Matchbox die-cast toy replicas of a very special Mercedes-Benz 220SE to participating children. It was in this car that Ewy Rosqvist defied all odds to become the first woman to compete in and win one of the most grueling races, the Argentinian Grand Prix, shattering records and the notion that women could not compete.

“Whatever they aspire to be – an astronaut, engineer, judge, nurse, even the President, we want all children to dream big, dream bold and never give up on that dream,” said Mark Aikman, general manager of marketing services for MBUSA. “We’ve seen that stories like Ewy’s – championing women trailblazers and achievers – can have a big impact by calling into question the gender stereotypes that children may inadvertently adopt.”

In fact, according to the National Science Board, women only represent 29% of the current science and engineering workforce. When asked their reasons for not majoring in STEM, young women often cite a lack of encouragement and role models.

“The No Limits initiative is important to the future success of our young girls,” said Karen Peterson founder and CEO of the NGCP. “Demand for workers with STEM-based skills is rapidly growing, yet women are still significantly underrepresented in these fields. We know that gender associations are formed at a very young age. We applaud Mercedes-Benz and Mattel in their efforts to breakdown the gender stereotypes that keep young girls from engaging in STEM studies.”

Earlier this year, Mercedes-Benz released a video capturing young girls designating an assortment of traditionally gendered toys. After being shown the short film, Ewy Rosqvist: An Unexpected Champion, each girl has a visible attitude shift towards toys they previously identified as just “for boys.”

Last month, Digital Girl, Inc., a Brooklyn-based non-profit dedicated to empowering the underserved youth of New York City, especially young girls, to pursue studies and careers in STEM fields, tested this theory with similar results. A new video documents the results as the girls realize that they can be the next generation of female trailblazers and they themselves talk about the need to inspire more girls.

“Our goal is to inspire children to imagine all that they can become and break down gender stereotypes in the toy aisle with purpose-driven programs like this,” said Amanda Moldavon, Senior Director, Vehicles Brand Creative. “Most people don’t know that the creator of Matchbox made the first vehicle for his daughter who was only allowed to bring toys to school that fit inside a matchbox. So, from its origin, it has been an inclusive way for kids to explore the world around them.”

More than 100 organizations across the country will participate in No Limits including Atlanta Public Schools, Digital Girl, Inc., Beyond the Bell, among others. A list of all participating organizations can be found here. A discussion guide is available for those who have an opportunity to encourage and mentor young children and would like to help advance this conversation.

In addition to the toy cars that will be gifted by MBUSA and Mattel (also in support of closing the Dream Gap) through the National Girls Collaborative, the Ewy Matchbox toy replica will be sold in stores nationwide beginning in December. Follow the No Limits initiative on social using #GirlsHaveNoLimits.

Both “No Limits” videos were produced by R/GA, New York.

About Ewy Rosqvist

Ewy Rosqvist is a Swedish racing champion who in 1962 made history for being the first woman to enter and win one of the toughest rallies in the world. After watching her husband race for years, she decided to take it up herself and entered the Argentinian Grand Prix – a gruelling three-day journey across rough terrain. Ewy was ridiculed for entering the race and told she wouldn’t be able to complete the course. Not only did she finish, she went on to be the first person to win every stage of the race, set a speed record and beat the previous champion by over three hours.

About Mercedes-Benz USA

Mercedes-Benz USA (MBUSA), the sales and marketing arm for Mercedes-Benz in the United States and headquartered in Atlanta, is responsible for the distribution, marketing and customer service for all Mercedes-Benz products in the United States from the sporty A-Class sedan to the flagship S-Class and the Mercedes-AMG GT R.

MBUSA’s philanthropic focus is on educating and empowering youth. On a national level, the company supports Laureus Sport for Good which uses sports to help at-risk youth and the Johnny Mac Soldier’s Fund which provides scholarships to children of the fallen military.

In Atlanta, MBUSA is involved with over 50 organizations in its effort to educate and empower the next generation to achieve success and address local needs in its community, particularly Atlanta’s Westside, the area surrounding the Mercedes-Benz Stadium that includes under-resourced neighbourhoods. MBUSA has won numerous awards for its community efforts including, A Gold Stevie® Award for its Greatness Lives Here campaign, Corporate Champion Tree recognition from Trees Atlanta and a Community Impact Award from the Georgia Department of Economic Development.

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Keeping tabs on Mini from afar

The Mini Cooper Clubman is putting the ‘remote’ in ‘remote control’. The Mini Connected Drive option pushes all the right buttons, finds BRYAN TURNER.

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While Mini has had Connected Drive Remote Services on board for just over a year now, the Cooper Clubman reveals how powerful such technology can be. From remote controlled car commands like locking and unlocking, to car servicing details, it makes complete sense to add this option to one’s Mini configuration for additional peace of mind.

The Cooper Clubman shows off a slightly different configuration of the Connected Drive system that seems to be slightly more streamlined than before. To pair the car to a phone, one needs to download the Mini Connected Drive app from the App Store for iPhone or Play Store for Android. The app is different from the BMW Connected Drive app.

Once the app is installed, users create a Mini account. The app will then request the last seven characters of the Mini’s vehicle identification number. Because this is a public-facing number, the car confirms that it is connecting by displaying another code on the infotainment screen. After confirming that code in the app, Mini will confirm the car’s registration on their servers. This process takes about five minutes.

While this sounds like quite a process, it’s really simple, and ensures the connected car isn’t hacked. This is crucial because the car is fitted with 4G/LTE, making it Internet-facing to ensure users can control it from virtually anywhere. This process shows a carefully thought-out user design that’s focused on security.

The app’s home view provides an intuitive way of checking up on the car while the driver is away. It allows users to lock and unlock the car while away, which is useful for those who worry about whether their cars are locked while they’re far from their vehicles. It also helps drivers find their cars in parking lots. One can either select the discreet option of remotely activating the headlamps, or go a bit louder by activating the horn remotely.

For those who don’t know the approximate location of their car, one can activate the Locate Vehicle feature, which uses the car’s GPS to send a map location back to the app.

Thinking about how hot one’s car is going to be, especially when parking it in the sun, is no longer something Mini Connected Drive users have to worry about. Users can either activate ventilation remotely to cool the car before they get in, or schedule ventilation for later in the day if they know when an appointment is going to end. One can also get a notification on the smartphone, or smartwatch, when the car has cooled to the requested temperature.

A pre-ride check can be done from the app, by checking the tyre pressure and engine oil without going near the car. This can also be done on the infotainment panel from within the car.

Typing in destinations can be performed from the app, which makes it more comfortable when inputting longer addresses, compared to typing in on the infotainment touchscreen. If calendar appointments hold address information, the address automatically syncs and appears on the infotainment screen for single-tap navigation. Favourites for the on-board navigation can be set from the app as well.

One can also install specific apps to the infotainment system via the Connected Drive app. These include Spotify, Deezer, Audible, and Life 360. The apps are certified and optimised by Mini to be used from the infotainment system.

On the top-of-the-range John Cooper Works performance kit, it comes standard with keyless ride, and a redesigned graphical display called Radio Mini Visual Boost. The infotainment panel is a 6.5 inch touchscreen with a separate scroll wheel controller. An option called Connected Navigation Plus offers a larger 8.8-inch touchscreen, with real-time traffic updates, a personal concierge service, wireless charging for smartphones, and includes Apple CarPlay. 

CarPlay allows iPhone users to access iPhone apps from the touchscreen, which makes navigation with Google Maps, Waze or Apple Maps possible. One can also talk to Siri while driving, to send messages or make calls. The CarPlay option can also work wirelessly, in addition to the regular cable connected option. Unfortunately, Android users are out of luck with Android Auto connectivity. That said, all the other features, like Bluetooth audio and contact sync, still work perfectly with the system

The Mini Connected Drive app offers a highly convenient method of checking on and controlling one’s Mini while away.

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