AI News, GM drops the steering wheel and gives robot driver full control

GM drops the steering wheel and gives robot driver full control

GM will run the cars in a test batch for a ride-sharing program starting in 2019, and they won’t be without a safety net.

The vehicles will travel on a fixed route controlled by their mapping system, and the Detroit-based automaker is applying for federal permission to run the test cars without a driver.

GM, Zoox, Waymo and others have all tested Level 4 cars, but usually with a driver still at the wheel to take over in case the system doesn’t work properly.

Its Firefly prototype had no steering wheel or pedals and in 2015 took a blind man for what the company called “the world’s first truly self-driving trip.”

GM, which also tests in Phoenix, said in a safety report released Friday that for every 1,600 kilometres of autonomous driving, its car needed to make 1,462 left turns in San Francisco, compared with 919 in the Phoenix suburbs.

Cruise’s car had to navigate construction blocking the lane more than 18 times as often in the Bay Area and had to deal with emergency vehicles 270 times, versus six Phoenix encounters, according to the report.

Current U.S. auto-safety standards contain several provisions that act as de facto requirements that vehicles have driver controls such as a steering wheel and foot pedals.

What it was like to ride in GM's new self-driving Cruise car

So when I took a ride in General Motors’ autonomous test car for the first time on Tuesday in San Francisco, Calif., that thought was at the top of my mind: I would be trusting this self-driving car to keep me safe.

The company doesn’t pretend its cars are ready to be deployed without safety drivers, and even Alphabet’s Waymo — which recently rolled out truly driverless cars in a small part of Phoenix, Ariz.

GM made a point of saying we were not allowed to speak to the person behind the wheel or in the front passenger seat — a particular detail that is different from how other self-driving companies have allowed engagement during test rides.

(The official readout did not include the dog.) Obstacles included a construction vehicle that pulled out in front of us quickly, and a large semi truck that turned down a narrow street, causing the car to brake and wait for it to pass.

Granted, that ride was on the relatively calm streets of Mountain View, Calif., and it didn’t face nearly the number of obstacles as GM’s car, but the experience overall did seem a lot smoother, and Google’s car was a bit more confident in how to handle turns and obstacles that it did encounter.

According to GM, the Cruise car has these helping it drive autonomously: For comparison, Tesla’s hardware suite, which CEO Elon Musk says will enable fully self-driving capabilities, has eight cameras, 12 ultrasonic sensors, one forward-facing radar and no lidar.

And while GM has gone from having no self-driving operation to having test vehicles three years later, as Vogt mentioned during the event Tuesday, “It’s really hard to pass human performance.” So we may have to wait a while longer before those robot cars, from any company, are picking us up in the streets.

GM will make an autonomous car without steering wheel or pedals by 2019

General Motors plans to mass-produce self-driving cars that lack traditional controls like steering wheels and pedals by 2019, the company announced today.

“And it’s an interesting thing to share with everybody.” The announcement coincides with the tail end of CES, where a number of big companies announced their own plans to deploy autonomous vehicles, and right before the Detroit Auto Show, where the industry will have on display all the trucks and SUVs that make its profits.

By committing to rolling out fully driverless cars in a shortened timeframe, GM is seeking to outmaneuver rivals both old and new in the increasingly hyper competitive race to build and deploy robot cars.

Ford has said it will build a steering-wheel-and-pedal-less autonomous car by 2021, while Waymo, the self-driving unit of Google parent Alphabet, is preparing to launch its first commercial ride-hailing service in Phoenix featuring fully driverless minivans (though still with traditional controls).

So its to meet the standards but meet them in a way that’s different than what’s exactly prescribed, and that’s what the petition seeks to get approval for.” (Of course, the issue of exemptions from federal safety standards may become moot if Congress passes a bill to lift the cap from 2,500 to 100,000.

The feds suggested in 2016, and again last year, that tech companies and automakers working on self-driving cars voluntarily submit a safety checklist to the government in order to help keep tabs on this fast moving technology.

The safety report excludes certain information, like the the number of times that human safety drivers were forced to take control of their driverless vehicles, or the number of accidents in which GM’s cars were involved.

Under state law, companies with a license to test autonomous vehicles are required to disclose all accidents, even when they are not at fault.) Speaking of accidents, GM has not one, but two data recorders in each of its autonomous vehicles to store and protect information in the event of a crash.

Waymo and GM are far ahead in self-driving car tests

The new figures cover the year ended November 30, 2017, and also record the number of times a driver had to take control of the vehicle, known as a disengagement.

The report largely confirms GM and Waymo are leading the race to develop self-driving cars, as BI Intelligence recently noted, but also sheds new light on the progress of several startups in the space.

Meanwhile, the progress of and fellow startup Zoox, which logged 2,244 test miles and has raised $290 million, indicates that startups are making headway in the space, despite grabbing only a small fraction of the total dollars spent on autonomous technologies.

These startups could potentially be acquired by tech companies or legacy players looking to either accelerate their self-driving technology development, or integrate their technologies into later iterations of their autonomous systems.

My Herky-Jerky Ride in General Motors' Ultra-Cautious Self Driving Car

Nothing will make you hate humans—capricious, volatile, unplanned, erratic humans—like sitting in the back of self-driving car.

Two walkers darted out in front of the car during my roughly 20-minute, 3-mile ride, blissfully ignorant that they were trusting their lives to a piece of software.

If the Silicon Valley motto is “move fast and break things,” Detroit’s seems to be “move below the speed limit and ensure you don’t kill anyone.” My herky-jerky ride in an autonomous vehicle showed that Cruise Automation, acquired by General Motors in 2016, has made serious progress.

Today, two autonomous vehicle trainers sit in the front—one safety driver, with her feet resting on the brake pedal and her hands loosely around the wheel, and a helper in the passenger seat, who sits with laptop in lap, softly intoning directions and words of caution, sending messages to coworkers through Slack, and taking notes on the ride.

(This is contrast with Waymo, Google’s self-driving car unit, which has taken drivers out of its test vehicles in a Phoenix suburb and plans to launch a completely driverless taxi service in a Phoenix suburb in a few months.) So the whole thing felt very safe.

(Kyle Vogt, Cruise’s CEO, later told me the lidar sensors that usually determine how much clearance the vehicles have on their sides have been suffering from technical issues for the past few weeks, so the cars are even more cautious about going around obstacles then they normally are.) Yes, these cars are more conservative than your uncle who forwards you those chain emails.

Overall, that’s pretty good: Cruise won’t say how many miles of testing it has under its drive belt, but 100 vehicles operate in San Francisco, and the company tests 24 hours a day.

If a human driver is tailgating, or texting, or letting her mind wander while behind a safety-conscious autonomous car, she could miss a quick and cautious brake.

Or, more likely, maybe these cars represent something all drivers, humans or not, should aspire to—it may not be long until riding in these cars feels more like riding with an experienced adult instead of a responsible teen with a learner's permit.

During my ride, the car navigated around a garbage truck, a roundabout, and a dicey, crowded left-hand turn with the finesse and patience of a well-rested cab driver.

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