Driverless vehicles prepare for prime time

Nora Naughton
The Detroit News

Driverless cars aren’t just theory to automotive engineers anymore. They’re busy figuring out how soon next-generation vehicles will arrive on streets near you.

The interior of the GM Cruise Autonomous car, at Cobo Center in Detroit, Michigan on April 12, 2018.

The Society of Automotive Engineers, meeting in Detroit this week, is leaning hard into autonomous technology, going so far as to define the levels of autonomy that the industry uses to integrate increasing amounts of sensors and artificial intelligence into vehicles. Now the organization is dealing with more abstract issues like profitability, policy and public safety.

“It’s time for talk to surrender the spotlight to action,” Mark Reuss, General Motors Co.’s executive vice president of global product development, told engineers, policy makers and industry officials Thursday night at the SAE World Congress Experience at Cobo Center. “There’s a lot of action around this at General Motors, I assure you. And we’ve certainly talked about it. Now it’s time to make it happen.”

Bob Lutz, former vice chairman of product development for GM, predicted the death of the American love affair with the automobile within 20 years. During his SAE address, he described a future in which autonomous cars blend in with the urban infrastructure like subways or trolleys.

True driverless mobility services will start popping up as soon as next year if automakers keep their promises.

GM’s Mark Reuss, talking about the driverless revolution Thursday at the SAE World Congress at Cobo, said a lack of engineering talent is holding back Detroit.

GM awaits federal approval to deploy a fleet of driverless electric vehicles, built without a steering wheel or pedal, in a yet-to-be-named city next year.

Alphabet’s Waymo recently received approval from Arizona to deploy a driverless-taxi service in suburban Phoenix. Waymo has partnered with Jaguar to deploy the former Google project’s first premium self-driving fleet car, the all-electric Jaguar I-Pace. Testing is to start by the end of this year and a ride-hailing taxi service is scheduled to roll out by 2020.

Public officials from Las Vegas and Pittsburgh — both hubs for autonomous-vehicle testing — talked this week about the deliberate work of creating smart cities and smart communities to support these autonomous mobility services. They are tackling issues like creating harmony between autonomous and human-driven vehicles in the near term, while devising an infrastructure plan that can support rapidly changing technology in the future.

“I think all of us have this heaven-and-hell scenario of what autonomous vehicle technology is going to do,” Karina Ricks, director of mobility and infrastructure for the greater Pittsburgh area, said during a panel discussion this week. “The version of hell that I see is one where we ultimately have to wall our pedestrians away from the travelways so that we can make way for autonomous vehicles.”

There is much to grapple with before drivers hand over the steering wheel. The recent death of a pedestrian struck by a self-driving Uber and the fatal crash involving the driver of a Tesla equipped with AutoPilot have some in the industry preaching diligence before rushing to the road.

“There needs to be as much caution as possible with this,” said Sam Abuelsamid, an automotive analyst with Navigant Research. “For an automated driving system, the consequences (of failure) are life and death, and I think for that reason we need to take more care. We can’t just trust these companies to throw this technology out there and do the right thing.”

When it comes to the testing and deployment of driverless cars on public roads, it’s the Wild West. Each state where it’s allowed has a different approach to regulating autonomy, ranging from California’s hands-on approach to Arizona’s more laissez-faire guidelines.

“In too many locations in too many states we don’t have sufficient oversight,” Abuelsamid said. “In fact, I would say we don’t have enough oversight anywhere right now, including California. I don’t know the right solution but we absolutely need to be talking about this.”

When it comes to safety, automotive supplier Continental says everyone in the industry probably already has the same goal in mind. It’s the finish line that keeps moving.

“I think everybody would agree that we should reach state-of-the-art (before deploying), but frankly, that definition is evolving,” said Jeremy McClain, Continental AG’s director of systems and technology for North America. “ ... We have to agree on the way we validate.”

Too much standardization could stifle innovation, said Danny Shapiro, Nvidia’s senior automotive director. The unofficial benchmark for validation of autonomous vehicles has become the number of miles it can drive without incident on test tracks and public roads, but Nvidia has developed a simulation hardware and software that allows the artificial intelligence that drives its small fleet of test vehicles to drive “billions of miles” without ever reaching a public road.

It’s this diversity in strategy that Shapiro said the industry needs to get to the best final outcome. “There is so much innovation happening, we don’t want to restrict people,” he said.

“But people do need to be able to showcase that the vehicle will do all of these things safely.”