As regular Cars of the Future readers will know, we occasionally like to look back in a series we call… Cars of the Past. Well, today is one of those days.
Following last year’s release of a 1971 news broadcast on “driverless cars and the future of motoring”, the BBC Archive has published another great Retro Transport report: “The Self-Driving Car Of Tomorrow”, from 1967.
The “dual-mode” Self-Transport Road and Rail Car (staRRcar), was designed by Harvard graduate William Alden in the 1960s.
The report describes it as “America’s answer to the universal problem of personal transport in congested cities – combining the door-to-door convenience of the private car with the speed and relaxation of public transport at its best.”
Self-driving on track
The battery-powered three-seater can be driven ‘normally’ on local roads, but also has the ability to join automated guideways – 8ft-wide tracks designed to be installed alongside existing road lanes.
Users simply press a button to select their destination, sit back and read the paper, while the staRRcar slots into a train of such vehicles, self-driving at up to 60mph.
After taking a spur exit, they can retake control and continue their journey, or leave the staRRcar at a car park, ready to be used by others.
Have you heard the one about momentous UK self-driving public transport announcements being like buses? You wait for ages, then two come along at once!
Three days after the news that CAVForth is taking passengers in Scotland, came another huge win for Department for Transport’s Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV) and Fusion Processing: the launch of the UK’s first all-electric autonomous bus service.
The date was 23 January, the location was Milton Park (near Didcot and Abingdon), and this time plaudits went to consortium lead First Bus, Oxfordshire County Council, the University of the West of England, and Zipabout.
Minister for self-driving buses
Better still, Richard Holden MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State with responsibility for roads and local transport, was in attendance.
MP for North West Durham since 2019, Holden was previously a special adviser to former Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling.
“It’s thrilling to see our £3m investment help British firms and engineers pioneer new exciting ideas to achieve our vision of a truly efficient and sustainable transport network,” he said. “The launch of the UK’s first autonomous, zero-emission bus today is yet another key step towards achieving Net Zero, creating high-wage, high-skilled new jobs and opportunities, while truly levelling up transport across the country.”
The culmination of a five-year project, the revolutionary new service is part of the Mi-Link green travel programme being operated by First Bus.
Janette Bell, Managing Director at First Bus, said: “The launch of the UK’s first zero emission autonomous vehicle is a stellar example of how technology can support modal shift with wide partnership working between Central and Local Government, operators and local business. First Bus serves millions of customers in the UK, and we know that many take the bus because they care about reducing their carbon footprint. We cannot wait to hear some feedback on the new buses.”
Innovate UK Executive Director for Net Zero, Mike Biddle, added: “The connected and automated mobility sector is of crucial importance to the UK, with the potential to deliver safer, cleaner and more efficient transport systems across a wider range of settings. This multi-connected and autonomous vehicles project, part of a wider package of government R&D funding, will deliver the research required to support the future of multi-modal passenger carrying services.”
In a video interview with The Independent, Jim Hutchinson, CEO at Fusion Processing, explained: “It does have a safety driver on board at all times, for regulatory purposes, but it can drive itself in all conditions. It’s SAE level4, so that means within a defined area. This is a great showcase for an on-demand route.”
Self-driving on film
If you haven’t already read it, we highly recommend our 2021 interview with Hutchinson, in which he covers ADAS, cyclist detection and autonomous vehicle safety… and promises to put the UK on the global driverless map.
Between Didcot and CAVForth, January 2023 is making a strong case for the UK’s best self-driving month ever!
Landmark moment for UK self-driving as CAVForth bus takes passengers
Part funded by the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV), it will be the UK’s first registered service to use full-sized single-decker self-driving buses.
A fleet of five such vehicles will cover the 14-mile route from Ferrytoll Park and Ride in Fife to the Edinburgh Park Transport Interchange, a journey which takes them over the iconic Forth Road Bridge.
Louise Simpson, CAVForth lead project manager for Stagecoach, said: “We’re really excited to have reached this major milestone in our project plan. Until now, only project team members had been able to trial the autonomous service.”
One of the lucky passengers, Fleur Dijkman, told the BBC: “I wasn’t worried at all. You wouldn’t know the difference between this and a normal bus.”
Ivan McKee, business minister for the Scottish government, added: “This is another hugely significant step forward for the CAVForth project. It brings us closer to these autonomous vehicles entering service.”
As has become customary at this time of year, here’s our Cars of the Future review of notable self-driving developments at CES, “the most influential tech event in the world”.
First, it would be remiss not to point out that self-driving impressively made headlines by not stealing the show! For instance, Cleantechnica ran with the headline: “CES 2023 Shies Away From Autonomous Driving Technology”.
That’s maybe a bit harsh. For starters, ZF gave a world premiere to its next generation Level 4 autonomous shuttle, and announced an important new partnership with Beep.
Integrated into ZF’s autonomous driving system is the Virtual Driver software stack, developed in partnership with Oxfordshire-based Oxbotica. It consists of two major parts, the performance path and the safety path. The safety path monitors situations and defines ‘virtual guardrails’, while the performance path enables smooth driving.
“ZF delivers innovative technologies that contribute to sustainable mobility and help decarbonize the world,” said Dr. Holger Klein, CEO of ZF Group. “Today, we have everything to support our customers with holistic vehicle systems based on advanced high-performance controllers, intelligent sensors, smart actuators, connectivity and cloud solutions, and cutting-edge software and functions.”
The agreement with Beep includes plans for “several thousand” Level 4 shuttles in the US. Joe Moye, CEO of Beep, added: “This vehicle will help expand use cases and meet growing customer demand as we continue to pursue our vision of extending mobility equity and reducing carbon emissions with safe, efficient shared autonomous transportation.”
Then there was Korean company AIMMO’s announcement of “the world’s first AI-powered Autonomous Driving Data-as-a-Service” – ADaaS – designed “to overcome the industry-wide problem of excessive data collection that has constrained the progression and commercialisation of AV technologies”.
“Over the years, we have seen a huge amount of anticipation around when we will see autonomous vehicles commercialised, but with standards and regulations ever-changing across the world, it is an extremely complex market to navigate,” said AIMMO CEO SeungTaek Oh. ”We believe that the arrival of AIMMO ADaaS is a game-changer for many companies operating in this space.”
There was the small matter of Honda and Sony teaming up to launch a whole new brand, Afeela. It promises “the car of tomorrow”, with first deliveries scheduled for 2026.
Plastic Omnium announced the creation of a new division, OP’n Soft, focused on “mobility solutions that are more electric, more connected, more autonomous and more shared”. There’s probably an acronym for that.
“OP’n Soft will enable Plastic Omnium to offer its customers a unique range of integrated solutions and services, such as merging radar data processing software with lighting technologies,” said CEO Laurent Favre.
Plastic O also showcased a new “smart bumper” featuring embedded antennas to deliver “unequaled sensing faculties”, and announced a partnership with startup Greenerwave “to transform body panels into 4D imaging radar to give autonomous cars supervision”.
Another startup, Exwayz, unveiled SLAM – new generation software offering self-localization accurate to 2cm “to simplify and accelerate 3D LiDAR integration into autonomous systems”.
“We are proud to introduce Exwayz SLAM, aimed at saving years in hard software development to autonomous system manufacturers,” said CEO Hassan Bouchiba. “The reality is that autonomy can only happen with robust, accurate, reliable and truly real-time algorithms, which are the critical lacking elements in currently available solutions.”
Perhaps understandably, these advances were somewhat overshadowed by Terminator star Arnold Schwarzenegger joining BMW CEO Oliver Zipse on-stage to unveil the eye-catching BMW i Vision Dee colour-changing car.
Self-driving event report: APC Future of Technology, 7 December 2022
Self-driving advocates and sceptics gathered at 30 Euston Square in London last week for the Advanced Propulsion Centre’s Future of Technology event, supported by Zenzic, but someone was missing.
Keynote speaker Trent Victor, director of safety research and best practices at Waymo (formerly Google’s self-driving car project), remoted-in from Stockholm around midday and cheerily logged off immediately after his polished presentation.
He had been expected to open, and to participate in a debate on ethics and security. It was disappointing, and only strengthened the hand of transport commentator Christian Wolmar, that arch critic of driverless, who was in attendance.
Let’s focus on the positives. Host Steve Gooding, director of the RAC Foundation, seamlessly rejigged the agenda, and the other speakers – Peter Davies, technical director of Thales, Jessica Uguccioni, lead lawyer on the Law Commission’s Automated Vehicles Review, and Professor Nick Reed of Reed Mobility – delivered great presentations and high-quality debate on the question: Are self-driving vehicles still a fantasy?
Cryptography expert Davies urged the audience to “get real about cyberattacks”, and to consider “which bits of the system will be made brittle” by facilitating connectivity. He referenced the worldwide grounding of Boeing 737 MAX planes as an example of the commercial danger.
Uguccioni equated the minimum safety level for self-driving cars with the need to pass a driving test, asking: “How hard should it be? What should be in it?”. She posited that human performance should be “a floor, not a ceiling” and pointed out that the risks will be different. Self-driving cars might be better at handling everyday driving tasks, but their sensors could be confused by something as seemingly innocuous as leaf fall. She then addressed the “value judgement” of whether self-driving cars should ever be allowed to break the rules, for example, to mount a pavement in order to avoid a collision.
Professor Reed addressed precisely this question in a 2021 paper emphasising the importance of a role for the public. He referenced his Rees Jeffreys Road Fund supported research into societal engagement, and his work with BSi on using digital commentary to analyse safety performance. Notably, he also called for “an industry standard on data collection”.
The panel praised the work of the CCAV in encouraging discussion, explored “the blurring of the line between ADAS and self-driving” at UN level (for example, in cases when a driver becomes incapacitated), and covered recent changes to the Highway Code.
Davies raised the possibility that a system failure could result in all self-driving vehicles coming to a stop. Imagine the disruption, the impact on essential logistics.
Finally, our man in Sweden appeared on the big screen, and proceeded to give a very slick talk. He nailed the core question of whether self-driving is still fantasy. It isn’t. It’s happening now. Waymo robotaxis are already operating in San Francisco and Phoenix. He signposted Waymo’s online library of documents delivering “transparency on safety”, reported that most collisions to date had been “very minor”, and showed an animation of a real-world crash in which the human was replaced by the Waymo Driver.
This raised many questions but, alas, Victor was gone, and the excellent discussion resumed without him. Reed and Uguccioni agreed on the need for a minimum data set to be shared by vehicle manufacturers (VMs), including incident location data, but Davies saw many obstacles to global standards.
The curveballs, of course, came from the audience, including from John Emanuel, of Urban MASS, and the aforementioned Wolmar. He cuttingly compared what he’d heard with the promises made by self-driving “evangelists” a few years ago – namely that “we’d all be in shared driverless cars by 2025”. Issues such as safely negotiating Holborn at 6pm were “insuperable”, he said, with two driverless cars meeting on a country lane likely to be “stuck there indefinitely”.
Reed admitted that self-driving had been over-hyped but reiterated that “this technology has the potential to shift the plateau” for road safety. He also highlighted the work of Eloy in tackling the country lane scenario.
Uguccioni applauded the self-driving industry’s “ambition to strive for reduced fatalities”, and that was a suitably realistic note on which to break for lunch.
For further info on the Advanced Propulsion Centre’s mission to accelerate the transition to a net-zero automotive industry, visit apcuk.co.uk
December 2022 video of SF Standard reporter taking a Cruise self-driving cab ride
In early December 2022, The San Francisco Standard posted this great video of reporter Kevin Truong’s experience of using a Cruise self-driving cab:
The Californian city is in the vanguard of global driverless rollout, as we’ve covered extensively, from the legendary attempt by a SF police officer to stop a robotaxi – “Ain’t nobody in it!” – to, most recently, complaints about them causing traffic jams.
Here, we have a much more mundane journey, as Truong successfully takes a trip to Richmond Safeway.
Ok, so there were a few moments along the way. It didn’t stop in quite the right place for pick-up, then waited a while to overtake a stopped delivery truck, but that was about the extent of the drama.
As he says: “It’s very student driver, a bit slower than most people would go. Initial impressions: I got here in one piece! To see this technology at work, it’s hard to say there’s anything cooler than that.”
Audi’s 2022 Christmas advert shows Santa getting a new sleigh… a self-driving concept car
Audi’s new Christmas advert features Santa “swapping reindeers for something a little more progressive”, the amazing self-driving Grandsphere… just make sure you read the small print:
“The vehicle shown is a concept vehicle that is not available as a production vehicle. The automated driving functions shown are technologies currently under development, are not available for production vehicles and only work within system limits. All possible uses of the technical systems and functions shown represent only a possible concept and are dependent on the respective legal regulations in the relevant country.”
Here at Cars of the Future we’ve had our eye on the Grandsphere for a while, highlighting its fold-away steering wheel back in September 2021. Phenomenal tech, no doubt, but we’re a bit conflicted about this advert.
On the one hand, we love that Audi is giving the public a glimpse of the near future, normalising the idea of driverless.
On the other, we have the wise words of Matthew Avery, chief strategic research officer at Thatcham Research, ringing in our ears: “With more than half of the UK public believing that autonomous driving is here today, the perception is racing ahead of the reality.
“This demonstrates just how much work needs to be done to set realistic consumer expectations of the first vehicles offering limited self-driving functionality, when they do become available.”
It is a bit of an odd advert, isn’t it? Reminiscent of the scene in Toy Story when Buzz Lightyear watches the ad telling him he’s not a flying toy!
For a more comprehensive (and realistic) look at the car, we recommend this 5-minute mini documentary detailing how Marc Lichte, Head of Design at Audi, and his team, brought this vision of the future to life:
Kodiak CTO Andreas Wendel on latest self-driving truck test track success.
Back then, we covered how Kodiak has been delivering freight daily between Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston, operating autonomously on the highway section of the route for over a year.
Self-driving truck puncture test
Now, they’ve published video addressing what Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Andreas Wendel describes as “probably the safety-related question we get the most”: a catastrophic tyre failure.
“The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration estimates that tire problems were responsible for approximately 15% of truck-related crashes,” he said.
“As we develop our self-driving system, the KodiakDriver, we wanted to demonstrate that we can handle the bad things that can happen in real world driving, and tire blowouts are usually the first safety risk in mind.
“For all you non-Commercial Driver’s License-holders (CDL-holders), a tire blowout is a big deal, even when the vehicle you’re driving has 18 of them.
“On a big rig truck, the back 16 tires are paired dual tires, while all the steering is done by the two front single tires, called the steer tires.
“Steer tires are responsible for steering, handling, and ensuring a steady ride for humans and cargo alike. If one of the back 16 tires pops, a dual tire is able to compensate and carry some weight until the truck comes to a stop. If one of the single steer tires pops, it’s a whole different story.
“For all CDL-holders, you already know that the first step towards handling complex, catastrophic situations like tire blowouts is making a quick determination that a failure has occurred, then fighting to remain in control, and eventually safely pulling over to the side of the road.
“Trucks with popped tires travel erratically and unpredictably, with unexpected and unknown vehicle dynamics. Even if the tire just goes flat, you can’t maintain speed. This will potentially lead the truck to aggressively veering.
“The rubber may be stripped from the tire, forcing the vehicle to drive on a bare metal rim. In a worst-case scenario, the truck may swerve, jackknife, or even roll over. Once a truck suffers a steer tire blowout, it behaves like an entirely different truck.
“That’s why we’re so excited to become the first self-driving trucking company to demonstrate that we can maintain complete control of the truck even after suffering a catastrophic tire blowout.
“As shown in the video, KodiakDriver can stay in control of a truck and bring it to a safe and complete stop even when rolling over a giant spike and instantaneously popping a steer tire.
“Once we incorporated the findings from our low-tire pressure tests into the KodiakDriver’s control algorithms, it was time to test with a completely deflated tire flopping off the rim. This test allowed us to confirm that the controller can still steer the truck with a completely deflated tire, laying the groundwork for a spontaneous blowout.
“After deliberate testing at different tire pressures, we were ready to demonstrate a sudden tire blowout. Executing this test is more complex than you’d think: the vehicle needs to race down the test track and squarely hit a puncture rig, which is a spike mounted to a metal plate.
“For a human, the precision needed to consistently hit the puncture rig is higher than you’d think. Thankfully, the KodiakDriver is a much more precise driver than a human, and remains dead center in a lane unless it needs to nudge over to one side or another.
“With this consistency our team was easily able to identify where the KodiakDriver would pass on specific sections of the test rack and place the puncture rig accordingly.
“Finally, we were ready to demonstrate a tire blowout with a full tractor and trailer. No holding back!”
In this October 2022 Bloomberg Quicktake report, we hear from one of the most controversial men in self-driving: Anthony Levandowski.
It covers Levandowski’s history with Google and Uber, trade secrets, being pardoned by Donald Trump, and his new role as co-founder and CEO of autonomous vehicle company, Pronto.
“Self-driving is defined as the occupant is not responsible for the movement of the vehicle,” he says. “I’m a firm believer in that. I think it’s gonna be transformational. It’s a trillion dollar a year business that everybody’s chasing.
“The only metric that determines when an autonomous vehicle is ready is safety. It doesn’t matter how much they cost. It doesn’t matter how bulky they are, how ugly they are. The only metric is safety. Are they safer than a person?”
Tantalisingly, the top half of the Pronto.ai homepage, “Offroad”, has an “Enter” button, while the bottom half, “Onroad”, says “Coming Soon”.
What’s more, there’s an unfortunate ratio at play: the more disruptive the self-driving, the greater the media appeal.
Self-driving local news
In late September, SFGATE reported that: “At least three driverless Cruise cars were responsible for holding up traffic and reportedly blocking a bus lane in San Francisco last week”.
One such incident was captured by news anchor Dan Thorn, who posted the following video to Twitter:
All part of the learning process, but too many incidents like this will dent public acceptance.
A spokesperson for the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) warned: “If an autonomous vehicle company violates their permit conditions, the CPUC has the authority to suspend or revoke their operating authority.”