Cars are getting smarter and more capable. They're even starting to drive themselves, a little. They're all for putting better tech on the road, but automakers are selling systems like Tesla's Autopilot, or Nissan's Pro Pilot Assist, with the implied promise that they'll make driving easier and safer, and a new study is the latest to say that may not always be the case. More worryingly, drivers think these systems are far more capable than they really are. Euro NCAP, an independent European car safety assessment group (similar to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in the US,) has just released the results of its first round of tests of 10 new cars with driver assistance technologies.
Chinese carmaker NIO, the world's newest electric vehicle unicorn, has a big idea: battery swapping. In theory, the process is quicker and more convenient than a fast charge. A driver rolls into a battery swap station, and a robot replaces the drained battery with a fully charged spare. But even though NIO's battery swapping stations are already deployed in major cities across China, retail investors don't seem to be taking NIO's swap network seriously. Levi Tillemann is the author of The Great Race: The Global Quest for the Car of the Future.
The self-driving car crashes that usually make the news are, unsurprisingly, either big and smashy or new and curious. The Apple that got bumped while merging into traffic. The Waymo van that got t-boned. And of course, the Uber that hit and killed a woman crossing the street in Tempe, Arizona in March. Look at every robo-car crash report filed in California, though, and you get a more mundane picture--but one that reveals a striking pattern.
It's been a busy week, and not only because car and tech companies were up to their usual tricks. It's WIRED's 25th birthday, which means we've been covering the future of transportation for a quarter of a frickin' century. Translation for the car nerds: WIRED can now rent a car without extra fees or penalties. So today, we'll be reviewing the news. But we'll also take a look back at WIRED's past coverage.
More than 37,000 over the course of 2017--what would statistically be considered a'good year.' Big tech has a solution: Have the cars drive themselves, free of the distractions, drunkenness, and other human foibles. Flood the roads with autonomous vehicles, and watch collision deaths plummet. Too bad this lovely narrative has a major plot hole: Blunt force trauma isn't the only way cars kill. Each year, hundreds of thousands of people die prematurely from breathing exhaust-poisoned air.
The Department of Transportation is getting a little more creative about how it defines "driver," Secretary Elaine Chao announced Thursday. The computers have a ticket to drive now--at least where federal regulations are concerned. And while this is good news for everyone working on building, and eventually deploying, self-driving vehicles, it's especially welcome for the automated trucking crowd. Waymo, Daimler, Volvo, Embark Trucks, Kache.ai, Starsky and Kodiak Robotics, TuSimple, Ike: Automated trucking companies have boomed this year, even after Uber got out of the trucking race.
Cruise, the self-driving car arm of General Motors, has an unexpected new ally in its bid to keep its corporate master at the forefront of an industry enduring its greatest period of change in generations: Honda. In a deal announced today, the Japanese automaker will help San Francisco-based Cruise and its Detroit owner develop and mass produce a new sort vehicle for a world in which human drivers are no longer needed. Honda is opening its checkbook too, pledging to spend $2 billion on the project over 12 years, and immediately putting a $750 million equity investment into Cruise. For Honda, the partnership offers entree into a self-driving space where it has thus far spent little time and effort. For Cruise and GM, the newcomer adds engineering know-how, especially with regard to interior design.
If anything has changed between today and the halcyon days of 2016, it's that those building and marketing self-driving tech are now less... promise-y. The robots are still coming, the software developers and hardware mavens and balance sheet-wielding CEOs insist. But more and more, they emphasize that this work is hard, the problems varied, the risks manifold, the regulations slow in coming. Even Waymo, the putative leader in the industry flush with Alphabet funding, which plans to launch a commercial service this quarter, is having trouble teaching computers to be competent drivers. Which is why the team at Ike would like to make the thing as easy as possible.
It's lunchtime, and the worker bees of Mountain View who aren't interested in their company's own catering are walking down East Middlefield Road in search of grub. It's a lovely esplanade, but all the trees and light poles make these pedestrians hard to spot. That makes things tricky for a human driver, and extra troublesome for a robot trying to learn to work the wheel. But on a large monitor inside Soroush Salehian and Mina Rezk's Mercedes Sprinter van, every meandering biped stands out against a sea of white. Those walking toward the van are blue, those moving away from it are red.
Of the many acronyms engineers spend their lives internalizing, few are more valuable than KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid. Constrain the problem, reduce the variables, and make life as easy as possible when designing novel systems--like, say, a self-driving car. The world is a messy, complicated place. The less of it you need to solve, the closer you are to having a working product. That's why Waymo tests and plans to deploy its vehicles in Chandler, Arizona, with its reliably sunny weather, calm traffic, and meticulously mapped roads.