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Waymo releases its first self-driving ‘Safety Report’

Waymo launched a campaign earlier this week alongside partners, including the National Safety Council, to help explain why it believes that its pursuit of autonomous driving is a means to safer roads. Now it’s releasing its first-ever Safety Report, which offers more detail on the procedures and technology it uses to ensure safety in deploying its autonomous fleet.

The 42-page document includes a summary overview of how Waymo’s cars function at a basic level, including under what conditions they work (and are designed to work exclusively) and how they “fail” back to a safe stop as a final fallback. It also explains what happens after a crash, should there be one, and what kind of data is recorded, as well as what measures are taken in terms of cybersecurity on the Waymo vehicles.

Waymo also details both its hardware and software testing processes, including crash avoidance and the overall durability of its sensors and other equipment. Finally, it spells out how a rider experiences driving in its cars, and how the technology works in the case of interacting with emergency vehicles, law enforcement and other first responders.

The document kicks off with a series of facts and figures designed to impress upon the reader the need for autonomous driving, and its potential impact in terms of making roads safer (94 percent of U.S. accidents were human-caused, for instance), economics ($594 billion in costs related to accidental death and injuries per year) and mobility (79 percent of Americans 65 and older live in communities that require cars to get around, basically).

Waymo also breaks down the five basic categories it uses for defining “safety” relative to its autonomous vehicles, including behavioral safety (driving decision on the road), functional safety (safe operation, including backups and redundancies), crash safety (ability to protect people within the car), operational safety (safety and comfort in interaction between passenger and car) and non-collision safety (safety for anyone interacting with the vehicle in any capacity, basically).

The report also details the sensor system, explaining what each does, and covers LiDAR, vision and radar — as well as supplemental sensors, including microphones to pick up emergency vehicles and other road noises.

Crucially, it also explains the “operational design domain” that Waymo uses to define where and when its vehicles can safely operate. This encompasses a range of factors needed for safe driving, including geographies, types of roads, range of speed, time of day, regulatory requirements and even weather.

The full Safety Report is embedded in its entirety below, and I recommend reading it if you’re at all interested in AV tech. It’s not only a good indication that Waymo does as it has always said and takes safety very seriously, but it’s also a comprehensive look at the company’s approach to self-driving as a whole, if a bit surface-level for experts in the field.

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Ford is betting big on Detroit

The Ford Motor Company now owns one of Detroit’s iconic buildings in the Michigan Central Station. The monumental building looms over Detroit’s oldest neighborhood. It’s long been a symbol of Detroit’s decay, and now it could become the symbol of Detroit’s revival, and Ford’s along with it. The building is set to become the anchor of Ford’s 1.2 million-square-foot campus in the Detroit neighborhood.

The Michigan Central Station will house more than just Ford employees, though. The auto company says it will be a mixed-use facility with facilities for up to 5,000 office workers and space for shops, restaurants and maybe even residential housing.

Ford has a substantial undertaking before employees and businesses move into the building. The Michigan Central Station is nearly literally a shell of its former self.

The station was built in 1913 by the same firm responsible for New York’s Grand Central Terminal. In its day, the 21-story building stood proudly with marble floors under an arched 65-foot ceiling. It was the tallest train station in the world when its colossal bronze doors first opened to the public.

Since its closure in the ’80s the building sat empty, eventually losing nearly everything to looters and nature. The windows disappeared, graffiti covers much of the brickwork, and the ornamental ceiling is crumbling. Barbed-wire fence eventually encircled the structure, attempting to keep people out. But they don’t. The lure of the station is too strong.

DETROIT, MI – JUNE 19: An artist spray paints a canvas at the historic, 105-year old Michigan Central train station prior to a Ford Motor Company press conference to formally announce their plans to renovate the building and turn it and Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood into a hub for Ford’s auto technology on June 19, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan. The project is expected to be completed by 2022 and will be the workplace for approximately 2500 Ford employees. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

Detroit, The Mobility City

The Michigan Central Station is set to be the center of a large Ford campus centered around forward-looking automotive technology research and design. Ford sees 2,500 employees occupying the buildings by 2022. The focus is on the future of mobility including electric and autonomous vehicles, and everything from connected vehicles to roads and parking.

Ford held a large event today announcing its intentions for the campus and Michigan Central Station. CEO Jim Hackett points to the advancing revolution where, as he says, artificial intelligence and big data that will be even more disruptive than the industrial revolution.

“What Rouge was to Ford in the industrial age, Corktown can be for Ford in the information age,” said Ford President and CEO Jim Hackett said in a released statement. “It will be the proving ground where Ford and our partners design and test the services and solutions for the way people are going to live and get around tomorrow, creating a Southeast Michigan mobility corridor that spans west from Dearborn to Ann Arbor, and east to Detroit.”

The plan calls for Ford to occupy at least three buildings in the area as part of a mobility corridor Ford intends to build spanning Detroit to Ann Arbor to Ford’s home in Dearborn, Michigan. Ford says it will redesign its Dearborn campus alongside Corktown campus.

Hackett was clear on this point: The plans for the Corktown campus will not compete or replace Ford’s Dearborn campus. He stressed that it’s part of the same system.

“It’s actually one whole system,” Hackett said. “In fact, if anything it guarantees the future of Dearborn. Our Dearborn redesign [and] our Corktown revitalization are just steps in the strategy to keep moving forward.”

Ford largely operates outside the city of Detroit. The company’s headquarters, main development operations and Ford River Rouge Complex are located in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn. This move into Corktown is more than symbolic; it’s significant.

The big three automakers, along with countless automotive suppliers located in Michigan, are increasingly fighting with Silicon Valley for talent. Rightfully so, prospective employees are looking for employers that can offer a compelling work/life balance, with that, comes the place of employment. I’ve been through Ford’s Dearborn’s facilities. From an outsider’s perspective, some of these facilities feel like an aging office complex that could crush your soul at any moment.

Silicon Valley offers engineering talent a unique opportunity previously largely unavailable for such jobs. It’s likely why GM let its self-driving startup, Cruise, continue to operate in the Bay Area.

Moving engineering teams into a Corktown campus will place these employees in the middle of a historic city on the upswing. By the time Ford moves employees into the facility by 2022, Corktown should be packed with upstart restaurants, bars and shops, ready to take the money of Ford engineers.


From Trains to Self-Driving Cars

The Detroit News explains how the deal unfolded. Along the way, the structure was inspected and deemed sound enough for redevelopment. Apparently since concrete encases the steel girders, the structure of the building has fared better than its ornamental adornments.

The station was in a state of decay before the last Amtrak train left the station in 1988 and was never an overwhelming success on its own. The station is located outside of the downtown core and relied on Detroit’s trolleys to bring riders to the station. The station also lacked a large parking facility, which became problematic after the rise of the automobile caused the trolley system to age and shut down.

The station’s interior is stunning even in its decayed state. The general waiting room reminds of a Roman bathhouse with soaring arched ceilings covered in Guastavino tile that speak to Detroit’s glorious past. Light pours through the tall windows and glass ceiling. Pillars are throughout the lobby. The arches continue in a lovely arcade that once housed shops and service stalls.

Space for 500 offices occupied the floors above the station, though the top floor of the station remained unfinished and unused through the building’s history.

The station lacked windows for years and nature did its best to reclaim the station. Water damage is visible everywhere. Tiles are falling off the arches, revealing the terra cotta backing. Stagnant water is found throughout the lower levels.

Historic Detroit states ridership peaked following World War 1 with 200 trains leaving the station daily but started to dwindle quickly in the 1950s. Amtrak took over the station from the bankrupt Penn Central in 1971, the year it was founded. The corporation spent $1 million updating the station but couldn’t save it, and the last train departed the station in 1988 heading to Chicago.

The year Amtrak unveiled the updated station, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places. This designation didn’t increase riders, but it did save the building from being demolished after Amtrak moved out.

Since its closure, the building has traded hands several times with each owner unveiling grand plans for the building: a casino and hotel, a rail yard, an international trade center, even a police station.

The Moroun family purchased the building in 1992 and left it untouched until just a few years ago when it started landscaping the park in front of the station. The family then installed windows throughout the building. It’s unclear if this was to prepare the building for sale or other purposes.

The station sits just blocks from the former Tiger Stadium that was built in 1911 and torn down in 2008. It’s a mostly residential neighborhood, sitting just outside the downtown area. Corktown has yet to see the redevelopment boom found elsewhere in Detroit.

Though not ideal when the Michigan Central Station was built, its location is likely what brought Ford to the table. The area has easy access to major highways and is just far enough away from downtown Detroit to mostly avoid the traffic congestion. Real estate opportunities seem ample, too.

Amazon turned down Detroit

Last year Detroit enlisted the help of real estate mogul Dan Gilbert to help win Amazon’s bid for a second headquarters. It didn’t work out. The city of Detroit and State of Michigan reportedly offered Amazon a massive tax incentive but Amazon didn’t take the bait. The deal would have changed Detroit, but not necessarily for the better. Had Amazon picked Detroit, the city would have had to adjust physically and mentally to handle the supposed increase of 30,000 workers within the city limit.

Ford seems like a good fit for today’s Detroit. The company is restoring an eyesore and essentially extending the border of the downtown area. Instead of adding tens of thousands of workers like Amazon would, Ford is adding thousands of workers. The streets will get a bit more crowded, but not overwhelmed.

The area lacks a lot of the infrastructure needed for an Amazon-sized workforce. Public transportation is limited to a couple of short lines, and some suburban leaders are fighting their expansion. Parking is hard to come by and there’s a housing crunch in the downtown core. The roads are a mess and traffic congestion is getting worse. Ford’s campus, located outside the downtown areas, should avoid some of those challenges — besides the terrible roads.

This deal puts Ford back in Detroit 22 years after it sold the Renaissance Center to General Motors. Even though it’s early, Ford’s return to Detroit could prove to be as pivotal to Detroit’s future as when Dan Gilbert moved Quicken Loans downtown in 2010. Gilbert largely kickstarted Detroit’s revitalization by filling unused office space with Quicken Loans employees, but also buying up blocks of the city and convincing retailers and corporations to move downtown. It worked, and downtown Detroit in 2018 is a much different place than it was in 2008.

Questions still remain about the purchase of the Michigan Central Station. How much did Ford purchase the building for and what sort of tax incentives were offered to the auto maker and Moroun family? Will I ever be able to get a table at Slow’s BBQ again?

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With its new in-car operating system, BMW slowly breaks with tradition

When you spend time with a lot of BMW folks, as I did during a trip to Germany earlier this month, you’ll regularly hear the word “heritage.” Maybe that’s no surprise, given that the company is now well over 100 years old. But in a time of rapid transformation that’s hitting every car manufacturer, engineers and designers have to strike a balance between honoring that history and looking forward. With the latest version of its BMW OS in-car operating system and its accompanying design language, BMW is breaking with some traditions to allow it to look into the future while also sticking to its core principles.

If you’ve driven a recent luxury car, then the instrument cluster in front of you was likely one large screen. But at least in even the most recent BMWs, you’ll still see the standard round gauges that have adorned cars since their invention. That’s what drivers expect and that’s what the company gave them, down to the point where it essentially glued a few plastic strips on the large screen that now makes up the dashboard to give drivers an even more traditional view of their Autobahn speeds.

With BMW OS 7.0, which I got some hands-on time with in the latest BMW 8-series model that’s making its official debut today (and where the OS update will also make its first appearance), the company stops pretending that the screen is a standard set of gauges. Sure, some of the colors remain the same, but users looking for the classic look of a BMW cockpit are in for a surprise.

“We first broke up the classic round instruments back in 2015 so we could add more digital content to the middle, including advanced driving assistance systems,” one of BMW’s designers told me. “And that was the first break [with tradition]. Now in 2018, we looked at the interior and exterior design of our cars — and took all of those forms — and integrated them into the digital user interface of our cars.”

The overall idea behind the design is to highlight relevant information when it’s needed but to let it fade back when it’s not, allowing the driver to focus on the task at hand (which, at least for the next few years, is mostly driving).

So when you enter the car, you’ll get the standard BMW welcome screen, which is now integrated with your digital BMW Connected profile in the cloud. When you start driving, the new design comes to life, with all of the critical information you need for driving on the left side of the dashboard, as well as data about the state of your driving assistance systems. That’s a set of digital gauges that remains on the screen at all times. On the right side of the screen, though, you’ll see all of the widgets that can be personalized. There are six of those, and they range from G meters for when you’re at a track day to a music player that uses the space to show album art.

The middle of the screen focuses on navigation. But as the BMW team told me, the idea here isn’t to just copy the map that’s traditionally on the tablet-like screen in the middle of the dashboard. What you’ll see here is a stripped-down map view that only shows you the navigational data you need at any given time.

And because the digital user interface isn’t meant to be a copy of its analog counterpart from yesteryear, the team also decided that it could play with more colors. That means that as you move from sport to eco mode, for example, the UI’s primary color changes from red to blue.

The instrument cluster is only part of the company’s redesign. It also took a look at what it calls the “Control Display” in the center console. That’s traditionally where the company has displayed everything from your music player to its built-in GPS maps (and Apple CarPlay, if that’s your thing). Here, BMW has simplified the menu structure by making it much flatter and also made some tweaks to the overall design. What you’ll see is that it also went for a design language here that’s still occasionally playful but that does away with many of the 3D effects, and instead opted for something that’s more akin to Google’s Material Design or Microsoft’s Fluent Design System. This is a subtle change, but the team told me that it very deliberately tried to go with a more modern and flatter look.

This display now also offers more tools for personalization, with the ability to change the layout to show more widgets, if the driver doesn’t mind a more cluttered display, for example.

Thanks to its integration with BMW Connect, the company’s cloud-based tools and services for saving and syncing data, managing in-car apps and more, the updated operating system also lays the foundation for the company’s upcoming e-commerce play. Dieter May, BMW’s VP for digital products and services, has talked about this quite a bit in the past, and the updated software and fully digital cockpit is what will enable the company’s next moves in this direction. Because the new operating system puts a new emphasis on the user’s digital account, which is encoded in your key fob, the car becomes part of the overall BMW ecosystem, which includes other mobility services like ReachNow, for example (though you obviously don’t need to have a BMW Connect account just to drive the car).

Unsurprisingly, the new operating system will launch with a couple of the company’s more high-end vehicles like the 8-series car that is launching today, but it will slowly trickle down to other models, as well.

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Artificial Intelligence

Luminar rolls out its development platform and scores Volvo partnership and investment

The wizards in lidar tech at Luminar are doubling down on the practical side of autonomous car deployment with a partnership with and investment from Volvo, as well as a new “perception development platform” that helps squeeze every last drop out of its laser-based imagery.

Volvo Cars has been one of the big investors in autonomous vehicles, and while they have produced some cars equipped for driverless operation, the company seems to understand that this is a very long game it’s playing. There’s more to it than just slapping some sensors on a production vehicle and sending it on its way.

Part of that long game is picking winners in the industry, as well, and Volvo seems to be confident that Luminar, whose lidar tech is in many ways leaps and bounds beyond the competition, will be among them. Volvo’s recently established Tech Fund has made an investment in Luminar — its first, and of an undisclosed size.

That doesn’t mean they get a seat on the board or anything — it’s purely a financial play, Luminar’s founder and CEO Austin Russell told me.

The two are also doubling down on their partnership as far as the actual lidar tech being used. Luminar today announced its “perception development platform,” for which Volvo is the first customer. Essentially Luminar itself is taking over some of the duties of spotting and identifying common objects its lidar units see, rather than leaving that entirely to the car’s systems. Russell told me that it was a matter of making sure that its data was being used effectively.

“A lot of times we see 2D algorithms applied to true 3D data, and it just doesn’t make the most of it,” he said. He said that his team often sees partners (not necessarily Volvo) applying dated 2D analysis to rich 3D data. That might have been fine a couple years ago, he said, but with advances in lidar tech the point clouds and 3D data have improved by orders of magnitude — it’s become “almost camera-like.” So Luminar is making its own algorithms for detection and labeling of what its hardware sees.

“We’re providing data that you can rely on to understand a given situation — the data you need to make a decision,” he said, though in response to my questions he emphasized that Luminar’s platform was not making any decisions on its own.

As an example (illustrated in the gif above), imagine a car traveling down the road at 65 MPH. Luminar’s lidar unit, constantly bathing the area in front of it with lasers and analyzing the reflected signal, spots a stopped car blocking the shoulder about 700 feet ahead using its own smarts. Closer up it detects that there’s a person there and a spare tire on the ground.

The lidar doesn’t have any idea what to do with that data — it just knows that it’s 90 percent sure what it sees. So it passes that information on to the car’s “brain,” perhaps before that brain has done its own analysis and spotted the car for itself. The brain can then decide whether to slow down, change lanes, or maybe even confer with other nearby autonomous vehicles.

Russell said that Volvo, rather wisely, decided to constrain the application of this system strictly to highway driving. That makes it a much smaller problem space, but also a risky one. “Operating at higher speeds puts pressure on you to get a lot more range,” Russell said. “250 meters is still just like 7 and a half seconds ahead.” But every little bit counts.

Volvo is the one of four major OEMs that Luminar has partnered with, and the second to be announced publicly — there’s the Toyota Research Institute, but the other two are still a mystery. Chances are, however, they’ll be getting something like this as well, though it will be different for everyone.

“It’s a standardized platform,” Russell said. “The implementation is specific, but the software itself isn’t. We’re not just throwing it out there. And that’s also a reason why we’re working with 4 OEMs and not everyone under the sun. This will only be available to partners.”

Luminar’s tech puts it in the lead in many ways, but competitors aren’t standing still. Strong partnerships, however, may prove to be more important than technological superiority — though of course it can’t hurt to have both.

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