Going Autonomous at CES – Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Self-Driving Car

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If you want to know what’s happening in technology, the annual consumer electronics show – now simply dubbed CES – in Las Vegas is the bellwether. And the sounds from this year’s show were loud and clear. Self-driving cars are coming and they are coming soon.

Tech companies that once focused on gaming consoles (Nvidia) and smartphones (Qualcomm, Google, Apple, and Intel) are now focusing on creating autonomous vehicles. And for good reason. Self-driving cars will save lives, reduce traffic, cut fuel consumption (thereby also reducing pollution), and will open up transportation options to many, including aging drivers, who had few alternatives before.

I took test drives (or rides, really) in several self-driving vehicles and met with engineers and designers who were focused on the autonomous future to learn more about the current state of the art.   

Hyundai Goes It Alone

Outside the CES show, Hyundai demonstrated a research version of its new Ioniq, which will be available in non-autonomous electric, hybrid, and plug-in versions this year. Hyundai wants to make the self-driving technology affordable for the masses. The Ioniq had a large “Autonomous” decal on the side but otherwise looked like a typical compact car, no strange protuberances like those on Uber’s tricked out Volvos. Nevertheless, the Ioniq negotiated streets and maintained its distance from pedestrians without any major problems – although it was often cautious to a fault, waiting for pedestrians (who seemed more annoyed than intrigued) to cross the street.

Everywhere a Sign

Audi launched the first vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) service called Traffic Light Information. Las Vegas is the first city to send live traffic signal information to select 2017 Audi A4 and Q7 models, telling drivers in a head-up display when a signal down the road will turn red, for example. Such alerts can save fuel and improve safety, and “V2I applications and services like Traffic Light Information are essential components as we continue to move toward an autonomous future,” said Scott Keogh, president of Audi of America.

Martian Rover Technology

Nissan’s CEO Carlos Ghosn confirmed the company is working on autonomous vehicles as well as new electric cars to follow up on the popularity of its Leaf EV. Ghosn did reveal a Nissan demonstration at the show that relies on a NASA-created system to address one of the biggest problems with autonomous vehicles: how to handle unique traffic situations. To avoid some obstacles, human drivers have to break rules like crossing a double yellow line in order to get around a fallen tree. But for safety’s sake self-driving cars are programmed to follow the rules. Until cars can think like humans, Nissan plans to resolve such dilemmas by mimicking how NASA solves similar problems with Mars rovers: Use a remote human manager that is alerted whenever an autonomous vehicle is stymied. The remote mobility manager will observe the situation using the car’s sensors and then take control to steer around the problem.

Mobileye Takes Another Look

Mobileye, which supplies the camera-based vehicle and pedestrian detection systems for millions of cars, announced that it has a solution to the problem of creating detailed, high-definition maps required by self-driving vehicles. Until now, autonomous cars like Google’s experimental Waymo vehicles used expensive LiDAR systems to scan the environment around them and then generate massive amounts of data to create a 3D image. The trouble is that this approach is time consuming, generates massive amounts of data, and it cannot be done in realtime. Mobileye said its new REM (Road Experience Management) approach could use cameras instead—including the cameras already in millions of vehicles – to generate similar maps, but with lower data requirements. This crowd-sourced approach will be deployed this year in some Audi vehicles, and Mobileye is already working with Intel, BMW, and map company Here to spread the technology.

Faraday Future: Bleak

There are plenty of wild electric cars at CES, from the gocart-like Eli that has a top speed of 25 mph to the Faraday Future FF91 that leaps from 0 to 60 mph in 2.39 seconds (according to the company). However, whether these cars, some of which open doors and make seat adjustments using facial recognition programs, will ever hit the streets is doubtful. The FF91, for example, wouldn’t obey a command to park itself at a press demonstration I attended, and the company hasn’t provided a price for the slick crossover, which it says will appear in 2018.

Cost Containment on the Roadmap

Industry analysts agree that the technology to build self-driving cars is here, although government regulations to handle them are not. But the real gating factor today is not legislation but cost. Google’s first self-driving experimental vehicles added about $70,000 to the price of a car. Today, it’s considerably less but still represents a significant premium.

One of the most expensive components has been the mechanical laser-based LiDAR sensors used in most self-driving cars (Tesla’s semi-autonomous vehicles are the one exception) “If we can get the LiDAR down to $50 or the same price as radar,” Hyundai senior vice president Tae Won Lim told me, “we’ll be happy.”

That may soon happen. Velodyne, a major manufacturer of optical lidar systems, said at CES that it’s working on a solid-state LiDAR sensor that can deliver a subsystem cost of under $50 in the U.S. Such advances are encouraging auto makers and those looking supply the basic autonomous driving technology.

In just 5 years, the cost of such autonomous tech in commercial ride sharing cars could be $8,000, Jeffrey Owens, Delphi’s chief technology officer told me during one test drive. “In 2025,” he said, “it could be $5,000.”

 

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