C Gopinath

On auto drive

C Gopinath | Updated on December 30, 2020

Driverless cars inch forward in San Francisco

San Franciscans try to be egalitarian when sharing public space. As you walk the pavements, you will have to swerve through skate-boarders and electric scooters. On the road, car lanes run along with train and tram cars. Some lanes have been sacrificed to accommodate bicycles. Electric cars are encouraged by being allowed to use the less congested lane reserved for ‘high occupancy vehicles’ (two or more occupants).

Police enforcement of road rules can also be spotty. You can see vehicles double-parked where they shouldn’t be. Yet, with the challenging topography of steep roads, you can get ticketed if you park a vehicle without the front wheels turned toward or away from the road, depending on the incline. Some intersections have a free right and others don’t, but you may anyway not be free to take that turn unless you can peek around the cars parked right up to the edge of the intersection. It takes all the skills of natural intelligence to drive on these roads. So, it is no surprise that the city is the preferred testing ground for self-driving cars that draw upon artificial intelligence.

Regulators have had to keep pace with the push for self-driving or autonomous vehicles (AV). Studies welcome these vehicles from a counter-intuitive view. Without a human who may be tired, drunk, or making a bad judgment about how fast he or she needs to go to pass a changing traffic light, robots are safe drivers. They stick to the rules, even if people don’t. So, the push for technology, while it would cause driver unemployment, benefits by increasing the safety for everyone on the road.

Engineers have categorised five levels of vehicles. At the lowest, Level 0, there is no automation at all. Then come levels that recognise adaptive cruise control, lane-centring technologies and so on up to Level 5, which is fully automated and requires no human intervention.

AV cars have been around since 2014, and initially they all had a human at the steering wheel — just in case. AV permits were issued to 59 companies. You can easily recognise them, for they carry the company logo on the sides and have peculiar sensors protruding from the roof.

Now, five companies — Auto X, Nuro, Cruise, Waymo and Zoox — have reached Level 5 and have been allowed to test AV cars in San Francisco without a human in control. They are monitored remotely by a teleoperator, who can take immediate control in traffic or if the vehicle gets stopped by a cop.

Conventional car companies were slow to enter the field of EVs and AVs. It was left to the technology nerds to make the initial push. Silicon Valley was in a race to snatch the future of the automobile industry from Detroit. Apple Inc joined the field and chip companies like Intel and Nvidia designed powerful processors needed for these vehicles. Then things began slowing down. Battery technologies were still being experimented with, and a few nasty accidents occurred. Among the more active companies in the field now are General Motors, which owns Cruise; Waymo owned by Alphabet, and Amazon’s Zoox.

Cruise, which is ‘homegrown’ in San Francisco, is very active on the streets and uses the Chevy Bolt. Some progress in other towns has also taken place. Waymo is experimenting with a limited taxi service in Phoenix, Arizona, and each robot taxi is followed by a ‘chase van’ carrying a spare human driver. Amazon is highly motivated in pushing Zoox to make progress, perhaps to optimise its highly human-intensive delivery system.

The writer is a US-based academic

Published on December 30, 2020

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