Tag Archives: automobiles

Five consumer technology challenges will decide who owns the future

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Vegas cocktail

The innovation capital of Earth is Las Vegas for the coming week, as hundreds of thousands of technology makers and breakers, and buyers and sellers converge on the event formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show. Most of what’s on display is as boringly mainstream as clock radios and console televisions were at the first CES in 1967.

But there will be a handful of technologies and prototypes amidst the chaos that will offer clues to what our world will be in 2067, and that’s what I’ll be looking for…

  • New smartphone form factors – It’s an accident of history that networked, pocket-sized super computers are called phones. Advances in materials science and chipmaking will enable a breakout from the rigid rectangle that’s restrained the design of these truly personal computers since the introduction of the iPhone. Flexible screens are only the first step.

  • Handsfree interfaces – As the shape of mobile technology changes, so will the way data goes back and forth between people and machines. Voice recognition is good, but a faster, more discreet input method – just think? – is necessary. So is an alternative to transferring visual information via a flat, handheld screen. Forget about the demise of Moore’s law and fears of artificial intelligence. The human body is technology’s most intractable constraint.

  • Ingestibles and Implantables – The inner world of the human body is next level in general interface development and, specifically, personal health monitoring and maintenance. Getting there requires more discipline and regulatory aptitude than we’re used to seeing in the tech world, but the first glimmer of bio-adapted products are starting to appear. Real time, full body monitoring and analysis will be wonderfully disruptive to the medical industry. The big prize is faster and truer links between the biological and digital realms.

  • Personal transportation – From electric scooters to self driving cars to Elon Musk’s tunnels and hyperloops, a once-in-a-century transportation revolution is slowly coming to a boil. Part technology, part business model and part policy, this revolution will make snapshots of jammed streets and highways as quaint as horse and buggy daguerreotypes. Most of the pieces are already on the table. We’re just waiting for someone to put the puzzle together.

  • Power – The ultimate energy storage and charging solutions have yet to appear. A couple of wireless charging gizmos have been touted in the run up to CES, but so far there hasn’t been any movement toward an industry standard. Once we have the wireless equivalent of USB charging and power cells with the energy density of a tank of gas, for both low and high voltage devices, the market for wearables and Internet of things/home automation products will explode, and the adoption rate of electric vehicles, of all kinds, will hit escape velocity.

There are two more items on the list and always present at CES: the unknown and the unexpected. The challenge is to know it when you see it. Wish me luck.

Waymo gets permission to run cars without drivers in Silicon Valley

by Steve Blum • , ,

True driverless cars – not just autonomous cars with “safety drivers” on stand-by – will be roaming through five Santa Clara County cities. On Tuesday, the California department of motor vehicles gave Waymo a permit to ”test driverless vehicles on public roads, including freeways, highways and streets within the cities of Palo Alto, Mountain View, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and Sunnyvale".

Waymo is the Google spin-off that began stealth testing self-driving cars in Silicon Valley in 2009. It’s already been running driverless cars in Arizona for the past year.

(In case you’re wondering, no, it wasn’t Waymo that was involved in a fatal collision with a cyclist in Arizona in March – that was Uber. A Waymo van did crash into a Mountain View highway median in June after the safety driver fell asleep and disconnected the autopilot, but no one was hurt).

According to a Waymo blog post, the cars are allowed to run at freeway speeds…

Waymo’s [California] permit includes day and night testing on city streets, rural roads and highways with posted speed limits of up to 65 miles per hour. Our vehicles can safely handle fog and light rain, and testing in those conditions is included in our permit. We will gradually begin driverless testing on city streets in a limited territory and, over time, expand the area that we drive in as we gain confidence and experience to expand.

If a Waymo vehicle comes across a situation it doesn’t understand, it does what any good driver would do: comes to a safe stop until it does understand how to proceed.

The cars will be linked to a command center where humans will monitor operations and resolve problems.

The permit allows Waymo to offer rides to the public for free; more California paperwork is needed if the company ever wants to start charging for it. “Early riders” in the Phoenix area began taking complimentary trips in April. In Santa Clara County, though, Waymo says it’ll just be employees getting rides for now, with public availability coming “eventually”.

Fight begins over who gets spectrum assigned to self driving cars

by Steve Blum • , , ,


The automotive industry might pay a high price for sitting on spectrum for 20 years, without using it. Ironically, it comes when an automotive use for the 75 MHz in the 5.9 GHz band allocated to Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC) is right around the corner.

Lobbyists for Charter Communications, Comcast and other monopoly model cable companies want the frequencies reassigned and used to expand one of the unlicensed bands that’s commonly used for WiFi (although being unlicensed, it can be used for pretty much anything else, too). There’s a lot to be said for making more unlicensed spectrum available, and extending an existing band is simpler, from a user perspective, than creating a new one.

The trade off is that the spectrum won’t be available to support self-driving cars, as automotive technologists are assuming. Or at least they’ll have to share it with other users, which might or might not be practical.

Autonomous vehicles will have at least a gigabit worth of data, and maybe more, circulating on their internal networks. The major source will be high resolution video cameras that the cars use for eyes. Most of the processing will happen onboard, but there are also plans to share video between vehicles. For example, your car could be looking through a video camera on the car in front of it, to get a better view of what’s heading down the road.

There are other uses for vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication. Mobile carriers would prefer that all of it be done via their networks, for a price of course. That’s a problem, though, and not just because it would, in effect, let them impose a private tax on passengers. The networks that the four major carriers are building out in the U.S. won’t have the capacity to support just the connectivity that car makers need even if they have access to a dedicated automotive band.

Part of the problem is regulatory disconnect. The Federal Communications Commission assigned the band to DSRC twenty years ago, with particular applications in mind. Those applications never materialised, but new, self driving car technology, which was never anticipated, developed instead. At the same time, federal transportation officials are trying to come up with a solution based on the older, unused service model.

Right now, everyone is playing the District of Columbia’s typical zero sum game – one bunch of lobbyists gets the spectrum, another loses it. There should be a win-win solution that lets self driving cars communicate with each other and increases the bandwidth available for people, too. To figure it out, the FCC has to focus on technology and the future, not politics and the present. That might be a hopelessly tall order for the current batch of commissioners.

Self driving cars will be ready, but U.S. 5G networks won’t

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Manufacturers might have self-driving cars ready to roll in the next five to seven years, but how far they’ll roll will, in large part, be determined by 5G mobile network deployments. To support fully autonomous driving, where no human driver is needed and passengers can just kick back and ignore the road, fast broadband connections will be necessary.

Nobody knows yet how fast, but minimum service levels will depend on three speed metrics: download throughput, upload throughput and latency. All three will have to be better than what’s available via today’s 4G networks.

The chart above was published by GSMA, which is a trade group that represents mobile carriers around the world. It reckons that up and down throughput will have to be in the 10 Mbps range, with latency – the round trip time – in the 1 millisecond range, in order to support autonomous driving.

Continental is one of the automotive technology companies that has to actually invent and manufacture the equipment, and design the supporting platforms for self driving cars. It takes the GSMA estimate as a starting point, and stretches those specs: latency might not have to be so good – they’re considering a range of 10 milliseconds to 100 milliseconds – but speeds might have to be faster, maybe as fast as 100 Mbps.

Existing 4G networks can’t support those speed and latency requirements. The four major U.S. mobile carriers all have typical latencies well over 50 milliseconds. Their real world download speeds in California almost never hit the 10 Mbps mark, and upload speeds are significantly less than that, often by an order of magnitude.

Despite the hype from carriers and the Federal Communications Commission, there’s little indication that ubiquitous 5G networks in the U.S. will be there when the automotive industry’s technology is ready to go to market. You might be able to buy a self driving car by the middle of the next decade, but opportunities to take your eyes off the road and your hands off the wheel (or whatever controls it might have) will be limited.

Automous vehicles might punch in to work in California

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Self driving cars would go into commercial service in California, if the California Public Utilities Commission approves proposed new rules. The draft decision, by commissioner Liane Randolph, tracks with the California Department of Motor Vehicle’s licensing framework. The DMV allows autonomous vehicles on public roads as part of “testing” programs run by manufacturers, under tight restrictions and reporting requirements.

The CPUC regulates charter carriers – generally, vans and buses for hire – and ride sharing platforms like Uber and Lyft. Companies with autonomous vehicle interests, including Lyft and General Motors, asked the CPUC for permission to carry passengers as part of their research and development process.

The proposal in front of the CPUC would open up a pilot program that allows manufacturers with licenses from the DMV to operate as charter carriers and offer rides to paying passengers. If they comply with an equally long list of CPUC restrictions and reporting requirements.

Like the DMV rules, the CPUC’s plan allows for vehicles with back up drivers, and with no in-person driver at all, so long as a licensed operator is monitoring remotely. One twist is that the DMV allows testers to carry passengers for free, but not for pay. The CPUC’s definition of compensation is flexible enough to allow for non-cash benefits – presumably, the information gathered is worth the ride.

The ride sharing model won’t be allowed for now. That’s not such a problem, though. You can’t buy an autonomous vehicle yet, so you can’t slap a moustache on it and send it out to earn a living on its own. Any self driving cars that are carrying passengers will, of necessity, be company owned for some years to come. So the CPUC will have time to run the pilot program for a while and figure out how to deal with self employed, self driving cars on a permanent basis.

The CPUC is scheduled to vote o the draft on Thursday, but that can change.

California allows driverless car testing, if anyone still cares

by Steve Blum • , ,

Driverless vehicles can be tested on California streets and highways beginning next month, but they won’t be completely on their own. The California Department of Motor Vehicles posted new regulations (and supporting arguments) for autonomous vehicles this week. Among the changes is a way for manufacturers or developers to get permission to run vehicles without anyone physically behind the wheel.

Physically. A remote operator is required, someone who “is not seated in the driver’s seat of the vehicle; engages and monitors the autonomous vehicle; is able to communicate with occupants in the vehicle through a communication link” and is “available to assist law enforcement at all times that the vehicle is in operation”.

The vehicle itself must meet industry standards for Level 4 – mind off – or Level 5 – steering wheel optional – operation. Either type can, in theory, drive themselves without a human onboard to watch over things. The difference is that a Level 5 car can go anywhere, any time, while Level 4 cars can only drive themselves within particular boundaries or circumstances. Otherwise, a human has to be ready to take over instantly.

The big question is whether it matters. Manufacturers and developers have other options, like going to Arizona, where the state government has welcomed Google and Uber with open arms and an open road. Or Nevada or Montana, which have governors who are equally accomodating.

California’s regulators are, well, regulators. Not high tech recruiters. Besides a relatively – compared to neighboring states – complex and bureaucratic licensing process, the DMV requires self-driving car companies to submit detailed reports of operations and, particularly, problems that occur. Those reports are then posted on the web, which is a nice perk for companies that are behind the competitive curve, but less thrilling for the market leaders.

Autonomous vehicle technology was born in California because the companies behind it happened to be here. They don’t have to stay.

Self driving cars will need wireless broadband, but not for heavy duty computing

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

There will be a flood of bits swirling through self driving cars, and virtually all of that data will be processed by onboard computers, even where 5G networks are deployed.

“Autonomous vehicles are software defined”, said Deepu Talla, vice president of autonomous machines at Nvidia, a high end chip maker, speaking at CES. That software will run on onboard computers, and won’t be processed served from the cloud via mobile broadband networks, he said. There are four reasons for that:

  1. Latency. If you’re in a moving car, the round trip for data takes too long.
  2. Bandwidth. Cars will continually generate huge amounts of data, particularly from the many high definition video cameras they’ll use to monitor where they’re going and what’s around them.
  3. Connectivity. It’s not always there, particularly in rural areas, but even in cities there are momentary holes and bottlenecks in network coverage. Not big enough, perhaps, for a human to perceive but enough to delay machine to machine communication for critical milliseconds.
  4. Privacy. Although it’s not as big of a concern for cars as for, say, medical devices, it’s still a limiting factor.

5G won’t solve the problem, Talla said. Latency may decrease but it will still be there and 5G’s greater bandwidth will be eaten up by greater demand. “the amount of data will increase too”, he said.

Continental, a German automotive technology company, plans to scale up in-car local area networks to 10 Gbps to handle that load. Most of it will be video streams from high resolution cameras – 8 megapixels – that have to processed and analysed in real time. Each car will have at least four cameras, and possibly more. Plus radar and lidar, and video streams transmitted directly from cars up ahead.

Mobile broadband will still play a role. Live connections to the cloud are yet another source of data, particularly for error detection, debugging and instant repair. Connectivity will be required for cars to reach Level 5, the top level of autonomous operation, according to Continental staff who briefed industry analysts during CES. At that level, the car does everything, everywhere, without the need for human monitors. That’s the point where you can take a nap in the back seat while driving to work.

Arizona innovates self driving cars while California pioneers regulation

by Steve Blum • , ,

California is on the receiving end of another slagging for its top heavy approach to regulating the development and deployment of self-driving cars. Ian Adams works for the R Street Institute, a Washington, D.C. consulting group – AKA think tank – that finds its home on the dark public policy corner where industry, academia and government intersect. Writing in The Hill, he points to the departure of the Waymo – formerly Google – autonomous vehicle venture for free range Arizona…

The reasoning behind Waymo’s deployment decision was simple: California opted for an overly prescriptive approach to regulating technological innovation. The state’s regulatory process simply too slow for it to capitalize on its seemingly insurmountable natural advantages…

Meanwhile, down in Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey’s aggressively pro-growth administration issued an executive order to encourage self-driving vehicles, with only the barest necessary constraints on how they may be deployed. Since then, predictably, developers have flocked to the state.

He has a point. California took an early lead in opening the door to development of self-driving technology, but instead of offering a gateway to the open road, the door led to a bureaucratic maze. When the California department of motor vehicles slapped down Uber, the governor of Arizona scored quick and easy points by welcoming them, and any of the other 20 companies operating under the DMV’s supervision, to his state.

It worked.

The DMV’s response was to double down and publish new draft rules last month that close the loophole Uber thought it saw, generally tighten up language defining self-driving cars and adding new red tape to the testing process.

Autonomous vehicles are a step into the unknown for everyone, industry, consumers and government officials alike. The word for that is pioneering; a word we expect to find in the same sentence as California and high tech. But expectation is not entitlement. Unless the DMV rethinks its role, it’s a word we won’t be hearing as often.

Feds ready to tell California DMV to drop self-driving car rules

by Steve Blum • , ,

The U.S. congress isn’t completely gridlocked, at least not where self-driving cars are concerned. This week, the U.S. house of representatives passed a bill – with a whopping bipartisan majority – that would put the federal transportation department in charge of setting standards for autonomous vehicles, and determining whether or not any particular design is safe to operate on open roads, anywhere in the country. If it makes it into law – it still has to be approved by the U.S. senate and signed by the president – California won’t be able to set its own rules for autonomous vehicle operation…

No State or political subdivision of a State may maintain, enforce, prescribe, or continue in effect any law or regulation regarding the design, construction, or performance of highly automated vehicles, automated driving systems, or components of automated driving systems unless such law or regulation is identical to a standard prescribed under this chapter.

States would still be responsible for regulating “registration, licensing, driving education and training, insurance, law enforcement, crash investigations, safety and emissions inspections, congestion management [and] traffic”, but only if those laws are not “an unreasonable restriction on the design, construction, or performance of highly automated vehicles, automated driving systems, or components of automated driving systems”.

Next week, the Trump administration is expected to announce a parallel effort to federalise self-driving car oversight, and early leaks of its plans seem to track with both the house bill and a regulatory system outlined last year, by the Obama administration. There’s also a bill pending in the U.S. senate that takes a similar, but not identical, approach.

Assuming this Beltway love affair with autonomous vehicles doesn’t run out of gas, Californian regulators will have to scrap its current rules and pull back on plans to expand them. That’s likely to have a positive impact on self-driving car development here, since it’ll remove most of the regulatory incentives to head to Nevada or Arizona, as Uber did last year when it butted heads with the California department of motor vehicles.

Cities need to get out in front of self driving cars, League of Cities says

by Steve Blum • , ,

Broadband availability and self-driving cars are thoroughly linked issues for local governments, according to a white paper on autonomous vehicle policy published by the National League of Cities. Sitting back and letting telecoms providers – wired or wireless – take the lead is a bad idea. Instead, the League argues, local governments should use what policy and political tools are available and jump in with both feet…

Cities should be aware that their wireless broadband needs will grow exponentially in the future, and should plan with the understanding that their infrastructure will need to be constantly updated. While 5G is an important goalpost today, it will surely be surpassed in the near future. Cities should be proactive in reaching out to the dominant provider in their region to plan the growth of infrastructure in a constructive manner so that future needs can be planned for and met, including spectrum needs around public safety, transportation, and connected devices becoming more integrated into cities. Cities should make informing themselves about federal broadband regulation a municipal priority because it will affect them significantly for the foreseeable future, and there are important timing considerations around new provider applications. The preservation of local control over the right-of-way with regard to wireless and broadband deployment is an important issue that cities need to continue to proactively monitor and be involved with.

Other recommendations for cities include being an active participant in policy discussions at the state level – which is where most of the rules will be written – and to weave self driving cars into an overall transportation framework. Cities also need to up their information technology game. Autonomous vehicle deployment is only one example of the continuing trend toward big data, but its a good one. As the white paper points out, self driving cars and the associated control systems will generate terabytes of data – at the least – and it’ll have to be effectively gathered, processed and stored, if cities want to continue to manage their streets.