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May 10, 2018

In today’s digest, we report on Bloomberg’s new AV company rankings, wonder if the basemap idea is past its prime, and more.

Who’s Winning The Race to Level 4?

Our must-read piece this week comes from Bloomberg, who put together a thorough ranking of the dozen or more companies considered to be major players in the race to Level 4 autonomous vehicles.

The write-up doesn’t give short shrift to smaller companies whose chances aren’t considered as robust as the top two, Waymo and General Motors. It’s still far too early for any of these organizations to be assured of making it to Level 4 before the others, so if you’re looking for a dark horse to bet on, this article can certainly help you make a well-informed decision about which you prefer.

Also useful for folks paying extremely close attention to the self-driving car industry: all the known major partnerships for each of the major players are listed.

Why does this matter? Bloomberg quotes a Goldman Sachs analyst: ““There won’t be a ton of companies doing this… There will be a select few. Being there first establishes consumer trust. Brand value matters.” Obviously, every company on this list has invested a significant amount of money in their AV portfolios. The race is intense simply because there will be a few huge winners while the rest will likely settle for smaller wins — and in some cases, maybe even losses.

Of course, the article does give the most sparkling praise to Waymo and GM. No big surprise there, as the two have been jockeying for the top spot for quite some time now. But Bloomberg does a great job of laying out exactly why these companies are doing as well as they are.

Bloomberg says of Waymo:

“Waymo has run self-driving cars over 5 million road miles in 25 cities and done billions of miles in computer simulation, which it uses to update its self-driving software on a weekly basis. The Google-launched company has a fleet of Chrysler Pacifica minivans that can navigate city streets in San Francisco and reach full speed on highways.”

“A pilot program of driverless vans will begin commercial service later this year, picking up paying passengers in Phoenix and branching out from there. Waymo Chief Executive John Krafcik recently announced a deal to add 20,000 Jaguar I-Pace SUVs to the fleet and signaled that an in-the-works alliance with Honda Motor Co. could focus on delivery and logistics.”

“The company also has by far the lowest rate of disengagement—times when an engineer needs to grab the wheel because the bot couldn’t handle it—among all companies testing cars in California, a hub of autonomous research that also requires detailed disclosures. It also reported fewer accidents while testing in California last year: Waymo had three collisions over more than 350,000 miles, while GM had 22 over 132,000 miles.”

However, General Motors has a clear leg up on Waymo in manufacturing capability, while keeping pace with them technologically via strategic partnerships — so much so that Bloomberg finds it impossible to give the edge and the #1 spot to either one of them:

“One advantage for GM: There’s a factory north of Detroit that can crank out self-driving Bolts. That will help GM get manufacturing right and lower costs without relying on partners. Right now, an autonomous version of the car costs around $200,000 to build, compared to a sticker price of $35,000 for an electric Bolt for human drivers.”

“Where GM lags Waymo is speed. GM doesn’t test faster than 25 miles per hour, deeming that the safest top speed.”

“GM plans to spend $1 billion of its $8 billion annual capital expenditure budget to develop self-driving cars and mobility services. That money will allow GM the option of developing its own ride-hailing business. GM has not decided whether to run its ride-share pilot, slated for late 2019, on its own or to join forces with an established player. It’s worth noting that the automaker already has a stake in Lyft Inc.”

Why the focus on racing to Level 4 specifically? According to the piece, that’s where the money is:

“Goldman Sachs Group Inc. predicts that robo-taxis will help the ride-hailing and -sharing business grow from $5 billion in revenue today to $285 billion by 2030. There are grand hopes for this business. Without drivers, operating margins could be in the 20 percent range, more than twice what carmakers generate right now. If that kind of growth and profit come to pass—very big ifs—it would be almost three times what GM makes in a year. And that doesn’t begin to count the money to be made in delivery.”

While we’ve only featured the companies Bloomberg chose as the pack leaders, reading the full write-up is highly recommended. Just make sure you have some time to spare before you click.

M.I.T. Robotics Department: Basemaps Are So 2017

For quite some time, many of us have been operating under the assumption that self-driving cars are going to rely heavily on basemaps — highly-detailed, LiDAR-based 3D maps that will allow a vehicle to know exactly where it is, where other vehicles are, what the speed limit is in a given area, and a lot more. But researchers at MIT’s robotics lab are disputing this notion, according to IEEE Spectrum.

We don’t think there’s quite enough here to convince us that basemaps are suddenly no longer necessary. The actual evidence that’s been collected by MIT researchers — which is a big achievement that stands on its own merits — is the deployment of their MapLite system, using a Toyota Prius decked out with “LiDAR and other sensors … on country roads in Massachusetts.” Given that it successfully navigated those roads with just a “very minimalist map” on-board, clearly the robotics lab is on to something as far as allowing sensors and AI to do almost all of the legwork.

But the article does gently point out that their approach has a long way to go: “There is still work to be done to adapt it to handling multiple lanes, the possibility of U-turns, and other sophisticated rules of the road.” To say there’s “still work to be done” sounds like an understatement.

Spectrum’s description of how the MapLite system works isn’t very detailed, but gives you a rough idea, at least: “The system doesn’t need accurate measurements to the curb, the lane markings, and roadside features like sidewalks, trees, and buildings. Instead, it merely consults a very minimalist map, then uses its sensors to see its way to a point up ahead, a ‘waypoint’ that the system chooses for being in the general direction of the ultimate goal. That is, the system does pretty much what a human driver would do when feeling his way forward in an unfamiliar place.”

IEEE Spectrum covered this news under the headline “Self Driving Cars Won’t Need Accurate Digital Maps, MIT Experts Say,” while some other tech journalism outlets — surprise! — went for the clickbait-y approach of leaving “MIT Experts Say” off of their versions of the headline. While we certainly believe MIT experts are some of the most knowledgeable and creative people in the field today, it’s still important to point out that this doesn’t mean you should abandon your basemap startup, at least not yet. This is an approach — an interesting one that bears watching — that is still in its very early stages.

MIT researchers say their goal is to outfit cars with entire maps of the world’s roads “on a flash drive”. That would be quite an achievement, but for now, we’ll just have to wait and see if their approach bears fruit. After all, driving through Boston isn’t exactly taking a spin on Massachusetts country roads.


Quick Bites

What do you think — about any of these stories or the other ongoing developments in the realms of next-gen transportation or smart cities? Contact us and let us know. If you write something really great, we might even quote you next time, so don’t be shy, join the conversation!


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The Geospatial Transportation Information Management Association (GTiMA) works to promote sustainable economic growth by improving the management of transportation systems.  In concert with its membership and industry partners, GTiMA develops and sponsors industry standards, best practices and legislative policies that advance the selection and use of geospatial transportation mapping technology in two key areas: smart cities and the future of mobility.

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