GM, Ford Make Moves to Fast-Lane Self-Driving Cars

By Tara Seals March 16, 2016

Self-driving cars are inching closer to reality, with mainstream automakers continuing to press forward on the technology front.

General Motors (GM) plans to move into the fast lane, as it were, with the acquisition of Cruise Automation, a San Francisco-based startup that has pioneered an autonomous conversion technology. Put simply, it makes sensors that turn regular vehicles into ones that can drive themselves. It’s an idea that investors like: So far it has raised $19 million in Series A funding.

And meanwhile, Ford Motor Co. is working on enhancing the rider experience with a new entertainment patent.

Ford, which is partnering with robotics company Velodyne LiDAR for its self-driving systems, has meanwhile received a patent from the U.S. Patent Office for an “Autonomous Vehicle Entertainment System.”

The technology essentially sets up a home theater system inside the car, by way of a roll-down screen that will deploy from the top of the windshield. Images are shown from a ceiling-mounted projector. It certainly seems a step up in terms of making the morning commute more enjoyable.

Both of these moves show a maturing ecosystem as car-makers move into the mid-point of the development cycle. The investment has been impressive: GM last year formed an internal autonomous vehicle development team, and earlier this year invested $500 million into rideshare service Lyft, for the express purpose of partnering with the company build a connected network for self-driving cars.

The Cruise acquisition is on track to close in the second quarter—terms of the deal were not disclosed. Cruise will remain operationally independent, but GM President Dan Ammann said that GM will integrate Cruise’s technology within its fleet of vehicle brands “as soon as possible,” by bringing “the full resources to the table to accelerate what Cruise is doing and integrate into the GM vehicle system.”

And indeed, car manufacturers obviously represent the fastest path to rollouts (no pun intended) at scale, especially if the conversion technology works as advertised. But other first-movers are pushing the market into higher gear as well, including Tesla, Lyft rival Uber and Google. Google’s cars, with safety drivers aboard, are now self-driving a combined 10,000 miles per week, which is about what a typical American adult drives in a year. It expects its driverless cars to hit the road commercially in about five to 10 years. GM could leapfrog rivals to be commercial in two to three years.

The self-driving concept will almost certainly become reality, given the perks: The ability to get people anywhere they want to go, without worrying about how many beverages they’ve had to drink, or how many text messages they would like to send. It’s a smart navigation system that never gets lost, and in a driverless world, gridlock and rush-hour traffic could become a thing of the past.

But development acceleration aside, there is still a way to go before self-driving cars are proven out. For instance, the head of Google’s driverless car program, Chris Urmson, said last fall that the cars are all too often being hit by other drivers who are distracted and not paying attention to the road.

He described the problem in a blog post: “One of our Lexus vehicles was driving autonomously towards an intersection in Mountain View, Calif. The light was green, but traffic was backed up on the far side, so three cars, including ours, braked and came to a stop so as not to get stuck in the middle of the intersection. After we’d stopped, a car slammed into the back of us at 17 mph—and it hadn’t braked at all.”

In fact, other drivers have hit Google’s cars 14 times since the start of the project in 2009 (including 11 rear-enders): None of them were serious, but the clear emerging concern is human error and inattention on other drivers’ parts.

“Our self-driving cars can pay attention to hundreds of objects at once, 360 degrees in all directions, and they never get tired, irritable or distracted,” Urmson said. “People, on the other hand, ‘drive as if the world is a television show viewed on TiVo that can be paused in real time—one can duck out for a moment, grab a beer from the fridge, and come back to right where they left off without missing a beat’—to quote Sheila Klauer of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.”

There’s also the worry that these kinds of connected cars are most certainly a target for cyber-criminals. U.K. transport minister Claire Perry for instance warned that the risk of cyber-criminals hacking driverless cars and smart motorway systems warranted thorough review and parameters, like mandating that there is a qualified driver in the vehicle.

“The more we move to technologically assisted forms of transport – whether it’s smart motorways or driver-assisted vehicles – there is also a risk of, sort of, cyber-hacking if you like, so we’re mindful of that,” Perry said.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi

Contributing Writer

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