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Self-Driving, Autonomous Cars Receive Massive Investments in Research and Development Worldwide, Business and Industry Trends Analysis

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)announced a 15-point safety assessment guideline to be used by manufacturers planning to produce self-driving vehicles.  The list covers data sharing, data privacy, safety systems, crashworthiness and consumer education, among other things.  A car’s systems must be able to easily switch from machine driving to human driving when needed.  All features must be submitted to the NHTSA for certification.

The Levels of Self-Driving Technologies
Level 0:  The driver is always in total control, with no assistance.  However most new cars today come with automated safety features that may adjust traction and braking under certain circumstances.
Level 1:  Very simple driver assistance, such as cruise control and parking assist.  The driver always controls the direction of the car on the road.
Level 2:  The car can steer itself under certain situations, such as a slow-moving traffic jam.  Requires constant monitoring by the driver.
Level 3:  The car can largely steer, brake and adjust speed by itself.  However, the car realizes its own limitations and may ask the driver to retake control at any moment. Technologies employed may include such items as adaptive cruise control and automatic lane centering.
Level 4:  This is the lowest level of truly autonomous driving.  The car is able to perform all driving tasks under most driving conditions.
Level 5:  This is full automation, as no driver is required at all.  The vehicle may be operated unoccupied.

     Today, self-driving technology is largely a reality, although it will require continuous refinement to make it capable of meeting the demands of day-to-day transportation in a safe manner.  Armed with sensors, cameras and cutting-edge software, these vehicles can navigate themselves completely.  Machine learning and artificial intelligence are key to the development and operation of reasonably safe, practical autonomous vehicles.  The more that such vehicles are tested on the road, the greater the ability of their systems to learn the endless variations of road conditions, traffic flow, pedestrian activities and highway hazards.  Ford Motor Co. acquired Argo AI, an artificial intelligence research and development firm.  GM has invested in Cruise Automation, a similar firm.  In June 2022, Cruise Automation became the first company to operate a commercial driverless ride-hail service when it was granted a permit for use in San Francisco by the California Public Utilities Commission.  This allows the firm to carry passengers who pay a fare.
Driverless technology also relies on maps that are constantly updated as roads and conditions change.  A company called HERE Technologies (originally owned by Nokia but acquired by BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi) is mapping roads in the U.S. and Europe using data acquired from truckers equipped with scanners.  Google is also working on precise mapping using technology that uses lasers transmitted from specially outfitted cars that create images of roads and their surroundings.  Another company, Mobileye, makes camera systems that enable vehicles to detect obstacles and apply the brakes to avoid collisions.  Volkswagen and BMW are equipping models with Mobileye and will gather and analyze the images to create maps in a crowdsourcing model. 
Google’s self-driving effort has been placed into a special subsidiary named Waymo.  It has been conducting tests of self-driving cars for several years.  Passengers have the use of buttons to start the vehicle, pull the vehicle over, lock or unlock doors and contact a call center.  Waymo has been partnering with Lyft to offer rides in the Phoenix metro area in 10 driverless Waymo One vehicles (with human safety observers onboard).  In July 2019, the firm received permission from California legislators to transport passengers as part of the state’s Autonomous Vehicle Passenger Service pilot.  In October 2020, Waymo began offering rides in fully driverless vehicles in the Phoenix area and began service in San Francisco in late 2022.  Thousands of driverless rides have been provided since then without incident.  Waymo plans to expand to Los Angeles next.
Uber instituted a test program for driverless vehicles in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in September 2016, and later launched tests in the Phoenix, Arizona area.  Tragically, in March 2018, an Uber self-driving car (while under minimal supervision by an observer riding in the car) struck and killed a woman who was pushing a bicycle in a street in Arizona.  Uber has realigned its effort by agreeing to work with Toyota in the self-driving field.  Toyota announced that it would invest $500 million in Uber and that technology from both firms will be integrated into Toyota vehicles to be built for use on Uber’s ride-sharing platform.
Taking the driver out of the vehicle would save as much as two-thirds of the cost of ride-sharing trips.  It’s no surprise that Uber, Lyft and Didi Chuxing (in addition to Google and Chinese search engine firm Baidu) are all investing in driverless technology.
GM has a driverless car unit called Cruise LLC.  In late 2022, Cruise requested approval from California regulators to begin public testing of its Origin driverless shuttle (the permit does not allow passengers).  The unit’s goal is to operate a fleet of shuttles in several U.S. cities by 2025.  Cruise also has a robotaxi service in San Francisco, Austin and Phoenix.  Hondo Motor Co. is a major investor in Cruise.
Proponents of driverless cars argue that they are infinitely safer than traditional vehicles.  Such automated cars may be able to react to potential crashes and safety hazards much more quickly and effectively than human drivers.  In addition, their constant communication with nearby vehicles would enable more cars to be safely moving at a steady speed on a given stretch of road at one time, cutting traffic jams and enhancing transportation efficiency.  McKinsey & Co. estimated that a widespread adoption of self-driving cars and trucks could eliminate 90% of all auto accidents in the U.S. and prevent up to $190 billion in damages and health care costs yearly.
A $6.5 million, 23-acre testing site opened at the University of Michigan where AVs are tested in simulated congested urban conditions.  Robotic pedestrians and cyclists dart into traffic while vehicles navigate any number of potentially hazardous conditions including traffic circles, bridges, tunnels, gravel roads and obstructed views. 
Texas A&M University’s Transportation Institute oversees the Center for Transportation Safety, an organization that conducts research and outreach programs funded at approximately $5 million per year.  The school has recently launched its new RELLIS campus on 2,000 acres for research, testing, training and development related to advanced transportation.
Driverless trucks (18-wheelers) are also on the horizon.  Although truckers and the firms they drive for tend to be slow to adopt new technologies, some are using automation to enable “platooning,” or a caravan of two to three trucks equipped with video cameras, advanced cruise control systems and radar-based braking systems.  The lead truck on a convoy controls acceleration and braking for all trucks in the line which are precisely spaced at distances as close as 30 feet.  A real-time video camera beams a feed to the following truck drivers so that they can see the road ahead.  Traveling single file affords aerodynamic drag reduction resulting in fuel savings of up to 10%.
The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) tested self-driving trucks on five 1,000-mile routes between Phoenix and Dallas in May 2019.  The trucks were provided by TuSimple, an autonomous trucking firm.  TuSimple also has an agreement with UPS and Ryder.  More recently, TuSimple was awarded a fully driverless test license by the Pudong New Area of Shanghai in China.  Another driverless truck provider is Aurora Innovation, which has partnerships with FedEx and Werner Enterprises.
Driverless vehicles raise significant safety concerns.  The software necessary to run the vehicles is vulnerable to hacking. 

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