The Wild West Is Starting To Settle Down And Get The Job Done: 2020 Automated Vehicles Symposium

The recent Automated Vehicles Symposium provided a superb update on all things automated driving. Established in 2014, this non-profit conference is co-sponsored by the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International (AUVSI) and the National Academy of Sciences Transportation Research Board (TRB). Originally scheduled for San Diego during the last week of July, the event transitioned to a high-end virtual conference platform that worked quite well for the complex session formats. In addition to plenary sessions across the four-day event, over 40 breakout sessions dug into a mind-bending array of topics. A feature unique to AVS, the breakouts are organized by a small army of volunteers from academia, government, and industry. Members of the AVS Executive Committee (of which I am a part) are volunteers as well. Because this is a non-profit volunteer-led conference, I feel like I’m not crossing journalistic lines to provide this run-down on the excellent content.

Blending the commercial focus of AUVSI with the research and policy focus of TRB, the AVS agenda is carefully curated to cover the most important topics with a minimum of hype and promotionalism. The event’s stature results in bringing leading voices to the podium. Commenting on their participation in recent years, Jonny Morris, Head of Public Policy at Embark Trucks, noted that “AVS is organized by people from the AV industry, so the panels and sessions reflect a deep understanding of where the industry is at, and what’s needed to move it forward.”

My aim here is to provide a quick tour of the content and highlight some key take-aways.

The overall event was presentation-light and emphasized discussions. Compared to previous years, AVS2020’s virtual approach enabled these rich discussions to be recorded, which is available for viewing on the website.

Questions Abound

The development and safe deployment of automated driving exists within a multi-dimensional space. One question leads to another. Who are the leaders in making automated mobility a reality? What are COVID’s effects on automated mobility? How is enabling technology evolving? What about the human element? How will driver-out operations scale up? Is the truck automation sector turning a corner? How are automation markets expanding? How will mobility-challenged people use Automated Driving Systems (ADS)? Can startups still raise funds? What is the U.S. government doing? How about the rest of the world? At AVS, these and many other questions were addressed and debated.  

People-Moving On The Move

The robotaxi world was well represented by Lyft, Uber, and Waymo, each providing plenary talks addressing topics such as safety, COVID effects, operations, and future outlook. Nadeem Shiekh, VP of Lyft’s Autonomous Vehicle Programs, noted that with the COVID-fueled surge in micro-mobility uptake, they are seeing greater flexibility from local authorities given Lyft’s large mobility footprint including scooters and bikes.  For instance, now there is more willingness from cities to integrate bike-share stations with pickup/dropoff points for robotaxis, an important practical factor in rollout.

Here’s a new twist: how about ADS developers evaluating the safety performance of systems from other ADS developers? Uber ATG is publicly sharing their Safety Case Framework to clarify expectations for self-driving vehicle companies who want to operate on the Uber network. This will enable other self-driving vehicle developers to share and verify their approach to safety, to responsibly onboard their driverless vehicles to the Uber network. Nat Beuse, ATG’s head of safety, noted that “this provides a technology-agnostic yardstick for self-driving partners to gauge and develop their safety case prior to seeking access to the Uber network.”

The perennial question: How does the transition to driver-out occur?

The AVS opening keynote was provided by Waymo, bringing Tracy Murrell, Interim Head of Safety, Matthew Schwall, Head of Field Safety, and Qi Hommes, Head of System Safety to the virtual stage for a wide-ranging discussion moderated by Chris Gerdes, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University. On the question of transitioning to driver-out, only Waymo has taken this step (without relying on remote drivers). In my view, they are the authoritative voice. Matt Schwall took the lead on addressing driver-out, putting it this way:  “We got comfortable with the process. The process consists of a suite of methodologies, with different distinct ways of measuring and evaluating the performance of the system. Being comfortable with that suite means we are comfortable we have the right methodologies and right criteria for each methodology. That’s not easy and it wasn’t fast. We assembled a very cross-functional team to oversee the process. That gave us the confidence in our process. Then when we put a release through this process and it passes the qualifications, it’s pretty easy to be confident… that release is ready for driverless software.” Qi Hommes added that this is in conjunction with an operations team providing monitoring and rider support.

Urban Delivery Is Getting Everyone’s Attention

A fascinating breakout session titled “Designed, Wheeled, Delivered: Emerging Concepts for Automated Urban Delivery Vehicles” brought together Waymo Via, FedEx, Udelv, Cruise Automation, Kiwibot, Gatik, and Nuro. They see home delivery growing as a percentage of retail sales over time. While automated delivery vehicle companies are making deliveries to real customers today, these (very diverse) vehicles are still evolving. They have learned that, while local officials are enthusiastic to test new technologies which address real community problems; they prefer to engage with companies early in the pilot planning process. When asked to address challenges to mainstream automated delivery, panelists noted regulatory uncertainty and identifying use cases which support commercialization and scalability.

AV Trucks Seen As Fastest-To-Scale

A significant slice of the truck AV community shared the AVS virtual stage.  Many gave voice to an evolving consensus that long haul automated trucks will be the first segment in the ADS space to scale up. This was clearly heard at the plenary session “Fact or Fiction? Why Automated Truck Fleets Will Lead the Way for AV Deployment.” Then, for the true truck AV nerds, there were a pair of two-hour Breakout Sessions, one focusing on truck platooning and the other on solo driverless trucking.

Is a big shakeup coming for the truck AV startups? This was the view of tech journalists in the session “Hard Truths from Journalism’s Best.” Several speakers saw a set of business failures or acquisitions coming by the end of the year, if startups don’t have a manufacturing or significant technology partner.  “End of the year” seems too soon to me, as well as others I’ve talked to, but the basic expectation is widely held. My next article will dive deep into this and other key trucking discussions at AVS.

Everybody Needs Remote Support

The topic of Remote Support to AV’s was a first for AVS. Companies represented were Designated Driver, Ottopia, Phantom Auto, and Einride. AV’s are not as flexible as a human and remote assist provides greater flexibility. Thus a new micro-industry has been launched with these companies among the leaders. As one panelist stated, “99% of AVS developers are not doing their own remote assist,” so there is a strong market for third party Remote Support suppliers. When asked if remote support has to wait for broad 5G deployment, the panelists came back with an emphatic “No!” However, 5G will offer advantages when it arrives because it offers “network slicing.” This provides reliable allocation of bandwidth to a remote support provider, which allows them to provide a deterministic safety case to their customer.

How to scale up beyond a 1:1 person-bot ratio to see true labor savings? Service providers must be able to predict demand for operators and the usual formulas typical of call centers don’t work. A call center can put customers on hold to manage demand, but the requirements of remote support are different—you can’t put a self-driving vehicle on hold when it’s waiting for assist on a busy street!

Pär Degerman, Einride CTO, definitively stated his belief that “remote support is here to stay, not just here for deploying quickly, it will be here for the remainder of our lifetimes. We’ll always have human beings in the loop.”

Government Update: Wheels Turning At Agency Level, Not On The Hill

The AVS attendees heard perspectives on both the U.S. Legislative and Executive branches. Key “Hill” experts talked about the current status of Federal AV legislation, glumly agreeing that nothing will happen until the next Congress in 2021. This leaves the action to the Agencies for now.  Keynotes were provided by Michael Kratsios, White House Chief Technology Officer; Finch Fulton, USDOT Deputy Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy; and James Owens, Deputy Administrator, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Officials touted the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) Cooperative Automation Research Mobility Applications (CARMA) program testing V2X cooperative maneuvers such as drayage at ports, cooperative adaptive cruise control for cars, truck platooning, speed harmonization, cooperative lane change and merge, and coordination at signalized intersections. Officials also noted an AV Infrastructure Readiness Initiative defining challenges and requirements is being prepared for launch.

Notice of Proposed Rulemakings (NPRMs) are in the works for “Removing Regulatory Barriers for Automated Systems” and “Safety Principles for Automated Driving Systems.” Changes to NHTSA’s New Car Assessment Program (NCAP), i.e. the star ratings you see on the sticker at car dealerships, are planned prior to the end of this year, will add points for crash avoidance systems focused on pedestrian safety. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is now starting to expand beyond the big trucks to examine Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) and Automated Driving Systems (ADS) for Medium Duty trucks.  

Most interesting to me was this statement from NHTSA Deputy Administrator Owens: “When the time is right, our research indicates that we may adopt Performance Based Standards” for ADAS/ADS. The phrasing leaves plenty of wiggle room, but if NHTSA pursues such performance standards it would be a major move. It will likely take years to put in place and be very much subject to the political climate.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), participating for the first time in AVS, joined with Uber in a tête-à-tête titled “Lessons Learned from Uber Crash.” This addressed the 2018 tragedy in which a pedestrian was killed due to a distracted Uber safety driver in a self-driving car under test, which the NTSB thoroughly investigated. In the session, both parties did a lot of agreeing with each other, as Uber has transformed its safety culture since those dark days.  The session reflected the maturing of the industry in the safety realm. When it comes to the public sector, NTSB is bringing a vital voice, extensive expertise, and significant thought leadership.  However, with their laser focus on safety, some industry players are leery their recommendations will go too far and hamper innovation if adopted.

Internationally, we heard about pilot projects and new starts from the European Commission, UK, Singapore, Japan, and Australian governments. I want to highlight progress in the Australian AV regulatory process, which I view as transformational. The Australian safety authorities are sticking their necks out with a new and comprehensive approach, requiring an Automated Driving System Entity to take responsibility for safety in SAE Level 3, 4, and 5 vehicles. Will their efforts lead the world or leave them as an anomaly? Time will tell, but at AVS we were told that this approach has received Ministerial approval and actions to put it in place are now starting. I continue to be impressed with their well-thought-out approach. Fingers crossed.

Moving In The Right Direction

Overall, during AVS I saw things moving in the right direction for automated driving. A maturing process for the industry as a whole is underway. Speakers on the investor panel noted money is still “out there” ready to be invested, even while “AV’s are a far more complex journey than any of us ever expected 10-15 years ago” as stated by Orin Hoffman, Venture Partner, The Engine. Eran Sandhaus, Managing Director, Copia Growth Partners, provided an upbeat view saying that, “We’re in a better place. There’s a lot more consolidation happening, but it’s starting to show maturity… to really build something that’s sustainable and meaningful.”  

It was also clear from technical presentations that safety test and validation approaches are maturing rapidly, with major players such as Uber, Waymo, and Intel now very active in standards processes such as IEEE 2846 and UL4600. These and other major players can provide the person-power to accelerate adoption of new standards.

A highly professional cadre is in place to expand the “driver-out” operations in robotaxi, parcel delivery, and trucking. In trucking, the daylight between startups and vehicle manufacturers has lessened and partnerships are the way forward.

Maybe the ebullience of this industry was at a fever pitch in recent years, but that energy also played a crucial role in launching this amazingly ambitious era that is now turning a corner,  steadily moving toward realization.  AVS2020 aptly captured this significant moment in time.

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