All You Need to Know About Self-Driving Cars from CES
Autonomous vehicle expert Brad Templeton looks under the hood of the biggest stories at CES 2016 in Las Vegas.
I’m back from CES 2016 with a raft of news, starting with robocars. Some news was reported before the show but almost everybody had something to say - even if it was only to have something to say!
I have many more photos with coverage in my CES 2016 Photo Gallery.
Ford makes strong commitment
Ford’s CEO talks like he gets it. Ford did not have too much to show - they announced they will be moving to Velodyne’s new lower cost 32-laser puck-sized LIDAR for their research, and boosting their research fleet to 30 vehicles. They plan for full-auto operation in limited regions fairly soon.
Ford is also making its own efforts into one-way car share (similar to Daimler Car2Go and BMW DriveNow) called GoDrive, which pushes Ford more firmly into the idea of selling rides rather than cars. The car companies are clearly believing this sooner than I expected, and the reason is very clearly the success of Uber. (As I have said, it’s a mistake to think of Uber as competition for the taxi companies. Uber is competition for the car companies.)
Ford is also doing an interesting “car swap” product. While details are scant, it seems what the service will do is let you swap your Ford for somebody else’s different Ford. For example, if somebody has an F-150 or Transit Van that they know they won’t use the cargo features on some day or weekend, you drive over with your ordinary sedan and swap temporarily for their truck - presumably with a small amount of money flowing to the more popular vehicle. Useful idea.
The big announcement that didn’t happen was the much-rumored alliance between Ford and Google. Ford did not overtly refute it but suggested they had enough partners at present. The alliance would be a good idea, but either the rumors were wrong, or they are waiting for another event (such as the upcoming Detroit Auto Show) to talk about it.
Faraday Future, where art thou?
Faraday Future at CES 2016. (Photo Credit: Brad Templeton)
The big disappointment of the event was the silly concept racecar shown by Faraday Future. Oh, sure, it’s a cool electric racecar, but it has absolutely nothing to do with everything we’ve heard about this company, namely that they are building a consumer electric car-on-demand service with autonomous delivery. Everybody wondered if they had booked the space and did not have their real demo ready on time. It stays secret for a while, it seems. Recent hires, such as Jan Becker, the former head of the autonomous lab for Bosch, suggest they are definitely going autonomous.
Mapping heats up
Google’s car drives by having super-detailed maps of all the roads, and that’s the correct approach. Google is unlikely to hand out its maps, so both Here/Navteq (now owned by a consortium of auto companies in Germany) and TomTom have efforts to produce similar maps to license to non-Google robocar teams. They are taking fairly different approaches, which will be the subject of a future article.
One interesting edge is that these companies plan to partner with big automakers and not just give them map data but expect data in return. That means that each company will have a giant fleet of cars constantly scanning the road, and immediately reporting any differences between the map and the territory. With proper scale, they should get reports on changes to the road literally within minutes of them happening. The first car to encounter a change will still need to be able to handle it, possibly by pulling over and/or asking the human passenger to help, but this will be a very rare event.
MobilEye has announced a similar plan, and they are already the camera in a large fraction of advanced cars on the road today. MobilEye has a primary focus on vision, rather than Lidar, but will have lots of sources of data. Tesla has also been uploading data from their cars, though it does not (as far as I know) make as extensive use of detailed maps, though it does rely on general maps.
Google is the world’s number one mapping company, and thanks to the hundreds of millions who drive with Android phones, it has tremendous access to data on the speed patterns of cars, but here is one area that Google might lose out on - the partners of Here and TomTom may have a lot more cars scanning the road than Google will have for some time, even if the scans are not as advanced.
Of course, Apple also has a mapping division and plans to enter this space. And the “Navigation Data Standard” consortium is trying to build a standard format for advanced map data so robocar systems an easily switch between map vendors. Lots of competition is good for the public.
Nvidia makes a huge push to be the platform
Nvidia, which makes the graphics chips in most of your computers, has increased their large push in this area. GPUs are today’s supercomputers, and Nvidia is promoting their new Drive PX2 board, which features multiple GPS and other processors to effectively create a supercomputer for use in cars. All this computing power then gets applied to computer and machine vision, particularly systems trained with convolutional neural networks like Deep Learning, to try to do the many tasks needed in a self-driving car: Localization, sensor fusion, perception and motion planning.
Nvidia’s bet is that general purpose super-high-powered computing is more useful for this task than the specialized vision processing hardware that MobilEye makes, and that it can probably all be made to work from cameras, without LIDAR. (Though to be fair, Nvidia is not as anti-LIDAR as Elon Musk or MobilEye, saying that their supercomputers and software will still be valuable combined with LIDAR.) One of the Nvidia demos in pedestrian detection combined a Quanergy 8 plane LIDAR and their camera systems. In the demo, they had water jets able to simulate rain, in which case it was the vision that failed and the LIDAR which kept detecting the pedestrians. Quanergy’s LIDAR looks at the returns from objects and is able to tell returns from raindrops (which are more dispersed) from returns off of solid objects.
Nvidia isn’t the only chip company with an interest, but it is the most advanced. NXP and Qualcomm both had tech on display (mostly in “connected car”) along with Intel and a few others, such as OS company QNX (a unit of Blackberry founded by classmates of mine in Canada.) Other chip companies have been making efforts towards the ADAS market (such as Intel, TI and CEVA) and the huge success of MobilEye there will draw in more, and create efforts to be the supplier for robocars.
New entrants - VF and IAV
Just about every player out there has something in the space now. German Tier One VF was showing both existing parts (such as electric steering motors and ADAS tools) as well as complete systems for OEMs not wanting to do the work themselves.