Issue 20: No driver, no problem

August 23, 2019

We've been very excited about New York City's first-ever self-driving shuttle, which made its debut in RLabs' home, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, on August 7th.

Although the shuttle's route is only 1.1 miles long, the future is here — at least in our little slice of Brooklyn. With our new shuttle's arrival, we've been thinking... how exactly do autonomous vehicles work, what are the current challenges, and how will they affect the future of transportation and how we live?

We'll also throw back to last week's email as we consider how Walmart CEO Doug McMillion is thinking about his company's future, check out what's happening in global fintech and — in the context of WeWork's S-1 filing — ask ourselves, "What does it even mean to be a tech company in 2019?"


HOW AUTONOMOUS VEHICLES WORK

Self-driving, or autonomous, vehicles are cars or trucks that don't need human drivers to navigate them. They combine sensors and software to mirror human judgment to control, navigate and drive themselves.

Individual self-driving cars' designs vary, but they generally create and maintain an internal map of their surroundings which they then use to plot their path. At a high level, autonomous vehicles rely on five key pieces of technology to gather information about their surroundings and navigate themselves appropriately:

  1. Computer Vision: uses sensors to create a dynamic picture of a car's surroundings, allowing it to "see" its surroundings. However, on its own, it isn't enough to allow a car to navigate its environment (hence the need for other technology).

  2. Sensor Fusion: combines information from the sensors with other information (such as LiDAR point cloud readings, velocity data of other objects from radar sensors' data and object classification results from camera feeds) to allow a car to know objects' identity, movement, speed and distance.

  3. Localization: uses vision sensors and readings from high-tech GPS systems to figure out where exactly a car is down to single-digit centimeter-level accuracy.

  4. Path Planning: takes information from a car's surroundings to make a decision about where it needs to go to get to its destination. Most often, this means an autonomous vehicle setting waypoints which it needs to pass through in the road ahead of it and setting conditions for the velocity that it should have when it passes through those waypoints.

  5. Control: describes the process of physically moving the car based on decisions made via path planning (as described above), along with constantly adjusting the car's steering, gas and brakes.

Source: McKinsey Global Institute analysis

Source: McKinsey Global Institute analysis

HOW AUTONOMOUS VEHICLES COULD TRANSFORM TRANSPORTATION (OF PEOPLE AND THINGS)

It's not an exaggeration to say that autonomous vehicles could transform literally every aspect of transportation. For one thing, weary commuters — especially those who travel long distances to get to work — could benefit from being able to catch up sleep and work while in transit.

Ford, which is hoping to integrate its future AVs into into city-wide networks that'd track traffic conditions and available parking in order to allow its self-driving cars to optimize routes to reach destinations faster, has an even more sweeping vision for what AVs could mean for ordinary passengers.

Even more excitingly, Nalin Gupta of Ridecell, a ridesharing software-development company, postulates that AVs will eventually have to be safer than human-driven vehicles in order to gain public approval. This should help make AVs eventually appeal to many people in light of the 1.25 million people who died in road traffic crashes in 2013.

Ride-sharing companies, for whom driver wages are a major operational cost and barrier to profitability, could also be major beneficiaries of autonomous vehicles. Uber (which announced a third-generation version of its self-driving car, developed in partnership with Volvo, in June) and Lyft (which made its driverless data public in July a bid to accelerate AV development) — the two major players in this space in the U.S. — both understand this, and are making aggressive investments to try to automate their fleets.

However, Uber's driverless car ambitions haven't exactly played out the way it hoped: in January 2018, the company's CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, declared that it was 18 months from having self-driving cars on the road, only to have a high-profile fatal crash in Arizona derail its self-driving car testing program.

Autonomous vehicles could also make package delivery more efficient and cost-effective. UPS, through a partnership with TuSimple, has been testing self-driving tractor-trailers in Arizona since May 2019. Although a driver and engineer are currently riding in each vehicle due to legal requirements, both partners in this venture hope that fully autonomous tractor-trailers will eventually come to fruition, allowing shippers to cut their purchased transportation costs by up to 30%.

WHERE ARE SELF-DRIVING VEHICLES BEING TESTED?

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Welcome to the 20th edition of the NYCML Innovation Monitor.

No driver, no problem

We've been very excited about New York City's first-ever self-driving shuttle, which made its debut in RLabs' home, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, on August 7th.

Although the shuttle's route is only 1.1 miles long, the future is here — at least in our little slice of Brooklyn. With our new shuttle's arrival, we've been thinking... how exactly do autonomous vehicles work, what are the current challenges, and how will they affect the future of transportation and how we live?

We'll also throw back to last week's email as we consider how Walmart CEO Doug McMillion is thinking about his company's future, check out what's happening in global fintech and — in the context of WeWork's S-1 filing — ask ourselves, "What does it even mean to be a tech company in 2019?"

We hope you've been enjoying this newsletter and would love any feedback (erica@nycmedialab.org), especially in these early stages. Thank you again for reading!

Best,
Erica
NYC Media Lab

HOW AUTONOMOUS VEHICLES WORK

Self-driving, or autonomous, vehicles are cars or trucks that don't need human drivers to navigate them. They combine sensors and software to mirror human judgment to control, navigate and drive themselves.

Individual self-driving cars' designs vary, but they generally create and maintain an internal map of their surroundings which they then use to plot their path. At a high level, autonomous vehicles rely on five key pieces of technology to gather information about their surroundings and navigate themselves appropriately:

  1. Computer Vision: uses sensors to create a dynamic picture of a car's surroundings, allowing it to "see" its surroundings. However, on its own, it isn't enough to allow a car to navigate its environment (hence the need for other technology).

  2. Sensor Fusion: combines information from the sensors with other information (such as LiDAR point cloud readings, velocity data of other objects from radar sensors' data and object classification results from camera feeds) to allow a car to know objects' identity, movement, speed and distance.

  3. Localization: uses vision sensors and readings from high-tech GPS systems to figure out where exactly a car is down to single-digit centimeter-level accuracy.

  4. Path Planning: takes information from a car's surroundings to make a decision about where it needs to go to get to its destination. Most often, this means an autonomous vehicle setting waypoints which it needs to pass through in the road ahead of it and setting conditions for the velocity that it should have when it passes through those waypoints.

  5. Control: describes the process of physically moving the car based on decisions made via path planning (as described above), along with constantly adjusting the car's steering, gas and brakes.

Source: McKinsey Global Institute analysis

HOW AUTONOMOUS VEHICLES COULD TRANSFORM TRANSPORTATION (OF PEOPLE AND THINGS)

It's not an exaggeration to say that autonomous vehicles could transform literally every aspect of transportation. For one thing, weary commuters — especially those who travel long distances to get to work — could benefit from being able to catch up sleep and work while in transit.

Ford, which is hoping to integrate its future AVs into into city-wide networks that'd track traffic conditions and available parking in order to allow its self-driving cars to optimize routes to reach destinations faster, has an even more sweeping vision for what AVs could mean for ordinary passengers.

Even more excitingly, Nalin Gupta of Ridecell, a ridesharing software-development company, postulates that AVs will eventually have to be safer than human-driven vehicles in order to gain public approval. This should help make AVs eventually appeal to many people in light of the 1.25 million people who died in road traffic crashes in 2013.

Ride-sharing companies, for whom driver wages are a major operational cost and barrier to profitability, could also be major beneficiaries of autonomous vehicles. Uber (which announced a third-generation version of its self-driving car, developed in partnership with Volvo, in June) and Lyft (which made its driverless data public in July a bid to accelerate AV development) — the two major players in this space in the U.S. — both understand this, and are making aggressive investments to try to automate their fleets.

However, Uber's driverless car ambitions haven't exactly played out the way it hoped: in January 2018, the company's CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, declared that it was 18 months from having self-driving cars on the road, only to have a high-profile fatal crash in Arizona derail its self-driving car testing program.

Autonomous vehicles could also make package delivery more efficient and cost-effective. UPS, through a partnership with TuSimple, has been testing self-driving tractor-trailers in Arizona since May 2019. Although a driver and engineer are currently riding in each vehicle due to legal requirements, both partners in this venture hope that fully autonomous tractor-trailers will eventually come to fruition, allowing shippers to cut their purchased transportation costs by up to 30%.

WHERE ARE SELF-DRIVING VEHICLES BEING TESTED?

United States
Currently, 29 states have enacted legislation related to autonomous vehicles. Additionally, governors in another 11 states have issued executive orders related to AVs. The National Conference of State Legislatures has an up-to-date autonomous vehicles legislative database that provides real-time information about legislation in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., as well as a useful graphic that shows national AV legislation at a glance:

Source: National Conference of State Legislatures

Source: National Conference of State Legislatures


However, only a handful of states and cities allow autonomous vehicles to be on public roads. And even then, human oversight is almost always required.

Phoenix, Arizona is a notable exception: Alphabet-owned Waymo has been testing self-driving cars on Phoenix's streets since late 2017. Thanks to this, there's now a 600-minivan strong fleet of Waymo vehicles in suburban Phoenix (Chandler, Arizona, to be specific) which can be ordered in much the same way as an Uber.

Check out this CNBC video to see Waymo's cars in action and hear how they've been received by locals. Notably, many observers — including the Chandler, Arizona Chief of Police — are overwhelmingly positive about Waymo's cars:










Watch: This Arizona town is overrun with self-driving cars — here's what it's like

Watch: This Arizona town is overrun with self-driving cars — here's what it's like

If you can't (or don't want to) to go to Chandler, you're also likely to see self-driving cars in Mountain View and San Francisco, California; Phoenix, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Miami, Austin, Detroit and New York City (specifically at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, as previously discussed).

Europe
The U.S. isn't the only country where companies are investing heavily in autonomous cars. In Germany, Volkswagen has begun testing a five-car fleet of modified Volkswagon e-Golf electric cars in Hamburg. Sweden — which plans to put driverless public buses on the road in 2020 and has been testing driverless Volvos in Gotenburg since 2017 — is another European country making inroads on deploying autonomous vehicles. In April 2019, the European Union's commissioner for transport, Violeta Bulc, said that she expects the EU to have fully automated cars by 2030.

Asia
In Asia, Singapore — traditionally one of the region's technology pioneers — is working on several autonomous vehicle projects. The country's Ministry of Transport is aiming to have public mobility solutions online by 2022. In its2019 Autonomous Vehicles Readiness Index (AVRI), KPMG named Singapore top of the heap among Asian countries (and second only to the Netherlands globally) in terms of readiness to embrace AV.

However, in a January 2019 article, three McKinsey consultants argued that China — which has the potential to become the world's largest AV market —could wind up being the key to the autonomous revolution in not only Asia, but around the world. They imagine a three-phase mass AV adoption in China:

Source: McKinsey & Company

Source: McKinsey & Company

As evidence of Chinese companies' aggressive moves to usher in the AV future, consider two recent developments in the space: Earlier this month, Didi Chuxing — Uber's main rival in China — made the aggressive decision to spin off its autonomous vehicle driving unit. Another Chinese autonomous vehicle company, Pony.ai, was granted a robotaxi permit in California in June 2019 — which made it only the second company to gain this permission (after Zoox), beating Waymo (which received its California robotaxi permit two weeks later) to the punch.

Last year, Pony.ai also ranked 5th among 48 global players based on auto-drive disengagement (a measure of the frequency with which autonomous vehicles need a safety driver to intervene):

Source: Nikkei Asian Review

Source: Nikkei Asian Review

WHERE ARE THE MAJOR U.S. PLAYERS ON GETTING THEIR AUTONOMOUS VEHICLES ON THE ROAD?

In short, the major U.S. players aren't as far along as getting autonomous vehicles on the road as they'd hoped.

CONCERNS RAISED BY AUTONOMOUS VEHICLES & REMAINING CHALLENGES

Despite their promise, autonomous vehicles also face a range of challenges. The Union of Concerned Scientists identifies three key concerns:

  1. Safety: both cybersecurity and physical safety fears driven by known accidents involving these vehicles remain top of mind for many

  2. Equity: the autonomous vehicle revolution could displace millions of drivers (a reasonable conclusion given Uber's, Lyft's and UPS' ambitions to minimize or even eliminate human drivers' roles in their currently driver-dependent companies), negatively impact public transportation funding and perpetuate the current transportation system's injustices.

  3. Environmental impacts: widespread autonomous vehicle availability could increase total miles driven each year, and should those cars be gasoline-powered, it could lead to a massive increase in transportation-related climate emissions (which the planet can ill-afford). However, should the AVs of the future be electric and paired with a clean energy grid, they could help meaningfully reduce transportation emissions.

In addition to these concerns, there's also general public skepticism about autonomous vehicles in the U.S. According to the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer, Americans fall below the global average when it comes to trust in self-driving vehicles:

Source: Nikkei Asian Review

Source: Nikkei Asian Review

Accounting for human behavior also remains a challenge for autonomous vehicles. As the New York Times reports, jaywalking — a time-honored tradition for New Yorkers in particular — is a major challenge to these cars' ability to navigate metropolitan areas. So, clearly, there are some kinks to work through before self-driving cars will hit the mean streets of New York.


EXTENDED READING

Fortune Interview: Walmart CEO Doug McMillon on Automation, Training 2.2 Million Workers, and the Tragedy in El Paso

As we wrote last week, the executive leadership of the future will increasingly need to consider how automation will change jobs and invest in workforce training to meet the challenges of the future. At least one CEO, Doug McMillon (only Walmart's fourth CEO after iconic founder Sam Walton), is thinking hard about these issues. This extensive interview touches on a number of topics that will interest readers, but our favorite part is McMillon's observation that training people into new skills, then picking the best for new roles, is good business.

CBInsights: Global Fintech Report Q2 2019

CBInsights' report on Q2 2019 fintech activity contains some interesting insights. Chief among them is the news that — for the first time ever — India surpassed China in fintech deal activity. With 23 deals to VC-backed fintech companies in Q2, Indian companies topped Chinese companies by eight deals. However, total investment activity in China ($375M) edged India ($350M) out by $25M.

Source: CBInsights

Source: CBInsights

What does it even mean to be a tech company in 2019?

In light of WeWork's IPO filing and the explosion of "tech" and "technology" in companies' public documents (see graphic below), Rani Molla asks what it means to be a tech company today. Molla argues that immaterial as it may seem, labeling a company a "tech company" has real-world consequences. Borrowing an argument from Glitch CEO Anil Dash, she contends that the "culture of optimism" around tech companies allows them to achieve higher valuations even if they aren't warranted. Ultimately, Molla seems to conclude that the S&P Dow Jones Indices — which categorizes companies based on their principal business activity's revenue — may be the most objective measure. There, Molla observes, WeWork doesn't have a sector yet.

Source: CBInsights

Source: CBInsights