Heya friends – Happy Friday!
Welcome to subscribers old and new. This week we’ve got two reads of the week, a guest post (!) on CES, a lush job in the UK, and our usual round-up of policy, industry, and academic affairs.
Also a special shout-out to everybody who gave me feedback on the newsletter last week. I appreciate you a lot. You can always give me more this week, if you feel so inclined.
This week’s ask: if there are people in your life who you think would enjoy this round-up, forward it along. I will appreciate you an extra lot. Promise.
Now, without further delay, the news:
Read of the Week
This week the NYT contemplates if public transport should be free. It seems more and more cities are leaning into the idea of transport being a right that metropolitan, urban dwellers truly rely on everyday to access basic human needs (think: food, shelter, family, friends).
If you’re skeptical consider this: Park City, Utah got its first free public transport in 1974, and today all public transport is free. With a city population of less than 8,000 (!) people, in 2007 it saw over two million trips on buses. This is modal shift in action people.
“Oslo has closed some streets to traffic entirely, removed parking spaces across the city to deter drivers, introduced measures to stop parents doing the school run by car and reduced speed limits. There’s plentiful public transport and lots of bike lanes but the bottom line is, as Oslo’s mayor says, that while cities will always have traffic, “the drivers should act as guests”. And not very welcome guests, by the sound of it.”
Snapshots from CES
This week I am so excited because we’ve got a guest post from Sachin Seth (linkedin), who is based in the Bay Area at Tesla working on finance and product. With a PhD in Electrical and Computer Engineering and (!) MBA, safe to his knowledge base is a celebrated addition to the newsletter this week. His thoughts on CES below:
At its best, CES is a bellwether for automotive technology that you might someday get to experience. At its worst, it is a parade of gimmicky concepts that will never see the light of the day. 2020 was no different - there were a spate of flying cars, companies offering self-driven rides in their shuttles (having landed in Las Vegas ahead of the event to map out every inch of the driven surface), concept cars from Sony (yep, the walkman company), Fisker and Faraday, amongst others. The headlines felt no different from the ones in 2019.
And yet, a closer look revealed some key trends starting to emerge. The hardware underlying new mobility is beginning to get commoditized (LIDAR vs. camera isn’t as exciting of a discussion as it once was), companies are showing ever-longer videos of their autonomy software navigating complex edge-cases on the road, and the level of integration (building blocks → modules → full-blown car) is more seamless than ever.
If you want to read just one thing coming out of CES 2020, take a look at how far Mobileye is moving the needle on autonomous driving using their propriteaty Vision-Q chips and cameras only. “For the first time, Shashua discussed “VIDAR,” Mobileye’s unique solution for achieving outputs akin to lidar using only camera sensors”.
There’s AM LIDAR, FM LIDAR, Solid-State LIDAR, iDAR.., sauteed LIDAR, LIDAR-on-a-stick. As the “eye of the autonomous car”, multiple solutions at various price points, offering varying levels of resolutions have emerged. There’s no clear winner, and there doesn’t even need to be one. The best full-stack solution (hardware + software) at the lowest price point will determine the winner.
Driver Monitoring Systems (DMS) technology will soon be required by law (as early as 2020, per Euro NCAP), and this is a space we’re quite excited about. Seeing Machines partnered with BMW to showcase their DMS. I fully suspect consumer hardware companies like Sony, Samsung to release their own DMS solutions soon.
…well, almost. Rivian announced that their line-up of electric pickup trucks will incorporate Amazon’s Alexa by the end of 2020, allowing users to control HVAC, windows, trunk, and more. In their own words: “we want this to be the most comprehensive, most seamless Alexa integration in the market".
Important to note: Amazon is also a key investor in Rivian and has tasked Rivian to build 100,000 electric delivery vans for them. Via multiple accounts, we learnt that the Rivian booth was a rather popular one this year!
Job of the Week!
It’s my newsletter and I can add new sections if I want to, right?
The Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV) within the Department for Transport (DfT) in the UK is hiring a Social Research & Evaluation Lead to work on policy and competitions related to autonomous vehicles. Sounds dreamy right? Applications close on Sunday so hop to it.
Government and Policy
Birmingham City Council has released its latest Transport Plan, and private car drivers are in for a change. Autonomous vehicles are only mentioned on one page (pg. 16) and its safe to say its not the most comprehensive view. The big news is the priority the city is placing on removing cars from the city centre.
“Under proposals, no private vehicles would be allowed to travel through the city centre, and could only come in and out from certain areas. The authority will also look to introduce measures to reduce parking and could also redevelop some of its car parks… the city’s tunnels [may] used for public transport only. Public transport would be the "preferred choice” for travelling in and out of the city and city centre streets would be pedestrianised and integrated with public transport.“
It’s been a decade. And over this course of time, American cities added more than 1,200 miles of new and expanded transit lines between 2010 and 2019, spending more than $47 billion in 2019 dollars to do so. And it’s likely they’ll continue making such investments into the 2020s.
“The prevailing belief is that a system of self-driving cars will solve several environmental and social problems without us needing to worry about messy stuff like politics, activism, or changing our travel habits.
Unfortunately, this future will almost certainly never come to pass. Self-driving cars, left to their own devices, will likely do more harm than good. To avoid that outcome, we’ll have to turn off autopilot and shape the system of autonomous mobility so that it best serves both our needs and the needs of the planet.”
It’s easy for us in tech to think of solutions as being tech-based, as simple (and complex) as a tweak to an app, algorithm, or product roadmap. But with Mobility as a Service (MaaS), it’s not just about getting the technology aligned and functioning, it’s also entirely contingent on policy. And we all know a technical solution in a political environment that doesn’t give it a chance, doesn’t get anybody (company, individual, nor city) any closer to the end goal.
IEEE has released a new issue on autonomous vehicles, including this piece on new mobility written by Sachin Seth (from our CES special above!).
Waymo has been pushing a story about its commitment to using safety drivers in its vehicles. The story focuses on how driverless vehicles aren’t “the end” for Waymo’s human operators. Waymo has signed a multiyear contract with Transdev North America, which provides bus drivers, streetcar conductors and other transportation workers to transport operators. Waymo will be relying on TransDev for their fleet of safety test drivers.
My favourite pull quote from the piece: “I was telling my friends it was the greatest scam I had ever uncovered,” said one former driver. “It was an awful lot of money for an awful little bit of work.”
As a complete aside, when I was in San Francisco I didn’t see one vehicle without a safety driver (or team) in the car. While I appreciate this story, and the commitment to safety, I think it’s safe to say a number of companies are taking a similar approach.
Hyundai and Kia have spent €100 million taking on a three percent stake in Arrival, a company building zero-emission delivery vans (currently being implemented for the Royal Mail and John Lewis in the UK). Arrival is based in the UK, and this investment makes the company one of the largest unicorn’s in the UK.
While not on the autonomous train yet, this is one to watch.
Research and Academia
Researchers from the Optical Society are working on deep learning to create a laser-based system that can create image around corners in real time. With further development, this system could enable self-driving cars to see around parked cars or busy intersections to identify and respond to hazards or pedestrians.
“Just a few years ago, it seemed we were racing quickly towards a world where fully autonomous vehicles (AVs) would become commonplace… It looked like only a matter of time before humans as drivers were made redundant.
Over the past year or two, however, it has become increasingly clear that getting a machine to replicate the complex and intricate tasks done (however imperfectly) by human drivers is an exceptionally difficult engineering challenge. The regulatory landscape is fragmented and vague, and the economics of AV-enabled business models are exceedingly unclear.”
“In the first three years of the Trump era, federal regulators have not effectively policed tech companies when glitches endanger people’s lives. Elon Musk hung up on the National Transportation Safety Board chairman during a 2018 call about the safety of Tesla vehicles. Last year, the NTSB faulted Uber’s lack of safety culture and its software for not identifying a pedestrian before striking and killing her a year earlier in Arizona. Investigators recommended that safety assessments be made mandatory, and Chao is still reviewing those recommendations.”
That’s all from me folks. Have a beautiful weekend.
By Sarah Barnes
This weekly newsletter on cities, transportation and technology is curated weekly by Sarah Barnes, a transport nerd based in San Francisco, CA.
The newsletter encourages new conversations about advanced transportation technology, primarily autonomous vehicles, which focus on people, equity, design and the cities we want to (and need to) be building for the future.
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