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driverless cars

Nuro keeps on expanding in Houston

Someone must be using these services. I’m not, but someone must be.

Houstonians will soon be able to get completely autonomous delivery of their dinners, groceries, and more thanks to a new 10-year partnership.

Uber Technologies, Inc. and Nuro have cut a deal that will provide autonomous, electric vehicles for food deliveries in Houston and Mountain View, California, beginning his fall, according to a news release. A Bay Area expansion will follow, but Houston’s no stranger to Nuro-powered deliveries. California-based Nuro has launched five delivery pilot programs in Houston since 2019 with partners KrogerWalmartCVSDomino’s, and FedEx.

With this new partnership, users will have access to meals, groceries, and other goods available on the Uber Eats platform — as well as the opportunity to support local businesses.

[…]

The company tapped Houston as its first full-scale operational city. Nuro previously told InnovationMap that was because the city offered a wide range of variation in the infrastructure across Houston’s neighborhoods.

“Houston is our first full-scale operations city,” Sola Lawal, product operations manager in Houston, told InnovationMap in January 2020. “All eyes at Nuro are focused on Houston.”

As the story notes, Nuro is now licensed to operate these autonomous vehicles in Texas, Arizona, and California. I’ve followed Nuro’s advances in Houston as it’s moved from groceries to pizza to pharmacies and more. I see their mapping cars in my neighborhood all the time. I can’t say I’ve ever seen an actual delivery from one of their vehicles, but as I said someone must be using them. If you’re one of them, I’d love to hear about your experience.

Another story about driverless trucks on I-45

The driverless trucks start coming and they don’t stop coming.

Waymo will partner in coming weeks with manufacturer Daimler Truck to put self-driving 18-wheelers on the road, further expanding the technology company’s autonomous testing between Dallas and Houston.

The big rigs will travel between the state’s two largest metro areas on Interstate 45, a corridor that’s become one of the country’s key testing grounds for driverless trucks.

Waymo, a subsidiary of Google parent company Alphabet Inc., creates the technology that can be attached to trucks and other vehicles to make them fully autonomous. Its partnership with Daimler
began in 2020.

“We’re very excited to share this really big milestone for this trade partnership with Daimler and Waymo,” said Boris Sofman, director of engineering and head of trucking for Waymo. “We knew from the very beginning it would be very critical for us to partner with the right group of experts.”

The Waymo Driver technology is touted as a way to eventually eliminate the need for a human driver. Trucks equipped with it don’t need to stop for bathroom breaks or to sleep overnight, making them a more efficient way of getting goods from one place to another.

Waymo Via is used for transporting commercial goods, and it combines the driving capabilities of the Waymo Driver with the redundant systems of the Daimler trucks. Daimler’s Freightliner Cascadia has been specifically designed for autonomous trucking, with redundant steering and braking systems, as well as increased battery storage to power the autonomous features.

[…]

The trucks are ready for the road after what Waymo and Daimler described as rigorous testing.

“We will be putting the first batch of these trucks into autonomous testing on public freeways in the upcoming weeks across Dallas and Phoenix, and that is an incredible milestone that both teams have been working a number of years toward,” said Waymo’s Sofman.

Waymo partnered with Uber Freight in June to move goods along the I-45 corridor, building on a February partnership on the same route with C.H. Robinson, a company that moves 20 million shipments annually. Waymo also partners with J.B. Hunt and UPS in Texas.

Waymo has been mentioned before, with that second story mentioning the C.H. Robinson partnership. I don’t think there’s anything really new with this one, it’s more of what we have already seen with the note that Waymo is a significant presence in the market. I wish there were an easy way to identify these autonomous trucks on the road, so we could get a more intuitive feel for how common a presence they are. For now, all we have are the news accounts. The Chron has more.

Metro gets electric bus money

Good.

Metro’s plan to gradually get rid of gasoline-powered buses took a step forward this week, when federal officials awarded the transit agency nearly $21.6 million to replace 20 diesel buses with electric ones, and the equipment needed to keep them charged.

“These essential funds will help our region transition to lower-polluting and more energy-efficient transit vehicles quicker,” Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, said in a statement announcing the award from the Federal Transit Administration. “I look forward to watching the positive impact this brings to Houston Metro and residents.”

Metropolitan Transit Authority officials applied for the money in May, citing the grant as a part of overall efforts to replace its diesel fleet. Federal officials, as part of the transportation bill passed last year, increased funding for zero emission buses from about $182 million to $1.1 billion, allowing transit agencies to compete for the funds with a greater likelihood of winning funding.

[…]

Board members one year ago approved a plan for Metro to purchase only zero-emission vehicles by 2030, giving the agency years to convert its fleet of more than 1,200 buses away from diesel.

So far, Metro has made plans to purchase 50, including the 20 covered by this week’s grant. The agency earlier this year received funding from the Houston-Galveston Area Council, which doles out some federal money in the area, for 20 electric 40-foot buses — those that typically operate local routes — and ten smaller shuttles that often operate MetroLift paratransit routes.

See here for the most recent update. It’s obviously going to take awhile to replace the whole fleet, but you have to start somewhere. Hopefully, there will be more federal funds available in the future to help. Kudos to all for getting this going.

Stalking Coco, the food delivery robot

A delightful tale by Chron food editor Emma Balter, who was determined to prove to herself that Coco the food delivery robot actually worked as advertised, even on Houston’s notoriously un-pedestrian (and presumably food-delivery-robot) streets. It took a couple of tries to place an order that would actually be delivered by Coco, and we pick up the story from there:

I placed an order on DoorDash, this time for the Diavola pizza and a Coca-Cola, and loudly squealed when I received a text leading me to a Coco tracker page. Exactly 32 minutes later, we saw a Bollo staffer load a pizza and a Coke into a Coco, which departed less than a minute later.

Coco whizzed out of the restaurant’s parking lot onto the sidewalk on West Alabama Street, and within the first 10 feet of its journey, encountered a pronounced step between two slabs of uneven pavement. Coco bumped against it but was immediately able to surmount the obstacle. I was very impressed.

It careened around the corner onto Greenbriar Drive and picked up speed, so much so that I had to break out into a slight jog to keep up with it. Two minutes later, Coco was faced with an orange cone and yellow caution tape; it paused briefly and went around it on the street shoulder. Another minute went by, and Coco was met with protruding tree roots. It slowed down almost to a stop, then awkwardly but successfully navigated past it. Coco sped up again—at which point I was convinced it was taunting me for doubting it. By the time we reached Westheimer Road, I was out of breath from running after it, although it was unclear if this was due to me being unfit, giggling uncontrollably, or both. (I was humbled to later find out that Coco only travels at a maximum speed of 5 MPH.)

Once at Westheimer, Coco arrived at a crossroads, literally: How would the little fella get to the other side of the busy street? It hung out, facing the road in front of Kevin Spearman Design, for about 30 seconds as cars whooshed by in both directions. It moved another 10 feet to a different spot, before getting barked at by a dog, then giving up on its perch a minute and a half later. Coco retraced its steps for almost a whole block, but just as I thought it might have been returning to the restaurant, defeated, it darted in front of traffic in a blatant jaywalk, narrowly avoiding a silver Chevy Cruz traveling westbound toward it.

“Oh my god! Oh my god!” I exclaimed as I witnessed the scene, recorded in a video that is now on Chron’s TikTok for posterity.

Read the rest and judge for yourself if this is a better idea than your typical human-delivered meal, picking it up yourself, or (vastly my preference) eating at the restaurant. I too have seen a couple of social media posts from friends who have observed a Coco robot in the wild, but I have not yet witnessed one. Have you seen or interacted with a Coco, whether in the city or out in the woods? Leave a comment and let us know.

In Houston, the trucks drive you

Yet another driverless truck story.

Autonomous freight trucking company Embark will make Houston the hub for its new Texas operations and launch an autonomous trucking route along Interstate 10 to San Antonio.

The San Francisco-based company this month said it will begin hiring “aggressively” in Houston at the start of 2022 as the company begins to expand across the southern U.S., said Stephen Houghton, chief operations and fleet officer at Embark.

“Texas is the center of America’s trucking industry, and it’s the perfect home for Embark’s expanded operations. We’re excited by the talent and entrepreneurial spirit that Houston has to offer,” he said.

[…]

In previous interviews, officials with both Waymo Via Trucking and Aurora said Texas was an obvious choice to test their technology thanks to the favorable regulations, relatively mild weather, major population centers and vast stretches of monotonous highways.

Officials with Embark said Houston will prove to be at the nexus of the industry’s development and growth because it sits at the center of a 600-mile stretch of highways that human drivers can’t complete in a day because of regulations limiting the number of hours they can drive. While it usually takes a human driver about 22 hours to complete, autonomous trucks could do it in about 12 hours, Embark officials said.

The region is also home to research institutions that have been studying autonomous vehicles for years, with Embark officials citing Texas A&M University’s work in the field. A cornerstone of its Texas operations will be an extensive partnership with Texas A&M University, Houghton said. Embark will use the university’s Engineering Experiment Station test track to pilot its technologies, and company engineers will work with the university’s mechanical engineering faculty and Center for Autonomous Vehicles and Sensor Systems, or CANVASS, to prepare for a driverless trucking test program in 2023.

See here for some broad background on the subject of driverless trucks in Texas. I fixated on that bit about Houston being at “the center of a 600-mile stretch of highways” for awhile, and eventually concluded that they meant the stretch of I-10 from San Antonio to (more or less) Biloxi, MS, as Google tells me it’s just over 600 miles, and Houston is close to the center of it. I can tell you that I have driven that far on I-10 by myself in the past, but I was much younger and a whole lot dumber back then.

I don’t believe I had heard of the Center for Autonomous Vehicles and Sensor Systems before – there’s nothing in my archives about them. Sounds cool, I’ll keep an eye on it. And also on that 2023 date, since it seems like other autonomous vehicle promises that have been made in the past have been a bit overly optimistic. We’ll see about this one.

(Note: This is one that has sat in my drafts for awhile, and I decided to publish rather than let it go to waste. I’m sure you’ve enjoyed this exclusive look behind the curtain of my editorial process.)

Who wants to have their dinner delivered by a robot?

Here’s your chance.

Heads up, Houston: the robots are coming.

Coco, the Los Angeles-based business that offers a remotely piloted delivery service, has hit the streets of Houston with its food-delivery bots as part of its expansion to targeted markets. Fueled by a recent funding round that garnered the company $56 million, Coco has already launched in Austin; its expansion plans also include rolling out bots in the Dallas and Miami markets soon.

Here in Houston, locals can look forward to delivery at restaurants including Brookstreet BBQ, Rustika Cafe, Ruggles Black, and Trendy Dumpling, according to the company.

Here’s how it works: Customers place a restaurant order like usual, then a Coco bot — operated by a “trained pilot” — drives to the restaurant to pick it up. The restaurant staff loads the bot as soon as the food is ready, and Coco arrives at the customer’s door within 15 minutes. Each bot is locked until it reaches the customer, so no one can tamper with your pizza or egg rolls.

The company claims that compared with traditional food-delivery methods, its bots decrease the time it takes food to reach the customer by 30 percent, and that the service has an on-time delivery rate of 97 percent.

Of course, Coco bots won’t be zipping up I-10 for a long-haul delivery; they’re meant to work at shorter distances and on mostly pedestrian paths. As the company’s website notes, “A surprisingly large portion of deliveries are done within less than 2 miles. We believe there is no reason to have a 3,000-pound car deliver a burrito over short distances.”

That “trained pilot” is a person working from home, according to Engadget. You can see a little video on the Coco homepage, and there you can see why this is a thing that will be using sidewalks and bike trails and other pedestrian-friendly routes to make its deliveries. You can already get things like pizza and groceries and prescriptions delivered via automated vehicles, so the concept here isn’t novel, but the method is new. I’m the type of person who’d rather walk to the restaurant and eat the food there, at an outdoor table if possible, but I have never claimed to be representative of anything. We’ll see how well this works.

Metro electric bus update

Some new details here.

Within the next year or so, you’ll see electric-powered buses buzzing around Bayou City.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (METRO) recently awarded a $22 million contract to Saint-Eustache, Canada-based Nova Bus for the production of 20 battery-powered electric buses. The contract includes an option for another 20 buses.

The first 20 buses, to be manufactured at the Nova Bus factory in Plattsburgh, New York, are expected to be on local roads sometime in in late 2022 or early 2023. They’ll run on the 402 Bellaire Express (Quickline) and 28 OST-Wayside routes.

METRO also plans to test three to five electric buses powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Furthermore, METRO is a member of the Automated Bus Consortium, a national organization of transportation agencies working toward development of a full-size, electric-powered automated bus.

METRO is moving toward the purchase of only zero-emission buses by 2030. It eventually wants to operate more than 1,200 electric buses throughout its system. All types of buses account for 1 percent of transportation-caused greenhouse gases in Houston, according to METRO.

See here and here for the background. The late 2022/early 2023 timeline is new information, as is the designation of the routes. The bit about testing hydrogen fuel cell buses is also new, and sent me scurrying off to Google to look for other information.

Battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have similar propulsion systems. Both store energy to power an electric motor. However, in the latter, energy stored as hydrogen is converted to electricity by the fuel cell, rather than being stored in a rechargeable battery.

Electric car sales reached 3 million in 2020, up 40 percent from 2019, with some 10 million electric cars now on the world’s roads. Registrations of hydrogen cars remain three orders of magnitude lower than this, and there are just 26,000 on the road globally, concentrated in three countries: Korea, the US (largely California), and Japan. While there remain several hydrogen fuel cell cars available on the market, made by the likes of Toyota and Hyundai, they tend to be more expensive than battery electric cars and can currently be difficult to fuel: Hydrogen is costly to buy, and there are far fewer refueling stations than recharging points in most places.

But when it comes to larger vehicles, the picture is not quite so clear. As vehicles get bigger, it becomes harder to electrify them, with increasingly large batteries needed. For energy-intensive applications like long-haul trucks, some experts say hydrogen may be the best option.

Buses lie somewhere in between cars and trucks on this spectrum. “The massive issue is the mass of the buses,” says James Dixon, a researcher in modeling energy and transport systems at the University of Oxford. “Batteries have an energy density that is comparatively small: The energy density is around 1/40th of the energy density of a liquid hydrocarbon fuel, like petrol or diesel.” Hydrogen also has a relatively low energy density (the amount of energy that can be stored per unit volume mass or area)—around four to five times lower than petroleum fuels, but far higher than electric batteries, he adds.

China already has around 5,300 hydrogen fuel cell buses on its roads, the vast majority of the global fleet, but other countries are investing in the technology. Neil Collins, managing director of Northern Ireland-based bus manufacturer Wrightbus, says his company is technology agnostic and is making both battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell buses. It feeds journey data from its bus operator customers into a tool to model different driving cycles for its vehicles, to help them find the best technical solution for that particular route.

Advantages of hydrogen include shorter refueling times and an often larger tank range. But hydrogen technology and infrastructure is more expensive, says Collins, while the skill sets in the industry for using electric buses are also likely higher than for hydrogen. Dixon also notes that one concern about hydrogen has always been its safety. “It’s got quite wide flammability limits, and it’s notoriously difficult to keep in a pressurized container without it leaking,” he says. “In terms of infrastructure, electricity is a lot easier, because you don’t need liquid fuel trucks driving around.”

Still, hydrogen may be a better option in a city with lots of hills, like Hong Kong, where it’s also very warm and humid, says Collins. “That’s going to be a problem for electric buses, because the cooling and the hills are just going to drain the batteries,” he says. “But if the city is relatively flat, and the journey times are relatively short, and it’s not either significantly warm or significantly cold, battery electric can do a very good job.”

The, uh, flammability issue sounds like a concern, but otherwise it seems like there may be good reasons to at least try this out and see how they work. I’ll be very interested to hear more.

Here comes Waymo on I-45

They’ve actually been on this road for a couple of months, but now they’re doing more.

Waymo will begin hauling freight for North America’s largest logistics firm on autonomous big rigs traveling between Dallas and Houston on Interstate 45.

The California-based subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc., announced the partnership Wednesday with C.H. Robinson, which moves 20 million shipments a year. The self-driving trucks will carry a safety driver in the front seat.

Waymo spokesperson Julianne McGoldrick said pilot runs will start in the coming months on what is becoming a common Dallas-to-Houston testing ground. Waymo has been hauling freight between the Texas cities with self-driving trucks since last year for other partners like J.B. Hunt and UPS.

[…]

In partnership with France-based public transport company Transdev, the Texas routes will create hundreds of jobs at Waymo’s new 9-acre hub in South Dallas. The new hub was built specifically for Waymo Via, the company’s autonomous trucking operations and accommodates hundreds of trucks from its carrier partners.

In June, Waymo began testing self-driving freight runs between Fort Worth and Houston on Interstate 45 in partnership with trucking company J.B. Hunt. The company reported zero accidents or speeding events involving the vehicles, concluding that the trials were a success. This led to a long-term partnership with the trucking company.

McGoldrick said Texas’ reputation as one of the biggest freight hubs in the U.S. makes it a key spot to test the vehicles. The Dallas-to-Houston route on Interstate 45 is especially important because it connects freight arriving at major cargo airports such as DFW International and AllianceTexas and at railroad yards in southern Dallas with Houston’s busy shipping port.

“We can test our Waymo Driver on highly dense highways and shipper lanes, further understand how other truck and passenger car drivers behave on these routes, and continue to refine the way our Waymo Driver reacts and responds in these busy driving regions as we advance our operations,” McGoldrick said.

As noted, driverless trucks love I-45. That post mentioned Waymo’s entry into I-45 trucking, but I didn’t have a post specifically about it. Just another thing to watch out for if you’re driving that same route. The Dallas Observer has more.

Why do driverless trucks love I-45?

For a combination of reasons.

Texas, particularly the stretch of highway between Houston and Dallas, has emerged as one of the nation’s main proving grounds for autonomous trucking, with freight trucks driving themselves from pickup destinations to shipping warehouses hundreds of miles away. It’s a part of what transportation experts say will be an automated vehicle revolution, with passenger cars, local delivery vehicles and freight trucks driving themselves around towns and across states.

Since late 2020, 18-wheelers operated by software and hardware created by Aurora have driven tons of freight from the Dallas area to Houston, often without the intervention of a human driver. The company partnered with FedEx in September to affix its hardware to some of the shipping giant’s Paccar trucks for its first real-world test of its autonomous trucking systems.

And in November, Waymo, owned by Google parent Alphabet, announced its trucking division would partner with UPS to begin testing autonomous big rigs along the same stretch of I-45. The company has already tested its technology along most of the journey, but the deal with UPS is its first public partnership with a freight company.

Officials with Aurora and Waymo say the combination of stable weather along the stretch, a relatively flat drive and the amount of freight driven between the two population hubs made the interstate a good choice. Statewide regulations about driverless vehicles also help, said Pablo Abad, a product manager with Waymo.

“Whenever we go to a particular market or think about implementing the Waymo driver, we have to look at the regulations to see how favorably they view autonomous tech,” he said. “Texas has been very helpful on that side — it’s part of the reason why we’re commercializing in Texas.”

The state’s autonomous-friendly business environment is by design, said Kara Kockelman, a professor of transportation engineering at UT Austin. The Texas Legislature passed a law in 2017 allowing autonomous vehicles to drive in the state without a driver present, and that same year, the entire state was designated by the U.S. Department of Transportation as one of 10 proving grounds for autonomous vehicle testing.

“Texas wants to be on the lead on this,” she said. “Texas has a lot of crossroads for a state, with at least five or six major population centers. That’s a great set up for moving freight.”

Whether by accident or design, it’s working. There have been multiple trials of driverless trucks in Texas over the past few years, mostly on I-45. It’s the same combination of moderate distance, flatness, relative emptiness, and big population centers on either end that was attractive for high speed rail, too. There’s some interesting stuff in the story about the different kinds of automated vehicles and how the addition of driverless trucks could be good both for business and for truck drivers, especially in this time of supply chain issues, so go read the rest.

Still more driverless trucks

A familiar story by now.

Some trucks hauling FedEx deliveries from Dallas to Houston may soon be missing a key feature: drivers.

Autonomous vehicle company Aurora announced this month it has partnered with FedEx and truck-manufacturer PACCAR to begin testing driverless big rigs along the 250-mile stretch of I-45 between Texas’ two largest cities. While the trucks will make the trek with a safety driver up front until at least 2023, almost all of the roadway decision-making and driving will be left to Aurora’s software systems and location-sensing hardware.

Gerardo Interiano, VP of Government Relations and Public Affairs at Aurora, said Texas seemed like an obvious place to test their trucking service.

“Trucking is the backbone of our economy, and Texas moves more goods by truck than any other state,” he said. “The weather is favorable and it’s a welcoming state for new technologies, both of which are advantageous as we refine and deploy our technology and service with a trusted transportation company like FedEx.”

[…]

Aurora’s trucks will deal exclusively with “middle mile” applications, which usually involve shipping goods between large cities. They will not yet experiment with last-mile deliveries, which deliver products directly to stores and doorsteps, or cross-country trips. The trucks will pick up loads at a delivery facility on the outskirts of Dallas and drop them off at a FedEx facility north of Houston, avoiding the more congested and urban stretches of the freeway.

The new trucks will use a combination of cameras, radar and lidar, which uses reflected light and the Doppler effect to detect traffic conditions about 1,000 feet up the road.

The story notes some autonomous car rollouts in various Texas cities, but does not note that there have been announcements of driverless trucks in Texas before, with Otto supposed to be on I-45 and TuSimple on I-10. I have no idea if they are actually doing the things they claimed to be ready to do in 2019, but they did claim them, and now they have more company. Mashable and TechCrunch have more.

Driverless Lyft service coming to Austin

We’ll see what the demand is.

People in Austin who use the ride-hailing service Lyft will have the option of selecting a self-driving car starting in 2022. But, at least initially, two humans will sit in the front as “test specialists” in case anything goes wrong.

Ford’s self-driving vehicles, including the Escape Hybrid SUV, are powered by technology from Argo AI, a Pittsburgh-based company that includes Ford and Volkswagen as major investors.

The vehicles will launch first in Miami later this year. They’re scheduled to arrive in Austin in the first half of 2022.

The number of self-driving Lyft vehicles operating on Austin streets will be relatively small at first. Ford, Lyft and Argo AI are giving themselves five years to get “at least 1,000 autonomous vehicles on the Lyft network” across multiple cites, they said in a joint press release. More details about the size of the fleet in Austin will be revealed closer to launch, a Lyft spokesperson said.

“This is a technology that is going to roll out in pockets,” said Jody Kelman, who leads product management for the consumer arm of Lyft’s self-driving division. “We always see that there will be a huge place for [human] drivers on our network.”

Ford started testing self-driving cars in Austin three years ago. The auto-maker had initially planned to launch its commercial self-driving service in 2021, but last year pushed the date back to 2022, citing the pandemic.

Driverless cars have long been seen as a key part of the Uber/Lyft future, since it eliminates the expense of drivers for them. It would also mean that the companies would have to own, maintain, and store the vehicles they’d use, which is a much more significant expense than the drivers are. As such, I have no idea how big a piece of that future this is, or how it would change their basic business model.

Here in the present day, I wonder how appealing the driverless Lyft service is for their customers versus the standard person-driven automobile. If you’re the type that prefers never having to interact with the driver, then this would have appeal. I’m the type that would be more worried about what happens if something unexpected comes up – car trouble, the programmed route becoming unavailable for some reason, an accident, whatever. Maybe I get a call while I’m in the ride and my plans have changed and now I need to go someplace else. Who do I tell to make that happen? Am I stuck there until I get to my destination and then have to call for another ride? Low-probability events, to be sure, but I’m certain there are plenty of other folks who would think this way.

One other potential factor in the not-yet-post-COVID world is that not being in the car with a complete stranger has more value now, even if you might be giving up some level of service assurance. I pondered this issue with the rise of automated grocery and pizza delivery services, and the same considerations apply here. There’s more room in the marketplace for these kinds of services than I would have originally thought, but it’s still all a bit puzzling to me. What do you think? There’s a longer version of this story in the Statesman, if you can get past their paywall (it was in a print version of the Chronicle a couple of weeks back, in the business section), and The Verge has more.

Is it a car that flies or a plane that drives?

It’s a little of both.

Photo from Klein Vision

A prototype flying car has completed a 35-minute flight between international airports in Nitra and Bratislava, Slovakia.

The hybrid car-aircraft, AirCar, is equipped with a BMW engine and runs on regular petrol-pump fuel.

Its creator, Prof Stefan Klein, said it could fly about 1,000km (600 miles), at a height of 8,200ft (2,500m), and had clocked up 40 hours in the air so far.

It takes two minutes and 15 seconds to transform from car into aircraft.

The narrow wings fold down along the sides of the car.

Prof Klein drove it straight off the runway and into town upon arrival, watched by invited reporters.

He described the experience, early on Monday morning, as “normal” and “very pleasant”.

In the air, the vehicle reached a cruising speed of 170km/h.

It can carry two people, with a combined weight limit of 200kg (31 stone).

But unlike drone-taxi prototypes, it cannot take off and land vertically and requires a runway.

I’ve blogged about flying cars a few times before – what can I say, the subject is fascinating, and also somewhat terrifying – with the first entry in 2017, when Uber was talking about having an “intra-urban flying vehicle network” available in 2020, with Dallas and Fort Worth being its target. Didn’t quite work out the way they envisioned – they’re now talking 2023 as a more realistic date – but that’s the way it goes. This particular model is basically a car with retractable wings; other models we have heard about include flying motorcycles and something that looks like a drone capable of carrying multiple humans. That latter model is likely a few more years off, but who knows with any of this.

There are a lot of concerns about these things, including noise, safety, and of course the climate effect, but so far that hasn’t stopped anyone from trying. As with driverless cars, which are still in their infancy and still have some major engineering challenges to solve, I think it’s a matter of when and not if for these things. We ought to at least think about how we want to integrate them into society, rather than react when they do show up. You can see more pictures and videos for this particular flying car at the Klein Vision website. CNet and Yahoo have more.

Tesla crash update

Interesting.

Federal investigators on Monday released their preliminary assessment of a deadly crash in Spring involving a Tesla, though many details of the incident remain under scrutiny, including whether anyone was in the driver’s seat at the time of the wreck.

In the two-page update, the National Transportation Safety Board said the crash occurred less than 600 feet from where Dr. William Varner, 59, and Everette Talbot, 69, began their trip in Varner’s driveway. NTSB officials said security camera footage shows Varner getting into the driver’s seat and Talbot getting in the front passenger seat.

Both were killed in the fiery crash, which took firefighters hours to extinguish because the car’s battery reignited several times.

Where Varner was when the crash happened is a point of contention between local crash investigators and Tesla officials. In the days after the crash, Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman said investigators are confident no one was in the driver’s seat.

Tesla founder Elon Musk and other company officials have disputed that, saying evidence points to someone being in the seat, based on the damage to the steering column.

NTSB investigators in the report do not make a final determination.

“The car’s restraint control module, which can record data associated with vehicle speed, belt status, acceleration, and airbag deployment, was recovered but sustained fire damage,” investigators said in the report. “The restraint control module was taken to the National Transportation Safety Board recorder laboratory for evaluation.”

See here and here for the background, and here for a copy of the NTSB report. The key bit is this:

The vehicle was equipped with Autopilot, Tesla’s advanced driver assistance system. Using Autopilot requires both the Traffic Aware Cruise Control and the Autosteer systems to be engaged.[2] NTSB tests of an exemplar car at the crash location showed that Traffic Aware Cruise Control could be engaged but that Autosteer was not available on that part of the road.

As the footnote indicates, Traffic Aware Cruise Control handles acceleration and deceleration, while Autosteer keeps you in your lane. Autosteer requires lane markers to be utilized, which that stretch of road did not have. My takeaway from this is that the guys in the car would not have been able to engage the Autopilot, as Tesla has claimed. The investigation is ongoing, and as noted the NTSB has not yet determined a cause, so we still don’t really know what happened. I remain curious about this and look forward to the final report.

UPDATE: Here’s a longer version of the story.

Tesla disputes official account of that autopilot crash

Can’t say I’m surprised.

Tesla officials are disputing numerous assertions of local police related to a recent deadly crash in the Spring area, reiterating statements by founder Elon Musk that autopilot was not engaged on the vehicle.

Further, company officials contradicted officials in Houston, saying the car did not have a driver during the crash.

“The steering wheel was indeed deformed, leading to the likelihood that someone was in the driver’s seat at the time of the crash,” said Lars Moravy, vice president of vehicle engineering for Tesla.

The comments, the company’s first statements on the incident aside from Musk’s tweets, came during a Monday evening conference call related to the company’s first quarter financial performance.

The crash, which has drawn national attention because it involved a Tesla, is under investigation by Harris County Precinct 4 as well as the National Transportation Safety Board and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

[…]

Moravy said a review of the car’s data and the conditions on the street – which lacked painted lines – make use of autopilot impossible.

Further, he said the vehicle’s cruise control only accelerated to 30 mph because of the street’s speed limit as set in Tesla’s traffic computers, and that when the driver unbuckled it slowed.

All of the seat belts in the car were unbuckled at the time of the crash, Moravy said.

Reached Monday evening, Herman said local police were aware of Tesla’s claims but would not comment on them.

“Our case is still under investigation,” he said.

See here for the background. I mean, maybe Tesla is correct, but given their overall track record with the NTSB and the clear demonstrations of how to fool the autopilot system into thinking there’s someone in the driver’s seat, I’m not inclined to take their word for it. Let’s have a full investigation and see where that takes us. The Washington Post has more.

Your driverless pizza delivery is finally on its way

Still not sure what the allure of this is.

No Noids were harmed in the writing of this post

Autonomous cars will begin delivering Domino’s pizzas to Houstonians through a new partnership between the pizza chain and Nuro, a California startup, the companies announced Monday.

Domino’s is rolling out Nuro’s first driverless model this week at its Woodland Heights location on Houston Avenue.

Nuro first ventured into Houston through a partnership with Kroger, which began using its fleet of self-driving Toyota Priuses to make grocery deliveries in 2019. It expanded its delivery footprint in Houston last year with a prescription delivery service through CVS as demand for delivery services soared during the pandemic.

Now, Domino’s customers in the Heights who have prepaid for delivery online will be able to select the driverless option, according to a Domino’s news release. They will then receive a text with a location for the robot vehicle, called the R2, and a PIN number to enter into the vehicle’s touchscreen once it arrives. The PIN unlocks the R2’s doors so customers can retrieve their order.

The delivery service will cost the same as Domino’s existing delivery options, the company said. Delivery charges vary from store to store, but are $3.35 per order at the Woodland Heights location.

The Nuro/Domino’s partnership was supposed to happen in 2019, but for whatever the reason got delayed. I’ve written plenty about Nuro, and my questions about why anyone would choose this option as opposed to the old-fashioned person-delivery option remain the same. I get that contactless delivery has its appeal in times of pandemic, but we are steadily moving out of those times. I could see the appeal if Domino’s charged you less to retrieve your own pizza from its vehicle instead of having it brought to your front door, but that isn’t the case either. I guess you get to save a couple of bucks on the tip, but if that’s what would motivate you to do it this way, I have to question your priorities. Someone help me out here – what exactly is the appeal of this option? I do not get it.

What’s up with that Tesla autopilot crash?

I assume you’ve heard about this.

Woodlands Fire department, Montgomery County Hospital District and Cypress Creek EMS were dispatched around 9 p.m. Saturday to a fire in the woods in the Carlton Woods Subdivision on Hammock Dunes Place.

Several neighbors had called reporting a fire in the woods, and that a car had crashed and exploded, Palmer Buck, the Woodlands Fire Department chief said.

When the responding units arrived at the scene firefighters discovered the bodies of two males in the 2019 Tesla Model S, according to the Montgomery County Police Reporter. One male was in the front passenger seat and the other in the rear passenger seat.

Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman told the Associated Press on Monday that investigators are “100% sure” that no one was driving the car.

Federal investigators are on the scene to find out what happened. The claim that no one was driving the car at the time is of course of interest, for all the obvious reasons. Elon Musk has publicly disputed this assertion, claiming that it’s not possible because the Tesla’s autopilot function will shut down if no one is in the driver’s seat. It turns out that’s not exactly true.

Consumer Reports engineers easily tricked our Tesla Model Y this week so that it could drive on Autopilot, the automaker’s driver assistance feature, without anyone in the driver’s seat—a scenario that would present extreme danger if it were repeated on public roads. Over several trips across our half-mile closed test track, our Model Y automatically steered along painted lane lines, but the system did not send out a warning or indicate in any way that the driver’s seat was empty.

“In our evaluation, the system not only failed to make sure the driver was paying attention, but it also couldn’t tell if there was a driver there at all,” says Jake Fisher, CR’s senior director of auto testing, who conducted the experiment. “Tesla is falling behind other automakers like GM and Ford that, on models with advanced driver assist systems, use technology to make sure the driver is looking at the road.”

Our demonstration comes as federal and local investigators continue to probe the cause of a fatal crash Saturday in Texas in which an apparently driverless 2019 Tesla Model S struck a tree, killing the vehicle’s two occupants. Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman, who was on scene at the crash, told CR that he’s almost certain that no one was in the driver’s seat when the vehicle crashed. (The Model S in the crash and our Model Y are different models, but they both have Autopilot.)

We tried to reach Tesla to ask about the Texas crash but did not hear back. Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted Monday evening that data logs recovered from the crashed Model S “so far show Autopilot was not enabled,” and he suggested that it would not be possible to activate Autopilot on the road where the crash took place because of the lack of painted lane lines. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the crash, which occurred on a winding road in Spring, Texas, outside of Houston.

CR wanted to see whether we could prompt our own Tesla to drive down the road without anyone in the driver’s seat. So Fisher and Kelly Funkhouser, CR’s program manager for vehicle interface testing, took our 2020 Tesla Model Y out on our test track. Funkhouser sat in the rear seat, and Fisher sat in the driver seat on top of a buckled seat belt. (Autopilot will disengage if the driver’s seat belt is unbuckled while the vehicle is in motion.)

Fisher engaged Autopilot while the car was in motion on the track, then set the speed dial (on the right spoke of the steering wheel) to 0, which brought the car to a complete stop. Fisher next placed a small, weighted chain on the steering wheel, to simulate the weight of a driver’s hand, and slid over into the front passenger seat without opening any of the vehicle’s doors, because that would disengage Autopilot. Using the same steering wheel dial, which controls multiple functions in addition to Autopilot’s speed, Fisher reached over and was able to accelerate the vehicle from a full stop. He stopped the vehicle by dialing the speed back down to zero.

“The car drove up and down the half-mile lane of our track, repeatedly, never noting that no one was in the driver’s seat, never noting that there was no one touching the steering wheel, never noting there was no weight on the seat,” Fisher says. “It was a bit frightening when we realized how easy it was to defeat the safeguards, which we proved were clearly insufficient.”

There’s video at the link, and I also recommend listening to Friday’s What Next TBD podcast, which discusses this crash, Tesla’s spotty record with its autopilot feature, AI and the driverless car question, and more. Tesla is not currently cooperating with NTSB on this, which has drawn some ire from Rep. Kevin Brady, who represents The Woodlands. I probably won’t follow this obsessively, but as driverless cars are an interest of mine I will keep an eye on it.

A bad streak

Twenty years. Geez.

For 20 years, Texans have been dying to get somewhere, and there is little sign they will stop anytime soon.

Saturday marks 20 years of at least one death a day on Texas roads, a grim milestone in a long-simmering safety crisis lawmakers and local agencies have pledged to stop but have barely slowed in the past two years.

“The numbers don’t reflect it yet, to be frank,” state Transportation Commissioner Laura Ryan said of efforts to eliminate roadway deaths by 2050.

They eventually will reduce dying on streets, officials said, but only through efforts on numerous fronts. Plans call for spending millions on education campaigns to change driver behavior and keep impaired drivers from choosing to get behind the wheel. Engineers expect to use crash data to identify and then build better intersections and crosswalks. Upcoming state highway repairs include rumble strips to warn drivers when they drift from the road.

Whatever changes officials have in store, the intent is to encourage drivers to do what they need to do to keep themselves and others safe, or not enable whatever it is that leads them to poor choices.

“It is the difference between life and death,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said, noting the city’s plan for eliminating fatalities on city streets will be released later this month. It is expected to recommend significant reconstruction changes at intersections and along major streets.

“No loss of life is acceptable,” Turner said. “We need to communicate the value of life over speed.”

If we couldn’t have a traffic death-free day during the height of the pandemic shutdowns, I can’t imagine how we’ll ever have one again. Just from a sheer numbers perspective, it seems impossible, barring a radical paradigm shift at some point. (Yeah, yeah, driverless cars. When were those supposed to start being regular features of our daily commute again?) There’s been a lot of work done to make roads safer, and there are more such projects in the pipeline, but those things take time, and we have zillions of miles of roads. Stay safe out there, y’all.

How Nuro is doing in the pandemic

An interesting update on the little driverless grocery (and other things) delivery serives.

As recently as last fall, Nuro appeared to be years away from widespread adoption. The company, which operated in Arizona and California, arrived in Houston in 2018 to test its vehicles on a city known for its diversity, with a wide range of neighborhoods and types of customers. Though the cars were overseen by two human employees in the front seat, the goal was to develop the world’s preeminent fully autonomous delivery service. The robotically piloted Toyota Priuses, equipped with remote sensing equipment on top, became a fairly common sight in central Houston neighborhoods. But before the pandemic, most people didn’t pay them much attention.

Last fall, only 3 percent of the nation’s households were placing frequent online orders for grocery delivery. The low rate was attributed to shoppers’ concerns about higher prices online and delivery drivers showing up late. In May of this year, however, that number had skyrocketed to 33 percent, a stunning increase that—in even the best case scenarios—was expected to take many years to reach, not months. In Houston alone, Nuro has seen its deliveries triple into the thousands since the pandemic turned in-person shopping into risky activity. Suddenly, Nuro was no longer a novelty, but an important aid for many Houstonians sheltering in place.

[…]

In addition to partnering with Kroger, the nation’s largest operator of traditional supermarkets, Nuro delivers Domino’s pizza and prescriptions from CVS. The company expects much of its new customer base to remain after the pandemic, believing that quarantine has only amplified an existing trend toward on-demand grocery delivery. Sola Lawal, a Nuro product operations manager based in Houston who formerly worked for Uber, cites high customer appreciation scores as evidence that new users will remain loyal to the brand.

When I spoke to Lawal, I asked him what he would have thought if someone had shown him those heightened delivery numbers last fall.

“I’m not sure what I would’ve thought,” he said. “I just know I would’ve been very confused.”

The pandemic hasn’t just rapidly expanded the company’s customer base and delivery volume, it’s also forced them to adapt. The company still relies on Nuro employees to oversee the autonomous vehicles, collect valuable information about how they perform on the road, and unload groceries gathered by workers at Kroger. Last fall, when driverless vehicles arrived at a home with groceries in tow, a human operator sitting in the passenger seat would hand the goods over to customers or deliver them to the front door. In Houston, some families had a habit of meeting the vehicles at the curb with a red wagon. “It was like a mini family celebration,” Lawal explained.

With person-to-person interaction no longer safe, Nuro’s engineers rushed to develop a new system that would allow customers to open a delivery vehicle’s doors by flashing a thumbs-up sign or using a setting on their mobile phone. (Both the hand gesture and smartphone features are available only on vehicles in California for now.)

“Creating contact-less delivery was a long-term goal that got sped up when it became clear that, yeah, we need to be able to do this now!” Lawal said.

That was specifically one of the things I wondered about when Nuro expanded its service a couple of months ago. I still think there will be demand for having a human person bring the groceries to your door, but perhaps the demand for contactless delivery will be greater than I might have thought. We still mostly go to the store ourselves – early mornings are fairly uncrowded, and it’s the only way to be sure you’re getting exactly what you want, including when what you originally wanted isn’t available – but the allure of delivery is easy to see. Have any of you tried this service?

So how safe are those driverless cars?

Safer than human-driven cars, but maybe not by as much as you might think.

A new study says that while autonomous vehicle technology has great promise to reduce crashes, it may not be able to prevent all mishaps caused by human error.

Auto safety experts say humans cause about 94% of U.S. crashes, but the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study says computer-controlled robocars will only stop about one-third of them.

The group says that while autonomous vehicles eventually will identify hazards and react faster than humans, and they won’t become distracted or drive drunk, stopping the rest of the crashes will be a lot harder.

“We’re still going to see some issues even if autonomous vehicles might react more quickly than humans do. They’re not going to always be able to react instantaneously,” said Jessica Cicchino, and institute vice president of research and co-author of the study.

The IIHS studied over 5,000 crashes with detailed causes that were collected by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, separating out those caused by “sensing and perceiving” errors such as driver distraction, impaired visibility or failing to spot hazards until it was too late. Researchers also separated crashes caused by human “incapacitation” including drivers impaired by alcohol or drugs, those who fell asleep or drivers with medical problems. Self-driving vehicles can prevent those, the study found.

However, the robocars may not be able to prevent the rest, including prediction errors such as misjudging how fast another vehicle is traveling, planning errors including driving too fast for road conditions and execution errors including incorrect evasive maneuvers or other mistakes controlling vehicles.

For example, if a cyclist or another vehicle suddenly veers into the path of an autonomous vehicle, it may not be able to stop fast enough or steer away in time, Cicchino said. “Autonomous vehicles need to not only perceive the world around them perfectly, they need to respond to what’s around them as well,” she said.

Just how many crashes are prevented depends a lot on how autonomous vehicles are programmed, Cicchino said. More crashes would be stopped if the robocars obey all traffic laws including speed limits. But if artificial intelligence allows them to drive and react more like humans, then fewer crashes will be stopped, she said.

I’ve been watching the Amazon series Upload (very funny, check it out), and one plot point in it is the death of two characters in separate autonomous vehicle crashes. Feels a bit more salient after reading this. This is more a model than a study, and it may well be that driverless cars do better, or eventually get to do better, than what this predicts. But one of the selling points of driverless cars is that they will be able to go faster and in denser traffic than human-driven cars can go, which will save time, allow for less road construction, and provide options for mass transit that are currently unthinkable. Those things are a whole lot less feasible if this model is accurate. Sure, a one-third drop in crashes would be excellent, but that’s not transformative. Under those assumptions, we’ll get the driverless cars, but other than not driving the overall experience won’t be much different.

Nuro expands its service in Houston

First groceries, now prescriptions.

Nuro’s fleet of autonomous vehicles is expanding its footprint in Houston, partnering with CVS to deliver prescriptions in a delivery service that is expected to begin as early as next month.

Mountain View, Calif.-based Nuro’s autonomous fleet made its Houston debut last year when it partnered with Kroger to deliver groceries. It later added Walmart to the list. The delivery vehicles to-date were staffed with operators to monitor the service, but Nuro announced earlier this year its plans to introduce a human-free product, the R2, to Houston roads.

The new prescription delivery service will start with a pilot in three ZIP codes surrounding the CVS pharmacy at 5430 Bissonnet St., Bellaire, according to a news release.

[…]

The service comes at a time when, due to the spread of the coronavirus, people are avoiding physical contact with one another. Especially those with underlying health conditions.

“We are seeing an increased demand for prescription delivery,” said Ryan Rumbarger, senior vice president of Store Operations at CVS Health. “We want to give our customers more choice in how they can quickly access the medications they need when it’s not convenient for them to visit one of our pharmacy locations.”

See here for the background. Nuro began its automated grocery deliveries in March, just as everything was starting to shut down. I’d had a lot of question prior to its launch about how popular that would be versus human-driven deliveries. How many people would prefer having their groceries unloaded and brought into their house – or at least to their front door – for them, versus having to walk out to the car and haul them in themselves? One presumes the pandemic has had some effect on that calculation, though we don’t get any insight into that from the story. Be that as it may, this does seem like a propitious time for this kind of service to debut. I would have been more skeptical of this a few months ago, but not so much now.

And now a few words from our city transportation planner

Didn’t know we had one, did you? Well, we do, his name is David Fields, and he had a few things to say to Chron reporter Dug Begley in a recent Q&A:

As you look at upcoming plans and projects around the city, how is COVID-19 affecting them? Are there tangible things that are changing or are the changes more conceptual, in the sense we might not know what demand is going to look like 12-18-24 months out any longer?

Streets are funny things. Some people see them as having just two purposes: Movement and storage. That might be cars, bikes, transit, or walking, but for all of them, we often limit in our minds what this very physical and expensive infrastructure can do for us.

COVID-19 is reminding us that streets don’t need to do the same job, 24 hours per day, seven days per week, 365 days per year. If we limit streets to these two jobs, we’re not getting the full value out of our investment in our city. While our streets move people at some times of day, those same roads can be used as play spaces at other times. Businesses reminded us that space used for parking sometimes can be used for restaurant pick-up zones at other times.

Learning this lesson is a huge benefit for our city, because the more ways we can use our roads, the more value we provide to our community.

From a planning perspective, has the new coronavirus bought you a little time to sort things out? The challenge here historically has been projects rarely have kept up with traffic and often induced demand makes the shelf life of their benefits much shorter. So, is there a silver lining to a pause?

COVID-19 is a teaching moment. It’s time to take a hard look about what we thought could never change. One of those big topics is believing that everyone who commutes must commute five days every week, somewhere between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. People are working from home more than ever, which means fewer people traveling to work each day. Businesses are learning to be flexible and technology is helping.

The takeaway is that traffic is not set in stone. If 10 percent of our workforce can work from home in the future, traffic becomes a very different conversation. The key for Houston and for our work is to find ways to encourage this behavior we’re learning now, so it’s a choice by our residents and businesses that ends up helping everyone. It’s also resulting in more people walking around close to home more on those days that they stay home to work.

The silver lining is the chance to remember that we control our transportation choices and nothing is set in stone.

There’s more, so go read it. The point of interest for me is the observation that if work from home becomes more widely adopted, it really changes traffic patterns, and potentially reduces the future need for road construction. This has always been a consideration for transportation wonks, but we’ve never seen it in action like this. I am certain that more people are going to resume commuting to work in the coming weeks – here we are hand-waving away the potential for further lockdowns – but I’m also certain that some number of people who have been working from home as a result of COVID-19 will continue to work from home going forward because they like it and it suits them. Who knows what our streets and highways will look like after that?

Again, this is not a revelation to transportation planners and their ilk. A steady increase in telework has always been factored into their calculations. The point is that this is likely to be a step increase in those numbers, which changes the shape of the curves in their models. Some plans are already in motion – the 59/610 interchange rebuild, for example – while others are not yet finalized – the ginormous I-45 project – but in either case what we once thought was true now may not be. What are we going to do about that?

On a somewhat random side note, another factor that transportation nerds have been eyeing has been the rise of autonomous vehicles. Autonomous vehicles that are shared by multiple riders are one option touted as a possible future mode for mass transit. I’ve been skeptical of stuff like this for a variety of reasons, but it’s not hard to imagine such a thing having more appeal in the future, at least as an alternative to buses, and assuming there’s a way to separate the passengers from each other. Also assuming that the ridesharing companies that would surely be among those providing this service survive the current economic environment, which, who knows. You’d think now would be the time for someone to be touting the benefits of this concept, but I at least haven’t seen such chatter.

Nuro set to roll out

Ready or not, here they come.

Self-driving delivery vehicles that carry no humans will hit Houston roads next month.

Nuro, a San Francisco technology company, is planning to deploy its next-generation autonomous delivery vehicles in Houston after receiving federal approval. The R2, which features climate-controlled compartments and 360-degree cameras, radar and sensors, will carry grocery orders from Kroger and Walmart to customer’s homes, starting in March.

Nuro last year began piloting self-driving Prius cars in Houston, but the delivery vehicles still had a human driver and passenger to oversee the technology. The R2, which weighs about 2,500 pounds and has a maximum speed of 25 miles per hour, will have no human driver or passenger.

[…]

Several grocers, including Kroger, Walmart and H-E-B, are testing self-driving grocery delivery service in Texas. Supermarket chains are investing heavily in new technologies to win over online shoppers. Customers using the autonomous vehicle delivery service will have to pick up their groceries from the vehicle curbside, notified of their arrival via text message. They will use a unique code to pick up their groceries.

See here, here, and here for some background. I am very interested in three aspects of this. One is just how many people will use this service at all, and how that changes people’s grocery shopping habits. You still have to shop, you’re just doing it over an app instead of in person at the store, where your decisions may be affected by the sights and smells of the goods, the samples and specials that are being pushed, whatever other impulses you may have, and what your kids may be nagging you for if they’re with you. I could see this being used more heavily for last-minute and “oops, I forgot I needed this thing and I don’t want to go back to the store” needs than as a full substitute for doing the in-person stuff.

Two, how many people who already use some form of human-delivered groceries will switch to this. The Nuro option will surely be cheaper (and there’s no guilt about tipping), but you have to be home to retrieve the groceries. As I’ve noted before, when we’ve used Whole Foods’ delivery service, we put a cooler on the front porch and have them deliver while we’re at work. That’s a real time and effort-saver for us, and as such it’s worth the extra cost. How tight a delivery window will you get with Nuro? If I know I’m only going to be home or available while I’m at home for a short period of time, do I trust my order will arrive when I need it to? And of course some people will require assistance in bringing their groceries in, and some people will not want to leave their house on days that are cold or scorching hot or rainy to haul bags of groceries inside. How that will break down is not at all clear to me.

Finally, note that the top speed of these things is 25 MPH. That’s nice and safe and very pedestrian-friendly, but it’s also going to mean a lot of aggrieved drivers on Houston’s main roads doing dumb things to get around the Nuro cars. I suspect there will be some number of accidents that aren’t the Nuros’ fault but wouldn’t have happened if they didn’t exist. I can’t wait to see a study about that effect. Also, going back to my second point, how confident will Kroger and Walmart be in the delivery time estimates they give their customers? My guess is their algorithms will have to be tweaked a bit here and there over time. What do you think? Does this option excite you or is it just another tech thing you’ll never use?

It’s the year 2020…

But where are the flying cars? And hyperloops? And other things we were promised?

Uber will deploy flying cars

When Uber Technologies Inc. pledged to deliver on a promise of the Jetsons, it gave itself just three years to do so. The company still intends to hold flight demonstrations in 2020, but it’s safe to say you will not be able to hail a flying Uber in the next year. The company continues to explore the concept with regulators. In 2019, Uber added a form of flying vehicle that’s not particularly cutting edge: It’s booking helicopter rides in New York City. In December, Uber said it was working with a startup, Joby Aviation, to develop “aerial ride-sharing” and set a deadline of 2023. Uber Chief Executive Officer Dara Khosrowshahi tweeted: “Getting closer …”

We first heard about this in 2017, and in 2018 we were told that NASA was testing these babies. Since then, we have also heard of flying motorcycles and these weird, drone-like things, but as yet, no flying vehicles that aren’t planes or helicopters. Mark your calendars for 2023 and ask me again.

The first 60-mile hyperloop ride will take place

In 2013, Elon Musk outlined his vision for a new “fifth mode of transportation” that would involve zipping people through tubes at speeds as fast as 800 miles per hour. Several tech entrepreneurs heeded Musk’s call and went to work on such systems inspired by the billionaire’s specifications. In 2015, one of the leading startups predicted a hyperloop spanning about 60 miles would be ready for human transport by 2020. Rob Lloyd, then the CEO of Hyperloop Technologies, told Popular Science: “I’m very confident that’s going to happen.”

It hasn’t. His company, now called Virgin Hyperloop One, has a 1,600-foot test track in California and hopes to build a 22-mile track in Saudi Arabia someday. Musk has since experimented with hyperloops of his own, and even he has had to scale back his ambitions. Musk’s Boring Co. is building a so-called Loop system in Las Vegas, starting with a nearly mile-long track that consists of a narrow tunnel and Tesla cars moving at up to 155 miles per hour.

Man, I was enthusiastic for this, ever since 2015 when we first heard the word “hyperloop”. Skepticism was warranted, and the technology has evolved over time, but we’re still waiting.

Toyota will make fully self-driving cars

Auto and tech companies alike became convinced this decade that computers would soon be able to drive cars more reliably than people. In 2015, Toyota Motor Corp. made a companywide bet that it would have autonomous highway-driving cars on the road by 2020. It didn’t take long for the hype cycle to veer off course. In 2018, a pedestrian died after colliding with an Uber self-driving car. In 2020, Toyota’s Lexus brand will introduce a car capable of driving autonomously on the highway, but executives acknowledged that auto companies were “revising their timeline for AI deployment significantly.”

Honestly, I’ve probably been more skeptical of the many breathless claims about driverless cars than I’ve been about hyperloops. That skepticism was also warranted, though to be fair, various forms of autonomous vehicles have been on the road. They’re still not ready for mass market use, and probably won’t be for at least another decade, but they’re not vaporware, either. As above, check back with me in a couple of years and we’ll see where we are.

How Nuro is mapping Houston

Really interesting story.

On the muggy streets of suburban Houston, amid McMansions, bright green lawns and stately oak trees, a futuristic race is quietly afoot.

The contestants are not people but late-model Toyota Priuses outfitted with an array of sophisticated sensors. Despite fierce competition and unending pressure to perform, the nearly silent electric vehicles do not speed. They move cautiously, rigorously following traffic laws and never topping 25 mph.

Their goal is not an easily discerned finish line but to map large swaths of the nation’s fourth-largest metropolis, a sprawling patchwork of neighborhoods, mini-cities, strip malls, gridlocked superhighways and mazelike gated communities – an area so prodigious in size it easily could swallow Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island whole.

The vehicles are owned by Nuro, a Silicon Valley robotics company with an ambitious goal – to become the world’s preeminent autonomous delivery service, allowing millions of people to have groceries and other goods delivered by robots instead of making trips to the store, potentially reducing traffic and kicking off a new chapter in our relationship with machines. For months now, Nuro’s robotically piloted vehicles have been successfully, if quietly, delivering groceries to restaurants and homes around Houston, the vehicles’ sensors mapping the city as they go.

The faster Nuro’s vehicles map Houston’s notoriously chaotic roadways, the faster the company can refine its software and export its business model elsewhere. But time is in short supply.

Like Nuro, companies such as Amazon, Alphabet-owned Waymo, Robomart, General Motors’ Cruise division, Ford-affiliated Argo AI, Starship Technologies and many others are also rushing to deploy high-functioning autonomous vehicles for delivery and passenger transport, with some companies attracting major deals and billions in funding. Their goal is to earn public trust and offer real-life convenience, experts say, heightening their chances of securing a valuable foothold in a new era defined by autonomous transportation.

To get there, they will first have to run their autonomous vehicles, or AVs, through millions of miles of driving tests in cities such as Houston until they are glitch-free and unquestionably safe.

“The pressure is real,” said David Syverud, head of robot operations at Nuro. “And to be clear, it is a race in the AV space to deploy quickly and be the first to really get there.”

It goes from there, and it’s worth your time to read, even if it’s a few weeks old at this point. We’ve met Nuro before, and I see their cars around; I’ve seen a couple in and around my neighborhood. Like most stories written about Houston by people not in Texas, this one is both a window into how others view us, and how they can get confused about certain basic things we understand. Like, for example, how you have to distinguish between the city of Houston and the greater Houston area. This is what I mean:

Company officials say they were also drawn to Houston for the complexity of its metropolitan environment, a puzzle of independent communities, each with its own road conditions, zoning ordinances, parking rules and traffic laws. Some area neighborhoods offer wide lanes and little traffic, others are narrow and perpetually hectic – providing the company’s robotic software a massive variety of testing conditions.

As the country’s most ethnically diverse large city – and with a foreign-born population of 1.4 million – Houston also is a place where Nuro officials could probe fundamental questions about its business model.

“The big question for us is: Who is going to use this service, and how often will they do it?” said Sola Lawal, a Nuro product operations manager based in Houston who formerly worked for Uber. “Our robots don’t care who they’re delivering to, but we want to understand how different demographics interact with and feel about the robots. Houston allows for this broad swath of experience in one city.”

That’s all well and good, and it’s easy to see why Houston would be an attractive testing ground, but come on. The city of Houston has a population of about 2.3 million. I assure you, the population of the city of Houston is not three-fifths foreign-born. The greater Houston metropolitan area has a population of about seven million, and I daresay that’s what they meant when they dropped that statistic in the story. But please, let us be precise about these things.

Anyway, despite such glitches, the story is worth reading, so go check it out. We occasionally use grocery delivery, via Whole Foods and Amazon Prime. They leave the goods in a cooler we put out on the porch, and however successful this Nuro project is I don’t see that part of the task being robot-ified any time soon. There’s a lot of money being bet on this business expanding rapidly. I’m usually skeptical about this sort of thing, but what do I know?

More driverless trucks

Look out on I-45.

When Don Burnette worked at Otto, a self-driving truck startup, his team hit some pretty big milestones. It recorded the first shipment of cargo delivered by a self-driving truck: 50,000 cans of Budweiser in 2016. It was acquired by Uber the same year.

But something didn’t feel right to Burnette, an engineer by trade who’s spent almost a decade in the self-driving vehicle industry.

“That was very much a demo-like system,” Burnette said in an interview with The Dallas Morning News. “It wasn’t built with production or scale in mind. And it wasn’t quite the technology that was going to push the industry forward.”

When Uber shifted away from self-driving trucks last year, Burnette saw an opportunity. He helped create Kodiak Robotics in 2018, with the hope that driverless trucks could serve commercial clients.

Kodiak Robotics is putting down roots in Texas, and has become one of the first self-driving trucking companies operating in the state. The Dallas-to-Houston (and back) route features a safety driver behind the wheel.

And humans take over for more challenging stretches between freeways and final destinations. Once Kodiak masters the “middle mile” — freeway driving that’s a large part of most routes — it’ll tackle the non-highway driving that’s proven difficult to other driverless startups.

See here and here for more about the driverless trucks currently on the highways in Texas. They’re not fully autonomous, of course – they all have safety drivers, and they all need to be human-operated off the interstates. For the time being at least, that’s a pretty good combination all around – the drivers stay rested, and the trucks can get where they’re going safely. As with all autonomous vehicles, the question is how far off are they from not needing the human drivers at all. For all the breathless prose in these stories, that part remains vague. TechCrunch and Wired have more.

Add HEB to the autonomous grocery delivery trend

In San Antonio, at least. Maybe in Houston later if it goes well for them.

Customers near an H-E-B in suburban San Antoni0 can soon get their eggs, fruit and tortillas dropped off by a vehicle with no one at the wheel.

The San Antonio-based company is working with Udelv, an autonomous delivery startup in California, to test self-driving vans on streets around the store starting this fall.

“The world is changing fast and our customers’ expectations are changing,” said Paul Tepfenhart, senior vice president of omnichannel and emerging technologies at Central Market and H-E-B. “We have a growing, thriving online business, and we’re trying to figure out how in the world we’re going to keep up with this emerging demand.”

During the first phase of the pilot, a Udelv employee will drive a van developed by the startup with a H-E-B employee along for the ride to help with deliveries.

As the technology collects and analyzes data and learns the optimal routes, it will eventually take over the maneuvering. However, H-E-B will still have the ability to control the van remotely, Tepfenhart said.

[…]

Kroger, Amazon and other retailers have experimented with autonomous vehicles, and Udelv is also working with Walmart to test its vans at Arizona stores and with XL Parts to try out the technology in Houston.

We know about Kroger. I see that bit at the end about Udelv and Walmart in Houston, but a little googling around did not find anything more on that. As for HEB, much like the Kroger pilot in Houston this is being limited to one store at first, in HEB’s case in Olmos Park, with the program set to begin later in the summer. This is clearly the next frontier for grocery stores, so get ready for a more widespread deployment soon. I still think there will be demand for some old fashioned non-autonomous grocery deliveries, for folks who can’t or don’t want to haul the groceries into their residences themselves. But if there’s enough demand to support this option, I’d guess it will be the bulk of the delivery market in short order. The Current and the Rivard Report have more.

Uber’s vision for the future

I feel like this is more wishcasting than real planning. Still, some of it may happen, and if nothing else we should be aware of what it’s all about.

When Uber envisions the future, it not only wants to put urban air taxis and drones in the skies. It also wants to transform how people navigate cities and how they live in them.

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said the San Francisco-based tech company wants to turn today’s cities that are getting denser and more polluted into “cities of the future that are fundamentally green and built for people.” To do that, he said, cities need transportation options that range from cruising down the street on an electric scooter to commuting through the skies.

“We want not just to be the Amazon of transportation but also the Google of transportation,” he said.

One of the first places Uber wants that to play out is Dallas-Fort Worth: It’s one of the first three markets for Uber Elevate, an initiative to launch the aerial ride-sharing service.

[…]

Uber gave a progress report and made splashy announcements at its third annual Uber Elevate Summit. It announced the first international market for the air service: Melbourne, Australia. It revealed that Uber Eats is working with McDonald’s to deliver Big Macs and fries by drone. It touted the progress of six aviation companies that are designing the aircraft. And it dived into specifics, such as economics, safety and FAA-required certification. It showed off its different modes of transportation, from its new self-driving Volvo SUV to electric scooters.

Through splashy presentations and showroom floor exhibits, Uber and its business partners tried to build the case that urban air taxi service is not a far-fetched idea but one that’s coming to fruition.

Uber went public in May. The tech giant’s growth has been fueled by venture capital, but it is spending billions of dollars and has yet to turn a profit. That hasn’t slowed development of its aerial ride-sharing service. It expects to start flight demonstrations next year and launch commercial service in a few cities, including Dallas, in 2023. Eventually, it wants the urban air taxis to become autonomous.

Mark Moore, Uber’s director of engineering for vehicle systems, said he’s already seen some of the aircraft take flight. He declined to name the companies that are flight testing, saying they’re keeping quiet for competitive reasons.

“It’s incredibly impressive,” he said. “They’re nothing like helicopters.”

We first heard of Uber Elevate back in 2017. They had a goal at that time of rolling out a demo in 2020, so as far as their public pronouncements go, they’re on schedule. There re other operators in this space, one at Texas A&M that is working on flying motorcycles, with a test date of 2020, and a different kind of flying vehicle, based on battery power, that is farther away from reality. Beyond those two, we’ll just have to take Uber at their word that there are other companies testing prototypes now.

The challenges are not just technical.

Moore said the next four years will focus on demonstrations that “prove out the safety, noise and performance” of the vehicles.

In 2023, he said it will launch to paying customers in Dallas — but with a limited number of vehicles and limited operations. He said he expects five aircraft per manufacturer at launch. That will grow to about 50 per manufacturer in 2024. But, he said, some manufacturers may not be ready in time.

In Dallas, the average trip is expected to be 20 to 25 miles, Moore said.

But one of the major questions is whether Uber can win over regulators and the public. Unlike other tech innovations, early adopters won’t just use a new kind of technology. They’ll fly in public, so that affects the people driving, walking or living on the ground below, whether or not they choose to opt in.

[…]

“Uber is obsessed with making these vehicles as quiet as possible,” he said.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s acting administrator, Dan Elwell, said he’s enthusiastic about urban air taxis but acknowledged that their development gives him more to worry about.

“Everyone is riveted by this, especially me, but then I put on my FAA regulator hat and I got a whole new bucket of stuff to lose sleep over,” he said in a speech at the summit. “What you see is the ideal way to transporting people across cities. When I look at it, I see car-sized vehicles with multiple rotors hanging over dense urban populations.”

All that was discussed in the first Uber Elevate link I posted above. Noise is also a concern – much is done to abate highway noise for residences, but the only way to do that for aerial vehicles is to make the vehicles themselves as quiet as possible. How t ameliorate the “death from above” concerns, well, that’s going to be a key question. All this from a company that burns money faster than 747s burn jet fuel. I’ll keep an eye on this, but don’t be surprised if the next major update is that the timelines have been pushed back.

What if we didn’t expand I-45?

It’s an awful lot of money that comes with a ton of negative effects and which, if the I-10 expansion is any guide, will have short-lived positive effects. So maybe we should just, like, not do it?

A massive remake of Interstate 45 from downtown Houston north to the Sam Houston Tollway that would be among the largest road projects in the region’s history also is one of the nation’s biggest highway boondoggles, according to an updated list released Tuesday.

The North Houston Highway Improvement Project — the umbrella term for the entire $7 billion-plus plan to remake Interstate 45 — is listed in the latest installment of unnecessary projects compiled by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and Frontier Group. Nine projects across the country made the 2019 list, the fifth annual report from the two groups that have argued for greater transit investment.

“We believe that to fix congestion problems we need to take cars off the road,” said Bay Scoggin, director of the TexPIRG Education Fund, a subset of the national group. “We could do far better investing $7 billion in public transit.”

The dubious distinction on the list comes days before two city-sponsored public meetings to gauge ongoing fears about the project. In the past six months, concerns have ramped up against the project as the Texas Department of Transportation and engineers seek federal approvals, following years of discussions.

The report is here, and you can see a very concise breakdown of the issues with this project here. If you want a bit more detail, Streetsblog read what TxDOT itself has to say about the project.

  • The project’s “proposed recommended” routes would displace four houses of worship, two schools, 168 single-family homes, 1,067 multifamily units and 331 businesses with 24,873 employees. “Potential impacts to community resources include displacement of residences and businesses, loss of community facilities, isolation of neighborhoods, changes in mobility and access, and increased noise and visual impacts. . . All alternatives would require new right-of-way which would displace homes, schools, places of worship, businesses, billboards, and other uses.”
  • “All [build] alternatives would result in displacements that would reduce the size of the communities and potentially affect community cohesion… Proposed alternatives that include elevated structures may create physical barriers between neighborhoods or affect the existing visual conditions of the communities.”
  • The project’s “[c]onversion of taxable property to roadway right-of-way and displacements of businesses that are significant sources of sales tax revenue would have a negative impact on the local economy.” And while at present the downtown area and surrounding neighborhoods “are experiencing various degrees of redevelopment,” the state notes that “growth trends indicate redevelopment would continue independent of the proposed improvements to project facilities.”
  • The project will “cause disproportionate high and adverse impacts to minority or low-income populations.” And the project’s “[d]isplacement of bus stops could affect people who do not have access to automobiles or that are dependent on public transportation.”

Doesn’t sound good, does it? Here’s a thought to consider. What if we took that $7 billion that this project is estimated to cost, and spent it all on transit? That would be more than enough to fully build the Universities and Inner Katy light rail lines, plus the Green/Purple extension to Hobby Airport and the Red Line extension out US 90 all the way into Sugar Land. I’d estimate all that would cost three billion or so, which means there would be between three and four billion left over. We could then take that money and buy more buses and hire more drivers so that we could upgrade most if not all of the existing bus system to rapid bus service, we could create some new lines to fill in any existing gaps, we could add more commuter bus lines from outlying suburbs into the central business district and other job centers, we could build a ton more bus shelters, we could fix up a bunch of sidewalks around bus stops, and we could pilot some more autonomous shuttles to help solve last-mile problems and gaps in connectivity in the existing network. I mean, seven billion dollars is a lot of money. This would greatly improve mobility all around the greater Houston area, and it would improve many people’s lives, all without condemning hundreds of properties and displacing thousands of people. But we can’t do that, because TDOT doesn’t do that, and we haven’t gotten approval from the voters, and many other Reasons that I’m sure are Very Important. So get ready to enjoy all those years of highway construction, Houston, because that’s what we’re gonna get.

Here comes the driverless pizza delivery vehicle

Gotta admit, this has me scratching my head.

No Noids were harmed in the writing of this post

There goes another high schooler’s job: Domino’s Pizza Inc. plans to test unmanned pizza delivery in Houston later this year.

The chain, known as a technology leader in the restaurant industry, is teaming up with Nuro, a Bay Area robotics startup run by a pair of former Google employees. To start, Domino’s will send food to customers from a single store in the Texas city using one of Nuro’s fully autonomous vehicles.

The test is scheduled to start late this year and could expand in 2020, according to the companies. Domino’s has more than 6,000 restaurants in the U.S. and, with the labor market tight, the company is experiencing a driver shortage, with as many as 10,000 open positions nationwide, according to Kevin Vasconi, the company’s chief information officer.

The Nuro partnership will help the chain determine if autonomous vehicles are a way for its restaurants to keep up with demand during busy times when drivers are in short supply, he said.

“Consumers are ready for this,” Vasconi said. “I have been surprised by the overall positive reaction people have had to an autonomous vehicle delivery experience.”

[…]

Domino’s previously tested autonomous delivery vehicles in a partnership with Ford Motor Co. The pilot began in 2017 to see how customers would react to stepping out of their homes to fetch pizza from a locked warming chamber in the vehicle. That program has ended.

Pizza Hut, a chain that made its name with sit-down dining and is now trying to catch up with rivals on delivery, teamed up with Toyota last year to work toward driverless delivery.

Nuro is the same outfit doing the Kroger autonomous grocery delivery testing. See here and here for background on that. I wish there were some information on how the earlier pilot went (I didn’t find anything in a cursory search). With groceries, you get a cheaper delivery price if you go out and lug them into your place on your own. Will that entice people to do the same for pizza? I guess you’d save the cost of a tip, if nothing else. I haven’t ordered from Domino’s in a million years, so I’m the wrong person to react to this news. How do you feel about this? TechCrunch has more.

Metro’s driverless shuttle finally debuts

Nice to have good weather.

TSU’s Tiger Walk isn’t just for pedestrians anymore.

The region’s first autonomous shuttle to carry passengers debuted Wednesday along the tree-lined walk, the center of the Texas Southern University campus. Operated by Metropolitan Transit Authority, the vehicle will ferry students and others along the Tiger Walk as part of a pilot program to gauge how driverless vehicles can solve some of the region’s travel obstacles.

“We have to plan for the future,” Metro Chairwoman Carrin Patman said, noting some Houstonians need reliable local transit to link them to major bus and rail stops, a hurdle in transit circles referred to as “first-mile/last-mile.”

“Autonomous vehicle technology has the ability to serve those needs and many more,” Patman said, standing in front of the blue shuttle. “Once these things become commonplace, we can have these autonomous vehicles lined up.”

[…]

The vehicle for now uses an established route with three stops around campus, relying on sensors to detect when it is safe to proceed and avoid others along the Tiger Walk, which is a closed part of Wheeler Avenue across the college. The Tiger Walk intersects with the Columbia Tap Trail.

The second phase, likely in 2020, will extend the shuttle’s route to the Purple Line rail stop near TDECU Stadium and the University of Houston campus. That will be the first foray into automobile traffic for the shuttle, along a stretch of Cleburne Street. The third phase of the trial will extend the shuttle service to the Eastwood Transit Center at Interstate 45 and Lockwood.

See here, here, and here for the background. I approve of this kind of usage, with the shuttle acting as a connector between the campus and (right now) a bike trail and (eventually) a light rail stop. That’s how you make it easier for people to not use their cars for short trips. I’ll be very interested to see how many people use this thing, and how many of them come from or go to other non-car modes of travel.

DART to study driverless buses

We’ll see what this means in practice.

Dallas Area Rapid Transit has joined a national association of transit and transportation agencies to explore how autonomous buses could shuttle people around cities in the future.

The Automated Bus Consortium plans to research driverless buses and run pilot projects with “full-sized, full-speed buses” to better understand how they could be rolled out nationwide, according to a news release. The group will study the safety of the buses and how they could reduce congestion. By working together, the transit agencies aim to lower the cost of testing and share best practices, the news release said.

The group is made up of about a dozen members, including the transit agencies of Los Angeles County and Atlanta and the Michigan Department of Transportation. The group was created by Los Angeles-based engineering firm AECOM.

For the first 12 months, the consortium plans to study the feasibility of the autonomous buses, according to the news release. It will buy an initial fleet of 75 to 100 full-sized, automated buses, which it will test in 2021 or 2022 on routes chosen by the transit and transportation agencies.

DART does not have a timetable for testing autonomous buses, spokesman Gordon Shattles said. He said joining the group is another way that DART can keep up with emerging transportation technologies.

This feels more like pie in the sky noodling than a practical roadmap, but whatever. There’s value in looking for current applications of existing technology, and seeing where that can take you. I lean towards that timeline for testing being overly optimistic, but we’ll see. Ask me again in 2021 or so.

The driverless shuttle at TSU is ready to roll

I spotted this on Twitter earlier this week.

You may have heard the term autonomous vehicles. These are vehicles that can guide themselves down the road on their own. This technology is being adapted for public transportation. A 2017 statute approved the operation of autonomous vehicles on Texas roads.

METRO has partnered with Texas Southern University for a pilot program in which an autonomous vehicle will operate on a 1-mile, closed loop route along TSU’s Tiger Walk beginning Wednesday, June 5.

To ensure customer safety, an attendant will be on board the shuttle during this pilot program but will not actually be operating it.

The all-electric vehicle seats 6 people, with standing room for 6 others and will operate on weekdays only during these times:

• 8:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m.
• 5 – 8:00 p.m.

How to Ride
The vehicle is intended for usage by TSU students, faculty, staff and campus guests. Rides are free, with riders required to show a current TSU ID or valid METRO Q® Fare Card.

All riders must be 18 years of age or older. All mobility devices (including wheelchairs) and service animals are welcome. But please note: the vehicle doesn’t have wheelchair securements.

See here and here for the background. According to a subsequent press release I received, there will be a ribbon-cutting at the Leonard H.O. Spearman Technology Building at 2 PM, if you want to be there. This is later than originally promised, but better late than never. I can’t be there for the grand opening, so I need to take a day off from work later on and make my way over to TSU so I can try this thing for myself. I’ll report back when I do.

UPDATE: This event has been postponed due to the weather. No word yet on when the makeup date will be.

The timeline for driverless cars

We know they’re coming, but how long it takes them to get here really matters.

For Elon Musk, the driverless car is always right around the corner. At an investor day event last month focused on Tesla’s autonomous driving technology, the CEO predicted that his company would have a million cars on the road next year with self-driving hardware “at a reliability level that we would consider that no one needs to pay attention.” That means Level 5 autonomy, per the Society of Automotive Engineers, or a vehicle that can travel on any road at any time without human intervention. It’s a level of technological advancement I once compared to the Batmobile.

Musk has made these kinds of claims before. In 2015 he predicted that Teslas would have “complete autonomy” by 2017 and a regulatory green light a year later. In 2016 he said that a Tesla would be able to drive itself from Los Angeles to New York by 2017, a feat that still hasn’t happened. In 2017 he said people would be able to safely sleep in their fully autonomous Teslas in about two years. The future is now, but napping in the driver’s seat of a moving vehicle remains extremely dangerous.

In the past, Musk’s bold predictions have been met with A-for-effort enthusiasm and a smattering of polite skepticism. But the response this time has been different. People have less patience for PR campaigns masquerading as engineering timelines. “That’s bullshit,” says Sam Abuelsamid, a research analyst for Navigant, a consulting firm that ranks companies on the viability of their autonomous vehicle plans. “At best, they may be able to create a system that functions under certain limited scenarios. It will not be fully autonomous in 2020 or anytime in the next several years.”

What’s changed? Self-driving cars—and their associated building blocks such as machine learning, computer vision, and LIDAR—continue to improve, but executives other than Musk have been admitting that reports of their impending deployment were greatly exaggerated. Ford CEO Jim Hackett said last month that the industry had “overestimated the arrival of autonomous vehicles.” Chris Urmson, the former leader of Google’s self-driving car project, once hoped that his son wouldn’t need a driver’s license because driverless cars would be so plentiful by 2020. Now the CEO of the self-driving startup Aurora, Urmson says that driverless cars will be slowly integrated onto our roads “over the next 30 to 50 years.” That’s nearly as long as it took computers to evolve from IBM’s first mainframe to Apple’s first iPhone.

I touched on this recently in the context of ridesharing companies and their existential future, which is based in part on self-driving technology. I’ll say again, the prospect of driverless cars has an effect on current policy debates. If you believe they will be in common usage in the next five to ten years, then it’s reasonable to expect that they will begin having a significant effect on driving habits and traffic patterns in the short term. In particular, this argues for a change in approach to how we invest in infrastructure and mass transit. As that link suggests, why spend on rail projects when you can build souped up HOV lanes that will accommodate autonomous buses that travel at 80 to 100 MPH?

But if we’re on a thirty to fifty year horizon, then basically nothing has changed and we should proceed as if driverless cars are no more a part of the landscape than the flying cars we were once promised. Fifty years is forever in infrastructure terms. Hell, thirty years is a very long time. All but six MLB stadia are thirty years old or less, and many of the new stadia replaced other facilities that were between 30 and 40 years old. I’ve lived in Houston for 31 years, and every single highway in this town has been substantially rebuilt during that time frame, some more than once. The same argument about whether or not to invest in light rail should apply to the planned mammoth rebuild of I-45, which last I checked isn’t geared towards high-speed robot buses. I say nothing is worth delaying or deferring for a possible future with a timeline that may be measured in decades. I guarantee this issue will come up when the Metro referendum is officially put on the ballot. I’m happy to discuss how we should integrate autonomous vehicles into our traffic and transit planning, but let’s keep this in mind.

How secure is the future of ridesharing?

Just a couple of recent stories that got me thinking. Item One:

Uber’s business model isn’t all there: While there’s optimism about elements of the core business, the company lost more than $3 billion on operations in 2018, revenue growth slowed between Q3 and Q4, and there’s a possibility that the company might continue to offer big incentive payments to drivers for quite some time and never reach profitability.

But one detail in particular caught my eye. About 24 percent of Uber’s bookings—all the money that customers pay through the app and in cash, including driver earnings—occur in just five cities: New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, and São Paulo.

[…]

This vulnerability casts a new light on, for example, Uber’s 2015 humiliation of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, when the company fought off the City Council’s proposed vehicle cap. That was a warning to other politicians, and a show of power, but it was also a vital business move. The company’s filing also mentions, as a cautionary tale, what happened afterward: Just three years later, the City Council approved minimum rates for drivers and a cap on the number of new ride-hail vehicles. The company also mentions its regulatory challenges in London and San Francisco.

During Uber’s previous skirmishes with cities, I always thought the company’s huge reach and light footprint (very few local employees or inventory) gave them a lot of leverage. They could afford to play hardball with Austin, Texas, one week and San Antonio the next, with little impact on a business distributed so widely.

The filing reveals that certain cities actually have a pretty strong negotiating position. So do the company’s drivers in those places. And its rivals. What appears to be a global, decentralized platform is in fact highly dependent on the whims of a few local politicians, drivers’ groups, and taxi cab unions that can engineer big chokepoints for the company—as London Mayor Sadiq Khan must have done when he revoked the company’s license in 2017. (They got it back last year.)

Another example of the company’s vulnerability by concentration: 15 percent of the bookings pot comes from trips that begin or end at an airport. That might not be so surprising, since airports tend to be cab trips even for car commuters, and being a long way from town, produce high fares. But airports offer a preview of the changing municipal economics that could be coming for Uber. The airport in Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, made more money in 2017 from parking fees than it did from American Airlines. Parking accounted for more than a quarter of the airport’s revenue. As passengers shift to ride-hailing, airport revenues are declining. Airports are an easy place where public authorities can implement a fee on Uber rides to make up for the lost revenue.

That same dynamic is set to play out in cities as well. Congestion pricing, which will soon exist in two of Uber’s biggest markets (New York and London), is just the first way that governments are exerting more fine-grained control over how cities raise money from automobile use.

So Uber continues to burn through money with no end in sight, and is particularly vulnerable to the regulatory whims of a handful of large cities. Hold that thought as we look at Item Two:

Lyft’s initial public offering headache just got worse.

Bloomberg reported Wednesday that following Lyft’s initial public offering, which didn’t exactly go super well, the company is now looking at two separate lawsuits from its investors. At the time the company went public last month, Lyft’s shares were initially priced at $72. But shortly after, its share price began to fall—and kept falling—with the company at $58.36 as of Thursday.

According to Bloomberg, investors allege in their suits—both of which were filed in state court in San Francisco—that Lyft’s claim to 39 percent market share was maybe not quite in line with reality.

The suits also reportedly faulted the company for failing to alert investors ahead of its recent electric bike recall, yet another problem facing the company at present (aside, of course, from ongoing controversy over Lyft’s labor practices).

Lyft, which also loses money hand over fist, had a disappointing IPO and is dealing with shareholder lawsuits and problems with their bike-related subsidiaries. They would also face the same potential regulatory challenges as Uber.

My thought in reading these stories is that the future of urban transportation is increasingly being sold as ridesharing powered by autonomous vehicles. We should be wary about investing in big transit projects because 10 or 20 years from now we’re all going to be taking robot-powered Ubers. But what if Uber and Lyft fail as companies before we get there? What if a combination of technology challenges, cash flow problems, regulatory roadblocks, and competition from other interests stop them in their tracks? Maybe light rail will be seen as as white elephant in twenty or thirty years, but right now our existing light rail lines move tens of thousands of people around every day; in a different political climate, that number would be much higher.

If Uber and Lyft do fail, it is very likely that some other companies will spring up to fill in the gap. Driverless car technology is moving forward relentlessly, regardless of what its ultimate applications may be. Autonomous vehicles are going to be in the transit mix going forward, in some form and with some corporations behind it. I just remain wary of the bold predictions, and I remain convinced that we need to continue investing in things that we already know will work.