America has long been one nation, indivisible. A multibillion dollar proposal in the upcoming federal budget to be released by the White House aims to make it “a nation moving Beyond Traffic,” as well.
In his final State of the Union address to the U.S. Congress, President Barack Obama remarked that he would make a push for action that would “put tens of thousands of Americans to work building a 21st century transportation system.” There were reports rumoring that Obama might make comments during his speech that were more pointed towards the development of autonomous vehicles. Although the President’s statements were couched in language relating more to alternative energy resources, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx followed up with an announcement at the recent North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) that the 2017 federal budget will include a nearly $4 billion proposal for investing into autonomous vehicle pilot projects over the next decade.
The announcement comes with a list of milestones to which the U.S. Department of Transportation is committed to meeting by the end of 2016. These include guidance on the safe deployment of autonomous vehicles that will be released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) within six months. The NHTSA is also being directed to respond to rule interpretation requests filed by automakers and to work with state regulatory agencies in developing self-driving vehicle adoption policies that could be consistently applied at the national level. As we reported last April here on IPWatchdog, attempts to regulate autonomous vehicles have largely taken place at the state level up to now.
This new initiative in self-driving cars highlights a larger role for the NHTSA, which has been involved in the autonomous vehicle discussion since issuing state level recommendations in May 2013 for policies related to safety and other implementation concerns. It also underscores a major shift in automotive tech development which has resulted in Silicon Valley encroaching upon Detroit’s dominance. With Google, now Alphabet Inc. (NASDAQ:GOOG), and other high tech firms moving into direct competition against conventional automakers like General Motors (NYSE:GM) and Ford (NYSE:F), the entire auto industry is seeing some disruption. There are even those who have wondered aloud, given the prominence of self-driving cars at the past few Consumer Electronics Shows, if that Las Vegas event has become more important to the automotive sector than Detroit’s NAIAS.
Secretary Foxx’s comments came during a NAIAS show that prominently featured autonomous technologies developed by some of the biggest names in vehicle manufacturing. GM, for instance, offered some insights into the Super Cruise tech that will be incorporated into certain 2017 Cadillac models, although the company’s new timeframe represents a delay compared to previous guidance. Super Cruise will provide hands-free lane following as well as braking and speed control functions which will be designed to handle open highway conditions as well as heavy traffic congestion.
Rigorous testing of autonomous driving systems will be required in order to make sure that those vehicles will be capable of safely handling a range of driving conditions. Research being pursued by Ford should help in the development of self-driving cars that can traverse heavy snow, hail or other wintry weather. Ford’s system will look to address the shortcomings of LiDAR remote sensing technologies which can be greatly affected by snow.
Foreign automakers were also seen increasing their commitment to developing self-driving cars during NAIAS. Japanese carmaker Nissan (TYO:7201) showcased a concept electric vehicle which offered self-driving functions that utilized radar, laser scanner and camera sensors to provide automated navigation. Officials from fellow Japanese company Hitachi (TYO:6501) announced that its automatic parking system, which uses controllers and actuators in communication with camera monitoring equipment, should be market-ready by 2018.
One of the companies that perhaps should have made more waves in the mainstream coverage of the recent automotive trade show was ZF TRW, the Livonia, MI-based subsidiary of the German engineering organization ZF Group formed after that company acquired the American firm TRW Automotive last year. Recent remarks from company officials have indicated that the newly formed subsidiary holds a large portfolio of intellectual properties connected to self-driving vehicles. A quick check using Innography’s patent portfolio analysis tools shows us that ZF Group holds 121 U.S. patents related to automated vehicles, which would solidly place it among the top contenders in the autonomous car sector.
Many of the autonomous concept models debuting at NAIAS also featured the utmost in luxury options developed by vehicle manufacturers. Volvo, owned by Chinese firm Geely Automotive (HKG:0175), exhibited a self-driving concept car known as the C26 which has a relaxation mode wherein the driver’s seat reclines until it is nearly flat and the steering controls recess into the dashboard, creating even more cabin space. Luxury vehicle developer Mercedes-Benz, a subsidiary of the German manufacturer Daimler AG (ETR:DAI), pulled the curtain off the 2017 E-Class, a vehicle with a Drive Pilot mode which will maintain speed and distance to other vehicles at speeds up to 120 miles per hour. Luxury features include dashboard touchscreens as well as an LED lighting system that can keep a car lit in 64 different colors.
Another sign of Silicon Valley’s growing influence in Detroit was the attention that Google autonomous vehicle executive John Krafcik received for his remarks on the near future of self-driving car development. Krafcik, the former CEO of Hyundai (KRX:005380), reiterated Google’s view that vehicle automation is a safety issue as many vehicular deaths are attributable to driver error; by some estimates, fully automated vehicles could reduce traffic fatalities by up to 90 percent.
As is the case with just about every other area of intriguing technological developments, we’re seeing innovative activities in autonomous vehicles being spurred on by research and development heavyweight IBM (NYSE:IBM) of Armonk, NY. IBM also exhibited at NAIAS and unveiled a digital dashboard that would offer services through the Watson cognitive computing platform. The cloud-based system will not be developed to provide any autonomous navigation functions but will improve a driver’s use of entertainment, navigation and other information services.
The NHTSA has already been called upon by at least one automaker for an interpretation on federal vehicle safety standards that would enable the inclusion of autonomous technologies in cars that could hit the American market soon. German vehicle developer BMW (ETR:BMW) was recently granted an exemption on rules which mandated that a service brake be depressed when a vehicle shifts out of park; this rule technically prohibited BMW’s Park Assistance Plus remote-control parking system from being installed on cars sold in this country. The NHTSA exemption may mean that American drivers will be able to benefit from the convenience of automated parking and vehicle recall in the near future. The exemption authority granted to the NHTSA gives it the ability to offer exemptions for the deployment of up to 2,500 vehicles for a period of two years. Exemptions are to be issued if it’s determined that the exemption would ease the development of new safety features.