Autonomous driving in a city? We're '95% of the way there'

Goal is 'Level 5', where vehicle reacts like human-driven one

Get this disk to the Microsoft DC - it's too much for the cloud

CargoPod generated a stunning 4TB a day during the course of its 10‑day pilot. This was uploaded to Azure for analysis by disk to Microsoft’s data centre in Dublin because it’s too much for the network. That was a simple and slow campus-like environment dealing with people and vehicles.

By comparison, Ocado delivery vans today generate an average of 5MB of data based on hundred of events per day from sensors on board each. Data includes wheel speed, length of time a van was parked, GPS, and customer postcodes to – Ocado says – learn customer patterns. That data is fed into the OSP cloud that calculates and calibrates the ideal routes by crunching four million journey changes a second. The Ocado maxim is "no delivery should make a loss".

Gini photo by Oxbotica

Geni: the vehicle driving Oxbotica’s autonomous ambition (Photo by Oxbotica)

The kinds of scenarios alluded to by Smith in his talk of overtaking will start to be played out in September, when a fleet of six Oxbotica vehicles will be released on the M40 motorway linking Oxford and London under the £13m DRIVEN project. These vehicles will operate at level four with humans onboard to intervene.

Oxbotica has not released details of the vehicles, but they will likely be modelled on its Smart-like Geni two-seater, which is the basis GATEway shuttle and another project – LUTZ Pathfinder testing autonomous vehicles in pedestrianised areas, conducted in Milton Keynes.

The Oxford-to-London run takes place in fast-moving traffic where high-risk scenarios like overtaking will play out – an act where decisions and actions can produce profound consequences. There will also be dynamic situations such as roadworks, where the vehicle is forced to leave a pre-marked course track and drive down temporary lanes.

“We’re getting there in small steps – it’s not a linear trajectory, it’s a spiral trajectory and getting better at certain things in certain environments,” Smith said of the experience.

Machine leaner driver

Professor Nick Reed, academy director of transport research body TRL, which is participating in GATEway, likened the process to a newly qualified human learner driver.

“You can compare it to a human driver, when you are learning to drive on a quiet suburban road until you are ready to step up to busy environments like roundabouts,” he said.

“Not even a human driver will have seen everything and there will be a situation that surprises you. The automated systems are going through that process and then they try to share that experience across every vehicle using the system.

“They will get to a situation where they need to let these vehicles operate in the wild, but they will be very cautious in that they slow down for more experiences than you’d expect them to. As you develop and improve their ability to detect and respond, you will be able to improve their behavior,” Reed told The Reg.

Learning is one thing, but cost of manufacturing of these vehicles and making them affordable is another practical issue for firms like Ocado. Smith reckons the biggest hurdle to self-driving vehicles is not intelligence but cost of sensors needed.

The parts

Take light detection and ranging (LiDAR) – a technology synonymous with self-driving vehicles. LiDAR sensors emit pulsed laser beams so the device knows where it is and its distance from objects, giving the vehicle 360-degree proximity vision. Put LiDAR on a self-driving vehicle and it should be able to sense what’s nearby and the range – down to millimeters.

Google established the popular image and adoption of LiDAR during its self-driving tests as a large cylindrical device mounted atop a vehicle. These rotating devices were made by Velodyne and priced at $64,000. There has been a move to cheaper, more streamlined sensors including non-rotating, solid-state LiDAR with Waymo – the Alphabet spinout carrying the baton of those early Google self-driving tests. These will be 90 per cent cheaper, Waymo says, but will still come in at $6,700. Velodine has promised a solid state LiDAR that, at volume, could be as low as $50 per sensor. Oxbotica’s Greenwich vehicles use rotating LiDAR.

Joe Kempton, autonomous vehicle analyst for Canalys, said: “Across the board, prices of all sensors in vehicles are coming down and that’s been driven by demand and supply, as more automotive OEMs are demanding their highly advanced sensors.”

The ball is therefore in the court of the carmakers – the likes of Audi and Volvo – to ramp up production of vehicles, thus leading to more supply and driving down prices. Oxbotica’s Smith reckons this will happen around 2020-2021.

“The automotive market is going to lead and break those barriers first,” he told The Reg. “Once the auto companies begin to push products we will be ready. The kinds of vehicles we are looking at today will be ready after the car companies have launched.”

GATEway shuttle photo by Oxbotica

GATEway shuttle is Oxbotica’s slow-moving technology and socialisation experiment (Photo by Gavin Clarke)

But there's another practical question for any potential like Ocado.


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