Google Faces Set Back with Self-Driving Cars
- All Google vehicles are required to have a steering wheel and brake and accelerator pedals, says California DMV.
- Drivers must be able to take “immediate physical control” of a vehicle on public roads if needed.
- Liability concerns could become a barrier to entry.
- California rules outline companies involved in testing self-driving vehicles need $5 million in insurance.
Earlier this year Google unveiled plans for a self-driving vehicle that didn’t have a steering wheel or pedals. However the tech giant’s plan of launching a fully autonomous vehicle is facing more hurdles than anticipated, with the California Department of Motor Vehicles enforcing more stringent testing rules.
The rules, which will be put into effect on September 16 require a driver to be able to take “immediate physical control” of a vehicle on public roads is necessary. That means every vehicle must have a steering wheel and brake and accelerator pedals.
Google has revealed that it will be complying with the California rule by adding a small, temporary steering wheel and pedal system that drivers can use when testing. “With these additions, our safety drivers can test the self-driving features while having the ability to take control of the vehicle if necessary,” Google spokeswoman Courtney Hohne said.
The Issue of Liability
Google has faced a number of bumps in the road, when it comes to getting self-driving vehicles on public highways. Public opinion and concerns of liability have set back launch plans.
Liability might be the biggest hurdle for Google rather than testing rules. When there is no driver, the question of who is to blame in an accident gets complicated and the possible targets of lawsuits expand. The company that designed the technology might be targeted, along with the manufacturer, the car's owner and any passengers who were riding in the vehicle at the time of an accident.
California's testing rules try to tackle these emerging liability questions by requiring that companies involved in testing self-driving vehicles have $5 million in insurance or self-insurance or a bond in the same amount.
However, David Hall, the CEO of Velodyne Inc., which makes laser technology used by Google's autonomous cars, is concerned about liability risks and said California's $5 million requirement is onerous for smaller companies. Hall estimated that the liability risk and the cost to insure against it could increase the cost of Velodyne’s laser devices by thousands of dollars.
Ron Medford, director of safety for Google's car project, asked the California DMV earlier this year to allow other types of autonomous vehicles, such as motorcycles and trucks, to be tested. The state declined.
A Long Road of Testing Ahead
Despite challenges, Google is making approximately 100 prototype autonomous cars. The speed of these vehicles will be limited at 25 mph to make them easier to handle and to limit damage if an accident occurs. Testing on private roads in due to start next month and the cars will be equipped with temporary controls.
Google would like to begin testing the vehicles on public roads within a couple of years. State officials are drafting rules for those tests, which would allow cars without steering wheels or pedals.
Google has discussed using these pilots to test different ways of deploying the technology, including as a taxi or courier service.
Claire Hughes Johnson, an executive in the Google Self-Driving Car Project, said in a speech in July that the technology could be valuable if it is provided as a service.
“What if you all got here today in a self-driving car that dropped you off and then left?” she asked the audience. “So you may not be able to buy one, but you may be able to drive in one in the next five years.”
Dr Peng Wei: Designing the Future of Autonomous Aircraft
Air traffic is expected to double by 2037. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the world will need 37,000+ new passenger and freight aircraft, and more than half a million new pilots—unless we come up with another solution. Right now, a George Washington University School of Engineering and Applied Science professor, Dr Peng Wei, is starting to research autonomous electric aircraft design.
NASA will fund the research, which will study how to minimise risks for electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL). As Airbus states: ‘Autonomous technologies also have the potential to improve air traffic management, enhance sustainability performance and further improve aircraft safety’.
Who is Dr Wei?
An assistant professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Dr Wei has researched aircraft control, optimisation, and AI and ML applications in aviation. Over the next three years, he’ll lead the US$2.5mn NASA grant project in collaboration with researchers from Vanderbilt, the University of Texas at Austin, and MIT’s Lincoln Lab.
Why is His Research Important?
Even though the wide adoption of self-piloting cars, much less aircraft, is still far down the road, technologies that Dr Wei and his colleagues are researching will form the commercial transport of the future. But aviation manufacturers, in order to produce autonomous aircraft, will have to meet extremely high safety standards.
‘The key challenge for self-piloting capabilities is how the system reacts to unforeseen events’, said Arne Stoschek, Wayfinder Project Executive at Acubed. ‘That’s the big jump from automated to autonomous’. In the air, AI-piloted aircraft will have to manoeuvre around adverse weather conditions, such as wind and storms, and other high-altitude risks, such as GPS hacking, cyberattacks, and aircraft degradation. And the stakes are high.
‘If a machine learning algorithm makes a mistake in Facebook, TikTok, Netflix —that doesn't matter too much because I was just recommended a video or movie I don't like’, Dr Wei said. ‘But if a machine learning algorithm mistake happens in a safety-critical application, such as aviation or in autonomous driving, people may have accidents. There may be fatal results’.
What Are His Other Projects?
In addition to the new NASA research, Dr Wei has been awarded three other grants to pursue AI-piloted aircraft:
- A 2-year grant from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in conjunction with West Virginia University and Honeywell Aerospace to investigate “learning-based” aviation systems
- A six-month SBIR Phase I NASA award with Intelligent Automation to mitigate airspace congestion at vertiports—the electric craft version of airports.
- A 1-year collaborative grant with the University of Virginia and George Mason University from the Virginia Commonwealth Cyber Initiative (CCI) to develop anti-cyber attack technologies and aviation video systems
Research like NASA and Dr Wei’s three-year programme will help improve how AI reacts and adapts to challenging air conditions. In coming years, autonomous aircraft will likely take off slowly, starting with small package delivery, then upgraded drones, and finally commercialised aircraft. But congestion issues will worsen until autonomous aircraft are the best alternative.
According to BBC Future, by 2030, commuters will spend nearly 100 hours a year in Los Angeles and Moscow traffic jams, and 43 cities will be home to more than 10 million people. The final verdict? Bring on the AI-operated transit.