In part 2 of this blog I’ll discuss how autonomous vehicles are currently tested as well as a few technology issues. I admit I am skeptical about the timing for a Level 5 to be available around the country.  According to the surveys in Part 1 many Americans agree.

Adam Lashinsky wrote in his Fortune daily email “Data Sheet” of February 28, 2018 50 companies, yes that’s not a typo, have applied for operating permission with the California Department of Motor Vehicles.  He cites the early days of the auto industry when, if you pardon the analogy, car companies were coming out of garages all around the country.  We had to wait for the end of the 1950s for the last struggling independent companies, Nash, Hudson, Kaiser-Frazer, Packard and Studebaker to disappear from the show rooms.

DISENGAGEMENT

This term applies to the event when the human driver takes control of the vehicle because of a problem with the autonomous response.  It could be anything from a lane control problem to a complicated intersection where the car doesn’t seem to be acting safely.  California has been receiving reports from 26 companies for the test period of December 2016 through November 2017. I have not checked results for the startup companies that are not household names’ and nothing was submitted in the period for 24 of the supposed 50 that are operating there.

The report data includes the number of disengagements the total monthly mileage driven plus the mileage for each car and a reason for each event.   GM list 4 reasons, precautionary takeover to address controls, precautionary takeover to address plan, precautionary takeover to address perception and other road user behaving poorly.  WayMo (Alphabet’s car) has a few more using different descriptions.  WayMo reports the two most common disengagements as disengage for unwanted maneuver of the vehicle and disengage for a perception discrepancy.  I couldn’t find explanation for these.

WayMo had far and away the fewest disengagements, 63 over 352,545 total miles driven (that’s one disengagement for every 5,595 miles driven) as compared to GM at 105 over 131,711 miles.  Nissan ran 5007 miles of testing and experienced 24 disengagements. BMW, Ford, Honda and Volkswagen did not do any testing.  Tesla wrote a letter to the DMV saying that their existing fleet of customer-owned cars that operate in “shadow mode” driving “billions” of miles will provide the performance information for the equivalent autonomous vehicle.

Is WayMo’s performance acceptable? There’s a lot of data on automobile use in the US and I will sort it out. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Americans drove 3.2 billion miles in 2016, however this includes SUV’s and light trucks.  There were 129 million passenger cars driving an average of about 13,500 miles which makes for 1.74 trillion miles. Assume that one million autopilot (level 5 no human) are sold between 2020 and 2022 (about 7 million passenger cars are sold each year).  For comparison after a number of years on the market there are only 765,000 electric cars in the US according to Wikipedia.

In 2023 these million cars have driven13.5 billion miles. Multiply this number by the WayMo ratio of miles per disengagement tested and you get 2 incidents per car per year *rounded off to next whole number per car. See below for a spreadsheet screenshot.

Disengagement projectiion

Remember this is only for testing in California using a single safety criterion.  We haven’t seen testing in New York or Minnesota.  (It’s noteworthy that Arizona is allowing autonomous cars on their roads without any testing requirements).  So the safeness of Level 5 (no human) cars is still an open question and will be for a few years. The Economist Magazine quotes Takao Asami of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance saying  “Simple accumulation of mileage will never prove that the vehicle is safe,” so remember the Kelley Blue Book survey showed that only 13% of people surveyed would buy one.

SOME PRACTICAL QUESTIONS

POWER

According to Wired Magazine a lower level autonomous that you can buy today, with just cameras and radar, generates something like 6 gigabytes of data every 30 seconds. It’s even more for a self-driver, with additional sensors like lidar. All the data needs to be combined, sorted, and turned into a robot-friendly picture of the world, with instructions on how to move through it. A Level 5 car will need a processor that delivers 30 trillion operations per second on what’s called an SOC or system on chip.  That takes huge computing power, which means huge electricity demands. Prototypes use around 2,500 watts, enough to light 40 incandescent light bulbs”

Providing internal combustion for power supply doesn’t make sense.  If you relied on the existing EV configurations the operating range will be reduced. This may not be an immediate problem.  The Wired article suggest that the first Level 5 cars will be sold as fleets for urban  use only traveling at slow speeds and within close range of charging stations (however see comment in section on Charging). Chip manufacturing companies are jumping in with more efficient processers.  .

The ultimate goal is to a computer where heat generation is 500 watts and can fit in the space of a glove box for easy access for updating.  Again, the first generation of these won’t be in showrooms.  The market will be crippled if there’s no room for groceries

CHARGING

According to Wikipedia there are 764,666 highway electrical vehicles (EV) on the road at the end of 2017and according to the Department of Energy there are about 17,000 public electrical charging stations (not including residential). Actual connection points are just under 50,000. A Wall Street Journal says there are 44,000 in the US but logic says that this doesn’t include private home-based devices.

There are two types of home charging for an EV, 120 volt AC and 240 volt. AC You can plug the car into an ordinary wall socket with 120 volt but it will be very slow and probably require overnight charging. Residential central air conditioner compressors often run at 240 so you could have an electrical install this assuming your house service has the capacity.  All US cars have compatible ports for these voltages.

There is a faster charging type that runs on direct current (DC) which is limited to public charging stations because DC power must be provided with the help of utilities.  All US (except Tesla) and German cars use one kind of connector for this.  Nissan, Mitsubishi and Kia us a different one and Tesla uses its own for its network of fast charging stations.

How will the Level 5 vehicles get charged?  Will they go to a special station where someone manually connects the car just like the old full service gas stations?

With the onset of more electrically powered vehicles (although the EV future currently looks limited, the burden on the electrical grid will increase, but that issue is for another blog.

Part 3 will discuss how the market will work for autonomous vehicles, some additional technical topics and the fractured regulatory framework.