Company / division: GM
GM’s Cruise Automation unit has acquired Strobe, a startup which has been working on “chip-scale” LIDAR technology for use in self-driving cars. LIDAR is one of the big bottlenecks in autonomous tech development, both expensive and low-volume at present, with Velodyne currently the dominant supplier. As this Recode piece points out, GM is a bit more deeply invested in autonomous driving than most other legacy carmakers, having acquired Cruise itself as the “brain” of the system and also running various experiments of ride sharing and other services through Cruise and the GM Maven brand, and this acquisition extends that integration. My guess is that the technology was at a fairly early stage – the company seems to have just 11 employees – and it’s therefore unproven, though GM had an existing investment and may know something other potential acquirers didn’t, allowing it to swoop in at an opportune moment to take it off the market. Waymo and Uber, of course, are battling in court over the latter’s attempts to make its own in the image (or otherwise) of Waymo’s.
GM has filed for and received a tax credit in the sum of $8 million from the state of California in return for investing $14 million in office space and related items this year and committing to hire 1163 employees over the next five years for its self-driving tech subsidiary Cruise. Given how the importance of autonomous driving technology will grow in the coming years and the fact that California is the hub of much of the testing, it’s logical that GM would want to increase its base there significantly. However, these 1163 employees represent a more than three-fold increase in its employee base in the state, and the average salary GM is projecting for those employees is $116,000, so my guess is they’ll mostly be skilled engineers.
Cadillac takes aim at Tesla’s Autopilot with ‘hands-free’ Super Cruise technology – The Verge (Apr 10, 2017)
One of my big objections to Tesla’s Autopilot technology has always been the name, which connotes a level of autonomy the system doesn’t actually aspire to and which it certainly doesn’t deliver. Tesla has partly dealt with that issue by updating its software to require users to keep their hands on the wheel, but does little else to ensure attention, which means that even when the system performs as it should, there’s little guarantee that the human driver will. Cadillac today announced a new Autopilot-like feature but very sensibly named it in a way much more likely to give buyers and users an accurate impression of what it does, tying it to the very familiar cruise control already in almost all new cars. However, the more important thing in my view is that the system also comes with lots of protections designed to ensure that the driver does actually pay attention, which is a huge issue in situations where attention but not activity is required, such as driving a car with this kind of intelligent cruise control running. There’s a long history of scientific research in this area, and it all says that paying attention in a passive way like this is something human beings aren’t good at, and Cadillac’s new system is designed to help the driver stay attentive. The big question about this new system, though, is that although it’s being billed as LIDAR-based, it’s not using a LIDAR in the car but instead using mapping data previously generated by LIDAR, which means it’s non-real-time. That, in turn, means that if anything has changed in the road environment since the map was generated, the car won’t know about it, and GM doesn’t seem to have talked much about how frequently it’s going to update its maps of US and Canadian highways to mitigate this.
via The Verge
This article is based on a study by a company called Navigant Research, and it seems to be an evaluating of companies’ strategic assets rather than any actual capabilities today, so it’s worth noting that context for their rankings of companies here. Notably, they rank traditional carmakers in the first six spots, with Waymo apparently the first non-traditional / tech company in the rankings. That’s notable, because all the numbers suggest Waymo is out in front in testing of autonomous driving technology in California by a long way, and although we don’t have equivalent data for Michigan, where Ford does much of its testing, I’d be surprised if it had done many more miles. So this is mostly an evaluation of the benefits the big automakers derive from their existing massive scale and capabilities in building vehicles and bringing them to market, something none of the pure tech companies has (Tesla, of course, has some small-scale manufacturing capability and is looking to ramp fast, but comes in 12th in the rankings nonetheless). This jives with my perception that, even as these tech companies do increasingly well in developing their own technology, they’re very unlikely in most cases to build the cars, and as such the traditional car companies are still in a position of strength and potential leadership when it comes to actually building and deploying the technology.
via USA Today
I’ve argued that the big car companies are actually participating pretty actively in the three big shifts occurring in their industry at this point, rather than just sitting idly by, and GM’s Maven business is a good example of some of that engagement, albeit on a fairly small scale. This new model doesn’t seem all that compelling – at over $1000 per month (including insurance, gas, and parking) it’s a little steep for a month’s Volt rental, which would cost you a fraction of that on a longer-term basis. But at least the company is experimenting. Other Maven services are a lot more interesting, and I had an interesting conversation with some of the team at the Detroit Auto Show in January. Maven Home is designed for high-end apartment complexes, for example, where owners get access to cars on an on-demand basis through their building, and GM is also doing interesting things with both Uber and Lyft separately.
This is an interesting but not altogether unexpected step. There’s an analogy here to Amazon’s discounted Echo-only music service, which takes advantage of the same limitations to offer a lower price for something that would normally cost more. GM is now offering $20 for unlimited data, which is the same as it used to charge for 2GB of in-car WiFi data. AT&T continues to sell in-car connectivity to carmakers at a rapid rate – about a million subs per quarter – but these subs are mostly extremely basic at the outset, covering just in-car telematics for a few dollars a month. Only if subscribers actually start buying the additional features such as OnStar and this kind of in-car WiFi does AT&T start to generate a more meaningful revenue per user, so being more aggressive about the pricing, especially as AT&T reintroduces unlimited plans for its own services, makes a lot of sense. And of course since GM gets a cut, it’s strongly incentivized to sell these services too.
That’s two major carmakers who now plan to deploy their first autonomous vehicles in ride sharing fleets, with Ford already committed to rolling out its first self-driving cars in a similar scenario. This makes lots of sense – two of the biggest limitations of early AVs are going to be cost and restricted geographic use, so deploying them in ride sharing fleets where they can be limited to a narrow area and driven almost constantly creates conditions in which they can still be both effective and cost effective. I’m still skeptical that we’ll see these cars roll out in more than one or two markets in the timeframes mentioned here, and even then I think it’s quite likely they’ll require human drivers for quite some time. But all this also reinforces the sense that it will be many years until we see universally autonomous vehicles (rather than cars able to be autonomous within narrow confines), and also somewhat undermines Lyft’s claims of getting to 50% autonomous in its fleet by 2021.
I linked to a news item a while back about a Massachusetts bill which was intended to find ways to tax autonomous and electric vehicles, and in doing so talked about the competition that’s emerged between states and municipalities over autonomous driving – some have been welcoming, while some seem determined only to see trials of the technology as a tax revenue opportunity. But the patchwork of regulations and policies across the US is also a major barrier to the launch of production autonomous vehicles, because any vehicle sold in the US needs to be able to drive across state lines. As such, major carmakers are today asking the federal government to do what it can to create a harmonized rather than fragmented regulatory approach across the US. It’s interesting that it’s the major legacy manufacturers rather than newcomers like Tesla, Uber, or Waymo making this request, but they would certainly all benefit if the government listened.