Thoughts on Automobility LA

Day one of the 2019 Automobility LA show might be best summed up in one word “Karma.”  The first media day is basically a series of thirty minutes (or more) technology update panels.  I find it interesting on a number of levels, including what really is new and what is status of the field.

For the most part, especially if you have attended a number of these over the years, you take what is said with a grain of salt and consider it a lot of marketing hype designed to stimulate discussion, create awareness, and in more cases than not, investor interest.

My ‘take-aways’ from today include:

  • The new CEO of Faraday (he was the CEO of Byton last year) sees the real financial profitability coming from the interconnected digital experience, rather than through the sales of their FF91 (September 2021) at $150-200k, or of their FF81 after that at $60-80k.
  • The “living space” experience of future semi-autonomous and ultimately, fully autonomous (levels 4 and 5) vehicles is the ‘hot’ topic focus of many presenters here.
  • Critical is figuring out how to integrate all of the vehicle voice assistants, such as OEM versions and Alexa, along with the artificial intelligence (AI) dynamic data base so that it is a seamless experience for the end user.
  • Figuring out how to gain the trust in the general public of autonomous vehicles (AVs)

One split in thinking and focus that I feel isn’t being given enough effort is that there really are two very different AV ‘roads’ that need to be integrated for this future disruption to succeed.  That is, one faction sees AVs as ultimately the replacement for the personal car as simple a means to primarily get from A to B, while the other is attempting to create a whole new means of experience that people will just want to do because of the experience.  The later are focused on integrating lots of monitors (screens), high end audio, augmented reality, etc.  An overriding issue for both factions is what the respective impact will be on reducing congestion in urban environments.

Continuing issues include lack of standardized intra and inter vehicle communication (software), privacy of the ever-expanding data base on each end user (incrementally increasing under the 5G capabilities), and lack of interstate DMV regulation for AVs.

It still appears that the near future of AVs will be restricted to proprietary lanes on highways and in urban environments, where human driven vehicles are not allowed to drive.  Under this set-up, I believe we will see a significant reduction in accidents and deaths.

Oh, and why this first day is best summed up as Karma? The simple answer is that Karma had their FF91 there, as well as functioning protypes of their future vision cars the SC1 and SC2 (convertible and hardtop respectively, each with ‘scissor’ doors), and their Revero GTS model.  Alternatively, as a bit of tongue-in-cheek, perhaps the future of AVs is just karma personified…

More to come.  In the interim, what are your thoughts?

Technology Designed To Get You To Say Good-bye To Privately Owned Cars.

[Hold on there fellow gearheads, there may be some validity in this statement 😃 ]

By Jeff Daum, Ph.D., PPA Photojournalist, Technology & Product Analyst

Interview with Justin Rees (JR), Founder & CEO Ride Systems, Kelly Rees (KR), President Ride Systems, and Ilya Rekhter (IR), CEO DoubleMap.

Backstory: Ride Systems and DoubleMap had just merged at the time of this interview, bringing together two companies with a proven track record of providing safe, fact-based real-time information on transportation alternatives for getting from point A to point B.  This includes public transit and on-demand (Uber, Lyft etc.) transit.  The combined data bases comprise public transit riders, corporations (employee vans), airports, universities and hotels.  While now operating under one holding company, both will maintain their respective brick and mortar headquarters.  Both companies have a free app (Ride Systems and DoubleMap GPS) allowing the user to see alternatives available to get from A to B either entirely on one service or in combination, along with real-time indication of when the option will be at a specific location.

(left to right) Ilya Rekhter, Kelley Rees, Justin Rees

JD Let’s start with a statement by you Justin: “Our services offer a quantum leap forward enabling everybody to say good-bye to privately owned cars soon.” Would you please put that in perspective?

JR Timing is everything, millennials are delaying the purchases of large items, cars and houses for example.  They also want to live in big urban areas.  So, they are already forgoing owning multiple cars or even any car, for more liberating options.  The other side of that is that you are seeing even the automakers get into the services business.  They want to be mobility companies.  As you saw at CES, big companies are investing heavily in autonomous cars, sensors, and smart cities. Those companies are trying to shift from being a commodity producing company into service and mobility sector. 

So, you are seeing transportation sharing options greatly increasing and providing short, medium and long-range alternatives, from scooters to ride share, to on demand to public transit.

IR To piggy back on what Justin is saying, it starts with that family that has one car and thinking about buying a second car, the easier we can make it for them to ride public transit and not need to buy the second car, the more it will continue trending that way.  Then you take it and make it more personalized with more options including public transit, and combine in one place, and easy to use app, those options to get from point A to point B and more and more people will use it.

JR So why do people hesitate to use the other modes of transportation? It’s the lack of confidence in public transit, for example, where is it? Will it ever get here?  How long do I have to wait?  All those questions prevent people from feeling comfortable in using public transit.  You have to have confidence in it to want to use it.  Same thing is true for other alternatives, such as scooters or bikes, on demand cars- you gain confidence if you know where it is and how long you have to wait for it.

Having the information available to them is where we come in.  We own the data in that middle market, we are in seven hundred plus locations.   We provide real time information for public transit and other modes of transportation.  Big cities, small cities, corporations, medical centers, universities.  As a result, we have scooter companies, car sharing companies and automotive companies come to us and say since you are already in all of these places if we team up, instead of launching in just a few select places, we can deploy on a large scale using your existing network and contracts with the cities.

JD: Is your audience the same for the public transit as it is for on demand rides?

IR For us it started with the transit riders, but now they can see in the same app, a mesh network to get from point A to point B, an alternative means to cover the distance from where they live to the bus, or from the bus to their ultimate destination, or even not to take the bus at all but one of the other options.

JD But will the individual who uses an Uber or Lyft, now decide because of your app, to use public transit? What is the incentive?

IR Perhaps seeing there are clear options that can save money, particularly if time isn’t critical.  The ride share companies are interested in being part of our app to get more ‘eyeballs’ to see their services.  Also, it depends on what a particular city has in terms of arrangements with different ride share companies.  If they have agreements with for example, both Uber and Lyft, then both would be part of our app for that city.

JD Are taxis favorable to your app?

IR Using Dallas as an example, the city has brokered a deal with Uber and Lyft, as well as the taxis.  That is a differentiation for our service, we don’t take a position pro one service or another.  The taxis in Dallas have our software in their cars, so they can serve more as an on-demand option.

JR The option comes down to the confidence, do I take a scooter to get to the bus, take an Uber to get to the bus, or walk to the bus.  Do I even want to take a bus, is there another option to get downtown?  They will find all those options through our app.  We have the platform where all those options can be made available.  It is all about options, giving the people options to choose from, the freedom to choose how they want to do it.  Of course, with your own car, you can hop in it and go where and when you want, but you have the cost of the car, getting there, garaging or parking it, etc.  If you don’t have a car, the perception has been that you don’t have freedom.  We provide that freedom.

Of course, it will take some time, but people are already doing it- the millennial crowd is already doing it.   We think people are anxious to find a better way to get around.  Traffic is as bad as it has ever been, parking and the cost of owning a car is going up, as is the related stress.  These technologies of making people comfortable to use alternative modes of transportation will help alleviate a lot of that stress.

JD You had mentioned the OEMs are interested in it.  Of course, they are focused on the shift in buying habits and have started offering their own alternatives.  You have Volvo, Lincoln and Cadillac offering new types of quick leases, no obligation, easy swap from one model to another and totally inclusive monthly payments covering the car, the insurance, maintenance and swap potential.  For example, Volvo I think is $500 per month to virtually any qualified individual where they offer the option.  Is this in competition to your service?

IR That is actually music to our ears, we don’t own any of our vehicles except for our pending start of our Tesla X car share service fleet.  The reasons the OEMs are starting these new types of leases is because they want their cars on the road. We have the advantage of offering the use of any of those vehicles as well.  It will be a natural complement.

JD But if you own a fleet, won’t you be seen as pushing your cars vs other options?

IR I don’t think it is a question of one or the other, it is a question of providing as many options as possible.

KR Let’s back up a do a little bit of background on the company.  That might help paint a picture why it won’t be a big deal.  For example, some of our biggest clients are big corporations, closed campuses, etc.  They are the perfect place to start the car share aspect of our business, a specific program for a specific client.

IR For example, where a client may have a fleet of several hundred vehicles and thousands of employees, they can use our app to create on demand vs scheduled rides.

JR Another example, for a client in a big city, we are able to merge all different types of transportation modes (short, medium and long range) and make them available to their employees in one app.  Instead of the client having to go to each of the services and try and negotiate and integrate, we do that for them. Cities are hard to get into on large scale because of the bid process and because cities have little incentive to share information with the specific companies in their area. Because of this we are already involved with a lot of these cities, we offer our clients and strategic partners that connection. That ranges from tracking buses and shuttles for commuters to launching new offerings to the communities members in the area like scooters and car share programs.

JD Let’s segue into details on your app.

KR It is more than an app, it also includes hardware.

JR I look at it as three pillars- the first one is what we are known for, our mobile application.  It is free.  The second pillar is in the vehicle.  In buses, most are a step back in time, with clickers for counting passengers, manually changing the route sign, etc. We install hardware inside the bus that takes over all these functions and frees up the driver to focus on safety and driving.  The third pillar is that the hardware we install integrates these functions on the bus and sends real time updates to our servers where we do business intelligence. That is then reflected for example, in our app, showing current position, time to next stop, etc., as well as real time passenger load, a more efficient routing and use of buses.

IR It is really the analysis and use of that data for both the bus (or car company) and user that is key.  For example, a user can look at passenger load and decide to take a different bus, or if the next bus has a bike rack installed, or can pick up a person in a wheelchair.  While on the bus, they can use the app to order a car to pick them up when they arrive.

We also have numerous capabilities we can build into the onboard equipment, such as badge readers, WiFi capabilities, etc.

JD Where are the buses that you have this technology currently running?

JR For example, Reno, University of Nevada, here in Las Vegas, Arrow Stage Lines, a charter bus service, Houston, Tulsa, really in all 50 states., Guam, Mexico and Australia. We haven’t done a lot of press so it isn’t well known, but we are the single largest provider of this type of technology across the world.  Our service sounds like an app, but it is like the tip of an iceberg in terms of the full range of services we provide.

JD Would you talk a bit about your new roles now as a merged organization of your two companies?

JR Merging makes a lot of sense from a business perspective.  We have been fairly selfless in figuring out what will be best for our employees in both companies, our clients, and how to not disrupt everything.  I will be the CEO, Ilya has the same abilities but he also is one of the best guys when it comes to strategies, and numbers and sales and will be President, so that will be his focus, Peter (SerVass) is always about 10 steps ahead of us in looking into the future, he worked very hard on this merger, and will be the strategist.  Kelly, her focus will be in marketing and press.

IR We are fortunate in that both companies have very capable and strong individuals. Culture has been very important to us.  We have both been self-funded and profitable.  This year we are projecting to be an 18 to 19 million dollars revenue company.  Basically, blending what DoubleMap and Ride Systems has done really well and making one big win.

JD Do you think you will stay self-funded?

JR We are doing great the way that we are, but if the right opportunity comes along, we won’t turn it down, but we are confident in our ability to do this.  This merger enables us to take a risk and really grow the businesses to the next level.

IR The key is that both companies came in with clean balance sheets and profitable.  We have the funding to grow organically.

JR So we are open to the option, we don’t want to restrict our growth if the issue is capital.

JD In summary, what would you like to emphasize?

JR Well, we are the largest real time transit information company in the world, no one has as many and as much variety of clients in as many locations as we do.

IR To our existing clients, it is important to know, there is no turnover.  We are taking the best from both companies and combining it.

JD You handle a lot of data obviously, what type of security and back up do you have?

JR That’s a really great question. A big and important topic for people.  We have secure data centers, AWS with Amazon Web Services, IBM secure data centers, all sorts of redundancy and backups.  We take security around personal information very seriously. 

JD Anything else you would like to add?

JR We are just thrilled to make this merger finally happen and excited for what it means for the people of our two companies, and for our clients and future clients.  The sky is the limit.

IR We are both proverbial garage startups.  To grow it to this, we couldn’t be happier.  We are going to keep the two (apps) brands independent, but integrate across them as appropriate.

KR Looping back to where you opened this, needing to own a car versus wanting to own a car are two different things.  The automotive enthusiast, the hobbyist, the love of driving is different from having to commute from A to B.  As the information (transit options) is out there, we believe more and more people will be giving up their cars.

JD It has been fascinating learning the details, and meeting all of you. Thank you for taking the time and sharing your enthusiasm.  Continued success!

Copyright 2019 © Jeff Daum

Autonomous Vehicles: Part 2

This is the second blog on Autonomous vehicles, for the introduction and first part please see Autonomous Vehicles Part 1 .

Autonomous vehicles- the major potential ‘cons’:

Connectivity:

The sine qua non for the CAV (connected autonomous vehicle) is communications.  It is at the same time its strength and, borrowing from Greek mythology, its Achille’s heal.  To function, autonomous vehicles must rely on a tremendous amount of inter and intra connectivity.  All of the on-board sensors (lidar, radar and cameras, engine parameters, lane departure, etc.) have to flawlessly communicate with one another, as well as vehicle to vehicle, and communicate with traffic management (lights, flow, emergency vehicles, etc.).

jdaum-1

Sounds great in theory, but in actuality this is astoundingly difficult to pull off.  Keep in mind, this connectivity has to function flawlessly all of the time.  There was a bit of irony at CES 2017 in that every presentation I attended experienced a problem at least once with the remote presentation control unit communicating correctly with the media controller equipment.  And this was connectivity at its very basic level!  On a more complex level, there was Faraday’s problem during the press review where their car failed to accept the command to self-park.

Obviously, you can’t have a break in connectivity or the autonomous vehicle will come to a complete (unintended) halt (hopefully), and in doing so will become a potential accident instigator for both other autonomous and non-autonomous vehicles.  What level of redundancy will be sufficient to prevent a loss of connectivity?  While it seems feasible that intra- vehicle (between its numerous components necessary to have an autonomous system) redundancy is reasonably surmountable, what will be necessary to ensure the inter-vehicle, and traffic management, along with live web connectivity, is flawless?

Simultaneously with ensuring the continuous flow of connectivity, there are still two large problems to solve: All communication has to be hack proof (we have seen the videos of someone remotely gaining access to a vehicle’s electronics via one of the communication channels, and taking over one or more of the vehicles systems- acceleration, braking, steering.  Hackers have demonstrated this remotely on cars ranging from Jeeps to Teslas.).  Further a great deal, if not all, of the information has to maintain the privacy of the vehicle (and its occupants).

Additionally, complicating the connectivity issue is what was tagged “Babel” at the CES 2017 A United Language for the Connected Car session.  The general definition of babel is a confused noise, typically made by a number of voices.  Unfortunately, it applies to the current status of proprietary software designed for many of the components needed for a connected vehicle.  The herculean challenge is to get a universal open language used across all components/systems for autonomous vehicles.  Beyond the current Babel-of-software-language is the growing quagmire of state and federal regulations aimed at controlling autonomous vehicle access to our roads.  Currently, an autonomous vehicle approved by nascent laws in one state, may not be able to continue driving when it crosses into an adjacent state.  For example, while an autonomous car can be driven in Nevada, it can’t legally continue into nearby Oregon or Idaho, and if you are in an autonomous car in Florida, you could not continue on into any of its adjoining states.

Societal Impact:

The RAND Corporation pointed out in their 2016 publication Autonomous Vehicle Technology: A Guide for Policymakers, that rather than autonomous vehicles reducing congestion on our roads, they may, in fact, increase congestion.  This conclusion is based on the reduced transportation costs borne by individuals.  For example, the cost of automotive insurance shifts from the owner to that of the manufacturer of autonomous vehicles.   This, combined with increased access (potentially no need for individual driver licenses), could see a substantial surge in the number of individuals travelling at the same time.  Of course, it could be moderated by increased reliance on mass vs low occupancy vehicles.  The elimination of the hassle often associated with finding a parking space (your autonomous vehicle could drop you off and then continue on to a remote parking area, awaiting your request for it to comeback and pick you up) may also contribute to a significant increase in willingness to ‘hop’ into your vehicle and head to a dense, high-use, urban area.

What are the implications for the potential loss of transportation sector jobs, their respective incomes and loss of tax revenues from reduced or eliminated parking garages, meters, etc.?

And while most believe that autonomous vehicles (or even semi-autonomous) will significantly reduce the number of deaths caused by crashes, the is one part of our society that has depended on these deaths- that of organ donations.  “It’s morbid, but the truth is that due to limitations on who can contribute transplants, among the most reliable sources for healthy organs and tissues are the more than 35,000 people killed each year on American roads (a number that, after years of falling mortality rates, has recently been trending upward). Currently, 1 in 5 organ donations comes from the victim of a vehicular accident.” [From Future Tense: The Citizen’s Guide To The Future. Dec. 30 2016]  The potential impact is catastrophic on an already stretched organ donation system.  “All of this has led to a widening gap between the number of patients on the organ wait list and the number of people who actually receive transplants. More than 123,000 people in the U.S. are currently in need of an organ, and 18 people die each day waiting, according to the Department of Health & Human Services. Though the wait list has grown each year for the past two decades, the number of transplants per year has held steady in the last decade, at around 28,000.”[ Fortune: If driverless cars save lives, where will we get organs? By Erin Griffith Aug 15, 2014].

Moral Dilemma:

You may be familiar with the paradox of Buridan’s ass.  As the story goes, a hungry donkey was placed equidistant between two identical bales of hay.  Unable to choose which one to go to, the donkey died of starvation.  The movement towards autonomous vehicles has at least two analogous conundrums: how many deaths by autonomous vehicles is an acceptable number of deaths, and, who is going to have the final approval of the algorithms designed to make a decision for an autonomous vehicle as to who should be sacrificed when a choice has to be made between certain death in a pending accident.  The analogy is that if we can’t reach agreement on both of these issues, the movement towards autonomous vehicles may come to a halt.

Even though these two conundrums are inextricably related, let me briefly explore each separately.  We know factually that autonomous vehicles can lower deaths currently associated with driver error, and that the number won’t rapidly be reduced to zero.  Using the approximately 32,000 automotive related deaths per year (cited in my Part 1), what percent reduction would be ‘acceptable’?  Would a 50% reduction resulting in 16,000 fewer deaths per year, but also 16,000 remaining deaths per year by autonomous vehicles be OK?  Would it take a 75% reduction resulting in 8,000 deaths per year by autonomous vehicles to be considered OK?  The consensus appears to be that while the astounding number of 32,000 deaths per year caused by human error behind the wheel, isn’t good, we seem to have ‘accepted’ it without demanding immediate action on a national or global level.  However, few believe we would be as complacent if the news was filled with 16,000 or even 8,000 deaths per year as a result of autonomous vehicles.

Recently a number of articles have appeared highlighting the other conundrum: algorithms being designed to decide who lives and who dies when the outcome of a pending accident is unavoidable.  For example: “A self-driving car carrying a family of four on a rural two-lane highway spots a bouncing ball ahead. As the vehicle approaches a child runs out to retrieve the ball. Should the car risk its passengers’ lives by swerving to the side—where the edge of the road meets a steep cliff? Or should the car continue on its path, ensuring its passengers’ safety at the child’s expense?” [Driverless Cars Will Face Moral Dilemmas by Larry Greenemeier, June 23, 2016, Scientific American] Or:” Imagine you’re behind the wheel when your brakes fail. As you speed toward a crowded crosswalk, you’re confronted with an impossible choice: veer right and mow down a large group of elderly people or veer left into a woman pushing a stroller.” [Driverless cars create moral dilemma. By Matt O’Brien, The Associated Press January18, 2017].  Who should be entrusted with developing and ultimately approving the necessary algorithms?  Shall there be one algorithm for all autonomous vehicles globally or will there have to be country/culturally specific versions?

Real World Impediments To Fully Autonomous Vehicles:

At this point, autonomous vehicle developers have not been able to handle several frequent occurrences typical to our driving environments.  If a fully autonomous car comes upon road construction, it doesn’t know how to ignore the programming that tells it not to cross a double yellow line, or purposely drive into a temporary lane without lane markers.  It is basically programmed to shut down- or, in Nissan’s case, phone ‘home.’  At CES 2017, Carlos Ghosn, Chairman and CEO of Nissan, during his keynote speech said they are planning on having a centralized station staffed 24/7, to handle “edge” circumstances for their autonomous cars.  In logic, the human contacted by the autonomous car would review the information available from the on-board sensors, and map an alternative route or action.  It is unclear how would this approach be able to scale up instantaneously, for example, when a large section of a country has an extreme disrupter such as flooding, earthquake, etc.?

Similarly, autonomous vehicles cannot negotiate a dirt road, or a road that lacks up-to-date gps mapping.  Neal Boudette in his article “5 Things That Give Self-Driving Cars Headaches” points out, autonomous cars will have a very hard time with unpredictable reckless drivers on the same road in a non-connected vehicle [New York Times, June 4, 2016].

Current thinking of many developers, is to require a (human) driver to serve as ‘back-up’ in those circumstances where the autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicle encounters a situation it isn’t programmed to handle.  Unfortunately, there are severe limitations to how well most drivers would be able cope with such an unexpected/instantaneous hand-off (one doesn’t have to look any further than the tremendous increase in accidents attributable to drivers distracted by texting).  The biggest problem is with a lack of sufficient reaction time even at moderate speeds, let alone highway speeds.  This is further complicated by the well documented fact of vigilance decrement.  The longer the autonomous vehicle is properly handling the driving, the less attentiveness and readiness the ‘back-up’ human will have to properly respond to the hand-off.

In order to succeed, there is going to have to be a significant educational effort of the current, and potential, driving public during the transition period when autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles share the road with traditional non-connected vehicles. Part of this education will need to focus on the trust issue confounded by demographic and age differences in acceptance.

In some ways, many of the concerns today are parallel to those around one of the earliest autonomous vehicles designed to transport people- the elevator.  Original elevators were relatively dangerous vertical transport platforms, operated by a trained elevator operator.  As safety concerns were addressed, elevators vastly improved including having doors, fixed stopping points, redundant mechanisms to prevent free fall, etc.  Shortly after the turn of the twentieth century push buttons were introduced that would permit selecting a specific floor and the elevator to proceed automatically to that floor.  However, it wasn’t until after World War II -forty years after automation- that elevator operators were no longer placed in most elevators.  One of the main reasons for the slow transition from manually operated to fully automated elevators was people were fearful of getting into an elevator that did not have a human operator.  How likely are you to entrust your life to the newest mode of autonomous vehicles?

Autonomous Vehicles Part 3 will explore: What is next?  Is the light at the end of the tunnel daylight or an oncoming train?