CES 2018 (Las Vegas) introduced us to the dawn of “Driverless Stores”, “Driverless Hotels”, “Driverless Meeting Rooms” and even “Driverless Restaurants”. These introduce new ways autonomous self-driving vehicles can be used for real world applications. One pick for innovation and concept is Toyota’s E-Palette. It’s an “on demand city” platform as Toyota calls it. It is basically an autonomous or remote controlled driverless shuttle, the “driverless technology of things” so to speak, that most likely is an EV and a Level 5 autonomous vehicle that can be multi-purpose. Companies can deploy them as a mobile retail outlet, emergency medical clinic, meeting room and even private dining experience. Imagine you and your spouse going on a date inside a driverless restaurant, just the two of you. The whole time won’t be spent inside a building, instead the driverless restaurant will drive all around Santa Monica let’s say to give a great wine and dine experience. This also allows a “hotel room” to drive and pick you up at the airport and then back to the real hotel.
There are so many uses for these driverless shuttles and it makes so much sense. Why does everyone have to drive separately to a meeting when the “meeting room” can pick you up and drop you off safely as well? One of the developers explained that the E-Palette concept aims to be environmentally friendly and socially acceptable as well. This also explains why automakers are developing vehicles with no steering wheel. It is for the purpose of full autonomy like in driverless shuttles. Now should one of these break down, is there a way for humans to control them? Actually there is but it still doesn’t involve a steering wheel. Steering wheels are constructs of mechanical systems. The cars and vehicles of the future are electronic and some of them use a concept called “steer by wire” which is already being used in the Infiniti Q50. Basically an ECU controls the wheels of the vehicle by means of sensors and actuators for maneuvering. Now if the vehicle actually stalls, then it requires towing.
An example of an actual driverless shuttle in service is HOP ON, which is also being offered for free (as of writing). The autonomous driverless shuttle, designed by Navya, is sponsored by the AAA (American Automobile Association) and operated by Keolis to run a 3/5 mile loop in downtown Las Vegas. It is a rather short route, but it gives riders a sense and feel of the driverless experience. There is no steering wheel or pedal anywhere in the shuttle. There is a human safety operator and also guide who explains the way the shuttle works to the riders. Safety is a primary concern, so the shuttle has been programmed to go no more than 35 miles per hour. The shuttle uses a combination of 8 LiDAR sensors, GPS navigation with 4G and 4 cameras along with V2I (vehicle to infrastructure) sensors to manage traffic signals. According to the safety operator, the HOP ON is programmed to wait 15 seconds at a stop sign before moving into traffic. I had a good experience with the ride, but I must say, the system applied the brakes too hard sometimes so it wasn’t a smooth ride at some point. Nonetheless, this shows that driverless shuttles have good potential for mass transit once tiny quirks are ironed out. It can also be offered by operators as a Mobility-as-a-Service for ride sharing. Another company called Olli, has also developed smart driverless shuttles for this purpose.
Toyota had also announced a planned partnership with Amazon and Pizza Hut that involves the development of autonomous vehicles for delivery service. Toyota as we discussed already has their proto-type in E-Palette. Another company called Nuro has developed driverless delivery vehicles. Nuro aims to provide its vehicles for service to retailers for delivering groceries and purchased goods direct to the consumers. The advantage is in the reach and speed these vehicles can bring services to various locations. It can be in remote or urban areas. Retail, food, delivery, ride sharing, public transport and medical services can benefit from these vehicles. It will be fully electric and have full self driving capabilities. It aims to lower costs since they don’t require paid drivers and do not need fuel. For companies that do retail with delivery, it would be practical in terms of cost benefits as well.
Other creative ideas for driverless vehicles are to provide a meeting space and mobile office for professionals who are always on the move. It provides convenience and saves on physical space since the vehicles will be on the road. The company IDEO aims to provide driverless autonomous vehicles as mobile offices and delivery vehicles. Besides lowering costs, they are also zero emission vehicles so they use clean renewable energy.
Autonomous trucking is also taking off like with Tesla and their semi truck. Driverless trucks that are fully electric can cut costs to transport products since it uses no fuel and does not require a full time driver. The potential for faster transport is there because the semis can travel up to 600 miles (target estimate) at a single charge with no required rest stop and re-fueling.
Ride sharing services are another industry moving toward driverless. We can see this with efforts from Waymo and Uber, though Uber has had a setback to their robotaxi plans due to an accident that caused a fatality. Waymo is moving forward with their partnership with Jaguar/Land Rover. 20,000 I-PACE vehicles will be provided to Waymo by Jaguar/Land Rover. They are full time robotaxi ride service, driverless, EV and fully SAE L5. The testing begins mid to late 2018 with target service date in 2020.
As more enter this field, it can only bring newer ideas. Driverless vehicles main benefits are in automation. It can assist physically handicapped or disabled persons, provide convenience for delivering items like furniture (not everyone has a pickup truck large enough for everything), save time driving to meetings and perhaps most important is how it can service the growing senior population. The US baby boomers are entering a new era where automation will benefit them tremendously. For seniors to not have to drive can increase public safety and at the same time provide them a way to get to their destination. Seniors who are too elderly to drive will get the help they need with mobility from self-driving cars and driverless services that will be offered. Cutting costs in operations is the next benefit, allowing operators to deploy these vehicles with little to no supervision. Safety and reliability is the most important concern regarding driverless at the moment before it can be adopted for mass use. As the AI controlling these systems continues to get better, the hope is for these systems to reach a level that guarantees the public assurance on their safety. The tremendous benefits are there to be explored in the real world.
Toyota to partner with Amazon and Pizza Hut for driverless delivery development:
Tesla Semi Trucks
Driverless Cars and Mobility for Seniors and the Disabled:
Waymo and Jaguar Self-Driving Cars