In Detroit, Mcity wants to fast track a future of driverless cars

Driverless cars that know our schedule well enough to arrive at our front door exactly when we need one, that allow us to work or read or even sleep while we commute safely to work — that’s Silicon Valley’s dream for the automobile. Intelligent, autonomous, powered as much by code as fossil fuels.

Only, it can’t happen until the necessary technologies are fully tested — not in the lab but out on the road and under real-world conditions. That’s where the new Mcity comes in.

Mcity Track - 02

While it looks like a Hollywood set, above is a photo of Mcity’s testing track for driverless cars.

Mcity is a highly realistic environment comprised of dirt roads, worn asphalt, blind corners, construction zones, jaywalking pedestrians, even a tunnel. Mcity can be found not in Mountain View or Cupertino, but 30 miles west of Detroit, on the edge of the University of Michigan’s North Campus. It may look like a Hollywood backlot, but it’s much more than that.

Mcity opened last month at a cost of $10 million. It’s part of the university’s aggressive plan to make fully and semi-autonomous vehicles a near-term reality, not for the occasional Google car but for all of us. There’s also the hope that even if software eats the car industry, most of the nuts-and-bolts work remains in and around Detroit.

“There has been little work examining how to integrate the technical, economic, social, and policy considerations to permit a viable driverless mobility system,” James Sayer, deployment director for the University’s Mobility Transformation Center (MTC), told me. Mcity, he added, is one of the first attempts to do this.

Google’s driverless car experiments aside, Sayer notes that “we need to look at mobility as a complex system – not just the vehicle.”

This means Mcity is about more than just cars. It’s a public-private partnership to shape the coming integration between car, computing, and big data. Automotive companies, chip makers, and telcos have already signed up, some dropping more than a million dollars to support the university’s efforts.

We may truly be on the cusp of a transportation revolution. Radically improved commute times, radically improved safety, and badly needed reductions in greenhouse emissions are all within reach — thanks to the driverless car. What’s preventing this dream from becoming reality, obviously, is that the very technologies we stake our hopes on cannot actually be tested on the roads and in the real-world conditions that each of us face everyday. This is possible only through rigorously testing, analyzing and demo-ing these technologies in what is currently the world’s only large-scale, highly realistic road environment.

What happens when a child runs into the street? Or when a cyclist is in your car’s turn lane? Or GPS is down? How easy is it for someone to hack your car’s braking system? These must all be tested repeatedly, under real-world conditions, and not just by a party hoping to make a profit off their success.

A spokesperson for Mcity would not confirm if Google is involved with the project — Google co-founder Larry Page is an alumni — but she did tell me they are vetting additional companies that are interested in testing out their auto tech. Honda, Qualcomm and Verizon have already committed. Expect others to follow.

“Testing new technologies in a realistic off-roadway environment is an essential step before a significant number of highly automated vehicles can be deployed safely on actual roadways,” said Peter Sweatmen, the director of the University’s Mobility Transformation Center (MTC).

With Mcity, a giant step may have just been taken.

Apple spotted driving sensor-equipped vehicles in the Bay Area

San Francisco CBS affiliate KPIX has been following a mysterious minivan tooling around Concord, California, with a roof rack fool of advanced sensors. Checking in with the Department of Motor Vehicles, the station found it was registered to Apple.

That led to some immediate speculation that [company]Apple[/company] is now testing its own self-driving vehicle fleet, but that’s probably a bit of a stretch. The Dodge minivan clearly has cameras and what appear to be light detection and ranging sensors, which are commonly know as LIDAR or just “lasers.” That’s pretty standard fare for a mapping vehicle, and Apple after all has its own cartography and navigation software, Apple Maps.

Apple sensor-equipped Minivan spotted by Claycord

Apple sensor-equipped Minivan spotted by Claycord

As an example, here’s a picture of a [company]Nokia [/company]Here mapping vehicle used to record 3D topographical data, which Nokia then loads into its Here app and sells to many, many customers (Nokia actually is the largest provider of mapping data to the vehicle navigation industry).

Nokia Here mapping vehicle

That doesn’t mean Apple isn’t stepping up its game. Apple Maps has been a bit of laughing stock since it first launched, and Apple has been trying to bring the service up to par with [company]Google[/company] Maps and Here. These camera-equipped vehicles might be compiling photographic data for a Street View kind of service, but there are other possibilities. LIDAR data could be used to add to its 3D library of cityscapes, and detailed street level imagery could be used to provide more accurate turn-by-turn directions and hone its map data with information on sidewalks, urban furniture and other minute details of the urban fabric.

Apple is delving much deeper into the car with the launch of CarPlay this year, so you would expect it to launch more iOS features and software that target drivers. And as with all with location apps in the car, your service is only good as the maps it draws upon.

Report: Uber hired 50 scientists from Carnegie Mellon to build self driving cars

We knew this day would come, but we didn’t know it would be this soon.

According to TechCrunch, Uber is building a research facility in Pittsburgh to invent its own self-driving cars. Not content to rely on Google, the on-demand ride company has reportedly recruited researchers from Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute to build the product.

It has staffed up with 50 senior scientists who will work on the software technology and the vehicles themselves. The Robotics Institute has been “cleaned out” with the flood of high profile departures, the TechCrunch report said.

After this story published, Uber released a blog post confirming the news. It called the center a “partnership” between Carnegie Mellon and Uber. The building will be called the Uber Advanced Technologies Center. As part of its development, Uber will fund faculty chairs and graduate fellowships at Carnegie Mellon. And in the blog post announcing the news, Uber included supportive quotes from Carnegie Mellon’s dean of the computer science department and the Pittsburgh mayor.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has said for a long time that the company intended to eventually shift to self-driving vehicles. That would cut a huge chunk of its revenue cost — drivers take 80 percent of every transaction. “When there’s no other dude in the car, the cost of taking an Uber anywhere becomes cheaper than owning a vehicle,” he explained at the Code conference in May.

Many have used Kalanick’s remarks as proof the company doesn’t care about its drivers’ well-being, since it hopes to eventually eliminate the need for them. On the flip side, the convenience, safety, and efficiency for passengers would be substantial.

A shift to self-driving cars would fundamentally change the nature of Uber’s business by putting the company in charge of the vehicle fleets it deploys. Until now, it has acted as a transportation platform, connecting willing riders to willing drivers, but not owning the hardware of the operation itself.

According to the report, Uber has already started to build work stations for the scientists, although there’s no word on the project’s timeline for completion.

Google looks to Detroit to help build its autonomous vehicles

There’s been a lot of speculation as to whether [company]Google[/company] really wants to be an automaker, but today in an interview with Reuters, Google’s self-driving car project chief Chris Urmson said the company is open to the idea of working with traditional automakers to build its autonomous vehicle technology into cars.

“We’d be remiss not to talk to … the biggest auto manufacturers. They’ve got a lot to offer,” Urmson said in the interview. “For us to jump in and say that we can do this better, that’s arrogant.”

Urmson confirmed Google is in talks with some of the world’s biggest automakers including [company]GM[/company], [company]Ford[/company], [company]Toyota[/company], [company]Daimler[/company] and [company]Volkswagen[/company]. But he didn’t say one way or another if Google will wind up supplying core autonomous driving technology to auto industry or a specific automaker or if it will manufacture the vehicle themselves.

Google’s ultimate plans are still as much of mystery as they were before, but Urmson did seem to stress that Google will need outside help in getting this self-driving car project off the ground even if it winds up being the final manufacturer of the vehicle. Building a car from scratch isn’t like designing Google’s own servers or data centers. Gearboxes, engines and airbags are pretty far outside of Google’s core competency.

Urmson told Reuters that engineering and prototyping specialist Roush built Google’s fleet of driverless test vehicles. Google is also working directly with the auto parts suppliers that directly support the automakers. For instance, [company]Continental[/company] is supplying tires, electronics and other vehicle components to the project.

Google’s self-driving car prototype is now on the test track

Google’s first complete self-driving car prototype is now ready for its first autonomous spin. When Google announced the bubble-like electric vehicle in May it unveiled a concept car and showed off what amounted to several different pre-prototypes designed to test different self-driving vehicle systems.

Some of those cars didn’t have steering wheels, brake pedals or even headlights, but Google has now put all of those systems into its new fully functional prototype, which it is testing in the lab — aka the track — over the holidays. Next year, Google hopes to have the car out in the streets of Northern California, the company said on its self-driving car project Google+ page.

Google Self-driving car prototype

This car still looks a gumdrop on wheels, but its roof-mounted sensor rig has been scaled down to the size of a large nodule, resembling the bump that grows from a cartoon character’s head when hit by an anvil (Speaking of cartoons check out Oatmeal’s sneak peek of the Google car). This car also actually has headlights and manual controls like a steering wheel so its “safety drivers” can take over the vehicle while testing it in the wild.

Ford moves away from car features to car “experiences”

While that focus has been mainly on industrial design throughout Ford’s century-long existence, Ford is now venturing into the world of digital design, shifting much of the design focus to the interior controls of the vehicle.