self-driving cars

First Lexus with self-driving system arrives in 2020

Lexus President Koji Sato has revealed that the automaker will offer its first self-driving system in 2020.

Speaking with Automotive News (subscription required) in an interview published last week, Sato said the system will offer hands-off capability but drivers will still need to monitor the road and take over in case of an emergency.

This means the system will rank at Level 2 on the SAE scale for self-driving capability. The end goal is a Level 5 car, i.e. one that can handle all situations on its own and thus doesn’t require a driver behind the wheel.

Lexus will offer more advanced self-driving systems via over-the-air updates as they become available, and as the regulations and societal acceptance surrounding the technology matures, Sato said. He also said Lexus will eventually offer the technology across its full range.

Koji Sato

Lexus is expected to introduce its first self-driving system in the LS flagship sedan. The automaker may have even previewed it with the LS+ concept car unveiled in 2017. The concept featured a self-driving system for highways, aptly named the Highway Teammate.

Lexus said at the time that Highway Teammate could handle almost all aspects of highway driving from the on-ramp to the exit, such as merging into highway traffic, lane keeping, speed adjustments, lane changes, overtaking and maintaining vehicle-to-vehicle distance.

Other automakers offer similar systems, with Cadillac’s Super Cruise the most advanced so far. However, Cadillac’s system only works on highways where there is sufficient map data available.

Lexus’ parent company, Toyota, is working on its own self-driving system. It will demonstrate some of the technology this summer during the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo and in 2021 it will add some self-driving Sienna minivans to Uber’s own fleet of self-driving cars.

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self-driving cars

Cruise Origin previews a future that takes the driver out of electric ride hailing

As rainy weather and rush-hour congestion tested drivers’ patience and attention outside, Cruise revealed its fourth-generation driverless vehicle inside, near its San Francisco headquarters.

Cruise CEO Dan Ammann really put it bluntly when introducing the company’s next-generation vehicle that’s connected, autonomous, shared, and electrified. “It is self driven. It is all electric. It is shared. It is not a concept; it’s a production vehicle,” he said of the Origin, a GM-based people-mover good for up to six people and due as soon as next year.

Behind that bluntness is a more nuanced message, however. Cruise will offer a service that will one-up ride-hailing companies by offering a more consistent experience, save energy, and save users money. And the Origin is the platform for making that happen. 

With a next-generation sensor set—details not yet disclosed—and electric propulsion systems shared at a high level with GM’s next-generation BEV3 electric-vehicle architecture due soon, the Origin is built to take advantage of economies of scale, easy hardware upgradeability, and a service life intended for more than a million miles. 

“We are leveraging all the resources that we can of the new GM electric platform,” said chief engineer Jason Fischer, who confirmed that it’s built with one motor at the rear axle.

With full Level 5 autonomous-driving capability, it has redundant controls for steering and braking built in from the start. There’s no driver’s seat, steering wheel or pedals; there are no windshield wipers or rearview mirrors. Wherever it is intended to be used, occupants are not expected to focus on the road ahead. 

GM Cruise AV self-driving car

Right now, Cruise is getting itself to that origin point, so to say—by running its Chevy Bolt EV–based Gen 3 vehicles on San Francisco streets 24 hours, seven days a week, and testing them with a rideshare service that any Cruise employee can use. 

Cruise, which was founded in 2013, has been owned by GM since 2016 and gained Honda as an investor in 2018, says that they’re already so smooth and safe that if you were to stretch out the chaos of San Francisco streets from coast to coast, they could go without a fender-bender. 

Going completely electric—rather than hybrid, as some other autonomous-vehicle projects—is one of Cruise’s central goals, and critical for saving energy and saving users money. 

“The first thing you do is get rid of the whole fossil-fuel-burning thing,” said Ammann. “The next thing you do is to remove the driver because no matter how advanced the car is, that driver is still tired, distracted, frustrated, and rushed.”

Cruise Origin driverless vehicle - CTO Kyle Vogt

Cruise Origin driverless vehicle – CTO Kyle Vogt

Cruise claims that its new-generation sensor set, software, and hardware altogether have “super human” abilities. It’s assuming that several generations of sensor technology will be installed in the Origin over time. That means better pricing, an experience that’s going to get better over time, and less waste.

The Origin is steel-bodied and will be assembled in the U.S. at an existing GM plant, company officials confirmed.

Cruise has been working on this vehicle for three years. “There’s a level of maturity in this vehicle that we’re very proud of that we haven’t seen in the industry,” said Fischer.

Up close, the Origin looks very big, but according to those at Cruise it’s all a visual trick based on having such a large cabin. Side doors slide, so that the vehicles may coexist with bicyclists and scooters. 

The Origin would be capable of highway speeds, Ammann said, but he declined to say how fast—or the approximate range of the vehicle. 

At scale, Cruise expects to produce the Origin for roughly half as much as it costs to build a conventional electric SUV today. And the Cruise Origin will be utilized so much more of the time than vehicles with personal ownership.

Cruise Origin driverless vehicle

Cruise Origin driverless vehicle

Beyond saving money, that means fewer cars clogging up our roads, fewer cars piled into parking lots, and eventually fewer cars going into the scrap heap. 

Ammann said that the company’s investment in the Origin will give the company flexibility to develop vehicles for lots of other purposes—none of which will be owned by companies other than Cruise. They’ll all be provided as part of a service. 

The Origin is engineered to be a global vehicle and potentially a global service, but in the short term the U.S. is the priority. 

“We’re working very hard on FMVSS with NHTSA and the Department of Transportation to deploy these vehicles at scale when it’s safe to do so,” said Fischer. “We’ve had very good luck with the leadership at NHTSA and DOT to start removing some of the barriers…and they’ve been very cooperative with us.”

Cruise Origin driverless vehicle - sensors

Cruise Origin driverless vehicle – sensors

The vehicle depends on the cellular network, possibly allowing for areas with brief dropouts. So cross-country operation isn’t considered part of that vision yet and at this stage Cruise is focused on establishing and proving it first in small demonstration areas, then in select city environments—making money on airport runs and moving people across urban areas. 

“If we’re really serious about improving life in our cities, we need huge numbers of people to use the Cruise Origin,” said Ammann. “And that won’t happen unless we deliver on a very simple proposition: a better experience at a lower price that what you pay to get around today, here in San Francisco.”

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self-driving cars

Tesla files patent application for glass-cleaning lasers

Sometimes, water isn’t enough.

The Tesla braintrust earlier this year filed a patent application in the U.S. for debris-cleaning lasers, which could be used on Tesla’s driver-assistance hardware susceptible to weather and dirt. The patent was first reported on by Car and Driver in November.

Tesla glass-cleaning lasers

According to the patent filing, the system would use cameras to detect debris or weather and then use lasers to clean the surface of material including “snow, water droplets, paint, bird-droppings, bug-splats, plant-sap, oil spills, grimes, dirt, and mud.”

The filing goes in extensive detail to explain a relatively simple process of cleaning windshields, sensors, and photovoltaic panels that accumulate dirt, water, and debris—except this time with lasers. One thing worth noting is the system’s calibration to pulsate at ultra-short frequencies to avoid damaging sensor equipment, which would also be coated in a material such as indium tin oxide to protect the cameras or sensors.

A patent application doesn’t guarantee that it’ll show up on any car soon, or ever. Automakers routinely file applications for research and development tech that never sees the light of day, but it’s an interesting insight into the automaker’s skunkworks.

Tesla glass-cleaning lasers

Tesla glass-cleaning lasers

And Tesla’s system isn’t a solution in search of a problem, at least not in the future. As advanced driver-assistance systems evolve and become more common, the need to mitigate weather and debris becomes more important. Driver-assistance systems such as Tesla’s Autopilot have a very specific vulnerability: they don’t operate very well when snow, dirt, or mud accumulates on the sensors. Cleaning those sensors will be important in the future, because driver-assistance systems will be needed on more than just sunny days.

For now, we’ll have to rely on water.

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