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It’s been a long time coming. For years Waymo (formerly known as Google Chauffeur) has been diligently developing, driving, testing and refining its fleets of various models of self-driving cars. Now Waymo is going big. The company recently placed an order for several thousand new Chrysler Pacifica minivans and next year plans to launch driverless taxis in a number of US cities.
This deal raises one of the biggest unanswered questions about autonomous vehicles: if fleets of driverless taxis make it cheap and easy for regular people to get around, what’s going to happen to car ownership?
One popular line of thought goes as follows: as autonomous ride-hailing services become ubiquitous, people will no longer need to buy their own cars. This notion has a certain logical appeal. It makes sense to assume that as driverless taxis become widely available, most of us will eagerly sell the family car and use on-demand taxis to get to work, run errands, or pick up the kids. After all, vehicle ownership is pricey and most cars spend the vast majority of their lives parked.
Even experts believe commercial availability of autonomous vehicles will cause car sales to drop.
Market research firm KPMG estimates that by 2030, midsize car sales in the US will decline from today’s 5.4 million units sold each year to nearly half that number, a measly 2.1 million units. Another market research firm, ReThinkX, offers an even more pessimistic estimate (or optimistic, depending on your opinion of cars), predicting that autonomous vehicles will reduce consumer demand for new vehicles by a whopping 70 percent.
The reality is that the impending death of private vehicle sales is greatly exaggerated. Despite the fact that autonomous taxis will be a beneficial and widely-embraced form of urban transportation, we will witness the opposite. Most people will still prefer to own their own autonomous vehicle. In fact, the total number of units of autonomous vehicles sold each year is going to increase rather than decrease.
When people predict the demise of car ownership, they are overlooking the reality that the new autonomous automotive industry is not going to be just a re-hash of today’s car industry with driverless vehicles. Instead, the automotive industry of the future will be selling what could be considered an entirely new product: a wide variety of intelligent, self-guiding transportation robots. When cars become a widely used type of transportation robot, they will be cheap, ubiquitous, and versatile.
Several unique characteristics of autonomous vehicles will ensure that people will continue to buy their own cars.
1. Cost: Thanks to simpler electric engines and lighter auto bodies, autonomous vehicles will be cheaper to buy and maintain than today’s human-driven vehicles. Some estimates bring the price to $10K per vehicle, a stark contrast with today’s average of $30K per vehicle.
2. Personal belongings: Consumers will be able to do much more in their driverless vehicles, including work, play, and rest. This means they will want to keep more personal items in their cars.
3. Frequent upgrades: The average (human-driven) car today is owned for 10 years. As driverless cars become software-driven devices, their price/performance ratio will track to Moore’s law. Their rapid improvement will increase the appeal and frequency of new vehicle purchases.
4. Instant accessibility: In a dense urban setting, a driverless taxi is able to show up within minutes of being summoned. But not so in rural areas, where people live miles apart. For many, delay and “loss of control” over their own mobility will increase the appeal of owning their own vehicle.
5. Diversity of form and function: Autonomous vehicles will be available in a wide variety of sizes and shapes. Consumers will drive demand for custom-made, purpose-built autonomous vehicles whose form is adapted for a particular function.
Let’s explore each of these characteristics in more detail.
Autonomous vehicles will cost less for several reasons. For one, they will be powered by electric engines, which are cheaper to construct and maintain than gasoline-powered engines. Removing human drivers will also save consumers money. Autonomous vehicles will be much less likely to have accidents, hence they can be built out of lightweight, lower-cost materials and will be cheaper to insure. With the human interface no longer needed, autonomous vehicles won’t be burdened by the manufacturing costs of a complex dashboard, steering wheel, and foot pedals.
While hop-on, hop-off autonomous taxi-based mobility services may be ideal for some of the urban population, several sizeable customer segments will still want to own their own cars.
These include people who live in sparsely-populated rural areas who can’t afford to wait extended periods of time for a taxi to appear. Families with children will prefer to own their own driverless cars to house their childrens’ car seats and favorite toys and sippy cups. Another loyal car-buying segment will be die-hard gadget-hounds who will eagerly buy a sexy upgraded model every year or so, unable to resist the siren song of AI that is three times as safe, or a ride that is twice as smooth.
Finally, consider the allure of robotic diversity.
Commuters will invest in a home office on wheels, a sleek, traveling workspace resembling the first-class suite on an airplane. On the high end of the market, city-dwellers and country-dwellers alike will special-order custom-made autonomous vehicles whose shape and on-board gadgetry is adapted for a particular function or hobby. Privately-owned small businesses will buy their own autonomous delivery robot that could range in size from a knee-high, last-mile delivery pod, to a giant, long-haul shipping device.
As autonomous vehicles near commercial viability, Waymo’s procurement deal with Fiat Chrysler is just the beginning.
The exact value of this future automotive industry has yet to be defined, but research from Intel’s internal autonomous vehicle division estimates this new so-called “passenger economy” could be worth nearly $7 trillion a year. To position themselves to capture a chunk of this potential revenue, companies whose businesses used to lie in previously disparate fields such as robotics, software, ships, and entertainment (to name but a few) have begun to form a bewildering web of what they hope will be symbiotic partnerships. Car hailing and chip companies are collaborating with car rental companies, who in turn are befriending giant software firms, who are launching joint projects with all sizes of hardware companies, and so on.
Last year, car companies sold an estimated 80 million new cars worldwide. Over the course of nearly a century, car companies and their partners, global chains of suppliers and service providers, have become masters at mass-producing and maintaining sturdy and cost-effective human-driven vehicles. As autonomous vehicle technology becomes ready for mainstream use, traditional automotive companies are being forced to grapple with the painful realization that they must compete in a new playing field.
The challenge for traditional car-makers won’t be that people no longer want to own cars. Instead, the challenge will be learning to compete in a new and larger transportation industry where consumers will choose their product according to the appeal of its customized body and the quality of its intelligent software.
Melba Kurman and Hod Lipson are the authors of Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road Ahead and Fabricated: the New World of 3D Printing.
Image Credit: hfzimages / Shutterstock.com
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I don’t have to open the doors of AImotive’s white 2015 Prius to see that it’s not your average car. This particular Prius has been christened El Capitan, the name written below the rear doors, and two small cameras are mounted on top of the car. Bundles of wire snake out from them, as well as from the two additional cameras on the car’s hood and trunk.
Inside is where things really get interesting, though. The trunk holds a computer the size of a microwave, and a large monitor covers the passenger glove compartment and dashboard. The center console has three switches labeled “Allowed,” “Error,” and “Active.”
Budapest-based AImotive is working to provide scalable self-driving technology alongside big players like Waymo and Uber in the autonomous vehicle world. On a highway test ride with CEO Laszlo Kishonti near the company’s office in Mountain View, California, I got a glimpse of just how complex that world is.
Camera-Based Feedback System
AImotive’s approach to autonomous driving is a little different from that of some of the best-known systems. For starters, they’re using cameras, not lidar, as primary sensors. “The traffic system is visual and the cost of cameras is low,” Kishonti said. “A lidar can recognize when there are people near the car, but a camera can differentiate between, say, an elderly person and a child. Lidar’s resolution isn’t high enough to recognize the subtle differences of urban driving.”
Image Credit: AImotive
The company’s aiDrive software uses data from the camera sensors to feed information to its algorithms for hierarchical decision-making, grouped under four concurrent activities: recognition, location, motion, and control.
Kishonti pointed out that lidar has already gotten more cost-efficient, and will only continue to do so.
“Ten years ago, lidar was best because there wasn’t enough processing power to do all the calculations by AI. But the cost of running AI is decreasing,” he said. “In our approach, computer vision and AI processing are key, and for safety, we’ll have fallback sensors like radar or lidar.”
aiDrive currently runs on Nvidia chips, which Kishonti noted were originally designed for graphics, and are not terribly efficient given how power-hungry they are. “We’re planning to substitute lower-cost, lower-energy chips in the next six months,” he said.
Testing in Virtual Reality
Waymo recently announced its fleet has now driven four million miles autonomously. That’s a lot of miles, and hard to compete with. But AImotive isn’t trying to compete, at least not by logging more real-life test miles. Instead, the company is doing 90 percent of its testing in virtual reality. “This is what truly differentiates us from competitors,” Kishonti said.
He outlined the three main benefits of VR testing: it can simulate scenarios too dangerous for the real world (such as hitting something), too costly (not every company has Waymo’s funds to run hundreds of cars on real roads), or too time-consuming (like waiting for rain, snow, or other weather conditions to occur naturally and repeatedly).
“Real-world traffic testing is very skewed towards the boring miles,” he said. “What we want to do is test all the cases that are hard to solve.”
On a screen that looked not unlike multiple games of Mario Kart, he showed me the simulator. Cartoon cars cruised down winding streets, outfitted with all the real-world surroundings: people, trees, signs, other cars. As I watched, a furry kangaroo suddenly hopped across one screen. “Volvo had an issue in Australia,” Kishonti explained. “A kangaroo’s movement is different than other animals since it hops instead of running.” Talk about cases that are hard to solve.
AImotive is currently testing around 1,000 simulated scenarios every night, with a steadily-rising curve of successful tests. These scenarios are broken down into features, and the car’s behavior around those features fed into a neural network. As the algorithms learn more features, the level of complexity the vehicles can handle goes up.
On the Road
After Kishonti and his colleagues filled me in on the details of their product, it was time to test it out. A safety driver sat in the driver’s seat, a computer operator in the passenger seat, and Kishonti and I in back. The driver maintained full control of the car until we merged onto the highway. Then he flicked the “Allowed” switch, his copilot pressed the “Active” switch, and he took his hands off the wheel.
What happened next, you ask?
A few things. El Capitan was going exactly the speed limit—65 miles per hour—which meant all the other cars were passing us. When a car merged in front of us or cut us off, El Cap braked accordingly (if a little abruptly). The monitor displayed the feed from each of the car’s cameras, plus multiple data fields and a simulation where a blue line marked the center of the lane, measured by the cameras tracking the lane markings on either side.
I noticed El Cap wobbling out of our lane a bit, but it wasn’t until two things happened in a row that I felt a little nervous: first we went under a bridge, then a truck pulled up next to us, both bridge and truck casting a complete shadow over our car. At that point El Cap lost it, and we swerved haphazardly to the right, narrowly missing the truck’s rear wheels. The safety driver grabbed the steering wheel and took back control of the car.
What happened, Kishonti explained, was that the shadows made it hard for the car’s cameras to see the lane markings. This was a new scenario the algorithm hadn’t previously encountered. If we’d only gone under a bridge or only been next to the truck for a second, El Cap may not have had so much trouble, but the two events happening in a row really threw the car for a loop—almost literally.
“This is a new scenario we’ll add to our testing,” Kishonti said. He added that another way for the algorithm to handle this type of scenario, rather than basing its speed and positioning on the lane markings, is to mimic nearby cars. “The human eye would see that other cars are still moving at the same speed, even if it can’t see details of the road,” he said.
After another brief—and thankfully uneventful—hands-off cruise down the highway, the safety driver took over, exited the highway, and drove us back to the office.
Driving into the Future
I climbed out of the car feeling amazed not only that self-driving cars are possible, but that driving is possible at all. I squint when driving into a tunnel, swerve to avoid hitting a stray squirrel, and brake gradually at stop signs—all without consciously thinking to do so. On top of learning to steer, brake, and accelerate, self-driving software has to incorporate our brains’ and bodies’ unconscious (but crucial) reactions, like our pupils dilating to let in more light so we can see in a tunnel.
Despite all the progress of machine learning, artificial intelligence, and computing power, I have a wholly renewed appreciation for the thing that’s been in charge of driving up till now: the human brain.
Kishonti seemed to feel similarly. “I don’t think autonomous vehicles in the near future will be better than the best drivers,” he said. “But they’ll be better than the average driver. What we want to achieve is safe, good-quality driving for everyone, with scalability.”
AImotive is currently working with American tech firms and with car and truck manufacturers in Europe, China, and Japan.
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Swarms of drones buzz overhead, while robotic vehicles crawl across the landscape. Orbiting satellites snap high-resolution images of the scene far below. Not one human being can be seen in the pre-dawn glow spreading across the land.
This isn’t some post-apocalyptic vision of the future à la The Terminator. This is a snapshot of the farm of the future. Every phase of the operation—from seed to harvest—may someday be automated, without the need to ever get one’s fingernails dirty.
In fact, it’s science fiction already being engineered into reality. Today, robots empowered with artificial intelligence can zap weeds with preternatural precision, while autonomous tractors move with tireless efficiency across the farmland. Satellites can assess crop health from outer space, providing gobs of data to help produce the sort of business intelligence once accessible only to Fortune 500 companies.
“Precision agriculture is on the brink of a new phase of development involving smart machines that can operate by themselves, which will allow production agriculture to become significantly more efficient. Precision agriculture is becoming robotic agriculture,” said professor Simon Blackmore last year during a conference in Asia on the latest developments in robotic agriculture. Blackmore is head of engineering at Harper Adams University and head of the National Centre for Precision Farming in the UK.
It’s Blackmore’s university that recently showcased what may someday be possible. The project, dubbed Hands Free Hectare and led by researchers from Harper Adams and private industry, farmed one hectare (about 2.5 acres) of spring barley without one person ever setting foot in the field.
The team re-purposed, re-wired and roboticized farm equipment ranging from a Japanese tractor to a 25-year-old combine. Drones served as scouts to survey the operation and collect samples to help the team monitor the progress of the barley. At the end of the season, the robo farmers harvested about 4.5 tons of barley at a price tag of £200,000.
“This project aimed to prove that there’s no technological reason why a field can’t be farmed without humans working the land directly now, and we’ve done that,” said Martin Abell, mechatronics researcher for Precision Decisions, which partnered with Harper Adams, in a press release.
I, Robot Farmer
The Harper Adams experiment is the latest example of how machines are disrupting the agricultural industry. Around the same time that the Hands Free Hectare combine was harvesting barley, Deere & Company announced it would acquire a startup called Blue River Technology for a reported $305 million.
Blue River has developed a “see-and-spray” system that combines computer vision and artificial intelligence to discriminate between crops and weeds. It hits the former with fertilizer and blasts the latter with herbicides with such precision that it can eliminate 90 percent of the chemicals used in conventional agriculture.
It’s not just farmland that’s getting a helping hand from robots. A California company called Abundant Robotics, spun out of the nonprofit research institute SRI International, is developing robots capable of picking apples with vacuum-like arms that suck the fruit straight off the trees in the orchards.
“Traditional robots were designed to perform very specific tasks over and over again. But the robots that will be used in food and agricultural applications will have to be much more flexible than what we’ve seen in automotive manufacturing plants in order to deal with natural variation in food products or the outdoor environment,” Dan Harburg, an associate at venture capital firm Anterra Capital who previously worked at a Massachusetts-based startup making a robotic arm capable of grabbing fruit, told AgFunder News.
“This means ag-focused robotics startups have to design systems from the ground up, which can take time and money, and their robots have to be able to complete multiple tasks to avoid sitting on the shelf for a significant portion of the year,” he noted.
Eyes in the Sky
It will take more than an army of robotic tractors to grow a successful crop. The farm of the future will rely on drones, satellites, and other airborne instruments to provide data about their crops on the ground.
Companies like Descartes Labs, for instance, employ machine learning to analyze satellite imagery to forecast soy and corn yields. The Los Alamos, New Mexico startup collects five terabytes of data every day from multiple satellite constellations, including NASA and the European Space Agency. Combined with weather readings and other real-time inputs, Descartes Labs can predict cornfield yields with 99 percent accuracy. Its AI platform can even assess crop health from infrared readings.
The US agency DARPA recently granted Descartes Labs $1.5 million to monitor and analyze wheat yields in the Middle East and Africa. The idea is that accurate forecasts may help identify regions at risk of crop failure, which could lead to famine and political unrest. Another company called TellusLabs out of Somerville, Massachusetts also employs machine learning algorithms to predict corn and soy yields with similar accuracy from satellite imagery.
Farmers don’t have to reach orbit to get insights on their cropland. A startup in Oakland, Ceres Imaging, produces high-resolution imagery from multispectral cameras flown across fields aboard small planes. The snapshots capture the landscape at different wavelengths, identifying insights into problems like water stress, as well as providing estimates of chlorophyll and nitrogen levels. The geo-tagged images mean farmers can easily locate areas that need to be addressed.
Growing From the Inside
Even the best intelligence—whether from drones, satellites, or machine learning algorithms—will be challenged to predict the unpredictable issues posed by climate change. That’s one reason more and more companies are betting the farm on what’s called controlled environment agriculture. Today, that doesn’t just mean fancy greenhouses, but everything from warehouse-sized, automated vertical farms to grow rooms run by robots, located not in the emptiness of Kansas or Nebraska but smack dab in the middle of the main streets of America.
Proponents of these new concepts argue these high-tech indoor farms can produce much higher yields while drastically reducing water usage and synthetic inputs like fertilizer and herbicides.
Iron Ox, out of San Francisco, is developing one-acre urban greenhouses that will be operated by robots and reportedly capable of producing the equivalent of 30 acres of farmland. Powered by artificial intelligence, a team of three robots will run the entire operation of planting, nurturing, and harvesting the crops.
Vertical farming startup Plenty, also based in San Francisco, uses AI to automate its operations, and got a $200 million vote of confidence from the SoftBank Vision Fund earlier this year. The company claims its system uses only 1 percent of the water consumed in conventional agriculture while producing 350 times as much produce. Plenty is part of a new crop of urban-oriented farms, including Bowery Farming and AeroFarms.
“What I can envision is locating a larger scale indoor farm in the economically disadvantaged food desert, in order to stimulate a broader economic impact that could create jobs and generate income for that area,” said Dr. Gary Stutte, an expert in space agriculture and controlled environment agriculture, in an interview with AgFunder News. “The indoor agriculture model is adaptable to becoming an engine for economic growth and food security in both rural and urban food deserts.”
Still, the model is not without its own challenges and criticisms. Most of what these farms can produce falls into the “leafy greens” category and often comes with a premium price, which seems antithetical to the proposed mission of creating oases in the food deserts of cities. While water usage may be minimized, the electricity required to power the operation, especially the LEDs (which played a huge part in revolutionizing indoor agriculture), are not cheap.
Still, all of these advances, from robo farmers to automated greenhouses, may need to be part of a future where nearly 10 billion people will inhabit the planet by 2050. An oft-quoted statistic from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says the world must boost food production by 70 percent to meet the needs of the population. Technology may not save the world, but it will help feed it.
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Remember the 1980s movie Brewster’s Millions, in which a minor league baseball pitcher (played by Richard Pryor) must spend $30 million in 30 days to inherit $300 million? Pryor goes on an epic spending spree for a bigger payoff down the road.
One of the world’s biggest public companies is making that film look like a weekend in the Hamptons. Japan’s SoftBank Group, led by its indefatigable CEO Masayoshi Son, is shooting to invest $100 billion over the next five years toward what the company calls the information revolution.
The newly-created SoftBank Vision Fund, with a handful of key investors, appears ready to almost single-handedly hack the technology revolution. Announced only last year, the fund had its first major close in May with $93 billion in committed capital. The rest of the money is expected to be raised this year.
The fund is unprecedented. Data firm CB Insights notes that the SoftBank Vision Fund, if and when it hits the $100 billion mark, will equal the total amount that VC-backed companies received in all of 2016—$100.8 billion across 8,372 deals globally.
The money will go toward both billion-dollar corporations and startups, with a minimum $100 million buy-in. The focus is on core technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics and the Internet of Things.
Aside from being Japan’s richest man, Son is also a futurist who has predicted the singularity, the moment in time when machines will become smarter than humans and technology will progress exponentially. Son pegs the date as 2047. He appears to be hedging that bet in the biggest way possible.
Show Me the Money
Ostensibly a telecommunications company, SoftBank Group was founded in 1981 and started investing in internet technologies by the mid-1990s. Son infamously lost about $70 billion of his own fortune after the dot-com bubble burst around 2001. The company itself has a market cap of nearly $90 billion today, about half of where it was during the heydays of the internet boom.
The ups and downs did nothing to slake the company’s thirst for technology. It has made nine acquisitions and more than 130 investments since 1995. In 2017 alone, SoftBank has poured billions into nearly 30 companies and acquired three others. Some of those investments are being transferred to the massive SoftBank Vision Fund.
SoftBank is not going it alone with the new fund. More than half of the money—$60 billion—comes via the Middle East through Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund ($45 billion) and Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala Investment Company ($15 billion). Other players at the table include Apple, Qualcomm, Sharp, Foxconn, and Oracle.
During a company conference in August, Son notes the SoftBank Vision Fund is not just about making money. “We don’t just want to be an investor just for the money game,” he says through a translator. “We want to make the information revolution. To do the information revolution, you can’t do it by yourself; you need a lot of synergy.”
Off to the Races
The fund has wasted little time creating that synergy. In July, its first official investment, not surprisingly, went to a company that specializes in artificial intelligence for robots—Brain Corp. The San Diego-based startup uses AI to turn manual machines into self-driving robots that navigate their environments autonomously. The first commercial application appears to be a really smart commercial-grade version that crosses a Roomba and Zamboni.
A second investment in July was a bit more surprising. SoftBank and its fund partners led a $200 million mega-round for Plenty, an agricultural tech company that promises to reshape farming by going vertical. Using IoT sensors and machine learning, Plenty claims its urban vertical farms can produce 350 times more vegetables than a conventional farm using 1 percent of the water.
The spending spree continued into August.
The SoftBank Vision Fund led a $1.1 billion investment into a little-known biotechnology company called Roivant Sciences that goes dumpster diving for abandoned drugs and then creates subsidiaries around each therapy. For example, Axovant Sciences is devoted to neurology while Urovant focuses on urology. TechCrunch reports that Roivant is also creating a tech-focused subsidiary, called Datavant, that will use AI for drug discovery and other healthcare initiatives, such as designing clinical trials.
The AI angle may partly explain SoftBank’s interest in backing the biggest private placement in healthcare to date.
Also in August, SoftBank Vision Fund led a mix of $2.5 billion in primary and secondary capital investments into India’s largest private company in what was touted as the largest single investment in a private Indian company. Flipkart is an e-commerce company in the mold of Amazon.
The fund tacked on a $250 million investment round in August to Kabbage, an Atlanta-based startup in the alt-lending sector for small businesses. It ended big with a $4.4 billion investment into a co-working company called WeWork.
Betterment of Humanity
And those investments only include companies that SoftBank Vision Fund has backed directly.
SoftBank the company will offer—or has already turned over—previous investments to the Vision Fund in more than a half-dozen companies. Those assets include its shares in Nvidia, which produces chips for AI applications, and its first serious foray into autonomous driving with Nauto, a California startup that uses AI and high-tech cameras to retrofit vehicles to improve driving safety. The more miles the AI logs, the more it learns about safe and unsafe driving behaviors.
Other recent acquisitions, such as Boston Dynamics, a well-known US robotics company owned briefly by Google’s parent company Alphabet, will remain under the SoftBank Group umbrella for now.
This spending spree begs the question: What is the overall vision behind the SoftBank’s relentless pursuit of technology companies? A spokesperson for SoftBank told Singularity Hub that the “common thread among all of these companies is that they are creating the foundational platforms for the next stage of the information revolution.All of the companies, he adds, share SoftBank’s criteria of working toward “the betterment of humanity.”
While the SoftBank portfolio is diverse, from agtech to fintech to biotech, it’s obvious that SoftBank is betting on technologies that will connect the world in new and amazing ways. For instance, it wrote a $1 billion check last year in support of OneWeb, which aims to launch 900 satellites to bring internet to everyone on the planet. (It will also be turned over to the SoftBank Vision Fund.)
SoftBank also led a half-billion equity investment round earlier this year in a UK company called Improbable, which employs cloud-based distributed computing to create virtual worlds for gaming. The next step for the company is massive simulations of the real world that supports simultaneous users who can experience the same environment together(and another candidate for the SoftBank Vision Fund.)
Even something as seemingly low-tech as WeWork, which provides a desk or office in locations around the world, points toward a more connected planet.
In the end, the singularity is about bringing humanity together through technology. No one said it would be easy—or cheap.
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