By Jon LeSage
While ride-hailing giant Uber and electric carmaker Tesla are facing serious safety investigations, neither company is backing away from the autonomous vehicle technology that played a big part in the two recent fatalities now under government scrutiny.
Speaking at a transport forum last week, Uber chief Dara Khosrowshahi said his company still believes in the prospects for autonomous transport after one of its self-driving test vehicles was involved in a fatal crash in Arizona last month. A 49-year-old woman was killed after being hit by an Uber self-driving SUV while walking across a street in Phoenix.
Khosrowshahi said that Uber is cooperating with federal investigators and is taking the incident “very seriously.” He declined to say when the company might resume testing, or what may have caused the fatal collision. The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the incident.
Khosrowshahi said his company is still taking self-driving technology very seriously.
“We believe in it,” he said, along with comments that autonomous vehicles will provide several long-term solutions for safety — and will play a big part in eliminating individual car ownership.
“Autonomous (vehicles) at maturity will be safer,” Khosrowshahi said.
In February, Uber, Lyft, Zipcar and Didi Chuzing (China’s largest ride-hailing company) signed a statement of principles supporting a mandate that all autonomous vehicles in urban areas should be part of shared fleets operated by their companies in conjunction with government agencies. They believe that self-driving cars should not be personally owned.
Tesla was the very first company to fall under scrutiny related to a fatal car crash potentially caused by self-driving car technology in 2016. Tesla is now under investigation by the NTSB for a second fatal crash that may have been caused by its Autopilot semi-autonomous system. On March 23, Tesla Model X driver Walter Huang was killed on the U.S. 101 highway in California when his electric SUV slammed into a highway barrier.
The National Transportation Safety Board last week said it was “unhappy” that Tesla had released information about the crash, and expects to issue a preliminary report on its findings in a few weeks. The federal agency was attempting to tone down Tesla’s typical assertive approach to conducting its own investigations with any incident related to its vehicles’ performance and safety.
Since then, Tesla has withdrawn from an agreement that had been made with NTSB as the agency investigates the fatal crash. The action gives the electric carmaker more freedom to share information that could influence public perception over what happened in the crash incident. Tesla’s conclusion is that Huang ignored warnings from Autopilot that could have kept him from slamming into the highway divider.
Tesla issued the statement after Huang’s family hired a law firm to explore their legal options.
The fatal crashes haven’t gotten Tesla CEO Elon Musk to back down from his commitment to bring electric, automated vehicles to roads around the world.
Starting in October 2016, Tesla began installing hardware in every new vehicle built — including the Model 3 — with hardware needed for full self-driving capability that will have a “safety level substantially greater than that of a human driver,” Musk said.
The Autopilot function only applies to semi-autonomous functions like lane changing and self-parking. The company is prepared to have all its vehicles ready for fully autonomous driving once the federal government gives the technology the green light.
Tesla customers can now buy the full self-driving capability for $8,000 at the time of purchase, or they can pay $10,000 to turn on the autonomous system later. They’ll be twice as safe as they would be with a human driver at the wheel, Musk said.
The automaker plans to send one of its vehicles on an autonomous, cross-country trip to test its safety and performance, and to grab attention for support and consumer adoption. The comp[any said the electric vehicles now being produced will have eight surround cameras that provide 360-degree visibility around the car up to 250 meters of range.
Bob Lutz, ex-General Motors vice chair and champion of the electric Chevy Volt, would agree with Uber’s and Musk’s assessments of the future of transportation and vehicle ownership.
During a keynote speech last week at the Society of Automotive Engineers conference, Lutz said that auto dealers will become a “threatened species” when large fleet companies like Uber and Lyft go direct and buy their autonomous vehicles in bulk from the manufacturers — avoiding auto dealers.
Automakers face huge changes, too, as bland autonomous modules take over and consumers view cars more like subway rides than being willing to spend more on high-end performance models. The cars are likely to show the brand name of the fleet provider rather than the automaker, further taking away the branding identity and appeal of new cars.
“Are they going to be fun? Absolutely not,” Lutz said. “There will be no joy in sitting in an autonomous vehicle …. But it’s going to be enormously efficient.”
“Don’t be depressed,” he said during his speech. “We’ve got another 20-25 years before it’s all over.”
Tesla, Uber, Lyft, Google’s Waymo division, Apple, and several other companies want to be part of supplying the autonomous vehicle technology needed for it all to happen. Uber and Lyft see the future of autonomous vehicles tied into their ride-hailing and ride-sharing services that have grown in popularity by leaps and bounds in the past five years.
Uber’s interest in investing in bike sharing and public transit should not be interpreted as a move away from self-driving cars, Khosrowshahi said last week. Uber sees itself involved in nearly every aspect of transportation in the future.
This week, Uber reached an agreement with Jump Bikes, a provider of battery-powered bicycles, for an undisclosed sum. It would be the first acquisition for Uber since Khosrowshahi took over as the company’s chief executive last year in August.
Uber sees itself bringing electric bike services to cities all around the world.
There’s also signs that the autonomous.vehicle surge will tie into growth in electric vehicle sales over internal combustion engine vehicles — with Uber and Lyft adding EVs to its test fleets in recent years.
General Motors sees its all-electric Chevrolet Bolt as part of self-driving fleets of the future. The company takes EVs seriously enough to have displayed in January another future offering — one of its Chevrolet Cruise models as a self-driving EV.
GM says the automated electric Cruise is scheduled to hit the road in 2019.