The Fuse

This Week in AVs: VW Spins Off AV Unit; Waymo Begins Completely Driverless Rides; And More

by Alex Adams | @alexjhadams | October 30, 2019

VW Spins Off AV Startup

Volkswagen Autonomy plans to bring self-driving taxis and cargo vans to three continents by 2025 using Level 4 technology.

Volkswagen announced in Frankfurt yesterday that it is establishing a flagship self-driving technology company that Alexander Hitzinger, the former Apple engineer chosen to run the unit, has said will be “the world’s best-funded start-up.” The new company will be called Volkswagen Autonomy, or VWAT, and plans to bring self-driving taxis and cargo vans to three continents by 2025 using Level 4 technology. The first project VWAT will be engaging in is driverless versions of VW’s upcoming minibus, the ID Buzz, developed in partnership with Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles. The announcement comes less than three months after Volkswagen announced it was investing $2.6 billion in Argo AI, an AV startup also heavily backed by Ford. VWAT will be working with Argo to test its algorithms, with the ultimate aim, according to Hitzinger, to “commercialize full autonomy — make it product ready.”

Waymo Begins Completely Driverless Rides
After revealing to riders earlier this month that completely driverless cars were on their way, Waymo announced late last week that the “rider-only” service has started. Limited to only a few hundred early users, Waymo CEO John Krafcik told reporters last weekend that the service has begun operation in Phoenix, Arizona, with no human safety driver at the wheel. “If you need a driver’s license, you can’t call it self-driving,” Krafcik said. Additionally, Waymo’s recently-acquired Detroit plant is now operating and outfitting fleets of vehicles with its Level 4 autonomous driving hardware and software, CEO John Krafcik revealed this week. “We’ve just opened the world’s first dedicated autonomous plant,” Krafcik told the audience at the Forbes Under 30 Summit on Monday, “We call it a factory.” In April, Waymo announced it was leasing—and had plans to repurpose at a cost of $14 million—a plant owned by American Axle & Manufacturing Holdings on its campus in a part of Detroit bordering Hamtramck. Waymo is fitting its fifth-generation technology on its vehicles, consisting of new sensor kits which include lidar, radar, cameras and another sensor technology at Waymo has yet to disclose publicly.

AVs Might One Day See Round Corners
As industry continues to work on creating AVs that can match human driving abilities, researchers at MIT have invented technology that achieves something humans can never do: See around corners. In a project backed by the Toyota Research Institute, the MIT team has created a system that uses tiny changes in shadows to predict whether or not a vehicle can expect an object to come around a corner. Researchers believe the system would not only be beneficial for AVs, but also for robots that share spaces with humans such as hospitals. The system works by shining a light into a room from outside, capturing the light that is bounced back, and processing the results to create a 3D model of objects that are otherwise hidden from human observers.

Halloween Highlights AV Safety Opportunities/Challenges

Children are three times more likely to be struck and killed by a car on Halloween than any other day of the year.

While Halloween brings a lot of spooky fun to neighborhoods across the country, it also brings a higher risk of traffic-related accidents: Children are three times more likely to be struck and killed by a car on the holiday than any other day of the year. This is a challenge that the AV industry is aware of, and is working on technological solutions to account for this contingency: Before it became Waymo, Google’s self-driving car project used Halloween to help its self-driving technology recognize people dressed up in costumes. Encouraging employees to bring their children to work dressed up for Halloween, Google then marched them past a parked self-driving car. “This gives our sensors and software extra practice at recognizing children in all their unique shapes and sizes, even when they’re in odd costumes,” a Google blog post stated.