4 new advances on the road to autonomous driving

22 Jun 2021

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Take a look at some recent developments in the autonomous driving space, from Tesla’s new supercomputer to Ford’s interaction test.

Whether you’re getting a parcel dropped to your front door or you want a cheap taxi home, tech companies are rapidly building the designs and infrastructure necessary to take the human out of the driving equation.

Below are just a few of the recent developments in the race to make autonomous driving a reality.

Tesla’s supercomputer solution

First up is Tesla’s new supercomputer – a beefy bit of hardware looking to bring autonomous vehicles to life with computer vision.

Andrej Karpathy, the senior director of AI at Tesla, excitedly gave a brief on the computer at a presentation for the 2021 Conference on Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition this week.

“Computer vision is the bread and butter of what we do and is what enables [Tesla] Autopilot. For that to work really well, you need a massive dataset, and we get that from the fleet, but you also need to train massive neural nets and experiment a lot.”

To enable this, Karpathy highlighted the new supercomputer, which he estimated may be the fifth most powerful in the world. By sourcing data through the company’s vast fleet, he said the system would be well positioned to work on problems in automated driving.

While the new computer may be impressive, it is a predecessor to what is on the horizon for Tesla. After listing this computer’s specs, Karpathy commented: “Project Dojo will take this to the next level.”

Project Dojo refers to the in-development computer system that will supposedly pave the way for the full realisation of Tesla’s vision-only self-driving systems. While there are few concrete details about the technology, this demonstration is a promising glimpse at what may be to come.

Amazon’s long-distance lorries

Amazon is another big player making moves in the autonomous driving space. For the e-commerce giant, self-driving trucks are the order of business and it recently commissioned 1,000 autonomous vehicle systems from American start-up Plus.

Not only that, but the global powerhouse has also acquired the option to buy as much as a 20pc stake in the start-up.

According to its website, Plus’s mission is to make long-haul trucking “safer, cheaper, more comfortable and better for the environment”. Trucks with its technology are touted to be able to cover 1,500km in one day, with 360-degree perception and an optimised system to save up to 20pc of fuel use.

Amazon acquired an autonomous car start-up last year and, as business continues to boom, the focus on trucks may be a natural next step.

Ford’s hidden humans

Ford is taking a different approach. While the technology needed for automated deliveries is being developed and fine-tuned, Ford is preparing for user interaction and perception.

The auto giant is focusing on how road users can interact with driverless delivery vans. To test this, it designed a van to mimic the look of an autonomous vehicle, hiding the driver inside a ‘human car seat’.

The van was given a set of lights to help it communicate with those around it. The system flashed white, purple and turquoise to indicate when the van was driving, about to pull forwards and giving way.

“As we plan to bring autonomous vehicles to the roads, it is important that we focus not only on enabling the technology, but on enabling our customers’ businesses,” said Richard Balch, director of autonomous vehicles and mobility at Ford Europe.

As part of its research, Ford teamed up with UK delivery company Hermes for a last-mile delivery test in London.

The design allows pedestrian couriers to hail the vehicle and remotely unlock the door as soon as it is parked. After entering the vehicle, voice prompts and digital screens direct the courier to their locker, containing the parcels to be delivered.

Lynsey Aston, head of product, innovation and onboarding at Hermes, said: “We’re constantly innovating to incubate and then explore concepts like this and we look forward to the initial findings, which will no doubt be useful on an industry-wide level.”

Baidu’s breakthrough service

Finally, Baidu is rolling out its Apollo Moon robo-taxi service.

The Chinese technology company is the leading search engine provider in China, but it has also invested considerably in self-driving technology.

Aiming to have 1,000 units on the road by 2023, the company claimed last week that this is the first time automated cars will be in the same price range as those that are currently mass produced. The estimated cost of manufacturing each driverless taxi is 480,000 yuan (€62,300).

After partnering with automaker BAIC Group, Baidu is now aiming to commercialise autonomous taxis on a mass scale.

Sam Cox was a journalist at Silicon Republic covering sci-tech news