Uber self-driving car.
FRANCISCO ó Qawiyah Muhammad can see her own future.
Uber driver in Pittsburgh, she knows that one day her
job will be replaced by a robot car. She knows the robot
cars are coming because she sometimes spots experimental
models driving themselves around town.
can tell them apart," she said, "because they
have a thing on the top of the car, like ĎBack to the
a reason they stand out so much, and itís not because
Uber or anybody else thinks they look cool.
top of Uberís new driverless cars is an array of bulky
sensors ó cameras, radars, lidars ó that eventually
will be shrunk into a more discreet system that will
replace Muhammad and thousands of other Uber drivers.
Inside the cars is a computer, which, when sufficiently
advanced, will stand in for a humanís thinking,
steering and pedal pushing.
the cars look geeky now, the driverless cars of the next
decade wonít look anything like the clumsy
agglomeration on the rooftop of Uberís early-iteration
time, it will be harder and harder to differentiate an
autonomous car from a conventional car," said Aaron
Steinfeld, an associate research professor at Carnegie
Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
fast-shrinking nature of tech stretches back to the
transistor and the computer chip after World War II.
Over the decades, more and more computer power has been
crammed into less and less space, until it in effect
suffuses the object itself. The hardware then can take
whatever form works (or looks) best.
first computers filled large rooms; they even scared
some people. Today, a Fitbit fitness tracker is more
powerful than any of them. Computer processing power in
large part allows tiny iPhone speakers to sound as good
as they do. The examples are endless.
the rooftop sensors on autonomous cars will become
smaller and cheaper; some wonít even be needed as
"perception software" gets better at seeing
and interpreting the world outside the car, Steinfeld
bulkiest single item on the roof is also the newest
technology: 3-D lidar. Lidar is similar to radar but
instead of electromagnetic radiation, it beams out laser
beams are bounced off objects to measure distance with
enough accuracy to create three-dimensional images of
anything from a face to a fire hydrant. Theyíre
mounted high up to see over pedestrians and other cars.
versatile than radars and less prone to error than
optical cameras, which can be fooled by light, theyíre
also bigger and a lot more expensive.
the time the cars are ready for prime time ó five
years from now at least, according to automakers ó all
this scientific equipment will be shrunk down and
integrated into the look of the vehicle.
didnít want to wait until then. In Pittsburgh earlier
this month, the San Francisco company unveiled to media
its tech-laden experimental driverless cars.
San Francisco company showed off a small fleet of
driverless Ford Fusions and said it will soon add Volvos
featuring a more streamlined look to the mix. Eventually
Uberís driverless fleet will expand to other cities
and the cars wonít need a human chaperone anymore.
now, the main purpose of Uberís cars is research:
mapping Pittsburgh; identifying objects; figuring out
how to program the carís computer so it knows whatís
in front of it, whatís coming in from the side and how
fast; and how to react to it all.
might be an unintended bonus too: The very visible
nature of the carís tech capabilities perched on the
rooftop will clearly indicate to passengers, drivers and
pedestrians that Uberís newest cars are robots.
around those cars can see them coming," Steinfeld
said. "For people who are feeling a little nervous
about being around such a vehicle, it makes it easier to
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others, it will be a chance to become more familiar with
the rapidly approaching era of driverless cars.
makers at present are in a "chicken-and-egg"
situation, said Mike Jellen, chief executive at 3-D
lidar pioneer Velodyne, based in Morgan Hill, Calif.
Right now, the price of lidar systems ranges from
thousands to tens of thousands of dollars.
the (carmakers) are using those sensors in the millions,
youíll see those cost points fall down in the
mid-hundreds or below," he said. As they become
less expensive and more advanced, theyíll also become
this month, Velodyne announced the latest in a series of
"Puck" models, or lidars not much bigger than
a hockey puck.
autonomous cars go commercial, the lidars on board are
likely to be that size or smaller. Before then, Velodyne
and its competitors are aiming to sell lidars into the
current car market, for semi-autonomous cars that
provide automatic lane changing and other driver
assistance vehicles today.
is counting on other markets to help get costs down and
volumes up. The company also makes lidars that can be
used in drones, industrial robots and mapping.
month, Ford and Chinaís Baidu said they will invest a
combined $150 million in Velodyne. Several 3-D lidar
startups have popped up, including Quanergy, a
Sunnyvale, Calif., company that is working closely with
market research firm Frost & Sullivan estimates that
the 3-D imaging market will grow from $5.71 billion last
year to $15.15 billion by 2020.