Self-Driving Cars Finally Get an Easy-to-Read Rule Book

For a species that would like to see self-driving cars stick to the letter of the law, we humans don’t make things easy. We let lane lines fade and stop signs fall down. We fail to mark speed limits and flag pop-up construction sites. For the most part, humans can handle this lack of clarity. For robots, it can be baffling.

So consider the AV Road Rules Platform a helping hand. The new effort, launched today by transportation analytics firm Inrix, is a tool that lets cities pull together all the rules they expect human drivers to follow, and translate them into a computer-friendly format that any self-driving developer can fold into its software.

Today, before a developer can put its robo-cars on the road, it must gather piles of data: which streets have which speed limits, where the school zones are, how many lanes any stretch of road has, and so on. The standard method of collecting this data is to drive all the streets in question, and use the cars’ sensors to spot read more

Uber’s HR Troubles, Elon’s Cave Rescue, and More Car News This Week

Every so often, WIRED gets to take a good, long sojourn behind the scenes, to observe what the people we write about are doing all day. This was one of those nice weeks.

Editor Alex Davies hopped a plane to Winnemucca, an isolated mining town in northern Nevada that’s hosting Alphabet’s latest moonshot: its effort to spread the gospel of internet via broadcasting balloons. Senior writer Jessi Hempl got under Uber’s hood after the announcement that HR chief Liane Hornsey—the woman brought in to fix the unicorn’s culture—resigned for improperly handling allegations of racial discrimination. Contributor Wendy Dent got the scoop on Elon Musk’s attempt to build some kind of vehicle that would help the Thai youth soccer team escape a cave complex. And I was a fly on the wall at this year’s Automated Vehicles Symposium, where the movers and shakers of the AV sector discussed their triumphs, their limitations, and how to talk about those limitations in public. It was a week! Let’s get you caught up.

Headlines

Stories you might have missed from WIRED this week

  • WIRED spends a lot of time thinking about how autonomous vehicles (and their software) handle hectic city streets. But what will they do on the bucolic grounds of a duke’s home, complete with errant bales of hay? The autonomous-vehicle-racing outfit Roborace found out last week, when its Robocar showed off its stuff at the annual Goodwood Festival of Speed.
  • Also at the Festival of Speed was the T-log, Swedish startup Einride’s electric, autonomous truck, built not for racing but for hauling—you guessed it—logs.
  • Bosch, Nvidia and Mercedes-Benz owner Daimler will team up to launch a driverless taxi service somewhere in Silicon Valley, sometime next year.
  • Where’s the Kayak of ride-hail services? Jessi Hempl explores why Uber and Lyft hate apps that aggregate prices, why smaller companies competing for market share love them, and why everyone might change their minds on this whole idea soon.
  • Jessi also went behind the scenes of Uber’s latest bad look: the departure of HR head Liane Hornsey, due to allegations that she systematically dismissed complaints of race-based discrimination. Hornsey’s resignation is a sign of Uber’s growth—there are consequences for mistakes—and of its lingering culture problems.
  • A UCLA dissertation finds Lyft and Uber are much better at serving Los Angeles residents equitably than their taxi counterparts. But what happens when drivers start discriminating based on ratings instead?
  • Alex Davies goes inside X, the secretive, experimental moonshot factory of Google’s parent company, Alphabet. This week, Loon (the company’s bid to spread internet connectivity via hot-air balloon) and Wing (its autonomous-drone-delivery effort) spin off to become their own entities. Innovation’s a wonderful thing, but what happens if Alphabet owns every part of our lives?
  • When Elon Musk decided to build something to help a youth soccer team escape a cave in Thailand this week, he called a familiar collaborator: Wing Inflatables, a company that builds recovery parts for SpaceX. This is how they built a red kevlar pouch to carry to the boys to safety. (It was never used.)
  • Canny observers always knew that Tesla’s $7,500, federally-funded electric-vehicle rebates would be phased out once the carmaker had sold 200,000 vehicles in the US. But still, senior writer Jack Stewart explains, the timing is terrible: Tesla is still struggling to build the Model 3, its long-promised affordable car. Still, don’t expect the EV market to implode just yet.
  • I hung out at the Automated Vehicles Symposium in San Francisco for a few days, one of the AV industry’s big annual conferences. I found a sector doubling down on safety, but unsure how to communicate the limitations of existing technology to a wary public.
  • Jack gets the download on Pininfarina-Automobili, the famed European design house that helped build 64 different Ferraris. Now it’s making its own ride, a $2.5 million, all-electric hypercar, to debut in 2020.

AV Struggs of the Week

Please watch all five minutes and 54 seconds of the video below, which shows a read more

The Complex Engineering of the Simple Hook That Could Make Drone Deliveries Real

André Prager turns away from me for a moment, rummaging through a pile of stuff on the cart he has pulled into the small conference room. There are lots of cut-up pieces of cardboard, with a few bags of colorful plastic odds and ends mixed in.

“I think the most valuable things in this building are cardboard and tape,” he says. He shows me a rectangle of foam-core with a straw, a broken pen, and a few thumb tacks stuck to it.

It looks like junk, but because we’re at 100 Mayfield Avenue in Mountain View, California, the headquarters of X, Alphabet’s secretive division dedicated to cranking out new Googles, it’s actually anything but. The building is stuffed with cool gear: self-driving car hardware, an 80-foot flatbed scanner that inspects stratospheric balloons, a sprawling tool shop populated by hulking machines with names like Metabeam. But for Prager, this grown-up read more

Pininfarina’s Back With a $2 Million Electric Hypercar

Tesla can take credit for proving to the world that electric cars can be fun, and faster than their internal combustion engine competitors. But while Elon Musk’s company is now set on showing EVs can also be affordable and accessible for the masses, with the minimalist Model 3, others are taking batteries and motors in the opposite direction.

The latest automaker to promise an electric car that’s excessively fast, luxurious, rare, and expensive, is Pininfarina-Automobili. The European newcomer’s vehicle, codenamed PF0, will go into production in 2020 and cost between $2 and $2.5 million. If you’ve got the cash, you get a hypercar that can reach 60 mph in under two seconds, top out at 250 mph, and offer 310 miles of driving between stops to recharge the batteries.

Another advantage to being the sort of person who can afford the PF0: You get to see what the thing looks like. So far, Pininfarina has only shown teaser images of the vehicle, which reveal read more

Home From the Honeymoon, the Self-Driving Car Industry Faces Reality

At the blockbuster plenary sessions, the chairs stretched so far back that even the most youthful Silicon Valley college dropouts-turned VC hoovers had to squint to see the action up in front. A handful of large projection screens hung between the ballroom’s chandeliers, displaying loop-de-looping flow charts on vehicle safety systems, sensor alignments, liability law.

But despite the best efforts of the downtown San Francisco Hilton’s air conditioners, the air shared by the attendees of this year’s Automated Vehicles Symposium was thick with secrets and doubt. Eight years after Google first showed its self-driving car to The New York Times, the autonomous vehicle industry is still trying to figure out how to talk about itself.

Over the three-day conference, engineers, business buffs, urban planners, government officials, and transportation researchers grappled with how to tell the public that its wonder drug of a transportation solution will have its limitations. read more

Uber and Lyft’s Never-Ending Quest to Crush Price Comparison Apps

For nearly as long as there have been ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft, there have been apps that help riders compare fares and travel times. These aggregator apps allow riders to survey all the services in an area and check prices and wait times—an efficient version of what many do already. There are always fresh versions of these apps popping up. The newest one, Bellhop, officially launched in New York this week.

Bellhop allows prospective riders to compare 17 services offered by four companies—Uber, Lyft, Juno, and Curb—in New York, with plans to add more services and expand to more cities soon. “There are too many ride-sharing apps and you don’t have transparency to make decisions,” CEO and cofounder Payam Safa told me—and he’s right. Pull Bellhop up on a Tuesday morning in July, and it will tell you that the cheapest way to get to the New York public library from my home on the Upper West Side is Lyft’s carpool product. The fastest is Juno, as there’s read more

The Terrible Timing of Tesla’s Expiring $7,500 Tax Credit

Just a few weeks after finally reaching its goal of building 5,000 Model 3 sedans in a week, Tesla has hit another threshold: Earlier this month, it sold its 200,000th car in the US. This milestone, however, is more cause for concern than celebration: From here on out, Elon Musk’s customers will start to lose access to the $7,500 federal tax credit that softens the blow of buying an expensive electric.

The tax credit scheme dates to the 2008 Energy Improvement and Extension Act, which boosted the budding electric car industry by artificially closing the price gap between EVs and cheaper gasoline-powered cars. The credit was allocated for the first 200,000 cars any given manufacturer sells, after which, the thinking went, it shouldn’t need so much federal help.

After a carmaker hits the magic number, the credit phases out: It’s available in full for the rest of that quarter and the following quarter, then it halves to $3,750 for six months, then halves again read more

Einride’s T-log Is a Self-Driving Truck Made for the Forest

If a tree falls in a forest and there’s nobody around, does the truck that comes in to pick it up make a noise? Not much of one, if it’s the latest offering from Swedish startup Einride, an all-electric autonomous semi looking to carve out a niche in an increasingly crowded (but not yet entirely real) market.

The new truck, unveiled today at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in the UK, is the T-log. Like on the T-pod, the truck Einride unveiled last year, there’s no cab or engine, just a skinny, sculpted, white slab up front. At the back are upright supports to hold the logs in place. Company engineers have beefed up the suspension and strengthened the chassis to cope with the heavier load and rougher forest roads that a logging truck will see. For a utility vehicle, it manages to look adorable.

And like the T-pod, the T-log uses an electric drivetrain, with 300 kWh of battery capacity (equivalent to three high-end Teslas, the universal unit for electrics) read more

The Engineering Behind Elon Musk’s Bid to Save Thailand’s Cave Boys

Around 6 pm Tuesday at Tham Luang in Thailand, the last of the 13 survivors who had spent 18 days trapped in a cave emerged to safety. A rescue team had spent the past three days getting the boys out after five days of desperate planning and calculations since their discovery.

As the boys’ oxygen supply dwindled, doubts in the rescuers’ ability to save them mounted. The boys weren’t trained scuba divers, and they were facing a voyage on which a pro Thai Navy SEAL died, while placing oxygen tank supplies along the route.

Then Elon Musk entered the fray, apparently at the humble request of a Twitter follower:

What followed was a curious few days where two rescue operations played out simultaneously. The first was the official one in Thailand that ultimately proved successful, and the second was run by Musk—an unsolicited effort that Thai authorities ultimately called read more

Mercedes Will Launch Self-Driving Taxis in California Next Year

Like in a Tough Mudder, you’ve got a few strategies when it comes to the race to launch a taxi-like service with autonomous vehicles. You can start early and keep a slow but steady pace. You can show up a bit late, then try to sprint through it. Or you can hold back, see what trips up other contenders, and then slowly work your way through the obstacles.

The big automakers tend to fall into the third category. They may have taken a few years to recognize that shared autonomous vehicles could annihilate their business model—selling human-driven cars to individual humans—but they’re now making real progress toward the finish line. And today, Mercedes-Benz parent company Daimler took a cautious step into the swamp stomp, announcing plans to launch a self-driving car pilot somewhere in Silicon Valley, next year.

Daimler is calling its service an “automated shuttle,” but it’s not referring to some blobby, slow-moving van. It’s going to start out using read more