Paving the way

nuTonomy CEO Karl Iagnemma tells Alex Kreetzer what it takes to develop autonomous software to cater for a range of urban environments around the world. 

The hardest challenge when developing self-driving cars is, without question, adapting to different urban environments. Unlike clear open roads and highways where there are virtually no obstacles, urban areas pose a maze of difficulties - quite literally - from densely populated areas consisting of pedestrians, other cars and public transport all tangled within one way streets, crossings and tunnels. For autonomous vehicles, this is a nightmare. However, these environments are the main focus for developers who are looking towards smart cities as the future of clean and efficient transportation. So what needs to be done? 

To find out, I meet with Karl Iagnemma, who leads the flourishing startup company nuTonomy. Founded in 2013, nuTonomy is a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) spin-off that burst onto the mobility scene in 2016 with its autonomous taxi service in Singapore. Dubbed Uber’s Asian rival, the company is pushing to dominate in multiple markets across the world, including Europe and the US. Formerly the director of the Robotic Mobility Group at MIT, Iagnemma’s primary role is to work towards an autonomous future, working with a range of different bodies, from automakers to authorities to make this shift happen as smoothly and as effectively as possible. 

I ask him how nuTonomy is overcoming the common issues of autonomous development across different environments around the world. “Our vehicles are outfitted with a range of vision, LIDAR, and Radar sensors, as well as cameras. Our combination of state-of-the-art sensors and algorithms is able to monitor and react to all situations presented by other vehicles, pedestrians, cyclists, and other road users,” he says. “We have built our software specifically to navigate the entire range of unpredictable scenarios that may occur on the road.” A significant hurdle for autonomous developers is the challenge of creating technology that is much safer than a human driver. Once this is achieved - and exceeded - we will see the shift over to self-driving cars as they pass regulations around the world. Iagnemma tells me that “the goal of the industry is not to develop self-driving software that is as good as a typical human drivers; it’s to develop software that is safer than even an expert human driver. That is a very high technological bar.” ‘Just good enough’ won’t do in the field of new mobility.

As mentioned, being able to adapt to different urban environments is vital for a global business like nuTonomy. Different weather conditions and road laws make it extremely difficult for autonomous vehicles to provide an alternative to everyday driving. “Adapting our software to the unique conditions in Boston - left-hand driving (instead of right-hand in Singapore), road conditions and signage, snowy weather, and the driving culture - is an ongoing process,” says Iagnemma. “One example is the flocks of seagulls that gather on roads in the seaport neighborhood where we’re testing. We had to adjust our software to recognise these flocks and approach slowly so the birds could move off the road – just as any driver would.” Fundamentally, every city is unique, which means that developing autonomous software in urban areas requires a great engineering effort. Iagnemma believes that this further stresses the importance of deploying fully driverless cars globally.

Working with regulations

Autonomous technology will not only dramatically reduce fatalities and injuries to drivers, passengers and pedestrians, but it will also allow those with physical difficulties to have the freedom to travel wherever they want, whenever they want. This is something that is not focused on enough and it is so refreshing to hear. Additionally, if you look at the economic effects of this, it opens up a new audience who couldn’t purchase a vehicle previously - yet another advantage of autonomous vehicles. The sooner we get this innovation on our road, the sooner we will all see the benefits, from both a lifestyle and business perspective. We must remember that mobility stretches further than just the automobile; it can create a new lease of life for some. Coupled with future transportation such as mobility-on-demand and ridesharing services in urban areas, cities will overcome other issues such as parking space shortages with advanced structures that will allow more space. However, all of this cannot be possible unless autonomous technology passses a number of different high-governed regulations across a number of urban areas across the world. The automotive and transport industries are cooperating with authorities, however it is still difficult to map out official guidelines for testing and driving autonomous vehicles.

“A significant uncertainty facing the self-driving car industry is the lack of firm regulatory guidelines around vehicle testing and deployment in cities worldwide,” Iagnemma explains, using North America as an example. “In the US, decisions about where and how autonomous vehicles may be tested have been left to the states. The US Department of Transport’s Model State Policy was helpful, but federal regulators may need to take further steps to ensure that these states do not impose undue burdens on autonomous vehicle testing, and to bring consistency to the current patchwork approach that can vary greatly by state.” He also believes that the government of Singapore, who is aiming to be the first smart city in the world, will be fully supportive of autonomous vehicle services by taking a streamlined and thoughtful approach. nuTonomy’s software has already been tested in the US, Singapore, and Europe; Iagnemma is looking forward to further expansion as the popularity of autonomous vehicles grows worldwide. By building long-term relationships with different countries and authorities around the world, startups can catapult their way to the top of the mobility market.

Mapping the future of autonomy

During testing, Iagnemma used off-the-lot vehicles outfitted with nuTonomy software. These cars had steering wheels and operated with a safety engineer who observed the operations of the vehicle, able to take control at anytime if needed - following regulations, of course. Future vehicles equipped with nuTonomy’s software will likely have no steering wheels or pedals, with Iagnemma predicting that “the steering wheel will go the way of the buggy whip.” What makes the nuTonomy system unique, is that the software can be installed on any make or model, not being restricted like some of its rivals, and the aim is to integrate nuTonomy's software with various vehicle platforms to offer a complete mobility service. “This will look similar to a taxi or ride hailing service, with the key difference that there will be no driver at the wheel. By removing the driver, we can radically reduce the cost of our transportation service, while increasing safety and efficiency.”

From a mapping perspective, Iagnemma explains to me that the company has been utilising drones to improve autonomous coordination around different cities - an innovative approach that allows the company to gather data at a much quicker rate than conventional mapping methods. “nuTonomy uses fleet management technology based on algorithms that the US military uses for drone coordination. This will help to reduce traffic and carbon emissions by making its autonomous vehicles more efficient.” This cleaner transportation is advanced further through the overhaul of EVs over the next few years, using nuTonomy’s mobility-on-demand service to reduce the use of gasoline-powered vehicles and eliminate the carbon footprint of transportation in urban environments. This is an extremely important issue as the number of megacities increases, which will bring more pollution and more congestion if these urban areas cannot find a solution.

Just like the transition over to EVs, autonomous vehicles will develop through a smooth transition, with dedicated lanes and roads for self driving vehicles as conventional fuels are slowly pushed out of our day-to-day lives. Due to this, it is hard to put a timescale on when we will see autonomous vehicles on our roads, to which Iagnemma agrees: “Given the uneven global regulatory environment, it is difficult to estimate when self-driving cars will be deployed at scale around the world,” he says. “At nuTonomy, we are focused on developing a software system that allows our vehicles to navigate complex urban environments accurately, comfortably and safely. Our priority is readying our on-demand autonomous vehicle service for commercial launch in Singapore in 2018.”

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