PITTSBURGH—Although it’s known as a gritty steel town, that’s an outdated image of Pittsburgh. Where pig iron once ruled, now there are clear skies, a vibrant downtown, and self-driving cars whizzing left and right.
In fact, I’m riding in one right now. We’re zipping around in an Audi SQ5 that is a joint product of big Tier One auto supplier Delphi (20,000 engineers, 5,000 of them working on software!), a fast-moving Israeli startup called Mobileye, and Pittsburgh-based Ottomatika, a spinoff from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) that licenses the college's intellectual property on autonomous vehicles.
Did we sit in the back of the SQ5 while it made its rounds with no driver? Alas, not. We’re not there yet. The Audi had a “safety driver” behind the wheel as it turned onto a crowded highway.
What happened next was very reassuring. An SUV that had been riding the outer lane, suddenly swerved into ours—was that a cellphone I saw in the pilot’s hand? A regular driver may have missed that maneuver, but the car—bristling with six lidars, lots of cameras and radar at all four corners—was on it, slamming the brakes in plenty of time to keep us safe.
“That’s exactly what the car is supposed to do,” said Glen De Vos, vice president of services at Delphi, who was riding shotgun. “You got a real demonstration of the technology right there.”
Indeed we did. It’s one thing to talk about autonomy; it’s quite another to see it demonstrated in real traffic. Self-driving cars are very much a work in progress, and companies like these are still figuring out what works and what doesn’t. The Delphi/Mobileye/Ottomatika Audi is going to play a big role at the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show in January—it’s giving rides on a 6.3-mile course that mixes highway and urban driving. And, of course, Pittsburgh is also the setting for Uber's big experiment in picking up passengers in self-driving Ford and Volvos. They're all over town.
If you’ve been following this stuff, we’ve got the highway driving licked. Even driving autonomously across the whole U.S., as Delphi has done and Tesla plans to do next year—is not that surprising anymore. It’s the city driving—with cars coming at you from every which way, and constantly changing road conditions—that’s the big challenge. Volvo, for one, is taking it up next year in a big Drive Me public demonstration in Sweden.
Delphi’s plan is to have a turnkey automated driving system available by 2019. It's fielding a fleet of them in Singapore, to get real-world experience. Automakers can buy part of the system, or the whole thing. In Pittsburgh, the company announced it’s bringing Intel inside, with chips that can process 12 trillion operations per second (that’s teraflops we’re talking about!)—and run Ottomatika’s automated driving algorithims.
Mobileye is also supplying EyeQ5 chips, in part to run its ingenious Road Experience Management (REM) system. It’s all about mapping. Obviously, self-driving cars will need to run on very, very precise and constantly updated maps accurate to a few centimeters—far better than anything GPS can provide now.
The answer, according to Dan Galves, a spokesman for Mobileye, is crowdsourcing. “There’s a lot of hype around self-driving cars,” he said. “We have to separate what is a science project, and what is real.” REM is real, and it doesn’t require $50,000 laser-based lidar systems, or hundreds of pounds of spinning hardware on top of the car.
Mobileye’s technology is camera-based, and REM will rely on data sent in wirelessly from commuters’ cars—14 million of which are already running the company’s technology. The cameras (a/k/a “harvest collectors”) will look for landmarks, and send in updates when those landmarks—street signs, traffic lights—change in any way. Also tracked is the exact path taken by the cars recently passing those landmarks.
The relevant REM data will fit on a 64-gig USB drive, and live on top of the regular map to provide an accurate, high-definition picture. There, that wasn’t too technical, was it?
We’ve been hearing for years that tomorrow’s cars will need to live in high-voltage environments, and Mary Gustanski, Delphi’s vice president of engineering, told us that the company is finalizing technology for 48-volt mild hybrid cars with belt-driven starter generators that can improve a sedan’s fuel economy by 15 percent or more without adding a lot of cost (about $1,000). She predicted that there will be 12 million of these cars on the road in China and Europe by 2025—with the U.S. lagging behind. Delphi is demonstrating the tech in a 1.8-liter Volkswagen Passat.
Pittsburgh’s Frick Museum has a Car and Carriage Museum, and it was interesting to see that this was once one of America’s Motor Cities. Something like 30 car makes came out of greater Pittsburgh, including the Penn Motor Company. A splendid Penn 30 touring car from 1911 is in the museum. A very early entry in the automaking sweepstakes was Autocar, founded in Pittsburgh in 1897 and making cars through 1911.
It was great to see a 1903 Baker battery vehicle in the museum, because it’s a reminder that electric cars were king until 1915 or so. And, Gustanski said, they will be again. “Tomorrow’s cars will be safe, green and connected,” she said. “We’re going to see more electrification, and the electric car will merge with automated driving and the connected car.”
Here’s the vision: The smart automatic electric pod of 2025 will drop you off at your house, then proceed to the garage, where it will park itself neatly over a wireless charging pad. It’s a future that’s looking increasingly likely. And here it is on the road in Pittsburgh: