The Costly Pursuit of Self-Driving Cars Continues On. And On. And On.

It was seven years ago when Waymo discovered that spring blossoms made its self-driving cars get twitchy on the brakes. So did soap bubbles. And road flares.

New tests, in years of tests, revealed more and more distractions for the driverless cars. Their road skills improved, but matching the competence of human drivers was elusive. The cluttered roads of America, it turned out, were a daunting place for a robot.

The wizards of Silicon Valley said people would be commuting to work in self-driving cars by now. Instead, there have been court fights, injuries and deaths, and tens of billions of dollars spent on a frustratingly fickle technology that some researchers say is still years from becoming the industry’s next big thing.

Now the pursuit of autonomous cars is undergoing a reset. Companies like Uber and Lyft, worried about blowing through their cash in pursuit of autonomous technology, have tapped out. Only the most deep pocketed outfits like Waymo, which is a subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet, auto industry giants, and a handful of start-ups are managing to stay in the game.

said that fully functional self-driving cars were just two years away. More than five years later, Tesla cars offered simpler autonomy designed solely for highway driving. Even that has been tinged with controversy after several fatal crashes (which the company blamed on misuse of the technology).

Perhaps no company experienced the turbulence of driverless car development more fitfully than Uber. After poaching 40 robotics experts from Carnegie Mellon University and acquiring a self-driving truck start-up for $680 million in stock, the ride-hailing company settled a lawsuit from Waymo, which was followed by a guilty plea from a former executive accused of stealing intellectual property. A pedestrian in Arizona was also killed in a crash with one of its driverless cars. In the end, Uber essentially paid Aurora to acquire its self-driving unit.

But for the most deep-pocketed companies, the science, they hope, continues to advance one improved ride at a time. In October, Waymo reached a notable milestone: It launched the world’s first “fully autonomous” taxi service. In the suburbs of Phoenix, Ariz., anyone can now ride in a minivan with no driver behind the wheel. But that does not mean the company will immediately deploy its technology in other parts of the country.

Dmitri Dolgov, who recently took over as Waymo’s co-chief executive after the departure of John Krafcik, an automobile industry veteran, said the company considers its Arizona service a test case. Based on what it has learned in Arizona, he said, Waymo is building a new version of its self-driving technology that it will eventually deploy in other geographies and other kinds of vehicles, including long-haul trucks.

The suburbs of Phoenix are particularly well suited to driverless cars. Streets are wide, pedestrians are few and there is almost no rain or snow. Waymo supports its autonomous vehicles with remote technicians and roadside assistance crews who can help get cars out of a tight spot, either via the internet or in person.

“Autonomous vehicles can be deployed today, in certain situations,” said Elliot Katz, a former lawyer who counseled many of the big autonomous vehicle companies before launching a start-up, Phantom Auto, that provides software for remotely assisting and operating self-driving vehicles when they get stuck in difficult positions. “But you still need a human in the loop.”

Self-driving tech is not yet nimble enough to reliably handle the variety of situations human drivers encounter each day. They can usually handle suburban Phoenix, but they can’t duplicate the human chutzpah needed for merging into the Lincoln Tunnel in New York or dashing for an offramp on Highway 101 in Los Angeles.

“You have to peel back every layer before you can see the next layer” of challenges for the technology, said Nathaniel Fairfield, a Waymo software engineer who has worked on the project since 2009, in describing some of the distractions faced by the cars. “Your car has to be pretty good at driving before you can really get it into the situations where it handles the next most challenging thing.”

Like Waymo, Aurora is now developing autonomous trucks as well as passenger vehicles. No company has deployed trucks without safety drivers behind the wheel, but Mr. Urmson and others argue that autonomous trucks will make it to market faster than anything designed to transport regular consumers.

Long-haul trucking does not involve passengers who might not be forgiving of twitchy brakes. The routes are also simpler. Once you master one stretch of highway, Mr. Urmson said, it is easier to master another. But even driving down a long, relatively straight highway is extraordinarily difficult. Delivering dinner orders across a small neighborhood is an even greater challenge.

“This is one of the biggest technical challenges of our generation,” said Dave Ferguson, another early engineer on the Google team who is now president of Nuro, a company focused on delivering groceries, pizzas and other goods.

Mr. Ferguson said that many thought self-driving technology would improve like an internet service or a smartphone app. But robotics is a lot more challenging. It was wrong to claim anything else.

“If you look at almost every industry that is trying to solve really really difficult technical challenges, the folks that tend to be involved are a little bit crazy and little bit optimistic,” he said. “You need to have that optimism to get up everyday and bang your head against the wall to try to solve a problem that has never been solved, and it’s not guaranteed that it ever will be solved.”

Uber and Lyft aren’t entirely giving up on driverless cars. Even though it may not help the bottom line for a long time, they still want to deploy autonomous vehicles by partnering with the companies that are still working on the technology. Lyft now says autonomous rides could arrive by 2023.

“These cars will be able to operate on a limited set of streets under a limited set of weather conditions at certain speeds,” said Jody Kelman, the executive of Lyft. “We will very safely be able to deploy these cars, but they won’t be able to go that many places.”

View Source

>>> Don’t Miss Today’s BEST Amazon Deals! <<<<

Daimler Aims to Build Hydrogen-Fueled Long-Haul Trucks

Carmakers have been promising to scrap the internal combustion engine, and now it’s the truckmakers’ turn. But the makers of giant 18-wheelers are taking a different route.

Daimler, the world’s largest maker of heavy trucks, whose Freightliners are a familiar sight on American interstates, said last week that it would convert to zero-emission vehicles within 15 years at the latest, providing another example of how the shift to electric power is reshaping vehicle manufacturing with significant implications for the climate, economic growth and jobs.

The journey away from fossil fuels will play out differently and take longer in the trucking industry than it will for passenger cars. For one thing, zero emission long-haul trucks are not yet available in large numbers.

And different technology may be needed to power the electric motors. Batteries work well for delivery vehicles and other short-haul trucks, which are already on the roads in significant numbers. But Daimler argues that battery power is not ideal for long-haul 18-wheelers, at least with current technology. The weight of the batteries alone subtracts too much from payload, an important consideration for cost-conscious trucking companies.

online presentation Thursday, Daimler executives announced a partnership with Shell to build a “hydrogen corridor” of fueling stations spanning northern Europe. For shorter-haul trucks, Daimler announced a partnership with the Chinese company CATL to develop batteries, and partnerships with Siemens and other companies to install high-voltage charging stations in Europe and the United States.

Trevor Milton, resigned last year facing accusations he had made numerous false assertions about the company’s hydrogen fuel-cell technology.

Nikola at least demonstrated how eager investors are to put their money into hydrogen trucks. Another example is Hyzon, a maker of fuel cells based in Rochester, N.Y., that has begun offering complete trucks and buses. In February, Hyzon was acquired by Decarbonization Plus Acquisition Corporation, a so-called SPAC that raises money before it has any assets.

Tesla unveiled a design for a battery-powered semi truck in 2017, which the company has said it will begin delivering this year. Tesla, Scania and some other truckmakers are skeptical of hydrogen technology, which they regard as too expensive and less energy-efficient.

The traditional truckmakers like Daimler and Volvo have some advantages over the start-ups. Truck buyers tend to be practical hauling firms or drivers who carefully calculate the costs of maintenance and fuel consumption before they make a decision. Managers of big fleets may also be reluctant to take a chance on a manufacturer without a long track record.

President Biden has been promoting electric vehicles, but has not yet defined what that means for the trucking industry.

Trucking companies, which have depended on diesel for most of the last century, will have to revamp their maintenance departments, install their own charging or hydrogen fueling stations in some cases, retrain drivers and learn to plan their routes around hydrogen or electric charging points.

But Mr. Kedzie said that emission-free trucks also had some advantages. Fuel costs for battery-powered vehicles are much lower than for diesel trucks. Maintenance costs may be lower because electric vehicles have fewer moving parts. Drivers like the way electric trucks perform — an important factor at the moment when there is a driver shortage in America.

Many companies that ship a lot of goods, like Walmart or Target, are trying to reduce their carbon footprints and taking an interest in zero-emission trucks. “There are a lot of potential benefits” Mr. Kedzie said.

Daimler says its aim is to make battery-powered short-haul trucks that can compete on cost with diesel by 2025, and long-haul fuel-cell trucks that achieve diesel parity by 2027.

“In that very moment when the customer starts benefiting more from a zero-emission truck than a diesel truck, well, there’s no reason to buy a diesel truck anymore,” Andreas Gorbach, chief technology officer for Daimler’s trucks and buses division, said during the presentation Thursday. “This is the tipping point.”

View Source

>>> Don’t Miss Today’s BEST Amazon Deals! <<<<

‘The Traveling Zoo’: Life on the Road, With Pets at Their Side

It can get lonely on the road, but Rebecca Washington, a long-distance trucker who is sometimes away from home for months on end, has Ziggy, Polly, Junior and Tucker along for the ride: her “rig dogs.”

“People call me the traveling zoo,” she said.

“We’re away from our families a lot of the time,” added Ms. Washington, 53, whose home base is Springfield, Mo., and whose children are grown with children of their own. “Animals are good companions, and walking the dogs at truck stops is a good way to lose weight and stay healthy. I take them out two at a time. It’s a routine.”

Long-haul trucking companies mostly don’t complain about on-the-road pets, and some even encourage them, because happier drivers are more likely to stick around. The nationwide driver shortage is acute, and the coronavirus only made matters worse.

The Trucker, a newspaper and website.

“Of the drivers I’ve interviewed,” she said, “I would say that the vast majority of them own pets, and many take them on the road.” Drivers who own their trucks have more leeway to take along a best friend, Ms. Miller said.

Asked if there were any regulations regarding pets on board interstate trucks, Duane DeBruyne, a spokesman for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, had a simple reply: “No.” But some trucking companies impose weight limits on the pets or bar certain breeds, and others require a deposit against damage to company-owned trucks.

Adopters Welcome site to help change adoption policies.

Given the driver shortage, it’s likely the trends will continue to favor allowing rig pets. According to William B. Cassidy, a senior editor who covers trucking for The Journal of Commerce, “A lot of companies are trying to become more driver-centric, and allowing pet ownership is part of that.”

View Source

Shares of TuSimple, a developer of autonomous trucks, fall sharply after I.P.O. before recovering.

Shares in TuSimple, a developer of autonomous trucks that is backed by Volkswagen and UPS, fell sharply on Thursday after its initial public offering, suggesting that investors have doubts about the company’s promise of putting its technology on the road by 2024.

The start-up, which is based in San Diego, raised more than $1 billion in an I.P.O. that valued it at nearly $8.5 billion. Shares started trading on the Nasdaq under the symbol TSP at $40 each around noon, but quickly fell as much as 19 percent before recovering those losses by the time the market closed.

TuSimple and other companies working on autonomous vehicles believe that long-haul trucks are particularly suited for self-driving technology. Routes along highways that trucks travel repeatedly are easier to map and present fewer challenges than local roads, where self-driving systems have to deal with unpredictable stop-and-go traffic, pedestrians and cyclists.

TuSimple’s self-driving technology relies on several sensors but is centered on long-range cameras, which it says can map objects within five centimeters of accuracy and see as far as 1,000 meters. The company has a fleet of about 70 trucks, with 50 in the United States and 20 in Europe and Asia. As of late March, the company said it had more than 5,700 reservations for vehicles, which typically require a deposit of just $500.

Walmart said it was investing in Cruise, the autonomous vehicle division of General Motors.

View Source

‘I’ve Never Seen Anything Like This’: Chaos Strikes Global Shipping

Off the coast of Los Angeles, more than two dozen container ships filled with exercise bikes, electronics and other highly sought imports have been idling for as long as two weeks.

In Kansas City, farmers are struggling to ship soybeans to buyers in Asia. In China, furniture destined for North America piles up on factory floors.

Around the planet, the pandemic has disrupted trade to an extraordinary degree, driving up the cost of shipping goods and adding a fresh challenge to the global economic recovery. The virus has thrown off the choreography of moving cargo from one continent to another.

At the center of the storm is the shipping container, the workhorse of globalization.

Americans stuck in their homes have set off a surge of orders from factories in China, much of it carried across the Pacific in containers — the metal boxes that move goods in towering stacks atop enormous vessels. As households in the United States have filled bedrooms with office furniture and basements with treadmills, the demand for shipping has outstripped the availability of containers in Asia, yielding shortages there just as the boxes pile up at American ports.

record-high freight prices in reporting more than $2.7 billion in pretax earnings in the last three months of 2020.

No one knows how long the upheaval will last, though some experts assume containers will remain scarce through the end of the year, as the factories that make them — nearly all of them in China — scramble to catch up with demand.

Since they were first deployed in 1956, containers have revolutionized trade by allowing goods to be packed into standard size receptacles and hoisted by cranes onto rail cars and trucks — effectively shrinking the globe.

Containers are how flat panel displays made in South Korea are moved to plants in China that assemble smartphones and laptops, and how those finished devices are shipped across the Pacific to the United States.

Any hitch means delay and extra cost for someone. The pandemic has disrupted every part of the journey.

Peloton outlined plans to invest $100 million in air shipping and expedited ocean freight.

But even in normal times, airfreight is roughly eight times the cost of sea shipment. Most airfreight is carried in the cargo holds of passenger jets. With air travel severely constrained, so are available cargo slots.

Some shippers have rearranged their schedules, stopping off in Oakland, Calif., 400 miles to the north, before continuing to Los Angeles. But containers are stacked on ships in configurations set by their destinations. A sudden change in plans means moving the stacks around like a Jenga game.

And the port in Oakland is dealing with its own pandemic problems. Dockworkers are home tending to children who are not in school, said Bryan Brandes, the port’s maritime director.

“In normal times, vessels come directly into Oakland,” Mr. Brandes said. “Right now, we’re ranging anywhere from seven to 11 vessels at anchorage.”

The dysfunction on the American West Coast has caused problems thousands of miles away.

Scoular, one of the largest agricultural exporters in the United States, loads grain and soybeans into containers at terminals like Chicago and Kansas City, and then sends them by rail to Pacific ports en route to Asia.

Given the prices fetched by containers in Asia, shipping carriers are increasingly unloading in California and then immediately putting empty boxes back on ships for the return leg to Asia, without waiting to load grain or other American exports. That has left companies like Scoular scrambling to secure passage.

Delays at the ports frequently bump Scoular’s containers to different vessels, forcing the company to redo its customs paperwork — another delay.

“It’s the schedule reliability that is a problem,” said Sean Healy, Scoular’s carrier relations manager. “It’s a global issue.”

In recent weeks, shipping carriers have aggressively moved empty containers to Asia, increasing availability there, according to data from Container xChange, a consultant in Hamburg, Germany.

Some experts assume that as vaccinations increase and life returns to normal, Americans will again shift their spending — from goods back to experiences — reducing the need for containers.

But even as that happens, retailers will begin building up inventories for the holiday shopping binge.

The stimulus spending plan moving through Congress may generate hiring that could prompt another wave of buying, as previously jobless people replace aging appliances and add to their wardrobes.

“There could be a whole other subset of consumers out there that haven’t been able to consume,” said Michael Brown, a container analyst at KBW in New York. “You are potentially looking at some shortages for quite some time.”

View Source