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Building a self-driving car that people can trust

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Over the past year, we’ve seen a rise in robotaxis and autonomous vehicle use. Companies such as Waymo, Cruise, and Baidu have all made strong headway as industry pioneers. In China specifically, 2020 headlines regularly featured major autonomous vehicle announcements, such as the public launch of Baidu Apollo robotaxi services in the cities of Beijing, Changsha, and Cangzhou.

But despite the increasing visibility of robotaxis and the public’s broader exposure to autonomous vehicle technology, many people remain hesitant about the safety of self-driving cars. Nearly three in four Americans say autonomous vehicle technology “is not ready for primetime,” according to a poll from Partners for Automated Vehicle Education (PAVE). Nearly half (48%) say they would never get in a taxi or ride-sharing vehicle that was self-driving.

Building trust between human passengers and self-driving cars is fundamental to the public’s use of autonomous vehicles. The current lack of trust may stem from high-profile controversies and accidents involving passengers and autonomous vehicles. Tesla’s FSD (Full Self-Driving) vehicles raised concerns because its technology was released without proper safety-focused communications while requiring drivers to constantly monitor the road. Uber’s self-driving vehicles drove controversy after one test drive ended with a fatality when the vehicle failed to recognize a pedestrian. The risks and mistrust of autonomous vehicles make safety the top priority for companies and their passengers.

As the leading autonomous driving player in China, Baidu has made significant progress building public trust in its autonomous vehicle technology. Part of its success stems from the continual development of industry-leading safety features, such as a state-of-the-art artificial intelligence (AI) system and 5G-enabled teleoperation. But just as important has been its deliberate focus on developing these leading safety features and communicating the ways these technologies and best practices—such as information security and safety assessments—ensure safe travel by minimizing hazards and accidents.

So what role do these technologies play in improving the safety of self-driving cars? How did Baidu communicate around these features to quell consumer concerns? And what can other companies learn from Baidu’s journey to better develop widespread public trust in self-driving vehicles?

The screen shown to Apollo Go passengers visualizes how the vehicle sees its environment.

A reliable AI system

The Baidu Apollo fleet of nearly 500 autonomous driving vehicles is known for its reliability and track record. The self-driving cars have driven more than 7 million kilometers (4.35 million miles) with zero accidents and have safely carried more than 210,000 passengers. In 2019, Baidu’s autonomous vehicles drove 108,300 miles in California, with only six disengagements and no accidents or injuries. Similarly, Baidu’s 52 autonomous vehicles traveled nearly 468,513 miles in Beijing in 2019 without incident.

Simulation tests and a well-devised verification mechanism are the key to building a safe autonomous vehicle. A 2018 report that demonstrates autonomous vehicle reliability calculates that it would take 8.8 billion miles—with a fleet of 100 vehicles being test-driven 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, at an average speed of 25 miles per hour.

Simulation makes large-scale testing of autonomous vehicles practically possible. Each iteration of the Baidu Apollo system is tested for millions of miles every day in a virtual environment that now accommodates over 10 million simulation scenarios. Baidu researchers also introduced a method to augment real-world pictures with a simulated traffic flow to create photorealistic simulation scenarios.

Before testing on public roads, the system undergoes a series of hierarchy verifications, starting from a fully virtual environment to mixed reality to closed areas. Each module of self-driving cars including models, software, sensors, and vehicles will be fully examined.

Driverless backups: 5G-enabled teleoperation

The Baidu Apollo integrated AI system allows its vehicles to drive independently without a safety driver inside the vehicle. To ensure public safety in the extreme road conditions, Baidu integrated 5G-enabled teleoperation into its vehicles.

The 5G Remote Driving Service, powered by 5G networks, smart transportation systems, and vehicle-to-everything technologies, provides immediate assistance from remote human operators during emergency situations. The operators aim to ensure the safety of passengers and pedestrians while its non-autonomous driving mode is in use.

All remote human operators have completed more than 1,000 hours of cloud-based driving training without any accidents and can ensure the safety of passengers and pedestrians when the non-autonomous driving mode is engaged. Since the autonomous vehicle drivers can handle most road conditions, human intervention is a rare occasion. Currently, Apollo’s self-driving cars in Changsha and Beijing have 5G-enabled teleoperation that can enable them to test on public roads without a safety driver.

Regardless of the efficacy of integrated AI systems, systems such as Baidu’s 5G Remote Driving Service guarantees that a person is always available to intervene.

Baidu co-founder and CEO Robin Li (center) introduces 5G Remote Driving Service at Baidu World 2020.

Information security

To further the advancement of safety in mobility as a long-term vision toward the development of an autonomous driving ecosystem, Baidu launched an automotive cybersecurity lab, becoming the only Chinese company to do so.

The lab researches automotive cybersecurity technologies, trends, and solutions for in-vehicle systems, car-to-car communications, the controller area network, and sensors. It explores best security practices in data protection, in-vehicle infotainment, reference software, and hardware designs, and countermeasures to fake signals that misguide autonomous driving systems.

Knowing vulnerabilities and potential cyberattacks are industrywide concerns. In 2019, Baidu joined hands with automotive industry leaders and released a 157-page white paper that outlined how to build, test, and operate a safe automated vehicle. Through its CTF Challenge contest, Baidu encouraged developers and white hat hackers to design protection mechanisms for autonomous driving systems.

The interface view of Baidu’s first CTF Challenge for autonomous driving.

The lab, widespread information sharing, and strong industry collaboration are key components to maintaining public trust in autonomous vehicles. No system is completely impervious to cyberattacks, as was proven when researchers demonstrated the ability to remotely take control of a Jeep Cherokee (and technically most modern vehicles), controlling things like steering, brakes, and windshield wipers.

Baidu’s emphasis on industrywide security research and collaboration not only improves the security of these autonomous systems, it also demonstrates that public safety and security are its top priority when vulnerabilities are inevitably exposed.

Operation safety assessments

The final way Baidu is constantly assuring the public that its autonomous vehicle systems are working effectively is through regular, in-depth safety assessments. Baidu Apollo has a full-time “safety assurance team” which aims to prevent robotaxi accidents. The team is responsible for executing various aspects of operation area safety assessments, operation platform management, safety driver training, and safety assurance mechanisms. Team members evaluate the external environment of autonomous vehicles, including how to set up the road network and how to set up and expand the site.

Like any piece of equipment that comes with inherent safety risks, failures will happen, and safety systems can always be improved. By constantly reviewing and revising the safety measures it implements across its autonomous vehicle deployments, Baidu can catch issues before they result in an accident while providing ongoing reassurance to the public that it’s taking their safety seriously.

Building trust moving forward

Building trust between the public and autonomous vehicles is fundamental to their mass adoption. As an industry pioneer, Baidu has focused much of its innovation on developing and demonstrating technologies and best practices that can minimize risk. Through these initiatives, Baidu has developed a strong foundation of public trust in China that other companies can build on moving forward.

The key is that technology innovation is only half the battle. Reliable safety features like AI systems, teleoperation options, and strong information security are critical. But communicating how those innovations not only improve safety but compare to the everyday risks we accept with manual driving, is perhaps even more important. This is the model for shifting public sentiment and trust in self-driving vehicles.

This content was produced by Baidu. It was not written by MIT Technology Review’s editorial staff.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Comcast hides upload speeds deep inside its infuriating ordering system

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An NBC peacock logo is on the loose and hiding behind the corner of a brick building.

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson / Getty Images)

Comcast just released a 2020 Network Performance Data report with stats on how much Internet usage rose during the pandemic, and it said that upload use is growing faster than download use. “Peak downstream traffic in 2020 increased approximately 38 percent over 2019 levels and peak upstream traffic increased approximately 56 percent over 2019 levels,” Comcast said.

But while upload use on Comcast’s network quickly grows—driven largely by videoconferencing among people working and learning at home—the nation’s largest home-Internet provider with over 30 million customers advertises its speed tiers as if uploading doesn’t exist. Comcast’s 56 percent increase in upstream traffic made me wonder if the company will increase upload speeds any time soon, so I checked out the Xfinity website today to see the current upload speeds. Getting that information was even more difficult than I expected.

The Xfinity website advertises cable-Internet plans with download speeds starting at 25Mbps without mentioning that upstream speeds are just a fraction of the downstream ones. I went through Comcast’s online ordering system today and found no mention of upload speeds anywhere. Even clicking “pricing & other info” and “view plan details” links to read the fine print on various Internet plans didn’t reveal upload speeds.

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Bank of America is bringing VR instruction to its 4,000 banks

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As consumer VR begins to have a moment following years of heavy investment from Facebook and other tech giants, corporate America is similarly beginning to find more utility in the technology, as well.

Bank of America announced today that they’ll be working with Bay Area-based VR startup Strivr to bring more of their workplace training into virtual reality. The financial institution has already used the startup’s tech in a pilot effort with about 400 employees, but a wide-scale rollout means scaling the VR learning platform to more of the company’s 45,000 employees and bringing thousands of VR headsets to its bank branches.

Bank of America exec John Jordan has plenty of ideas of where it will be able to implement the technology most effectively, but is open to experimenting early-on, noting that they’ve developed VR lessons for everything from notary services to fraud detection. Jordan also says that they’re working on more ambitious tasks like helping employees practice empathy with customers dealing with sensitive matters like the death of a relative.

Jordan says the scope of the company’s corporate learning program “The Academy” is largely unmatched among other major companies in the U.S., except perhaps by the employee instruction programs at Walmart, he notes. Walmart has been Strivr’s largest customer since the startup signed the retail behemoth back in 2017 to bring VR instruction to their 200 “Walmart Academy” instruction centers and all Walmart stores.

Virtual reality is a technology that lends itself to capturing undivided attention, something that is undoubtedly positive for increasing learning retention, which Jordan says was one of the central appeals for adopting the tech. For Bank of America, VR offers a platform change to reexamine some of the pitfalls of conventional corporate learning. At the same time, they acknowledge that the tech isn’t a silver bullet and that are plenty of best practices for VR that are still unknowns.

“We’re just taking it slow to be honest,” Jordan says. “We already feel pretty great about how we’ve made investments, but we view this as a way to get better.”

Enterprise VR startups have seen varying levels of success over the years as they’ve aimed to find paying customers that can tolerate the limitations of the technology while buying in on the broader vision. Strivr has raised over $51 million, including a $30 million Series B last year, as it has aimed to become a leader in the workplace training space. CEO Derek Belch tells TechCrunch that the company has big plans as it looks towards raising more funding and works to build out its software toolsets to help simplify VR content creation for its partners.

 

 

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Cashify raises $15 million for its second-hand smartphone business in India

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Tens of millions of people each year purchase a second-hand smartphone in India, the world’s second largest market. Phone makers and giant online sellers such as Amazon and Flipkart are aware of it, but it’s too much of a hassle for them to inspect, repair, and resell used phones. But these firms also know that customers are more likely to buy a smartphone if they are offered the ability to trade-in their existing handsets.

A startup that is helping these firms tackle this challenge said on Thursday it has raised $15 million in a new financing round. New York-based Olympus Capital Asia made the investment through Asia Environmental Partners, a fund dedicated to the environmental sector. The five-year-old startup, which counts Blume Ventures  among its early investors, has raised $42 million to date.

Cashify operates an eponymous platform — both online and physical stores and kiosks — for users to sell and buy used smartphones, tablets, smartwatches, laptops, desktops, and gaming consoles. 90% of its business today surrounds the smartphone category, explained Mandeep Manocha, founder and chief executive of Cashify, in an interview with TechCrunch.

“For consumers, our proposition is that we make it easy for you to sell your devices. You come to our site or app, answer questions to objectively evaluate the condition of your device, and we give you an estimate of how much your gadget is worth,” he said. “If you like the price, we pick it up from your doorstep and give you instant cash.”

A few years ago, I wrote about the struggle e-commerce firms face globally in handling returned items. There are many liability challenges — such as having to ensure that the innards in a returned smartphone haven’t been tempered with — as well as overhead costs in reversing an order.

Manocha said that phone makers and e-commerce firms have found better ways to handle returned items in recent years, but they still lose a significant amount of money on them. These challenges have created a big opportunity for startups such as Cashify.

In fact, Cashify says it’s the market leader in its category in India. The startup has partnerships with “nearly every OEM” including Apple, Samsung, OnePlus, Oppo, Xiaomi, Vivo, and HP. “If you walk into an Apple store today, they use our platform.” For consumers in India, if they opted for the trade-in program, Apple.com also uses Cashify’s trading platform, he said.

The startup also works with top e-commerce firms in India — Amazon, Flipkart, and Paytm Mall. The firms use Cashify’s trading and exchange software, and also rely on the startup for liquidation of devices. The startup then repairs these gadgets and sells the refurbished units to customers.

“Essentially, whether you come directly to us, or go to popular e-commerce firms or phone OEMs, we are handling the majority of the trading,” he said. Even if a customer trades in the device to OEMs, or e-commerce firms, these companies sell the device to players like Cashify, which serves over 2 million customers in more than 1,500 cities.

The startup plans to deploy part of the fresh capital to expand its presence in the offline market. Manocha said Cashify currently has dozens of offline stores and kiosks at shopping malls across the country and it has already proven immensely effective in brand awareness among customers.

The startup also plans to expand outside of India, hire more talent, and invest more in getting the word out about its offerings. Manocha said the team is also working on expanding its expertise to more hardware categories such as cameras.

“The management team at Cashify has an excellent track record in building a strong consumer-facing franchise and building relationships with OEMs, e-commerce companies and electronic product retailers to be present across all touch points for the consumer,” said Pankaj Ghai, Managing Director of Asia Environmental Partners, in a statement.

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