Which country will win the race to the self-driving future?

Countries are revving up their regulatory and research engines as interest in self-driving cars shifts from fear of the technology to fear of being the last one to implement it.

So who’s doing what? Here’s a look:

Self-driving cars go waaaaay back

If anyone in the self-driving car industry is telling you what a visionary they are, here are a few points that Technologizer unearthed from the past to put things in perspective:

Looks like this shiny new thing from DeNA has a lot of ancestors.

Four technologies to help self-driving cars navigate unmapped indoor spaces

parking garage
Wish I had some way to detect micro-variations in the Earth’s magnetic field. / Travis Wise/flickr

In the right weather, getting around outside isn’t so hard for a self-driving car. GPS, LiDAR, other sensors  and pre-built maps come together to make the magic happen.

Indoors is different. GPS might fail. The quality of the light could plummet. And pre-assembling a map of, for example, every parking garage would pose a number of challenges.

You’re probably thinking, “Oh, that’s easy. Just use micro-variations in the Earth’s magnetic field.”


DARPA’s Micro-PNT (Micro-Technology for Positioning, Navigation and Timing) does just that. The Brits have their own version they call a “quantum compass.” The technology takes advantage of the fact that “super-cooled, low-energy atoms are extremely sensitive to changes in the Earth’s magnetic and gravitational field.” Thus: Location snared and no GPS satellite needed; that’s great for signal-resistant structures and areas, such as a few mysterious swaths of Brooklyn.

Military needs are driving the development of quantum compasses. Get a little more civil, and other ideas pop up.

In Germany, the AutoPlatz project outfits cars and parking garages with special tech to allow vehicles to snuggle themselves into a spot.

Microsoft and NVIDIA have gotten behind Virginia Tech’s SLAM (simultaneous localization and mapping), which uses a laser rangefinder to create maps on the fly.

But don’t forget sound. This research team in Belgium hasn’t. It is looking into using an “active sound speaker system” atop a car that work in conjunction with microphones mounted around the indoor environment. They’re also considering combining cameras atop the car along with LEDs dropped in the space being navigated.

Either way, they want to address the high cost of LiDAR and the limited accuracy of cheaper technologies. But retrofitting millions of indoor spaces with LEDs or microphones or any number of sensors seems expensive and slow.

Maybe humans will be the dominant localization technology for longer than we think.

Companies wield billions to win the best maps for self-driving cars

map tattoo
One the lesser-known, less-expensive options for map data. / Denise Krebs /fickr

Good maps have common characteristics: they’re up-to-date, thorough, accurate and they don’t melt the Brooklyn Bridge.

That cartographic choreography was worth $2.7 billion to Audi, BMW and Daimler as the companies battle Google, Apple and others for roadshare in the self-driving car market. The trio beat an Uber-Baidu alliance to snatch up Nokia’s digital mapping service, HERE.

Poor Uber settled for snaring a portion of Microsoft Bing’s mapping unit in June. That came on top of the company’s purchase of deCarta in March, which marked the end of Uber’s proud refusal to acquire outside tech.

Uber shouldn’t blush. Making maps is hard. Apple is throwing some vans at its notorious struggles with the problem. Google has made nine acquisitions since 2004 for its Maps product. Maybe hiring a map engineer and map production specialist will help Uber. If Bing doesn’t swing, another option will soon arrive: TomTom and Bosch, smelling billions of dollars in company-saving opportunities, are putting together their own offering.

Here is video of the fake city where self-driving cars will run amok

Shunned robot cars across the land were losing their bits over the opening of a self-driving Shangri-La in Michigan.

The director of the University of Michigan group behind Mcity called it “a safe, controlled, and realistic environment where we are going to figure out how the incredible potential of connected and automated vehicles can be realized quickly, efficiently and safely.”

The Self-Driving Car Coalition of Self-Aware Artificial Intelligences released a statement noting that most traffic is a “a scurrying mass of bewildered humanity crashing headlong against each other.”

“The time must come, my friend, when brutality and the lust for power must perish by its own sword,” their automatically generated simulation of a press release said. “For when that day comes, the world must begin to look for a new life. And it is our hope that they may find it here.”

If video isn’t your thing, try out a slideshow of Mcity built off a Google image search.

Surveillance-slicing, convenience-promising app ecosystem for self-driving cars takes root

surveillance camera art
Friendly provider of useful information or oppressive meta-data machine of social control? / SnaPsi Сталкер/flickr

The creator of a surveillance/convenience device that creates handy stats/potentially life-damaging meta-data about your vehicle’s performance has invited developers to make apps for its system.

Zubie’s move follows another foray into developers’ mindshare by Automatic, a company that also made a surveillance/convenience device that plugs into a car.

Note that Zubie’s and presumably Automatic’s devices do not work with electric vehicles; why would Tesla want to give away all that data about its cars?

The real business here is the aggregation of data about millions of vehicles, slicing that in millions of useful ways, and selling or renting those slices. Automatic ($100) and Zubie ($100) should be paying people to get the devices into their cars. They’re not doing anything different than Google does with people “driving” around the Web. And that company of course will make its upcoming vehicular data irresistible to developers.

The ongoing saying is “if you’re not paying for it, you are the product.” Looks like transitioning dumb cars into a smart future will give drivers the chance to be the product and pay for it, too.

Antagonism toward car autonomy: Drivers want their hands on their wheel

control computer
Keep the button, and make sure I can press it. / Faramarz Hashemi/flickr

Self-driving vehicle technology is getting there, problems with its cost are being addressed and regulators are using their nitros, but a survey from the University of Michigan revealed a tiny speed bump on the road to a world of robots on wheels: only 15.6 percent of the 505 respondents would choose a completely self-driving car.

Seems like drivers don’t want their captain’s chair to turn into a bus seat. That’s probably why a number of companies are choosing the incremental route to yanking the pedals and steering wheel out of their cars.

Giving up control is easier when it happens a little bit at a time, the survey tells us. It had 40.6 percent of people preferring partially self-driving features.

What is going on here? Loss aversion, for one. Changing behavior comes with costs, perceived or real. And for many folks, clear benefits they actually possess now are worth a lot more than hypothetical ones they might possess later.

If all of the surveyed drivers were jammed into self-driving cars right now, only 10.9 percent of them would be “not at all concerned” about the ride, and 35.6 percent said they’d be “very concerned.”

Now that’s worrisome for some car companies, especially if you look at how little perceptions have changed since 2014.

Self-driving cars threaten world with epidemic of upset tummies

reading in car
Stop the madness. Wait, is that a self-driving car? / Dennis Carr/flickr

Put the book down. Stop watching Netflix. No Fruit Ninja for you. And typing away to update that spreadsheet will have to wait.

Sound advice for riders of self-driving vehicles who want to avoid motion sickness, but more than a third of Americans in a survey said they would do those very activities and others that would transform the cute Google car into an intestinal torture device.

Apparently the U.S.A. isn’t the only country full of raving lunatics dancing with danger by getting caught up on their Proust during a morning commute. India: more than half are down for a little puke peril. China: 40 percent. Japan, Great Britain and Australia: 26 to 30 percent of adults said they would sully their stomach’s integrity with, as the press release states, “these kinds of activities.”

To put this in perspective, imagine 100 of your friends gathered inside a large, hot and dark tank without any opening except a hole, hundreds of untraversable feet up, where this particular cell’s roof might be.

You’re all relaxing. Chatting, no doubt. Getting caught up. How was your trip to Iceland? Always wanted to go there.

Out of nowhere a metal claw reaches into the tank and rips out six to 12 of your friends. Just snags them and tosses them into the darkness beyond the tank’s edge. They scream, but not for long. Everything that goes up must come down.

That’s a self-driving car and our stomachs.

Yes, about 6 to 12 percent of adults from these six countries sentenced to serve in a self-driving commute will fall victim to “moderate or severe motion sickness at some time.”

Stop the madness. Just chat on your iCarPhone, sleep or stare at the road like 60 percent of us. Your interactive tomfoolery endangers us all with an epidemic of tummy trouble, though these guys might see it another way.

Who will own 1.5 billion connected cars’ $46 billion trove of data?

connected lights of the world
About 1.5 billion vehicles could be a very lucrative source of information. / woodleywonderworks/flickr

Apple, Google, Ford, GM and every other company interested in networked cars are about to go to war for the 1,514,976,751 data-collection devices that happen to run around the world on four wheels.

Those 1.5 billion vehicles counted by the World Health Organization could be flowing with $46 billion worth of data by 2017, according to a consulting firm mentioned in the Reuters article.

GM already expects to pull in another $350 million through vehicles’ data pipes over the next three years.

Executives there and elsewhere no doubt are wondering into which of the two largest car markets they should expand. Speed after China’s 207 million cars, simpler regulatory system and $4645 per-capita disposable income? Or drive into America’s regulation-thick and lawsuit-happy culture offering 254 million vehicles and their drivers’ $38,400 in disposable income?

Perhaps they’ll break the business down by category, and spread to the country offering the best fit. AlixPartners conveniently breaks the revenue streams into: driver information and support; V2X safety/traffic management; infotainment.

All of these vehicles, whether powered by a Ford, Google, Apple, GM or XYZ operating system, will need to talk with one another and navigate roadways around the world. Consumers also have little patience for learning dozens of user interfaces, they’ve already given Google cars their vote, and they always want their data to flow seamlessly from one system to the next, should they choose to buy — or hail with their app — a different self-driving car.

Japan would like to lead a standardization effort to make a global spread of self-driving cars possible. Sounds good. No doubt consumers won’t raise any stop signs, as long as the self-driving vehicle industry avoids going IE-diotic on this problem like the Internet industry did.

The best photos of the inside of Google’s self-driving car prototype

Not Larry Chao’s. Not BGR’s. Not USA Today’s. ABC doesn’t even show us inside the car. Not Road and Track’s. Not the AP’s video on Business Insider. Google’s, meh. Neowin, nope. Not Matt Waxman’s. Not Deepu Joseph’s.

Washington Post wins?

Nah, how about this video off Instagram instead: