Weekly Brief: Google embraces role as automaker, announces self-driving car

Weekly Brief: Google embraces role as automaker, announces self-driving car

In this week’s Brief: Google, New York Department of Financial Services, Allstate, Allianz, The Hartford, Progressive, State Farm, Utica National, Esurance, Johnson & Johnson, Mobileye,  Volvo Car Corporation, WeatherBug, TrafficLand, Audi, TomTom, AutoNavi, BMW and EE.

Last week, Google announced that it would shift its focus from merely developing self-driving technology to becoming a full-blown manufacturer of self-driving cars. Given Google’s pioneering role in the autonomous vehicle space, not to the mention the flurry of patents the tech giant has filed for and been awarded in the past two years, this won’t come as a surprise to those who follow the industry closely. Google becoming an automaker is a whopper of a headline nonetheless.

Here are the details we know so far:

Phase 1 of the project entails 100 prototypes, which Google plans to manufacture in Detroit and have on the road for testing by the end of summer 2014. The prototypes will be electric-powered two-seaters with a stop-go button, a screen that displays the route and a max speed of 25 miles per hour. There will be no steering wheel, no accelerator pedal and no brake pedal.

The last of these points is interesting as it suggests that Google’s ultimate vision for self-driving cars does not include human drivers having the ability to take control of the wheel, which most laws that sanction self-driving cars today require as the first and most important criterion. Google says that, for testing purposes, safety drivers will be able to plug in steering wheels and extra controls.

“Ever since we started the Google self-driving car project, we’ve been working toward the goal of vehicles that can shoulder the entire burden of driving,” Google wrote on its blog. “Just imagine: You can take a trip downtown at lunchtime without a 20-minute buffer to find parking. Seniors can keep their freedom even if they can’t keep their car keys. And drunk and distracted driving? History.”

We’ll see how quickly Google can take us there.

In other news, it was a good week for insurance telematics in New York, where the Department of Financial Services (DFS) issued a bulletin to all New York auto insurers encouraging them to adopt usage-based insurance (UBI) programs. The DFS says that, to protect consumer privacy, it will only approve UBI programs that insurers offer consumers on a voluntary basis. The department has already approved telematics programs offered by seven insurers – AllstateAllianzThe HartfordProgressiveState FarmUtica National and Esurance – with programs from additional insurers currently under consideration.

In fleet, drugmaker Johnson & Johnson (J&J) revealed that a U.K.-based trial of an advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) from Mobileye has resulted in significant improvements across its fleet – to the tune of a 14% increase in safety and 11% improvement in fuel use. Mobileye outfitted 65 J&J vehicles with forward-facing cameras behind the rear-view mirror and with dashboard devices that call out bad driving habits and offer recommendations on how to improve them. J&J is just three months into the six-month trial.

On the infotainment front, Volvo Car Corporation provided more information and some internal photographs of its new human-machine interface, which is built around a “tablet-like touch screen” control console. The interface is virtually button-free and relies on screen swiping and tapping to navigate Internet-based products and services. The system will debut on the XC90 later this year.

WeatherBug announced an updated version of its mobile app that helps drivers take weather into consideration when choosing a route. The app pairs neighborhood-level weather data with a nationwide network of street cameras from TrafficLand, the largest authorized aggregator of live traffic video in the United States, so that drivers can see weather’s impact on specific routes in real time and avoid severe weather risks. The free app is now available from iTunes.

Audi selected TomTom and Chinese mapping partner AutoNavi to integrate their real-time traffic information into Audi vehicles in China. TomTom says that it can provide updated traffic info on most highways, major roads and secondary roads in China, where traffic has become a ubiquitous byproduct of the world’s fastest growing automotive market. AutoNavi no doubt welcomes the news, given that it experienced a 30% drop in revenues in the first quarter of 2014, largely due to losing BMW as a customer in China.

Finally, U.K. mobile operator EE introduced the “Buzzard,” a 4G broadband hotspot device designed to sit in the cupholder of a car and plug into the cigarette lighter. EE will make the Buzzard available on a pay-as-you-go basis, with £49.99 a month enabling any car to become a 4G Wi-Fi hotspot for up to 10 devices. £49.99 a month isn’t cheap, but EE is framing its aftermarket device as cheaper than built-in alternatives.

The Weekly Brief is a round-up of the week’s top telematics news, combining TU analysis with information from industry press releases.

Andrew Tolve is a regular contributor to Telematics Update.

For all the latest telematics trends, check out Telematics Update Awards 2014 on June 3 in Novi, Michigan, Telematics Detroit 2014 on June 4-5 in Novi, Michigan, Advanced Automotive Safety USA 2014 on July 8-9 in Novi, Michigan, Insurance Telematics USA 2014 on Sept. 3-4 in Chicago, Telematics Japan 2014 in October in Tokyo, Telematics Munich 2014 on Nov. 10-11 in Munich, Germany, and The Open Mobile Summit on Nov. 10-11 in San Francisco. 

For exclusive telematics business analysis and insight, check out TU’s reports: Insurance Telematics Report 2014Connected Fleet Report 2014The Automotive HMI Report 2013 and Telematics Connectivity Strategies Report 2013

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