Weekly Brief: Google introduces stand-alone robot car company Waymo

The new business becomes the overnight leader in autonomous vehicle technologies. Andrew Tolve reports.

Seven years after inception, Googles self-driving cars have finally earned themselves an independent business and brand. Google’s parent company Alphabet took the final chapter of 2016 to introduce the world to Waymo, “a self-driving technology company with a mission to make it safe and easy for people and things to move around”.

Waymo is anything but a startup. It comprises all of Google’s former work on autonomous technologies and instantly becomes the front-runner in a busy pack of tech companies and carmakers racing to get self-driving cars on the road. It probably won’t pursue making its own self-driving cars and will instead seek to partner with leading carmakers with self-driving car ambitions. That allows the company to avoid developing new competences in manufacturing and focus on its core competency of autonomous technology.

Google cites a self-driven car ride in Austin, Texas, back in 2015 through a variety of traffic and suburban roads, all while transporting a blind man across town, as the light bulb moment that this former Google X project was ready to become its own company. Here’s the introductory video.

In other news, it was a drama-filled week for one of Waymo’s chief competitors in the self-driving car market, Uber, which launched a new autonomous vehicle pilot in its hometown of San Francisco. Within hours, city authorities ordered Uber to shut it down, citing a lack of proper permissions. Uber refused and instructed its fleet of retrofitted Volvo XC90s to keep on picking passengers up.

At the heart of the matter here is the definition of a self-driving car. The mobility company claims that its retrofitted fleet is not really autonomous because it requires a driver behind the steering wheel at all times. San Franciscoand the California Department of Motor Vehicles, on the other hand, contend that Uber’s cars fit the state’s laws of autonomous technologies, which are capable of “operating or driving the vehicle without active physical control or monitoring of a natural person”. So the standoff continues.

One giant question mark looming over the drama is why Uber decided to make an issue out of this in the first place. There are currently twenty companies operating self-driving car pilots in California(including Waymo) all of them with the required permissions. Why can’t a company worth an estimated $68Bn (£54Bn) do the same, especially when this is a matter of public safety? In September, Uber launched its first self-driving car pilot in Pittsburgh, where no permit was required.

BMW partnered up with IBM to put supercomputer Watson into the passenger seat of future BMW vehicles. The idea is to use Watson’s conversational and machine learning powers to make the driver as informed and comfortable as possible. The car’s manual will be ingested into Watson so that drivers can ask questions about the vehicle in natural language while still being able to focus on the road. Watson will also incorporate data from the Weather Company (an IBMbusiness) as well as real time, contextual updates about route, traffic and vehicle status to make recommendations to the driver. BMW engineers will start working at the Watson Internet of Things headquarters in Munichin 2017.

Microsoft wants to make Bing.com a go-to source for mapping and navigation, and it’s turning to HERE for help. Microsoft plans to integrate HERE's data and services into Microsoft's Bing Maps platform, which powers Bing.com, Cortana, and many other Microsoft services. It will also integrate HERE’s data into Microsoft's Bing Maps API offered to developers through the Azure Marketplace. The agreement permits Microsoft's expanded use of HERE data and services in connection with in-vehicle productivity scenarios.

Hubject has a noble goal: to interconnect charging stations across Europeand allow drivers to use the same payment system to charge at any one of them. It already has the backing of BMW, Bosch, Daimler, EnBW, innogy and Siemens, and last week it added Europe’s largest carmaker in Volkswagen. VW plans to join the group as a shareholder in early 2017 and help expand its eRoaming platform around the globe.

Finally, Octo Telematics is getting into the car-sharing business. Octo announced the €7M (£5.8M) acquisition of Mobility Solutions, which offers a cloud-based platform that helps customers manage their fleet and car-sharing services, including corporate car-sharing. Mobility Solutions is currently used by 10 car sharing operators in 14 cities across the USand Europe. By integrating Mobility Solutions into its current platform, Octo will be the only telematics vendor in the world able to offer a “triple play” solution – covering insurance, fleet and car-sharing management needs for its customers.

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

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